Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Talk, Part One in a Series


"Was I in your tummy too, Mommy?"

I can't say that that question from Peyton arrived sooner or later than I expected. I just knew it would come some time after she realized babies and not beach balls grew inside pregnant women's bodies, which was roughly a year ago. But I guess she wasn't old enough then to make a connection between those unborn babies, and the baby she had once been, or between those women and me. She did make the connection between her baby-self and her older sister Taylor's baby-self, when Taylor asked me recently to tell the story--again--about how her dad used to tap on my belly when I was pregnant with her, and she would tap back.

"Was I in your tummy too, Mommy?"

It's very important these days for Peyton to be as much like Taylor as possible. At restaurants, she orders whatever Taylor orders. If Taylor gets dressed up for some occasion, Peyton must be in her Sunday best too--or else she wails and writhes as if we've suggested sending her outside nude, in the snow. If Taylor doesn't like a particular flavor of gum, Peyton removes the piece she had been happily chewing from her mouth and declares it "yucky." Thank God for Target and Payless where I can find reasonably-priced, age-appropriate identical clothes and shoes in both their sizes. Thank God for Taylor, age 8, who doesn't yet mind dressing like her baby sister.

So, it followed that when Taylor talked about being in my stomach, Peyton would ask if she'd been there too. Without missing a beat, I replied, "No, honey. You weren't in my tummy. You were in a different mommy's tummy and after you were born, we brought you home to live with us."--just as I'd rehearsed it in my head for the past three years or so. A straightforward, short answer, just as the adoption books recommended at this age.

Silently, I patted myself on the back for coming across so relaxed and cool, while my heart pounded in my chest and my mouth went dry. I hadn't rehearsed what to say next.

Taylor to the rescue. "Yeah, we flew on a plane to Chicago and picked you up and you were so cute and you cried like this: "Ah-geeeee, Ah-geeeee, Ah-geeeee!'"

Peyton giggled, and went back to eating her cheese and crackers.

Later that evening, I searched the house for How I Was Adopted, a picture book by Joanna Cole (of The Magic School Bus fame). I couldn't find it anywhere. I had hidden this book to make sure Taylor or a well-meaning babysitter didn't read it to Peyton. I'd read it to her once when she was about eighteen-months-old, along with The Snowy Day and The Runaway Bunny, as just another bedtime book.

Her dad and I had talked about being matter-of-fact about her adoption. We want her to say, as we've heard some adult adoptees say, "It seems like I've always known that I was adopted." We know that being adopted may mean everything and nothing to Peyton, her feelings about it likely changing as she enters various stages of her life--school-age, adolescence, adulthood, motherhood, possibly. We want to offer her a blank slate on which to write that story for herself. We won't tell her that she's lucky or better off being adopted. We'll state the facts, answer her questions as best and as honestly as we can, and affirm that we love her. The conclusions are hers to draw.

But that's all yet to come. I had to find that missing book. How I Was Adopted was supposed to be the big follow-up to The Question, and I had somehow managed to hide it from myself.

I told my ex, Mike, about Peyton's question, and we agreed that it was time to get more books. Throughout our fifteen years together, books were our answer to everything. Marital problems? Read how-to-stay-together books. Pregnancy and childbirth? Keep eight baby books on the nightstand at all times. Parenting? Own the complete Dr. Sears library. Divorcing? Buy two copies of How to Get Divorced Without Ruining Your Life. So, while I ordered a replacement copy of How I Was Adopted, Mike picked several other titles.

He ordered books for right now like Jamie Lee Curtis's Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, with its comforting repetition, and he ordered books for when Peyton is older, like Adoption is for Always whose cover features a somber-faced little girl named Celia. Like us, Celia's parents had told her she was adopted, "ever since [she] was a tiny girl...They said she hadn't grown inside her mommy but had grown inside a lady called her birthmother. Celia hadn't really heard what they said. When her parents said, 'Celia, we adopted you," it sounded no different than, 'Celia, we took you to the park when you were a baby.'"

When Celia is old enough to grasp what adopted means, she is sad and angry, at first. When we find ourselves at that point with Peyton, it'll be Taylor to the rescue again. Shortly after Mike and I told her we were divorcing, Taylor coined the term, "smad"--" I feel sad and mad," she said.

When (if?) Peyton is smad, we'll ride that wave with her, with as much as understanding as we can, creating a safe place for her to vent, within boundaries, as Celia's parents do.

Besides that, and continuing to be forthright, I really don't know how to rehearse for the second and subsequent parts of The Talk. I know the questions will get harder. Why, Peyton will ask, did her birthmother place her for adoption? Where is her birth mother now, and can she see her? Why, she might ask even later, did her father and I adopt a child, only to separate less than two years later? Biological facts are simple; emotions and motivations and "grown-up problems"--not so much. I recite the answers in my head sometimes, but even then, it's not easy. I want Peyton to know that she was loved by her birthmother, and is loved by us now and always. I want her to understand and feel secure in this love. I want so badly for her not to hurt, not to feel unwanted. I want things that rest only partly in my hands.

I guess I'll have heart palpitations along that bridge when I come to it. For now, we read about Sam (short for Samantha) and how she was adopted. When, at the end of the book, Sam asks "Do you know the story of how you were adopted?", Peyton answers, "Yes!" And she really does. She knows her birthmother's name, that we brought her home on an airplane, that all our friends and family threw a big party at our house to welcome her, and that we love her very much.

"Was I in your tummy too, Mommy?"

No, sweetie, you weren't. But you've been right here in my heart since the day I first held you. And that's where you'll always be."

And I can hear Peyton saying, "Just like Taylor?"

Yes, just like Taylor.

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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Deesha, you've been through so much! God bless and thanks (again!) for such a personal portrayal of your family life. I look forward to owning a copy of a "best of" collection of your essays some day. This one sure is a winner. K.
This is a wonderful essay. And what lucky, lucky children you have!
Thank you both for your encouraging comments! Best, Deesha
What lucky parents you are! They both sound like terrific kids!
Deesha, that's lovely. Your girls are both lucky to have such open communication with you.
This may just be my favorite article of yours, Deesha. It is poetic and lovely and real.
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