Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Girl is Mine

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On a rainy pre-Christmas December day, my friend Kristan and I strolled down the book aisle of Sam's Club, making gift selections and gifting ourselves with a few titles which had languished far too long on our "get" lists. Somewhere between The Life of Pi and How to Cook Everything, we ran into Kristan's aunt, whom I'd never met before. After introductions, the aunt (whose name I promptly forgot) peeked at the tiny baby snuggled in the fleece sling draped across my chest.

"Ohhhh! She's beautiful. A little peanut. How old?"

"Five weeks," I said.

"Five weeks?" the aunt sputtered. "But..." She gave my body a not-so-subtle once-over. "You look -- great! How did you do it?" A real mystery: How had I managed to squeeze back into my button-fly not-too-low-riders so soon after giving birth? Where was that tell-tale post-partum bulge?

My shopping cart certainly attested to a recent addition to the family, even if my waistline didn't: a jumbo box of size 1-2 Pampers; a canister of Similac, its circumference rivaling that of Pluto; and enough baby wipes to last until the child went to kindergarten. Verdict: after several years' hiatus, I was back to baby days. Only this time around, it was minus the nine months of pregnancy, 21 hours of labor, and round-the-clock breastfeeding.

To Kristan's aunt, I explained, "I... didn't have her. She's... adopted."

Wait. That didn't come out the way I'd rehearsed it. What was with the pauses? And where was my proud, mega-watt smile? This was not the way I'd intended to explain how my younger daughter came to be mine, in response to "I didn't know you were pregnant" and similar comments. I'd planned to be matter-of-fact about it all: I was this child's mother.

The story: A D&C in the wake of a miscarriage, and surgery to correct a cornual ectopic pregnancy three years after that, left me with only one Fallopian tube and more than a little scar tissue. My ob-gyn assured me that with a costly surgical procedure maybe he could remove the scar tissue adhering my one tube to my pelvic wall, and maybe after that the tube would work properly. Too many maybes for me. Besides, I'm no fan of hospitals, and my husband and I had already been blessed with a child (in between surgeries). We told the doctor "no, thanks," and immediately began discussing adoption. From the experiences of friends of ours, we knew of the joys and pains of the adoption process. We shared our friends' belief that as black people with the resources and desire to give a child a good home, we should consider the many black children whose childhoods are spent in foster care.

Still, it would be a few years of trying to find the "right" time to grow our family before we contacted an agency. One failed adoption followed that initial contact, but the experience actually strengthened our resolve to adopt and ultimately led us to our daughter.

At 13 days old, two days after her birth parents surrendered their rights, we brought our baby girl to a hotel room in Chicago, and, with her thrilled new big sister, made our first home together. We stayed at the hotel and then with friends until judges in Illinois and Pennsylvania agreed to let her leave and enter those states, respectively. We arrived home to Pittsburgh greeted by excited relatives and friends bearing Classic Pooh sleepers, tie-dyed receiving blankets, and frozen lasagnas. We told everyone it felt as if she'd always been with us, how she'd slipped quietly into our lives, blessing us and changing us forever. And we changed her name.

Five years ago, my husband, Mike, had named our first child, Taylor Nicole. This time around, it was a joint effort. Peyton Imani -- he chose "Peyton," I chose "Imani," which means "faith" in Kiswahili. I like "Peyton," though my primary association was with the movie and the Dolly Parton song, "Harper Valley PTA," the line in which Barbara Eden's saucy mama character tells off the town busy-bodies: "Well, this is just a little Peyton Place, and you're all Harper Valley Hyprocrites!"

Mike's eyes had glazed over when I shared this bit of late-70s trivia with him. He was otherwise engaged, preparing his "Manning -- not Walter" explanation for the proper spelling of Peyton to interested parties and football aficionados.

Peyton Imani is the same name we'd chosen for another baby a few months earlier, a baby whose birth mother suddenly decided not to place her for adoption just as we were about to bring her home. Though the name is a reminder of that painful experience, we liked it so much, we opted not to retire it like a sports jersey. Peyton I (Peyton the First) was a cute, chunky newborn who my mother-in-law now says never seemed like "ours" based on the pictures sent via e-mail. I dunno. I thought Peyton I had my nose. She definitely had my big eyes. She looked like ours. But I understand where my mother-in-law is coming from. This is her way of embracing Peyton II, of welcoming her into a family and community with a rich history of formal and informal adoption. In fact, with Peyton's arrival, the adopted children now outnumber the biological children at certain gatherings of family and friends.

The hesitant words I spoke to Kristan's aunt that day in Sam's Club did not reflect the joy Peyton has brought to my life and to others. Though my body does not tell the story of her birth, I could not love her more if it did. I inhale her new-baby smell, marvel at her tiny fists gripping my fingers, and adapt to her warm presence against my chest in the sling, my constant companion.

And I believe the feeling is mutual. Peyton's almost-immediate preference for me is destined for family lore. In the beginning, many nights found Mike, defeated, handing a wailing Peyton to me, only to have her settle down immediately in my arms. (I believe he secretly delights in her current reluctance to sleep regardless of whose arms she's in.) Now, at three months old, my arms are still Peyton's favorite place. When she is not in them, her eyes follow me constantly, with an occasional smile erupting across her sweet face.

I must confess that not long before Peyton's arrival, I'd grown cranky and not a little nauseous listening to new parents spout such things as I've just written in the two preceding paragraphs. With a preschooler under my belt, the cynic in me avoided people who assumed the minutiae of their babies' lives was as interesting to others as it was to them. But I'm glad to be back among the gushing. Now when I have occasion to explain Peyton's adoption, the words flow easily and the message is clear: The girl is mine, and I am hers.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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