By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
During the adoption process for our second child, I packed on a good twenty-plus pounds. As a number, twenty isn’t so much. Twenty bucks won’t get you far. Twenty minutes pass in a flash. And at twenty years old, most can’t find their way out of a paper bag. But if you go to your local farmer’s market, pick out two ten-pound pumpkins, strap them to your arse, and walk around for a day, you’ll quickly realize that twenty pounds is a heck of a lot of weight.
Physically, there was no reason I should have gained any weight at all. It’s not like I was growing our child in my womb and had to feed it. But emotionally, for nearly two years as we went through the adoption process, I was eating for two. Emotionally, I was trying to feed this faraway baby in a Chinese orphanage who I didn’t even know, yet who I knew was not getting enough love or nutrition or food or stimulation…all those things babies need. From thousands of miles away, I was eating and eating and eating, trying desperately to give our future child everything he or she needed to thrive until we could scoop them up and bring them home.
I was also feeding my own nerves. If you’ve ever been through the international adoption process, you know that it’s an extended exercise in frustration and futility, from the required “this is the worst it could be” class with a social worker, which is kind of like “Scared Straight” for wanna-be parents, to the filling out of 3,901,277.89 forms, to the scrutiny of the home study during which you’re petrified that that one not-so-great choice you made in high school will blow your chances at parenthood, to the mind-numbing hours spent scanning, copying, and collating documents. Believe me, this shit can send you over the edge.
In my case, it sent me to Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, the local pizza place, the ice cream aisle at the grocery store, second helpings of everything, and…
Since we’d successfully navigated the adoption process once before and brought our daughter home from Vietnam in 2008, you’d think I would have been better prepared for the rigor and demands of the process. But in the mid 2000s, we lived in Shanghai, China, and I had a lifestyle that afforded me a heck of a lot more time and patience than I have now. First, we employed a woman who cooked meals, cleaned our house, and did our laundry…three tasks that when done by someone else free up a shockingly large amount of time. Second, I wasn’t a parent yet, so I wasn’t battling sleep deprivation or running around hollering, “No dirty gutchies in the living room!” And, third, I did not have a demanding full-time job. Yes, I was working on a novel and exploring the nooks and crannies of China, but I had oodles of time to fill out forms and lay bare the most intimate details of my screwed-up childhood for a nosy social worker.
By the time we started the adoption process for our second child, we were back in the United States and I was living the high life that many American women writers do—mothering my daughter, cooking meals, cleaning the house, folding laundry in the wee hours, trying to be a good partner to my husband, doing a happy dance if I got to wash my hair more than once a week, holding down a rewarding but hella-consuming full-time job, and getting up at 4:30 every morning to steal a single hour to write. “Sleep deprived” was emblazoned on the bags under my eyes. Needless to say, getting through the process the second time was bloody hell, and within a month of starting the process, I morphed into the not-so-charming adult version of Eric Carle’s gluttonous caterpillar. It went something like this:
While completing our application to the adoption agency—a smeary form that looked like it hadn’t been updated since it was created on an over-inked mimeograph machine in 1970—I ate 3,802 pieces of pizza.
While filling in child abuse clearance forms for every state and country in which I’d ever lived, my wanderer/adventurer/writer lifestyle as a young adult came back to bite me in the ass (good god, I’ve lived in a lot of places), and I ate 692 pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.
While studying the extensive list of documents I had to gather for our adoption dossier (birth certificates, marriage certificate, home study, letter of commitment, reference letters, letters of employment, certificate of financial status, and so on), I slurped down a chocolate milkshake. Then a vanilla milkshake. Then another chocolate.
As I answered the same questions by hand on the nearly four million forms referred to earlier, I fantasized about interactive PDFs and devoured 7.2 million cheeseburgers.
As I rushed from my day job at lunchtime to retrieve “good citizen” forms from our local police department, I wolfed down three chocolate crullers in less than 30 seconds. A week later, when I discovered that the police department notary had screwed up the notarization on the “good citizen” forms by not including a raised seal—delaying our process until a new form could be acquired—I resisted the temptation to ruin my good citizen status by throwing a hissy fit at the station, and, instead, devoured a half dozen more crullers.
As I listened to an official tell me, after I’d filled in and submitted form No. 3,482,900, that it was the wrong form and that our process would be—once again—delayed, I ate the dashboard of my Subaru.
At month twelve, when I caught the pockets of cellulite on my thighs waving to me in the mirror on my way to the shower, I bought three pairs of bigger pants. Later that week when my daughter called me wobbly, referring to my new layer of chub, I vowed to stop the madness and immediately grunted out a handful of sit-ups on the dusty exercise ball in my office. While I certainly hadn’t started out with Sofia Vergara’s crowd-wowing figure, after a glass of wine in a dimly lit room without my glasses on, I’d been mostly satisfied with the state of things. I could get there again. I knew I could. So with Katy Perry’s crescendo-rich “Firework” blasting in my ears, I spent the next week nibbling leafy lettuce and tearing it up on the elliptical at the gym.
Not surprisingly, my stalwart resolution lasted just until our dossier of required documents was one hundred percent complete. At this point, with the pressure rising, I caved. I hobbled about with my new pumpkins strapped to my arse, discovered just how emotionally satisfying a good mozzarella cheese stick could be, and began gathering the four necessary blessings:
- notarization at the local level, which must include the notary’s signature, stamp, and raised seal;
- certification at the state level, which, in our case, meant two trips to the Secretary of State’s office in Boston where not a single person had any expression whatsoever on their face or inflection in their voice;
- authentication by the U.S. Secretary of State in Washington, D.C., during which our dossier was dipped in gold filigree and danced around by a gaggle of bureaucratic fairies; and
- approval from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., a group with whom you do not want to fuck.
To mitigate the worry that one of the powers-that-be would find something wrong and bring our process to a screeching halt, I stocked up on non-perishable items that would serve me well in either an apocalyptic event or a nervous breakdown: Milano cookies, bigger-than-my-head bags of M&Ms, and chocolate-on-chocolate Pop-Tarts. Believe me, when the woman from D.C. called to inform me that the notarized copy of my husband’s birth certificate from Ireland wasn’t sufficient and that our case would be delayed until we could provide an official copy of his Certificate of U.S. Citizenship from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), I was ready. By the time “USCIS” left her mouth, I was shoving M&Ms into my mouth so furiously they were popping out my nose.
Of course, it might have helped if my husband and I had told people we were on the road to a second adoption. If we had, instead of gorging myself, I could have uttered, “I am with child,” then collapsed into someone’s lap, sobbing from any one of the emotions that gripped me daily: frustration, fear, worry about our child-to-be, worry about his or her birth family, writer’s cramp, pissed-off-edness at the process, panic about how I’ll teach our daughter or son to know and honor their birth country, consternation about whether or not my plan to raise my kids as global citizens so they are comfortable all around the world is just a bunch of new millennium hogwash, and so much more. Perhaps most of all, I worried about how I’ll help our child manage the wound carved by abandonment, loss, and the inevitable, driving wonder of “who am I.”
Good gracious, if we had just shared our news, any kind, stable, sympathetic person could have tackled me, barred my entry to Dunkin Donuts, and belted out, “Woman, put down the cruller! You will explode!”
But because there are no visible signs of being with child when you adopt—no whispered stage of “Is _____ prego?” when a woman is just beginning to show or an all-knowing “oh, yeah” stage when a woman’s belly has popped—it’s up to each adoptive family to figure out when and how to share the news. This is not always an easy decision. When my husband and I adopted our daughter in 2008, we told the world early on in the process. But with our son, we told no one. Not my parents, my sisters, my husband’s mum, colleagues at work, or close friends. We didn’t even tell our daughter, whose longing for a sibling was deep and complex. We told no one except the three friends who wrote us reference letters and one of my husband’s sisters in Ireland. Even them, we swore to secrecy.
I simply couldn’t put it out there. The longing I felt to be a mom to two exposed my raw, thumping heart in a way I just couldn’t bear, and if for any reason our adoption didn’t happen (not an uncommon occurrence), I was pretty sure I would have disintegrated and blown away like a dandelion poof. This time around, I was just too fragile and the process was just too daunting, too time-consuming, too life sucking, and too fraught with possible mine fields. It was all I could do to put my head down and make it all happen privately, baby step by baby step.
After getting my husband’s Certificate of Citizenship, our dossier cleared all hurdles and was shipped off to China. While at first glance this seems like an opportunity to celebrate, in truth it simply marked the beginning of a period of waiting that I consider comparable to being water-boarded. The litany of required approvals and stamps and nods from such a variety of offices in China was so long that I couldn’t keep it straight:
First this, then that.
Then this and that.
If not this, then no way that.
Definitely none of this during Chinese New Year.
When this, then that.
Without this, none of that.
All of the this’s and thats would lead, I was told, to the referral of our child-to-be and, finally, travel to China to bring him/her home.
During this period of time—perhaps my darkest, most ravenous—I started each day with a solid “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” checked my email obsessively, and decided it best to eat everything in sight. Then everything not in sight. Those pumpkins firmed up beautifully and started to draw the attention of friends, family, and colleagues who still had no idea that I was with child. I couldn’t help but notice the raised eyebrows, winces, and big eyes behind my back signaling the “Yikes, what is going on with Kristin?”
When our agency finally matched us with our new son and photos arrived in my inbox, I fell head over heels. With the equivalent of an ultrasound pic in hand, I wanted to rejoice, climb to the mountaintops, and shout our news to the world, but since we’d waited seven hellish months from referral to bring our daughter home, I knew the wait to bring our little guy home could go on for an excruciatingly long while. Instead of telling the world at this point, I loaded all the photos we got of our little guy into my phone and scrolled through them obsessively…in bathroom stalls, stairwells, my car, and so on.
At night, alternately chewing on worry and chocolate, I silently chanted, “Please hold his heart open. Please hold his heart open. Please hold his heart open.” Children who begin life in orphanages may not get great nutrition or outside time or toys, but the nannies who care for them often succeed in what I consider to be their most important job: holding open the children’s hearts until we, the adoptive parents, can get there.
In July 2015, when we finally traveled to China and the nanny placed Yao in my arms, I immediately stopped eating like a crazy person. With the Yaoster right there, leaning his little bewildered self against me, my insatiable hunger waned and my desperate attempt to nourish him from afar was no longer necessary. From that moment on, I would love, feed, teach, and nurture our little guy live and in person.
My obsessive worry, as I knew, wasn’t unfounded. We quickly learned that while Yao had been kept clean, he hadn’t been properly fed. At two years old, he’d never had solid food. He had a red, swollen cleat at his hairline from slamming his head against the wooden bars of his crib—a natural response to boredom, loneliness, loss, and need—and when he’s scared or nervous, he punches his own head as hard as he can with the pointy end of a knuckle. They had not let him learn to walk until he was matched with our family; at two years and three months old, he toddled about like a brand-new walker. He had H Pylori in his system. He wasn’t able to speak a single word in Mandarin. Not a single word. At two years old. And from the joyful way he now ogles the sky, it’s pretty clear he never spent any time outside. But still—still—his cleft lip had been repaired quite well and, hallelujah, the nannies had done their most important job: Yao’s heart was open. Not flung wide, mind you, but just wide enough.
Today, at home, Yao is silly, funny, and curious. He is super bright and loves music. He’s crazy about bananas and Nutella, and he’s got a giggle that melts glaciers. The head banging and punching, thankfully, are slowly becoming things of the past, and, yowza, that boy loves to play chase with his older sister. He babbles like crazy and is pretty close to uttering whole words. Most importantly, he’s bonding well. In the four short months we’ve had him, he’s become a true cuddler who doles out hugs and smooches like candy. While it’s going to take a whole lot of love and time and work to get him centered and sturdy in our big old world, I’m confident he’ll get there.
As for those pumpkins, well, as most know, putting on twenty-plus pounds is way easier than taking off twenty-plus pounds. Since returning home to the United States, I’ve dropped some of the adoption weight and suspect more will go as I chase our busy toddler through sandboxes, up ladders, and down slides. Every once in a while, when I catch sight of my and Yao’s reflection in the window as we’re racing through our back yard, I get startled by the chub and wobble of my newly altered self and yell, “Holy crap! Who the hell is chasing my son?” But grappling with the emotions around my own physical identity is superficial crap compared to the ecstasy of finally, finally, finally being able to climb to the mountaintop with my bullhorn in hand and Yao on my hip, and shout for the world to hear, “It’s all good, people. I was with child.”