The vision always began the same way: I'd be leaving my house cradling my 9-month-old baby to my chest, his chin on my left shoulder, my right hand supporting his head, my left hand on his fleece-swaddled rump—and then I’d slip on the ice-crusted iron staircase. With the cold metal rushing up at us, a single thought would grip me: How do I protect him?
It had been a month since my husband Ari and I had brought Jake home, since I’d vowed to the governments of South Korea and the United States, as well as social workers in both countries, that I would do anything to keep this child we had adopted in Seoul safe from harm. For weeks, the imaginary accident had played like a film loop in my head; I’d break it down frame by frame, looking for places where I might regain control.
Among my preferred defensive maneuvers: Tuck his head snugly against my neck, leaving a gap for him to breathe into; quickly fashion the low-hanging end of the fleece blanket into a makeshift pillow, buttressing the padding already around him; pivot in midair so I'd land on my side, reducing the chances of crushing him. I might break my arm, but his tiny body would be cushioned by mine at the moment of impact. I’d only been a mom for four weeks, but I believed that this kind of detailed strategizing to defuse all possible threats was what all new mothers did.
Ari and I had first met the baby in his foster family’s apartment in Seoul, where his foster mother, Mrs. Lee, had served us platters of absurdly large strawberries and baram tteok, a treat made of mashed rice cakes filled with a sweetened bean paste. But I couldn’t eat a thing.
I remember his unexpected warmth and heft when Ms. Park, our social worker, carefully placed him in my arms. I smelled his hair and admired his socked foot in the palm of my cupped hand. He regarded me with mild curiosity, gnawing on a blue plastic rabbit that dangled from his neck by a satin ribbon. “Bonding,” the thing I’d stressed about for months prior, as most prospective adoptive parents do, took about 90 seconds. My love for him was instantaneous and complete.
On Friday, we went to our adoption agency to take permanent custody of baby Jake. On Saturday, we boarded a plane to Washington, D.C.
Not 24 hours after crossing the threshold of our home with us, our son grew so listless I became alarmed and called the pediatrician, who hadn’t met him yet. He’d had a mild cold on the day we’d received him in Seoul; still, the on-site doctor deemed him well enough to travel. But when I described his pale complexion and tearless cries to our new pediatrician over the phone, she ordered us to the emergency room, warning that dehydration in babies was extremely dangerous. We’d been diligent about giving him his bottles, but he was indeed dehydrated, and while he came back to himself after receiving intravenous fluids, we were wrung out from fear, from the feeling that we’d missed some obvious sign of his distress.
More health problems stacked up over the next month, a fairly common phenomenon among children newly adopted from another country. Jake came down with bug after bug: gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, a virus that kicked off a 104-degree fever. His large head alarmed the pediatrician enough that he ordered a sonogram to rule out hydrocephalus. Ari and I slept on the floor near his crib, argued in the dark over whether it was too soon to give him another dose of baby ibuprofen, entertained him with hand shadows as the technician wanded his soft spot looking for brain abnormalities (none were found). With each subsequent illness, I felt my worries compound into something more ominous—a mounting pile of doubts about my ability to parent. If I feel this helpless in the face of germs, how am I going to protect my child from bullies, racists, West Nile virus, climate change?