Here are some basic facts about adopting: If filling out yearly tax returns is enough to give you a headache or drive you to drink, don’t even try. Any 15-year-old can get knocked up and keep her kid, but you will have to be fingerprinted, get appropriate scores on personality tests, and discuss your marital and sexual life with strangers before you will be granted the permission to raise one. If your dog barks at the social worker, you may be doomed.

I was 22, broke, and single when I first thought about adoption. Sitting in the cafeteria of a Munich youth hostel across from a guy I’d met in Avignon, I defended my idealistic plans to “adopt a baby girl from Africa” someday and save her from a bleak future. We’re all the same inside, I said. That I was white and she was black wouldn’t be an issue.

My new traveling companion, David, thought my view of race relations facile and said I was ill equipped to raise a child of a different race if I wasn’t prepared to endorse differences and anticipate the difficulties a child of color would have in a white home. I was wildly attracted to him, but I figured he would be a distant memory by the time my African baby and I settled down to a life of color-blind domestic bliss–what did he know?

Three years later, when David and I got married in Chicago, talk of adoption had been replaced by career decisions and travel plans. Five years into our marriage, we were living in Amsterdam–David was director of research at an options trading firm; I was writing fiction. I celebrated my 30th birthday at a coffeehouse, smoking hash and wearing leather pants. Then I took a visiting American friend to a live sex show. “Family values” were the furthest things from our minds. I have a family history of polycystic ovarian syndrome, but while potential infertility loomed on our horizon it was never at the forefront of our lives.

Irregular hormones were a fact of life in my family. My mother and father were together for 11 years of unprotected sex before I came along. My cousin, who suffers from the same condition, underwent years of fertility treatments before finally giving birth to a daughter. As my 31st birthday approached, David and I threw away the birth control pills. As the year waned and I had failed to menstruate, much less ovulate, we found ourselves taking the next step along a well-worn path: the appointment with a fertility specialist.

By now I knew the score. People did not just run around adopting babies from foreign countries on a whim. Childbirth was something almost everyone I knew aspired to, some having gone to considerable expense and through considerable turmoil to attain it. Adoption seemed a last resort for adults in the real world, never a first choice for educated, upwardly mobile, hetero breeders. Whenever I mentioned–to my mother, to his father, to our friends–the possibility of not even trying fertility drugs, their disappointment was palpable. “It might be so easy,” they said. “How will you know if you don’t even try?” The underlying sentiment was clear: Why settle for someone else’s hand-me-down when you can have the real thing? My ability to give the world what it wanted–a fresh, pink baby–had somehow become inextricably linked to my feelings of worth as a daughter, sister, wife, and woman.

My fertility specialist went straight for the jugular, putting me on the highest dose of a drug called Clomid. I blossomed with acne the likes of which I had never seen in high school. My face was so inflamed that, not only barren but ugly, I barely wanted to leave the house. I peed on sticks and had sex when the doctor said so. Near the end of the second month of treatment, I was leaving a movie theater when I looked down at the carpet and saw “trailers” of the tripping-on-acid variety–lights streaming from everything I passed. My fingers blurred together, 20 on each hand. David led me to a phone and I called my doctor at home. “You’re having a brain disturbance,” he told me in his authoritative Swedish boom. “It’s rare, but it happens. You must go off Clomid at once. Come into the office on Monday and we’ll talk about starting you on Pergonal instead.”

Pergonal is an injected medication given daily. More powerful than Clomid, it sometimes overstimulates the ovaries and they swell. This can result in hospitalization and occasionally death. It’s also associated with multiple births (though not the litters in vitro fertilization can induce). Some women gain weight; my cousin, during her Pergonal phase, regularly sobbed, unprovoked, in hormonal free fall. A friend who’s a nurse cowered like a child when her husband–a doctor–had to give her the nightly shot in her bruised, sore behind. There would probably be more problems with my skin. Since our insurance didn’t cover infertility treatments, we would have to pay out of pocket, which could add up to thousands of dollars. If the drugs failed, in vitro was the next option: $15,000 a pop, surgery required.

Adoption continued to beckon, no longer quietly from a corner but with a bullhorn, proclaiming itself the surest, sanest option. Everyone, however, had opinions: “You’re young, there’s a good chance the drugs will work,” said my former professor. “With adoption, you never know what you’ll get.” Women friends murmured approvingly that I was “so strong,” but in the next breath expressed horror that this might someday happen to them, and doubted they could ever be truly happy with an adopted child.

Only David didn’t seem crushed by my wondering what would happen if we just stopped. When I eventually called my doctor to end treatment, I was so wary of another lecture or sigh of disapproval that I simply lied–told him I was busy and had elected to postpone treatment for a few months, knowing that, as though he were a really pushy guy I no longer wanted to date, I would not be calling him again.

Suddenly, the world was ours. We wrote away for information. We surfed (overwhelming and a little creepy) Internet adoption sites. We attended some meetings. The trend toward open adoption–meeting the birth mother and sometimes exchanging letters and photos for years afterward–made us wary. In the current “seller’s market,” prospective adoptive parents are in little position to dissent unless they wish to pursue private adoption through an attorney–an undertaking a friend’s brother claimed cost him $150,000 for a white newborn. We cared little about “newborn” or “white.” If we needed a baby, we wanted to go where a baby most needed a home.

Since China’s one-child policy was formalized in 1980, on the heels of a devastating famine and a population hurtling toward one billion, hundreds of thousands (a conservative estimate) of baby girls have been abandoned along the sides of roads, on police station steps, and in bus terminals. Leaving babies where they might easily be found is the only means of giving up a child for adoption. While families whose firstborn is a girl are now permitted to try again for a boy, second-born girls too commonly become casualties of China’s culturally ingrained preference for boys. Because traditionally, after marriage, a daughter joins her husband’s family, living with them and caring for his parents in their old age, daughters can be a shaky investment in the future, particularly for rural farmers who need extra hands to work the land. Compounded with the lack of social security in China, even families that don’t buy into the lesser worth of girls may feel economic pressure to have a son at the price of giving up his sister.

It’s not known how many Chinese girls are lost to infanticide, because many are birthed at home and hidden. Karin Evans’s The Lost Daughters of China cites a 1992 government survey that found 12 percent of the population of girls that should be present missing–a loss of 1.7 million girls per year, and startlingly more than the number who turn up at orphanages. More than 20,000 girls–a drop in the bucket–have been adopted into the United States, which leads the world in Chinese adoptions.

As China’s pull grew stronger, more skeptics crawled out of the woodwork. An older, divorced friend disapproved of middle-class whites going to take Chinese children when the capitalist United States was “responsible” for China’s problems anyway; an old high school friend cried in alarm, “But aren’t you worried about bad genetics and past traumas?” The doctor and nurse, who were themselves starting down the road to in vitro, said only, “Adoption isn’t for everyone.” Meanwhile, those aiming to be supportive crooned, “Oriental babies are so beautiful and smart,” as though no plain Mei with an average IQ had ever emerged from a Chinese womb. One friend’s enthusiastic mother asked if we planned to “teach the baby English.” A lifetime of education loomed before us.

In September 1999, at our first meeting at Sunny Ridge Family Center in Wheaton, a social worker gently warned the group that if you still “break down sobbing every time you hear the word ‘birth mother,'” or “can’t go into the children’s section of a department store without tearing up,” you might not be ready to do this just yet. That such extreme negativity toward adoption–not to mention aversion to kids in general–was regarded as a normal and common early step in this journey worried me. (Were those personality tests we took only a formality?) But Sunny Ridge was experienced, with a direct placement program, which meant that we would not have to deal with a second agency and that a staff person we knew would accompany us on our trip. Our own social worker, Pam Gaston, was a hip, motherly type with common sense to spare. Horrified by emotional hyperbole, David in particular liked her immediately.

We would be traveling to China with nine other couples. Our dossiers were sent out in February 2000, and after nearly five months of scrambling to consulates for paperwork and rabidly cleaning our house for Pam’s visit, the matter was finally out of our hands. Somewhere in China the fate of ten American couples and their future daughters would be decided. Pam said we should expect to wait seven months for a referral, another two before travel–a mirror of pregnancy’s span. Of course these dates were only approximate, she said. We did not hear the warnings, 20 aspiring parents with hopes welling so high they plugged our ears. We would have our daughters before Christmas.

Much later I learned what happens once these dossiers–sometimes thousands each month–arrive at the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA). According to the Sunny Ridge representative in China, Li Jianzong (known as “Bill” to his American colleagues and adoptive families), the dossiers are first put into a queue by the date on which they arrived. Next, they are translated into Chinese. It might take two or three months to translate a group of dossiers and return them to the administration office. Then they are sent to the first of two document review departments and inspected, one by one, for any problems: missing papers, inappropriate parental age (under 30 or over 60, roughly), criminal records (which don’t always disqualify an applicant in the U.S. but often do in China), or medical problems that might interfere with one’s ability to raise a child (again, the U.S. is often more lenient in this than China). The department also cracks down on single parents because they might “have a lifestyle of homosexuality,” said Bill. Thus single parents often have to submit additional forms that cover their views on love, marriage, and sexuality.

After approval is given–if it’s given–a cover sheet is created, which includes the applicants’ ages, income, and educational levels. This sheet may be the best predictor of what child a family receives: young and healthy, or older with special needs. Dossiers are then sent to the second document review department, which is in charge of matching the huge stack of applicants with candidates from the even larger stack of waiting children. This traditionally took two or three months, but now, due to a sharp rise in the number of applicants, the entire process from translation to matching can take 14 months, a wait that, for prospective parents with little idea of what is going on–not even whether they’ve been approved–can be excruciating.

Since our dossier was sent in February 2000, under the old plan, we expected our referral–including a picture of our prospective daughter–by September at the latest. While at first having our dossier shipped off to China felt strangely liberating, when September arrived without a word, worry and despondency set in. According to Pam, there were still several Sunny Ridge groups queued ahead of ours–and dozens of groups from other agencies as well. We’d been so certain we’d have a baby by Christmas that for the first time we put up a tree. Instead, we rang in the New Year alone.

When our China group held its first gathering, in November, at our home, our referrals had not arrived. Only half the couples showed up. While the men awkwardly gripped beers and chatted about anything but, the women told war stories in the kitchen over red wine. Overstimulated ovaries, hospitalizations, miscarriages. Four years, six years of treatment. Support groups, therapists, month after month of tears when yet another period arrived. Most had lost friends since their ordeals began: the friends had become pregnant and it was too hard to deal with. They didn’t understand the pain of infertility, got tired of the constant grief, were insensitive and rude and eventually didn’t call anymore. Most felt alienated from sisters with children, mothers obsessed with grandchildren, perhaps even from spouses who, in many cases, had put their feet down and refused to pursue the treatments that were destroying their wives physically and emotionally. “I cried just the other day,” admitted the youngest in our group, only 30. “I thought I was over it, but I guess I’m not.”

There in my kitchen, I began to understand that I had skirted the emotional minefield of infertility. Not only had my friends been excited and supportive–bringing gifts for me as well when my best friend Alicia announced her pregnancy; planning David’s and my baby shower–but due to my mother’s experiences I had always anticipated having trouble getting knocked up. I took the pill in order to bring on my periods, not to prevent pregnancy.

While grief over infertility cuts across boundaries of nation, class, and race, given the prohibitive cost of fertility treatments many women have no choice but to simply get over it. Even Americans with good insurance may find extensive intervention unrealistic: the medical attention required is so time-consuming that those vigorously pursuing treatment often either work part-time or quit altogether. Those who go furthest with these treatments, then (and are therefore most scarred by their failure), tend to be white and well-off, that segment of the U.S. population most accustomed to getting what it wants. Experience has taught them that hard work and desire or prayer inevitably pay off. Infertility represents the first time in their highly productive lives that they cannot produce.

Paradoxically, the dominant view that presumes childbirth to be a right may be discouraging those in the best position to adopt from doing so–adoption also being prohibitively expensive. The couples in our travel group had taken a bold leap off the infertility roller coaster, yet for some the ride had claimed much of their adult lives. Americans, I was discovering, are so obsessed with the supposed right to a replica of ourselves that privileged young women are being coerced into sacrificing their youth to medical science while millions of existing babies go unadopted and unloved. Would my holding this view in our adoption group make me a judgmental outsider who hadn’t paid her dues?

The night of that first gathering, several people asked about the baby whose photo-graphs littered our house: on the refrigerator, on the bookshelf. It was Mia, Alicia’s newborn daughter. I had been in the delivery room, and while Alicia’s husband and mother each held one of her hands, I was front and center, the first to watch Mia, a silver, translucent fish, slide out into a puddle of blood. I’d burst bawling into the hallway, where some eight of our friends congregated with a camcorder, all in varying states of tearfulness themselves. Minutes later I took the first footage of her as she was cleaned and weighed; I spoke the first words to her, while her mother lay exhausted on the bed, then stoically pushed out the placenta. This was birth, in all its terrible glory. This was the moment for which women were willing to sacrifice their health, their marriages, their peace of mind, their careers–for daily blood work, shots, surgeries, and inevitable collapses when another period arrives.

Mia quickly became my obsession: I stalked Alicia, demanding “What is she wearing?” and “When can I come over?” Yet here in my kitchen, surrounded by women whose attempts to conceive had led only to pain, where Alicia and her baby might not be welcome, might be resented, I was at a loss. “My goddaughter,” I told them. “I saw her born.” One woman looked concerned: “Wasn’t that difficult?” Just the opposite, I said. “It was one of the luckiest moments of my life.”

“Pam called,” David said. “China wants to know if we’ll accept a referral for twins. They called specifically about us.”

“Yes,” I blurted. I was in my car, on the phone, no doubt swerving psychotically.

David, always temperate, interjected, “Let’s not decide immediately. We have to weigh this, it would be a lot more work for you, it’d be impossible to leave twins with your mother while you work–you know she’s not up to two.”

“I want twins,” I whined. In a split second, one baby had come to seem a consolation prize.

“I know,” David said. “So do I.”

Later it would be revealed that two couples in our group had requested twins. David and I had not. In fact, when asked if we would consider more than one child, we’d said no. Yet now China had chosen us. “Twins are considered lucky,” Pam told us. Their availability was also rare–China has the lowest incidence of twins in the world. Pam had never dealt with a twin adoption before.

For less than an hour, David and I feigned deep consideration, contemplation, the logical weighing of pros and cons. There was never any doubt that we would say yes.

Our group’s referrals arrived at Sunny Ridge on January 24, 2001–the day of the Chinese New Year. Pam’s office had moved since David and I first sat there, chilly and nervous and full of anticipation. Now I felt downright sick. All at once, the enormity of the trust I’d put in total strangers–anti-American, patriarchal, Mao-loving and girl-hating strangers?–seemed overwhelming. What if our twins were sick? What if they were already two years old, when we had requested an infant? What if they had severe attachment disorder, like the babies in those documentaries? Recently I’d been put in touch with a friend of a friend who had adopted Chinese twins. She told me it took three months for her babies to smile at her, that she spent hours in her garage next to the dog’s bed wailing. What if–oh God, oh God–what if, given the high mortality rates in Chinese orphanages, our daughters died between now and the two months it would take us to get there? Sitting in Pam’s new, also chilly, office, I wanted a barf bag. How could I convince them–whoever–that it was imperative I get on a plane immediately and sleep on the floor next to my daughters’ crib until it was time for the rest of the group to come claim their children? Pam continued chattering happily: “You got a lot of pictures–they’re so cute!” But who were they, these two beings separated from my body by biology and distance? How had my life come, by the mere promise of them, to wanting nothing more than to curl up on a cold tile floor at the legs of their crib?

In the end it wasn’t their moon-shaped heads, their inquisitive black eyes, their Michelin Man bodies in what appeared to be five layers of clothing, or even their shaved heads that got me, but the sparse, poorly translated descriptions of their characters and abilities, penned by those who had known them since they were a day old. Yue Lu Li and Yue Lu Ling (Lu Li and Lu Ling were their proper names, Yue the surname given to all babies at the Yue Yang Welfare Institute) were born on June 3, 2000, in the Year of the Dragon; they were now seven months old. They’d been found June 4 at a bus station–we were later told a railway station–wrapped in a blue blanket inside a basket. They would not take milk at first, but were now healthy. Lu Li, whose face was fatter and so solemn as to appear both intelligent and bored, was listed as “active,” while the apparently raucous Lu Ling was “more active.” They liked sweet foods, “musical,” and going outside; each was comfortable with Yue Yang staff but “cries with strangers.” Rambunctious Lu Ling could “tear the paper,” and at that point I began bawling, clutching David’s coat.

They were real. They were not just photos–floating heads and cute baby expressions–they were in there, inside those faces and bodies, with actions and personalities and needs that others had witnessed and tried to meet. I peered into their faces. In each picture, Lu Ling’s head cocked as if to a question, and in the earliest photo, taken at three weeks, Lu Li’s face somehow revealed what she would look like as an old woman, the dignity of her features shining through her contorted expression. We drove home, clutching photos and documents. That night I slept with them on my pillow.

At 6 AM on March 21, 2001, ten couples and Pam met at O’Hare and spent the better part of an hour taping luggage with red masking tape in order to identify it more easily down the line. We were a diverse lot: middle-aged marrieds with grown kids, a man traveling with a friend because his wife was seven months pregnant, a couple whose first child had a genetically inherited disease and who had chosen to adopt the rest of their family. Before we boarded the plane, we were speaking of future reunions, holidays together, of our daughters as “cousins.”

I don’t remember the flight to China. Not having slept for two nights, the minute I was airborne, and therefore out of control, I fell unconscious. In contrast, the three days in Beijing prior to meeting our daughters seemed to last forever–a monthlong holiday jammed with sight-seeing and gluttonous adventures in food. We were numb with anticipation, jet lag, and terror at the thought that we would soon be responsible for two babies while living out of one suitcase in a cramped hotel.

Our Beijing guide on the Sunny Ridge tour bus–Cathy, an intriguing mix of youthful modernity and old-world superstition–carted us around to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall. I stared out the windows of that bus surprised that, just as in big cities in the States, wealth and poverty coexisted side by side. Luxury hotels loomed next to shantytowns; old men and women in drab gray coats strolled slowly while young glamour girls toting Prada bags rushed by in absurdly high heels. McDonald’s signs beckoned. I was confused. If this was communism, what did capitalism look like?

Wandering Tiananmen Square, where I expected the scent of death and repression, I discovered instead a plaza full of laughing families enjoying a rare day of sun. There seemed little anti-American sentiment and more excited curiosity (from the old) and desire to practice speaking English (from students) as a response to our presence. Though I had heard that public displays of affection are frowned upon in China, young couples kissed and touched openly. And while Americans have been fed so many stories of abandoned girls that we often believe China is a country of boys, here were joyous mothers flying kites with their daughters and proud fathers carrying little girls on their shoulders. Children carried Chinese flags and waved them, giggling. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the giant image of Mao overlooking the square, and the museum housing his tomb was closed for the day.

Once, on the bus, Cathy sang a Chinese lullaby to pass the time, while her charges videotaped her. Did she have any idea she was supplying us with our closest glimpse of what our daughters will miss–the sweet voices of their first mothers and the natural comfort and love that was their birthright? Would we ever be able to love our daughters enough to heal their loss?

In our Changsha hotel room, where our twins would be delivered, the wait seemed to last forever. We listened anxiously to the happy laughter of new Sunny Ridge parents as they played with their daughters in the hall. Ours would be the last babies in our group to arrive, having come from a different orphanage more than three hours away. We heard their terrified wails long before they reached our room. Inside, David and I lurched around, nervous as the bride and groom at an arranged wedding, uncertain whether to sit or stand as the Yue Yang entourage entered. “Sit!” David decided, and then, all at once, the world changed.

They wore matching pink and white split pants and jackets, well-worn and soiled, with sweaty little rompers underneath and paradoxically pristine, obviously newly knitted pink and yellow booties on their tiny feet–a gift to symbolize departure? Their heads had been shaved two months prior, as is the custom for seven-month-olds in China. As the orphanage director murmured diplomatically and the doctor ran through the girls’ medical histories with brassy authority, the silence of the twins’ two caretakers was palpable. Modern young women, they stoically held back tears. Bill stood waiting to translate; Pam clutched the video camera. We’d planned to approach our babies cautiously, let them acclimate, but their caregivers thrust them immediately into our arms. The wailing, constant since their approach, increased.

Though I pray my daughters will someday treasure the video of our meeting, in retrospect I should have turned the camera off. The act of adoption is, like childbirth, a private one–a raw, exposed, intimate, joyous, and painful moment at which strangers happen to be present; at which you are not your best but spread open and terrified; at which, probably for the first time in your life, you feel yourself bleeding violently away and becoming something else. Yet all too soon the video–the spectacle–was over, and we were left with two howling girls whose only known parental figures had briefly answered our questions and left the room, never to be seen again. All of the babies summarily rejected our American Enfamil and Gerber, so David, with the rest of the dads, made an immediate dash for Chinese formula. I was left in charge.

Their papers lied. They could not sit up. They toppled, lolled on the bed, emitting high-pitched shrieks if I attempted even sideward eye contact. I sat cross-legged on the bed with Lu Li (Madeleine Li) supported by pillows along the axis formed by my feet, Lu Ling (Kenza Ling) propped between my thighs. Looking at the wall, I shook every rattling toy we had. My heart thumped wildly. Their breath fell like shudders from so much crying. And then, I felt it–their tiny hands reaching for the toys I offered. Grasping giraffe, elephant, star. Shaking noise into the air.

That was our first true moment alone: a moment less seen than heard. The gradual murmurs of contentment, tears set aside, a new world–embodied in bright, rattling, cushy toys–to be explored. I lowered them onto the blankets we’d spread over the bed, arranged toys around them, and though they still would not allow me to look at them, I sneaked fleeting glimpses, all too aware that their comfort was toy bought, not yet inspired by the crippling, anxious love I’d been afflicted with since first seeing their photos.

As an afterthought, I gathered the jackets and split pants David and I had removed after the caretakers left and tucked them around their heads, framing their cheeks so they could smell their caregivers and orphanage instead of whatever unfamiliar odors David and I gave off. Kenza Ling responded quickly, rubbed her head into the clothes, pulling them over her face and holding them there. They passed toys between them with a mindless symbiosis that made me realize they were not yet aware of their individuality. They had simply always been together: four arms instead of two. My gratitude at that moment for twins was immense.

We were made into parents overnight. Made from our only marginally successful efforts to keep Madeleine from stealing the spoon and gulping down her sister’s bites from the first jar of food we fed them. Made from the urine that spouted across the bed the first time we attempted to take a diaper out from under Kenza Ling before a fresh one was in place. Made from the innocent exhaustion that approximated trust in Madeleine as she surrendered herself to sleep; from the first giggles that emerged from a smiling, leg-flapping Kenza Ling as we called both sets of breathless grandparents on the phone.

“Say ‘Hi nana, hi papa,'” we boomed to the dozing and cooing figures on the bed.

No cameras were allowed on orphanage grounds. Zhuzhou Children’s Social Welfare Center, in the town of Zhuzhou, was where six of the babies in our group were cared for. We longed to see the Yue Yang Welfare Institute, but it was too far away; here, though, we felt like outsiders as we trailed parents and their daughters into a place that held, for them, the only history those daughters knew. Pam, having been to three orphanages, murmured approvingly that Zhuzhou was the nicest she’d seen, which was both reassuring and disturbing. Tiles decorated with teddy bears were sprinkled along the walls of the stairwell; comfortable fake leather couches decorated the reception room, where the friendly director offered us a snack of oranges and ice water during a brief orientation. A 15-year-old boy shadowed her, sitting quietly by her side. Normally, she explained, orphans are released at 15 and helped to find jobs so as to live independently, but this boy was deaf, so Zhuzhou employed him on the premises. The orphanage would likely be his home forever.

Walking down a hallway, rooms full of babies to our left and a wall of open windows to our right, I glanced out at the courtyard, to windows across the way. A girl of perhaps seven or eight stared back; she was lovely and solemn, with long braids. Though she appeared healthy, chances for adoption at her age were more than slim; would she, too, live here until she was 15? Then where would she go?

We heard the happy shrieks of women and turned to see two caretakers rushing down the hall toward Celia, the chubbiest baby in our group and the only one whose new mother was unable to travel. Since pairing with her father, Celia had been well behaved but serious and quiet. Now, seeing her caretakers, she smiled and laughed. Something like relief shot through my veins, even as I felt a pang for her father. Scooping her up and dancing with her into the first baby suite, the caregivers ushered us in to tour the rooms where Celia and her “sisters” once lived.

There were three rooms for every group of babies: a sleeping room, a feeding room, and a playroom. The sleeping room had perhaps a dozen cribs in a space about the size of an average Chicago apartment living room. It was dark and, like the hallway, very cold. In each crib lay two babies, heads at opposite ends, with very large comforters piled on top of them. The girls were all dressed as heavily as our daughters had been upon their arrival at our hotel. Inside its crib, every baby was docile, silent, and immobile–all stared up at us, devoid of curiosity. Their silence was eerie; it was not the silence of children–should not be the silence of children. Had they long ago learned the futility of making noise? It seemed only three women worked this group, creating a child-to-adult ratio of about eight to one. Surely even the singing enthusiasm of Celia’s loving caretakers could not compensate for such a lack. As parents were led couple by couple to their own daughters’ rooms, to meet the women responsible for their children during the first period of their lives, David and I drifted again into the hallway.

Back on the bus, Kenza Ling snoozing strapped to my chest, David and I were thankful for our own daughters’ oblivion–this building was no more familiar to them than the museums and universities and parks of the rest of our tour. On the bus one father clutched his child to his chest as he sobbed, his blond head lowered to her black one. He stroked her back murmuring, “It’s OK”–to the child or himself I don’t know. My eyes teared up; I looked away.

We toured Changsha in a gigantic purple bus with fringed curtains. We might as well have been the Partridge Family, except that our bus driver chain-smoked and drove 80 miles an hour in the rain, giving the adults ulcers but knocking every baby to sleep.

We were often followed by the Chinese, particularly the elderly, wanting to touch and kiss the babies. Everywhere we went, old people asked in shaky English, “Boy or girl?” The question stunned us. After all, Sunny Ridge had said–and our orphanage experience confirmed–that only one percent of Chinese orphans are boys. Was the Chinese public oblivious to the epidemic of abandoned girls? Was the government so powerful, so talented at spin as to keep the whole thing under wraps? But of course everywhere we looked parents hoisted jolly daughters–there was no shortage of girls on the street, no outward sign of cultural mutation. “Girls,” we murmured.

David and I swapped twins every day so they’d bond to us equally, a tactic we pretended would not be undone the moment he returned to work. On our last day in Changsha, Kenza Ling was mine to hold–an increasingly arduous task as sleep deprivation and back pain took their toll. As she napped, I stared into her exquisitely formed face, watching her upper lip flutter over the lower like a hovering butterfly–a sleep habit that made her appear sad despite her laughter while awake. I whispered–“I see you. I see you,” and it hit me. For the first time since I’d met them, I cried. Was it this recognition of individuality that was lost when a country grew too populous? My daughter had been held before, had probably been loved–but was she being seen for the first time?

And I knew that giving up a child for adoption could be, in its own way, a sign of love–the alternative being, to quote Maxine Hong Kingston, to “turn its face into the dirt.” But for the first time, looking into Kenza Ling’s face, I wondered whether, for all the love and struggle and pain my daughters’ birth mother might have felt at her decision, she could truly have seen them and still let them go. Perhaps she saw only two mouths where money permitted one. Perhaps she saw gender, or underweight bodies and finicky lips that would not suckle. Perhaps she feared their imminent death and panicked. Would she look for them in the faces of every child? Would twins in the marketplace make her jump, make the hairs at the top of her spine stand on end? Through the blur of tears and exhaustion, I whispered a vow never to forget that she was more than an extension of my desires and dreams–more than gift or hardship, more than my own feelings. “I see you,” I promised, and she slept, a world of possibilities, an unwrapped present to herself, in my arms.

An unwrapped condom dropped from behind the picture hanging between our hotel beds. We were in the southern city of Guangzhou–site of the American embassy and our final paperwork. Coats had been exchanged for sundresses, museum tours for lazy strolls along the waterfront and–most important–our carriers had been replaced by strollers. This was Shangri-la. Our group stayed in affluent and pretty Shamian Island, a 44-acre sandbank outside the city walls; our hotel–the New Victory–was allegedly an old spy hangout, and David had been nosing around for evidence. The condom fell, actually, from a hole hidden by the picture. Wires ran into the wall. We stared: was it a camera? Had it seen us naked? Did it hear our argument over whether the girls should sleep in one crib or two when we got home? We poked it. The phone rang and I jumped. Was it the hotel desk, right now staring at me in my underwear as I peered into this hidden camera? Suddenly I recalled a speaker at one of the early Sunny Ridge meetings, an adoptive dad, also a cop, who swore he’d felt “watched” while in China. I grabbed for the phone; David burst out laughing.

“Are they going to let you out of the country?”

It was my mother. How did she know we’d fucked up the surveillance camera and would undoubtedly be detained?

She told me a U.S. Navy spy plane had collided with a Chinese fighter jet the day before in sensitive airspace. The Chinese plane had gone down and its pilot had died; 24 U.S. servicemen were being detained in China. It was a full-scale foreign policy crisis; we must, my mother was convinced, be in danger. This was China. Communism. Who knew what they might do?

David and I were too sleep deprived to freak out. Downstairs at the breakfast buffet we ran into Bill reading an English-language newspaper and several Chinese papers. We sat, the girls lying on their backs on the carpet, playing–and trying not to breach any laws of Chinese etiquette (which often seemed to forbid forthrightness of any kind) we asked what was going on.

Bill handed us the section of the English paper dealing with the incident. He held it out wrapped in a page containing some innocuous information–the weather? He said, casually, “You know,” gesturing at our fellow patrons and the hotel employees, “you don’t want to appear…too concerned.”

We speculated. “Young men,” he said. “They were probably trying to show off, playing who could get closer…”

“Chicken,” David supplied.

“Then something bad happens. An accident. So the governments get to calling names and it’s your fault….Well, that plane was spying for information so the United States can sell weapons to Taiwan.”

The matter-of-fact civility of his words did little to ease the impact of their truth. Chinese-American relations had been even shakier than usual: a Chinese intelligence official had defected in December, a Chinese-American woman had been arrested in China on dubious espionage charges in February, plus there was the ever looming question of arms sales to Taiwan. Americans were spies, warmongers. Chinese were human rights violators, crushers of freedom. It was a stalemate in advance; David, Bill, and I sat eating pastries and feeding the girls bits of watermelon off our fingers, detached from the positions we might be assumed to hold patriotically dear. Bill said only, “It’s a good thing you went to the American embassy yesterday. There are protests at the embassy in Hong Kong. Yesterday things were so quiet.”

We would bring our daughters back to a country crying “hostages,” to refusals and eventual rebuttals of apology, to a sharp rise in anti-China sentiment that loosened everyone’s tongue about how noble we were to “save” our daughters from that barbaric land where “everybody kills their girls.” Six months later it would all be blown to oblivion on September 11, after which we would instead face suspicious glances whenever we acknowledged that Kenza means “treasure” in Arabic. By then, I would be too busy to read the papers, but would wake every morning to the doom of radio news and the fear that we had “saved” our daughters by bringing them to a dangerous place to live. Soon we would remember China as “safer.” But in Guangzhou, sitting with Bill reading hidden papers, we didn’t know what the future held.

I’ll never forget the flight home, although it passed in a fog of fatigue, nausea, and the beginnings of flu: 36 hours of traveling, a delay in LA, a rerouting to Milwaukee, where I frantically begged David to get off the plane and rent a car but “oh shit, we can’t, we have to think about car seats now; this is America.” We arrived at O’Hare after midnight on the morning of April 5 to balloons, a sobbing nana, jubilant friends, home. The girls were traumatized by their car seats, horrified by our two cats. We had reached not the end of our journey but the beginning.

Our first few weeks passed in slow motion. I felt suspended on the outside of a bubble through which I watched myself interacting in arenas once familiar to me but now forever altered by the two children on my hips. Some moments and experiences, however, rose above the fog.

Teaching children to sleep isn’t easy for any parent, but for us, with our older, institutionalized babies, the sound of crying invoked every demon we had courted about their abandonment: Do they know they are loved? Will their wounds ever heal? Are we damaging them further by doing anything, for even a moment, besides holding them to our chests and smothering their faces with kisses? In China each girl had woken at least twice a night, wanting a bottle but wanting also to be held and rocked. I had my husband to hold me through the four hours it took them to cry themselves to sleep the first time we tried to get them to sleep through the night. The following night, just as the book predicted, their tears lasted only 40 minutes; after that, they did not cry and slept 11 hours straight. For the first time in three weeks we were able to rest, but the sweetness of our victory was tainted by the memory that our babies, until they’d met us, had spent most of their days in cribs, on strict schedules, their cries unanswered.

In the waiting room of their pediatrician’s office, at Whole Foods, or in an elevator, the questions came: “How much did they cost? Couldn’t you have your own children?” How many of the questions we faced from strangers would eventually become questions our daughters asked us? How many answers would we simply not know?

In May we were picked up at the park by the nanny of a Chinese-American girl whose employer, a Chinese doctor, was looking for Chinese children for her daughter to have play dates with. This mother’s disappointment when my children failed to exhibit the verbal adroitness and walking feats of her daughter was obvious. When I remarked that I would like to hire a Chinese nanny, she replied dismissively, “Oh, be sure not to hire anyone off the mainland–their lives are just too hard and they’re dishonest and uneducated,” and I was shocked that such prejudice should issue from the lips of a woman who spoke beautiful Chinese into her privileged daughter’s little ear. We discovered a new park after that, with fun sprinklers and a sandbox and no threat that I might fly off the handle and attempt to kick a middle-aged doctor’s ass.

In early summer Madeleine heard two Chinese women conversing at a restaurant and transformed from egg-eating docility to teary-eyed terror, trying to propel herself from her high chair into my arms. Did she think they had come to take her back? I remembered our earnest plans to have our daughters study Chinese, to travel to China with them, to send them for a year abroad someday so they could learn to love the country of their birth. I loved my time in China. But does the country that gave birth to my daughters deserve their love?

But instances of conflict and confusion were overshadowed by memories that I cherish. I remember my Italian father–80, with vasculitis, temporal arteritis, and spinal stenosis that left him with a brace on his back and constant pain. On prednisone, on Paxil, on Norco, he showed nothing but indifference throughout the entire adoption process. Then a light switched on in his eyes the moment his granddaughters were carried through his front door, and it has yet to burn out. He who’d previously struggled even to climb the stairs to our apartment suddenly found himself on the floor while two squealing babies crawled all over him, competing for his glasses. He, an atheist since his 20s, murmuring, “God bless you, God bless you,” as he kissed their faces. To my mother he said, “They have brought joy back into my life.”

There was the girls’ baptism, with two sets of godparents: one gay, one straight. In a Roman Catholic church they became second parents to my Chinese children, and afterward Italians, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and WASPs–married and single, with and without children, gay and straight–dined in Chinatown and welcomed my daughters into our messy, loud, extended family.

I got an E-mail from one of the women in our travel group who had struggled intensely with her grief over not being able to bear a child: “I thank God every day for my infertility, otherwise we would not have our little Anna.” This couple, along with another from our group, recently turned in dossiers for a second Chinese adoption. As my daughters cried “Mama, Mama” and kissed me with drool like sweet plum wine, I wished I could forward that E-mail to every woman who still believes her pain will never end, who has not yet found the courage to believe she could love “another woman’s” child, who has not yet realized that ownership is not about giving birth–or that love is not about ownership, but is always, always a choice.

Late last September, Sunny Ridge held its annual picnic for families formed through international adoption. Every China family was eager to see Bill again, on his first trip ever to America. He had flown, it turned out, on the 11th; his plane had landed minutes before all planes were grounded. Like everyone else he appeared stunned and sober, and standing on the Sunny Ridge lawn, swamped by grateful parents, he also looked a little dazed, a perpetual smile on his face like the groom at a wedding. His early families had girls in school now, and even in our group, those helpless babies who in March could not sit up were running, eagerly bleating “Ma!” and giving openmouthed kisses. These children were strangers to him, but he figured in their pasts like a mythic hero. So many parents were competing for his attention that I agreed to meet him later that week to catch up and bring him the latest photos of the girls to pass on to the staff at Yue Yang.

So I found myself at Sunny Ridge for the first time since returning from China, again discussing the sad politics of life with Bill. But mostly, of course, we spoke of Kenza Ling and Madeline, of China. We laughed together over the fact that so many Americans had told him they thought they were being spied on in their hotel rooms because of finding wires in the walls behind pictures–wires, it turns out, that connected the remote control of hotel television sets. And for the first time we spoke of the cultural tragedy and lost generation of Chinese girls that brought us together.

“If you think about the population of China, there is no choice,” said Bill. “The government wants people to survive, to have a good life.” And although children born without government permission are not eligible for state benefits, and their parents may be fined, sometimes well-off families still choose to raise more children. “But people like me–I think not from a personal perspective, but from a national perspective. To protect the quality of life of other people in China, I choose to have only one child.”

Though I’ll continue to send Bill photos, as well as letters to translate for the Yue Yang caretakers, that was probably the last time I’ll see him in person. My daughters will never know him, this man so instrumental in giving them a new life, who spends four months of the year away from his own family in order to make the dreams of other parents come true. Likewise, how well will China’s lost daughters ever understand their birth country? My China trip recedes into memory, one day, one month at a time. Already those two babies with sad lips and frightened eyes have been replaced by energetic toddlers who share private jokes, who compete for my lap, who feed me imaginary food, chase cats, master TV remotes, and play dress-up with hats. My role becomes less that of adoptive mother–a salve for past rejections and a cross-cultural bridge–and more that of mother, whose job is to love, but also increasingly to let go.

In early October we traveled with four other couples and their kids to Arizona. On the last night of our stay, we went to a honky-tonk, where Kenza Ling and Madeleine were thrilled to find a giant dance floor, unoccupied but for three little boys. Watching from the sidelines, I saw my 16-month-old twins run waving their arms and shrieking with joy to the music, eventually dominating the floor so completely that the boys soon huddled by the stage. With all the running and dancing, a fall was inevitable: Madeleine fell face first and bit through her lip; blood gushed down her chin. I rushed in and scooped her up, carrying her back to the table for soothing words and ice, but she was a squirming force in my arms, still letting out jubilant shouts, twitching away from me to join her sister back on the dance floor.

Like all mothers, I have come to realize that my children are not fragile–and that what is fragile within them is often impossible for me to protect. I have come to accept that a part of their lives is inaccessible to me–in my case the part that began nine months before I met them–but that over time, the result will be the same. Our family beginnings are different, as are our skin colors, the shape of our eyes, the texture of our hair. But in the end, Chinese lessons and travel to Asia will just be the props of our lives–like ballet lessons, like Christmas rituals, like shopping for wedding dresses and being stared at: Is that your daughter? Where is she from?

Being a mother doesn’t differ so much, case to case. You were a woman, singular, and now–however close you hold your career, your friends, your marriage, your right to buy sexy shoes–you are not. No matter what else is yours, you will always give up those other ties to open your arms, to offer ice on a wound. And you’ll always be called upon, reluctantly and proudly, to stand back and surrender your child to the dance that is her own life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Garret Gaston.