Paper Pregnancy

I’ve been thinking a lot, especially since Mother’s Day, about the “paper pregnancy” that we adoptive mommas endure.  Having never been physically pregnant, maybe it is not fair for me to compare the two.  I think maybe I’m looking for some sort of validation of motherhood since I did not physically labor for my child, and I want to explain this process in ways that others who grow families in more traditional ways might understand.  I will also note that there is a woman who did physically labor for my child, and nothing I say here is meant to discount the 9 months that she sheltered and nurtured the sweet girl who now lives in my home.  I always want to honor her and remember the gravity of the choice she made that brought my daughter to me.

The perks of a paper pregnancy:

  • Weight gain is not required (although watch out for a little baby weight from stress eating)
  • No dietary restrictions.
  • No stretch marks, physical scars, melasma spots, or stress incontinence resulting from the “pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, the perks end here.  The rest, I imagine, parallels physical pregnancy.

Most consider the “Paper Pregnancy” to begin when the dossier is mailed, but the paper process is well underway before the document is conceived.  The dossier is the adoptive family’s life story, proof of their identity, their finances, their ability to raise a child, all with stamps of approval from the state and federal government.  It took us three months to complete the paperwork to assemble our dossier (similarly, the vast majority of couples are pregnant within 3 months of trying to conceive).  This process violated our lives like a speculum exam, laying every detail of our upbringing, our marriage, our finances, and our extended families bare and exposed on the agency’s conference room table.  It was an invasive look at my parents’ divorce, our relationships with our brothers and sisters, our struggle with infertility and details of our medical treatment.  We provided results of medical exams (there’s that speculum again), a letter from the bank president, two years of tax returns, copies of birth and marriage certificates, recommendations from our employers, our family members, and close friends.  We took parenting classes, explained our philosophy of parenting, and discussed issues of race and cross-cultural adoption.  All of this was notarized, sealed by the Secretary of State, stamped by the U.S. State Department, and verified by the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C.  We are now officially pregnant on paper.
There is a tangible sense of expectation that begins the moment the dossier is sealed.  Maybe this is a little like how I imagine it is for a woman to discover that she is pregnant, an immediate sense that life is different now.  Our agency instructed us to begin our preparations.  Like any other expectant family, Matt and I painted a nursery, ordered a crib, made plans to take time off from work.  We bought bedding and children’s books.  My grandma gave us baby clothes that she found at the outlet mall.  Friends offered to plan baby showers (which I was too afraid to have, not knowing really what might happen).  I realized even before the dossier was mailed that I already loved my adopted children even though I’d never seen them.  I prayed for their birth mothers, that they would be safe and healthy and make good choices for their babies.  I prayed for them and the hard decision they would make that would bring our child to us.

I am a physician, and I know that I am not physically pregnant, but I’m certain that the stress of this process has caused some significant hormonal swings.  I most certainly have “pregnancy brain.”  I am distractible and forgetful.  My mind wanders while I examine patients at my clinic.  I have to reexamine my patients sometimes because I’ve forgotten whether I actually listened to their heart sounds.  It worries me and makes me feel like I’m not doing my job well.  I’m consumed wondering whether I’ve missed something important when evaluating my patients during the day.  I’m certainly moody and sometimes find myself crying for no reason at all.  I had such anxiety between Lulu’s court date and her homecoming.  I felt a fluttering in my chest almost continuously during that time.  There are high and low swings . . . getting our referral, delays to our court date, meeting our children, passing court, failing court, starting over again.

Pregnant women generally know about how long the pregnancy will last, roughly 40 weeks.  Unfortunately, paper pregnancies can last for years.  I have been “paper pregnant” for almost 17 months now, and though my feet have not swelled, and I still wear a size 4, I am growing weary of this pregnancy.  This baby is getting heavy.  I’m not kept awake at night by the kicking of my baby’s sweet feet, but I lie awake wondering if my baby is safe and well-fed, worrying that our agency is lazy and dishonest, doubting whether my “maybe baby” is really my baby.  Even if we pass court, there is an indeterminate period of waiting afterwards for our Embassy appointment before our child is really ours.

There are paper miscarriages and paper stillbirths.  I think they must be just as painful as the physical kind.  I was absolutely in love with our first referral from the first time I saw his picture.  After meeting him on three different trips to Ethiopia, watching him grow, collecting pictures, and hearing him cry each time that we left him, I assure you, I loved (and still love) this child as my own.  Enduring an 8,000 mile trip for court after waiting almost 12-months only to be told we could not have him is still one of the most awful experiences of my life.  It feels like he has died, except that he hasn’t, and I feel silly grieving this loss because he was never really mine.  I feel foolish that I have an extra empty crib where a baby belongs.  There’s no real support for this kind of loss.  I’ve known other families whose referred child died before they were able to complete the adoption.  Though not biologically theirs, I know they grieve as any family who loses a child.

Some say the labor of bringing an adopted child home is in the plane ride (17 hours from Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa and back again in terribly uncomfortable seats), but I believe most of my labor for my children has been on my knees.  We have fasted and prayed.  I have spent more time on my knees through the past nearly 4 years of our infertility and adoptions than any other time in my life.  Maybe that is God’s purpose in this for us, to draw us nearer whatever the cost.  I am brought to my knees regularly still, wrestling with my doubt, trying to trust and obey.  I don’t know when our labor will end.  I would love a quick caesarian to bring my baby quickly to my arms, but that is not an option.  I continue on, reciting prayers in my head between breaths.

Without any doubt, I love Lulu just as I would love a child I physically birthed.  She is my very favorite thing.  She is the first thing I want to see in the morning, and I miss her like crazy all day when I’m at work.  If I go a day without seeing her, I grieve.  She brings us so much joy.

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