What I Didn’t Expect About the Adoption Process

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Becoming a parent is a big decision, and making the decision to not parent is even larger. Rarely are adoptive parents aware that their efforts to become parents end up colluding with systems whose processes may perpetuate harm on the birth parents and the children they love. And there are few people, if any, to hold and care for those who realize they are unable to parent. I would come to learn all this through the adoption process.

I am a parent to two children: a 16-year-old son who was adopted at 5 months, and a 9-year-old, conceived via the support of donor sperm. When I began the adoption process with my oldest, I understood that people often place their children for a variety of reasons. But I was angry and saddened at how common it is for birth parents to be coerced to do so by family, social workers, attorneys, and friends. Some were never given a choice at all, some were never presented with the necessary resources to believe they could parent.

As the adoptive parent, I was challenged to reflect on my role in the system and within the adoption triad. I had to consider how to reconcile with the reality that I am a person in the scenario benefiting from the process.

My son may have material benefits, but they will never make up for the awareness of decisions made about his life before he ever had words of his own. Material goods do not make up for not having a picture of the woman who birthed you or the siblings you may never meet, nor do they make up for the gap in medical information that can be helpful if one is living with a variety of mysterious illnesses.

I had to learn to sit with the experience of having joy through another’s sorrow.

As an adoptive parent, I had to learn to sit with the experience of having joy through another’s sorrow. I had to learn to parent a grief that was unknown to me. I had to sit with the reality that, despite the problematic systemic conditions that led to the placement of my child for adoption, he needed someone to parent him when the system, along with his parents, determined that biological family could not.

As a social worker, I strived to support a placement that would have been open. I wanted the parents to be able to make an informed decision before landing on the decision to place their child. But that is not the story I hold, and it is not the story my child understands. Instead we discuss a story that is unique to us. (The remainder of the story is for my child to tell.)

I was surprised when we received the paperwork from the adoption agency that, as an adoptive parent, you can denote the conditions or circumstances that you can or cannot manage in terms of health conditions, family histories, and any prenatal substance exposures. I was surprised at the way choice was presented here when so much about the process can’t be easily predicted or controlled. Despite the illusion of choice that emerges, adoption, like other forms of family making, requires a capacity to embrace the unknown and accept the likelihood of some disappointments in the process.

What also surprised me was the discomfort of the urgency I experienced when waiting for a child placement. I hadn’t gone into the process feeling particularly anxious or urgent, but once the papers were signed, and the photo book constructed, I was surprised at the emotionality tied up in the process of waiting for a call. You enter a period of constantly dreaming of what may be, or trying to avoid dreams altogether, and get to the business of living your best life until you have a child who is anchored to you.

You are awaiting a call that someone is unable to do what you can because, in many cases, you have access to certain resources they do not. You have to contend with the profound privilege that resides in being in a position to be able to adopt. I understand that there is a reason why adoption exists, and as an adoptive parent, I have to sit with the fact that many of the reasons are due to systemic barriers around parenting.

As someone who is Black, lesbian, and raised with class fluctuations, for the first time in my life, I was in the position of privilege. I had to make decisions about which type of child placement was most appropriate for me and my spouse at the time.

As we were contacted here and there about potential placements, I was most surprised to learn that certain children have different fees attached to the processing of their paperwork and documentation because they are more “popular children,” i.e. mixed race or white. (I recommend Elizabeth Raleigh’s “Selling Transracial Adoption” for further reading.) This reality was wholly unexpected. I expected that white children or biracial children were placed into adoptive homes more easily because, as a dark skinned person, I know how colorism works. I was also aware there was a disproportionate number of babies who were Black. But the various hierarchies of race some adoption agencies used was deeply disturbing and I pondered how this was at all OK.

When I initiated the process for adoption, I was enthusiastic. Since I was young, I had planned on adopting. After placement occurred, however, and as my child continues to mature, my enthusiasm is blunted by a very clear understanding that adoption for many is not always a process of consent – whether the lack of consent is due to coercion or due to systemic conditions that make parenting impossible.

I have had to sit with the reality that the happiness and joy I experience with my son is because someone else did not feel like they had a choice. But as I hold space for these complexities of circumstances, I’m able to support a space for my child to live into his own story of who he is and where he’s come from.

Related: What the Kyte Baby Drama Reveals About Paid Leave For Adoptive Parents

Lisa L. Moore, LICSW, PhD, has been a social work educator and practitioner for over 25 years. Her clinical practice has been focused on working with individuals, couples, and families who are often queer and BIPOC.

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