Becoming Superman's Mom

By the time we met around that conference table in Seoul, the baby photo in my purse had faded; its corners were tattered and worn.

Memoir by Shawna Ervin, Spring/Summer 2014


Jumping from behind his imagined phone booth behind the couch, my son bursts forth as Superman, taking his bravery and strength from room to room. “Up, up, and away,” he yells as he races through the living room into the kitchen, then back again. Dressed in the royal blue and bright-red costume with a cape waving behind him, he runs by. “I’m going to save the day!”

An ice monster is turning Hawaii beaches and volcanoes to ice, and he has an imagined Lois Lane (aka Winnie the Pooh) trapped. Andrew runs to the pantry, borrows a cat harness and leash, and climbs over the top of the couch for the rescue. He wraps Lois in the leash, holds her snug against the foam muscles on his costume, and climbs back over.

As the five-minute YouTube cartoon loops on our TV, my four-year-old Superman saves Lois Lane again and again, never showing the slightest fear. I watch him careen by me each time, perfecting his bravery. He wasn’t always this brave.


Four years ago, at a round table in a small conference room on the third floor of an adoption agency in Seoul, South Korea, we met the baby who would be our son. My husband and I, our baby’s foster parents, and a Korean social worker sat in mismatched chairs while our ten-month-old baby played on top of the table. I don’t remember what he played with, but I do remember his face: the wide smile and eyes that disappeared into his toothless giggles. The social worker talked in broken English about the baby’s routine, his favorite songs and toys, what soothed him, how he liked to go to sleep, etc. My arms and chest ached to hold him but I resisted. He didn’t know who I was. He and I locked eyes and I smiled. My notebook sat closed, the pen’s cap still on. I couldn’t let go of the baby’s eyes.

My husband and I had learned about our son through photos, videos, and updates sent over the past five months. We had read and reread the packet about his history, birth parents, birth grandparents, premature birth, and resulting hospital stay until we could rattle off details to anyone who asked. He probably won’t be very tall, I’d say. His birth mom is only five-foot-four; his birth father five-foot-eight. His birth mother is studying art in college. His birth father is an engineer for the Korean military. The two had lost touch, I said, and his birth mom wasn’t ready to raise a child on her own; she wanted to continue college.

By the time we met around that conference table in Seoul, the baby photo in my purse had faded; its corners were tattered and worn. When video updates had come from the agency, we watched them, memorizing our son’s smiles and glances, the way he reached for a toy or crawled in his foster mom’s lap. We cheered as he reached milestones, then fell silent. Why were the US and Korean governments taking so long to process our paperwork? Our baby should be here at home, sleeping in his crib, eating in the high chair, playing with the toys neatly organized in the new toy box. He should be in my lap.


Then there he was, in front of me. He was neither a small photo nor a jumpy video. I could touch him. My hand was only a few inches from his. Those rolls on his wrist! My finger reached out and touched them. So soft! I swallowed hard. The social worker looked at me. She’d been stern as we talked before the meeting. “First day, you no touch baby. You are stranger.” But he didn’t seem to mind. He smiled comfortably. In just two days he’d be ours—our baby. That laughter and smile would be ours to take home.

The next day we had a chance to play while our baby’s foster mom and the social worker finished some paperwork. I sat with him in front of me, studied his cable-knit tights, turquoise shorts, and white button shirt. I watched out of the corner of my eye as his foster mom left the small playroom and softly closed the door. He pushed the cartoon characters down on a toy; I twisted or pulled knobs to make them spring up. Over and over the characters popped up and his body erupted into giggles. My husband and I caught his contagious joy, laughing too.

Then he noticed. His foster mom was gone. We were strangers again. Was it too long? Was it the penguin toy that made him think of her? Was it my husband’s throaty laugh? Was it something I said? He was rigid in fear frantically searching for her. He shook and burst into terrified sobs, then crawled as fast as he could for the door. My husband and I tried to follow, mutter reassurances, and pick him up. He wouldn’t have it. No! His whole body screamed. No!

His foster mom rushed in from the room across the hall, scooped him up, floated over to the brown leather couch wedged against the wall in the playroom, and sat down. She held his body across her lap, cradled his head in her arm, and pulled a bottle from a bag with the other, without ever looking away from him. I stood watching, unnoticed, still in my socks swaying from foot to foot, feeling my toes sink into the foam play mat. His breath smoothed; he sighed and started drinking the pale-yellow formula, looking intently into her eyes. Home. Safe.


As I watched my son and his foster mother, I realized how stark her experience and ability to comfort him were against my insecurities. Would I be able to learn to soothe my baby like she did? Would love cross racial and cultural lines?

My husband and I had chosen adoption due to several genetic conditions. We had completed a cycle of in vitro fertilization, believing we were testing for only an eye condition that would cause blindness, and discovered that it was much more involved. From fourteen embryos, we ended up with just one female embryo to implant. The embryo didn’t survive to a pregnancy test. We learned that because of the severity of genetic conditions my husband and I carried, if I was able to have a pregnancy go to term—highly unlikely—that child would likely be severely disabled. I gulped hard. Our doctor wrote down the names of some adoption agencies. My images of a blond girl chasing her daddy around, a little boy who would be funny or athletic like me, shattered.


I felt my feet again in the play mat, watched as my son relaxed with his foster mother. He was going to be mine. I was going to have a baby. They looked natural together. My doubts raged. Could I learn to be a mother despite my inability to have biological children? In the middle of the night when my son would have nightmares, in the emergency room while I tried not to pass out at the sight of blood or stitches, when someone said something insensitive in the grocery checkout line, or in preschool to my tan child with the eyes that disappeared into his wide smiles—would I have the right words? Would I find the balance between coddling and protecting, nurturing and letting go? Would I mix the right amount of formula at 2 am or get the diaper on forward and right side up? Would we be able to navigate the path from strangers to family? Would I be able to reassure my son with a mere glance like his foster mother had done?


The next day our baby was handed to us as a small ball of fear before we climbed into the adoption agency van and headed to the airport. We tried teething medication, holding, rocking, walking, playing, his favorite snacks. Nothing we did helped. He screamed and pushed against me, fought. My husband looked at me as if I should know what to do. I didn’t. As much as our baby cried or winced when I tried to say his Korean name, he lit up at each Korean woman who wanted to hold him. He nestled into their arms, smiled and giggled, relaxed as they held the bottles for him. They played clapping games, cooed, sang. He was happy with them. I had waited a long five months to be a mother and hold this baby. He didn’t want me.


When we got home the three of us struggled through finding a routine and bonding. We tried copying the schedule the foster mother had written down. It didn’t work for us. I watched as my baby, now named Andrew, shut down and withdrew. Were we doing the right thing? I took time off work to focus on bonding. During the day I walked with him in a baby carrier, held him, and tried to look into his eyes while he drank a bottle. He looked away or closed his eyes.

Time passed. When things should have been getting better, they stayed the same. Things weren’t going according to what we’d been taught in our adoption classes. Andrew still wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t sleeping. We tried everything anyone mentioned. We read books, searched online, made things up. Nothing worked. Our baby wasn’t interacting away from home, following developmental milestones. He said one word, then no more. Something was wrong.

Our world slowed, almost to a stop. Going places or leaving him was impossible. We tried nurseries, babysitters, and grandparents. Each time we separated he panicked; his body shook with terror. He would cry so hard he gagged and threw up. It took hours to calm him down enough to eat or take a nap. I found myself lost in his grief and terror. I quit my job, stopped doing things I enjoyed, watched helplessly as friendships faded and ended.

This wasn’t how I had envisioned motherhood; I hadn’t wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I enjoyed my job and being active in volunteer work and other activities. I loved my son but resented him too. One day I stood in his room after trying several tactics to get him to sleep and sobbed.

“Please go to sleep. Please give me a break,” I begged. “You need sleep. Mommy needs sleep. I love you but I don’t like you right now,” I sobbed and said too forcefully, too loudly.

He burst into sobs, his face pink and nose running. My tired thoughts ran wild. Maybe I was the reason for all of this. Maybe I shouldn’t be a mother. Comments I’d heard as we’d tried to start a family taunted me.

If God wants you to have children, you’ll have children. He knows who is fit to be a mother.

Had God known I’d have this moment? Maybe that was why we couldn’t have biological children. Had my desire to have children come in the middle of some cosmic plan for Andrew to be a part of another family, for the career goals I felt attached to? What was I now? Who was I?


After several meltdowns I finally listened to my husband when he suggested that we enroll Andrew in preschool two days a week. He’d been home a year and a half; he was 2½. I justified my need for a break by telling myself other kids would be good for Andrew; it may help him start to talk. I drove him fifteen minutes two days a week. At the end of a semester he was still writhing in his car seat, crying each time we went. As we got closer he grew quiet. His eyes were stoic, staring out the window.

I felt awful sending him, knowing how much he hated it, but I knew we both needed it. I carried him in, tried to be soothing and sound excited, even as I wondered if I was making the type of mistake that would land him in expensive therapy someday. “You’ll see friends,” I said. “You’ll get to play with trains, go outside, see your teachers. They’ll be excited to see you.” I hoped that last part wasn’t a lie.

We got there early each day and spent some time quietly reading books in the hallway to help him relax.

“It’s time to go in your class now, Andrew.”

He shook his head, adamant. He rushed into my lap, rammed his forehead hard into my shoulder. I felt his chest quiver as his hands grabbed onto my shirt and pulled hard.

“It’s time to go now.”

I picked him up, held him tight against me, and headed to his classroom doorway, where I caught the eye of a teacher. She nodded at me and came over.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see you in a little bit, Andrew. Have a great day!”

Then she and I set to wrenching his hands and legs from around me, fighting his incredible strength. She held him, tried to soothe him through his screams while the other teacher calmly closed the door. More than once I got to my car, cried, and fought the urge to go back in and get him. Each time I managed to drive away.

I had planned to have him continue preschool the next fall, but he wasn’t potty trained in time to attend the three-year-old class. We stayed home, went on walks, and worked our way into going on short outings. He struggled to make sounds. I learned sign language and taught him. He began signing furiously, learning new signs quickly. He told me when he was scared or tired or wanted to go home. I learned to listen. Slowly he began to talk and interact with people in the grocery checkout line and restaurants.

After a semester off, we started touring preschools again. Each time I’d ask Andrew what he thought, if he felt safe there, if he wanted to go back. Each time he said no. Until one preschool we toured during a blizzard.

“Hi, Andrew,” the teacher said.

“Hi,” he said. I stood, surprised. He answered her!

“How are you?”

“I good.”

He walked away from me and played while the teacher and I talked. I watched as he picked up play food, blocks, and a truck. He looked them over carefully. He walked over to a little girl sitting at a small table and sat down across from her. He picked up a plate, set some play food on it, and then held out a piece of food to her. I asked all the questions I had, added in some extras to give Andrew time to play, then said, “Andrew, it’s time to go.”

He ignored me. I smiled, proud of my strong-willed little boy. Laughing, I said, “Andrew, do you want to come back and play here some more another day?”

He beamed and nodded excitedly.

A month later he started preschool again. We had an agreement. I didn’t take him on days there was a substitute or he was adamant about not going. The days he didn’t want to go were soon dwarfed by the days he wanted to go.

He turned four and we decided to hold him back so he could have the same preschool teacher again. At some point that year he started telling me the names of kids at preschool, what his class ate for a snack, what book the teacher read that day, whose birthday it was. He started walking into his classroom on his own, asking me to help him tell his teachers about something he did at home or ask a question. Then he started asking on his own.


After trying to climb the fence to say hi to the neighbor’s dog, Superman got a splinter in his toe. It hurt and he needed his daddy to carry him inside, the red costume boots dangling over my little Superman’s sore toe. They found me in the kitchen, stirring spaghetti sauce. My son cried into my husband’s plaid shirt, and I got the story in bits through sobs.

“Owie on toe,” he cried. “From fence.”

I turned off the burner and followed them into the bathroom.

“I want Mommy to hold me,” Andrew said.

“OK. Let me get Daddy the tweezers.”

I grasped my son’s leg with two hands and held his gaze steady in mine. I knew he would listen to my eyes more than my words. I offered my hand to squeeze if he felt scared. My husband tried to force his six-foot-two body close to my son’s toe with the small splinter. He couldn’t get it out, so I handed the scared Superman off to my husband’s lap and took a turn at the tweezers. When I was still the might-be-mom to a bald, toothless baby’s photo on my fridge, I was squeamish. This didn’t faze me anymore. I worked quickly, lifted the end of the splinter up with the pointy side of the tweezers, and pulled quickly.

“Look at that. See that? It’s not in your toe anymore. It won’t hurt you now.”

Andrew looked carefully at the splinter, brushed his finger over the tender spot on his toe. He smiled, one tear still on his cheek, brushed it away, stood up, and dashed off to save the day.


Andrew wants to be Superman everywhere. Before he would get dressed for school, I made a promise. I would bring his Superman costume so he could change after lunch and surprise his class and teachers. He made me vow over and over. Last week I promised too. I forgot.

When I pick him up, I carry the brown, plastic bag slightly behind my back, go up the stairs and into the cafeteria where he eats his macaroni, pears, and green beans. He sees me and lights up at the bag in my hands. I relish the feeling of being a bit of a superhero myself for just a minute. He hurriedly snaps the blue lids on small containers, rushing and getting frustrated that they don’t fit easily. I come over and hand him the bag.

“Do you want to go to the bathroom while I clean up?”

“Yes! Yes!” he says, just as we rehearsed.

I snap the lids on, let them fall into his green-and-blue dinosaur lunch bag, zip it up, and walk into the bathroom.

“Do you need help?”

“A little.”

I look inside the stall, see him holding the costume up, looking it over.

“The legs are wrong,” he says, confused. They are inside out.

After his shoes are off, the costume on and shoes back on, he shoves the bathroom door open and runs out to the small, round tables where his teachers are finishing lunch with the other kids.

We had rehearsed him saying, “Up, up, and away,” but he stands there giggling and patting the chest muscles on the costume, not saying anything.

“Kids, look who’s here. Do you know who this is?” his teacher asks.

Some kids shout out, “Superman.” Others say, “Andrew.” Others keep eating or look confused. My son dances from foot to foot, his face full of pride. Suddenly he rushes out and down the stairs with me scampering after him. He runs ahead of me, down the stairs, and to the front door.

“Andrew, wait for Mommy,” I say.

“Superman,” he says. “I’m Superman.”

“Oh, sorry. Wait for Mommy, Superman,” I say, fighting laughter.

We go out the double doors, shiver a little in the spring air, and hold hands through the parking lot to my car. He swings my hand and smiles up at me.



“I want to be Superman when I grow up.” He is serious, weighing all he can understand of what that means.

I grip his hand a little tighter. “You already are.”



Shawna is a former journalist, who now stays at home with two preschoolers, both of whom she and her husband adopted from South Korea. She is an active member of Lighthouse Writers in Denver, and is working on a memoir about adoption and what it means to be a family. Her prose has also been published by Love Me, Love My Belly; look for her poetry in Forge this summer.

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