Breasts: Nourishing an Adopted Son

Rabbi Susan Silverman's essay on adoption

Today, we’re publishing the second essay in our series on breasts. The following is by Rabbi Susan Silverman, a mother of two adopted sons and three biological daughters.

I didn’t breastfeed Adar when he came home from Ethiopia at nine months old, even though I had heard that, having nursed my biological daughters, Aliza and Hallel, before him, I could try to stimulate lactation. But, I wondered if it would traumatize my almost-toddler for me to stick a tit in his mouth. Would it be his earliest memory — a big white boob in his face?

Now, one Friday afternoon, very pregnant with Adar’s first younger sibling, I had a moment of regret as he watched her baby-form grow inside me and would soon see her nursing.

“Does baby girl eat?” four-year-old Adar asked, as I was setting up for Sabbath dinner, reaching carefully with my big belly across plates of salads and spreads to place the Kiddush cup on the table.

“Yes, sweetie, she eats what I eat,” I said.

“Did I eat what my tummy-mommy ate?” Adar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “You ate what your tummy-mommy ate.”

“Can I eat from your tummy?”

“No, but I can still feed you. And it’s so much better because we can look at each other while I do!”

Umbilical cord, fork, what’s the difference? They’re both ways for a mommy to feed her children. In fact, I only use the umbilical cord to feed the baby so I have my hands free to take care of you!

Squatting to face Adar, I held his hands and looked straight into his eyes, holding his gaze while my mind raced. Dinner guests would arrive in a couple hours, but this moment with my sweet four-year-old mattered more than anything. I had to convey that we were unwaveringly mother-and-son. Don’t be jealous of this baby! My relationship with her is strictly placental.

“Mommy?” He pointed to my heart.

“Yes, my love,” I said, holding his cheeks and kissing his forehead. He could sense what I felt!

“You have hummus on your booby.”

I grabbed a napkin and peered down to wipe the tan blob off my shirt, worrying anew about the impact this pregnancy and breastfeeding would have on Adar, things he and I didn’t share.

There is a rabbinic story that when our foremother, Sarah, gave birth to her son, Isaac, the townswomen laughed at her, claiming that such an old woman could not have delivered a child. So God made Sarah’s breasts into fountains of milk and dried up the breasts of the naysaying women so that they had to bring their babies to Sarah to be fed.

Her breasts were proof of motherhood and weapons against doubt. I did not have that “proof” for my son. Years later, when this yet-unborn-baby, Ashira, was in first grade, a classmate asked her how it could be that she and her brother were siblings. She responded simply and with the profoundest truth: She shrugged, as if to say, “That’s just the way it is.”

The few biblical references to God in female terms are as a nursing mother. And, yet, it was my not-nursed child who most elicited God for me, who brought God palpably into our family, a microcosm of the created world – possibility, despair, redemption, tragedy, hope, healing, brokenness.

I watched Adar evolve from a crab-crawler to a runner, tricycle rider and puddle splitter — pedaling through the water so fast it was like the opening of the Red Sea. When he was little, we lay on his bed every night and read book after book with his head on my shoulder. Plus, a million trillion kisses.

And I had loved my night bottle-feeding ritual with him. When the girls had nursed, their faces were smushed, practically lost, in my giant boobs. But with Adar, we looked at each other as I held the bottle, our eyes locked on each other’s faces until his lids fell like night over his beautiful shining eyes. Those moments are lodged in my soul. Any fears I’d had about not fully connecting with my son since I didn’t breastfeed him were unfounded; those early fears quickly washed away into​ the years of being our family.

Most of all, I realized the truth of what his sister Ashira had always known: How is Adar my son? He just is.

Rabbi Susan Silverman essay on adoption

Susan and Adar, when he was a baby.

Rabbi Susan Silverman essay on adoption

The family celebrating Ashira’s bat mitzvah this past December.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and her husband have five children: Aliza, 22, Hallel, 20, Adar, 17, Ashira, 12, and Zamir, 14. They moved to Jerusalem from the U.S. in 2006. She is the founding director of a non-profit organization called JustAdopt. Her book, Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, comes out on April 1st. Here’s a video of Rabbi Silverman greeting Adar for the first time.

P.S. Breastfeeding in public, and motherhood around the world.

(Top photo by Daniele Guarneri; other photos courtesy of Susan Silverman)

  1. Lovely, lovely! :)

    I have a biological 8-year-old son, and an adopted 3 1/2 year old daughter. They are wonderful together – I can’t imagine our family without either of them. They were meant to be together. :)

  2. Elise W says...

    What a heartwarming story. Beautiful… I’m smiling so much right now, right before going to bed. Thx for sharing!

  3. VP says...

    This was just beautiful.

  4. Jen says...

    No matter how you feed your child from breast or bottle and if your had them or not ;they are yours and that bond can not be broken. I remember telling someone that I don’t want any but if I had to make a choice at gunpoint I would adopt. It sounded foreign to them. “We are all human “I said “and love is universal. If your mom came to you and told you that you were adopted or better yet you were actually her nephew would that change that parental love?” All I revived was silence and I had proved a point yet again. Great post.

  5. Elli says...

    So beautiful, brought me to tears!

  6. Kate Lines says...

    Oh this is so beautiful. My daughter is adopted and my heart ached to breastfeed her. But I had a similar experience realizing how special our night time feedings were, she would look so directly into my eyes. I felt like she was looking right into my soul and there she could see that I was her mother and she was my daughter.

  7. Nina says...

    Oh this was so touching. This reminded me of the most profound thing I had someone teach me as a new parent was the lactation specialist at the hospital. Frankly, she was no help in figuring out how to feed my preemie son BUT when she was attempting to help she said “pay attention to how your face looks, you look pretty frustrated” I was like “well I am!” and she said “but that is what he is seeing, your face – staring at him angry and frustrated, is that really the look you want to convey to him every time you breast feed?” and I thought/said “no, no I don’t.” and I still remind myself of that, 8 years later, when I’m focused on something else and he looks at me. He sometimes will say “you look angry” (damn you resting bitch face) and I tell him what I’m feeling…but it was such a good lesson to me of remembering how much is unspoken and internalized by all of us.

    • Emma says...

      What a wonderful lesson. Thank you for sharing!

  8. I loved breastfeeding my sons and was hoping to breastfeed my adoptive daughter but things have worked out that way. However I too can attest how special tose bottle moments are gazing at each other. I loved this beautifully written post. Thanks for featuring an uplifting, heartwarming adoption story COJ.

  9. Tai says...

    I love this story so much. It’s just sweet, and so simple that it must have taken a great deal of effort to put it together in this beautiful way. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Libby says...

    I love finding this upside to bottle feeding: “But with Adar, we looked at each other as I held the bottle, our eyes locked on each other’s faces until his lids fell like night over his beautiful shining eyes.”

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year when my second daughter was three months old and, even after all the treatment including a bilateral mastectomy, one thing that brings me the most sadness is the abrupt end to our breastfeeding relationship.

    This line, though, resonates with me. And as I constantly seek the upside to everything, I believe I’ve found another. Thanks. <3

  11. Jess M says...

    I am not a mother, nor have I breastfed, however this post how so strongly resonated with me.

    Thank you for these kinds of posts Joanna, and thank you Rabbi for your story.

  12. Shannon says...

    The video of Adar’s adoption day was lovely as well. Tears for sure!

  13. Shannon says...

    Beautiful essay on the portrayal of motherhood and all that it means.

  14. rebecca says...

    I absolutely love this post. I just became a foster mom a month ago! Thanks for sharing this and will plan on reading your book. :)