Sally Bishop Shigley teaches literature, literary theory, and the intersection between neuroscience and literature at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Her essay “Great Expectations: Infertility, Disability, Possibility” is forthcoming in The History of Infertility (Palgrave) and her essay co-written with Lauren Fowler appears in Rethinking Empathy through Literature (Routledge 2014). Her creative non-fiction has found a home in Mom Egg Review and So to Speak: feminist journal of language and art.
My daughters were born in the high deserts of Gansu province in China, the topography bare and dry as the mountains of Utah where I live. Their province borders the Gobi desert and is very near Mongolia. Their faces bear traditional Han Chinese features, but their skin, like that of their Mongolian neighbors, is the color of caramel or buttered toast. Their birthmother or someone she knew left them on the north steps of the Social Welfare Institute, a government campus housing an orphanage/old folks home and the police and civil offices for the city. They were wrapped in red flannel, for luck, and placed in a box on the freezing steps of the orphanage and found about 4 a.m. by a passing policeman. The subsequent newspaper report showed two identical greyscale faces in knitted caps peering crossly at the camera.
Adoption is the art of the gardener, the healer. Branches severed from a healthy tree, painful and necessary. Babies grafted on barren mothers, held with slings and arms until the bond is strong, lithe twigs growing away from grateful rootstock. Two mothers returning to barren mountains. Two mothers who are not mothers.
When the girls were smaller, we called the orphanage the baby house, the place where the babies waited for their mothers. Then, it was important to my daughters that there were nannies and other babies waiting with them and that they were never alone. That seemed to be the key, especially for one of them. She was about four when she told me a story. Both girls have “atypical” Asian hair. Instead of the shiny, straight, coarse black hair of their crib mates, their hair is black, but fine and wavy, just like my brown mane. My daughter decided that the reason that her birthmother decided to leave them was because their hair was different. She wanted them, my daughter reasoned, to go to a mother whose hair looked like theirs. Her story had the magical symmetry of all fairy tales: her Chinese mother went out the front door of the orphanage as I came in the back. Just a change of motherly shift, the birthmother leaving empty as she completed her task, and me, arms full of blankets and formula coming to take my girls home.
Seamless mothers existing just for a moment in the same space: a maternal chimera, two-headed mother trailing loss and possibility. Two babies and two mothers, two families made and unmade in the cold, wind-scoured high desert.
The mythological chimera was a monster the ancient Greeks described as possessing the heads of a goat and a lion and the tale of a serpent. Impossible to kill, it could, like some mothers, breathe fire. I have talked to my daughters about their birth mother since they were old enough to understand that they did not grow inside of me. They seemed less bothered then by the fact that they are petite and Asian and I am six feet tall and Nordic looking than the fact that I was never pregnant and unable to tell them stories about that. I am an English teacher and stories are an important part of our family. They rarely say anything about their birth father. He seems irrelevant as they calculate opportunity and loss, the typical chaos and joy of our home versus the real and imagined rejection of their first home. When they talk, it is of their birthmother.
I don’t know how to think about their birth mother. I have never given birth, but the thought of anything threatening my girls rouses a base instinct in me, reminding me I am a mammal. Did she rage and weep when they took the girls away or was she relieved? The answer cannot be that simple: one mother the adaptable goat and one the lion, one fierce and one ordinary. Our lives both moved on, as lives do, limping or striding. Mine filled with pre-teen eye rolling and ukulele duets under the vined eaves of my suburban house, hers a story I tell to myself and them pieced together with history and politics and hope. What is the real story? Does she finger faded red cloth and think about her babies? Does she have children now? Does she see my daughters in the faces she sees across the breakfast table? Is she glad when she imagines them safe or bitter when she thinks of them eating sugary American cereal and watching too much television.
Does she doubt my ability to help them live as Asian women in America: to negotiate racism and sexism and the whole calamity of being alive. An academic colleague whose post-colonial self-righteousness overcame her sense of appropriate compassion once told me that my daughters would have been better off dying in the orphanage than losing their culture to my white, straight, American lifestyle. Infertile women, in her cultural calculus, violate boundaries by parenting somebody else’s child who doesn’t look as they do. She is enraged by monstrous families who cross cultural boundaries and break rules: Lion and goat, Chinese and American, white and brown.
Does my daughter’s first mother share this rage? In myth, monsters created from various species are the result of curses or anger or retribution. They are the product of unholy unions between nymphs and demigods or other beings forbidden to be together. Transgression of boundaries breeds power that is both monstrous and awesome. Both terrifying and filled with awe.
I do not pretend that difference is invisible. I could not even if I wanted to. Complete strangers in the produce aisle ask “what are they” and “what happened to their real mother?” and think I am rude when I say “children” and “I am.” I honor their heritage. But when I watch my daughters learning to scramble eggs or solve math problems, we are a family first, regardless of how we were made. Their ancestors possess a rich heritage that I try to make available to them, but Chinese culture, like any culture contains drafty, dark corners of starvation, and blood, and peril just like my own and I will tell them the truth about both.
There are women who roam villages in China, haunting a culture that values boys above all and haunted by their loss. One foster mother in Anhui province says:
There are nutty-looking women who sneak around my house from time to time trying to locate the daughters they abandoned. They don’t say anything, no questions, they just wander around like ghosts. [i]
There is dishonor in abandoning a child. There was the one child policy. There is the fact that in rural villages the mother of a girl loses her when she marries, honor bound to care for her husband’s mother. There are bad decisions, and not enough food, and there is shame, always shame. And there is relief and there is grief. A world away, my story echoed with the grief and shame of infertility; her grief was my relief and mine made hers possible.
Scientists have recently discovered maternal chimera of a different sort, powerful cellular sentinels that we cannot see called microchimera. When a woman gives birth, or even after an abortion, fetal cells persist in the woman’s body, in a variety of tissues for the rest of her life. Researchers think that these cells have a role in immune response and recovery from bodily trauma. After conception there is a cellular two-way street: the mother’s body feeds the fetus and the cells of the fetus linger long after delivery.
These cells congregate when the mother is hurt or sick. They seek out the wound or tumor, stem cells ready to morph into whatever is needed for healing. Micro chimera. Small monsters. Small magical healing. My blood is separate from my girls unless they are wounded and they bleed, hers is filled with benign hybrid travelers rushing through silent veins. I can touch them. She cannot. I can heal them. They can heal her.
When we left China with the girls, I looked out the window of the plane at the shrinking desert below and sent a silent prayer to their birthmother. “They are safe,” I whispered. “They will grow up with love, with enough.” Landing in Los Angeles, I took my husband’s hand and whispered another: “please don’t let us screw this up.” On the Chinese celebration of the Moon Festival, I light incense and think of the woman who made their bodies, the smoke catching the wind and telling her that they are strong and they thrive, the two headed mother as vast as the night sky.
[i] The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. Karin Evans, Tarcher Perigree Press, 2008.
[image: still from the film Mosaic]