Published on March 21st, 2017 | by Alex Behr2
What Do I Get? (A Primer on Post-Adoption Funk)
I lay across the double bed, the sun filtering through dirty blinds. Measuring my son’s cries from the floor below, I curled up my knees to a fetal position. Outside, a woodpecker slotted his beak against a crack in the telephone pole. I counted to myself, down from one hundred, hearing the bird so percussive, hungry. But, then, the child, my boy, was downstairs and wailing louder. Sam—why couldn’t he help me? I needed the soft death grip of sleep.
It was the fall of 2006. The rains had not yet started in earnest, here in Portland, Oregon. I was a forty-one-year-old woman, with money worries. I couldn’t sleep at night. My husband wasn’t getting steady animation work, and I had to hustle for freelance writing projects.
At two years old, Eli, our son, loved overturning rocks to see the worms’ pink flesh squirm and writhe. To feel the cool, pulsing life in his tiny hand, worms he called his pets. This afternoon, a Sunday, I leaned my head over the side of the bed. I smelled cat pee afterburn from the previous owner’s pet. I could count down from one thousand. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t believe in God, but the prayer was good enough to ward off vampires or rapists when I was young and my pelvic bones felt like knives.
“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”
“Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six.” I pretended he wasn’t crying for me. His “mama” was someone else, his Chinese mother. We didn’t know her name. But what baby knows his mother’s name at first? He knows a smell. He knows a touch. It’s the primal word, the word he screamed at night if my husband went to get him from his crib instead of me.
Eli ran upstairs, crying, into our bedroom, away from his dad. I felt that adrenaline pinch. Why couldn’t Sam take care of him? Climbing on the futon bed, across a quilt I’d made, Eli put his face toward mine. I put the pillow under my head and smiled. “Baby,” I said. “Why couldn’t you stay with Dada?” I wanted to scream. I sang a made-up song in my mind, in a peppy tone like a dish-soap commercial: “I can’t get anything done.” I loved him. I’d lost my old life. He had, too. We brought him here to America. He had no choice.
He had a huge, round head, round cheeks, dark-brown eyes, and faint eyebrows that looked half-shaved. A red scab filled the space between his flat nose and cheeks. It was from a runny nose that never got wiped enough at daycare.
He sat and jumped on me. “I bunny rabbit,” he said. He smiled and put his body perpendicular to my head and pushed his feet under my pillow, to burrow under it.
He liked to pretend he was inside me, in my uterus that he called a universe. I sat up, unable to ignore him. He’d made me into a mother this past year, since we adopted him at ten months old. I leaned against a large black pillow, against the crack in the plaster. We were too lazy to fix it. He sat in the crook of my legs. I moved him against my chest and zipped him inside a large hoodie.
“I growing,” he said. He wanted this for himself. He was a fetus and then the infant again.
“Are you ready?” I felt his muscles from outside the fleece. He laughed.
“You’re born!” I unzipped the hoodie and brought him out, to be rocked. I’d never attended a birth, only friends’ abortions, where, each time, I’d whispered, so long, a prayer to that coda, to those splitting cells and pieces of woman’s tissue sucked into a hazardous waste disposal unit.
His sturdy weight lay across my forearms and elbows; his hair smelled of sweat and dirt. Born in the Year of the Monkey in China, his past was secret. The official record was that he was abandoned outside the orphanage gate. He was my monkey baby. I wanted to be a mom, ever since I was little, dragging my favorite stuffed animal through dirt and sucking my thumb so much my mom cut off the thumb of my mitten so I wouldn’t be without that wrinkled-skin-spit comfort in the snow.
I wanted to pursue vice—if not live it, than be a voyeur—know those whose vices were secret, who would confess to me, who created art, literature, films, and music inspired by nihilism or cynicism. What was the purpose of sentimentality? It just existed to be mocked or subverted. And what was motherhood but the antithesis of a post-punk mindset? All those paths could never intertwine in the right way. I crooned a lullaby to my toddler, my scamps, in a watery soprano. At the end I sang that the cradle falls.
“Why doll?” he asked. Eli misheard the lyrics and thought “and all” was “and doll.” Why him with me? I wondered.
The next year, I wept on Mother’s Day. Every good thing in my life meant something hollow for a stranger in a foggy city, across the Pacific depths.
I wished for no end and no beginning, when times were tender with my son. What about when I’m eighty-one, I thought, and my parents are dead and the ocean is rising. Eli will turn back into a toddler, take my hands, jump on me and say, “I bunny rabbit. You mommy bunny rabbit. We go hide in cave.”
He’ll collapse my lungs into my final breath. He’ll pick a dandelion and blow the seeds in my ear. Puff.
Hey pssst, come see Alex Behr onstage live in Portland as she hosts our first PNW event!
Are you a parent or were you ever a kid (trick question)? Contributors from MUTHA Magazine join this regular reading series to tell stories of keeping it real with kids — and dismantling the patriarchy, all on no sleep. This is MUTHA’s first PNW event and we are INTO it — come on in from the rain and find your friends. Bring your own stories of parenting/being parented, we’ll be gathering anecdotes on index cards to read between sets, aka Live Audience Participation.
Tell your mama’s group, your actual mama, and that nice dad-type down the block!