Don't be fooled by the goofy title of Melissa Fay Greene's memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet; this book ought to come with a "Tissue Advisory" label affixed to its cover. Warning: there will be tears.
Perhaps Greene was paying homage to Erma Bombeck when she chose the title; the "hassled mother" humor book has had a long and robust history, peopled by the likes of Jeanne Kerr (Please Don't Eat the Daisies), and Shirley Jackson (Life Among the Savages). But what Greene describes in her account of adopting five international children as her four biological children began to leave the nest is hard-hitting, riveting, emotional stuff. She explores the family dynamics that lead to interest in adoption, the changes adoption brings on parents and children alike, and the glue - call it family culture or family values - that holds them all together as the clan grows and struggles to keep its equilibrium.
Greene gives the best description I've ever read about what international adoption feels like from the inside, about the agonies of making the decision and choosing a child, and about the ambiguities involved in taking a child out of grim circumstances in the third world and trying to integrate him into an American family by means of Legos and water balloons. In some of the most moving passages in the book, Greene reveals how ambivalent she was about the first adoption, of a Romany boy from an institution in Bulgaria. The impulse to adopt snuck up on her after a late pregnancy and miscarriage, and even as she was making her first visit to the orphanage where she would meet her son-to-be, Jesse, she imagined she could still change her mind.
She finally brings Jesse home, a high-maintenance four-year-old who defends his food and water and doesn't know how to play. Suddenly Greene can't cope. In the chapter entitled "Post-Adoption Panic," she describes how unsettling and unexpected her emotions are, how great her doubts. The honesty with which she lays out the dark side of the adoption experience is heroic and moving, and a great gift to all the families who will read this book and discover that there is such a thing as "post-adoption depression."
The stories Greene tells about each adoption make for fascinating reading. After Jesse comes Helen from Ethiopia (still grieving over her mother, lost to AIDS), followed by Fisseha (a kid who can spear a Frisbee in mid-flight), and a pair of brothers, also from Ethiopia, Daniel and Yosef. The book then shifts from its close focus on Greene's experience putting the family together and becomes all about the children. The biological kids, Molly, Seth, Lee, and Lily get plenty of air time, and soon it becomes clear that the family is a work of art composed by each and every member.
Greene is open and analytical about the sticky points as they come up - Jesse realizes there aren't many "brown boys" in his kindergarten; Helen can't eat bland American food. Greene gets help when she needs it (like an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian nanny who can cook), does her research, and celebrates her kids' moments of triumph, from medals at the elementary school fun run to punk rock gigs in San Francisco. As the book progressed I wanted to hear more about how Greene was handling all this, to gain more insight into what she was thinking and feeling. The intimacy of the "Post-Adoption Panic" chapter gives way to more of a group focus - probably because, as the children grow and the household becomes more and more boisterous and the books and articles continue to flow, Greene doesn't have as much time for introspection.
No Biking in the House Without a Helmet provides a valuable portrait of international adoption, a picture of how American wealth and values intersect with children living in times and places of crisis. Greene's stories are illuminating about the basic, indisputable value of wealth; see what can be done with enough money for food, spare bedrooms, and plenty of toys, not to mention frequent return tickets to east Africa. But perhaps even more immediate is the narrative she constructs about what makes a happy family: where the joy comes from, the mutual goals, and the love.
Of course the stories she relates are pleasures in their own right as beautifully written, gripping yarns - politics and family togetherness aside. And never fear - there are plenty of hilarious madcap moments mixed in with the emotional ones. In one such moment, Greene invites her readers to remember the craziest line they've ever barked out in the middle of family chaos. "No biking in the house without a helmet!" made perfect sense at the time.
This review was originally published in June 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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