When my baby cries, I want to run. The pitch of it—husky and wounded—sets off an alarm that scrapes through my body. His pain is something I am unprepared to bear.
He is my second child, but I did not deliver him; rather I sat appointment after appointment, sonogram after sonogram, with his birth mother during the last four months of her pregnancy.
I wasn’t her first choice. The adoption agency provided her a few family profiles, and she chose a single woman in Washington D.C., but another birth mother got her first. Terence, her boyfriend and Wendell’s birth father, sold her on us. They have a son already, he reasoned, so they’ll know what to do with a boy. They didn’t want the same-sex couple, so she agreed even if begrudgingly.
When I think of his delivery, I think of all the shoes. So many feet scurried around—a few, because it’s a teaching hospital, were covered in a light blue fabric. Terence’s pair of unlaced high tops next to the bed, the social workers’ fat feet squeezed into ballet flats, the top of them like small hills. Then, my grey and blue Chucks, low-top, laces pulled taut and double-knotted, the white of them peeking from behind the wide hem of old jeans I pulled out of a donation bag in my trunk when the doctor said, “We’re moving her to delivery.” In the far distance of the room, clear in the stark white light of the waiting infant crib, Trip’s still brown Clark’s lined up like two military vessels or rows of corn. So still. Thin laces, threadbare, and the soles worn from the inside. I don’t think he moved at all. And Lydia’s bare feet in the stirrups, her toes curled just like Wendell’s when he grips the bottle to suck his first sips of milk.
On the second night we had the baby at home, I couldn’t feed him or hold him. Instead, I slept in my toddler’s bed with him. Then the next night too. While I felt only love when the doctor lifted him onto my skin that first moment of his life, now I only felt panic. He’s not mine, he’s not mine, I heard in my head, in a voice that came from the deepest dark of me. Long story short: I was suffering the very early signs of postpartum depression, a condition I likely experienced after Graham—my oldest, and biological, son—was born too, but had reached a fever pitch with this second infant. I didn’t know adoptive mothers could experience postpartum depression, so I just thought I was an awful person. By the time Wendell hit five months old that awfulness manifested as crying fits, insomnia, tremors in my arms and hands, and locking myself in the bathroom where I cut my inner thighs with a razor blade. When I hit rock bottom, it required intervention from my parents, brother, and husband, and a tripartite healing process that includes medication, therapy, and regulated self-care. My therapist suspects I have been functioning, somewhat miraculously, at a clinical level of depression for almost three years, starting back during the infertility treatment that helped produce Graham.
That would all be fine and good—problem named, problem solved—except that something else is happening here too. Something above and around any postpartum depression, something to do with my being the white mother of a black child in our racialized America. Lexapro and yoga don’t address the condition of worrying about the safety of your black son’s psyche, the fragility of his baby-soft skin and fresh bones before handcuffs and side-glances like serrated knives and steel cylinders.
I say to my therapist, “Some part of me needs Lydia out of the picture so I can fully embrace this child as mine. But open adoption is better for everyone, right?”
She stifles a laugh. “Um, no. No,” she says, “It’s better for Lydia, for any birth mother. It’s better for both your children. But there’s nothing that says it’s better for you.”
What she means is that it would be easier to adopt a child and never know its birth mother, to receive the flood of comments from strangers. What a holy thing you’ve done. How honorable. What a saint you are to take a needy child. Then you wouldn’t have to wrestle with the ethical maelstrom that is the truth of transracial adoption, and neither would anyone else in your inner circle.
I am not a saint, and to claim so would make me a criminal. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime,” James Baldwin writes in a letter to his nephew.
Lydia’s story isn’t mine to tell, so I’ll just provide a summary: as a child she moved from abusive home to foster home. Her senior year of high school she got pregnant with her first of three sons by three different fathers. Then she met Terence, who contrary to stereotype, loved those boys as his own. When Lydia got diagnosed with breast cancer and got pregnant with her and Terence’s daughter, they took the boys to voluntary, and what they thought was temporary, foster care. Given her own childhood, it broke Lydia’s heart. At that point, she was 24 years old. Because of chemo, she didn’t think she’d get pregnant again, but she did. With Wendell. But she still wanted the other boys back, and there was no way the foster care agency would return them to her with another baby on the way. Financially, they could never swing it. So, pro-life by raising and personal morality, she decided to get an abortion. She couldn’t afford it. She swallowed bleach. She, and Wendell, survived. She contacted an adoption agency. Even after finalizing a contract with me and my husband (we agreed to pay her and Terence’s and their daughter’s monthly living expenses at an extended stay hotel during and for a month following Wendell’s birth), the state required her to take breastfeeding classes to receive her food stamps. She took two different buses and walked thirty minutes to each class. In September, in Houston. Her story, while particular, is not rare or even spectacular.
Of course, that summary renders her simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, hangs her firmly “against a stark white background.” It denies the fullness of her specific humanity. For example, once in the high-risk obstetrics waiting room, she filled out a psychiatric screening survey for antepartum depression.
“I’m gonna check no on these stupid questions,” she said to me and the social worker. She wrote in-between bites of Flaming Hot Cheetos we bought in the drugstore on the first level of the hospital.
“This question says, ‘Do you ever feel depressed for no reason?’ Bitch, I have reasons,” she said into the room, which sent both me and the social worker into streams of laughter.
Lydia is funny, and her humor has both an edge and a sweetness to it. Everyone looked at our odd trio with raised eyebrows or bewildered amusement; we were ever the enigma in doctors’ offices, but Lydia single-handedly won over waiting rooms like nothing I’ve ever seen. She’d always leave with three new friends. She also lies often. She also maintains some rural Louisiana country in her speech; she pronounced “herbs,” for example, with a hard h sound. She always asked doctors what herbs might induce labor, and she has exquisitely smooth skin the color of wet mulch. On the day after Wendell’s birth, she asked to see him five times. I’d roll him down to her hospital room and leave him with her. Take your time, I’d say, so scared because, legally, a birth mother has 48 hours after birth to change her mind about adoption. Him so beautiful, she’d say. She always called me to come get him.
Here it is. Some part of me wanted to reject Wendell for fear of raising a black son, for fear of his humanity and its erasure. Am I so brand new? Did the black man not exist for me until Wendell then, not really? I have woken, as James Baldwin writes in that letter to his nephew, “to find the sun shivering and the stars aflame.” It’s an upheaval in the universe, sure, my universe, but like all white Americans, even compassionate or intelligent ones, I have only understood the universe as mine. For the first time I understand something of a black woman’s pain, for the first time, perhaps, I really see her, and yet, like so many of our ancestors I have used money as a way to write the worth of her body. The analogy builds speed, whips into me and breaks skin: I cannot till the field or pick the cotton; she can. I can afford the field and the cotton; she can’t. I cannot have the baby; she can. I can afford the baby; she can’t. Whether Lydia wanted him or not becomes peripheral. What is desire in shackles? What level of freedom unlocks our desires from the system that conditions them? Let me say it plain. I have to ask the black woman for a forgiveness I do not deserve because all of a sudden I need her. This is not white guilt. It’s white reckoning, the settlement of a debt I’ll never be able to fully pay and like all poverty-stricken people, I tremor to the marrow with fear and rage. I’m desperate enough to forsake my child.
I won’t forsake him. Ever. Because I love him, yes. But also because I’m situated such that I’ll never get so desperate, my income and education and access to anti-anxiety medication and lines of credit like so many bulletproof sleeves. My treatment has washed clean the haziness of two important facts: I have to parent an endangered child, and my black baby boy is just a boy like any other boy. Neither of those things should be news to me—indeed, I would have argued before he arrived that I already knew those facts—but we don’t really think of black children as our children, us white people, America. If we did, mothers of black children could live their lives with the ordinary fear motherhood gifts us. Fear is different from terror.
There is no child more imperiled, no child more beloved, than my Wendell. He spits up like torrential flooding and it’s annoying. He has eyes like rising rivers, they glimmer and dance, and his eyebrows curl like winged birds above them. Two different women will have journeyed into the ragged caverns of their souls to slay the monsters there so that he may live. That I should initially reject the responsibility of such a perilous love, that I should quake under the strain of its complication, makes me human. His pain is something I am unprepared to bear, and yet I’ll bear it. I too have reasons for my depression. But my suffering is also the debt I must pay for my deliverance. I hear the old words of the prayer differently now. Deliver us, Lord, from evil. I know the evil is inside me too.