Today I celebrated my 38th birthday. It was a great day, filled with french toast and fondue, a nap, massage, time with friends and 60 facebook happy bithdays. But every year the same pre-birthday blues set in. My internal age calculator triggers a neurotransmitter imbalance, and I find myself cycling through old grief, self pity and even despair. I want to withdraw from my infertility friends who have joyfully at last become pregnant. And something darker rises within me, and I realize it’s been there for a long time.
Infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss is emotionally devastating. It is a psychological earthquake, shattering one’s sense of womanhood and leaving a smoking crater in her soul where her tender hopes once grew. It is not the same for every woman, but for the woman who wants to bear a child and can’t, it is the ultimate and universal rejection.
No one knows how to talk to us. There are those who understand, those who don’t, and those who try. People are uncomfortable with our pain. We get false hope, prayers for healing that aren’t answered, platitudes (“you’re still young”), fertility gimmicks, and spiritual judgement. “You just need to surrender this”, or “I had this spiritual breakthrough and then I got pregnant”
And then you start an adoption. Leave the earthquake metaphor, and now you’re out on the sea, with the surface constantly changing. At first it’s mentioned so casually, so well-meaning, like everything that went wrong will be ok and your baby will just grow in someone else’s uterus. Then you start going to meetings and realize the birth parents may still want to be a part of your child’s life. You’re asked if you would take a child that was exposed to drugs, alcohol in utero and you grieve again, realizing how powerless you are. You learn that adoption costs tens of thousands of dollars, and is basically a blank check as the final cost of legalization is unknown. Then you do the mandatory international adoption training and learn about the (supposedly) prevalent and dire effects of institutionalization on children. I suppose this is meant to create “realistic” expectations, but it acts like a tidal wave to sweep away hopes of a “normal” child. Then there is the wait, while your heart’s desire dangles in a paradox. It is as imminent as the next phone call, or years out of reach. Most big events in our lives are dated; weddings, graduations, and of course, pregnancies. This is sailing in the fog; the land could be right beyond that next cloud, or a hundred miles away. And of course there is the emotional rollercoaster of dropped referrals, nervous meetings and matching with birth moms who then change their minds, babies who are placed in families and then pulled away at the last moment.
I do acknowledge that pregnancy isn’t easy either, however much desired, and no one can count the cost of something they’ve never experienced.
In the end, for most of us, persistence brings results, and we are at last the chosen one. And more than this, with both my babies, I did feel peace, and providential design, a sense of transcendence, fate, that connected me to the children we received. They are luminous, ebullient little souls, tender and needy and precious and irreplaceable. The first one made me a mother, and the dammed up channels of the maternal; the cherishing, devoted adoration of a child were at last released. It was inexpressably fulfilling, and immensely healing to be included at last among the ranks of those with children. The Jade did me more good than many months of therapy. Our adoption of Nick began with that nagging yearning for more; of incompleteness. I wanted our child to have a sibling, I didn’t want to be a small family. I wanted another baby. When he came to us another vacuum in my heart was filled and sealed. Now I had experienced a newborn, had known him from the beginning.
Our children have issues our biological kids wouldn’t have. Nick was exposed to cocaine, to multiple infectious diseases in utero. We had to draw his blood often as an infant and take him to a specialist until he mercifully cleared his infection risks at 18 months. But uncertainties remain. Statistically he is at higher risk for anger issues, drug addiction, ADHD and learning disabilities. The Jade didn’t attach right away, and even now certain behaviors make us wonder if the knot is fully tied. He is sometimes angry, out-of-control hyper, and aggressive. Attachment issue? Sensory issue? ADHD? Is this what his birth parents were like as kids? Trying to solve the equation without all the variables.
I love these children more than the ones I lost, because they are the ones I have loved with my body, mind and heart these years. The names and faces that give me so much of my identity and life’s purpose. And yet, I truly miss our biological children. I wonder what they would have looked like. Would they have been shy and neurotic like Bob says, so unlike our boys? I know that if they had been we wouldn’t have the boys, and I would choose the boys over them if I was given that choice. And yet I wish that somehow I could have them both. Most of my friends with children my age are 5 years younger than me. I would have a 7 year old right now, if my pregnancy had continued uninterrupted as theirs did. It is all so haunting and strange.
Adoptees like Sherri Eldredge detail the turmoil of adopted children. Shame, feelings of rejection and abandonment, feeling unfinished, disconnected, something missing. Sometimes they feel grief over what they have lost which turns to anger. These feelings are worsened when adoptive parents invalidate them, when we try to gloss over their pain with their “happy” story, or worse, when people tell them they are lucky and should be thankful. Angela Tucker, writing for the blog Her.meneutics, drew out the possible harms of both quaint and theological sentiments. Telling a child they were chosen may imply a benevolent providence. But it may also emphasize the child’s powerlessness over their fate, at the whim of an omnipotent parent who happened to pick them instead of someone else. We might trivialize the significance of someone’s struggles as an adoptee with a superficial reference to our adoption into God’s family. This fact is stunning and profound, but does not negate the very real struggles of someone who has lost their biological parents. Sometimes there is tension with those parents- adoptive parents are too quick to relegate them to the role of gestation. We don’t want to share our babies, with anyone else, especially when they are the only ones we have and were so hard to come by.
All of this has been brought before God so many times, and there have been flashes of incomplete insight. Sometimes I get a sense of who I might have been without this journey (superficial,unsympathetic, false sense of control, unaware of my need for grace). Sometimes I have felt his concern for my boys, His behind the scenes advocating on their behalf. We were also chosen- to be their parents. I have made much progress towards embracing my story as unique, and not envying or comparing the journeys of others. I have reached out to others in a similar situation and seemed to encourage them. These insights console- for awhile. But then the primal grief rears up again, the memories of loss tear, and I know that I will carry this pain the rest of my life. And from that grief comes something else- anger. I realized this while fasting- troubled by a barrier I sensed towards God. Why doesn’t He answer my prayer that I have lifted up so earnestly over such a long time (8 years), while others hear quickly? Why did he let all my biological children die? Why won’t He take the grief away, or at least the desire? How can I believe that He’s good, that He loves me, when He allows this? This is the bitter seed, the age old philosophical question that wreaks havoc with my soul. It was good to acknowledge this anger, and to confess that I don’t want to be angry anymore. I want the breach healed. I want to trust God’s goodness again, even if He doesn’t redeem this pain the way I want Him too. In response to this revelation and confession I had a spiritual experience. I simply felt God’s love, in the way I felt it on a windswept prairie as a teenager, in the way I felt it in a dorm room after that. In a way I haven’t felt in years. That Love that has followed me my whole life and still waits, that cannot be negated by my circumstances. I sensed it with other senses, yet in a way that moved me to tears, and does even now while I write this . My grief was understood but my questions weren’t answered. This is just another step in my journey, and yet I sense it means something more.
Perhaps all of our journeys, with their agonizing losses and easy triumphs, their brave hopes and bitter seeds, are meant to end with this. There is no trite rationale, no profound explanation that will make it all ok. Whether one journeys as an adoptive parent bearing infertility and loss or as an adoptee grieving his first parents, we share many emotions. Our pain breaks us and binds us to each other, but ultimately I believe it will be swept away.
This is an ironic post for the Christmas season, since it is all about a miraculous conception. But this is one case where someone else’s miracle doesn’t bring envy. Jesus left his true father for an adoptive one. He forwent natural procreation and physical descendants so he could welcome all of us as his brothers and sisters through adoption into the family of God. He is that Love I’ve felt in fragile moments of my life, given a body and a voice. He was given to understand and bear our pain with us, the seed that died in bitter agony but was raised in glorious power, power that will ultimately bring an end to our own sorrow as well.