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Girl Meets Family: A Vision Is Sparked

I was in my early twenties when I got my first glimpse of the orphans. It was 1990, in the months after the fall of Ceaucescu's regime, when the first startling images came out of Romania: babies and toddlers gripping the bars of their cribs and rocking back and forth, their eyes dark and vacant, or shadowed with fear.

I stared at the images on our TV, scarcely believing what I saw—longing to hop a plane, to fly across the world and scoop the children into my arms. But I was 22 years old, living in my old upstairs bedroom in my parents' house, nursing wounded pride after my failed first attempts at grown-up romance and academic life. I was not yet mother material. I hadn't even learned how to take care of myself.

* * * *

Almost a decade later—now a responsible career woman with a husband, a shepherd mix, and a little red bungalow in the city—I was given the opportunity to visit Romania with a service organization. I accepted, thinking I might somehow talk my way into one of the children's houses. Incredibly, a week into my trip, in the city of Timisoara, I did just that: accompanying an acquaintance to her job at the Leaganul de Copii. Twice, I was turned away at the heavy front doors, and, twice, allowed entry by white uniformed women with scarved heads and suspicious eyes.

They watched me carefully but allowed limited access to the children—even smiling occasionally when I showered the kids with the attention the workers themselves hadn't the time to give. I stood in rooms full of wakeful, silent babies who did not to cry, having already learned that it was pointless to do so, that their needs still would not be met. I played on a small playground with the toddlers—Sookie and and Denisa, Grassle and Botsy; Bodgan with his mysteriously blackened eye, Froasa with her girly name and little-boy haircut—wrapping my arms around them all as they gathered about my knees, calling "Mama, mama!"

During one morning visit, I held a baby swaddled tightly in yellow blankets and felt a spiritual connection so profound it left me physically shaken. Boy or girl—I never knew. That baby must be eight or nine now, if he or she lived.

I remember especially a Gypsy toddler named Sonia—one of the ethnic Roma widely reviled by other Romanians—who clutched my hand as if I were her own. "Te iubesc, te iubesc," I told her, the baby, and the other toddlers through tears, patting them, kissing their small cheeks. "I love you." I couldn't stay in Romania, couldn't take them with me. The words felt grossly, criminally inadequate, but were all I had to give.

* * * *

My husband and I always planned to adopt though, with a nod to my age, we tried for our equally wanted biological children first. Our babies, gorgeous and brilliant twin boys, were born via gestational surrogacy in 2002. Romania had closed to adoptions in 2000 so we turned to another Eastern European country when we were ready to adopt: finding our daughter, Eugenia, in a remote east Siberian region noted for its coal mining, pine and birch forests, and long winters, but significant to us as being the birthplace of our feisty Russian beauty.

Sometimes, when I'm talking about how we got our children, a person will open and close his or her mouth—wide-eyed, like a trout—leaving a question unspoken, having thought better of it. I know what they want to ask. I've seen that look of self-conscious embarrassment before.

Answer: Yes, we love our adopted daughter as much as we do our biological sons, though the feelings we have for her take their own unique shape, as do the feelings we have for each boy. Our love is different for her; our lives are different, for having her in them. Adding Eugenia made our family richer, more layered. It is like Neapolitan ice cream versus vanilla bean; a banana split rather than a simple sundae. There is no bad or wrong choice. But I tend to like the more complex flavor combinations the best.

* * * *

I recently attended a bookstore reading where I read from my contribution to an anthology about mothering daughters. At the beginning of the event, my friend and co-contributor introduced me, saying: "Shari has three children—and pretty soon she'll have about ten more, because she wants to adopt all the orphans on the planet."

Well, yes. I do. And if I could, practically, I would.

This is not because I harbor delusions of mom-as-superhero. On the contrary, I experience near-daily stress because crusty dishes are piling up, I haven't gotten around to making our home-equity loan payment, or there are no groceries in the house (or all of the above). I'm generous with hugs and kisses and "I love yous," and I try to set firm and consistent boundaries. But I haven't found an effective deterrent to preschool-age whining, nor do I do I possess the ability to keep my six-year-old (going on sixteen) daughter from talking back. I don't have this mothering thing "down." Not by a long shot.

Nor do I seek to live my life through my kids. Though "mama" is a part of my identity, it is a single piece of the larger whole. I adore being with my kids (whining and backtalk notwithstanding), and I also relish my (rare, limited, and precious) time alone. Although I hope to adopt again, I don't need more children to be more of who I am.

Then again, it couldn't hurt. I don't think that I am more my truest self as a result of having three children instead of two, and I wouldn't necessarily be more self-realized as the mother of, say, ten than as the mama of three. I do, however, believe that I am my best self when I am learning to be my most loving. And I have an embarrassing amount yet to learn—and vast reservoirs of love still to give.

I admit that I am motivated by selfish desires: to raise multiple daughters (in addition to my plural boys), to have a Russian-born sister for my Russian-born oldest child, to have even more opportunity to raise strong, feminist daughters—to further fulfill the longing to "do something" that was sparked in me half a world away, nearly a decade ago. Mothering is, practically by definition, an act of self-sacrifice. I may be willing to make those sacrifices for yet another child—motherhood has trained me well for that. But my family had damn well better be willing, too. Are our children prepared to give up their playroom? Does my husband believe we can afford another adoption? More to the point: are they all willing to share my time and attention? My love? There seems no way to find answers, short of actually giving this thing a try.

I recently researched the hosting programs that allow orphans from other countries to visit this one: to experience life within a family, to learn some English, and to see a bit of the world outside their cities, their regions, their orphanage walls. To build relationships with those who may be open to giving them love, a family, a home.

So when an organization sent me an email about their upcoming hosting session, of course I scanned the attached photos. And of course I fell in love—several times over, in fact, but with one girl in particular: a shy, sweet-faced teen with, we are told, a tendency toward calmness, a sensible head on her shoulders, and a soft spot for small children. The pressure of deciding whether to adopt again, to change the dynamics in our family so thoroughly, without knowing the child first both overwhelms and terrifies us. But there is something in this girl's eyes that inspires, if not yet complete confidence, a sense of peace about moving forward another step.

And so, this summer a lovely teenager named Olga will live with our family. She is likely available for adoption, though that is not guaranteed. My husband and I don't know what the chemistry will be like, how our children—or how we—will feel about having a 14-year-old in the house, or how she will feel about us.

By now, we have heard all the warnings: about Attachment Disorder, about disrupting our children's birth order, about adding a teenager to our household, about the potential for heartbreak on both sides—all very real risks and complications. Still, we've weighed the risks against the shreds of information we have about this one child, and we have decided to be open about being open.

I am scared; I am excited. But I don't know if this will work out. There is the chance, I know, that it will not. I am trying to keep my heart in check, am wary of offering this child too much hope. But right now, I can't wait to meet her at the airport gate with a homemade "Welcome, Olga!" sign; to tuck her into our van, between our three small children; to drape an arm around her slender shoulders, to sit at the side of her bed, sweeping her dark hair into braids with my fingers. It seems easy. The logical progression.

As natural as a mother loving her child.

column added on 2006-06-10 :: ::

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Shari MacDonald Strong
COLUMNIST PHOTO

Shari MacDonald Strong is a senior editor and "Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance" columnist for Literary Mama. Her essay, "On Wanting a Girl," appears in the anthology It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and she has been published in a number of publications, including Geez magazine. She is the editor of the anthology The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers on the Intersection of Motherhood and Politics (Seal Press, May 2008). She writes a blog from her home in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, photojournalist Craig Strong, and their children: grade-schooler Eugenia, born in Russia, and preschool sons Will and Mac, born via gestational surrogacy.

Read more of Shari's Girl Meets Family column.

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