On my many excursions into Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City over the years, I’ve bought countless pairs of shoes that brightened my mood, picked out dresses that (sometimes) flattered my figure, and turned over my credit card for too many cosmetics that I’d hoped would make me look like a fresher, prettier version of myself.
But one afternoon in October 2002, I walked out of the store with something more valuable than anything money could buy. I found hope in the unlikeliest of places after months of despair, thanks to a woman who decided to strike up a conversation with me in the store’s café.
It was a painful time for me. Married a little over two years, I’d suffered three devastating miscarriages in nine months and, at 42, was slowly coming to terms with the idea that I might never be able to have a child. Up until that point, I never really gave much thought to being a mother, and suddenly I could think of little else. My husband and I had been together for ten years before we decided to get married because neither of us was in a hurry to do so. My parents’ marriage had ended disastrously, leaving my mother in deteriorating health and dire financial circumstances. After her death a few years later, I vowed to maintain my independence, and I threw myself into my work as a freelance marketing consultant and fledgling writer. Motherhood just wasn’t part of the plan.
As my 40th birthday approached, I began, for the first time, to notice babies and their happy, smiling mothers wherever I went. I wished I could talk to my own mother about the yearning, hurt, and confusion I was experiencing.
On that fateful day, I’d been trudging around the city sleepwalking through meetings with clients while the voice inside me cried out, “It’s too late! You missed your chance to be a mother! You wanted an all-consuming career, and now you’ve got one.”
A light mist turned into a heavy rain. Perfect, I thought. Just the thing to match my mood. With an hour to kill before my next appointment, I ducked into Saks, hoping to distract myself with some retail therapy. When scouring the sale racks did little to lift my spirits, I decided to head to the ninth-floor café.
An elegantly dressed, slightly older woman wearing a tweed blazer and oversize pearls was seated a few stools away at the half-empty counter.
“Would you like to see a picture of my daughter?” she asked me.
“Sure,” I said, not at all sure why I was remotely interested.
She reached across the counter and handed me a photo of a smiling Chinese girl. The child was about seven years old and was wearing a Snow White costume.
“That’s Melanie. She’s in the first grade,” she said. I could hear the motherly pride in her voice.
“She’s pretty,” I said. “I love her costume.”
We were still chatting when our salads arrived. My new acquaintance told me she was exhausted, having been up half the night worrying over the news that some boys on her daughter’s bus had teased her about the “funny-smelling” Chinese snacks she had in her lunch box.
The woman explained that she felt strongly about teaching her daughter about Chinese customs and maintaining ties to her heritage.
“What made you decide to adopt her?” I asked, uncertain whether I’d ventured into too-personal territory.
“I didn’t want work to be my whole life,” she said.
I’m not sure if she saw the tears welling up in my eyes as I replied, “I don’t either, but I’m afraid it’s too late.”
“I was 51 when I adopted Melanie,” she said with more than a hint of reassurance in her voice. “And it’s the most rewarding, exciting thing I’ve ever done.”
When our checks came, she handed me her business card, and I finally learned her name—and in that minute, I saw a happier, more fulfilled version of myself. Jill Totenberg was a public relations consultant and a happy, loving adoptive parent. Could I ever hope to have that kind of life?
That night, I dreamed of my mother, remembering that she once had wanted to adopt a child from Vietnam, but my father hadn’t felt the same way. It was the first time she’d ever appeared in my dreams. I woke up knowing I could be—and would be—a mother. I also knew how that was going to happen.
A few days later, in the car on our way to dinner, I told my husband that I wanted to look into adopting a girl from China. “You’re enough for me,” he said. “But if you want to find out more about that, we can.”
In early 2003, we registered with an adoption agency and began an 18-month “paper pregnancy.” During that time, I kept in touch with Jill, e-mailing her occasionally. I promised to visit so I could meet her daughter, but as often happens, life got in the way. Still, the little girl in the Snow White costume and her mother were never far away in my thoughts.
When my husband and I returned from China with our nine-month-old daughter, Madeline Jing-Mei, in November 2005, Jill was one of the first people I e-mailed. “I did it!” I wrote. “I’m a mother, and she’s beautiful!”
“Congratulations,” she wrote back. “You’re embarking on the greatest adventure of your life.”
We recently reconnected on Facebook, and I reminded her that meeting her was the single most important encounter I’d ever had with a stranger. “I can’t imagine my life without Madeline. She’s the happiest child, and I adore her. I would have never really thought about adopting a baby from China if I hadn’t met you that day,” I told her. “You changed my life.”
“You were just ready to hear what I had to say,” said Jill. “It was meant to be.”