Dream Child

Photograph by Jonathan B. Smith

“You won’t get your dream child. If you want a tomboy who climbs trees, you’re sure to get a princess who wants to stay inside and play fashion show.”

Our social worker’s words sent shivers of horror across my shoulders. “A . . . princess?”

My husband and I—planning to adopt a foster child from Oregon’s Department of Human Services—reviewed toddlers’ photos and profiles with an eye for those kids who seemed most compatible with our lifestyle. Jonathan grew up building forts and swinging from vines on his parents’ vast acreage in upstate New York. I’d spent my childhood hanging from trees, wading through creeks, and conquering the Pacific on a boogie board. We did not want a princess, and to our delight, we got some help, first from the state, and then from the IRS.

We adopted a merry, round-faced seventeen-month-old girl with a pair of mischievous brown eyes and a toothy trickster smile. We brought Maia home from foster care to a nursery outfitted with owl curtains, birds of prey posters, and a stuffed turkey vulture. Nothing pink, nothing frilly, and no tiara.

A friend had given Maia a picture book about a family who treks past deer and leaping salmon into the backcountry—the illustrations of father, mother, and child looked remarkably like us. Inspired, I read the text to her, then hollered for Jonathan. “Hey, let’s take this child backpacking!”

Always up for camping, we’d recently discovered the pleasures of hauling our gear miles away from other campers’ stereos and BMX bikes. On our second week together as a family, we headed out in our blue Volkswagen Beetle—Maia prattling in her car seat—to Scott Lake off Highway 242. We picnicked on a log beside the lake and offered our daughter California rolls, which she ate, likely because there wasn’t a Goldfish cracker in sight.

This was before we capitulated to the cheddar crackers, to the half hour of Sesame Streetdaily, to the pink stuffed poodle. We were new parents, resolute in our determination to produce a junior outdoorswoman. When Maia sobbed in our tent that night, waking up beside two adults who—despite their insistence on “mommy” and “dad”—were still strangers, we shone our flashlights in her face and attempted to calm her. “Hush, sweetie.” I hugged my new daughter to me. “You’ll scare the owls.”

The next morning, we hiked to the frigid, crystalline Tenas Lakes and jumped in. I have photos of Maia wrapped in a towel, postswim, grinning on Jonathan’s lap. Back at our camp, she stacked cairns of pebbles and swigged apple juice from her sippy cup like a spent athlete chugging a microbrew. Still, on a hiking trip that ended with the child covered in scarlet blackberry juice and wielding a plastic axe, I worried about what our social worker might say.

The Department of Human Services mandates a six-month probationary period on all adoptions, during which time social workers can remove a child from a placement they deem unfit. I scrubbed the berry juice from Maia’s face and hands and asked Jonathan. “What if DHS thinks we’re crazy?”

Instead, because we’d adopted a foster kid, they sent us a complimentary pass to Oregon’s State Parks. For twenty years, the state has offered the pass to foster and adoptive parents involved with DHS in the hope that children who’ve had a rough start in life will find solace in nature.

“Awesome!” I slapped together three peanut butter sandwiches and grabbed Maia’s jacket and the pink poodle. “Let’s go to Silver Falls State Park!”

We sped past the line of cars outside the parking kiosk and Maia waved the green pass at a chuckling park ranger. A half hour into our hike, we stopped behind the largest falls and giggled at the roaring rush of spray that cast diamond droplets on our child’s round cheeks. I kissed her wet nose. “You’re such a nature girl!”

And then a babysitter introduced her to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. True, the intrepid heroine, Belle, is an excellent horsewoman, and if she blanches at the sight of snarling wolves, who can blame her? But rather than focus on Belle’s courage and self-sacrifice, our daughter honed in on her yellow dress—the hoopskirted, off-the-shoulder confection in which she waltzes with the waistcoated beast.

Maia sighed with longing. “It’s a princess dress.”

Over her curly head, Jonathan and I exchanged looks of terror. We’d read Carmela LaVigna Coyle’s picture book Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? and so we saw how silk and satin might complement, say, a pair of child’s Timberlines. Still, we quaked.

Just in time, the IRS stepped in to help.

In the years before we’d adopted, Jonathan and I had been so preoccupied with applications and classes and committees that we missed the fact of the adoption expense tax credit—part of the tax bill signed by President Bush in 2001. The year after Maia’s adoption became official, we received a sizable refund check.

“Technically, it’s her money.” I gaped at the numbers on the check. “We should use it for her.”

“Maybe put it in a college fund.” Jonathan furrowed his brow, attempting to impersonate a sensible father.

“Or . . .” I leapt to the computer and clicked on a well-worn bookmark. “We could buy kayaks!”

We’d used my recent book advance to purchase a Volkswagen bus complete with stove and refrigerator and pop-up bed, and we’d chugged Maia all over Oregon from Bend’s high desert to Portland’s Forest Park, from Crater Lake to coastal sand dunes. Kayaks seemed in keeping with our outdoor, antiprincess trajectory, and so we bought two.

Now, we devote most of our weekends to traveling the state, with Maia ever-present and learning to paddle and pedal and snowshoe and imitate owl calls. Still with that trickster smile, she embarks on daylong kayak trips and sleds down snowy thirty-foot slopes. Over her bathing suit or her silk long johns, she wears her “Belle dress.” The hoop in the skirt snagged on a bush and fell out. Burrs have tangled in the flimsy tulle sleeves. But the outfit represents what seasoned parents see as an obvious revelation: a child is who she is, regardless of vigilant attempts to make her otherwise.

Jonathan and I have realized something else, as well. Watching the yellow dress bob ahead of us as the tiny Timberlines blur and the sun gleams down on the pink plastic tiara, we know we’ve proven our social worker wrong. We did get our dream child.

By Melissa Hart

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.