Published on November 21st, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein0
Dear Birthmother: The Full Disclosure Edition
Maybe you saw our other letter, the one on the adoption website, in which we market ourselves to expectant mothers via vacation photos and cheery language about how much we adore the first child we adopted, about our diverse neighborhood and our deeply held values: kindness and honesty.
To the latter point: All of that is true, but can we talk for a minute? You and me, outside the machinery of adoption that neither of us, for the rest of our lives if you make this choice, will truly escape.
I don’t know you. When my partner and I adopted the first time, the agency told us there was no such thing as a “typical birthmom,” though I didn’t believe it until we talked to a dozen women considering adoption. They ranged from sixteen to thirty-one. They were white and Black and Brown. Single, partnered, married. Living in Texas and California and Colorado and studying abroad in Israel.
People ask, re: our son’s birthmother: “Was she really young?” She was not. I think they ask that because they’re trying to understand why, without saying “Was she an addict?” (She was not.) I have her explanations and my theories about why, but the full truth belongs to her only.
I do know a couple of things about you. You love your baby and you are not going to leave their life to relatives or foster care or chance. In that sense, all that adoption-agency language about making a selfless choice is true. I understand why they say it, to counteract what so many people still say and think: How could a woman abandon her baby?
But we live in the Age of Lizzo, and I hope that the idealization of “selflessness” is on its way out, especially in the realm of motherhood. Because here’s the other thing I know about you: You love yourself. You can imagine a future for yourself that’s not contingent on this baby. Maybe you have other children or you’re thinking about the children you’ll have someday, or maybe you’re thinking about college or travel or your own quiet apartment. Maybe it’s not quite that dreamy. Maybe you just know that raising a child and managing your mental health would be too much. But choosing your mental health counts as love. It counts a lot.
The reasons you are on that side of the adoption table and we’re on this side are mostly fucked up, not your fault or our achievement. My dad invested in local real estate in the early nineties and eventually it paid off and now he’s helping us with adoption fees that my partner and I could never afford on our nonprofit salaries. You can call that “having a supportive family” or you can call that being on the winning side of capitalism. Our families have been, for the most part, emotionally supportive too. That’s why we’re stable people in our forties, who got therapy to even out the rough edges.
If you, like one of the expectant moms I talked to before we adopted Dash, are currently homeless, it’s because we live in a ridiculous world that doesn’t see housing as a right. We are benefitting from that system, even as we vote against it. We chose domestic adoption in part because, as hard as it is out there for poor parents, there is still a little bit of a welfare system in America. It’s shredded and paltry, but it exists. Public schools will still educate children for free, and feed them breakfast and lunch. Determined parents can and do make it work. So if you’re choosing adoption, it’s not just about money. But we know it’s not not about money.
All the good things we said about ourselves in our letter are true: We work mission-driven jobs, we care about our community, we love our son and our parents and our cats. But also: Our son eats too much junk food and watches too much TV. He has had three cavities, because I thought that letting him gnaw on a toothbrush twice a day counted as sufficient oral hygiene. His back molar was not salvageable and when he smiles, I see a flash of darkness, a reminder of my shortcomings.
My partner and I fight in front of him even when we try not to. We are too busy, we have credit card debt, we have issues. When I’m not jumping through the 75,000 hoops it takes to adopt, or actively parenting the kid we adopted, I’m desperately fighting to find time for myself–setting my alarm for 5:30 AM so I can write this letter, or zoning out on Instagram when I should be engaging.
You are not a tragedy and we are not saviors. I’ve always believed that our son’s birthmom would have done just as well raising him as we have. That might not be true in every case–there are some absolutes when it comes to parenting–but if you’re imagining the photo spread from every People Magazine article devoted to “[New-Mom Celebrity’s] Baby Joy!” we are not that. (Even New-Mom Celebrity is not that. There’s a nanny and a make-up artist just off screen, and maybe she’ll burst into sobs as soon as this is over, and appear on talk shows a year from now to talk very seriously about “My Battle With Postpartum Depression.”)
My partner and I are a little bit fucked-up, and our child(ren) will be a little fucked up. You are a little fucked up, which is part of why we like you.
I love the wildness of parenting, even as I fight it like a farmer trying to grow corn in the jungle. I love the weird words kids string together. That time Dash painted the toilet seat. The “banana soup” he made out of Halloween straw, yellow paint, and bits of broken chalk. The way, at bedtime, he’ll put his forehead close to mine and tell me I’m his best friend, even though an hour before, he uninvited me to his birthday party.
If you choose us, it will be for random reasons as well “the right reasons.” If the latter sounds like a Bachelor-esque phrase, well, the business of making adoption matches is not unlike a reality show. You will think about love and stability, but maybe you’ll also be reminded of how my partner looks like your cousin. Or you’ll be drawn to our profile because you, too, had a skinny black cat when you were a kid. Because you always wanted an older brother, and now you can make sure your baby has one. Because the beach in the background of our vacation photo looks like the place you escaped to in high school when your parents were fighting.
Right now, you have all the power. You don’t need to look farther than the tabloids in the grocery check-out line to know America loves a pregnant lady. You are glowing. You are the embodiment of life itself. You have what we want, and we will hang on your every text.
If you ghost us for a minute or a month, if you ask for a little extra in the way of “birthmother expenses,” maybe it’s because you want to hang onto this one bit of control during a time when so many things have gone sideways. I’ll be annoyed. I’ll feel like I have no control. I’ll be fine.
Because the dynamic will flip as soon as your baby is born. Your baby will no longer inhabit your body, and papers will be signed, and you will be a person with stretch marks and a “contact plan” that isn’t legally enforceable. We will be parents.
More and more, though, that baby will be a person none of us is in charge of. Which isn’t to say that your role and ours are the same. You will always be the one who gave that person their eyes and skin and uncanny spatial awareness and predisposition for heart disease. We will always be the ones who get to choose schools and set bedtimes (ha).
I spent so much time thinking about and interacting with expectant moms that, when Dash arrived, I was a little bit surprised that there was another human in this situation. Even though adoption law is supposed to be first and foremost about the adoptee, the adoptee is the one who enters the story last. But they also write the ending; they belong to all of us, and none of us.
As with every fucked-up power structure–those pesky race/class/gender things that are also threaded through adoption–I’m not naive enough to think we will escape the hard truths of adoption. If #LoveWins, it wins not by conquering all but by swimming below the current. That’s where I imagine us. You, me, my partner, Dash, your baby (our baby, no one’s baby). Green water and swaying seaweed. Our hair fanning out. Maybe this is a fantasy born of privilege. Regardless, we’ll all have to come up for air and burst through those churning waves eventually. But we can come back here, can’t we? Sometimes?