From Cornell to a Romanian Orphanage

This story began in college with a trail of opportunities that shaped both my life, and more recently, a novel. In 1995 I was a year from graduating when I connected with a Harvard professor seeking an aide worker to go into a Romanian orphanage where her own adoption was stalled. I went alone, not knowing the language or the social complexities that had created a country where most orphans were not without parents, just abandoned to a state-run foster care. I only knew I loved babies and travel -- that I was up for adventure. It was overwhelming, rows of chicken wire cribs, two babies in each -- I was given fifty infants my first day. It was inspiring and heartbreaking, difficult for me to leave Bucharest to finish my social work degree, but I did.

After graduation, I couldn't stop thinking about adoption, about the circumstances surrounding brand new life that will shape a person forever. At the end of several years abroad, I moved to Portland and became the director of a small domestic adoption program, the sole caseworker juggling birthmothers and waiting families. I fell in love with both the city and the heady allure of a job so full of promise.

Like my protagonist, Chloe Pinter, I went into it with the intention of creating happy endings, magic families, and joy from sorrow. Similar to when I stepped off the plane in Romania, I scrambled to learn a new language and subculture; the business side of adoption. But as the months passed, I got attached. I cried over adoptions that fell apart and just as painfully for some that went through. When I left the adoption world, it was just as the nurse at one of my client's births had predicted:

"You obviously don't have any kids," she'd snapped as I quietly handed forms and tissues to a birthmother terminating her rights to her newborn and I nodded; she was right. A year later, I found I wasn't able to do it -- to facilitate adoptions -- once I had children myself. The potential for great joy and heartache is inherent in adoption; yet even in the best case scenario, someone still leaves the hospital missing a little piece of their heart. Simply put, my skin had become too thin.

Romania was one of the two defining points of my life: our first son's birth and diagnosis with Pierre Robin Syndrome, nearly losing him on an operating table at six days old, was the other. As a new mother to a child with huge medical hurdles, I pondered some of the deeper issues that formed the backbone of my novel. How does parenthood change you? How will the challenges you face shape you as a couple? What happens when your expectations of parenthood are so far from the reality? What makes a good parent? A good person? What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?

All of these courageous people whose lives had touched mine so intimately when I worked in adoption rattled around with me as I adjusted to that first year of new parenthood. Driving home from a pre-dawn airport run, tired from getting up to hang bottles for my son's feeding tube, I stopped at a filling station not far from where a child was abducted in my hometown twenty years earlier. Knowing this, I still fantasized briefly about not lugging the car seat and its precious cargo with me just to run in for a bottle of water ... But what if I didn't?

The idea for my novel was born out of that single scene: A mother so exhausted her judgment lapses. The story is fiction -- characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a handful of experiences, marinated them in a childhood fear of abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it up -- but the themes are real, from my own life, from those I have seen, and maybe even from yours?

Chandra Hoffman, a former US Adoption Director, is the author of the debut novel "Chosen" (HarperCollins Publishers).