Nine months after Kari Wagner-Peck received a phone call about a little boy named Thorin, he became free for adoption. The months in between are filled with social workers, supervised visits with Thorin’s birth mom, Individualized Education Program meetings and learning to be Thorin’s parent.

Wagner-Peck’s mother explains to her daughter, “You won’t get a child without experiencing great pain. For you and Ward, this time waiting for the court date is your labor.”

“Not Always Happy” is Wagner-Peck’s story of adopting a toddler through Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services. It is her story of choosing to be a mother, and then learning to be a mother. It is a story about the state’s foster care system and public education. And, it is a story about Thorin, a young man who likes cooking, the Avengers, and taking pictures. He has Down syndrome, is skilled at manipulating his mother and practices theater and dance.

The story is full of examples of people persevering in ways that are extraordinary. Thorin uses his creativity and imagination to survive very difficult circumstances in school. Thorin’s sister, Jade, walks to the police station at 10 years old, seeking help for her family and saving Thorin from neglect.

Wagner-Peck and her husband, Ward, choose to bring home a child when they do not know if he will be allowed to stay with them. They advocate for their son in settings where educators physically restrain him, question his ability to communicate and are resistant to placing him in a general education classroom.

Ultimately, they choose to homeschool Thorin, and Wagner-Peck and Thorin embark on a new educational journey together. This process includes role confusion (“I call you Kari?” Thorin asks on day one of homeschooling), crying (mostly mom) and developing a new sense of self that is free from “narrow opinions” and instead offers a view that is “clear and open and full of possibility.”

As Wagner-Peck points out, extraordinary parenting is ordinary, because being a parent is always an extraordinary undertaking.

Kari Wagner-Peck Photo by Betsy Carson/All Art Media

It’s easy to imagine that Wagner-Peck’s writer voice is close to her mother voice – she is witty and honest. Nothing is sugarcoated, and Wagner-Peck doesn’t offer any easy, reductive moralizing. Instead, the reader gets real-life stories about a child and parents who are not saint-like but are in fact, very human. This view leads to some of the funnier moments of “Not Always Happy.”

Early on, before Thorin’s adoption is finalized, his guardian ad litem visits the family regularly. She does something to irritate Wagner-Peck, who makes sure this woman gets stuck behind a child gate during her next visit. There are early moments of self-conscious mothering, ” ‘It’s a lion!’ I said followed by a roar. I had never fake roared in my life, and listening to myself, I realized even I wasn’t buying it.”

Then there is Thorin refusing to call Wagner-Peck mom and showing up for home schooling naked, a far-cry from what Wagner-Peck had imagined. “When I was merely a hypothetical parent, my theoretical child behaved as I instructed him.

On the day of Thorin’s adoption, Wagner-Peck and her husband launch a blog, “a typical son.” This book was born from that writing. “I found it isolating to figure out what was best for Thorin. Sharing what was happening on my blog made it less lonely.” Writing became a source of connection for Wagner-Peck.

Thorin finds his own creative ways to connect. For a period of time he uses a program on an iPad to support his ability to communicate. He also, of his own accord, begins taking pictures with the iPad camera. His documentary-style images reveal his vision of the world. “Not only was he telling us what he saw, but also what he felt,” Wagner-Peck notices.

Thorin’s photographs and Wagner-Peck’s writing challenge one of the more frightening human tendencies, to “other” people based on random differences that we select and choose to be important. Art offers the possibility for us to be reminded, again and again, of our shared humanness.

Heidi Sistare is a social worker and writer who lives in Portland. Contact her at:

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