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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 03:48 pm

Becoming Nana

The original Nana, Esther Doerfler Stevens.
My family has been keeping a secret for the last couple months. We haven’t done a very good job of it, in spite of lawyers and experts who cautioned us that it was the only wise course. But it’s hard to keep quiet when your heart is bursting with joy and love. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself off the cliff and figure that you’ll deal with the consequences if things fall apart.

Fortunately, things didn’t fall apart, and what was a poorly kept secret needn’t be secret anymore.

I have become a grandmother.

Robert (a.k.a Robbie and Little Bear) came into our family on Dec. 3. The reason for the “secrecy” is that he is adopted. In New York, where my daughter, Anne, and her husband, Ben, live, birth mothers have 30 days to revoke adoptions. In Robbie’s case, that stretched even longer because of holiday closings.

While we weren’t exactly instructed to hide him in a closet, we were advised to tell only family members and very close friends – and even then to always add the caveat that it wasn’t a done deal. There should be no mention or picture of Robbie in anything that could be publicly accessed. Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on any interoffice communication. No picture on anyone’s office desk. “Just think of yourselves as his foster parents for the next month,” Anne and Ben’s lawyer told them.

Yeah, right. Anne and Ben tried for four years to become pregnant. After a respectable interval of trying the good old-fashioned way, they entered the world of assisted conception. The medical procedures used are sometimes humiliating and/or uncomfortable-to-excruciating and always expensive – but, of course, worth it when they produce the desired result. Anne and Ben didn’t just try a variety of doctors and medical procedures. There also were acupuncturists and herbalists, yoga and special exercises along the way.

It became ever more heartbreaking to see – and share – their emotional (and for Anne sometimes physical) pain as nothing worked. All babies are special, but perhaps Anne’s and Ben’s long ordeal in some ways made our joy in Robbie even more special. There was no way we could hold him at arm’s length for a month-long countdown.

 Corny as it sounds, Anne was immediately radiant with happiness and Ben glowing with contentment, despite the clock ticking in the background.

I know because I was there. Anne and Ben wanted to adopt a newborn; usually adoptive parents of newborns have a month or more to get ready. But the call to Anne and Ben about Robbie came on Thursday, Dec. 2; less than 24 hours later, they brought him home. That Sunday, I headed to Brooklyn. They’d already gotten a crib, but had nothing other than a few things from a hasty trip to Babies-R-Us Thursday night. Ben was able to arrange to work from home for the rest of December, but Anne, who is an appellate attorney at New York’s Children’s Law Center, had briefs and filings to complete before she could fully begin maternity leave. They asked for help, and I was only too happy to comply. (And still am: I’m back in Brooklyn for the next few weeks.)

“Adoption is a miracle. I don’t mean just that it’s amazing, terrific, and a wonderful thing to do. I mean that it is, as the dictionary says, ‘a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of divine agency.’”  – From Baby, We Were Meant For Each Other by Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Simon’s anecdotal book about adoption in general and his two Chinese daughters in specific is warm, wise, witty and well worth reading even for those whose lives aren’t touched by adoption. He’s right; adoption is a miracle: “…we [Simon and his wife] cannot imagine anything more remarkable and marvelous than having a stranger put into your arms who becomes, in minutes, your flesh, your blood: your life.”

There’s something else about Robbie’s adoption that seems miraculous, though not by dictionary definition: it is explicable by natural and scientific law.

Anne is breastfeeding Robbie. When Anne and Ben first decided to pursue adoption, Anne was low. “I felt like a failure,” she said. “Consciously I knew it wasn’t my ‘fault,’ but it hurt that I couldn’t fulfill the most basic human function.”

One day I remembered having read about adoptive mothers breastfeeding. A quick Internet search confirmed my memory. I excitedly called Anne: “You’ve had to give up a lot,” I said. “But maybe you won’t have to give up breastfeeding.”

It turns out that lactation doesn’t depend on reproductive hormones; rather on milk-producing hormones. The single biggest lactation factor is the frequency and length of sucking. In fact, even males can lactate, given enough stimulation! Fortunately Anne found a lactation consultant (not heard of in my day!) who’d breastfed her own adopted baby. Anne began a regimen of pumping, herbs, and taking a gastrointestinal medication that has only one significant side effect: stimulating milk production. She was to begin slowly, increasing dosages and frequency over several months. Needless to say, Robbie’s sudden arrival hastened things.

The best adoptive breastfeeding scenario is when it can begin immediately after birth. Starting later is possible, but risks that a baby used to bottles may reject the breast (milk comes faster from bottles). Robbie was in interim care for 10 days before Anne and Ben brought him home, but took to the breast like a champ. In fact, he now won’t take a bottle from Anne at all, and will only from someone else if Anne’s not in the room.

That’s not to say that he’s only getting breast milk. An ingenious device, the Supplemental Nursing System, consisting of a formula-filled bottle that hangs upside down around Anne’s neck, with two thin, flexible tubes that rest over her nipples, lets Robbie get adequate nourishment and provides stimulation for her milk supply to develop. She may or may not eventually produce enough to completely dispense with the SNS; regardless, Robbie will have the benefit of some breast milk, and both he and Anne will have had the close bonding breastfeeding provides.

For several years I’ve thought about what I wanted potential grandchildren to call me, but nothing seemed right. Then a name began flashing occasionally in my head that seemed both right – and uncomfortably presumptuous: Nana. But Nana was my grandmother. It was still her name, not mine, even though she passed away in 2004. Regular readers may recall that I mention her frequently: “Nana was the heart of our family, the soul of our celebrations,” I wrote one Thanksgiving. It was she who studied and pursued “health food” and organic farming, long before it became accepted. It was she who sparked my interest in food and cooking.

As old age incapacitated Nana, her only frustrations weren’t for herself, but were about not being able to do things for her family. George Bernard Shaw could have been speaking for Nana when he wrote:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one….. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Surprisingly, none of the rest of the family shared my hesitation, and heartily approved of me becoming Nana. So Nana it is. It still feels uncomfortably presumptuous. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. But I promise I’ll do my best, Robbie. I wish you could have known her.

Love, Nana

Contact Julianne Glatz at
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