I was sitting at a table in a Starbucks seven hours away from home. We’d come under the pretense of wanting coffee, but the real reason was we needed to feel normal for an hour. After ordering, we crowded tightly around the table. Our seven-year-old was watchful as I gently pulled the week-old baby from his car seat so I could feed him. To anyone watching, we were just a family of four enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the coffee shop. Except, my husband didn’t smile once, and from the time we’d buckled the kids into our van until the moment the barista shouted that our coffee was ready, I had been unable to stop weeping.
I was broken inside, shaken by yesterday’s call that announced how rapidly everything was falling apart. For hours, I had been unable to stop the flow of impending grief from running down my cheeks. Pretending to sip my coffee, I watched a couple in their late sixties at the next table over ask one another awkward questions. “Where did you grow up? What’s your favorite hobby? Do you drink decaf or regular?” They fiddled with their coffee cups and looked at the floor when conversation lapsed— the telltale signs of what was clearly a first date.
“What would it be like to start over?” I wondered. “What is it like to be on the other side of adulthood only to wake up one day and find you’ve got to start completely over?” I looked at the baby in my arms. Would I be starting over again tomorrow? If it all fell apart, would I be willing to start over again tomorrow?
I’ve spent nearly half my marriage in the adoption process and here’s what I know: it is not a one-time decision. Adoption is a thousand-times decision. I never woke up one morning and decided, “yes, today is the day I have decided I will adopt, and I will stay committed to the process from this day forward.” No, that wasn’t it. Gradually, I came to adoption. Slowly, the way you fall asleep at night. There’s a space between sleep and wakefulness where your decisions lie down next to your dreams. That’s where I first came to adoption. It took a while for the letters that formed the first yes to line up next to one another. And that first yes couldn’t be the only yes. Adoption requires a lot more agreement than that.
My husband and I made the decision to adopt when we ordered that first informational packet from the agency. We decided to adopt when we filled out the application. And again, when I sent the first check to the agency. We renewed our decision when the stack of home study paperwork arrived in the mail. We were deciding to adopt when I checked the batteries on the smoke detectors and he spent a day baby-proofing the kitchen cabinets.
We committed to adoption on the day the social worker came to inspect our house, our marriage, our finances, and our childhood memories. We put our decision in writing when we applied for a loan. Again, we said yes when we bought the crib. We said yes to adoption when we met an expectant mother and a caseworker at a McDonald’s three hours away. We said yes when the baby was born, when the papers were signed, when we realized we had no idea how to swaddle an infant or clean around the umbilical cord stump. We said a lot of yeses.
We decided to say a lot more yeses when the baby became a toddler and we ordered another informational packet. We renewed the decision with every immigration form, every financial sacrifice, every probing application question. Every next step was a crossroad where we looked both ways and whispered that today we were all in. We said yes to adoption when our first baby turned three, then four, five, six, and seven. We said yes when the program abruptly ended, forcing a change of plans. We said yes to five years of waiting.
Every day was an opportunity to jump ship. There were plenty of times we could have said no. And some days I really wanted to say no. We kept saying yes, though, because there are two of us in this marriage and when one was tired the other said yes for both of us. A thousand times we said yes. Until one day I was sitting in a Starbucks holding a baby whose future might never again mingle with mine, and I had to decide again. Do I say yes to adoption? Is my availability worth the excruciating risk of loss?
I watched the grandparents on their first date. I looked down at the baby’s face; he would never look like me. If forced to part ways, he would have no memory of the weeping woman in the coffee shop. Was it still worth it to say yes to him? Could I say yes tomorrow, knowing the risk of loss?
To adopt is to expose yourself to risk at every step of the process. To say yes to adoption is to embrace the uncertainty of loving a child without the guarantee of permanency. Adoption means valuing a stranger more than your emotional safety.
As I studied the unfamiliar face of the newborn in my arms at Starbucks that day, I was cognizant of one thing: this wasn’t really about me. It was about offering my motherhood to a child who needed it, for however long he needed it. Adoption isn’t merely a path some people choose to become a parent, as though it’s just one option of many. It’s a path we fight to stay on. It’s a commitment to be available, to give the love and care a child might need from us, to offer what we cannot guarantee will be returned to us. That’s just parenting in general, though, isn’t it?
It took days, weeks, and eventually months for my tears to truly dry up after that afternoon at Starbucks. I survived the riskiest year of my life, and the cost left me a little bit broken. I can be honest about this more than two years later: adoption broke me. But I am a better mother for being a little bit broken. I find healing every morning when my nine-year old tumbles down the stairs and heads straight for the cereal. I find healing each time my two-year-old son climbs in my lap and says, “Wub you, Mommy,” wrapping his chubby arms around my neck. I know that the thousands of yeses to adoption have led to this day. The gift of mothering my sons is the culmination of a thousand yeses.
If I woke up one day and found I had to start completely over, what would I say?
I would say yes. A thousand times, yes.
**Tune in to the Kindred Mom podcast on 11/7 to hear more from Glenna on this topic.
Glenna Marshall is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter who love