Barely a month after I met my three-year-old son, he bit my breast. Hard.
He came at me and clamped on, only a T-shirt between teeth and flesh. Then came the pain and blood. I'd been lifting him into the car, but when he bit me, I instinctively threw him away from me. His tiny body thumped into the car seat. I'll never forget the horror and sense of betrayal in his eyes. I must have looked the same.
Connor had joined our family in March 2010 after what seemed like the fastest adoption ever. I'd given up a job I loved so I could spend a month on the "bonding process." Yet when he bit me, bonding seemed more like battle.
People who know parts of our story believe I've done Connor a great favor. I tell them they have it backward.
My husband, Chris, and I wanted a big family. I told his mom I'd love to have four kids, just like she did. Chris and I started trying in 2001, a few years after we got married, but nothing happened. We embraced fertility treatment with a top endocrinologist, who was never able to find out what was wrong. But there was definitely a problem: I had nine miscarriages in nine years. In my darkest moments, I thought of myself as a death machine.
My life became an endless cycle: preparing to get pregnant, losing a pregnancy, recovering. But with each loss there was less recovery. Work, friends, family, marriage, and emotional health all took a back seat.
Debating whether to try for a tenth pregnancy, I told my husband enough was enough. He'd been reluctant to give up on having a biological child, envisioning a daughter with my strawberry-blond hair and his love for sailing. And what would happen, he asked, when the birth mother called at midnight needing money?
So I took him to adoption workshops, where we saw photos of happy adoptive families. We went to a seminar where a trembling but graceful young woman told of putting her baby up for adoption so she could continue her studies at Georgetown. We met a couple who regularly hosted their three children's birth moms for dinner; the women became close and supported one another like sisters.
"Let's find our kid," Chris and I finally agreed in January 2010. "There are lots of children who need love--the right one will find his or her way to us."
Adopting an older child just seemed like the thing to do. I was 35, but at 51 my husband was older than most infants' dads. Several of our relatives had adopted older children--two came from Russia, another two from the foster-care system.
There's also the fact that while I love kids, I don't particularly like babies. And my job at the time demanded late nights covering parties for a glossy magazine. I believed that an older child would fit my lifestyle better. (Parents, I hope you're thinking, "You are a moron.")
We signed up with Adoptions Together, which has several offices in the Washington area. Yet we found all sorts of reasons not to fill out the paperwork: Maybe we should first sell our house in Accokeek, Maryland, where we owned six wooded acres, and move to child-friendly Alexandria. (We eventually did.) Maybe we should consider adopting internationally instead of domestically. Maybe our marriage wasn't strong enough.
But the simple fact was we were fairly sure adoption would fail as thoroughly for us as conception had. So we were in limbo.
I still didn't go to my closest friends' baby showers. I ordered kids' birthday presents online so I wouldn't have to step into a toy store. I left parties early once parents started comparing schools. I had long ago turned my back on my own life to focus on bringing a life into this world, yet I was still convinced that the child I longed for would never be mine.
But a month later, a woman wrote into an adoption listserv I followed: "Anybody have advice on adopting an older child? I have a potential lead, but the child is three, and we were looking for a baby."
I replied, explaining all of my husband's and my reasons for wanting an older child. I was trying to give her hope and inspiration as she made up her mind--to help her see this child as an opportunity to build her family. We exchanged a dozen e-mails, growing close. The next day, she and her husband decided.
"It's just not our child," she told me. "Would you like me to give your name to the birth mother?"
With that question, my life changed.
I could barely breathe but e-mailed her a yes, then called my husband. "Honey," I said, "I think I just found our son."
That night, Connor's birth mother, Evelyn, called. "What would you like to know?" she asked, as if this were an everyday conversation between strangers.
What should I ask about this little boy, asleep in his bedroom in Texas, who might someday be clutching my hand on the way to the school bus?
"What does he like to do?" I asked. "What does he like to eat? Why are you finding him a new family?"
Thinking about her answers now breaks my heart. How could she have described Connor--who runs up to strangers with a bright smile and asks if they're having a great day--so flatly?
"Well, he's your typical boy," she said. "He likes to eat chicken nuggets. He plays in the dirt and likes trucks. He sings to himself." Then she added quietly, "He's never accepted me as his mother. I want him to have a more positive future."
Evelyn had a few questions for me. She sounded almost weary as she asked how Chris and I had met, what we were like, what kind of child we wanted. We started chatting more easily and found we had similar values about parenting, spirituality, money, and family. And we both felt strongly that Connor should stay in touch with his older sister.
A week later, Chris and I flew to Texas. We felt hopeful but anxious. Was this a scam? Would the kid like us? Would we like him?
Evelyn's husband drove to our hotel, and when we opened the door to his van, there was Connor in the back seat. He looked tiny, huge eyes peering out of the darkness. "Are you my new mommy and daddy?" he asked.
"Yes," we told him. We had no more questions.
Even as we made that promise, we prayed we'd be able to deliver. We'd need to pass the home study, find the money to pay the legal fees, and--the biggest if--get his mother's approval.
Next: How did Connor adjust to his new home?