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Adopting a Son, Becoming a Mother: A Review of Susanne Antonetta’s Make Me a Mother

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Make Me a Mother: A Memoir
by Susanne Antonetta
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014; $25.95

In her memoir, Make Me a Mother, author Susanne Antonetta defines the term adoption broadly. Adopting her son, Jin, from Korea is just one of many acts of adoption Antonetta believes she will participate in. Antonetta recognizes the many ways we informally adopt children—as grandparents, stepparents, friends, and family members who bring children into our lives. Quoting psychiatrist E. James Lieberman, who wrote, “Indeed, we all have to adopt our children psychologically,” Antonetta expands the reach of Lieberman’s suggestion, declaring, “In fact, we psychologically adopt everyone we invite to enter our lives.”

As the book delves into her first 15 years as mother to Jin, Antonetta interweaves information about adoption in the United States and around the world. “The people of Oceania,” she writes, “...adopt children and give them to others to raise almost as commonly as they bear them, and they lack a Western attachment to purely genetic ties (‘We don’t think it’s all that important, who your mother is,’ says my friend Tiana, a native Hawaiian).” When a young Jin’s hamster dies, Antonetta recognizes his sadness as a demonstration of the many ways we bring others, including nonhuman others, into our hearts, in a way, adopting them. “We are born adopting. Nobody demonstrates this better than a child, ” she writes.

Other than arriving in Antonetta and her husband’s life by airplane, and the weeks of jet-lag that follow, Jin’s infancy is much like any other. “The baby becomes your obsession, your recreation, your hobby, your entertainment, your tether,” Antonetta writes of her first months as a mother. Jin grows from happy baby to challenging toddler to curious child to challenging teenager, a progression most kids go through; only the fact of his adoption compounds Antonetta’s motherly worries:

When my son was little, I thought about adoption all the time. Mostly I thought about it in a good way...wondering where he might be like his birth parents, where he took after us, and where he was just himself…. As Jin grew into a teenager, the fact of his adoption came to the surface again. What exactly did he reject, in that pulling away? Was his rejection of me more complete, more shattering, because we shared no DNA? Did he, ultimately, not love me enough, and on top of that, resent me for taking him away from the country of his birth, the one place where he looked like everyone else around him?

Antonetta’s own adolescence—during which she experimented with drugs and sex and dropped out of high school—adds to her fears about her son’s teenage years. “I worry that Jin is too different from me,” she writes. “At the same time, I worry—a fear that can feel like a hard punch to the heart—that he is like me. Either possibility is unbearable.”

While Antonetta navigates her son’s rocky adolescence, her own parents, living on the opposite coast, begin to decline in health, and, as Antonetta flies back and forth across the country to be with them, her adoption journey continues: “I have adopted my parents as well as my son. I call the relationship my parents and I have one of adoption, because we have a bond that I have accepted with intention.” Antonetta’s relationship with her mother had never been an easy one, and, Antonetta writes, her “adoption” of her mother could not have taken place without becoming a mother herself: “[I]t is also a grace I could not have been granted if I had not adopted my son, had not learned what it means to simply accept what I am called upon to do, and to do it, with little idea of what to expect in return.”

At the same time that she has adopted her own parents, Antonetta finds that “ mother has finally adopted large part through knowing me as I have become a mother.” Antonetta also recognizes that someday her son will have to also adopt her, “as we do with those we love throughout our lives.”

Antonetta beautifully demonstrates through her book that motherhood is a process of becoming, that mothers are shaped by our children just as children are shaped by their mothers, and that it is a process that never ends. She writes, “Jin has made me the mother I am and I have made him the son he is.” Antonetta’s willingness to share details of her difficult past and her own self-doubts as a mother make her a trustworthy narrator, and her inclusive understanding of adoption makes her particular story of formal adoption across continents into a universal story that any reader who has brought others—children, parents, friends—into her heart with intention can relate to.

Andrea Lani writes about the nexus of motherhood and the natural world. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Maine Review, SaltFront, and Brain, Child Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, a senior editor for Literary Mama, and a Maine Master Naturalist. She lives in central Maine with her husband and three sons.

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