The Dark, Sad Side of Domestic Adoption

One family's long quest to adopt a baby.

"Mother and Child" by Janis Rozentals

When we decided to adopt, ceasing the fertility treatments and relinquishing our genetic link to our offspring, we thought the decision was altruistic. At the very least, we assumed there was an adoption system in place that works, and that we could move from the notional if we get a child—the gamble of science—to the unshakable when.

We decided on domestic adoption for several reasons. International adoption was volatile, as it remains. Guatemala closed to Americans in 2009, right around the time we went to the International Adoption Training session at an agency in Manhattan. My husband is half Spanish, a native Spanish speaker who's lived in South America, and so Guatemala had seemed like the perfect plan. A true connection, and one, we thought, we could pass on to our child. For me? There was Russia, which speaks to my ancestry, but that country seemed ominous. The orphanages were questionable; children were placed first locally, then nationally, and it was only then, when they were often several years old, that Americans could adopt them. Now there is a ban on United States adoptions in Russia. Ethiopia was also an option, but our connection to the country and its culture was not as distinct.

We were told—by caseworkers, agencies, friends who had adopted—that domestic adoption was the answer. And my reading told me there were many advantages to it. We could have a child from birth. Perhaps we would be in the delivery room. The adoption would be open—the birthmother and perhaps father would know us to whatever degree we all decided on, and they would know their biological child as she grew. 55 percent of all domestic adoptions are open, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, but at first this notion terrified me. Would this birthmother one day want her child back? Would she come for him? How large a part of our family would she be?

Ultimately my husband and I realized that the approach to adoption should be about what is best for the child. If the children know their birthmothers, they don't grow up with the fantasy of who their parents were or might have been. They do not have to make the life- altering decision in adulthood to try to find their birthparents or to forever forgo the idea. And so my spouse and I came to believe that the transparency of open adoption was best for everyone, not least of all the birthmother, who needs and deserves a way to handle her grief. Open adoption is about choice. Those seeking to adopt may choose the race they're prepared to parent, and the amount of drug and alcohol use they find acceptable during the pregnancy. They may decide what level of mental illness they are comfortable with in the birth mother's history. And they may decide as well if they are prepared for—or desire—a child with special needs.

When we got comfortable with the concept—open—I had to try to understand where my "motherness," who I would be as a parent, fit. We were told by adoption agencies and lawyers that couples, once they wrote their profiles and letters to birthmothers and posted them online, or placed ads in the "penny savers" in the baby-making parts of the country, were matched with birthmothers within three months. In an unpublished letter to the editor for Vogue magazine (written in response to my October 2012 piece "The Long Wait"), the Academy of American Adoption Attorneys cited statistics from Adoptive Families magazine indicating that 33 percent of waiting couples are successfully matched with a birthmother within three months, and more than half are matched in less than six months. With certainly, we were told, we would be matched within the year.

Matched, as we know from the dating world alone, is a coded word. My spouse and I were matched with birthmothers not once, not twice, not three times, but a total of five times. The most horrible things kept happening: Birthmothers and those posing as birthmothers, birthfathers and those posing as birthfathers lied to us. Birthmothers are doing a very selfless and generous thing when they decide they are unable to parent and place their child with wanting parents. It is a decision made out of big, big love for that child. Adoption, when it is successful, is a wonderful thing. But everyone coming to it is grieving in some way. It would be wrong not to acknowledge this. We have been lied to by birthmothers who wanted money, and who, when I look at the situation in the harsh light of hindsight, wanted the control and love they had so little of in their lives. More than one of the women who chose us may not have been pregnant; it would be wrong to call them birthmothers.

But some were decidedly pregnant. We were matched with a woman we'd had long meals with, whose family we'd met, and to whom I'd talked nightly until she went into labor. From that day forward, we never heard from her—ever—again. In another situation, I spoke once with a birthmother who the next day went into labor two months early. Despite the risk, we flew across the country for this child, who, it turned out, had Down Syndrome. As open as my husband and I were to adopting a baby of a different race and as open as we became to adopting from a mother with a history of drug use, this is the one choice we were not open to. And so we did not take the child. We were told there was another family waiting, and we were trying to do the right thing for this baby. But I won't be able to forget the moment when we left the hospital without her.

The piece de resistance of our adoption experience, however, was when, last April, I was in the delivery room—and cut the umbilical cord—of a child whose biological mother we had supported and gotten to know well. This child was subsequently with us for several weeks. We named him. We were in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, due to interstate laws, which decreed we had to stay in the state until the legal paperwork was completed. There were goats and chickens, a stream running through the backyard. And it was spring. Everything was waking.

We had been told that the birthfather was one of two people: either the birthmother's abusive Caucasian boyfriend or a Hispanic man with whom the birthmother had mentioned having had a brief affair.

When the baby was delivered, we were delighted he was half-Mexican for many reasons, not least that it meant the baby's father was not the boyfriend. We believed that if the baby had been his, they might have kept him. We were told the birthfather lived in Mexico and had no desire to deal with any of this.

You can see where this is going. My sister was visiting, breastfeeding her newborn as I bottle-fed ours, when we got a call. My husband spoke to him in Spanish, and just from his gestures, the desperation in his voice, I knew it was over. The birthfather was in the next town over and apparently he had been supporting the birthmother and his unborn child through the entire pregnancy. The birthfather wanted his son.

Later we would find out that our presence in this baby's life was a way for the birthmother to get away from her abusive boyfriend and to reunite with the man she loved. We had been cast to keep the baby—and the baby's mother—safe from harm. And yet last we heard he was in foster care. What happened to that child will always haunt us.

Every adoption story begins with the story of someone breaking someone else's heart. Whose heart was not broken here? There are no laws to protect prospective adoptive parents. No one is held accountable, and nothing is federated. State to state, the laws change in regards to how long a birthmother has to relinquish her rights and how long she has to revoke them, as well as how much she can be compensated for a gift so precious it cannot be priced. But for the prospective adoptive parents, it is all a "legal risk." Few will dispute that a birthmother has every right to change her mind. It is a chance we take, and anyone would be foolish or ethically irresponsible to think it should be otherwise. But when there is deceit, and when the adoption fails because of it, hope is lost, and so is most of the money that has been, for most, painstakingly set aside. The bills increase and still you hope. Still you pay.

We have been told that once we brought a baby home our negative experiences would fade. And sure enough, a few weeks ago, my husband and I brought a baby home to stay. The story of how he got to us is not perfect or without drama, but it is over. Our experiences have in fact begun to recede as we turn now, joyfully, to the rhythm of a newborn's needs. I am grateful; I am humbled, but I will always be haunted.

Adoption is not for the faint of heart. Now we are four years older than when we started, and significantly poorer. I look at my son—a word I am scared to utter—and I still wonder not if, but when, he will be taken. I am so careful. I don't post many pictures on social networking sites. I don't take him outside without considerable concern as well as a terrible self-consciousness that comes from having wanted something for so long and finally having it, but also an acute and troubling awareness that the woman just next to me might be wanting too. It is my wish, really, that no one else be hurt here.