A Mother's Journey

What does it mean to become a parent at midlife? A decade after traveling to China to adopt a little girl, this writer is still looking for answers

by Marie Howe
Photograph: Elinor Carucci/Trunk Archive

You know how it is: You live your life as if you’re in a boat, floating, or speeding, moving in some direction. Or not. And every once in a while you look up—you’re standing in the bank, or in line at the grocery—and you suddenly think, Here I am. Where am I?

W.H. Auden once said all biographies were useless because they never mentioned, and couldn’t know, the most important moments of a person’s life, which are often silent, sealed off from view, sometimes forgotten even by the person to whom they occur.

You think—standing in front of the oranges—my marriage is over.

Or, I’m going to quit my job.

Or, I no longer believe in the God of my childhood.

Or, I’m going to adopt a child.

Quietly, to yourself. Almost subliminally. And then you move on—back out to the car or down the street or through the door. But something has happened.

And then, of course, time passes and builds up. This seems to happen more after 50. Sometimes you feel as if you’re standing on a moving shelf that’s made of time. Some forward motion, but it feels more and more like a residual glide. The great big engines have slowed down, and the impulse from them keeps you going, the way matter set in motion is said to move until it hits an immovable object. Or is it said to eventually slow down?

I think about the engines of my life: love, fear, wonder, desire. Are they muttering at slower and slower speeds? Or am I only tired, raising a child in my fifties?

And then I think about my daughter when she was five. She wanted to learn how to tie shoes. She wanted to teach me everything she knew. She stood at the easel writing ABCDEFG in a large, chalky white scrawl.

I think about my daughter and how I went to find her. Me, a nervous person, generally uneasy about change. I went after her as if she were treasure, following a map to a country where everything was much more difficult and time consuming and expensive than I’d imagined.

The shelf of time moving through space, and then I was in China with, no kidding, my ex-husband, James, and a friend, Mary, touring the temples, filling out paperwork, worn out, eating spicy green beans. And then the child was there, three years old, walked into the hotel room by caretakers who showed her the pictures I’d sent of myself. “Mama, mama,” they said to her, pointing at me. “Mama! Mama!” So much chatter! She started screaming, so I asked them to leave and they did, and she went to the door that had suddenly closed and pulled and pulled at it. I could hardly look at her, banging on the hotel door and sobbing. I was an exhausted dog with my duck.

And then I brought her home.

 Sometimes I think of who I would be without her, and I imagine drifting alone in a boat on a narrow muddy river, sleeping in the slight rock of the boat’s cradle. I think I went to China to bring home my daughter so I would get out of bed in the morning. I know that’s true. So I wouldn’t go back to sleep.

Now when I wake up in those moments, in the grocery store, in the car, late afternoon, light snow falling into the spring branches, I think, Where am I? And I am aware of her in the backseat singing, or I remember she’s in school and I look at the clock.

 When was she conceived? During those years with James when I’d scroll through the pictures of adoptable kids in the American system? When I pinched the fat at my waist and injected the hormones that didn’t work? When I drove through the hurricane as the West Side Highway closed behind me and I knew I wasn’t going back to him?

The day after I turned 50, two months after my marriage ended, my friend Tony asked, “Do you miss him?” And I said, “No, he and I will always be friends. But I miss the child I haven’t yet met.”

She was already born—about six months old. Was someone already thinking about taking her to the orphanage? The doctors decided, when they examined her, that she was seven months old when she was left in the little basket at the door.

Last night my daughter, curling into her bed, said, “I never had a mother.”

“What did you say?”

“In China,” she said.

First published in the April 2014 issue

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