We are driving home from soccer practice, and my older son, Mitch, sits quietly, pensively, in the backseat. He catches my eye in the rearview mirror. Chris said he’s a Swede.Mom, are we Swedes? After I clarify that he hadn’t said sweet, which his friend Chris is not, I’m once again reminded that my son is adopted, that I hadn’t given birth to either of my Russianborn children. Mitch has also momentarily forgotten, as he’s done before, and we are now in that hazy limbo where I can pretend he’s biologically mine. Here, I’ve always known him, had cared for him as an infant. An undefined, beautiful limbo, I think. Yes, I want to say, I’m part Swedish, so you are, too. Instead, I find myself saying, Most likely not, honey, although it’s possible. I do not elaborate right away. Your blood is not mine, I think.
No one would disagree that bunking next to Jack is a challenge. We call him a squirmy worm. Before you know it he’ll have flipped over, his toes will be skimming the headboard, and it will feel like he is trying to rappel down your side. When I was a baby, he asks, was I a squirmy worm in your tummy too? I want to say, Yes, that was exactly how you were. I’d go on, You tickled my belly and I giggled for nine months straight. He, too, forgets he is adopted, and I feel obligated to remind him. Remember how you have a Russian mama? I say, thinking of the title we’d given his birth mother. I bet you squirmed all around inside her belly. Would it have been terrible to pretend, just this once, that I knew the answer, that he indeed squirmed? There are worse things, I think, than to act as if he’d always been mine.
A close friend was over for dinner when Mitch crawled onto my lap. She looked over at us and nodded. You two look related, she said. Although I knew what she meant, and knew she meant no harm, I wanted to say, firmly, We are related. I said nothing at the time. Later, I told her that although I knew her intentions were good, comments like that might confuse Mitch. It definitely had stirred up doubt and insecurity in me.
My husband and I have been completely open with our children about their adoptions. Because Mitch was two when we met him, fully aware that we hadn’t always been his parents, we’d been introduced to him, not as Mom and Dad, but John and Susan. At home, we speak freely of our sons’ shared heritage and repeat stories of our multiple trips to visit them in Siberia. We’ve preserved their Russian names, used now as middle ones. Matroyshka dolls and other Russian trinkets are displayed in nearly every room. Are we Swedes? We are not trying to hide anything, I remind myself.
Even if I wanted to, it would be hard for me to forget my children are adopted. I am always reminded: at the doctor’s office, filling out sports forms, worrying about their health histories, Mothers’ Day, speaking of their births, celebrating birthdays. And not seeing my face in either of theirs. When a woman mentions her pregnancy or the challenges she’d faced parenting an infant, I often immediately disclose my children are adopted and I can’t relate; Jack was adopted at eighteen months and Mitch when he was nearly three. When people tell me my sons, who are not biologically related either, look alike or resemble me, I disclose—or remind those who have forgotten—the similarities are simply coincidental. What harm would be done if I were to nod and smile? If I were to just keep quiet when someone assumes I, too, battled morning sickness and a grueling labor. If I, like them, had been woken multiple times a night to screaming babies and multiple feedings. Those were the days, I’d think, with a smirk.
Since I’m proud of the way my family was formed, what do I hope to gain? Perhaps, I want others to see us as more united, to see them as all mine. Was I a squirmy worm in your tummy? Here, in this limbo, I’d have felt them grow, been the first to see their angry, red birthing faces, heard their first screams. In a way, I feel like I deserve to have been privy to all that since I am the one who cares for them now. There are moments of their lives I will never know, which seems unfair since I know them better than anyone else.
Maybe I simply want to elongate the time spent in that nebulous, beautiful limbo. To pretend, the same way my youngest does. That Russian lady, Jack says, well she tried to save me from a fire. It’s sad she didn’t make it, but she did get me out alive. Weeks later, he’ll say, That Russian lady did not survive the sinking ship. I tried to protect her, but I could only make it to shore myself. He pretends: to fill in the blanks, to control the uncontrollable, to have a say in something in which he’s had none. Maybe that’s all I am doing, with my idea of a hazy limbo, my pocket-sized bit of control.
Was I a squirmy worm in your tummy?
Are we Swedes?
Of course, I think as I say, It’s possible.