Oscar Wilde was spot on when he said that “life imitates art.” In my case, I wrote about adoption long before I knew I would become an adoptive parent. Having that writing published after I became an adoptive mother adds another layer of responsibility to my storytelling– one that I desperately hope I got right.
In my debut novel, Contrition, journalist and adoptee Dorie McKenna discovers at the age of 26 not only that her late birth father was a famous artist, but also that she has a twin sister, Catherine Wagner, who inherited his talent. While the story focuses on the sisters’ conflict around the meaning and purpose of art, Dorie’s feelings about her adoption influence all of her actions. In addition to her lifelong struggle with never meeting her birth father or the birth mother who died in childbirth, Dorie now grapples with the new information that her birth father chose to place her in an adoptive home while keeping and raising the twin she didn’t know she had.
I was single and had no children when I wrote the book. Today, I’m married and my husband, Chad, and I have adopted two girls ourselves. When the new Simon & Schuster imprint, Infinite Words, bought Contrition for publication in April 2015, my first reaction was jump-up-and-down joy over this dream come true. My second reaction was more muted. What will my daughters think when they’re old enough to read it? And how will our birth families feel about it?
Unlike my character Dorie’s closed situation, we have open adoptions. We visit our children’s respective birth families every year, send pictures, and consider them part of our extended family. Even though our daughters’ adoptions are open and Dorie’s issues center on the fact that her birth father never reached out to her in his lifetime, I still worried that Contrition might paint an inaccurate picture of adoption, or worse, offend someone I care about.
The purchase-to-publication cycle gave me the luxury of time to revise the book, and I was able to look at the adoption elements in Contrition with new eyes. My first instinct was to remove any uncomfortable plot points around adoption. After all, adoption enabled Chad and me to become parents and our daughters are the great joy of our lives. But after thinking about my own experience and talking to several adoptees, I realized that sharing both the positive and negative aspects of adoption was the right approach. Adoption, like life, can be messy, and ignoring that fact would be a discredit to adoptees, their birth families, and their adoptive parents. Enabling Dorie to work through her feelings about never knowing her birth parents strengthened her character, just as I know my and Chad’s difficult adoption journey ultimately helped us grow in empathy and gratitude.
Our road to parenthood got off to a rocky start. After two years of failed fertility treatments, we spent a year at an adoption agency that didn’t have any birth mothers coming through their doors. Next we found a busy, successful agency where we were quickly chosen by a birth family. The birth mother delivered a beautiful baby girl a couple of months later. Thrilled, we named her Gabrielle and took her home for a week, only to have the birth mother change her mind at the eleventh hour and take her back.
Stunned and physically ill with grief, we considered moving. We had been careful not to set up a nursery in advance or let anyone throw us a baby shower because of the risk of a reversed adoption, but once we’d taken Gabrielle home, we’d let our guard down a little and started nesting. Now we couldn’t bear looking at the exquisite mural Chad had painted for her on the nursery wall, the apple tree we’d planted with and for her, or the bassinet she’d slept in that has been in Chad’s family for generations. We had to stop going to our mailbox, which delivered a combination of congratulatory and condolence cards crossing in the mail for several days. The meals our church had organized to bring us as new parents continued to arrive, but now we needed them for an entirely different reason.
As painful as that loss was, it strengthened our resolve to become parents. A generous couple who had also suffered a reversed adoption with a baby girl counseled us, giving us hope while their subsequently successfully adopted son toddled nearby. Two months later, we successfully adopted our first daughter. Two years after that, we successfully adopted our second daughter. We kept the nursery mural, planted more fruit trees for the girls, and shook our heads in disbelief over how lucky we felt as we watched each of them sleep in the heirloom bassinet. In time, we ourselves became de facto counselors to other couples reeling from recently reversed adoptions.
While our struggles with adoption differed from my character Dorie’s, I was able to draw on them to infuse the story and paint what I hope is an accurate and respectful portrait of her closed adoption experience. Open adoption is relatively new, so we still don’t know what issues and feelings may emerge for us, our daughters, and their birth families in the future. I can say that our first visit back with each of our daughters’ birth parents produced a lot of anxiety for me. Would they approve of our parenting? Would I be able to convey how utterly grateful I am to them for choosing Chad and me to be their daughters’ adoptive parents? Or how my admiration for the courage they displayed and the sacrifice they made grows with every passing day?
My anxiety was quickly eclipsed by the wonder I felt upon seeing the birth mothers hug the girls, their deep love for them shining in their eyes, and the birth fathers joking and playing with them, creating an easy, instant rapport. It’s not about me or my anxiety. It never was. It’s about the gift of regular, open communication with our birth families so our girls can know all the people who cherish them. It’s about celebrating the fact that our daughters have extra family (who couldn’t use bonus grandmas?) and conveying the love they have for them even if we can’t see them every day. Whatever challenges being adopted brings, our daughters will always know that their birth parents love them and want the best for them, and for that, I am profoundly grateful.
That open communication also enabled me to tell our birth mothers about Contrition, its’ history, and explain that Dorie’s issues around her closed adoption are no reflection on them. When our daughters are old enough, I will tell them the same thing. We are no longer in contact with that initial birth family whose baby we had to return, but the pain of giving back Gabrielle after being her mother for a week actually helped me understand why her birth mother changed her mind and deepened my appreciation for every moment I have with the brilliant, funny, gorgeous daughters we have now (I can say that because I had nothing to do with their talented gene pools).
I’m not a perfect parent. But Chad and I promised our daughters’ birth parents to do our best, and we strive to do so every day. And that’s all I can expect of my writing too. If I’ve failed to portray an honest portrait of adoption in Contrition, it’s not for lack of conscious effort. Despite the challenges of adoption, nothing can surpass the shiver of awe, gratitude, responsibility, and love that pass through me whenever one of my daughters calls me “Mommy.” And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off to go make chocolate chip cookies with my little girls.
Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on WhatIsThatBookAbout.com