Two Adoptions

On the joy and grief of joining a new family
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(Joshua Eckstein/Unsplash)

At nine months old, I was brought from Taiwan to my adoptive parents in Los Angeles. In the photos of us meeting under the glaring LAX terminal lights, it’s hard to see what had already been lost. My mom was thirty-five and my dad forty-two. Their still faces look young, but I’d later learn they felt old to be new parents. Infertility had shadowed their first thirteen years of marriage, their pain sharpened by stigma, their siblings’ growing families, and an old Chinese fear of invasive Western fertility treatments.

After my adoption and naturalization were finalized, I was issued an American birth certificate that listed my adoptive parents’ names for mother and father. The palimpsest of my Taiwanese birth certificate holds the name I was given by my birth mother, who kept me for a day, along with her name, my weight in kilograms, and a time sixteen hours ahead of Los Angeles. My parents gave me both birth certificates, plus my passport and immunization records, the day I moved out of state for graduate school. Holding them together, I remembered the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I watched on repeat throughout middle school. A time warp causes the Enterprise to meet versions of itself from other possible realities: destroyed Enterprises, ones with crews near death, ones whose government has dissolved. I instinctively understood the sci-fi grammar of the show. Every possibility must stay contained in its own universe; seeing them all at once is a critical rupture. My second birth certificate starts the story I know as mine. The first one starts a shadow life that runs alongside me, a life my birth mother and I did not get to live. It feels as real as the one I’m living now.

My mom once told me she and my dad were matched with another infant girl before me. She didn’t tell me why that adoption fell through, but she takes it as evidence that I was meant to be her daughter. I didn’t share my mom’s sureness in how things had worked out. I didn’t want to feel destined to be separated from my birth mother. Perhaps we all arrive at every moment of our lives by a series of near misses, but the knowledge of this other girl haunted me. I could feel her living a version of my life, which has always felt like a version of infinite other lives, each hinging on the smallest of shifts.

But we never talked about this in our home. My adoption filled a years-long hole in my parents’ marriage and the space I came to occupy was fragile. Their protracted grief, never entirely processed or healed, was easily triggered. My sadness or frustration, adoption-related or not, made them retreat as if freshly wounded, guarding their broken hearts even from the person who was supposed to repair them. The psychologist Pauline Boss writes that adoption is one kind of ambiguous loss “that defies closure, in which the status of a loved one as ‘there’ or ‘not there’ remains indefinitely unclear.” But to feel a sense of loss for my birth mother would be a betrayal of my parents and the acceptable adoption narrative of gratitude, good fortune, being chosen, and receiving a better life. Sometimes a birth mother’s sacrifice is mentioned, but mostly there is no room for loss. Not for the illegitimate child of an unmarried teenager who escapes poverty and ostracization with two parents in America. Adoption is all resurrection and no cross.

 

As an adult convert seeking baptism, all I knew of adoption was that it came with a price. I knew loss was a current that buoyed my every blessing, that we all come at some cost or another. While preparing for my sacraments, a sense of mourning stalked me, which I told myself was a sign of seriousness and devoutness. From the beginning, the price of conversion seemed to be my parents. Entering the Church felt like outright rejecting them, as opposed to the slow, silent inching away that had been happening for years. Everything faith demanded of me seemed to rebuke their spoken and unspoken values: sacrifice your desires, never give anything away, stay away from strangers, never rock the boat, adoption is a secret. I had been trying to leave these things behind all my life; becoming Catholic seemed to offer an official means to do it at last.

My parents never joined me, my husband, and our daughters for Mass when they visited, offering instead to keep the girls home with them. When I said the girls would come with us, hoping my parents might follow, they said they’d go for a walk and see us when we got back. They had always kept close to the familiar and safe, neither holding me back nor accompanying me toward whatever American independence I was chasing. Church was one more place—like college in another city, graduate school in another state, then jobs and a marriage across two more states—to which they would not come with me.

Adoption is a series of paradoxes: the strangers who form an immediate family; the life given in being given up; the two childless mothers of the same daughter. I know the other girl and I cannot both be my parents’ daughter. Neither can I belong to both my parents and my birth mother. And yet I do.

I began to hope for what an adult adoption might offer: a new place with room for the life already lived and the life to come.

In the adoption I did not choose for myself, the beginning of my story never belonged. To be my parents’ child, I needed to be theirs alone, to amputate the first nine months of my life. It was an expectation of loyalty and gratitude, but also a shield against the unbearable. Along with adoption, Boss also names immigration as a source of ambiguous loss. My parents had already lost their language, culture, people, and sense of belonging. Perhaps they were already so haunted and pressured to be grateful in the face of dire sacrifice, that they could not find a way to share a daughter with her other life. Perhaps there is only room for one such loss in a lifetime.

St. Paul uses the term huiothesia in several letters to refer to the Roman form of adoption where an adolescent or grown male comes to live on a family’s estate, helps maintain it, and is granted a share of the inheritance in return. Huios for “son” and thesia for “to place.” For Paul, entering the family of God resembles this practice of a stranger receiving a place in a home. With conversion, I began to hope for what an adult adoption might offer: a new place with room for the life already lived and the life to come.

In the adoption I was choosing, I understood death and resurrection. The first twelve left everything to follow. The disciple must come hating their father and mother. I knew the price of being reborn. What I knew nothing about was grief. The long, dark sabbath. Preparing the tomb, the oil and spices, the clean linen. The earthquake. So much happened in the waiting and mourning. Grief changed people’s sight as much as it transformed Jesus’ body until, with the familiar gone, a new kind of stranger emerged to be met.

I waited three years for my sacraments. I waited to discover what I must learn to grieve, but all I did was gain: a faith community, friendships, spiritual direction, service, a prayer life, a vocabulary for grace, reconciliation, and holy desires. Even my bouts of outrage signaled that I cared about the fate of this family. I came to faith desiring more. I was given permission to stop trying to bring less. In becoming Catholic, I would not leave my parents behind, but I could stop waiting for them. A Chinese daughter stays near her parents in both proximity and filial duty. She walks with them as a guide and support, going only as fast as they go and only as far. Waiting for them wasn’t just a way to avoid hurting them; it was another way of waiting for myself to be different. While nothing can alter or supersede my first adoption, I believe my second adoption might resurrect some of the first one’s losses.

 

I was baptized on a Sunday in November at our parish. I didn’t invite my parents because we don’t talk about my faith. Maybe it was also to spare them watching me be received into another family. I remember my pastor telling me to expect a lot of water. It has to be flowing, he said, as if it wouldn’t count otherwise. When I returned to our pew, my hair dripping into my white sweater and perfumed with the chrism, my three-year-old retracted her outstretched arms. She gaped at me incredulously and whispered, “Look at you! You spilled.”

I received my first Communion alone at the altar before the rest of the parishioners, the first shard of the host sharp against my cheek. I chose the confirmation name Anne, for the graces of my own motherhood. I was called by it once, the third name of my life. It’s printed on a certificate celebrating my first three sacraments, along with my full name, the name of my husband (who is my sponsor), my date and place of birth, and the names of both my parents. The cardstock with its scalloped border can barely contain all the words.

As the other parishioners received Communion and filed back to their seats, they paused before me in the front pew, rolling the body of Christ to one side of their mouths to smile at me and my family. Some put their hand on mine or on my wet shoulder. Some touched my sodden hair. In Romans 8:22, St. Paul writes, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” My waiting was not over, but was now joined to all of theirs. For however long we might have until the final adoption, we wait together, as St. Paul says, with endurance, hoping for what we cannot see, carrying what we carry, all spilling into our places.

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