The first time I heard Amy Breedlove’s voice on the phone, I felt a shot of adrenalin, sort of like the one I imagine my father felt the time he saw his half-sister in person for the first time, at age 38. Hearing that voice felt a lot like meeting a long-lost sister.
Amy and I were both in the beginning stages of adopting from Ethiopia. Amy lives in Indiana; I live in Oregon. We’d both started blogs around the same time to chronicle the journey our families had embarked upon, and we were both with the same agency and in about the same stage of the process. I remember going upstairs to our bedroom to talk to Amy, shutting the door and connecting with this person whom I quickly found out had more in common with me than just the adoption: we talked about how to raise respectful, responsible children, pop culture, and a smattering of politics. This conversation was the first glimpse of feeling that I had “found my people.”
To give some backstory: My husband and I decided to pursue adoption in November of ‘06. What led us to adopt is its own very particular, personal, and long story. Suffice it to say, the day we made this decision ushered us into a completly new world, one that felt a bit like we’d been pulled up out of the dark “unexplained secondary infertility” pit and placed into this very bright labyrinthal structure, a bit like test mice in a lab. I didn’t care. At least someone had turned the light on, and I could just smell that bit of cheese luring me through the maze. The fire was lit again beneath me. I can handle a maze but a pit of despair I can do without.
The pit had to do not just with this bizarre medical diagnosis we’d been given (which was basically a doctor’s way of telling us, “Hell, we don’t know what's your problem”) but with the ensuing sense of alienation I felt, as I was living in a new city and surrounded by young moms who would sometimes complain about the daily grind of a world that I seemed inexplicably barred from entering. The diagnosis we were given brought me to the most isolated and lonely time of my life, a time when I sometimes found it difficult to get out of bed some mornings, a time I am content not remembering except for when I feel gratitude to God for not being there anymore.
It took us four long months of research to finally decide on an agency, which we switched from after the discovery of some things that made us uncomfortable--only after we’d filled out the initial $250 application fee. Welcome to the world of internation adoption where you must be ready to tackle the unexpected.
It felt a bit like starting over from scratch, and this is also its own long story, but when we finally signed on with Gladney, that first orientation phone call left us feeling even more like labrats, but at least the twists were becoming less twisty and the end was closer in sight.
Soon after signing on with Gladney, one day in early spring of ‘07, I “stumbled upon” this one blog of a couple who’d just received the referral of the child their agency had matched them with. They’d put together a video with a photo slideshow, song, and captions telling the story. The video showed them sitting down at their computer, opening the email with phone pressed to their ear, and what got me more than anything was the look on the young woman’s face when she first saw the photo of what would become her son. She burst into smiling tears, hands covering her mouth, absolute elation in her eyes. The video ended with a photo of the couple holding a printed photo of their referral picture. I sobbed. The adoption blog quickly became the thing that inspired me more than any of the glossy brochures of agencies or fancy DVDs about adoption. I was surprised and ecstatic to find that they existed.
This one referral day post is what inspired me to start a blog for our family. Anyone who has attempted to adopt knows that it is a tedious and frustrating process. When dealing with lawyers, notaries, authentication of documents, doctor’s offices who are less than helpful, accountants, banks, etc., it’s easy to lose sight of how all this “paperchase” will end. I’m not a fan of the term “paper pregnancy” but I certainly understand why some adoptive parents feel the urge to use this term. The gathering of countless documents to prove to unknown government officials that you are worthy to parent has its own particular pains that some do compare to labor pains. It’s not a fun process.
I told my husband one day, on a whim, “Honey, I need an hour to myself. I’m starting one of these things.” I wanted to inspire others in the process the way the Bottomlys blog had inspired me. I wanted to chronicle this story, or “epic” as I prophetically started calling it (I had no idea at the time the terrible twist that would come in our adoption). I wanted a record of what we were doing. I think I saw myself as some sort of trailblazer. As we walked this road, I wanted others to be able to learn from our mistakes. I also really hoped to make people cry, the way I had at so many referral stories.
I started posting every few days and quickly put together a list of blogs I read on my sidebar so that I could get to the stories I was following quickly. I started to feel like I “knew” these people. I discovered the “comment” application, and I started leaving comments, and others started reading our blog and commenting on what I’d written. In the beginning, there were maybe 3 or 4 people who’d leave comments: some other PAPs (Prospective Adoptive Parent) and some our personal friends and family. But I kept reading and kept getting to know these people and them us. I posted a lot about the paperwork, but quickly realized that this could be boring. I tried to spice things up with stories about our travels, our cats, the antics of my actor-husband (I didn’t disclose this fact then--he’s just a generally entertaining guy who could make the tedious gathering of paperwork pretty funny).
I also sometimes posted about what I was reading about adoption, the big issues, the issues of race and transracial families. I ranted and raved sometimes about the dumb things that people say, people who don’t know the particular sensitivities when it comes to race and adoption. And all along, I followed these stories of others further along in the process. I cried at their referral day posts and travelled with them on their journeys to Addis Ababa. I woke up in the mornings to see if the travelling families had posted new pictures of the first meetings of their children. I’d hit “refresh” numerous times a day when a family I knew was awaiting news of their court date. I would pore over photos that families posted of Ethiopia.
As we started commenting on each other’s blogs, I discovered a few kindred spirits. Amy Breedlove was one of the first for me. Because we were right in the same place in the process and with the same agency, we were hoping to travel at the same time and meet in Ethiopia. It truly was thrilling and a little scary to talk to her on the phone for the first time.
The process of getting to know these bloggers personally tended to be like this: lurking first, then leaving a comment or two, leaving our emails for each other in a comment, hope they don’t think I’m crazy-stalker for leaving my email, check email, feel giddy when they write, write back a few times, exchange phone numbers, be too shy to call first, stifle a scream when they actually call first, experience that elation of finding out that this stranger in blog-land is actually a kindred spirit and sometimes even a “bosom friend.”
Once I crossed that breach in talking one on one with Amy, it became less weird to talk personally to other bloggers, though never less thrilling. I pretty quickly had to create a new folder for all my “adoption friends” emails.
By this time, summer was ending, and we were waiting for our CIS-approval letter, the infamous final piece of paper to go in one’s foreign dossier, the document that is sent to Ethiopia. This approval letter is what gets you officially out of the “paper chase” and into the wait-list, which I started calling simply “The Wait,” capital W. Amy and I got ours in the same week. Since our goal had been to travel at the same time, I was happy to find out that we were both put on the Wait-list at the same time, right together in schedule. By this time, I’d also become “real life” friends with a couple of other bloggers, even meeting one couple live and in person, Drew and Carey, while they were in the middle of their Wait for Zoe.
Then thirteen long weeks passed and at 9am on December 18, we got “the call.” After seeing photos of the child we hoped would become our son and going through all the crazy emotions of that hour, I immediately started to wonder if Amy had gotten “the call” that day too. When I saw that she had posted on her blog about their referral, I knew it was safe to call with our news as well. We talked giddily about these two beautiful boys we had just been introduced to, and I posted late in the day about hearing the name “Abenezer” for the first time, the heartbreak of finding out his story, and the simultaneous gratitude at being entrusted with this little person.
We were on track! A few days later, both Amy and I got calls from Gladney: our court dates were assigned for the exact same day, January 4th. The chances of our traveling at the same time were looking really great.
There was another blogger whose story I’d been following, Jocelyn, a single mother who had devastatingly lost her first referral. The title of that post was, “My Baby is Gone,” which I read with shock. The one comforting thing as I read her story was to see the absolute outpouring of support Jocelyn got from the blogging community. I was in awe. Within a few hours, she had recieved 74 comments from people offering support, sympathy, and prayers. I knew this blogging community was tight, but seeing the support lent to Jocelyn during this time was the first I truly realized what a special world of people I’d found myself a part of.
Since then, Jocelyn (who was with a different agency) had recieved a new referral for a little girl, and she would be travelling the same time as me and Amy. I was excited at the chance to meet both of these women, women whom I respected immensely and saw a bit as adoption-rock-stars. I so looked up to both of them and knew I could count on them for anything.
This is where the difficult part of our adoption process happened, January 4th, the awful day that our adoption was denied by an ill-informed judge. I was taking care of a friend’s two preschoolers that day, so I barely had time to really take in what had happened. By the time I got off the phone with our caseworker, who had explained what uncharted territory we were about to enter with a court appeal, the kids were playing a made-up game involving throwing their food at each other, and I spent the next few hours in a daze. I remember standing blankly in front of our house later that day as my friend drove away with the kids (I hadn’t told her the news) and my next-door neighbor seeing me and coming over to ask if I was okay. This is when the sharp pain between my shoulderblades started as the reality hit me of what had happened. The next two months were some of the most difficult of my life, having fallen in love with this small boy but unsure if I'd ever be allowed to be his mother.
Amy hadn’t passed court that day either, but did two weeks later, along with Jocelyn. While I was thrilled for them both, especially for Jocelyn who had walked such a particularly difficult road, I also felt such envy that they would be there without us. I went through scores of emotions reading their blogs during this time as they both made their plans to travel to bring their children home. As happy as I was for them, it was often difficult to read their blogs.
And here is what is so amazing about this community: they understood my need for distance. They didn’t judge me. In fact, they’d pick up the phone every few days to check in with me, to see how I was holding up, to let me “cry or cuss, scream or just say nothing,” as Jocelyn offered many times. We even found things to joke about, like that big box of fancy wine Jocelyn used to calm her nerves. In the midst of their excitement to bring their children home, they remembered me and my experience, including me in their lives and them in mine.
They both were able to travel not just at the same time, but also on the same flight and stay in the same hotel. Amy took a photo album and blanket for me to give to Abe, along with a SD memory card which she filled with photos. Though Jocelyn was with a different agency, we worked it out for her to go to the Gladney foster home to visit Abe for us. She took photos as well, and even made a shadow-box collage of one particular photo of her holding Abe, which she sent to us after we got home. The words say “Love, timeless, FAMILY.” The “family” is in all-caps.
Abe meets Pacey and his Aunt Jocelyn
This is the wonder of this blog community: we are, in a sense, each other’s family. We get each other. Even among our closest family and friends, it feels sometimes like a minefield of insensitive comments or questions from our relatives who may not quite get what adoption is all about. Though they want to understand, some of them simply don’t, and our time sometimes ends up being spent trying to educate them to the ins and outs and appropriate adoption-language, or more often, biting our tongues because we lack the energy to be tactful educators. As loving as these non-adoptive people usually are, it’s not always easy to have conversations with them about our families. It’s easy to feel guarded around them.
But with my blogger friends, I can feel free to cry, scream, cuss, or just say nothing. And rest assured, hell will freeze over sooner than any of them will ask me, “So when are you going to try for your own child?” I found that talking with my blogging friends simply felt so easy, so natural because of the scores of things that can simply go unsaid (by the way, the title of our blog came from a reaction to the common usage of the terms "adopted" and "your own" when we feel that any child in our care and with our last name is our own child).
After our adoption of Abe was denied, our story seemed to spread in the blogging community, as dramatic stories often do, and our site tracker went through the roof. It’s human nature to be interested in a dramatic story, but what I found is that we seemed to have few “lurkers.” The people reading our story were people who were also reaching out to us, leaving supportive comments. A friend in Los Angeles who knew our story even organized several days of prayer, which the blogging community jumped right on board with. It was humbling to see such support, to know we were being remembered.
Our court date for the appeal was rapidly approaching on March 4th, and before I flew down to Los Angeles to be with Ted who was there for work and to possibly fly from there to Ethiopia, a blogger left a comment saying that she’d had the thought that our court date actually was a command to “March Forth!” and get our son. As nerve-wracked and emotional as I was, this idea made me laugh out loud in excitement. On the plane down to L.A., I read an article in The Oregonian about a local marching band named “March Forth” of all things. Pretty amazing stuff there, and I think I’ve got my book title, should I ever get around to telling our adoption story in its entirety.
On the morning of March 3rd, the day we were fully expecting to be the most tense and emotional of our lives, I woke up to turn on my phone and find that our caseworker had already called three times. I called her back to hear her sweet voice say, “Are you sitting down? Lori, it’s done!” I ran downstairs to find Ted, slid across the dining room floor dropping the phone, and yelled at Ted who was outside on the deck to come in and hear this news. The full story can be read in the archives of our blog. After calling our immediate family, I had to put the news out there on our blog. Within 24 hours, we’d recieved over a hundred comments from the people following our story. There is no doubt that our joy would have been full without the blogging community, but that proverb about "a grief shared being halved and a joy shared being double" became so true for us.
Because of the two-month delay in our adoption being completed, we were given the go-ahead to travel a week later. What a week and trip that was, which again can be read in the archives of our blog. While we were in country, several referrals had been made to Gladney families, so we got emails from these excited people, asking for photos of their children. We spent hours with these children, filling up SD cards with photos and videos. I remember thinking to myself then what an amazing experience it would be for us all to meet in person, to get to meet the parents that go with these kids I was getting to hold and to meet the people who had held Abe for us in our long wait for him...
Apparently, a few others had had the same thought. So Carey decided to take the bull by the horns and organize a gathering of Ethiopian-adoptive families. What started out small grew to over a hundred people. It is so remarkable to me that an event this large started off with one little blog post saying, "What if...?" Within a few short months, over a hundred people from all over the country, all with matching t-shirts, convened together on the beach in Orange County to meet, some for the first time, some as a reunion (further proof that the internet is a magical force).
Abe and I flew down to Los Angeles on the first official day of the event, and that night as I was going to sleep, the first feelings of giddiness were starting. I somehow managed to sleep that night. Abe and I drove down to Hermosa Beach, parked our car, and walked to the pier to meet up for lunch with Amy, Jocelyn, and Carey. As I was walking, I called another blogging friend, Courtney, who asked if I was nervous. I wasn’t at all. Imagine if you were going to a family reunion where you actually liked (not just love--we have to love our famillies right?) everyone there, a family reunion free of familial dysfunction and drama. That’s what this walk to the pier with Abe strapped in the Baby Bjorn felt like for me.
I saw Dani and Judah first, greeted by that huge Judah smile (Dani had met us in person in Eagle Rock right before we left to get Abe). Right after that, we saw Carey, our rock-star friend, that woman someone described so well by saying she’s so much cooler than you but makes you feel like her peer anyway. We walked in to the restaurant, and I ran to Amy Breedlove for a long squeeze, then to Jocelyn for the same. I couldn’t stop staring at their kids, all of them. I planted myself at a table, with Abe next to me in a high chair, and just sat there quietly looking at and listening to all the conversation with this plastered on, corny grin that I couldn’t take off.
Soon after, the party got bigger with Staci and Micah making their way in (they’d recognized Abe through the window), along with Courtney and eventually Meredith and Laura, two hot Southern mamas. I could hardly eat from the excitement and ended up staying for three hours.
I’d told myself that I wanted to go down that day mainly to pick up Courtney and Jana who were staying at our house. I’m not so much a big-crowd person, preferring one-on-one time with people. However, I couldn’t pull myself away. We ended up at Drew and Carey’s house, spending a giddy afternoon with the others who were crashing there. Bob Marley was playing in the house, with Judah having his dance party instead of nap. A Corona and lime party was going on up on the roof. We watched each other’s kids while showers were taken. About a gillion photos got taken by Amy and me. I made a necklace with Anna, Amy’s daughter. And I still couldn’t get rid of that corny smile.
We then walked back down to the pier for the dinner and a chance to meet more families. What a surreal experience to see the Bottomlys walk up, the family whose blog inspired me to be a part of this community in the first place. I have a feeling if anyone were filming our first meeting that I looked like I was meeting Bono or Barack. I tried not to give off too much of that "creepy stalker vibe," though I couldn’t help gushing about how exciting it was for me to meet them in person.
Ted had had the idea that this would be mostly a womens’ event, so had taken the opportunity to stay up in Portland to get some uninterrupted work done on the house. However, I called him up and handed the phone to Josh Bottomly, who managed to convince him what a studly event this was too, in spite of the strong influence of estrogen in the crowd. So Ted jumped on a plane Saturday morning and headed down.
Jana, Courtney, Abe, and I spent Friday evening at our place in Eagle Rock never running out of things to talk about, and then drove back down for a full day Saturday with these “relatives,” and the feeling of euphoria never left the whole time.
There was Staci, Kevin, and Micah, free-thinking noncomformists in the mid-west with a captivating, bright-eyed baby boy.
And Meredith and Ryan: my Southern connection, the woman who sent me a care-package of things from the South while we were waiting for court, including a can of collard greens and a mix CD with songs that make me weep. I keep telling Meredith that I want her to come live next door to us.
There was also Alison and Reese, one of the first Gladney families, the family with the most clever referral post ever.
Jana from Dallas stayed two nights with us, a deep thinker and artist who had sent me that beautiful print, "Woman Waiting" while we were in process.
Then there was Tara and her son Malak, whom we got to meet and take pictures of in Addis Ababa.
Same for Leul and his mom, Leul who so needed the abiding love of his mama Pam.
Jennifer was one of the first who got to meet Abe. She sent us photos way back in December, right after we found out about him.
There was sweet Heidi, the person with the idea for the union in the first place.
And the list of people goes on and on and on. With each face I recognized, it felt like meeting in person a long-lost relative who I simply really really like hanging out with.
***I have hesitated to make public our issues with fertility, but to explain why the blog union meant so much to me on a personal level, I think it’s important to put this personal issue out there. Any form of infertility is hearbreaking, from being unable to conceive to having difficulty in carrying a pregnancy to term. It’s an incredibly isolating experience that is made even more difficult when doctors have no idea what is wrong, when all tests come back not just normal, but better than normal.
I found that what happened when we were going through this was that an invisible line was drawn separating those who “can have kids” and those “who can’t.” Those who can’t are somehow broken, abnormal, other. My sweet neighbor after the birth of her first son (who didn’t know our story at all) talked about this by saying that she feels so lucky to have “escaped” the infertility trap that so many of her friends are caught in. She looked gratefully at her newborn son as she said this, expressing gratitude to him for making her a mother. This, and many other conversations with young mothers left me feeling like a non-member of a club I desperately wanted to be a part of, something I wrote about while we were waiting for our appeal court date.
I hated the thought though of people seeing me as being “broken.” This was the most difficult thing for me to take. I didn’t (and don’t) want anyone’s pity. Once we decided, with great excitement and joy, to adopt, the “unexplained secondary infertility” burden was lifted from our shoulders. I felt giddy. I was excited to tell people, and most greeted our news with equal joy and excitement. Occasionally though, they wouldn’t, especially women who were in the midst of trying to conceive. They didn’t quite understand why we were “giving up on having our own.” One woman in particular at our church in Los Angeles greeted our news with a forrowed-brow, concerned look, with a sympathetic click of the tongue and a “Oh, that’s great for you guys” said in an “I’m so sorry for you” kind of way. Oh boy, how does one react to that?
This was so hard for me to take. I didn’t feel broken in the least. If anything, I felt lucky to have been yanked out of that dark pit we’d been in, the one I referred to at the beginning of this article. I felt ecstatic, but what I found was that some people didn’t get my feelings of elation.
Being around the Amys, the Janas, the Courtneys, the Careys and Stacis and Jocelyns etc, normalized our shared experience of becoming moms through adoption. This is why I wrote that “I am among my people” at the blog union. Being among these moms makes me feel proud, not broken.
I understand that part of the package when adopting is a willingness to lovingly educate the people in our world who may not have been exposed to adoption about the joys, particular hardships, and thoughtful language of adoption. We must be willing to do this, as in a sense, we are diplomats of adoption to the rest of the world. But even having the best of attitudes towards this “teaching” aspect of being an adoptive parent, it can become tiring to either bite our tongues or explain for the millionth time the statistics about rates of conception after adoption and that it’s not necessarily true that we’ll “have our own baby” soon enough, that Abe is “our own” baby, that we are just as much his parents as if he’d been conceived and birthed by us biologically. I get tired of people feeling secretly sorry for me, that we “had to” adopt.
And I don’t mean to romanticize adoption. In a perfect world, every couple would conceive and birth children whom they are able to raise free of disease, heartbreak and tragedy. I am very aware that this is an imperfect world we are living in though, and every single adoption is a story of heartbreak and brokenness on many levels for several people, but it is also a story of redemption and wholeness, of the beauty than can come from the ashes of an imperfect world. The mothers I have come to know through the blogging community understand this, and I am so grateful that we share the same voice.
So what got to me most about last month in Hermosa Beach, on a personal level as a woman, was to see how the coming together of all these varied women from varied backgrounds with different political, social, and religious beliefs was that we all have something in common: through the adoption of our children from Ethiopia, we have become each other’s family. I love them all. As different as we all may be, I love each of them with that special love reserved for those “bosom friends.” I can breathe deeply around these women. They get it.
In spite of our many differences, we have the most important thing in common. We love our children, all of them. We are not broken, well, not at least as mothers. Their support has made me a better person, and their presence in my life has been a source of miraculous healing in knowing that I’m not alone.
And as for our family, though Abe is now too little to understand what these “blog unions” mean, my hope is that as he grows older and starts to see in our every-day world that his family doesn’t look exactly like the other ones on our street, that these annual get-togethers will be a safe-place for him, as this year’s event was for me. I pray that his seeing all these other families that look a lot like his will normalize his experience as well.
Nathan, Pacey, Abe
We all have each other, and I can’t wait for next year’s family reunion, for me to meet up again with these sisters and for Abe to meet again his scores of aunts, uncles and cousins. What joy, what joy.