The ever-fantastic Heather came up with the idea of an Open Adoption Interview Project to celebrate one year of the Open Adoption Blogroll. Because Lee’s intrafamily adoption was open and I write about my view of her experience and because we hope for and encourage openness of varying kinds for children in foster care who might be placed with us, I’ve been a proud member of the blogroll from its start.
I was lucky enough to be paired with Michelle, who keeps the blog Four Gardners and Me. Michelle and her husband adopted a baby from foster care because they had experience raising a child with diabetes and there were no families willing to take in a baby with diabetes (who also happens to be one of the cutest children of all time). I’m so glad she was willing to give such thoughtful answers to my questions. She has now posted her interview of me
1. You seem to write relatively rarely but when you do, you have a very clear and beautifully written story to tell. Was that conscious and how do you think that setup shapes your blog’s “story”?
Writing in my blog only rarely is a result of two factors: First, when I write, I want it to be about a discreet idea or event. I want my posts to have the shape of an essay or a short story. I don’t want to just ramble. Unfortunately, I don’t often think of meaningful things to write about. And when I have had concepts or ideas come to mind, they have slipped my mind just as quickly. I need to be more organized and keep a pen and paper with me at all times — to jot ideas down as I run around the grocery store or sweep the floor or get out of the shower.
The more basic reason I don’t write more often is that I can’t seem to find time. I care for Maya (age 3) and our two other children (Trent age 13 and Michela age 11); handle a few legal cases (on a pro bono basis); keep the rest of our lives in order; and volunteer with the Children With Diabetes organization and the American Diabetes Association. (These organizations are our lifeblood since my son Trent was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes almost 10 years ago.) Blogging is still only a small part of my life. A part I would like to dedicate more time to when Maya goes to pre-k next year.
I think the story of my life with my Four Gardners would become more cohesive were I to write more often. At the moment, I think my blog contains a few pearls, but they are not strung together very well. Ideally, I would like my blog to read like a nicely knotted strand of pearls. Opera length.
2. The first post of yours I ever read was the one in which the woman at the store asks if you’re your daughter Maya’s mother and then, realizing how much Maya looks like her mother Nikki, who’s also present, asks if you’re Nikki’s mother too. I love the way you are willing to have a flexible relationship with Nikki that doesn’t seem pinned down by specific terms, one in which you’re very clear that you’re both Maya’s mothers. How did this particular kind of openness come about for you?
That instance in the fruit and vegetable market was very funny to Nikki and me. When the cashier asked if I was Nikki’s mother, I went through the options of what I could answer and decided to agree that I was Nikki’s mother as well as Maya’s. I chose that route because it is so hard to explain to people who Nikki and I are in relation to Maya. Closed adoption is SO entrenched in the culture and people’s minds.
The people in Nikki’s town know Nikki as Maya’s mother. They remember when Nikki gave birth, when she brought her baby around for everyone to hold, and when that baby was diagnosed with diabetes and life-flighted in a helicopter to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Except for Nikki’s immediate family, other people who have met me know me as the woman who “has” Nikki’s daughter. (Nikki’s family recognize me as Maya’s other mother.) The people in my town remember when Maya first came to me, how unexpected it was, and how we all were entranced by her as if in a spell. If they think about Maya’s first mother at all, they imagine a young mother who gave birth to my daughter. It is rare for people to see Nikki and I with Maya together. Especially in my town, because Nikki rarely visits here. (I am in New York and she is in Pennsylvania. I usually drive to PA because Nikki doesn’t have a car and all of the family there want to see Maya.) So people in my town don’t know what to think when they see the three of us together. If I am not in the mood to explain, I let them think what they want to. Which is what happened at the grocer’s in the post you mentioned.
How did Nikki and I and her family get to this point? To start, I am pretty straight forward. I don’t have one personality with my family and a different personality at work and a different personality for strangers. I am up-front and out-there and in-your-face. As is my style, I decided to write to Nikki very directly when she was deciding whether to raise Maya, during the time that Maya was in foster care. This was before we met. I wrote honestly and told her that if she let us adopt Maya, I would always let Maya have a relationship with her biological family. At about the same time, I met with Nikki’s mother and grandmother. I was moved by how much they loved Maya but felt they could not take care of her. I discussed with them frankly about how we envisioned our relationship unfolding. I remember asking Nikki’s mother, “We can make this work, can’t we? We can make Maya feel as though she was born into one part of her family and raised in another part?” She agreed that we could. We hugged, filled with hope for our plan.
Shortly after we learned that Nikki had agreed to allow us to adopt Maya, we met with her and talked about changing Maya’s name and what Maya would call Nikki and me when she started talking. I suggested that I be referred to as “Mommy” and that she be “Mama Nikki.” (A little egocentric in retrospect.) But, as time progressed and Nikki’s family referred to Nikki as “Mommy” when we visited, I just went with it. I didn’t think that using Mommy in reference to Nikki would mean that Maya would not consider me her Mommy. As time passed, we all got more fluid in referring to one another. Nikki and I are now both Mommy. Sometimes she is Mommy Nikki. (I am rarely, if ever, Mommy Michelle. Being the primary caretaker has its privileges, I suppose.) Maya does not seem confused by having two mothers. This is her normal.
I have always tried to remain true to my commitment to Maya’s family and to the belief that Maya’s family of origin is now my family. And I have worked to have Maya feel as though she was moved from one part of her large family to another. That is how I approach Nikki and her family. And I believe that is how they approach me. I knew when Nikki allowed us to adopt Maya that I was also adopting Nikki in particular (as a sister or daughter or niece or some other close familial relationship) and adopting Nikki’s family in general.
It helps that I truly like Nikki and her family. We are from very different “worlds” at this point in our lives. I am firmly entrenched in the middle class of educated professionals. (But I grew up in a working class family with little education and I pride myself on being able to get along with people from all walks of life.) And they are firmly part of the poorer, undereducated class in this country. Still, our goals and desires for Maya are the same. They are thrilled to see her growing and developing so well. They are glad to know she is happy. And they are proud of how smart and witty and pretty their child is. And so am I. We share that. In sharing that, all of the superficial things that segregate people — class, ethnicity, education, religion — all of those things melt away.
3. I’m not sure if I’m reading your story right, but it looks like you went into foster care/adoption specifically because you knew Maya was out there and needed a home. You weren’t blogging then, so I’m curious what your experiences with social services and the placement/adoption through foster care were like.
My husband and I weren’t looking for a child or to be foster parents when we heard about Maya, a baby with diabetes, in foster care in Pennsylvania. However, we had always wanted another child so I immediately sought to get into contact with her social worker when my friend mentioned her. (My friend and colleague from my diabetes work was her nurse.) And from the moment I talked to the social worker in Pennsylvania, I wanted Maya to be part of our family. Thankfully, the social workers in Pennsylvania were thrilled with Tim and me as prospective parents. They had gone through their list of waiting families and could not find a placement for Maya. They worked hard to expedite the process for Maya and us. For instance, as soon as our clearances in Pennsylvania went through, even though we did not have any foster care training or classes, they allowed us to visit with Maya out of Catholic Charities for a couple of hours. Until that time, for a couple of months, I drove two and a half hours to Pennsylvania to visit with Maya for two hours at Catholic Charities. I then drove two and a half hours home again. Three times a week. My family came with me one time per week on Saturday. The Pennsylvania social workers were great.
New York was another story. They were all lovely people, but the bureaucracy was difficult to cut through. Were we to have waited for the county’s home study personnel to conduct our home study, we would have waited months. Instead, because we are lucky enough to have the resources, we were able to hire a private home study agency. We pushed a home study through within weeks. After that, it was just a quick visit by
the state to approve our home.
The next problem arose because Maya came from another state. When a foster child is moved across state lines, the two states must enter into an “interstate compact” whereby the state to which the child is moving agrees with the home state to supervise the foster parents until the adoption goes through. It is very unusual for a child to be placed out-of-state unless they are going with a relative. As a result, frankly, New York didn’t seem to understand what they had to do to enter into the interstate compact. They also couldn’t obtain New York Medicaide for Maya for many months; we risked having here with no insurance, knowing that we might have to pay for medical care if anything were to happen. However, we were so in love, we would have agreed to almost anything just to get her home. Also, luckily, I am a lawyer. By researching and educating myself, I was able to educate DSS and advocate — and push — to get the necessary paperwork through the system.
The problem which took the most time to resolve was getting good fingerprints from me. While my fingerprints went through in Pennsylvania without a hitch, New York could not get good prints. It didn’t matter that there are prints on file somewhere in New York and at the FBI because all lawyers must be fingerprinted. They insisted on taking new prints for me. This meant that our status as foster parents and pre-adoptive parents was set back almost five months — approximately a month and a half for each of three sets of prints that were rejected. (In the end, they abandoned all hope of getting good prints and settled with running a social security number check on me.)
During the time that we waited for fingerprints, again Pennsylvania social workers stretched to accommodate us. They allowed Maya to be transferred to our custody when it was clear that she was attached to us and cried when she wasn’t with us. They agreed that as long as I cared for Maya part of the month at a friend’s house in Pennsylvania, which was approved, I could bring her back to New York for part of the month. In that way, as long as Maya did not leave the state for more than a month, the placement was not considered an illegal out-of-state placement.
All while visiting her and having her in our home without insurance and waiting on my fingerprints, we took our foster care MAAP training. Three hours every Saturday for ten Saturdays. At first we laughed that we, the parents of two children already, were being required to take parenting and foster care training classes. However, in the end, we made good friends in that class and found it interesting and thought provoking.
The final difficult situation came when Nikki began to work to get Maya back. At the beginning, we had been informed by the agency that Nikki would be unable to get Maya back. But then Nikki began to work to get her back. So, it became a roller coaster ride that we hadn’t anticipated. We worried about whether we would lose the baby that we had come to love, but felt that we could not take a baby from her mother. As I stated, I wrote Nikki a letter. I also put together a scrapbook and photo album of Maya’s days with us. In the letter, I offered to help Nikki with Maya’s care if she chose to resume parenting. I offered to keep a crib and toys at my home and take Maya any weekend that Nikki felt she needed a hand. I wrote that we would support any decision that Nikki made. Alternatively, without ever having heard of “open adoption,” I suggested in my letter that we would be happy to adopt Maya. I promised that if Nikki allowed us to adopt Maya, we would not take her from Nikki and her family. I promised that we would continue to allow Nikki to be a part of her life. (We didn’t see any reason not to extend the circle of people who loved Maya. Again, this was even before I had heard of or read anything about “open adoption.”) The day that we heard that Nikki had decided to voluntarily surrender her rights — but only if Pennsylvania would promise that Tim and I would be Maya’s parents — we were relieved.
We have since kept our foster care home “open” in the event that any other child with diabetes is in need of temporary or respite care. Because if we don’t take them, children with diabetes in our county wind up living in a hospital until a family is trained to care for them. So far, we have had one 13 year old girl come to stay with us for respite care since adopting Maya. But we have also had to turn down a few children, sadly, because we felt over-extended.
All in all, we heard about Maya in August of ’07 and she was adopted in December of ’08. I am told and have since seen that we were lucky to have resolved things so quickly. (My girlfriend has had two sisters in her care for almost four years now, in the hopes of adopting them. She has had them since the younger girl was two days old and the older girl was two years old.) So I know that our experience was unusually quick and simple. Even if, for us, it felt like a roller coaster ride that never ended.
4. It’s interesting to me that Maya’s Type I diabetes was enough to make her too much of a special needs “risk” for other families to be interested in her, and yet that it was also the hook that convinced you you could meet her needs. What are the pluses and minuses of being a two-time parent of children with diabetes? Do you have advice for other parents raising or planning to adopt children with diabetes?
It angers me that families waiting for infants would not take Maya because she has diabetes. That could have been my child Trent that they were rejecting if I were unable to care for him. It seems discriminatory. And a bit selfish. If they had given birth to a child, they would not be guaranteed a child with no disabilities. They might have given birth to a child with diabetes, as I had. (There was no history of diabetes in my or
Tim’s family, so there was no reason to believe it would happen to us.) And yet, I understand — and appreciate — that they did not accept a child that they knew they were not prepared to raise. It would have been unfair to take Maya when they didn’t want a child with diabetes. Adoption is not the time to try to be “generous” and overcome prejudices or limitations. In my opinion, adoption is best if it is largely a selfish decision where the parents want a child and believe that their lives would be enhanced by a child as much, if not more, than the child’s life would be enhanced.
The irony of the situation with Maya is that, while families waiting for infants turned her down because they did not want to administer insulin injections for the rest of their child’s life, it turns out that Maya has an extremely rare form of diabetes that does not require injections. She has monogenic diabetes. Monogenic diabetes is a genetic form of diabetes that a baby is born with. A single gene has been identified as being responsible for causing the diabetes. It was a huge discovery by researchers in England and caused quite a stir in the world of diabetes a few years ago. There have only been discovered 500 or so cases of monogenic diabetes worldwide to date.
When we got Maya, it had not been determined that she had monogenic diabetes. In fact, I had asked if she had been genetically tested and was told that she had been and did not have it. The truth was that her endocrinologist was not knowledgeable enough to understand monogenic diabetes. Once we had her tested and determined that she had monogenic diabetes, we weaned her from insulin injections. She still pricks her finger several times per day, as do children with Type 1 diabetes, but Maya takes pills — not injections — to manage her blood sugar levels.
As with Type 1 diabetes, if she does not get her pills, she will die within days. But unlike Type 1 diabetes, her blood sugar levels are very stable. There is little risk of her having a low blood sugar and dying immediately or having high blood sugars and damaging her organs over time (leading to death). Monogenic diabetes is much easier to manage and presents very little risk of death or complications in the future as compared to Type 1 diabetes. The families who turned down the honor of caring for and adopting Maya made a bad decision. She has turned out to be a joy and her diabetes is relatively straight forward to manage.
However, had the other families accepted Maya as a pre-adoptive child, she might still be on insulin injections today. Many doctors still have not heard of monogenic diabetes. (Babies are either diagnosed within months of birth or they die.) Sadly, had they known Maya had monogenic diabetes when Maya was diagnosed, she might not have been taken away from Nikki. No one would have questioned whether Nikki was able to administer pills appropriately. (They did question whether she was able to give injections appropriately. Yet, after having read the medical records, I know that Nikki was was doing a fine job. As did Maya’s endocrinologist, who refused to participate in the proceedings to take Maya from Nikki.) So, it is another sad irony that Maya might not have even been taken away from her mother had they diagnosed her correctly. I feel somewhat guilty about that and about the fact that the care of Maya is much easier now than when Nikki had her. But I am comforted to an extent by knowing that Maya might not have been correctly diagnosed had she not been placed with me. I am also comforted in believing that Nikki has come to accept and believe that Maya is in the best home for her.
In answer to your other question, I have tons of advice for parents of children with diabetes, but that is better left for another time. As for adopting a second child with Type 1 diabetes, a family best think hard about the adoption. Even with Maya having monogenic diabetes, it is hard to have two children with diabetes in the family. But there are many biological parents who have given birth to two and three children (and more) with Type 1 diabetes. So it is possible to handle. But it takes a special breed of person.
5. I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about your husband and his side of the family, but I’m fascinated by knowing he comes from a Mennonite background and a family enlarged by transracial adoption himself. I know and like a lot of Mennonites in our community and particularly respect their non-coercive missionary work. I’m curious how Maya fits into his family tradition and experience.
My husband was raised in Goshen Indiana. His father was a math professor at a Mennonite college, Goshen College. After giving birth to two sons, his parents decided they would enlarge their family by adoption. Tim’s father is originally from New York and so they decided to work with a New York agency to adopt. At the time, it was difficult to place mixed race children. (Tim’s three siblings are Jewish and black, while Tim’s biological parents are Swiss and Dutch and English, mostly.) This was in the mid 60′s and early 70′s. Before the Association of Black Social Workers had announced that they were opposed to white families adopting black children. Tim’s family was raised in an entirely white community in the midwest and, when they traveled, they dared not travel in the south for fear that white or black people would treat them poorly. In the extended family by contrast, the relatives were supportive of their inter-racial family. Tim’s grandmother in New York had taught in Harlem with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, and was proud of her family. And another of Tim’s Mennonite cousins was adopted from China. (She has recently located and visited her first father and two sisters she never knew she had.) So, within the family, as much as in any family, it was a cohesive family experience.
In retrospect, Tim and I have come to believe that it might have been better for the family to have lived in a more diverse community. We hope that Maya’s experience will be more diverse here in New York. While we live in a white neighborhood, the children’s school is truly international in feel, with nationalities from around the world represented and whites being the minority of the student body. One of Tim’s sisters also lives
within walking distance and another sister is just a train ride away in Manhattan. We hope that Maya’s aunts (and uncle) will help her navigate her way through Tim’s family and the experience of being adopted into that family. Tim’s parents have told us that they are pleased that we have adopted Maya. They feel a special connection to her. I imagine they also feel affirmed as parents. They did such a good job raising a transracial family enlarged by adoption that we see that as a good way to expand our family.
While Maya and Trent and Michela have not been raised as Mennonites (I am Catholic and have loosely raised them Catholic), we share many of the values of the Mennonite faith, and especially the values of Tim’s parents’ church — which was “kicked out” of the Mennonite conference for accepting gay church members. Tim’s sister — who got her masters at Yale — once confided that it was nice to move “back” to New York and, thus, not to stand out as the only person of color anymore. However, she has also told me that she feels like she can cross the bridge between many communities as a result of having been born black and Jewish and having been raised in a white Mennonite family.
Our hope for Maya is that she can live in a world where she does not stand out either for being adopted or for being a person of color. Our hope for Maya is also that she can live in a world that doesn’t require an entire bridge to go between racial and religious communities. But, if bridges are still required when Maya grows up, we hope that she feels comfortable crossing them. We hope that she feels she has benefited from her unique and diverse family.
6. As I said above, your blog is very well-written. I know you’re a lawyer and thus in a wordy profession, but do you have other writing outlets?
I have a small group of close friends whose children have Type 1 diabetes. We communicate daily by e-mail, being spread across the country. I also communicate with Tim’s family, also spread across the country, by e-mail. On occasion, I send to them a story or an essay that I have written. They are always very complimentary and supportive of my continuing to write. Other than that, and the legal letters and briefs I write (and editing of my children’s homework), I have no outlet for writing. I probably should have followed my dreams, after taking writing classes at Harvard from renown writers, but it seemed too impractical at the time. I focussed on finding a career that would be stable and allow me a good living. I don’t regret my choices today, but I do find myself focussed more on spending my days doing things I enjoy. My hope is that I can create a new life for myself.
7. You started your blog about a year ago without a single clear purpose or focus. Are you happy with what it’s become? Do you have an intended audience? What would you like to see from your blog in the future?
My only purpose when I started was to write about my life with my family — because I find I can write best about things which I know well. I just wanted to write. To fill that longing to put words on paper and, through those words, connect with others. One sadness I have is that I have not been able to do as much writing as I would have liked. Another sadness is that I have not written as much about Trent and Michela, because they are both such unique and spirited souls. They make good fodder for a writer! So, I am not entirely happy with the scope of my blog. Though I am relatively happy with the content that is there.
In the future, I would just like to write more. To fulfill that need that I have to communicate. My ideal audience would be those people who appreciate reading about the nuances, and the hilarity at times, of family life. A subset of that audience, of course, would be families with children with diabetes and families touched by adoption, foster care, or racial issues.
I hope that participating in this interview will lead some of my intended audience to my blog. And that they enjoy it!