The Nuclear Family, Exploded

Randi and Justin Fried, at home with, from left, Kyle, Rebka, Chloe, and Hana.
Photographs by Gail Albert Halaban

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.”

Alexandra van Schie with Tana and Huck.

Back in Park Slope, Malcolm bonded with his new sister, bringing her into school for show-and-tell and sharing silly private jokes. Tullis took longer—but then, in retrospect, she believes she’d gone into adoption itself with a certain amount of naïveté as well as an expectation that her maternal feelings would be there from the beginning. “I think that when I thought about these children with a gaping need for a family, the love would be automatic, that you would just respond to this child who was so needy and needed you. In fact, I found that it’s something that needs to grow, and that didn’t happen for me automatically. I read a lot about adoption, about behavioral issues. But they didn’t talk about the parents. So in spite of the reading, I hadn’t considered my own reaction.”

Hubbell, Tullis tells me, handled the transition better than she has: He was at once more patient and more realistic in his expectations. “He didn’t get quite so weepy at all the stories of ‘Oooh, these children! They have no families! They’re beautiful!’”

“Maybe I’m more pessimistic in general,” says Hubbell with a laugh when I describe Tullis’s praise. “You can’t prepare, because every child has such a singular experience. If you have a family with four kids who adopt a baby, that’s different than two people with one child who is totally the center of the universe.” Hubbell was fascinated by the larger blended families they’d met during the international adoption process, which tends to throw together two demographics that might otherwise never meet: liberal urbanites seeking a sibling and sprawling born-again-Christian families operating from a sense of mission. Perhaps these more established families had learned to tolerate and even embrace the risks of a complex family structure, Hubbell mused—to understand intuitively that their lives were not so subject to control. “So whatever difficulties happen, they tend to be accepted.” For a hyperanalytical New York family like his own, he told me, whatever the differences in their beliefs, this community might offer a useful model of what a family could be: “a guidebook to raise a kid.”

When Angelina Jolie gave birth to her first biological child, Shiloh, after having adopted two children from Cambodia and Ethiopia, the media attention was, as with everything regarding Jolie, Talmudic in its intensity. Was she too thin or too fat? (The only two options.) Would she have a C-section? Breast-feeding: yea or nay? But the greatest attention focused on the fact that the baby was Jolie’s genetic progeny; here, at last, the tabloids implied, was the one true child of Brangelina. Much of this media attention veered, tropistically, toward one central, titillating question: Would Angelina love this baby more? Was Shiloh more genuine, somehow, than those others, the ones with the mohawks and the sad orphan histories? Or, perversely, would she love this baby less—was Angelina unnatural, ideological, focusing her love on her traumatized foreign children, immune to the call of her own blood?

This speculation—a brittle shell of admiration barely concealing a slab of sneer—was only fed by a candid interview in which Jolie, after some prompting by the reporter, referred to her newborn as a “blob.” Though she was merely describing the difference between caring for an older baby versus a wobbly-necked newborn, the remark was interpreted as a slight to Shiloh, especially when considered alongside Jolie’s acknowledgment that the contrast between her adopted children’s difficult backgrounds and Shiloh’s privilege shaded the way she bonded with them. All in all, many observers seemed to conclude, there was something perverse about Jolie’s nature as a mother: the unwieldy mix of children, the family’s caravan style of world travel, that arm tattoo listing the longitude and latitude of her children’s birthplaces.

And Jolie is only the most prominent target for the questions being raised about adoption—many of them aimed at famous families, that safe staging ground for people’s most stinging analyses. Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s strutting, estranged postfeminist daughter, managed to whack that sensitive point hard with her recent book, Baby Love. In the memoir, she claimed that having a biological child had lent her a magical epiphany, especially in comparison with her previous experience, co-parenting the son of her former lesbian partner, singer Meshell Ndegeocello. “It’s not the same,” she wrote in Baby Love. “I don’t care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your nonbiological child isn’t the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood … Yes, I would do anything for my first son, within reason. But I would do anything at all for my second child, without reason, without a doubt.”

The van Schies home in Noho.

It might seem odd that at the same moment that adoption has become increasingly open, common, and international, there has been such a discordant chord of suspicion about the status of these children—a note that sounds even more strongly in response to families that mix biological and adopted kids together. Tom Cruise’s two older children are eternally labeled his “adopted children” (as are all famous adopted children, no matter how old they get); when Katie Holmes gave birth to his first biological child, the photogenic Suri, the coverage implied that at last Cruise was truly a parent. After Madonna adopted her third child, David Banda, from Malawi, she hit a storm of contemptuous coverage, some focused on the fact that David still had a living father, but much insinuating that she was doing something shallowly hip, as if seeking out an exotic accessory. (Morrissey sneered that she’d soon be wearing David as a coat, having tired of him after fifteen minutes.)

But perhaps these reactions are not so surprising. After all, this wave of rhetoric comes at a time of stirring change for adoptive families in general, the climax of 50 years of change. Back in the fifties, adoption was a shameful, secretive experience for all points on the family triangle: Unable to conceive, a couple might quietly sign with an agency, spirit their new baby away from a hospital, and never, never, tell their child the story of the adoption (or at least, treat it as a taboo and dole out information gingerly). The same held true for biological mothers, who were told to forget the child they’d given up. Most parents sought infants who resembled them physically. The ideal adoption was the ultimate clean slate: wiping away the details not just of the birth family but of the adoption itself.

This began changing in the seventies, as advocates lobbied for open adoption records for both birth mothers and adopted children. A new ideal was evolving, one involving a fully transparent exchange of information between biological and adoptive parents, even, in many cases of domestic adoption, an ongoing relationship with the birth mother; in foreign adoptions, orphanage scandals led to parents’ seeking clarity about their children’s origins. (When Madonna adopted David, people were shocked that his father was still alive, but this is in fact not unusual with African adoptions: If the parents aren’t alive, a grandmother, aunts, or siblings may be.)

In addition, the demographics of adoption had shifted. Infertile couples had medical options; women were delaying birth and marrying later; abortion was legal and single motherhood a real option. Alternative structures—stepfamilies, gay families, interracial couples—enlarged the whole idea of family. Especially in urban centers like Manhattan, a new archetype has been forming: parents with one or two biological kids who decide to pursue adoption out of altruism as much as fertility issues.

But even as these changes have reshaped adoption, another shift was taking place: a cultural obsession with the heritability of just about everything. If a few decades ago, people romanticized the notion that children were clay squeezed freely by their caretakers, this idea has been replaced with one equally rigid and problematic, that we are, inevitably and only, our genes, blueprints building ourselves out of the womb. We live in a time in which parents have an enhanced expectation of control, fed by each prenatal test and a culture that analyzes each choice as a step on the path to optimum health, the best chance of success. Perhaps it’s no wonder that blended families raise such anxieties, making visible as they do that central tension of our time: What does it mean to be a parent?

Randi and Justin Fried, who live in West Orange, New Jersey, became friends with Tullis and Hubbell through their shared adoption agency. But unlike Tullis, who jokes that a third kid might break her, the Frieds have transformed, somewhat to their own astonishment, into the kind of complex, multisource family that startles outside observers—members of the Angelina Jolie club, in the Mia Farrow tradition. Their first adopted child, Chloe, 6, has Down syndrome. Their biological son, Kyle, 3, was a preemie; Randi gave birth to him after a difficult pregnancy, achieved with IVF. Two years later, they adopted Hana, 3, and Rebka, 8, sisters from Ethiopia. This fall, they will be welcoming the girls’ 15-year-old brother, Desalegn, who has lived in Ethiopia until now. “Mom to 5! When did that happen?!” Randi signs one e-mail.

In the Frieds’ large kitchen, a central island is piled with birthday cookies and crayons; the walls are nearly papier-mâchéd with Gandhi quotes and organizational charts. Kyle and Hana—“the twins,” Randi calls them, though one is white, one is black, one biological, one adopted—scribble pictures to my side as I frantically make notes, trying to sort out the huge cast of characters who crowd the room. Aside from the twins, there are Randi and Justin; Rebka and Chloe; Shana, Randi’s closest friend from childhood, and her two adopted Chinese girls; Beniam, a thirtyish Ethiopian friend who works at Shana’s school; and the Frieds’ teenage babysitter, who has come over this afternoon to teach Ethiopian dance—an extended set of kids, parents, helpers, and friends that mingle easily. I’m used to a Manhattan/Brooklyn mentality, one or two children planned like cautious investments. But the Fried household is more like an ever-expanding fan, revealing hidden capacities over time. (This is true of the Frieds’ crowded house, as well: The three girls share one bed, and Randi and Justin have cut a third off their master bedroom to create a private room for Desalegn.)

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.”

There’s little research about the relationship between biological children and their adopted siblings. Early studies focused on racial mixtures; they found little impact, negative or positive, on racial identity. A 1991 study by the Colorado Adoption Project suggested that environment trumped biology among blended siblings, at least in childhood. The most recent research is an ongoing longitudinal study of siblings at the University of Minnesota, where researchers are still crunching the data. But overall, studies seem to suggest that most undramatic of conclusions: that there isn’t any notable effect of mixing siblings, and that, to use the scientific term, it all depends—on family stresses, how open the adoption is, cultural issues, and so on.

Nonetheless, there is a social bias against adopted children, a suspicion that they will stand out from their bio-siblings as magnets for trouble—traumatized, incapable of bonding, unsuccessful. Among older siblings I spoke to, experiences ranged. Juliet Collingwood, 41, looked like her brothers, but felt deeply alien: She knew she’d been adopted because her parents wanted a girl, but she was distinctly ungirly—“aggressive, competitive, oppositional”—and she ran away again and again, testing her adoptive mother’s love and finding it lacking. Carah DePeter, in contrast, was adopted as an infant from a drug-addicted mother; she is racially distinct from her family but, at 17, feels a special affinity for one sister and a sense that “me and my dad have the same sense of humor; I can look at him and know what he’s thinking.” It’s hard to draw conclusions from such anecdotes; they are impossibly specific, and, like any interpretation of family, prone to alter over time. But it’s worth mentioning this tension in any discussion of blended families: that even the most well-meaning parent’s desire—to love their varied children, if not identically, with equal intensity—may clash with their child’s version of the same story.

“Questions about the mixing of different kind of entryways into parenthood have been around for hundreds of years,” points out Dr. Jane Aronson, a.k.a. the Orphan Doctor. Aronson runs Worldwide Orphans Foundation, a kind of peace corps for orphanages. “It’s a very ancient idea, from back when adoption was first conceived of, as the clan took on children of disease and war. Whenever people discovered they could love a child not of their own body, it was a shocking event.” You can trace this obsession in novels from the 1600s and 1700s, in newspapers and journals, “all about ‘of blood’ and ‘not of blood,’ ” she points out.

But for Aronson, who has two adopted children herself, the most striking issue is how adoption itself has altered—making it hard to predict the repercussions of this fresh cohort of mixed families. “At first, for people who couldn’t have bio-kids, there was no IVF, no IUI. So you got yourself a little white baby and you never told anybody.” Aronson herself offers up a puckishly contrarian view of genetics. “It’s just my opinion, but I’ll tell you this: I’m glad my children are not genetically related to me. There are many of us in that camp. There are things in me, physically, biologically, psychologically, that shouldn’t be inherited. ‘You don’t have to look like me, with my big nose, close-set eyes!’ ”

Most recently, however, Aronson sees a new demographic shift on the horizon. “Now more than ever, there’s a huge wave of very different kinds of adoption: people with great wealth and education and an awareness of the globalization of life. People adopting children who don’t need to have any more children. Those people are waiving all kinds of social taboos, and the picture is being changed by your well-to-do, idealistic, more lefty-type people: black children into white homes, from Africa, Asia, Taiwan. This is optional family-making. By families who are not desperate.”

Among the families she works with, she says, “probably at least half or more are not just families through adoption.” And while in her experience there isn’t a clear difference in the love people feel for their disparate children, occasionally there are parents who haven’t finished grieving their own infertility. More common, she says, is a split not between the parents and their adopted or biological children but conflicts with “the in-laws and the grandparents, who have generationally different feelings about adopted families.” This was certainly true among the families that I spoke to. Although few of them wanted to go on the record about this, many have found older relatives resistant to the notion that adopted children were their true grandchildren. One grandfather wrote his biological grandchild a note saying, “I hope you are enjoying your time with your new companion.”

Adopted kids, Aronson says, will almost inevitably want to claim their genetic connections at some point: “At 8, 9, they are looking for connection in their blood, they want to know who they look like, and everyone goes through it.” Parents need to be aware that this is normal, she says. “You don’t tell them it’s nothing. You don’t say, ‘Oh, so what. I love you just as much as Joe.’ The truth is that’s not an answer for a child in certain circumstances.” Blended siblings, like any siblings, may wield their status against one another, and parents should expect these clashes. “Lots of birth kids are pretty hostile toward their adopted siblings, and there’s black humor: ‘So you’re here, great, let me drive you back.’ ” Ideally, parents should act as a lightning rod, says Aronson, rather than letting their kids simply take these emotions out on new adoptees.

Different families deal with these tensions in different ways. But most families I spoke with had taken an almost defiant openness, a celebratory attitude, about their variety. MaryBeth Cassidy has seven children: three biological, four adopted, including two teen girls from Siberia and a boy who arrived paralyzed from the waist down (but who can now walk)—not to mention the many children she’s hosted for summer medical clinics, which she organizes on Long Island as part of her work arranging adoptions. She remembers driving around when the oldest five were little: “Jake would go, ‘I’m from Siberia, it’s really cold there!’ And Tisa would go, ‘I’m from the Philippines, it’s really hot there!’ And Bligh would say, ‘Did I come on an airplane?’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, you came in my belly,’ and he’d go, ‘Ohhh’—like, that’s really boring. When Caroline was a baby, I’d tell them she came from Huntington Hospital; they just assumed that was another country.”

‘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.”

Back in Noho, van Schie and her husband found that they are viewed, if anything, as rock stars in the neighborhood. She enjoys tweaking the clichés about Manhattan adoptive parents: “I have a coat, a fantastic coat made out of leopard. And I’d say, ‘Doesn’t Tana look great with this coat?’;” There have been a few grating moments, however, like the playground mom who kept forgetting her son’s name. “‘Oh, I keep thinking his name is David,’” van Schie says, imitating a tone of fake sweetness as she says the name of Madonna’s son. “ ‘You know, because of David Banda.’ ”

Van Schie had begun the adoptive process with the private fear many parents have: Would she love this child as much as her biological one? Would she (to use the oft-repeated catechism) die for him? “My mother was not a nurturing person,” says van Schie. “I was concerned I wasn’t going to be a natural. But you see the picture, and think, That baby? Has to get out of there. My job! You see it as a job. You walk into the room, it’s a nice little room, eight cribs, nannies, beautiful women, every one could be on the cover of Vogue. And the nannies are going, ‘Look at Mommy, look at Mommy.’ I felt lucky. I felt like I got the cutest one.”

In a country that has gone mildly bonkers for sociobiological explanations, adoptive parents may be the last holdouts. It’s not that they don’t believe that anything is genetic; they do. But they take seriously the idea that that stuff is not the be-all and end-all, because they need to in order to love children from such different sources. After I gave birth, one of the first things I noticed was the unnerving attention paid to any reflection of my husband and myself in our newborn. Gabriel’s alertness was inherited, we were told; his babbling showed he was verbal, like us; the analysis of his nose was so intense my husband described it as “art criticism.” Yet each of us knew how different children can be from their parents and siblings; how much of growing up is about choosing a story, one that explains what made us who we are. This is a culture that increasingly fetishizes one shard of that story, the blood connection: childbirth itself as the pinnacle of female achievement, a kind of sociobiological blue ribbon. But blended families are by necessity believers not in faith but in works: the daily work of parenting, not the primacy of our origins.

Van Schie’s main insight from her experience was not that she should love her adopted child like her biological one, but the precise opposite. “My husband is six foot seven, highly educated, intelligent, athletic. I’m whatever you see me being. With Huck, for three years, I was expecting him to be those things. And then I brought home Tana, and I have no expectations. And I realize the injustice I’m doing to my biological child. It’s just very freeing—to find that I’m so excited to see who these two little people are going to be. Because it made me realize, I have no idea. And before, I thought I kind of knew who Huck was going to be! I don’t have that feeling anymore. Because Tana taught me that.”

The Nuclear Family, Exploded