Several months ago, my son, Micah, turned 2. My to-do list for his birthday was like anyone else's, with one exception; in addition to planning a party, settling on a menu, and deciding whether or not to hire Spider-Man to make an appearance, I had to get his 2-year-old photos taken to send to his birth mother, who receives a photo and letter describing his progress every six months.
My family is involved in an open adoption, in which the birth mother of a child chooses his or her adoptive parents and has some say in what sort of relationship she will have with him in the future. This probably sounds unusual, but the truth is, adoption is changing.
After two years of trying to conceive naturally and several unsuccessful cycles of Clomid, my husband and I decided to forgo what I call the fertility circus and adopt. For me it was a dream; I was thrilled to bypass the horrors of childbirth, and my vigorous yet fruitless attempts to conceive confirmed that adoption was how I would achieve motherhood. My husband was slightly forlorn about not having a child that had the perfect melding of our physical features, but easily accepted the idea since he'd grown up with an adopted brother.
In the winter of 2001, we began our journey. The process was stressful. We started on the Web site of Pact, an adoption alliance that specializes in placing children of color, learning exactly what was involved in having an open adoption, and filling out all the paperwork electronically. We had heard that the adoption process takes a long time, but for children of color, that's not necessarily the case, especially when it's open and the parents are a couple of color.
Next, we set up an in-person meeting with a Pact representative, traveling to San Francisco from our home in Arizona. The woman we met was a birth mother herself. She said that her son was doing well and that she was very much in his life; she sees him on family holidays, and when he was young, she sometimes babysat for him when his adoptive parents went out. I listened carefully, but knew then and there that this was not the kind of open adoption I wanted. I thought that her boy was probably very confused.
Differences aside, the counselor was thrilled that we were pursuing adoption and told us we would have no problem adopting a child quickly -- upon completion of the adoption information, we could adopt in mere months. We were ecstatic but scared by the reality that we would soon be parents.
"Soon," however, is a relative term. We spent five months cleaning our house for social worker visits, gathering tax returns and letters of reference, taking blood tests, and finding marriage and birth certificates. That was the hard part; the easy part for me was writing a stellar "Dear Birth Mother" letter eloquently describing our life, our intentions, and our passion for having a child. Our adoption packet was complete in December 2001 and things were pretty quiet until the phone rang the following February. Then the real work began.
Happily for us, we were selected as potential adoptive parents by four different birth mothers. No one can say what draws a birth mother to pick one couple over another. One said that we resembled her own family, another said that we seemed happy in our pictures, and yet another said that she liked the fact that we went to church regularly.
The first was a birth mother in Cincinnati who already had two children, one of whom had a disability. She was 22 and thought we were "perfect." We spoke to her on the phone for several hours; she was enthusiastic and gave us specific details about how she wanted the adoption to be handled. All that she requested was that we be present for the birth of her son. She gave us the hospital address and date, which was just a few weeks away, and we scrambled to make preparations to get there, overwhelmed by the fact that we'd be parents in a few weeks.
But when we arrived in her hospital room, I knew that something wasn't right. The birth mother's new live-in boyfriend was there, and she didn't want any time alone with us. She let us hold the baby, but didn't take her eyes off us for a second. We left after about an hour, feeling unnerved and empty. The next day we received a call from the social worker in Cincinnati; the birth mother requested that we not visit or call for the next two days, and she would let us know what to do next. For the next 48 hours, we didn't shower, sleep, or eat until we got a second call from the social worker. "The birth mother has decided to parent," she said, in adoption lingo. We wouldn't be taking the baby home.
The disappointment was overwhelming. Telling our friends and family that we would return without a baby was devastating. I lay in bed for five days with a migraine, moaning to the air, "We will never have a child." The sadness grew like a wedge between my husband and me. Our social worker from Pact told us that there would be a next time. We listened as she consoled us, but our sadness and rage at the injustice of it all was too much. Though we'd been chosen by three other birth mothers, we withdrew our adoption portfolio until May.
By April, I was rejuvenated and excited to get back into the process, and in the first few days of May, the phone rang with a new possibility, a baby girl in Ohio. The situation was heartbreaking. The baby's teenage birth mother had spent ten years in foster care and conceived the child at a party with a man whose name she didn't know. And although she liked our profile, she was so ashamed about her situation that she wouldn't even speak to us. If we went forward, what would we tell that little girl about where she came from? We didn't know if we could tackle such a legacy of shame, pain, and sadness.
The very next day, while we were still thinking about the little girl, the phone rang again. It was a second local agency with whom we'd also registered. There was a Caucasian birth mother who was going to give birth to a biracial baby boy in the middle of the month. We were her first choice, and she didn't want any contact with the baby until he was 18, and only if he wanted to pursue a relationship with her. We were thrilled; we'd have the child we'd dreamed about without having to deal with a complicated relationship with the birth mother.
The woman we met was a 29-year-old single mother of four, warm and humorous, with a deep Southern drawl. We liked her immediately and admired her honesty. During a tumultuous divorce, she had had an affair with an African-American man, who is now in jail. "I can't take care of the baby," she said, "and I want him to have a mother and a father." Admittedly, I had moments when I suspected she was giving up her baby because he was biracial, but at the same time, I was confident that we were meant to be his parents and that his life would be everything everyone would have wanted for him.
After the meeting, the birth mother said that she wanted us to be her son's parents. We all hugged, relieved that everyone had found what they were looking for. Three days later, Micah was born. We attended his birth, fed him his first bottle, and the hospital gave me special access to the nursery.
When it seemed impossible for the birth mother to let go of Micah at the hospital, we gently coaxed him out of her arms and wiped away her tears. She finally let go and placed him in his car seat and her grandfather took her hand and walked away from our new family.
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But a baby's face changes things. Although the birth mother said initially that she didn't want any contact with us, she changed her mind every week. First she wanted to see Micah when we signed the final adoption papers. Then she wanted letters and pictures every six months -- indefinitely. The adoption agency would serve as an intermediary, forwarding the letters from us to her. As we'd never agreed to this sort of relationship, we were overwhelmed by her requests. Now that we all knew each other a little better, she felt comfortable enough to make demands, and we felt guilty enough to do what she asked.
And so, dutifully but sometimes begrudgingly, I have sent our packages every six months. Though the arrangement is not legally binding, it's an issue of integrity. I can never forget the fact that we looked into her eyes, she looked into ours, and delivered to us our precious boy.
There comes a time in every adoptive parent's life when she needs to answer some tough questions. Why did my birth mother decide to keep her other four kids and give me up, my son will ask me one day. I struggle with the "you were a gift to us" adoption story. Instead of weaving him a fairy tale, I will tell him the truth: We will never know the real reason, but there's a lot more to his life than his birth mother's decision. I will tell him the history of the proud people from whence he came. If I can give his soul roots in a place deeper than biology, perhaps that question won't carry as much weight.
Micah celebrated his first birthday in New York City at his grandfather's house. When we returned from our trip, the agency called me and said that the birth mother had sent him a birthday package. We hadn't agreed to gifts, so my reaction was to tell the agency to send it back. My sister-in-law suggested that I make a box of things from his birth mother and when it's time to talk to him about his adoption, we'll have all of the pieces of his life that he needs to understand how he came to be. As an adoptive mother, I want to think that his life began with me. Simply put, it just isn't true.
So I kept the birthday package and opened it. Inside, along with Micah's gifts, was a Mother's Day card for me. Though our relationship has its moments of strain, that card reminds me that her heart is in the right place. For now, she will remain our distant and loving pen pal...but I remind myself that I must stay open to what the future may hold.
Kim Green is a writer living in Atlanta with son Micah.