IT’S A FAMILIAR scenario for millions of women. I was lying in a hospital bed. My feet were hoisted in the stirrups and my husband was squeezing my hand bloodless. There was intense physical pain. And screaming. And an urgent need for drugs. But I wasn’t having a baby. I was having an epiphany.
I was there for my fifth intrauterine insemination, an unpleasant little fertility procedure that had been prefaced by two weeks of expensive injections designed to boost my ovulatory prowess. “This doesn’t look great,” the doctor said with the cold indifference of a man who had 10 other women to impregnate before noon. He was looking over my bloodwork and ultrasounds from the day before. “It’s probably not going to work. But we can go ahead and do it if you want.” Cue the screaming.
David and I had spent a lot of time and money failing to get pregnant. After this, our only option was in-vitro fertilization, a procedure which costs around $12,000 per attempt. As much as I wanted to help my fertility doctor make his boat payments, I really couldn’t see the point. After all, our goal wasn’t pregnancy, exactly: It was parenthood. Why should we spend a small fortune on a process that might result in a child, when we could spend the same amount on one that would definitely result in a child?
That, to borrow from the gospel of Oprah, was my lightbulb moment. I yanked my feet out of the stirrups, turned to my husband and said, “Let’s adopt.”
When I was little, I remember thinking that the worst thing you could be was adopted. In soap operas, that was always the bombshell that ruined someone’s life. And if you really wanted to hurt your sister’s feelings, that’s what you threw at her: “You’re adopted.” And it’s no wonder. For decades, adoption was treated like a dirty secret. Unwed mothers were shuttled off to maternity homes far from the judging eyes of their communities. Once born, their babies were whisked away and handed over to anonymous couples, never to be seen again.
David and I soon found out, however, that most domestic agencies encourage an open adoption, which means that the birthmother and the child could remain in contact by exchanging letters or even meeting once or twice a year, a prospect that appealed to David and me much more than finding an orphan from China to call our own. We loved the idea that our child would always know where he came from and that if he had questions, the answers would only be a phone call away. No dirty little secrets. No soap opera bombshells. So we decided: It was open adoption or nothing at all.
That was July of 2006. By March 2007, we were on the verge of adopting a baby whose birthmother was a 39- year-old heroin addict who’d had no prenatal care, was taking a pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs, and had tested positive for cocaine a month earlier. And the only reason we were considering it was because she wanted a completely closed adoption.
A lot can happen in seven months.
After interviewing several local agencies, we settled on one of the few we could find whose emphasis was domestic open adoptions. It took us about three months to undergo the “homestudy,” an exhaustive application and screening process for adoptive parents. The final step was the family book, which is what allows the birthparents to go “parent-shopping.” David and I felt good about our family book. After all, he’s an art director and I’m a writer. The damn thing could have won a Pulitzer. So we had a feeling we weren’t going to have to wait the standard six to twelve months before being chosen.
We were right. Two days after turning our family book in, we found out we’d been chosen by a young birthmother who was due in just two weeks. We were both ecstatic and horrified. That evening we took a trip into the heart of darkness, otherwise known as Babies “R” Us. We bought the necessities and then registered for everything else, a process that wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had been to register for our wedding. There’s a vast, sobering ocean of difference between crystal champagne flutes and rectal thermometers.
One week later, after we had hastily thrown together a nursery and canceled any pretense of a social life, the agency called to tell us that the birthmother, whom we still hadn’t met, had changed her mind. Our disappointment turned to relief in about the time it takes to hard-boil an egg. Truthfully, we weren’t ready for that baby. Not even close.
Three months later we were picked again, this time by a couple expecting a boy in late December. Beth was in her 30s and looked every bit the modern suburban mom, save for the court-ordered ankle monitor peeking out from beneath her pants leg, the result of an identity-theft conviction. Josh spoke poignantly about the life he wanted for his son, the one he knew he couldn’t give him. But he also made no effort to conceal how much he didn’t want to be a father.
Toward the end of our first meeting, I realized that I liked Beth and Josh. Our lives were very different, and we probably would never have met otherwise, but I thought they were good people and I was honored that they had chosen us. When we said goodbye, Beth gave me a hug, her swollen belly squished between us. On our second visit, Beth brought us ultrasound pictures of the baby and referred to him as “your son.”
He was born two days before Christmas. It was late and the agency asked us to wait until the next day before coming to the hospital. The next morning passed without word. As the car seat and diaper bag sat waiting by the front door, we started to get nervous. At 1:00, they finally called and told us Beth had changed her mind. She was keeping the baby we had named Jack.
We spent the rest of the day doing things we didn’t want to do. Taking down the ultrasounds from the refrigerator. Fielding calls from people who wanted to come see the baby. Shutting the door to the nursery. That one day was worse than 24 consecutive months of negative pregnancy tests put together. Forgive me for coloring it with my morbid crayon, but it was kind of like our version of a miscarriage.
A few weeks later we met with our caseworker, a sage and unflappable woman named Fran. She listened patiently as we vented. We wanted sympathy. We wanted reassurance about open adoption. We wanted the name of Beth’s parole officer. And then, when we were finally done, she told us we’d been chosen again.
Amy was our third potential birthmother, a sweet woman with too many kids and not enough resources—financial or emotional—to care for another. The baby’s father was in prison for assaulting Amy, who was eight months pregnant when we met her. In order for us to adopt her baby, the father had to sign the adoption papers. But everyone assured us he’d cooperate because he wanted what was best for his new daughter.
The baby was born on a Saturday, but the father wanted to think about it for a while before giving his answer. Late Monday afternoon—David’s birthday—we found out the answer was no. He was getting out of prison someday and when he did, this fine specimen of fatherhood wanted to be a daddy to the baby we had named Rosemary.
That night, after settling into the numbness of my third martini, I asked David if he thought this was a sign that we shouldn’t be parents. “Maybe it’s not a sign,” he said. “Maybe it’s a test.”
Our agency placed 24 babies last year and had five birthmothers decline adoptions at the last minute. Three of those five were ours. Our faith in open adoption had evaporated. Dealing with the Chinese government seemed easier than dealing with fickle American birthparents. Even our most supportive friends were starting to suggest that maybe we should quit trying. We probably would have if the damn phone hadn’t kept ringing.
Enter birthmom number four: the heroin addict.
“Why are you telling me this?” I wailed to Fran as she laid out the ugly details.
“Because she doesn’t want any contact,” she said bluntly. Bingo. This was it. The other adoptions failed because the birthparents were too attached, a problem from which this woman obviously did not suffer. This, I convinced myself, was our baby.
David nervously humored me while gently insisting (the way you do when you talk to crazy people) that we get some medical advice. And as we did, the outlook just got worse. The baby—a boy—would be born addicted, and the withdrawal he would experience could last anywhere from three days to a month. Because of the mother’s age, there was a risk of Down syndrome. And the long-term effects of the drugs she’d used were completely unknown. He could be perfectly fine. Or he could be born with a tail.
Luckily my insanity was temporary. After agonizing for a few days, I finally admitted to myself that I was doing this for all the wrong reasons—out of desperation, fear, frustration. That baby deserved parents who were in it for the right reasons. So we called it off. After hanging up with Fran, I went to the nursery and, for the fourth and last time, shut the door.
People who believe in fate have a field day with adoption. I can’t remember how many times people told me that “it just wasn’t meant to be” or “when the time is right, your baby will find you.” I know they meant well, but the abject cluelessness of these comments infuriated me. What the hell did they know about it?
More than I did, apparently.
Two hours after we declined to adopt the heroin baby, Fran called back. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said. A baby boy had just been born across town. The birthmother was young and healthy, didn’t drink or smoke and had never touched drugs. But here was the kicker: She had no desire to meet us. In fact, she wanted a closed adoption.
Fran met us in the maternity lobby. “Don’t do this to us,” I pleaded. “Don’t show us this baby if he’s not ours.” She just smiled and led us down the hallway.
When the nurse wheeled the baby into the room, swaddled tightly in a pink and blue flannel hospital blanket, I looked down at him and knew he was my son.
“What took you so long?” I asked him.
They say there’s a hormone that makes women forget the pain of childbirth. I might not have experienced a physical birth, but I had a hell of a hard labor. And while I doubt I’ll ever forget the pain, some of the sharper edges have been softened by time and 12 months of motherhood. More and more, I’ve found myself hoping that my son’s birthmother changes her mind and wants to see him. Because even after all the drama, and despite the fact that we ended up with a closed adoption, I still believe that knowing his birthmother would help make my son’s life more complete. Maybe hers, too. I have no idea how his birthmother found the strength to do what she did, but I’d really like to thank her in person for this amazing little boy we named Xander.
This article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Portland Monthly.