‘Adoption has been a journey from ignorance to enlightenment’

By Emily Bernard

I assumed I would conceive naturally when John and I decided to start a family. I didn’t. We turned to fertility drugs with ambivalence. Reports of the mood swings the drugs sometimes caused worried me. I had only gone through one round when I broke a wooden dish-drying rack over John’s head. I don’t remember what he said, but I’m sure it was something I’d otherwise have considered innocuous. Instead, a growling, uncontrollable rage emerged from nowhere and then overcame me like an emotional tsunami. We decided the drugs weren’t for us.

I had gone along with fertility treatments for the same reason I went along with other non-decisions I’ve made in my life, like having an enormous wedding, because people whom I loved wanted it for me. I thought I was supposed to want it, just like I was supposed to want to get pregnant by any means. Yet I cried genuine tears when, month after month, I was unable to conceive. I felt like a failure.

My friend Lisa, a scholar of the Bible, sat with me once as I confessed that another fertility treatment had failed to take. “This is your pain,” she said. “You must bear witness.”

Her words gripped me physically. I stopped crying. I was erect, alert and full of purpose. From that moment, I paid attention to the more important presence in my insides: not the drugs but the little door in my heart that had always been closed to them. Behind that door was my truest self and she didn’t want to conceive that badly.

Not long ago, I read an interview with a famous actress who adopted two children. When the subject of pregnancy came up, the actress said something like, “It didn’t interest me.” It wasn’t that pregnancy didn’t interest me at all; it just didn’t interest me enough.

Adoption, however, came naturally. One day I woke up and I knew. It hit me like a revelation. We were going to adopt, I told John, and then Lisa. We were going to adopt from Ethiopia. There is a notable Ethiopian-born population in Vermont, where we live, and a substantial number of them are adopted children. But to me the decision felt less practical than magical. I’m the kind of person who typically questions her instincts. In this case, I did not.

Sometimes people assume my husband and I adopted for altruistic purposes. In truth, we adopted for the same reason that people pursue natural birth, because it was what we wanted. As it turns out, I am selfish. Adopting my daughters is the most self-centred thing I have ever done. It is the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am; the only choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth – that we are here to see one another through this journey. We are here to keep our brothers. Our sisters, too.

Isabella (left) and Giulia at home with John and Emily Bernard.
Isabella (left) and Giulia at home with John and Emily Bernard. Photograph: Courtesy Emily Bernard

Once we decided to adopt, signs seemed to spring up everywhere. I was sitting in a waiting room and opened a magazine at an article written by a woman who had adopted as a last resort and then conceived a second child naturally. Her greatest fear about adoption, she wrote, had been that she would not be able to bond with her child as intensely and authentically as a natural mother, that the bond between herself and her daughter would be, at best, only an approximation of that natural bond, or, at worst, simply counterfeit.

She discovered that they were different, her relationships with each of her two children, but the most fundamental difference between being the mother of an adopted child and being the mother of a biological child, she said, was that she was able to take public pleasure in the beauty of the child she had adopted. When strangers said of her adopted child, “What a beautiful baby!” she could respond without hesitation, “Yes, she is, isn’t she?” But when strangers exclaimed over her biological child, she fumbled for a response. To agree, she explained, felt like vanity.

I hold her story in my heart.

I was on the phone waiting for a picture I had forwarded to my friend Iris to open on her computer screen. I knew the picture intimately. It featured two brown babies with enormous eyes. One of them was in tears; the other looked like she was trying not to laugh. Both of them were wearing crocheted yellow caps that made me think of the 1940s swimming champion and actress Esther Williams.

Before we heard about the girls, John and I had never considered the possibility of twins. As the picture opened slowly on Iris’s screen, she and I discussed this unexpected factor and all of the challenges it would present. When it finally opened, Iris went quiet. Then she said, “Oh, you are fucked.”

We were, indeed, happily fucked. There was no turning back. But what we assumed would be a straight line from us to the babies in the picture turned out to have close shaves and hair-raising detours. At one point, it looked like the adoption would fall through. John and I were in Ethiopia at the time. A government official told us to prepare ourselves for the worst. That night John and I held each other and sobbed. I was more terrified that night than I have ever been in my life; the anguish seemed to have no bottom to it. I thought of the babies in the picture, the perfect roundness of their eyes, the delicate curve of their feet, their dark, miniature hands. They will have no memory of me, I thought, but I will remember them forever. The next morning we soberly considered other options, like going for another round of drugs. Later I joked I might be the only woman on Earth to pursue pregnancy because I couldn’t adopt.

We hardly slept for the next seven days, keeping our phones close and checking our email almost hourly. Suddenly, the same official emailed to say she had decided to approve the adoption. She didn’t explain and we didn’t ask why. I am still baffled and awed by the sudden turn around that changed our lives forever. I routinely tell my daughters that they are my miracles, gifts from providence itself, to which they respond with exasperation, “Mommy, stop.”

After a 24-hour journey, we met John’s mother, sister and her two children at the airport in Boston. They burst into tears as the four of us deplaned. John drove us back to Burlington in the middle of a snowstorm. He was so exhausted that twice he pulled over to do jumping jacks in the snow in order to stay awake. He had no choice. When I took the wheel I nearly ran us off the highway. The girls sat silent and staring in the back, looking like tiny Michelin men in identical padded snowsuits. Eventually they fell asleep. When we finally arrived and put them on our bed, they lay flat as boards. Suddenly, their eyes flew open. They looked at us and then peered around their fur-lined hoods and looked at each other. A feeling of peace seemed to settle between them. It lasted for a second. Then, as if on cue, they commenced to wail in unison until they passed out.

Isabella (left) and Giulia play at home.
Isabella (left) and Giulia play at home. Photograph: Courtesy Emily Bernard

During those dizzying early months, two good friends became pregnant in quick succession. I agreed to host their baby showers. No, I offered. Actually, I insisted. I consulted friends and the internet for baby shower protocol, shopped for the right decorations, ordered cute cakes, all the while asking myself, What are you trying to prove?

At one of the showers, every single guest seemed to be pregnant, too. A woman I hardly knew put a newborn in my arms. Overwhelmed by feelings I didn’t understand, I handed the baby back and went into another room to cry in private. What had my daughters looked like at that age? I tried to imagine their one-year-old faces pasted on to newborn bodies and cried some more. I would never know. I hated feeling so vulnerable, but even more than that, I hated that those feelings of vulnerability could be so easily triggered by a stranger. The fact that I had no control over those feelings frustrated me. I cried out of frustration, but also out of shame. I was ashamed of the secret envy I felt as I stood and chatted with women whose stomachs were as big as beach balls. I’ve heard adoptive mothers say they wish that they had originated their children. I know that if I had given birth to my daughters they would be wholly different people, and I like them just the way they are. Still, when I stand next to pregnant women, my stomach sometimes feels concave and hollow.

I no longer cry at baby showers, but the feeling of vulnerability, the experience of sudden exposure and, sometimes, the same shameful, secret envy of women who have successfully conceived compose a quiet, even current in my life as an adoptive mother. These feelings exist in the private chambers of my heart. In the very same chambers throbs the electric joy I experience as the mother of my daughters.

I never know how to respond when those negative feelings are triggered. Once, a friend and I stood naked from the waist up as we changed clothes to go to an exercise class. “Look at those breasts that never nursed,” she said, wistfully. She meant it as a compliment. I was on the phone with the same woman a few weeks later and confided to her my worries about some problems one of my daughters was having in science class. “Well, they’re not genetically yours, so at least you know it’s not your fault,” she said. Later, she explained she had meant the comment to reassure me.

Both times I was caught completely by surprise, stunned by how quickly ordinary activities – changing clothes, an idle conversation – transformed into emotional landmines. I believe she meant no harm, but the effect of her comments was to remind me that I was not a biological mother. I don’t need reminders. Even more disturbing was the fact that her comments revealed that she, herself, was constantly, even vigilantly, aware of the fact that I was not a biological mother. Her reminders touched my own quiet fear that my bond with my daughters might be missing something vital; that my maternity is an illusion and a lie.

I have found that another constant in my life as an adoptive mother is that other people often project on to me their essential feelings and beliefs about the mother-child bond. While we were in the process of adopting, one friend wondered aloud if true bonds were even possible between mothers and children who were not biologically related. This same friend confesses that there is little about her own daughter that she finds familiar. Still, to her, to many people, the biological relation – blood – is supreme.

Several years ago, I told my daughters that I had made contact with their biological cousin.

“We already know all of our cousins,” Isabella said.

“But this cousin is related to you by blood,” I explained.

“‘By blood,’” Giulia wondered. “What’s that?”

Before I became a mother, I believed in the primacy of blood. Once I even said to one of my closest friends, who had decided to use a surrogate, that I was relieved she had chosen that route instead of adoption, because using a surrogate meant that her children would be “really” hers.

Today I am embarrassed and amazed, not only that I said those words, but even more that I actually believed them.

For me, adoption has been a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. What I understand now is that the difference between pregnancy and motherhood is something like the difference between having an enormous wedding and being married. But I’m not sure I would have found this out otherwise.

‘I am your mother on Earth’: Emily Bernard at her home.
‘I am your mother on Earth’: Emily Bernard at her home. Photograph: Abigail Johnston/The Observer

When she was six, Isabella went through a phase during which she tried to figure out what to call me. For a while, she settled on stepmother. I felt tender amusement as I witnessed her trying to make sense of the nature of our relationship in her own mind. So far, it is only Isabella who has puzzled over what to call our bond. Not coincidentally, when I deny her something she wants, Isabella is the one to sometimes fling the barb that perhaps all adoptive mothers fear: “You’re not my real mother!” In one such instance I replied, “I am your mother on Earth. And you still can’t wear your pyjamas to school.”

I am fascinated by the fact my daughters never question the authenticity of their father’s paternity, considering the racial difference between them. Isabella is happiest when she can begin and end her days with John. “Daddy, you should get a tattoo of me going like this,” she told him years ago, mugging like Shirley Temple. At around the same time, she informed me calmly that it would be most convenient if I died first, so that her daddy could take care of her without my interference. John is the one she goes to when she has a bad dream. “You can’t comfort me the way Daddy does,” she once explained to me gently. Even when John becomes irritated by the chaos that the girls create and leaves the room, Isabella trails behind him, an identical scowl on her face and a stuffed animal under her arm.

“No one on Earth wants to be with me as much as Isabella wants to be with you,” I sometimes complain to John. He pats my shoulder pityingly, like a prince dispensing coins to a pauper.

My daughters’ biological mother is dead, but she is an active presence in our lives. Isabella says her birth mother appears in her dreams and sometimes signals her presence by turning the light on and off in their room. “She is your mother in heaven,” I tell her, “and she entrusted you to me.” Like a divine priestess, like a holy ghost, I believe she blesses our union.

“Adoption is a holy sacrament,” said the priest at a ceremony my parents arranged to welcome our daughters into our church family in Nashville. I believe this is true. I have the same feelings about adoption as I do about zebras, in whose astonishing, majestic presence I think, this must be God at work.

When we met the girls’ maternal grandmother, she said I was her daughter returned to her from the dead. She compared me to Mary, mother of God. I was glad; I felt unworthy. I felt her quiet agony over her daughter’s death. I looked at my new daughters and realised immediately that I would spend my life trying to reconcile myself to the terrible coincidence that brought about our union, and the fact that my greatest joy was occasioned by someone else’s tragedy.

But tragedies happen. People die and the living must take up where the dead left off. This is our duty; this is our joy. A friend once told me that she had never felt more like a woman than when she was pregnant. When the girls were placed in my arms, I had never felt more deeply human.

This is an extract from Black is the Body: Stories from My Mother’s Time, My Grandmother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard (Doubleday, £14.99)