(Or, our adoption journey: part 1 of 3)
If you know me, then you’re aware we adopted our daughter, Summer. But I’ve never shared anything about our initial adoption match. This is that story.
For obvious reasons, names, places and identifying characteristics have been changed.
We were matched in less than two weeks. See, we had to create these magazine-like booklets about ourselves that our adoption agency would give to birth mothers, and my husband and I poured all of our collective creativity into this thing. When I had flipped through the many examples our agency had provided, I grew more confident by the second. Other couples used boring pictures and the exact same wording — as if they were going from a template and didn’t even bother to customize it. As both a writer and a Type A control freak who was uncomfortable with pretty much every single aspect of the adoption process (read: a months- or years-long journey that you have absolutely no control over), I was determined to create the best marketing booklet the adoption world had ever seen.
And it worked. We were matched shortly after our adoption agency printed our booklet and began circulating it.
That book was the last thing we would be able to control for a very long time.
The birth mother and father who picked us, Serena and Kevin, were having a boy. They were in their late 20s and had other children together — some born while the couple was in high school and others more recently. He had a child with another woman as well. Now, Serena was slowly but surely trying to finish her college degree at a local university. Kevin hadn’t gone to college, didn’t have a job, and seemed to do nothing but smoke pot. He was white; she was a mix of ethnicities, but she looked Black.
We learned about their tragic upbringings in the 25-page questionnaires they each filled out for our adoption agency. Both were born into poverty. Neither had parents who stuck around. Serena had experienced homelessness as a child, and had been separated from her siblings in foster care. One of her siblings ended up dying from a drug overdose; another had attempted suicide. Kevin had one kind grandparent who raised him… until that grandparent perished in a freak accident.
As I read their files, I was struck by a deep sadness. Serena and Kevin had every single card stacked against them since day one. How could anyone who grew up in poverty, surrounded by addiction and loss, with almost no one to look up to or be loved by, ever break out of that cycle? It was hard for me — born into a stable, loving family in a wealthy neighborhood — to wrap my head around.
Serena had written that they were exploring adoption because they “have other children and having another will take away from what they are already used to as well as give less to the baby.” In potential adoptive parents, she was looking for “someone with a large extended family who values memories and wants family traditions.” Her hopes and wishes for the baby’s future were “for him to go to college and be loved.”
After our adoption agency shared the news that Serena wanted to be matched with us, they suggested that I call her immediately. I cannot think of another single moment in my life where I have been more nervous. But I called her, and it was painfully weird for both of us, but we acknowledged how weird it was and we got through it. We decided to meet up for lunch the following week with both my husband and Kevin as well.
But when the big day rolled around, Serena arrived without Kevin. We knew that wasn’t a good sign.
The last we had heard, Kevin had been on board with adoption. Near the end of the questionnaire he’d filled out for our adoption agency, he was asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 how positive he was about placing this child for adoption (note that they do not ask this question of the birth mother in order to not make her feel pressured to decide). He wrote “8.5.” There was also a section that asked why they were considering adoption. Kevin’s answer was: “We love our children very much. We are just struggling and instead of abortion we decided that a couple deserving a child should get a chance to make his life wonderful. We are trying to give our children what we never had. I feel another kid would break the camel’s back. We think our child could have a wonderful life with parents who can provide better.”
And finally the form asked what his hopes were for the child. He replied, “To be given all the opportunities in life, but still understand that not everyone is that lucky.”
But now, Kevin wasn’t there to meet us. Something had changed.
“It’s just me today,” Serena said as we all laid eyes on each other for the first time. We awkwardly hugged and moved on to order lunch. After we sat down, Serena was blunt about the situation: “He’s not sure about this anymore, and I need to be honest with you that I am not entirely sure either. My goal has always been to keep my family together because I never had that.”
We told her that was OK, and that the point was just for her to get to know us better. She said she picked us because I was “a successful businesswoman” and that was what she wanted to be like. I melted. It didn’t hurt that in our profile book we listed that we were huge Game of Thrones fans, as she and Kevin were, too.
But then she said something that made me realize this adoption probably wouldn’t happen: She shared the name she wanted for the baby boy. In our adoption training, we learned that having already named the baby meant that a birth mother was much more likely to ultimately choose to parent. (By the way, “giving a baby up for adoption” is outdated, hurtful language that insinuates birth parents don’t love or want their child, which is hardly ever the case. So now we say they “chose not to parent” or “placed their child for adoption.”)
What transpired over the next month or so was a rollercoaster for everyone involved, I’m sure, though Serena never once let her guard down or her emotions show. I felt like she was sending drastically mixed signals, which I empathized with and accepted, but which had the effect of making me try to guard my heart more as well. She had picked out a name … but she also met with my husband and me additional times and had us drop her off at school, where — after years of hard work — she was desperately trying to finish her degree before her due date. She had me come to one of her third-trimester OB checkups. She’d given me the printouts from the ultrasound we watched on the screen together during that appointment. Kevin was out of the picture entirely now. It seemed that she had made up her mind to move forward with adoption.
As I drove her home from the ultrasound appointment, I chatted absentmindedly about the route her friend would likely take to get her to the hospital when the time came. In retrospect, I should’ve realized that something had already shifted from just minutes earlier when she gave me the printouts. Serena was a naturally quiet person, but she hadn’t said anything at all in the car.
A short time later, which was about four weeks before Serena’s due date, my husband, son and I crammed in a final “family of three” vacation. I emailed Serena pictures of us on the flight and she wrote back immediately with an update on when she was scheduling her next OB appointment after we returned. A few days later, I sent her pictures from the trip and said I hoped she was doing OK. Three days passed and there was no response. We let our agency know. They advised us not to contact her anymore, and to start setting our expectations that she was likely going to choose to parent.
We listened and ceased contact. I tried to keep myself distracted as I knew there was nothing I could do but wait. Three more weeks went by. We were close to Serena’s due date now. A member of our adoption agency reached out to Serena to see how she was doing and if she was still considering adoption. They made it clear that there was no pressure on her, but that if she had definitely decided to parent, they would like to put me and my husband back into the pool to be matched.
She replied with a message that still haunts me to this day.
i dont feel like i can really say either way until he comes. i am trying to finish school, Kevin is gone, and im being evicted — have to be out by end of the month with nowhere to go and with finals next month. i honestly dont know my plan. some people are pushing for me to parent (yet i remember how my mom lost her children, including me) but im not delusional and im not sure i can handle it. I just have to see his face and see how i feel, whether or not i can part with him, cuz if i can handle the loss then i think it is best for all.
I still cry — I’m crying right now — when I think about this message. “I just have to see his face” … that part destroyed me. I could feel her pain through the monitor.
At this point, since it seemed like Serena felt she was in a dire situation and wrote like she was leaning toward adoption, we figured we could welcome a second child at any moment. Now is the part where I tell you some things I had been worried about this entire time.
To become certified to adopt in Illinois, you have to go through hours and hours and hours of training. And if you are “open to” certain adoption scenarios (adopting a child of a different race, or who has known medical issues, or who has possible future issues due to birth family medical history, etc.), then you have to take additional training specific to those scenarios. Our adoption team advised us to be open to any and all scenarios — which meant taking all of those additional trainings — because we could still ultimately decide if we wanted to move forward (or not) with certain birth parents when we were actually matched. The strategy was to not cut ourselves off from any potential adoption opportunity.
The trainings for adoptive parents who were open to adopting mixed-race children (or children of a different race) depressed the hell out of me. They were all about preparing parents for the inevitable rude, ignorant or hateful comments they’d be sure to get. The trainings went through role-play scenarios and the tactics you could use to respond in such situations, and emphasized how closely your child would be watching and learning from what you do and say in these moments — even before they knew how to speak.
Overall, the entire point of the training was to get adoptive parents thinking about life from the child’s point of view. It wasn’t about us; it was about them. We needed to consider whether this child would see other people “like them” in our community. Did we have friends of other races? Did we interact with others in authority — teachers, doctors, business professionals — who weren’t white? Did we have extended family members who were other ethnicities? Would there be kids of their race at the school they’d attend?
Ultimately, my husband and I had decided that we were indeed open to adopting a child of a different race, because any child we adopted — of any race — would see other kids, adults and community professionals like them on a daily basis in our diverse Chicago neighborhood and within our circle of friends.
But I was still worried about two things.
The first, I was and still am ashamed of. I was worried about people I knew who had made racist comments here and there over the years. During our adoption training, racist things people had said to me or in my presence came flooding back. But the ironic thing was, with every single one of these people I was worried about, I had zero doubt that they would love our child, no matter his race.
How could that be? It’s actually pretty simple. I mean, my strong suspicion is that you also know people who’ve made racist comments but who also have Black or non-white friends — or maybe someone of another race in their extended family, right? How can we reconcile the racist behavior of such a person?
It’s easy, because it’s been studied a lot. And what’s been found is that there is a pervasive belief amongst white people that mere exposure or nearness to someone who’s Black somehow prevents that white person from having thoughts or attitudes or making comments that are rooted in racism. The ol’ “I have a Black friend so I can’t possibly be racist!” defense has been overused so much that it’s now a joke. It says volumes about the complete and utter lack of much-needed conversations about racism amongst friends and families across the world.
The reality is that of course you can have Black people in your life and still act or speak in racist ways. I liken it to how some men can make awful and demeaning comments about women and then turn around and say they obviously respect women “because they have a daughter.” Having a wife or a daughter or a mother clearly does not prevent someone from being sexist (or worse), because literally everyone has a mother and we have a gigantic problem with sexism and sex-based discrimination in this country and the world. (Never had that become more apparent to me than during our adoption journey, which resulted in a hyper-awareness of the politicization of women’s bodies and reproductive choices.)
So the reason I knew that the racist people I was worried about in my life would still love our adopted mixed-race or Black son is because when people are in situations where they actually know someone who’s different from them, the person of color or the person who is “different” is suddenly no longer an “other” and therefore falls outside of stereotypes in the racist person’s mind. They’re no longer a suspicious Black teenager to be apprehensive about. They’re just Daniel, who goes to school with your kids and works at your local Walgreens. They’re not a mysterious Muslim man who’s secretly planning something awful. They’re just Asif, who’s on your team at work and heads up user-experience strategy. They’re not a scary lesbian who’s trying to turn your kids gay. They’re just Marcy, who’s a florist on your block by day and a volunteer at Meals On Wheels in the evening.
So. How to deal with the people I was worried about for my future son? This is the part I’m ashamed of. Why hadn’t I already dealt with them? This right here — my own behavior — is why racism and ignorance and hatred of all forms persists. Because “good” people stand there, listen to it, and make a choice to not do or say anything about it because it’s uncomfortable.
For years I would dread — and then sit tensely through — the occasions when I had to be in the presence of a racist acquaintance and hope nothing untoward was said. I would grit my teeth in social situations where someone made an ignorant joke. I would fear having to interact with so-and-so and go out of my way to avoid him at social gatherings.
Multiply me by hundreds of millions. And that is just one of many reasons why we are where we are today in the United States and in the world. I now understand that silence and inaction equal complicity. I now know I must be actively antiracist.
Serena’s due date came and went, and our adoption agency called the hospital we knew she would go to. We found out that she had delivered and had taken the baby boy home a few days prior. It’s hard to describe how I felt, because it was such a convoluted mess of emotions and I’m not proud of all of them. I felt scared for Serena and her children. They were being evicted, Kevin was gone, and last we heard they had no place to go. I felt sorrow — for the son we thought we were going to have, and because I know we would’ve loved him and given him a great life and honored all of the wishes Serena and Kevin had for him. But I have learned that my definition of a great life isn’t the be-all and end-all. I am positive Serena is going to do everything in her power to give her son and her other children the great life she’s envisioned for them, and I have no doubt that her children will know they are loved.
Despite the sadness and the frustration I felt about starting over from square one (which, I realize in the whole scheme of things sounds stupid when compared to everything Serena went and is still going through, but I’m just being honest about how I felt) I was of course rooting for Serena. I still am. She was trying to keep her family together. She was trying to give them what she never had. How many Serenas are out there, right now? Fighting — with absolutely no support — the countless obstacles that our country and our policies and our elected leaders are putting in front of them?
I have checked in on her via social media. The first time I saw a picture of her son I completely went cold with shock — he’s right there! he’s real! he might’ve been ours! — I can’t even describe the experience. But I soon recovered and was just thrilled for Serena. She looked happy and at peace. It appears Kevin returned for a time after the baby was born. Serena earned her degree. Everyone looks happy and healthy, though Kevin has been conspicuously absent from pictures for a long time. Every once in a while I will have a Sliding Doors moment. If you don’t know what I mean, please go find and watch this 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie. It shows how her character’s life would’ve played out if she had missed the train one day, versus if she’d squeezed onto the car just in time. Anyway, I sometimes have a flash of a life where this beautiful boy is our son. And it reminds me that we all still have work to do.
If you scroll waaaaay back up you’ll see that I said there were two things I was worried about during our adoption process. The first was racists we might encounter. The second was even worse. Just a few weeks after my first son was born in 2012, an unarmed Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was deemed to be out of place in the gated community he was visiting with his father, and was shot to death by “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman. As we all know, that was not even remotely the first, nor would it be the last, time that the shooting death of an unarmed Black child, teenager or adult made headlines.
While we were getting certified to adopt in Illinois and creating our marketing booklet, a 12-year-old Black boy, Tamir Rice, was killed by police after he waved a toy gun in their direction. Now let’s fast-forward to August of this year, when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a white male who was illegally armed with an AR-15-style rifle and had just shot and killed two people and injured a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, walked right by police officers during a protest after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, despite several witnesses shouting that Kyle had fired his weapon. He wasn’t arrested until the morning.
It’s easy to see why Black people — and especially parents of Black children — are terrified. And we haven’t even discussed how “white supremacists will remain the most ‘persistent and lethal threat’ in the United States through 2021,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s October 2020 Threat Assessment (page 18, specifically). In fact, on one of the nights I was editing this post, the leader of the free world — with tens of millions of people watching — refused to acknowledge that white supremacy is even an issue in this country and failed to outright condemn it.
So what I truly can’t understand is why every single human being isn’t sickened by racial injustice, alarmed by its pervasiveness in our country, and trying to do something about it. What kind of world are we wanting to live in — are we wanting for our kids and grandkids? Surely not one full of hate and ignorance and fear of differences. Throughout the first part of our adoption journey, my eyes were opened, and I am now aware of the systemic racism around us. I’m sorry it took me nearly 40 years. But my eyes are still open, and I’m hoping this story will motivate everyone who reads this to do their part to educate themselves and take action. I can think of no better quote to sum it all up than this one from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Serena and Kevin made the decision that millions of people wanted them to: She did not have an abortion. The question I keep coming back to is, do those same people care about what happens to this Black boy now that he’s here?
Continue on to Part 2.