Mommy, mom, mommy!” yells Mestawit, racing into the room. A tiny extrovert with her hair pulled into two puffs, the 4-year-old is thrilled to find an audience waiting for her with a tape recorder. She struts in a silver cape, showing off a drawing she plans to send to her cousins back in the orphanage in Ethiopia. “This is a sun, this is a tree, this is a tree house,” she explains, poking the page. “And this is a pizza.”
Tracy Tullis curls on a chaise to the side, observing her daughter with a bemused expression. Elegant and dry- humored, in khakis and a simple gold ring, Tullis is an appealingly no-bullshit sort of mother, the kind of woman who will intone, “I’ve always felt there was a special place in hell for people who give electronic toys that sing.” She’s been telling me how complicated this year has been, the eight months since Mesta joined her Park Slope family—this forceful, funny toddler, so different from her dreamy 6-year-old, Malcolm. Adopting a child was something she’d dreamed of for many years; it’s also raised questions she never expected.
Long before she was even sure she wanted children, Tullis had wept over accounts of Romanian orphanages and fantasized about adopting: “There was something about the idea of a motherless child that just ripped me.” Her husband, Steve Hubbell, at the time a foreign correspondent, was more hesitant—it was “RHS, or reluctant-husband syndrome,” she jokes, using an acronym she’s heard from other adoptive mothers. He worried about the ethical conundrums and risks involved; so at 36, Tullis gave birth to Malcolm, a “real Earth Mother experience.” But by the time the couple came around to having a second child, Tullis was 41 and Hubbell was more open to adoption. Ethiopia seemed the ideal choice: Each of them had professional and personal connections to Africa, and Tullis knew about the orphan crisis there. The pair decided on a toddler, since more older children were available and they thought it would be good to have a child closer to Malcolm in age.
But bringing Mesta home proved more difficult than Tullis had anticipated. “When I knew you were coming over, I thought, How honest am I going to be?” Tullis tells me, as her cat tiptoes around us and Mesta plays with her dad in the kitchen. “There were definitely times at the beginning when I thought, ‘I’ve made a bad mistake, I’ve ruined my family, my son is furious at me. You know, this is a nightmare. If I could only undo this entire thing!’ ”
Some of her reaction, she knew, was simply the shift to two children and had little to do with blending an adopted child with a biological one: “I missed my one-on-one time with Malcolm.” Dealing with a toddler had its own complexities; with no English, Mesta threw monster tantrums, unable to express her needs. She would howl, “Wisha!”—the Amharic word, the family discovered, for dog. “We’re always trying to unpack what part is about being adopted, what part is about being 3 or our personalities. She’s more testing with me, but that might be because she’s more reluctant about me as the mother replacement.”
The adoption process itself was far more unsettling than she’d envisioned when she first read about the orphans of Ethiopia. For one thing, Mestawit—like many children involved in foreign adoptions (and domestic adoptions, of course)—had living family members. She also wasn’t an orphan, though Tullis didn’t know this until eight months into the yearlong process, when they received Mesta’s file: Mesta’s father had died when she was an infant, but her mother was alive, though ill and poverty-stricken. Before they left Ethiopia, Tullis took Mestawit to see her biological mother to say good-bye. It was a devastating experience.
“I feared that she would cling to her mother and I would be ripping her away,” recalls Tullis. “That did not happen at all. But it was pretty heart-wrenching to be taking this child away from her family for the last time.” The three of them sat together in the small, round, polished house three hours outside Addis Ababa where Mestawit’s aunts had prepared a feast of stews. “When Mesta’s mother greeted us, she did this bowing thing, like ‘Thank you, thank you for taking my child.’ Which was almost embarrassing, because I’m not doing this because—it’s a terrible thing that I’m doing! But for her, she felt that this was her only option.”
Malcolm had gone along with his parents on the trip. It is a journey he remembers as utterly surreal: “When I got to Ethiopia, I was like, ‘I’m not in Ethiopia! It’s just a dream!’” In America, Malcolm had watched videos of Mesta and was excited to meet his sister, but after he arrived in Addis Ababa, he felt overwhelmed. “It’s so sad! It’s so sad!” he said over and over, at the thought of Mesta’s saying good-bye to the mother with whom she had lived until months before. Tullis and Hubbell were the kind of couple who shared everything with their firstborn, but they came to regret bringing him along. “It was just too intense for someone his age.”