I Am a Mama: Motherhood Through Adoption

How It Started

I don’t think I knew anyone who was officially adopted when I was growing up.  I knew family members who had taken other relatives’ children in and raised them as their own, but I never considered that adoption.

 When I was in college, I remember seeing several television shows about adoption and being drawn to the idea. Normally, ideas like these are fleeting when you’re in college, as it is a time for young adults to explore possible futures. However, it sparked something in me, something that lasted far beyond my college days.

Many years after college I wrote, “I want to adopt,” on my bucket list.  The idea obviously continued to speak to me.  I remember telling myself if I ever get married, I still wanted to adopt.  I remember looking at my bucket list in 2009 and thinking, “I am not getting any younger.” Getting married was not a priority, but the desire to adopt and raise a child was still strong. 

As an only child whose parents loved me, I always felt like my cup ran over. I always knew I had so much to give to another human being because so much had been given to me.  I never put much stock in needing a blood relationship between myself and a child because even relationships built on DNA don’t grow unless you nurture them. The people around me loved me and invested time in me, and I knew that I had the tools and desire to do the same for a child, regardless of where his/her life started.

The bottom line was I was a single woman who wanted to share my love, my life, and the lessons I had gained along the way with a child, ultimately my child.  

After my first thoughts about adoption, about 18 years later, I was more than ready to embark on this journey because I thought, “If not now, then when?”

The Process

I started researching what I needed to do to become an adoptive mom. There were things I knew, like I wanted to be a mom of a daughter, and I wanted a child under 3 years old. What I didn’t realize was how much time and effort went into the adoption process. For me that included attending adoption fairs, researching adoption agencies, and reading a lot of books about adoption, similar to this eBook.  One big decision that I had to make was whether to adopt domestically or internationally.  At the time, I felt being a single female nearing my 50s was working against my aspirations of motherhood. I started the process late in life, and I didn’t want to wait years for a family to select me to parent their child. If I created an adoption profile, I feared no birth family would select me, so I decided that the international adoption route was better for me.  I thought the process would be long, but I felt some known parameters were under my control. 

I looked at several countries and decided Ethiopia would be the best place for me to adopt from. According to the BBC news website, there are approximately one million Ethiopians in the United States, the largest concentration is in the Washington, D.C. area, which encompasses Maryland, D.C., and Virginia with approximately 250,000 Ethiopians. I remember going to classes with Ethiopian students while in college in the D.C. area, but I didn’t realize how large the population was until I started considering adopting from Ethiopia. Luckily, I had decided to live in the D.C. area and would be able to expose my child to people within her culture. 

As I embarked on my adoption journey, I remember people in my life peppering me with a litany of questions regarding my decision to adopt, and when I added in the twist of the foreign country, I was inundated. I must admit some of the questions and statements were outrageous.  Some of the things I heard were, “You know, you don’t know what you are getting,” and, “You ever thought about having a child the old-fashioned way?” I even had a supervisor ask me if the child was healthy. Regardless of the questions that came my way, I knew for sure that my mind was set. No matter the questions or the skepticism, I was all in.  

I can say with absolute certainty that I have had no regrets.  My life was good before making my decision and even better after.  Adopting has brought so much joy and purpose to my life.  

Once I started the international adoption process, it seemed like there was endless paperwork and appointments. But with each piece of paper I sent in – including the dossier, personal references, and home studies – I felt all of it bringing me closer to being a mother.  

 March 14, 2011, was a seemingly ordinary day. I recall it being a sunny afternoon when the fire alarm sounded at my office. I trekked outside the building to wait as instructed for the all clear.  Little did I know my real wait was over, that I had been sent my very own alert. While walking back to reenter the building, I decided to look at my email on my phone.  I had a message with the subject, “Referral!”  I was immediately on high alert.  Was this what I thought it was? My heart started to beat a bit faster.  I could not move my fingers fast enough to open the email.  I went on to read the message that said, “I am pleased to send you this beautiful baby girl as your referral!” I could barely catch my breath. The plans that I had envisioned when I first considered this journey were finally coming to fruition. This email not only communicated that I had a referral for a daughter, it also had what my eyes and heart had been waiting for, a picture. I never cared about what she would look like, but seeing the image made her real.  Becoming a mama was not just something I was telling people I was going to be.  This picture was a real representation that it was happening. Who knew an initial electronic attachment would create a maternal attachment?  There was a small picture of this little baby with more black hair than one could imagine and a serious scowl in an oversized pink outfit with a little bunny on it. In that moment of shock, I realized I was looking at my future. It gave me a living vision of what I had been working towards.

Time to Meet Face-to-Face 

In order to adopt from Ethiopia, it required two trips to the continent.  It is strange to travel to a foreign country you have never been to without any tourist or vacation plans. My only agenda was to meet my daughter in person and go to court to finalize the adoption. There are a few things that stand out about my first visit.  The first was that the staff at the orphanage did not initially realize I was the adoptive mother.  I went with one of my closest friends, and they thought she was the adoptive mom.  We were quick to correct them.  I remember the nanny saying, “Oh, her Mama looks like us.” That was the first time I was called Mama. I must admit, I got more excited because they were excited.   The nerves kicked in as I walked up the steps of the orphanage to the infant room where they took me to meet my baby girl. It was feeding time when I entered the room.  The nanny was encircled by babies on the floor as she fed each of them with a tiny spoon filled with a corn mush concoction.  They pointed my baby out to me. She was the one whining for more food.  After a second helping, she was finally handed to me.  As I held her, she stopped crying, which was a surprise to the nanny because my baby was known for her strong lungs and stronger convictions.  I have a picture of that first meeting and how she looked up at me, quietly assessing the situation. I loved her at first sight, and I knew this was the best decision of my life.  Each day that I visited over the ten-day trip, she became more and more attached.  I recognized this relationship. It was reminiscent of the one I have with my parents; the only difference was my daughter started life on a different continent. I remember the last day and how the tears fell from my eyes as I prepared myself to leave her until my return, which I had no idea when that would be. I handed her back to the nanny, the same way they handed her to me that first day, but this time she hollered and cried.  If my heart had been glass, it would have shattered.

My second trip to Ethiopia occurred in March of 2012 — it felt like an eternity for this day to finally come.  I had worried so much about her well-being while we were apart. Although during my first trip I did not partake in the daily routine of caring for her, I had felt like she was my responsibility.  I was more than ready. I could finally bring her home. This time I traveled with my mom.  There were so many memorable moments, but there was one in particular that solidified our relationship and showed me that time and distance had not impacted how this now one-year-old remembered me.  We had just arrived at the hotel room with her. She looked confused and scared.  I had requested additional towels and someone knocked at the door to drop them off. I went to the door while my mom sat with the baby on the bed. When I went to the door, I was out of the baby’s eyesight which proved to be alarming to my new daughter. She turned around toward the door and said in the softest voice, “Mama? Mama?” Her new grandma looked bewildered. “She is looking for you,” and then asked, “How does she know you are the mama and not me?” I figured she remembered our time together, our connection.  In my heart, I believe she knew just like I knew that we belonged together and I was her mama no matter what triumphs or challenges we face.

In many ways, my adoption journey feels like it was just yesterday, and at the same time as years go by it feels further and further away, especially as she gets older, and we have many more conversations about the process and what she was like as a baby.

Mothering is the most all-embracing verb there is.  It’s love in action. It includes hugs and kisses, wiping tears, truth-telling, cheerleading, disciplining, and the list goes on and on.  

Ultimately, for me being a Mama is rooted in gratitude.  I am grateful because I could not have the life I have without my daughter’s birth mother.  I am not called Mama without her sacrifice.  Each day that I have with my daughter is a day of sheer gratitude because I would never hear her call me Mama without the love of the young woman who gave birth to her. I may be a single mama, but I am raising her for both of us.