Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Interview with Adam Pertman

Author Interview by Fran Cronin

Steve Jobs—a Fully Revised Adoption Nation—and What's Next?


Adam Pertman is a busy guy. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Pertman seems to be everywhere at once: lecturing, writing, appearing on the Today Show or NPR. And like a doctor on call, he’s always available to help enlighten the general public about the once-silent world of adoption.

Adam Pertman
Since writing a Pulitzer Prize-nominated series about adoption for the Boston Globe in 1998, Pertman has transformed his experience as the parent of two adopted children into his life’s work.

His acclaimed book Adoption Nation was first published in 2000; a new edition came out this year with the revised subtitle of "How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—and America." As Pertman told me, "I rewrote a big percentage of the book."

For almost a decade, he's served as the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, a nonprofit that’s the go-to organization for adoption-related research and policy. Pertman is also associate editor of Adoption Quarterly, and he coedited the new anthology Adoption by Lesbians and Gay Men with David M. Brodzinsky.

At 57, Pertman has enough gray in his floppy hair and Van Dyke beard to convey an earnest man-on-a-mission. He hurried into our prearranged meeting this October at a cafe in Newton, Massachusetts, noting the moms in a mommy-baby group that had just dispersed. He ordered a dark coffee and darted to the table I’d cleared, removing papers and books from under one arm.

Before we even sat down, Pertman had started talking.

FC: It’s uncanny we should meet today. Yesterday Steve Jobs died, a famous adoptee and very private man. What does his story tell us about adoption?

AP: Last night, ABC’s Nightline did a piece about Jobs and described him as a “baby his parents didn’t want,” which is such a negative and bad thing to say. Just shows how little is known about adoption. There’s this impulse to revert to negative stereotypes.

Jobs was a reunited adoptee who searched and found his mother and got to know a lot about his heritage. His father was an immigrant from Syria, and his biological sister is the author Mona Simpson. He was private but open about his adoption. He liked to talk about being adopted in his commencement speeches.

We’ve made enormous progress, but the misunderstandings remain profound. When something is kept a secret for generations, how are people ever going to learn about it?

FC: It’s obvious your own story as an adoptive father has influenced you. What made you want to write your book Adoption Nation in 2000 and then revise it this year?

AP: As an adoptive father, I was an expert on my kids but not about adoption. At the time, the general public’s knowledge about adoption was not very good, either. How could it be? Adoption was a closely held secret for so many generations.

But during this last decade, there has been enormous change, and I felt it was important to show that the revolution in adoption is still in progress.

Ten years ago, adoptions from abroad were starting to soar. Today those numbers are plummeting, while adoption from foster care has been steadily rising and is now the most common form of non-family adoption.

Today, adoption is also much more diverse. Gays and lesbians now adopt in disproportionate numbers. This change has really helped to normalize and broaden the term “family.” We better understand that adoption is not just something that touches someone else’s life, but now touches all our families, our communities, and our country.

Plus, not to be too corny, every father’s dream is to make the world a better place for his kids. I thought this book would give me the opportunity to do that.

FC: In the past ten years, the Internet has also become a much bigger force. Can you describe the Internet’s impact on adoption—such as the new tools it gives birthparents and adopted kids to search for one another?

AP: The Internet is changing everyone’s world. But adoption is one of those worlds where the changes have not yet been closely examined. It’s like the Wild West. There’s been an explosion in search and reunions in all directions: kids looking for their families, and parents looking for their kids.

The best upside to the Internet is as a resource to help people with placement and searches. People are finding birth families in Africa, China, and Korea. You can just imagine that at some point a chat room will surface.

The downside is the lack of supervision. There is no monitoring, no counseling, and no understanding of what constitutes good practices. The adoption world is full of vulnerable people who could easily be taken advantage of.

FC: Another big change in the past decade is the expansion of open adoptions, in large part due to the advocacy of Betty Jean Lifton, who died last year at age 84. How has adoption changed as a result?

AP: Long ago, we made the mistake of trying to make adoption replicate the stereotypical biological family, and most babies were adopted from white unwed mothers. We mentally aspired to an ideal norm. As in any culture, we thought there was a right way to form a family: get married and make babies. When we could not do this, we thought the alternatives were second best. Set in this context, we sent adoption underground. We tried to hide our kids.

Today, open adoptions of domestic infants are most prevalent, which I think is the best practice. People like not to think about where adopted kids come from, but they come from real people, real families. Openness is better for the kids, but usually more complicated for the adults.

But we teach our kids something by being open. It’s only normal that kids want to meet their bio parents. Adoption may be different or feel harder, but we need to internalize it as our normal. It helps us appreciate our kids on their own terms. And I like to think honesty and openness always trump shame.

FC: For the past thirteen years, you’ve consistently advocated for adoption to be part of our social landscape. You call this a revolution. Where do you see the next big battle in our effort to make adoption part of American society?

AP: If you add up the numbers, almost 80 percent of the kids adopted today are either from foster care or from abroad. That means the majority of adopted kids were either institutionalized or are on the rebound from a family in which they experienced abuse or neglect. Before they were adopted, these kids had experiences that their new adoptive families need to help them work through. It takes a lot of nurturing and love.

In October 2010, we [Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute] released a research study titled “Keeping the Promise" about the need for post-adoption services. Think about it: We move children from one country to another with the implicit promise that we will give them better prospects for their future. But we don’t keep that promise. Instead, we look at adoption as a statistic, like the number of kids that are moving from foster care to families, and say, “Aren’t we successful!”

We need to change that paradigm. We need to shift from placement as the goal. Parents want to help their kids overcome the traumas that occurred prior to adoption. Our priority should be to help these kids and families succeed. We have to rethink and restructure what we do at the state and government levels in providing education and support. If we don’t understand how to better help these kids, then we will really mess up.

This country has yet to fully understand just how pervasive the impact of adoption is on our culture. If you add up all the connections, there are 100 million people in adopted families. This is not a silo issue. This is about us.

Where to Find Adam Pertman

And Don't Miss the Spotlight on Adoption and Parenting in Talking Writing!

Adam Pertman's interview with Fran Cronin originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Talking Writing: "We Teach Our Kids by Being Open." This issue also includes:

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: "No Biking in the House Without a Helmet"

By David Biddle

The "Do I Love Them Yet?" Syndrome

Once that last child begins to drive, most of us realize our capacity to parent is fading. We get a few years of empty-nest freedom before grandparenting kicks in. But the marathon is over. We finished!

Then there are the Melissa Fay Greenes of the world—and her attorney husband Don Samuel, a man who practices courtroom statements on his kids instead of reading them bedtime stories. Samuel and Greene, a journalist, had four children using their own DNA: Molly, Seth, Lee, and Lily. But then, in their early forties and with encouragement from their biological kids, the Greene-Samuel team adopted five more in less than a decade.

It began in 1999 with Chrissy (whom they renamed Jesse), a four-year-old boy of Romani (“gypsy”) descent from a Bulgarian orphanage. Then they adopted five-year-old Helen from AIDS-ravaged Ethiopia, where, Greene notes, 11 percent of the nation’s children were orphans in 2001. After Helen came nine-year-old Fisseha (renamed Sol), followed by brothers Yosef (8) and Daniel (11)—also all from Ethiopia.

In No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Greene tells the story of building this mega-family—two loving parents, two quirky dogs, nine amazing children from three different birth cultures—all living under one roof in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cute, huh? Sweet?

Hardly. Greene is not a master parent by any means—in far too many scenes, she just lets chaos reign in her household—and this is not a simple, feel-good treatise on the ultimate blended family. Her memoir is powerful and alluring, almost like a reality TV show where you actually care about the characters.

Greene comments intelligently on adoption, family, intercultural experience, and—above all—real love. This last resonates with me most, because as a mixed-race adoptee, I know that love between parents and children, adoptive or biological, is one of the greatest mysteries I’ve encountered in life....

Editor's Note: The full text of this review—"Adoption, Light and Dark"—appears in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Talking Writing. This issue features a special "Spotlight" on adoption and parenting in honor of National Adoption Month, including a companion essay about Melissa Fay Greene called "Whoa! I'm a Character in a Friend's Memoir?"


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adoption on TV: "Modern Family" or "Parenthood"?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

A gay dad sits at the dining-room table, making a scrapbook about baby Lily's adoption. A tiny conical hat perches on his head. It's all the funnier because this dad—ex-college-football player Cameron—is so large.
"Look at this." Cameron reverently holds up the hat.

"Oh my God!" cries Mitchell, his partner. "Lily's little hat that we bought her at the airport in Vietnam!"

Cameron puts it on, its red ribbons trailing beside his cheeks.

Mitchell eyes him. "Remember how cute she looked in that?"

"Remember how I used to wear it and walk around and act like I had a giant head?" Cameron giggles.

"That was good acting," Mitchell says.

Politically incorrect? Over-the-top satire? Yes on both counts, but that's why a sharply written sitcom like ABC's Modern Family gets at the uncomfortable  aspects of adoption—especially for us white middle-class adoptive parents.

In many ways, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the fruitiest of gay stereotypes, but the hat episide of Modern Family that aired last spring ("Two Monkeys and a Panda"), veered plenty close to my own adoptive family. My Vietnamese adoptee is older than Lily—and he's not been slapped with an Asian flower name—but he's got his own tiny conical hat.

It's taken me awhile to appreciate Modern Family, so I'm only now watching Season Two on DVD; the show is currently in its third season. But I'm up to date with another show also in its third season—NBC's Parenthood—and lately I've been struck by the contrast between the two when it comes to adoption.

I used to enjoy Parenthood, even when this drama about the Braverman family in Berkeley, California, slopped into preciousness. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) Braverman oversee the clan from an artsy Berkeley house that's probably just up the hill from Chez Panisse. The four adult Braverman children are by turns believably angst-ridden and annoying. But their kids make the show engaging. And the evolving story of young Max, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in Season One, is notable for its unvarnished look at how hard this can be on a family.

Yet, the current story involving the quest of Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) to adopt a baby is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the ups and downs of the adoption process. It leans heavily on a heroic adoption narrative—just the sort of thing Modern Family skewers brilliantly.

The basic narrative goes like so: Two prospective adoptive parents, after battling with infertility, deeply long for a child. They have plenty of money, a huge extended family, a homey house. Meanwhile, the pregnant birthmother is destitute, without family, friends, or the child's birthfather. She struggles mightily over whether to give up her baby for adoption, but when she decides to do so, the music swells. She tearfully surrenders her infant. The End.

In Parenthood's version of this cliché, Julia and her husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) have a biological daughter, but Julia can't get pregnant again. They decide to adopt, and Julia, a high-powered lawyer, flings herself into the bureaucracy of private domestic adoption. Before you can say "adoption agency," she's frustrated. She can't just make it happen by writing a check.

This isn't what bothers me about the story, though. On many levels, adoption is a financial transaction. Julia's chop-chop way of going about it is true to her character. One of her brothers even says she's trying to "buy" a kid. To whit: In the September episode "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby," a young woman named Zoe (Rosa Salazar) conveniently turns up pregnant and ready to get rid of "it." Zoe runs the coffee cart at Julia's law firm, and Julia shadows her like a vulture. Before long, she asks Zoe flat out if she can have her baby.

It's improbable soap opera, but I like Julia's upper-middle-class myopia. I like the fact that Zoe, who's attractive and bright, responds, "Um, no."

But here's what I don't like: In under a month of TV air time, Julia has become a saint. She's apologized to Zoe. In a recent episode, Julia takes her to the hospital when she feels ill, then brings Zoe home for the night. In Julia's fancy kitchen, the unhappy pregnant girl gets to observe perfect-dad Joel playing with their daughter. Soon after, Zoe shows up on their doorstep again, saying, "If you still want to have my baby, you can have it. You have a nice family."

On Parenthood, it's all hugs and tears—though maybe not The End, because the adoption plot is still unfolding. Maybe once Zoe has her baby, she'll change her mind. And if the adoption does go through, maybe it will be an open one in which Zoe remains part of the Braverman saga. Wouldn't that be cool?

The run-up isn't promising, however. I can just picture the Braverman clan rallying around the new adoptive parents after a few predictable twists. For example: Zoe almost revokes her consent; her ne'r-do-well boyfriend shows up and tries to stake his own claim; the baby is born with a disability—but saint-like Julia and Joel love the child anyway.

If only adoption were being handled as realistically on Parenthood as autism is. The heroic baby hand-off is never the end, as many real birthparents and adult adoptees will tell you. Even the broad satire of Modern Family, which portrays only the adoptive parents' point of view, gets across how much these gay dads have changed over the months they've been parenting.

With Parenthood, there's reason to hope that the ensuing adoption complications may yet rise above clichés. I'm drawn to the Bravermans, a big happy clan, TV fantasy though they are. I long for a form of community my own tiny family of three doesn't have.

But when a drama like this strikes too many false notes, I end up feeling manipulated. As someone who grew up in a working-class suburb south of Berkeley in the same era, it's already tough for me to suspend disbelief. I know how much the Bravermans reek of a particular kind of groovy privilege.

Most TV families—and Modern Family is no exception—are middle-class and inwardly focused, and they generate an ever-expanding tangle of unrealistic plotlines. But if the characters expose all their nasty, unpretty edges, I stay hooked. That's especially true for an adoption story, which is why I've grown fond of those argumentative, accessorizing gay adoptive dads.

Their comic outrageousness—and obvious self-deceptions—cut far closer to the truth than a thinly disguised melodrama with a pretty soundtrack.

Links to Episodes:
"Two Monkeys and a Panda" (Modern Family, aired March 2, 2011)
•  "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby" (Parenthood, aired September 20, 2011)
"Nora" (Parenthood, aired October  11, 2011)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Truth About Adoption: All You Need is Love and a Safety Net

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

The National Institutes of Health released a report this week stating “adopted children have higher rates of mental health problems than all other children.” As the parent of a child adopted from Russia, the news was more “duh” than revelatory.

For those of us in the adoption world, the report — the 15th in a series issued since 1997 by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics – may state the obvious. But it is also throws a gauntlet at the feet of social service agencies and policy makers.

During the past twenty years, the adoption landscape has been radically transformed. From the secretive adoption of babies born to unwed and predominantly white mothers, the norm today is arranged, open adoption of newborns, children from foster care or children from institutions and orphanages in far flung parts of the world.

Recent statistics help put this shift into perspective. Out of the approximately 135,000 children adopted in the U.S. last year, 11,000 (most between the ages of one and two) were internationally adopted. Here in the U.S. just over 52,000 children were adopted into non-family member homes from foster care.

Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and author of Adoption Nation (The Harvard Common Press, 2011) said in an interview that, “many adopted kids today enter their new families with pre-adoption lives. For them, this means they’ve experienced abuse, neglect, or [if from an inter-country placement] institutionalization.”

Older parents who can’t have their own children are a key factor driving the demand for more international and foster care adoptions. Not only are these new adoptive families not genetically linked, many parents, like myself, don’t even know the genetic history of the children we end up calling our own.

The upside to this expanded adoption domain has been a tremendous surge in diversity. Parents don’t try and adopt children that look like them nor do they demand infants. The linear homogenous family model is out and the crazy quilt is in. The downside, though, is inadequate support to help parents understand the history of their child or to help prepare these families for potential difficulties, both behavioral and cognitive. In their giddy rush to form a family, naïve parents can be blindsided when confronted by the reality of their adopted child’s extreme needs. To help theses parents cope, an industry of medical, cultural and emotional support services have emerged.

Nothing could underscore the point more clearly than the return in April 2010 of adoptee Artyom Savalyev to his native Russia. His single mother, Torry Hansen, allegedly overwhelmed by seven-year old Atryom’s unpredictable and unstable behavior, determined she could no longer parent him. Instead, Hansen sent her son back on a plane to Russia, by himself, with a note pinned inside his jacket. Artyom remains in Russia at an undisclosed location while the case against Hansen languishes in limbo.

Dr. Lisa Albers Prock, a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston, and a leading advocate of ‘adoption medicine,’ says she tries to prepare parents for what to expect, but it’s hard, she says, for anxious new parents to grasp the complexities of “kids that have been fully programmed and have to be reprogrammed” in a new setting.

The new NIH report highlights some of the realities on the ground. Of the families surveyed, almost 30 percent of adopted children had moderate to severe health problems and foster care children were the most susceptible. In addition to health problems, many of these children also had an assortment of cognitive deficits such as learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD, or behavior and conduct disorders. Exposure to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy is often thought to be the culprit behind these deficits, as is infant trauma, which can have serious and long-lasting implications later in life.

While this data is distressing, Pertman says reports like this are “helpful and a good wake-up call.” To Pertman, these findings demand that policy makers take notice. The once mandatory emphasis on placement should now shift, he says, “to looking at how to help these kids and families succeed.” The NIH findings also coincide with his Institute’s most recent policy and practice report on the need for post-adoption services.

The NIH report demonstrates families feel challenged. But instead of retreating or giving up, these parents are demanding help. Despite the old Beatles refrain, “Love is all you need,” sometimes you also need a safety net.

This piece first appeared on WBUR's Commonhealth blog site.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Do Not Know My Family

By Martha Nichols

The Ethics of Adoption Writing

When my husband and I adopted a baby son in Vietnam in 2002, I never imagined I’d have to explain to our little boy eight years later why another adoptive mother had returned a child. But last April, that’s exactly where I found myself, along with everyone else who watched the sad saga of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev unfold.

In early April 2010, Artyom was put on an airplane alone by his American adoptive grandmother and flown back to Moscow. He was accompanied only by a note written by his adoptive mother Torry Hansen, a single nurse in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

According to the Associated Press, the note said that she’d been lied to in Russia about the boy’s difficulties: “After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.”

The why of a news story like this will always hook us. But as an adoptive parent and writer, it’s become a far more intimate ethical struggle for me.

Within days, I had written an Artyom commentary that appeared on the cover of Salon: “Adoption Fearmongers Take Over.” My focus was on the sensationalized news coverage, including a Nightline report about “the inside stories of adoptions that go horribly wrong.” Yet as the week of Artyom stories roared on, other adoptive parents began confessing their difficulties with problem adoptees, often in specific detail and splashed all over NPR, national TV, and the Internet.

It’s an old conundrum of memoir writing: What right does an author have to reveal private details about the lives of other family members—especially their children? My standard for writing autobiographical nonfiction has long been that I must make myself more vulnerable in print than any relative or friend I write about. So far, I believe I’ve hewed to the ethical side of this personal contract.

But it’s also true that a year after Artyom’s flight back to Russia, I’m doing less writing about my son—or, to be scrupulously accurate, the nature of my writing about him has changed. His views of adoption, in particular, do not seem mine to share...


Editor's Note: The full text of this piece appears in the April 2011 issue of Talking Writing, in which the theme is "Too Much Truth? The Ethics of Memoir Writing."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dipping into the Past

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-Tude

The author is planning to return to Russia with her adopted son the summer of 2012. It will be the family's first trip back to Russia since his adoption in 1998.

We are in southern Russia on the banks of the Volga River. My three-year old daughter stands at my side hugging my leg. The smell of cheap cleaning products is still in our nostrils and the sound of our shoes scuffing along on scrubbed floors echoes in our ears. We have just left the orphan ward where my son has lived for the past five months.

Behind us, the sun is low in the sky as we dip our hot, tired feet into the rippling shoreline. In the distance, a high bridge stretches for a mile over the river as it plods along in search of bigger water.

It is late evening in New Jersey where my mother lives, but she has been anticipating my call. "Your beautiful new grandson" I tell her, "is in my arms. Welcome him to the family."

After three and a half anxious months, my son is at last ours. I cradle him tightly in my arms, breathing in again and again his longed for scent: His new clothes, his clean skin, and the soft down of his hair. In contrast to his pale skin and frail form, the river is massive and overwhelming. I want to smother him with my love.

That was 13 years ago.

Next summer we plan to return to Russia. It will be our first trip back since leaving Moscow in 1998. My son, Nick, will have his Bar Mitzvah next June followed by our first pilgrimage back to Russia. From Moscow we will take a boat down the Volga River to Saratov, where Nick was born.

We will return not only because Nick wants to see where he was born and where we became a family. It was also the last time he had a father. My husband died three months after we adopted Nick.

Returning will be bitter sweet. Moscow is where we were living when my husband died. It is also the epicenter of our family formation. During our four and a half years there, my daughter was conceived and we adopted our son. I arrived a bride and left a single mother of two.

In Saratov, Nick's biological mother birthed him and set him on his fateful odyssey from her womb into my arms.

Still in my possession is the hand written letter she wrote three days after Nick was born. It bears her name, an address, and her acknowledgement of her actions. It's just a thin sheet of paper, yet it wraps around me like bondage.
It is the only evidence that links my son to her.

Up until several weeks ago, Nick had never broached the subject of his biological mother with me. But driving home in the car with him one afternoon, he did. Although a healthy and inevitable question to ask, I tried not to reveal my panic.

I told Nick about the letter.

On the cusp of puberty, his hormonal growth will pulsate with questions. Although I have all the love he asks for, I don't know if I have the right answers to give. Yet a sheet of paper with very few words flutters in front of him, leading him perhaps to answers and a place I cannot go.

Next summer when we return to the banks of the Volga and see the high bridge that spans its distant shores, I will hold the hands of my children and together we will wade into the waters of our past and perhaps a new future.


Please comment if you have a similar story you would like to share. We would like to start posting reader comments in the future.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Letters to Iris and Leo


Opening Note by Fran Cronin

"Some day you will be able to assemble your rich and varied heritage: Flemish birth parents, American and Greek adoptive fathers, and Turkish-American and Greek grandmothers. It is my hope these letters will assist you in understanding your heritage. You have inspired me to write my life story for you."

So Zeren Earls, Turkish by birth, now a U.S. citizen, wrote when first watching her baby granddaughter sleep. In July 2004, Iris was born in Brussels and soon adopted by Earls’s son Selim and his partner Kimon. Selim and Kimon have been joined in civic union for 18 years; ever since they met, they hoped to adopt and have a family.

In Letters to Iris and Leo, Earls recalls her intrepid journey from girlhood to grandmotherhood. Transcending personal history, this richly detailed memoir, told over the course of 98 letters from 2004 to 2009, hovers like a protective canopy over her grandchildren. It’s not a cautionary tale but the equivalent of an elder affectionately welcoming the next generation into the wonders of life. Earls juxtaposes her memories with observations of Iris, and then her brother Leo, as they grow through their first years.

"The book finished itself when I got to the present time in my life," she told me in a recent interview. As a special feature in Adopt-a-tude, the first three entries from Letters to Iris and Leo appear below.

Earls, an attractive, elegant, and energetic 74-year-old, was born in Ankara, Turkey in 1937. Her father was a government-trained scientist and her well-bred mother trained in the customary domestic arts of sewing and knitting. Earls likens her parents to a bridge between the fading Ottoman Empire and the burgeoning Turkish Republic. Her mother, sensitive to her own lack of educational opportunities, pushed Zeren and her younger sister, Fulya, to excel academically.

The carefully parented life the sisters shared came crashing down when Earls was 16. While at boarding school, she received word her father had abruptly died from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 57.

Earls speaks of herself with reserve and modesty, but it is clear she’s made the most of her industrious nature. She finished her English-language high school studies on a scholarship and was then awarded a full scholarship in 1957 to attend Duke University. According to Earls, she was the first international student to attend Duke. She graduated in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

In 1976, Earls was among the original group of civic-minded artists that created First Night, an evening of arts and cultural activities around Boston on New Year’s Eve. In 1992, she became the founding president of Boston's First Night International, the umbrella organization for all the First Night communities (currently there are 180).

Earls is also a prolific, globetrotting travel writer for Berkshire Fine Arts.

Intertwining her past with her son’s real-time adoption of two children, Earls has crafted an unusual and tender book. She’s also asserted her independence and chosen to self-publish it. Working with Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., she used the store’s on-site Paige M. Gutenborg digital printer. Books take 15 minutes to produce and can be created on demand. They sell for $20.

For more information about Letters to Iris and Leo, click here. You can also visit Harvard Bookstore’s website ( and then click on the Paige M. Gutenborg tab for the bookstore’s catalog of self-published books.

July 21, 2004
Little Compton, Rhode Island

Dear Iris,

Your birth is two days away. Early this morning my son Selim called to tell me that the adoption agency had given him the good news: Your birth mother, a twenty-nine-year-old Flemish single parent, has agreed to your adoption by him and his partner Kimon.

My excitement is boundless, yet tinged with fear. What if your birth mother changes her mind at the last minute? The agency says that this has happened in another case. Life can be full of barriers for same-sex couples. Selim and Kimon have been on a waiting list for two years, a longer period than is the case for couples of opposite sex. Not everyone realizes that non-traditional families are perfectly capable of raising healthy and happy children. I find comfort in knowing that your birth mother considered your adoption by a gay couple before reaching a decision. I applaud her fortitude.

Since they met in Greece in 1992, Selim and Kimon have wished for a family with children. It is fortunate that they relocated to Belgium, where same-sex adoption was possible. They went to an agency in Antwerp called Gewenst Kind (Wanted Child), which had been founded by a gay man and which had placed several children with same-sex couples in the past. The process required traveling monthly to classes in parenting and adoption issues for a year and a half, along with home visits and interviews with a psychologist, social workers, experienced adoptive parents, and police officers. Selim and Kimon had to hire an interpreter, since the classes were conducted in Dutch.

My mind wanders around the house thinking of your future visits. I should not get carried away like this. I must wait until you are entrusted to your adoptive parents. Having waited for two years, I can certainly wait two more days. At least I will head back to my winter home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that I can leave quickly upon hearing from Selim. But first I’ll go for a quick swim. I can’t wait to introduce you to these shores. Soon we will swim here together.



July 23, 2004
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Iris,

Today is Friday. The call I had been waiting for came late in the day. Before they were able to see you, your parents had to wait until your birth mother had spent some private time with you and was ready to leave the hospital after giving you your first bottle.

“Congratulations, you are a grandmother!” said Selim, sounding happy but exhausted at the other end of the line. Having had only forty-eight hours notice, your new parents have been busy rescheduling prior commitments and preparing to receive you at home.

You were born at 2:30 pm at the Klina Hospital in Brasschaat outside of Antwerp, Belgium. The doctors had to induce your birth mother’s labor, because you had already dropped down in her belly. Thus you arrived two weeks earlier than due. The doctors say this is quite normal since you are your birth mother’s fifth child. You are a healthy baby weighing 2.7 kilos and measuring 50 centimeters in length.

Your birth mother named you Sarah (Sarah Brouwers). Your adoptive parents have given you the name Iris, a name which each had short-listed independently. The name is indicative of your partial Greek heritage, as Iris is the Rainbow Goddess in Greek mythology. This is also the origin of the name of the beautiful flower, which comes in all the colors of the rainbow.

As soon as I received the happy news today, I e-mailed an announcement to all my friends and relatives. I also purchased my plane ticket online. I will see you next Tuesday, a week after you arrive home from the hospital. I am off to shop for presents now.



August 3, 2004
Brussels, Belgium

Dear Iris,

You were asleep when I arrived. Your eyes are closed most of the time. Since you were born two weeks early, you are catching up for time lost in your birth mother’s womb. I have many presents for you from my friends in the States.

You begin sucking your fingers when you wake up, signaling that you are hungry. You are a beautiful and quiet baby. Your new parents tell me that you look like your birth mother, whom they briefly saw in the hospital lobby. You have her fair skin and deep blue eyes.

We bonded instantly. I enjoy holding and feeding you, speaking and singing to you in both English and Turkish, whichever comes to my tongue first. It is amazing that, after living in the States for forty-seven years, I still remember Turkish nursery rhymes. Selim speaks to you in English, Kimon in Greek. You are a Belgian citizen, so you must also learn the languages of your native country, French and Dutch, especially if you want to communicate with your biological brothers, as your mother hoped you would.

Some day you will be able to assemble your rich and varied heritage: Flemish birth parents, American and Greek adoptive fathers, and Turkish-American and Greek grandmothers. It is my hope that these letters will assist you in understanding your heritage. You have inspired me to write my life story for you.