The Red Thread – Adoption From China

In a crowd, the Sandbergs are hard to miss. Robin is blond and athletic, Rich is curly, dark and strong. Their younger daughter April is dark haired and solid like Rich. Their older daughter Claire is tall, slender and Chinese.

For a Caucasian family like the Sandbergs, adopting a child from China means that the experience of adoption will never be completely private. Robin deals with that head on, chatting freely about her daughters’ backgrounds and their very different personalities.

Robin and Rich were both thirty-two when they married. They had planned to start a family immediately, but after a year had passed without a pregnancy, Robin’s gynecologist referred them to a fertility specialist. They began with intrauterine insemination, a simple procedure that deposits sperm directly into the uterus. But after two unsuccessful cycles, their doctor advised them to take the next step – in vitro fertilization.

In IVF a woman’s eggs are extracted from her ovaries and fertilized outside of the body, then returned to the womb to develop. Although IVF techniques have improved since the 1970s, it’s still a strenuous process, combining the stress of infertility with an extended series of shots and minor surgical procedures. And the cost is significant: from $10,000-$20,000 depending on the choice of protocol.

Robin got pregnant on her first IVF cycle, but had a miscarriage after six weeks, around the time the fetal heartbeat would have been detectable. Although there was no apparent cause for their infertility, a second and third attempt also failed. Each time, the disappointment and loss were crushing.

“We didn’t tell anyone what we were going through”, Rich told me, “not even our families. We didn’t want the pressure of people asking all the time how it was going, but we felt really isolated.”

After the third cycle they called it quits. For the first time since their honeymoon they focused on each other, just laughing, hanging out, and remembering how much they enjoyed each other’s company. Still, they were not ready to give up hope of having a family. One night, Robin hesitantly asked Rich if he would consider surrogacy or adoption. Since their own sperm and eggs were healthy, they had the option of using a gestational surrogate. But after the ordeal of infertility, neither felt comfortable around pregnant women. With a sense of relief and hope, they began to focus on adoption.

But the statistics on domestic adoption were unnerving. Agencies estimate that there are 75-80 families seeking adoption for every available child. And assuming Robin and Rich did find a child, would they be selected as parents? Prior to the 1970’s, adoption agencies chose the adoptive families. Now, control has shifted and it’s the birth mother who makes the choice. Robin and Rich knew that they could provide a loving home, but would that be enough to impress a birth mother who had lots of options?  Then there was the possibility that the mother or even the father or grandparents might decide to keep the baby. After their struggles with infertility, the prospect of losing the baby at the last moment was unbearable.

Another worry was the idea of an “open” adoption. Over 90% of domestic adoptions allow contact between the birth mother and the adoptive family. But while Robin and Rich recognized the benefits, they were anxious about how the relationship would unfold over time. What if the birth mother became overly involved or intrusive?

Close friends had recently adopted a beautiful, smart girl from China who was, after just a few months, fully integrated into her American family. Robin and Rich looked honestly at all the issues: Did they have strong feelings about their child’s ethnic background? Would they feel comfortable raising a child who was obviously adopted? It quickly became clear that their path led to China.

Choosing China

China is roughly the same size as the United States, but has quadruple the population. In 1979, in an effort to control the skyrocketing population, China imposed a “one child per family policy”. Since China is still deeply patriarchal, having a boy confers prestige. And boys provide an economic benefit as well. Chinese men often support their aging relatives, while most women help support their husband’s relatives rather than their own. Given their role as de facto parental pension plans, boys are economically indispensible. As a result, over 90% of the Chinese children orphans are girls.

Intensifying the pressure on families is a law against placing children up for adoption. In consequence, many babies are abandoned in bus stations, parks and shopping malls where, with luck, they may be rescued by strangers. Before arranging an adoption, orphanages must wait six months for the birth parents to “find” the child. But, with the risk of imprisonment, few parents return.

Inside the orphanages, the standard of care is relatively good. Babies seldom suffer the severe psycho-social deprivation and chronic disease seen in some other countries, and few have been exposed prenatally to drugs or alcohol. The health of the babies, combined with the complete erasure of the birth parents, makes Chinese adoption attractive to many foreign families.

The Red Thread

No sooner had Robin and Rich’s dossier been submitted to the adoption agency than Robin found out that she was, once again, pregnant. When the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and another miscarriage followed shortly afterward, they were sanguine. They already felt strongly connected to their daughter in China, whom they thought of as Claire.

Fourteen months after their application, the director of the agency called to say that they had been matched with a baby. Soon they were on their way to China. After three days of travel, profoundly jet-lagged, they met their daughter for the first time. Standing in the banquet room of their hotel with twenty other families, they waited as they babies were presented, one by one. A smiling woman approached them with a child bundled into in a heavy snowsuit and Robin took Claire in her arms. The tiny girl was flushed from heat, fretful and anxious. Robin and Rich quickly escaped to their room to be alone with Claire. They bathed her in soothing warm water and she gradually relaxed and fell asleep calmly on Rich’s chest.

Chinese tradition holds that an invisible red thread connects a child’s soul to all the people who will play a part in her life. Seeing Claire in the bath, Robin felt the resonance of this tradition for the first time. “I was an identical twin,” Robin recalled. “My mom used to paint my toenails red so she could tell us apart. When they brought Claire to us she had red polish on her toenails. That’s when I knew she was my baby.”

Claire bonded immediately with Rich, but was aloof at first toward Robin. But Robin stayed close, suppressing her slight hurt feelings and giving Claire a steady stream of undemanding and loving attention. Over the next few days Claire relaxed and began to laugh and snuggle with Robin. She was an easy baby, calm, smiling and tranquil. By the time they left China, they were a family.

Although Claire was one, she couldn’t walk, crawl or turn over without help. Since many babies are tightly swaddled and have little social activity, their muscular and cognitive development is often delayed. But Robin and Rich had done their research and knew these issues would resolve themselves quickly with physical and occupational therapy.

Compared to biological parenthood, adoption had been easy. Just 5 months after they brought Claire home, Robin and Rich decided to start the paperwork for another adoption. Then Robin discovered that she was, once again, pregnant.

“When Robin gave me the news,” Rich said, “I poured her a glass of wine and told her to just relax. It was such a long shot.” But this time Robin didn’t miscarry, and they watched with amazement as her belly grew and the sonograms revealed a vigorous, thriving fetus. Their second daughter, April, was born shortly after Claire turned two.

April was the opposite of Claire, restless, high strung and demanding. Luckily for Robin and Rich, they had a secret weapon. Patient and playful, Claire doted on her baby sister, and April’s sun rose and set on Claire. The girls’ connection was the glue the bound the family together, a balm for the struggles of the early years. Now, as the girls grow up, their special bond remains strong, a happy hum of life in the house. Sitting in their living room in the heat of summer, watching our kids dancing through the sprinklers, Rich and Robin and I shared a moment of amazement at the simple happiness of the day, and gratitude that we had come to parenthood in a time so rich in possibility and hope.