The Story of How Our Son Joined Our Family

DWLA is sharing the adoption story and interview of adoptive mom Kate Donovan Hodgkins in several parts–here is the first installment.

by Kate Donovan Hodgkins

In January of 2002 we signed up with an agency in California and began the wait to be matched.  In the eleven months we were with them, we were constantly advised to offer more money for “birthmother support.”  Then we were told that because we were in New England we would be very hard to match. And that we would have to fly to Texas before we would be able to fly home to Connecticut with a baby and that we would have to fly back to Texas to finalize the adoption.

In addition, we had little contact from them and could not get our calls returned to have questions answered.  They put up someone else’s picture with our profile and it took quite some time for them to correct this error.  They lost not just one, but two of our photo albums.  In the eleven months, we did not get one call about a possible match.   At that point, we put our contract on hold and started to look elsewhere.

After more research we found a referral agency and signed up with them.  Then the whirlwind began.

At 6 PM on December 16, 2002, we got a call that a possible birthmother wanted to talk to us by phone from Utah.  At 8 PM she called and we had a conference call with Nichole.  We talked to Nichole for an hour, and it felt like we were instant friends.

We hung up after the call and asked each other, “Do you think she liked us?!?”  The answer came in less than 5 minutes when the social worker called us back and told us that Nichole had asked if she could keep us.

That was when she told us that Nichole was in the hospital and our son was about to be born.  After the initial excitement the panic came: what do we pack, who do we call, are we prepared enough to bring a baby into this house immediately.  A thousand thoughts raced through our heads, and I don’t think either of us stopped smiling that night.

After getting the packing done, we started to call family and friends to say we would be leaving in the morning for Utah and had no idea when we’d be home, but most likely not for Christmas or New Years.  Nobody complained about the late night calls–everyone was as excited as we were.  I don’t think my mom slept for the 2 ½ weeks we were gone; she was so excited to have a grandbaby boy coming.  At 79 years of age she didn’t think she’d have another grandchild, let alone a boy (she had two granddaughters).

We got the call at 3 AM that Chase was born, weighing 5 lbs 7 oz and 18” long.  He was 6 weeks premature and they had to induce labor because his heart rate was dropping.  At delivery they found he had the cord wrapped around his neck.  Chase had premature lungs and was immediately moved to a larger hospital’s  NICU where he would spend the next 2 ½ weeks.

Our flight left Hartford, CT on time and arrived in St. Louis, MO on time.  However, shortly after landing, severe thunderstorms closed down the airport and we couldn’t get a flight out until morning. This delay was also a blessing in disguise.  During the past year of adoption research, I had made friends with a group of women across the country who were all also adopting.  One couple, had just adopted their daughter three months earlier and lived in St. Louis.  They came out to the airport to see us before we flew out to Utah.

Finally at 2 PM on December 18th we arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We followed our social worker to the hospital, where we immediately went up to the NICU.  There we found Chase’s birthmom, Nichole, sitting on a stool watching over Chase until we arrived.  Nichole and I locked eyes and both started to cry and hug each other.  I knew at once that our family had just increased by two, not just one. My husband, in all his wisdom, took a picture of Nichole and I with Chase as soon as we met–tears and all.

We could not hold Chase because he was on a respirator, but we could touch him and talk to him and love him.  I’ve never seen so many wires going into a child and so many beeping machines keeping track of all his vital signs.  But it didn’t faze us at all, neither my husband Tom, nor I had any fears after seeing Chase.  Somehow we both knew he was going to be fine and we had no concerns at all about his health.  Hard to put into words, but we both felt very calm and at ease when we met Chase even with all the beeping and the noise of the respirator.

We stayed with Nichole there at Chase’s bed for a couple of hours, then we all had to pry ourselves away.  We took Nichole out to dinner, then went to the agency’s office together and signed all our paperwork and cried some more.  Afterward, we took Nichole to her apartment and stayed into the wee hours of the morning chatting and laughing and crying and looking at pictures of her family.  When we left to go back to the hospital at 2 or 3 in the morning it was a bittersweet goodbye.  Nichole was flying back to South Carolina in the morning, and we were very sad to see her go, but so thankful for the gift she had given us.

We agreed from the beginning that we wanted to have an open adoption with Nichole, not something we had really thought we’d want until we met Nichole and Chase.

For the next two and ½ weeks we were pretty much permanent fixtures in the NICU. We gave Chase most of his diaper changes, feedings, and all his baths.  The hospital allowed us to stay in a house across the street.  We only had to walk out the front door, cross the street and walk in the back door of the hospital.  Right inside the hospital was the cafeteria and by the time we left we didn’t even have to tell them what we wanted for breakfast, we’d get to the counter and our bagels would be ready.  The people that worked in the hospital were about the nicest,  most compassionate people we’ve ever encountered.

The third day we found something missing in Chase’s area.  No more respirator!  He had been taken off the respirator and his nurse was there to met us and tell me I could hold my son for the first time!  You talk about an emotional moment!  Picture this, me holding Chase with tears streaming down my check, my  husband taking pictures with tears on his face and our son’s tough male nurse crying right along with us.

His nurse gave us a picture he had taken for us while the respirator was being taken out, it was Chase with his middle finger up, telling the world what he thought of that machine.  It was the most amazing thing to finally be able to hold my son and I never wanted to put him down again.

Now Chase could be fed!  But it quickly became evident that Chase was not able to take a bottle.  He didn’t have the suck swallow breathe reflex yet.  So for the time being I fed Chase through a tube that went in through his nose into his stomach.  The nurses would set up the end of the tube for me with a syringe of formula and I’d slowly push the plunger and feed Chase.

Before we knew it Christmas was upon us and although several of the wonderful people at Heart to Heart had extended invitations to us to join them in their homes for the holidays, we opted to spend the holiday with Chase.  We decorated his area with Christmas cards and the hospital staff put up a sign with Chase’s name with Christmas decorations on it.  Tom and I headed to BabiesRUs and bought the Eddie Bauer stroller/car seat combination.

Soon Chase could start wearing his own clothes and since none of the clothes we brought with us (newborn clothes and 0-3month) would fit, we were off to buy preemie clothes.

We spent Christmas dinner in the hospital cafeteria with another couple we met whose daughter was also in the NICU.

On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went to dinner at a Japanese steak house around the corner from the hospital. We hadn’t ventured out much beyond the NICU and our room and decided a nice meal out was in order.  We had a wonderful time, sitting with a family who so excited to hear about Chase.  Being in Utah was a very different experience then living in Connecticut.  The people are very very friendly and just think the world of anyone adopting. We were treated like royalty wherever we went.

We were at Chase’s bedside at midnight toasting with plastic champagne glasses filled with sparkling cider provided by the hospital staff.   We rang in the New Year with Chase. Everyone in the NICU milled around and visited and took pictures.   Definitely a New Years we’ll never forget.  We even have a picture of Chase holding one of the champagne glasses.

That night, Chase began taking a bottle, after days and days of trying.  On New Year’s Day, they tried Chase out for twelve hours in the car seat, hooked up to monitors. This is a common test for premature newborns leaving the NICU and even more so with a travel across the country ahead of them.  Chase passed the test with flying colors and had surpassed the five pound mark.  That meant he could leave the hospital and fly home!  He was released from the hospital at 10 AM on January 2, 2003.  Two hours later, we got a calling telling us that the interstate compact was done and we could fly home.

I never really knew what it was going to be like to be a mom. Now I can’t even imagine life without being a mom.

Kate with Chase

Chase is very fortunate to have a very loving  birthmother in Nichole.  Chase calls her either Mama Nichole or  MaCole.  We send her pictures and we do phone calls. Chase loves to talk to her and we are so blessed that she choose to do what she believed was best for Chase.  Open adoption isn’t always right for everyone, but we have truly been blessed to have Nichole in our lives.

Watch for the next installment of Kate’s story next Friday, June 14!

A Pink T-Shirt re-post

imagesby Luanne

This post, originally published on July 16, was the 2nd one I wrote for our blog.  It’s about the moment when I knew Marisha was going to be my daughter.  I thought I’d trot it out because some of you might feel like you know both Marisha and me a lot better now and get a kick out of it.


T-shirts wallpapered the shop. They hung three deep up to the ceiling and stacks of them rose from every surface. A tiny pink one called to me. But I didn’t have a baby girl at home to wear it. At least, not yet.

When I paid for it, my husband said, “Isn’t it too early to buy something?” Yet as we left, it felt important to me that I was carrying my first gift for the baby we were adopting. It was February 1, and we had finalized our paperwork with the agency the previous September.

Now we and our three-year-old son Marc were waiting for a baby girl from Korea to complete our family. We planned to name her Marisha. Three years before, Marshal and I had gone through the same wait for Marc. That time we hadn’t known what to expect with a new baby. This time, we had already gone through exhausting nights and broken lamps and mashed-banana baths. We had discovered that dogs make good vacuum cleaners underneath the high chair. And how to change a diaper in ten seconds if necessary.

When we waited for Marc we didn’t know if we would get a boy or girl. He came home to us from Holt International, through an agency called Bethany. Their rule was that prospective parents couldn’t request the gender of their first baby. That was fine with us. We expected to hear about our first child sometime in the fall. That summer, Marshal and I made a trip to visit family in Canada. On August 19, as we drove back to Michigan, I felt a thud in my chest and looked over at Marshal behind the steering wheel. “We’re having a boy,” I said.


“We’re having a boy.”

Marshal tipped his head and glanced at me. “How do you know? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. I just know we’re getting a boy.”

Two months later, we got the call from our case worker that we were, in fact, getting a boy. What was more remarkable is that our baby was born on August 19.

Now it was 3 1/2 years later, and Bethany had let us choose the gender of our second child, so we requested a girl. As I imagined baby Marisha, I hoped she would be strong and smart and healthy. If she were pretty, that would be great, too. Why not have everything when you’re daydreaming?

I began to feel even more impatient than when we had waited for Marc. Marisha was getting Marc’s oak crib and changing table. The antique dresser from my great-grandfather’s farm in Caledonia, Michigan. Although I worked in our small family-owned business and was a grad student, I felt that I didn’t have enough to do to get ready for her.

The first photo

Finally, we heard that she was coming home in May. Our case worker came over with a document and photo of Marisha. Even in her sleep, she looked wise and boasted a thick cap of black hair. She was living with a foster family in Seoul until she could be released. She was born, that’s right, February 1, the day I bought the little pink T-shirt. I wasn’t there physically when she was born, but I was with her on some other level, just as I had been with Marc.

I can’t help but wonder if others have had similar experiences in their own families.

Read the Back of the Inside Cover First: Review of “Rosie’s Family”

by Luanne

After reading the picture book Rosie’s Family: An Adoption Story by Lori Rosove, pictures by Heather Burrill, I want to scream.

Yup, scream or at least wring my hands in frustration that such a cute book by an adoption professional has some glaring “issues.”

Let me back up.  This is the story of 7-year-old Rosie, a young Beagle who was adopted by a Schnauzer family.  She has a little brother, Joey, who is the biological son of their parents.   The book is geared for the interracial adoption experience.

Welcoming and peaceful, the illustrations are drawings with colored pencils. They depict a cozy home environment, as well as some specific outdoor scenes which evoke a safe and beautiful natural world.

The book is set up to provide to an adopted child answers to her questions, affirmation for emotions she might have, and situations she might have to deal with in the outside world.  This is a very valid project, and at the end of the book are a list of issues parents can use this book to deal with.

“Rosie’s Family highlights several common issues for adoptive families.  It was written primarily as a guide for parents to discuss these issues with their children.”

If I had read this section before reading the book, I might have approached my reading differently.  Rather than being seen as a picture book for children, it might be seen as a guidebook for parents to use as the issues arise.

Here are the problems I have with the book as a “bedtime book” for children.

1.  Rosie is a dog and she was adopted by her family.  I am a huge animal lover (and, yes, I carry on conversations with my cats, interpreting their thoughts into speech).  Still, I find it awkward that the same words we use to talk about bringing specifically dogs and cats into our families (adoption, fostering) are the words we use to talk about bringing children into our families.  Sometimes we hear stories about animals adopted who “don’t work out” and are “brought back.”  Hearing these associations has got to be really puzzling for children, so to confuse the issues in a picture book seems unnecessary.  For some reason I haven’t yet identified, Rosie’s identity as a dog is more important in this book than in other picture books about adoption featuring animals which I have read in the past.

2.  There is a two page spread about where babies “come from” which is confusing.  On the left page, the text reads: “Some kids are adopted into families, like me…….”  The illustrations show a set of birth parents with baby Rosie in a basket facing the Schnauzers, Rosie’s adoptive parents.  On the right page, Rosie is looking at baby Joey inside her Mom, using a sort of telescope (microscope?).  The text reads: “…..and some are born into families, like my brother Joey who grew inside my Mom.”   Unfortunately, this contextualization makes it seem as though Rosie herself was not born.  It’s a comparison of oranges to apples.  The basic idea makes sense, but seeing it contrasted on two opposite pages gave me a strange feeling.

3.  During the questions and issues that arise (Are you my real parents? What were my birth parents like? Where did I live before? Why do I look different from my family?) I suspect that a child who has not yet encountered this breadth of adoption issues might feel overwhelmed.  Reading is frequently a time for comfort and companionship for young children, and this might be just too much all at once.  Nevertheless, as a tool to use to address an issue, it would be a decent book to pull out to illustrate a frank and loving conversation.

Rosie’s Family brings up important issues and deals with them in a trustworthy way, but it’s not bedtime reading.

A Nearly Beautiful Tale of Adoption: Review of “Over the Moon”

by Luanne

What beautiful pages!  Over the Moon, written and illustrated by Karen Katz, is a lovely tale of adoption for very young children.

The story is presented with a sense of fantasy, giving it a fairy tale quality.  The night after the new baby is born, a woman and her husband who are “far away” from the baby both have dreams of the same baby.  They know that this is their child and travel a long distance, “over the moon and through the night,” to get to their baby.  The mode of transportation is real–a giant airplane.  This blend of fantasy and reality places the notion of adoption into a larger mythological structure and connects with the child’s individual story of adoption.

Likewise, in the illustrations, Katz softens the boundary between fantasy and reality.  The colors are bright, which serves to highlight the more realistic tones of the human characters.  In this book, the mother has the same black hair as the baby, while the father has brown hair. The baby’s skin tone is darker than that of both parents.  The pictures are collages of papers with various painted small prints, such as stars, dots, and flowers.  This conveys the hint of scrapbook pages and provides a homey, folksy, whimsical experience.

This book acknowledges the role of the birth mother by this explanation:

“‘You grew like a flower in another lady’s tummy until you were born.  But the lady wasn’t able to take care of you, so Mommy and Daddy came to adopt you and bring you home.  Even before you were born we dreamed about you.  We knew we were meant to be together.'”

This is a fairly standard response to children who are adopted.   Cheri Register, in “Are Those Kids Yours?”, argues that this is actually a dangerous path to travel. She believes that without teaching the cultural context for “wasn’t able to take care of you,” that the questions some children will inevitably ask lead to answers that devalue the birth mother’s experience and ultimately the child himself.  She also argues that when children discover that if they didn’t adopt that particular child, they would have adopted another, and that that knowledge undermines the idea of “meant to be together” or “choosing” the child.  Regardless of whether or not you agree with Register, there is a distancing that goes on with the phrase “another lady’s tummy” that makes me uncomfortable.

This book is meant for the very young child, and because of its poetic nature, is meant to be a springboard for discussion, not a manual for how to talk about adoption.  The book takes a very complex and individualized situation and opens a door through which adult and child can enter.

She’s Not from Namibia. She’s from Texas!

[Helen Meyer is a professor at the University of Cincinnati in the very unartistic area of science education. Kayla Richardson is a senior dance major who spent much of her childhood performing in musical theatre in Cincinnati. Along with Brian, they became a family in April 1992, exactly one month after Kayla was born in Fort Worth, TX. From 1995-97, they lived in Namibia in Southern Africa, where Brian and Helen learned something about living as a minority.]

Helen:  Kayla and I decided to share thoughts through questions and answers. It’s not that we don’t talk about adoption or have our private thoughts and ideas, it’s almost that we have too many to know where to start, so some straightforward questions and answers seemed the way to begin.




Kayla:  What was the process you went through to adopt me?

Helen: Adopting you was a strange process filled with technical paperwork, meetings with a social worker, background checks, and emotion. The agency we chose to work with did both domestic and international adoptions. We knew the domestic adoptions with this agency were all African-American children or “hard to place” children. When people adopt they get more choice about the family composition than getting pregnant. We specified that we wanted a girl, less than one year of age.  Yes, we would take twins; yes, we would take a child with some minor physical disabilities; no, we would not be able to take a child with major physical disabilities.

The next stage was the home study. This included interviews with a social worker, written responses to several questions which Dad and I had to answer, and recommendations from friends about us individually and as a couple. Once we completed all these, we were approved to be foster parents, which is the first step to adopting.

After all this, which we had found stressful and emotional, we were told the wait for a healthy baby girl was 6 to 12 months. So Dad and I settled back to enjoy the coming Wisconsin spring. Three weeks later we got a call about you. We were so not prepared. Then there was also a whole new round of paperwork. The first set of paperwork, before we were approved to be foster parents, I would best describe as being there to protect you. This new set of paperwork was to protect us, sort of. These were a lot of official foster care papers, legal guardianship papers, and what I thought the weirdest, was the inter-state commerce form. Since you were born in Texas and moving to Wisconsin we had to complete a commerce form. My understanding was this paper work was because while you were in foster care you were legally a ward of the State of Wisconsin and if we decided we didn’t want to keep you the State was legally bound to care for you. But, of course, who wouldn’t want YOU!

The final steps were when you were with us. Legally, you were in foster care for the first year and we had visits from the social worker, who was wonderful. Then exactly one year after you flew into Madison and one year and one month after you were born we met with the Judge to finalize your adoption.

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Kayla:  What do you remember about the day you got me?

 Helen: That’s a good question–as you know my memory is pretty fuzzy these days. Dad and I were really nervous. We were nervous about meeting you and how your flight had gone. We were nervous that we wouldn’t know how to be parents and probably a million other things. Your flight arrived at the Madison airport at lunch time. Those were the days when people could still go to the gate to meet people getting off the flight. The plane you flew in on was one of the little ones, so Cricket, the woman from the Texas adoption agency who brought you, walked down the steps and across the tarmac. I remember you were so little we couldn’t see you because you fit on her forearm.

The other thing I remember really clearly was driving with you the first time and for weeks after. I drove so carefully because now we had to take care of you while driving. You were so tiny in the car seat and so vulnerable.  I worried all the time.

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Kayla: Did the looks you got when you went out in public with me bother you at all?

 Helen: I know there were looks, but I just can’t recall how they made me feel. But there were several comments people would make that drove me nuts. One of them you know, so I will start with that one. This was when you were older, after we moved back from Namibia. If we mentioned that we moved to Namibia when you were three or say specifically that  we took you to Namibia with us when we went, or even that you were born in Texas–something that would clearly suggest you were born in the States– people would say, “oh, so did you adopted her in/from Namibia?” It was like they heard the word Namibia, saw black child, thought Africa and immediately every brain cell shut down. Or they would click into some celebrity thing about going to Africa to save the poor African children. You probably don’t remember, but adoption in Namibia was very rare because the family structure was different and having kids out of marriage was accepted as just part of life. Extended family members took care of the children of family members for lots of reasons so almost no child was without a family. Families in Namibia actually found the whole idea of adoption a strange western thing.

Another comment that we got regularly, even from some family members, was the “oh, it is so wonderful of you to save this poor child.” The comment tended to come with religious implications or sometimes not implications but stated comments such as what a good Christian act, or doing God’s work.  You know how well comments like that sit with me. The other thing that bothered me about these comments is the people making them were never really interested in listening to why we chose to adopt, they just wanted to go on with their own delusions of our family’s motivations.

The other comment you and I got frequently, which sometimes bothered me and sometimes I appreciated, came from African-American women and it was about HAIR. This seemed to happen most frequently at the grocery store. A woman would come up and tell me what I needed to do with your hair, or what to avoid, or if I was looking at hair products how to pick the right kind. When women would talk with me about hair, I realized I had a lot to learn and over time I have come to understand that for African-American (and Namibian) women, hair is a complicated issue. Now I better understand why they felt it was important to give me advice, but when you were little not so much. Discussions about hair also seemed to be a way to open conversation across race that did not happen if you were not with me.

African-Americans tended to be more open to asking direct questions about our family and engaging in a real conversation about why we adopted you or how or what we were doing to help you understand African-American culture. Also, they never asked if my husband was black, which I did get from a few white women. I rarely felt like they were judging, just interested in a way that almost no whites other than close friends ever seemed to be.

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Kayla the Fashionista


Kayla: What made you want to adopt and what made you choose me?

 Helen: Why adopt at all?  This is a three-part answer. I never was into the idea of being pregnant and giving birth. I don’t know if it was because I tended to reduce it all to sets of biological functions or if I have some weird deep-seated and unresolved issues, but I never had the biological-clock-ticking-away issue. As you know, I have some pretty strong beliefs about evolution, gene pools, and over-population. I didn’t feel the need to pass on my genes; in fact, between Dad and I there are some mental health issues in our gene pools that are probably best not passed down. I don’t know, I think I am just weird that way. Obviously Dad and I talked about adopting a lot versus having our own kids, but in the end Dad couldn’t have kids so it all fell into place.

Why adopt you? When you adopt you actually do get a lot of choices, unlike if you get pregnant. Dad would say he wanted a baby whose eyes sparkled, and yours did. But that wasn’t the decider since we only saw a picture of you after we had made our final decision. So your sparkly eyes were just a bonus! I think the clincher was we were sent your hospital records. You were in the hospital for five days after you were born, while paperwork was being sorted out. In the nurses’ records, they made the cutest comments about you. The nurses would talk about how you loved the swing and you would respond to them when they went to feed you and pick you up, how cute and alert and interactive you were.  Grandma said the nurses probably loved having a healthy baby since most babies in the hospital are there because they are very ill. In the same packet there was the picture of your foot prints; they were so tiny. Dad saw them and started to cry; he knew immediately you were the one. You have a great foot print!

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Gratitude & Adoption Comedy

by Luanne

What an unexpected thrill it was to check our inbox and find an email waiting from WordPress editor Cheri Lucas telling Marisha and me that one of our blog’s posts, “What Does ‘Miss Saigon’ Have to Do with It?,” had been Freshly Pressed.  That was such a wonderful two month birthday present for the blog.  Starting a project like this has been daunting and, quite frankly, a lot of hard work.  Sometimes I’ve felt like giving up.  I admit it.  One good thing is that WordPress allows me to schedule posts early enough in the morning for the east coast 2nd cup of coffee while I’m still asleep in Arizona.  Maybe you thought I was up posting at 5AM?  [Insert snort of sheepish laughter here].

Every single “like” or comment or “follow” is noticed and appreciated more than you could ever know.  I want to thank our first readers and our newest blog followers and everybody in between.  You are what makes it worthwhile to share our stories and to provide a forum for others to share their own.

Now I’m bursting to share something else—a project I find so unique and exciting.  A big Thank You to Lisa DeNike Ercolano for bringing it to my attention.

Artist Jessica Emmett and writer Bert Ballard collaborate on a comic strip project called Adopted the Comic.   Jess was adopted by a British couple and brought up in an ex-pat community in Hong Kong.  She now lives in the UK with her husband.  Her birthmother was a Vietnamese refugee.  Bert was evacuated from Vietnam during Operation Babylift in 1975 and grew up in the United States.  He’s an adoption researcher and has helped form two adoptee-led organizations.  He’s married with three children.  His son was adopted from Vietnam.

What I love about their work is how much it reflects the experiences of my family, as well as the humor we’ve found in our own lives.  Both of my kids have a strong flair for comedy, and I think it springs from their transracial and international adoptions.  Here are a couple of Jess-and-Bert’s cartoons which speak for themselves.

You can follow Jessica and Bert on Facebook here.  Their website is here.

I hope you enjoy their humor as much as I do.

Foster the People

by Marisha

When I first came to the U.S. as a baby, my foster family sent gifts with me, which included a couple of stuffed animals from the Seoul Olympics and a small photo album.  In the album were pictures of me living in my foster parents’ home with their children.

My parents showed me the pictures several times over the next few years.  I remember confusing the idea of a foster mother with a birth mother, and for awhile, I thought that the woman holding me close and smiling was my birth mother.

When I was old enough to understand, I was disappointed that I wasn’t related to the people in the photos.  Now that I am an adult I am so grateful to my foster mother (and her family) for not just taking care of me according to the requirements of the job, but for going above and beyond in giving me the care and attention she would give her own child.

The way I know that this family did so much for me is that in the photographs they documented a special celebration which means a lot in Korea.  Special birthday parties for certain ages are an integral part of Korean culture.  I was given a party for my baek-il before I left for America.  Baek-il means “100thday” and is celebrated when a baby is 100 days old.  It signifies that the baby has overcome health risks to newborns and has made it to this point.  The family celebrates with generous food displays.  They serve rice cakes which have different meanings, including protection, good fortune, happiness, longevity, and wealth.

My foster family was of modest means.  The father was a bus driver and the mother’s only income came from being a foster mother.  They had three children to support.  Yet they would have had to pay for the feast they provided for my baek-il.  They would have paid for the gifts they sent with me.  I will always be thankful for their generosity and the love they gave me for the short time I lived with them.

3,000 Miles Away, the Stork Came Early

by Lennie Magida

Two loaves of bread and a stick of butter. Or a bottle of sunscreen, a beach towel, your phone and something to read.

You could carry them for hours, couldn’t you?  They wouldn’t weigh you down, they wouldn’t feel burdensome.

You wouldn’t feel as though you were lugging a baby around all day.

But when my daughter, Nina, was born in 1987, she weighed two pounds, five ounces. Like bread and butter. Like an easy day at the beach.

She was born seven weeks early and a continent away from us. We were going through an adoption process, not a pregnancy—at least not mine. We knew who the birth mother was, but we were in Baltimore, and she was in Los Angeles. We hadn’t met her. We wouldn’t be meeting her.

Lennie & John Summer 1986

Lennie & John, summer 1986, a few months before Nina’s arrival

We’d thought of names and tried to imagine how a baby was going to change our lives, but we were like actors at an audition. Except for the checks we’d written to our adoption lawyer, we had no real evidence that we were expecting a baby. We didn’t have sonograms to squint at. I didn’t gain weight. We didn’t have the chance to put our hands on my belly and marvel at the kicks. Strangers didn’t smile indulgently. All we had was the knowledge that somewhere in Los Angeles, in the womb of a 28-year-old Filipina woman named Anna (not her real name), a fetus was turning into a baby that was going to be ours.

But that was supposed to happen in April, and this was February. Specifically, it was the evening of Friday, February 20. John was out for a run. I was at home in my aerobic instructor clothes, preparing for a half-time performance at a Baltimore Blast indoor soccer game. Then we’d go to the train station to pick up my friend Mary, who was coming from New York for the weekend. We’d go out for a nice spicy dinner, drink plenty of wine. I was not behaving like the mother of a day-old infant. But how could I have known?

The phone rang. It was the adoption lawyer, calling from his plush office in Beverly Hills.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Perplexed,” he said.

An interesting word. To myself I wondered, “Does he want more money?” Aloud, I merely asked, “Why?”

He replied, “The stork came early.”

He told me about the tiny baby girl born the day before, seven weeks early. Anna had begun experiencing pregnancy-induced hypertension, been taken to Queen of Angels Hospital, undergone an emergency Caesarean. The baby girl weighed little more than a quart of milk. Doctors had rushed her and Anna to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Anna was fine, and the baby seemed to be doing well, but it was too soon to know for sure.

Children's Hospital Los Angeles

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Nina’s first “home”

I hung up the phone and sat down on the stairs inside our house. It was a nice Baltimore row house, with high ceilings, gleaming wood floors, a graceful banister that I now leaned against. John came through the front door. “Hi!” he said. He was flushed and invigorated from his run in the February air. I sat very still on the stair.

“What do you think of the name Nina for a baby girl?” I asked.

“Well, that’s one of the names we’ve talked about,” he said. “It’s a good name.”

“No,” I said. “What do you think of the name Nina for a baby girl?”

“You’re kidding,” he said, and sat down beside me.

So here she was, our baby, this little girl no heavier than a couple of good books. But to be honest, now that our perplexed attorney was safely off the line 3,000 miles away, I once again felt like an actor. We suddenly had a baby? So he’d said. But we didn’t have the baby. And I did have my aerobics commitment. Right then, that felt much more real.

So off I went in my spandex to jump and kick for the soccer fans. Then Mary arrived, and we had a good, wine-soaked dinner. She offered to help us choose the baby’s name. “What about Pocahontas?” she asked.

Ultimately, we made the decision on Nina’s name the same way we made many decisions. We wrote our options on little slips of paper: Nina, Abby, Renee and, why not, Pocahontas. We put the papers on one side of the kitchen floor, our crazy genius cat Katie on the other. Whichever paper her paw touched first, that was our answer. Unless we decided it wasn’t.

She did well this time. Nina it was.

Part 2: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[Part  1 was published here yesterday, July 25, 2012.  Lisa had just learned that her new daughter was waiting for her at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home in China.  This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine.]

I screamed and hollered, whooped and cried. Olivia jumped up and down. The agency representative told us that Yu Fen’s photo would arrive by Federal Express the next day. I phoned my husband at work and told him. He was ecstatic. We called grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends.

Less than month later, on December 3, 1994, I set off for China and second-time motherhood from Baltimore-Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport. I was joined by my father, a hearty fellow who loved adventure and who volunteered to accompany me so Patrick could stay home with Olivia and make things ready. (My father had served in the Army in the Philippines during WWII, and loved the idea of returning to the Far East to meet his newest granddaughter.)

Along with us came a suitcase full of paraphernalia – diapers, bottles, snowsuits, onesies, film, video camera, chocolate, gifts for officials, and a sense of anticipation the size of the Forbidden City.

We emerged from the international flight on December 4 into a warm, silky, black Hong Kong evening. There, we met up with our group – six families traveling to pick up babies. They came from all over the U.S. – Arizona, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri and Georgia.

Zonked by travel, many of us hit the sack. I later learned that some of the others had brought sleeping pills and sedatives, anticipating the nerves that we would undoubtedly experience. Not me: I lay in my room, staring at the ceiling most of the night. Tomorrow, I was finally going to meet our younger daughter!

Ready to meet the new baby

Lisa, her father Robert DeNike, and others ready to meet the new babies!

The next morning, the group gathered for breakfast, then boarded Dragon Air for Nanjing, a beautiful city located on the South China Sea on the central southern coast. Nanjing is famous for its broad avenues and lush, ancient trees. In late afternoon, the streets teemed with bicycle riders making their ways home from work under a canopy of trees so large I could imagine them forming an umbrella of shade during the notoriously hot summers.

I can still hear the tinkling of bicycle bells – a sound that will forever say “China” to me. Everywhere I looked, there were the beautiful people I had imagined as a child.

We barely had time to unpack in the hotel before the word came: the babies were here! They would be coming from two different orphanages, my daughter’s in ChangShu, and from another in nearby, and larger, Suzhou. Our videotape shows us pacing the halls like expectant fathers in a 1950s sitcom. No one knew what to do. Chat? Laugh? Cry? One of the biggest moments of our lives was about to happen, and there was no way to prepare. I found myself, ridiculously, putting on lipstick!

At last, we were beckoned into a hotel room filled with babies and Chinese women, who were all talking at the same time. Excited and uncertain, we stood there, our stomachs in knots. What now?

Just then, a small, short-haired Chinese woman stood up and said “Yu Fen,” holding out a bundle. My baby! Jumping forward, I took her in my arms. Packed in five layers of machine-knitted acrylic sweaters and pants with the traditional Chinese split-crotch, my daughter had bright red apple cheeks, a Mohawk of damp black hair, a rosebud mouth that did not look pleased, and shiny black almond-shaped eyes that looked solemnly straight into mine.

What happened next was a blur. The others got their babies. But I was transfixed – under a kind of a spell. Unlike the other new parents, I didn’t ask the “aunties” – the babies’ caretakers – any questions about my new daughter’s feeding or sleeping habits. In a videotape someone took, I watch myself in slow motion, walking across the room, sitting in a chair, stroking the cheek of my new daughter: Juliet Meiying.

Suzhou Garden

Lisa with Juliet in a front pack in The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, PRC

My husband and I chose “Juliet” because we both love Shakespeare and as Romeo said in that famous, eponymous play “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” We picked “Meiying” as the middle name, because it means “beautiful flower:” almost the same as her orphanage name, but decidedly easier on the Western ear. It would also be simpler to spell, should she later decide to use it instead of “Juliet.”

I began to rock her, peeling off one layer at a time, noting that the clothing was soft with wear and washing. Asking permission of our coordinator, I took the baby back to my room, where I did what every new mother does: I peeled her down to her naked body. I counted fingers and toes. I cleaned her bottom and powdered her. I kissed her belly button. I changed her into a new Pamper and snapped her into a fresh onesie and clean sleeper.

Then I grabbed up Yu Fen (it would be days before I felt comfortable calling her by her new name) and went back down the hall to see how everyone else was doing. Some babies were sleeping; some were cuddling; some were crying. The aunties were laughing, giving jolly and  brisk advice in Chinese, telling us “If she wakes at night, don’t feed her! Just change her.” They showed us what the babies had been fed on: one scoop of formula, one scoop of ground white rice, one scoop of sugar per 12-ounce bottle.

I only half listened. I took Yu Fen (who had fallen into a very deep sleep) back to my room, and made a nest of blankets and comforters for us on the floor. I didn’t think a five-month-old could roll off the twin bed next to mine, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I curved around her like a spoon. She was warm and smelled of Johnson’s baby powder. Her long lashes curled cunningly against her red cheeks. I nestled closer and her little head with its bristle of hair fit perfectly into the crook of my neck. She was mine.

The rest of the trip was irrelevant. I had our new baby. We traveled from one province to another, seeing notaries and officials, going before tribunal where we had to answer questions.

Amy and Olivia at the airport awaiting Juliet's arrival

Lisa’s sister, Amy DeNike, and Olivia unfurling a banner in December 1994, the day Juliet/Yu Fen came home on a flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport

How had my family prepared for the baby’s arrival? Why hadn’t my husband come along? Why did we want to adopt a baby girl from China when we already had one daughter at home?

But how to account for a matter of the heart? How to describe that single moment in which fate grasped me by the gut and led my family in a direction we’d never dreamed of going? How to explain the inexplicable – how, like a cord, my very soul drew me halfway across the world to a tiny girl lying alone and abandoned in a crib somewhere in China?

Chinese is a wonderful language, full of expressions and words that often go far beyond our own in describing matters of emotion, fate and destiny. Maybe there is a Mandarin word that would have made it all made sense, but I didn’t know it.

So as I spoke to the officials in that small, unheated room, I simply held Yu Fen tightly against my chest. Our hearts beating together provided the answer.

Part 1: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine]


At the age of five, I dug for China so tenaciously in my family’s garden with a bent, scratched old stainless steel spoon that I exposed the roots of a fledgling maple tree.

The tree died weeks later. But the time I spent scraping and clawing at the clods of dark earth brought to life in my imagination a whole different world — one inhabited by beautiful, black-haired people, rivers teeming with fish and exotic boats, mountains shrouded in mysterious mists, green rice paddies swaying in the breeze – images that up until then, I had seen only in encyclopedias or the occasional children’s picture book.

It’s part of my family’s folklore that I always fervently desired to be Chinese. Tugging at my pale blonde braids, I’d pester “Am I Chinese? Am I Chinese?” until my mother – exasperated that her blue-eyed, French-Dutch-Irish child wouldn’t let go of an idea once she had it – would say “Yes, yes, you are Chinese.” I was temporarily appeased, even when the mirror did not concur.

No one – not even me – understands where that longing came from.

But the attraction for things Chinese grew with me into adulthood. When my husband, Patrick and I married in the June of 1988, we offered our wedding party a Chinese banquet for the rehearsal dinner. With my gleaming sapphire engagement ring, a pair of chopsticks, a bevy of close friends and family and a steaming platter of dumplings and Szechuan chicken before me, I was in heaven.

The birth of our daughter, Olivia, in September 1989 put my Chinese fixation on hold. The joys and struggles of pregnancy and giving birth, breastfeeding, maternity leave, learning the best way to kiss boo-boos, managing on four hours sleep a night and reading Goodnight, Moon ruled our lives. I’d drop into bed exhausted and sticky with peanut butter and jelly, but the glorious girl with giant, soft brown eyes and honey hair had become the light of our existence.

Olivia, Lisa, Patrick

Lisa and Patrick with their daughter, Olivia

As Olivia grew from a baby into a little girl, we’d sometimes talk about having another child. But the time never seemed right. The truth is, we were satisfied as a family of three.

Sometimes, though, fate taps you on the back so lightly you can flick it away like a pesky fly. Other times, it sucker punches you in the gut, leaving no question that something is demanded NOW! That’s what happened to me one sunny Sunday morning in April 1994, as I leafed through The New York Times Magazine.

The article in question described one writer’s journey to China to “adopt one of the tens of thousands of baby girls abandoned in China each year.” By the second paragraph, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that was what we were going to do, too.

It’s as if the last piece of a difficult puzzle had snapped into place. My heart was overwhelmed with a sense that “This is what we have been waiting for. This is why we couldn’t seem to decide to conceive.” There was a sensation of fullness and rightness – an “Ah, yes!” that was almost audible in my soul.

Waving the magazine, I rushed downstairs, where my husband was watching TV. “This is it!” I shouted. “We’re going to China to adopt a baby girl!”

My more cautious mate barely looked up. I was blocking the screen, dontcha know.

But I knew this was what we were supposed to do. Call it God. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want. I had my directions and I planned to carry them out.

Strategy #1: Clip the story and hang it prominently on the refrigerator. It got moved to the side, with the pizza coupons. I moved it back. A dance ensued – back and forth, forth and back.

Eventually, though, like all halfway civilized couples, we sat down and discussed adopting from China. Well, he discussed and I begged. I enlisted Olivia as my ally. “Daddy, please let’s adopt one of the babies from China who needs a mommy, a daddy and a big sister,” she’d plead.

For weeks, we dissected the issues. Could we love a child not of our blood? Yes, of course! We loved each other – and we weren’t related. Did we realize that we were bringing a whole different culture into our home? Olivia solved that one. “Now, we’ll all be a little Chinese!” Did we understand that by adopting an Asian child, our family would become a minority family? That bothered us least of all. How to handle the questions of strangers went into my court: since when didn’t I have some kind of verbal answer for everything?

Ultimately, my conviction that a certain child waited for us won. We agreed. We would build our family by adoption.

Every night when Olivia and I said her prayers, we added something: “Dear God, please take care of our baby in China. Let her know her Mommy, Daddy and her new Big Sister love her so much, and we are trying as hard as we can to come and get her.” (I’ll admit that, once in a while, annoyed by all the talk about a baby, Olivia would slyly add with a sigh: “God, please make it so no new baby comes from China.”)

By this time, we had contacted numerous agencies dealing in international adoption, and had recovered from the shock of the cost. We also had adjusted to the fact that because Chinese law restricts the adoption of “healthy” infants to single people or couples ages 35 to 60 who are childless, we would need to be open to the possibility of adopting a child with some kind of minor, correctable need.

(To deny this frightened us would be to lie. An unhealthy child was not what we had imagined. But as time passed, we remembered that even giving birth ourselves has its risks. Somehow, we knew that the child meant for us would be perfect for us, whether she was “perfect” or not.)

I began our paperwork the week of June 12, 1994, by filling out an application for a social worker to visit us to do a “home study” – the requisite family history that would assess our fitness to raise a child. Besides conducting numerous interviews, our social worker also needed income tax returns, bank statements, a health inspection, copies of our birth and marriage certificates, a statement by our doctors that we were healthy, a fingerprint check through the Maryland State Police and the FBI and more paper too tedious to mention.

Once we were approved, we had to garner even more papers from the Chinese. I struggled for most of the summer to obtain all the official stamps and seals needed. We applied to the local bank for a home equity loan to cover the costs.

By October, our dossier was ready. Told by our agency to expect at least a six-month wait before hearing about our newest daughter, we tried to forget about it. But every time the phone rang, I’d jump up and say “Maybe it’s the agency!” Olivia would roll her eyes and sigh in an exaggerated manner.

But one day – November 11, 1994, at 4:30 in the afternoon – the phone rang. It was the call we had been waiting for! The agency’s China coordinator calmly told me that we were the proud parents/big sister of a baby girl named “Yu Fen” – Chinese for “Fragrance of a Flower.” She weighed 10 pounds and was waiting for us at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home (orphanage) in China.

Arrival announcement

The Arrival Announcement

Oh, yes, and one more thing: her birthday was June 12, 1994, the same day I had started our paperwork. The hair on the back of my arms stood straight up.

[Look for Part Two TOMORROW!!!]

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