Faith Hope and Elijah

I had three days’ notice when my baby arrived. Most parents get nine months to prepare, and I suppose if you count all 18 months of adoption preparation that I’d been through, I should have been twice as organized as any biological parent.

The call came on a Friday from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans: The birth mother has chosen you. Can you pick the baby up on Monday?

True, I knew how to change a diaper. But I didn’t even have a crib or a car seat. The room that would serve as a nursery overflowed with computer equipment, filing cabinets and office supplies. No cabinets were baby-proofed. My husband, David Lee Simmons, and I couldn’t even agree on a name for the little fellow.

Worse, I was scared that I wouldn’t be any good at mothering. I had always assumed I could produce a biological child, and therefore all the corresponding emotions and instincts would magically fall into place. Could I still develop a mother-child bond even though I hadn’t carried him? I worried that if I never got around to buying a crib, then maybe I wouldn’t get around to nurturing, either.

New Orleanians, for their part, will not let you down in your time of need. By the time we drove to the city from our Atlanta house, family friends had assembled the basics for us – a temporary bed, a car seat and a stroller. So when he arrived in our lives on June 20, 2011, we were able to give him a comfy start in my mother’s Bayou St. John shotgun house, and a lesson in New Orleans hospitality. We were also able to give him a name, finally: Elijah Stephen Simmons.

Throughout that first week, a steady stream of well-wishers (16 in one day!) came by bearing onesies, swaddle blankets and all the miscellany of infant care. And every day, Elijah regarded them all with large, placid dark eyes. He took in these new sights and people calmly and without complaint. I was sort of heartened by that. If he could manage this abrupt change of lifestyle, maybe I could, too.

Who adopts and gets adopted? Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock adopt. Often stepparents adopt. The grandparents who step in to care for little ones are de facto adoptive parents.

Accurate adoption statistics aren’t plentiful. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 1.5 million adopted kids under 18 were living in the United States in the year 2000, the first time statistics were collected. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 136,000 children were adopted in this country annually in ’07 and ’08. Some were babies; some were older kids. Some came from foreign countries. Some came from “the system” – public child welfare agencies.

Regardless of how these children were adopted, they will likely benefit from a culture of openness that previously was not part with the adoption process.

Open adoptions can help adopted children come to terms with finding their literal and figurative identities, even when pieces of the puzzle are missing, says Leslie Pate Mackinnon, LCSW, an Atlanta psychotherapist who trained at Tulane University and worked in New Orleans in the 1970s. (She also has a birth son who lives in New Orleans.)

In the late 1970s and ’80s, adoptees began to tire of the secrecy surrounding their adoption. They began to look for clues about their biological families, she says, even in closed adoptions with sealed records. Adoptees were at one time considered “ungrateful” if they went looking for their birth parents, she says.

“It really is the consumer of the adoption product that has turned it around 180 degrees … you couldn’t sever this blood tie [between children and their birth parents]. It wouldn’t go away,” Mackinnon says.

Louisiana is still a closed adoption state, meaning adoption records are sealed – and my copy of Elijah’s record is redacted for confidentiality. But there was some openness in our process: Elijah’s birth mother chose us based on our profile and family history. As adoptive parents, we were given some general information about her. We never met her, but we’re still hopeful.

“Adoption is part of an adopted child’s birth story, and a child has a right to be informed about his/her family of origin and to maintain a relationship with them,” says Danna Cousins, the award-winning adoption program director at Catholic Charities of New Orleans. (She received the “Angel in Adoption” award for 2011 from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.)

So, even in a closed adoption state, a little bit of openness amounts to a good faith agreement between the families, which might be useful for reunions down the road. “You’re not opening a door that was closed, you’re opening a door that was a little bit ajar,” Cousins says.

I think that’s an exciting opportunity for Elijah. Birth parents, adoptive parents – we all love him, right?

David Lee and I married in 2007. I come from a large family and expected to make the appropriate contributions of children. When we didn’t have any luck growing our family the old-fashioned way, we made a few attempts at fertility treatments before we decided to pursue adopting.

Adoption can be a brutal process: the endless paperwork, the endless wait, all the unknowns, all the unanswered questions. We started the adoption process through the state agency in Georgia, spending six months laying the groundwork for a home study – the official document that states you’re fit to be a parent. But eventually we gave up on our state application. We wanted to try for a new baby; the state didn’t really have that many babies in the system, despite what we had heard.

All along, I prayed that pregnancy was still in the plan because our infertility was “unexplained.” The minute you start thinking about adopting, that’s the golden moment when you get pregnant – that’s what everybody says, anyway.

But it didn’t happen, so after that we went to a private agency and started the process all over again – from the beginning.

Sometimes the adoption process is jokingly called the “paperwork pregnancy” because of the hundreds of pages of forms you have to fill out while you wait. Here is a sample of the questions we answered, from the probing to the embarrassing:

Describe your personality.

How would others describe your personality?

How do you feel about your present job?

What do you and your spouse most often disagree about?

Did you try fertility treatments? Did they work?

Potential adoptive parents also supply bank records, consent to background checks and take drug tests. We underwent medical exams. We listed what kind of cars we drove. We redid the forms that got lost in the mail – something always gets lost or goes missing. We wrote check after check to pay for tests and other fees – adoptions can cost in the thousands of dollars. We got friendly with a local notary public because a lot of the paperwork needs to be notarized.

We interviewed with a social worker, often answering questions that just seemed to have no answer (“How do you feel about the fact that the child will not resemble you?”). In my more cynical moments, I wondered whether the social worker had considered asking any probing questions of sexually irresponsible teenagers. But of course you can’t recommend that.

We told the social workers we didn’t care whether we had a boy or girl, or whether our child was black, white or some racial grab bag. We wanted first available. First available often means black.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either really easy or really hard to be matched with a black baby. On the one hand, there may not be enough black families to adopt the children who need homes. On the other hand, black women are said to be less likely than other ethnicities to give a child up for adoption. An adoption agency in one state may have totally different experiences with finding birth mothers than an agency in another state. At any rate, no one could tell us what our chances were or how long we would have to wait. Six months, 12 months – who knows?

Getting matched with a child or children requires a high level of motivation and patience on the parents’ part. On many nights I would complain, “I want our baby!,” but would have little energy to complete more forms or find another agency to work with. It eventually took a year of this waiting to have our home study approved and to be matched. It was sheer luck that brought us back to New Orleans – David Lee felt good about our chances adopting with Catholic Charities.

In the State of Georgia’s adoption program, potential adoptive parents are required to have a child’s room set up during the application process – long before they know whether and when they’ll be matched. If I had to look at an empty nursery every day for months, I would surely be miserable.

But as my mother and I raced through Target, piling heaps of diapers, socks and teeny shirts into a shopping basket, I knew Georgia has the right idea. Every aisle offered an opportunity for education – certain new-fangled baby bottles are made up of no less than six parts apiece. Six parts! And did you know that what now passes for a rattle may well require batteries because it lights up and speaks? (You can still find old-fashioned rattles, but if you ask a store employee where to find one, they may direct you to the electronic kind.) I don’t recommend stocking up in one weekend.

Catholic Charities officially placed Elijah in our care when he was two weeks old. From that day on, no one asked us for any more proof that we would be good parents. After all those forms and clearances, it felt strange that someone actually trusted us with a baby. If Elijah’s eyes were any indication, he trusted us, too.

Today, I find it funny that strangers tell me that Elijah and I look alike. We are both African-American. At least while he’s an infant, we both have brown complexions, big eyes, wide grins and fussy hair. Hey – if you feed them and clothe them, they look like you, right?
My husband is a fair-skinned redhead, and as such was prepared to endure invasive questions or worse. But “no one’s been mean to me; no one’s made a snide comment,” David Lee says.

“But what would you do if you did hear a snide comment?” I ask.

“The only thing that I know for sure is that I would let my concern and love for my child guide whatever I said outwardly … as much as prejudice angers me,” he says.

In the early days, people would sometimes ask questions that indicated something was off: Didn’t you want to have a child of your “own?” Will you try to get pregnant now?

Actually, even if those questions are insensitive or thoughtless, the asker is still not far off the mark, says Mackinnon. “Adoption is based on loss,” she says bluntly. “Everybody shows up with a loss” – the birth parents, the child and the adoptive parents – “if we put [the loss] out there, we can accept the joys easier.”

“Adoption can bless you in so many ways. You have to bite the sad parts on the head.”

We lack so much insight about Elijah: Will he be short or tall? Right-brained or left-brained? Is he likely to be allergic to seafood, prompting me to make two separate pots of gumbo on holidays?

But every day with an adopted child holds another little surprise for you, and sometimes the surprises are about yourself. I don’t know exactly when the mothering gene kicked in, but I suspect it may have happened on the day my priorities changed and I let go all my hopes for maternity clothes and ultrasounds.

I bit the sad parts on the head and walked away a loving parent.

Ed. Note: Faith Dawson is a former managing editor of New Orleans Magazine; David Lee Simmons is a former staff writer for Gambit.

They live in Atlanta though New Orleans needs them back. Elijah Stephen Simmons is on track to win his first Pulitzer Prize in 2032.

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