Emma’s Child And Our Time
I know a couple—Amy, a tall blond Scandinavian, and Rob, a short light
German—who adopted a child from China. The process took 22 months
before they got to meet their daughter, but they received photos of her
development. They were in parental love before they even got to meet
Mia, having named her 11 months prior. And when they brought the
toddler to America, Amy was surprised at strangers' reactions. A woman
asked, in a supermarket, "You married a Chinese?" No. "But this is your
daughter?" Yes, she's adopted. "Ohhhhh! Then she's not really your
daughter." Yes. She is my daughter. "Yes, but not your biological
daughter." She's my daughter.
The relationship between an adopting mother and the child to be adopted
is never quite comprehensible to those who have their children
biologically. Another couple I know adopted a child from Canada, three
children from Colombia, and then had two more in the usual way. The
love Rosemary and Bob have for their six children has no biological
divide. Again, outsiders don't understand. They expect the youngest
two, who are considerably paler than the children from Bogotá, to be
nearer their parents, but that just ain't true.
Emma's Child, by Kristine Thatcher, is a theatrical attempt to shed
some stark light on this perplexing situation. But Thatcher isn't
content to give us the easiest of issues concerning adoption. Her
adoptable child, Robin, is a freak of birth. For the duration of the
play, the child has an enormous head, swollen with hydrocephalus. Emma,
the biological carrier to birth of Robin, willingly abandons the child
to the hospital's intensive care unit. Jean, the adopting mother,
spends as much time with the baby as she can, and Henry, the adopting
father is fearful at the prospect of having to care for this
Henry, like the real-life fathers Rob and Bob, is unambiguously in
favor of adoption. However, Henry's reluctance to accept Robin's
horrific malady and the imagined future between father and son makes
him pull out of any emotional attachment. And that is how Thatcher
shines her stark beam on the tension at the heart of family life—here
exacerbated by Jean's complete loving concern for Robin and Henry's
continual reference to legalities that allow the couple freedom to not
adopt. The dichotomy may be enough to destroy the marriage.
This family unit is paralleled by the hospital staff and
administration. Laurence, a nurse, and Mary Jo, a nurse's aid, are
delightfully human, and like Jean, they see in Robin a patient worthy
of protection and nurture. Similarly, Jean's friend gets it. The
medical specialist seems mostly indifferent to the child except to
explain what's scientifically possible and probable. The hospital
administration, however, feels burdened by all the care Robin requires
and is willing to expend such care as long as Social Services is
willing to underwrite it.
What Thatcher has done goes well beyond the issues of adoption. She is
writing about the question of human worth. Jean loves Robin. Robin is
her child. There is no ambivalence in Jean. She and Robin are a
medieval Madonna and Child, and the play recalls that ubiquitous
European image from a time when most European children were born with
little hope of survival, a time that still, artlessly perhaps, exists
in many countries throughout the world today.
Thatcher presents us with the dichotomy in our national dialogue
concerning the infirm and old; drug addiction and responsibility;
roles of men and woman, husbands and wives; the state and the
individual—the play is pregnant with all these issues, and the audience
is the midwife that allows them into our world.
The play similarly suggests some other, abstract ideas. While Jean and
Robin are more sympathetic than the other characters, the play doesn't
simply come out against corporate culture that looks to the bottom
line. Henry and the administrator of the hospital have reasonable
positions. Love, they seem to say, cannot dictate hospital procedures;
nor can love trump the difficulties inherent in caring for seriously
ill patients—something has to give way. The answer to these
practicalities may be simply, "Robin is Jean's child."
The great Polish Nobel-Prize-winning poet Wislawa
Szymborska, in a translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh,
has written the following:
"Woman, what's your name?" "I don't know."
"How old are you? Where are you from?" "I don't know."
"Why did you dig that burrow?" "I don't know."
"How long have you been hiding?" "I don't know."
"Why did you bite my finger?" "I don't know."
"Don't you know that we won't hurt you?" "I don't know."
"Whose side are you on?" "I don't know."
"This is war, you've got to choose." "I don't know."
"Does your village still exist?" "I don't know."
"Are those your children?" "Yes."
Senior Lecturer, English
University of Wisconsin-Parkside