'I didn't know how much I'd love her'


Five years ago, Other Voices published an article by Baltimore writer Susan Bennett describing her failed attempts to become pregnant at 35 -- despite specialists, herbal teas, medication "and a new technique called imaging." She had accepted the idea of being childless, Ms. Bennett wrote. "I no longer let myself imagine telling my husband I'm pregnant. I don't browse through maternity dresses or start sentences with 'When we have a child . . .' I don't worry about how we will afford to send her to school or whether my father will live to know his grandchild."

Ms. Bennett's essay was republished in newspapers from Miami to Ottawa, and she was flooded with letters of advice, sympathy and encouragement. This essay brings us up to date five years later.

IT'S five years since I resolved to fix up the room we named the "nursery" in spite of being childless. I didn't fix it up then (even though I said I would). It stayed empty as before, a ghost-like reminder.

For years I diverted my maternal energy into teaching, writing, traveling and commuting to Washington to complete an advanced degree in English. I almost forgot longing for a baby. But my subconscious didn't. While I wrote about the feminist perspective in "Twelfth Night," I was counting the days until I finished my degree. On the same August morning I submitted my thesis, I began my search for a baby to adopt.

The search demanded as rigorous a commitment as had graduate studies. Statistics seemed bleak. Five families waited for every one adoptable baby. The cost staggered us. But we decided to go for broke. We contacted an attorney, who advised us to install a separate phone line, scatter ads in newspapers all over the country and wait. . .

I wait hour by hour for a prospective birthmother to call. After one week, the phone rings. Would we meet the voice on the other end in an hour at the parking lot behind Hermann's to discuss becoming parents of her baby? My God, yes! We meet, my heart beating in my throat. She says she'll call us either way. She never calls back.

In another five days Amy calls. We meet her at Wendy's, trying to act composed. She's beautiful, blond. I like her. But she casually mentions that the father does heroin. We reluctantly say "no."

Then Michelle calls collect from Charleston. She's a college student, parents are doctors. She's witty, charming, inquisitive and eight months pregnant. She calls me daily for two weeks, one hour per call, getting to know us -- our discipline style, financial goals, our family upbringing, our educational plans for her baby. We discover our dogs have the same name. I'm in love with her voice.

After 14 hours of interviewing on the phone, we're finally going to meet in the airport in Charleston. But the next day she doesn't call -- or the next, or the next. Two weeks later she calls using a new name, but I know that voice. When I say, "Michelle?", she hangs up. We never hear from her again. My lawyer explains that these things happen. I wish she would explain that to my guts.

The phone is my lifeline. Tania, Jennifer, Mary, Theresa. Each has a story, but none leads to our baby. Then Bridgette calls from Boston, and in a few short weeks we're on our way north to meet our baby-to-be. The birthmom's in labor as we drive. We stop on I-95 to call the hospital. No news yet. At midnight we call again. A gravelly voice says, "Congratulations; it's a girl!"

But before noon the next day, we learn that this baby is not to be ours. We spend Thanksgiving Day pacing along Boston's Back Bay, huddled against the wind, trying to figure our what went wrong.

When we recover a little, we try again, this time warily. We meet Martha, who is expecting in the spring. She has interviewed many others and will let us know when she decides. We're not hopeful.

Meanwhile, my 40th birthday comes, and I beg my husband and friends to ignore it. (It's my secret deadline.) So when Martha calls to say that she has chosen us, I don't really believe her. Even when she calls to say she's on the way to the hospital, we don't let ourselves fantasize that we may really become parents. We arrive at the hospital at 2 a.m. We wait in a small cubicle under fluorescent lights. Then, magically, I am holding our baby girl in my arms.

Now this room we call the nursery overflows with the life of our yellow-haired daughter. Stuffed bunnies and pigs and bears pile high on her day bed. Pink voile bows adorn her crib. The littlest angel hangs by an invisible thread from her ceiling, surrounded by bright yellow stars.

When I walk in, the baby stirs only slightly from her cherub-like sleep. I sink into the rocking chair beside her crib and savor the quiet. So much in our lives has changed since the day she came, months ago. Even at 40 (and a few days), I was not prepared. She requires more energy than I guessed. If I get out of the house with both earrings on and some notion of where I'm headed, it's a good day. I'm always tired, always stretched.

I didn't know how hard it would be. But there is another surprise equally transforming: I didn't know how much I'd love her. I look at her round face nestled there, like the rock-a-bye-baby illustration, and I know that I love that face fiercely, primally. She brings out the boldness in me.

To think that I might have missed this!

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