I kicked the red dirt off my scuffed black flats, the nicest looking shoes I could find in my suitcase. I leaned down and kissed the curly mop snuggled into the baby carrier on my chest. I glanced at two giant folders with stamped, signed and sealed papers spilling out. I squeezed my husband's hand, and we looked at each other as we walked the dusty path to the U.S. Consulate, ready to finish the months-long process of adopting our son.
I thought the hard part was over.
We'd traveled across West Africa, clustered in small holding rooms with a toddler on our laps, waiting for days to catch a meeting with the correct child welfare officers. We followed every ethical procedure and policy, procuring every required signature and every official's initial. We traveled by air and past oil rigs to visit the right offices. We sat in an intense courtroom proceeding with a magistrate and lawyer, nervously answering the court's questions.
We saw compassion of others extended to us and the sweet child we were advocating for, and we also saw the corruption that so easily fills the man whose heart desperately grasps at power. We thought we had reached the end of our journey—we exuberantly held documents confirming what we already knew the minute we met him—in the eyes of his home country's government, he was now our son. Papers in hand, we walked the littered West-African road to the U.S. Consulate, exhausted but confident, ready to obtain our new son's visa.
Our first clue that things wouldn't be go as planned was when armed guards refused our entry into the U.S. Citizen line due to that sweet toddler in my arms. So there we stood, dressed in the best we could muster, waiting in the hot sun trying to fill five hours entertaining and caring for a tired, fussy toddler as our linemates watched with what at best can be described as intrigue.
Welcome to motherhood.
As we inched our way toward the Consulate check-in point, hope and excitement grew. My aching feet didn't seem so tired. This was the moment we had been waiting and praying for. We finally passed each security checkpoint and entered a room reminiscent of every DOT in America. We were instructed to take a number and have a seat. We sat on the hard plastic chairs, watching nationals answer entrance interview questions and raise their right hands as they passed their visa exams.
This adoption journey was finally coming to a close. We would finally go home as a family of three. We could finally get our son (our son!) the health care he deserved. My husband could finally end his unpaid leave. Every tear, every unexpected bump in the red dirt road, was worth this moment as we anticipated the next chapter of our lives.
“23B, you're up."
I smoothed my dress, swept our trail of Cheerios and grabbed our stacks of papers. We walked to the glass window, where we were instructed to pick up a phone to communicate with the guarded Consulate worker on the other side. We laid out every required U.S. immigration approval form we had received, every piece of paper documenting our son's previous orphan status, and finally, every legally obtained court document pronouncing our son's adoption.
The cardiganed American on the other (air-conditioned) side glanced at the papers and informed us that she'd be back in a minute. A minute turned into 10 turned into 20, and finally, she returned and motioned for us to pick up the phone so we could hear her.
"You will not be receiving a visa for this child. You may leave now."
Surely, there was a mistake. Her cold words didn't sink in.
Hadn't she seen how we had painstakingly, obediently followed two country's requirements? What about all the approvals U.S. government agencies had already given us? Wasn't this supposed to be the last step?
Tears started streaming from my burning eyes as she refused to pick up the telephone again. Her face held a mixed look of apathy and pity. My tears turned into sobs that turned into uncontrollable shakes as the shock of the news sent waves through my body. I fell to my knees, literally begging for more information as an enthralled waiting room turned its eyes to the scene I found myself in. My husband stood stone-faced and closely held the sweet boy we had already been named legal parents of in the eyes of his country's government.
What would we do?
I sobbed and shouted my way through the stages of grief as we walked the dusty road back to our temporary apartment. My heart shattered into a million pieces for the innocent, chubby toddler who had already experienced more tragedy and trauma in his little life than most do in a lifetime.
He deserved a family. He deserved a mama who would fight for him. So we cancelled our flights home to the U.S. and stayed. And fought.
We scheduled meetings.
We spoke with congressmen and senators and child advocates and attorneys and State Department officials. We pushed for answers and, even when I had to kiss my husband goodbye so he could return to work in the U.S. after an already extended family leave, I pushed some more.
I asked questions and piece by piece, discovered the bureaucratic red tape we faced centered more on varying interpretations of a specific foreign law regarding international adoption in general and less with the an error in our specific process. No one questioned orphan status or if ethics had been followed or validity of paperwork.
Pushing back was exhausting, but my son gave me the strength to wake up and fight another day. I was not alone. We were together, and that was the fuel I needed to fiercely advocate for my child like any loving parent would. That apartment off the red dirt road became our den as I transformed from scared young woman into a fierce mama bear.
In so many ways, it was us against the world.
Thirty long days later, with literally hundreds of calls and hoards of emails logged to Consulate officials on our behalf from government officials in the U.S., I received the call we had been waiting for. At about 2 a.m. his time, my husband called me from our Midwest home, telling me our son's visa was ready. We were coming home.
When my husband asked why head of the Consulate had called him—and not his wife, who was literally two blocks down from the Consulate—to share this news, the director confessed that it was “stressful" for him to talk to me.
My transformation to mama bear was complete.
I laced my dirty running shoes and donned my college t-shirt and worn-out shorts. I triple-locked the bulletproof doors of the apartment, put my son's chubby body in the carrier on my back, and breathed the thick air with determination and grit dripping from my pores. I trudged the same path we had walked a month before, but this time, I was refined by fire.
I was prepared to wait in long lines, but no pull-a-number was necessary. They simply placed the required packet in my hands, and we were on our way to book one-way tickets home.
Mother and son, just like before.
The privilege and magnitude of becoming a mother to a life I did not create is as humbling as it is empowering. The struggle I waded through in West Africa is nothing to the hurt my young son has faced and will continue to face as someone who has lost birth family and birth culture.
Adoption is rooted in brokenness, but I am thankful to have experienced that love is what makes a family whole. May I never take for granted the profound honor I'm bestowed every time I'm called mommy.