When we brought Dawn home, we had three things prepared: a small bag of diapers, a hand-me-down bassinet, and a knit hat. Our adoption counselor had advised us against buying more things, in case Dawn’s birthmother changed her mind. We even had to borrow the car seat.
But that wasn’t the only way we were unprepared. I remember reading that parents of newborns often dramatically underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation. Yup. We were also unprepared with any childcare plan other than ourselves. I took a maternity leave of sorts, in that I was supposed to teach Women in Literature for the first summer term and gave up the class. I wasn’t assigned any further courses for the year, and so – given that Ron needed to keep working – I was pretty much Dawn’s only care provider. A stay-at-home parent of a newborn may dramatically underestimate how difficult this newfound position is. We did not want to make this mistake twice, especially with twins.
Fortunately, a friend of a friend knew someone who might help. Were we interested in a few hours a week with an African-American grandmother who had made it her mission to help white adoptive parents with their newborns?
We knew we needed support, if just so I could get a nap or run to the drugstore. But we didn’t know that we also needed a cultural education. Melanin dries skin out – unlike Dawn, my twins needed sensitive-skin baby wash and an oil-drum-sized bottle of baby oil. And the hair moisturizers? Almost a degree program itself. Those little baby brushes with the silky bristles? Pointless.
And then there was that exceptional care. Bathing, feeding, getting them to sleep – she had so much to teach me! And she was truly the baby whisperer – she would calm the fussiest child, which is what Darnell was after a bath (that kid really hated water). She was so particular about their food, their clothes, their schedule. She touched every part of our lives, even stepping in to help with the laundry or dishes. And it was an utter godsend, especially once I did go back to teaching.
But this was only the beginning — she had even more to teach us. Born in Kansas City in the first wave of the baby boom, she had had a front-row seat for the Civil Rights era. She had captivating stories of struggle and of triumph. I mentioned in an earlier post that this wasn’t her first career. She had retired from an oil company, where she had been “the first Black woman” over and over again. Her favorite first was her position as the front-door receptionist. She read the Wall Street Journal every morning, in order to make polite conversation – and to stick it to the blowhards (and racists) who assumed she was just a pretty face.
And, astonishingly, she had also been adopted. What an amazing gift, to bring that additional wisdom and experience into our lives! Her adoptive parents (who were distantly related to her birthmother) didn’t tell her until she was sixteen, when they sprung the situation on her over Sunday dinner. As I remember the story, her response was along the lines of, “Well, that figures. Please pass me the chicken.”
She had built a solid relationship with her birthmother as an adult, a journey which she shared with me – and she shared memory after memory of her beloved adoptive mom, too. Her relationship with us has evolved, from the hands-on care of those early years to one of mentorship and support from afar. I think of her as my second mother. And as she herself said, she will always be our Wonder Woman!