Heartlines: How a Jewish Girl Adopted in Japan

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Leza Lowitz

For years, I heard the voice of my child calling to me. But it wasn’t until I let go of the idea of him coming from my womb that he actually came into my life — from my heart.

In Tokyo, the doctor sucks in his breath, folds his hands over his chest, leans back in his chair and tells me that IVF will probably fail.

“I’d like to try anyway,” I say.

To my surprise, he flat-out refuses.

Perhaps this famous Japanese fertility clinic doesn’t want to add any failures to their high success rate. In America, I think, they’d keep taking your money until you ran out. But here, the doctor says no. And no means no.

“Don’t waste your money, time, or energy,” he says, not unkindly.

“What are her options?” my Japanese husband asks anyway, catching my dejected look.

“She could always try a donor egg,” the doctor says, shuffling papers on his desk and glancing up at the clock.

There’s just one problem. Donor eggs are not available in Japan.And this is where I live.

After ten years of trying, I’m at the end of the road. Still, I’m not someone who gives up easily. My husband reminds me that walking away from the fight can be a sign of strength, not weakness. The Japanese have a term for it: the nobility of failure. 

Throwing down your sword is a way to take back your own power. When one has tried one’s best, this is noble, dignified.  And I know that when one door closes, another opens. Our story is not over yet. I hold my head high, try to be dignified. I try to be a samurai–an American samurai. I tell my husband: Just keep me away from anything sharp.

Letting Go
And I practice my yoga. I breathe out the disappointment, breathe in the dream of becoming a family. I wonder where our child is. I still feel he’s out there. I just have to keep searching until I find him.

Today, as in many days over the years, I ask myself questions many mothers never consider. Why do I want to be a mother anyway? I meditate on the answer. I want to experience another kind of love, something beyond what I know or can even imagine. Mother love. I want to experience this kind of earth-shattering, unconditional love of a mother for her child. The oneness. I know being a mother is not a cakewalk. Nothing worthwhile is. But I’m in it for the long haul. I just can’t give up on my dream when it hasn’t even started.

So I soldier on. It wasn’t as if I’d put my life on hold. I’d written some books, opened up a yoga studio in a foreign country. If I’d had a child, I’d certainly have been too busy to care for the students who depended on me there. We’d created a community, a family together. We mothered each other.

Perhaps my body was protecting itself. Giving birth might have been too risky with my very slow heart-rate, which I’d had since birth.  I or the child might have died in childbirth. The doctor said these things.

But none of that mattered now. What mattered was that I was ready to become a mother. And like everything else in my life, I’d have to fight for it.

I roll up my sleeves and get down to work.

I go online and research adoption in Japan. I discover that the adoption of adults is common practice for financial or business reasons, but the adoption of children is rare. The number of waiting children is small compared to other countries. Foreigners are outsiders, so the chances of a successful placement seem slim, even with a Japanese partner. People do manage to adopt here, though. In 2004, family courts recognized 322 adoptions of children under the age of six, and 998 adoptions of children over six.

That’s 1,320 adoptions, with less than half of those between children and parents who have no blood connection. In other words, most adoptions are still within the family. In the U.S., there are approximately 127,000 annual adoptions. 1.7 million households have an adopted child.

We decide to apply, though the odds are daunting. To add to the challenge, of course, everything is handled in Japanese. I appreciate that my husband is a translator and that he has the patience of a saint. I also appreciate that in some ways I am probably only going to catch half of what is happening. So I won’t know how much I am up against, and that’s a definite plus.

My yoga has taught me the value of the process, of being in the moment. We just take each step as it comes, breath by breath. At forty-four and forty-eight, our ages make us lower priority than the many younger prospective parents who have also applied. But my age also makes me more determined. If I’m lucky, I have around ten thousand days left to live. How do I want to spend them?  Though I love my husband deeply, I want my world to be bigger than just us two. We persevere.

Slowly and with caution, we tell our friends that we’re hoping to adopt. Partly it’s to ease the pain of the constant barrage of questions such as “When are you having kids?” Or “Why don’t you have children yet?” But then we have to deal with more comments. People, it turns out, have strong opinions on adoption.

“We’d love to adopt too, some day,” they say, or “We considered adoption, too.”  One thing everyone agrees on is this: “Japan is a difficult country to adopt from.”  Not only are there few children up for adoption, but it’s the only country in the world where the extended family must approve the process if you live under the same roof in Japan. This is more an unwritten rule than law, but placements have fallen through if the entire family is not onboard.

Bloodlines are seen as all-important, one’s ancestors are one’s link to the past. The family registry, or koseki, goes back generations and lists each birth, marriage, tying family to family. When my husband and I got married, keeping my own name had created a problem with the koseki. But my husband had insisted that the bureaucrat make a space. After some hemming and hawing, he did.

Still, doubts flood my mind. If we succeed in adoption, I’d be bucking the system again. I know how difficult it is to raise a child, let alone one who is adopted in a country that is not particularly “open” to adoption. In Japan, most adoptions are secret. Some children don’t even find out until their parents die.

We’re already a rainbow family, my husband with his long hair and stay-at-home job, me with my funky yoga studio, not to mention our mixed-breed rescue dog. In a conservative neighborhood in a conservative country, we already stand out. Why try to fit in? Why not embrace our differences completely and make heartlines the new bloodlines?

We brace ourselves and ask my father-in-law for permission. I find out, to my surprise, that his own father–my husband’s grandfather–was adopted. His parents were samurai on one side, gangster on the other. My husband has them all in his ancestry—geisha, gangster, samurai, rickshaw driver. This assortment of characters pleases me, makes me feel less strange for my difference, more welcome. My father-in-law says “yes.”

When our application is approved, I am overjoyed, and surprised. Could our dream finally be coming true? We wait for a placement, and I practice being patient and trusting. If it is meant to be, it will happen.

At my yoga studio, I have students do Sun Salutations blindfolded so they don’t look outward. So they can look, and listen, to the voice within.

It’s unnerving, and powerful. How much of what we do is dictated by what we’re told, or what’s expected of us, or what we think others will approve of?

I put the blindfold on myself. I forge onward, keeping my ears tuned to that faint inner voice that gets louder and louder in the listening. I keep my ears open for the voice of my child.

Trusting. Letting go. Trusting. Hoping. Letting go again.

And then, six months later, my husband and I get the call we’ve been waiting for.  A placement. A two-year-old boy. This time, instead of waiting to hear the voice of my child, I speak directly to him.

“Hold on,” I say.

“We’re coming.”

Leza Lowitz (www.lezalowitz.com) is a multi-genre author of over seventeen books. The above is adapted from her new memoir, Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras about her journey to motherhood over two oceans, two decades, and two thousand yoga poses. Her Young Adult novel in verse about Japan’s March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Up from the Sea, will be published by Crown Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House in 2016.

Leza Leza Lowitz

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