Anita Tedali, New York Times Motherlode contributer
The first time I considered giving up D. I was lying alone in my oversized bed. It was about midnight, my children were asleep and my husband was deployed. I was so taken aback by my thoughts that I bolted upright, ran to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. It was dark, but I could see my silhouette in the mirror and I stared to see if I was looking at a demon instead of D.’s mother.
I ran to D.’s room, afraid that he was already gone. But he was there, lying on his Thomas the Train sheets, sucking his thumb and breathing evenly. I caressed his cheek with two fingers and he exhaled. “I love you little man,” I whispered, and kissed his forehead, swallowing down the knot in my throat. I went back to my room and sobbed into my pillow.
D. was my adopted son. He’s a little boy from South America who came to our home several months before that frightening night. He arrived through Miami International Airport on a Monday afternoon, and I was so anxious that on my six-hour drive to pick him up, I dug my nails into the steering wheel for the duration of the trip, leaving marks I can still see today. I couldn’t contain my excitement. After waiting many long months, I’d finally hold and kiss my son.
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I had wanted to adopt for a long time, even before I met my husband or had my five biological daughters. I’ve always wanted a large family, like the one I grew up with in Italy, and I love the chaos and liveliness of many kids.
I did lots of research on adoption, including attachment problems and other complications that older adopted children can have. I spoke to my therapist and went through a thorough screening process with social workers to figure out if I, and my family, could be a good match for a child who needed a home. We were approved, and began the long wait for a referral. When they told us about D., I was ecstatic and convinced that I’d be able to parent this little boy the same way I had done with my biological daughters.
When he arrived in the U.S., our pediatrician diagnosed our son with some expected health issues and developmental delays. His age was not certain — he had been found by the side of a road — but the doctor estimated he was a little younger than one year. D. lacked strength in his legs and had a completely flat head, from lying in a crib so many hours a day. The first few weeks at home, people often asked me if he had experienced a brain injury. D. also suffered from coprophagia, or eating one’s own feces, which my pediatrician assured me the majority of children outgrow by the age of four. Most mornings, when I went to pick him up from his crib, I’d find him with poop smeared on his face and bedding.
But the physical or developmental issues weren’t the real problem. Five or six months after his arrival, I knew that D. wasn’t attaching. We had expected his indifference toward my husband, who was deployed for most of this time, but our son should have been closer to his sisters and especially to me, his primary caretaker.
His social worker, his pediatrician and his neurologist all told me that he had come a long way, and that attachment issues were to be expected with adoption. But D.’s attachment problems were only half the story. I also knew that I had issues bonding with him. I was attentive, and I provided D. with a good home, but I wasn’t connecting with him on the visceral level I experienced with my biological daughters. And while it was easy, and reassuring, to talk to all these experts about D.’s issues, it was terrifying to look at my own. I had never once considered the possibility that I’d view an adopted child differently than my biological children. The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was.
I sought help and did some attachment therapy, which consisted of exercises to strengthen our relationship, mostly games because of D.’s age. He fell in my arms many times throughout the day, we sang songs, read books, repeated words while we made eye contact. We built castles and block towers and went to a mommy and me class.
Still, I struggled. One day (I’m still not exactly sure what was different about that particular day) I was on the phone with Jennifer, our social worker, who merely asked “what’s up” when I blurted out that I couldn’t parent D., that things were too hard.
As soon as I said these words out loud, a flood of emotions washed over me, and I sobbed, clutching the phone with both hands. Jennifer didn’t say anything, she waited patiently, and when I had nothing left, she asked me to start from the beginning. We talked about my family; about the problems my husband and I were having with D. and, as a result, with each other; about the girls and their partial indifference toward D.; and about some of my son’s specific challenges.
For the next several weeks Jennifer and I spoke daily. She mostly listened and told me to focus on D.’s future and well being above everything else. Eventually I told her that I’d look at profiles of potential families, but stressed that I wasn’t committed yet, just considering options.
My thoughts and emotions were disjointed and came in waves. One moment I was determined to keep D. because I loved him. An instant later, I realized that I wasn’t the parent I know I could be, and that I should place D. with a better family, with a better mother.
As I wrestled with these demons, things remained very tense in my home; whenever my husband was stateside we fought incessantly. I felt I was swimming upstream until one early morning Jennifer called, and told me that she had found a great family for D. They had seen his pictures, learned about his situation, and fallen in love with him. The mom, Samantha, was a psychologist, and the family had adopted another boy with similar issues just a couple of years before.
I spoke to Samantha and her husband a few times on the phone and right off the bat I felt comfortable with them. During one of our conversations we decided that she’d come down to meet D. by herself, to ease the transition.
This meant that the decision was final. D. would leave my home.
While waiting for Samantha to arrive, Jennifer helped me to talk to my kids, to family members, even strangers, but most importantly she held my hand when it came to speaking with my son. I explained to him that he’d be joining his new family and that we loved him very much — that he had done nothing wrong. I don’t know how much he understood because of his young age and because he never reacted to my words.
For my first meeting with D.’s new mom, I was a wreck. I dressed D. in one of his cutest outfits, white polo shirt and blue khaki pants, strapped him in the car seat and took off to meet Samantha at a nearby McDonald’s.
The car ride was short, but each time I approached a traffic light, grief assailed me, and I turned around, determined to head back home and keep D.
The five-minute trip turned to a 30-minute journey, and when I finally made it to the McDonald’s parking lot I was frazzled. My hands were shaking, my mouth was dry, and my eyes were red. Samantha recognized us as soon as we got out of the car and rushed over. Her eyes lit up the moment she approached D., and she lowered herself to his height to hug him.
Over the next few days Samantha and D. got to know each other, and then it was time for him to leave with her. That morning, I awkwardly let her into the house and willed time to stop. With my hands shaking, I handed her D.’s bag and some of his favorite toys. My daughters were watching SpongeBob and said goodbye to their brother almost nonchalantly, as if he was just going out for a bit and would soon be back.
I opened the front door of my home in slow motion. It felt heavy and my feet stayed glued to the ground. Samantha told me she’d give me a few minutes alone with D. and quickly walked to her car. I kneeled down and pulled D. close to me, desperately wanting to impress an indelible memory of my son on me, and me on him, inhaling his scent, feeling his soft skin and touching his coarse hair. In our last moments together, I stared into his eyes and told him that I loved him and that I had tried to do my best.
His new mom would love him so, so much; my little man would be OK.
He didn’t cry, he stared back at me, then looked to Samantha and asked for more juice. I was too overwhelmed to utter another word, but Samantha squeezed my hand and reassured me that D. would know I had loved him and that I had done a good job.
The next few weeks I felt a mix of emotions, desperation, relief, sadness, guilt, shame, and acceptance. After a couple of months at Samantha’s home, I learned that D. was doing well and adjusting to his new life. He was struggling with some issues, but I know that Samantha and her husband are the best parents D. could possibly have. They went to great lengths to legally adopt him, to welcome him into their home and provide him with the best care he can receive. The fact that he also has a sibling who has dealt with similar issues has made the transition easier. Samantha told me that D. can’t get enough of his brother or his dad’s attention.
My husband had originally asked me not to write about D., because I’d only open myself up to criticism. But I wrote this essay because D. taught me a lot about myself and about parenting and because I hope that by sharing this experience others can feel less alone in their failures. D. deflated my ego by showing me my limitations. Because of my little man, I have more compassion for the mistakes we make as parents, and I’m far less willing to point my finger at others’ difficulties.
I’m still processing this experience and I think I always will.
I don’t have anything left from D.’s time with us. Samantha didn’t want D.’s clothes, I think she preferred to make a fresh start, so I donated everything to the Salvation Army. We don’t have D.’s pictures around because my husband thought it’d be too difficult, but in my wallet, I carry a small close-up photo of D.’s face, which I took after his first haircut at a barber shop. When I think about him, I take it out and look into his big dark eyes as a deep endless sadness fills my heart.
Thank you little D. for all that you’ve been to me, to us. Despite my failures, I loved you the best way I could, and I’ll never forget you.
In the MomsCharlotte forums: Should parents be allowed to return an adopted child?