By Julianne Palumbo
Look at us, my husband and me, sorting through these wanting faces of children, casting aside those who might need too much, or at least more than we can give, and smiling at eyes that somehow smile back through all their trauma. There’s the pre-teen girl with Rapunzel-long hair, peering through her red-rimmed glasses like the world might be kind. There are the small freckled brothers hugging each other like koala cubs.
This adoption search feels like catalogue shopping and a rescue mission, all in one. It is a daring adventure—this choosing a child from a photo and a few paragraphs meant to tell just enough without scaring us away, a child to whom we will open our home. As a I flip through the pages I notice that for many, there’s still light after the caverns of darkness that have shrouded their lives.
On the clipboard next to me, I record the first names of the children to whom we feel most drawn, scratching the words in pencil as if I’m selecting the winners of a contest. As we sort through page by page, photo by photo, I try to guess which kids we might be able to handle, which ones could thrive within the fold of our family, and which might best fit into our lives without too much disruption.
The adoption recruitment counselors, young and sweet, cheerlead for their assigned foster “kiddos,” offering up their struggles like a resume of survival. They dish the good with the bad, the blessings with the pain. They hold up small successes to the light.
After an hour or so, we turn in our list, only five names, and the counselors say they will hand our home study—the report that documents so completely our family life—over to the social workers for those children we have identified. It feels a bit like we’ve relinquished control of our futures. They promise we will hear from them soon.
The next week we attend an adoption party at a local hotel. It’s a casual celebration with food and games for children who are living in foster care and whose parents’ rights to them have been terminated. We go with the purpose of observing some of the kids we have added to our list and perhaps meet another child whose social worker thinks might be a good fit for our family. I am an introvert and have never been the party type, so I find it difficult being among so many people and so much clamor.
Among all the chaos, we’re supposed to find this child who is right for us. Does it matter if it is a boy or a girl? Will we take siblings? What age or personality can we reasonably manage? We are in our fifties, and our first instinct was for a little girl, as young as five or as old as 11. We’ve raised three kids of our own but still have a little parenting left in us and want to share it with children who have lost their parents, for whatever reason.
It feels odd, snaking around this large room buzzing with children, looking for someone we might want to meet—peculiar even. Is it because it seems unnatural for them to be unclaimed, away from their mother’s embrace? Or does it feel uncomfortable because some of them think they are here just for a party?
We’re told to look for the children wearing name tags outlined in red. The red means they’re waiting, like us. Kids with solid white name tags belong to someone already. My name tag is stuck to the left lapel of my jacket, and strands of my hair keep getting snagged in its glue. I am uncomfortable, scanning the children, trying to read the different names without staring. Most of them don’t even seem to notice my husband and me. They are having so much fun at the party.
Then, there are two girls in front of us with adorable painted faces. They walk by our table, and the older one stops when my husband calls out to ask about the picture on her face. She is made up like a cat with black whiskers around her mouth. She talks to my husband like she knows why they are here, so that someone can find them. These sisters fit so well among the strangers. Are you the intended ones?
I wonder whether there is even a “right” child for us. Or if every child is simply better off in our home than in the temporary care of a foster family. What does “right” even mean in this context? I wonder, too, if I can love any child. And, how soon the love will come.
We observe the sisters some more. We play with the younger one at the coloring table. There are three of us standing there, and without even looking up, she offers to draw three ice cream cones, like she considers us part of her circle. Before I can interact with her further, she is called away by her foster family. My husband and I stay at the table to clean up the crayons. I glance at his face, silently asking if he felt a connection.
By the end of the party, I am confused. But still we make an appointment to meet with the girls’ social worker. She will look at our home study to decide if the girls are a good fit. The process is a slow and careful one, making sure the size of our family, our interests, and our personalities will offer them an opportunity to thrive. Meeting these sisters, I am not at all certain that I felt what I was supposed to feel. After all, the decisions are permanent.
And so we wait.
Julianne Palumbo is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers, and the Founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers.