Secrecy and Stigma No Longer Clouding Adoptions
Yvette Weilacker sits in the kitchen of a small house in Buffalo waiting for the contractions to begin. Her baby, already named Nicholas Lee by his anxious parents, was due days ago, and he shows scant signs of being ready to be born.
The waiting is all the more tense because the kitchen she waits in is not hers, and the baby she waits for is in another woman’s body. Kim Elniskey and her fiance, Jorge Rosario, have chosen Mrs. Weilacker and husband, Paul, to adopt their son, and the two families have gotten to know each other well these past few months, by telephone, letter and now in person as the birth nears.
Since she flew in from her home in Riverside, Calif., four weeks earlier, Mrs. Weilacker has been staying with Ms. Elniskey and Mr. Rosario and helping care for their three other children.
”I want you to feel that this is your baby, your family,” Ms. Elniskey told Mrs. Weilacker.
Ms. Elniskey has kept the Weilackers involved throughout her pregnancy, sharing ultrasound pictures and updates about the baby’s intra-uterine acrobatics. ”Your son kicked me a lot today,” Ms. Elniskey reported in one of many telephone conversations.
The Weilackers have promised that they will be just as open as Nicholas grows: what he wears on his first Halloween, when he loses his first tooth and learns to read. When the boy is ready, Ms. Elniskey and Mr. Rosario plan to visit him.
The intimacy between these two families would have been rare just a few years ago and unthinkable a generation ago. But such open contact between adoptive parents and biological parents is one of the many ways that adoption has evolved from a secretive, closed process weighed down by dark stigmas and painful misconceptions into an infinitely more transparent experience.
How many children are adopted each year is an elusive number, since no one keeps complete statistics. The most recent data, from 1992, show 127,441 children adopted that year, a slight increase from 118,000 five years earlier. About 42 percent of those adoptions were by stepparents and other relatives.
The most sought-after children for adoption are, as they have been for generations, domestic white infants — known among parents and professionals in the adoption loop as D.W.I.’s — but those babies are scarcer because of the easier availability of birth control, the legalization of abortion and the growing acceptance of single mothers raising children alone. Experts estimate that there are fewer than 20,000 a year.
As a result, the biggest increase in adoptions has been children adopted from other countries. Because they require visas, there are up-to-date statistics for these adoptions, and since 1990, their numbers have nearly doubled, to 13,620 in 1997 from 7,093. So while the overall increase in the number of children adopted has been subtle, the increase in visibility has been dramatic, enhanced by those children adopted from other countries whose physical differences from their parents make their adoption obvious.
In the last decade, adoption has gone public in much the same manner that divorce did in the 1970’s. Increasingly children are told, even before they can fully understand, how they came to their families and that story is shared with relatives, friends, teachers, sometimes even strangers.
”My birth mother gave me this doll,” Sasha Saidman, a 6-year-old who was adopted, told a clerk at the video store near her home in Wheaton, Md., as her family prepared for a visit from the woman who had borne her.
Like most adopted children, Sasha used the term that has replaced such loaded phrases as ”real mother” and ”natural mother.”
Where once children hid their adoption from friends, if they even knew of it, adopted children today can belong to play groups made up entirely of adopted children. They can buy storybooks about being adopted, go to summer camps for children adopted from particular foreign countries, and if they face emotional difficulties, get treated by a therapist who specializes in adoption.
In some cities, like New York, San Francisco and Boston, playgrounds are peppered with parents of various races and nationalities chasing children of other races. Many of those families are headed by single people, people in their 40’s or older or gay people, men and women who, in years past, would have been rejected as unsuitable adoptive parents.
Once the ”other” option for becoming parents, adoption is now one of many ways that men and women create families. The panorama of the American family now includes children born through advanced reproductive technology, some conceived with donated sperm and eggs; families broken apart by divorce then blended through remarriage; families created by single parents and by gay men who have hired a surrogate to bear a child.
”We are seeing an explosion of different family forms which make adoption seem downright mainstream and conservative,” said Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group in New York.
In the last few years, the media have focused on global dramas highlighting the plight of children needing homes: Chinese girls abandoned in markets by parents encumbered by the country’s one-child policy and its preference for boys; Romanian children orphaned by revolution or left in understaffed institutions by their impoverished parents; Russian children stranded in dismal state orphanages, in a society that widely stigmatizes adoption.
In the 1990’s, it became a kind of social phenomenon to adopt a child from abroad. Last summer, Vanity Fair magazine quipped that a Chinese baby was the season’s hot accessory in the Hamptons. The experience, however, is not limited to wealthy neighborhoods. Suburban American and rural towns are also home to children adopted from Shanghai, Murmansk, Guatemala City, Bucharest.
Many people turning to international adoption, and indeed adoption in general, are baby boomers who put off starting families, then confronted infertility problems and finally opted out of the world of assisted reproductive technology that many call the ”Ovarian Olympics.”
Further raising the profile are the celebrities who have spoken happily about being adoptive parents, including: Nicole Kidman and her husband, Tom Cruise; Rosie O’Donnell, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who wrote a popular children’s book on the subject, ”Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born.”
In stores, that book shares shelf space with an expanding list of adoption-related titles from large and niche publishers.
Hallmark sells baby albums designed for adopted children. ”I didn’t give you the gift of life, life gave me the gift of you,” reads a poem in the beginning of one. In Tacoma, Wash., Gloria Finkbeiner, an adoptive sister, aunt and grandmother, started a mail-order card and gift business called Adoption Option with her daughter, Susan Pierce, who adopted three children out of foster care.
”Where we are, adoption isn’t unique,” said Mrs. Finkbeiner. ”It’s just a way to be a family.”
Rules Made To Help With Privacy Backfire
Perhaps the most profound change in the process of adoption is the growth of the kind of open adoption that brought Nicholas to his parents, the Weilackers.
Before World War I, it was common for friends and relatives to raise the child of someone they knew and for the biological parents to be in touch with their children. But as the century progressed, adoptive parents were paired with babies mainly by doctors, lawyers and social workers, most of whom sought a match of physical traits that would allow parents and children to pass as a ”real family.”
The institutionalization, and the secrecy and the stigma, of adoption were deepened after World War II by state laws requiring that records of the event be sealed and new birth certificates issued, listing the adoptive parents in place of the biological ones. E. Wayne Carp, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University, writes in his book ”Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption,” that such confidentiality was intended to protect those involved in an adoption from outside scrutiny, but it later evolved into a way to keep all parties to an adoption from one another.
That change dovetailed with a postwar emphasis on the nuclear family. In the 1950’s, motherhood was glorified. For those unable to conceive on their own, adoption was a blessing, one often kept secret to mimic the wished-for idyll.
In addition, social workers seized on a postwar embrace of psychoanalytic theories — which tended to view unmarried mothers as disturbed, adoptees seeking information about their roots as neurotic, and infertile people as unstable — as a rationale for keeping adoptive families and biological families apart.
In that atmosphere, nobody imagined that adopting parents would ever live with the expectant family in the final days of a pregnancy, waiting for the contractions that would signal the start of their new families.
”What we are going through together blows me away,” Mrs. Weilacker said, soon after she arrived in Buffalo.
But as the wait dragged on, drawn out by a doctor’s inaccurate calculation of Ms. Elniskey’s due date, both women grew tense.
Mrs. Weilacker, a court stenographer, was also anxious about transcripts she needed to finish and was missing her husband, a history teacher. Reluctantly, she returned to California until the birth seemed more imminent.
”I just feel a little lonely,” Ms. Elniskey said. ”I thought we’d stick this out together and now Yvette gets to get away for a while and I don’t.”
Back in California, there seemed no relief. ”It’s all I think about,” Mrs. Weilacker said. ”I love Kim and Jorge and their kids. It was just all getting to me.”
There are no statistics on how many people build families through open adoption, no way to know how many birth parents select the people they want to raise their child, get to know them and then stay in some sort of contact — from regular visits to occasional phone calls or letters — after the baby is legally and emotionally the other family’s child. But people in the field say the trend of open adoption is growing rapidly.
Catholic Human Services in Traverse City, Mich., a rural area in the northern part of the state, was one of the first agencies to arrange open adoptions. Since 1980, the agency has handled close to 500 of them.
”The stereotype from 20 years ago was that birth parents were wild and reckless people from the other side of the tracks,” said Jim Gritter, a child welfare supervisor at the agency. ”But what we found was that that viewpoint was 180 degrees from reality. So many birth mothers talked about feeling that they were abandoning their babies because the closed system basically asked of them to abandon them.”
Social workers at the agency decided that the only way to soothe birth parents’ guilt was to let them choose families for their children. The social workers were motivated in part by stories they had heard of adoptees searching for their birth parents. If children yearned to know about their roots, and birth parents longed to know who became the parents of their children, the agency social workers figured that it made sense to make adoption a collaborative experience.
It was a logical time to try to coax adoption out of the shadows. By the late 1970’s, with the rise of the sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement, many in society were rejecting a range of paternalistic institutions. Although in many places a child born to unwed parents would still face scorn, in many places he would not.
The Traverse City social workers devised a plan in which they asked prospective adoptive parents to put together a letter about themselves with a picture and other information to be shown to pregnant women, who would choose among them.
Mr. Gritter and his colleagues have since taken the concept one step further. In nearly all cases, the children handled by their agency are born of parents in the region and adopted by parents in the region.
”It’s not the same to be pen pals as it is to be part of a clan,” Mr. Gritter said.
Some Fear Change As Others Embrace It
Not everyone agrees that open adoption is always a good option, particularly workers at agencies whose birth mothers come from cultures that still regard out-of-wedlock births with shame. In addition, many parents who have adopted abroadsay that one reason they chose that route was to avoid being involved with a birth family.
Because the practice is still so new, researchers are only now studying how these open relationships are working: Will a child be hurt if a birth parent starts out involved but then withdraws? How will a child feel if the woman who bore him has another child but decides she can raise this one? And what if there is a fallout between the birth parents and the adoptive parents?
”I think there are a lot of people pressured into openness that might not be in their best interest,” said Beth Parsons, executive director of El Paso Adoption Services. The agency places about 25 children a year, roughly 70 percent of them children of Hispanic mothers, many of whom conceal their pregnancies from relatives.
”We talk to birth mothers about their options, but many do not feel emotionally ready for an open adoption,” Ms. Parsons said.
Although many of the pregnant women choose parents themselves from among the agency’s files, most people who adopt through the El Paso agency do not learn that they have a child until relinquishment papers are signed, which cannot be done in Texas until at least 48 hours after the birth.
”I want the mothers to make their decisions without the pressure of an adoptive family waiting outside the delivery room door,” Ms. Parsons said. She said she also wants to protect adopting parents from becoming attached to a woman and her unborn baby, in case the mother changes her mind.
Still, Ms. Parsons said, the move toward openness is positive and she urges all birth mothers to give photographs, letters or some memento to their child, a change from when the agency first opened in 1990.
Most experts agree that the open adoption process has helped to transform the experience of adoption even for those with more traditional arrangements. Today, most people who adopt know something about their children’s backgrounds. Even if they are not in regular contact, they frequently have medical histories, photographs of biological relatives, and letters and gifts for the children from the women who bore them.
This information, experts say, can help children to understand better the decisions leading to their adoption.
”One of the most frustrating things for me growing up was not knowing my background,” said David Wilson, a 31-year-old telecommunications consultant who several years ago found and met his birth parents. ”I’m cautious about saying that having an open, ongoing relationship with them when I was growing up would have been good. That could create conflict or blur lines. But just knowing who they were and why they made their choices would have taken away an unnecessary mystery.”
One of the greatest shifts in adoption in recent years is this emergence of birth mothers from the shroud of shame and dependence that kept them from having any role in shaping their children’s futures. In fact, most parents who adopt domestically today — whether in totally open adoptions or more closed ones — engage in a kind of courtship of birth mothers, preparing albums and letters aimed at persuading pregnant women to entrust their unborn children to them.
”We want to see things through the eyes of this child,” the Weilackers wrote in their ”Dear Birth Mother” letter.
The Weilackers, who are both 39 and had endured several years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, placed their letter with the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, Calif. It was forwarded, among dozens of others, to Ms. Elniskey, prompting her to call the Weilackers on a toll-free line they had set up hoping to receive just such a call.
Before she called the center, Ms. Elniskey said, she did not even know such an arrangement was possible. The world of adoption, she said, was vastly different than it was eight years ago, when she was 18, in high school and pregnant.
”I knew I wasn’t ready to be a mother, I couldn’t do it,” Ms. Elniskey, a 26-year-old homemaker, said of her first pregnancy. ”After I gave birth, my sister Judy took the baby home and cared for her. I named her Alyssa. My obstetrician found the couple. She was a patient of his. I wanted to know about them, who they were and all. But I didn’t know I could ask.”
The experience, she said, left her heartbroken. Even now she will scan a crowd, looking at girls around Alyssa’s age, wondering, ”Is that my hair? My nose? Could this be her?”
When she found herself last winter with three small children and pregnant again, despite having had an injection of Depo-Provera that was supposed to prevent pregnancy for several months, Ms. Elniskey said she panicked. She and Mr. Rosario, who is 30 years old and works in a factory making roll-up doors for trucks, agreed that they could not cope with another child.
Ms. Elniskey said she knew she could never go blindly into another adoption. But she never imagined the power she had to influence her baby’s future and to remain a part of it.
”This boy is going to know right from the get-go that he’s adopted,” Ms. Elniskey said. ”I want him to have his own life with them. I don’t want to be in their way. But I want to know what’s going on. When he’s old enough, he can come to me and ask what he wants. But I want him to never have to wonder why I made this plan for him.”
”He never will,” Mrs. Weilacker assured her.
Callous Stereotypes And Hurtful Words
Despite such radically changed attitudes toward adoption, parents and adoption professionals said, Nicholas can expect to be asked by his friends and others why his ”real” mother ”gave him away.” Even in the most cosmopolitan and adoption-saturated cities, like New York, people still say callous things to adoptive families.
The mother of a girl adopted from Korea said that the first week she strolled with her daughter in Central Park, strangers approached her and said: ”Oh, she’ll be great at math!” ”Why did you get her, you couldn’t have one of your own?” ”Does she speak Chinese?”
Ronny Diamond, director of post-adoption services at the Spence-Chapin adoption agency in Manhattan, said that attitudes toward adoption were similar in some ways to racial prejudice. ”If you ask people if they are prejudiced, they would say, ‘No,’ ” Ms. Diamond said. ”But if you put forth a scenario, the bias emerges. For example, a teacher gets a class list and sees that three boys are adopted. Often, they’ll say, ‘This is trouble. This will be a tough year.’ ”
Spence-Chapin offers advice to help teachers and administrators focus on how they talk about adoption, the language they use and the assignments they make.
At a recent workshop, teachers were surprised at how clumsy they had been in dealing with the issue and how easy it was to readjust. Administrators at the school agreed to have a reporter present on condition that the school not be identified.
Ms. Diamond began by handing out a glossary showing the common ways people talk about adoption and the more positive alternatives. For example, instead of saying that a birth parent ”gave a child away,” it is better to say she ”made an adoption plan,” reflecting the thought that goes into such a decision. Although these linguistic distinctions may seem like political correctness to some, they are, said Ms. Diamond and many others, distinctions that matter, that clarify reality. Among the important shifts in language is to say that a child ”was” adopted, rather than ”is” adopted. ”Being adopted is an action that happens once and then you are someone’s child,” Ms. Diamond said.
She also cautioned teachers against trying to comfort adopted children by telling them that they were ”chosen,” a strategy one teacher offered as a positive way to explain adoption. ”Think about it,” Ms. Diamond said. ”What is the opposite of chosen? Rejected. To be chosen, a child might think he had to have been rejected.”
Also, she went on, most adopted children are not chosen. Implying that they are makes it seem like their parents walked down a row of children in a pediatric supermarket and selected the choicest offering.
”Adoption is not better,” Ms. Diamond told the teachers. ”It’s just not worse.”
Yet even as adoptive parents and their children feel less isolated and stigmatized, birth parents say they continue to endure society’s disapproving glare.
”When I was pregnant, people were shocked and disgusted by my plans, not that I was pregnant and unmarried but that I was making an adoption plan,” said Lisa Nicholson, a 28-year-old woman from Richmond, Va., who four years ago chose a family to adopt her daughter. ”My family and friends understood, but strangers who knew nothing about me or my circumstances would say, ‘How could you?’ ”
Sometimes, she said, when she hears people talking about how irresponsible birth parents are, she cannot help revealing herself. ”Usually, I really surprise them, because, to meet me, I’m the girl next door,” said Ms. Nicholson, who married last year and hopes to start a family. ”I explain to them why it’s a responsible decision. It’s not easier, it’s harder. But most people don’t take the time to see it that way.”
While Ms. Nicholson corresponds with and occasionally speaks to the couple who adopted her daughter, — she recently got pictures showing the little girl playing tennis and posing with friends — she has often feared that disapproval and ignorance among the couple’s friends and relatives would drive them away from her.
Susan Saidman, who has a warm and open relationship with Linda Dooley, the birth mother of her daughter, Sasha, said that prejudices in society lingered.
”There’s been this image in the popular consciousness that birth parents are these selfish, uncaring people who don’t even think twice about giving up their kids and yet, paradoxically, that they are these evil people lurking in the shadows who are going to come and snatch these children back,” said Mrs. Saidman, 49, a writer and management consultant. ”But it’s just fear and ignorance speaking. Linda is part of our lives, part of our family. But I am Sasha’s mother.”
To celebrate Sasha’s 6th birthday this August, Mrs. Saidman and her husband, Perry, a 52-year-old design patent lawyer, invited Ms. Dooley and her 22-year-old daughter, Keira, to drive up from their home in Florida and stay with the family in their house in Wheaton, Md.
This was the third time the extended clan had gotten together since Sasha’s birth. In between, there were E-mail exchanges, letters, phone calls and a vacation in the Bahamas that Keira, a college student, took with the Saidmans.
”The most important thing for me is that Sasha is a great kid, she has wonderful parents and she will never have to have any self-doubts because any questions she has, she can ask me or she can ask Susan,” said Ms. Dooley, 42, who owns a seamstress and housecleaning business. ”The hardest part has been when people who barely know me belittle me and my decision.”
The Changing Family
Breaking the Mold Of a Traditional Home
Diana Galligan, nearly 7, knows what adoption means. ”It’s when people who love you take care of you and become your parents,” she says, quietly poised.
And she will tell you that in her case, those people are her ”guys,” her dad, John Galligan, and her pop, Richard Koonce.
At Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Va., Diana is one of many adopted children, although her fathers think she is the only one there who is being raised by openly gay parents. And even though Mr. Galligan and Mr. Koonce are far more concerned with helping their daughter learn to read and to express herself freely, they are acutely aware that families like theirs are a symbol of ”the new American family.”
”In previous generations, one of the most difficult notions for many gay men coming out was putting aside the idea of having a family,” said Mr. Galligan, 39, who works for the United States Treasury Department.
Mr. Galligan said that he knew he wanted to be a father ever since he worked as a college volunteer in a Big Brother program. Several years ago, Mr. Galligan, said, although he had no partner at the time, he decided that ”the time was right; I wanted to be a father.”
He was trying to figure out how to go about adopting, when a woman he knew with two older children told him that she was pregnant and was willing to have him adopt the baby. Their arrangement is open, and Diana visits her birth mother every summer and calls her when she feels like it.
Although they have sensed disapproval and worse from strangers, Mr. Galligan and Mr. Koonce said, they have never faced prejudice from neighbors or teachers.
But both men lamented that many religious and political institutions were still hostile. Although Mr. Galligan adopted Diana, Mr. Koonce is legally only Diana’s guardian in case something happens to Mr. Galligan. He has yet to formally adopt her, they said, because Virginia courts would not allow it.
Many states let single people adopt without their sexual orientation being an issue. Some states allow one gay person to adopt, then later the other partner. But about half the states do not allow a second parent of the same sex to adopt a child, even later. And in Florida and New Hampshire, it is nearly impossible for gay people to adopt at all.
Mr. Koonce and Mr. Galligan said that they thought such resistance to adoptions by gay people would eventually wither.
”Society is on the edge of creating a lot of new models for work, family and community,” said Mr. Koonce, 44, who owns his own career counseling business. ”I look at myself. I have a nontraditional model of work that’s a far cry from what my father did, working for the big company. I have what many people would consider a nontraditional family, although we see ourselves as very conservative and mainstream. I walk Diana to school; John picks her up. On Teacher Appreciation Day, there I was with all the moms, bringing a tossed salad.”
Sometimes, when Kathryn Creedy is stitching badges on a Brownie sash or searching under a couch for a marker cap, she pauses and reminds herself that as real as being a mother feels to her, a generation ago, she and her daughters — Alexis, 8, and Brooks, 5 — would also likely not have become a family. Ms. Creedy is a single woman.
As the American family has assumed new forms, adoption agencies have begun to look beyond stereotypes to find parents. Some countries, favored older parents and single parents, reasoning that children would have such parents’ full focus. Single parents were also more willing to adopt older children or children with disabilities.
In 1991, Ms. Creedy, a media specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, decided that, then 39 and unmarried, the biggest regret in her life was that she was not a mother. Initially, she tried to adopt a child out of foster care, but she was turned down because she was single.
She signed up with a private adoption agency near her home in Alexandria, Va. While preparing to adopt a child from Guatemala, news reports from Eastern Europe pushed her to fly to Romania. After seven grueling weeks, she returned home with a feisty 14-month-old girl with laughing eyes.
The girl’s birth mother was desperate for her child to climb out of the poverty engulfing the family. ”She would take Alexis and point to me and say, ‘Mama, America,’ ” Ms. Creedy recalled. ”It was so profound. We didn’t speak the same language, but it was clear she was saying to me, ‘You are the one I trust to be my child’s mother.’ ”
Two years later, Ms. Creedy flew to Bolivia to adopt a 5-month-old girl, whose onyx hair and tawny skin set her apart from her golden-haired, fair-skinned sister, and from her mother, who describes herself as having ”turkey white skin.” And yet, together they are a family in every way: loving, argumentative, affectionate.
The girls’ roots are a vibrant part of their identities. Each year, each girl celebrates her ”Gotcha Day,” the day she became a part of the family. The day begins with the reading of ”life books” that Ms. Creedy prepared for each, with pictures, maps and the tale of how their family came to be.
Alexis’s book, which she now proudly reads herself, begins, ”Once upon a time there was a woman, who dreamed of having a baby girl of her own to give her all the love she had stored up over her lifetime. Her name was Mommy.”
Decision May Be Best But Deed Is Not Easy
The day Nicholas was born, a late September Sunday, Kim Elniskey wrote him a letter as he rested beside her in the hospital.
Mrs. Weilacker was scrambling to get on a plane to Buffalo. Mr. Rosario was at home with the children. ”I needed to make sure that you would always be healthy, safe, happy and most of all LOVED more than could humanly have been possible,” Ms. Elniskey wrote. ”And in order for all those things to go together as one, Jorge and I had to make THE HARDEST DECISION OF OUR LIVES, and that was to find you a mommy and daddy that would do all those things for you.”
After Mrs. Weilacker arrived, the two women stayed together in the hospital room and tended to Nicholas, confusing nurses about who his mother was. One even tried to take Mrs. Weilacker’s temperature.
Ms. Elniskey showed Mrs. Weilacker how to change his diaper, how to tap his back gently to bring up gas after a feeding.
The day after Nicholas’s birth, Mrs. Weilacker spent time alone with him in the hospital, when Ms. Elniskey had tubal ligation surgery. Mrs. Weilacker later settled into a hotel with Nicholas, while Ms. Elniskey returned home to her family.
For the rest of the week, they shuttled between the apartment and the hotel. Nicholas’s siblings, Jake, 4, Miranda, 3, and Serena, 1, cooed over him. Mr. Rosario kept his distance. Ms. Elniskey seemed always on the verge of tears. And yet, when her children clambered about her and Nicholas would begin to cry, she said that she was relieved and sure of her decision.
Finally, Mrs. Weilacker, Ms. Elniskey and Mr. Rosario boarded a plane to Los Angeles, where Nicholas met his father and the adoption papers were signed.
”Nicholas has to get on with his life and we have to move on with ours,” Ms. Elniskey said. ”At least our lives won’t be entirely separate, but I really can’t imagine how it will all be in a month or a year from now.”