Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Finding Your Face in the Crowd

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At the adoption center, I turn the pages of a binder filled with photos. Of all the things we've been asked to do during this adoption process, nothing feels so strange as going through pictures of children in foster care to select the one we might want to adopt. How unnatural to be basing our decision on their faces. What is it exactly that we're looking for?

"Can this really be what it all comes down to," I ask my husband, "picking a face out of a book?"

"I know," he says. "It feels wrong. Why does it matter what the child looks like?"

I turn the next page of the thick album, scanning a few faces and silently reading the paragraphs below each photo. The paragraphs contain brief descriptions of the child's age and interests and then a few sentences about the type of family the child is seeking. Some of the paragraphs explain that the children would do better without siblings or that they don't want to live in a home with pets. I jot down the names and case numbers of those children whose eyes call out to me in some way and whose descriptions tell me the child might be a match.

"Look at this one," I say. "He's so sweet, and it says he likes hiking and camping, like you."

My husband leans over and looks. "He is cute, but don't you think five is a little young? How about looking at the sibling pairs?" he nudges.

His response doesn't surprise me. I've always loved the little ones, but my husband seems to think, because of our ages, we should take a child a little older. I can feel him pushing for siblings too. My husband doesn't tend to do things on a small scale. His efforts are always consistent with his belief that if you can do more, you should.

As we discuss the children we see, the search feels strangely like shopping, and I'm uncomfortable in the feeling even though I know we're here for good reason. I'm not sure if we're supposed to be looking for the child who seems to best fit into our family—someone with my husband's blue eyes or my straight hair? But fitting in with our family's appearance just isn't a relevant criterion; we specified in our home study that we're open to any race.

Perhaps, we're looking for a child who is simply too adorable to pass by, one whose charm will outweigh the hard work that will go into raising her? Or maybe it's the child who looks the most in need of rescue? Or the one with the brightest spark in her eyes?

Here on this page there's a teenage girl with Rapunzel-long hair and a daisy smile. She's peeking through her blue-rimmed glasses, looking sweet and gentle like perhaps she still believes there might be some kindness in the world. Next to her there's a teenage boy singing a hymnal of want through his dark eyes and a sibling group standing arm-in-arm, united against the world that betrayed them. Suddenly, I realize I can be convinced to take any of these children, even all of them, because it will be too difficult to turn any one of them away.

As I continue to flip the pages, my eyes are drawn back to their eyes, especially the bright ones that tell me there's still light in the cavern of darkness that has been their lives. Some of these children, we learn by asking, have had a lifetime of trouble in less than a lifetime of years. Others have placed themselves out of reach with tantrums and misbehavior meant to protect them from being loved, just in case that love won't last. What surprises me most are the personal descriptions written by those children who choose to speak for themselves. They seem to know who they are, what they want, and still have some hope that life can be good.

Hope. That's it. That's what I must focus on as I turn the pages of these sad stories. I'll look for those children whose eyes somehow smile back through the murk of the trauma they've experienced.

After an hour or so, an adoption counselor comes in to tell us the center is closing. We can stay a little longer if we like and look some more. But my husband and I have seen enough. The faces and heartbreaking stories have all started to blend, and I don't want them to. I want one story to call out to me, asking me to change its ending. None yet do.

I hand the adoption recruiter my yellow pad with a list of five names. How strange to think that one of these children might be our future child. He glances at the list, says he knows at least two of them have been spoken for, but that he'll look into the other three. I already cannot remember which name matches which story.

The following week we attend an adoption party to meet some of the children on our list. Our local children's hospital sponsors food and games for children who are in the adoption pool or who have recently been adopted. I have never been the party type. I find it difficult to be among so many people and so much noise. But the adoption recruiters convince us that attending these parties is the best way to find our child.  

The large ballroom buzzes with children and their guardians. If I thought looking at photos of children was disconcerting, I had not yet imagined the feeling of snaking around a room full of children, looking for someone we might want to meet. I ask myself why this too feels so strange when we are here to do something good. Is it because it is unnatural for these children to be unclaimed, for their parents to have left them unparented?

What makes this even more unsettling is that the attendees wear color-coded name tags to indicate whether they are available or whether have already been placed with a family. We're told to look for the children whose tags are outlined in red. The red means they're waiting for a match, like us.

As we walk through the tables of adults and children having dinner, I scan the children. I try to read their name tags without being caught staring. The children are with their temporary foster parents or the social workers who are chaperoning them at this event, serving them meals and wiping their faces. None of them even seems to notice us, which makes me feel oddly like an unwanted party guest. I'm almost intimidated by them, not because they are children, but because I know they have seen more than I have, and I wonder if I can fit into their world. As I walk around the room feeling lost, I have to remind myself, this isn't about me.

One of the adoption recruiters introduces us to two girls, sisters aged eight and ten, with adorable pinched faces. They chat with us, showing us their face paint and the trinkets they've acquired at the party. Clearly, they understand why they are here and seem to also know we're here to find a child. They fit so well among the strangers, laughing and talking like this room filled with unparented children is their home. It pangs me that they are so young—too young to have to hold themselves out in this way, putting on the charm so that someone will want them. I wonder, of course, if these are the intended ones, but I don't feel anything different toward them. Should I?

Then we are introduced to a little boy who we had put on our list. His tiny features are adorable, and he's impeccably dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and penny loafers. Who couldn't find a heart to love this child? But when he meets us, he's not even interested, seemingly more comfortable in his current situation and not ready to think about a new home. So we cannot get a sense whether he would fit in with us and us with him. Maybe I'm silly to be relying on a feeling, but a connection is all I have to go on. And, since we're talking about adding someone to our family, how we feel seems like it matters.

I'm so disappointed when the party's over and we head home. We are no closer to finding the child we will take in. I don't want to attend anymore parties like this one. I want to find our child but not this way.

I decide that, instead, I will look for a sign—anything to tell me we have found the child or children we are intended to raise. We are talking about a child's life here and about our own family life. We cannot get this wrong. I don't need lightning to strike. But maybe a song will play in my head when I first meet her or she'll use an expression that reminds me of something my own children used to say. Maybe it's a shy smile that wrenches my heart or even that nagging feeling that perhaps I've seen her face somewhere before.

Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published widely. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and the founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.

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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.

Great story.
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