“I want to meet my birth mother,” said Elle, my quiet 11-year-old, as I combed tangles from her curly hair.
I kept brushing, not wanting her to see my ashen face. No way could I compete for her affection with Mari, her mother by blood. As Elle’s 46-year-old adoptive father, I felt threatened by their primal connection. I imagined Mari plaiting Elle’s hair better than I could. I had hoped Elle would wait until college before tracking down her beginnings, years from now. By then we would be cemented as a family.
“Okay,” I answered casually, as if she had asked to go to the park.
Since childhood, I had longed to be a dad. Yet coming out in college, I was afraid being a gay Armenian loner ruled out the prospect of parenthood. I regained faith when I fell for Peter, a sporty architecture buff, and lived with him happily seven years. Unclear how two men could create a family, we consulted a nearby New York City agency specializing in open adoptions.
“Some expectant women actually prefer male couples,” the social worker said. “So they’ll always be the only mother.”
In 2005, our queerness barred us from having a lawful wedding. I was floored it could help us have a child. We filled out the adoption application, creating a storybook showcasing Peter and me as wannabe papas. Four months later we got word that a 25-year old woman in New Orleans liked our profile.
Mari and I chatted daily. She opened up about her struggles with homelessness, drugs, rehab. Listening to her secrets, I pushed away thoughts of fetal alcohol syndrome. I wondered if I was being tested out as a potential parent. I panicked she would want me to fess up, too, but I kept quiet about my past dalliances with pot, one-night stands and joblessness.
In late August, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana hard. Beside myself, I reached out to Mari. Six restless nights passed before she called back.
“I made it to Baton Rouge,” she said. “My water broke. Can y’all come?”
There were no inbound flights, rental cars or hotel vacancies in the region. We flew into Arkansas. Emergency supply convoys on the highway slowed us down. We finally found Mari, her hair pulled into a pretty ponytail, bottle-feeding in the hospital nursery. She placed her bundle in my arms and handed me the formula. Cradling the beautiful newborn, I marveled at her perfect tiny cheeks.
Mari declared Peter and me her infant’s legal parents, eternally. We returned to New York as a trio. For four years Peter and I delighted in Elle’s firsts: saying “dada,” doing the Macarena, shedding training wheels. Mari did not telephone. Though we had promised to stay in contact, I resisted keeping her informed, too. I was terrified she would disrupt our bond. I was already being questioned by Elle’s fellow preschoolers. When her classmate kept asking me “Where’s her mother?” I finally retorted, “I’m her mother,” introducing him to gender equity.
Riding the bus with me at age 6, Elle said, “When can I meet someone I haven’t seen since I was born?”
I did not expect the question so soon. I asked our social worker for advice. She said to wait until Elle felt secure in our family, maybe age 16.
The next morning I dialed Mari’s number. It was disconnected. I admit, I was relieved — until dread set in that we might have lost touch forever. I Googled her. No luck. Then I paid a website $9 for her hometown address. I handwrote a note, enclosing Elle’s photo. Two weeks later an email surfaced with her new digits.
“I’ve had a tough time reaching you,” I said when she answered.
“I change my cell number as often as my underwear,” Mari giggled.
Never wanting Elle severed from her roots again, I called Mari every Mother’s Day. When Elle turned 7 and Peter and I were officially married, I mailed Mari a snapshot. She texted she had proudly hung it on her bedroom wall.
Over the next few years, when Elle asked about when she could meet her bio mom, I reaffirmed the need to wait. But now at 11, her tone was different, like she was demanding something that belonged to her.
“The most recent research suggests the sooner a child can meet her birth mother, the better,” our social worker updated us.
The rules were being rewritten as we went along. I got on board, wanting to do right by Elle. Still, I worried seeing Mari so early would make Elle feel Peter and I were lacking. That was, if Mari even wanted to meet Elle in person.
“We’re planning a trip to the French Quarter,” I pinged her. “Maybe you know a nice place we could have a meal together?”
“We could eat at a fast food joint, or under a stop sign, I don’t care,” Mari wrote back. “I’d just love to see y’all.”
We were on. Elle’s brown eyes lit up. But a week before the reunion, she was not sharing many emotions. “There’s zero chance we’re going to leave you down South, apart from us,” I clarified. She nodded.
Landing in the Crescent City, we scoured downtown for a gift Elle and Mari could share. As we rushed to lunch, I spotted Mari near the restaurant. She looked more fragile than I remembered. And at 36, more beautiful.
“Look at you, you’re gorgeous,” she told Elle, near tears. “And taller than I am.”
Over po’ boys, Mari asked Elle about school and her favorite pastimes. Elle gave one-word answers. Before the meal ended, Elle handed Mari the small box we had purchased. Inside laid a silver anklet identical to the one Elle was wearing. They stretched out their legs to admire their sparkly links. I noticed Elle had Mari’s striking cheekbones.
Two hours later, we said goodbye to Mari and hopped the streetcar. A smile spread across Elle’s face. “I like her,” she told us. My whole body warmed.
But back at home, Elle was keeping mum. I could not tell whether she had been ready to meet Mari.
Until her 12th birthday a week later. She squealed when her girlfriends arrived, “I met my birth mom!” She scanned through the photographs on her phone, showing off.
Tucking Elle into bed that night, I learned we had timed our big reunion well. Her eyelids falling, Elle whispered, “When I grow up, I’m going to adopt a baby.”
Haig Chahinian is a career counselor and writer working on a memoir. Follow @chahinian on Twitter.