My adoption story began Memorial Day Weekend 2008, when I abruptly announced to my husband that I wanted to adopt a daughter. The need had been simmering inside me for some time, but that day it exploded. With tears. I said, “I have to have a daughter.”
He was like, “OK.”
We went into full adoption mode that day. By the end of the day, we had ordered official copies of our birth certificates and marriage license. Within 2 days, we had decided on an adoption agency. Within 2 weeks, money had changed hands, and we scheduled a telephone interview with the agency social worker.
We told the agency social worker that I was mid-40s, African American, and wanted a female toddler. At my age, we didn’t have time for any unforeseen delays or court battles, so we thought international adoption might be best.
We learned that international adoptions could be tricky. The system could subject adoptive families to the whims and demands of foreign cultures and governments. Some countries may let us select a child, while some countries might assign us the child they thought we merited. Some countries required institutionalized bribery (which they called “gifts to officials”) while some countries refused to give children to overweight people. Some countries may require that we fly back and forth to the country for visits and court dates, while other countries may require that we establish residency within their borders.
No matter what we decided or what happened, there would be no refunds. So if we became pregnant, changed our minds, or didn’t pass muster, we could kiss that money goodbye. Also, in the case of international adoption, sometimes a child becomes sick and dies before the new parents arrive to take custody. In that case,
we may be held responsible for the child’s medical costs and burial fees, in addition to the nonrefundable adoption fees.
It was a gamble, but like so many adoptive mothers, I was desperate for a child and was willing to agree to anything. So I said, I’ll take that bet.
We decided to adopt from a country that didn’t care about our BMI, didn’t care about my race, would excuse my age, would allow us to have a girl, and didn’t require that we fly back and forth.
Our first step would be to purchase an application. We mailed a $300 check to the agency. They sent us a 200 page application including a scientific document explaining the efficacies of AIDS testing. The sheer bulk of the application was intimidating.
As a part of the application, we were required to submit birth certificates, marriage license, tax records, proof of employment, proof of good health, proof of medical insurance, proof of life insurance, proof of home ownership, pictures of our home, pictures of people in our home, letters of recommendation, immigration documents, and power of attorney. We were finger-printed by the Arkansas State Police and background checked through the FBI and Department of Human Services. We were summoned by the Czar of Homeland Security to the office in Memphis where we were required to submit full hand prints.
Everything we submitted had to be validated by a notary public and every notarized form had to be routed through the office of the Arkansas Secretary of State who validated that the notary public was legitimate. Then all the validated forms had to be routed through the United States Department of State in Washington where they were further validated before being routed on to Ethiopia.
By September 2008, we had submitted all the documents and they were being routed through the state and federal system. In December, we went on the official waiting list for a girl.
In 2009, a few days after Easter, we received the call. We were shown the profile of a beautiful girl with an infectious smile and a way about her. The Ethiopian authorities were looking for someone to “give her a good life.” My husband and I agreed to be her parents.
We had found our daughter.
Our case was approved by the Ethiopian courts in early August and we flew over days later to pick up our child.
That’s when the real work began.
We had adopted a waiting child. That meant she wasn’t a baby. She was a toddler who had lost her family. She was able to speak, but not English. She spoke a little Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. She had memories and emotions, but no words to express them. She also had a mind of her own, and she didn’t like me.
When I picked her up the first time, she stiffened and wiggled free. When I gave her a toy, she threw it at me. Luckily, she liked my husband. She called him “Ababa” (father). She latched onto his hand and said, “Nay” (come). She led him through the gate to the car, which she called a “beep-beep.” It made me sad that she adored my husband but disliked me to the point of not wanting me to sit next to them on the plane. I consoled myself that as long as she liked him, that would ease our trip back to the states and reduce her trauma.
At 26 months, not only was she in the throes of the terrible 2’s, she was suffering grief. She was grieving for lost friends, most of whom had also been adopted to other states around the country. Sometimes when we drove in the car, she would yell Ah-mee-nee!! Ah-mee-nee!!
It was a wail, loaded with grief. In our preadoption training, we had heard that when children grieve, sometimes it’s best to grieve with them. In my daughter’s case, I couldn’t help it. I was already crying every day. I felt so sad for her losing her whole world. So when she wailed, “Ah-mee-nee!!!” I joined in the lament.
When I did that, something in her eyes woke up. For the first time, she seemed to see me as on her side. She nodded knowingly at me and let out the wail again: “Ah-mee-nee!!” Each time she did, I yelled too, matching her pitch. She laughed.
One month after arriving home, she saw some pictures on my computer. One of the pictures was the woman whom they had called her Special Mother, the caregiver assigned to her in Ethiopia. The picture had been taken at a going away ceremony, where the Special Mother officially said goodbye to her young charge and gave her a ceremonial gift, a dress and sash.
Upon seeing the picture, my daughter became excited, saying “Ah-mee-nee! Ah-mee-nee!” over and over. “Nay, nay!” She grabbed my hand and started pulling me toward the door. We were almost to the garage when I realized that this woman was her Ah-mee-nee and she wanted to go back to her.
Now I realized that every time we went in the car, she was hoping to go see her Special Mother, whom she called Ah-mee-nee. (This was not the caregiver’s actual name, only what my daughter called her.)
“Nay!” she was saying, urgently but happily. (Come!)
I followed her to the garage door but we couldn’t go anywhere. I was talking as franticly as she was, telling her that Ah-mee-nee was far away and we couldn’t get to her. She kept pulling my hand urgently, speaking baby Amharic as I spoke desperate English. “We can’t. We can’t.”
When she realized we weren’t going anywhere, there was another wail, this time without words. I was crying too, holding her in a heap on the floor.
When she went down for a nap, I sent the picture to the adoption agency and told them what had happened. The director of the Ethiopia branch knew the woman’s name but wasn’t familiar with the term Ah-mee-nee nor what my baby was trying to say. There was no way for us to get in touch with the caregiver, they said. So I asked them to give her a message: “Tell her Hewan misses her.”
It was several years before my daughter saw the picture again. By then, she had lost conscious memory of the caregiver.
When she was able to talk, around age 4, she was extremely smart and she began to ask questions. Hard questions. Trick questions. Like …
“What were you and daddy doing when you left me in Ethiopia?”
The question shocked me. Obviously, in her mind, my husband and I were her birth parents and we had left her in Ethiopia. This adoption thing we’d been telling her about must be our act of returning to reclaim her after leaving her abroad for 2 years.
I wasn’t prepared for this point of view and I didn’t have a ready answer. Luckily, she had the attention span of a toddler and changed the subject before I could answer. But a week later, she asked the question again.
“What were you and daddy doing when you left me in Ethiopia?”
This time I was prepared. “We didn’t leave you there,” I said. “You had another mommy and daddy and something happened to them. So they called us to come get you and to be your new mommy and daddy.”
Even at age 4, she was very inquisitive, and she demanded explanation: “How did they know about you?”
I said, “We contacted someone in Ethiopia and told them we wanted a daughter and if they knew a little girl who needed some parents, let us know. Then one day this man called us and he told us about you and asked if we wanted to be your mommy and daddy and we said YES!”
She likes the excited part. She likes knowing that we jumped at the opportunity to become her parents.
“What happened to my first mommy?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I think she’s dead,” she said in a small voice, nodding her head. “Yeah. She’s dead.”
That night when she said her prayers, she said, “Dear mommy in heaven. I hope you’re doing OK up there.”
Years later, another question came out of the blue: “Why would you give away something you love?”
This was a tricky question, one that could validate or invalidate her existence.
“To keep it safe,” I said. “Like Moses mother put him in the basket and sailed him down the river. And Superman’s parents put him in a pod and sent him to Earth. They did it to protect them, to keep them from getting killed. “
She nodded her head and left it there that day. But I’m always aware that as an adoptive mother, there are things to be explained, and love is not enough. A child from a hard place needs an uncommon kind of wisdom and insight to make sense of the things that have happened to her so that she can view herself with love and respect.
So I shape her narrative. I help her grieve. I compare her to super heroes like Moses and Superman, people who lost their parents and lost their homelands, and who against all odds, achieved greatness because of it.
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.