Monthly Archive for November, 2009


by Tania Pryputniewicz

This week, I’m proud to announce that The Fertile Source is expanding. Tania Pryputniewicz is not only a great writer and artist but is now our poetry editor. Here, we’re showcasing a woodcut print that she did during her second pregnancy as a welcome.

The Mother Tree

by Terese Pampellonne

When I opened the door, Jolie was standing there with a bouquet of flowers in her hands.  She immediately opened her arms to hug me.

“Hiiiii,” she said, her drawn out “I” both a greeting and condolence. 

“Flowers?  I can’t believe you brought me flowers,”  I said, feeling my throat narrow.  We hugged, until I began to feel embarrassed and stepped back to let her in.   Once inside, she ripped the paper wrapping off the bouquet and began to arrange the four pink and white lilies, the sprays of baby’s breathe, in a large empty urn I kept on an end table.

“They’re beautiful Jo,” I said, as I watched my slender friend rummage through my kitchen drawer for a pair of scissors.  She had dressed up for the occasion.  A black, swingy nylon skirt and black camisole top.  I had on my overall shorts and Big Boy T-shirt.

“And you look great.”

She waved the compliment away with her hand.  “How are you feeling,” she asked as she snipped a stem. 

“Okay, I’m . . .” My face froze. She dropped the scissors and lily and came over, put her arms around me.

“I know, I know,” she soothed.  “That’s why we’re doing this today.  This is going to help.  It’s a big deal Sylvia, it really is.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, and then excused myself to go to the bathroom.

After I splashed some cold water on my face, I leaned over the basin to look closely in the mirror. My husband, Frank, is always telling me to hurry up and age.  He claims he loves crows feet on a woman.  He thinks they make her sexy and, he’ll remind me, it won’t make him look like such a dirty old man.  There’s a fourteen-year age difference between us.  When I first told him I was pregnant, the main reason he gave for not wanting it was that he’d already brought up two children.  “I’m too old to be a father again,” he said.   On hearing his reaction, it felt like something inside me had curled up and died, even though when I’d first found out I collapsed onto our bathroom floor, littered with the opened cartons of home-pregnancy tests, and pounded my stomach with my fists.  But Frank was Catholic.  When I told him I’d have an abortion, I was only seven weeks at the most, he said no.  “I couldn’t live myself.  We’ll do what we have to do.” 

I ran my hands down my face.  At least my skin will clear up now, I thought.  And my stomach is already starting to go down.

“Are you feeling better,” Jolie asked as I came back into the livingroom. 

“I’m fine.”

“I meant  . . .”

“Oh.  That.”  I sat in my rocker and looked at her simple yet beautiful arrangement.  “It was hideous.”

“I can’t imagine.”  

She sat across from me on the ottoman, leaning forward, hands clasped together. I sighed, not wanting to go into it again.  After it was confirmed there was no heartbeat, I immediately made an appointment at one of those women’s health centers you see advertised on the subway.  My doctor said if I waited a few days, she’d do the procedure up at the hospital, but I couldn’t stand the idea of walking around with a dead baby in me.  When I told the girl, a young Latino, I was there for a D&C, she handed me a form.  I read it then slid the paper back over the desk. 

“I’m not here for an abortion,” I said.  “I’m here for a D&C.  I’ve had a miscarriage.”  The girl was busy filling out another form and glanced up at me. 

“It’s the same thing,” she said, and pushed another piece of paper toward me.  I pushed it back.

“Not to me it’s not.”

I got up from my chair.  “I found a great picture Jo.  Wait till you see.”  I went over to our armoire.  It’s a huge, hulking thing.  We got it to hide our computer, but the trade off was that it took up half our wall space.  When Frank and I bought this place, we’d moved from such a small apartment we overcompensated by buying big furniture.  However, once we got the furniture into the new apartment, we realized it wasn’t that big after all, and were back to feeling cramped again.             

I pulled down a picture of my mother I’d tacked up on the armoire’s bulletin board inside, and brought it over to Jolie.  In it, my mother is glaring at the camera; her mouth is bunched up into a mean little knot.  It was unfair to use this picture, because she had been trying to be funny.

“I thought it was perfect.  It looks like she’s in the middle of giving a hex.”

Jolie studied the picture, and then shook her head in appreciation.  “It is perfect.  Anyone who digs this up will be cursed.”

She reached into her bag.  “I found one too, only I’ll have to cut my sister out.” 

She handed me an aged snapshot of her sister, a huskier version of Jolie, standing in between her parents, who were stodgy, morose-looking people; nothing at all like the actor who played them in the movie.  Jolie had written a screenplay about her parents’s abuse of her and her sister.  It won honorable mention at Sundance and her parents were now suing.  I handed it back so she could cut her sister out.  

“You really think this is going to do any good?” 

Her bright blue eyes flashed up at me.  “Of course.  It’s important for you to say goodbye.  It’s part of the mourning process.”

I looked out my window.  It was a perfect summer day; not too hot, bright sun.  A strong breeze was blowing through my window.

“I haven’t been in Central Park for a while.  It’s too depressing, seeing the dead grass, the leaves already brown . . .”

“I know.  Bad drought we’ve been having.”  She held the picture up, which now had a hole where her sister had been.  “I had to cut off my dad’s arm.”

Hazel, my tan mutt, moaned.  I’d shut her behind the French door that leads to our hallway because she likes to greet people by tackling them.  Frank called her Hazard.

“Let her out Sylvia.”

“You sure?  I know she kind of makes you nervous.”

“No!  Let her out.  I want to get a dog myself.  Maybe.”

I got up and opened the door.  Hazel bolted out, all wagging tail and wet happy eyes.  If Jo hadn’t been sitting down she would have been knocked over.

“Hazel!  Enough!”  I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her away from Jo, who was steeling herself against Hazel’s slurping tongue and battering tail.   I made her sit, but she was still struggling to get to Jolie. 

“Oh let her, Sylvia.  Even my boyfriend isn’t this happy to see me.”

I let go and Hazel pinned Jolie to her chair.  I watched as Jolie scratched her stomach and nuzzled Hazel’s face. I used to sit at dog runs and watch the owners play with their dogs.  Frank said I’d better adopt a pup before I got arrested for being a dog pedophile. I wanted one, but was afraid of the responsibility.  The night before we were supposed to go check out a litter of pups in Brooklyn, I woke up, panicked, and shook Frank awake. 

“What if I can’t handle it, Frank.  What if all I like is just the idea of a dog?”

After checking the time, he flopped back down onto the bed.  I’d been worrying him about this for days.  “A dog’s not like a kid, Syl,” he’d said.  “You can always give it away.”

Hazel plopped a dirty, slobber-soaked squeaky toy onto Jolie’s nice skirt.  Jolie looked up at me and sighed, “I want a dog,” in the same way when I told her I was pregnant, except then she’d said, ‘I want a baby.’

I got up.  “Come on.  Back you go.  You’d think a two-hundred-thousand dollar dog would be trained better.” 

I was referring to the main reason Frank and I decided to buy an apartment.  Two months after we brought Hazel home, the building we rented from decided no more dogs, but by then we decided nothing could make us give away Hazel.  I led her back behind the French door and shut it.  She looked up at me with a ‘what’d I do’ expression.

“So what did you get,” Jolie asked.

“Bubbles.  I thought blowing bubbles would be nice.  And glitter.  We can pour that into the water.”

Jolie nodded.  “That’s a good idea.  That’s a really good idea.”

“And we’d better take something to dig with.”  I headed into the kitchen.  “I’ll bring a soup spoon.”

“I didn’t even think of that.  We have to find the perfect place.”

“I know this area that has waterfalls,” I said as I dug through my utensil drawer.  “I think it’s up around 100th.  It’s really beautiful.  Peaceful.”  I pulled out a large, partially rusted soup spoon.

Jo peeked her head into the kitchen.  “But not for our parents,” she said.

“No, not for our parents.”  I stuck the spoon in the bag that held the bubbles and glitter.  “We’ll have to search for that.”


Outside, the sun felt like an overhead lamp.  I could feel the radiation, but I had slicked on sunscreen and worn the wide brimmed visor that I couldn’t go anywhere without during the summer months.  Jo and I entered the park at 93rd and Central Park West.  Nannies were pushing strollers, children were playing in a playground that looked like a mini fort.  Suddenly I felt very stupid.  This whole idea was  Jo’s.  She believed in this New Age stuff.  Once she had a spiritualist come to her apartment to have her parents exorcized from it.  When she had mentioned that we should do some type of ritual, to give me closure, I’d rolled my eyes. 

“It’s not that big of a deal,’ I said.  “I’m already over it.”

“But it is a big deal, Sylvia,” Jo said, her voice straining with earnestness.  “It’s huge.   And I think it’s important you acknowledge that.”

I realized she was only trying to help.  “So what exactly are we going to do,” I asked.

“We just maybe say a prayer, some affirmations.  Thank the baby for teaching you so much.  Whatever else, Sylvia, you learned a lot about yourself.”

I wasn’t convinced.  But when she suggested I bury my mother, symbolically, I began to warm up to the idea.

“Let’s head over this way.”  She was pointing to the left, toward the tennis courts.  “We’ll do our parents first, to exorcize their evil energy.”

We walked down the blacktop path, crossed a bit of road.  Some people were lazing about on  the patch of grass where Frank took Hazel to fetch ball on the weekends: Two old men cooked to brown gristle; a woman whose bikini’d behind had the texture and color of rising dough.  I could never imagine laying out in the park,  I’d be too afraid I’d be attacked.  To the left of us were the courts, and the gentle thwack of balls being volleyed back and forth punctured the drowsy summer soundtrack, that melding of buzzing insects, chirping birds and tree leaves rubbing against each other in a soft wind.   It’s like background music in a movie – you don’t notice it unless you really listen.

“There’s a lot of people around,” I said, half-embarrassed already.  “We’re not going to chant or dance around a tree, are we?”

“We’ll know what to do when we get there,” Jolie said.  “Don’t worry,  Central Park is a big place.  There can’t be people everywhere.”

Eventually, we found a tree.  Jolie spotted it.  It was a stark contrast to its leafy neighbors. Most of its limbs were bare except for a few brown, dried up leaves, and its trunk had a hole in it that looked like a mouth gasping its last breath.  It was the perfect tree to bury our parents under, she said. We didn’t want them poisoning a healthy one.

“Now what,” I asked, feeling like I was part of a play I hadn’t rehearsed for.

“Now . . . we dig.” She held out her hand for the spoon.

“No, that’s okay.  I’ll dig.  My arms are bigger and you’re dressed too nice.”

I kneeled down and dug in between two thick roots.  I hadn’t counted on the ground being so hard.  “Here goes a good spoon,” I said as I grasped the handle with a two-fisted grip and started to chip away.  Jolie found a piece of glass and joined in.  Finally the hole was deep enough.  A man in gray shorts and a Mets T-shirt looked at us curiously as he walked by.

“How much you want to bet someone’s going to dig this up, thinking we’re burying treasure?”

“Well, let them,” Jolie said, sitting in the dirt, legs splayed.  “Look what they’ll get for their efforts.  Besides, it’s the act of doing that matters.” 

She took out the picture of her mother and father then looked up at me.  “You should go first.”

I thrust my hands in my pockets, sorry I’d agreed to this.

“Just say what you feel, Sylvia.”

I looked up at the dying leaves above, then down into the empty hole.  What did I feel?  I took the card out of my pocket my mother had sent me when she’d found out I was pregnant. On the front was a white puppy with blue flowers in its mouth, under which she’d inked in the words, “How Sad.”  I remember how my palms were sweating as I opened it, even though I’d prepared myself for what was inside.  My brother had broke the news to her, and when I asked him what her reaction had been, he’d said, “Not good.”  So when I opened it, I wasn’t surprised to find one of her lists.  My mother was a great list-maker.  When she had to have surgery for her gall stones, she’d attached a To-Do note onto my pillow, listing the clothes she wanted to be laid out in and how she wanted her funeral to be conducted, and sure enough, when I opened the card I found two columns, one labeled REASONS TO, the other REASONS TO NOT

The reasons to not have a baby column was very long, listing everything from 24-hour babysitting and possible retardation (due to my advanced age), to giving up of ones’ life and washing diapers.  (I assumed that when I was a baby, Pampers weren’t around).  But the pro-baby column only had two items: Pass on genes and Someone to bury you.

Her timing had been particularly bad.  At first when I’d told friends I was pregnant, I delivered the news as if I were telling them I had a terminal illness.   But after the third or fourth, ‘You’re going to be a great mom!’ was expressed to me with such sincere enthusiasm, I began to wonder if they were seeing something in me that I didn’t, or couldn’t, see.  Their optimism began to rub off on me, and I’d just begun to feel like perhaps I could do this.  Perhaps I might even like doing this.  But then I got the card, and a week later I had the miscarriage.

I placed the card into the hole, and then the picture of my mother.  She was glaring up at me, so I turned her over, face down. 

“Aren’t you going to say something,” Jolie asked.

“Didn’t you say it was the act of doing,” I answered.

I crossed my arms and stared down into the hole.  I was feeling uncomfortable, self conscious.  She leaned in, trying to catch my eye but I looked away.

“Do you at least feel anything different?”

I shrugged, shook my head.  “Not really.”

“Give it time.  This is only the first step.  It’s a process.”

I stepped back from the hole.  “Your turn.”

Jolie took a deep breath and held the picture of her parents out in front of her. Her eyes and mouth grew small, as if they were connected to her insides by a drawstring pulled tight.

“Just because you say it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it didn’t,” she said shredding her parents into confetti and sprinkling them into the hole.  She sat in silence.  I was surprised there wasn’t more.  When it came to the subject of her parents, Jolie could be inexhaustible.  I felt I should say something.

“Today Sundance, tomorrow the Oscars.”

Jolie looked up at me.  “Damn straight,” she said in a raspy voice.  “Let’s bury’em.”  Then she began to push dirt over the tattered remains of her parents, my mother.  I began to tamp down the dirt, stomped it once, firmly.  Jolie followed suit but she almost re-dug the hole.  It was as if she were trying to stomp them down to hell.

“Okay okay okay,” I said, taking her arm.  “It’s over right?  It’s over?”

She looked at me, and from the feverish heat still in her eyes, I wondered if this ritual hadn’t done more harm then good.  Jolie leaned back against the tree.

“You need a ritual flushing out every once in awhile,” she said gazing up at the barren branches with one hand over her stomach.  I looked down at the covered hole and tapped it with the toe of my sandal.

“I don’t think you can ever really get it all out.”

She watched as I smoothed the dirt out.  “No, you’re probably right.”  She pushed away from the tree.  “But what the hell.  Let’s dance around the tree anyway.”

She grabbed my hand. 

“I thought we weren’t going to do anything like this,” I groaned as she led me around the tree.  But by the second time around, I was laughing with her and had my arms raised above my head and was chanting ‘We are motherless’ right along with her until our foolishness overcame us and we stopped.

“And fatherless,” Jo said, panting.  A moment passed before she swung open her arms and wrapped them around me.  “I don’t know about you, but I feel free!” 

I hugged her back for a long time.  Even though I didn’t believe her, I wanted her to be.  Finally, I pulled away and said, “Let’s go find the creek I was talking about.”

It took us an hour to find the spot I was looking for.  It’s an area of the park you don’t want to go into alone.  The thick foliage along the path that runs through it almost makes it soundproof.  No one would hear you if you cried for help.  But we kept our ears trained on the sound of running water.  The first small waterfall we came to was taken.  Two teenagers were sharing lunch on an abutment of rocks overhanging the cascading creek.

“Come on,” I said.  “That’s not the only one.”  The next one we came to wasn’t as secluded, but this part of our ritual wasn’t going to be as boisterous, I was sure.  Shame had a way of making you quiet.  Jolie and I found a place on a rock and sat for a few moments, listening to the water run. 

“It’s so peaceful,” I murmured. 

“Ummm.”  She had been resting back on the heels of her hands, feet dangling over the water, but now leaned forward.  “I think we should say some affirmations, then maybe a prayer.  What do you think?”

“I guess that would be good.”  For some reason I was nervous.  Not self-conscious or silly like at the mother tree.  This was different.  Jolie was Catholic, and had some experience confessing out loud.  She could see I was having trouble.

“How about I start, because I loved this baby too.”  I nodded yes, relieved.  She sat up and took a moment to compose her thoughts.

“I want to thank you, baby, for spending the time you did.  I would have liked you to stay, because I think my friend Sylvia would have made a great mom.”

At ‘great mom’ I looked away in the direction of the mother tree.  Jolie had always believed that, even after I told her I was sure I could only raise a psychologically deranged child.  And what if I did something worse, like hold a pillow over its face?  But she wasn’t fazed by any of my fears.  She was sure I was just scared, and told me that just because my mother hated being a mother didn’t mean I would.        

Jolie smiled at me in encouragement.  I took a deep breath and focused on the waterfall, the tiny silver fish glimmering like flashes of sunlight.

“I’m sorry I wanted you dead.”

Jolie hesitated before she put her arm around me.  “You know that’s not true Sylvia.”

I shrank from her touch, because I no longer knew what the truth was.  The first time I went for the sonogram, I hoped it would just be an empty sack.  Women my age often have them, a type of wish-fulfillment, a therapist had told me.  But then on the sono-screen, I saw its heart beating as fast as the wings on a fly.  It was such a contrast to my second sonogram, when a tiny corpse no bigger than my thumb was turned away, its back to us as if sleeping. The doctor kept moving the probe around, as if that could nudge it awake, but its fly speck heart remained still while I silently prayed wake up, wake up.  Please wake up.

I shifted uncomfortably.  “I’m going to just say something to myself, okay?”

She nodded slightly.  “Okay.”

I turned my attention back to the running water underneath our feet and closed my eyes, and pretended to be meditating, but my mind remained blank.  After a moment, I opened them.  Jolie’s eyes were closed so I looked around, and thought about how all these trees will lose their leaves and they’ll seem dead for a time, but next summer they will come alive again.  The fish will spawn, the plants will send their seeds on the wind.  Life goes on.  Frank said we could try again, that it would be different with a planned pregnancy, but I didn’t think so.

“Okay,” I said.  “Let’s just throw the glitter and go home.”

She’d opened her eyes and was looking at me with concern.   “How do you feel?”

I forced a smile.  “I feel great.”

She touched my hand. “Great.” 

We ended the ritual by throwing glitter into the water; it made the stream sparkle in the mid-afternoon sun.  Then we blew bubbles up into the sky.  We watched the iridescent spheres float out on the calm breeze.  Some of them burst immediately, but others went with the flow for a time.  One drifted down to the stream and rested on top of the water, but still it didn’t burst.  As the current carried it along out to the small waterfall, I felt myself hoping that somehow, it would survive the fall.


Terese Pampellonne’s short fiction has been published in Ascent, Flying Horse, New Works Review, Colorado Review, Pedestal Magazine, Thema, Wired Art, and the upcoming issue of Overtime.  In 2005, Kensington Books published her novel, The Unwelcome Child.


Can women be smart, empowered, AND happy? Ariel Gore tries to find out

review by Jessica Powers

Editor note: Though Ariel Gore’s new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, only briefly deals with fertility, I decided to write this review anyway because I think the choices women make around our fertility or infertility have a lot to do with the pursuit of happiness. Though I don’t analyze it in particular for this review, one of her chapters, “Extreme Motherhood,” especially explores the paradox of women and happiness as it relates to giving birth and assuming the identity of “mother.”

Gore, Ariel. Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2010. $24.00.

The final scene of the 2008 indie flick Happy-Go-Lucky encapsulates one of the core problems presented in Ariel Gore’s new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness.

Poppy and her roommate Zoe are rowing a boat in the middle of a pond. Poppy has just spent a harrowing afternoon with her psycho driving instructor, who blames Poppy for the complete and utter ruination of his potential love life, quite possibly his career.

“I think I should give up smoking,” Zoe says.

“That’s a good idea,” Poppy says, with her trademark giggle. “What can I give up?”

“You can give up being too nice,” Zoe says, slightly exasperated.

Poppy laughs.

“Seriously!” Zoe insists. “You can’t make everyone happy!”

“There’s no harm in trying, though, is there?” Poppy asks.

Poppy clearly hasn’t learned her lesson. Throughout the course of the movie, this happy-go-lucky woman meets miserable person after miserable person, who try to convince her that there’s something wrong with her life because she’s, well, happy. And her best efforts to cheer them up, to help them see that life ain’t all that bad, are wasted. But thankfully, though she’s brought low for a few hours each time, she’s always able to bounce back up.

Poppy is one of the truly fortunate: she’s happy with the life she’s got. As she explains to her sister, “I love my life. Yeah, it can be tough at times, but that’s part of it, isn’t it? I’ve got a great job, brilliant kids [referring to the children she teaches], lovely flat, I’ve got her to look at [pointing at her pretty roommate], I’ve got amazing friends. I love my freedom. I’m a very lucky lady, I know that.”

There are two themes presented in this scene. One theme is Poppy’s eternal good-will, her own happiness, undeterred by the suffering around her. Though she is touched by it, and even experiences sorrow at times, she is able to move through the moments of misery and back into her status quo of blessed satisfaction with life. Most of us only wish we could achieve Poppy’s sense of equilibrium. The second theme is Poppy’s profound need to help others achieve happiness, and her utter inability to help. It is this latter problem that

Both themes have a great deal to say about this idea of “happiness” in western culture, particularly as experienced by women, according to Ariel Gore, whose new book, Bluebird: women and the psychology of happiness, explores the question, “Can women be smart, empowered, and happy?” In the U.S., the pursuit of happiness has become enshrined as a political right. And in the 20th century, happiness has become big business-a business, as Gore discovered, dominated by men and symbolized by the father of happiness, Martin Seligman himself. Women writers and psychologists, by contrast, have responded negatively to the new happiness movement. Why? Gore wanted to know. Don’t women want to be happy?

As Gore set out on her search to explore the source of happiness for women, she discovered, to her chagrin, that the things she thought would make her happy were not, in fact, her happiest moments. What’s going on? she wondered. Shouldn’t her many accomplishments-editor, writer, mother-make her happier? When the research Gore did suggested that the “happiest women” were wives and homemakers, she wondered if that truly equated happiness and, more importantly, whether it was possible to make other choices, to go against the social grain, and still be happy?

“We are told what will make us happy as if we were all the same woman, as if we all share a single heart, as if we can’t all be right when we realize our disparate desires: another child, an intellectual life, more than contentment, a giant squid” (23).

Part of the problem, she noted, is that “women’s notions about personal happiness are all tangled up with our ideas about privilege, selfishness, and social responsibility” (27).

Why do so many women believe that they are responsible for helping others to find happiness, even if it means neglecting or erasing their own happiness?

Although Americans have enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a right that should be protected by the constitution, they’ve done so for men only, suggests Gore. Society still emphasizes the feminine role as one of helping others pursue happiness.  “There’s a hierarchy of happiness,” one woman told Gore. “First comes the kids, then my husband, and then me. I’m stronger than they are. I don’t need to be happy” (33.) Gore argues that women have historically become the cheerleaders because we’ve been dependent on men economically and one way of justifying that dependence was to do “extra emotional work” (41).

Gore suggests that many women are stuck at one level of emotional wholeness. If the first level is letting go of selfishness, of putting me first, the second level is acting only out of a sense of responsibility towards others. This is where most women get stuck, forgetting that they, too, have needs. There’s a third level of morality, one where we don’t slight others but we also take care of ourselves. “Connection and relationship involve more than one of us, after all,” Gore writes, “and if anyone is slighted-ourselves included-the relationship is harmed and something immoral has taken place” (29).

So the first step is recognizing that we can seek our own personal welfare without being selfish. If that’s the case, what does it mean to be happy? The key to happiness, Gore suggests, is the freedom to recognize what we want in life and to move towards those goals.

But what do we do when our desires can’t mesh with reality? For example, if our desire is to have a child, and we struggle with infertility? Or if we’ve invested our identities in a job or a marriage, and we experience unemployment or divorce? Is happiness incompatible with heartbreak, with sadness?

The answer, according to Gore, is “no.” Happiness is also the choice to respond productively and proactively to the negative stimuli in our lives, to “rejoice in the midst of suffering” (p. 14). Psychologists who study happiness have noted that only about 60% of our happiness is attributable to life circumstances and/or our basic personalities. Another 40% is “under our control and depends on ‘intentional activities'” (80). In other words, despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can practice happiness. This doesn’t mean faking it or putting on a cheerful face despite sadness. Rather, it means doing certain things that can move us away from discontent and heartbreak and towards happiness.

Gore researched the various suggestions for achieving happiness and put some of them to the test. Among the activities she tried, and which worked, were practicing gratitude; allowing herself to be get absorbed in the tasks at hand, that is, experiencing flow in her work; recognizing that the challenge of juggling her work and her relationships (with her children, her partner, and others) was part of the joy in her life-that work didn’t have to get in the way of relationships and vice versa, but that they worked together in tandem; working with a life coach to better define her wants and desires in life, and then setting goals to help achieve them; and, finally, recognizing that she can find happiness in even the most menial of tasks when she doesn’t feel trapped by them, that is, doesn’t feel obligated or controlled by them.

In nature, with our friends or children, working or reading, we are happy when we are dynamically engaged with our lives. We are happy when we’re following threads of thought and activity we’re curious about-unconcerned where those threads will lead….I am consistently happy when I experience a particular synthesis of the intellectual and the domestic. I like geeky academic texts and I like berry pie (171-172).

Women find happiness, Gore says, when they reject the prescriptions for happiness that have been written for them-by church, society, spouses and partners-and have the courage to find their own path (173-174). In short, she’s arguing that women feel happiest when they have choices.

But making some choices limits other choices. And what do we do if we lack choices-if our choices are limited by circumstances we can’t change? There’s no easy answer to that one.

As I read Bluebird, I thought about my mother and the career sacrifices she made to put her family first-sacrifices she’s still making today, by taking care of her 100-year-old mother-in-law. Growing up, despite the sure knowledge that my mother loved me unconditionally and would always do what was in my best interests, I sensed that she yearned for some imagined future that she’d given up in order to put her husband and children first. It wasn’t that I believed my mother to be unhappy. It’s just that she didn’t seem exactly happy, either. 

If I were to press Mom on whether she wished she had “achieved” more, I suspect she would say she’s achieved the most important thing-raising children who are functioning members of society. I once told her that the book she’s been writing for the past 25 years is her “grand opus.” She hesitated, then said, “Actually, I consider you and your brothers my ‘grand opus.'”

But even though my mother is pleased with her grown-up children, is glad she’s married to my dad, and loves her grandchildren, is she happy? Did she sacrifice joy in order to do what she was “supposed” to do? Even if she doesn’t regret the decisions she made, does she still secretly long for that other Future That Might Have Been?

I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. But what about me? Am I happy?

Although the American pursuit of happiness is legendary, my religious family didn’t consider personal happiness to be the main goal in life-or even a goal at all. It may be closer to the truth to say that personal happiness, or the pursuit of it, was rendered completely irrelevant to the grand pursuit of the truths of God and discovering his will for our lives.

My parents never stated it directly, but I picked up on and adopted the underlying belief that happiness was all well and good, but it was also a little selfish. The point of life wasn’t happiness. The point of life was salvation-finding God and then helping others find God. The point of life was doing what God called you to do. That was where true joy resided. If you resisted his calling, you’d be miserable. Presumably, if God had called me to do something, it would also be my heart’s desire. But if my heart’s desire was not what God intended for me, there would always be a tension between what I wanted to do and what God wanted me to do-and I’d never be happy until I gave in and was obedient. Happiness was obedience to God’s will, in other words.

I left religion behind when I left home, but I realized when I read this book that I haven’t left most of those ideas behind. There’s a secular version of this same belief. Happiness is a luxury, goes this version. Rather than pursuing personal happiness, we should be pursuing social justice, the elimination of hunger and poverty, the eradication of racism, sexism, homophobia, and all those other bad “isms.” Happiness has no place in this vision of the world. That’s not to say happiness is wrong-only that it has no purpose. Happiness, according to this view, doesn’t help you change the injustice in the world. Instead, passion and righteous anger are the tools you need.

Is it possible to pursue peace and justice-and be happy? It certainly should be! Part of the problem, I realize, is that there is something wrong with my definition of happiness.

I’ve fallen into the American trap of believing that the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of material and financial success. But I know myself well enough that I wouldn’t be happy if I was constantly in pursuit of the purse. Worse than being pointless, the pursuit of “wealth as happiness” contributes to the economic injustices in the world.

To be honest, the inner me still feels guilty at the thought of pursuing happiness at all. I still sort of believe that personal happiness is a lucky byproduct of these other things-pursuing your calling, helping others, making the world a more just and humane place. If you only pursue happiness, this inner me says, you risk never achieving it. Instead, pursue your calling, peace and justice, and loving relationships-then you’ll find your happiness. And if you don’t, this inner me insists, maybe it’s not your fault. And maybe it’s okay.

Perhaps Gore would agree with me. Happiness, she argues, isn’t a static condition. It isn’t a state we find ourselves in-it’s something we experience as we reach towards those things we really want in life (172-174). It’s almost like we experience it without knowing it. We only notice unhappiness.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be questioning whether my mother was or is happy-or whether I should or should not pursue happiness. That there are circumstances we can’t control-it isn’t easy for my mother to take care of my grandmother, for example, and I sure as hell would like to be a more famous and better paid writer-doesn’t change the basic fact that we are both living lives of our own choosing, reaching towards our highest values and our largest dreams.   

In the end, we can’t ask much else of ourselves.   

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

-Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

qtd. in Gore, p. 181

 Jessica Powers is the author of The Confessional (Knopf, 2007) and editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent (Catalyst Book Press, 2009). She is the founder and editor of The Fertile Source.

A New Language

by Jazmine Green

Had she known, she would have said no right from the start.  She would have left no room for negotiations.  But he was careful. 

“It’s your decision.  Whatever you want to do, I will be here for you.  I will support you.  You know I love you.”

“I know.”  He rubbed his hands along her upper arms and kissed her on the forehead. 

“It will be OK.” 

“I know.”

Then the conversations changed.  She wanted to keep it.  She told him flat out.  He wanted to travel. 

“I want to take you to Costa Rica.  You will not believe the rain forests there.  It is so green.  And the sound at night-there’s nothing like it.  You will really love it.  I can’t wait to take you.”

Then later, “Let’s move to another country together.  Let’s do it.  Just leave everything here and move.  We can learn a new language together.  Don’t you think that would be great?”

“But how are we…?”  She didn’t finish, and only added, “That sounds great.”

He sent text messages all day spelling out the urgency with which he felt his life slowly coming to a close.  “I can’t wait to travel with you.”  “I love you.”  “Can I fuck you tonight?” 

The texts were left hanging without any reply.  She could conjure no answer.  She was uncommonly quiet most of the time.  Everyday she inhaled and exhaled her reality.  The thought settled in her diaphragm so that she couldn’t help but live every second with it.  Pregnant.  Pregnant.  Pregnant.

“I’ll have to drop out of school.”  He blurted it out one evening with hot, desperate breath.  She tried to assuage his worries. 

“My parents will help us.  Your parents will help us.”

“I’ll resent this child.” 

And there it was.  It took a while for it to come out so boldly.  It was his truth. 

Three days later her truth came out, without warning.  A stain that granted his freedom.  A stain that broke her heart.


Jazmine Green is a Los Angeles based writer and poet, currently working on her first novel. In addition to writing, she spends her time as  WriteGirl mentor, preschool teacher, and yoga instructor. Her most recent experiments with words can be found at


by Ann Whitfield Powers

After the fertility drugs fail, I spend hours lying with acupuncture needles crisscrossing my abdomen. I drink stinky tea, take BB shaped pills, and stand on my head after sex.   Nothing works.

As Patrick turns five, Tom and I decide to adopt a baby.  In interviews with the adoption agency staff we reveal more about ourselves and our relationship than we’ve told our best friends; we put together a family photo collage Norman Rockwell would envy; we craft a one page Dear Birthparent letter; and we write a hefty check.  Finally, we are “in the pool,” ready to be considered by birth parents who are looking for the right adoptive family for their birth child — this, the new trend in domestic adoption.  The birth parent(s) pick the adoptive family, not the other way around. Now, all we have to do is wait.  

Seven months later, we’re still waiting.  We have not received a single call, not even a “screening call” to see if we might be interested in a special needs child.

Each month the agency newsletter announces that three or four families have adopted, and five or six new families have been added to the waiting pool.  There are now over sixty waiting families.  My early confidence is badly bruised, and sorry thoughts start to hound me.  




Late one Friday afternoon, I come home from teaching and force myself to hang up my coat and slip off my shoes before I head to the answering machine.  No messages.  Then I see a note scrawled on an envelope: “Adrienne from the adoption agency called.  Please call back to set up a screening. Not urgent.”  The not urgent is underlined. 

Out the kitchen window I see Patrick and his nanny, Nisey, playing in the backyard.   I slip back into the living room and dial the phone number, my heart racing. Please let Adrienne be there.  It’s 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. I can’t stand the idea of waiting through the weekend to get the details.

She’s there! Her voice is warm and upbeat. “I want to know if you and Tom would like to be presented as potential adoptive parents to a birth mother named Laura.*”

Yes, we would,” I say quickly. 

Adrienne laughs.  “Well, there are a few complications you should hear about before you decide, but the good news is that the baby is already born, and the father is out of the picture — well, deceased, actually.” 

“Oh, that’s sad,” I say hesitantly.  Our adoption agency is all about keeping kids in touch with their birth parents, but because tracking down birth fathers and getting them to sign over paternity rights is often a sticking point in arranging adoptions, a dead birth father could be seen as good news. 

I walk back into the kitchen to check on Patrick and Nisey.  They’re crouched in front of a flowerpot, intently poking something with sticks.

“And you should know that Laura does have a history of struggling with addiction. She has been honest about using a bit during her pregnancy.”

I take a deep breath. “Okay,” I say.  I return to the dining room table, sit down and take up a pen. “Tell me.”

“Laura drank two to three beers a night, not every night certainly, but more often than not, and smoked pot for the first six months of pregnancy. She also says she did meth and heroine four times.”

I scribble: 2-3 beers; meth/heroine 4x.  Adrienne talks on as I try to decide how bad those numbers are.  In the adoption world, an occasional drink — unthinkable when I was pregnant with Patrick– is no big deal.   Of course, Laura drank more than that, but it doesn’t sound like she was a raging drunk.  The drugs worry me too, but the use is low.   I’m not ready to quit yet.     

“After that she went through a treatment plan and was definitely clean and sober at the end of her pregnancy, because she was incarcerated.”   


Adrienne doesn’t completely understand the story behind the incarceration, but it has to do with a series of fights between Laura and her boyfriend — not the baby’s father, but the boyfriend after the baby’s father died — that ended up with assault charges and both Laura and her now “ex” boyfriend in jail.

A stillness opens in my chest.  My sister had an abusive boyfriend once. An image of her trashed apartment — broken glass, fallen computer, bloody floor — flashes for a second.  She took years to get out. Briefly I volunteered in a domestic violence shelter where most of the women I met were trapped in that cycle and didn’t show any signs of being able to break free.  Do I want to start a relationship with a woman who is stuck in a DV dynamic?  I can’t focus on this question now. 

“Tell me about the baby.”

“Laura went into labor three weeks early and had a c-section. The baby had to be resuscitated, but was fine within minutes — with her Apgar Scores all nines. After three days in the hospital recovering with the baby, Laura went back to jail and the baby went to foster care.” Adrienne’s voice lowers: this is an unfortunate event, the separation of baby from mother. Then she picks up again.  “But the baby is doing well. She is five weeks old now.”

I smile. A girl.  “No signs of fetal alcohol syndrome?”

“No, nothing.  She looks good.”

Adrienne assures me that Laura has been diligent in pursuing the open adoption.  If the state agrees to this adoption — which they may or may not do — they will most likely restrict our contact with Laura, probably to letters and phone calls, or an occasional meeting in a public place. Laura understands this and still wants to go ahead.

“Adrienne, I think we will want to be presented. Let me check with Tom and get back to you.”

I hang up the phone, look out the window, catch Nisey’s eye and hold up a finger — one minute.  She nods.  I dial Tom’s number.

“We got a screening call,” I announce without saying hello.

“Oh really?”  He sounds curious but cautious.

I summarize the situation: a five-week-old baby girl, two to three beers, four meth/heroine incidents, incarcerated, clean at the end.   There is a long silence at the other end of the phone as Tom absorbs this information.

Finally he says, “Well, it’s a little iffy, but nothing you said makes me feel like slamming the door shut.  If she picks us, we can find out more, before we commit, right?”

I smile. “Right.”

“Okay, then,” he says. “Let’s do it.”

I call Adrienne back, but the office is now closed.  Yes, I say to the answering machine. Yes, we want to be presented.

I skip out to the backyard where Patrick and Nisey are now digging in the dirt.  I squat down, pick up a stick and join in.  “Are we going to get a baby, Mama?”  Patrick asks.  I smile.  He doesn’t miss a beat. “Maybe,” I say, tousling his hair.  “Maybe we are.”


 Dear Ann, Tom & Patrick,

I’m Laura, Destiny Jo’s  mother, and I hope you will be her mother soon too (and father and big brother)! Destiny was born on 02/03/04 (Kind of a cool birthday) three weeks early by C-section and weighed 5lbs 7oz. and she is beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because I’m prejudiced. She really is beautiful. 

We have been chosen. Adrienne tells me Laura looked at six families and picked us.  I am giddy, smiling, swaying to a bebop tune in my head. Adrienne provides the details on where we go from here.

There is a hearing in a week where the state Department of Human Services (DHS) will tell a judge what they plan to do with the now six-week-old baby.  DHS has in the past agreed to arrange private adoptions through our agency but these particular staff people have been noncommittal, verging on evasive.  Adrienne has sent a letter to the judge requested time to speak at the hearing.  Meanwhile Laura is sending us a letter, telling us her side of the story.  If the hearing goes well, we’ll go meet Laura and — if we like each other — finalize the deal.

I was the youngest of seven children . . .my brother Jack, the only one of us to graduate from high school, nicknamed me the wild child and I guess I have been pretty wild.  Mainly due to the fact that my parents were alcoholics I didn’t get a lot of real parenting.  But my mother gave us all a lot of love and my dad is responsible for the abundance of quick wit and humor than runs in our family.  And believe me we’re a funny bunch.

A week later Adrienne calls with good news: Laura’s attorney just told Adrienne she doesn’t need to come down to the hearing. He talked with DHS and they say they’re willing to facilitate this adoption!  Adrienne wants to hear it from the DHS staff person herself, but at this point it seems that if we want this baby, she’s ours.  We could go meet Laura next week and get the baby a few days later.  DHS may require us to jump through some hoops, but Adrienne is hopeful that we can move quickly.

We could have a baby in two weeks.  Oh my god. I’m in the middle of a semester of teaching two college classes.  I couldn’t quit at this point.  My mother has always said she’d come for a month to help, but right now she’s out of reach on a two-week kayaking trip.  Do we even own an infant carseat anymore? Our son is five, and what baby gear we haven’t given away is buried deep in the basement.

I talk to the chairman of the English department and tell him we might be getting a baby soon, but promise I won’t quit.  We brainstorm possible approaches — cutting an assignment, reducing days of teaching, making the final optional. It turns out he and his brother were both adopted. He turned out well enough, he says with typical modesty. But his brother has had problems. He looks at his schedule and offers to take my Wednesday classes.

My father died when I was fourteen and his death was really hard for me.  I rebelled at the whole world when he died and found solace in drugs and alcohol and sex . . . which of course led to me having my first child at the age of 15.  I quit smoking the day Derek was born and nursed him for 13 months. When he was three and a half I signed over custody to his dad’s mother, since we weren’t getting our lives together very well and couldn’t give Derek the stability a kid needs.  Anyway, I grew up fast and hard and went to jail when I was 18 and made a career of that kind for several years off and on.

On Saturday, instead of grading papers, I dig out baby gear from the basement.  I wash the dusty covers of the bassinet, the bouncy chair, and the swing.  I wipe down the railings and set it all out in the backyard to dry in the sun.  Where is our old infant car seat? Oh damn, I loaned it to my stepbrother and his wife in Montana.  Should I call them and ask them to send it back? Are we really getting this baby?

Patrick helps me assemble the bassinet. We set it up in a corner of the dining room and lay a gauzy green cloth over the top. That afternoon he plays big brother and tucks his Curious George monkey in the bassinet.  Now, each time I walk by the bassinet and look through the green gauze, I see the faint outline of a little figure inside.

Adrienne gave me the names of parents who have adopted kids with drug and alcohol exposure, and she suggested we call our pediatrician. The first parent I call is empathetic and reassuring: her child is turning out fine.  The pediatrician is another story.

“Oh, Ann, that’s a lot of exposure,” the pediatrician says immediately.  “And you know she’s underreporting. Believe me, I know. They always underreport.”

I sit down on a dining room chair.  Her voice is hard, jaded.  She seems to be implying she has extensive experience with lying drug addicts.  The adoption agency has warned us that many people are quick to vilify birth mothers.

“Yeah, maybe,” I agree reluctantly. I rest my elbow on the table, head propped in my hand.

“The baby may be fine now, but problems often don’t crop up until kids get into school. With all that exposure you will see problems. At the very least she won’t be the brightest bulb in the bunch.” 

I frown. How crass. And is it really inevitable?

“But you should expect to see ADD, learning delays, hyperactivity.  You could be spending your days taking her to special ed classes, psychiatrists, neurologists. I mean, some people are ready to take that on.  But don’t adopt this baby unless you’re willing to deal with a lot of challenges. Are you ready for that?”

I see. She’s on a mission, bringing hard truths to a naïve mom.  Telling it straight, hitting home.  Silently, I resist. Yes, some of this might come true.  But all of it?

“No,” I admit. “That’s not what we want.”

There is an awkward pause, and then she starts in again. “What is the mom in prison for?”

What can I say?  “Assault.”

“Assault? Oh, there you go. Oppositional defiance disorder. Maybe drugs in the house as she gets older.   And think of your son: what will it do to him to have this problem child in your house?”

My back goes rigid.  I stand up to hang up the phone.  “Well, that’s a lot to think about.  Thanks so much for your input,” I say trying to keep the acidity out of my voice.

“Thanks for thinking of consulting me,” she responds in a kinder tone.  “If you do get that baby, I’ll do my best to take care of her.”

I am shaking as I hang up the phone.  I hate her. I hate what she said.  It’ll be a cold day in hell before I take another child to see her.  She was horrid, jumping to conclusions, generalizing.  And then I am sobbing, because she might be right.  Worst-case scenario, I have to face it, she might be right.  And she understood my question better than I did:  I was really asking her to tell me the baby would be fine. I lean my forehead on the cool wood of the dining room table and cry.

Ten minutes later, I pull myself up, find the adoption file, and pull out the fact sheets on drug and alcohol exposure. Moderate drinking, defined as a drinking less than two drinks a night, creates a teratogenic risk of “none to minimal.” Laura reports drinking  more than that — two to three beers most nights — but not close to the six drinks a night required to get into the moderate to high risk category. There seems to be plenty of gray area here. I’m not sure what teratogenic means, or if there are other kinds of risks, but I’m not going to accept this pediatrician’s blanket statements of doom.

My American Heritage dictionary doesn’t list the word teratogenic. The Encarta Encyclopedia tells me that a teratogen is a “substance or agent in the external environment that can induce deformities in a fetus.” Teratogen is from the Greek teratos, which means monster; and genes, which means born.  So, to put it crudely, we’re looking at the chances that the child will be born a monster. But she’s already born and looks fine. Do teratogenic risks include developmental problems that crop up later? I will have to do more research.

That night, I call two more families who have adopted kids exposed to drugs, both say they adopted knowing they could face some special challenges, but so far, their children are fine.  A friend calls to say she checked with her pediatrician who insists the post-birth environment makes a huge difference in an exposed child’s development.

My mother died in July, then Destiny’s father died in August when I was two months pregnant with her.  Then I met Joe who is a woman beater.  But I saw the pony tail and thought well there has to be a pony in there somewhere under all that shit, so I started shoveling.  Well, I got my shovel broke and my heart broke too and still no pony. 

Anyway I did stab him in the neck, which only goes to show everyone has a breaking point. Even though the doctor’s report says it was a superficial wound I guess I came within an inch of killing him.  So initially I was charged with attempted murder and assault II.  I plea-bargained down to assault and am now paying my debt to society: 16 months. It would never have happened except for all the abuse I’d enjoyed and me being pregnant and all hormonal. I usually always control myself better.

Usually always?  What does that mean?  On the rare occasion she does act violent? Great.  Then again, if I had an abusive lover, I might just stab him in the neck too.

Anyway I feel a lot worse about the drugs I did while I was pregnant than I do about the assault. I did meth about four times and heroin twice and drank beer and smoked marijuana about half a dozen times. But I was totally clean the last month of pregnancy.  I’m so thankful Destiny was born clean and is not affected by the drugs.

These aren’t exactly the numbers Laura reported to the adoption agency, and the adoption agency via Adrienne, reported to us. Laura shrunk the amount she drank quite a bit. At first it was two to three beers most nights, now it’s half a dozen beers the whole pregnancy.  And I thought she was clean and sober for the last three months, not just the last month. Still, normal enough, to underreport when you know what’s at stake.  And the baby is healthy. 

Please don’t let my past or my current situation intimidate you because I’m really not a big, mean, dumb, stupid head! I’ve just had a constant battle with addiction and I’ve made some poor relationship choices.

“This too shall pass.”  Peace Out!  Love Life and Laughter,


I call Adrienne. “We got Laura’s letter,” I say.  “I like her.  But I notice there was a discrepancy between what she told me and what she told you about her drinking.”

“Well, actually the discrepancy is getting bigger,” Adrienne says.  “I just got the reports from the rehab center, and the first time she went in for an evaluation, in August, when she was two months pregnant, she self-reported she was doing meth every day, 1-2 grams, and had done heroin 3x the previous week.  She didn’t sign up for the rehab program at that point.  Four months later, in December, she did check herself in, and those records describe her as a self-admitted alcoholic.  So, I don’t know. It looks like there may be more exposure than we originally thought.”

I wash dishes, vacuum, water plants, numb from the weight of the news.  Up until now I thought there was a chance, a reasonable chance, the baby would be normal. How can I hold on to that hope now? 

And I worry about Tom’s reaction. He’s never felt the need for a second child, not in the gut-level yearning, no-rational-arguments-are- relevant way that I do. He’s hung in through this long process as a supportive husband, a willing participant.  He’s been interested and curious, but not fundamentally in need.  He feels the price of parenting more keenly than I do: the loss of free time to go mountain climbing, money to travel, or the simple pleasure of sleeping through the night un-interrupted by a crying baby.  He is going through this for me, but he has his limits. And this news will push him way over those limits. Even if I decided I was willing to take on the risks these numbers seem to suggest, I don’t know if I can ask him to do it.

When I give him the news, Tom says simply, “That’s not good.” 

“No,” I agree, “it’s not.” 

We look at each other silently.  Slowly I realize neither of us wants to be the one to pull the plug. 

“This isn’t what I envisioned,” I venture.

Tom gives me a wry smile and shrugs in agreement.  

After another long silence, Tom asks, “What exactly does it mean, to have that much exposure?” 

A weight lifts off my chest.  He’s willing to consider it.  Together we look at the literature on drugs and alcohol the adoption agency gave us, detailed in terms of teratogenic impacts but silent on issues like learning disabilities. We definitely need to learn more about what it might be like to have a child affected by in-utero exposure to drugs and alcohol.

We both surf the web and bring home printouts of news releases from an alphabet soup of agencies and journals: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Journal of American Medical Association, American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.  Through my college’s interlibrary loan system, I request books on fetal alcohol and drug exposure, adoption of at-risk infants, and studies of children who were exposed to drugs in utero. 

The next few days are a blur of obsessive reading, long phone calls with friends, family, people I know who have adopted, and pediatricians who specialize in developmental rehab; debates with Tom, and side conversations as I pick up and drop off Patrick from pre-school.  The things people say:

“It’s like you’ve been told you have a Down syndrome baby, but you can walk away from this one.”

“What will it do to Patrick?”

“Maybe you were meant to raise this child. You have the resources, the skills.”

“I was adopted. I turned out fine.”

It’s the meth you need to worry about. Meth makes holes in your brain like Swiss cheese.”

 “Alcohol is the biggest concern.”

“My husband’s adopted.”

“Destiny? Like Destiny’s Child, the band?”

“You know you will get picked again.  You can walk away without feeling like you’ll never get a baby.”

“You should talk to the Handle Institute, they can really re-wire your brain.”

“I have a patient who is adopted from Russia and he’s a fruitcake.”

“If she does end up having problems, she’ll be lucky to have parents like you.”


When I had thought I might still have my own biological child, I had picked the name Sophia Grace as a girl’s name, symbolizing wisdom and grace, two things I would like to give my child.  But it seems cruel to give a baby who, as our pediatrician says so charmingly, won’t be the brightest bulb in the bunch, a name that means wisdom.  But we need a name other than Destiny. Laura knows we might rename her, Adrienne assures me.  At the grocery store I buy a booklet, What Shall We Name the Baby?  Only after I buy the book do I realize I’m planning on moving forward with this adoption.

Finally the library books come in.  Adoption and Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposure: Research, Policy and Practice, published in 2000, is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Each chapter is by an expert in the field; it’s heavy with in-text citations, endnotes, and reference lists.  In her introduction, Madelyn Freundlich of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute says:

Research on the effects of prenatal alcohol and drug exposure has occurred in two distinct phases.  The first phase of research began in the 1970s and continued through the early 1990s.  Findings during this phase were by and large pessimistic, with an emphasis on early neurological damage among the children prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol and predictions that these children would be unable to function normally intellectually or socially.  Beginning around 1993, the tone of the research shifted, as longer-term studies showed dramatic variation in the outcomes for children prenatally exposed to substances.  It became clear that there were many cases in which children, despite histories of prenatal substance exposure, demonstrated normal long-term development. (2)


Doctor Richard Barth of the University of North Carolina conducted an eight-year longitudinal study of 233 adopted children, 121 of whom had been exposed to drugs in utero.  In his chapter he outlines his study methodology and results in great detail — reminding me of my forgotten work as research assistant for a sociology professor, whose project was rife with uncertainties and imperfections.  Barth’s study also isn’t air tight, but his results are specific and telling.

 At the study’s eight-year mark, 78% of the drug-exposed children had no physical or mental disability, 70% had no developmental disability, 54% had no learning disability, 58% had no emotional/behavioral problems and 69% were in overall good health. But in the next chart, at the same eight-year mark, 86% of the children were medicated for ADHD and 56% were learning disabled. 

Finally, only 19% of parents said their child had been difficult or quite difficult to raise.  I can’t help but smile. Maybe the other 81%, those who say raising their child was not difficult, are the parents of the 86% who are medicated. 

No matter the discrepancies and contradictions, the bottom line for us is clear: we should only accept this baby if we’re willing to deal with some learning disorders, hyperactivity, and ADD.  I know I am still largely ignorant about the day-to-day reality of the challenges involved, but I think I can do it.  I know I can.  Is this a naive little-engine-that-could optimism?  A blind desperation for a baby, any baby?   I could do it, probably, but at what cost?  And what about the impact on Tom and Patrick? Could I be pushing our family into conflict and angst?  I waffle and agonize, one day set to go for it, the next resigned to giving up.

Then Adrienne calls with bad news.  It turns out the state is not willing to facilitate a private adoption.  When they said they would work with the adoption agency, they meant they’d allow the agency to present a family as one of several families they would consider, but they’re doing the picking, not Laura. And they won’t even set up the committee that decides who gets the baby for another six to eight weeks.

“Six to eight weeks?”  I sit down, the breath knocked out of me. No baby in two weeks.  No rush to reorganize the end of my semester, no phone call to Mom for help. As Adrienne talks, I gaze at the bassinet in the corner of the dining room.

They have an internal process they have to go through, to, among other things getting a DNA confirmation of paternity. And I suspect, terminate Laura’s parental rights.

“Six to eight weeks?” I say again.

Adrienne is incensed that the birth mother’s wishes are of no interest to DHS.  I’m incensed that although there is family who would adopt the baby now, when she is seven weeks old, the state is insisting on a long, drawn out, and probably expensive process which will result in the baby not being placed for at least two more months. Crucial developmental milestones are being passed; opportunities to bond are being lost. 

“Wait a minute,” I say, turning away from the bassinet.  “Who told you DHS was willing to facilitate an open adoption?”  Laura’s lawyer.  “And when exactly did he tell you this?”  The day before the hearing.

Of course. How could I have missed it? Oh, I knew Adrienne should have gone to that hearing, but I didn’t want to be pushy.  When did I get so cautious, so wimpy, so stupid? 

“We were misled, Adrienne — purposefully misled — all of us, that lawyer, you, me. I’ll bet money that DHS never had any intention of facilitating an open adoption for Laura.  When they heard you had requested time to testify; they kicked into gear. They called Laura’s lawyer and said that it wasn’t necessary, they’d be happy to cooperate with you.  It was a ploy to stop you from speaking to the judge and making a pitch for something they didn’t want to do.” 

“Yes,” says Adrienne. “My supervisor and I have spent some time discussing whether I should have gone to that hearing anyway.”

Yes, I think to myself, I’ll bet you did. 

Adrienne says we can continue to stay in the process and be the family the agency nominates for consideration by DHS, in six to eight weeks, but she would understand if we decided to call it quits.  If we did stay in, we’d also stay in the general adoption pool, still be seen as a candidate by all the other birth mothers out there. 

I say we’ll stay in. What’s to lose?  We’ll have to fish or cut bait later, but later we’ll know more, and we’ll know more about the baby, too. 

“Oh,” Adrienne adds, “DHS also told me that recently the baby has developed tremors.”   

“Tremors or seizures?” Tom asks. As a lawyer, Tom represents parents of kids poisoned by thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that used to be included in multi-dose vaccines.  He’s read reams of medical reports on children’s regression into non-verbal, seizure-intensive lives.  He’s spent hours listening to clients overwhelmed by the heartbreak of watching a child regress, and parents struggling to find answers, a cure, or at least some way of coping. He’s watched at least one marriage fall apart in the process.

“Tremors can be part of withdrawal, a process that is short-lived,” says Dr Saj Budden, a pediatrician at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital’s Child Development Rehabilitation Center. Dr Budden has been a saint, returning my many phone calls, talking freely for half an hour at a time. Even now, two months after birth, even if the baby showed no sign of heroin or meth in her blood at birth, tremors could be withdrawal.  Drugs move out of the blood much more quickly than out of fat tissue, as in the brain. She recommends we request an MRI and more information on the baby’s head’s growth rate.  She confirms that as the child grows older, we could easily see learning disabilities and hyperactivity, but she stresses that many, even most, of the children she sees function quite well in society, once they get extra help. 

After Patrick is in bed, Tom and I talk it over.  I’m relieved to hear him articulate a position pretty close to my own: he’s willing to take on some developmental delays and learning disabilities, but scared of antisocial behavior and violence. 

Dr. Budden says the biggest physical reactions are hyperactivity, short attention span, and poor impulse control.  But because the children can’t process information well, have trouble extrapolating; sometimes they can’t read the social clues. So, they can sometimes become social misfits, sometimes withdrawn, sometimes angry and violent.  “I can’t promise you that won’t happen,” she says.

Tom and I talk. And talk and talk.  Tom is done talking long before I am, but, trying to be a good husband, he sits and listens as I process.  What’s the down side of staying in? For one thing, I’m a wreck. I’m tense, worried, neglecting my responsibilities.  The English department chairman has a saying on his door that catches my eye each time I walk by: “It’s not the getting and the spending; it’s the toll that hope takes.”   

And what about Laura?  What if she thinks we’re with her for the next two months only to find out right before the committee meets that we’ve dumped her?  She would feel terrible, betrayed.  What if there is another family, Laura’s second choice, who would maybe feel fine about the risks this baby poses?  Are we unfairly cutting them out?

I call Adrienne and tell her we’re thinking of pulling out.  We’re pushed over the edge of our comfort zone on the alcohol, the drugs, Laura’s own background, and the uncertainty of DHS’s process. And we want to minimize the disappointment and hurt Laura feels at this rejection. Doesn’t it seem better to do it now than later?  Yes, says Adrienne. She’s appreciated our attitude and our willingness to go along with the process, but it really has dragged out and been uncertain and increasingly difficult, and if we want to pull out it would be better to do it now and let Laura get on with the next step.

So. I hadn’t really intended to finalize an ending, just to talk it over, but there doesn’t seem to be anything left to ponder.  “Okay,” I say. “I guess that’s what we should do.”  Then there is an awkward moment as I realize I may never speak to Adrienne again. “Well, goodbye,” I say.  “Nice to get to know you, if only over the phone.”  It’s odd not know how it will all turn out.  Adrienne says to feel free to call if we want to check in and do that kind of processing.

After I hang up the phone, I wonder what will happen to little Destiny.  Will she be all right? I hope her foster family will adopt her and she will be just fine, or, if not fine, at least mainly happy.  Maybe I should have had more courage or more strength or been more willing to take risks.  I wonder what her destiny is. I will always be a little sad that she wasn’t part of mine.


Two days later, I call Adrienne.  I can’t stop thinking about little Destiny.  Has she told Laura that we’re pulling out?  If not, could we wait a bit?  She hasn’t told Laura and is willing to wait.  I say please then let us stay in a while longer, even though it probably won’t work out.  Probably not, Adrienne agrees, but we can stay in as long as we like. I hang up and feel better; at least Laura won’t feel abandoned by us, just screwed by the system.  I suppose it’s easier for me too. It’s easier to let the system screw up our chance at adopting this baby than to face the fact that we said no to a baby.  Am I avoiding honest self-assessment? Am I cheating? Maybe so.  And yet, in all honesty I feel back in the game. If by some miracle it does work out that we can adopt this baby, I will want to adopt her.  Despite my belief in informed decision making, quality research, and clear thinking, I’ll want to adopt her not because of certain facts or statistics or available resources, but because of faith in the mystical side of life, the belief that some things are meant to be. In short because of her name, a name I don’t even like.     

* Note: The birthmother’s name has been changed.

Ann Whitfield Powers is currently working on a book about coming late to motherhood titled “Isn’t Forty Kind of Old for That?”  Her fiction and creative non-fiction have been published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers; Literary Mama; Oregon Literary Review; and other literary journals. She lives with her husband and two sons in Portland, Oregon.

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