Iwas three months pregnant when I was hired by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to process visas for newly adopted babies.
The job itself was fairly simple. I pulled a fat file off the top of the stack and looked through it to make sure everything was in order. I checked for birth certificates, medical records, legal papers -- everything to assure that the child was truly adoptable, that he'd either been legally abandoned or freely given up by his birth mother.
I looked over the original Russian documents, comparing them to the English translations, searching for anything out of the ordinary that I might need to point out to the adoptive parents. When I'd looked through the whole file, I called the parents to my window, had them sign the paperwork, stamped a few documents and said, "Congratulations, your baby's visa will be ready this afternoon."
There I was, belly expanding by the day, reading documents about people who couldn't get pregnant or chose not to. I was eagerly awaiting the birth of my first child, monitoring every bite I put in my mouth to ensure the baby would be healthy, wondering if it was a boy or a girl, imagining the moment when I'd finally hold that tiny squalling child in my arms.
But the files showed a darker side of pregnancy. Every baby came with either a note from the birth mother, giving up her rights to the child, or a note from the police officer who had found the abandoned baby. I found it hard to read these letters. Some of the birth mothers wrote about their reasons for giving up their children, while others simply scrawled "I do not want this baby" and signed their names.
I couldn't bear to read the official reports about babies left in outdoor marketplaces or on street corners in the dead of winter. Still, I plowed through each file, absorbing details about these children who hadn't been wanted until now. I wondered about their birth mothers and tried to imagine how they felt when those unwanted babies kicked inside their bellies.
After work each day, I'd head home and curl up on my couch to read my baby books. And I thought about all of those babies in my office, whose lives had started out so differently. The hastily scrawled notes in the files: "The girl was found in the vegetable market." "Shortly after giving birth, the mother left the hospital without giving her name." The mothers' notes haunted me as I raided the refrigerator at night. I wondered how those women felt as they wrote them.
I read articles in the pregnancy magazines about bonding with your baby. They all recommended holding the child right after it was born, before the umbilical cord was cut. It seemed to make sense. But what of these families that came to my window each day? If the books were right, how could you bond with a child who'd lived for months, or even years, without laying eyes on you? I watched these parents, looking for signs of doubt, of awkwardness. But every day children passed by my window as part of a new family, and those parents held those children with confidence and care. They may have met their children only days ago, but no matter. They'd bonded.
Babies slept, drooling down their mothers' backs. Toddlers nuzzled into their parents' necks while being held, the parents casually shifting them from one hip to the other as they signed the papers I passed under the window. Older children stood behind their new parents, peeking out shyly. Already they'd become a family, and I wondered -- when did it happen?
How did these people know that the child they'd received was the one destined for them? How did the children know they'd finally found home?
Many of the parents adopted older children. In most of these cases, the child spoke no English and the parents spoke no Russian. By the time they arrived at my window, they were already communicating in a mixture of sign language and simple words. These children clung to their new parents, fearful, perhaps, of losing them in the crowd, but also grateful for the safe haven, hungry for their first embraces. One man propped his new 6-year-old daughter on the counter as he signed the paperwork. Between papers, he looked at her and offered some explanation, in English, of what he'd just signed. She stared at him blankly.
"Congratulations," I said when we were through. "Do you have any questions?" He looked at her and back at me. "Yes," he replied. "How do you say 'You're my daughter' in Russian?" When I told him, he turned to her, repeating, "Ty moya dochka." She looked up at him and slowly, slowly her face lit up as a smile spread across her face.
"Ty moya dochka," he said again, pointing at her earnestly. I sat on the other side of my window, invisible now, while father and daughter threw their arms around each other and my own baby kicked inside me.