We adopted our son in Vietnam when he was three months old. Sometimes the old women in Hanoi clucked “lucky, lucky” over his head when we walked down the street. They smiled at us. Is he lucky? He was an easy, joyful baby. We carried him through the streets of Hanoi, stopped for beer at the same place in the afternoons. August. Temperatures in the 90s. In a sling, strapped to my chest, he slept in a river of sweat.
I love Vietnam. Where he comes from is beautiful. The food is good. There are loving people. Not to be naive. It’s also probably good he is out of there, a poor village in north Vietnam. I am glad he is not the little boy sitting beside the road in Ha Long selling two bottles of water. I don’t want him to be that. I want so much more for him than to be passed by, than to hope for a bit of money.
Adoption feels as mysterious to me (even if as natural, as biological) as the idea of making another human being entirely separate from myself.
When I was nine we left the house I grew up in to move to Philadelphia. The family who bought it had adopted a two-year-old girl from Korea. As we were packing up our books and dishes, they started to bring over a few of their belongings. (The new owners were friends of my mother.) This girl, Kim, didn’t speak English, but I taught her to say “jump!” and she jumped into my arms.
I adopted partly because I didn't have enough faith in the world to make a stake in it by entering another human being. But not out of cynicism or hopelessness. I adopted because I knew a girl who had been adopted. I adopted because I never questioned it. I adopted because I wasn't really interested in birth or pregnancy. I adopted because there was a boy who needed parents. I adopted a baby to get around any possible bonding problem. I adopted internationally because I could not, emotionally, manage the presence of a birth mother. There are selfish, shallow reasons I adopted. I adopted because I wanted a beautiful baby. I adopted because I didn’t care about having a beautiful baby. I adopted out of my own personal limitations. I adopted out of fear that I would make a child and the world would end. I adopted because i could say to another soul, Join us, but i could not make another person.
We took the baby to museums and parks and on day trips out of Hanoi while we waited for his visa. In restaurants there were often groups of families with Vietnamese babies. They were from Ireland, Australia, France. In our hotel was a spectacularly glamorous Italian couple. They had gotten a spectacularly glamorous toddler. She had a kind of hair some people in Vietnam have—thick, standing straight up in impossible waves. The father paced the hall, beaming, on his cell phone: “Whatever she wants! When she wants to stand, we stand, when she wants to sit, we sit!” In the infant section of a department store I saw a sad-looking French couple carrying a boy (he looked about 2) in a gym bag.
When my husband and I decided to adopt, I went online, elated to begin figuring out how to do it. I looked for communities and message boards, expecting to find other people happily on their way to parenthood, somewhere in the process of paper-shuffling, who would explain about the fingerprinting. Instead I discovered mostly grieving women in the Internet chat rooms. Discussions of infertility. A wall of sorrow.
I told friends and co-workers we were adopting. Some looked about to say “I’m sorry.”
Back home in Brooklyn, with the baby, I was annoyed that the question “so you couldn’t get pregnant?” hung in the air when I met people at the playground. I mentally designed a button that read “I’M FERTILE.”
I imagined it would be a gift to my son that his presence wasn’t connected to a loss, a body malfunction; I had wanted only him. Yet in the fable about the man and woman who live in the forest and are happy together but sad that they could never fulfill their dearest wish, the adopted child is a hero. My son is four, almost asking about who gave birth to him. When I tell him the story of being given up, I will hand him a loss.
The children I meet when I’m out with Chance are interested, open, curious about adoption. Recently a friend’s 8-year-old daughter asked where he is from. I steeled myself for further questions, trying to decide what to say when she asked why I couldn’t have a baby. Instead, after I told her Chance is from Vietnam, she said only that she would like to adopt a baby someday. Then she ran off to keep playing.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
Often during the first year with Chance, I felt a trancy euphoria familiar to some birth mothers. As I watched the baby looking at his hand or his own image in the mirror, making clicks and coos with his voice, I felt like I was floating—impossibly light, yet sucked into an orbit so powerful I had to work to pull myself out of it to even get up and shut the window.
Like birth mothers, adoptive mothers release oxytocin, the hormone that elicits feelings of trust and relaxation. (Adoptive mothers can breastfeed; I didn’t.) The rapture matched descriptions I recalled from poems: “...It feels like being drunk, the swallows / pulling at her breast, delicious” (Sharon Olds). In Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence describes a woman in the last weeks of pregnancy:
After a time, the child, too, melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon....
A swoon, a heroin-like high. Do adoptive parents of infants get extra hits of oxytocin as a species provision for bonding?
Recent poems come out of that time. They are also connected to an early school experience. My fourth grade class was pounded by images of drug paraphernalia. One part of the lesson was that heroin made you feel good. First you liked it, then you wanted more, and needed more, and then you lost your own control to the extreme love. Finally your parents, the people you love, were lost to you.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
HABITThe box…maybe the baby will play with the box, and she can sit, not carry, not pick him up.
He does. Dreamily opens the plastic lid….He examines the lip of the box, where it clicks shut. He slowly, slowly pulls a piece of paper through a thin slot on top.
At first being alone with the baby and the box is a dim, half-conscious satisfaction, like running your fingertips over the dry skin of your feet. He turns the box over in his arms. She gives him a necklace, it falls through his hands like milk. He licks the metal clasp, and her scalp, filigreed all over, electrifies. She comes a little awake.
When she holds out the box he will bubble and tree and ha and silence, he makes sounds that run over her back like mice, sounds that cause the thinnest pins to vibrate—that are the silken, grooved edge of a guitar string not even being touched.
Now she must daily use the baby to feel this feeling: a needle afloat on plain water.
In the world of the box and the necklace there are no words, is no appetite, there is not sex: his sounds take sex away. Is she blameless? Is the box a form of love? If you walked in and saw her, it would be that scene in the movie where the boyfriend opens the door and day has passed into night and he finds her on the floor: dull spoon, burnt match, used up.
ABOUT THE POET:
Joy Katz is the author The Garden Room (Tupelo, 2006) and Fabulae (SIU, 2002). She teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and in the low-residency and on-the-ground programs at Chatham University. She is currently finishing a new manuscript, Just a Second Ago, and working on a series of essays about sentiment in contemporary and experimental poems. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.