He told me that a woman at the hospital near the agency in Queens had given birth to a girl on Tuesday, had decided to give her up, and had chosen us based on our “Dear Birth Mother” letter, a standard part of the adoption application in which prospective adoptive parents try to communicate to a birth mother who they are, what kind of life they hope to give an adopted child, and how much they sympathize with her painful situation and respect her decision. The agency had given the mother two of these letters, both from gay couples, and she’d chosen ours, saying “It was shorter, but it was perfect.”
C gave me the name and number of a social worker who was at the hospital and said to text her so she would have my number. (C’s phone was dead and he’d left his charger at home. Of all days.) We were instructed to meet the social worker at the agency at 6 where she would give us the baby. We would keep her for the weekend, then on Monday meet the mother. At that time, she would surrender the baby to us and we’d begin the 30-day wait. (By state law – though there are similar laws in every state – a birth mother who has given up her child has 30 days in which to change her mind, no questions asked.)
Officially, we were just babysitting for the weekend, but the social worker told us she felt optimistic. The mother was smart and knew what she was doing. She has a 2-year-old son at home where she lives with her father. She wants to go to college, and she wants a better life for her daughter.
My boss and co-workers (except one manager who handles HR, because I needed a letter for the adoption agency application stating that I worked there) did not know before Friday that I was preparing to adopt. C and I had only last week been approved by the agency, and we expected a long wait. The usual scenario, from what we could gather, is that adoptive parents are selected by a pregnant woman, establish a relationship, provide some support through the pregnancy, and then adopt the baby when it’s born.
I was very conflicted about not telling them yet, because it’s a small company and they treat me very well and it just felt cagey, but I thought I’d have plenty of time to talk to my boss, let him know that this was a possibility some time in the next year, and, though C and I had decided that I would be a stay-at-home parent, I didn’t want them at work to be gearing up to replace me when for all we knew it could be a year away.
Instead, I had to hang up the phone with C, tell the owner of the company where I’ve worked for 2 ½ years that I had to leave immediately to pick up a child I was going to adopt. I didn’t add, “and if this works out, I won’t be back.” I didn’t consciously leave that out, I was just too freaked out to convey much more than, “I have to go. Right now.” On my way out the door, I said to my boss that I would let him know how everything went, and he said, “You’ll probably need some time off next week, right?”
The manager I work directly with, who is an old friend and who got me this job when I returned to New York 3 years ago with pretty much nothing, had stepped out to run an errand and missed the whole thing. I did have my wits together enough to get a kick out of thinking about her returning to the office to hear that story.
I called my mom and dad on the way to the subway, texted my brother and sister and best friends, and met C at the Babies R Us on Union Square where we bought a bassinet, diapers, formula, a few blankets, and a couple onesies. We just got what we would need for the weekend. We had to carry everything we bought to the agency and then home, so we got essentials and planned to make a more considered shopping trip next week. I called my sister K from the store and she talked me through the supplies we would need which might not occur to us, like a baby thermometer, and helped us pick out a “Pack and Play,” which is a combination portable crib, bassinet, and changing table. By this time, we’d called our parents, siblings, and best friends with our amazing sudden news, and text messages were flying back and forth all afternoon. C’s sister is expecting a baby in June, a girl too, so the timing was perfect for her to have a little girl cousin the same age.
We caught the LIRR to Little Neck where the agency is, got there an hour early so had a bite to eat at a Panera in a shopping center around the corner. The social worker called to let us know traffic was bad and she’d be late. When she arrived, she hadn’t been to the hospital yet. She picked up a car seat at the agency and left, telling us she’d be back in an hour, at the most. It was more like two.
We were watching out the window and saw her car pull up. She got out and opened the back door of her car, detached the car seat, and started across the parking lot. We ran out to meet her and hold the door open. It was chilly so she had a blanket up over the baby’s face. Inside, she set the car seat on a table. “Here she is!” she said and pulled down the blanket.
Of course all parents think their babies are beautiful, but, you know, I think babies are usually kind of weird and unformed-looking. For sure, there’s something absolutely compelling about them, tiny nascent humans with one inscrutable expression after another. Hilarious definitely, but beautiful? If I’m honest, I want to say grotesque, really, and I would if I didn’t find it hard to call a human being grotesque, but on the other hand they don’t have any idea what the word means so it’s not like you’re going to hurt their feelings.
Anyway. This child was undeniably gorgeous with her tiny head of fine black shiny hair, skin the color of pancakes, and long fingers. I picked her up and she began to fuss a little. She’d been asleep. But she snuggled into my shoulder and I bounced very gently and she dozed off again, breathing into my neck. In that moment something cracked open and in came rushing the gravity, the intensity, the wonder and magnificence of what we have decided to do. To raise a child. Here she was. This was not an idea, but a human being curled up like a pillbug in my arms and completely dependent on me not to let go of her. We brought her home.
Maybe I don’t have to say that we were not ready. Emotionally, maybe no one ever is. But I’m talking about our apartment. We have a tiny second bedroom in our apartment that we use as an office. When I’m annoyed I call it the garage, because, yes, there’s a desk and computer in there and it’s where I write, but there are also shelves full of old papers and books and things people have given us that we don’t need but can’t bear to throw away and our elliptical machine. (Shut up. We use it, not as regularly as we’d like, but we do use it.)
The office will be the baby’s room. Our plan is to to move all the stuff out, put it god knows where, paint the room yellow (pink and blue are lovely colors, but best avoided – that’s another conversation), and put in a crib. But we were waiting. It seemed unnecessary to have a nursery all set up when we might have to wait for months, especially since we didn’t know the age of the baby – we told the agency we preferred a newborn but were open to an older infant.
But we set up the bassinet in our bedroom and felt completely prepared for the short term, until we could begin making bigger changes. C figured out the slightly puzzling baby bottle, filled it, and we fed her, burped her. We changed her tiny, tiny diaper. She’s not crazy about sleeping on her own, so we took turns holding her, the other of us answering texts and emails from our mothers, sisters, friends dying to know how it was all going.
She’s on a 2-hour feeding schedule, so we didn’t expect to sleep much, and didn’t. As near as we can remember, we took turns getting up when we heard her fuss or cry. It became a bit of a fog, but I do remember one period of a couple hours when I just stood over her with my forehead on her belly so she’d stop crying but afraid to pick her up and sit in bed with her because I was so sleepy I worried I’d fall asleep and drop her or roll onto her. Eventually I brought her into the living room and sat on the couch holding her, feeling a safer sitting upright to doze with her on my chest.
In the morning, we made coffee and continued our woozy surreal life of taking turns holding her, feeding her, changing her, and staring at her as if she were a tiny alien come to simultaneously make us wonder what life was all about and tell us. In brief moments of clarity we’d wonder aloud what to do about the theater tickets we’d bought weeks or months ago: Far From Heaven, a new musical at Playwrights Horizons that I’d been looking forward to for months, and The Nance, a play by Douglas Carter Beane that takes place in the gay world of 1930s New York. And what about our vacation in Provincetown in July? We’ve rented a house for a week with a group of friends. Should we take the baby to the beach? Probably not. We’d have to call our friend who is a doula to see if she can recommend a pediatrician.
We felt, if not ready, then ready to become ready. We would learn by doing, become parents by parenting.
A little after noon, the director of the agency called on C’s phone. Seconds after picking up and saying hello, he said, “Oh, no.” And then, “We understand.” They talked for a couple minutes, but I knew exactly what was happening. The mother had been up all night crying, called the agency in the morning, and said she had changed her mind. She wanted her little girl back. The social worker would be at our house in a couple hours to retrieve the baby.
The outfit she was wearing when we got her was in the dryer, so when it was done we put it back on her, fed her, changed her, packed up a few of the things we’d bought and couldn’t use next time: a half full bottle of formula, an opened package of baby wipes. When the social worker arrived, we put the baby back in her car seat and handed her over.
C’s sister’s baby shower was Saturday afternoon, and he didn’t want to spoil the party with our sad news, so he waited. But I emailed my mom and we texted the rest of our family and friends. It wasn’t a specific kind of sadness or mourning for her. We’d really had so little time to get to know her and there was no buildup, no anticipation, it was so sudden and out of the blue and then over in 24 hours. But we did both cry some and I feel haunted by the image of that perfect beautiful tiny girl who came so close to being our daughter. I like to think of her curled up on her mother’s shoulder asleep, because I remember what that felt like, her breath on my neck.
When C finally did get to talk to his mom Saturday evening, she told him that his sister had put together a bag of baby things she could spare from her shower. She’ll put them aside for next time.