Opinion

Michelle Obama’s memoir reminds me of the joy brought by adoption

President Barack Obama waves as he walks on stage with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago.  (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
President Barack Obama waves as he walks on stage with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) ASSOCIATED PRESS

In her just published memoir, Michelle Obama revealed that her daughters Sasha and Malia were conceived via in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

The revelation brought back memories of the struggles and disappointments my wife and I endured 20 year ago, when IVF seemed our only option to start a family. We know very well the frustrations and self-doubt that the Obamas must have felt, doing what we thought would always be the most natural of processes.

Yet as our disappointment simmered, the process gave way to new possibilities as my wife and I chose adoption as our path forward. Though we now have healthy and wonderful 16- and 20-year-old daughters — both adopted as infants — the process was as emotionally draining as our experiences with IVF.

We were lucky the first time. We heard all of the dramatic, heartbreaking stories of potential adoptive parents having their dreams snatched literally out of the cradle when a birth parent decided to reverse course. The adoption agency was frank about the success rate of the adoption process. Some couples would go through the process multiple times before a successful adoption, and there were those who would never find success. That we were an African American family choosing to adopt a black child, not so ironically, increased our chances.

What I remember most from the process was the home study and questionnaire, which both seemed so intrusive; did birth parents ever have to endure such an invasion on their privacy to prove their fitness for parenthood?

Despite the fact that my wife and I both wanted children, we had never really had a detailed conversation about what parenthood meant for each of us, and as a couple. I worked through my initial doubts realizing how much the idea of conceiving a child was tied to my notions of what real manhood was. The excitement on my wife’s face (and threats of divorce, I can say jokingly now) helped me work through those apprehensions and understand that parenting could mean so much more.

Our first adoption was the miracle adoption; less than a month after we initially inquired about the process, we were bringing home a 17-day-old newborn who we named Misha.

The process was not as smooth when we decided to adopt again four years later.

When we were presented a second opportunity to adopt, this time I was the more enthusiastic parent; so much of how I had come to define myself was tied to the idea of being an engaged father. I was at a conference in Houston — literally walking through a toy store — when I received the fateful call from my wife that the birth mother had decided to keep her child.

My wife and I kept our sadness to ourselves, silently grieving.

But miracles happen a second time. We were having dinner at a local pizzeria with our daughter when we received a call from our lawyer telling us the birth mom had changed her mind — and we needed to get to Buffalo (from our home in Schenectady, N.Y.) as fast as possible before she changed her mind again. Two weeks after her birth, our second daughter Camille sat in my arms, a day before my birthday.

My wife and I have been forever transformed by the two daughters who have shared their lives with us. For us, it is fitting that both Thanksgiving and National Adoption Month fall in November, as we are so very thankful that adoption offered us the opportunity to fully realize our dreams.

Mark Anthony Neal is James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies and the chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University.

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