An Adopted Boy Considers His Origins

September 3, 2010
New York Times Magazine

Jonah, our youngest, spent the day in the water again. At 5 he’s already an exquisite swimmer, diving for coins our Provincetown neighbors throw into the tide for him to fetch. Now we’re lying in his bed together waiting for him to fall asleep, and he’s thumping my stomach like it’s a beach ball.

“Are you going to have more babies in your belly?”

“You know I’ve never had any babies in my belly,” I tell him.

“Well, whose belly did I come out of?” he says.

My girlfriend, Molly, and I have always been frank about the fact that Jonah and his brother, Sam, were adopted, though until recently they’ve really only shown interest in the few details that feel glamorous: for instance, Jonah enjoys knowing that he was born on an island. The rest of how the kids came to us is so complex and adult, we’ve so far opted to leave it alone.

Scratch the surface and nobody’s birth story is typical. Our two children are biological brothers, and they have an older sister a friend of ours adopted first. Because of her special relationship to the boys, Sister plays a starring role in our house. Looking at the three of them leaves little doubt they’re related: ignore the height difference, and they could almost pass for triplets. A few days earlier we were having a bonfire at the beach. It was one of those ridiculously idyllic summer evenings at the seaside, replete with rainbows and a dolphin release the kids ran down to see. On the way back to the fire, Jonah tripped, catapulting him into a flood of tears. Sister grew more agitated the louder he wailed. Finally, in some kind of attempt to shut him up, she turned to him and said, “You didn’t come out of your mommy’s belly.”

“Now isn’t the time for this conversation,” Molly told her.

“You didn’t,” Sister continued, “you came out of the same belly as me. Her name was Cheri.” For Jonah, that belly never had a name before. That name was so revelatory you could almost see a light bulb in a thought bubble hovering above Jonah’s head. He began crying louder.

To Molly and me, our children are so completely ours it feels impossible that anyone else had anything to do with them. But for Jonah, who knows? Some would say, for example, that it was the hand of God that saved his namesake, the original Jonah, from the belly of the whale; others, that it was luck that caused the beast to spit him out.

So here I am in the bed with our youngest boy, telling him the truth as I see it: “Some babies come out of their mommies, and some come through other bodies to get to their mommies. My body couldn’t make babies, so we had to find another way to get you here.” I’ve told him this before, but the story no longer satisfies the way it once did. He may be only 5, but it’s time for Jonah to begin making his own version of the narrative.

“Whose belly?” he demands.

“Her name was Cheri,” I say, affirming it for him.

“I should be there with her,” he says.

I take a breath. “No,” I tell him. “Wherever Sam and your other mommy and I are, that’s where your home is. That’s where you should be.” And in a sure sign he knows that what he’s hearing is correct, he begins to cry hard.

In a little while I feel him exhale long and slow, his back relaxing against my hands that are holding him in place like bookends: Your body begins here, and it ends here. You are safe. By now he’s exhausted, but he’s too smart to take my word for anything yet. “What if you and Mommy and Sam get dead and I’m left here all alone?” he says.

Even though I can’t say for sure, I opt for kindness over stark possibility, which I maintain is every parent’s prerogative. “Not gonna happen,” I tell him. And he falls asleep.

For days after, Jonah vacillated between being demonstrative and being withdrawn, all the thinking about his origins rendering him tender, as if from sunburn. The summer carried on in its relentless perfection. We were on the beach the other day when I overheard him tell a friend, “I was born on an island, you know.”

“Really?” the friend said.

“Yes,” Jonah said, “and they weren’t my mommies,” pointing like a hitchhiker with his thumb to Molly and me.

“So how’d you get here?” his friend asked.

“I swam a hundred miles to get home,” he said.

Melanie Braverman, a poet and novelist, is the Jacob Ziskind poetry fellow at Brandeis University.

Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown

Attorney and Advocate at Time For Families
Who am I? On the deepest level, I am blessed. I have an amazing partner, who I have known since 1989 and been married to since 2004. I am the donor dad of two beautiful daughters who have two moms who are equally amazing. My husband and I have expanded our family through surrogacy and have a seven-year old son. I have had three careers (acting, massage therapy and the law) and I am still discovering myself. I am the Board Chair of Men Having Babies. The one thing I know for sure is that life is about trusting your instincts. Family is an instinct.
Anthony Brown