by Shelah Mastny Miner
“Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it.” 1 Kings 3:26
During my first pregnancy I repeated a single line almost every day: “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, as long as it’s healthy.” But secretly, I knew what I wanted—I’m the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter and couldn’t picture myself with anything other than a girl first. But our baby’s gender was something I had no control over, so I lied through my teeth. Saying I wanted a healthy baby was the only acceptable answer, right? Although I knew what I wanted in a baby, I also knew I was still basically a kid myself—I had enthusiasm and intelligence to be a mother, but I didn’t have wisdom. In the place of wisdom, I had faith that God would be both just and merciful; He’d send us the right baby for our family.
Twelve years and four kids later, we’re expecting a baby again. But this time the wait involves no ovulation predictors, pregnancy tests, fear of miscarriage, doctor’s appointments, ultrasounds, or well-meaning strangers patting my stomach. This time around, I’m not pregnant.
It’s hard to say why we decided to adopt, other than it felt like the right thing to do for our family. I could say I strong-armed us all into adoption because I wasn’t ready to be done having babies yet. I could say it’s because I’m crazy when I’m pregnant and I didn’t want to put my husband, Ed, through that again. I could say it’s because we’ve been feeling that we’ve been given much and saw this as an opportunity to share. I could say we hoped that adopting internationally would give our other kids a chance to experience a new culture and see that people in most of the world do not live lives of ease and privilege like they do. All those reasons were part of the decision, but mostly it was just a feeling we had.
There are several dozen countries that allow Americans to adopt their orphaned and abandoned children, and after much pondering and discussion, we decided to adopt from China. The variables of uncertainty are different in international adoption than they are in conceiving and bearing a biological child. At first it seemed that through adoption we’d have more control than we did with our other children. While I couldn’t request a specific gender for any of our biological children, we have stated a preference for our adoptive child to be a daughter. And while I remember freaking out and crying whenever a home pregnancy test came back negative because I really wanted to have a baby in October, not November or December, this time around we requested a specific age.
We signed up with an adoption agency and started receiving pamphlets in the mail showing smiling couples with adorable Asian babies in their arms:
Chinese children of all ages are in need of loving homes, and in this program most families are able to choose the child that’s just right for them. Our personal adoption guides will get to know your family and help you find your son or daughter. You can adopt an infant or young child with minor to more serious medical needs that are typically manageable and correctable, or an older child with no identified health concerns.
As we started to fill out our paperwork, another vision of a baby girl coalesced in my mind: she’d be tiny, with thick, straight, dark hair. She’d be shy, but I’d be able to coax a smile from her. The six of us sat around the kitchen table one night and decided to name her Rose.
The adoption forms looked overwhelming, but started out straightforward enough: name, birth date, social security number, employer information. Then they got down to the hard questions: How will you respond to strangers who ask if your child feels lucky to be adopted? What are some techniques you plan to use if your child has a hard time attaching to you? How will you discipline your child? After we’d filled out the forms and paid the application fees, a social worker showed up at our front door one day last March to interview us and observe our family.
She got right down to business: “Kids who are adopted from China often have developmental delays from being institutionalized. How do you think you’ll adapt to having a child with delays?”
I mumbled an answer and she said she’d email a list of websites I should check out on education for adoptive parents.
“Since most children adopted from China have special needs, an important step in the home study process is deciding which special needs you’re comfortable with.”
She handed us a list. It was one I’d seen before, but had tried my best to avoid studying:
Please give careful thought to your own personal resources and indicate below whether you are open to considering children who have been diagnosed with any of the following conditions:
Autism Spectrum Disorders
The list went on for three columns, filling the entire page.
Ed and I sat on our bed that night, checking and unchecking boxes. I erased carefully, trying to make the square unblemished and white, feeling guilty about excluding a child who could possibly be ours. But we have four children. We’re busy with work and school and church callings and piano lessons and ski trips and everything else that comes with having a life that’s rich in happiness and material blessings.
Despite those blessings, we found ourselves trying to be realistic. How much could we handle?
What kinds of special needs could we take on without compromising the needs of our kids?
Yet, if we were adopting instead of conceiving a biological child to do a good thing for someone who really needed it, didn’t it seem a little bit disingenuous of us to only check the minor, correctable needs?
King Solomon wasn’t the parent of the baby he ordered cut in half. Perhaps he could be such a good judge because the baby in question wasn’t, and never would be, his. Since Rose wasn’t an actual, living, breathing, tangible little person in our arms yet, we could be a little more objective, weigh the pros and cons. Yet we felt the tug of compassion, the yearnings of countless special needs babies to be held.
Having control over gender and age had seemed like fun—Maren, our five-year-old, had even called it “ordering a baby”—but choosing among special needs was no fun at all. It felt like playing God, and not in a good way. Of course, the most merciful thing seemed to be to check every box, to say we were open to whatever eventuality might come our way. Although we didn’t recognize it at the time, that was what we did when we conceived our biological children. But choosing Rose is an active, tangible choice, and what may be the most merciful thing for a special needs baby might not be the most just option for our family as a whole.
It wasn’t like we didn’t know a little bit about special needs already.
That first child, the one who would be healthy, the one who would be a girl, arrived on time—a boy who looked like a wizened little walnut. I know all babies have an old man look, but at four pounds, twelve ounces, Bryce looked more like he’d been born in a concentration camp than a suburban hospital.
After a few frustrating days of force-feeding him around the clock, the doctors proclaimed him healthy enough to go home. “We won’t be able to tell if there’s any permanent damage from his malnourishment in utero until he gets a little older,” they said.
For a while, things seemed fine. He grew quickly, tripling his body weight in two months. He was fussy and asthmatic, but hit all of his developmental milestones on or ahead of schedule. It wasn’t until Bryce started school that his problems became evident—it was hard for him to make friends, to sit, to participate in group activities, and his ability to hyperfocus on his interests was a double-edged sword. At five he was diagnosed with ADHD; we added anxiety at nine and Asperger’s at eleven. When Bryce was a year old, the age I imagine Rose to be right now in China, we had no idea that our path with Bryce would be paved with significant challenges alongside the joys.
Do I cheer for Bryce’s successes? Of course. It makes me happier to have him say, “thank you” spontaneously, or bring in the newspaper without being asked, or practice the piano from start to finish without guidance than it does to see my name in print. Do I love him just the way he is? Absolutely. But if I had a magic wand, I’d take away his challenges to make all of our lives easier.
And then there’s Isaac, who lived a charmed life his first three years. Sunny and social, he followed his big brother and sister around the house, making everyone laugh. Then one morning he woke up with a fever and couldn’t walk. In the four years since, he’s endured multiple hospital stays, physical therapy, two full-body casts, and five surgeries. Once again, his challenges weren’t visible in his toddler years, and they’ve made him the boy he is today, but when I listen to him crying in pain or help him hobble to the bathroom after surgery, I wish I’d been able to prevent the bacteria that made him sick from ever entering his body.
Annie, at nine, is the daughter I wanted when I dreamed of my daughter—she’s responsible and helpful, beautiful and intelligent. Maren, my little shadow, loves me so much that she wants to sleep with me at night and leaves me love notes around the house. Both girls have been free from the health problems their brothers have faced. Twelve years into parenting, I know enough to know that we had no more control over getting our comparatively “easy” daughters than we have had over the more “difficult” challenges we’ve had with our sons. I also know that all children are an act of mercy from God: sometimes the act of mercy is that we get a child who doesn’t challenge us; sometimes the mercy is that they do.
Still, I don't have God's wisdom, or Solomon’s. With my imperfect, myopic vision, I just want to make things right for my boys. I want life to be easy for them, and easy for our family. I want them to do their homework and play soccer and go to college and go on missions and get married. But I also recognize that the easiest path might not be the best path for their individual growth or for ours as a family.
And yet I can’t help but think that although, in our boys’ cases, we’ve accepted that the realities of life sometimes interfere with our expectations—and that’s okay—with Rose, however, we’re going into the arrangement knowing she’ll have challenges. Bottom line is, do I have any right to make it harder for my family on purpose?
I had a vision of my first daughter, and when that daughter turned out to be a son, it was okay, because we knew we would have more than one child. When Bryce got older and struggled, it was easier for me to bear because he had siblings who would love and accept him. In China, Rose’s birth parents probably didn’t say, “The gender doesn’t matter as long as the baby is healthy.” They, like most Chinese parents, likely felt pressure to produce a healthy baby boy. And when their baby arrived, neither healthy nor male, I can only imagine their devastation that this baby represented their only shot at parenthood.
On the other side of the world, we can choose whether to make the daughter they created a part of our family. When we get our match, we’ll have seventy-two hours to consult with our doctor and decide if that child will fit well in our family. Even after we’ve picked a child according to our specifications, we still have the right of refusal, the right to say, “Let’s try for a better match next time.” I choose to believe that Rose’s birth parents decided she would live a better life and have better opportunities with the possibilities for adoption, and that choosing to leave her in a park or a marketplace was a heart-wrenching decision when there were no better alternatives. But will we be able to provide her with a better life? Will we be the best parents for her special needs? Will I know Rose as my daughter when I see her picture in my email inbox?
Even though I’ve read a stack of books three feet tall about China and international adoption, I don’t think I'll ever feel equipped to make an informed judgment over whether or not to adopt the baby who may become ours.
That’s where I’ve come to understand that Solomon needed less wisdom than God—Solomon only needed to decide which of the two women before him had borne that baby, but God has to match up families, people who will be together not just for fifty or seventy years, but forever. And even though I would have readily accepted some control over that first baby I was carrying, I don’t want that control any more—it’s too much responsibility. Checking off the boxes on that special needs page was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had as a parent, and I’m thankful that, up until now, I haven’t been in a position to choose my children. It’s impossible to make the “right” choice as far as children are concerned. As parents, we can never know what challenges and issues will arrive in any child's life. Adding any child to the family, either from adoption or conception, is simply a leap of faith.
If all I had was a label and a paragraph of my boys’ medical histories, I know I would have been scared off by “asthma, ADHD, anxiety, and Asperger’s” or “MRSA and complicated femoral fracture requiring multiple surgeries,” but my boys have been two of the greatest joys of my life. I don’t feel robbed as a parent because their needs have been more complicated than those of their sisters. I’m glad I didn’t know the end from the beginning, glad I never had the chance to turn away from being their mother. And when we choose Rose, I hope we’ll have the wisdom to make the right choice, and the love necessary to never look back.