For single women wanting children, adoption in the United States is becoming a popular option. Here, single mothers share their stories of love, frustration, and going it alone
Ever since she was a little girl, Suzanne Lyons knew she wanted to be a mother. She had planned on getting married and having her own children, but her career as a media relations pro for a large New York City PR firm took her life in a different direction. Lyons had single friends who had adopted internationally and domestically, or had gotten pregnant through in vitro fertilization, so she knew she had options should she decide to pursue motherhood on her own. “I spent a great deal of time building my career, and chose single motherhood fairly late in life,” she says. At age 46, Lyons, who had been adopted and met her birth mother as an adult, felt certain that adoption was right for her.
In September 2014, Lyons adopted newborn Gracie, who was born in Eugene, Oregon. But for a long time, the distance between Lyons and her baby-to-be felt further than a seven-hour flight. “I think the only difference between pursuing
adoption and a biological child is that with a biological child, you are an active participant in the process. With adoption, you can only do so much before it is in someone else’s hands,” she says. Over the course of Gracie’s journey into her arms, Lyons learned there are often a lot of hands involved in an adoption. But as she and her fellow single ladies are finding out, the right helping hands are key to making their motherhood dreams come true.
While many married couples in the U.S. turn to either international or domestic adoptions as a viable means to start a family, bachelorettes face a tougher battle. China’s adoption program, long regarded as the go-to country for single women looking to adopt, all but outlawed adoptions by single parents in 2007 (singles are still allowed to adopt, but only older, special-needs children, and the list of stipulations is enormous). Russia once had few restrictions on single-moms-to-be, as well as a large number of orphaned infants and children, making it another popular choice; but that all changed in 2013, when a law signed by Vladimir Putin effectively banned adoptions by Americans.
In the United States, however, things have only improved for women who want to adopt on their own. Whereas a single woman trying to adopt might have once been passed over in favor of a couple, caseworkers are now seeing more applications from single parents, and agencies have become more receptive. Ohio-based caseworker Liska Hall writes, “15 or 20 years ago, the average social worker would have said a two-parent home was ideal, but I don’t think very many of us would say that now.” A 2013 survey of adoptive parents by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that about 23 percent of all adoptions were by single women.
“With adoption, you can only do so much before it is in someone else’s hands.”
When it comes to adoption, there are three common options: foster care, private agency, and private domestic. Foster care adoptions are facilitated through a public agency, and are entirely free. However, they require extensive paperwork and training, and the opportunity to finalize an adoption is not guaranteed. In a private agency adoption, a prospective parent pays a fee (usually ranging between $30,000 – $50,000) to an agency that will then try to match her with a pregnant mother who wants to give up her baby for adoption. Lastly, a single woman can opt to find a birth mother herself, and then work with a lawyer to help navigate the process and ultimately finalize the adoption. That’s known as private domestic adoption, and between legal fees and birth expenses, it, too, can be pricey (running anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000).
Before any woman can adopt—no matter what type of adoption she goes for—she must be certified as a qualified prospective adoptive parent by a court of law. To be certified, a potential mother must get fingerprinted, undergo a health check by a doctor, provide letters of reference, and have a “home study” conducted by a licensed social worker. “The Court requires these items to certify prospective adoptive parent(s),” says Faith Getz Rousso, an adoption attorney in Mineola, NY. “In domestic adop-tion, that certification lasts for 18 months. With an agency, the certification only lasts for one year. If the certification expires, then you can file an extension.” Each state has different regulations for the adoption process, but an adoption lawyer or an attorney practicing family law can navigate legal as-pects for a potential mother.
Rousso, herself an adoptee, frequently works with single women on their journey to find a child, and has spoken at the annual APC Adoption Conference in Brooklyn, NY, on the topic of adopting as a single parent. “When you’re single, the problem with some [adoption] agencies is that because they match the expectant parent with the adoptive parent, if the expectant parent doesn’t walk in and say, ‘I’d like to place my child with a single woman,’ they’re most likely not going to show them profiles of single women.” Rousso suggests that it is often advantageous for single women to pursue a private domestic adoption and create a profile online at adoption sites such as adoptimist.com or adoption.com, and place ads in newspapers with contact information or directing expectant parents to their website. “Since you’re creating the profile, you can depict yourself as a strong educated woman with so much to offer.”
But that’s not to say it’s impossible for single women to adopt via an agency. Rebecca Tobin, a Montessori school teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland, had finished the paperwork to adopt a Russian child on the same day that Russia made adoptions by U.S. citizens illegal. “Being single and in my mid-40s [made] it impossible to adopt internationally anywhere else because of bans,” Tobin says. She eventually turned to Adoption Choices of Texas, a private adoption agency, to adopt her daughter domestically.
Although private agencies command hefty fees to handle the finding and vetting of potential birth mothers, sealing the deal often takes some DIY skills. It’s crucial that the agency and the birth mother make the right match together, and a hopeful mom has to do her part to appeal to them. Most create a print profile book to show prospective birth parents a glimpse of their lives beyond the applica-tion. Tobin included pictures—a baby photo of herself with the caption “I always wanted to be a mom,” a photo of her brother and his family in Halloween superhero costumes, images of a local playground where she would bring her future child, a map of where she’s lived, and a photo of her traveling in Vietnam and China. Tobin also wrote a letter to the birth mother, because, she says, “the letter gives you a little extra leverage connecting with the mom.” Tobin’s daughter, Emme, is Vietnamese-American, and Tobin believes her travels abroad helped the birth mother decide to pick her. “I want to teach Emme about her culture and take her to Vietnam when she’s older,” Tobin says.
Traci Lewis, 51, a program director at Ohio State University, also had success going the private agency route; she signed up with one after deciding she wanted an infant. Once she had registered with the agency, the next step was to wait for a “referral”—a birth mother to choose her as a potential parent for her child. Lewis finished her paper-work by September 1996, had her first referral in November, and a second referral in January. Both birth mothers ended up deciding to raise their children instead, but a referral in March led to Lewis’ first daughter, Kennedy.
Lewis was completely surprised that the birth parents chose her. “According to their letter, they had three or four couples to choose from, along with my information. They looked them over together, then separately, then made their decision. Mine was the overwhelming choice for both of them.” The adoption fees were costly, but Lewis was able to work out a payment plan with both her lawyer and the adoption agency so that she didn’t have to pay a lump sum at once. By the time she received placement with Kennedy (“placement” is when the adopted child officially moves into the adopted parent’s home), she had made her last payment to the agency.
A few years later, when Lewis wanted to adopt a school-aged child as a sibling for Kennedy, she chose to go through the foster care system. “It was more of a financial decision to go with a public agency. I didn’t have to pay for an at-torney, home study, or those kinds of things.” Having gone through both the private and public route, Lewis says there was a lot less red tape involved in her private agency adoption. “For my second daughter’s adoption, I had so much stuff to do. I had to go to six weeks of classes. I had all of these different inspections. I think it would’ve been helpful for someone who hadn’t gone through the adoption process before, but for me, it was a pain.”
Lewis’ home study was set to expire in August 2008, nearly two years after it had been conducted; she had made the decision not to renew her certification when one-year-old Mackenzie became available in June. Lewis had hoped to find a girl closer to Kennedy’s age, but the county foster care system ended up having an infant available. When she brought baby Mackenzie home, Kennedy joked, “Mom, McDonald’s got the order wrong.”
“If you know this is what you want to do, I say do it.”
Mackenzie became a ward of the state after the court terminated her birth mother’s rights, and no information was found on her father. But Kennedy’s biological parents decided to keep in touch with her via the agency. For years, they sent letters and birthday cards to the agency, which forwarded the mail to Lewis. Lewis, in turn, sent letters, pictures, and even a baby tooth, updating Kennedy’s birth parents on her life. In 2005, Kennedy’s birth mother passed away, and Kennedy turned to those mementos as highly guarded pieces of her childhood. “Those letters and cards are very precious to her,” Lewis says. “She knew, in her mother’s own words, that she loved her.”
Kathy Ledesma, the national project director for Adopt U.S. Kids agrees that, if possible, an open adoption (also called a cooperative adoption) is beneficial for the child. Open adoption means that there is some form of communication between the biological parents, adopted child, and adoptive parents. Communication can range from letters passed through an agency as an intermediary, or open contact between all par-ties, depending on the level of comfort amongst all involved. Ledesma, who has worked in the adoption field for 40 years, says, “We know just from history that children who have been adopted from foster care who have a conscious memory of and a relationship with their biological family members are much better in adoption if they have ongoing contact. It takes the myth part out of who their family was.”
Foster care adoptions may seem cheaper on paper, but they can come at a high emotional premium. Lynore Harding met her first child when she worked as a nurse at a foster home for children with special needs in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two-year-old Elijah arrived there after his biological mother had burned him from the waist down in a scalding-hot bath. Elijah had suffered third-degree burns, lost all of the toes on his right foot, and the toes on his left foot were permanently webbed together. Harding cared for the young boy, stretching his legs daily and nursing him back to health, and from the moment she met him, Harding says, “I don’t know what it was, but I literally just fell in love with him. It was like I had known him all of his life.”
At the time, Harding was trying to get pregnant and had trouble conceiving; while she and her then-husband were disappointed, she decided against fertility treatment. “I knew that I wanted to adopt Elijah, and I guess the rest is history,” she explains.
At age four, Elijah moved in with Harding, her husband, and his son. A year later, she and her husband separated, but by then, she had officially adopted Elijah. Now a single mother, Harding raised Elijah and later adopted a second child, Alora, from the same foster home where she met Elijah. Alora came into state custody after her biological parents fractured her ribs, burned her with a hair dryer, and delivered blows to her head, causing traumatic brain injuries and leaving her legally blind. “She was the baby I never had,” Harding says. “I watched her grow from 4 months old, and witnessed all of her milestones.”
Harding, 43, adds, “I would have never dreamed in a million years that I would be a person who would be adopting children. If someone asked me [if I was planning to adopt] 20 years ago, I would’ve said of course not, I’m going to have my own child.” While she admits that a child coming from foster care may come with emotional and physical issues, she says, “You have to say [to yourself], I’m willing to give 150 percent with this child to work through issues they may have. But who’s to say that the child you give birth to won’t have issues? We all have issues.”
Now, at age 16, Elijah gives back to children in foster care by raising funds to fulfill their Christmas wish lists. He also started his own organization, No Use for Abuse, to help secure college scholarships for high school gradu-ates in foster care. Harding says of his success, “I put in all that I can with my children to encourage them to be very productive and effective citizens in the world.”
If one chooses to go the private domestic adoption route, securing certification is only the half of it; the other half is getting the word out to find a birth mother. Self-promotion can be the key; Rousso points out that online profiles of ready-to-adopt potential single moms have leveled the playing field for women who might otherwise be overlooked by private adoption agencies. Rousso suggests that you show your real life as honestly as possible. “When I speak to an expectant mother, I’ll ask, ‘Why did you pick my client?’ The answer I get [typically] is that they’re real. They look like real people. [When reviewing potential matches, birth mothers] want to be a fly on the wall in this person’s world and think, can I imagine seeing my child living there?”
In addition to an online profile, advertising in newspapers, online, and through paper postcards helps spread the word for women looking to find a birth mother for a private domestic adoption. Rousso says, “I suggest my clients create business cards that say, ‘I’m looking to expand my family with adoption,’ with their contact information and a link to their website. Leave the cards in laundromats, train stations, bodegas, churches, and in college towns.”
Putting yourself out there like that isn’t an easy thing to do, especially if both your life’s dream and a child’s future are at stake, so Ledesma strongly suggests that hopeful single mothers keep a journal to reflect on their positive and negative life experiences. She says that putting your thoughts and feelings in writing makes them easier to share: “A single woman should know that she’ll be asked very personal questions that may seem overly intrusive or offensive. The intent is to ensure the safety and permanency of the child and that all of their needs—health, education, and welfare—are met.”
And when it comes to feelings, all of the mothers interviewed admitted that adoption is an emotional roller coaster. Setbacks are inevitable; Lyons went through two failed adoptions before she brought Gracie home. “It’s a long story, but 10 weeks before her baby was due, the birth mother was arrested on felony drug charges,” she says of her first attempt. Ultimately, Child Protective Services took that child after the mother’s umbilical cord blood tested positive for narcotics. The second biological mother decided to keep her baby after learning that she would be unable to have children after this birth. Lyons also says she wasn’t prepared for the enormous amount of expense private agency adoption incurred. She exhausted all of her savings, including a huge chunk of her retirement savings, noting, “Every situation is different, but I personally spent upwards of $40,000. Gracie was worth every penny, but the financial stress was significant, and it’s something that a woman needs to think about long and hard before committing to the process.”
“You have to say, I’m willing to give 150 percent with this child to work through issues they may have.”
From a personal perspective, Lewis says, “Don’t go into it expecting that child to fill a void you have because you don’t have a spouse. Or if you feel like you didn’t have a good relationship with your parents, so you’re trying to bring that child in to fill the hole in your life; the child is not going to be able to live up to those expectations.” Lewis, whose own family has adopted several children, knows that having a strong support system allows her to work full-time while raising two daughters, now ages 17 and 8. She can ask her goddaughter, who was also adopted, to talk to her daughters when they struggle with adoption-related issues, such as grappling with lingering feelings of abandonment and rejection.
Amy Kaufmann, a 43-year-old compliance officer in Long Island, ran into all kinds of problems, both financial and legal, while attempting to adopt an older child in the New York City foster care system. Kaufmann ultimately adopted her baby girl from a birth mother in Mississippi. For her, the process was incredibly difficult, but her advice is simple: “Listen to your lawyer, social worker, and the professionals around you. You have to trust the people you’re working with, because they have much more experience than you do in this situation.”
While single women may not have a partner to turn to for support, they are far from alone. Resources abound online, and connecting with single mothers who have been through the same challenges can be helpful. Single Mothers By Choice hosts a community forum with 13,000 members. The National Adoption Center details the different types of adoption with commonly asked questions and an A-to-Z glossary of adoption terminology. AdoptUSKids.org, a nonprofit, offers a photo listing section of its site to connect potential parents with available foster children. For the basics on private domestic adoption, attorney Rousso shares helpful tips on her website (privateadoptlaw.com).
Single motherhood isn’t for the faint of heart, and it takes one tough mama to deal with adoption drama. But while the process can be frustrating or disappointing at times, all of the mothers I spoke to agree that they are happy with their decision to become single parents. “Don’t worry about what other people are going to think and say,” says Lewis. “If you’ve done the soul-searching and researching and know that this is what you want to do, I say do it. I’m all for single parents. It’s extremely hard, but it’s so rewarding. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
By Jennifer Chen
Illustration by Monica Garwood
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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