I met my daughter, Stella, for the first time on January 9, 2019. She was one week old. I had only seen a couple of pictures of her and was absolutely exhausted after a 20-hour trip to reach her, consisting of a few flights, a boat trip, and a bus ride. She was waiting for us at her children’s home in Sierra Leone, wearing a pink onesie far too big for her tiny frame. I remember that the air was fresh and the sun streamed in from the windows, bringing a cheerful light to the rundown space. Her huge eyes locked onto mine, and from that moment, we became one person. All my fear, exhaustion, and any negative thoughts instantly drifted away. To me, she wasn’t just a baby, but the incarnation of all my dreams of becoming a mother. I wasn’t just a woman holding her, but her future; a new and positive outcome made real, far from a life of poverty – thanks to this blessing called adoption.
I never believed it takes only blood to be family or to love each other. I was born into a big family – the typical loud Italian household with hundreds of cousins, aunts, and neighbors. My mom got married very young and had three children. Sadly, she was a widow by the time she was 27. This didn’t prevent her from having a career, raising me and my siblings, and, most of all, remaining a loving person who kept her home open for friends in trouble, homeless relatives, and stray pets alike. I was born from her second marriage and there has never been a day in my life when I felt that my two older sisters and brother were less than fully related to me for life. I was their little doll and still am. My dream of adopting is rooted in this relationship. I can locate it deep in my memories, on a rainy day when my mom made me notice how lucky and happy we were and how so many other children didn’t have the same opportunities; a chance to be loved the way we loved each other. Growing up, I became busy living my life to the fullest: studying, establishing a career, socializing, finding the right man. By the time my husband and I decided it was time to have our baby, it was a little too late for me. While I pondered trying for a biological child with IVF, the dream of adopting snuck back in my brain and, most importantly, my heart. My husband was also happy to adopt. We always joke that we don’t have a highbrow genetic patrimony to pass on to future generations, anyway.
As an expat living in Dubai and planning to adopt, we first got in touch with our embassy in the UAE. We needed to assess our country’s legal requirements as we wanted our child to have our citizenship. We also made ourselves aware of international adoption standards, namely the Hague Convention, and the laws of the country we would adopt from. We then reached out to a psychologist to work on our home study. This is a screening of the home life of prospective parents prior to allowing an adoption to take place. To help us juggle all of this, we contacted a lawyer and family counselor, who advised us the best way to adopt considering our legal, social, and family circumstances. Only then was the actual process ready to get underway.
I wonder why adoption is never presented by doctors as an option. Somehow, it is considered like the last lifeboat on a ship that is sinking. Friends and acquaintances will tell you how noble your purpose is but most will add that they could never do it themselves. Why? In my mind, the process of becoming pregnant and giving birth has many parallels with adoption. Adoption is a long pregnancy. Excitement and emotions are uncontrollably high; you don’t know what to expect but you do know that a baby is arriving. At times, you also have to face delusions and setbacks. We first tried adopting from three different countries. We saw the images of the babies, we were fully engaged, but like a cold shower of disappointment, in the end, none worked out. I thought I was prepared, I thought I was tough; nevertheless, the harshness of that reality disenchanted me. However, I didn’t give up. One of the reasons is because there are also incredibly kind and just people out there. So many offered support – social workers, psychologists, friends, family, and other adopting couples. We found a helpful community that reinstated my faith. After the pregnancy, the labor starts. For Stella and I, it was quite strenuous, lasting months. The majority of the time was spent alone, in Africa, and the thought of leaving her behind in an orphanage while dealing with the legal process was unbearable. My maternal instinct had kicked in, even though I hadn’t had the nine months or so to get attached to a growing fetus. There were no pregnancy tests, no ultrasounds, and no baby shower. I believe we need to rethink the concept of motherhood. Science has proven that both biological and adoptive mothers experience the same hormonal changes when they become parents, even the jump in oxytocin levels (the hormone that promotes feelings of love, bonding and well-being). The maternal instinct is hard-wired in our brains and – biological parent or not – we respond to the baby’s cues; her cries most of all.
Of course, there is more than science for me. There are feelings and maybe destiny, too. I spent two years imagining my baby. In the end she appeared – the child of my dreams. She is simply perfect. Her lips’ Cupid’s bow, her curly hair, her tiny hands, and her sweet disposition. Although I truly believe I have loved her since forever and that somehow the universe decided we were meant to be, the path to reach Stella wasn’t so straightforward.
Throughout the course of the adoption, my husband and I, from our home in the UAE, had to overcome many obstacles and barriers, mainly legal but also of the emotional kind. Stella latched onto me and I embraced her past along with the consciousness that difficult questions will one day have to be answered and that, at some point, someone will make her notice that we don’t share the same skin color. But no mother is weak of spirit. Loving, nurturing, drying tears, this is what we all do. I am a real mother. Stella is my real daughter, and, from here onward, we will never be apart.
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia