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The Nuclear Family, Exploded


Tracy Tullis, Steve Hubbell, and their family in front of their Park Slope home.   

There’s a broad cultural assumption that there must be something wrong with this kind of family, a pathology tucked inside sainthood. Someone, somewhere, must have a martyr complex, be a “collector” or otherwise crazy (as opposed to small-family adoptions, which are castigated as vanity purchases, yuppies plucking one exotic accessory out of poverty). Many such families are the large Christian clans Steve Hubbell found so fascinating during his trip to Ethiopia. The Frieds don’t quite fit this demographic: They are nonobservant liberal Jews, although Randi has a spiritual streak of her own—she was inspired to adopt from Ethiopia when she heard a voice from God while jogging. But no one here seems especially messianic or dysfunctional. To the contrary, they just seem unusually tolerant of variety and risk: the kind of family, Randi explains, that “can take a graft well.”

Randi and Justin met in college. She’d always known she would have infertility issues. Each came from a family that included adopted members: his mother, her brother. So when she and Justin planned to adopt their first child, Randi had what might strike many as an unusual insight: that it would be easier to find an infant with Down syndrome. Justin had worked with Down adults as a dental student. As for Randi, she recalls, her main focus was on getting an infant. “I was craving a baby. I think when we started, we weren’t as receptive to international adoption; I think maybe color mattered more to us back then. And when you go through the home study, they try to stretch your brain about what you can handle: cleft palate, clubfoot, crossed eyes … ”

Chloe turned out to be an easy-to-love “angel baby”: so smiling and sweet, friends begged to take her for the weekend. It was their second and only biological child, Kyle, the result of Randi’s fraught pregnancy, the Frieds point out, who was the tough one to bond with. “I didn’t love Kyle instantly,” Randi tells me. “He was colicky! The love comes, you work at that. You climb in a van and drive to Florida together and suffer through each other and the love comes from that. It’s not there instantly. The love will come, the love will come, the love will come. It happens in little bits here and there—and you look at these two kids, and you saw them in an orphanage and they were complete strangers, and now it is no different than the other two. And I think if I treat it as if it is no different, others see it. If they don’t, I don’t see it. It is their problem.”

Like several adoptive parents I’ve talked to, Randi compares their situation to a mobile: You choose additions carefully, trying to maintain balance. In the case of Hana and Rebka, she’d made a conscious series of calculations. She wanted to adopt a girl so Chloe would have a sister when she grew up—someone she could go shopping with, who could help her get a haircut. She had gotten her desire for an infant out of her system. And she didn’t think it was fair to bring one brown child into an otherwise “peach” household. So adopting two children at once—orphaned sisters—seemed ideal.

But the trip to Ethiopia ended up being stressful for the whole family. The Frieds tried to prepare Chloe and Kyle, 5 and 2 at the time; the kids stayed with their grandparents for the eight days the Frieds were gone. But the children seemed devastated. While she was gone, Kyle found a bathrobe belonging to his mother and wandered around the house sucking on it. “The social worker told us that he was in a state of grieving. They thought we’d never come back.”

Meanwhile, Randi was on a plane heading back to the States, having a near panic attack. After they’d picked her up at the orphanage, 2-year-old Hana, who initially rejected her adoptive mother (she was “scared of peach people,” her sister told me), had just as suddenly latched on tightly; only Randi could hold her, and she screamed if anyone Ethiopian even approached. She insisted on staying in Randi’s lap, at the orphanage, during the car ride, on the airplane. Randi was terrified: What would happen when Kyle wanted to sit in her lap instead? It was beginning to feel as if their worst fears would come true. The demands of their children at home and these newly adopted children would be in competition.

But that fear never transpired, she says. Randi describes herself as wearing “rose-colored glasses,” and she has faith that things will work out—up to and including the arrival of 15-year-old Desalegn, a choice she would never have made back in the early days of their marriage. Her welcome letter to him was very different from the sticker-covered love note she’d composed for his sisters, far more explicit about the complexity of their bond: “We wish more than anything that the three of you didn’t need us. We have a photo of your beautiful mother in my kitchen; in my soul, she is my sister.” When it comes to the rare criticism from outsiders, however, she takes a fingers-to-ears approach, as with one woman who marched over at the public pool and asked if she and Shawna were babysitting. “She said, ‘I just don’t get it, I couldn’t love a kid that wasn’t my own.’ I just said, ‘I’m sorry for you, that’s a shame.’ I really meant it: your loss.” And then there was that family trip to Florida. “We had a potty break in Georgia. I could hear silence and lots of crickets. But this is not our reality here, in this nice little bubble we’ve created.”


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