Eeesh! How Do I Tell Him He’s Adopted?

Is Today The Day To Tell Him He’s Adopted??

Tonight I read my five-year-old son the vintage Sesame Street story “Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby.” It is the book, I am told, that will make it easier to talk to Gabriel about his adoption. We’ve already read it many times together. Complete with smiling faces and happy endings, the book closes with Susan and Gordon adopting a baby who, the story goes, will be part of their family forever.

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I read the book in my cheeriest voice, stopping every few pages to respond to any questions Gabriel might ask about his own adoption. But tonight it seems he is not in the mood. He reaches distractedly for his cup of water and interrupts to comment on a current interest of his, dinosaurs. Still I read on. Not so much to convince him that he will be part of our loving family forever, but to convince myself. Will I be his mommy forever?

For me, the adoptive mother, it is a lingering doubt that won’t go away–even though the final papers have been signed, sealed, and delivered. Even though the judge’s last stamp of approval has appeared in Gabriel’s file and the new birth certificate has arrived with my husband’s and my names typeset in the spaces for “mother” and “father.”

Perhaps my fears are rooted in a conversation I had recently with an adoptee who found her own birth mother when she turned forty. She told me that her adoptive parents had given her a good life and plenty of love. Yet she’d always felt there was something missing from her life. “I never realized what it was until I found my birth mother,” she said. “When I hugged her for the first time, I knew I was home. The hole in my life was filled.”

And so I think about the holes Gabriel will want to fill. Will he always want to be a part of our family? Or will he one day find the woman who gave birth to him and decide that his connection to her is much stronger than the one we have forged together?

In search of a baby

It took a long time to get to where we are now. On a cold winter day nearly eight years ago, my fiance, Howard, and I learned that I could not bear a child. At age thirty-two, my body had gone through premature menopause. Coming from close families with an abundance of siblings and cousins, we simply could not imagine our lives without children. When we married, we agreed that we would try to adopt a child.

A few years later, Howard and I hired an attorney and placed ads in newspapers across the country seeking birth parents who were considering adoption. We expected that it would take a long time to get an answer.

Just one month after we placed our first ad, a man did call from a telephone booth in the Southwest. I listened, dumbstruck, as he told me in a shaky voice about the one-month-old child he and his young wife loved but could not afford to house or feed. I was equally shaken when he described the circumstances that left them without jobs, money, and luck. He said he’d had some “run-ins” with his boss and been fired. He and his wife barely had enough money to buy formula and diapers. Unable to pay rent on their trailer, they were about to be evicted.

The conversation lasted only ten minutes. But later that night, the man’s wife called and we talked for two hours straight. She was so different from me, and her struggles were so foreign. She had run away from home at age twelve and spent time in schools for troubled youth. She married her husband, Gabriel’s father, at the age of sixteen. I was old enough to be her mother. But she was so open and honest that night that I could not help but like her, and I felt she liked me, too. Toward the end of our long talk, she said that she felt comfortable choosing me to be her son’s adoptive mother. I gave her our attorney’s phone number and she said she would call him the next day. When we hung up that night, I felt a glimmer of hope.

In what seemed like an eternity, the woman waited four days before calling our attorney and initiating the legal process of adoption. In the weeks that followed, the woman would call me, often in the wee hours of the night, to talk about her day and, sometimes, to share her hopes and dreams for herself and her son, whom she had named Tim. On those nights when she did not call, we despaired that we had lost her and the child waiting for us.

He is your child now

Then one day, just seven weeks after our first conversation with the couple, our attorney informed us that the preliminary legal work had been completed. We booked our flight from New Jersey to a small town in New Mexico and flew through a thunderstorm to reach the child we would call our son. Thrilled at the prospect of holding the child we had seen only in photographs, we were also beset by anxiety. What would we say when we met the birth parents in their attorney’s office? How would they respond to us holding their son?

The next morning, any fears and doubts we’d had disappeared when we saw our son in his birth mother’s arms. He was bald, round-faced, and beautiful. We had to struggle to contain our joy in the presence of his birth parents, who faced the agonizing task of saying goodbye to him.

When we arrived home several days later, I spoke to Gabriel’s birth mother directly for the last time. She’d called to see how Gabriel had fared on his flight home and asked if she could send me an audio tape explaining her decision to give him up for adoption. We agreed that we would exchange information through my attorney. And she told me she would never want to interfere with the way we raised him. He is your child now, she said.

But we never did receive her tape. And I only heard from her once more through our attorney when Gabriel was 18 months old. She asked for photos and a letter about him, and I sent them willingly. I haven’t received any further requests and can only conclude that she has decided to leave the painful memory behind and get on with her life.

Getting to know him

Our life has been full of the sweet moments we expected parenthood would bring: the thrill of watching a child take his first steps, hearing his first words, and observing his personality emerge. Gabriel is truly his own person – bright and wild-spirited, with a streak of Jim Carrey’s looniness and a fondness for worms and mud castles. He will spend hours dictating and illustrating a story about dinosaurs to give to his father when Howard walks through the door at night. He always seems to know when either of us needs an extra hug.

Gabriel also shares many of our favorite interests. He enthusiastically embraces the outdoors and nature. Like me, he loves to swim. Like his father, he prefers his rock and roll loud. And on our road trips, he gleefully sings along as we butcher the score for West Side Story.

But he is different, too, of course. He is fair-skinned and blond in contrast to our olive skin and dark hair. He is also far more graceful than either of us, who are not known for our prowess on a tennis court. There are still plenty of things we don’t know about him. Will he love to draw or paint like his birth mother, or be artistically challenged like me? Will he tinker with cars like his birth father or play guitar like my husband?

Looking for his other mother

It’s just a hunch, but I believe Gabriel will want to probe his own biological roots, where he came from and who he is in the world. He will poke around for clues from those precious early moments that predate his first meeting with us. He is curious by nature, one of the many things I love about him.

I’ve resolved to help when he is ready to look. Still, I am ambivalent about the search. I want to be happy for my son when he finds his birth mother. But I can’t help feeling a small measure of dread. Perhaps I am prematurely jealous. I have this picture in my head of my son twenty years hence. He will come to me looking more like Jon Voight in his prime than the Dennis the Menace he is now. And he will tell me he has found his real mom. “She’s really great,” he will say. “She looks and moves like me. She’s got my smile, my laugh, my eyes.”

But for now, he is my child. He has perfected my staccato “Gabriel, you get a time-out” voice to a T. He automatically echoes my “okeydokey” each time I pull my car into the garage. And he has picked up the exaggerated hand gestures that my friends and husband love to tease me about. Most of the time I exult in the chance to be around him without worrying how long it might last.

Keeping the faith

The photo on my desk soothes me when I do fret. In the picture he is standing beside a lake in the Berkshires with the sun streaming down on his baseball cap and his gaze cast toward the fish he has just caught. I look at that photo every day, especially when I am having a tough time coaxing words from my keyboard. It takes me back to that warm day in June just moments before the shutter of our Instamatic clicked. There in my mind’s eye, my pipsqueak of a son stands proudly, having just instructed a flock of boys some three to four years his senior on the fine art of worming and casting.

“That’s my boy,” I say aloud, to no one. And at moments like his, there is no shred of doubt in my mind that he is, even though I can’t ever recall finding pleasure with a fishing pole in my hand. Even though not a single, blessed gene in my body accounts for his patience and passion for casting for fish in a lake.

Gabriel’s homecoming five years ago was nothing short of miraculous. We placed an ad in a newspaper miles away, and a stranger called us. Out of that random event, a connection was made–one that restored our faith that good things can happen in this world. As time goes on, I still wonder how Gabriel may feel about the missing parts in his life. But when I think back to the day of that photo, I feel equally buoyed by the premonition that, search or no search, my son will find his way back to me.

Today, Gabriel drew me another picture with another shaky “I love mommy” down the side. Tonight, I will search through his jumbled dresser for that red dinosaur shirt he must wear tomorrow. And much later, in the dead of the night, when he burrows wordlessly into the bed I share with my husband, I will move aside to make space for him. Tomorrow I might read him a different story, maybe about prehistoric times. Certainly I will refill his cup of water, tell him I love him, and kiss him goodnight. And for just one more day, I will try to cast aside all doubts about the meaning of forever.

Ellis is a freelance writer living in Crompond, New York. Her essay first appeared in FamilyFun magazine

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