Having battled infertility—the expert medical diagnosis was “we don’t know why, except that you’re older”—when in 1991 China opened up for adoption, we felt it was right. The cultural pressure in China, with the one-child-per-family policy, valued sons. Virtually all the babies abandoned for adoption were girls. In 2015 China rescinded this policy, and the window of adoption, except for special needs children, closed. That twenty-five-year opportunity for adoption had profound effects in both countries: in China, the families’ suffering, the skewed population of boys, the “Little Emperors”, with concomitant problems; in the USA, 120,000 adopted girls, with concomitant joy, and the building of bridges with Chinese culture.
China required that eight adoptive couples at a time go to the orphanage in Changsha, together. Back home, Janet and I asked several of our friends to be “Godmothers”. Soon Janet organized a “Women’s Welcoming Ritual,” with fifty women and one man, me: song, prayer, testimony, tears of joy—and a good deal of talk about the “birth mother,” or, in the lingo, “the bio”. At home we bought a 21-year candle, and on each of our daughter’s birthdays we would sit together in the meditation room of our house, light the candle, and I would read our story out loud, the last part of which was to remember the birth mother, sure that she was remembering her baby on that day as well.
In the nine years that we had been adopted parents, I don’t recall hearing much about “the birth-dad.” Was there a mention at the first ritual? Or from the adoption agency, or at our yearly reunions of China 2? Rare. One day in the car with four-year-old Katie in the back seat, she asked ‘The Big Adoption Question’: “Mom, in the story-book dad reads on my birthday it says a daddy plants a seed in another mummy’s tummy and I came from her, not you right?” Janet and I stiffened, and she explained it, carefully, delicately. Pause. “Mom?” “Yes.” “Can I have French Fries for dinner.
For sure there were mentions of “birth-dad” in our Families of Children from China organization. All of us did try to include him, yes. But he just didn’t have the same punch as the mom, it didn’t seem to land, and sink in.
Why not? Maybe it’s merely a symptom of women being more valued than men as caretakers, builders of community and continuity, relationships? Or seeing the “birth-dad” as part of the oppressive governmental policy? Or we men, as “non-bio dads,” feeling lesser, imagining the much younger birth-dad being easily fertile, a robust perhaps poor farmer. A caring man, yes, but who, sensibly, could not afford a girl as first child, needing a boy—not only to work the farm or in the city, but to marry, bring home a girl to provide grandchildren and help with old age. If the first child is a girl, and he and his wife want the historical-cultural Chinese ideal of one girl and one boy, would he risk the financial ruin if the second child is again a girl? A huge sacrifice.
The birth mom is always present our minds. Her “oppression” and suffering, her core loss, is immense, as described in a recent study and book by the China scholar Kay Johnson.
But on this day let’s think of the birth dad. Let’s imagine that his suffering and core loss is immense as well—not the same, but just as bad. Let’s imagine that at his daughter’s birth, and the one whole month he and his wife nursed and nurtured this gorgeous little baby, tormented by the choice of whether to keep her or abandon her to another mother—and dad—that he too was sad and mad at the system and maybe felt it as severely as his wife but, being a man, crunched it down to “do the right thing” for the family. Let’s imagine his heartbreak as he puts his young wife on the train with their baby to go to the immense city and find a busy market down an alley and, hiding her baby under her dress, go to a vegetable stall and quickly part the celery and put her dear one in it and run away and turn and watch as the woman vegetable-seller discovers her and picks her up and cries out: “Whose baby? Whose baby?” and she, staring, puts her fist in her mouth so she won’t scream “Mine!” and runs away?
Janet, Katie, and I are allies with both of them, mother and father, and with all the other “bios” who entrusted us “adoptives” with their children. Both are invisible, except in our daughter, and in our imagination, awareness, and sense of gratitude every day for our good fortune. But today I am with him especially, and fatherly—for he is of an age that our bio son would have been. Today, let’s remember him. Happy Father’s Day, birth-dad.
Note: Our trip back to China when our daughter was ten is the basis for the new novel, set in China: At the Heart of the Universe.
And please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:
Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation, and with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45. Free.