A PAGE FROM JODY’S LIFE
Although twelve years ago I found it physically jarring to be near her when I had to be, I’ve been hyper-commenting on Jody’s Facebook page. But why?
It’s the wake of one key event in her life, I realize— since she’d adopted a child from China. In fact, when Jody had first sent me her friend request over a year ago, I hadn’t (at that time) heard a peep out of her in over a decade.
Jody and I have a mixed history. She worked as a fine arts professor at the liberal arts school I attended. While I never took any of Jody’s figure study or ceramics courses, I did end up volunteering on campus with the same charitable organization that Jody co-lead as campus advisor, doing outreach projects with disadvantaged youth in the town– hosting everything from school supply drives to Halloween and Christmas parties and Big Brother-Big Sister type mentoring. Jody often held pizza- party planning meetings in the living room of her on-campus apartment which also housed her two rescue pups, Wallace and Grommet, and a turtle another college volunteer nicknamed Ace. Jody had found Ace wedged behind her back tire one morning and almost squished it flat to the pavement before she hit the brakes, scooped it up, and deposited Ace in a terrarium she kept by the kitchen sink.
So Jody could be helpful– when she wanted to be. But like all of us, she had a more contradictory, complicated side. Jody had not one but two Ivy league diplomas, and she loved nothing more than to bring them up whenever anybody talked about graduate school plans– hers were by far the superior programs and hers were the definitive reasons why. Jody also had a tendency to steamroll to get what she wanted. For instance, she maintained that “the only quintessentially Neopolitan” pizza was found in a neighboring town and she insisted that we drive twenty miles out of our way to patronize that particular shop. And, not to be mean or petty, but Jody had a way of laughing out loud boisterously (which, in itself, is not such a bad quirk, really) but whenever it’s combined with a remark such as, “you just think that because you’re 20 years old, wait a few years and tell me you still think that,” it does not endear a cash-strapped scholarship student sophomore who is homework-laden and experiencing an epic dating slump. Jody regularly showed exactly zero tact, not a stellar quality for someone who work with youth year-in, year-out.
I never externally sparred with her or even spread scathing rumors about the reason why her fiancé had dumped her, as some people on campus did, but I do think that a random comment I made to a fellow volunteer, “if she steps on my last nerve one more time I’m going to tell her where she can stick her opinions,” probably made its way back to her. For that immaturity on my own part, I feel remorse.
But that’s also why, so many years later, I was a bit surprised to see the friend request from Jody. And I admit: I was curious. What had she been doing in the past decade? Did she still teach fine arts? Did she still conduct the volunteer program? And whatever happened to Wallace and Grommet? They were the sweetest and most loopily enjoyable pound mutts a homesick college student could ever wish for as an afternoon diversion. After a few moments’ hesitation– did she just want to “friend” me to nose into the little I’d been doing in the past ten or eleven years?– I went for it and clicked the accept button.
And then I started to trail her page for signs of dirt. But there was surprisingly little of interest. No, she had not divorced or even married (although while perusing her page I suddenly remembered a conversation we’d had at a planning meeting one time where someone asked her what her ideal man was like and she’d replied without missing a beat, “a red-headed tenor with broad strong shoulders”). Yes, she still taught fine arts, but at another university. No mention was made of volunteer coordinating or her two dogs who, I imagined sadly, had probably gone the way of poor Ace the turtle after all of these years. Pretty mundane stuff, actually. So mundane that I promptly forgot I’d even friended Jody after a few weeks.
Until The Day. That was the day in shining September that Jody posted a personal blog and a photograph of a teeny-tiny Asian girl of about three, dressed in a pale pink dress with lace trim and knee socks and holding a chubby, wide-eyed teddy bear in one hand while, kneeling at her side, was Jody–with the most gleeful look I’d ever seen on her face. That was the first time I read about Sun-Ming and how Jody had met her while volunteering in an orphanage abroad a year-and-a-half before, how it was parental love at first sight, and “red tape and thousands of miles be damned,” this was Jody’s daughter and her heart had “opened wide, then wider after meeting my daughter.”
Sure I’d seen Jody’s care and naturally people-loving personality before, but this was a whole new level. I was transfixed– and not just on that day, but suddenly I started to read through almost every status update posting Jody left– and once Sun-Ming came home to suburban Chicago there were profusions of them. There was what Sun-Ming had said at the park that morning (“Sun-Ming pointed to the buffaloes and shouted, ‘barf-os”!), pictures of Sun-Ming in a private pre-school pinafore (“with coordinating blue ribbons, courtesy of NaNa Marie and PapPap! Thank you!”), and even video clips of her first chocolate-and-vanilla Barbie birthday cake complete with aunties and uncles and teen cousins gathered around singing the birthday song. Every day– indeed, every hour– was infused with Sun-Ming updates, and I for one hit the thumbs-up button on 95% of them.
But why? I have plenty of other friends who have children and I don’t always comment on their children‘s Facebook updates (although, I tend to comment on a fair share of ballet and Little League postings). By your thirties it’s not uncommon that, even if you’re unmarried, 90% or more of your friends, coworkers, relatives and acquaintances have children or grandchildren. It couldn’t be the novelty of these postings, because every parent on my Facebook page, particularly with those who had kids under ten, made regular comments about their children’s stage/rage/cuteness. It also wasn’t the fact that Sun-Ming was adopted or even from another country. I’d had several close friends in recent years who adopted beautiful children from both the US and abroad. All of those adoption stories had touched my heart, witnessing via photo, letter, or personal visit the immense love and sacrifices these friends had made to welcome children into their lives, children they’d planned for and yearned for, in some cases, for years.
So what was it about Jody and Sun-Ming? Why was I suddenly their #1 commenter? That’s when it hit me: it wasn’t Jody nor was it Sun-Ming, at least not either of them solely. It was them collectively. Because, while I have four or five friends who are salt-of-the-earth single mothers currently, every last one of them had started their lives as parents with a partner in crime. Whether that spouse or boyfriend stuck around or was invited to stay around was another matter entirely– but they’d all gone into being a parent believing that their relationships were stable and that their partner was committed to co-parenting. They had set up a life and jumped in with both feet, expecting and planning as such– not to say that it’s any more fair or any less hard to deal with parenting in the midst of widowhood or divorce and its often attendant financial downward spiral and stress, but all of them had had some moments of the Kodak picture nuclear family going into parenthood.
All of them, except Jody. Jody used to talk about her then-infant nephews and preface it with statements like, “when I find the love of my life and have children, they’ll already have two marvelous cousins who’ll come for play dates in the summer.” It wasn’t an if back then, it was a when– and the when was implied to mean any-day-now. And who could blame her? She was in her early-thirties at the time, had lived on her own for well over a decade, paid her own bills in a timely fashion, had had the requisite bad-idea musician/bartender boyfriend in her early twenties before two other transitioning relationships and had just (a few months earlier) broken up with a long-term boyfriend she’d once assumed would be her “Mr. Forever.”
She was still young enough that she laughed through the bitter disappointment when she’d mention him, never by first name, just “Mr. Forever.” She could do that then because she still had some time to make it all work out, biologically-speaking. She had a stable job, she was organized, she had an education, she had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, she was involved in her community and actively gave back to others– she had it all, all that the Feminist movement said she as a middle-class, upwardly mobile American woman deserved and was capable of enjoying for a lifetime. The only small piece of the puzzle missing was the spouse. Even then, she talked routinely about wanting to start a family. None of us doubted she’d find a spouse. Jody surely didn’t.
But then years happened. How often had she dated? Had she dated much at all? Had she kept herself socially active? Had she just been too intimidating to the men she met? Conventional wisdom and women’s self-help literature always preach not to be too “put together” because “men need to feel needed.” Or had she been too clingy or needy as the possibility to have biological children streamed like sands through the proverbial hourglass, faster and faster to a no? A strange thing starts to happen to women in their thirties and forties– as unmarried men in that demographic have more and younger options, women have fewer men in their own age and experience range who are interested in them or will even give them a chance. Suddenly, the men these women wouldn’t have dated ten years earlier become the men who now won’t date them– and by the time this happens and they find out, more time has passed. Had she given up in the face of such depressing and buzz-killing realities? Or maybe, to be fair, we should assume it might have had nothing to do with her conducting a search or her sitting at home on a Friday at all. Maybe she just never found that strong, red-headed tenor, for whatever reason. Maybe, through no fault of her own, it was just in the cards for her to remain single? It happens sometimes.
But something else had happened, too. Sun-Ming. So a man had not come into her life permanently– but a new vitality and life force had, in the presence of that little girl who needed a mother. As an educated, professional woman now in my thirties and having weathered my requisite disappointments in love and false Mr. Forevers and not exactly a stranger to Saturday nights alone, more and more Jody’s path to family makes sense to me. And seems a likely path I myself may trod one day. After years of volunteering with children and being an auntie, I’ve often admitted to close friends that if it doesn’t happen for me– the life partner and marriage and settling into life with a significant Him– then I could definitely see myself adopting. Especially if I’m still single in my forties.
Granted, I haven’t exactly given up entirely and there are a few years yet ’til that next milestone. And yet there are already plenty of miles behind me–miles whose knowledge I want to share, preferably with a spouse and potentially with someone of my own genetic makeup– along with experiences that stretch years ahead. But I could easily love a child not biologically my own.
Much like Jody– who never thought she’d be where she is at this point in her life. But she is. And she’s doing it as a single mother, raising this beautiful child and through all of the normal blood, sweat, tears of the parenthood experience, here she is– what she’d wanted all along, albeit in a form she never quite planned. Still, she’s somebody’s Mom. She’s Sun-Ming’s Mama reporting on Facebook how yesterday Sun-Ming poured orange juice onto her cereal thinking the carton said milk, how she has three boyfriends in pre-school already and how she explained, “Dylans’s for mowning, Jack’s for afterwoon, then Carson for the rest of the day, of course!”
Of course. Nothing’s guaranteed in this life except that you hit a certain point and you know enough to take love, to embrace family, in whatever form available and necessary– whether that’s Mr. Forever and his biological offspring or a Chinese girl in blue pinafore with coordinating ponytail ribbons.
Jody, whether my true friend or not, is a mom. And perhaps even a glimpse into my own not-so-distant future.