Last Mother’s Day, I was a mom, but I’d never laid eyes on my son. Binyam, then 13 months old, was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I was in suburban Seattle, folding baby clothes and stocking up on diapers. We were just weeks away from meeting our boy.
For four years, my husband, Steve, and I had been trying to start a family. For the first two, we went the old-fashioned route, veering into infertility treatments and all the associated anguish. When we made the decision to adopt internationally, it was like a huge weight had been lifted. We knew it would take months, even years — but we were certain this path would lead to a child.
And it did. On March 2, 2009, a full year after we’d submitted our paperwork to the adoption agency, I got “the call.” When I hung up the phone, I looked at my mother in wonderment and said, “I’m a mom.” I will never, as long as I live, forget that feeling.
Giddiness and joy began to give way to the practicalities. Steve and I busied ourselves preparing the house for a little one — getting his bedroom ready, child-proofing electrical outlets, cabinets and staircases. My girlfriends at work decorated my office with “It’s a boy!” signs and streamers. Our friends threw us two baby showers. It was wonderful to feel like a “normal” expectant parent, with all the excitement and anxiety that comes along with it.
Still, Steve and I wondered if maybe we shouldn’t bone up on stuff, read some books or something. When we asked our friends with kids how to prepare for parenting, they’d smile wryly and say, “You can’t.”
Boy, I’ll say.
Traveling to Ethiopia was like a dream. We flew 8,000 miles, experienced a new country and culture and met other adoptive parents who would become close friends. And, of course, there was Binyam.
When I saw Binyam for the first time, I felt a torrent of emotions. On one hand, I wanted nothing more than to scoop him up and rain a thousand kisses on his adorable baby cheeks. But this child had seen a lot of change in his short life, and we needed to go slowly.
We had no other choice, really. Our agency, the St. Paul, Minn.-based Children’s Home Society and Family Services, doesn’t permit adoptive parents to take custody of their children right away. They believe that daily, progressively longer visits allow parents to get to know their new family member in his or her own environment, which is ultimately less traumatic for the child.
I’m still amazed at how adaptable Binyam was. The slight apprehension he showed at first faded within days. All the pictures of us during that time show two beaming parents, thrilled that all our months and years of paperwork, social-worker visits and nail-biting had all been worth it.
Reality sets in
After a harrowing, 29-hour journey back to Seattle, we all tried to settle into a routine. Those first few days and weeks are a blur. I felt clumsy, exhausted and exhilarated. We had child in our house! But … wow, we had a child in our house — a walking, babbling, grabbing toddler, to be more precise. He was always adorable and frequently hilarious, but he also wanted to be carried all the time. He resisted naps. He screamed bloody murder at bath time. Steve and I were like the Keystone Cops, running in circles as we tried to figure out what to do.
Most parents of toddlers say they’ve grappled with the same things. But most parents get way more ramp-up time than we did. While we missed the every-other-hour feedings and the worst of the sleep deprivation, we also missed the gradual progression and familiarity that comes with seeing your baby turn into toddler.
Before Bini, as we soon started calling him, I had worked long days that bled into nights. Dinners out on weekends were a given, and I thought nothing of two hours at the gym. Intellectually, I had known those days would end once I became a parent. But there is no way to fully prepare for how all-encompassing parenting is, and in those first couple of months, I grieved for my old life.
I remember trailing after my little guy, cleaning in his wake, and checking e-mail every five minutes on my phone. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just go play by himself and let me read my New York Times with my morning coffee. Simply getting from the house to the car was sometimes an exhausting, bewildering battle.
I loved my son desperately, but I was struggling. I didn’t really know how to talk to him, or how to interpret what he was communicating to me. When he cried, it felt like an indictment of my ineptitude. I’d feel stung when he’d reach for Steve instead of me. I’d assumed that my maternal instincts would slide into place once I held my child in my arms. But it takes more than having a child to truly be a mother — something I didn’t yet understand.
A mother is born
One steamy August day, Bini and I sought refuge from our 90-degree house at a nearby air-conditioned shopping mall. Bini was running up and down a wheelchair ramp, in front of the Cinnabon, when he spied another boy about his age. The two squealed with delight, and began playing together. His mom and I stood silently, watching our boys run, giggle and tumble.
After a few minutes, I noticed that my face hurt from smiling. I hadn’t checked my e-mail in at least an hour, and my mind was blissfully blank, absent all the usual churning thoughts about chores to be done, or errands to be run. I was happy just to be there, watching my beautiful, gleeful boy.
As the summer lazed into fall, I felt my insides, knotted up after years of working and striving and achieving and fretting, start to unfurl. I began to let my son take the lead sometimes. If we had afternoon plans and he preferred staying home and boogying to “Sir Duke,” that was OK by me. If we were on our way to the playground and he got sidetracked by a trail of ants crossing the path, I’d drop to my knees and study the insects with him. He taught me, in a few short months, what I’d sought all of my adult life: how to slow down and see what was around me.
Falling in love with your child is similar to falling in love with a grown-up. The more you get to know the person, the more relaxed and confident you become. Steve and I had been so nervous at first, unsure about when to be firm and when to bend. What we learned in those first few months is that parenting is all about trial and error, and figuring out what works.
When you love an adult, though, you expect that they’ll love you back, and that you’ll get something in return for your emotional investment. With a child, the emotional investment is the reward. You have to succumb to loving without the promise of being loved back. You love because it gives you joy.
On Mother’s Day, grateful kids (and dads) express their thanks to Mom, and all she does the other 364 days of the year. But this year, I’m the thankful one. I’m so lucky to be the matriarch of my own tiny little family, this family I chose. And this year, I feel immense gratitude not only that I finally have the child I’ve always longed for, but that he’s taught me how to be a good mother.
Being a mom is what makes me happiest now. And so, last month, I left my cherished job as a technology editor at msnbc.com, and a newsroom of friends. It was a tough decision, but the right one for me. Every time I look at my boy, my ebullient, bright, beautiful child, I know without a doubt that this is exactly where I want to be.