Friday, June 18, 2010

Waiting Confoundedly

It's been hard for me to make new friends in my new home town.  One of the reasons is that I'm relatively isolated by my lack of license-able driving skills.  It takes extra effort to go anywhere, and it usually involves strollers and bus schedules, and the sort of planning that no one I know really does here; they just throw their kids and stuff in the car and take off, while I mostly just stay at home.  But it's not just that, and it's not just that the people I meet here come from such different backgrounds from mine.  Another reason, I think, is that it's hard to find other mothers here who share my essentially pessimistic philosophy of life.  (It's not at all hard to find such mothers in New York, since it's really not hard to find anything at all you're looking for there.)

Now, those readers who know me personally will tell you that I'm actually not quite so much of a downer as you might think in real life.  I laugh all the time, and I truly enjoy things (I also cry every day; there's just so much to cry about.  It's hard to say how much of this is neurosis, how much is justifiable compunction, and how much is culture and genetics; it seems to me sometimes, having been like this since childhood, that I must be the logical heir of a tragic Mediterranean worldview).  Nonetheless, I have to keep reminding myself that I no longer live in New York City.  I live in America now, the land of positivism.  I feel that I cannot talk about the things that preoccupy me with the other mothers I know where I live now, lest I intrude upon their deeply-held conviction -- one that seems to be a bedrock of our culture -- that everything is, or will be, all right, and that, if you are an essentially good person, you deserve to be happy.  While I believe that everything will be all right in the eschatological sense, the rest of this point of view utterly confounds me.  Does this mean that I suffer from depression?  Or just that I need to go back to New York more often, or perhaps back to my ancestral village in the mountains of Campania?

We are still in the throes of adoption paperwork, and it's taking longer than we expected, because Catholic Charities, our agency, is woefully understaffed and -funded.  It occurred to me recently that most Americans (and also most New Yorkers) in our position do IVF, and, indeed, IVF seems like a typically American-positivist response to an intractable problem.  I'm quite sure, however, that even if I had not had a dramatic reconversion to the Catholic faith, IVF is not something I would have ever undertaken.  It's not just the ethical problems that give me the creeps about it, but also the philosophy of positivism on which it's based -- the philosophy of everything-will-be-all-right-and-I-deserve-to-be-happy -- that I reject all the way down to my bones.  IVF strikes me as a salient example of the American tendency to marshal all the resources at one's disposal to try to force a desired outcome, and, even if I weren't a Catholic revert, I would think (and in fact know from bitter experience) that to base one's actions on this shaky philosophy can only lead to bad ends.

Nonetheless, the world of adoption is equally confounding to me.  I recently read a parent testimony in an adoption book about a couple who rejected a Chinese adoption placement because the little girl they had initially accepted had become seriously, perhaps fatally, ill.  "We chose to accept a new referral," wrote the adoptive mother, which seemed to me a rather cagey way to put it.  After adopting a different girl -- "the daughter I am sure was always meant to be ours" -- this mother was relieved to find that another couple had chosen to adopt the first, sick little girl as a special-needs placement.  And yet the mother made a point that this sick little girl, the girl she and her husband had decided not to adopt, "will always be ther first daughter of our hearts."

I found this attitude absolutely confounding, and vaguely troubling.  The adoptive mother's rejection of the sick child cannot be compared to terminating a pregnancy with a poor prenatal prognosis, the major difference being that the child rejected on account of illness survived and was adopted by someone else.  But what if she hadn't been? 

I am hardly in a position to judge this mother or anyone else, or to speculate about the nature of the girl's undisclosed illness.  Perhaps the first adoptive couple did not have the means to care for a child who might be very ill for the rest of her life, or who might not live very long.  But the rejected placement did make me wonder how the parents would have reacted if it had been found that their biological child was gravely ill.  Call me a Mediterranean fatalist, but it's not part of my worldview that anyone deserves to be happy.  I do believe, though, that we are called to love and to serve, and in some cases that means loving and serving children who are less than perfect, and who God gives us as a gift, one that will transform us and conform us, in His service, more closely to His will.

UPDATE:  Karen Edmisten writes (in a recent blog post about parenthood) that, "when a gift is given, it is worth the sacrifice it takes to accept it."  That sentiment articulates my feelings about the rejected adoption placement better than I did; but, again, it's hard to know all the variables in that situation.


Enbrethiliel said...


The story of the couple (who, yes, could have asked for "another referral" for reasons having nothing to do with self-entitlement) reminds me of a story Blessed Teresa of Calcutta shared about one baby she had found parents for. A few months after the adoption, she learned that the baby had a serious defect which meant years of expensive treatment. So she went to the parents and told them she would take the baby back, be the one to take responsibility for her, and find them a healthier child. They completely humbled her by telling her that they weren't giving their baby up; she was already theirs and they were determined "to love until it hurt"--a favourite phrase of Blessed Teresa's, alternating with "to give until it hurts."

Now, I hope this isn't too much of a presumption, but your difficulty in making friends in your new town reminds me of my own problem making native friends when I lived in New Zealand. Until the middle of my second year, most of my friends were fellow international students (from India, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, and the United States); and almost all of us agreed that we had little to say to our Kiwi classmates. (I'm sure the feeling was mutual!) But that was long enough ago for it to be difficult for me to put my finger on the fundamental point of conflict between Kiwis and international students.

But I do brightly recall that I was always turned off by a similar optimistic sense that everything would be all right--or worse, that everything would be taken care of. International students had to pinch every penny and often formed "money juggling" networks to get the required paperwork in order (earning us dirty looks from bank tellers) . . . And then there were the native kids switching majors on a whim because the student loan system would take care of all immediate fees. (Hmmmm. Was it just a class thing?)

Yes, I did eventually make a very good Kiwi friend who had to take out a student loan--but it took a lot of time . . . and a lot of luck.

Clare Krishan said...

Is not that kind of indifference (langour, lassitide) a type of apathy that feeds on fear? A haunting dread that we cannot entertain the pain, nor even endure the thought of it, so we pass on by, like the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Attachment to pleasantries can be a coping mechanism we adopt to avoid acknowledging our impotence as mere mortals, no? And yet even an imperfect self-knowledge is better than self-deceit perhaps, since its honest. We Christians aren't called to be successful merely faithful. If some of us know we don't have what it takes to be a good enough parents to a child with special needs, its ok to be humble enough to admit that IMHO BEFORE the child is legally dependent on a quality of care its not going to get (perpetrating an incidious sort of fraud). Perhaps the pastoral wisdom behind annulments can serve as a simile, ie that the sacramental nature of the relationship never existed. The child deserves parents who accept its unconditional dependency.

Teresa Polk has some good thoughts on "creation groaning" over at

Clare Krishan said...

and in honor of Father's day, a more sanguine, male POV "If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they'll probably remember it for as long as they live." courtesy of the WSJ "The Case for Having More Kids"
"Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it's great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids' future rests in your hands, you'll probably make many painful "investments"—and feel guilty that you didn't do more. Once you realize that your kids' future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you're not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents' consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids' development, so it's OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family."

So go on, cheer up!

Pentimento said...

Yes, Enbrethiliel and Clare, you are quite right. We can't shake our heads or our fingers at the parents who turned down the adoption placement they had originally accepted, because who knows why? I think what bothered me about it was that they refer to that girl as "the first daughter of [their] hearts," when in fact she is someone else's daughter, and their rejection of her paved the way for her to have the parents she presumably was meant to have, so I'm sure it's all good. And I'm not ruling out that my feelings about this have something to do with being post-abortive myself.

Rodak said...

Here is the story of my life, set to music. I link it to share the music, moreso than the pathos.

Mac said...

I would certainly not condemn or even criticize the parents for not adopting the sick child. But the attempt to have it both ways strikes me as pretty weird: you'll always be our daughter, except that we decided you weren't.

Regarding your resistance to happy talk: I was about to ask you if you were you reading my blog when I posted this, and then I looked at the comments and saw one from you confessing to the same syndrome.

Regarding IVF: when it was new, in the '80s, I had a conversation with a co-worker/friend who was a faithful Catholic and one of the nicest and most engaging people I've ever known. She really was a faithful Catholic, but she just couldn't see why the Church wouldn't approve IVF, because she just couldn't stand the thought that those couples who really wanted children wouldn't be able to. I didn't do a good job of arguing the Church's view (if I did it at all) because I couldn't see a way to do it without putting myself in the position of being the Giant Raven of Doom, a role which comes very naturally to me.

Pentimento said...

Oh, Giant Raven of Doom, I feel you.

I am a generally crappy apologist and I've often found it very hard to explain why IVF is off the table for us. Even my OB/GYN, a Catholic who works at a Catholic hospital, sort of hinting about it to me, which made me surmise that the hospital is at least turning a blind eye to the practice, though I can't really say that for certain.

And I do love that Ronald Knox quote . . .

Pentimento said...

I meant "hinted," not "hinting."

Enbrethiliel said...


I was reminded of this post last Sunday, when a national broadsheet ran the story of a baby girl whose father had given her up for adoption and whom it seemed nobody else wanted. Her mother and older brother had been killed by an unknown attacker, and she herself had almost died. When she arrived at the hospital, the doctors saw that one of her hands had almost been totally severed from her arm. And it was that hand which dissuaded all prospective parents from taking her.

Now, all of them had "good reasons" for turning her down. She still needed some operations (which she'd need to have in a whole other city) and years of expensive physical therapy, and not all parents can afford that. Also, there was no guarantee that she would ever be able to use her hand. But I can never get one couple's reason out of my mind. According to her social worker, they took one look at her and said that they wouldn't take her because she'd never be able to do the family's laundry. (Clothes are still washed by hand in most of the Philippines.) And like you, Pentimento, I wonder what they would have done if a biological daughter of theirs had been injured that badly by an attacker.

Well, there's a happy ending. The baby girl has found a family, where she has both an older brother and a younger sister. In ordinary circumstances, they would never have been cleared for adoption because they didn't have a lot of money, but the social worker knew that the father and he was the only one showing interest in the little girl. And after they took her in, they found that there was always someone willing to put up the money every time she needed another operation.

Of course, it doesn't follow that all parents who dare to love imperfect children will have everything blessedly fall into place in that way. It might have all worked out very differently. But what's important is that she now has a father who says that the only difference between her and his other children is that she didn't come out of his wife's body. And I think that if anyone can use the phrase "the first daughter of our hearts," it is he.

Pentimento said...

Wow, Enbrethiliel, what an amazing story -- thank you for sharing it here.

In the U.S., actually, there is a whole community of families who *want* to adopt special needs children. The Chinese foreign adoption program has dwindled now to only special-needs children, and there are man parents waiting for children from China with both correctible and non-correctible birth defects, ranging from cleft palates to serious heart problems. And there's a waiting list for parents who want to adopt U.S. children with Down syndrome. Some people are truly called to this kind of parenting, and I believe that, if they are indeed called, God will give them the grace to meet the challenges.

Pentimento said...

"many parents," not "man parents"! My proofreading staff is on vacation :)