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National Adoption Month: Sticks and Stones

In honor of National Adoption Month, we celebrate the families on our site created through adoption. Special thanks to Lori Thiel for sharing this moving essay with us.

Last week my mom and I were laughing with my kids about a documentary we’d seen about “monkey mamas,” women who adopt Capuchin monkeys to raise as children. Of course, these monkeys aren’t domesticated and so — dressed up in their cute little human clothes — they scream, bite, pull hair and are eternally in diapers. As one mom put it, “They are forever-toddlers.” Toddlerhood is characterized by tantrums and hissy fits. Why, we chuckled, would anyone want to live with a toddler for forty years, the average lifespan of these monkeys.

At this point my mom innocently posed the question, “Well, can you just give them back to the place you adopted them from if they get to be too difficult?”

I quickly glanced across the table to gauge the reaction of my daughter, adopted at birth six years ago. And just as quickly I steered the subject to something less sensitive, still calculating in my mind what effect, if any, that comment might have on her. The next day, I believe I witnessed that comment’s effect: my daughter became a Capuchin monkey.

Exposed to drugs in utero and born premature, Madeline has always been a little behind the curve emotionally, but her behavior that day would’ve made any self-respecting three-year-old blush. She rolled on the floor and kicked; she whined and cried; she went to her room and screamed; she broke her toys and smashed her mirror. Around 4 p.m. I took her to the doctor to find out what horrible physical ailment she must be suffering to bring about this appalling behavior. No help. She got a clean bill of health.

We finally managed to get her in bed without losing our sanity or allowing her to destroy any more treasured possessions, but we were raw, shaken and — let’s be honest — a bit disturbed. What had happened to our admittedly rambunctious but generally happy child?

We all went to bed early that night, emotionally and physically wrought. It wasn’t until the next morning when the had fog cleared and I revisited the previous day’s events that it occurred to me there might be a correlation between Madeline’s behavior and my mom’s adoption comment from the day before. That’s right. I can be a bit dull-witted at times.

Madeline understands, as much as a six-year-old can, that she’s adopted. We prominently feature a photo in our home of her brother, dad and me in the judge’s chambers, right hands raised, during her adoption proceeding. But it’s not a regular topic of conversation. Her drug-addicted birthmom is in and out of jail and is not a part of her life. Her supposed birthdad lives across the country and eagerly gave up all parental rights and contact. So it’s just been us her whole life. And we don’t make a concerted effort to remind her that she came into our family differently than her brother, who is our biological child.

So suspecting that Madeline might need reminding of our collective and abiding love for her I went into her room that morning with a cautious “hello” and tentatively hugged her to me. She was pliant, receptive and so I whispered to her: “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

Holding her hand I brought her to the framed picture of us all standing before the judge. “Do you remember what that’s a picture of?” I asked. She groggily nodded. “I’m not sure I ever explained why your dad and brother and I all have our hands raised,” I said. “That picture was taken while we made a special promise to always love you and be happy that you are in our family,” I explained. “It’s an oath. It means forever.” “Like a pinky promise?” she asked. “Yes,” I agreed, “just like a pinky promise.”

Madeline smiled and reached up for a hug. We embraced and I sent her off to get dressed for school.

Lori lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her husband, two kids and beagle.

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