I was in Connecticut last weekend to celebrate my nephew Otto’s first birthday. It’s hard to believe that he is one already. I remember that weekend last year, waiting for his arrival, the anticipation and excitement and then pure love upon seeing him for the first time. How has a year passed already? Now he’s starting to walk and has his first teeth and is turning into a little toddler. We had a birthday party for him and he had his first taste of cake and played with his new toys. He loved his first baseball bat even if the bat was almost as big as he is—and Mom and Dad are thrilled for their little slugger. Sports fans that they are they’ve already been debating whether he will hit right or left. The cake was shaped like a baseball and Otto wore a baseball onesie. The messaging is not subtle! The slide I gave him was also a big hit, especially when paired with the kiddie pool. It’s equally amazing to see how Philip and Evan have grown into such great parents–they make it look so natural and joyful, if not always entirely easy. I’m lucky to be a part of this too as the doting Aunt, but birthdays and anniversaries like this remind me also of the passage of time, as I “wait” for my own baby. Deep down, even in all the happiness, that’s still a shadow that adds an edge of wistfulness to celebrating milestones like this. Of course, I wish for my own little one. I also like the idea of my brother and I having kids about the same age, cousins to grow up with, so keep hoping that I’ll get good news soon.
I went to my monthly adoption support group tonight. I try to go most months when I am in town. I am generally glad I do, though it’s a mix of emotions each time. It’s helpful to meet other families in the same boat, but at the same time, it marks the passage of time, another month without a match, feeling that I am stuck and that this is not moving forward, wondering whether this will work out. The mantra is always “patience”,”hang in there”, “waiting is the hardest part.” All that may be true but still, it doesn’t make the waiting limbo feel any easier and in all honesty, hearing the mantra time and time again, just starts to wear thin. There’s always a topic for the meeting, usually some informational component on one of the many, many logistical, legal or sometimes emotional ins-and-outs of adoption. Today’s topic was all about birth fathers and the rights they have in the adoption match. Let’s just say there was a LOT to process, and a lot to start to worry about. In all the training and counseling that goes on for potential adoptive parents, there’s generally a lot of discussion around birthmothers (as there should be) but comparatively less so about birth fathers. But, they are, of course, a part of this too and the legal issues around consent are complicated and the potential complicating scenarios are many. In earlier stages of this, I used to approach these types of discussions by taking tons of notes, sucking in every last nitty gritty detail, learning as much as I can to prepare myself for the possible scenarios. I’m nothing if not a good student and researcher and that’s generally been my strategy for life—arm myself with as much information and preparation in advance, so I can’t be taken by surprise. “Be Prepared,” as the Boy Scout motto goes; an adaptive strategy that probably most Type-A achievers like me learned early in life. But, as time has passed and also hearing more and more adoption stories from adoptive and wanna-be-adoptive parents, it just became clear to me that every situation and story is so different that you can’t really prepare for all the inevitable surprises. And in fact, you can drive yourself (and probably others around you) crazy with trying to foreshadow the possibilities and prepare for every scenario. The best you can do is let go and be open (there’s that word again!) to whatever happens. Of course that doesn’t mean avoid all preparation or to just let yourself be pushed along blindly or worse yet, bulldozed. It’s interesting because when I was younger, it would have been very, very difficult for me to even consider a “let it go” strategy. I think it’s only in the last five or so years, having wrestled with some difficult life challenges, that I can see the value of letting go. I think this will also make me a better parent when my time comes. I try to now listen to the stories with openness and empathy, knowing that this story won’t be my story or my baby’s story. By sharing in this common experience with others in the group, I feel less alone and more confident that whatever the road before me, I can handle it, I am prepared and it will be so worth it!
**Incidentally, the photo is part of the mural on the Women’s Building, in the Mission, where the San Francisco support group meets. The image of mother and child seems perfectly connected to all of this. The monthly meeting has been a good excuse to come into the city and have dinner in the Mission. I’ve been making my way through the various nearby taqueria’s and burrito places. My next blog may be a food blog!
My friend Noelle, her husband Paul and kids Aidan and Keira came to visit and I took the week off to vacation with them. We had a great week and packed in a walloping amount of Bay Area sights and fun along the way. Noelle and I met when we were both in graduate school at UCSF so it was a homecoming for her and the kids were excited to see “where Mommy used to live.” We spent some of the time taking day trips from my house in Berkeley and then mid-week, went up to Stinson Beach in Marin for a few days.
Highlights of the week were many and included: walks to the park with Bodhi (who loved the kids!)**Stephen Curry and a Warriors game with Aidan for his pre-birthday **playing basketball in the park**Golden Gate Park via surrey (not as easy as it looks!) **first time to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park **Ghiardelli Square are ice cream sundaes with hot fudge! ** Chrissy Field and views of the Golden Gate Bridge ** visiting Alcatraz and a boat ride on the bay ** introducing kids to Mad Libs ** a perfect beach day at Stinson Beach—sun, sand, collecting sea shells and playing in the waves with Bodhi tagging along ** magnificent redwoods at Muir Woods ** curvy roads and beautiful views over the Pacific from Highway 1 ** wildflowers everywhere ** a silly song called “Daddy finger” that echoed everywhere ** more Mad Libs silliness ** ping-pong, hot tubs and bunk beds at the beach house ** donuts and chocolate croissants for breakfast ** foggy view (?) of the bridge and city from Marin Headlands ** hiking to Tennessee Valley Beach ** the Pinball Museum in Alameda (Paul was in his element!).
I had a great time with the kids and it was a great to get a chance to get to know them over a longer stretch of time and also for me to see my favorite city through their eyes. I missed them a lot this week after they left and I could tell Bodhi was also sad for losing out on the non-stop belly rubs and cuddling! Being with kids just brings out the kid in me. They are both such sweet kids, both with their own personalities. Aidan turns ten this year and it’s been amazing to see him grow from this little peanut baby into such a big-little boy. He spouts out sports statistics like a sportscaster and seems so grown up in some ways, but then he brought his stuffed animals in his carry on and cuddles with his Mom. I know in just a few short years he’s likely to be a surly teen, but for now he was still willing to play b-ball with his Aunt Katja! Keira is a sweetie–she’s this little princess in pink with pigtails and big brown eyes but at the same time can be a total goofball. Despite claiming a fear of dogs, she took to Bodhi right away and is so enthralled with her big brother, it’s sweet to see. She was in her element on the beach, a little surf princess flitting in and out of the waves. And ice cream puts her in a sugar trance! Yumm!
The house was so quiet and lonely after they left. I’m thankful to Noelle and Paul especially for making the cross-country trek for their vacation. That’s not an easy trip with two kids. Spending time with them and the kids just reinforced to me what family is all about and made me all the more eager to have a family of my own. I’m looking forward to when we’ll vacation together with my little one in tow!
I was in Boston for work this past week and while there, met up with my brother to take my nephew Otto to the German consulate in Boston to register him as a German citizen! My siblings and I were all born in Germany. In fact, we moved to the US not long after my brother was born. My Dad was naturalized when I was little, but my Mom and my siblings and I kept our German citizenship all these years. Over the years, of course, I’ve debated about whether to give it up. I’ve lived in the US since I was five and in so many ways (most ways in fact) consider myself an American through and through, but still over the years, keeping my German passport and identity has meant a lot to me. It’s an important part of who I am. Now even more so since my parents have passed away, I feel it connects me to them, to family and to our heritage, in a way that is special and unique. Also, somehow, having this connection to another country and culture has also brought me a different perspective on the world and on living in the US. As a baby born to a German citizen, Otto also inherits German citizenship. I am happy that my brother and Evan wanted to give Otto that connection too. I think my Mom and Dad would have been very proud too. With a name like Otto, how could he not be German! I was a bit nervous about the consulate visit. My my role was as interpreter (since my brother’s German consists of “Ein Bier bitte!) and while my German is OK, German bureaucratic and legal forms are a challenge for my conversational German. But we did OK and the folks at the consulate were incredibly nice. In fact, we did the whole procedure in English. The Germans are picky about names and you can’t name your kid just anything. The US tendency for unusual/bizarre names is not the norm in Germany and it used to be that you had to get approval for a birth name. I think that is no longer strictly true but still, I think the consulate administrator was stunned to meet a baby Otto. And I love the photo of Philp and Evan with Otto in front of the consulate sign—my brother looks so much like my Dad in that photo. The whole process was a good test run for my baby, who as an adopted child would also inherit the same right to German citizenship (and US citizenship too, of course). As parents—whether adoptive or birth parents—there is so much of ourselves that we pass on to our children. While as an adoptive parent I won’t be able to pass on my genetic DNA, I am so glad to be able to share this cultural DNA. And who knows where life will take him or her. Maybe he or she will want to live in Germany someday.
The New York Times Modern Love podcast this week was an essay written by Amy Seek which recounts her experience as a birthmother in an open adoption. I love the Modern Love column and of course, when I saw the topic of the column on my phone, I immediately read it and then read it again and again. It’s a beautiful, honest and brave piece but also gut wrenching. It would have been a difficult read even if I weren’t in the midst of hoping to adopt, but from my current vantage point, it stirred up so many difficult thoughts and emotions. After reading the Modern Love piece, I immediately bought the author’s memoir “God and Jetfire” and devoured the book this weekend. It’s a hard book read, but everyone involved in adoption—birthparents, adoptive parents, adoptive children–should read this book. Amy Seek was a 23 year old college student when she found out she was pregnant. She was in a good relationship with her boyfriend at the time but they were young and not ready to be parents, so they make the difficult decision to place their child for adoption, and without knowing much about open adoption until learning about it from a social worker, they chose this path for themselves and their child and ultimately placed their son with a adoptive couple, she calls them Paula and Eric in the book and Holly in the essay. From one perspective their story actually seems the “model” open adoption scenario. Amy and her boyfriend actively sought out and chose their child’s adoptive parents. They approached their decision rationally and thoughtfully. The adoptive parents fully embraced the open adoption philosophy. Amy visits with her son and his family regularly. Both extended families are involved. There are no secrets about the adoption and her son now a teenager seems by all accounts well-adapted and happy. Isn’t this what the “ideal” open adoption is supposed to be like? As an adoptive parent isn’t this what I’m supposed to be striving for? And yet, while the picture seems so perfect and right, it’s clear that even a “good” open adoption, like any adoption, is complicated and emotional, and there are losses on all sides and that even with acceptance and time moving on, the effects last a lifetime. Amy describes her son’s adoption as both her “greatest accomplishment and deepest regret,” and reading both the Modern Love piece and her book, her grief and loss echoes on every page. It’s a heartbreaking story to read and I found myself crying for her. Even now, not yet an adoptive parent but somewhere in between, I am acutely aware of the losses involved in open adoption, for all of us, and especially for the birthmother. I think about it all the time. I understand and feel that pain knowing that what is my deepest hope and desire means a loss for someone else. I appreciate that filling the hole in my heart through adoption may well mean creating a hole in someone else’s heart. I don’t take this for granted. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the relationship between Amy and the adoptive mother, Paula. There is a scene around the time of her son’s birth, when Amy is wrestling with her decision, that describes this tension so well:
One afternoon we sat together on my futon and cried, knowing we were crying for our own exclusive concerns, and out of compassion for each other. We were tragically enmeshed; each the source of the other’s pain, each the threshold of the other’s future. We stood like tired boxers, clinging to each other to stop the beating. I could end her suffering, some of it, but only at my own expense. She was the only one who could see the magnitude of what was happening. She wasn’t telling me it was somehow good for me. She knew what was at stake; she was weighing it every moment. We were two pieces in a puzzle that were negotiating the exact shape of the cut that would at once connect and divide us. We were pressing at each other through a curtain to establish the precise profile of our grief.
Paula and husband really do everything you could expect of adoptive parents, fully welcoming Amy and her family into their extended family, going through great efforts to support the relationship. This is true also for birthfather with whom they also have a close relationship. And time and time again, Seek makes it clear her gratitude and enormous respect for them, even despite her own regrets and sadness. And she too feels how difficult this is on Paula too and the level of effort that it takes from the parents to not just maintain an openness but to really nurture it. There is a delicate dance between the two mothers, both guarding some parts of themselves and not fully revealing the depths of their emotions, all for the love and betterment of their child. That, to me, is truly what motherhood is all about. In the essay, Amy writes with appreciation of Paula, not just for what she has given her son, but for the sacrifices she makes for Amy.
… an open process forces an adoptive parent to confront the pain that adoption is built on. And openness for (Paula) does not mean merely letting the birth mother know about her child; it means cultivating a real love between birth parents and child. This requires exceptional commitment, which may be why some open adoptions become closed in the end. I LOVE (Paula) for sharing such things with me, sentiments that show she is devoted to our relationship — and not because it is easy for her.
There are many books on adoption but few from a birthmother’s perspective and I am grateful to Seek for sharing her story. Despite how difficult it was to read this book and see this side, still, I came away with a better appreciation of and more confident about open adoption. The fact that an adoption is open does not mean it’s an easy path and choosing an open adoption brings its own risks and vulnerabilities, but still I never doubted that Seek felt she made the right decision in choosing an open adoption over one that is closed. I think some part of me wanted this book to be simpler. I truly want to understand what adoption feels like for a birthmother. But I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the layers of emotion and ambiguity. A part of me wanted some affirmation that the promise of open adoption as being better for everyone—the child, adoptive parents and birthparents too—really is true and I wanted to know whether it’s true in the long run, over a lifetime. As I read Seek’s book and essay, I wondered what her son, who’s now a teenager, thinks of the book and what she writes. I hope he will read her story and see how much she loves him. I think what I appreciated most from the column and her book was the complicated and raw nature of the adoption experience for everyone involved. And also how that experience evolves over time, in ways that you can’t predict or know in advance. Adoption doesn’t end when the papers are signed. It’s not a singular event or decision. The ripples echo throughout life, throughout all the lives of people touched by it. Being complicated and challenging and uncertain does not make it a bad thing, at all. Life is complicated and messy and full of paradoxes and we do the best that we can, to embrace the ambiguities and move forward. In some way we may hope for stories and endings that are neat and tied up with a pretty bow, but so little of life is like that. I hope you have a chance to read this book.
My favorite news story of the last few weeks has been the story of Tolay, the elephant seal Mom-to-be who shut down Highway 37 in Sonoma just north of San Francisco in a two-day standoff. Just a few days before New Year’s, Tolay (as she was named) waddled out of San Pablo Bay from Tolay Creek in Sonoma and started to make her way across the highway. Well, when a 900 lb seal tries to cross the road, traffic grinds to a halt. And this seal was very determined to cross that highway, backing down the highway traffic for miles. Eventually, highway patrol called the wildlife rescue workers from the Marin Marine Mammal Center to the scene and they tried repeatedly to coax her back to the bay. They pulled out all the tricks. They tried using boards to scoot her along the path back to the water and she took a bite out the rescue workers board! At one point they managed to get her back into the water and tried to coax her to swim back out by nudging her from a kayak but she was undeterred and persistent and turned around and tried to cross the road again, and again and again. This seal was determined to get where she needed to go! Puzzled by her stubborn persistence to get to the other side, the rescue workers speculated that she might be pregnant and getting ready to give birth. Coincidentally, I happened to be visiting the Marin Marine Mammal Center with a friend, the day the standoff started so we heard about it first hand from the rescue workers there. By this time she was a local celebrity, with a constant stream of news alerts and twitter updates and I found myself frequently checking in online to follow the fate of Tolay. You go girl! Eventually after a two-day standoff, lots of drama and all-out efforts to coax her back to the water, she was gently tranquilized, hoisted into a truck and transported to an elephant seal rookery in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore. The rescue workers did some blood tests after she was tranquilized and yes, indeed, she was expecting. And then just after New Year’s we heard the happy news that she had given birth to a pup! What a great story for the new year! Never doubt the power of motherly determination and will! Good luck to you and your pup, Tolay!
Friends have sometimes asked me about how I came to decision to make a go at being a single Mom. For me it was a long time and a winding road coming to this point. I think I started thinking seriously about becoming a single mom in my late-thirties, I suppose relatively late, but then I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer in life. Some have asked me why I waited. I never really thought about this time as “waiting.” I’ve never been one to be waiting around. I wasn’t “waiting” for a husband (I was pretty happy without one, actually). Sure, I might have been happy (and still would be—hint for any matchmakers out there!) to meet the man of my dreams, get married, have a baby, have that life. But that wasn’t where my life was and I wasn’t “waiting.” I was just living my life. My twenties and early thirties were a lot about school and finding myself professionally—deciding to going to grad school, getting my PhD, finding a job. Over the years, there was a lot going on in my family, and at my job, and I think I tended to focus on those responsibilities first, more perhaps than focusing at my own life. So, there I was, in my late thirties, when I really started thinking seriously about being a Mom, on my own. My way of handling challenges is to immerse myself in research and information, to try to figure it out rationally and logically (that’s the scientist in me!) and pursuing motherhood, or as I liked to think about it at the time “the baby maybe question” was no different. I did a lot of reading (boy, did I do a lot of reading on this), joined some single mom groups, did some hard looking at my lifestyle and finances and how this might work. It was all very logical and deliberate. The thing about becoming a single mom this way was that it is really a very deliberate choice; not an accident, not something I negotiated with a partner, but an active choice. I thought a lot about this from the perspective of the child, and to be honest, at times, had some misgivings about bringing a child into a solo parenting situation, whether this would be fair to them. I had a great childhood and a wonderful Dad. Would it be fair to deprive a child of having a Dad? I grew up with a Mom and a Dad and to be honest, didn’t have many (any?) single parents in my life growing up, or at least single moms who had chosen to be single moms, as opposed divorce or losing a spouse. I read some more, talked some more, thought some more. I thought about the kind of Mom I would want to be, about how I would want to raise this child. There was a lot of “is this the right choice,” “should I do this,” and looking back maybe not enough “do I want to do this.” It was ultimately when I took a class/workshop called “Motherhood—Is it for me?” that I had my epiphany. The class brought together women from all sides for the question—single women, partnered women, ones who thought they might want kids and those who didn’t think so but were unsure or with partners who wanted kids. It was in that group, with that great group of women, all so brave and willing to share their personal lives in such an open way, that it dawned on me that this isn’t a choice that can be made by rational calculation, its one you feel in your heart. This isn’t about “should I” but “what do I feel, what’s in my heart” And when I let myself, I did feel the pull of motherhood and a child deeply in my heart. That epiphany opened up my thinking and I could see more clearly that in my heart of hearts, being a Mom, having a family, was always something I wanted for my life and I could see that I would be a great Mom for someone, someday. And I didn’t have to have all the logistics figured out to be confident that this was what I wanted and the right path for me. Yes of course, one needs to be rational and make sure that the resources are also in place, but when I could see that more objectively, I could see that I do have everything I need to be a great Mom. And so I decided to take the leap. Of course, being single and without a partner meant that once I had “decided” it’s not like I could just get out there and make a baby, so to speak. It took more time— loads more time—and a lot effort, to get me to the point of being here. It’s been a long road to get here and I suppose sometimes I wish I had rushed things along, but that wouldn’t be my story then. And I wouldn’t then be here now, finding my way to the baby who would be my child, however that comes to be.
I’m a neuroscientist and in the course of some of my work reading, I’ve been reading and thinking more about the brain development and critical periods, and how this relates to child cognitive development. It’s known that the first few years of a child’s life are critical for proper brain development and there is some interesting work being done on the impact of social influences on early cognitive development. Good parenting, and a loving nurturing environment are known to be critical for a child’s development. There’s data to show that the care a child receives during this first critical period has a strong influence on who that little one will grow up to be, even beyond childhood. Less clear has been what’s going on in the brain that mediates these effects. How is it that experiences in this early window of life last for so long? What’s going on in a child’s brain during this period? I recently saw an interesting episode of the Charlie Rose Show this week on the neuroscience of parenting which addressed this topic.
A brief divergence before saying more about this topic— I am a big Charlie Rose fan. I just love this show. He has great guests and is really a thoughtful interviewer on a wide array of topics. Charlie Rose has an ongoing series on the brain which brings together leading neuroscientists (many of whom I know well from working on Neuron) to discuss current research in neuroscience. Eric Kandel (by the way, I’m proud to say one of Neuron’s editorial Nobel prize winning ed board members!) hosts the show with Charlie Rose. It’s pretty cool to see people you know and admire on Charlie Rose but more so, I think the show does a great job of discussing the science at a pretty high but still accessible level. Being a science nerd, I just love this stuff!! I know, you would think that I’d have enough neuroscience from work and would spend my off hours watching more mindless TV (I do that too, don’t worry! Just get me going about the latest episode of Scandal!).
In any case, this Charlie role episode on parenting was really interesting. The show covered a very wide array of topics related parenting from the hormonal control of parental bonding, to the importance of social interactions and caregiving on early life development, to post-partum depression. Through my work, I’ve read a lot of this research literature already but I really liked how the show brought some very diverse science together in a very “real world” way. I’d highly recommend watching it: Charlie Rose Brain Series: The Biology of Parenting
I was especially struck by the work on the brain circuits and mechanisms that control parental bonding. It turns out that parental bonding behavior is both hard-wired in the brain and also under powerful hormonal influences. We now understand that there are particular parts of the brain and particular neuropeptides in the brain that drive bonding behavior. It’s thought that post-partum depression, which often comes with a feeling of not being able to bond with one’s baby, might have something to do with abnormal fluctuations of these hormones. I started thinking about this from the perspective of adoption and especially from a birth mother’s perspective. Bonding with your baby and loving your baby is neurally and hormonally hardwired. Your heart and your head are working together. And yet, for a birth mom, she really needs to step outside of her own biology and her own feelings and make a really, really hard decision of what is ultimately best for her child, not just for now but for an entire lifetime. Not being in that situation myself, I can’t imagine how it feels to be faced making such a difficult decision, while confronting strong emotions, surging pregnancy hormones and a naturally growing bond with the baby you are carrying. I do know that taking the steps to do best by ones child, setting aside one’s own interests and feelings (and biology!), shows an awe-inspiring level of fortitude, bravery and selflessness.
During one part of the process for writing and designing my adoption letter, the designer I was working with suggested exercises to stir the creative juices for writing the text for the letter. One was to make a list of the five things you hope to teach your child. I didn’t end up using this for the letter, but was inspired and came up with ten. To be honest, I’m still learning some of these myself—see #6!
So, here they are…
Ten things I hope to teach my child:
- Be curious. Ask questions. Explore the world around you.
- Be kind and loving with others.
- True friends are rare finds. Cherish them.
- Learn to look on the bright side, even when it’s hard to find.
- Work hard but have fun too.
- Embrace imperfection
- Respect yourself and others too.
- Be open-minded and don’t judge.
- Be brave—you can do anything.
- Above all, be true to yourself