Irish Genealogy: An adoption story

I like to imagine this is what I looked like as a baby.

I want to share a little story. It’s one my mother told me years ago, and has repeated ever since, about the moment she came to adopt me. It is a short story, and certainly amuses her. In fact, she retold it yesterday on a phone conversation, and as she told the story she laughed and laughed.

She tells of getting a call from the agency that they had a child for her. She went to get the child, and it was me, and I was a tiny baby, just a few weeks old. For whatever reason, I was dressed in a baseball uniform, and when my mother saw me, she froze.

“How am I ever going to love this baby?” she thought to herself.

She says the social worker from the adoption agency saw the look on my mother’s face. “I’ll leave you two alone,” the social worker said, and left. And then, in my mother’s telling, she changed me into some clothes she had brought from home, and then she fell in love with me. “And you have been my child ever since,” she will finish the story, “no different than any of my other children!”

Yesterday I decided to point out something about this story that confused me. “Why did you dislike the baseball uniform so much?” I asked.

“Ugh, it was awful,” she answered, which was not an answer.

“Was it a specific uniform?” I asked, thinking maybe I was wearing the uniform of a team she had some unaccountable dislike for, although that didn’t seem likely. My mother has never seemed to care about baseball at all.

“No!” she answered, cheerily. “Just a generic uniform!”

“Mom,” I said, “nobody understand why you disliked the baseball uniform so much.”

“The hat was the worst,” she said. “I hate hats that don’t keep the head warm.”

On one hand, I may never understand my mother’s dislike for baby baseball uniforms, but I have a lot of clothing prejudices as well and think people are entitled to them. I do not like cartoon character neckties and don’t think I could ever love someone who wears one. If I went to adopt a baby and they were wearing a puka shell necklace, I might actually run out of the building screaming. A part of me thinks that children should all be dressed in Buster Brown costumes, regardless of gender, and I know that is entirely unreasonable, no matter how adorable it would be.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if my mother wasn’t projecting her experiences onto the baseball uniform. Adoption is outside the usual narrative of childbirth, and so the story they tell, of a woman carrying a child inside her for nine months, feeling the new life growing, and then spending agonizing hours in labor to finally hold their new child and knowing they will love it forever — well, that story is not there. Instead, adoptive parents fill out paperwork and wait, and then, one day, sometimes much later, sometimes so soon they have not had time to fully prepare, a call comes. They go to a building, and inside that building is a child, and the child is a stranger. I imagine my mother’s response, which was to ask “How can I ever love this child,” is not entirely uncommon.

My mother’s response, her mechanism for turning me from a stranger into her child, was to blame the clothes. When she got me out of an outfit she would never have chosen for me and put me into an outfit that she had chosen for me, suddenly I was different. I may not have been her child by birth, but I was her child by choice, as she had started making decisions about me, and for me, which is what parents do for children.

Of course, maybe it was just the baseball uniform. My mother has strong feelings about unexpected things. She gets quite upset about the subject of infinity, as an example. “If there’s an end to the universe, what is beyond that?” she will ask. “And when that ends, WHAT IS BEYOND THAT?” It really seems to upset her.

And I sympathize. I likewise get very upset over inconsequential things. If I see a play and the actors leave the stage to come into the audience, I get angry. “IT’S SO TRITE,” I complain, and everybody shrugs in response, because, really, who cares? When you are adopted, and you discover your biological family, there is a great tendency to look to your biological family to see where you are alike, and this can be at the expense of your adoptive family. But I am very much like members of my adoptive family, and this is one of the ways I am like my mother. If I went home to Minnesota to visit, and she greeted me wearing Uggs, I might turn around and go home.

And so I like her story about the baseball uniform, because it really is about the moment I became a Sparber, and I am glad it is a story that involves fashion, because I think all really good stories involve fashion in one way or another. In fact, quite a few years ago my brother had his first son, Jack, and I went with my mother to visit the new baby. I brought a gift for the baby with me, and when my mother left the room for the moment, I dressed the baby in my gift. When my mother came back, she saw baby Jack sitting on my lap, and she froze.

I had bought Jack a tiny baseball uniform. I have a brand new niece now, Madeline, and I plan to get her a baseball uniform when I visit over the holidays.

Don’t tell my mom.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.