Adoption Stories

Published on July 8th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein


Adoption is Not for the Faint of Heart, or: How I Got Banned from the Comfort Inn

1. Say yes

30 year old Mother indicates she is pregnant with an Asian/Caucasian baby (gender unknown). She is located in northern California and is due in October. Mother has brown hair, brown eyes, about 4’8” and approximately 110 pounds. She of Cambodian descent. She is not currently married (never has been) nor is she employed…. She describes herself as outgoing and likes to read and play basketball…. She appears to be on the needy side with time and money so we are unsure how “drama free” this case will be. If you are flexible and able to handle whatever comes your way, this could be the case for you.

This was our introduction to Courtney*, via one of several attorneys whose emails we signed up to receive following a failed placement and a subsequent year of crickets on the adoption front.

“I love that she’s 4’8” and into basketball,” C.C. said.

We told Annette* at the attorney’s office that we’d be game to work with Courtney if she’d have us. 

The network of adoption agencies, attorneys, facilitators, and consultants is vast and unsystematized, regulated by a confusing array of laws that vary from state to state. Every entity comes with a fee and paperwork. It’s understood that the expectant mothers are the ones in crisis. Adoptive parents, with our relative privilege and useless reproductive systems, are expected to say yes and mean it based on relatively little information. There’s not much of a “get to know you” phase.

But even by those standards, things with Courtney happened fast. Annette at the attorney’s office put us in touch with Barb*, a Bay Area facilitator—a baby matchmaker—who thought we’d be a great fit for Courtney. I was flattered and hopeful. 

“I need somewhere to stay tonight,” Courtney said. Her voice was gruff, the connection patchy. Her phone battery was dying.

Barb explained: “She’s been staying with her ex’s mom in Modesto, but it’s not a good place. I visited her there. She was in the garage and didn’t have her own bathroom.” 

Photo by Jake Stark on Unsplash

“I been staying there since I got out of jail,” Courtney offered.

“So we want to find her an extended-stay hotel,” Barb said.

“Hi, Courtney, thanks so much for talking with us,” I said. “I’m sure this is a big decision, and I know this is all happening fast, but—”

“It’s not happening fast, she’s been planning this for a long time,” Barb interjected. “But things are just coming together now.”

Barb talked fast and called Courtney “sweetie” in a way that landed somewhere between pushy-but-caring mom and diner waitress. 

“I don’t want a CPS case like with my other kids,” Courtney said.

“Now, remind me what your backgrounds are,” Barb said to C.C. and me.

“I’m Mexican, and so is our son, who we adopted in 2015” C.C. said. I said I was white with some Jewish ancestry.

“I saw your picture, and this baby will fit right in your family, no problem,” Barb said. Cambodia and Mexico might be on opposite sides of the globe, but Barb wasn’t about to get hung up on details. “And Courtney’s been with a woman, too, so you have that in common.” 

To Courtney, she said, “Sweetie, you have to say it’s a go before Cheryl and C.C. can get you a hotel room for the night. Do you want to do this?”

“I want to do this,” Courtney said.

“Okay, now text me that, so I have it in writing. I’m going to talk to them for a few minutes and then I’ll call you right back.”

When Courtney was off the phone, Barb told us, “She was living in the most awful place. It was filthy. Filthy. And then someone else living in the house got COVID, so she left. She spent last night wandering around Modesto.”

She added that Courtney had been matched with another family early in her pregnancy and it hadn’t worked out, but, well, Courtney was a handful, and she was desperate. But now she was ready to match for real.

We signed Barb’s twelve-page contract emailed it back to her. We were in the middle of our work-from-home workday. Our six-year-old son Dash was at summer camp. I explained that it would take a few days to transfer funds from our adoption savings account to our checking account, and could we pay for the initial hotel stay with a credit card?

Every piece of that paragraph is a luxury: working from home, summer camp, savings. The savings weren’t really ours—my dad was helping out with adoption-related expenses that our nonprofit salaries alone couldn’t cover. And so privilege-guilt mixed with excitement, fear, and logistical overwhelm to form a kind of rat king in my stomach.

Image by Mario Schmidt from Pixabay

Every adoption professional says: Leave the money stuff to us. Yes, the adoptive family can pay for any expenses related to pregnancy—shelter, food, clothing, transportation to doctor visits—but it should go through the agency or attorney. Your job is to provide emotional support to the expectant mother and develop a bond.

But banks and trusts and attorneys worked nine to five. They had nothing on a pregnant woman who’d spent the night walking the streets of Modesto, where it was currently 103 degrees. Later that day, Courtney texted me a picture of her swollen ankles.

And so, with permission from Annette-at-the-attorney’s-office, I downloaded Cash App and sent Courtney enough money for a Motel 6.

Courtney reminded me of people I’d met when working at Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit that helped previously incarcerated individuals get back on their feet. If there were a dozen red flags waving brazenly—her urgent need for money, lack of interest in who we were, trouble with the law—that was kind of the point. I’d witnessed how poverty and trauma turned daily living into a constant crisis. That was why Courtney was making an adoption plan.

2. Say no

Wednesday morning, I texted Courtney to see if she’d gotten a good night’s sleep.

She texted, Me an my wife went to get food our friend took us. We got pulled over they let me go and took my wife to jail for warrant and took the driver. 

I replied, Are you okay? Are you at the hotel?

Yes i am but i worried

A few minutes later: My support bail is 2500 or half of 2500 with co-signer she be out at 9am. I have a high-risk pregnancy plus she my transportation.

I explained that pregnancy support didn’t include her girlfriend’s bail. She didn’t push the matter.

Image by Ria Carmin from Pixabay

Later in the day, she sent us pictures of her ultrasounds and her other kids: a black-haired seven-year-old girl holding a big iced boba drink, and a toddler in a baseball cap on her lap. Courtney was short-haired, butch, unsmiling. It looked like she had tattoos on her neck. She invited us to join her at her June 29 prenatal appointment, where she would likely learn the baby’s sex. 

C.C. booked us a hotel of our own in Modesto, and we planned a road trip.

Annette-at-the-attorney’s-office speculated that Courtney was testing our boundaries on the financial front. I promised myself I would rise to the occasion. I am a people-pleaser by nature, a Good Kid, but six years of parenting have taught me that saying yes to everything isn’t only inadvisable, it’s impossible.

Courtney needed maternity clothes. She needed $20 to pay her phone bill immediately or it would be shut off. She had a plan with Metro PCS. No, wait, Cricket. No, we couldn’t pay it online for her because she was on a family plan with her former landlord, whom she’d always paid in cash.

I talked with a fellow adoptive mom, who said Courtney reminded her of her own daughters’ birthmother. With Megan, it was like, yes, she wanted and needed to place each of her babies, but she also knew the power she had in the situation and was going to get as much as she could out of it.

I felt as if Courtney and I had handcuffed ourselves to each other. The line between mutually beneficial situation and mutual exploitation felt murky and dark. 

I filled out a third-party authorization form for the Comfort Inn and sent them pictures of my credit card, front and back, and driver’s license. Since Courtney had no money for a deposit, authorizing “room and tax only” wasn’t an option. Any mini bar charges would be on us.

Photo by Anton Mishin on Unsplash

Wednesday night, I got a call from the front desk. “I know you’re not the one staying in the room,” said a pleasant female voice, “and I’m sorry to call you so late, but her friend brought dogs over, and we’re getting complaints about barking. Do you have a phone number for the person in the room?”

Thursday night, nothing much happened and I ordered pizza and paid attention to the kid we already have. 

Friday night she texted that someone had broken into her hotel room at the Comfort Inn. 

Can you ask them to switch your room? I asked.

Yeah they switch room but I don’t feel safe at all. U can call the front desk and ask them. 

The incident she described sounded like someone who worked at the hotel opened the door to look for another guest’s lost keys. It did not sound like a break-in. I wasn’t sure what the full story was, but I believed she didn’t feel safe. Probably ever.

I’m gonna leave, she texted. Forget all this. 

Where are you going? I said. I was flailing and unhelpful, but it was late, and I didn’t think yet another hotel room would solve her problems. When she texted again, a few hours later, I said, Where are you now?

Here, she replied. 

That summed up all of it. Courtney was at the burning center of her own universe, the eye of her own storm. The possibility that someone on the other end of a phone line might need her to guide and orient them was unfathomable. There was only here and now for her, and not in the good way that meditation teachers are always urging. To function, people need a past and a future, too.

At the Comfort Inn still? I texted.

Outside walking around idk. Ampm sitting.

I imagined her, small and tough and pregnant, on a curb outside a glowing mini mart. The air cooling but the pavement still hot. I didn’t think Modesto was as horrible as Barb did, but I believed that the worst it had to offer would somehow find Courtney. I also believed that the streets felt more comfortable to her than a Comfort Inn.

I told her that if she could tough it out for one more night, we’d ask the hotel to refund the balance, and we’d move her again.

In the morning, she called and asked me to stay on the line while she talked to the police about the break-in. I was grateful that she wanted a witness rather than money, and I listened as an officer more or less accused her of being a criminal.

“The hotel isn’t your property,” he said, he said in an I’m gonna need you to pull over voice. “So you can’t file charges. Only they can, and they don’t want to, and they don’t like things like this happening. So they’re asking you to leave.”

A few hours later, I got a call from the front desk. “The room was pretty messed up. We have camera footage of Courtney’s friend kicking a door in. We’re not going to charge you for that, or for a pet fee, but we do have to charge you $250 for smoking. And Courtney’s on our DNR list now, and I’m afraid you are too.”

I supposed that DNR meant Do Not Rent, but I heard Do Not Resuscitate. I imagined a grainy photocopy of my ID posted behind the front desk. 

At one point during the week, the accountant from the attorney’s office thanked me for being so helpful and cooperative. “Not all adoptive parents are like you,” she’d said. Being a Good Kid was my survival tactic, and I’d beamed. But I could no longer Good-Kid my way out of this. Now, at least at the Comfort Inn, I was officially on the Bad Kid list. 

3. DNR

Saturday afternoon, Barb called. 

“I finally got a hold of someone at that other agency, and let me tell you, she was not very nice. She would hardly give me any information at all.”

“Wait, what other agency?” I asked. I hiked up our street, barefoot in the hot afternoon, to get better cell reception.

“The one where Courtney had her first match. They’re in South Dakota somewhere. It turns out Courtney’s been matched with this other family the whole time. She was double-dipping. They’ve been paying for her to stay somewhere, but I guess she hasn’t been staying there.”

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I imagined her getting kicked out of that place, and trying to start over with us.

“So we’re done,” I said to Barb.

“We’re done,” she said.

I turned a corner at the end of the block. Another hill. Pink and yellow blossoms dusted the sidewalks.

I didn’t ask why Barb hadn’t been able to track down the other agency before matching us with Courtney, but I did ask her to waive the majority of her fee, and she agreed. There: boundaries. I’d done it.

I was relieved, initially. But days later, I crawled into my own black hole. More than eight years ago, I had breast cancer, and I still get blood tests to check for recurrence. The odds and the years are in my favor, but as I waited for my results, I went for walks and sobbed into my mask. I drank tequila and swallowed Benadryl, but I couldn’t calm down. I might as well have been parked outside a mini mart at midnight, convinced the world was out to get me. I didn’t know if I was crying about cancer or Courtney, about the babies I’d miscarried ten years ago, the one we’d lost last year, or the one that had glimmered for a minute on the October horizon. 

There’s an aphorism, written up in pretty fonts on colorful squares and circulated on adoption Instagram: Adoption is not for the faint of heart. It implies a sort of heartfelt pain. Waiting patiently. Living with uncertainty. Knowing your baby and their first mother have parted ways. It only hints at the darker realities: the fine line between desperation and scam, the fact that some people live their whole lives like a primal scream, the fact that I could be one of them if not for a few dollars and a family who will still take my tearful calls.

After I got off the phone with Barb on Saturday, I texted Courtney. I know your situation is tough, but it’s really not okay to lie to people. I hope you can get some real help for yourself and your baby. 

I never heard back, of course. 

That night, our friends and their parents, who were in town, joined us for dinner in our backyard. Their son and ours put on a Star Wars fashion show. Our friend’s dad told funny stories about fly fishing, and C.C. and I recalled the endless blue skies of Montana. We’d visited one September, years ago. We’d gushed to locals about how much we loved it, and they’d said, Yeah, if you don’t mind the ten months of winter.

*Names have been changed.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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