I once had a friend who asked me if he and his wife should adopt a child. They were in their 40s and well-to-do. My wife and I had just adopted a toddler from Romania and apparently Rich thought I would be a good source for parental advice.
Rich had worked on Wall Street for a financial firm and had invested a good chunk of his money in Microsoft before Bill Gates had become a household name. When Rich lost his job in Manhattan, he and his wife moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the grass actually is greener and the air cleaner. Rich attempted to find work, but found that his previous six-figure salary scared off most prospective employers. Companies, Rich said, assumed that he would take flight once he found a better paying position, so Rich gave up the hunt and never landed on his feet employment-wise—he was a buried Department of Labor statistic—overqualified and out of work, but between his shrewd investments and his wife’s pay, they made more than enough bread to live comfortably.
So Rich wondered aloud one day if maybe he should add a member to the family that wasn’t canine.
Rich’s wife worked for a large pharmaceutical company and she held a position of such prestige that she commuted to work by limousine or corporate helicopter. While Mary traveled extensively on business, Rich stayed home with their two cocker spaniels and regularly lifted weights in their basement and worked out at the gym. Rich became a notorious gym rat, spending several hours each day at the YMCA, playing basketball and attracting curious glances from retired seniors twice his age who wondered how on earth this guy could afford to retire so early in life. That’s what Rich told people: He was retired.
In retrospect, I think he may have looked at the prospect of “getting” a kid as part of his early retirement package.
I often thought that Rich was simply bored. With so much copious free time on his hands as an unpaid athlete-in-training who traded stocks before breakfast, he handled the enviable daytrader lifestyle with aplomb and without pretension. Meanwhile, I was treading occupational water, running a used bookshop in the Northeast Philadelphia suburbs at the time (mid-1990s), and barely making enough dough to pay rent. Rich would stop in Chapters Revisited every day and ask how much I would take for the entire store. He kidded, mostly—he had zero interest in owning a bookstore, but I understood his point to mean that everyone has a price. What was my price? My answer then, as it would be now: What is the price of freedom?
My store inventory only consisted of about 15,000 books, so to Rich, it made no sense for me to sit there and sell half-price paperbacks and other low-ticket items while everyone and his cousin were making a killing on the stock market. Rich obsessed over startup dot-coms and initial public offerings (IPOs) such as Yahoo and Amazon, while I obsessed over points of issue that helped me identify and value first editions.
Rich regularly drilled me about margins and YTD returns on investment, which were then foreign concepts to me, though the principle of “making money” (buying low, selling high) seemed logical.
“Making babies,” on the other hand, or raising them—yikes(!)—was an altogether different (dare I say, illogical and highly evolved subject) matter. I felt utterly ill-suited to talk about it. I was a wet-behind-the-ears entrepreneur, a former sportswriter-turned-freelance-journalist covering criminal trials and trying to compensate for the meager income dribbling in from my small, lousy business venture.
Rich and I talked about sports. We talked about our families—not our wives so much, but our parents and our brothers largely because we each had moved away from our roots and it probably was the safest way for us to wax nostalgic without coming across as pantywaist.
Rich talked about what it was like to grow up the token Jewish kid in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in Queens, New York. I talked about my dream to own a bed-and-breakfast and write books in the Caribbean.
Rich talked about his brother’s kids. I talked about my brothers’ kids. We never talked about actually having kids and living with these high-maintenance creatures 24×7. This was virgin terrain—the kind that prompts fits of bumbling nonsense and awkward silence. What the hell did we know about kids?
Soiled diapers. Cloth or disposable? The quiet sanctity of nap time. These subjects were now fair game and I hadn’t the heart, nor the courage, to break it to Rich.
How do you save face with a guy who looks at life as one long profit and loss (P&L) statement? How do you confide that raising a kid—particularly an adopted kid with baggage—is scary business?
The new toddler at home—with the neighboring nanny, in fact—was a mystery to me. I had read parts of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and tons of self-help material on adoption, but these guidebooks only succeeded in fraying my nerves and causing a sudden rash of night sweats and hyper vigilance.
When your only kid has been abandoned at an orphanage in the first months of her life and comes to you with an attachment disorder and limited socialization skills, what nuggets of wisdom can you derive from the “manuals” on parenting? How do you make up for two years of negligence and absence of love and stimulus without overwhelming her with hugs and toys? What food will her little body tolerate when she has been accustomed to a low-nutrition diet that caused lumps of her hair to fall out? When you know she is faced with a lifetime of overcoming learning disabilities and you have missed the most vital part of her early childhood development, is it possible to make a difference?
When Rich asked me if I “recommended” adoption, I was flabbergasted. Not surprised, but tongue-tied. It is horrendously difficult to explain the nuances of adoption to those who’ve only had a passing acquaintance with the notion, especially when their understanding of adoption has mostly been colored by the adventures of Little Orphan Annie and a side dish of Pip in Great Expectations.
What should I say to a friend who seemed even less equipped than me to raise a child? Have you ever heard of a new parent talking someone out of the idea of becoming a parent? Wasn’t there a rule of etiquette against that? It would be like a newlywed telling all of her friends to stay single if they knew what was good for them. Women, it seems, would be appalled by such callousness. Men, on the other hand, are beasts.
I told Rich the truth—well, as much as truth could be told while stepping around myriad adoption issues like land mines and making light of the situation. I told him that I was closing the brick & mortar store (a losing business proposition, anyway) so I could stay at home with my kid. I told him that it didn’t seem right for us to bring a two-year-old girl more than 4,000 miles overseas and acquaint her with a brand new nurturing environment and then promptly dump her at the neighbor’s house so I could go to my book sanctuary and estimate the value of the first UK edition of Tropic of Cancer.
I told Rich that I would write a book someday about the misadventures of being an ill-prepared, stay-at-home dad. I told him that I planned to write it in the Caribbean, in between changing sheets and washing towels at my bed-and-breakfast.
I lied to Rich, too, as men are wont to do because intimate male-to-male communication is not necessarily our strong suit. I omitted much of what needed to be said. I never described to him the frustrations of parenting a child who seems to resist me at every turn, only then to bring me unexpected joy with a smile or hug. I never described to Rich the enormous guilt I felt when I opted to return to work not because our family needed the money, but because I needed to feel a sense of self-worth; the daily pressures of being a house husband and stay-at-home dad had gotten to be too much. Full-time domesticity hadn’t come naturally, the way I had hoped, but the experience had taught me lessons in humility that the workplace could never supply.
I never explained to Rich why adoptive parenting isn’t something I could recommend or advise him against like a stock pick; it’s something you do because you’re called to do it and you hope by God you made the right choice. You pray that all the doubts and second-guessing stop and somewhere along the line you trust that you will wake up and somehow just know that you done good. And that feeling you had deep in the pit of your stomach? Perhaps it really was the stirring of your soul.
Through all the struggles, the hollering, and the hurtful, regrettable comments that slip out of my mouth, I’ve left my mark on a kid. And no matter how I tally the spreadsheet, it’s the only mark of its kind. Whether or not my daughter perceives it as a lifelong blessing or a wretched curse is anyone’s guess. But it’s my kid out there, making her way in the world. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the best stock tips in China.
Martin, Cynthia D., Ph.D., and Groves, Dru Martin, M.A., Beating the Adoption Odds: Using Your Head and Your Heart to Adopt
Melina, Lois Ruskai, Raising Adopted Children: Practical, Reassuring Advice for Every Adoptive Parent
Gray, Deborah D., Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents
Pavao, Joyce Maguire, The Family of Adoption
Kruger, Pamela and Smolowe, Jill, A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents
Watkins, Mary and Fisher, Susan, Talking with Young Children about Adoption