As a social worker in the International Department at Spence-Chapin, I’ve been enlightened by so many aspects of adoption: the way hearts of adoptive parents can break, heal, stretch, and grow; the tenacious resiliency of children; and the conflicted governments who don’t always recognize the fate they hold in their hands. But, I had not, amazingly, ever met birth parents in the process of placing their child in adoption.
When Leslie Nobel, my colleague from the Birth Parent Department, asked me to be a Russian translator for a couple who were making an adoption plan for their son, I agreed with great distress. I was very willing to assist the family, but my first generation immigrant Russian had been rusting away in a corner while I moved ahead with my life. I didn’t even know how to say “adoption” and had to immediately call my mother for help: “adocharyt” (to make one a daughter, docha means daughter) or “asinovyt” (to make one a son; sin means son).
Meeting Vlad and Maria was a surprising experience. They are extremely attractive and look like they could be a pair of figure skaters. In the United States on a work visa when Maria gave birth, they had intended to parent their child. I learned that the country in which they reside could not possibly address their son’s special needs, and he would be exposed to a difficult and unfulfilling life. They visited with their baby, cried often at the loss of not being able to raise him, but knew that adoption was the right choice. I sat through several meetings with them, tripping my way over the language that was once my mother tongue. I’ve often wondered, about the birth parents of our kids born overseas. The adoption process cloaks the identities of birth parents, gives us snippets of information from which we can only create scenarios; Due simply to circumstances of timing and geography, I got to know this couple. Although it’s not entirely fair, I couldn’t help imagining Maria and Vlad’s story layered onto the stories of all the children I have helped to place. This quiet, unassuming couple became the large voice of silent international birth parents. As we spoke, I witnessed many of the same emotions as I do with adoptees and adoptive parents — regret, loss, confusion, relief and hope.
This all culminated with the honor of attending the child’s placement, and watching the sometimes awkward and sometimes heart-warming moments between the two families. At feeding time, there was confusion as to who would give the bottle—each mother was trying to accommodate the other. I had to repress tears when the adoptive mom gave Maria a beautiful necklace holding their son’s birthstone. I had to repress laughter as the dads tried calling each others’ cell phones so they could program the numbers. The reception was lousy, and ultimately they both ended up side-by-side at the window, phones high up overhead, trying to connect the two phones that were inches apart. Both wives were cracking up and taking pictures.
Soon, it was time to go and a heavier mood took over. Talk of Skyping and nearest airports changed to everyone admiring the baby, and finally, handing him to his birth parents for goodbyes. There were tears, of course, but there were also smiles. We walked out to the elevator and Vlad and Maria left to grieve in private.
That day, my adoption world both grew and shrank. It grew because I was given the opportunity to have a new and invaluable experience, and shrank because the differences between international and domestic adoption are not so stark as I had believed them to be. Yes, how the adoption happens is different, but in many ways it is just a matter of geography. No matter where in the world a child who needs a family is born, all adoptions have the same players. They form what we in the adoption world call the triad – the birth family, the child, and the adoptive family. I learned that when the birth parent piece is missing from the picture, it is our responsibility to put it back into its rightful place.