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The Nuclear Family, Exploded


‘Most people that I meet who’ve adopted have biological children,” says Alexandra van Schie, 44, the mother of Huck (4 years old, biological) and Tana (1 year old, adopted). “I was so shocked by that: I thought I’d be the only one who had a biological child.”

Van Schie is part of that set of older New York parents motivated by a mix of politics and secondary infertility. It must be harder to decide to adopt a first child, she muses—especially if it wasn’t the first choice of family-building. “But once I’d had a child, it was much easier to imagine having any other child. I love my son and I could look at any child on the street, and if someone looked at me and said, could you raise this child?, I’d say yeah. It’s easier to come to that place if you’ve already had biological kids.”

Like Tracy Tullis, van Schie was inspired to adopt from Ethiopia after reading an article by Melissa Faye Greene about the orphan crisis in Africa. Part of the appeal was the moral clarity of it, and the distance—there would be no family reappearing without warning, she imagined. She’d heard gay sex columnist Dan Savage’s account on NPR of his open domestic adoption, and his relationship with his son’s biological mother, a homeless street girl. (He wrote a book on the subject, The Kid.) “I heard that and I was like, No way. As my husband said, we already have enough crazy family members. But of course, if you quoted me saying that, it would sound awful; I mean, I’m so happy that guy adopted that child. I just couldn’t do it.”

So they began to explore international adoption—a process that lent them a recognition of the perverse, even absurd calculus required of participants. “We were careful about the orphanages that are like kennels. Russia, you have to travel there twice, and stay a significant amount of time. My husband, he put it this way: You go to the supermarket, and as soon as you walk through the door, there are just shelves of black children. Free. You can take one and walk past the register and leave. Get a little deeper in, and there’s some Guatemalans on the lower shelf, 50 percent off. If you want to get the white domestic kids, you’ve got to get the manager, with the keys, behind the glass thing.” Black boys, she knew, were among the hardest to place. “What are your priorities? For us, there wasn’t any question.”

But despite her desire to adopt an orphan, van Schie found, like Tracy Tullis, that Tana had living family members. “When they said, ‘It’s very likely you’ll meet the birth family,’ I was like, ‘Nonononono.’ But it’s fine. Our son has a grandmother, and it was just incredibly tragic.” Van Schie drove out to the countryside to meet her. “These people are so poor that there’s no squalor. Just these beautiful thatched huts, verdant green lawns, and banana plants; false bananas, they call them, with no nutritional value. Everyone has a little goat that eats their grass. They sleep on their wraps. It’s hard to imagine, but you can see how close they are to the edge—just one heavy rain that collapses her coffee bush, and she wouldn’t have that $3 of coffee beans.”

People who haven’t been through this experience judge her, she knows. “It’s hard to explain. No matter what, there’s a feeling in people’s eyes that really that grandmother would have liked to have kept that child, that somehow she either failed or we tricked her. No one’s ever said that. I get that more from the media. The Madonna Malawi thing. That father said so many times he put that child in an orphanage, he couldn’t raise that child, he didn’t want to raise that child! I could give that grandmother money, but where’s she going to get a car, gas, baby formula? She could maybe buy a goat, give the baby goat milk, but that’s what she tried: He was starving before her eyes … She can’t move to Addis. She can’t read, she can’t write. But people do wonder. We had a lot of questions for her. The only important one was, what do you want us to tell him? ‘Tell him that I couldn’t do it. I’m doing this because I’m hoping he’ll get not just food, he’ll get a better life.’ ” Afterward, the couple drove back to Addis Ababa and had “about 25 beers.”


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