My husband Tim and I sit on the couch surrounded by a dozen adopted children from Korea, India, Guatemala and America — all brothers and sisters, adopted by a couple who live in California. The kids all have some type of visible disability. One Korean boy runs into the house, pops his prosthetic legs off at the knees and jumps onto a chair to stare at us.
Our Korean social worker, Margaret has asked to meet here to “introduce” us to our future son. Apparently, she doesn’t consider that being surrounded by this family, with so many kids, might feel a bit overwhelming to a couple with no parenting experience, and in fact, it does.
Margaret hands us a picture. “This is the child God wanted you to have.”
I smile at her words knowing they are meant to be profound, but feeling instead that they are a bit dramatic.
Her dark, expressive eyes gaze into mine. I’m not sure how old Margaret is, maybe in her seventies or eighties, but I see something warm in their depths when she repeats, “It’s true. You have to believe that.”
“Okay,” I say, not sure what I believe yet.
I look at the picture of a baby who looks like many other newborns. His eyes are kind of closed. His skin a soft pink. A sprinkling of dark hair on his head. On the bottom is a number that I’m assuming identifies him to the adoption agency. It begins with the letter K — perhaps to classify his Korean nationality, I don’t know. I wish the number wasn’t there for me to see.
My husband smiles. He’s so excited. The couple, whose crowded house we’ve invaded, look at the picture and say he’s beautiful. It gets passed to the kids who are all excited for us, and maybe for the baby. They know what it feels like to be the baby in the picture.
I see that this unconventional family love each other and appear to belong together. A twelve-year-old Korean boy pulls out a picture album of when he was first adopted.
“This is the picture of me when my parents picked me up in San Francisco.” In the picture, his parents hold him, wide smiles indicating the joy they felt on this special day.
“And this,” he continues, “was my first birthday party. I didn’t put the frosting on my face, my dad did that.” He gives me a crooked grin and glances at his father.
Both parents laugh. I’m touched and in awe by the husband and wife who have made it their mission in life to adopt “unadoptable” children; at the same time that I’m disgusted by that term. I hold back tears as the picture of the baby I don’t yet know returns to my hand. I hope I can make this little boy happy when he’s finally in my arms.
Meeting Our Baby
It’s only a couple of weeks later that we take the long flight to Seoul, Korea. Tim and I report to the adoption agency where we are to meet our son, who we’ve decided to name Marshall after my husband’s grandfather.
The baby room looks a bit like a clinic. The white walls are lined with wooden cribs. Inside, babies sleep or lay quietly. No one cries. One baby is getting bathed. A couple are on the floor with rattles.
Our host smiles and points to a baby who is on the linoleum floor. “That’s your son,” she says, and I recognize him from the pictures I’ve received every month for the last five months. But seeing him in person is surreal. He looks different. He’s tiny for being six months old. He’s wearing about three layers of cloth diapers so his bottom is larger than his head. He’s got dark hair and dark eyes that take in everything.
They allow us to hold him. He smiles and sticks his fingers in his mouth as drool covers his chin. He’s adorable and I can’t wait to be the one who wipes his face after he eats. I imagine giving him a warm bath, feeding him his bottle and tucking him into his crib. It seems implausible that I will have that right soon.
Getting pictures and monthly medical updates never prepares me for the reality that he will someday come home. It has been theoretical up to this point, and maybe I didn’t actually allow myself to believe it until it happened. Sort of the way women who fear they might miscarry a baby don’t announce their pregnancy until after the first trimester.
It was never real until this very moment when we’re in the same room together, him sitting on the floor, tiny and unaware that his life is about to change; and me equally unaware of what being a mother will really be like.
This first meeting doesn’t last long. In fact, it ends too quickly and we have to leave after about an hour. We are encouraged to visit Seoul while preparations are made for our flight home at the end of the week. Everything is timed perfectly, and it surprises us how efficient this agency runs. After a year-long process that involved tons of paperwork, endless interviews and questionnaires with a social worker, a flight to Korea, and a week of waiting around, the day comes when I’m sitting in a taxi, Marshall is on my lap, and I’m suddenly a mother. I try not to let this scare me, but it sort of does. After all, I’m now suddenly responsible for another human being.
Adapting and Learning to Become a Mom
The baby is a good flyer, but it’s a long flight and he cries quite a bit. But we’re going home and I know that when we get home and he’s in his own crib, in his own room that I’ve decorated with colorful Disney characters, he’ll be happy.
I learn quickly that my son has great lungs. As a child who was placed in an orphanage from birth, he has learned that to get attention he has to cry the loudest and the hardest to be heard over all the other babies. So the first night, I’m surprised at the intensity of his screams and thrashing about in the crib. I pick him up and spend most of the night rocking him back and forth as he sleeps. Probably my first mistake of many, but I want him to know that from now on, he’s safe.
He becomes instantly attached and bonded to me. I take a three month leave of absence from teaching to be home with him and we spend practically twenty-four hours a day together. He grows fast. Four teeth appear all at once after the first month home. He learns to crawl within six weeks. He is the star of the family, and I feel lucky that everyone has been so supportive.
During this time, Tim and I take him to Chicago where I attend a writer’s conference. I return to my hotel room at noon after spending all morning at various workshops, and I can hear Marshall crying before I open the door. My husband hands me the baby and says, “I’ll be back later. He’s been crying for three hours and I can’t make him stop.”
But as soon as I hold Marshall and comfort him, he stops crying. I take him with me to my friend Diane’s room where we prepare a hang-out for writers to socialize. I apologize for bringing the baby, and explain the panic he seems to have when I’m not around. Diane sympathizes with me and tells me soothingly, “It’s not always going to be this way, you know?” Maybe she notices that I’m close to tears myself, because caring for a baby is so much more intense than I anticipated.
“I don’t know,” I say, thinking that Marshall cries more than other babies.
She smiles reassuringly as if she’s been there. “I promise.”
That day, I realize that Marshall never had undivided attention at the adoption agency, and now that he has it the separation anxiety is more severe than normal.
Unfortunately, I have to return to work. When I get home every day, I hear about Marshall’s crying fits. When it’s time for me to leave in the mornings, we distract him with toy cars, squeaky dinosaurs, or his favorite TV show, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, and it works! I get out the door, but at some point he realizes I’m gone and starts to cry.
Marshall is miserable. My husband is miserable. I’m miserable at work. This isn’t working. We come up with a new plan. I’ll finish out the school year and then stay home. I’ve now sold my first novel to a major New York publisher and have the hope that I can lose my teacher’s salary and make up the difference in my new publishing career. I will stay with the baby during the day and work in the evenings.
My Beautiful Baby Gets Sick
Part of me is excited about being a stay-at-home mom during the day and a working author at night, and part of me is deeply disappointed. I love teaching. I love my students. And I’m actually good at what I do. I worry that I’ll be bored at home, because even though taking care of a baby is no cake-walk, it’s not the same mental stimulation.
Christmas break rolls around and I’m thrilled. Not only will I get the two weeks off for Christmas and New Year, but I’m on a year-round track school so I get the entire month of January off to be home with Marshall.
His birthday is in December and we have a huge party for him where everyone takes turns holding him. At the end of the day, I’m worn out. So is Marshall. He falls asleep early and wakes up later that night crying. I figure he’s just been over stimulated and calm him down. But by morning I begin to suspect he has a cold.
For the next couple of days I give him medicine and endure his cranky mood, hoping he’ll feel better soon. He seems to get better, then worse. He coughs and gets frustrated when he can’t breathe due to congestion. Then his fever starts.
I decide to take him to the doctor. He’s given antibiotics and I’m told not to worry about the fever. “It means the body is fighting the illness,” I’m told. “Continue to give him Advil.” Then, I’m encouraged to give him his one-year-old vaccinations, which to me seems like a crazy time when he’s so miserable already, but I figure the doctor knows all and I know nothing, so I agree.
On Christmas Eve as we’re preparing to have company, I hear Marshall wake up from his nap screaming and crying. Then, I hear a lot of movement in his crib.
I put down the wrapping paper in my hands and hurry up the stairs. When I turn on the light, my stomach does a flip as I see the baby having convulsions.
I immediately call Tim who comes running into the room, takes one look, and runs back out to call the paramedics. Marshall stops moving and I pick him up. I don’t even realize I’m crying until Tim runs back in to wipe my eyes and tell me it’s going to be okay.
Marshall is staring straight ahead at the ceiling. He’s alive but he’s not reacting. Between sobs I talk to him and try to get him to look at me. But there is no response.
I hear sirens and a few minutes later two paramedics are taking the baby out of my arms. They ask questions about him. I answer, but I can’t remember what they asked or what I said. They advise we take him to the emergency room and we do.
By now, Marshall is beginning to come out of wherever he is, but he acts like he’s extremely tired. They run many tests on him. He might have meningitis they tell me. I don’t know what this is, but they ask if they can do a spinal tap to check. I don’t know what this is either. They explain that they extract some spinal fluid to determine why Marshall had a seizure. It could be a tumor, inflammation, an infection — all possible causes.
“The procedure will take five to ten minutes.”
They make us sign a form listing all the risks. I’m terrified. After the procedure, he has to lay flat on his back and not move. I start to feel nauseous. I’m picturing the worst case scenario and just the thought of a needle being inserted into my perfect little baby’s back fills me with a crazy kind of panic.
When they begin the procedure, I’m supposed to be holding Marshall on his side.
“What if you do something wrong and he’s paralyzed for life?” I ask.
They reassure me that it can’t happen. Tim and I hold Marshall and I close my eyes, then focus on Marshall’s face who seems to have little reaction to a needle being inserted between his vertebrae.
Afterward, he has to lie on his back for thirty minutes. I sit beside him and rub his chest and talk to him. Eventually he falls asleep and the nurse informs us that they will keep him overnight, but we’re welcome to go home and come back in the morning.
“I’m not leaving,” I say.
“You’re welcome to stay,” she says and leaves.
Tim tries to convince me to go home.
“You go.” I remember that we were supposed to have company over for Christmas Eve. “You need to call everyone and let them know — .”
“Your mom already did all that.”
I nod. Tim kisses the top of my head and tells me he’s going to go home and pick up Marshall’s diaper bag, a change of clothes and he’ll be back in a few hours.
I spend the night staring at Marshall and watching him sleep. I can’t remember all the thoughts I had that night, but I do remember thinking of Margaret’s words to me when I first got Marshall’s picture.
“This is the child God wanted you to have.”
I no longer think it was a crazy thing to say. I believe her, because I know that I can no longer picture my life without him in it. Marshall is my child and I know I was meant to be his mother. Being a teacher doesn’t matter. Being a best-selling author is unimportant. I know what matters now.
I wrote this a few years ago, when my book Say You’ll Be Mine was released and my editor encouraged me to tell my story In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share it today. My son is 22 now, and I’m blessed to have two beautiful children.
Happy Mother’s Day to all moms.
Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Let started by downloading for free Julia Amante’s “Free Your Story” framework.