“Mom, Colombia is filled with drugs and violence,” my thirteen-year old son says matter-of-fact, out of the blue. We are crossing a bridge, heading towards the zoo entrance on a summer day as Anna, ten, skips ahead. “And I don’t ever want to contact my birth parents. They probably never think of me anyway.”
This is a new turn in our adoption conversations. It’s the first time Justin has spoken negatively about Colombia or his birth parents.
I am quick to stand up for the nation of Colombia, pointing out that people in other countries have largely negative images of the US though they’ve never been here and don’t know us. I explain how we make judgments based on news coverage and movies that can never truly represent a country and people. I don’t even bring up the good trip we had to Bogotá three years ago and his love for empanadas.
I speak up for his birth parents too, “I bet your birth mom thinks of you.” I say nothing about his birth dad. We know little about him. And I don’t mention our plan, talked about for years, for seeking contact with his birth mother when he turns eighteen. We’ve covered all this ground before.
Justin stays grumpy and stone-faced, and I finally realize that I should back off. Feeling the losses of adoption and expressing them out loud is developmentally appropriate. I need to allow him to express anger and betrayal; I shouldn’t explain away these feelings.
It is only later in the day that I figure out the source of this conversation, this bad-mouthing of his birth country. Justin slept over at a new friend’s house last night. His friend, Keegan, was adopted from China.
A couple days later, Justin pulls out his iPod and plays a song for me. The recording is muffled, and I can’t make out all the words. Justin explains that this is music he and Keegan made together: Keegan singing and playing piano, with Justin on the drums. I love that this is what these teenage boys do together in between shooting baskets, playing video games, and raiding the pantry. I’m proud.
Later, all of us gathered in the kitchen as we clean up after dinner, Justin announces, “We’re starting a band. Our name is Abandoned because, well, we were both abandoned, and it’s cool because it has the word band in it. Get it?”
Anna thinks its cool. Scott and I look at one another, then one of us points out that Justin’s birth mother did not abandon him but made an adoption plan. I say gently, but emphatically, that he was not abandoned.
“Why not call yourselves Abandon?” I suggest. There’s still the play on words, but without the abandonment, without the pain. I don’t want my son, tan and lean and strong in the kitchen, proud of his new endeavor, to think he was ever abandoned.
As Scott and I finish up the dishes and send the kids off to do homework, we think we’ve made headway. I figure that Justin will talk to his friend about other options, and they will find another name. Because they were not abandoned.
Though we have always talked about our children’s adoption stories with them, we never say given up for adoption. We say placed. We say, “Your birth mother made an adoption plan.” And it’s true.
Anna was just three when she first truly understood that she grew in the womb of another, and she cried loud and hard. Justin always took his story in stride, matter of fact, even as we added details over the years. I thought Anna’s reaction was a girl thing, that Justin might never mourn what was lost, but now I wonder if he needs to rewind his story. I wonder if his teenage anger and judgment comes from the same place as Anna’s three-year old cries. Because the result is the same whether placed on a step, handed over in a hospital, or placed with a family in a country far away.
I try not to sugar coat. I try to tell the truth and let the emotions be.
I think our suggestion of Abandon is a good compromise. Maybe they’ll go with that. But as the months pass, the name, Abandoned, sticks, even as the boys add band members and paying gigs.
We’re in the car on the way to soccer practice when Justin asks, “Would you have ever given up me or Anna if we were your birth kids?”
I bite my lip, hesitate.
I know the right answer here, which lies in the shades of grey of difficult situations and decisions, and I feel loyalty to his birth mother. I don’t want to betray her, put myself above her. And there are other birth mothers too, and the whole adoption community, for goodness’ sake. I feel like they’re listening in. “Will she get this right?”
But I know, too, that in these past weeks, my son has stepped into the dark undercurrents of his adoption story. He is adrift and feels abandoned, whether I like it or not.
So I say words for him, words that I still struggle to write.
“No, I wouldn’t give you or Anna up.”
Justin nods, seemingly satisfied. In the silent minutes that follow, I am a jumble of second-guesses and worry at my betrayal.
But I let the words stand even as we pull up to the school soccer field, even as he gathers his soccer ball and water bottle, says, “Bye, Mom,” and jogs off to join his team.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure Justin soon forgot about the conversation in the car. There were no more thorny adoption comments or questions in the following weeks though there probably will be in the future. For now he’s busy with school and band and soccer, plans to try to contact his birthmother when he’s older because right now, “I have a lot going on.”
But I believe that on that summer day, as I gripped my steering wheel, unsure and hesitant, in my small panic of how to answer, he simply needed to know that I would not let him go.
And that was enough.
Michelle Shappell Harris writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she coordinates translation for a nonprofit while pursuing an MFA at Ashland University. Her family lived overseas for nineteen years in the France and Africa, and they are still adjusting, together, to life in the Midwest.