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Excuse Me, May I Raise Your Child?

How the adoption industry fails women like me and you

Illustration: Janice Chang

I’ve never been a mother, but I had a baby once.

I remember his insistent eyes, his gorgeous face, and the tenacious way he gummed my finger while I warmed a bottle of formula. Those joyfully exhausting then incalculably painful days came rushing back when I was reminded by a retailer’s email that it was “my” baby’s birthday. Except that I don’t have one because his mother decided six days after he was born that she wanted to raise her child.

She was well within the 30-day state-imposed legal limit on women changing their minds. On the day two poker-faced adoption agency social workers walked in to reclaim the boy, I wept enough tears to make my body a desert.

I want to tell you all about my experiences so anyone considering adoption does not make the same mistakes I did. But first, I have a proposition: I’d love to raise your child. You, the grandmother or auntie taking care of a child because the mother is no longer legally the parent and could not be available to her child. You, the pregnant woman looking to find a loving home for your baby. I can imagine all the reasons you want to keep kin close — but perhaps you or someone in your church or neighborhood would consider it?

On the day two poker-faced adoption agency social workers walked in to reclaim the boy, I wept enough tears to make my body a desert.

If you let me raise your child, who I would adopt and make my child, you will still be their family unless you choose not to be. I would prefer you to be if you can. What could I bring to your/our/my child? Well, I know how to cook. I’m good on them pots. Vegetarian curry — I got you. (My favorite includes butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms, roasted curry powder, and cashew cream.) Garlic roast chicken — I got you. Pickled okra? Cornbread? Moroccan tagine? I got you. I know how to grow my own food. I love to do and teach art and go hiking and kayaking. I understand the complex dynamics of race and class and will certainly aim to raise a child who knows this is part of our destiny and part of our survival.

Looking at the devastation of social mobility in this country — the fact that the American dream is withering on the vine — plus climate change plus xenophobia, one might ask whether it even makes sense for me to continue seeking a child. It does. Not logical sense, but heart sense. To me. And I want to restart my search in the community by reaching out with these words to see who else wants to help build a life for a child when the structures that exist aren’t doing us any favors.

Let me explain how I got here.

I waited to start a family for many reasons, including taking time to explore this vast world of ours as a reporter and human being. I was very aware of the constraints of fertility, and at the age of 35, I decided if I wanted to have a biological child alone, I should do it; otherwise I could wait and adopt at any time. (The universe smiles at our plans.) I loved my difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, always stimulating career. But it wasn’t just love that kept me working. It was fear.

Looking at the devastation of social mobility in this country, one might ask whether it even makes sense for me to continue seeking a child. It does. Not logical sense, but heart sense.

My childhood taught me that even when you have ample education and ambition, you can lose the stability you’ve worked hard for, especially if you have children. My mother has a master’s degree, but after my father returned to Zimbabwe and abdicated child support, she often worked two jobs. I saw the stress she endured while working to pay a mortgage, sending me and my sister to academic and artistic enrichment programs, and strategizing how we could get into the best public schools in a city with deep educational challenges. We dove deep into swim classes, coding classes, music classes, and Girl Scout camp. My mom made some of our clothes, and others we bought at the thrift store or from Sears and J.C. Penney. We had an old, beloved Volkswagen bug we sometimes had to push to the top of a hill just so we could roll it down to get it started. We grew delicious food in our large backyard and canned it and froze it.

All of this made me who I am today — resilient, practical, able to report in communities of extreme poverty to extreme wealth, with a lived experience of economics as well as data. I always had far more than I needed. Yet I also became coated in a residue of dread, a sense that everything you gain can be snatched away.

I first wanted to adopt through the foster care system, which is free and serves children in great need. Yet after weeks of me completing training and paperwork, the foster care agency reversed itself and said it had no adoptable children. I know people who have gone through two years of fostering a child, uncertain whether the courts would return them to their birth family. I didn’t want to go through that. That’s when I put my nonretirement life’s savings toward a private adoption, a process where I thought I’d get a baby who would never be taken from me. The universe, my friends, has jokes.

I did research. I got a consultant who helped me look at the stated placement rates and failure rates for various agencies. But the reality is, there is no national system that will tell you verifiably how many revocations and failed adoptions each agency has. This one told me their revocation or fail rate was 8% when I first met them. I was later told the industry-wide estimate was about 20% and that I should expect a margin of error. But I had three failed adoptions over the course of four years. I paid the agency and, via them, the pregnant women, the home-care study consultants, and the lawyers more than $50,000 and got no baby in return. This is rare but, unfortunately, not unheard of.

In 2016, when I met my first family, I got the sense the father was not truly on board. I flagged that to the agency and was given reassurances. On that April day when I got the agency’s call that the woman had gone into labor, I headed to her state. She lived with her mother in an area of great beauty but not of great economic opportunity. The local poverty rate there was three times the national average while income was a third lower than the U.S. average. The boyfriend pulled me and my mother aside and told us he wanted to keep the baby but didn’t have the money to do it solo. We told this to the social worker, and she assured us it would still work out.

Then came the call from the agency revoking the adoption. Once I had dealt with the tidal wave of grief and rage and “why me,” I realized how lucky it was that this child was going back to what seemed to be a very healthy, very loving intergenerational family. In some ways, I was their doula for the decision to keep their child.

Adoption in the U.S. is a total shitshow — that might as well be the legal term. It is regulated state by state, not nationally. In New Jersey, a mother has 72 hours to change her mind, but other states have a 30-day revocation period. And sometimes, women can sign a form that says all of their rights are waived as soon as they give birth. It is not a kind industry to what are sometimes called “birth mothers,” the pregnant women without whom newborn adoption would not be possible.

And then there are the financial questions. Women can’t be paid for their babies, but some agencies are paid handsomely, whether or not they cut ethical corners. They have perfected ludicrous legal language that allows licensed adoption agencies to have — often at the top of their contract — that they cannot guarantee you a child and that they do not offer refunds if the process fails, even if due to their negligence. On a regulatory level, we need a monitored public national database of adoption failure and revocation rates as well as transparency in agency contracts — perhaps even a public online posting of each agency’s current contract so people can compare and assess them upfront.

Adoption is similar to so many aspects of American life where we ask “the market” to do what we will not do out of decency as a nation — effectively match children who need homes to waiting parents. In a private adoption market, I am analogous to a buyer, and a woman who has fewer financial resources is purportedly the seller. Yet they are not literally selling their children. They get nothing but a small amount of housing and medical care money, if any, and relief from the cost of raising an infant until the age of 18, now estimated at more than $200,000.

People want babies, and babies are hard to get. Fertility rates in the U.S. are plunging, in part because people are afraid they can’t provide for children or because they can’t conceive (pun intended) of doing so in a country where they might take a full-on lifestyle and educational hit if they have kids. Newborn-placement agencies often represent two sets of clients with different immediate needs: expectant mothers and waiting families. There are so many morally inconsistent practices, like agencies using supermarket and neighborhood penny flyers to post fatherhood notices that are then used to vacate parental rights in cases where the father is not known. How many young men do you know who read the ads section in penny flyers?

In 2017, I was matched with a second pregnant woman as part of an open adoption process. I paid for some of her housing and personal expenses because she needed to leave work and go on medical leave sooner in her pregnancy than she had hoped. I went to her state and met her while she was pregnant, just as I had with the first woman. I’ll never forget what she said to me, all the while assuring me she’d made the right decision: “If I keep this child and we end up in a shelter, what good would that do?”

The baby was due right around my birthday. I repeatedly asked the social workers if she was having doubts and to warn me of red flags. Once bitten, twice paranoid or something like that. Eight hours after her scheduled C-section started, the agency called to tell me what I had suspected — that she had changed her mind. Like the first woman, this one was already a successful parent, one who showed me photos of her older children, including a teen who offered to quit high school and go to work so they could keep the baby. I do not think she and her children will end up in a shelter. I hope not, and I pray not.

In 2018, I got a call to consider another placement. There were bright red flags in this one. The mother was young, and this was her eighth child. They wanted to name the baby. The agency said her older children were doing well but that, due to financial setbacks, they lived in a motel. Still, I proceeded because I wanted this so much. It was only after I agreed to the match and crossed state lines to meet the baby that the agency told me the mother had revoked a previous adoption. By then, what was I supposed to do?

The mother worked a high-physical-demand job until she went into labor. Since she worked for a temp agency, she had no benefits. When the baby was born prematurely, he was listless and a poor eater. I slept in the baby boy’s room. I was better at getting him to eat than the lovely, dedicated, skilled nurses. Then, he ended up in the NICU with jaundice. I visited him every day, holding the sweet preemie close.

Unlike the other two times, I didn’t meet this mother until a few days after she had given birth. She was angry that poverty had forced her to give up her child and told me as much in no uncertain terms. I did not intend to steal her child from her. I believed, even after all of this, in the promise of open adoption. I even envisioned a day when her large family would come to my house and have Thanksgiving dinner.

One day before the revocation period was set to time out, she changed her mind. Desperation did not deter her desire to parent her own child. While I can judge the precarity of her financial level, I cannot judge her love.

My thoughts keep returning to those three women and to all the women who face economic uncertainty while they are bearing life. This experience has scarred me, but it’s also made me step up. It’s time for me to fight for their American dream as well as for me to further my own.

With that last failed placement, I cut ties with the adoption agency and was left to reconsider my options: foster care, in vitro fertilization, donor embryo, surrogacy — lather, rinse, repeat. This has been a five-year spin cycle. But I hope there’s still time for joy, for me and for the families I will forever be connected to through this experience.

So to the baby I called Oliver and the other two boys, I say Godspeed and sleep tight. Your mothers are all women who chose not only to love you but to care for you, diaper by diaper, sleepless night by sleepless night, paycheck to paycheck. Hold them as tightly as they hold you when you can because they made a hard decision in a very rich nation that does not take care of its families.

If I am able to adopt through a lead from an informal network — in some ways, turning things over to the universe; in other ways, reaching out human to human as I always have — it will be in a spirit of loving informed consent. A baby or child will always be kin to its blood family when that bond is acknowledged with love, understanding, and respect.

I am not afraid of sharing a child’s love. Because love and family can be infinite if you believe them and work hard to make them so.

Farai Chideya is the author of six books including The Episodic Career and still a prospective mom.

Radio show/podcast “Our Body Politic” @ Covered every Presidential election 1996–2020. Books include “The Episodic Career.”