My Little China Girl

Adopting a child always appealed to me, but I had no idea just how great it would be

When Tom and I became a couple, I thought I wasn't going to have kids, that I'd be a stepmom to his two children, whom I adored. Then, a year or two after we were married, something changed and I felt—I guess you'd call it "a pang." I was 42, and this was pretty much my last chance.

I went to college in the '70s, and, miraculously, had never gotten pregnant. I didn't even know if I could. Tom got a vasectomy after his second child, so that made the game even more challenging. The urologist told him that he'd have to have his sperm aspirated. This involved a needle in his testicles, which, on principle, I found kind of appealing.

Considering all of these variables, my doctor suggested that we look into using sperm donors, as a backup plan. We were directed to a place called the California Cryobank.

We went on the website and answered questions to determine what our best matches would be: physical attributes, likes, dislikes. You know, turn-ons and turn-offs. All of the donors were, of course, anonymous. No names or photos. Just a six-digit number. We chose eight donors that sounded good—on paper—and made an appointment.

We met with a counselor in her private office and we sat on one side of her desk, while she sat on the other, so that only she could see her computer screen.

"OK, let's have your first number," she said.

"825493," I read off my list.

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She began clicking away on her keyboard. I watched her face, trying to read her, as she reviewed the number on her screen.

"OK … OK," she said, looking from her screen to my husband's fine Nordic features. "This one's pretty good," she said and nodded. "Let's put this in the 'maybe' pile. Gimme the next one."

I looked at my notes. "684287," I said. Clicking, watching. She grimaced, slightly. "Mm, no. No. Nuh uh. NO. Not a match. Next."

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"812365." Watching her face. "Oh yes!" She was all lit up. "812365! We LOVE 812365! He's one of our favorites. Very good match! This is exciting!" She yelled towards the doorway. "Sue! Sue! They picked 812365!"

"Lucky!" said Sue.

Wow. It seemed like we'd won the office pool, so to speak. This was starting to get fun! It was like being on a game show. We went through all of our choices until we had three donors that we felt good about. Especially 812365.

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At the same time, my therapist had told me about a group called Families With Children From China—FCC—which was made up of families who'd adopted babies from China, mostly girls. Since we didn't know whether or not I would get pregnant, we were open to other options.

Adopting a child had always appealed to me. I knew that having a baby with one's own DNA didn't guarantee a happy child or a happy family. Case in point: my childhood.

I called FCC and got some basic information. As it happened, they were holding their annual Chinese New Year's banquet at a church in Chinatown on Saturday evening and invited us to come. The moment we walked into the main room of the little church, the warmth and love was palpable. All these little girls, in their Chinese silks, running around, laughing and playing. They seemed so happy. We met a few families, each with a different story, all very moving.

At the end of the evening, Chinese New Year tradition is to set off firecrackers, which they obviously weren't going to do there. Instead, they rolled out yards and yards of bubble wrap, covering the entire dance floor. Then all of these adorable little girls, with all of their energy and enthusiasm, jumped up and down like crazy. It was brilliant!

We said goodnight and Tom and I walked back to the car. I hooked my arm through his and said, "I hope I don't get pregnant." I was smitten.

As it turned out, even the great 812365 couldn't get the job done, so we moved forward with adopting a little girl from China.

Now it's true that I never went through childbirth, but man, let me tell you, the paperwork I had to fill out! It seemed like way more than 9 months' worth. We filled out piles of documents, made copies, duplicates, triplicates, packets so thick a standard stapler didn't stand a chance. We stood in lines at government agencies to get forms and official stamps and seals. I felt like I was going through something akin to a pregnancy, only my breasts didn't get any bigger.

We handed in everything that was required of us. And then we waited. And waited. Sometimes it seemed like this was leading nowhere. Maybe there were no babies in China anymore, and this was all a trick to get us to buy more paper. Maybe the whole thing was being sponsored by Staples. And maybe that would be fine, because the prospect of becoming a first-time mom at the age of 48 was scaring the shit out of me.

Then we got the call, and I forgot about the scared part. They had a match for us! I don't know exactly how they did it, whether it was completely random or totally orchestrated, but there was a baby. They said we'd be getting photos of her in a few days.

I was thrilled and excited. Then I got scared again. Then I was excited. Then I got scared. Jesus! Waiting for those photos was making me crazy.

Finally, an envelope arrived. Tom and I opened it together. And there was a baby. Two of the photos were of her in a pink snowsuit. (We later found out that this was the orphanage's only snowsuit, and they used it for every baby.) The third one was a passport photo, black and white, very close-up, of a baby who looked very annoyed. She was grimacing. She must have been terrified, which made perfect sense to me.

We decided to name her Milan. We had compiled a list of Asian-sounding syllables, paired them together ... and came up with a city in Italy.

When we finally got to meet Milan in Nanjing, China, about two months later, her caregiver handed her to me. I was so tentative and stiff. I was afraid I'd drop her, and then she'd really hate me. She whimpered and looked at us with eyes that seemed to say, "Who are you?" Good question.

As much as I thought I knew how hard it was to be a parent, I didn't. Nobody does, I don't care what you say. Milan, however, was an incredible baby: smart, funny, adaptable. And also, as her caregivers had said, in writing, she was obstinate, even at that young age.

And she continues to be. She'll dig in her heels when it's apparent to everyone, including herself, that she doesn't have a leg to stand on. It's simultaneously infuriating and hilarious. I'm sure that she'll mellow eventually. She will, right? Please say yes. Even if it's not true. Just say it.

People have said of her, since she was very little, "Milan will do well in the world." I think she will, too. Her tenacity, intelligence and wit will serve her well.

As an adoptive parent, I realize that I can't answer all of her questions. I have my mother's smile, my father's sense of humor, and both of my parents' intelligence. Some of that I was born with, some of that was learned.

I can't tell Milan whose smile she has, who gave her those fantastic calf muscles, or her gorgeous hair. The best thing I can do is to be honest with her. I don't make up answers to things that I have no answers to. There's a gap in her story that I can't fill.

I try to be the best parent I can be. And still, every day, she looks at me with her 13-year-old eyes, as if to say, "Who ARE you?"

We're both trying to figure that out for ourselves, and I think it's great that we get to do it together.

Tags: family