While their friends were counting down the days until their empty nest, Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel realized they didn’t feel “done” with having children. They talked about another, but at 42 Melissa reluctantly decided that she was too old. After a surprise pregnancy and miscarriage at 45, she began looking into adoption and ultimately adopted five children. She tells her family’s story in No Biking in the House without a Helmet, published by Sarah Crichton Books.
The Samuel family first adopted a 4-year-old boy, their 5th child, from an orphanage in Bulgaria. When parents express interest in a particular orphan, the agency in the foreign country prepares a video of the child for the parents to evaluate. The Samuels found an expert to analyze the tapes to discover whether the children have suffered neurological damage. So many of the children have been abused or neglected before or during their orphanage stay. The expert will assess the child’s neurological and communication skills. Delayed development is expected, but there is always the risk that there has been irreversible damage.
An important measure of neurological development is head circumference. Before adopting 4-year-old Jesse, the adoption official had to have the orphanage in Bulgaria recheck the measurement, which had been in error. That clinched their decision. As she would do with each subsequent child, Greene traveled to the country of her future son to get to know him and his environment. Then she returned home—the worst part for the children—to finalize the arrangements.
The first months at home with Jesse were difficult. Jesse clung to her, rocked himself to sleep, and trembled in fear at the thought of not having enough to eat or drink. When he got a deep gash in his face from a fall, he didn’t cry out. These behaviors were typical of children raised in orphanages. Greene writes, “I had no idea if he was going to turn out to be a regular little kid or if we were at the top of a staircase that would descend into years of confusion and difficulty and loneliness and chaos.” Greene later learned that she might have suffered from “post-adoption depression syndrome.” Reading about adoptive parents who fall in love at first sight with their new child set up an unrealistic expectation, just as it can for parents who give birth biologically.
Eventually, Jesse adjusted—Greene and the family did grow to love him–so they looked into adopting again. This time, they chose Ethiopia where they found a reliable agency and healthy children who had started off in loving families, but were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately four subsequent Ethiopian children joined the family.
Sometimes Greene’s book reads more like series of loosely connected essays instead of a cohesive account, but many scenes that will remain with me for their sensitivity, honesty and humor:
- Transferring their oldest child, Molly, out of public high school to an Orthodox Jewish school for two years: “We had kept her safe, but we’d made her sad.”
- A visit to an Ethiopian orphanage, while equipped with whoopee cushions. “‘Ethiopians are very polite people,’ I was told. ‘They will not appreciate whoopee cushions.’ I’d never met children that polite, I felt, so I packed them.”
- A spontaneous and skeptical decision to follow 8-year-old Fisseha’s directions to his grandmother’s home in the heart of Addis Ababa, and the emotional yet humorous reunion that followed.
- The mixed feelings of the now-Americanized children when they return to their native Ethiopia with their adoptive parents to collect the final two members of the family, a pair of brothers.
- The children on the dance floor at an Ethiopian restaurant, recalling intricate moves they didn’t know they had ever learned.
- Sol’s (Fisseha’s) prowess with spearing game, making him the star of the neighborhood.
Greene discusses the ethical dilemmas involved in taking children away from their home country, to a new culture and religion and a mixed-race family. Her family worked to preserve each child’s traditions and personal connections. Her analysis of her parenting decisions seems indulgent at times, but you forgive her because she is so sincere, and well aware that her family was privileged to be able to provide both emotionally and materially for these children. Which is why her story is so inspiring.
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