Adopt a Child at Midlife
It was a roller-coaster ride toward motherhood for me. But you can learn from my mistakes
In my 20s and early 30s, I exhausted myself looking for Mr. Right.
My friends called me the “One-Date Wonder.” Sometimes there would be a second date. Maybe a third. But not often.
And, I exhausted myself building a career in financial services. By age 28, I was a partner in a wealth management firm. It turned into a tumultuous decade that ended in a failed business marriage, and at 35 (one year before the 2008 recession) I began building my own firm, SageVest Wealth Management. I spent the next few years making sure this venture survived the market decline and thrived.
I’m Told I Can’t Adopt A Child Because I Am Single
I started thinking of adopting in 2012 in my late 30s. I was financially solvent. After trying for more than a decade to find a man I wanted to marry, I realized a traditional route was unlikely for me. And though I wanted to be a mother, I didn’t really ever want to be pregnant. It was a disconnect that adoption could solve. I’m an only child so I wanted at least two children.
The information out there on adoption at the time was poor and confusing. I was told (incorrectly) that I couldn’t adopt because I was single. Once again I put my motherhood plan on hold.
On my 40th birthday, I went to a fertility expert. That number, four-zero, had the power of a scare tactic. If I couldn’t adopt, I’d birth my own. For a year, I begrudgingly went through the misery of the injections of four cycles of IVF (remember, I didn’t want to be pregnant) until the doctor basically said, “Sorry, Chiquita, your eggs aren’t going to take.”
I saw myself aging alone: No parents. No siblings. No children. Despondent, discouraged, worried — pick any adjective that is the opposite of “happy” or “fulfilled”— and that was how I felt. I became depressed. And there was an irony: as a business owner, I was spending my life helping other people’s families achieve their (financial) goals without achieving my own personal ones.
Adopting Becomes an Obsession at 41
At 41, wanting a child became an obsession, although I finally admitted to myself that I would never be a mother.
So, when someone I knew told me their friend had a teenage daughter with an unwanted pregnancy, we arranged a meeting. This 19-year-old assured me she was committed to adoption and she asked me to pick a baby name.
A few weeks later I realized I had jumped on a months-long ride into hell with weekly dramas that included statements like “I’m keeping the baby” and “You can adopt the baby,” laced with threats of suicide.
Months later, after I’d chosen the baby’s name, the teenager decided to keep the child.
The bruises from my failed IVF endeavor had not yet healed, another Mother’s Day had passed, and I was still childless.
One day when I had a moment of clarity, I told myself: “You have to figure this out.” I threw myself back into adoption research.
I Approach Adopption Like It’s An Investment
Unlike the well-regulated and controlled investment industry that I come from, adoption has few rules of order. There is no regulating body to guide prospective parents through the process. Every agency has different methods, and everywhere I turned there was a conflicting approach.
I quickly ruled out international adoption for two reasons. First, most countries are not welcoming to single parents. Second, after many countries closed their doors to international adoptions and China changed their laws permitting two-child families, the wait time can now be as long as a decade.
Focusing on domestic adoption, I attended an all-day seminar for families interested in private adoption. It was truly theater of the absurd. Speakers recommended taking out Penny Saver ads or wearing a T-shirt with “looking to adopt a child” scrawled across your chest to the mall. It had worked for her! Some hungry wannabe mothers in the crowd ate it up but I thought it was wackadoodle.
Finally, my finance brain kicked in and I decided to approach adoption the same way I approach an investment: I devised a research-based analytical process and checklist of questions and solutions that would let me drill down on the problem, cross-check until I arrived at an answer. I called lawyers who specialize in adoptions, adoption agencies, adoption consultants, private and public agencies.
I spent hundreds of hours online, on the phone, driving back and forth to seminars, and I discovered a unique conundrum.
The population of pregnant mothers in suburban Washington, DC, where I live, has higher rates of substance abuse than in other states. The area also has a plethora of hard-charging women who have put off pregnancy in order to build their careers and so higher rates of infertility. In the end, there were more people looking for fewer healthy babies.
Then lawyers with whom I had spoken told me: “Find a national agency that can connect you with birth mothers from all 50 states, not just one state. It will increase your odds.”
I Get An Unexpected Call
A few weeks later I found AdoptHelp. State-specific rules mean that AdoptHelp can only facilitate California-based adoptions. I understood that in all likelihood I’d need to work with a secondary, state-based agency once I was matched with a birth mother if she was located outside of California.
Two months later, on August 28, 2014, I received a call. It was nighttime and I was sitting in my office alone.
“You’ve been chosen,” the women on the phone said.
I remember thinking, “Did I win a cruise?” It was late and I was tired and I simply wasn’t connecting the voice on the phone with my motherhood dreams.
“You’ve been chosen, Jennifer. A birth mother chose you to be her child’s mother.”
“The baby is due in two weeks.”
I was shaking. I couldn’t find words.
“It’s a girl,” the social worker said excitedly.
I was doubly shocked. I’d been mentally preparing for a boy since I knew that in the US the demand for girls was higher. I had 24 hours to tell the birth mother “yes.”
I was 42 years old. I was going to be a mother. Of a baby girl. In less than two weeks.
My case was transferred to a state-based adoption agency and a local lawyer, both in Michigan, where the birth mother lived.
On September 15, 2014, almost one month after learning about my future daughter and two weeks after she was born, I brought my daughter home to Virginia.
Three years and three weeks later, I adopted my son. He was born in Texas. His adoption took longer than my daughter’s — five months. That’s because I changed the parameters; I made more rules the second time around and that slowed down the process. My daughter is African American. I wanted her to have an African American sibling. My son came home to us on a rather lucky Friday, October 13, 2017.
They are now four and one.
I was in the hospital for both of their births.
I am a mother.
I am their mother.
My Best Practices And Advice For Older Moms
If you’re contemplating adoption, as both an adoptive parent and a financial advisor, I offer the following advice:
Educate yourself. One of the greatest challenges in adoption is the element of the unknown. You might not have a pool of people to ask for advice, and virtually every agency is different. Have a list of key adoption questions to ask. I’ve shared the list I used for your convenience.
Be financially prepared. Costs for adopting range from $30,000 to $50,000 or more, and can have unpredictable legal fees, birth mother expenses, and travel costs. Depending upon your income, you might qualify for a sliding scale or the adoption tax credit. You need to understand your financial position to properly navigate decisions such as what agency to choose, what birth mother match to avoid, what risks you’re willing to accept, and what financial trade-offs you’re willing to make in exchange for a family of your own.
Seek actively engaged professionals, particularly social workers. Social workers play a critical role; they know how to navigate the wildly fluctuating emotions, dialogues, and decisions that come with adoption. They’ve done it repeatedly and understand the tender spots for both the adopter and the birth parents.
Have a birth plan in place. If you’re adopting from birth, this plan will lay out how you and the birth mother will each function just before, during, and after the baby’s delivery. It is essential to have discussed the plan prior to the birth mother going into labor. The plan should be shared with all involved — the birth parent(s), social workers, and medical staff. A birth plan will include details such as who will be in the delivery room, who will receive the baby after delivery, if a separate hospital room will be available for the adopting parents, the birth mother’s privacy wishes, etc. Having an established plan can ease what is most often (if not always) an emotionally charged time for both the adopting parent and the birth mother. It’s not a requirement, but it should be.
Expect surprises. These could be medical, logistical, financial, legal, and/or emotional. A birth mother who has just delivered could become indecisive about her commitment and leave adopting parents in limbo.
Stay organized. Various paperwork filings are required during the adoption process. Stay organized with access to documents, contacts, and adoption-related expenses. Remember that adoption takes courage and many leaps of faith. This applies to both you and the birth mother as she makes an incredibly difficult decision.
Beware of the revocation period. The revocation period is different for each state, ranging from 48 hours to more than a month. If the father is unknown or can’t be reached, many (but not all) states have a putative father registry. This is a forum where unmarried men can register themselves as the father of a child, or the potential father in relation to the mother. Similarly, the birth mother and child can be listed, giving the father a chance to locate a child for a specified period of time. This paternal revocation period also varies by state. Unless a birth father takes action during the registry period, his parental rights are revoked. You’ll be torn between falling in love with your new child and maintaining a barrier to protect yourself if the adoption fails.
How To Increase Your Odds Of Adopting
There are, indeed, ways to increase the odds you’ll be a parent and the speed of trajectory.
Don’t pick a race. If you are open to children of all races, you will increase the pool of birth mothers. Adopting children of a different race has seen its share of controversy: According to a report by PBS, in 1973 the Child Welfare League of America began recommending only same-race placement in domestic adoption. Then, in 1996 “Congress enacted the Inter-Ethnic Adoption Provisions … which prohibited federally funded agencies from denying or delaying adoptions solely on the basis of race or national origin.”
Don’t pick a gender. This is simple math — since 60% of birth mothers don’t find out the gender of their child, if you choose a gender, you will only be matched with 40% of existing pregnant mothers.
Be open to a substance-abusing mother. Even though I don’t recommend this, I do know adoptive parents with happy children born with an addiction.