The other side of the adoption coin
We packed up our car and, over the course of two days, drove across more than a half dozen states. It was a tight squeeze, since we had a lot to bring with us. We were going to pick up our new daughter.
We were nervous and excited,of course. We had a long way to go, and lots to do. My parents were meeting us at our final destination, a city neither of us had ever visited before, to help us with the new baby and to watch our son while we spent time in the hospital. Because of course we were bringing our son with us. Meeting his new sister was going to be a big thing, and there was no way we would leave him behind without us for an indefinite period. (When you adopt a child across state lines, you can’t leave the state where the baby was born until it has been verified by agencies both there and in your own state that you’re taking the child for the purposes of a legal adoption. The process can take weeks.)
In addition to all the normal nerves that all prospective parents feel, we had a few other reasons for trepidation. We’d had a failed adoption already, before we successfully adopted our son. And there were things about our interactions with this birth mother that left us uneasy. She never seemed to want to take our calls or call us back when we called to check in, though she would call our agency from time to time questioning if she was getting as much money as she was entitled to. (We were paying the legal limit for her expenses.) And there were other details, which are best kept private.
We had misgivings. And we weren’t sure quite how to get our son ready for the arrival of the new baby, with these misgivings in mind. What would be more confusing, to suddenly have a new sister with no warning, or to expect a new sister and then not get one? We didn’t know, but we thought it best to tell him a new baby was coming. For our own part, we reminded ourselves of all that we had heard and been taught about being patient, about letting the birth mother have as much or little contact as she wanted, about understanding how difficult and painful it may be for her. So we decided to hang in there.
We arrived at the motel across the street from where the baby was to be born and settled in a few days before the due date. We had offered to meet the birth mother when she arrived at the hospital, but she always evaded settling any plans. So she went to her room and we went to ours, and we waited. And then the news came that the baby had been born, and we went to meet her in the nursery.
Over the next three days, the Better Half spent almost all his time at the hospital. I spent as much time as I could, and then headed back to the motel to stay with our son overnight. My husband delivered pretty much all of the care to this new baby that she needed during this time, and came to love her. I, by my nature, tend to keep my emotions at more distance. (I never get that excited about a trip, for example, until I’m actually setting foot on the plane. You never know what can happen, do you?) But my husband spent his nights bathing her and holding her and singing her the songs we had sung to our son.
The birth mother never seemed to want to sign the paperwork releasing the baby to us, but we did our best to abide. We remembered all the exhortations we had received. We hung in there.
Finally, the day arrived for us to take the baby back with us. We arrived at the hospital with the carrier in hand and went to our room to wait. And a little while later the adoption lawyer we had retained and the social worker from the hospital stepped through the door wearing somber expressions. The birth mother had changed her mind. We would not be taking the baby with us. We were afforded the small grace of saying our goodbyes to her before we left, and then we carried the empty car seat back out with us again.
True to his nature, my husband was devastated. True to mine, I was enraged.
We were, in our way, lucky enough as we tried to dust ourselves off. My parents were there with us in that strange city to hold us as we cried, so far from home. We had been planning on waiting out the interstate compact with a couple of dear friends who lived in another city a short drive away, and they were there to welcome us and comfort us over the next several days. And we returned home to a community of friends who quietly left meals on our doorstep and gave us space to recover. I even had some kind words from people here in this online community when I made oblique reference to these events.
Looking back on the months that led up to those painful days, the Better Half and I had a pretty clear sense that the birth mother had changed her mind long before she told us so. Again, the details are best left obscure, but we felt (and still feel) that we were taken advantage of, that she used us to pay her living expenses for as long as she could. But what could we do? If we had listened to our misgivings, we might have lost a chance at adopting another baby, and we’d also have lost all the money we had already paid out for that specific match. (Of course, we were told it wasn’t worth the effort to get any of it back in any case, and we didn’t even try.) So we had held on and hoped for the best.
Since that time, we have had another success. We have our daughter, a cheerful and beautiful little thing. As with the failed adoption that preceded our getting our son, it seems inconceivable now to have any other child but her. We are happy, in the end, with how things finally ended up.
But those painful, painful moments in that hospital room so far from home came roaring back when I read this article in The New Republic about the move to make adoptions more stringent. (H/t Sully.) The awkward ways we tried to answer our son’s questions about where the new baby was replay in my head. The whole fiasco marches to the front of my brain.
Emily Matchar writes:
Some women, like Corrigan D’Arcy, blog their stories. They run message boards with names like “First Mother Forum” and “Pound Pup Legacy,” full of tales of bitterly regretted adoptions. They hold retreats for birthmothers and adoptees. They’ve formed several grassroots activist organizations, including Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, Origins-USA, and Concerned United Birthparents. Some call themselves adoption reformers. Others prefer terms such as “adoption truth advocate.” A few will come straight out and say they’re anti-adoption.
They want, among other things, a ban on adoption agencies offering monetary support to pregnant women. They want to see laws put in place guaranteeing that “open” adoptions (where birthparents have some level of contact with their children) stay open. They want women to have more time after birth to decide whether to terminate their parental rights. These activists have become increasingly loud of late, holding prominent rallies, organizing online, and winning several recent legislative victories.
I’m not entirely sure what those few who are openly “anti-adoption” would offer to birth mothers who do not want to abort but who, for whatever reason, do not feel they can raise a child. I would be a fool to dispute that there has been an appalling history of coercion within the “adoption industry” (if you will), but the solution isn’t to coerce the ones who truly want to make an adoption plan out of it. What would they propose for them?
As far as the monetary support for pregnant women, I certainly wouldn’t have minded not spending the tens of thousands of dollars we will never get back. But these women often do need support, and meeting the needs of the birth mothers of our children was something that seemed like the right thing to do. (Not that we were given the choice, of course.) Perhaps it seems like coercion to some to offer birth mothers an alternative to public assistance, but to us it was simply about meeting the needs of someone who was helping us form our family.
As far as mandating that open adoptions be truly open to the degree desired by the birth mother and agreed to in advance, you’ll hear no argument from me. Those commitments are indeed incredibly important, and there should be force of law behind keeping them. I’m fully on board.
But make no mistake — adopting a child is fraught with risk for adoptive parents, too, to say nothing of the expensive and invasive process of getting approved to adopt in the first place and the indefinite wait before you finally get matched. The Better Half and I have had to submit so many sets of fingerprints for background checks and the like that we have gotten to be on a first-name basis with many of the local cops. Do I dispute that this degree of scrutiny is necessary? No. But let’s not elide the difficulties that adoptive parents face.
Finally, this caught my eye:
But for young women who do find themselves pregnant and unmarried, the pressure to choose adoption is still present. Much of this pressure still comes from organized religion. Andrea Mills, 38, has placed four of her children for adoption through the Mormon Church’s LDS Family Services program over the past 13 years. Mormonism forbids abortion, considers premarital sex taboo, and frowns upon single parenthood. When Mills initially voiced uncertainty about adoption, the counselor handling her case insisted it was her best option, saying “This is what God wanted.” The nation’s 4,000-odd “crisis pregnancy centers,” anti-choice organizations, are often affiliated with evangelical Christian maternity homes and Christian adoption agencies. “Pregnant? Scared?” their ads ask on billboards and in bar bathroom posters; “We can help.”
I have no doubt that religiously-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers really do pressure young women to consider adoption. But there’s a flip side.
For years I worked at a clinic for teenage patients. One of the major reasons female patients sought us out was because they were pregnant. After a positive pregnancy test was confirmed, the patients would meet with a social worker for “options counseling,” which strikes me as self-explanatory — the patient’s options for how to proceed were discussed.
Would you like to know what never, ever got discussed with any seriousness, if at all? Adoption. Patients either opted to parent or abort, with no exceptions. Indeed, when we were preparing to adopt the first time around we were encouraged to try to match with prospective birth mothers in as many ways as we could. I contacted the medical director of my old clinic and asked her to tell the social workers that there was a potential adoptive family should any birth mother want to explore that alternative. She was very nice but reminded me that nobody ever seems all that interested in talking about adoption.
I cannot guarantee that my old clinic is indicative of the attitudes at similar clinics around the country, but if I were to place my bet I’d guess that it is. Do I dispute that many young women are pressured into making adoption plans? No. But a whole other percentage never have it brought up at all, which is its own problem.
Birth mothers should never be pressured to make a decision they don’t truly want to make. Letting someone else parent a child you’ve carried and delivered must be incredibly hard in ways I can barely imagine, and we will always be grateful to the women who helped our family become what it is. (We pray for them by name every bedtime, and keep in regular touch with both.) If the adoption system is coercive or unjust, then those problems deserve our attention and efforts to correct them. However, the process has its pains and pitfalls for those on the other side, as well.
But as painful and stressful as it was at its worst, I would never change the outcome. A world without my children is inconceivable to me now, and every terrible minute was worth it for the joy of raising them. What alternative the blatantly “anti-adoption” contingent would suggest for them I could not guess, but I would swear on anything that it would be the wrong one.