Older Single Parent Adoption From China
My name is Sharon Kaufman and I'm the Mom of a wonderful daughter from China. I adopted Rebecca Joy Chufang Kaufman when she was 18.5 months old and I was "only" 51.
Many older and/or single people have difficulty adopting healthy infants and toddlers, of any race, domestically.
One problem is that in many domestic agency-assisted and private adoptions, expectant parents - choose to place with younger adopting parents, even when the older ones might have as much love to give, a very stable home, more resources to be used for education, and so on. Thus, older families often adopt overseas, where the children are either abandoned or already legally relinquished, and where the governments are either neutral about or strongly in support of older families.
Some older and single parents also believe that they have a better chance of receiving a healthy child overseas. While all prospective parents need to be aware that there is the risk of an undiagnosed medical problem in an adopted child, older and single parents often try to minimize the risk, worried that they may have more difficulty caring for a special needs child than younger and married parents. And they also know that, if they should die before their child reaches adulthood, there could be more difficulty finding a suitable guardian for a child with a disability.
But for some older and single parents, adopting domestically is not even a consideration. They may feel that the need is greater overseas; far more children there live in dire poverty, are orphans of war and famine, face discrimination as the children of single parents, or are victims of social policies and cultural traditions. Or they may experience a strong emotional response to a particular culture. In this regard, they are no different from their younger and married friends, who may go overseas for similar reasons.
Of course, anyone of any age should be careful about foreign adoption, just as about domestic adoption. Older and single people, as much as younger ones, should deal with a country that has a stable and ethical adoption system - but they also need to choose one that values older parents. They also should deal only with the most ethical, experienced, and service-oriented agencies, and limit their choices to agencies that are receptive to older and single parents.
I chose China, which has one of the best-organized and most reliable adoption systems around, and which works only with licensed and accredited U.S. agencies, no lawyers
or facilitators. It is so comfortable with older parents that, up until a few years ago, it required people seeking to adopt a healthy infant to be at least 35 years old; today, however, prospective parents can be 30 years old or older. And it allows singles to adopt.
International adoption is often slightly faster than domestic, although a lot depends on the country of choice and factors such as a government's decision to change its policies and practices. There tends to be a little more paperwork, which is tedious, but that is about all. In my case, the paperwork was manageable, but the wait was longer than usual because of a reorganization that took place in China's adoption system a month after my paperwork was sent there.
My daughter, who has been home almost three years now, is healthy, intelligent, attractive, loving, and a total delight to parent. I am so pleased that I chose China adoption, and am telling my story here in the thought that it might help some other older, single person decide to pursue China adoption as well.
Sharon Kaufman is the former Executive Director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, the largest affiliation of licensed, non-profit adoption agencies in the world. JCICS acts as an advocate for children and promotes ethical practices, improved communication, and support procedures to meet children's needs. Along with her professional qualifications, Sharon brings her personal experience to JCICS and its members.
Let me begin by saying that I had a brief, childless marriage when I was in my early 20s. When that marriage ended, I assumed that I would someday remarry and have children. In fact, I had some fine relationships, but never did remarry - and having thrown myself into my career, I woke up one day and found that I was 47, no longer in possession of my uterus, and childless. And suddenly, it all mattered a lot, though I figured that I would just have to grieve and move on.
But one day, I read an article in The New York Times about China adoption. It was an eye-opener. It said that singles could adopt, something of which I was not aware. It mentioned that older people could adopt. And it talked of the thousands and thousands of baby girls in China who were in need of forever families. The pictures touched my soul; I wrote in the margin, "THIS COULD BE MY DAUGHTER!"
I began rushing about to learn more about adoption in general and China adoption in particular. I met with the staff at one agency, who suggested that I take a course offered by a group called Families Adopting Children Everywhere (FACE); this nonprofit organization existed in my region (DC) to teach families about all kinds of ways to build families.
I signed up for the very next time the FACE course would be offered; I was the only single and the oldest person in the large class. Everyone was very supportive, but I felt like I had to prove myself. So I was the one, for example, who baked fancy cookies when we were all asked to bring munchies for the midpoint break at each session; everyone else just went to the store and bought chips!
The course was great. I learned about domestic as well as international adoption. I learned about the various types of adoption - open, closed, agency, private, state. I learned about positive adoption language, how to choose an agency, issues in adopting transracially, and much more. I met a 47 year old who had adopted privately, as well as a couple who had just returned from China with a beautiful baby girl. And I became totally convinced that I wanted to adopt from China. I even came away with the name of an agency that sounded good.
But I couldn't just run out and start the adoption process. I had some responsibilities for the care of my aging mother and stepfather, and those responsibilities were beginning to increase. That's a common problem for older people who parent. We're called the "sandwich generation" - often responsible for both the care of children and the care of elderly parents. Preparation
Temporarily, what I did to prepare for parenthood was to sign on as a volunteer at the local children's hospital. After a brief training period, I was assigned to a unit - in my case, oncology - and allowed to do all of the non-clinical things that nurses and nursing assistants don't have time to do in this era of managed care. Having never even been a babysitter, I soon became a pro at diapering, feeding, rocking, holding kids during minor procedures, staffing the playroom, reading at bedside, dealing with tantrums, dealing with upset emotions and upset tummies. And eventually, I was allowed to rotate to other areas of the hospital.
Sometimes, I was simply giving a break to very involved parents who needed to take a shower or to talk with the doctor or simply to go somewhere and have a good cry. More often, however, I was caring for children who did not have involved parents - kids who lived in foster homes and homeless shelters, kids with young teenaged Moms, kids with drug abusing and HIV-infected Moms, kids with Moms who were accomplished thieves and Dads who were in prison. I got pooped on and vomited on. I saw "my" kids discharged - and experienced the deaths of some of my favorites. And I fell in love with volunteering, eventually putting in four years, and quitting the day before I traveled to China to meet my daughter.
By 1994, my stepfather had passed away at the age of 91, and my mother had begun to go downhill dramatically. I began commuting to her home in Florida for one week a month to take care of her, putting my home-based business into the toilet. And then the decline progressed to the point where I spent the last two months of her life with her around the clock. I must admit that I sometimes felt terrible frustration as I sat at the bedside of my physically frail, often delusional mother and listened to her ranting at me for wrongs I had not committed. Aside from the fact that I had no siblings to help me with my burden, the clock was ticking - I was 49 - and I was rapidly approaching an age at which, I assumed, I would not be permitted to adopt.
My mother died in April, 1995, at the age of 85. I took a few months to deal with my grief and settle up her estate - I was in charge of everything - and then I paused and took stock. I would be 50 in September. Would anyone consider me a candidate for adopting, especially since I wanted a healthy infant or young toddler? I concluded that I'd never know unless I tried. Separating Truth from Fiction
I did some research and found that China had no upper age limit in its adoption law, and no rule governing the age of child that would be given to an older parent. That sounded promising, but I needed to learn about actual experiences. So, fearing that I'd be laughed out of the room, I made some appointments to talk with adoption professionals at various agencies.
I must say that most of the agency staff with whom I met were honest and helpful. They confirmed my perception that China had, in its law, no upper age restrictions. They indicated that they had seen some older families referred infants, and some referred toddlers. They said that China was somewhat more likely to refer a toddler to an older person, but that the folks in Beijing who assigned the babies made decisions on a case-by-case basis. And they said that they would advocate for me, though they could not guarantee that I would get a young baby.
But there were some agencies that were not a good fit for me. I soon learned that there were agencies with written or unwritten policies about parental age; they did not choose to place with older people unless those people agreed to adopt much older children or children with major special needs.
Most of these agencies were up-front with clients about their policies, but a few were not; these few represented their own policies as Chinese law. One such agency told me in no uncertain terms that China was required to refer children over age two to people age 45-49 and children over age three to people age 50 and over. That was simply not true; luckily, I knew that, or I might have been discouraged from pursuing China adoption. The Application
After much agonizing, I made the decision to apply, using the agency I first heard about at the FACE class. Everyone I had spoken with about the agency had praised it highly for its standards of ethical conduct and its caring services for parents and children. It was a local agency; I liked that because I'd get to know the staff. It had a long history of working in Asia, especially in Korea, another country with a highly regulated, ethical adoption system. The executive director, who was Korean, actually spoke Mandarin and, instead of using high-priced facilitators, met personally with the folks in the Chinese government who handled adoptions by foreigners.
My one concern was that the agency was very, very conservative, partly because of its work with Korea, which has very strict rules about who can adopt. But there was an insecure part of me that welcomed the conservatism. I had many worries about adopting as a single and an older person but I figured that if a very conservative agency did my homestudy and felt that I was fit to parent, I was probably not totally crazy for thinking that I could do so.
One aspect of the agency's conservatism was that it clung to the old way of doing homestudies, where the client was not allowed to see the document that was prepared. That did scare me. I knew that the homestudy was a document that really needed to present me favorably to the Chinese government, so that it might assign me a younger baby. As a good writer, I itched to see the document before it was sent, and to recommend changes in wording, if necessary. But I liked so much else about my agency that I went along with its rules.
My homestudy took place in late 1995. The process was a bit daunting - a written autobiography covering a wide variety of topics, two visits in the social worker's office, some document collection, interviews with and references from friends, and a home visit. I was so nervous, convinced that I would not pass it.
I put off the home visit until I had put in a new kitchen floor, hung some new drapes, and made other improvements. I scoured like a madman, bought flowers and pastries, wallpapered the kitchen and bathroom. But the whole thing was a breeze. I had a social worker whose attitude was, "How can we make this work?" and who had no biases about older and single applicants.
I was very, very happy when I got a letter saying that I was approved for a child as young as possible. I later learned that my homestudy had emphasized the fact that I came from a long-lived family, and was likely to be around and in possession of my wits for a long time.
Then, of course, there was the I-600A
application; the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has to approve all people applying to adopt internationally. I worried about that, too. There were some things about my financial and home situation that concerned me, as well as my age and single status. But I needn't have worried; I soon - well, maybe not so soon - got a letter indicating that I was approved. Dossier prep was not a breeze! So many documents to find! So many state seals and such to obtain! My agency went over everything I submitted very carefully to ensure that it met China's standards and would be acceptable. I was irritated when the agency head reviewed my financial statement and, stepping out of his role as adoption professional, counseled me that my investment portfolio was too conservative. Hey! It was my money, and I wasn't about to lose it. I was also a little irritated that the agency head required me to buy life insurance even before I adopted, to prove that I intended to provide for my daughter if I should die before she reached adulthood. The agency head said it might reassure China that I was mindful of the risks of being an older parent.
There was one thing that I point-blank refused to do. The agency asked me repeatedly to name a guardian who would take care of my daughter if I died, before I knew anything about the sort of child I'd be referred. And, to me, that was unrealistic. What if my child turned out to have some sort of special need - Hepatitis B carrier status, for example, which is not rare, or some speech or attachment issues? Could I really ask another family to commit to taking on a child with an unknown personality and unknown needs just because I was willing to adopt in this way? I gave my agency profiles of the families I was considering, but refused to name anyone specific until my daughter came home and had a chance to meet the families. Finally, the agency accepted my reasoning.(I must add that I did name a guardian soon after I arrived home - a two-parent family with twin bio sons a bit older than my daughter. A perfect fit.)
By the time my dossier went to China, it was April 10, 1996. When I got the confirming letter from my agency, I started to shake. Now I was officially "pregnant." I was terrified. Even more scary was the fact that, back then, the wait for referral was only about eight to twelve weeks; I could be a Mom before the summer ended. The Wait
I needn't have worried about the speed. Unfortunately, in May, 1996, China implemented a major reorganization of its adoption system. At the time, adoptions were handled in two ministries, Justice and Civil Affairs, with both making referrals. China announced that, henceforth, only Civil Affairs would be allowed to make referrals. And wouldn't you know it? My documents were in the Ministry of Justice - and so were all of my agency's strong contacts, like Madame Liu, the head of the adoption section, whom I had actually met when she visited Washington as a guest of the agency head.
My agency - and lots of other agencies with dossiers at Justice - had a question. Would Justice be allowed to complete processing dossiers that were already there, or would the dossiers have to be moved to Civil Affairs? Justice didn't know. Civil Affairs didn't know. A decision would have to be made at higher levels. So I waited, and waited, and waited. It was a time of high anxiety.
It was comforting to be with an agency that worked primarily in my part of the country, during the long wait. The agency introduced me to all eight of the other families whose dossiers had gone to China in April and May of 1996. Most of us, being local, began to get together, or at least to talk on the phone, to share our questions and whatever answers we heard from non-agency sources - and just to be with each other for support. It turned out that we genuinely liked each other! When - or maybe if - we got referrals, we would undoubtedly travel together, and it was reassuring to know that I would be among friends at that point. It should be noted that there were two other singles in the group, younger than I, but still well into their 40s.
My agency began scrambling to build new contacts in the bureau that was established specifically to process dossiers and make referrals; it was called CCAA, the China Centre for Adoption Affairs. And whenever it had even a shred of new information, the agency would notify us either in writing or at a meeting. But the information was slow to come. Sometimes we took out our frustrations on the agency, but it was not the agency's fault. In fact, looking back on things, I realize how quickly the agency worked to identify changes in the process and to ensure that our dossiers would be in the right place at the right time. But at the time, all I thought about was that I was getting older and older, with no baby in sight.
It was not until September that "the word" came down from China; all dossiers sitting in the Ministry of Justice would have to be moved over to CCAA. Our agency had a man do that in person; he tied up the package of dossiers neatly with string and physically carried them to the new processing place. But it was not until October that they were actually logged in; the agency head learned that CCAA had new requirements regarding the number of copies, the fees, etc. but had not shared them with agencies. He personally fronted the money and made the copies while he was in China. Our dossiers were saved from the fate that others had; the agency head saw some from other agencies on the floor of a closet, all jumbled up.
So our "real" waiting didn't start until October, and at that point no one knew how long we might actually wait. CCAA was now handling a dual caseload - the Civil Affairs dossiers and the Justice dossiers, and was just beginning to staff up to meet those needs. It had no computers back then, and very limited space. One couple in our group decided to bail out; they switched over to our agency's Korea program as they were young enough to be eligible, but the rest of us stayed put. Although I must say that I researched the possibility of switching to Vietnam, my heart - and the hearts of the others in my group - were in China. Thanksgiving and the winter holidays weren't a lot of fun for our group that year, as we sought every scrap of information we could find on how the process was evolving.
With no real certainty about a referral date, I started a new job on January 26, 1997. Four days later, I happened to check my home answering service at lunchtime. There was a call from my agency. I figured it was notification of another meeting on the delays. No, it was a far more important call.
"You have a referral."
The four most beautiful words I have ever heard. And the next most beautiful words I heard were a date of birth; Li Weilin was precisely 13 months old! (I laughed when I thought of the agency that predicted I'd be referred a child over age three!) Anguish & Loss
Li Weilin was beautiful, with a sweet, calm, chubby face. I rushed out and began to do all of the shopping that I had avoided prior to getting a referral because I just didn't believe the adoption was going to happen. I showed all the salesmen the little girl's picture. At last, I felt "legitimate" going into the baby stores; earlier, I figured that people would wonder why such an old lady was peering at cribs and diaper disposal systems.
But my joy was not to last. Six weeks later, I got another call from my agency. I assumed that it was to give me either my travel date or some news on a minor medical question about my referral that I had raised. It wasn't. It was terrible, terrible news. CCAA had to withdraw Li Weilin's referral. The orphanage in Xiamen (Fujian province) had placed her domestically during the reorganization, without notifying Beijing. CCAA had only learned of the placement when it sent my acceptance letter to the provincial officials.
Another family in my group also lost a referral that day, for a different reason. That couple lost its referral right on the anniversary of a miscarriage. And they and I reacted as if we had experienced a miscarriage or worse. I couldn't stop crying. I drove home from work yelling at the sky about the injustice. I had a long report to write, so I went back to the office at night, when I could be alone, and wrote to forget, the way some people drink to forget. I spent most of the weekend there, though I was home enough for my group members to call me and try to console me.
My agency was wonderful. The notification was sensitively handled, and staff subsequently talked to me to help me through my grief. And the agency made sure that Beijing immediately sent a new referral from Xiamen. But I wasn't in shape to look at it for a few days and, then, when I did, I couldn't feel good about it. Still grieving, I pronounced Zeng Chufang ugly; I didn't even like her name, all full of Chew and Fang. (Actually, Zeng Chufang meant "already clearly beautiful" and she was.) I was also distressed because she was two months older than Li Weilin and would be at least 18 months old by the time I traveled to get her. Could I handle a toddler? The Desire to be a Parent
But I wanted to parent, and eventually accepted the referral. And I was on the plane when our group set out for Hong Kong on April 29, 1997. A bunch of older parents-to-be, we decided to rest our aging bones for a few days in that cosmopolitan city, so that we would not be too jet-lagged and miserable when we met our new children. Note that I did not say "daughters", despite the fact that Chinese adoptees are overwhelmingly female. One of the youngest families in our group had requested an infant girl - and had received a referral of a two year old BOY! Stunned and a little disappointed at first, they subsequently decided to accept this special gift from China.
My agency made things easy for us. Aside from getting those of us who wanted them very cheap seats on Korean Air, it also secured a very low rate on rooms at the luxurious J.W. Marriott on Hong Kong Island. So we spent about three days in luxury, touring independently, using a magnificent swimming pool, sleeping off the jet lag, soaking in sumptuous bathrooms, and dining well on Chinese and Western food. And on our last night in Hong Kong, we held a Chinese banquet to celebrate the impending end of our childlessness. For the married folks in our group, the time in Hong Kong was a chance to have a second honeymoon before being joined by children. And for the singles, well, it was a chance to escape into fantasyland before having a new reality descend on us.
At the end of our stay in Hong Kong, our group split up. Five families including mine had referrals in Xiamen, and headed there; the other three were off to two cities in Guangdong province. We would meet up in Guangzhou a week later, for our U.S. Consulate formalities. You should know that in all of the other families, both the Xiamen people and the others, at least two people were traveling - husband and wife in the case of the married folks, Mom-to-be and close relative in the case of the singles. Only I was traveling to meet my daughter without a companion; I was the one with all the cash, passport, etc. in bags underneath my clothing, looking as if I had three breasts. I was the one managing a huge suitcase, a stroller, and a carryon by myself. Meeting Zeng Chufang
Again, my agency made life easy for those of us going to Xiamen. Our tickets were couriered to us in Hong Kong. When we arrived in Xiamen, at its beautiful new international airport, we were met by our guide, from China Women's Travel (an arm of the Chinese government) with a new airconditioned van for us and a separate truck for our luggage. So it was not a problem that I had packed very heavily, with everything that my daughter and I could conceivably need. And we were whisked off to, of all things, a Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza that met Western standards in every possible way. We quickly learned that Xiamen was a Special Economic Zone, where capitalism was "busting out all over." It was a prosperous and very cosmopolitan city, with residents who were quite accustomed to dealing with foreigners.
Our guide helped us get settled, and met with us about the things we'd need the next morning for our trip to the orphanage. He turned out to be a 30 year old single accountant; he knew little about babies, but he was determined to keep us happy and to give us accurate information about every yuan or dollar we would spend - and receipts, to boot. He then left us on our own that day; I wandered around near the harbor with one of the couples. Later, we dined; I was very careful to eat sensibly. And, surprisingly, I slept well and woke refreshed, despite being nervous.
Unlike many families, who have traveled over rutted roads for hours and used squat toilets in antiquated rest stops, our group took a 15 minute ride through town on an airconditioned bus to get to the orphanage. And the facility was lovely, almost like a resort, though we were not allowed to see the actual children's quarters. We got off the bus, hefting our unfamiliar diaper bags, and headed off to become parents.
Soon, the babies were being brought out. The first child belonged to the other single Mom; her referral picture had been so awful that I had wondered why Karen had chosen to accept the child, but the reality was totally different - a plump, gorgeous, baby who could have been on a travel poster. And then came three more, including the boy, all in good shape, though coughing.
But then, Zeng Chufang was brought out. I was stunned. This was not the child of my dreams. She was much smaller than her scanty medical report had indicated. Her eyes were so big and round in her tiny, pale face that she didn't look one bit Chinese; in fact, my first thought was, "I came all the way to China, and I'm not even getting a Chinese baby!" She had no muscle tone. I could see that she had green slime coming from her nose (which turned out to be a sinus infection), a bad case of bronchitis, and scabies (a parasitic mite); what I couldn't tell at that point was that she also had two ear infections and pinkeye. She was clearly delayed. And, worst of all, she showed no emotion - no crying, no smiling, no curiosity, no anything. She was like a little robot.
We had little time to talk with the orphanage staff before being herded back to the bus. We were being given a few hours to spend with our children at the hotel before going to the government office where we would finalize the adoption. When the door to my hotel room closed, so I was no longer with my group, I nearly fell apart. The easy steps were ascertaining that my daughter wanted a diaper (she was given to me without anything under her clothing), that she drank cow's milk from a sippy cup, and that she liked American food. The hard part was deciding whether to accept her as my forever daughter.
I am ashamed now to admit that I gave serious thought to rejecting the placement. Becca seemed too damaged. The emotional shutdown alone led me to worry that she had psychiatric issues, maybe even autism; could I handle such a child, as a single, working, older parent? Looking back on those few hours, I realize that it was a very good thing that I had traveled alone, even though it meant that I was alone to make my decision. For I honestly believe that someone who was less invested in parenting
would have persuaded me to reject Becca - and that would have been a terrible, terrible mistake, as time would show. In the end, I fell back on my faith that God would not have taken me all the way to China on a fool's errand, and on my knowledge that China tended to be honest when listing a child as healthy and suitable for adoption. So Becca and I were on the bus when we left for the finalization, and soon, Becca became my daughter. A Plan Comes Together
I went through the motions of parenthood for the next few days - holding, kissing, talking to, playing with - but I must say that I wasn't bonding
at that point and I wasn't sure that Becca was either. (I have since learned that instantaneous bonding is more myth than reality for many new parents, bio and adoptive.) I was pleased that Becca was a good sleeper and a fairly easygoing baby, but I still felt so unsure of her physical and mental fitness that I was a bit disappointed in my new child.
But three days later, everything changed; it was as if the sun came out suddenly. Becca passed through her grief and shock - for that was what I had been seeing - and emerged as a huggy/kissy/smiley child who absolutely loved having a Mommy and being adopted. She also became so curious about her new surroundings that she pitched headlong into the empty bathtub while exploring our hotel room - and, yes, she cried. It was only at that point that I sent faxes to friends and relatives, announcing the new name of my daughter, because I knew then that she would be all right, and that we would be all right. I realized, too, that I had become pretty doggone fond of the little person who had entered my life and that she was, indeed, the child of my dreams.
And Becca quickly showed that her delays were not as bad as I thought. Before the end of our first week together, she was saying "hi" and "bye-bye" in English, appropriately and with a big grin, though she had shown no signs of speaking - or even understanding - Mandarin and the local dialext. Also within that week, she began showing that she had reasonably good fine motor skills. Even though she could not manipulate many of the dials on a pop-up toy I'd brought, she loved to push elevator buttons, and often managed to use the TV remote control to switch me from CNN to Chinese opera. She was still weak, but doing a little more walking every day. A Bit of Sightseeing
During that first week with our new children, our group got to do some exploring of Xiamen. Our group had told our guide that we wanted only half day tours, in order to deal with our children's minor illnesses and get them on good sleep and feeding schedules - as well as to remain well-rested and healthy, ourselves; we were, after all, older parents. But we still saw a great deal. We visited a fabulous resort island and artists' colony where all wheeled vehicles were banned and we saw a woman being carried in a sedan chair like an ancient empress. We enjoyed a vegetarian banquet at an ancient Buddhist temple. We toured the elite Xiamen University and were treated to a tea ceremony by the students. We visited a museum that celebrated the achievements of Chinese people who had emigrated to other countries. And we shopped for jade, pearls, and other souvenirs.
I had brought a stroller to China, but found it useful only in airports, hotel corridors, and the immediate vicinity of the hotel. It was not at all useful on tours, when we would be getting in and out of our bus or van regularly, climbing stairs, and such. I had bought a front carrier, but had left it home, thinking that Becca would be too large for it; in fact, she would have done quite well with it. So I carried Becca in my arms most of the time; she could walk, but very weakly. It was a lot of exercise for this rather sedentary middle-aged woman, and I really felt every one of my years. But it had a very pleasant side effect - I lost several pounds despite eating very well. By the time I got home, I could fit comfortably into a pair of jeans that had previously been far too tight.
I had made the choice not to take any strong medications, such as antibiotics or Elimite, to China for my daughter. I did not feel that I wanted to risk allergic reactions and other complications in a child with an unknown medical history. But I was able to keep Becca surprisingly comfortable, and wasn't terribly anxious about her physical health, because of my previous experience. I used tried and true remedies - baby Tylenol for general cold symptoms and teething pain, baby Benadryl for the itching of scabies, saline nose drops and a nasal aspirator to get rid of mucus. I sat with her in a steamy bathroom for coughing, and propped her on pillows for congestion. I did go along to the hotel medical clinic when all of the other families went, but I decided that I did not trust the doctor's skill when she told me that Becca's obvious scabies infestation was "mosquito bites". I chose not to use her prescriptions - a bitter, unlabeled antibiotic in tablet form and a cough syrup made from snake bile. (Did you know snakes have bile?)
Of course, I came down with some of Becca's ailments - specifically the bronchitis and ear infection. By the time we left Xiamen for Guangzhou, I was a bit uncomfortable. But I knew that sickness was just something we older and single parents had to be prepared for, and was determined not to let it slow me down. And I was glad that I did not come down with the scabies or the pinkeye, which are very contagious and often very uncomfortable. Bureaucracy
Our group almost had a glitch at this point. We were supposed to leave Xiamen for Guangzhou on a Saturday. On Friday, we were taken to a government office and given our children's birth certificates, adoption decrees, and abandonment certificates, which had been prepared during our week in the city. But our children's passports did not arrive from Fuzhou, the provincial capital. A typist was out sick, and they had not been prepared. Without them, we could not go to our Consular interview in Guangzhou.
But once again, our agency and China Women's Travel smoothed our way. One designated member of our group and our guide phoned our adoption agency head at 2 a.m. Washington time; he is always on 24-hour call when a group travels, and didn't mind being awakened. He called some folks in Beijing, at China Women's Travel, and between the two organizations, the problem was solved. We would be allowed to leave Xiamen and go to Guangzhou without the children's passports. After seeing us off on the plane, our guide would hop another aircraft for Fuzhou. A temporary typist would be hired at the government office, and our guide would pick up the passports as soon as they were typed. Then he would board a plane for Guangzhou, arriving the night before our Consular interview, which would not need to be rescheduled. If you know anything about China and its bureaucracy, you will realize that something of a miracle was about to take place!
We all worried, but everything worked out perfectly. We arrived in Guangzhou, to be met by another guide, airconditioned van, and luggage truck. It was the day before Mother's Day, and we then celebrated that holiday at the Hard Rock Café, which was in the basement of the hotel in which we were staying. (I have a photo of Becca and me taken near some pictures of the Beatles to prove it!) We got our children's medical exams and visa photos done, toured a bit, and waited anxiously for our Xiamen guide to show up. When he did, a cheer went up - a cheer for him, for our agency, for China Women's Travel, and for ourselves; we were almost ready to go home.
Because our guides went over our paperwork with a fine-tooth comb, we experienced no difficulty with our Consular interview. I remember the hearing officer, sitting by a U.S. flag, saying nothing about my documents; all he did was to warn me of the pickpockets that troll for U.S. passports and dollars near the Consulate, and to talk with me about the child care issues affecting single parents. As far as I was concerned, he could have talked about the price of beans in Madagascar; once I saw that U.S. flag, I knew that my excellent adventure in China was almost over, but that the REAL adventure of parenting at an older age was about to begin.
The next day, we picked up our kids' visas and then raced for the airport to catch the last flight to Hong Kong. We arrived back at the J.W. Marriott at around 9 p.m, and knew that it would be a short night; we had to be at the airport around 6:30 a.m. I repacked, bathed Becca, put her to bed, and took a leisurely soak in the tub before I retired. But I would not get even a few hours of sleep. Becca had a tummyache. Some banana flavored milk that I'd bought in Guangzhou appeared to be the culprit. She would scream, fall asleep, wake, and scream again - and this went on all night. It was hardly the way to prepare for a plane trip that would take a whole day and night. Coming Home
Somehow, Becca and I made it to the airport on time. We checked in our big suitcase, and were near the boarding gate when - uh, oh; she vomited hugely, drenching both of us. Fortunately, I was now an "experienced" parent of about 10 days, and had a complete change of clothes for both of us in the carryon! I dashed for the nearest restroom and changed us both from the skin out. We did not have to stink our way across the Pacific.
The flight to Seoul and then to Los Angeles was fine. I had a bulkhead seat and a bassinet, which helped. My Korean seatmates watched Becca when I needed to use the lavatory and she was asleep. The lavatories had changing tables, a great luxury for parents doing air travel with toddlers. And Becca turned out to be quite an easygoing traveler - not eating or sleeping much, but remaining very even-tempered. She even watched 101 Dalmations, grinning and clapping when the spotted dogs appeared.
Unfortunately, when we reached L.A., we learned that our flight to Washington had been canceled. We were rebooked on a plane that would not leave for several hours. I had been awake for over 36 hours by then, and probably should have broken my journey and gone to a hotel. But the other single Mom and I decided to tough it out, buoyed by assurances we were given that we would have empty seats next to us and such. I remember trying not to doze on an airport bench, worried that someone might kidnap my new daughter, who was in her stroller. I'd done all-nighters before, but this was far worse.
And when we finally boarded, we discovered that the plane was packed to the walls and staffed with surly flight attendants. There was exactly one empty seat, and it wasn't next to me. By that point I was so cranky about everything that the poor gentleman next to me, realizing he would have to put up with a crabby Mom as well as a baby, volunteered to move to the one vacant place. And about the only positive thing I can say about the trans-continental flight was that we had that empty seat next to us. The flight was simply awful because I had to stay awake the entire time to make sure that Becca did not fall from my lap or the extra seat.
Somehow, we made it home to Washington, with Becca in pajamas because she'd had a poop explosion in Los Angeles, soiling her last set of clothes from the carryon. It was a good thing we had discouraged a welcome party as the delay brought us in shortly before midnight, and we were both exceedingly tired. We were met by my long-time man friend, a 60ish grandfather of three. He wasted no time in collecting our luggage and bringing my car to the terminal entrance; while we'd been in China, he had installed the car seat, as well as done all the child-proofing of my home. He was amazed when, at one point, he said something to Becca and she grinned and answered, in English, "OK" (although she hadn't a clue what he was saying).
Like a true friend, he helped us bring our luggage into the house, had me check that all the child safety gadgets and such were in place, and left with the admonition, "Get some sleep." The door closed, and Becca and I began our new life as an American family in a most unceremonious way. With the suitcases still on the living room floor, I introduced Becca to her new crib, where she immediately fell sound asleep, and promptly retired to my own bed.
Unfortunately, jet lag affects babies as well as new Mommies. Although it was nearly 1 a.m. when we retired, Becca - who normally slept ten hours straight - woke before six, ready to go. I dragged my sleepy old bones out of bed, made breakfast (my friend having brought in some perishables the day before), and got our day started. Parenthood doesn't look so rosy under such circumstances, I must say. Adjusting
As soon as our doctors' offices opened for the day, I put in calls to my internist and Becca's pediatrician. We got same day appointments for both of us. I was so tired that I did not dare drive, especially with my new responsibility sitting in the back seat. We took taxis to both appointments. Soon we were off to the pharmacy with prescriptions for both of us. The pediatrician, I reflected later, had been clearly a bit worried by Becca's incredibly small size - 17.3 lb. at almost 19 months of age - though I had no doubt that she would soon catch up.
Jet lag effects continued for the next three days. Becca wouldn't fall asleep till quite late, and would awaken very early; instead of napping, which would allow me to catch a nap as well, she would catch "40 winks" in the car. I dragged myself around, limiting our activities to some shopping for necessities, laundry and such, as well as walks in the neighborhood and visits to a playground. I really felt my age at that point, and was very glad that I'd decided, even before going to China, that we would spend the first two weeks at home bonding, and would not entertain or attend showers until afterwards. Finally, there came a point when we just tumbled into our beds at 8 p.m. one evening and slept through until 7 a.m. the next morning. We awoke refreshed and sunny; our jet lag was over. Challenges
It would be nice, at this point, if I could say, "And they lived happily ever after," but that's not the way real life works. We continued to face challenges. I'm not talking about the minor things, like the fact that people would sometimes stop and ask me, "Are you the babysitter or the Grandma?" That didn't bother me any more than the questions I got about adoption; any transracially adoptive family has to be prepared to be very "visible" and fair game for questions. I actually came to enjoy answering, "I'm the Mom! I'm 51 and I have a child in diapers!" It was amusing to watch people's expressions and even to feel a little superior to folks who were having problems parenting at 25.
One of our challenges was the fact that, although Becca proved healthy in most respects, she did not gain weight well. The pediatrician was terribly worried, and so was I. Fortunately, I knew that the children's hospital, where I worked and had volunteered, had a well-regarded feeding disorders program for children under age 5. I took my daughter there for an assessment, which involved several sessions. We met with a gastroenterologist who ordered tests for parasites and metabolic disorders. We saw a nutritionist who had me complete elaborate food logs. A developmental psychologist assessed Becca's intelligence and lags. Speech and occupational therapists
explored the possibility of oral/motor problems. And a psychiatrist observed us through one-way windows to see if we had appropriate feeding interactions.
Fortunately, Becca turned out to have no serious problems of any kind but, unfortunately, there were no magic cures, either. About all the feeding team could tell me was to throw out the nutrition book and to give my daughter the highest fat, highest calorie foods I could find. The example given was chicken nuggets and French fries, washed down with a milkshake! That was a tough prescription for a Mom of my age who believed in home cooked meals that were nutrition-conscious. When I implemented the recommendations, however, Becca did begin to gain a little - and I put on 20 pounds the first year she was home!
Another challenge involved my job. I had purposely taken what I saw as a "lesser" job in order to parent - a planning position in a hospital, instead of a vice presidency, or a senior position in a consulting firm. But it turned out to be lesser only in authority; it had tons of responsibility, without any authority whatsoever. That meant an inability to control my work in any way. And I discovered that the corporate culture was one of insanely long hours, and of projects that were all considered "critical" even though they really were not. It was not a job that went well with parenthood, even though I was fortunate to have child care right across the street that allowed children to stay from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. if necessary. There was a point when I began carrying a porta-crib in my car for those evenings when I could not avoid staying late and could not prevail on my man friend or a cousin to babysit. It was not a good situation at all. Further Complications
I was actually happy when my job ended, and I found myself unemployed. The life I'd been living was not good for Becca. I felt that I could easily afford to spend some time looking for a job that would be a better fit with my talents and my interest in parenting. I continued to keep Becca in child care for several hours a day because she had emerged as a very social child who loved the stimulation of being around other adults and children, and because it would allow me to do some serious job-hunting.
But then a new and far more serious challenge arose. After dropping Becca at child care one day, I headed for a store to buy her some spring clothing. Unfortunately, I tripped and fell. I thought that I had twisted my knee, and actually managed to hobble across the street and to a telephone, where I called my long-time man friend to come and drive me home.
By the time he arrived, it was clear that I had more than a simple sprain. My leg was grotesquely swollen, and I was in agony. He called an ambulance, and I was soon transported to a local emergency room. The paramedics in the ambulance assumed that I had dislocated my knee, and said that the pain would resolve almost immediately as soon as a doctor wrenched it back into place.
Wrong. After cutting off my slacks, the emergency room staff immediately arranged for me to have an x-ray. My knee was not dislocated, they realized. It was far, far more damaged. I had managed to shatter my patella. Middle-age frailties had caught up with me; my bones were brittle with osteoporosis, and the fall had caused the kneecap to break into several pieces. I was put into a long brace, given painkillers, and told to see an orthopedist in his office the next day. My friend brought Becca home, and I began the process of figuring out how to bathe her, lift her into her crib, and generally take care of her.
The orthopedist said that there was a possibility the pieces of the kneecap would fall into place naturally if kept in a brace, so he wanted to watch my progress for several days before deciding how to proceed. He warned me that there was a good chance I'd need surgery to pin the pieces together if it looked as if they were going to heal in a malpositioned way. I was horrified. How could I go into the hospital for major surgery, as a single Mom? I went into a state of denial; the bones would definitely fall into place correctly, I decided, and surgery would be unnecessary.
But after a few days, surgery was exactly what the orthopedist recommended. And, he said that I had to do it right away if I was ever to have a functioning knee. I began seeking arrangements for Becca. I knew that most of my local relatives and friends would not be able to take care of her. Some were too old, and the rest were working people. The ones with children had child care arrangements that would not allow the insertion of an additional child. Some friends I'd met over the Internet, and who were personally known to people I respected, volunteered to care for Becca, but they lived too far away. No one in my synagogue had any ideas, nor did anyone else.
Finally, I thought to call my adoption agency. And, bless them, the staffer to whom I spoke immediately thought of a solution. There was a family, she told me, that was on the agency's foster care list. The couple had no foster children currently, but missed having a small child around the house. Maybe they would be willing to help. The agency staffer offered to make the call.
The wife came to my home that very night. I was amazed. She was my age, and Jewish like me. She told me that she was married to a Japanese man, and that they had two biological teenagers. They had done foster parenting (which meant they'd been through an investigation of their background) and absolutely adored having young children around. She would be delighted to care for Becca while I was in the hospital. More important than what she said, however, was the way that she and Becca interacted. They genuinely liked each other. Solutions
I went to bed that night knowing that my problem was solved. I typed out long lists of instructions for the couple, and two days later, they picked up Becca, a suitcase, the car seat, and all sorts of other paraphernalia. Becca seemed to understand what was going on, and wasn't upset in the least. I then checked into the hospital, and a few hours later went into surgery.
The aftermath was much worse than I imagined it would be. I was in horrible pain. When I tried to stand and walk, I became dizzy from the medication, and my leg - still in the long brace - swelled terribly. I wound up having to stay in the hospital for almost a week, while the physical therapists tried to help me achieve some degree of mobility, the occupational therapists discovered that I could not use most bathrooms, and the nurses had to wash me, give me bedpans, and medicate me. I talked to Becca at least twice a day, but I told her caregivers not to bring her to the hospital. I was afraid she'd be terrified by seeing my condition, and that of other patients on the floor.
When I was finally discharged, the family caring for Becca told me to take a few more days alone, and I did. But I missed Becca terribly, and finally told them to bring her back to me. I would find a way to cope. I was lucky to have good insurance, adequate financial resources, and a good support system. My insurance paid for in-home physical therapy at first, as I could neither drive nor sit upright in a car. I hired a cleaning woman. My man friend delivered groceries to my home weekly, picked up my medications at the pharmacy, helped me to lie on the back seat of his car for trips to the doctor. And many, many other people were helpful.
Obviously, I could not take Becca to child care. But friends, especially single women, took her on outings. And, as time went on, the nursery school director at my synagogue insisted on enrolling Becca in her day camp program, and driving Becca there, herself. Fortunately, Becca was a very easygoing child, who was already well bonded to me. She did not seem to suffer from all the disruptions to our lifestyle - and, in fact, grew even more attached to me, since we were together so much.
The day the brace was removed, it was found that I could not bend my knee at all, due to a combination of scar tissue and muscle contraction. I would need several more months of intensive physical therapy to regain mobility. I was very depressed. But once again, we coped. Soon, I could put Becca in her stroller and walk for several miles, using the stroller as my cane, to strengthen my muscles. Soon, I was steady on my feet enough to venture a trip to the playground, with its uneven surface. Soon, I could be driven to birthday parties and play dates with my daughter. Three months after my fall, I drove my car for the first time. My first significant act was to enroll Becca in a new preschool. And the particular choice of preschool turned out to be perfect; Becca took to it immediately, and once again began to make rapid developmental progress. Suddenly, she was willing to dress herself. Suddenly, having resisted potty training, she wanted her underwear and avoided accidents. Suddenly, she was talking about new friends and wanting to go to their homes. She had been a real trouper during my incapacity, but she had also "marked time." Now she could blossom once again.
Almost two years have passed since my injury. I still don't have a perfect knee. But I give thanks every day that I can be a normal Mom to my daughter. I have gone down a slide, ridden a carousel, taught Becca to feel comfortable jumping into a swimming pool, sat cross-legged on the floor and read to her preschool classmates, chaperoned field trips. I give thanks that I had time at home with my daughter, and that I had the resources to permit us to live a decent lifestyle. I recognize that the things which befell me might have spelled total financial ruin to some people.
I have never regretted adopting. In fact, if I felt that I could afford the long term costs of raising two at a time when I must be thinking about my old age, I would be back on that plane immediately. Becca could use a sister, and I have not totally given up on the idea of providing her with one.