Cushioning My Landing: When Emotions Collide with Rationality

women's lives, planning for the unexpected, Chinese adoption

My dad walked me down the aisle, but his advice a few years earlier built the foundation I needed for the life I ended up living.

It’s the clanging machine I remember most, as though hundreds of fingers were tapping typewriter keys in unison. I was at my bank, about two blocks from mid-Manhattan’s Time Life building where I worked as a reporter, and this machine was imprinting the amount of a bi-weekly deposit, adding it to my others. My dad, a finance professor, had urged me to start this account when I called to tell him about being hired as a reporter at Sports Illustrated. “Now,” he’d said, “Don’t wait.” When the envelope with that first paycheck landed in my inbox, I carried it two blocks to this bank and did as he’d said. Each payday, my lunchtime routine was the same, and only when the clanging ceased did I feel confident that the small amount I’d asked the teller to put into my account was safely tucked away. When direct deposit made these bi-monthly bank visits unnecessary, I missed the clanging sense of certainty. The pounding of keys and inky scent of new numbers on my passbook’s page transformed my dad’s advice into my lifetime habit.

Looking in the rear-view mirror of the four intervening decades, it might seem odd that a mundane, routine moment like this stares back so vividly. Then again, this ingrained habit is what had steered me off of roads most taken and landed me on more scenic ones. The rides are bumpier, but my journeys and destinations have been rewarding. Let me be clear: the savings I’ve accumulated would not purchase the longed-for lifestyle of a long-time professional nor match the perceived needs that many Americans have in entering the receding decades of their lives. For me, they are more of a cushion, there to pad my landings, not big nor firm enough to save me from a calamitous fall, but enough to prop me up while I stir cups of meaning and purpose into my evolving recipe of life.

Five years later, eight tiny words exploded the lock on my feelings about motherhood.

At two junctures, one recent, the other nearly two decades ago, I stepped off usual paths to head toward places neither customary ambition nor conventional wisdom would suggest I go. The earlier detour brought me to motherhood, on my own at the age of 46, when I had no job. That’s when I adopted a nine-month-old baby girl in China. It was the life I’d always wanted, and one I figured I’d have someday. But as I built career credentials, that day never arrived. In those earlier years, I had good paying jobs but my life lacked other key ingredients — a solid marriage (my only one ended after a few years) or a partner who wanted children, as I did. I had agonized for years in my mid-to late-thirties about whether I could raise a child on my own. My cautious thinking kept circling me back to the internal message: “Don’t do it.” Yet in my late thirties, emotion took over where my rational calculations had left off; I tried to get pregnant at a doctor’s office using donor sperm. Adverse reactions to fertility drugs stopped me after a few months of trying. My response was to lock up my emotion and hide the key.

Five years later, eight tiny words exploded that lock. “So you’ve decided not to be a mother,” my friend said. She knew I’d tried, failed, and walked away from my effort to get pregnant. I’d given her no clue to make her suspect I was done trying. Jolted, I replied, “No, I haven’t.” Somehow words spilled out of me before I could catch them. I was surprised to hear them. Still, they said what I felt. Soon, my friend was handing me a slip of paper with a phone number of a single woman who’d just returned from adopting her baby in China. That night, I called her, and the next morning I phoned China Adoption with Love, an adoption agency. One year later, almost to that day, I was holding my daughter at the orphanage in Changzhou, China.

Melissa Ludtke holds her daughter Chang Yulu– soon to be named Maya Ludtke — on the day they met in June 1997.

My cushion was what took me to China, and it was what floated us until a terrific job found me. Then, my direct deposit, bi-monthly paycheck took over.

So why trade a steady job for our pared down life courtesy of my tiny monthly pension from Time Inc. and Social Security that I took at the age of 62, against the advice of financial experts?

Sixteen years later I am absorbing bumps on another back road. With my daughter about to head to college, and still raising her on my own, journeys of a different kind beckon. Each offers me what a paycheck never could — the gift of giving back. In my early sixties now, the notion of pairing lifelong skills and experiences with the hope of inspiring others has great appeal. I’m writing a narrative history from the 1970s for those not alive when women took to the streets to demand equal rights. The part I played during those tumultuous years as a baseball reporter challenging Major League Baseball in a federal courtroom is a story I feel compelled to pass down. I’d been denied access to players’ locker rooms — access my male colleagues had and I needed to do my job for Sports Illustrated. Judicial application of my Fourteenth Amendment rights provided remedy. Though a fair number of younger women and men have heard about this case — with its notorious intersection of male sports and nudity (think, locker rooms) and “liberated” women — I can add invaluable insights, nuance and dimension about an era and movement that frames their lives today.

The New York Yankees’ in a 1978 post-season clubhouse celebration. I am covering my eyes as Cliff Johnson pours Champagne

For now, that book project simmers on a back burner. I stir it often enough so I’ll be able to serve it on the 40th anniversary of my lawsuit, a few years away. But what’s grabbing fuller attention these days is a new adventure of producing a digital book called Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods. For an old print journalist, making a “transmedia” iBook — meshing video, slideshows, interactive maps, informational graphics and text to tell the story — is a surefire way to keep my mind young since I need to learn how to do what I do as I’m doing it.

So why trade a steady job for our pared down life courtesy of my tiny monthly pension from Time Inc. and Social Security that I took at the age of 62, against the advice of financial experts? This decision circles back to the leap I took to adopt my daughter, which showed me I could and gave me confidence that things do work out. And with that adoption came our family’s forever connection with China. Giving back in this realm of our life has become a habit — through my longtime board service with Families with Children from China (FCC) — New England, in our donations to Chinese orphanages, and in editing (in my spare time) the FCC journal China Connection for adoptive families.

Now, I get to give back in a wholly different way — and with my daughter, reasons enough to push forward as I am. For the story of Touching Home in China is about a first-of-its-kind journey that she and her orphanage crib neighbor and friend took when they were 16 years old to the farming towns where they were abandoned as newborns. There, they befriended girls from those towns who might have been their childhood friends and learned about girlhoods they never had the chance to live. It’s a story never before told, and one it’s my privilege to try to tell and share globally.

The cover of the digital book “Touching Home in China.”

Can I do it? We’ll see. It’s intended launch is in September 2015, 20 years after then First Lady Hillary Clinton declared in Beijing: “Women’s right are human rights.” On some days when I might doubt the wisdom of trying to do this, words arrive that buoy me. Recently, our filmmaker in China, the woman I hired to videotape the girls’ rare encounters, wrote to me after she spent time with Mengping, one of the Chinese girls that my daughter got to know in her rural hometown.

“Mengping gave me goosebumps. What a life-changing experience your project has been for her. She said before we met in 2013, she never considered leaving Changzhou. Now her dream is to go to Japan, and if she can America, and see the world. She said she wanted an English name from us because she considers us (you?) to be her English-speaking mothers.

“What you have brought to these girls is IMMENSE.”

While her words aren’t jolting, as my friend’s about motherhood were nearly 20 years ago, they are enough to act as shock-absorbers along my bumpy road. For now, that’s enough.

Melissa Ludtke is an award-winning journalist and author of On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America (Random House). She began her career reporting for Sports Illustrated, and then was a correspondent for Time and editor of Nieman Reports, an international magazine about journalism published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. In 2012 Ludtke was nominated by the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute as one of the “100 Outstanding Journalists in the United States in the Last 100 Years.”

She is co-producing the digital iBooks series “Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods” with Boston-based documentary filmmaker Julie Mallozzi. The first in this six-iBooks series is called “Abandoned Baby” and it was published in May; the other five iBooks will be published within the next year. More digital elements of this project are available on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram and on her website.

Images courtesy of the author

This essay appears in atherecently published book, “At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Their Extraordinary Stories,” collected and edited by Jill Ebstein. Readings from At My Pace will take place at Melissa’s local independent bookstore, Porter Square Books in Cambridge MA, at 5:00 p.m. on May 17.

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