Sunday, March 15, 2015

The A word: Why we didn't adopt

Klara recently decided she wanted to write about why she didn't choose to adopt a child, and invited other childless-not-by-choice bloggers to join her.  That made me realize: while I've discussed adoption and alluded to various reasons why we didn't adopt, here & there on this blog (and you can find most of them under the "adoption" tag in the sidebar at right), I have never written an all-encompassing "why we didn't adopt" post. I think the closest I've come to spelling out some of my thoughts in a semi-coherent way was at the request of Tracey Cleantis (La Belette Rouge) for publication on her own blog (along with several other childless/free bloggers).  I have "repurposed" some of the material I wrote for Tracey's blog here. 

(Settle in, folks, this is a long one...!)  ;)

I'm not sure why I haven't written such a post before. Maybe it's because, for a number of reasons, adoption is a hard subject to write about. For one thing, it's an incredibly complex subject, with many angles, nuances and shades of grey. Everyone looks at &/or experiences adoption in a different way, and our personal views on adoption are subtly influenced by so many different factors (many of which we might not even be able to consciously articulate). There are no right or wrong answers. There is no pretty little package tied up with a nice neat bow. For most of us, I think, there is no one definitive reason why we chose not to adopt, but many different reasons and considerations that we took into account when making our decision.

It's also hard to write about because, like anything to do with procreation & infertility, adoption is a highly personal subject that not everyone is comfortable discussing openly -- although a lot of people certainly seem open to ASKING you about it when they learn why you don't have kids (i.e., you're infertile). In fact, they sometimes seem to DEMAND to know why you didn't choose adoption as a clearly superior option to whatever infertility treatment you are pursuing, not to mention remaining permanently childless/free. (Witness the comments section of any major opinion piece in the media about infertility &/or involuntary childlessness.)

That brings me to perhaps the biggest reason why most of us hesitate to discuss adoption and why we didn't:  there's the very clear and uncomfortable feeling that we are being judged (and not favourably) -- even though it's often not by people who have anything more than a passing knowledge of the subject.  As Lisa Manterfield of Life Without Baby said in her own response to Tracey's request, "I think I could answer this question calmly and logically if I thought it was asked from a place of genuine curiosity or concern. But it always feels like an accusation, as if a woman who wanted children but didn’t adopt is somehow a lesser human being, or the dreaded word so often associated with childlessness: selfish."  No wonder it's something we don't always feel comfortable discussing.

*** *** ***

So -- why didn't we adopt?

"Have you thought about adoption?" some people ask. Well, DUH. If you have struggled with infertility, then of course you have thought about adoption. Like many people, I'm sure, I thought briefly about the subject when we started trying to conceive, as in "If it turns out we can't have children, we can always adopt."  Most people, of course, never have to think about the subject beyond that point. But it's quite another thing to realize that "having your own" isn't as easy as you thought it would be (or in all probability, not going to happen at all), and to start seriously thinking about the alternatives, about whether this is really something we want to pursue. 

If you can't or don't wish to pursue ARTs -- or if you've been at it a while and can no longer bear the financial, physical, mental and emotional toll -- you have two alternatives:  adoption or remaining childless. You must decide: at this point, do you still want to be a parent, if you can't parent a child that you and your husband brought into this world together? 

Some people believe the biological tie doesn't, or shouldn't matter. Perhaps it shouldn't -- but the truth is, for some people (many people?), it does. We might not even THINK it does -- but then, most people have never had to face the reality of what it means to give that up.  The assumption of a biological tie is so ingrained in our culture, in our being, I don't think most people have really considered what it means not to have it.  (What's one of the first things people say when they see a new baby? "Who does he/she look like?"  "Oh, she looks just like you when you were a baby!" "He has his grandpa's eyes." etc. etc.)(The baby doesn't even have to be born yet:  I remember wincing when one of my coworkers, showing off an ultrasound, giggled, "Look!  She has her hands behind her head -- just like my husband on the couch, already!")  These kinds of throwaway statements and references pop up more often than you realize, when you start listening for them.

Biology was not the only factor, or a major factor, in our decision -- but to deny that it wasn't a factor at all would be a lie, and if that makes me a horrible human being, I apologize. I know some people who have said, "Oh, I always wanted to adopt, I always knew it would be part of our family building plan." That was not me. My dream of parenthood was always about a child that dh & I created together, a child who would be part of him and part of me, and part of all the people who came before us.  It's something most people take for granted will be theirs. 

Adoption also means the loss of the biological tie for the adopted child (particularly if the adoption is not open).  About 15-20 years ago, one of my coworkers brought in her new baby for us to admire. Her son looked unmistakeably like her. She had been adopted as a baby, something she'd mentioned to us before -- and she expressed her delight about how very cool it was to finally have someone in the world who looked just like her. She'd never had that experience before -- and I had never thought of it that way before. I thought about her words a lot after that, whenever someone brought up the subject of adoption. (The New York Times Motherlode blog recently ran a piece, by a woman adopted as an infant from Korea, on this exact subject.)

Adoption was not something I had much knowledge or experience with, outside of books I'd read and movies I'd seen (not necessarily the best resources).  I knew a few people who had adopted, and I also knew a few people who had been adopted... but nobody in my large extended family had ever adopted. (Frankly, I probably knew more women who had been pregnant as teenagers and surrendered their babies for adoption -- closed adoptions, of course.)  Adoption was an even more foreign concept in dh's family. 

So there were very few people close to us that we could look to for advice or as role models -- and, to be honest, I had some trepidations about how adoption & an adopted child would be received in the extended family. Not necessarily by our parents & siblings, but further afield.  I certainly didn't think that people would say or do malicious things, or do them on purpose -- but I was apprehensive about having to educate people on the subject (over & over & over) and deal with the kinds of well-intentioned but dumb and sometimes hurtful questions & comments that we can all only too well imagine (having already experienced infertility...!). (And about the prospect that not just dh & I but our child would have to deal with these things as well.) 

Even with people we knew who had adoption experience, it was a difficult subject to broach, cloaked in shame, secrecy and mythology.  It's only very, very recently that people began to speak frankly and openly about adoption -- the good and the bad, to make open adoptions the "norm," and to recognize the losses that lie at the heart of every adoption (the birth parents', the adoptive parents' and the child's). 

I also began to notice two distinct, black-and-white threads of commentary among my family and friends when it came to discussing adoption:  it was either "the best thing that ever happened" to the family (parents & child), end of story -- or adopted children brought "baggage" with them that complicated the lives of their parents and other siblings.  No shades of grey here. 

"Well, you know -- she's adopted," my own mother would sometimes say in a hushed voice by way of explanation, when a friend or neighbour's adopted child was experiencing difficulties (speaking of thoughtless comments...).

(Of course, that didn't stop her from calling me one night, around the time of my 40th birthday, asking me if we'd thought about adoption and regaling me with stories about a friend's daughter who had just adopted for the second time through a private agency. It was really bad timing on her part -- it was in the middle of infertility treatment (which she knew nothing about), & I cried for two solid hours after I got off the phone with her.)

I knew she would love an adopted grandson or granddaughter with all her heart -- but I still found myself wondering if she would be saying the same things about him/her, the first time he/she ran into problems.   

Adoption does add an extra layer of complexity to family relationships -- one that not all of us are prepared to deal with. My friends who have adopted (some open, some closed, some public, some private) assure me that "it's the best thing we've ever done" -- and yet I've watched them, and their children (some of them now teenagers & young adults) deal with some pretty complicated, stressful and painful situations. Yes, ALL children come with issues and problems and struggles -- but sometimes these issues and problems and struggles are related, completely or partly, to the adoption itself.

*** *** ***

Wrapping your mind around the complexities of adoptions and adoptive relationships and grieving the loss of the biological tie is one thing. Tackling the adoption process itself is quite another.  Through our pg loss support group, and online, we came to know several couples who had adopted or were in the process of trying to adopt, and we soon realized that "just adopting" -- whether through the public system, privately or internationally -- was not an easy process. (Or cheap, for that matter -- another common adoption myth.)

Let's start with the public system. In Ontario, the province where I live, costs are much lower if you pursue an adoption this way. However, it's a system that many have called "broken."  (This article explains some of the problems.)  It's true there are many children in the system, and many couples seeking adoption. However, not all children in the system are technically available for adoption. They tend to remain Crown wards in foster care, unavailable for adoption, for a very long time, while social workers attempt to work with the parent(s) to reunite the family. Very few infants get adopted this way (by the time they are released for adoption, they are usually no longer babies). Not all, but some of the children have physical and emotional problems (including fetal alcohol syndrome), which aren’t always discovered right away. Not surprisingly, many have difficulty forming attachments to their adoptive families.

Even if you're willing to adopt an older child, a child from a different racial or cultural background, or a child with identified disabilities, the process isn't always that speedy.  For one thing, prospective parents wishing to adopt through the public system in Ontario must complete a qualifying course. Which is fine -- but we knew people who waited for nearly two years just to get a spot in one of the courses. After completing the course, as well as the required home studies & social worker visits, references, etc., there is no guarantee of placement. We knew some people who only waited a few months to be matched with a child, but others who waited for years, and others who eventually gave up on the process and adopted privately or remained childless.

Additionally, adoptions are handled through the regional Children's Aid Societies -- and the current system tends to operate in silos -- meaning there could be a perfect match out there for you, but you might never know it because the child's file was being handled by one CAS and your file is being handled by another, and seldom the twain shall meet. 

In 2008, the province appointed an "expert panel" to look into family-building options, including fertility treatments and adoptions.  The panel's 2009 recommendations included a number of suggested reforms to the adoption process, but as this article from last year notes, not enough progress has been made to date.  The blogger mentioned in the article has since written that she and her husband have abandoned their efforts to adopt.  

Private adoptions here can run into tens of thousands of dollars (on top of the money you might have already spent on infertility treatments). Instead of waiting to be "matched" by a social worker through the public system, most private adoptions involve marketing yourselves as prospective parents to birth mothers. ("Pick me! Pick me!")  We wondered how, as a couple in our 40s (no doubt the same age as the parents of some of our potential birth mothers), we could “compete” with younger couples.  The idea that birth mothers, social workers and others would be judging our fitness to be parents, while most couples just go out, have sex and have a baby without having to pass any sort of "test," was hard to swallow.   

Today (and certainly in the years since we decided to remain childless/free), most private adoptions are increasingly open to at least some degree -- and while I would not want to deny a child at least some knowledge of his or her birth families (being a genealogist, how could I??), this openness has added yet another layer of complexity to the adoption process and relationships. I know of some open adoptions that work very well. I know of others where the birth parent(s) want more or less contact than the child or adoptive parents do, which has led to friction. In one case, a friend of mine told me about her friends' uneasy relationship with their child's young birth mother, and the difficulty they were having in enforcing agreed-upon boundaries. "I think she (the birth mother) wishes they'd adopt her, too," my friend said.

And of course, having already suffered broken hearts with the loss of our daughter, we had great difficulty with the not-entirely-unlikely prospect that the birth parents might change their minds.  As Lisa has said so well, "I'd maxed out my heartbreak card."

International adoptions are also expensive and complex -- and many programs no longer accept "older" couples like ourselves. I also felt uncomfortable reading about babies stolen from their mothers and “sold” to rich (often unsuspecting) foreigners, and the less-than-nurturing conditions in some of the orphanages where these children are growing up. And while the prospect of a birth mother reclaiming her child from afar is minimal, the prospect of my child never having access to that knowledge of their past also weighed on me.

*** *** ***
In the end....  

I remember reading a blogger (Pamela, I think??) who once said she viewed adoption as a “calling” -- one that she just didn’t feel personally. Another online friend once put it this way: adoption was something that she tried to get excited about -- but couldn’t. Her heart just wasn’t in it. And didn’t she owe it to any child that she was adopting to be excited, truly excited, about bringing that child into her life?

I understood. Yes, dh & I talked about adoption, and we recognized that it could be a wonderful thing. We saw the joy that it brought to friends who adopted.  But neither of us felt that hopeful excitement and enthusiasm that we witnessed in these other couples. I don’t think that makes us (any of us) bad people. Isn't it better to be honest with yourself about your feelings and limitations, and what you personally feel capable of doing, than to go into an adoption half-heartedly?

If I felt anything, I think I just felt exhausted. Dealing with stillbirth and years of infertility does that to you. I’ve often said that, maybe if I’d been 35, I might have felt differently, had more energy to tackle a new challenge.

But by then, I was over 40, and dh was in his mid-40s. I was just plain tired, and ready to move on with my life. I didn’t look at adoption & see a possible child for us. I didn't get that feeling that some adopting mothers talk about -- that my child was out there, waiting for me. I just saw more work, more prodding into our personal lives, more money, more complexity, more waiting waiting waiting, more stress, more uncertainty, more potential for more heartbreak.

I didn’t want another roller coaster ride. I’d been riding a roller coaster for more than five years, since we started trying to conceive when I was 34 (and certainly from the moment I discovered I was pregnant at 37). 

To be honest, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a parent any more, not at this stage of my life (a feeling that grew stronger over the years as I aged). By the time my mother was 40, both my sister & I were in university and out of the house. I knew I hadn't wanted to be a parent when I was 20, like she had -- but I wasn't sure I wanted to be dealing with diapers in my mid-40s (the same age that my own grandmother had become a grandmother) either. Even if had been able to snap my fingers and produce a child instantly, I knew I would be dealing with teenaged hormones alongside menopause, graduation at the same time as retirement -- or postponing retirement altogether to help pay for university. I felt like the moment had passed. It was time to move on.

I knew dh & I could have a good life as a family of two -- because we already did. 

I'd had enough of roller coasters. I wanted off. I wanted my life back. 


  1. Really appreciate this article - so many who suggest adoption have no idea what it entails. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for posting!! You put into works exactly how I feel about adoption after years of infertility.

  3. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing your story.

  4. I love what you said about adoption also being full of losses--for the child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents. It's an incredibly emotional taxing process and while I have friends who have adopted and friends who are adopted and friends who are considering adoption, my limited connection to those processes have done nothing if not shown me how complex the process can be--not to mention the heartbreak of those who have a birth mother change her mind at the last minute. After Eliza died, when I was struggling to get pregnant again, I went to a seminar on international adoption and left feeling disheartened and uncertain about everything. It can be such a beautiful thing, but there is always grief and loss involved also. "Why don't you just adopt?" is such a stupid question because it offers adoption as a simple solution when it seems to me that there can be no decision more complicated.

  5. I really love this Loribeth, because you've done a really good job of explaining some of the complexities.

    Perhaps I will just copy and paste it into my blog, as my "Why we didn't adopt" post! (Kidding.)

  6. dear Loribeth,
    thank you for sharing your story!
    I love every bit of your post. And the most I love the conclusion:
    "I wanted off. I wanted my life back."
    So very true also for me!

    May I just add something. I know my parents would love my adopted children. But deep in my heart I know, they would not able to love them in the same way as they love my brother's daughters. And this would hurt me. Because I know it would hurt my adopted children.

    kind regards from Europe.


  7. Beautiful story, Loribeth. I'm so glad that you shared! Maybe I'm just emotional this morning but this made my eyes leak.

  8. This is an important post. Thank you for writing it!

    I agree with you about adoption and the who process. Not only is it complex to navigate, but going this route also requires saying goodbye to the family you envisioned while preparing yourself to parent in a very unique way. Those who assume that adoption automatically resolves infertility are truly clueless about what it actually entails. And those same people are usually the ones who would never consider adoption (beyond daydreaming briefly about it).

  9. Thank you for sharing. I really loved reading your thoughts.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this. It's a topic that is so taboo and it's so very brave of you to share. I can identify with so much of what you've written.

  11. Thank you for sharing this and putting it out there. You are right, it is such a complex decision.

  12. I stopped blogging years ago but this post is word for word what my spouse and I felt when we looked at adoption after 5 years of infertility treatments.

  13. I found your blog when I was going through a difficult period in my life, and kept on reading because I love your writing and your openness (sorry about the language - I'm not a native english speaker).

    Your post is very touching and at the same time very informative. As far as I know, the adoption system is very similar in my country, e.g. biological parents are supported excessively (well, a lot) before adoption is deemed to be OK.

    But what I really wanted to say in response to your post is this: I think it is plain wrong that only people who have suffered from infertility have to explain to others and to the world why they did not adopt. I think each and every one who has children by means other than adoption should answer to this question - or then no one should. Any "argument" for adoption (e.g. there are so many kids without home, biology does not matter) can just as easily be presented to fertile people who have kids but did not adopt.

    So, I started thinking about my own reasons. I remember that as a teenager, I saw no difference between adopting and having biological children. Back then, I did not understand the complexities of the adoption system. When my husband and I started considering children, it was clear that we would try to conceive biologically (we were lucky and had 2). I did know by that time that adoption was not like snap-your-fingers-baby appears. But that was not the main reason I did not want to adopt. I think the main reason was that to me, wanting to be a parent entailed wanting to nurture and direct my child's development from the very beginning. If I couldn't have that, I did not want to be a parent at all. A second reason was that I doubted my ability to parent a child with serious attachment issues, as is often the case when a child is removed from his or her primary caretaker at an early stage. I've felt selfish because of these feelings, but these are decisions that should be made for selfish reasons (if following you innermost feelings can be called selfish).
    Anyway, thank you again for this wonderful post!

  14. I never needed a reason from you -- our choices about everything (adoption or not) are so personal -- but I'm glad you wrote this to give insight into your reasons.

  15. Really really REALLY love this post, Loribeth. It describes so many things very well.

  16. Great post. I've gotten the question before too and often it is from someone curious. However putting it all into words to "answer" a casual question feels overwhelming. I'm sure my response would be much longer than anyone questioning me would expect. That said, maybe I should type it out. At least for myself.

  17. I've loved reading all these posts, as this is definitely the #1 question I get "why not adopt?" Since we are in our early 30s still, people think we should just do it. But, it isn't as simple as that when you are actually faced with the realities of it.