Published on November 8th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein0
Onesie, Never Worn: On Miscarried Adoption Dreams
1. Don’t open with a dream
The night of our third failed adoption attempt, I ate a pint of ice cream, sobbed in front of my son, apologized for sobbing, apologized for apologizing, and fell asleep watching a documentary about an evangelical weight loss cult.
I dreamed we were in a house that was not our actual house—the one we’d cautiously prepared for a baby—but a different our-house, crowded with unanchored bookshelves and dusty artifacts. In the dream, my partner said we needed to move. I said no, we need to clear out some stuff.
In the kitchen of the dream house, there were three immense wood-burning stoves. We didn’t know how to use them, but we fed them with gas. My partner tossed a handful of firecrackers into one. We braced ourselves. The stove hissed and popped and roared.
2. Dream, building
Our son is six and a half years old. We adopted him in 2015. It was a long hard process, but also simple, in a way: We worked with one agency. His birthmom made a difficult but real choice in placing him with us. We thought that was what independent open adoption was.
We loved being parents so much that we would have been happy with our one beautiful, goofy, energetic child. We loved being parents so much that we thought, maybe, we would try it again.
We’ve now spent almost half his life trying to get him a sibling. The nearly-a-year it took to complete our home study. The quick first match with friends of friends, whose baby lived with us for two weeks before they decided their adoption plan was just a tsunami of postpartum panic.
Then, the wall of silence on the adoption front once the pandemic hit. Were people no longer hooking up in crowded bars and getting pregnant unintentionally? Were they saying, Hey, I’m home all the time anyway, might as well have a kid? Were other families saying, Hey, we’re home all the time anyway, might as well adopt a kid? We can only speculate, but there were supply-chain issues, to put it coldly. The adoption world is as full of coldness as it is kindness.
I was raised on the usual American stories. Bootstraps, perseverance, underdogs fighting the odds. I knew better, and didn’t. With financial help from my dad (so, no bootstraps involved, at least not on my part), we doubled down in our adoption attempts, hiring a consultant and signing on with as many attorneys and agencies as we could afford. Cast a wide net, that was our strategy. Go big. Go hard.
For months, I woke before sunrise and filled out a thousand unstandardized forms, which all asked the same personal, demoralizing questions, each worded a little differently. There was the form that wanted to know whether any of our siblings was divorced, and the one that asked for our weights but not our heights. Joke’s on them when they find out I’m only six inches tall, I tweeted bitterly.
There was the facilitator who kept us on a Zoom call for two hours, telling us how much she supported her gay granddaughter, adding, “but who knows—I mean, she says she’s gay, but all her friends are trans-this and gluten-free-that.” She didn’t take any notes when we talked about our lives and adoption preferences, but she was trying to sell a book, so she typed out the name of each publisher I’d worked with.
There was the woman who ran a nonprofit dedicated to “rescuing” babies, who told me about her brushes with Oprah and John Stamos, and the time she’d almost died from a leaking PICC line. Sure, she could match us with an expectant mom, she said, but also, in case that mom wanted a “traditional couple,” could we do some marketing to adoption groups on Facebook? Could we donate to her fundraiser? Could we buy her book?
All of that net-casting brought us to Courtney*. A match as quick and baffling as a summer storm. It turned out to be a scam—Courtney was two-timing us with another hopeful adoptive family. We caught our breath, shook it off, dried our eyes. Certainly the third time would be the charm.
3. Spring awakening
At the tail end of August, we met April* through the attorney who’d introduced us to Courtney. Even though I repeated to myself that no one owes us a baby—a mantra, a reminder, an act of self-flagellation when I considered my broken body and long-ago miscarriage—I secretly hoped that they felt like they owed us a good match.
April was nineteen years old and already the mom to an eleven-month-old. She was white with green eyes, dirty-blonde hair, and a long striking nose. She reminds me of a young Meryl Streep, C.C. said, and there was no shortage of dramatic events in her life. She’d grown up in the dusty ex-urbs an hour inland from Los Angeles with no dad, a mom who had a drug problem, a foster care intervention, a boyfriend who’d gone to jail after giving her two pregnancies and a white scar on her wrist in the shape of his upper teeth.
Where Courtney had been dishonest and demanding, April was straightforward and chill. We met her at the hotel room where she and her son were spending the remainder of her pregnancy. I hope I don’t regret this, she said. We were shaken and hopeful. She was processing and thinking things through. That was good, right?
The second time, we all went to a splash pad in the mid-September heat. Our son played with hers. We ate watermelon cubes and April talked about her daughter as if she were our daughter.
In early October, I went to Target and stood in front of a wall of onesies, sobbing. Which ones would be magical? Which ones would convince April she’d made the right choice? Should I get a newborn size or 0-3 months? Was the one that said I love you too much? Who the fuck did I think I was, acting like I was going to have a baby, just because I had a ream of papers and receipts and a promise?
Then, five days before her due date, April called us from her car.
I’m having second thoughts. They said I should tell you sooner rather than later.
“Second thoughts” meant it was over. “Sooner” meant five days before her due date.
She’d been on a waiting list to get into a shelter, and now she was in. Early on, the attorney’s staff had told us April didn’t want to go to a shelter with her baby because she was worried it would be dangerous. That was fine, we said, we understood. We paid for her hotel. Now, the staff said they were shocked April had changed her mind. They said they discouraged shelters because shelters tried to talk women out of adoption. They didn’t mention danger.
April’s pregnancy and our despair dragged on two more weeks. Until she gives birth or says the adoption is over, there’s always hope, Annette* from the attorney’s office emailed. Then April gave birth and said the adoption was over.
4. The dream industrial complex
This was a good attorney’s office. They were ethical and organized, vetted by our consultant, which only dealt with ethical professionals. They were nothing but kind and communicative. April was nothing but honest and surviving.
But…wasn’t a shelter sort of what April had needed all along? We’d told ourselves it wasn’t just economic deprivation that was fueling her adoption choice, it was everything that came with being a nineteen-year-old single mom with two babies under a year old. Even if universal basic income existed—and it should exist—she’d be in a tough spot.
I know you’re between a rock and a hard place, I told her in our second-to-last phone call. Placing a baby for adoption is hard and parenting two babies is hard, and only you can make that choice.
It was hard with my first, she said, but something always worked out.
We were the thing that had worked out for the last two months of her pregnancy, we observed. But we didn’t say it.
There is a large, haphazardly regulated industry built up around adoption. Staffed by kind and straightforward people like the ones who worked for our attorney, and also people with weird savior complexes and profit motivations. Attorneys, agencies, facilitators, consultants, online matchmaking services, companies who will design and print a glossy brochure about your family. All for a fee.
By legal and moral necessity, the risks involved in adoption cannot fall on the expectant mothers. They can change their minds after the birth, and they’re reminded of such at every step, even as they’re plied with glossy brochures about all the things adoptive families can give their babies, which they cannot.
But attorneys and agencies don’t want to take on the risk themselves. We live in a country where corporations are people, protected like a rare bird on the verge of extinction. Certainly the risk can’t live with them.
So how about adoptive families? Who better to shoulder the burden than a bunch of try-hards with financial means? Individuals who only understand what the forest looks like once they’re deep in it, breadcrumbs gone, candy house tasted.
I feel like this system exploits people like you, C.C. said protectively, who are like “Yes, I’ll jump through every hoop!” It’s the only way to make a broken system work, ever.
It’s a clear-eyed kind of exploitation, a bet cast when we were still mostly sober, so maybe that’s not exploitation at all. But I do feel used by an industry that uses pregnant, desperate women. I feel like I’ve been slowly lured into complicity in the exploitation of others.
And if it had worked, I wouldn’t be writing this. The morning after April expressed her second thoughts, my muscles ached from all the adrenaline and dehydration and bad sleep. I was literally a sore loser.
5. Requiem for a dream
I can’t mourn a baby who was never ours to claim, I told our consultant, who sometimes wondered aloud if she should get out of the adoption field.
No, but you still had a loss, she said. You can mourn a dream that was very much yours.
Like April, we find ourselves trapped in a crevasse of rocks and hard places. Ours aren’t quite as hard; we’re not talking about our survival, just the structure of our family. “Just” that.
Our choices are 1) go back to the world of private adoption professionals, 2) adopt through foster care, which is not known for being a smooth and fair path to anything, 3) make our peace with being a one-kid family.
When I think about caring for a baby or little kid for months or even years only to return them to their biological family, because family reunification is (rightly) the goal of foster care, I think that option 3 looks pretty good.
But when our son said, I wish I had a brother or sister. I wish you and Mama could make a baby, I wonder about option 2. Like most parents, birth parents included, I want to do what’s best for my kid. Does that mean the emotional torture of navigating the foster care system so that he can have a sibling? Or does that mean creating a more peaceful life for ourselves so he can have happy parents? I really don’t know. I hate not knowing.
Shortly before April broke things off, a friend shared a New York Times video op-ed by Lindsay Crouse and Kirby Ferguson titled “It’s Quitting Season.” The video goes many places, but it opens with Simone Biles, suspended midair above a balance beam in her glittering red-and-blue leotard. “What if we’ve been wrong about quitting? What if the bravest thing you can sometimes do is…quit?” the video asks, pushing back on all our favorite American grit myths.
My ears perked up. I’m not immune to self-mythologizing. Maybe this was the out I needed. I’m relatively gritty, I think, and also easily broken. A real sob-while-cleaning-the-house type. But what if a new way to be brave and noble and admirable—those things I claim not to crave, but lean into when I’m not getting the outcome I actually want—would be to give up? Could I be the Simone Biles of adoption?
When I was a kid, I fell in love with Nadia Comaneci. I desperately wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. I cartwheeled on the grass at every recess and prayed that I would be discovered by a hard-driving Soviet coach who would see my inner specialness. I would do as many sit-ups as it took; my grit would be the stuff of future movies. I took classes at our local community center, where old wrestling mats were thrown over the same tile floor that hosted tap classes and holiday craft fairs. I was pretty good for an eight-year-old in a parks and rec class, but I was not on an Olympic track, a fact I did not fully understand until high school.
I’ve been too old to be an Olympic gymnast for 25 years now. Even if I still had ovaries, I’m almost too old to become a parent biologically. I don’t know if I’m too old and exhausted to be an adoptive parent again.
I am the worst at not knowing.
I’m finally at a point where I can watch Olympic gymnastics with admiration rather than soul-crushing envy. I can’t yet look at multi-kid families at the park that way. Talk to me in another 25 years.
*Names have been changed.