Sitting in the pediatrician’s waiting room watching her 5-year-old fall apart was a pivotal moment for Berta Serrano -- as life-changing as the appointment in another doctor’s office when it was made clear she could not become pregnant, as clarifying as the Nepal morning when she met the boy who would become her son.
Berta had thought he understood everything about how he’d come to be hers. She and her husband had talked openly with the 5-year-old about his adoption, and even remained in touch with the two boys who’d roomed with him at the orphanage, visiting them and their new families in the U.S. But then, on the afternoon of a random check-up, a bleary-eyed new father had walked into the waiting room with his newborn, and Berta’s son unraveled.
“So little,” Berta had cooed when her son first noticed the infant. “He just came out of his mommy’s belly.”
“Just like I came out of yours!” her son replied.
“No,” Berta said. “Remember, you came from another mommy and pappi. We don’t know them, but we love them for bringing you to us.”
That’s when his tears began. Torrents, Berta remembers. Wails and sobs. Raw grief. “He felt cheated,” she says now, “that he hadn’t been physically connected to me.”
What Berta did next has brought her front and center in an ongoing debate in adoption circles: What to tell? How to tell it? And at what age?
This certainly isn’t the conversation it used to be -- shame around adoption is the stuff of another century, and almost no one believes that it should be a secret. Good riddance. Now the questions are more nuanced, the answers less clear. Not whether to share, but what to emphasize. Not if, but how.
It is progress, to be sure, but more possibility brings more complication -- and more flareups like the one Berta found herself a part of. With so many ways to create, carry and raise a child, how should parents answer what has long been an uncomfortable question? Do you lead with the mechanics or the emotion? You keep it age-appropriate, yes, but what IS appropriate as the ways one can add a child to a family seem to multiply exponentially?
Is "adopted" an adjective, or a verb?
'A REAL DIALOGUE'
The book, everyone agrees, is beautiful. Berta, who is an art gallery consultant by profession, wrote the words, and her brother Alfonso, an award-winning illustrator, created the drawings -- bright tapestries, reminiscent of art from the Serranos’ native Spain, suffused with color and fantasy.
But what was inside sparked a serious debate between some in the adoption community.
Berta titled the book Born From The Heart, and adoption blogger Amber H. (who blogs about open adoption at BumbersBumblings.com) agreed to the publisher’s request for a review. November is National Adoption Month, and many books on the subject are published and sent out for reviews during that time. Amber, whose 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter came to her at birth by way of open adoptions, had a small stack of titles waiting to be read. “It was a very nice package,” she said of her decision to choose Berta’s book from the pile and read it aloud with her husband a few weeks ago.
Born From The Heart is a fable about a woman who wants to be a mother and goes to a doctor to learn how. “One pound of love, two cups of enthusiasm and one and a half tablespoons of patience,” is his prescription. So the woman and her husband do a lot of yoga (or something that looks like yoga) and go back for an MRI (or something that looks like an MRI), and the doctor exclaims, “I believe you are going to have a child. I can see something gleaming in your heart!”
The parallels to pregnancy continue, with the woman’s heart expanding so much that she needs new clothes, which she finds at “a special store for special moms like her.” Then, when “it was time,” the expectant parents “flew over marshmallow clouds, crossed landscapes of every imaginable color, and climbed up and down never-ending mountains” until they “arrived at a little house in a green valley” where the woman’s heart bursts with happiness and she “saw her baby for the first time.”
Halfway through, Amber’s husband began to snicker. And she didn't feel much better about the work. As Amber later wrote on her Facebook page:
Amber says she was torn because there's already too much fighting online about the topic of adoption, and she believes everyone in the community -- birth parents, adoptive parents and children -- should support and respect each other.
“I needed to voice how I felt, but I didn’t want to bash her and be hurtful,” Amber says. “I wanted start a real dialogue.”
Amber started by posting a quote from the YouTube video that Berta’s publisher made to promote Born From The Heart: "It doesn't matter how my child came to me, it just matters that we are a family, that is most important!"
After asking followers for their reaction to that statement, Amber gave them her own: "Don't you understand; It DOES matter how your child came to you; their past matters and you are doing a huge disservice to your child to miss this!"
DOES IT MATTER HOW WE CAME TO BE A FAMILY?
The word adopted can be a verb or an adjective. "You were adopted." "We adopted you." Used that way, it's a means to an end -- the process that brought you together, past tense. It happened, and then it was done.
But the adjective lingers long after the verb is through. "You are adopted." "An adopted child." It continues beyond the judge's order and the signed documents, and it defines a piece of a child's identity.
The conversation Amber sparked, first with her Facebook posts, and then with her review of Born From The Heart on her website, was filled with opinions on both ends of that linguistic spectrum.
There were those who saw it as Berta does. “How a a child became a part of a family unit does not reduce the child's relationship in that unit, e.g., biological versus adopted,” wrote Nathan Lummus in a Facebook comment on Amber's post. “Honestly, I've probably said something similar, and my intention was not to reduce my children's pasts, but more to explain that my love for my children does not depend on being biological or adopted.”
There were others whose view was the same as Amber's. Renee Bergeron, another commenter on Facebook, wrote that to say it doesn't matter how a child came to their parent is to imply that “the child's feelings don't matter at all. As an adoptive mom, I totally 'get' how that view could be tempting. But even my daughter who was adopted at three days old has a history. She came from *somewhere* and she has a right to that information.”
In an interview, Berta explained that she is more than eager to share whatever details she knows about her son’s past, but she stressed that that wasn't what he was asking for last year at the pediatrician's office. What he needed then, she says, was assurance that he and she had a bond as strong as biology.
"When he asks, 'Where is my mom? Where did I come from? Why did my parents leave me?' -- I want to turn it around and instead concentrate our energies on how much your dad and I wanted you, and how much we were fighting to get you. That’s the story that he needed to hear," Berta says.
Or is it? Amber counters that an adoption story should never be portrayed as the fulfillment of an adult’s wish rather than a celebration of a child’s journey. Too many “adoption-related children's books ... want the children to know all the parents went through to become their parents,” she says. “Some books cover infertility, the waiting process, the praying process, etc. While a small part of that is appropriate so the child knows that they were dreamed of and wanted, I think placing too much emphasis on this can be attributed to a majority of 'adoptee guilt and shame.' I do not want our emotional baggage in our path to parenthood and adoption to become any part of my son's baggage.”
That said, even a TMI tale of infertility would suit her better than Berta’s story of outright fantasy, she says. Exploding hearts and magic recipes are no different than the stork or the birds and the bees in her eyes.
“I do not believe that we should give our children misinformation about sex,” Amber writes in her review of the story. “The book is a fantasy-type book and is written in fairytale language, but I think this could very well lead a child to believe that this is the way they are created. That this is fact, not a magical work of fiction.”
Someday soon, Berta says, she plans to travel back to Nepal with her son, so he can visit the Children’s Home where she first met him. She wants to go when he is old enough to remember the journey, she says, but not so old that “he has preconceived notions and judgements” about his beginnings -- a tough line to pinpoint at an age when children change so quickly.
Already, she says, he has outgrown the tale she began telling him after that pediatrician’s visit. A year or so ago, she says, “He understood it was poetic and had magic. Once, I asked him what it was about, and he said, 'That you love me.' He understood."
More recently, she says, "He is more scientific in his approach. 'Did this really happen to you Mom?' I answered, 'It really happened, but not like this where everybody could see. It happened inside. I felt my heart was getting bigger and bigger, and when I saw you there was an explosion of happiness.'"
She says she is amused, and somewhat comforted, by the fact that he has begun to use her words as his own, as only an almost-6-year-old can do.
"He wanted a new bicycle, and to let me know how much he wanted it, he said, 'Mom, my heart is growing for the bicycle.' We will keep talking. That's what parents and children do."