We Adopt a Child: Anonymous

I

FOR five years my husband and I had talked about adopting a baby, ever since the doctors had made it clear that I must have no more by the common garden method. Sometimes I said that the reason I wanted to adopt was because we were spoiling our son. But at moments when I was completely honest with myself I knew I just naturally wanted another baby, with or without reason.

As another autumn closed in, the idea of a second child literally possessed me. I was not surprised when our son Andy put ‘Baby’ at the head of his Christ mas list. With an only child’s sensitivity he had read my heart. On Christmas morning he dumped his stocking on the floor, gave one look around, and said, blinking through tears, ‘Santa Claus didn’t bring her.’

That night I faced my husband across our fire to talk the thing through. He had not witnessed our little boy’s earlymorning disappointment, but he understood vaguely that it had been a difficult holiday. For the child there had been the solicitous concentration of two parents, three grandparents, a devoted cook, and a chauffeur. For me there had been the backwash of Andy’s reaction to too much of everything. I cannot report our conversation word for word, but it ran about like this.

‘You’d think our kid had enough to make him happy,’ said my husband after Andy had gone to bed howling.

‘He hasn’t got a brother or a sister, and that’s what he wants most,’ I retorted, ‘You know one child isn’t a family. If I could do it we’d have at least two more.’

As though to ward off what I might say next, he announced, ‘I don’t think I could take in somebody else’s kid and love it right off the bat.’

I was prepared for that argument. ‘For the child’s sake, as well as ours, there is a probation period lasting from six months to a year. If we don’t get on with her we can take her back.’

‘Look at Godfrey Deering,’ said my husband.

I knew as well as he did that the case of the Deering child was unfortunate. The parents had lost their only son in an accident. To replace him they had adopted a youngster of about four — the age of the child they had lost. Their own child had been a blond AngloSaxon, large for his age, the replica of his father. The child they had hastily adopted turned out to be small-boned and Slavic-looking. Mr. Deering alluded to him as ‘my wife’s baby.’ You could see at a glance that the youngster didn’t feel at home with them, in spite of his superb name and a white-capped nurse. Because he had not turned out to be another edition of the child they lost they had withheld their love.

‘How could a child develop normally under such conditions?’ I asked my husband.

His next objection was not so easy to meet. ‘My father and mother would put up an awful row,’ he said.

I knew they would, for we had already broached the question to them. You see, my husband is an architect, with all the uncertainties of an architect’s income. They gave us our big lot and money to build on it. They furnished us with a perfect nursery and play equipment enough for a large family. Efficiency is my father-in-law’s motto, so I tried to present the subject of adoption in language that would appeal to him.

‘You’ve set us up so well, wouldn’t it be more efficient to operate on the scale for which this place was planned?’ I asked him.

Unfortunately my mother-in-law put her oar in before he had a chance to answer. ‘Don’t do it,’ she said. ‘Think of the things that can happen to children — the accidents, the diseases, the disgraces. Look at what happened to the Horton girl. Look at Tom Gould.’ Before we left she had named over the worst failures in the neighborhood.

My husband made the obvious answer. ‘Only one of those kids is an adopted child,’ he said.

Nevertheless they had squashed our first, enthusiasm so successfully that we let two years go by without a definite step. After all, our arms were not empty. But I knew, and my husband knew, that the truest happiness, the bond that kept our friends together in a world where divorce grew daily more common, was children. Being an only child myself, I also knew the agonies an only child could suffer. Andy needed another young thing in the house.

But it must not be merely for Andy that we took this step.

‘I can live without another child if you’d rather not adopt,’ I told my husband that Christmas night. ‘But I can’t stand this suspense of whether we will or whether we won’t. I’ve begun to dream about it.’

He wadded the bowl of his pipe and puffed awhile. ‘It’s more your problem than mine,’ he conceded at last. ‘You know I’m a born experimenter. But I could be contented with just you and me.’

‘And Andy,’ I prompted.

‘And Andy, of course. But there you have the difference between men and women. Consciously I suppose I’m as paternal as the next man. Unconsciously I’m a wild creature who hates to be confined. For the moment I had forgotten Andy.’

‘Do you mean to imply that the female of the species likes nothing better than a continual litter?’ I replied heatedly. ‘I’ll have you know I’m not domestic right down to the bone myself. A woman’s imagination is just as roving as a man’s. You don’t seem to realize that a real family will keep me faithful to you better than anything.’

He said, looking horrified, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

But from then on he worked and planned with me.

We tackled his family with new determination. My mother-in-law is Southern, a great horsewoman. Her favorite argument against adoption was ‘It doesn’t pay to mix breeds.’

My father-in-law is a Scot. I am mostly Irish, with a strain of German. We tried to point out to them that the breed was already about as mixed as possible. But the arguments on both sides grew more illogical as our emotions became more involved.

My mother-in-law said tartly, ‘Don’t expect me to grow fond of some servant girl’s misstep.’

‘You have no right to say that,’ cried my husband. We never discussed the matter with them again, but we began to investigate Northern adoption agencies. We inquired of friends. We learned that there were far fewer good children to be had than good potential parents. Already having a child of our own, we might have to wait some time. We learned that one cardinal rule in successful adoption was to acquire as young a baby as possible.

I made inquiries from the Board of Control in our own state and even looked up an adoption home in London. In sober moments I realized that the one was questionable, the other too far. We didn’t want a doorstep baby of unknown parentage; we were not in this because of any holy or altruistic aim. We wanted the best material available; we intended to be proud of our child from the start. And after all she had to compete with Andy.

At last a reliable place sent us printed forms to fill out: What sex baby do you want? What coloring? What national background would you prefer? The second sheet indicated that we also were to be subjected to a rigid inspection: What exactly is your religion? What is your income? What is the size of your house? What is your education? Please give names of three reliable references, who have known you for at least three years.

The people who were our references received examination papers that asked searching questions about us. Among other things they asked if our marital relationship was what it should be.

Meanwhile my husband wrote out a careful genealogy tracing back through four generations of American slave owners, but including two wood-chopping grandparents from across the Atlantic. He added that our new daughter’s national background would not prove a stumblingblock. If her parents came from northern or central Europe she would fit in with our son’s already mixed heredity. The important prerequisite was a clean mental and physical bill of health. And, he wrote, ‘Our son has a good inheritance. We shall want to know as much as possible about the grandparents, as well as the parents, of any child we adopt.’

So we sent in our order.

II

By that time I was talking as openly about our daughter-to-be as though she were really my own child. Andy talked about her too. He had lined a grape basket with his silk wadded wrapper and alluded to it as ‘my sister’s cradle.’

I skimmed my mail looking for news. It came at last by wire. The agency telegraphed that a baby who answered most of our requirements had arrived. My husband and I went North to see and to be seen. Neither of us will ever forget that journey. Every objection to adoption we had ever heard churned in our heads. One objection, to which there seemed to be no answer, was that we had let five years go by. Andy and the adopted child would have too many years between them to make companionship possible.

My husband kept saying conveniently, ‘Anyway, it’s your funeral. You started it.’ Driving up to the agency, he cautioned me. ‘They’re selling us this commodity. Keep your eyes open. Keep cool.’

‘I’ll be cold-blooded,’ I promised. ‘We won’t commit ourselves on one visit. We’ll look over what they’ve got. Then we’ll go and make up our minds.’

I had already written Miss X, directress of the agency, that before we took the child I must have my husband’s whole-hearted approval. That leaves us a hole to crawl out by, I thought.

Miss X received us with pleasant calmness. We all lunched together before going up to the nursery. ‘All prospective parents are beset with doubts at this stage of the game,’ she said. ‘They all think they aren’t going to love their new baby enough.’

‘How about the parents who are giving up their child?’ my husband asked. It was a point that the printed forms had not mentioned.

‘All bona fide agencies do their best to help parents keep their babies when they want to and feel they can,’ Miss X said. ‘The mother or sometimes both parents come in with the baby. We keep it during a probation period agreed on. If during that time the mother and father marry, or the obstacle, whatever it may be, is overcome, they reclaim him. One agency boasts of returning over a hundred probational babies to their parents.’

‘Exactly where do these babies come from?’ asked my husband in his firmest voice.

‘The majority of them are first babies born out of wedlock. No one, I think, would be eager to raise a mother’s second or third illegitimate child, even though biologists claim that the germ plasm of the offspring is in no way affected. But babies come to us from two other sources. With hard times many married couples, too proud to beg, prefer to give up their baby rather than not be able to feed and care for it properly. Third, there is the abandoned baby. Every child-placing organization has a small quota of those. But of course all our babies undergo the same rigid examination and receive the same care. Unless physical defects can be eliminated, and if any mental weakness exists, the ill-favored ones go on to a permanent institution.’ Miss X sat back, neatly folding her napkin. ‘When you consider the miserable specimens born into many good families, the advantage of careful adopt ion is obvious,’ she said placidly.

My husband lighted his fourth cigarette and said, but not so firmly, ‘I want to know about the little girl’s grandfathers before we see her. She’ll have to hold her own with my family.’

‘We do not give all particulars of the baby’s background,’ smiled Miss X. ‘The less you know, the more you will feel she belongs to you. And for the child’s sake it is safer for you not to know too much. You see, though I urge all parents to use the term “adopted” as one of endearment, and as soon as possible, yet the time does come when you must explain to her what adoption is. Then she will try to worm out of you all you know about her parents. And if you and she know too much it will tempt her to delve into her past, with sad psychological results.’

‘But we need some facts to sell this child to my mother and father,’ said the head of the house, even less firmly than before.

‘She’ll take care of that,’ Miss X told him. ‘She comes from good stock. Her father is a college graduate and her mother is unusually intelligent. Since that was one of the things you had stressed, I sent her off to have an I.Q. taken. But the important thing is that our house doctor assures me your little girl is brighter than average.’

Miss X was altogether too persuasive. I decided to step in. ‘If you could only clear up this grandparent question we would ask no more,’ I said.

‘In this case that would require more probing than I felt, was justified,’ said Miss X, and seemed to think a moment. She tapped her spoon sharply on the table as though an inspiration had come to her. ‘I tell you what! A mother and her eighteen-year-old debutante daughter are in hiding not far from here. They came in to see me last week. The girl’s parents are leaders in the financial and social life of a neighboring city. Last summer she was yachting. I believe they called it a coeducational house party. The young lady says vaguely she can’t, imagine what happened! That baby is due in six weeks. You can wait for it if you want to.’

We shook our heads, gasping.

‘Very well,’ said Miss X briskly. ‘I’ll see if your baby’s ready to show.’

‘Ready to show?’ I echoed. It sounded like some new kind of icebox.

While Miss X was telephoning, my husband muttered, ‘Remember what I said. Keep your wits about you.’

‘Your baby is in the display room. We’ll take the elevator,’ said Miss X, returning to us.

I felt as though we were nearing an animal fair as we walked down the corridor of the nursery floor through a symphony of wails and coos and gurgles.

My husband stuck out his jaw and squared his chest defensively. Everyone else looked brisk and smiling. A nurse in the hall held white gowns ready to slip over our traveling clothes. We gritted our teeth and, not daring to meet each other’s eyes, followed into a pink-hung sun porch, with a bassinet in the centre of it.

‘Pink for a girl and blue for a boy,’ said Miss X cheerfully.

A rocker lay in wait. For the unwary, I thought. I would avoid that rocker.

The nurse by the bassinet stood aside. Within, on a scrap of pillow, lay an exquisite baby. Her laughing eyes held mine. Her feet, in pink knitted booties, did upside-down bicycling.

‘Oh, my baby! Oh, your poor other mother!’ I burbled. Why had we waited so long? Why were we waiting now? I leaned down to take her. My knees went weak and the rocker caught us both.

She liked being in my arms. Her mouth widened in the most valiant of grins. ‘I’ll just wrap her in this blanket and be going,’ I said like a mad woman.

Why didn’t those people in the door step aside? Then out of the mist that separated my baby and me from the rest of the world my husband’s face took shape, wearing, it seemed to me, the same look it had worn when he first saw Andy. ‘Come now,’ he was saying, ‘I’m this kid’s father. It’s my turn to hold her.’

Le oœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas, as the French like to remind younger nations from time to time.

But unfortunately we could not abduct Millicent then and there. First she had to complete her physical tests. After these came the red tape of legal adoption.

We took a room in a hotel while we waited for the agency to discharge her. My husband did a lot of walking, but I spent most of those three days hanging on the telephone. Finally Miss X telephoned: ‘Your baby is signed out. You may come for her.’

As we were leaving we caught a glimpse of mother nature in her darker aspects and touched the deep stream of tragedy that must flow through every adoption agency. We had come in to find the entrance room permeated by a pleasant excitement. Regardless of the hour, the small ceremonies of launching a baby were being observed.

We had telephoned for our taxi and came sailing downstairs with Millicent as the doorbell rang. But it was not our taxi. One of the student nurses admitted a poor creature who kept her face turned from the light. Inside her coat collar she begged, ‘Can I see my baby? Can I see Baby Jones for just a minute?’

‘Baby Jones was adopted last week,’ chirped the student nurse in her young empty voice. ‘ You signed a paper giving up all claim to him, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did. But I wanted to see him just for a minute. He had a cold in his head last time I saw him.’

‘He’s gone, but I’m sure he’s perfectly all right,’ the nurse told her.

‘Thank you, miss.’ The woman ducked her head, fumbled to find the doorknob, and went out.

We knew that our Millicent was not Baby Jones. But although we had been told that with eighty-five per cent of the illegitimate children the father was superior in education and opportunity to the mother, it would have taken more courage than either of us possessed to adopt that woman’s child.

III

As soon as we stepped into the taxi our spirits soared again. We wrangled all the way down to the station about which of us should hold Milly.

Finally my husband said, ‘I’ll always be grateful to this kid because you can come home carrying her, instead of on a stretcher as you did last time.’

So he let me carry her on to the train.

But when she wouldn’t finish her bottle he said, ‘See here, I know what’s wrong —the kid’s gassy.’ He whacked Milly on the back, and over his shoulder she gave an obedient belch. How triumphant he looked!

‘What do you think your family will say?’ I asked him sometime during that sleepless night.

‘Who cares what they say?’ he answered.

We telegraphed them that we should arrive the following evening. When we came up our driveway I saw my motherin-law awaiting us. She looked stiff and old and a little frightened at sight of her son with a strange baby in his arms. She did not come forward. But Andy ran in front of her and embraced his father’s knees.

‘Let me see! Let me see!’ he cried.

After one glance he rushed for his grape-basket cradle. It was, of course, too small. My arms were full of quilts, diapers, and bottles. There was a moment’s uncertainty while my husband looked around for some place to put the baby.

‘Here, Mother. You be the nursemaid a minute,’ he said, and thrust Millicent into those wooden arms.

When I came back from the kitchen with a warm bottle and bent to take the baby, my mother-in-law said, ‘I suppose you think I don’t know how to feed her. It’s easier than raising a colt, you know. Give me that bottle.’

Over her head my husband gave a fierce nod and I relinquished it.

From that time on, my husband’s mother backed our baby with a true conservative’s ardor for le fait accompli.

Before the first glow of possession faded the new member of the family took up most of my time. One evening, for no reason that I could see, my husband brought Andy home an elaborate gift.

When asked what the boy had done to win it he answered, ‘Andy needed a consolation prize. Maybe you haven’t noticed that his nose is out of joint.’

His next remark revealed that it was not only Andy’s nose that was out of joint. He said, ‘The boy looks peaked to me. I think I’ll take him into the mountains for a few days’ tobogganing. You won’t miss us.’

It was the first time he had suggested taking a holiday without me, and it shocked me out of my absorption. After all, Milly was in perfect health. She ate, slept, and eliminated like clockwork. Why not engage a trained nurse to come in for a few days while the three of us went off together?

We packed skis and toboggan on the car. Released from the tension of five years of unsatisfied desire, I felt young and carefree. The nurse reported that the baby was in good shape. Instead of the few days we had expected to be gone we stayed for a fortnight.

Assured by the maid who welcomed us that all was well with our daughter, we went placidly to open our mail, before going upstairs to reassume the responsibility of being her parents.

My husband was the first to look into the nursery. He called to me, ‘See here — this kid’s cross-eyed!’

I rushed in. He looked up from the crib with eyes that were coolly appraising. I saw Millicent return his gaze just as appraisingly as it was given, and it was true that one eye wandered a little.

‘She is — she is cross-eyed!’ I gasped. ‘That’ll be terrible.’

The trained nurse coming in with the noon bottle had overheard us. ‘Don’t you realize not one of them can focus at that age?’ she said as though she hated us both.

‘Of course that’s so,’ agreed my husband and forgot all about it. But it was borne home to me that an enduring love does not grow without due cultivation on both sides.

The baby’s eyes straightened out of their own accord, but during that first year of her life there were moments when I caught myself considering her with an objectivity quite different from my attitude toward my son at that age.

Her reaction to such scrutiny was a look as cool as mine, and that terrified me.

But she was always well. She never cried to be picked up, as Andy had done. There was so little we could do for her.

A specialist in child guidance would have said that our objectivity was healthier for her than the anxiety with which we had hung over delicate little Andy. He had hated to be alone. Milly was equally happy when we were around and when, out in her pen, she snatched at sunbeams, waved at the milkman, and called to every dog within her horizon.

The first word in her vocabulary was ‘Hi,’ which she used for the dogs, or the milkman, or her grandmother. The second was ‘Andy.’ And the next person she learned to address was Lulu, our colored maid. Rather self-consciously I taught her to say ‘Mama.’ I was jealous because her interest in the world as a whole was as great as her interest in her parents.

But, after all, I had never nursed her. She had never been ill. She seldom cried at night. She liked everybody, but she did not need one person above another. Perhaps it was because, that first year of her life, Milly was like an exquisite toy, sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten. Andy, I noticed, paid no attention to her for days at a time, although her eyes followed him as long as he was in sight. Sometimes he handed on mangled possessions for which he had no further use, but he did not take her seriously.

Then Millicent started to walk. Her independence led her into everything. Andy’s cast-off possessions no longer satisfied her. What she wanted was whatever he wanted. For the first time he recognized her as a rival, and he fought her desperately, like a ruler seeing himself in danger of being dispossessed. Being not quite eight, he was without tenderness. When he found her in his room he struck her and struck hard.

For her part, Milly adored her brother. She longed above all things to resemble him. But she would rummage his bureau drawers and handle his things. How could I explain to her that his fury sprang from a jealousy he was too young to control?

I couldn’t. So I had to be on hand to separate them. That was the beginning of a new relationship between Milly and me. She really needed me for the first time, and out of my response to that need rose a sense of personal guardianship, which I think will never die.

At the same time that Andy was flying into jealous rages, his sister generated some temper tantrums that eclipsed his. They were so unlike her usual sunniness that I took her to the doctor. After a thorough examination he reported that he had seldom seen a healthier specimen.

One day my mother-in-law came in to see Milly shoveling her oatmeal on to the dining-room rug. As far as I knew, there was no reason for her naughtiness. No one had been teasing her or even noticing her.

‘Nice little girls don’t do things like that,’ I said, as mildly as possible, at which she took a bite out of her pottery cereal dish.

I turned her upside down and shook her, partly to get the broken crockery out of her mouth before she swallowed it, partly because my own temper was out of hand. When I turned her right side up again she flung her arms around me. Could it be that she preferred punishment to what she considered less than her share of attention?

Milly’s grandmother confirmed this idea. ‘You should notice her more,’ she declared. ‘When Andy flies into a rage you make him the centre of the stage.’

It was true we had not spared the rod on Andy. My husband said sometimes, ‘That’s your father’s stubborn streak. We have to fight it.’ But toward Milly we had assumed a pleasantly fatalistic attitude, as though nothing we did could alter her character one way or another.

‘Unless she’s been naughty, I think when you spank Andy you ought to take some pleasant notice of her,’ my motherin-law suggested.

Because of our son’s jealousy we acted on this suggestion as unobtrusively as possible. It must have been the right thing to do, for Milly’s tantrums ceased.

At last, with the shifting and unfolding which are a continuous process in small children, Andy and his sister reached an understanding. By the time he was ten he reacted to remarks like ‘Andy, it’s up to you to show Milly how to behave. Unless her older brother behaves, how can she?’

That put him on his mettle. He began to realize that this small strutting thing, whom he had considered a nuisance, looked to him for direction.

They are friends and allies now, for trouble or pleasure. Milly has taught her brother what no adult could have taught him so well: to share and to consider others.

When my husband and I need a holiday we are able to leave them together and know that neither will be lonely. Because of Milly our boy has acquired a new light-heartedness.

Her social gift is a continual delight to us. It makes friends for Andy as well as for her. I suppose that some schools of thought would say she inherited it. But I do not believe that warm and independent, spirit is inherited. I believe she sensed from the first moment, when she lay in her grandmother-to-be’s arms, that it was up to her to put her best foot forward.

And now for the question which the world is prone to ask, the question which disturbed us when we were considering adoption: Do we love her as much as we love Andy?

We do not believe there is a final answer to the question of parental love, whether adoption enters into it or not. After all, do any parents, natural or otherwise, feel the same quality of love toward each child? In the long run the quantity usually balances pretty well, but even there the child’s disposition, the father’s pocket book, and the mother’s health at the time of its arrival must be taken into account. How do people with no sons feel, when the fourth or fifth daughter arrives? Can there be one definite, final answer to problems like these?

Suppose we apply the academic question: Which child would you save from a sinking ship provided that you could save only one?

Our answer there is that we would save Millicent. But adoption does not enter into it one way or another. We would save her because she is our youngest and, God help her, a woman.

In the days of large families when children came as God’s free gift and nothing could stop them, adoption was much less common, of course. Foster children, at least so the storybooks would have us believe, were expected to feel a debt toward the people who ‘ took them in.’

But today adoption has become a regular industry. Children are as often adopted to save a woman’s sanity as for any other reason. If there is a debt owed it is to, not by, the child. When the difficult moment arrives when we must make it clear to Milly that she is not flesh of our flesh, we shall say, ' In other homes they have to take what comes. We chose you especially.’

There is another question thoughtless people sometimes ask. They look from one child to the other and say over their heads, ‘Which is the adopted one?’ The last, time t hat happened my husband turned on the interrogator savagely with ‘Really, I don’t remember.’