The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story
I was in my 40s when I decided to quit a cushy secretarial job at a Park Avenue law firm in order to write full-time. The move felt risky. My husband, a professor at NYU, was 17 years older, and the loss of my pay check cut our already modest income in half. But the fear, confusion, and indecision I felt was only partly due to our precarious finances. The main reason was because we had just decided to adopt a baby.
In spite of my worries and reservations, John and I flew to Lubbock, Texas, to register with an adoption agency recommended by friends. My mother had retired to West Texas, and only a few weeks earlier I had traveled there to visit her before she died. Now I was returning to that barren land in search of new life.
The adoption agency said it could take months to get a baby. We filled out all the application forms, and went home to wait for the call.
A year went by, then two years. But no call came.
“Baby shortage,” the agency said.
“Elephant pregnancy,” my friend Cathy said. (Elephants have a two-year gestation period.)
Two more years went by. I could have had two baby elephants by then.
Four years is a long time to wait. It’s also an ample amount of time to get older. By now I was 47 and had just published my first children’s book with Houghton Mifflin. A baby might make me lose my momentum. I began to consider backing out.
During this time, I spent many hours arguing with my Argentinian psychiatrist, Jorge, who insisted I would ruin my life if I didn’t have a baby. He told me about nuns he counseled in their 60s who were horribly depressed because they had never had children. I told him how depressed I’d be if I ended up with a baby and a job working at a local 7-Eleven.
I argued just as fiercely with friends who said I’d be ruining my life if I did have a baby.
“I know someone who had a baby late in life,” one said, “and her hair turned white in two weeks!”
John said he was fine with whatever I decided, which was no help at all because I couldn’t argue with him.
I tried to pray about my decision but nothing happened, which wasn’t surprising since I’ve always had trouble believing in God. But I kept trying anyway.
One day, I was having lunch with my friend Sally. I knew Sally was religious, though she didn’t talk much about her faith. But that day, as we lingered over glasses of white wine, I asked her, “How do you pray?”
Sally looked at me, surprised.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m no expert.”
“But what do you say?” I persisted.
“I don’t say anything,” Sally replied. “I listen.”
“You listen?” I said incredulously. I was always too busy apologizing to God for not believing in him to listen (the perfect paradox for an ambivalent agnostic!). As soon as I got home after lunch that day, I knelt down by our bed.
“The baby could come any moment and I don’t know what to do!” I cried silently.
And then I listened.
“Don’t do anything,” an inner voice came back. Was it my own inner wisdom speaking to me, or the voice of God? One thing was for sure―the voice was not ambivalent.
“But what if the agency calls?” I argued. “I have to decide what to do!”
All this time, I’d been working so hard to resolve my ambivalence. Doing nothing had never occurred to me.
“Don’t do anything,” repeated the voice.
“Well, okay, if you say so,” I answered.
After that, I tried not to think about it, even though it felt strange not to endlessly argue the pros and cons with everyone I knew, including myself.
Six weeks later, on a balmy April afternoon, John, came into my writing room, looking shaken.
“The adoption agency is on the phone,” he said. “Iris wants to talk to you.”
“What does she want?” I asked, half-expecting to hear more news about baby shortages.
John just stared at me. My mouth dropped open.
“You mean―the baby?”
Stunned, I picked up the telephone. Iris started describing “our” baby, born early that morning.
“She’s beautiful!” she said, in her soft Texas drawl. “She has dark hair and plump rosy cheeks.”
“That’s wonderful!” I said, gesturing frantically to John.
Should we go through with it?
While John got on the phone, taking down details, I ran into the bathroom, closed the door, and squeezed my eyes shut tight.
“What should I do now?” I asked silently. And the answer came.
John was in the middle of grading finals, so I would have to make the trip to Texas alone. He dropped me off at the airport at dawn the next morning for the flight to Lubbock. I walked stiffly down the ramp to the plane, terrified that I was making an irreversible mistake.
In my room at the Residence Inn in Lubbock, I laid out tiny socks, gowns, and bottles, as if in a dream. The crib I had requested stood empty beside my bed.
My last free night, I thought.
Later, I took a walk down the treeless Texas streets.
My last free walk.
The next morning, Iris, the director of the adoption agency, took me to brunch. It seemed unreal, eating Caesar salad and making small talk as though nothing momentous was about to happen.
After brunch, we drove to the agency where I began signing a huge stack of papers. Still no mention of the baby. Was I really getting one? I couldn’t stand another moment of uncertainty. I was ready to make a leap―any leap―to escape my own ambivalence.
“Uh, will I be getting the baby here or do we go somewhere else?” I asked, trying to sound off-handed.
“Oh, the baby has already arrived,” said Iris, with a smile. “I’ll go get her now.”
Iris left the room and I stood up, my heart pounding.
This is it, I thought. The moment I’ve been thinking about for four years. In a minute, I will see the person who will change my life, irrevocably.
At that moment the door burst open and Iris walked in. Asleep in her arms was a tiny baby. She had dark straight hair, long lashes, and she was snoring.
“Isn’t she beautiful? said Iris. “What will you call her?”
“A-Annelise,” I stuttered, wishing I could adopt Iris along with Annelise. (She looked so warm and maternal with the baby in her arms.)
At that moment the baby began to whimper. Iris handed her to me, smiling.
WAIT A MINUTE! I wanted to yell. I don’t know a thing about babies!
Iris walked me to a cab, and I put the baby in her new car seat, my hands shaking as I struggled with straps and buckles. Annelise seemed to take this with cheerful good humor, as if to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. Everything will be okay.”
“Good luck!” said Iris, when she dropped us off at the hotel. “I’ll get in touch with you when the paperwork is processed and you’re free to go home.”
The cab door closed. This tiny being―this slender new life―was entirely in my hands. Whether she thrived or perished was up to me.
“If you knew how little I know, you’d be panicking, too!” I told her.
Back at the hotel, the clothes and baby supplies I’d laid out neatly became confused and scattered as I was hurtled headlong into 24-hour baby care.
The baby was exceptionally good-natured and spunky. But she was also squirmy, hungry, and wet. Not only that, but the phone kept ringing. John, friends, family―everyone wanted to know how we were doing. (I was on the phone so much I worried the baby would think that the telephone receiver was a human appendage.) At one point, I became so flustered that I answered the phone in my eye, resulting in an ugly black bruise.
Finally, at 2:00 in the morning, I fell into an exhausted sleep. I woke up at 5:00, my heart pounding.
I can’t handle this!
Listen! I said to myself. If you want to get out of this, you can. One call to Iris and it will all be over.
Just then, Annelise woke up and started making soft cooing sounds to herself. Sounds of happiness. Sounds of life.
My mind stopped racing.
Oh, I thought. This is nice.
Well okay, I’ll figure it out later, I decided. Right now, we need more formula. I put the baby in her sling and trudged across the hot, searing parking lot to Target. My mind was too tired to think. And then, out of the tiredness, came a thought.
I want this baby.
The thought scared me. I wasn’t ready for it. I’d deal with it later, I decided.
In spite of my exhaustion and black eye, I started to feel better. Annelise herself was a part of this change in a way I could never have imagined beforehand. This was no generic baby, but a real, living being who gazed at me with her deep, dark eyes as if to say, “We’re going to do this, together.”
Gradually, the two of us fell into a rhythm, like a slow waltz in the moonlight. Washing and sorting the baby’s clothes, bathing and dressing her were deeply soothing and restorative. I felt overcome with tenderness and exhilarated by the universe opening within me.
I was falling in love.
That night, when I closed my eyes, the “voice” spoke to me for the first time since it had ordered me to start packing.
“This is what I couldn’t tell you,” it said, “about falling in love. You wouldn’t have believed me. You wouldn’t have understood.”
The next week, the adoption agency called to tell me all the necessary papers had been processed. Annelise and I were free to go home. I took her to the paediatrician before we left, to make sure she was in good shape for the trip.
In the doctor’s office I was given a form to fill out. At the bottom was a space requesting “name of mother.” I stared at it, frowning. Why were they asking for my mom’s name? Then it dawned on me.
Smiling, I wrote my own name in the space.
5 replies on “The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story”
A wonderful read.thanks for sharing your thoughts and your talent
Thank you for sharing. Such a lovely story. I hope all three of you are healthy and happy.
Thank you for sharing this and the smiles it brought with it.
I love this story and remember it well being a friend of this warm and exceptional family. The proof is in the wonderful life of all three of the family members and the beautiful young woman Annelise is today.
I love your love story. And it continues as Annelise has grown into such a fabulous young woman.