In the spring of 2006, my seventeen-year-old daughter Aselefech, a junior in high school, came to me and said—tearily, almost defiantly—that she was pregnant. I was shocked, sad, afraid for her. I thought I’d done all the right things to prevent this from happening. I had talked with her and her siblings about sex, taken my daughters to get birth control, and discussed the dangers of unprotected sex. How could this have happened?
Aselefech and her twin sister, Adanech, were six years old in 1994 when my then-husband and I adopted them from Ethiopia. Our two sons, who were born in the U.S., had been adopted as babies, and were five and seven years old when the girls arrived. The paperwork we received from the adoption agency claimed the girls ’ parents were dead. From the start, it was clear to me that Adanech and Aselefech had been loved in Ethiopia. They were used to the chaos of family and kids; they adjusted well to school, even when they spoke little English. Aselefech, in particular, liked to do things with me: cooking, cleaning, reading, gardening. She must have been close to her mom, I remember thinking, because she easily became close to me.
Middle school was challenging—my kids were exploring relationships, experiencing heightened peer pressure, confiding less in me. High school continued the era of eye-rolling, occasional door-slamming, and deeply felt teen logic. For the most part, Aselefech and I got along well: She talked about boys with me, though much more with her sister, and I worked hard to keep communication open.
When she told me she was pregnant, I couldn’t help but feel angry at first—didn’t she see that this meant the end of so many opportunities? Would she finish high school? Would she go to college? How would she overcome the pain inflicted by those who would see her as a stereotype, the young, single Black mother?
Our family had known Aselefech’s then-boyfriend, the baby’s father, for years. Miguel was a year ahead of her in high school. While he was involved in the conversations concerning the baby, he and Aselefech weren’t anywhere near ready for marriage. And while Aselefech contemplated it, she decided against having an abortion. So I was the one who went with her to her obstetrician appointments, often feeling sullen. Aselefech’s pregnancy started to show, and her teachers just shook their heads. My mind reeled as I thought about all the realities of parenting a baby: the emotions, the expenses, the decisions —i t all seemed like too much for my teenaged daughter.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Mom,” she confessed to me one night. I didn’t know if she could do it, either. Not because it was impossible, but because she was so young. Our family had the financial resources to help, and I knew her dad, her siblings, her friends, and I would support her. Still—was keeping and raising this baby really a good choice for her?
When Aselefech and Adanech were around seven years old, I remember being at a routine doctor’s appointment with a new doctor. She reviewed my chart while we chatted about my children, and she saw that I had never been pregnant. She was confused until I explained that they had all been adopted. “A win-win, isn’t it?” she said. “A child needed a family, and you wanted a child.”
At the time, I agreed. I did see adoption as win-win. I had always believed in adoption, when carried out with integrity and transparency; I had even worked for an adoption agency for a time.
Yet my understanding of it—and all its joys and sorrows—is far deeper now than it was when I first became a parent. Thanks to my daughter, I have seen firsthand what a vulnerable pregnancy can look like: a young mother with an uncertain future, for whom a baby will bring unknown burdens and demands, emotion and energy and delayed dreams. Yet when I talked about adoption with Aselefech during her pregnancy, she paused, then said, “No. I can’t imagine being in the world, knowing that my child was somewhere else, and not with me. It’s just too sad to think about.”
As an adoptive parent, I saw that what I had intellectually been at peace with—my child’s birth mother making a tough, loving, selfless decision—is a very different choice when you are on the other side. In truth, I felt just as Aselefech did: I could not imagine my grandchild being placed for adoption. I could not imagine my daughter handing her baby over to someone else.
When I saw the baby at Aselefech’s sonogram appointment, I began to understand what this child could add to the world. For me, that sonogram was a tip of the balance, the tangible turning point from anger to hope.
Who really knows what they are getting into as a first-time parent, and especially at seventeen? Aselefech had few high school friends with children. “That’s the hardest part,” she said; “I’m an outsider among my friends.” But by then, she also felt confident that we would be there for her, financially and emotionally. “I know I may need some help, but I can take care of this baby,” she told me. We had a baby shower, with friends and family, with games and gifts. Aselefech was celebrated, and the baby felt more real to her, as she happily thumbed through clothes and books and bottles.
Aselefech and her newborn daughter
The birth of Zariyah, on October 2, 2006, was my first time being present at a delivery. Aselefech’s water broke at two a.m. We got in the car and went to the hospital while her dad drove to pick up Miguel. Aselefech had an epidural around four, and then delivered the baby four hours later. Hers had been a remarkably easy pregnancy, followed by an easy birth. In the end, we all felt nothing but joy as we welcomed the beautiful, wondrous baby girl my daughter had birthed.
Zariyah’s birth had far-reaching effects on each of us. For Aselefech and her sister Adanech, it was a reminder of their own births and their Ethiopian mother. They knew they had been placed for adoption together at the age of five and a half. “Placed for adoption”—such a tidy phrase, not allowing for the heartache of the decision. What had their births been like? Who was there with their mother when they were born? Who took care of the three of them afterwards?
At that time, we had no answers for those questions. We spoke some of the questions aloud as Zariyah grew from an infant to a toddler, and held many others in our hearts. We connected with an adoption agency that offered post-adoption services in Ethiopia, and they sent a social worker to the town listed on the girls’ adoption paperwork. The social worker found people who knew people whose twins were adopted to the U.S.
Two years after Zariyah’s birth, in 2008, I traveled to Ethiopia at the request of Adanech and Aselefech, who did not feel ready to go themselves—they were afraid that death or other losses might have occurred in the time since their adoption. I traveled two hours from Addis Ababa to the town where my daughters had spent their first five years, and there I met my daughters’ other mother.
Meeting Desta face-to-face was among the most powerful experiences of my life. She was accompanied by her husband (my girls’ father), several of their children (my girls’ siblings), and two of their grandchildren (my girls’ nephews). We were all crowded into a small, dark room, some of us sitting, some standing. As Ethiopian culture is one of courtesy and deference, I was given the best chair, and offered coffee first. There were many prayers, offered at length by the men, and briefly translated for me: “The family is very grateful. Give thanks to God.” We smiled a lot, nodded our heads, wiped tears from our eyes.
I gave Desta, whose name means joy in Amharic, a photo album that my daughters and I had prepared for her. She murmured “amaseganallo,” thank you , and looked slowly through the album while I babbled about the photos: “That’s when they were on a great soccer team. That was their school photo. Those are my sons, their brothers, adopted from the U.S. That’s our house.” I don’t know what the translator told her. Desta touched each picture, talking softly with her children, who also looked at the photos of their sisters and cried quietly. I gave Desta a few framed photos, close-ups of Aselefech and Adanech’s faces. I remember how she stroked their cheeks, their faces captured in the photographs.
The daughters brought out injera and doro wat, the traditional spongy bread and chicken stew, along with bottles of Fanta and Coke. Someone took the albums and photos away from Desta, who had been holding them tightly, and put them in another room. I saw a brief sadness in her eyes at that moment, followed by a wistful, resigned acceptance. When it was time for me to go, I said to her, many times, “Amaseganallo.” She said, “Thank you,” many times. We hugged, and took photos, and then I left.
I know what it means to be an adoptive mother, loving my children so deeply. I know the pain of infertility, of desperately wanting a child to love. But I don’t know what it’s like to be a biological mother, being pregnant and giving birth to a child, having that undeniable connection. When I met Desta, I finally began to understand a birth mother’s grief. Desta and I both love Adanech and Aselefech more than words can say, but she had to lose them for me to love them.
I brought back photos and stories from my trip to share with our daughters. Shortly after, Aselefech—for the first time since she had left Ethiopia—spoke with her mother on the phone. She had lost her childhood Amharic and needed to use a translator as well.
In 2011, when Zariyah turned five—the age my daughters were when they were first brought to the orphanage in Addis Ababa—Aselefech and I again talked about the pain their mother must have felt at losing her then-five-year-old twins. We could not imagine losing Zariyah, sending her halfway around the world, perhaps never to see her again. On my granddaughter’s birthday, we both felt grief for a loss both imagined and unimaginable.
Aselefech's reunion with her birth mother, Desta
That summer Aselefech and I traveled together to Ethiopia, and she reunited with her family: mother, father, sisters, brothers, in-laws, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, and cousins. There were many tears, hugs, kisses, prayers, and translators. Several of the men spoke to the group. The translations often seemed brief, given the length of the Amharic. In a rare, quiet moment, Aselefech asked her mother why she and her sister had been placed for adoption.
Her father answered: In 1988, famine and war meant there was not enough food. Jobs were scarce. We had five other children. Aselefech asked who took her and her sister to the orphanage. Her father answered that he had, along with the girls’ older brother.
Desta seemed to speak and understand little English, while her children—especially her sons—understood quite a bit and often answered for her, not always translating our questions. Toward the end of our visit, Desta spoke directly to Aselefech. “Your mother says she was not at home the day you were taken to the orphanage,” the translator said. “She did not want you to leave.”
Not being able to talk together without a translator remained an element of sorrow. It will take many more visits and many conversations to break through the cultural differences and cope with all the emotions of reunion. Still, we were able to talk, to share pictures, to ask questions. And for the first time since she was a child, Aselefech was able to look into faces that reflected her history.
Desta and Aselefech
I know that Aselefech and Adanech deeply love us, their adoptive parents. They are aware of how different their lives might have been had they remained in Ethiopia. Certainly they’ve had some economic advantages and opportunities thanks to the lives they have led here. How to balance that, though, against losing one’s original mother, father, siblings—one’s country, language, heritage, culture? These losses are impossible to measure, and can never be dismissed.
Were one of my children to die, I don’t know that I could ever recover. Even typing those words brings fear to me. But how else can I attempt to empathize with what hundreds of thousands of mothers have gone through around the world, those who lost their children to adoption because they had no other choice? How can any of us involved in adoption, anyone who has benefited from it, not speak out on behalf of the countless parents and families who have lost their children this way? How can we think they don’t grieve deeply?
It is difficult for many adoptive parents to accept that our joy may have come at the price of great sorrow. Thanks to my own privilege, I had the luxury of seeing my daughter reject that particular sorrow and keep her daughter, though she was young and her pregnancy was unexpected. Aselefech is a wonderful mother, and graduated from college with a degree in sociology. Zariyah is a bright, healthy, active girl, who takes ballet lessons and attends a wonderful school.
The author [right] with her daughter and granddaughter
In 2014, Aselefech, Zariyah, and I visited Ethiopia together, and Zariyah, then seven years old, met her Ethiopian grandmother for the first time. We visited in the front room of their modest home, seated together on a low couch. Again, there were many people present—relatives, neighbors, priests, and friends. Zariyah was understandably overwhelmed by the crowd and the emotions running through the room. She sat quietly, just listening, and it took us all a while to notice that tears were streaming down her face. She told us later, “I don’t know these people, and I didn’t know what they were saying. And they are my family, but they are strangers. I didn’t know what to do. I think I was supposed to be happy. But I felt sad.”
Desta now knows and has kissed Zariyah, one of her many grandchildren. I will never forget the sight of her speaking softly to her American granddaughter, reaching out to gently stroke Zariyah’s cheek. After losing her beloved daughters to adoption for some twenty years, Desta now has them back—in a sense—but eight thousand miles remain between them.
Aselefech and Adanech keep in contact with their Ethiopian family, sending photos and news; there will be more visits. Theirs is a biological connection which I do not share, but which I now recognize as important and intensely powerful. I have no biological connection to my beloved children and granddaughter, but they are close to me. All of us live with the knowledge that much could have been different, and all of us share the hope and joy that Zariyah has brought us.