Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chandra Hoffman talks about adoption and her new book Chosen

Several years ago, I wrote a novel, Girls in Trouble, about open adoption, based on the year my husband and I spent trying to open-adopt a child.

We were never chosen (birth parents objected to our having a genetic child and felt we wouldn't love their baby as much as we did our first. They also didn't love that we were writers, which seemed too untraditional.) Our last chance was when a nurse almost chose us. It was between us and another couple, and we were prepared to fly out to Dakota to meet her, but she never called us back, and by then, we were devastated and exhausted and simply grateful beyond words to have our own son.

But I couldn't forget the voices of all those birth mothers who had called me night after night, many who seemed to want me to adopt them, and I began writing about them. To my surprise, I created a stew of controversy. Adoption agencies were at first thrilled such a book was coming out, but the birth mothers were wary, but when the novel came out, the agencies were furious I had shown the shadows in the process, but I became the poster girl for birth mothers!

Naturally, when I heard another book about domestic adoption, Chandra Hoffman's Chosen, was coming out, I was more than curious. I'm pleased Chandra's agreed to answer all my nosy questions here. Thanks so much, Chandra!

Where did the idea for Chosen come from and why did you feel compelled to write about it?

I have always been fascinated by adoption--the possibility that a family can be created in such a unique way. Writing has been a constant in my life as well--I wrote my first novella at age five. In college I was studying English and getting my degree in social work when an opportunity came up for me to work abroad in an orphanage. This particular story, "CHOSEN", grew out of three defining experiences: the first of which was this time in Romania, post-Revolution as an aide worker in the infamous Orphanage Number One. It was overwhelming—I was given fifty infants my first day—but inspiring to see the human spirit surviving in spite of the bleakness. Romania led me to the second experience, a job in the United States as the director of the domestic adoption program for a private agency, the sole caseworker managing birth and adoptive parents. My goal was to create happy endings, everything I hadn’t been able to do in Bucharest. But I quickly learned that there was another side to this, the business side, and that it was very difficult to meet the needs of everyone in the adoption triangle. I left the adoption world when I became a mother myself—my skin had become predictably thin.

This was the final defining point that shaped this novel: our first son's birth and diagnosis with Pierre Robin Syndrome, nearly losing him as an infant the week of September 11th as the world fell apart around us. As a new mother to a child with huge medical hurdles, I pondered some of the deeper issues that form the backbone of Chosen: How does parenthood change you? How will the challenges you face shape you as a couple? What happens when your expectations of parenthood are so far from the reality? What makes a good parent? A good person? What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?

The story is fiction-characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a handful of experiences, threw in a well-marinated childhood paranoia about abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it up. But the themes are real, straight from my own life and from those I have been privileged to witness.

As someone who explored open adoption for a year and wrote a novel about it, I’m fascinated by a novel being told from the point of view of a caseworker. You speak about the caseworker “playing God” and making families, but isn’t that only in international adoptions? In domestic, isn’t it more of a dance between birth parents and adoptive ones?

Chloe is certainly the central voice of the novel, but I also step into some other shoes throughout--tackling some other points of view in the adoption triangle.
But what I meant by this is that in adoption there is this illusion of control, especially in a small agency where the caseworker is representing both sets of parents-- you meet the birth family, and then like some crazy yenta you go home and think, who would be the right people for her? Which family will she fall in love with, which adoption will go through, which will fall apart? It's an illusion, this idea that you're making the matches. Of course everyone sees every eligible portfolio.

What do you think about movies like Juno, which simplify the adoption process (and show no real scars in any of the parties)?

I probably shouldn't answer this one literally as I've never seen the movie. I haven't seen any movies in... years. When I am in writing mode, I feel like movies are time wasted, and the only reason we even have TV is so my kids can watch 'Tom and Jerry' if I have to catch a little writing time in the day.

But thank you for mentioning the complexity of adoption; that's the very word I keep coming back to. I wrote this in part to shine a light on how complicated it can be, how challenging it was for me as an idealistic young social worker trying to navigate such intense, emotionally charged situations. What I kept bumping up against was this notion that adoption walks the razor edge between intense joy and heartache, often right in the same day. The scene where Heather is breastfeeding her son while his adoptive mother looked on for the first and last time was one of those moments.

I've come under some fire for not celebrating the joy of adoption more in this novel, and all I can say about that is, the story was informed by my experience. There were many happy endings and joyful moments and I do feel honored to have been a part of the creation of families in this way, but every adoption ended with someone leaving the hospital without a baby that at some point, however briefly, they considered theirs, and I thought this was a part of the story worth exploring as well.

You’ve worked in both international adoption and domestic, which you left when you had a child of your own. What would you say the difficulties of each are? And when you became a parent, how did your views on adoption and all the players involved change?

I was only an aide worker in Romania--not actually negotiating adoptions, but there is a story on my website about a little boy I got attached to, and how things fell apart for me there, and why I left. What was so eye-opening for me about Romania and is true of several international situations are the social factors that have created kids eligible for adoption who are not technically 'orphans'. I think it is important to know this when you're looking into international adoption, and to research how children are regarded in that country.

When I became a parent, it was a baptism by fire. Our son was born unable to breathe or eat on his own, with all of these potential problems and so many unknowns. My husband and I were young when we got pregnant, and we had this attitude that parenthood wasn't going to change our lifestyle or slow us down, how we weren't going to let something so small as a baby mess with our agenda. Before he was born, we had made tickets to go windsurfing in Bahamas two weeks after my due date--which we obviously rescheduled because Hayden was still in the NICU then. When Hayden arrived and our vision of what parenthood would be like was so far from the reality, it took me about a week, and almost losing Hayden on the operating table, to make peace with this, to 'get over myself' as my mother-in-law would say, to get on board with this new situation. And you know who I thought of? All of those adoptive parents who called me in the weeks after their adoption, experiencing what I can only describe as a let-down effect. I'm not saying this happened every time, but for some of these families, the quest for THE BABY had been years long, full of hardship. When the baby finally came to them, whether through adoption or because they overcame infertility, there would sometimes be this period where they had to resolve the disparity between reality and fantasy, and before I was a mother, I was hard on these people. Not in person, but in my head. After Hayden, I was more sensitive to how challenging this can be. I'm not saying they didn't love their babies or that I didn't love Hayden, but there was an adjustment period before I identified him as 'mine'.

This was when I started thinking about this novel--I consider adoption to be the backdrop, the extortion story line to be the juicy plot, but the heart of CHOSEN is parenthood and this question of 'what happens when you get what you thought you wanted'? For everyone--there were plenty of birth parents who thought relinquishment would be easier than it was, or adoptive parents who experienced that let down I was talking about, or new parents who went through the everyday adjustment to life with a newborn. This was what I wanted to explore. There is a certain amount of surrender inherent in parenthood--a giving up of yourself and life as you knew it, however parenthood comes to you. I hoped to capture some of the struggle of this, but hopefully the ultimate beauty of the letting go in the arc of my character's development.

How do you balance being a mother and a writer? What’s your day like? What’s your writing process like?

It's a juggling act for sure. I try to get up before they do and catch a few solid hours in the morning, and then I leave my computer out on the kitchen counter to jot down a line here and there throughout the day. When I need to wrap my arms around something big, to look at a novel as a whole, I book a hotel room overnight. Writer's block is never a problem for me--having three little kids and lots of needy pets makes me grateful to escape for a few moments into a world where I have a semblance of control.

What’s obsessing you now?

I'm homeschooling my kids (ages 8, 5 and 3) this year so that we can go on book tour as a family and make some memories. I'm getting into poetry with them--which has never been my strong suit--and we're having fun exploring Greek mythology, harvesting from our gardens and US geography. I don't know if this is the beginning of a long term lifestyle change, or if this is a one year adventure. I'm curious to see how this year goes, but I love the way deciding that you are 'homeschooling' reframes your parenting, how suddenly everything becomes a learning opportunity. In reality, every good parent is homeschooling.

What are you working on now?

After a two month break from writing to focus on launching CHOSEN, I'm now in the final revisions on my next novel, set in Boulder, Colorado. The four word summary is 'infidelity with a twist', but I also touch on themes of physical beauty and morality, the importance of female friendships, and some truths about marriage and self worth.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

Your book sounds fascinating, Chandra - especially for someone like me who was adopted. The adoption equation is an enigma. There are so many players and so many agendas and the consequences are never-ending.

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