In our house we have two photographs, side by side, of the toddlers we used to be. It’s creepy how much my husband and I looked like twins, our blonde hair styled into matching bowl cuts and both of us, improbably, wearing yellow plastic prop-glasses stolen from Mr. Potato Head dolls.
How easy it was, once, to imagine our future children. The blueprints were right in front of us, waiting to be brought to life. We envisioned them, tiny replicas of ourselves, as all couples surely do when they are “trying.”
We conceived those children in our minds long before we discovered that we would never conceive them with our bodies.
The diagnosis arrived by email one January morning. We were on a walk in our rural, fire-scorched neighborhood—where the absence of leash laws compels us to carry pepper-spray—when my husband checked his inbox. We were armed and prepared for a dog attack but not for this news: that our well-timed efforts were all in vain, that the sex we’d been having was (reproductively speaking) useless, that my husband had no sperm.
We are both writers. We’ve built our identities on our ability to create. We assumed our child would be a product of that creativity, a product of our making love. But, no, those children we had envisioned creating together would never be anything but imaginary.
The official medical term for zero sperm is whimsical, wacky.
It reminds me of a circus performance, or a plastic kazoo. The flittering, flimsy absurdity of this word is perfect, underscoring the cruel reality: this pain has no substance, this pain will not—perhaps should not—be taken seriously.
Psychologists speak of “ambiguous loss,” a type of grief that feels uncertain, unwarranted, unworthy to be acknowledged. No one has died. The children I am grieving never existed. Still, I mourn the loss of the possibility of them—people who will never be real, but whose absence carries real weight.
The social worker at our adoption agency hands us a checklist: what types of children do we feel prepared to raise? Are you willing and able—yes or no—to parent a child of another race, a child born prematurely, a child conceived by rape? Are you willing and able, yes or no, to parent a child exposed in utero to meth, to alcohol, to heroin? How prepared are we, really, to parent a child with a chronic heart condition, a child with Down Syndrome, a child who is deaf?
We try our best to imagine. We worry about every marked “yes,” and hate ourselves for every marked “no.”
Is anyone ever prepared?
There are so many stories—books, blogs, TV movies—about the ways families are shaped by adoption, but my husband and I do not yet have one of these stories. We are in what our agency bluntly calls the “waiting phase.”
And in this strange phase of waiting, the possible permutations of who our child will be are infinite. Our child might have been conceived months ago, or might not be born for several more years. Our child might be born to a terrified teenager, or an exhausted late-thirties mother raising five kids. The only thing we know for sure is that their DNA will not be shared by either of us.
Our town used to be a pine forest. Now the sharp-stripped skeletons of all the burnt tree trunks slice at the sky. Shade is hard to come by.
We weren’t here for the fires. They ravaged this small Texas town five years before we moved into our house—one of the few on our street that survived. The desolation, beautiful in its eerie strangeness, is all we know of this place.
The neighbors who remain, those who rebuilt their homes or replaced them with trailers, speak of that day with a haunted obsessiveness, finding a way to work the fire into every conversation. They list as a liturgy the items they lost—the photographs, the diaries, the children’s artwork—even as they also recite the familiar caveats: at least the insurance money came through, at least the evacuation happened during the day, at least they are alive.
Adoption, we are told, is always born of loss. The social workers repeat this over and over like a mantra. It is a form of family-building inherently tangled up with grief.
There is the loss experienced by the birth parents—the child-shaped hole, the weight of emptiness that must feel like death—and the loss experienced by the adoptee: separated from the only mother they have ever known, in whose particular body they have been formed and carried and nurtured for nine months.
Hopeful adoptive parents (that’s what we are called, during this waiting phase, though the adjective does not feel quite right) are supposed to acknowledge our own losses, too. We are encouraged to speak of and remember and name the thing we are losing—a biological connection to our future child—even as we stand to gain so much.
Sometimes it feels insensitive, ridiculous, to call this a loss at all. Ambiguous, flimsy: Azoospermia! Girl, please.
Sometimes, in my least rational states of mind, I wish my part of this loss were more tangible, more solid, more something. I would never envy a birth-mother, but I catch myself wondering what it would be like to experience the powerful, unquestionable force that binds a mother and child together through biology. A connection so primal, so unambiguous, that even the most nurturing of adoptive parents will never fully take its place.
A social worker interviews us for six hours, assessing how prepared we are to become parents. What is our parenting philosophy? What discipline strategies will we practice in our home? What words do we plan to use when talking to our child about racism, about grief, about sex?
We practice our answers, testing the sound of the words on our tongues. We conjure, like fictional characters, the parents we aspire to become.
We describe how we will respond if our child says they wish they had not been adopted. We explain our plans for maintaining a relationship with the birth family. We role-play different versions of “the talk”: how we will explain the danger of law enforcement if our child is black, how we will explain the privilege of not needing to be afraid if our child is white.
Is anyone ever prepared?
Before getting married, my husband and I asked each other all the responsible, forward-thinking questions; we attended the pre-marital counseling sessions; we carefully cross-referenced future plans. And yet there is no way to ready oneself for a marriage—for the ways it will inevitably change, evolve, and for better or worse, need to be revised.
The pre-adoptive process feels similarly absurd: both too somber and too flippant at the same time. No amount of research can prepare us to raise the very specific child—whoever they might be—that will one day, suddenly, be ours.
As a fiction writer, I already spend much of my time in the company of people who do not exist. I am intimately familiar with my characters’ facial expressions, verbal tics, greatest fears. I can see with absolute clarity the shape of my protagonist’s mouth when she is excited, lying, ashamed, heartbroken.
But even with these vividly envisioned details—even as I am developing a nuanced backstory and mapping out a narrative arc—the characters, if they are alive on the page, end up surprising me. They take control of the metaphors, steer the plot in directions I had never planned or expected.
On good days, when the work is going well, they seem to be writing the story themselves.
In her memoir Blue Nights, Joan Didion recalls the story she and her husband told their daughter, over and over, about the day she was adopted: “the moment when, of all the babies in the nursery, we picked her. ‘Not that baby . . . that baby. The baby with the blue ribbon.’”
It wasn’t an accurate description of what happened, of course, and Didion herself admits that this “choice narrative” would later be strongly discouraged by adoption professionals. But I can see the appeal, that silly rearview fantasy of control.
In a coffee shop, I run into a former colleague who is pushing her newborn twins in a double-stroller, looking appropriately harried and exhausted. After I’ve smiled and cooed at the babies and asked how she is doing, she says, “And you? Still relaxed and child-free?”
I manage to nod and smile and turn away before the tears begin. She doesn’t know about our waiting; she doesn’t mean any harm. She is overwhelmed, beaten down by new motherhood, still recovering from a traumatic few weeks in the NICU. In that moment, she can’t imagine a scenario in which someone could possibly be envying her.
People love to remind us that we should be soaking up the benefits of child-free lives now, while we still can. Travel! Go out to leisurely dinners! Enjoy your rest, before it’s too late!
You’ll miss this time when it’s gone, they promise.
Rationally, I know this is wise advice. Thanks to the home-study process, I’m as prepared for the harsh realities of parenthood as any non-parent could possibly be. But my desire is not in spite of the challenges. The gut-punch of reality—that chaotic and exhausting fullness, squeezing out any unrealistic fantasies—is what I ache for.
On Saturday afternoons, when my husband and I can spontaneously decide to cook an elaborate meal or go to a movie or spend hours reading on the porch, the imaginary children are always there, haunting us like not-yet-born ghosts. We spend much of our ample free time daydreaming about future responsibilities.
The idea that I will be nothing but fully grateful for the exhaustion, the chaos, the terror of being a parent, is an illusion—I know that—but this is what the well-meaning advice-givers don’t understand: I’m tired of the serenity of my too-empty house. My too-empty arms. My too-ambiguous grief. I’m tired of having only fantasies. I want my illusions shattered.
The destroyed, burnt-flat pines in our town are growing back, slowly resurrecting. These tiny green stalks—they hardly look like trees yet—appear sporadically, scattered among the still-standing skeletons of the fire-stripped giants.
No, not growing back—that’s not really true. What I think of as the ruined trees returning to life are new trees, different trees. They don’t replace what has been lost, and no one expects them to.
Many of the residents who were the most wrecked, emotionally and practically, have moved away. They’ve rebuilt their lives in a nearby city, to avoid the visible reminders. Only those who stubbornly stayed—and those of us who showed up later, we who can’t quite imagine what the town looked like before, who don’t fully understand the surrounding grief—are witness to this new phase: these thin green hints of hope.
Our friends who are pregnant enjoy speculating about what their child will look like. Will he have his mother’s nose? Will she have her father’s dimpled chin? Sometimes I still feel a pang of jealousy at this ability to reproduce. And sometimes I think: how unimaginative, these genetic calculations. How limiting.
Of course I would love to see replicated in another human my husband’s kind eyes, his freckled shoulders. I would love to see how his genes look when shuffled and combined with mine. But I think less and less—hardly ever, now—of those children we (naturally) imagined creating, those replicas of us with blonde bowl-cuts and yellow prop-glasses.
Instead, when I mentally conceive of our future child, my vision expands, multiplies endlessly, scans the faces in every crowd.
Writers love to say that writing a novel is like birthing a child. Maybe that’s true—I’ll never know. Waiting to adopt, perhaps more so than reproduction, feels like an act of creativity. But is it unhealthy, unfair to my future child, all this useless imagining?
I expect and hope that the moment my child is placed in my arms, I will feel an instant love of the real, the singular, the particular: here, this, this is the child that I am meant to parent.
On that day, my imagination will finally be narrowed, constrained. That is what I long for—my options whittled down to only one: surprising, unimaginable, perfect.