Next to the bed, in a box painted like a clock face, is a short history of our attempts to have a child. The folded pamphlets assist me in Understanding and Recording My Ovulation Cycle, the graphs chart my waking temperature in the spring of 1994, and the sonogram on facsimile paper shows the baby conceived and carried for two months. The sonogram could be a hurricane in a satellite picture. The border is marked with mysterious words like edge, gray, and smooth. The baby is the dark eye of the storm that whirled itself out 26 days later.
At the time, I thought I would conceive again in a matter of months, like my sister-in-law Jacki, my friend Ruth Ann, and everyone I knew who’d had miscarriages. The name itself is optimistic — miscarriage — as if my baby, already named Samuel Thompson and nicknamed S.T., had simply missed the chaise-and-four and would be sure to catch it tomorrow.
As much as I wanted to conceive another infant who would, in every particular, match my husband’s baby pictures, I was afraid of hospital gowns and the word cauterize, of carrying a baby and miscarrying one. Even before I had the miscarriage, I was afraid. My skin felt cold and unfamiliar, and I saw my pregnant self as I might see an actor in one of those films about body snatchers. I was inhabited by someone else who would grow large and then burst out. When this occurred at two months, I felt responsible. Perhaps the baby, small as he was, had left me in the same way that the Holy Ghost leaves the faithless.
But babies in the abstractness of desire are painless and perfect; and the one I can’t conceive, male or female, looks exactly like my husband at 12 months: straight, angry eyebrows, tanned cheeks, platinum hair that sticks straight up at the crown, eyes as gray as pewter. He wears his grandfather’s cotton baby clothes and sleeps on batiste. His head fits under my chin. I read him stories about Winnie the Pooh. He does not exist.
On a rainy, babyless day in October, I drive 40 miles to the All Women’s Expo in Del Mar and park under flags imprinted with the face of Mona Lisa, her mouth curved in that hidden-pregnancy smile. The convention hall is filled with women who dress the way I meant to dress when I grew up — high-heeled shoes in appropriate fall colors, professional lip liner. In jeans and damp loafers, I approach the Bal Jagat international adoption booth, where pictures of beaming children from China, Romania, India, and Peru make me feel I am standing in a book I read as a child, The Mummy Market.
In that book, the market was an imaginary hall where out-of-work mothers (the English “mummies” of the title) stood in booths making cakes or reading stories. The women pitched themselves to wandering children, who paused at each exhibit, listened to the spiel, sampled chocolate frosting, and picked a mother. As I recall, it was a moral tale about the perils of choosing your own mom, but the perils were not monetary. In pondering a $20,000 adoption, I fear I’m entering the baby market, a place where every photograph is a plea for (or a testament to) American love and money.
The photographs in the Del Mar convention booth are testaments — adopted orphans who wear floppy hats and pinafores, who smile as they touch piano keys or rocking horses. I think to myself, I want one, and then I’m ashamed for using that plaything phrase. But the pang of chosen babies is nothing to the pang of those who are still waiting. Orphanage photographs and videos are shown to parents before they make a final decision — hopeful little snaps taken in Bombay, Seoul, or Kaliningrad, and 60-second videos of babies in institutional cribs. Other faces fill the back pages of a black-and-white adoption magazine, where columns of “Waiting Children” resemble postcards of the missing. In those columns, thumbnail photos are paired with brief, frank descriptions like, Nail, four, is from Russia. He likes to draw, sculpt, and is active in school. Nail is an adorable boy with hepatitis B.
The children in these columns tend to be long out of infancy, and to read one page is to see need on an international scale. Luis, two, is from Colombia. He was abandoned by his birth mother following surgery at a hospital. He had received treatment for a dog bite that resulted in the total loss of his genitals. Then there is the boy named Anderson, who spent three years with a Brazilian family until they had a biological child and returned him to the court. And, under the heading “Last-Chance Children,” María Nancy, aged 15, and her 10-year-old Colombian brother José Elver look straight into the camera. Jose writes, “I know that one day not very far off in a corner of this world, someone is going to say, see Jose Elvér. We need you in our home. That day l am going to shout.”
It is the pictures of the waiting that make foreign adoption seem not a market but a cause.
Hemlata Momaya, founder of Bal Jagat (which means “children’s world” in Hindi), has been running her nonprofit adoption agency for 13 years. According to her résumé, she holds a B.A. with honors in philosophy and psychology from the University of Bombay and a master’s in social work from the same school. She has received prizes in India for her poetry and her articles promoting women’s rights. She was the director of the Mana Seva Sangh (Institution of Humanity) orphanage in Bombay from 1970 until 1972, the year she married and settled in the United States. In the fall of that year, she worked as a special-education instructor for mentally handicapped children and then started her own family. It was in 1983, while working as a pre-school director and raising two young children, that she obtained a state license to operate a nonprofit inter-country adoption agency.