From the moment my husband, John, and I adopted our daughter, Annelise, I worried about how we would tell her that she was adopted. I wanted the realization to come gradually, naturally, gracefully. Of course, in the world of parenting, things rarely happen gradually, naturally, or gracefully. But reality has its own mysterious grace and rhythms, as I discovered one summer in Brittany, when Annelise was four.
The three of us had spent the year in Italy where John taught at NYU’s Florence campus, and Annelise attended an Italian preschool. (The kids spent most of their time racing around in little cars at dangerously high speeds–good practice for whizzing around Florence in their Vespas when they got to be teenagers.)
In May, when the school year was over, the university stopped paying rent on our Florence apartment. Since our house in Pennsylvania was rented through June, we needed someplace to go until then. Miraculously, we found a beach house to rent in Brittany for only $650 a month, off-season. And in Brittany, May and June are definitely off-season. It was freezing when we arrived in Le Pouldu Plage, a picturesque village in Brittany with fields of shining poppies and gabled roof-tops sloping down to the sea.
While in Florence, I had contracted a mysterious bladder condition. The Italian doctors had
prescribed bed rest, so I spent the first few days in our unheated beach house lying in bed reading Jane Austen while Annelise played with her favorite Italian teddy. When my bladder condition didn’t improve, I decided to consult a French gynecologist. The three of us piled into a taxi and rode to the nearby town of Quimperle. We’d been assured by the tourist office that the doctor spoke fluent English, but it turned out all she knew how to say was, “No kidding!” John’s French wasn’t bad but he lacked fluency in gynecological French (a dialect all its own).
While John and Annelise waited in an outer office, the doctor gave me a vaginal sonnogramme, muttering to herself in French as she watched the images on the monitor. Finally she printed them out, exclaiming enthusiastically over the pattern of colored dots. I had no idea what she was talking about, but whatever it was didn’t appear to be serious. At that point I just wanted to forget the whole thing and go home to Le Pouldu.
“We’re leaving now,” I said. I waved goodbye. “Merci.”
“No kidding!” she called back.
Later that afternoon, Annelise and I walked down to the beach. Annelise walked beside me, hugging her teddy. “Tell me the story about how Teddy wanted to belong to me, and he was worried another little girl or boy would buy him first,” she demanded.
I had been spinning this classic yarn endlessly, increasing her attachment to the winsome bear who really had, it seemed to me (a children’s author) been waiting and hoping to belong to her since she first glimpsed him in the toy store near Piazza San Marco. Just as John and I had once waited and hoped for Annelise.
“It is really true?” Annelise asked, when I finished recounting the teddy bear story.
“Well, I’m kind of making it up,” I admitted. “but it’s true you adopted Teddy.”
I used the word “adopted” intentionally. She’d heard references to her own adoption, but I sensed that the full implication had not yet come together in her mind. I also sensed it was ready to.
“I adopted him?” Annelise sounded surprised.
“Yes,” I said, “you brought him into your family and made him completely your own.”
Annelise hugged her bear as we walked along the beach, skirting the incoming tide.
“I love Teddy,” she said, “but he didn’t grow in my tummy like I did in yours.”
I stopped right there in the sand. This is it! I thought, the moment I’ve been waiting and worrying about for four years, falling right into my lap like a ripe plum. Gradually, naturally, gracefully. I took a deep breath. “Actually,” I said, “you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.”
Annelise gave me a shrewd look. “I was adopted?”
So she had been thinking about it.
I nodded. “You grew in your birth mother’s tummy, and then we got you right after you were born.”
“But you said I grew in your tummy!” said Annelise accusingly. Where did that come from? “Remember, you told me babies grow in their mommy’s tummies!”
“Most of the time it happens that way,” I explained, “but you grew in your birth mother’s tummy, and then after you were born you became our baby.”
Annelise looked curious. “Was there any part of me left for the other lady?” she asked.
“No, we took all of you, whole and complete.”
The questions kept coming as we climbed the grassy hillside to go home. “Were you happy? Did I cry a lot?”
“Yes, we were very happy, and you only cried when you were hungry.”
Splashing in the yellow bathtub that night, Annelise seemed especially ebullient. Perhaps the weight of pondering her origins had, for the moment, been lifted. Later she handed me a piece of paper that said, “I love you, Mommy,” printed with yellow marker.
“I hope this never fades,” I said to John. “I want to keep it forever.”
Annelise must have heard me because she took the paper and outlined the letters in black. “Don’t worry, Mommy” she said, handing it back to me, “this won’t fade now.”
I sighed contentedly. It had been one of those rare days when events seem to fall effortlessly into a theme and round to a perfect close. The sea-light was still coming in through the windows when I went upstairs to bed. I found Annelise settled on her bottom bunk with a brochure I’d picked up at the gynecologist’s office. She was lying on her stomach with her feet swinging in the air chattering to herself in Italian.
“What’s this, Mommy?” she asked, pointing to an illustration in the brochure. I looked over her shoulder. Above the article, which was in French, was a diagram of a woman’s fallopian tubes, ovaries, and womb. Oh geez. Why had I picked up that darn flyer anyway? The last thing I wanted right then was a bedtime story about the anatomy of a woman.
“That’s the inside of a lady,” I said dutifully.
“Really?” said Annelise, peering closely at the brochure. “Is she dead?”
“No, that’s a picture of what every woman looks like inside.”
By now I was sick of anatomy – mine and everyone else’s. There is such a thing as too much meaning and resonance, more than can fit comfortably into a single day. I kissed Annelise and started to edge out of the door. She looked up from the brochure.
“Mommy,” she said, “did you and daddy love me right away?”
I paused in the doorway.
“Yes, we loved you immediately. You were wearing a pink dress and you were snoring.”
Later in bed, I thought about Annelise’s last question. It was true that she was wearing a pink dress when we got her from the adoption agency, and that she was snoring. What I hadn’t told her is that they took the pink dress back, and handed me a naked baby. I smiled to myself as I drifted off to sleep. Annelise didn’t have to know everything in a single day. Not even a day like this one.
Originally published on Mothers Always Write.