Falling for Jing Jing
It’s hard to believe how reluctant I once was to adopt. In hindsight, I can see how much I needed this all along. By Dennis Kneale
After almost nine years of marriage, five years of infertility struggle, and two years of emotional anguish, our odyssey to parenthood has come to this. We wait nervously in a hotel room in Xi’an, China, ready to meet the sweet-faced, 12-month-old daughter we are about to adopt: Jing Jing.
My wife, Kathy, wanted this desperately. I didn’t. For two years, we waged war over whether to do it at all, pitting my ambivalence, apprehension, and self-absorption against her arsenal of persuasion, intimidation, and unyielding will to love.
A year after we traveled to China, Jing Jing is our joy. Thirty-three inches tall and larger than life, she is luminous, whip-smart, and hilarious. She has me wrapped around her little finger. (“Where did she learn to ask for cookies for breakfast?” Kathy demanded the other morning.) When Jing Jing ambushes me with a hug, it makes me thankful to be alive. When she works the crowd—playing “boing” on our bed or pratfalling and declaring, “I fall down!”—it fills my heart. The question is, why couldn’t I have wanted this from the start?
The Reluctant Father
My own father didn’t know best. Discharged from the Marines with a drinking problem, he married at 19, had two sons by 21, and was divorced from my mother by age 35. A year later, he was out late one night and was hit by a car. He died on impact. It happened at 5:00 a.m. on my 14th birthday. My brother, one year older, offset this loss by marrying at 23 and raising three terrific sons. I veered the other way, vowing never to marry or have children. By my twenties, the anti-kid bent had become party schtick: “Kids, they give so much back—drool, poop, 20 years of ingratitude.”
Then came Kathy. We met in 1989 when we were newspaper reporters, sitting four desks apart and feigning disinterest in each other. We had our first date over Memorial Day weekend in 1991. Sixteen months later we married; she was 32, I was 35. She warned that if we wanted to have children, we had better start “trying” soon. We waited two or three years before starting. That brilliant idea was mine—I wanted some time for the two of us.
Cut to 1997: We have been “trying” for three years and now are deep into the medical crapshoot of fertility treatment. Kathy is one of 400 women undergoing an in-vitro cycle this month at New York-Cornell Hospital. But the process fails. Soon it becomes clear we will never have our own children. Even in my ambivalence, I had always wanted the choice.
Then, in mid-1998, Kathy awakes one morning looking hollow and haunted. “If we can’t have children, why be married at all?” she says. To Kathy it is as simple as Plan B: If we can’t have a baby, of course we should adopt. To me it is as simple as Never Mind: If we can’t have our own, why bother? Let’s just have an epic romance instead.
We go into marriage counseling, but soon it becomes an inquisition into why Dennis is afraid to adopt, so I quit. I dwell on darkness. What if the baby has medical problems? What if she has attachment disorder? My deepest fear: What if she just doesn’t love me?
A Chasm Between Us
The fertility struggle left me drained and in retreat. Kathy reacts to our tragedy with resolve instead of resignation: Let’s make this right. One morning I tell her maybe we should give up—let’s just enjoy each other and dote on our nieces and nephews. Kathy, in tears, says, “But I want a family with you.” In the ensuing weeks, Kathy comes to fear that the real reason for my reluctance is a lack of love for her. I begin to suspect that Kathy’s quest isn’t driven by love for me at all—she wants a baby, with or without me.
Late that same year, Kathy gets a new ally in this fight: my mother. Mom sends me a letter adorned with a photo of me at age six. “If you choose never to be a father out of fear,” she writes, “you’ll be missing an experience that will add great joy and excitement to your life.” Enclosed is a Father’s Day card I made at about the same age, addressed “To the best father of all.” Even this doesn’t work.
Weeks later, the kid chasm explodes into a fight so furious, it frightens me. We are on a drive; she’s at the wheel and I’m talking, again, in vaguely negative tones about adoption. She screeches to the side of the road and goes nuclear. “GET OUT! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!” She screams so loudly a blood vessel bursts in her right eye.
And in that moment, it finally becomes clear that there is no way out of this. My mind runs the cold calculus. Refuse to adopt and break up now. Refuse and stay with her for 30 years—and in our 70s, explain why I deprived the love of my life of the one thing she needed most. Adopt and end up getting divorced anyway. (But at least we’d have done something good that links us forever. Score.) Adopt and live happily ever after. (I like that one best.) For all my foreboding, I felt afraid not to adopt, fearful of missing out on something wonderful. “Dennis, just open your heart,” a friend tells me one night. This tears me up. Maybe I need this more than I know.
A Grand New World
Still uncertain, we enter the labyrinth of adoption paperwork in 1999, and by year-end our documents are stacked a foot high and growing. The Chinese government clocks in our application on May 12, 2000. Seventeen days later, unbeknownst to us, our daughter is born.
During the wait, I plunge into my work and stay out late, drinking too much. I waver between worrying about the enormous responsibility if the adoption goes through—and dreading the devastation to Kathy if it doesn’t.
Then, one day in May 2001, my phone rings at work. Kathy excitedly announces: “Her name is Jing Jing. She’s 12 months old and we just got her picture. She’s beautiful!” We both choke up, sharing happiness for the first time in months.
Weeks later we fly to China to bring Jing Jing home. In Mandarin her name means “brilliance,” and from the first we decide to keep it. Her name, given to her by the orphanage, is all she has, and it will be the only words she can comprehend when she finally meets us. We leave Beijing and arrive in Xi’an, 585 miles to the southwest, on the afternoon of June 10, 2001. We check in at the aptly named Grand New World Hotel and wait for what comes next.
Knock, knock! We open the door to see a Chinese woman holding a staring, tiny tyke. It jolts me: Wow, she’s so cute, and she’s ours. Jing Jing has arrived cranky, dirty, and disoriented after the bus ride with the stranger who is now handing her into Kathy’s arms. The escort leaves all too quickly, and Jing Jing erupts into heartbreaking cries of abandonment. We tackle the first goal of parenting: Get the kid to stop crying.
Kathy tries to distract her with a parade of plush toys. Jing Jing only cries harder. Panicking, we turn to a gift from a friend: a wee backpack filled with knick-knacks. Inside we discover a box of Cheerios. Kathy feeds one to Jing Jing, then another, and suddenly our new daughter is smiling sweetly.
Then Jing Jing steals my heart. Tired and hungry and a stranger only half an hour before, this delightful little girl—this culmination of years of struggle and hope and heartache—looks me in the eye and smiles shyly. She picks out a Cheerio, holds it up to my lips, and feeds it to me. My heart swells with tenderness, and I tell her, “Oh, my Jing Jing. I will love you for the rest of my life.”
Dennis Kneale is father to Jing Jing and Managing Editor of Forbes.
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