On a Sunday morning in May 2018, I accompanied Vivia Wampler to a mall in Chico, California, where she often went to eavesdrop on other families. She held a Coke in one hand and a Subway sandwich in the other, her eyes scanning the food court. She was hoping to see a temper tantrum, so she could learn how a parent reacts. But today was unusually slow.
Vivia let out a sigh. “I don’t know why, but tomatoes are so good,” she said.
In the stroller next to her sat Emma. Vivia picked her up and gently rubbed her back. She’d always known she wanted to be a mother, and handling Emma came naturally to her. She inserted a bottle between her lips, tipped it back a few times, and returned to her sandwich.
A woman’s voice called out from behind the smoothie counter.
“I’m sorry: is that baby real or not real?” she said. “Oh my god! Not real.”
“I’m just practicing,” said Vivia, hugging Emma to her chest.
When Vivia was two years old, she fell and hit her head on the stairs. Her mother, Connie LaCroix, brought her to the doctor in South Lake Tahoe, where they lived at the time. Vivia received a checkup and was quickly dismissed. But a few months later, Connie noticed that her daughter’s eyes weren’t tracking, and her speech seemed delayed. It was eventually discovered that she had permanent brain damage.
In grade school, Vivia was painfully shy. She barely spoke, didn’t make eye contact, and avoided being touched. When kids bullied her at recess, she retreated into the trees and shrubs. Plants became her best friends. As she got older, she began caring for family pets. Her mom brought her on trips to Mexico, where she said Vivia was treated more like a whole person. After high school, Vivia began working more hours at the child development center in California where she had worked during her teenage years. She was an intuitive teacher, with a big smile and a penchant for tie-dye.
But into adulthood, the feeling that she didn’t fit in remained. Social cues were hard for her to pick up on, and she struggled in conversations. She would monologue on topics she felt comfortable with, like childcare, and often forgot to ask questions of the other person. Even within her family, she lingered on the outskirts of conversations, waiting for a pause when she could leap in. “Sometimes we might be having a conversation about politics, and she’d want to chime in about her bus ride,” said her aunt Becky Milani. When Vivia was unable to participate in a conversation, she grew frustrated. She experienced social anxiety, manifesting in coughs and stomach problems. Often she would leave family gatherings early, saying she needed to do laundry. Or she wouldn’t attend at all.
In an effort to make friends, she would occasionally talk to strangers out in the world, like a woman at the bank who, she learned, was going through a divorce. But then she would start texting these new friends multiple times a day, overwhelming them. Eventually, she would be pushed away.
Becky said she was heartbroken that Vivia didn’t seem to fit in either with other intellectually disabled (ID) adults or in the abled world. Even Vivia’s sister, Ashley LaCroix, said that she had a hard time connecting with Vivia, and that their relationship had become strained in recent years. Ashley often grew frustrated by the nonreciprocity of their conversations, not being asked about her day. Loneliness in ID adults is well researched and documented. In a report titled “Vulnerability to Loneliness in People with Intellectual Disability,” psychologists Linda Gilmore and Monica Cuskelly write that “a considerable body of evidence has highlighted the difficulties individuals with intellectual disability have in initiating, establishing, and maintaining friendships.”
In an effort to participate in the world, Vivia was determined to find a job where she would make real money. Babysitting gigs were her favorite type of work, but it was difficult to convince parents that she was capable. A couple of years ago, she met a single father on a bus, and he took her up on her offer to babysit his three-year-old son, Leland. She found a second job by simply walking into an elementary school and asking if they would hire her. The school agreed to place her in a volunteer position, and found a third-party nonprofit that would pay her for her time.
At the elementary school, however, Vivia had little responsibility. She was allowed to work whatever days and hours she pleased, and she was never held accountable for showing up. In the classroom, she stood at the edge of the action, looking for ways to be helpful. If one of the kids dropped a Ziploc bag, she’d rush to pick it up even before it drifted to the floor. At the school, she rarely experienced the feeling of being needed; she wanted that feeling, wanted the weight of responsibility.
The desire for a child was building within her. She began thinking about how to babyproof her apartment. She watched videos on YouTube to prepare for what childbirth would feel like. Around the time of her thirtieth birthday, Vivia announced to her mom and sister that she was ready to have a baby.
I asked Ashley to describe her reaction when Vivia made this declaration. “Like, fuck!” she responded with a laugh. “Oh my god, we’re dealing with this now. I want to respect her desire… but in my mind, that would be a horrible situation.”
Ashley listed the reasons she thought Vivia lacked the maturity to raise a child: her diet was poor (staples were quesadillas and sugary juices), she needed a lot of sleep (nine hours a night at least), she didn’t have a serious partner, she lost her patience quickly—and what about helping a child with homework? There was no way to prove that Vivia would be an irresponsible mother, but the family consensus was that it was a bad idea. They worried she would miss the early signs of a child’s illness, or leave a sharp object out on the counter. “She would need to have a lot of support,” said Connie. “A child would surpass her in intelligence.”
As for a partner, Vivia does have a boyfriend, a man in his early forties named Cody, whom she met at the Arc in Chico, an organization for adults with disabilities. They call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, and have for years, but they see each other only once a month, and they are not sexually active. I asked Vivia if she considered Cody as a possible father of her child, but she responded that because of his disability she didn’t think he would be a good father. I realized then that Vivia doesn’t see herself as disabled; she views her head injury as part of the past, not something that affects her in the present.
“In one of our talks about being a parent and why I didn’t think she should have a kid, my reason was ‘because of your disability,’” said Ashley. “And her response was ‘I don’t have a disability.’” Vivia’s mom had always told her she could do what other people could do, and that “everyone has some kind of disability.” But for the first time in Vivia’s life, that no longer seemed true.
Vivia’s family had devoted so much time and care to Vivia, to helping her live independently, that assisting her with child-rearing felt like starting all over again. No one in her family was willing to give her the support she would require to become a mother. But explaining this to Vivia, without judgment, was challenging. Both her mom and sister were single moms, and their arguments that Vivia needed support sounded hypocritical.
Disagreements escalated into shouting matches, and Vivia sometimes didn’t speak to her sister for weeks. She even blocked her on social media. Vivia began looking into adoption, but the cost was prohibitive. She lived below the poverty line, and to be eligible to adopt she’d need a driver’s license. Vivia got the book to begin studying for an instruction permit, but studying was difficult. After a few weeks, she abandoned the driver’s-ed book in the corner of her apartment, and she hasn’t opened it since.
Intellectually disabled is the latest term in a long list of linguistic iterations to enter common usage. Mentally challenged, mentally delayed, developmentally delayed, and the medical term mentally retarded are all synonymous—this nomenclature has cycled through a euphemism treadmill because words for mental retardation quickly become insults, necessitating new ones. According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, an intellectual disability originates before the age of eighteen, and is characterized by an IQ score of below seventy-five and by limits in conceptual, social, and practical skills.
Nearly 5 percent of Americans—approximately fifteen million in total—are intellectually disabled. For many years, they were victims of eugenics practices. The forced sterilization of ID adults in the United States began around the turn of the twentieth century and was commonly practiced until the ’50s. Though forced sterilization has since been outlawed by several states, it still remains legal at the federal level.
For ID adults deciding whether to have children, their choices may be strongly influenced by their parents. Author Linda Atwell has covered issues surrounding ID sex and children on her blog about her daughter, Lindsey. In one post, Atwell describes learning about her daughter’s first sexual experience. Later, after her daughter married, Atwell weighed the pros and cons of Lindsey having children. In her research, Atwell found a 2003 report from the National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning, which concludes that children of parents with mental retardation are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, untreated diaper rash, and environmental hazards. There have been numerous reports published since then that have supported these findings. An article in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities describes the children of ID parents as being at “increased risk of child developmental delay, child speech and language problems, child behaviour problems and frequent child accidents and injuries.” After much conversation, Lindsey decided to have tubal ligation surgery to prevent pregnancy. Still, Atwell acknowledges, every family and ID adult must come up with their own approach. “There is no easy answer to this situation,” she writes.
Vivia vented her frustrations about her family’s lack of support on Facebook, where she often posts updates about her life. In response, a family friend suggested that Vivia adopt a baby doll. Her mom and sister had seen high schoolers caring for realistic dolls in health class projects, and they were thrilled about the idea. “In my mind it was going to be something fun for her,” said Ashley. “And it would get her mind off of having a real kid.”
Vivia began her search by googling “realistic-looking doll.” She scrolled through hundreds of baby dolls, made with patented technologies like RealTouch® vinyl and TrueTouch™ silicone. There were lifelike monkey babies, NFL babies, Christmas babies, and alien babies. Some were tiny infants that fit easily in the palm of one’s hand; others were still attached to the placenta, bluish, and covered in goo.
On the Ashton-Drake Galleries website, Vivia chose the $199 “What Ella Loves!” baby doll, made by an artist named Linda Murray. Online, the doll is pictured in a pink dress, with a lacy headband over a head of light hair, smiling shyly at the camera. The website says she “[is] poseable and perfect for cradling,” “responds to your touch,” and “coos and moves in the most adorable ways.” Vivia spent a large portion of her monthly budget on the purchase. She waited twenty-five long days, and when the USPS box appeared, it was heavier than she’d expected. For a moment, she wondered if maybe there was a real baby inside. But, of course, it was a doll.
As she held the tiny body to her chest for the first time, Vivia felt a rush of maternal love. This was August 25, the day that would become her baby’s birthday. Vivia had never enjoyed being touched or hugged, but cuddling with the doll came easily. They spent their first night together entwined in bed, and Vivia woke up periodically to check on her. The next day Vivia christened her Emma.
Like many new parents, Vivia spent her first days with her baby in a cozy haze of infatuation. Each parenting task—diaper changes, feeding—contained a new thrill. She felt a beautiful weight within her, a profound sense that if she didn’t do these things for Emma, no one else would. But she was also disappointed that she received none of the typical fanfare that “real” mothers receive—no messages of support or congratulations; no home-cooked meals delivered to her door. She longed for the recognition of being a mother, and fantasized about her new identity. She imagined strangers holding the coffee shop door open for her stroller. One day, she hoped to befriend other parents.
A few weeks after Emma arrived, Vivia discovered YouTube videos of other women caring for dolls that looked just like Emma, some with over a million views. In these videos, you can watch people unboxing their new dolls, or packing their dolls’ backpacks with snacks. Vivia didn’t know about the subculture around these dolls, and neither did her family. But she learned they had a name, Reborn dolls, and that the owners were mostly women who called themselves Reborners. The dolls were invented in 1939 in response to doll collectors’ growing interest in realistic dolls. They’re called Reborn because they’re made from preexisting vinyl dolls that artists disassemble and remake. To achieve a more lifelike effect, the artists apply over a dozen layers of paint to the doll’s exterior. Pellets are added to give the doll the weight of a real baby. The finished dolls look so real, there are stories of police being called when they are left alone in a car.
Reborn dolls can also be custom ordered, and many Reborners fashion the dolls to look like themselves. The fanciest Reborn dolls have each strand of hair individually implanted by the artist, a process that can take around thirty hours and can cost thousands of dollars. (Some Reborn dolls have sold for over twenty thousand dollars.) Some of the dolls contain electronic devices that provide a heartbeat and expand the chest so it looks like the baby is breathing. Other dolls have heaters inside them so they’re warm to the touch.
While Reborners usually prefer to care for their dolls privately, at home, they are very active in online circles and at Reborner conventions, where thousands of doll owners come together. The popularity of the dolls has created a booming economy, complete with Reborn doll kits, full-time professional doll artists, eBay markets, and middlemen retailers like Ashton-Drake.
The online presence of Reborners helped Vivia learn tips for caring for her doll, like when to buy real baby items instead of doll items. Vivia learned about “magic bottles,” which give the illusion of milk disappearing into the baby’s mouth. For some of these women, Reborn dolls offer therapy for depression or anxiety. The doll might help them grapple with an infertility diagnosis, a miscarriage, the death of a child, or an adult child leaving home.
Although many women have benefited from Reborn dolls, the stigma around adult women playing with dolls remains exceptionally high. Coverage of Reborn dolls often appears on sensationalist TV shows like Dr. Phil, and in newspapers and tabloids with headlines like this one from The Toronto Star: Are these baby dolls cute or creepy? Though there has been very little scholarship devoted to the topic, some doctors have refused to give the dolls to dementia patients, who enjoy holding them, afraid they will have an infantilizing effect. Because of the stigma, most Reborners treat their parenthood as a private, sometimes shameful affair. But Vivia wasn’t interested in keeping her relationship to Emma quiet. She was going to bring her doll into the public sphere.
I arranged to visit Vivia on the weekend of her thirty-second birthday party, which happened to coincide with Mother’s Day. Over Facebook Messenger, Vivia requested that I bring a birthday present for her and Emma. I wandered the streets of New York City, peering through windows and wondering what you get for a woman and her doll. I eventually settled on an I ♥ NY T-shirt and matching infant onesie. On Friday, I boarded a plane to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove three hours north to Chico, where Vivia lives in her own apartment.
That evening, Vivia greeted me at the door wearing pink ladybug socks, sneakers with the solar system printed on them, and a T-shirt with a picture of a cat. I followed her into the house. Her gait was upbeat, as if she were strolling to a Hawaiian ballad. She had colored streaks running through her hair, and her left eye, I noticed, was askew.
“My baby’s in the swing,” she said as she brought me to meet Emma, who was swaying in a plastic rocker. I crawled across the carpet to meet her, marveling at her tiny features. Her fingernails were the size of ants, her face was frozen in a half smile, and her lips were pursed for milk. Both sets of eyelashes had fallen off, and glue was smeared across her left eye from an attempt to reattach the eyelashes. She had a small wig, which Vivia had glued to her scalp after brushing her original hair so often that it had fallen out. Vivia switched on Emma’s battery pack, and an audio recording of a real baby’s wordless garbling projected out of her back. I heard a dull whir coming from under her clothes, and realized that her hands and feet were motorized.
Vivia called her work with Emma “real practice.” She placed a baby rattle a few inches from Emma’s hand and waited. Emma started to tip back, and Vivia propped her back up with a giggle. She tipped back again and Vivia did the same thing. “She’s not old enough to sit up yet,” she said. Then Vivia scooped her up, cradled her neck, and set her down on a nearby table for a diaper change. Slowly and methodically, she unfastened the buttons on Emma’s jumper. As she peeled it off, the sleeve caught on Emma’s right hand. “The hand part always gets me,” she said. “But I just love doing this so much. I love having this experience.”
Emma’s naked torso was made of white cotton and stuffing, which clashed with her hyperrealistic face and limbs. She had a tear in her right hip, and clouds of stuffing spilled out. There were a few pieces of Scotch tape stuck over the gap, where Vivia had attempted to repair the damage. “You’re such a silly girl, but also a really pretty baby,” she said. “Whoever made you did a really good job.”
That first evening, I tried asking Vivia questions from a long list I had prepared, but no matter what I asked, Vivia usually just smiled and shrugged. If she did answer, I would dutifully take notes, but then later realized that her answer contradicted something else she’d said. Often she answered a completely different question from the one I had asked.
Eventually, I stopped asking questions and ended up spending many hours with Vivia, observing her in silence; I enjoyed watching her be a mother. Her movements were tender and familiar, sometimes reminding me of the diaper commercials I had seen as a kid. In short, Vivia was nailing the performance of motherhood.
The first time Vivia took Emma outside, she was terrified. She had been watching online videos of Reborner moms, but they were always filmed in bedrooms and living rooms. Vivia had fully expected to have a public life with Emma; she had even bought a stroller before Emma arrived. But when she finally took Emma to the bus stop, she was so nervous that she began shaking. “I thought people would freak out because of the way she looked,” she said. “That gave me goose bumps.”
The bus arrived, and to her relief, the driver smiled and called Emma cute. Vivia took Emma on the bus again the next day, and the day after that, always holding her up to the window so she could see the view. One day, as she was getting off the bus, the driver handed her a baby blanket. It was hand-knit, blue and white, with a big heart in the middle. The bus driver told her that another passenger had seen them riding the bus together and had wanted to make them something special.
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Vivia took me on a walking tour of Chico. (Which included a stop at Big-Yo, the world’s biggest wooden yo-yo.) The hot sun radiated from the concrete, and Vivia complimented every dog we saw. She pushed her stroller with care, easing it over sidewalk cracks and looking down at Emma to make sure she hadn’t been too jostled. “Roller coaster ride!” she exclaimed as she pushed Emma over a big crack. She waited patiently for the light at every intersection.
Vivia’s neighbors all recognized Emma, even knew her by name. At Target, the employees asked Emma how she was doing. “She keeps that doll clean and dressed nice,” said a man at the bus stop. “She knows everybody and everybody knows her.” Recently, Vivia had found out that her downstairs neighbor had also bought a Reborn doll. They were planning to take the dolls on a picnic together. As other buses passed, the drivers honked and waved. “It’s Paul,” Vivia said, waving back. “He does route 15 starting at one o’clock on Mondays. I make him smile.”
Before Emma, strangers on the street would walk right by Vivia or, worse, look away. But with Emma, Vivia attracted attention. Usually, the interactions began with shock and concern from passersby, who were alarmed by what appeared to be a frozen baby. Then the reactions followed a similar trajectory: compassion, awe, and eventually discomfort, if the interaction went on too long. Through Emma, I realized, Vivia was bringing her childlessness and disability into the open, and forcing strangers to confront it. Because Vivia was oblivious to the subtlety of some of these reactions, she wasn’t inhibited by them. To me, she felt like an unwitting activist, a performance artist, or a crusader for women’s rights. She cared for Emma with a sense of purpose, as though she were starring in a movie about her own life.
Later on Sunday, we made plans to visit a playground, and I carried Emma’s car seat to my rental car. Vivia hadn’t been able to afford a new car seat, so she had disassembled a stroller and used the basket. It was hot in the car and she couldn’t get the buckles to work. Sweat formed on her brow, and her hands started shaking. The silence became uncomfortable.
I sensed that Vivia might be feeling judged as a mother, and I tried to convey to her, by being extra friendly and assuring her that we were in no rush, that I was not judging her. But secretly, I couldn’t help judging. I imagined what a disaster this would be if there were a real baby screaming in a hot car. While observing her tenderness with Emma at home, I had felt she could be a capable mother. But now that perception was crumbling, and Vivia could tell. I was becoming yet another arbiter of whether or not she could be a parent. I looked away in embarrassment.
After a lengthy struggle, Vivia finally figured out the straps and I drove us to the park. We walked over to the playground, and Vivia noticed a woman scraping dog poop off her son’s shoe. She gave me a knowing look. This is parenting, the look seemed to say, and it isn’t all glamorous. As we walked, Vivia juggled a Coke and a diaper bag, looking enviously at the strollers with built-in cup holders. “I think she knows where I’m taking her,” Vivia whispered to me. The sun was beating down again, and Vivia fretted about what to do about Emma’s exposed legs. Emma’s skin wouldn’t absorb sunscreen, but Vivia also worried Emma would be too hot in pants. She decided that keeping her in pants was the safer option.
At the playground, Vivia balanced Emma on top of a rainbow dolphin and snapped a photo of her. “She’s like, What am I doing on a fish?” she said.
A nearby mother looked over at Emma. “Oh, I thought that was a real baby!” she said.
“I got her to practice. I want to be a mom in the future,” said Vivia.
The woman launched into a story about being a single mom to two daughters. “I did everything with these girls. I was exhausted,” she said. “You need to be mentally and physically ready.” They chatted about Vivia’s financial situation for a bit, and then another onlooker entered the conversation.
“Are you married?” he asked Vivia politely.
“I’m looking for the right person who wants to be the dad,” said Vivia. “I’m taking my time to see who I really love and trust.”
Vivia held Emma’s arms like she was teaching her to walk, and another parent and baby began doing the same thing. The two babies toddled toward each other, and the human baby looked curiously at Emma. The dad laughed.
For the rest of the afternoon, a stream of parents chatted with Vivia about her plans to be a parent, eager to give advice and share stories. They remembered their early parenting days with fondness, when caring for a living being had seemed impossible and mysterious. They related to her, and soon their parenting tips turned to musings on the passage of time. Parents seemed content, even grateful, to share their advice with someone. Vivia listened eagerly and attentively to tales of tantrums, sleepless nights, Tupperware lids gone missing.
“Sometimes I think I still have a baby,” said a mom with grown children. “It just stays with you.” A mother of five pulled a pacifier out of her bra and popped it into her baby’s mouth. “I’ve got birthing down, but how do you tell an eight-year-old there’s more to life than Star Wars?” Vivia nodded.
Eventually, we left the playground and visited a crowded café, where I asked Vivia if I could hold Emma. Vivia gave me a huge smile—people often ask to hold real babies but rarely ask to hold Emma. I took Emma into my hands and squeezed my fingertips around her torso. Emma was the weight of a real baby, and she fit comfortably around my hip. I bounced her up and down a few times while she gazed at me with an expectant smile. I looked into her big blue eyes and was surprised to feel a hint of connection. My breath slowed, and the edges of my anxiety softened. It was easy to trick my mind into thinking I was holding a real baby—an extremely calm and reliable one. I’d read articles about mothers producing milk for orphaned children two years after they had last nursed, and I wondered if my mothering instincts were kicking in. Then I looked up and saw a teenager staring at me, and I handed the doll back to Vivia.
At first, Ashley held Vivia to the standards of a real mother, but a few months in she felt like her motherhood was becoming too real. Ashley had to persuade Vivia that she didn’t need to pay for a babysitter, and that she couldn’t afford to throw Emma’s diapers into the trash and buy new ones. I noticed how often Vivia justified Emma’s realness out loud. Because one of Emma’s eyes doesn’t shut, Vivia said, “Funny how she takes a nap with one eye open.” Vivia had started shopping for Emma online, with little awareness of her spending. In her first month as a parent, she ran out of money, and her mom had to start monitoring her bank account.
Vivia, however, was determined to be fully recognized as a mother. She decided to introduce Emma to her extended family at her godson’s baptism. When her cousin Dominick saw Emma’s foot moving, he felt a wave of panic and, for a moment, worried that he had been drugged. “There was definitely some eye-rolling,” said Vivia’s aunt Becky of Emma’s unveiling. A few weeks later, Vivia sent out invitations to her baby shower to everyone she knew.
The baby shower attracted attention, in both the negative and the positive sense. Only four people attended, but Vivia received gifts from around the country. For Vivia’s family, the baby shower raised questions: was Emma increasing Vivia’s participation in the real world or isolating her more from it? Out on the street, Vivia was having social interactions with more people, but because of the stigma of an adult carrying a doll, her family worried that these interactions were unlikely to lead to lasting relationships. In public, Vivia referred to herself as “Mommy,” prompting even more people to stare at her. “It’s becoming an obsession,” said Ashley. “Vivia talks to herself more now. People think it’s weird.” Almost all of Vivia’s conversations began to revolve around Emma, and she started skipping family events to tend to Emma’s needs. “I think she’s happiest when she’s with real people,” said Ashley. “It’s so much in her head, and not reality-based. I think it would be healthier for her to focus her energy elsewhere. Like on day care, or babysitting.”
On Saturday, the day of Vivia’s birthday party, streamers were Scotch-taped to the porch, and balloons were floating around the living room. “I woke up in the morning, and I was like, I feel a year older,” Vivia told me.
By the time I arrived, Vivia’s birthday had already been going exceptionally well. Her sister had treated her to a ride in a bicycle rickshaw, and she’d gotten to hold a Chihuahua puppy on the ride. This party was just a bonus.
On her hip she bounced Emma. “She slept all through the night,” she said to me. “What kind of baby does that?”
On the table was a dolphin cake and a watermelon. An hour before the party was supposed to start, the first guest arrived, a sweaty eleven-year-old boy. He seemed like the type of kid who is always slightly sweaty, constantly pushing his hair up off of his forehead. “What’s your name again?” said Vivia.
“Owen,” he said. “We met outside.”
The guests filed in: aunts, bored-looking cousins, Leland (the boy she babysits) and his father, and her boyfriend, Cody.
Cody exuded relentless positivity, and was excited to see Emma. He crouched down beside her and grabbed her hand. I asked him what he thought of Emma. He put his arm around Vivia. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “Ever since she got a baby, I’ve noticed she’s been happier, more memories. I hope I can have some memories with her.” We ate the dolphin cake and then Ashley ushered us toward the presents. My I ♥ NY onesie and T-shirt were well received. The last gift was cookies, which Vivia vowed to save for her favorite bus drivers. Then she jumped into the pool with her clothes on.
By 5 p.m. most of the guests had left. Vivia began to clean up, already reminiscing about her party. “I can’t believe I jumped into the pool with my clothes on,” she said. Owen was lingering nearby, looking at Emma. He asked to see Emma’s outfits. We went to the bedroom and looked at twelve pajama jumpers, all from Target. “Those are cool!” he exclaimed. When Vivia finished showing off the full Emma wardrobe, she sighed.
“I wish people would call her my baby more,” she said.
My visit took place nine months after Vivia adopted Emma. By the time this story is published, she will be celebrating two years of motherhood. In those intervening months, I have pictured the article Vivia was expecting from me, the one that existed in her mind. I sensed that she wanted me to write a story in which she was the hero, to explain to everyone that she was fully capable of being a mother, and that the love she felt for Emma was proof. In her messages to me, she would ask, “How’s my story going?” I wondered if I was betraying her by scrutinizing her ability to parent, and by interviewing her family about their resistance. The story wouldn’t show her as a picture-perfect parent, but it would show her as the person I saw her to be: a woman working to assert her presence in a world that had, for a long time, refused to see her.
A few months after I left Chico, Vivia decided to adopt an older sibling for Emma, a toddler named Nicklas. Vivia messaged me to make sure Nicklas would be included in the story. “He giggles and he loves his baby sister, Emma, and he is my sunshine,” she told me. I watched on Facebook as she introduced Nicklas to the world, updating friends and family on his life. She took both kids on a bus trip to her hometown of South Lake Tahoe, California, where they met the firefighters she has kept in touch with over the years. (Vivia has a thing for firefighters.) This holiday season, she took them both to see Santa and sent me a Christmas card with pictures of “The Wamplers”: Vivia, Emma, Nicklas, and their cat, Honeybear.
As I held the card, I was struck by how normal her family of four looked. I recalled the last day of my visit, when Vivia had toured me around downtown Chico in the heat of the Sunday afternoon. At one point, I squinted up at a street sign and saw that it read Normal Avenue. I pointed out the sign to Vivia, who giggled at it, and I took a picture. Then we peered down the street, which was filled with restaurants where families were having Mother’s Day brunch. Vivia turned her stroller onto Normal Avenue, waited at the traffic light, and pushed Emma down the street.