WE ADOPTED A CHILD
Full of fears and doubts, they took the towheaded waif. And the boy they put in the empty room soon filled the empty place in their hearts
THE WOMAN who shared the end seat of the streetcar with us was the biddy type, placid of face, comfortably pneumatic as to figure. You knew her house was a home and that she was “Nana” to a swarm of small fry. She had been casting frequent glances our way and now she smiled at us, a trifle apologetically.
“Your little boy has your eyes,” she said to Anne. Bobby, Eskimolike in his snowsuit, wasn’t in the least concerned with this mention of his three-yearold self. He knelt between us with nose buttoned against the window, absorbed utterly in his search for tow trucks, transports and other such functional rolling stock.
“He reminds me so much of my daughter’s youngest,” said the woman with a sigh. “You must be proud of him!”
We are—but that wasn’t why we exchanged smug grins. Any resemblance Bobby bears to either of us is entirely coincidental. He’s our little boy all right, but the law says he can’t be our son until another year, when the process of adoption is complete.
Officially, he remains a ward of a local welfare society, a child to whom we’re giving a free home. He is one of the \]/¿% of Canadian babies who through an accident of birth enter the world with an “illegitimate” tag as a potential threat to their future.
Some of our friends seem to feel that we’ve done something pretty wonderful in accepting Bobby. Others have showered us generously with warnings of the grave risks we incur by taking a youngster of uncertain antecedents for our own.
“If you must adopt,” these last urged us, “play it as safe as you can. Even with a baby right out of hospital there’s a hazard. But a child two years old !” Now, a little over a year from the day Bobby
came wailing acroas our threshold with his worldly goods in a cardboard carton,we know thecalamity Janes and Joes were wrong. Bobby is giving us far more than we can ever give him. The luck is ours, not his.
For Bobby’s protection against any possible intrusion from his past, I’ve disguised names throughout. Otherwise, this article is a frank account of an adventure in human relations that; grows more fascinating and rewarding each day.
To start the story at its proper beginning, it’s necessary to backskip to when Anne and I weie newly married. We liked partying. We had gypsy feet and were reluctant to tie ourselves down by offering hostages to a fortune made doubly uncertain by the depre&sion. These factors shaped an attitude toward children which was blunt and explicit:
“Later, maybe, but not now.”
Fate chuckled and sent us a dog. But six years later, we found something was missing from our married life. Going on the town wasn’t the fun it used to be. There was less thrill than we’d anticipated in acquiring our own house after years of rented quarters.
The answer seemed
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obvious, until a doctor told us our chances of producing children were slight.
“But that needn’t stop you,” he said. “You can always adopt.”
We were interested, but not sold on the idea. Mightn’t we be mortgaging our future peace of mind to a boy who was likely as not to turn out badly?
“How he t urns out,” said the doctor, “is up to you. A child inherits his physical traits and nothing more. What, he grows into is the result of his training and environment.”
The groundwork of adopting in our province was, we found, as simple as shooting fish in a basket. We telephoned the Children’s Aid and were summoned down for an interview, at the close of which a detailed but not-too-daunting application form was produced. The answers provided a case history of ourselves and a precise estimate of our circumstances. This, it was explained, would help the agency choose a boy as close to us in background, racial extraction, coloring and build as possible.
We Pass the Test
TWO WEEKS later, the Children’s Aid scout dropped in on us without warning. She found Anne house-cleaning with a smudge on her nose and a bandana around her hair and me cussing a banged finger in the garage. But at the end of her visit we gathered that we’d made the grade.
“You may have to wait some time,” she warned us in parting. “Since you’ve applied for a boy baby, it should be less than six months. If you’d wanted a girl you’d be lucky to get; her inside of a year.”
A year later we were still waiting. Then, at the heel of a gloomy December afternoon, Anne announced suddenly, “Earl, we’re going to have a baby in the house for Christmas if you have to kidnap one!”
Events moved almost too swiftly from that point. We called the Children’s Aid, and Miss Morgan, a calm and patient woman who’d borne up under our pestering for months, told us about Bobby.
“He’s a dear little boy,” she said. “Two and a half years old and blond as a new-hatched duckling. He hasn’t much of a Christmas in prospect where he is and it would be a kindness to take him, even if just for a few weeks.”
“When can we have him?” Anne asked.
“I’ll bring him on Monday,” said Miss Morgan. This was on Friday. We had an empty upstairs room and a welcome which we would do our best to make warm, but nothing more.
By Saturday night we’d ordered a crib with bedding, chest of drawers, night table and lamp, two Mother Goose pictures grabbed up almost at random and a rug. With a sizeable hole in our bank account, and with butterflies in our stomachs, we were ready for Bobby.
The butterflies were big as eagles when I phoned home from the office Monday afternoon.
“He’s here,” Anne said, with a strong suggestion of tears in her voice. In the background was a thin thread of sound, too low for a howl, much too grievous for a whimper. “He’s been crying ever since Miss Morgan brought him. I don’t know what to do!”
“How’s he look?” I asked, rather weakly.
“It’s hard to tell,” Anne said. “His hair hangs over his p-poor little red face like a sheep dog’s. Earl, you’d better come home!”
I did, pausing only to collect an armful of toys. Bobby was islanded in our bed, so lost and tiny a figure that the candlewick spread took on an ocean vastness. He was not merely blond—the bowed head with its unshorn and wildly ruffled duck feathers was pure platinum. His fists were knuckled into his eyes, his lower lip jutted, and he wept in a determined monotone. One button and one safety pin secured his frayed red pull-over at the left shoulder. His fingernails were little black claws and about him was a look of neglect and disrepair.
“You try cuddling him?” I asked. “Maybe that would help.”
“I did,” Anne said, “and it didn’t.” Then, darkly, “I’ve been
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wondering whahkind of a family they’ve had him with. He doesn’t even cry like an ordinary child.”
“It’s just the change,” I said. “Being taken away from people he’s used to.” “Maybe,” Anne said; but she sounded no more convinced than I felt.
As I write this, Bobby is playing outside with half a dozen neighbor young ones. They’re staging a parade of some sort and Bobby brings up the rear as manfully as his short legs will permit. He’s a thoroughly sound and, we believe, well-adjusted little boy. His misadventures are those of any other kid in our suburban block. So are his joys and fears. When he cries now, it’s merely normal small-boy bellowing— hard on the ears, hut signifying no inner turmoil that won’t NJ dissipated in a matter of minutes.
I don’t intend to deal in generalities, only with what happened and is happening to one little boy. But to understand his case and why he came to us a pitiful bundle of terrors and insecurities it’s necessary to know something of the operating methods of the typical nonsectarian child welfare agency which sent him to us.
It depends for its funds on a municipal grant which is in turn dependent on public subscription through a community chest. Like all such in Canada, it is underfinanced and badly understaffed.
Its wards, whenever possible, are placed with prospective adoptors as soon as they can be removed from hospital. If, at the end of two years, the adopting couple and the welfare agency are satisfied, the child becomes a&legal son or daughter of the family.
For the less fortunate child, three courses are open. He may be kept in an institution until foster parents can be found for him.
He may be placed in a “free home”— that is, with a couple willing to take him in either temporarily or permanently, and to waive any contribution toward his support.
Or he may be “boarded out” with a family who fn return for food and shelter receive a set sum from the welfare agency, plus the federal family allowance. The rate paid by the Children’s Aid we dealt with is $2& monthly.
Life handed Bobby his first tough break when he was born out of wedlock. His second came when the preferred course of immediate placement with a child-hungry couple was barred by his
natural mother’s refusal to release him. So he was boarded out—fed and sheltered in return for $28 a month, plus baby bonus, plus free clothing, toys, cod liver oil and medical care. About the time he reached crawling age, his mother agreed to sign the release. He was at once transferred to a couple selected from the agency’s adoption list
This should have been his final transplanting. But the woman of his new home became pregnant and with pregnancy her feelings toward the foster child soured. She didn’t want him any more. Her attitude hardened to downright hostility after her own baby was bom. So again Bobby was uprooted.
He was by now past the age of easy adoption. For the second time in his life, he was bundled off to a boarding home
Exactly what befell him there, Anne and I will never know. But from Bobby’s physical and emotional condition when he came to us after his third uprooting, it’s obvious that to the people who boarded him he simply represented $33 a month on the hoof— an item of human livestock on whom a tidy profit could be realized.
The craving for security—for something to tie to—is one of our human
fundamentals. The tiny boy who wept despairfully in our bed had been through three violent upheavals. Three times he had been required to adjust himself to a new set of grownups, a strange house, a different environment. At not quite 2 years he displayed a near-adult capacity for worry and for fear.
My wife and I are reasonably toughminded and not at all hysterical. We didn’t go seeking signs of neglect, but oy the time Bobby had cried himself to sleep in his new crib that first night, enough had been forced on us to confirm the impression planted by filthy claws and unwashed, untrimmed hair.
His ribs stuck out, his stomach was too large for his skinny legs. Only the good Lord knew when the boy had last been bathed. His scalp was freckled with brown spots which we thought at first were the scabs of an infection. When they yielded to soap and water, we learned they were merely ingrained dirt. He showed a complete unfamiliarity with solid foods. A good portion of his skimpy wardrobe we dropped hastily into an ash can. The rest, with washing, mending and a general replacing of buttons, would do till we could get Bobby to the stores.
His head, though, was finely shaped, and his features were good. In spite of malnutrition his body was compact and well-proportioned. We felt the raw material was sound.
We stole a last look at Bobby where he slept with knees drawn close to his chin, thumb in his mouth and his new toy airplane clutched in the other minuscule fist.
“Well,” I said, “we’ve got him. What are we going to do about him?”
“Keep him,” Anne said.
She gave me the look reserved for stupid husbands. “Of course!”
By the end of the week, and without prompting, Bobby had taken to calling us “Mummy” and “Daddy.” We were pleased to a degree that orthodox parents might find ridiculous. Bobby’s vocabulary was expanding from the basic and imperative “Go ba” of his first day under our roof. He had learned there was other food in the world beside mush and looked forward to his bath. A barber had taken away that sheep-dog look. His good-night kiss was more than a furtive, tightlipped peck, while the hug that went with it was a strangle hold. And by a succession of unobtrusive kindnesses, our neighbors had made it plain that Bobby wasn’t to be regarded as a dubious stray but as just another juvenile member of our quiet and easygoing community.
Miss Morgan, the Enemy
We felt we were making progress— but at the same time we had begun to realize that only patience and a lot of loving would dispel the shadows that haunted Bobby.
When either of us left the house he reverted to frightened and heartbroken wailing. If we took him out, it was to an anxious refrain of “Come back home? . . . Come back home?” He wept if we tried to dress him in any of the garments from the soap carton and showed a marked aversion for his old toys.
Minor accidents, milk spilled or an ash tray dropped, sent him scuttling into hiding. He had, a nervous stutter. At any sharpness of tone, his eyes squinted into slits while his left arm rose in an automatic and pathetic gesture, as if to protect his head.
Late one afternoon, Bobby scurried past us with eyes squinted and face
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gone paper-white. He scrambled up the stairs to his room like a frightened little animal. A car had stopped outside and Miss Morgan of the Children’s Aid was coming up the walk.
When she heard of Bobby’s reaction to her visit she told us rather sadly, “He thinks I’m going to take him away again. I’ve always had to, before.”
After she’d gone, we went up to find Bobby standing quietly by his night table. He was stroking his blue-shaded lamp with the pottery dog on its base.
“My room,” he said. “My nice room.”
When I glanced at Anne, I saw tears shining in her eyes.
What we had to do was plain: roll up one barrier after another between Bobby and the stupid, tragic mishandling that had been his lot since birth. Christmas was only a week away and Christmas would give us our first real chance.
Bobby knew, vaguely, that someone called Santa Claus brought toys to some boys and girls. We asked him— sitting in Anne’s lap with the light on his platinum topknot—what he’d like from Santa Claus. He considered at length, then said doubtfully, “Orange.”
That was all. Any attempt to expand his list distressed him to the point of tears. But, with Christmas two days away, and by dint of much coaxing, he’d extended his order to include a truck and a balloon.
We shot the works on him. When we knocked off long after midnight on Christmas Eve, a tricycle, a sled and the biggest toy truck we’d been able to find lorded it over a shoal of lesser gifts under a glittering tree. A red balloon bobbed over the lumpy stocking that dangled inside his crib.
We were wakened Christmas morning by a chittering as of an excited mouse. Bobby, with a squeak for each fresh discovery, was delving into his stocking. The orange was in his lap, the balloon bounced around his bed. I don’t think he even knew we were in the room.
Later, Anne carried him downstairs. The face that peered over the bannisters was, for a long moment, completely expressionless. Then bewilderment . . . then doubt . . . then when Anne told him quietly, “For you, dear,” a spreading, glowing ecstasy.
Christmas, if not a turning point, was a definite milestone in Bobby’s climb toward normalcy. He became much less nervous—cried still when Miss Morgan’s car drew up before the house, but lost most of his anxiety over our comings and goings. By winter’s end he had grown an inch and was only a pound or two underweight. He had abandoned that heart-rending gesture of the squinted eyes and the forearm bent across his face.
Miss Morgan came calling one day in early spring. Bobby saw her from the front-room windows, but this time he didn’t retreat. While it was plain that he regarded her with suspicion, there wasn’t a trace of the former hysteria.
Angel to Rascal
That same week, Bobby changed from a sunny, cleanly, obedient little boy into an unadulterated heller.
He took to slapping his playmates. His table manners approximated those of a bear cub. Disobedience was his delight. The quiet, grief-stricken whimper was a thing of the past. It seemed to us now that when he wasn’t whining he was screaming. He turned against his bath. The rubber car that he’d cuddled in his crib he tossed out to the floor. One night when I slipped in to settle his covers he reached for my
thumb. Eager to encourage any small signs of a return to grace, I let him take it. An instant later I snatched my hand away, thumb smarting from a swift and authoritative bite.
About this time, too, Bobby abandoned his new toys for the beat-up three which had come from the bottom of the carton. He began to play obscure and somewhat sadistic games. Shutting himself in dark closets was one. Banging himself on the knuckles with a ruler was another.
One morning he told Anne, “Be good or Miss Morg’ come take you away!”
That gave us the clue we’d been seeking. Bobby, if our theory was correct, had reached a point in his rehabilitation where the griefs and terrors of his earlier life didn’t have to remain locked within him any more. He’d dragged his skeletons out of the dark places of his mind and was rattling them furiously in our faces. He was no longer afraid of being slammed on the knuckles with a stick, or being shut in dark closets, or of being bundled off to face a new set of strangers.
He wasn’t afraid any more!
Perhaps we weren’t altogether right in our interpretation of his attitudes and actions. Perhaps, too, our methods in easing Bobby into an acceptable behavior pattern would shock the experts. Punishment as well as inducement played a part. But always quick forgiveness and no aftermath of nagging and never any lessening of demonstrated affection.
The climb back to grace was slower than the descent therefrom. But, increasingly, we found that our most potent ally was Bobby himself. He liked us and it hurt him more than punishment to be out of favor.
He’s What We Wanted
By fall, Bobby was everything we’d hoped for when we decided to fill an empty place in our life by adopting a child. His weight and height were what they should be, and he’d passed, cum laude, the intelligence tests which are a prerequisite to adoption. Today, heading for his fourth birthday, he’s a happy, lively, affectionate little boy.
We don’t advertise the fact that Bobby isn’t ours by birth, neither do we make a secret of it. As he grows older, I suppose it’s inevitable that the word “adopted” will sometimes be used as an epithet against him. Already we run into the occasional look or word which shows the stern old belief that the child should pay for the folly of its parents. Anyone who adopts, though, will learn that these exceptions only emphasize the general kindliness of any unbigoted adult toward any child.
And if you contemplate adopting, here’s one vital truth: you must be
prepared to enter on the business without reservations. If you aren’t prepared to love the castaway you take into your home, all the material care you can give him won’t be enough. If the child is past babyhood, this is more than ever true.
Among other fears we had, that of being tied down and slowed up has proved groundless. We’ve travelled something over 6,000 miles in the past year. I’ve fulfilled a long-term ambition and gone into business for myself. Holidays are hailed with excitement; Christmas has won back a significance which it had all but lost for us. Somehow we both feel a lot younger since Bobby came along.
He won’t be growing up as an only child, either. Several months ago, Anne took a puzzling set of symptoms to the doctor. She came home mildly thunderstruck but mightily pleased. Bobby, it seems, will have a brother or sister before the summer’s out; if