How a working mother of four adopted five foreign-born children and lived to write about it.
To most readers, Melissa Fay Greene is the prizewinning author of such journalistic gems as The Temple Bombing and Praying for Sheetrock. To her neighbors in midtown Atlanta, she's also known as the lady who, in 1999, the year before her oldest child left for college, decided to adopt more kids, at least partially to ward off empty-nest syndrome. At last count, she and her husband, Don Samuel, a defense attorney, have added five kids to their "bio" group of four: one from a Bulgarian orphanage and four from Ethiopia. Why they did it—and how they do it—is the subject of Greene's moving, enlightening, and surprisingly funny new memoir, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet (Sarah Crichton/FSG), which folds an adoption primer into a meditation on family. We talked to Greene about her parenting (and survival) skills.
O: Some people are skeptical about families with so many kids—think OctoMom, Jon and Kate Gosselin—and some surely believe that by adopting so many, you're the most altruistic of people. Can you speak to why you made the decisions to adopt Jesse, Helen, Sol, Yosef, and Daniel? Melissa Fay Greene: First of all, it's really dangerous to adopt children out of a feeling of altruism. Your humanitarian urge will last until about the third tantrum. Besides, it's not fair to the kids to make them someone's humanitarian project. So why would any thinking person do this? You have to be guided by something other than rational thought. I'm not saying we turned off rational thought, but my husband and I were also guided by a sense of what brings us laughter and joy and by the intuition that we could handle more kids.
O: How did your four elder children react when you started adopting? Melissa Fay Greene: The first time was the hardest. Bringing a non-English-speaking, tantrum-throwing, Eastern European 4-year-old into a previously tranquil family was a shock to all of us. I had to remind myself that even when the newest family member is a newborn, there can be exhaustion, jealousy, and second thoughts.
O: Yours is a Jewish household. Some of your children were Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. How have you all adjusted? Melissa Fay Greene: Every step of the way, we talked to them and said, for example: "Jewish boys have Bar Mitzvahs at age 13. Do you want to do it?" and they said, "Yeah." Daniel read his Haftarah portion in Amharic at his Bar Mitzvah. One thing that's been nice for Yosef and Daniel is that there is actually a lot of overlap between Ethiopian Orthodoxy and Judaism. Both religions come from the ancient Middle East; the Ethiopian language, Amharic, is a Semitic language like Hebrew and Arabic. The prayer shawls, circumcision on the eighth day, fasts, dietary laws—all overlap with their customs and practices. So a lot of it didn't feel all that foreign to them.
O: You say that people often tell you, "I have two kids, and I can't manage." Yet you seem to handle it all. What's your secret? Melissa Fay Greene: Like the father in the movie Cheaper by the Dozen, I happen to enjoy efficiency planning. Moving enormous piles of laundry down the line actually interests me. We have in-house family shoe sales. Our worst problem is that we don't have quite enough bedrooms—and I often dream about that. In my dreams I suddenly discover that there is an entire dormitory right behind our house and for some reason I hadn't seen it before. I wake up happy.