Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not too keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…


And now, here are


Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother


  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.


And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.


So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer 😉 –  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.



ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Timothy Hallinan

32 responses to “Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

  1. Hi Margot. You never cease to amaze me. It’s an amazing thing, adoption and thank goodness we can give children loving and supportive upbringings, in this way. Thank you so much for the mention and seriously, my five are nothing compared to the hurtful and impertinent comments you have clearly had from ‘well meaning’ people.

    • D.S. – It’s my pleasure to mention you, your work, and your blog. Seriously. And as far as impertinent? Well, I’ve never had complete strangers come up and pat my belly or ask how many ‘baby pounds’ I’ve gained. So there is that… 😉 – And trust me, our daughter has brought much more into our lives than we ever could to hers.

  2. What a beautiful picture of your daughter! An inspired post too, adoption is seen in a different light now. I was chatting to a (very) old lady who told me about a relation who adopted and later gave birth. This woman’s opinion that they should have sent the adopted child away!! I was amazed that anyone could even think such a thing.

    • Cleo – I think so too! And now that she’s an adult, she’s just as beautiful. You’re absolutely right too that times and attitudes about adoption have changed. As I think about what that lady said to you, I can’t imagine having raised an adoptive child during those years. My family and I, I must say, had it much easier.

  3. Wonderful and insightful post Margot. The ‘my least favourite question’ at the end really summed it all up.
    Your range of subjects are always so interesting to read and think about. Thank you.

  4. Adoption is an important factor in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, as I know you’ll remember. And I found the rest of your post very illuminating and helpful. I hope I wouldn’t have been guilty of any of those crass questions anyway… but it was good to read your take on it.

    • Moira – I can’t imagine that you would ever ask those kinds of questions. And I’m so glad you mentioned Ordeal By Innocence. Not only is it a fine story, but it really does have a solid theme of adoption. Thanks for filling in that gaping hole.

  5. Beautiful picture Margot – thanks for sharing this personal post with us.

  6. Pingback: Just One Look, That's All it Took* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… | Child Adoption Process

  7. kathy d.

    Who wouldn’t have fallen in love with that adorable baby at three months of age? It’s wonderful that you and MCOAMN have had a good life with your daughter, an experience that brought so much to all three of you. And more — now that you have a grandchild, too! Even more joy.
    I have known children who were adopted since I was a child. I remember that one of my friends in junior high school was adopted and so was her sister. But, where they ever embarrassed when their mother got pregnant and gave birth to a son at 47! It was really something to hear of their embarrassment that their mother could do such a thing at such an age!
    It ended up that laughter at the situation was the way to deal with it — by our circle of friends. They ended up enjoying their baby brother, by the way.
    Another friend who had adopted a child was terminally ill and passed away when she was eight, but there were so many housemates-friends who came to the fore to help out, become her guardian, have overnight weekends with her — and more, that she’s now a thriving college student.
    That was a terrible situation, where the best was done for my friend’s daughter and she was incorporated into another family, along with her Golden Retriever, hamsters and enormous room full of toys and books.
    On the other hand, a friend and his spouse adopted three older children who have profound emotional problems, feeling their biological mother abandoned them. They’ve had to spend a fortune on therapists and
    special schools that deal with children with such problems. It’s been
    hard on my friends who have done the responsible things for the children.
    I’m glad that the books above are cited. My only question on The Half-Child was that the mother of the child who was adopted through the agency thought she was boarding the child as she had to work, and she
    didn’t know or agree to an adoption. Isn’t this what happened?
    What becomes unscrupulous is when individuals or agencies skirt the laws and make this a money-making operation, hurting the biological mother, the adoptive parents and the child.
    I also worry about celebrity adoptions when the child becomes the focus of a media circus, and wonder how the children react to that. Does it harm them? Some celebrities seem to be great at this; other don’t. So what will be the long-term affect on the children? There are so many issues here.
    When adoption works out as it should and the children thrive and are happy and healthy and can grow up to be independent adults, that is fantastic. There are a lot of success stories, and they’re beautiful to see.

    • Kathy – Well, Mr. COMAN and I simply had no choice when we were matched with our daughter. And you’re right; we’ve had a good life since then and now a wonderful grand-daughter. Can’t get much better than that.
      Thanks for sharing your own stories of adoptive families you know. I think it’s wonderful that friends and others pulled together to help that young girl grow up and have the best childhood they could give her. That’s an amazing story. But as you point out, some adoption stories don’t work out as well. Sometimes it’s because the child has suffered deeply. It’s very hard for parents to meet the needs of such children. There are other reasons too for which adoptions aren’t always ‘fairy tales.’ But in the main, adoptive families do become solid, loving units. It’s not always easy, but it happens more often than it doesn’t.
      There are, however, some unscrupulous people involved in the adoption world. There are stories of abducted children, sold children, and so-called ‘adoption agencies’ that simply try to adopt out the most desperately ill and special-needs children to parents who are not informed about those childrens’ special needs. There are other horror stories too. That’s why, when people ask me about it, I strongly recommend doing solid research and being very careful about the agency one chooses.
      About The Half Child, you’re absolutely right that there is a situation of a baby who is supposed to be staying at New Life as a ‘boarder, but whose biological mother is misled. And that does happen in some places. It’s another reason to ‘do one’s homework’ very carefully before choosing an agency, a country from which to adopt, and so on.
      Fortunately, as you say, adoption success stories far outnumber the times when it doesn’t work.

  8. It’s interesting how attitudes to adoption have changed over the years. Look at Anne of Green Gables when adopted children were often seen as little more than cheap servants. And now babies for adoption are so scarce (in the rich countries) that each one is a precious gift to its adopted parents. So I won’t ask you how much the process cost financially, and I can make a guess at how much it cost emotionally – but at least you got that investment back, with interest! 🙂

    • FictionFan – We did indeed 🙂 – And I’m glad you brought up Anne of Green Gables. It really is an interesting portrait of how adoption was viewed in earlier times. As you say, sometimes adoptees were treated as little more than servants. Not now though; today adoptive parents dream of that long-awaited ‘phone call that they’ve been matched. It means a family – a precious family. Can’t get much better than that.

  9. What a wonderful post, Margot — I’m going to re-blog this one. Doesn’t surprise me at all that one look was all it took for you to fall for your beautiful daughter.

    Thanks, too, as always, for the shout out. Picking up on the point you and Kathy were discussing, the majority of children in orphanages in SE Asia have at least one living parent (71% in Cambodia, for example). They are sent to institutions where they can be cared for, which as you can appreciate, is not the same thing as being relinquished for adoption — hence my suggestion in The Half-Child that such children might better be called ‘boarders’ than ‘orphans’. In the novel, I sought to explore the vulnerability of children — and their parents/potential adoptive parents — because of that ambiguity in their status.

    As for adoptees in crime fiction, Kerry Greenwood’s lady detective Hon Miss Phryne Fisher has two adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth. As outlined on Phryne’s website: Jane arrived as a lost, mesmerised stray in Murder on the Ballarat Train. Efforts to find out who she was led to [Phryne’s friends, cab drivers] Bert and Cec also rescuing Ruth from domestic slavery. Jane is clever and will be a doctor; Ruth is still remembering hunger and will be a cook. Both girls have proven helpful in solving Phryne’s cases over the series.

    • Angela – Thanks for the reblog and for the kind words. 🙂 – And it’s true; we were drawn to our daughter immediately and as soon as we met her in person, we knew it was right. The process was long and difficult, but so much more than worth it.
      It’s always a pleasure to mention your work. And I appreciate your sharing your perspective on the issue of children in SA orphanages. They are, as you make clear both here and in The Half Child, extremely vulnerable and so are the others in their lives. That’s even more the case when unscrupulous people get involved in what’s supposed to be a careful and thoughtful process. It’s a difficult issue and one for which, I must say, I have no magic solution. Certainly one part of it though has to be direct and international attention on what happens in orphanages, who is directing the adoption process, and what the consequences are for everyone. I am grateful you discuss the topic in your novel, and in a thoughtful and informed way.
      Finally thanks for mentioning Phryne Fisher and her adopted children. What a great family they make, and what I love about is that Greenwood shows how well even unconventional adoptive families can work. We come in all sizes and shapes.

  10. Reblogged this on Angela Savage and commented:
    Readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Margot Kinberg’s wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Margot’s latest post, on adoption in crime fiction, makes fascinating reading. Fraud in overseas adoption was the subject of my second novel, The Half-Child, which gets a mention in this post. If you can think of crime novels in which adoption plays a role, other than those mentioned by Margot, feel free to add them in the comments section. Enjoy!

  11. kathy d.

    Very good discussion. An issue to be scrutinized internationally. It is a horror that children become commodities for whatever reason, especially the shadiest and most corrupt and dangerous.
    Another aspect of this for another time, perhaps post, is the issue of surrogacy, a controversial one. And I raise it because Kishwar Desai, noted author from India, wrote “Origins of Love,” a slightly zany, light-hearted look at the surrogacy industry in India, where poor women have been contracted to have children for wealthier Europeans. During their pregnancies, they must live in facilities designed by the agency and give up their legal and civil rights. And if anything goes wrong with the pregnancy or the baby is very ill, who suffers?
    But Desai’s point, which is why I’m writing this, is that 1/2 million children end up on the streets (I don’t know if she meant annually or not), and many of them end up in nefarious situations, like trafficking. She advocates strongly the people who want children should adopt them, that the children living on the planet should be adopted as a priority.
    She makes a strong case for this in a book, which would not be considered a muckraking one, but she says what she wants to say in a novel format without sounding patronizing in any way.

    • Kathy – Surrogacy is a major issue, and I may very well look at it in another post. As you and Desai point out, there are so many children in the world who need care and love, ideally through adoption. And adoption, so long as it’s done ethically and legally, can make a vast positive difference in the lives of children and their adoptive families. As you say though, there are a lot of unscrupulous people who prey on the adoption process and those involved in it.

  12. Thank you, Margot, for sharing this very personal post with us – and the picture. I find it hard to believe that people ask you some of these questions [although, guilty as charged, I do believe I’ve asked ‘when are you going to tell him/her’ on once or twice]. We have had adoption in our family which didn’t work so well, but it was adoption of a nephew and niece who had been orphaned at the age of 6 and 2, and I think that comments comparing the birth parents with the adoptive parents led to some illusions and nostalgia.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I sometimes find it hard to believe, too, that people ask the kinds of questions they ask. I didn’t know you’d had adoptions in your family as well – that’s really interesting. I agree with you that it’s hard for everyone when there are those comparisons of biological and adoptive parents. And I think it must especially be true of the older child, who might clearly remember things before the adoption. No doubt about it; adoption is sometimes challenging…

  13. Margot- After your visit to Devon I know how proud you are of your daughter, and what a lovely family you have. One of my numerous cousins adopted two baby girls from China, and they have grown into beautiful young women. Unfortunately there are some societies in which females are not appreciated, I know that even in the UK there are some areas where hospitals who perform amnio have a policy of not telling the parents the sex of the baby.
    Adopted children are sure they are loved, and wanted. I would suggest that there are more problems in the second and third marriage family with step children, half brothers and sisters, and stepbrothers and sisters.

    • Norman – I am indeed proud of my family. And I’m glad the adoptions in your family have worked out as well as they have. It’s good to hear those young ladies are having successes in life. You’re right, too, of course that there are places where girls are not valued, and that can lead to awful consequences. I’m not sure about whether there are any US hospitals that have that policy of not informing parents of their baby’s sex, but given some of what I’ve read, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t.
      You make an interesting point too about the issue of blended families. Those families do face real challenges, and in some ways, it really is more difficult to navigate the waters, so to speak, with a blended family than with an adopted family. Hmmmm….’food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  14. I was very touched by your blog, Margot, and share some of your experiences. Yes, adoption can be a wonderful thing.
    In Camilleri’s The Snack Thief, a little boy is orphaned and Montalbano and Livia think of adopting him, but there’s a more suitable arrangement with Mimi’s sister, who lives in the country.
    Incidentally I have often thought that Maigret and Madame Maigret ought to have adopted: their childlessness is a source of sadness to them. In ‘Maigret’s Christmas’ they foster a little girl for a while.

    • Chrissie – Thanks – I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. And thank you for mentioning The Snack Thief. That’s a terrific example of an adoption where everyone really benefits. And you can see in that novel how Livia becomes attached to the little boy and he to her. Even the usually grumpy Montalbano feels the bond. I think that story shows too that adoption is as beneficial to those who adopt as it is to children who are adopted.
      As far as the Maigrets go, yes, I think they would have loved being parents. They’d have done a good job of it too, as you remind us. Authors usually have reasons for their choices, in this case, Simenon’s choice that the Maigrets would not have children. But I do wonder why he did that.

  15. Lovely, inspirational post, Margot.

  16. kathy d.

    In the Camilleri series, it is quite heartbreaking that the little boy chooses to live with Mimi’s sister’s family, although it’s best for him. He gets to live in a huge farm with a lot of siblings in a big loving family. But it causes a lot of pain for Salvo and Livia.
    It shows that these struggles involving child custody are so difficult, even when adults know what is in the best interests of the child.
    But I am glad that Camilleri showed how wrenching this can be, that it’s not easy to part with a child even if it’s in his/her best interests.

    • Kathy – I agree that Camilleri does an effective job of showing that adoption decisions can be very wrenching indeed. As you say, even when everyone concerned knows what’s best for the child, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

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