Raising Yu Zheng / Raising Eli by Alex Behr

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, April 6th, 2016

"People who like labels have one for me: 'adoptive mom'..."

Alex Behr essay on international adoption NAILED magazine


At four years old, my son Eli amused himself by muttering nonsense words. He walked down the street of our Portland, Oregon, neighborhood with a stick, banging on trees or scraping it on the sidewalk. “Chink, chink, chink,” he said. His eyes so dark you couldn’t see his irises.

I didn’t say anything. It was a nonsense word to him—for now. I didn’t think anyone we passed noticed him speaking, but I did. He was Chinese to the core. Chinese blood, Chinese skin, Chinese everything, but given an American passport with no choice of his own. Assigned the name Yu Zheng at his orphanage, Yu for the rivers that crossed his homeland and Zheng for strength, he was renamed when we adopted him at ten months old: Eli Zheng. His birth name is a secret, maybe whispered to him by his mother in Chongqing’s local dialect. Those brief days she held him before he was left at the orphanage by someone. Maybe her. No one knows or will tell us the truth.

What I learned before adopting: the biological woman, the Homo sapiens, the primate, does not know the difference between raising a child and preparing to “revoke” the child for adoption. The human is an animal. A fierce animal. When the mother brings the child’s lips to her nipple, oxytocin surges through her body. It causes the milk to be released. When the child latches on, the pressure on the nipple causes the brain to secrete oxytocin in milliseconds. Yet if the woman is stressed, she won’t release oxytocin, which is crucial to nurturing and bonding. (They tested this by lighting firecrackers by a nursing gorilla and testing her oxytocin levels.) How would a woman facing the most traumatic moment of her life respond to this child she had born? And how would I bond with no oxytocin released naturally?

We were told: the adopted child always feels a loss. Always. The child needs consistency and realistic boundaries. The child needs us to follow through.

What I learned once Eli was in my arms: a mother measures the space her hand takes from her baby’s armpit to his waist, testing the softness of his skin, testing his muscles—is he strong? Is his blood flowing smoothly? She measures the tips of his fingernails—do they need to be cut? Will they bend back and pain him? It will be all her fault once more.

I took his pain too literally at first—blaming myself.

I realized the secret of being a mother and dissolving racism worldwide (not that anyone would listen to me): it was in the skin. Gliding fingers over the baby’s arms and legs, tracing the cheekbones and across the forehead, stretching fingers through his rough black hair, rubbing his belly in circles to soothe his tears: it wouldn’t matter the child’s shade of skin. The human touch was primal and addictive. Every caress and comfort I gave to the baby was secretly healing myself: the miscarriages, the surgeries, the years of frustration.

But I couldn’t have that relationship with a friend’s child or a nephew or niece, no matter how much I loved my sister’s kids, or my brother’s sons. It had to be my child, borne out of his need for me and mine for him.

Eli often panicked and became hysterical when I dropped him off at daycare, weeping, crying, clinging, arching away from caretakers toward me—wanting, desiring, and craving me. I often got teary and short of breath, walking to the car or the bike or just pushing my legs forward on a long walk home. People who like labels have one for me: “adoptive mom,” as I have one for his original mother: “birth mother.” But the truth was that Eli didn’t call me the “adoptive mom.” He knew he was from an orphanage and had three moms in his short life. He knew his orphanage nanny’s name and had her words in his baby book. He was proud of having three. I was mama as he learned English. Then I became mom.

I sent photos, letters, and money to his orphanage. I pined for his birth mother, what she didn’t have. He turned to me when he was sad, wiping long strands of snot across me, dripping blood, wanting me to wipe his butt, buying me the sappiest cards from Fred Meyer’s. I heard him hum before his toys killed each other. I monitored his contented engine of life.

Yet he was so prone to tantrums, said to come from the initial “disruptions”—the cataclysm of adoption. All systems were set for him to bond with his mother. After two and half weeks or so that ended. Then a room full of babies. No wonder he was jealous for years of other babies. Even his adoption records said he pushed other babies away from his primary nanny. It was a survival technique to protect scarce resources. Scarce love, shared love, limited amounts of undivided attention.


In 2009, Eli had been with us for four years. He was five and starting formal education in a predominantly Caucasian city, raised by Caucasian parents. His skin was dark brown, with a few freckles, with perfect, smooth muscles. His skin was soft, but tough at the knees. His feet stank.

He was told in kindergarten: don’t touch other children. But he couldn’t help it. To touch was to learn, to be in this world and the magic world of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny. We blew nighttime kisses into the air to his first mothers in China.

If he’d had a daily tantrum that lasted at least 15 minutes, then compressed over four years that equaled about 365 solid hours of screaming, crying, throwing, kicking, biting, running away, hitting, slamming doors, ripping up paper, spitting, and yelling.

In 2009 I wrote in my journal, “This week has been about the hardest psychologically in a long time. Last night, Eli got riled up and ran away from me, throwing popcorn around. Later, he bit Matt (his dad). It was so hot that I got weird rashes on my neck. I drank too much.” I was nearing the end of grad school at Portland State, trying to finish a short story collection for an MFA.

I took Eli to an adoption specialist. I begged Matt to come with me, and he agreed. But over the course of the appointments, I often took Eli by myself. The offices were in the Hollywood District of Portland, across from a café. After the sessions, which often brought me to tears, I’d get a latte from the café and a steamed milk for Eli. Cafés were our grounding point. I’d taken him in the stroller to cafés since coming back from China, watching his head loll to the side, in his dream land, while I sipped the foamy milk and bitter espresso.

Mary, the therapist, told me she wasn’t surprised that Eli had meltdowns. They came from deep in his unconscious. She told me to hold and rock him, and practice calming his body when things were going well. Talk to the left cortex. Help him become aware of the feelings in his body, which contorted him so easily. So thoroughly.

During one tantrum I tried to take her advice, I said, “Let the volcano out, Eli. Don’t let the volcano control you.”

He stood, shaking, and yelled, “You’re a liar! There is no volcano inside me!”

At one appointment, Mary—an adoptive mom herself—showed Eli a large Valentine’s heart. She said, “This is your birth mother. This is how big her heart was when she had you. She loved you more than anyone.” Then she took a pair of scissors and cut the heart in half.

Eli walked to the sand table to arrange helicopters and plastic animals in a battle. Mary said, “Eli, listen.”

I sat on the couch, listening to the bubbling of a fountain that was supposed to soothe. The room was always chilly.

Mary held the pieces of the heart and said, “Now your birth mother’s heart is broken.”

Eli looked at me. He got down on his knees and crawled across the room—something he hadn’t done since he was little. When he reached a plastic baby doll in a basket, he picked it up, along with a plastic doll bottle filled with white liquid.

He carried the doll and the bottle back to the couch. Still not speaking, he handed the baby doll and bottle to me so I could cradle and feed her.

We didn’t get tape to secure the parts of the Chinese mother’s heart. We left the pieces, and laid a heart representing him, and one for me, on top of it.


Matt and I savored Eli’s youth; we wasted it, we ignored it, we bathed it, and we fed it. We lay with him as he fell asleep, singing and relaxing into his beauty. It was like being drunk before the spins, utter peace and loss of time. We stole time, knowing how quickly it went, whereas to him, he was eager for the future. He was always acquisitive, wanting to run, climb, laugh, look under rocks for worms, smash sticks against trees, dig bridges, tunnels, read, and make sushi with “invitation” crab.

One day he asked me, “I was left at a gate?”

“That’s what it says.”

“Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I want to be with you. Always.”


Now he was nine. We lay on his bed, my mahogany sleigh bed from the 1860s, a bed he didn’t like because he still wanted to sleep in our room, like the orphanage of his infant days, close breathing, brain electricity humming.

“I want to be rich to find my mom.”

I asked, “Do you want to go to China?”

“No,” he paused. “I want to find my mom … Well, you’re my mom?”

“For right now?” I asked like a journalist, but I was curious. How far would he push the truth? I knew when he got mad at me, he sometimes felt I was a stranger, like a babysitter.

“No, for my life.”

Then he asked, “Why do moms not tell what their babies’ names are before they’re given away?” He talked in the dark, with me itching his back, along the curves of his spinal cord. His bed was covered with handmade quilts.

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t I know my name?” By this point some kids teased him about being adopted. One friend told him he was so stupid no wonder his mom gave him up. Boys made fun of his “Chinese eyes.”

“Why did they give me away?” Eli continued. “I’m not a little toy to be given away. I’m a person! Why didn’t she run away with me in a car?”

“She might not have owned a car. She might have been poor and not known what to do.”

“Why didn’t she run away with me in a wagon?” All logical extensions of his practical mind.

“I think she loved you very much.”

“Well, why wouldn’t she? Is that a question or what?”

I had to laugh. Of course she would love him. We were told she might have been unmarried. She was probably poor. If she kept him she would be stigmatized and have to pay a huge fine to register him for basic services like medical care and schooling. She might not be able to get work herself. Employers discriminated against single moms.


Some of his cells left the placenta when he was inside his mom. His cells will forever pepper her brain, her tissues, and her blood.

On his eleventh birthday he asked me, “Has she forgotten me?”

I said, “No, never.”

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Header image courtesy of Lindsey Price. To view a gallery of her collage on NAILED, go here.

alex behr writer essay on international adoption NAILED MagazineAlex Behr is a writer and musician in Portland, OR. This essay is from her unpublished memoir, which also contains writing published in Oregon Humanities, Bull Tongue Review, Lumina, and Tin House.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.