I sit in my chair and pick up the loose scraps of paper. I should have a journal set aside for these notes, but when the social worker from our agency called, I scrambled for whatever paper I could find. Dave had just finished reading a story to our five-year-old son, Sam, and tucked him in. We never have this conversation in front of Sam. I wait for Dave to settle on the couch.
I ask, “Are you ready?”
I shuffle through the papers nervously. I want to begin at the most difficult part: “She’s bipolar” or “She smoked crack.” I want to begin there because I want to hear Dave say, “That’s OK. The baby will be healthy. This expectant mother will choose us. We’ll have a baby very soon.”
But my husband will never say those things. His reassurance will never be so unrealistic. We don’t know if the baby will be healthy. We don’t know if the expectant mother will choose us. Even though I long for reassurance, I trust him implicitly. I know my husband’s strength and wisdom doesn’t derive from false hope for future outcomes. He’ll sometimes tease me about my need to dramatize and my cravings for reassurance: “Tomorrow will be colder; we’ll have to work harder; and we’ll be more miserable.” His absolute refusal to bank strength in a rosy future is reassurance in itself. Strength should come from what we have here and now.
I am a stay-at-home mom, so I field all the calls from the agency about expectant mothers who are considering adoption plans. During our homestudy we indicated that we were open in terms of race, physical needs, and circumstances, thus, we enjoy many “profiling opportunities.” Once we accept, the expectant mother is shown our profile, along with those of eight or nine other hopeful couples. We have never been chosen.
A few months ago, a new social worker called and she bumbled a bit through the profiling opportunity. At that moment, I realized I had received so many of these phone calls that I had absorbed the template.
And so the call begins…
The expectant mother’s name is Chelsea; Jasmine; Dominique; Amber. She’s 32; 13; 23; 41. She’s due in two weeks; next month; in April; she’s in the delivery room. She’s Caucasian, African American, Hispanic. She lives near Albany; in Florida; Indiana; Niagara Falls. The birth father is unknown; not the expectant mother’s husband; wants nothing to do with the baby; agrees to the adoption plan; is incarcerated. The expectant mother is in college; has an eighth grade education; received her GED; works at a pizza parlor. She has three children who do live with her (or don’t live with her); she has another child who is 10 months old and twins on the way….
At this juncture, the social worker tells me the challenges the expectant mother is experiencing, as well as her requests. Most of these challenges have already been listed as acceptable in our grid, but I get a twinge of anxiety over some of them.
...She smoked a joint on New Year’s Eve; was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; smokes four cigarettes a day; smoked crack in her sixth month; drank heavily before she knew she was pregnant; drinks two cans of soda a day; just started prenatal care in her sixth month. She wants a closed adoption (no contact); a semi-open adoption (letters and photos through the agency only); an open adoption with regular visits.
I try not to take the fact that we haven’t been chosen personally. But how could it not be personal? There’s some reason the expectant mothers are not choosing us. Every couple months, I arrive at the office of Missy, our primary social worker, and I lament: I’m too old; we don’t make enough money; we have a biological son.
Missy has propped me up, told me that families with biological children often have to wait longer. She has repeated the Tom Petty lyric, “the waiting is the hardest part,” so often I think she must tour with him.
After I finish telling Dave about this profile, he asks a few questions but eventually shrugs and says, “We’ll see,” and turns on the TV.
I attempt to watch with him but my imagination has been fired up. I’ve been given just enough information to have this latest expectant mother spring to life like a character in a novel. I have to remind myself that whatever character emerges, she is fiction. Whoever this woman turns out to be, I can’t create her from the words of a social worker.
An Exercise in Empathy
A few weeks ago, I called and asked a social worker to send me the paperwork the expectant mothers fill out for their adoption plans. I decided to locate a time in my life when having a baby would have been exceedingly difficult, and then used those circumstances to fill out the forms. I wrote a profile just as a social worker might.
There was a time, when I was 26, when I believed I was pregnant. I was in what I thought was a long-term, committed relationship. I went to school; he was in a band. We lived in an apartment that befit our circumstances. The pregnancy scare changed us. As we factored in a baby and all that goes with it, the lights went out on our relationship. My once fun, affectionate, loving boyfriend began to ignore and mistrust me as if I were trying to tug his dreams out from under him. I reacted to him poorly, with moodiness and resentment. This was my profile:
Her name is Lesa. She’s 26, Caucasian, 5’5, brown hair, brown eyes, due at the end of October. She’s a waitress, and also attends college to study writing and theater. She’s not married. She and the birth father recently broke up; he questions paternity; she lists no other possible fathers; he agrees to adoption; he is Caucasian. She drinks one latte a day; she drank three beers before she knew she was pregnant, and three or four times afterward, but no more than two drinks at a time. She has been experiencing depression and anxiety, as she has in the past, but she has never been medicated for it. She has been receiving prenatal care since May. Her parents are divorced; she has a younger brother with allergies and eczema; each of her grandfathers had heart attacks, her paternal grandmother had breast cancer; all of her grandparents are still alive. She is interested in a semi-open adoption. She is willing to meet the adoptive family one time. The social worker’s impressions are that this expectant mother is very emotional at this time, but committed to the plan, since she has no means of supporting the child on her own.
I felt my life was unraveling. We were no longer the young couple who believed in each other and were committed to their artistic pursuits. The scare made me realize how much I wanted to have a family; it made him realize he was nowhere near ready.
I know I would have resented any supposedly well-adjusted, happy, stable, hetero couple who would have at their disposal the raw details of my unhappy, troubled life while all I got to see of them were their vacation and wedding photos. I would have felt competitive with any woman my child would call “Mommy.” I don’t know if I could have sat through a meeting with her. I probably would have picked a gay male couple because I wouldn’t feel so threatened and their beneficence would be easier to receive. I picture myself looking through profile books and focusing on backgrounds to see where these couples lived. It would calm me to envision my child growing up in a clean, well-lit, tolerant place. This mattered to me because, since the pregnancy scare, my apartment had begun to look shabby, lonely, and ill-fitting the needs of a baby.
I also know that, once my family found out about my situation, if one person had come forward with financial help, I would have given up the adoption plan without a look back. I would not have considered who might be hurt by my decision — sometimes life presses so hard on you that it’s difficult to think of others.
When the pregnancy scare was over, so was my relationship. I moved in with my mother and started therapy to figure out was next. And then I waited for a man who couldn’t be scared away by a pregnancy. And I found one who couldn’t even be scared away by fertility issues. Oh, how I’ve learned to wait.
What did I learn from doing this exercise? I can try to sympathize with an expectant mother, but I’d have to live in the midst of her circumstances — in her home, inside her dreams, with whomever it was who impregnated her — to truly understand. At least now, after doing this exercise, I see more clearly my part. All those laments to Missy about my age, our income, and so on represent the mental and emotional tax on an expectant-adoptive mother in waiting mode, which is what I truly am.
All I can say to an expectant mother is, “Dave and I are a devoted couple. We’ll provide a loving home for your baby. We don’t judge because we’ve led imperfect lives.” And then we wait for one who will choose us for something I can’t possibly foretell.
I kiss my sleeping son’s cheek. I waited such a long time for him to arrive, and I hate waiting. But by now, I am a pro. Among the many things Sam has taught me, it is that the wait, those years of despair and worry pale with the reality of my little family.
I steal out of Sam’s room and tiptoe down the stairs. My husband has fallen asleep on the couch. I take my notes and stick them into a journal I have tucked away in the sideboard. Next time the social worker calls, I hope I remember to use it.
**Since writing this essay, the author and her husband were chosen by an expectant mother.