Friday, May 20, 2011


When a baby is born, one of the first things parents seem to do is count fingers and toes. I'm not sure who in human history decided that a newborn's extremities were the best indicator of health, but the tradition remains, and countless babies are unwrapped from their hospital blanket burritos so their tiny fingers and toes can be counted.

It's easy to count what you can see. Two eyes, two ears, one nose, two lips, ten fingers, ten toes. Unfortunately, what you can't see can be just as important as what you can. You can't easily count the lungs or the chambers of a heart. You also can't count the number of kidneys your newborn has. Unless there's some sort of health problem, you may never know.

My father was born in August of 1956. He had ten fingers, ten toes, the proper number of eyes and ears and lips and limbs, and only one kidney. That his missing kidney went unnoticed is hardly anyone's fault. As I said, they can be tricky to count. It wasn't until the 70s that my father suspected there was anything any more abnormal about him than a few deformed ribs.

When it was determined more than a decade later that my father had only one kidney instead of the usual pair, and that he needed surgery, my grandmother's reaction was swift and sure. She felt guilty.

The argument could possibly be made that her guilt was appropriate - the lack of a second kidney ostensibly points to a problem during gestation. But she didn't smoke or drink or have any health problems. The missing kidney was a fluke; nobody's fault. But you see, this was only half of the problem. There's another part of my grandmother's guilt. She didn't only feel guilty that my dad was short a kidney. She also felt guilty because she didn't know. In her mind, she should have known somehow that things were awry, and she should have known at the moment she counted little fingers and toes at Silver Cross.

There's a point to this story, I promise, and here it is: irrational guilt is part of parenthood. It's part of life in general if you've got the same kind of quirks that I do, but it's for sure a part of parenthood.

I'm not a parent right now, but I am a birth parent. One of the fun (ha-ha) things about being a birth parent is that you get to experience many of the worries and fears and stresses of a parent but without any of the rewards of parenthood (not that being a birth mom doesn't have its rewarding moments, but it's different than being a parent). One of those characteristics I have discovered is the aforementioned irrational guilt. It's not quite the same as my grandmother's guilt, but I think that in some ways it's more vexing. Because if something goes awry, I feel bad not just for Roo but for P and M, for not doing my part to make sure their daughter is as flawless as possible.

It's more than slightly ridiculous, but I've found that I always feel like I should apologize for anything about Roo that isn't perfect. If she gets a cold, I want to apologize for her immune system (even though she is an exceptionally healthy girl). If she doesn't smile for family pictures, I want to apologize for her being uncooperative. If she climbs on things when she's been told not to, I want to apologize for her stubbornness.

That's stupid, isn't it? None of those things are under my control. I took good care of myself during pregnancy so Roo would have the best start she could. I grew her a healthy, perfect little body. I took good care of her. She's 22 months old now; surely any little quirks she has are from P and M, right?

I'm sure they are. At my Christmas visit I got a kick out of seeing Roo sitting with M for a story, and they had absolutely identical facial expressions. I can already see many mannerisms Roo has learned from her parents. That only makes sense. They are her parents, and she takes cues and learns from and mirrors them. I recognize very little of myself in Roo. She is every inch P and M's daughter. She has exactly the personality and temperament and quirks that I would expect a child of theirs to have. She's a perfect match for them. I credit them entirely for what a sweet, clever girl she is. If I credit them for her good points, can't I also put her faults in the P and M column? (Not that Roo has many faults at all, of course.) I absolutely can. Who Roo is and who she will become doesn't have a lot to do with me beyond the choice I made to place her with her parents.

So why do I feel guilty when Roo gets a sniffle?

I'm not sure. When I was putting together some information for P and M prior to placement, I made a list of all the things that run in my family (heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer, etc.) and I felt awful, like maybe I should also write an apology for some of the lousy DNA Roo may have inherited. I love P and M dearly. I did almost instantly. So I suppose part of it is that I feel like they deserve the very best children in the world, and I so wanted Roo to be that for them.

I'm being ridiculous again, of course, because I have no reason to believe that she isn't perfect for them. It's not as though they complain to me about Roo. I've never heard them complain, and I don't think they ever would. Roo is the best little person she could be. I really couldn't hope for anything more for her. I guess it's just this lingering fear I have that some of me will show up in Roo, and she'll be hopelessly neurotic like I am, or her childhood will be one long panic attack like mine was, or she'll lack proper social skills like I did. I worry about that sort of thing a lot, actually. I am desperate for Roo not to be like I was. So far she seems to have gotten the very best of me and H with none of our faults (unless you count being very chatty as a fault, which I refuse to do). But what if that luck doesn't last?

I guess the "what if" is where I need to stop worrying, because I know that no matter what quirks Roo ends up with, P and M can handle it. Their path to parenthood has strengthened them and taught them things that I'm sure they'd rather have learned some other way but they've learned them just the same. They'll be able to help Roo with whatever might come up. They'll get through it just fine.

I hope I will, too. But I know I won't be able to stop myself from saying "sorry."


Amy said...

This was a fascinating and thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth said...

Well written.

Lara Zierke said...

Great to read your point of view. I get a bit of irrational guilt too. When Joci gets sick or misbehaves, I feel guilty that I did something wrong - that I owe more to her birth parents. I should never allow a germ to enter her body or I should be a better parent and she would never act out. I want to constantly apologize to her birth parents because I am not enough.

Chris and Kristy said...

I've wondered before about this very topic. It's helpful for me, as and adoptive mother, to listen to your insight and perspective. Funny how we worry about these things from different angles. That's why I love healthy, open adoptions. We can share our thoughts, funny or irrational as they are, and still love each other for the differing roles we play in these sweet children's lives. Once again, thanks for sharing and broadening my views!

Emily and Dan Adopt said...

Ah love this post, you have great posts! I feel guilt anytime something goes wrong with our son and I worry, and hope his bio family thinks we are doing a good job. Anytime something goes wrong.. is it really wrong or is it life that kids get sick, maybe they are good at reading but not math or..... we skyped for my sons birthday recently and that day was just an off day. Anytime someone called to sing happy birthday he would get upset. Well it had been a while since they had seen him and so we skyped and he acted out i am sure they were horrified. I felt so bad!!! I really appreciate this post!Thank you for your awesome blog i have been reading it from the get go and its Amazing you are amazing!