Monday, 27 September 2010

Tangled Web

Yesterday, I told a man about my labour and birth experience with the twins. You know, the ones I adopted.

I know.

Here's what happened.

I'd had a pretty stonkingly bad morning. The babies had their MMR jabs a few days ago, and they have been feral ever since. They have been making their displeasure felt by throwing themselves around - arching their backs when picked up, then arching their backs even harder when put down. J and I call this 'silly bending' (as in: "baby L! No more silly bending!") and it's by far the toddleriest thing that they do. On a really bad day like yesterday (and today) they both do it at once, yelling at the top of their lungs, and sometimes add in an extra little crab-scuttle-move where they fling themselves backwards across the floor, balancing on just their head and toes. Fortunately, they aren't like this very often because when they are, nothing makes them happy. If they had their way, I would be simultaneously holding and not-holding both of them at once, using the magical octopus arms that they seem to think I possess. The closest I can come to this is to lie down on my back on the floor and let them clamber on and off me as they please. Yesterday, even that wasn't helping. I felt sad for them, obviously; they must have been feeling very messed up to be that cranky. However, I had given them food, sleep, hugs and drugs and what more can a mummy do to soothe their pain?

Mummy can go into town and get a coffee to soothe her own pain, that's what mummy can do. It wasn't totally selfish - they are usually happier once they are in the pram and moving, and that proved to be the case. We live really close to the centre of our town; it's only a ten minute walk and I invent excuses to do it most days. I was waiting to cross the road and a man approached me. As soon as he opened his mouth, I could tell he was not quite functioning on all cylinders. I think he was just a bit inebriated, although there may have been other substances involved. I don't know. He turned to talk to me. This happens all the time - the babies and I get a lot more than our fair share of attention, and a considerable portion of it seems to come from the disenfranchised.

"Are they twins?" he asked. This is a standard opener.
"Yes!" The obvious reply.
"And how old are they?" Another classic.
"Fourteen months", I said, expecting the next line would be something about how cute they were, and that he would then go on his way. Instead, he said:
"I have twins". Ahhh. This happens quite a bit too. People who either have twin children, or a twin sibling, go out of their way to tell me about it. I think I can understand this - it must be strange, having been at least partly defined by this twin-thing, to eventually leave it behind when your children or (sibling) go their own way. I sometimes find myself wondering if I will do this in twenty years time, stop people at a street crossing to tell them about my children, now gone. I was still thinking this conversation was about to end, and I just said "oh, how lovely" and left it at that.

"Is it a boy and a girl? I have a boy and a girl" he said.
"That's right - this is our little boy, and this is our girl," I said, pointing.
"Which one was born first?" he asked.

And I paused. This is the point in a conversation where I always, always say "well, we adopted them so I'm not sure because I wasn't there" and move right on. And no, I'm not really all that happy with that answer either, but I can't come up with a better one*. I think it must be something about twins - people seem compelled by some cosmic force to ask questions about the pregnancy and birth. Which one is older is the most common question, followed by how much did they weigh and how much time did they spend in the NICU. I think people do this to everyone with twins, I'm pretty sure it's not just me. But I do wonder sometimes whether this is a way that some people decide to probe the adoption issue without actually quite asking about adoption. And I always say they are adopted - well, they are - and some people do look a bit TOO surprised as if to say 'oh, I had no idea!' even though the babies are clearly a totally different colour from me. Surely it's not that much of a shock, Random Supermarket Stranger? But once, a few days ago, for the very first time, I didn't say it. I just said 'oh, our boy is older' to cut the conversation off. The person I was talking to was elderly, and a bit deaf, and a bit confused, and not somebody we were ever going to see again, and I just didn't want to get into it. And then yesterday, taking this man's strangeness into account, I did the same thing. And that's when it all started to go wrong.

"Oh!" he replied. "Our girl is older. Did you have yours in the hospital in this town?"
"No" I said, truthful but squirming a little. Can't he just leave now?
"My wife gave birth last week. They're all still in the hospital now" and my heart sank. For this man, obviously, and his wife and their tiny, tiny babies who turn out to be just over three pounds each. But also for me and my own stupidity - it became clear that this was not a conversation that I was going to be able to brush away. I should have told the truth, while I had the chance. I made the appropriate noises of sympathy, doing my best to make them sound like empathy. It didn't feel like any kind of fantasy or wish-fulfilment, me pretending I birthed those babies. It just felt like the most paralysingly awkward conversation I'd ever had in my life.

"In the end, she had to have a Caesarean section" he told me. "Did you have to have a Ceasarean section?"
"No!" I said, glad for another truthful answer.
"But she was in labour for quite a long time before that. How about you?"
"Oh no, I wasn't in labour for too long" I said, a bit wildly, thinking please oh please oh please don't ask me any questions about dilation. I don't want to have to make any stuff up about my cervix.

I still couldn't quite work out whether he has had too much to drink or taken something much stronger. It had become possible that he was just operating under a thick, thick blanket of stress and grief. He was desperately worried about his little family, and told me that his wife isn't coping at all, and just cries and cries. But he didn't seem like a normal man under pressure - there was something else going on, either mental or chemical, and I realised that I wouldn't be able to figure it out so there was little point trying. If he didn't seem quite so vulnerable, I like to think that I would have apologised for giving him the wrong impression, explained that we had adopted our twins, and wished him and his wife the best for the future. Instead, I decided not to retract it and give him what comfort I could. The conversation continued for the better part of ten minutes, with me trying to tell as few outright lies as possible. He concluded by telling me how he and his wife had 'left things a bit late', and had to take desperate measures.

"We had to do the thing - what's the thing called with the artificial insemination?"
"IVF?" I guessed, taking the twins as a clue.
"Yes! That's the one. We did the IVF. But it was all my own sperm" he said, proud.
"Well.... that's excellent!" I replied, which seemed to be the reaction he was hoping for.
"Oh, and then when we found out it was twins... we just couldn't believe it! How did YOU feel when YOU found out you were pregnant with twins?"
Well, that part of me felt entirely fictional, sir, I wanted to reply, but just told him "We were so happy" and he beamed.
"So were we!" he said. "So were we!"

A few minutes later, he left, taking my paralysingly awkward lies with him. I went on, wracked with guilt, to get my coffee. At least the babies didn't understand that, I thought. Yet. One day they will.

Why did I get myself into that mess?

I really feel like I should be learning something through experiences like this. I only wish - I wish I knew what that something was.

*And before anybody freaks out about how much I share, we have extreeeeeeemely strict rules about no sharing ANYTHING about the babies' personal story with anybody. At all. Even including extended family. I'm going to write about this no-sharing thing in more detail at some point. So no, we are most definitely not giving people any details at all about their adoption story, just the fact that they are adopted, if this is something that comes up. And it's the fact that we aren't going to share anything further, and have to be polite about it, that makes so many of these conversations so exhausting.


  1. *smile* I think you handled that conversation just fine. You didn't want to share with this stranger, so you just stuck to answering his questions with the main focus being on his experience...which is really all he wanted out of that anyway was to share his joy and his concern...and you were there for that and you listened. I agree that if your kiddos were older, then that conversation would have been a no-go. But don't beat yourself up. I thought is was hilarious and heartfelt at the same time. Your kids may even enjoy that story when they are much older and can see the humor in it. Sometimes I get tired of saying "yes, she is adopted" too. We can't be perfect all the time. I say we get a free pass every now and then to say some wildly insane. :)


  2. If someone passed a law that says you have to answer random personal questions from random strangers on the street with the honest-to-goodness truth...then I didn't get the memo!

    Call me twisted, but I think you could have a little fun with this kind of thing when the kids are older. Since you're not going to share any details anyway, why not make them up? Every day before you leave the house, everyone could agree on the story for the day in case of questions from strangers - make a little game out of how many people you can fool, and for how long, with the most outrageous story you can come up with!

  3. I can just imagine how increasingly awkward that must have felt! It must be so hard to know what to do all the time.

    I'm hoping that you WILL post more about your choice not to tell anyone your children's personal history. My hubbie and I hope to bring two children home from Ethiopia in the next year, and we're already talking through this issue. When we recently had a referral (that we lost), we had told my parents about some of the children's information, and the next thing I knew I had aunts phoning me and knowing all of their personal histories. It was quite distressing to us, and so we do plan to limit what we share when we eventually receive our next referral. So I'll look forward to that post...what you DO share, what you tell people who want to know more (esp.extended family), etc etc.

    Thanks very much!


  4. What do you mean you don't know what you learned from that experience... "IT WAS ALL HIS OWN SPERM"

  5. How do you know he didn't have Altzheimer's? Be kind is a good move and you were.How do you know he didn't think you partner was from Ethiopia?
    Re the babies and their reactions when miserable, distractions are always good aren't they and they usually work at least for a while?
    Do agencies prepare adopters for the constant attention of transnational adoption or does it come as a shock and surprise?

  6. Someone needs to make this conversation a scene from a movie. It certainly reads like one. I found myself giggling. While wandering the lot of Warner Brothers in Los Angeles while Ted auditioned (Abe was still a babe in infant carrier), an African American security guard stopped me to talk. We had a long conversation about what it's like to have biracial children. Like you, I just didn't feel like telling the truth.

    Oh, as for how much to share about our childrens' history: I have found that it's pretty easy with Americans, but it's more complicated when the Ethiopians I work with every day ask me. I still don't know what to say to them. They have more specific questions and it's so hard knowing how to respond. Any advice?

  7. Is it wrong that I find all of the lies poignantly sweet? I think that ten minutes was probably quite comforting to him. Plus, you have to watch yourself around newly traumatized people, like fathers to twins who are in the NICU. They are fragile and men who are strangers to you can be a tad unpredictable. So. I would have done the same exact thing. And I have to say that I like people who are either so self-involved or so open to the idea that of course this white woman can be the bio mother to these babies because of the fact that the father is not there and it seems he must have darker skin and I can ignore this fact entirely because I am quite unstable or so preoccupied with becoming a father, or that all of MY OWN SPERM made these children, or.....whatever. People are so odd that it can be delightful and you seemed to have charmed him.

    Love your honesty about all of of the lying :)

    xo Christine

  8. Are you sure there wasn't a camera somewhere and you're not going to be on TV????? Because that was just too BIZARRE!!!! Seriously, that was not a normal conversation. You did your best. Shrug it off. You did what you could with a whacky encounter.

    How extremely odd.

    Thank God he didn't ask you how dilated you were.

    You did great Claudia. Sometimes a good lie is better than the truth.

  9. I agree with Christine -- poor soul needed to talk to someone and had you told him the truth it would have cut him off at the knees. You did that guy a kindness, no matter what the biochemical state of his poor brain. You should not feel an iota of guilt about it. Even if he hadn't been in this position, on a day when your darlings are taxing you to the bone, there is nothing wrong with letting a conversation slide to spare yourself the effort. It's not your job to be the Ken Burns of adoptive-twin mommiedom. Share what you want to share and make up what you want to make up. You're going to have a LOT more of these kinds of conversations, you might as well have some fun with it. (And yes, there is just something about twins. There just is. They're magical and weird and people can't help themselves.)

  10. I cannot tell you how Absolutely Relieved I felt to learn that it was All His Own Sperm. Because if it wasn't... well...

  11. I keep thinking that although you didn't premeditate this conversation, in the end you found yourself playing theater games. In a way it was your chance to try on the role of 'what if I had birthed these babies?' and to play that role gave you the chance to somehow work out part of the story for yourself. I think it's funny. I bet someday our kids will do the same thing when strangers involve the in those conversations. It's like trying on different costumes.

  12. The things people feel they can ask just blows me away sometimes. We get all that twin stuff all the time too. My favorite was about a week after we'd been home, in the grocery store, some random woman asked my very white husband and I if the boys were premature. Choke, cough, stare, "well, they were adopted, so I don't know the answer to that". No matter how much I think about this stuff I still feel really akward answering or not answering some of the questions we get--and I need to figure it out quickly because my boys are starting to become VERY aware of what's being said. I think it's great that you tried to have a little fun with it and it's just unfortunate that this guy turned out to be in such a vulnerable state.

    I would really like to read your thoughts on the no-sharing stuff. I probably share too much. Growing up adopted myself I often felt like I was keeping a big secret, and there was some shame attached to that, and so I lean toward wanting to be open about the boys' story (to a degree, of course). Maybe I'm missing something...please do write that post.

  13. I'm on my phone so I'll be brief, but I loved this post! It very much reads like movie scene! My fave part,though, is the term silly bending! Love it!

  14. The other thing I've noticed about twins is that everyone thinks they should be allowed to touch them! Maybe they figure they've never had personal space since conception anyway??? But after "oh, are they twins?" I see them come in for the head-pat, cheek squeeze or even HUG! (Really? You walk up to strangers and just hug 'em? "Stranger-danger" anyone? Didn't you teach your kids about that?)

    Now that my boys are getting older (all of 6), I've noticed it's lessened a tiny bit. I've also given them the go-ahead to duck behind me from the get-go because they don't owe anyone affection just because they're cute and they come in a pair!

    Really, where is the common sense?

    :) Thanks for the read!

  15. Is it wrong that I found this story absolutely hilarious? I think you are a gem, and I would walk pram by pram with you any day of the week. I would make you the official question answerer for our group because I believe you said all the right things.

  16. I once did that when I was waiting to travel to meet my son... a random taxi driver asked if I had kids. And I did, technically, since we had passed court - so I said yes, but of course it didn't stop there. Question after question... and by the time he got to, "But doesn't your son mind you travelling away from him for work?" I had to just mumble something, since by then I couldn't go with, "Well, he is in Ethiopia and he's never met me, so at the moment he couldn't care less."

    Now I know I got off lightly... at least he didn't start volunteering information about his sperm. Heh.

  17. I laughed a ton until you were sure he was on something AND had babies in the NICU. Bad combo all aroung.

    People ask all the time if Jesse was premature.

    We don't talk about Jesse's story with extended family or friends either and it's so exhausting to brush off questions sometimes.

    Good for his sperm.

  18. You are super funny. And this is one of the most bizzare of the bizzare adoption related conversations I've heard! When are they ever going to invent the invisibility cloak so we can have some peace!

  19. Thanks so much for this post! It really was meant to be a lesson to me I am sure, but I had to learn the hard way so to speak! I had a much lighter version of this story myself this week...after I had read this. A stranger asked about my pregnancy. Asked if it was my first - I said no - because I am tired of telling strangers "yes, my first pregnancy, 2nd child." It is just awkward and feels like it diminishes that I am a mom and I have a child who is my first and always will be. So I said "no, this is not my first", not even thinking of where it was all going. Suddenly she was asking how long my first labor was and if it was good and I was in the middle of the checkout line, trying to pay my bill, gather my groceries and try no to lie. I didn't succeed and I felt horribly for the mess I was making and yet didn't want to share the whole story either. I got out of there as quick as possible. I am not sure what to say next time either. Whew...truly sometimes these questions from strangers and figuring out how to respond with honesty and brevity wears me out!

  20. This post made me giggle!!! I think you handled it brilliantly!


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