The oven is ready, but my batter looks lumpy. I poke through it with my spatula, hunting down blobs of powder and blending them into the mixture until they disappear. When at last I gaze into a rich pool of smooth chocolate, I pour equal portions of batter into a dozen muffin cups and put the pan into the oven.
As the smell of chocolate swells through the air, I take comfort in knowing that I have done something concrete. Cupcakes are real. You can hold them in your hand and eat them. And today I need something like that. Today the waiting and worrying must move aside to make room for tangible things.
My little boy turns one year old today, and I decided weeks ago that I'd bake cupcakes to celebrate. It made me feel like such a typical mom, planning ahead, buying all the ingredients at the store, making sure we had birthday candles. But now that the day has arrived, I don't feel typical at all. And as much as I'd like to turn this into a typical birthday, I can't. Two things stand in my way. First, my son is not here to celebrate. And second, I am not yet his mother.
"I don't have any news," says Vivian, the international program coordinator for our adoption agency. She just got off the phone with her contacts in Russia, who are working behind the scenes to finish our paperwork and secure us a court date. We were told that this would take six to eight weeks, but so far it has taken ten. I have learned that when it comes to international adoption, everything takes longer than it should.
"Yelena wanted me to contact you," Vivian continues. "She thinks you should re-do most of your dossier."
Two years ago, with little understanding of what lay ahead, my husband and I decided to look into adoption. For several weeks we gathered information on agencies before signing on with the one we liked best. For six months after that, we collected papers for our dossier and followed a course of study for prospective parents, learning about attachment disorders, child development, medical issues, and the like. We set up three separate interviews with a social worker, who wrote a summary of our parental qualifications for the state of Massachusetts. We filled out piles and piles of forms, revealing more about ourselves than we were even remotely comfortable putting down on paper. Then, when all the preliminaries were done, we sat and waited.
Eleven months later, we made our first trip to Moscow.
There, we finally met the baby boy who would become our son, and as we played with him that first afternoon in the stark, uncarpeted anteroom at Orphanage No. 12, we fell hopelessly in love. What an amazing little boy, we said, marveling at his easygoing, playful spirit. We promptly signed off on yet another pile of forms, this one making our request to adopt him official, and as our son's proud parents-to-be, we decided to name him A.J., short for Andrei James. At last we felt like all the other adoptive parents had said we would feel. After meeting and bonding with our child, it no longer mattered how much time had passed. All memory of the hours, days, and months lost to waiting simply faded away.
But now we're waiting again. We had to leave our son in Moscow until the courts decide we can bring him home, and so far the courts have not acted. Until they do, we can only leaf through the stack of pictures we took in Moscow and watch our favorite video over and over again--the one where A.J. teeters across the anteroom behind his push-walker, his expression so earnest and full of concentration that we can't help laughing in delight every time we see it.
Over the phone, Vivian tells me it would be a good idea to have the doctor update our medical forms. "Just in case," she says. "We don't want any more delays."
Over lunch my friend Judy smiles at me from across the table. I've just told her that because we live in a condo without a lot of closet space, I want to keep A.J.'s toy collection confined to the two storage bins I bought at Target last week. "Just until we move into our house and he has his own room to play in," I add, poking at a cube of tofu with my fork. "Then I won't care so much."
Judy laughs. "I said the same thing before Claire was born," she says. "Just wait. Before you know it, the toys will take over the whole house."
My friend and I are playing out a ritual that takes place countless times a day at lunch tables all over the world. First, a prospective mother makes a comment about her vision of life after the baby arrives. Then, a mother who has seen it all and lived to tell about it says, "Just wait."
"Just wait until you have to plan ahead for three days just to take a shower."
"Just wait until you're sitting on an airplane with a screaming two-year-old."
"Just wait until you have to listen to Baby Beluga sixty-four times a day."
Just wait, they say, and I admit they have a point. Motherhood will bring me face to face with all kinds of unexpected realizations. But in the meantime, I want to make one thing clear: I have waited long enough.
"This is your gestation period," says my friend Sara. "Something could happen any day now, so it's like being stuck indefinitely in your ninth month of pregnancy."
I decide to look up gestation on the internet, and I learn that all mammals have a gestation period, though the duration varies greatly from one mammal to the next. The average human pregnancy lasts about 38 weeks, while elephants wait a mind-boggling 22 months. Hamsters wait only 15 days from conception to birth, while wolves must wait four times that long. Zebras and donkeys give birth about a year after conception, while rabbits wait only one month.
Adoptive parents wait as long as it takes.
My breasts don't ache. I didn't suffer through three months of morning sickness. I don't have to reach out over my swollen belly to type. But my discomfort is real, and all the more troublesome because I have no idea when it will end.
A.J. is safe and well-fed. I know this. I met his caretakers at the orphanage, and I saw how hard they work. They're fond of my little guy, too--I can tell by the way they look at him. But still, I ache to parent my son. I want to be there to feed him his breakfast in the morning. I want to take him out for a ride in the stroller. Some nights I lie in bed thinking my heart will burst right out of my chest, I long so much to hold that little boy in my arms. But I can't hold him, not yet. Like any expectant mother, I have to wait.
"Do you have kids?" asks the woman in the pink hoodie.
We're seated next to each other outside the aerobics room at the Y, making small talk as we wait for our intervals class to begin. Her question takes me by surprise.
"Um...well...," I stammer. It would feel wrong to say no, but a simple yes won't cut it.
"Sort of," I blurt out. The woman looks at me, perplexed. "My husband and I are in the process of adopting a little boy from Russia," I add. "So, yes, I guess I do have kids...or one kid, sort of. But he doesn't actually live with us yet."
I laugh awkwardly. The woman nods, flashes me a smile, and then looks away.
Our class begins, and I spend the next hour lifting weights, keeping my heart rate up, and trying to figure out why I didn't just say yes.
With key in hand, I walk toward the mailbox. Maybe the letter came today.
My husband and I have been waiting for our clearance letter from the FBI, without which we cannot get a court date in Moscow, without which we cannot bring our son home. We have done our part. We drove to the police station on a snowy morning several weeks ago to get our fingerprints taken; then I wrote out our request and sent the completed fingerprint cards to the FBI, marking the envelope exactly as instructed by our agency: "ADOPTION--PLEASE EXPEDITE." The response was supposed to arrive three weeks later. So far we have waited five.
But I believe in happy coincidences, and today is A.J.'s birthday. Every now and then, I've decided, the planets can line up in just the right way and a dose of good karma can arrive in your mailbox disguised as a letter from the FBI.
So I turn my key and peer inside. One by one I pull out today's contents: an Eddie Bauer catalog, three bills, a bright blue Value-Pack of coupons I will never use, and a flyer urging us to switch to Verizon FiOS.
I walk back upstairs. Maybe tomorrow.
After dinner, we clear the dishes from the table and my husband begins stacking them in the dishwasher.
"Ready for a cupcake?" I ask.
"You bet," he says.
I head for the bedroom to get our framed 4X6 photo of A.J. from the top of the dresser. I snapped this one about midway through our second day in Moscow. It shows our little boy gazing coyly off to one side with just a hint of a smile on his face. He actually looks bemused by all the attention he's getting. I carry the photo into the kitchen and set it down in the center of the table. Then I grab a small plate from the cupboard and place a single cupcake on it.
"Do we have candles?" my husband asks.
"Of course," I answer. "Right here."
I poke one into the top of the cupcake. "Let's turn out the lights," I suggest, reaching for a match.
My husband flips the switch as I light the candle, and there we stand in the semi-dark: two parents, one cupcake, and a snapshot of our baby son. My husband, though he's not much of a singer, starts in on "Happy Birthday." I join him and we finish the song together. The candle flickers, its happy glow reflected in the glass of the picture frame.
"Make a wish," I say, in a voice as bright as I can muster. In the silence that follows, we stand arm in arm before the glowing candle. I think back to that day in Moscow, when our little boy toddled across the room behind his push-walker as we cheered him on. When he finally toddled into the space directly before me, I scooped him up in my arms. He grinned as I lifted him over my head and told him what a good boy he was.
Together my husband and I blow out the candle; then I turn on the lights so we can eat our cupcakes.