I spent five weeks in Morocco in 2012 when I adopted my oldest son from this same orphanage run by the Rita Zniber Foundation. It’s a good place, which seems a strange way to describe an orphanage, but I have been to other orphanages as a foreign correspondent and know–have seen–that not all of them are.
Nonetheless, Le Nid, French for “the nest,” is an orphanage, a noisy, antiseptic smelling place where there are no bottle feedings between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. It is cold in the winter and the babies are wrapped in four layers and heavy blankets. All of them, it seems, have a cough, including my boy.
Even before the Moroccan government granted me legal custody on Jan. 2, it was hard not to think of him already as my son, mine. I wanted to give myself completely to this child at the top of the stairs, but I was afraid to, afraid of all the steps between those under my feet and the permission I needed from the Moroccan judge.
I thought about my new son on the eight-hour plane ride and subsequent three-hour car ride to the orphanage, the passing trees a blur of orange from both clementine season and my fatigue. I thought, too, about my 2 1/2 year old son at home in Chicago who was diagnosed with autism shortly before I left. The developmental pediatrician told me that if he had stayed in the orphanage he might never have talked. Although he is delayed, he is talking — in three languages.
When I met the orphanage director again in Morocco this trip, she offered her condolences for my first bird from her nest. But he’s not broken, I stammered. What I meant: It doesn’t matter. He belongs to me.
Like any parent awaiting the arrival of another child, of any child, I was filled with possibility and anticipation before meeting my new son. The snapshot I got by e-mail on Dec. 24 showed a baby who looked so much like his older brother: same curly hair, round face and cheeks that filled his face. The biggest difference was that this boy waiting at the top of the stairs was not smiling in the photo. My son at home is an affable guy, with an infectious smile and an exhausting zest for life.
On the plane to Morocco, I scribbled in the same journal I kept in 2012, picking up where I had left off on May 13, 2012, my first Mother’s Day. Before I started chronicling this trip, I read my words from 2012. I hardly recognized the writer. I was clueless about motherhood, about the challenges of being a single parent, about the hard days and the ones filled with unimaginable joy, about the moments that caught me off guard and made me realize there was no before, there was only this, motherhood, this life that revolved around a child.
In the journal this time I spent two full pages offering apology after apology for all the ways I will fail this new child and asking him to forgive me. This is what I know now about motherhood, this time around. It is beautiful and it is hard and there are days I am not the mother I want to be. Some day when I give my children this journal to read I want them to know that there is nothing more human than being a parent, that I realized between the two journeys toward them that it’s not magic, that it is not always brave, that sometimes we fail.
I am not sure why I was consumed with this in the hours before I climbed the steps to meet my son.
Perhaps I knew this time that I would fall hard when he was handed to me in a thick blanket. I also knew that while my love was instant, our bond would come later. The first night I had custody, his first night away from the orphanage and with me, I had no idea how to comfort him. Is he hungry? Is he tired? Where was the feeding schedule the nurses gave me? It’s in French! I can’t read it. He’s just been circumcised and is on medication. The medicine is in Arabic! I can’t read that either.
After a few days it would hit me at 6 p.m. with certainty and assurance that this was his fussy time. I marveled that I knew this after only a few days. Then later, unable to comfort him, I wondered: Does he miss the nurses who cared for him for the first four months of his life or is he just being, you know, a baby?
When I reached the top of the stairs, moments before he was placed in my arms for the first time, I sped up again, walking quickly to meet the social worker, then the nurses. They recognized me, and I pulled out a picture of my son at home, at 2, dressed in Moroccan clothes. They passed the picture around and told me he was beautiful, that they remembered him, that they remembered me. I told them about my amazing little boy and thanked them for everything they do. God willing, I will give him a brother, a baby brother, I said.
The nurses laughed in recognition at me and my twin sister, who was with me, these American twins who made this journey together again. My 12-year-old nephew, my sister’s firstborn, also was with us again. It seemed fitting. I had been in the delivery room in Connecticut when he was born in 2002. Now he was here, with his mother, in my delivery room, a tiled room with shelves of stuffed animals on two yellow-painted walls.
I sat, then stood, then paced, as I waited for the nurses to bring my new son to me. He was wrapped in such thick blankets that I had to peel them back to get my first look at his bright, brown eyes. “Hi baby, it’s mama,” I said, taking him from the nurse. He had no idea yet who I was. But I was certain, for both of us.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She is the mother of two boys.
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