Adoption Stories

Published on January 23rd, 2014 | by KJ Dell’Antonia



This glimpse from “Lucky American Girl,” the story of KJ Dell’Antonia’s daughter’s adoption from China, comes from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. Pick it up, because you should really read the rest—it’s an incredible piece—and all the other excellent essays sitting with it, like Jessica Valenti’s on premature birth, Liz Henry’s clear-eyed story of an abortion, T.F. Charlton’s “The Impossibility of the Good Black Mother,” Shay Stuart Bouley’s protest of the prejudice against non-custodial moms, Erika Lust’s advertisement for mamas making porn, Aly Windsor’s meditation on mortality panic, and Joy Ladin’s, a trans-MUTHA, who begins, “How bad a mother am I? So bad my children call me Daddy.”

Want to share what you think when you hear “good mother?” Join the conversation at The Good Mother Myth Blog. (I did).

– Yours, Meg Lemke


 Lucky American Girl

I didn’t expect the beginning of a new phase in all of our lives to be fraught with sheer banality. Wan was exhausted. We found out later from the officials who’d brought her to us that they’d torn a screaming Wan from the arms of someone from her foster home. The women we’d met upstairs told our guide that she had kicked, screamed, and bitten the whole way to the hotel, except for a brief interval when they plied her with a lollipop. From Wan herself, almost a year later, we discovered that it had been a “very small lollipop.”

Our original three kids had long since accepted the limitations of hotel life. Wan had not. Under the fascinated gaze of her new siblings, she roamed the room with the safety scissors and crayons we had given her in hand, unable to sit down to anything, and not familiar enough with her new brothers or sister to understand how to play with them.

Before long, she’d abandoned the crayons and had cut every piece of paper she could get her hands on into tiny shreds. As long as I was watching her, she was fine. If I turned my attention away, she left the paper I’d given her and began to prowl for other cutting opportunities until I focused on her again. I hovered, rescuing sofa cushions, the rug, the curtains. Sam and Lily tried to distract Wan. Wyatt followed her until she screamed.


flickr/Louise Ferrari

I felt compelled to do something meaningful to pull all of this together, but I felt like I was failing. There was my mom, in the armchair in the corner, watching her only child become a mother of four. There was Rob, who’d put up with so much to fulfill this dream of mine, still manfully shuffling papers and kowtowing to Chinese demands—after just half an hour of bonding with his new daughter and her safety scissors, he’d gone with our guide to complete still more paperwork. There were Sam, Lily, and Wyatt. This was their new sister, we’d told them. I was her Mommy, too. They knew me as a Mommy full of love and patience and discipline and familiarity. What could they expect of me now? Was it comforting, or terrifying, to see me try to mother even so small a stranger?

And there was Wan. Wan, moving determinedly through that hotel room like a wind-up toy, unable to stop and unable to rest. How could she bear so much strangeness? I can only think that she couldn’t, and that with every snip of the scissors, she was cutting off the risk that she might feel it in full.

After lunch, we set back out for that upstairs conference room. I was afraid that Wan would think we were giving her back to what had clearly been her tormentors.



“You’re coming back with us,” I whispered to her. “You can stay with me the whole time, and then we will go back downstairs together.” Wan didn’t respond. She sat rigid on my arms as though I were just anyone, as though I were a chair or a rail, and she didn’t look at me, but leaned instead toward the wall of buttons on the elevator.

When we walked into the same room we’d found her in that morning, with the same young women, the same older man, Wan struggled down from my arms. She didn’t cry or scream. Instead, she climbed up on the coffee table. There, looking squarely at the face of the Fuzhou official, she stomped first one foot and then the other before she began to jump up and down with a fierce passion.

The young women laughed. The man smiled grimly. “She is not very Chinese,” he said.

“No,” I agreed as Rob lifted her off the table and put her back on my lap and she immediately squirmed off again to go explore the curtains, “she’s not.”

It was a sentiment we’d hear again and again, from guides, drivers, and adoption facilitators in first one town, and then another. In Guangzhou, on our final stop in China, the last of our guides gazed at the child who spent the entire trip running from her stroller or screaming for “Ice cream! Ice cream! ICE CREAM!” and said it again, thoughtfully. “She not very Chinese.”

But this guide also thought Wan was lucky, and even seemed to admire her spirit. “She lucky American girl.”


“American Girl, 5th Avenue, NY” by Yusuf C/flickr

Excerpted from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014.

Photos published via creative commons license

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About the Author

KJ Dell’Antonia (@KJDellAntonia) is the lead writer and editor of the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. She is the co-author of Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos (Sourcebooks 2013). Her work has also appeared on Slate’s DoubleX and its XXFactor blog, on Babble, and in Parents, Parenting, Kiwi, and the still regretted Wondertime (and other publications). She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and an assortment of kids and animals.

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