By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
I wrested the Cabbage Patch doll from the insistent packaging before the pizza came. Saskia’s birth mother—grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins—sat around the table. We see each other a few times a year. It was just after Christmas and we met at a restaurant midway between her birth mother’s house and ours.
Saskia’s a preschooler, a bundle of pure wonderfulness, a sassy gal with crazy-long dark hair tangling all the way down her back and so many words and an abundance of energy and joy. That Saskia’s birth mother entrusted her to us means that raising her is an enormous, sacred responsibility. I feel grateful every single day.
Cabbage Patch dolls are soft and scented and have dimpled, somewhat troll-like faces and sewed-on bonnets. They are curious looking, as if human but not quite. Once I pulled her up by her pink bonnet, I discovered the adoption papers. What? I hadn’t recalled that Cabbage Patch dolls come complete with adoption “papers.” I must have known this, though, because in that one moment I felt both reminded and as if my breath had been taken away from me. As I freed the doll from the box, I ignored the papers. The small, brown plastic face stared at me. Seemingly unfazed by my inner turmoil, the doll was wide-eyed, seemingly neither happy nor sad.
I handed the doll to Saskia and set the box under the table. I took a large sip of water with ice cubes to keep my mouth busy for a moment. I crunched the ice in my mouth.
Holding those faux adoption papers in the restaurant—doll as Rorschach blot—I knew the doll had nothing to do with my reaction. Maybe Saskia’s cousin—now a doll-shunning tween—had herself loved a Cabbage Patch doll way back when she was small… Regardless of whether Saskia’s aunt forgot about the adoption shtick or whether she remembered and saw it as normalizing and positive, what I saw in the doll—the ink across my psyche’s page—had everything to do with how unresolved the gift of adoption feels to me. That this daughter, who brings such happiness to my life simultaneous to other people’s loss, especially her mom’s, that is indelible sadness. I wish, as time goes on, that the bittersweet could change to all sweet and it doesn’t necessarily. Because of it, I worry sometimes that for my daughter adoption will, inevitably, be a source of sadness almost without regard to how happy her life is.
It’s been a year now. Each time I glimpse the doll I remember that moment when Saskia received the soft baby with papers, and I feel queasy all over again. The suggestion that she—like the doll—might have been plucked from a field of cabbages, like a character in a fairy tale continues to make me feel sad and mad and knotted inside.
Other things inspire this same discomfort: those ads to take in an older child in Saturday’s newspaper or the pairing of these words, adoption and pet or the question about where her “real” mother is. I stumbled the first time I read her the picture book Are You My Mother? At any suggestion that she was at some point close to having been discarded, I become a bristled and fierce mama bear; I will put myself between her and any inkling of not being absolutely cherished.
Earlier this week, a girl I was driving home from school—she’s just nine—was asking how old Saskia was when we adopted her. I told her, “Saskia came home with us from the hospital.”
As I said this, I could conjure the sensation of Saskia in my arms at two days old, weighing next to nothing. She was so tiny that when we put her in the bucket carseat in the hospital’s parking garage, we had to wedge blankets all around her. We lay more blankets on top of her. The seat seemed enormous. It was terribly cold and our breath clouded up the car windows and my husband blasted the heat and the defroster to no immediate avail. We sat inside the cold, steamy car, at once suspended and desperate to drive away.
Sitting beside her in the back, I remember being dizzied by the maze of ramps in the large parking garage. Once we started moving, we had to weave around the semi-lit ramps to reach the exit. When we finally pulled onto the road, we laughed shakily. The car seemed a getaway vehicle, like we’d pulled off a heist. We said aloud that we felt like thieves. We could not believe we were leaving the hospital with the hotel décor and the petulant nurses and the nearly-bury-us-in-red=tape-hospital-social-worker with the baby in tow.
The little girl I was driving home interrupted my remembering: “That’s good that she was so small,” the girl reasoned. “Even now, my brother’s two and he’s nursing and he’d miss our mom and dad if someone put him in another home. She’s lucky.” I couldn’t decide whether she was worried about her brother being taken away or wanted him to go sometimes or pitied my daughter or was simply trying to make sense of something so dramatic as not keeping a child.
My response—to feel bruised, defensive—had absolutely nothing to do with her questions. I told myself to remain gentle, to be patient, that questions like these were going to be commonplace from kids for years to come. Her questions functioned as another Rorschach blot, revealing more about me than her. I worried the story would evoke pity or that my daughter would interpret the questions that way. I worried that she’d be sad or incredulous about not being wanted. I worried that she’d see adoption as being about her—worthiness.
I haven’t done so often but in the past when my kids have received gifts that I couldn’t abide by, I simply ditched them, yet I wouldn’t dump anything given to Saskia by her birth family. Once she’s learned which things her aunt gave her, like the pink bunny and soft pink blankets blankets, the Angelina Ballerina book and now the Cabbage Patch doll, she remembers. There’s the photo book of cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents and birth mama her “grandmother” (aunt, actually) put together for her, which she pores over. I wouldn’t want to take any of those physical objects from her. I wouldn’t want to take any (more) connection to her birth mother’s family from her than the immoveable one we took up front on that frigid February afternoon as we drove from the middle of the state West feeling like fugitives while they traveled East.
For now, for Saskia’s birth family, there’s definite relief that Saskia’s a happy girl—and that’s she’s safe and loved and cherished, and thriving. They tell me this. There’s also longing and sadness and regret. They tell me this, too. Even though the longing and sadness and regret are not mine—I’m the exhausted, besotted, ragged, ever present mom—I do believe my task is to hold open the space that connects Saskia’s birth mother and family with her and her with them and to do this I have to honor both their relief and their regret. I have to grasp their sadness.
The gift of the doll stirs up how much feels unresolved and possibly irresolvable. Sometimes, I wish all complexity could vanish. Sometimes, it’s hard to share being family with people I hadn’t met before the birth of the child who connects us. It’s awkward. It’s complicated. It’s a learning process and there aren’t many handbooks for open adoption. We did not sign a formal agreement about how we’d proceed.
But without the wash of it—complexity and love—there’d be no Saskia. I can’t wish any of it away. Instead, I remind myself that these relationships need time to unfold. They aren’t to be determined instantly. Tread gingerly. I cling to the idea that Saskia’s got more—family, love—not less. I hope abundance prevails over what’s bittersweet or sad or twisty. In some idealized version of things, I want this family to be all about her. It’s not; family never is about just one person. It’s about all of us figuring out how our ways towards each another. When I find the doll tossed on the floor by her bed, I set her back on the shelf with the other soft things.
About the Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, Huffington Post and Salon, amongst others. She keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows and a tumblr Refractions. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.