My last open letter is to the general populace. Unlike hte others, this one needs no warnings or preambles. Interestingly enough, a member of our local adoptive families group just had an article published dealing with much the same topic. So if you're interested in reading it, click here.
An open letter to the general populace about intercountry adoption
By Kevin Kreutner
The very fact you are reading this right now puts you ahead of the pack. Nonetheless, you could probably use a little bit of perspective.
There are thousands of ordinary American families each year that grow through this crazy thing called intercountry adoption. The people involved in intercountry adoption have gone to extraordinary lengths to become parents. They have endured infertility, miscarriages, stress beyond belief, and a whole lot of soul searching before finally bringing that adorable little foreign child home.
While most adoptive parents are very proud of how they grew their family, it was still a life changing experience and it can in some ways be a very personal and private endeavor. No matter how proud and open we seem, we also have a natural amount of insecurity and defensiveness about the whole experience.
You need to be sensitive about this!
This is not to imply that is wrong to approach someone and ask a question. Your curiosity and interest are natural and many parents love the attention. But you also have to do so with an aura of caution and the realization that intercountry adoption goes deep into our being.
You need to be sure to choose your words carefully so as not to offend. We realize that most of the time you intend no harm. But you can also be very insensitive simply due to the fact that you haven’t been though our experience.
So let’s embark on a little linguistics lesson…
Scenario one: You want to find out from someone how much it costs to adopt a child. Which do you think is the best way to ask someone?
a.) How much did you buy your son for?
b.) I heard it costs a fortune to get a kid. What did you pay?
c.) I have a friend that is interested in adopting. She mentioned that it can be really expensive. Would you mine telling me what the fees were like for you?
Scenario two: You are curious if a child was adopted and where they were born. How should you best ask?
a.) Boy does she ever have the most beautiful almond shaped eyes! Where was she born?
b.) Where did you get her?
c.) Is she yours? How’d that happen?
Believe it or not, there are people that use the obviously wrong ways to ask. And then they will likely find themselves making the adoptive parent uncomfortable and defensive. How you ask questions and reflect your interest can make all the difference to the well-being of the adoptive parent.
You must realize that our family unit is every bit as real and pure as that of a biological family. Don’t ask questions about the child’s “real mom” to her adoptive mother. Her adoptive mother is her real mother! The other lady is her biological or birth mother. Any adoptive parent can tell you that we don’t view our children as our adopted kids, they are just our sons and daughters.
Lastly, if you know someone who is in the midst of an adoption, give that person some space. Let them talk to you about it when comfortable. There is nothing more difficult for a person struggling with the emotions of being in process then to get asked fifty times a day whether they have any new news or know when the child is coming home. Each time someone does this, it is like a dagger being stuck in the heart and piercing straight into the soul.
We realize that you mean no harm. But you need to realize that there are limits to our strength. It’s okay to be curious and give us a second look. But don’t stare at us. It’s okay to ask us a question about it. But use caution with your words and feel us out for how much we are comfortable talking about it. Let us be if you sense an ounce of hesitance. And always, without fail, remember that we are just a normal family with parents who love their kids.
WARNING: this letter contains profanity that some may find offensive and inappropriate. The prologue of this book warned about this but I realize some may not have read that. As with the entire book, the language was used to express the energy and emotion felt by the author. So if bad language is hard for you to stomach, you have been forewarned that you may wish to skip this letter. But I also wish to remind everyone that this is one section of a much larger book that is being posted piece by piece. It is not a normal autonomous thread to Guatadopt and should not be read as such.
An open letter to the folk who adopt internationally
By Kevin Kreutner
We are not victims!
We are not helpless!
We have choices!
We have responsibilities!
We have rights, but they have limits!
It is not about us, it is about the children!
Despite the urge to write a warm fluffy letter to all the kind, wonderful people who have opened their wallets, hearts, and homes to orphans from far off lands where extreme poverty is the norm, we too need a deep look inside.
We all agree that adoption systems are not what they should be. Yet we also have a natural tendency to separate ourselves from all that controversial stuff. We are just the innocent people stuck on someone else’s chessboard.
“Nothing is our fault”.
“It’s the embassy screwing us.”
“It’s that damn adoption agency.”
“If only those dumbass human rights wannabees would just shut the fuck up we’d have our child home.”
It’s all about us and yet we are powerless. Bullshit my friends.
Adoptive parents share much of the blame for what has transpired in the realm of intercountry adoption. Let me preface that I don’t claim to be perfect. Like every other adoptive parent, I fell prey to some of what I will be writing critically about.
Ultimately, we control the whole ball of string. We are the ones who feed the systems. Corruption is a by-product of money. It is our money being injected into the system. So if there is a birthmother being paid, we’re the ones who paid her. If there is a government official being bribed, we paid that bribe. And if we as a community bonded together and demanded change, we could get it.
It is only through an acceptance of our role in the intercountry adoption process and the systems that exist that rational change can occur. Without us, the unethical adoption providers will either run rampant or governments will step in and ultimately make intercountry adoption impossible or illegal. Yet if adoptive parents take on the same accountability we complain professionals lack, we can control and severely debilitate the scumbags’ ability to operate.
Adoptive parents have the obligation to research and question those we hire to represent us in the process of an adoption. We have the obligation to emphasize ethical practices over the speed at which we can bring our children home. We need to realize that the lives of countless children yet to be born lie in our hands. Not because we will ultimately become their parents; because if we don’t take control they may lose their only chance to ever find a permanent family.
All too often adoptive parents completely separate themselves from the stark reality of what we are engaged in. We behave as if we are just children waiting for the teacher to tell us that it is time for recess. We don’t take the time to learn about the country we are working with or to really understand the intricacies of the process we are engaging. We just write our checks, get a bunch of paperwork taken care of, hope for updates, and wait for the call that we are now parents. As long as everything goes according to plan, we don’t ask any questions. This is wrong. We are active participants in the process and must behave as such.
So in order to best dive into how adoptive parents need to accept their responsibilities, it seems most logical to trace them as they would occur in a normal adoption process. This begins with choosing an agency.
My involvement in the community of families who have adopted from Guatemala has placed me in contact with many people going through horrendous adoptions. Virtually without exception this is because they did not do their homework before choosing whom to work with for their adoption. They didn’t ask questions, seek out references and past clients, or really get down to the nitty gritty policies with their agency. Virtually no families ask adoption providers during this process to explain how they ensure ethical practices are in place. Instead we tend to go to a local agency that offers a free information seminar or do some basic internet search and jump in from there. Or even worse, we visit on-line photolistings.
What agency or lawyer you hire to manage your adoption is an extremely important decision. Reputable adoption professionals rely on positive word-of-mouth as their primary marketing tool. Others who can’t rely on word-of-mouth have to try other techniques and photolistings are one. These professionals realize the emotional brainwashing these websites can achieve on unsuspecting parents.
I remember all too well how Sheila visited these sites as we were considering adoption. People have gone through years of unsuccessful attempts to conceive. They wish nothing more than to just be able to have a child. And then they find some website and on it is a picture of some beautiful, innocent child in need of a family. The listings have a tendency to either downplay the true availability of that particular child or to imply that homecoming would realistically be faster than expected. The prospective adoptive parents start to salivate. They believe they have found nirvana.
“Just look at those beautiful big brown eyes and that little button nose.”
“She could be ours in just a matter of months.”
“Look, it is a Christian adoption agency. They even support a bunch of orphanages.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens next! The check gets written. The contract gets signed without anyone reading what the agency is actually promising. And two people get sent on one wild ride that usually does still ultimately end in a child coming home. But how much heartache did they go through? Was that child properly cared for along the way? Were those doctor’s reports authentic? Was the child really receiving the best formula?
I could go into more detail about far worse scenarios that I have encountered - things like babies being switched, questionable relinquishments, and forged documents. While not all of these instances were the by-product of poor research on the part of the parents, that is generally the case.
There are other things that prospective parents need to research before signing any adoption contract or writing any checks. They need to learn all about the adoption process and then test the agency’s knowledge in an interview. They need to understand how involved that agency is with the country being considered. They need to ensure that the people being hired know the system, have good relationships, and are experienced working in that country. The fact that you know someone that loved an agency for their adoption from China is not a good reason to hire them for your Guatemalan adoption!
Just as pregnant couples make birthing plans, adoptive parents need to develop an adoption plan. Different agencies have many different policies. These policies involve things like regularity of updates, facilitating contact with foster and biological families, direct lines into the foreign lawyers, visiting during the process, and even things as ludicrous as whether you can talk to other families about your process. Some policies, such as agencies telling their clients not to get involved with the internet adoption community, are sure-tell signs of an agency to avoid. But others, such as rules for visiting, are not this way. Nonetheless, they still are important considerations to ensure that the adoption goes as desired.
Another good idea is to talk about ethics policies with agencies while in the decision phase. Directly ask them to address things rumored to occur and see how they react. If they get defensive or try to claim that these things never happen, be wary! If they instead openly discuss concerns and measures they have in place to reduce the chances of your adoption being ethically challenged, you may have a winner.
Lastly, ask an agency to describe to you a difficult case that ran into problems. Have them describe what actions they took to get that adoption completed. Do the same when talking to former clients. Remember that the true test of a good agency is not how they handled smooth cases - it is how they reacted to a troubled one.
Once an agency or lawyer has been selected, a whole new ballgame begins. Now is when a delicate line must be drawn between being assertive and being irrational. There is a great line from the movie Bull Durham, “you have to play this game with fear and arrogance”, that very much describes how adoptive parents need to behave during the adoption process. You need to have a healthy amount of skepticism and not be afraid to ask questions or make demands. But you also have to be cautious not to become paranoid or assume the worst.
The adoption process is an incredibly difficult time in the life of adoptive parents. It is completely understandable why we at times become lunatics. We are sick of waiting to be parents and we want nothing more than to bring a child home to hold, kiss, love, smother, cherish, and become the center of our universe.
What could be more pure?
We have to take a step back and remember what it is that we are doing. Forget about the fact that you know you are a good, honest person and remember that you are asking a country to allow you to pay a lot of money in order to bring home an innocent child who lacks the capacity to care for himself. This is serious shit that we are involved in and it is wrong to take it lightly!
I have come across many families who unknowingly become the stereotypical “ugly American”. They all of a sudden develop an opinion that the two governments involved in the process have no right to delay the homecoming or institute any due diligence to ensure ethical adoptions are done with the child’s best interest at heart. They believe that everyone should accept their request at face value and just turn over the damn child. They convince themselves at this point that this is a humanitarian issue rather than just plain old selfishness.
I am not here to defend long adoption processes. I do believe that it is best for the children to find permanency as young as possible. And bureaucrats do prevent that from happening. But when has government ever been anything but inefficient?
The bottom line on intercountry adoptions is that we do not have a right to these children. The tens of thousands of dollars we send out buy us nothing so far as a guarantee to bring home any given child. The governments on both sides of the equation have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the child was legally relinquished or abandoned and that the child will become part of a capable, loving family. If we are to assume that just because we shelled out some duckets gives us an entitlement, then we are opening the doors to the scenarios that can lead to the demise of intercountry adoption altogether. As hard as it is to go through the process, we have to respect the systems that are in place to protect everyone involved. Even when they are slow as fuck!
Another manifestation of the ugly American involves a jingoistic perspective that everyone should praise the fact that children are going from “third world” countries to the Eden-like bountiful riches of the United States. Hand in hand with this follows a subconscious theory that these “third world” countries are nothing but stupid, corrupt, pathetic cultures not worthy of being treated with equality.
Let me tell you something folks… These children are doing us a favor. We are the blessed ones. Let’s not start fooling ourselves into believing that we are saving the world. Children can grow up happy and loved in poverty. Money does not buy happiness! All the toys and video games in the world do not mean that a child is being well parented. And neither does our U.S. passport. The United States is plagued with child molesters, random acts of violence, discrimination, drugs, and of course pitbulls just waiting to restart their revolution. In other words, we’re pretty fucked up too!
When dealing with a foreign country we have to respect their culture and ways of doing things – even when they seem whacko to us. When in Rome we must do as the Romans do and live by its rules. The same goes for Guatemala, China, or Ethiopia. Realize that we are ambassadors for our country and for the community of adoptive parents. If we come across vain or intolerant, it will result in negative perceptions about adoptive parents and that can fuel the fire of those opposed to intercountry adoption. We must understand the skepticism many have in foreign countries because their culture has yet to embrace the beauty of adoption. Because of socio-economics and racism in their own countries, many Guatemalans, for example, can’t believe that Americans would really adopt indigenous children to be a part of their family. It seems far more likely to them that we want servants or something of that sort. So when they come in contact with disrespectful adoptive parents, it adds to this impression.
Adoption systems do need to be regulated and that does mean we will have to endure the wait for homecoming. It means that we will have to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops and have the limits of our sanity pushed. When people ask me how to handle it I reply with a simple answer, “for me, a glass or two of cabernet and some Grateful Dead always seemed to help”. The truth is that those things didn’t really help all that much and that the months we spent in-process kept me from concentrating on work, sleeping, eating properly, and being able to enjoy the simple things in life.
In many ways, our responsibilities become even greater once we bring our children home. Once we are done with the process, we are now in a position to help others and work for change.
There is a shroud of secrecy that often surrounds intercountry adoption. People become so intimidated during the process that they forget they can lose those concerns once their child is home. I have people not want to talk about their agency experience after their child is home because they’re afraid the agency will find out. So what if they find out! What the hell can they do to you once you are the child’s legal parent? If you went through hell with an agency or lawyer, you need to do everything in your power to put those bastards out of business and spare others the pain you went through!
Our adoption stories do not end at homecoming. We are a part of a larger community that we owe a debt to. We must stay involved and interested in what happens in intercountry adoption long after we’ve decided our families are done growing. This is not only for the sake of those just entering the systems, but also for our children. If we don’t fight the scumbags and corruption grows, what will we tell our children? How will we explain to them why it is that Americans can no longer adopt from their country of birth? How will we make them confident that their adoption was clean and that there is not some family in another country still trying to recover from the loss of their kidnapped child?
We also have a responsibility as it relates to the community-at-large. Like it or not, we are ambassadors for intercountry adoption. The general populace is interested in how we grew our families. Their curiosity is a byproduct of many things they have read, seen on television, heard third hand, etc. We have the responsibility to not be offended by their improper terms and innuendos. We have to be more open than others in how we deal with curious strangers. True, how we formed our families is none of their business. But on the other hand, it is something we should be proud of. We should use their interest and curiosity as an opportunity to educate them and make them more informed. While it may seem to be an inconvenience and breach of our right to privacy, in the end it will make the world our children live in more accepting of our families.
Lastly there is the responsibility to our children who have to grow up confident and comfortable with whom they are. Admittedly, I am no psychiatrist and there are probably studies contradicting some of my conclusions. So take them with a grain of salt but this is my chance for a soapbox. Obviously, parents in interracial families must at some point be open to their children about being adopted. But there is much more to it beyond just letting the kids know. We can make adoption an important part of their lives. We can make sure to keep parts of their birth country alive in their hearts. We can take openness to another step where we make them proud of who they are, how they came to our families, and where they came from. Remember that children take in an awful lot more than many give them credit for. When they see a parent open about their adoption, visiting their birth country, and remaining involved in the adoption community, they realize that they are special in a positive way. But if a parent takes the stance that strangers asking questions are a nuisance, paying no attention to their birth country and culture, and seemingly trying to “be like everyone else”, I believe it can cause or more likely enhance doubts and natural concerns about who they are.
In conclusion, we are very special people. We have opened out hearts, minds, and bank accounts to children we share nothing in common with. And we love them more than the average Joe could ever know. We go through an extremely traumatic process, suffer before entering it, and remain involved in it voluntarily or involuntarily for the rest of our lives. Being adoptive parents does make us unique. Having interracial families makes us even more unique. And we will be tested on these things for the rest of our lives. I always try to follow a rule where I hold myself to a higher standard than I expect of strangers. For this reason, we all need to realize the responsibilities we have. We are ambassadors to our children’s birth country, to the foes of intercountry adoption, to the general populace domestically, and most importantly to the psychological well being of our children. We’re not superheroes but at times we must behave as such. After all, it takes courage, strength, endurance, and a whole bunch of good karma to successfully navigate the path of the adoptive family.
WARNING: this letter contains profanity that some may find offensive and inappropriate. The prologue of this book warned about this but I realize some may not have read that. As with the entire book, the language was used to express the energy and emotion felt by the author. So if bad language is hard for you to stomach, you have been forewarned that you may wish to skip this letter. But I also wish to remind everyone that this is one section of a much larger book that is being posted piece by piece. It is not a normal autonomous thread to Guatadopt and should not be read as such.
An open letter to the practitioners of intercountry adoption
By Kevin Kreutner
Let me begin by stating that I believe there are many fine intercountry adoption practitioners. In fact, I believe that the vast majority of people working in intercountry adoption are ethical and truly trying to help children gain much needed permanency. In addition, I take no issue with adoption providers earning good incomes. If I can make six figures marketing food items to restaurants, surely someone creating families deserves the same. I do feel that you can be a capitalist and watch out for your own bottom line without sacrificing your scruples or morality.
There are also far too many adoption providers who are complete scumbags and will certainly burn in hell eternally with the likes of those who molest children, and beat on puppy dogs. There are people who could care less about the children, where they go, the care they receive during the process, or whatever may have been done to get that child “available” for adoption.
This open letter is directed at the prior of the two groups. Because in the case of the latter, they are so slimy that surely no letter from me is going to shake their karma into becoming worthy of the air they breathe. But while this letter targets the ethical providers out there, its content heavily contends with their responsibilities to filter out their scumbag peers.
There is not one adoption provider who can claim that intercountry adoption systems are as they should be. There is not a single country program that could be used as a gold standard or benchmark for others. The reason for this is that those with the potential to be the best are also those with the greatest opportunity for corruption. To the good providers, this is not new news.
Because systems are not what they should, or could, be, everyone who is involved in it has the responsibility to root out corruption and exploitation. And by that I mean the exploitation of birthmothers, children, and adoptive parents alike. Only you have the ability to enact this type of change because only you know exactly the types of things that do occur.
It is not enough for you to run your own agency or law office by the letter of the law. You have a voluntary obligation to improve the systems you work in and the industry of which you are a part.
I can take this from a number of angles. The first being that of self-perseverance. If systems don’t improve and corruption, even if only in a miniscule percent of cases, is known, then you know better than I what will happen. The country will eventually close and the opportunity to provide homes for the majority of children in clean cases will cease. Look at El Salvador, Ecuador, Paraguay, India, Viet Nam and Cambodia to name a few countries. In each of these cases genuine corruption in a minority of cases resulted in a shutdown. Some were by the sending country and some by the United States. Either way the end result is the same – children no longer can find homes with loving parents in the United States. And if the countries close one by one because of a few bad apples, sooner or later you too shall rot. In short, at the rate things have happened in the last 10-20 years, your scumbag brethren are threatening genocide to your profession. No more open countries can only mean no more intercountry adoption professionals.
This rationale of self-perseverance is even more relevant to those working in the sending countries. Unlike the U.S. adoption agencies that can move on and start to focus on the “next” country, you are stuck. If the adoptions end, you need to immediately find a new way of earning a living. Please understand this because you may get a false sense of security if you rely only on your agency peers to keep things clean. Don’t forget, they have other adoption options for the time being – you don’t! This is extremely important because you more than anyone can help change the way adoptions are serviced in your countries.
The second reason why I call to a voluntary obligation to help improve adoption systems is because the fact of the matter is that human beings are frail and not deep thinking. This holds as true for adoptive parents as much as anyone else. As more and more stories of adoption professionals going astray become public, it places scars on all of you. Yes, we adoptive parents can stereotype you. We can come to believe that you are all crooked. We can begin to not trust you at all – even if for no good reason. And suddenly you can find yourself being persecuted and stereotyped even though you may have done nothing wrong. Not sure you believe me? I challenge you take an anonymous poll of adoptive parents who have synched into the adoption internet community. Even those of us who had positive experiences operate with a certain amount of distrust and skepticism. This is even true of me, someone who works closely with adoption professionals on advocacy efforts. Another piece of evidence to how you are all judged by your weakest link would be an analogy with politicians. Most elected officials are good people trying to serve their country and their constituency. But no one in his right mind trusts a single one of the bastards. So unless you want to be thrown into the same basket as the scum, you best do something about them!
My last reason for citing a voluntary obligation is the most important one – because it is the right fucking thing to do. Anyone who knows about true crimes being committed that hurt people and jeopardize children has the responsibility to do something about it. You can not just sit back aware of these things and take the stance that if it’s not your case, it’s not your problem. You know damn well that the scumbags who did whatever it was once will make it their mode of operation if no one stops them. Which means more victims. Call it religion, call it karma, call it humanity, but more importantly call the cops, call the licensing agencies, call the press, call the embassy – just do something about it!
This voluntary obligation is not being met today, not even by the most ethical and proactive of adoption professionals. While you wish you could do more, you have for some reason fallen prey to a faulty line of reasoning and a dose of denial. I don’t believe that you are intentionally perpetuating the problems. I believe you genuinely believe that you are doing all you realistically can. But I also believe in the grand scheme that this is essentially bullshit.
The faulty line of reasoning is one that leads you to believe that if you openly admit to the problems that do exist, you are setting yourselves up for disaster. You believe that doing so only hands ammunition to the enemy, intensifying the attacks on intercountry adoption and adding credibility to those seeking to end it. Instead you find it more prudent to operate underground in your attempts to eliminate the scumbags. You work quietly through relationships you have with this bureaucrat or that politician. You slowly manage to eliminate some of the bad seeds while leaving the systematic vulnerabilities in tact. And that is the issue. If you instead focused on the systematic issues, we’d be more likely to create better systems. No matter how hard other groups in the adoption community try to understand the systems’ vulnerabilities, only the adoption providers truly have a good grasp of the entirety of the problem.
So why did I define your reasoning as faulty?
Quite simply, it is at best a short-term solution. Eventually the powers that be will catch up. Some scumbag will make a mistake. Someone’s records will turn up evidence that will be construed as proof of institutionalized corruption. It is only a matter of time. In other words, by not being upfront and accepting some risk in order to bring attention to the issues, you are slowly but surely pounding in the nails on the coffin of that country’s intercountry adoption system. Once again, this is more so the case for the practitioners in the sending countries. The agencies can figure its best to milk each country as long as possible and then move on. By not openly attacking the corruption, they can avoid more challenges while the country is open. And then once it closes, they can jump ship. But to those of you in the sending country, you ain’t going anywhere! If you instead face the problems head-on, you can gain credibility with all the powers that be. Your suggestions and ideas will be able to be judged credible and objective. You will be able to become a part of the solution rather than a spectator to the problem.
I also mentioned that there is a real problem with denial. By this I mean that the best practitioners are the best for a reason. You know the people you work with. You have established policies for your cases that ensure little to any funny stuff occurs. You have no knowledge of any improprieties in any of your cases. This causes you to think that the same must be true of others. And when you do hear of problems, you minimize the extent to which you believe it is going on.
I think it is worth the time to give an example of how this denial occurs. Take the issue of birthmother payments being used to induce women to get pregnant or to relinquish a child. I have had good, honest adoption professionals tell me about how they have met birthmothers who are incredibly grateful that their child will be able to grow up healthy and secure. And after having met tens, maybe hundreds, of these women they conclude that the birthmoms’ sincerity was so pure that there is no reason to believe that adoption professionals would need to supply monetary incentives. The sincerity of the birthmoms unfortunately does not really lead to the conclusion – this is denial.
Another example would come from criticism I have shared about some adoption providers with other providers. My criticism has been based on personal contact with former clients that I know to be bright, honest, and sane. Yet the adoption providers will disagree with me based on some professional involvement they have had with the peer. Well I hate to tell you this, but very few of the scumbags will admit to being so while at a professional conference! They will all claim to be ethical providers. They will talk the talk even if they have yet even learned to walk. You are in denial because you have somehow rationalized a way to discount the true experiences of adoptive parents who experienced first hand how that person operates.
It is very dangerous when you get to the point where you have a natural tendency to believe the fellow adoption provider over the account of some former client who experienced their travesties first hand. The reason being that it creates a complacency that allows not only the provider peers to run free, but also the system as a whole. As soon as any chain in the link of involvement is allowed to weaken, it spreads like a cancer throughout.
I can fully realize the difficult position that you find yourselves in. And more than just about any adoptive parent not gainfully employed in intercountry adoption, I realize the incredibly difficult career field you have chosen. I do fully comprehend that you have to deal with difficult bureaucrats, crooked and incompetent governments, uncertain associates, and people who seemed normal until they officially became your clients. Yet you must realize that you have chosen an incredibly special career field – one that requires excessive consideration. Your jobs are not irrelevant like say someone who markets food products for a living. No matter how well or poorly I do my marketing job, no one will really suffer. This is not the same for adoption providers. In reality, your positions fit more in-line with that of doctors, teachers, clergy and police.
Now don’t start crying about the immense amount of responsibility I have handed you. I realize that I’ve compared you with clergy and they are charged with doing god’s work! But to this agnostic – your job is more important. If someone sins, they can get theirs in the hereafter - if adoption providers fail, innocent children and adoptive parents suffer in the here and now. Nonetheless you all should consider yourselves fortunate and I will not offer sympathy for your chosen field. You are blessed with an ability to do the work that many would claim only god can do – create families.
On one occasion, by sure chance, I was given the honor of telling a family that their adoption was completed. It only happened because I knew their foster family and got the news that the case was complete before the agency had the chance to tell the family. When I told them that they were done, I didn’t realize that they didn’t already know! When it became clear that I had just given them the good news, an amazing energy passed through me. I didn’t even know them – this was the first time we had ever spoken. I was only calling to tell them that they had the most wonderful foster mother in the world and that I had met their future son who was doing well. But as I passed on the good news I was able to feel the complete joy in the hearts of these strangers at the other end of the phone line. The experience was amazing and it is something that you get to do on a regular basis. I can’t imagine the wonderful karma you must gain every time you take a couple struggling to become parents and make that dream a reality. But I hope you grasp how fortunate you are. There are many of us who go through our professional lives with little to no spiritual satisfaction. We deal with the daily reality that the manner in which we earn our living is essentially irrelevant. You do not have that problem – appreciate it!
There is one other primary area that I believe all adoption providers could use a firm kick in the ass about – treating your clients with respect. Some of the best, most ethical adoption providers I know have a tendency to take their proper behavior and sterling reputations too much to heart and as a result do their clients a disservice (Hannah, if you are reading this, I am not referring to you!). Granted, this is not even close to the disservice unethical providers inflict on their clients. But if we are to be visionaries, we MUST strive for perfection!
Adoption is a very difficult emotional process for the parents. It is generally preceded by an extended period of suffering through infertility. Adoptive parents are scared, often having heard numerous stories about unscrupulous providers. We are also nervous. We haven’t seen hundreds or thousands adoptions completed and we understandably want everything to be perfect and smooth in our own cases. We also are privy to a plethora of differing sources of information. If we go to any public adoption internet list and ask about any agency we are likely to find some who love them and some who hate them. Ask basic questions about how long some step in the process should take and we likely hear anywhere from three days to three years. And we will most certainly hear from someone about how his/her agency or lawyer completely zoned out and dropped the ball, despite a stellar reputation, and as a result the child’s homecoming took much longer than necessary.
This is the environment your clients come from.
Tell us what is going on. Give us progress reports. E-mail us just to say “no new news” if that’s the case. We are scared to call you and bother you. We are afraid of what will happen if we piss off our agency or attorney. We are as fucking paranoid as a crack addict jonesing and waiting for a delivery at a hotel where the police are having a convention. Don’t bring us to the point of needing to worry about asking a simple question. And when we ask a simple question, answer us! Answer us quickly and clearly. Take a minute and a half to read our question and make sure you understand it. If you don’t, call us. I personally guarantee that we parents will get back to you with extreme speed. Also make sure you read the whole e-mail to be certain you answer all the questions we have.
I have personally experienced the occasional crazy client you come across. I do not imply that they do not exist. But you know what? Life’s a bitch and sometimes you have to contend with some psychos. It’s not fun but it also is not something that you can make your normal clients pay for. So just deal with them. I don’t mean to minimize the stress that these people may cause. And obviously you can’t spend all day answering one whacko client’s eight thousand questions. But I also believe that it is poor client management that causes many people to become lunatics. More often than not, clients become crazy because you are not delivering a satisfactory level of service. Adoptive parents get put in an atrocious situation when that happens. We are in for the long haul. We’re not done with you until we get our child home. And once we come to feel that you are not really representing us appropriately, be that a true or false judgement, we will go crazy.
To give an example to this I only need to look so far as our own adoption. We had a good ethical provider. But she was horrendous about answering calls or replying to e-mails. There were numerous occasions when she was posting to public internet lists, answering other peoples’ questions, while our questions were still unanswered. How were we to react? Would it then become wrong to start e-mailing daily, hourly, or by the minute? After all, we know that she’s on-line. We know that she’s reading e-mail. And surely if she’s reading and replying to a public list she is not so busy solving some other client’s crisis that she lacks the time to answer ours. But what do we do? We could bombard her with e-mails and voicemails. But then would she get pissed off and not push our case through? We could be scared and just bite our fingernails. But then the anger at her flakiness would cost us sleep and ruin our daily lives. We could, as we did, just try to remain calm and wait. Ultimately that worked and everything went fine. But you know what? That caused us a lot of stress that did not need to occur! If we almost turned into psychotic clients – anyone can.
You also have an obligation to treat us like adults. After all, you are aiding and abetting us in our efforts to bring a child into our home – forever. If we are not mature enough to handle anything that comes from the adoption process, then how could you even think of facilitating us becoming mom and dad? Seriously, think about it!
So why do I seem to have the impression that adoption professionals do not treat their clients like adults? Because often times you don’t! We can handle the truth. We can deal with any wrench that gets thrown at us. This doesn’t mean we won’t need some emotional support. It just means that providing that support is part of why we pay you. There is no need to soften the blows that can occur in intercountry adoption. There is no need to protect us from the truth. At the earliest stages of any issue you have the ethical responsibility to be upfront and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t protect us unless we have asked you to do so.
Despite much of what you may have just read, I believe that all in all you do a good job. And while I hoped I could write this only to the good providers out there, I will end it with a message to all adoption professionals. I do this now because frankly some of you probably believe you are on the good side when in actuality you really suck.
You work in an industry that does require special consideration. You are dealing with the lives of innocent children. You are managing a process that is unlike anything else your clients will ever experience. You must accept full responsibility for the actions of those you associate yourself with. If you are hiring someone to work on one of your clients’ adoption, then whatever they do is your responsibility. Just as it is complete utter bullshit when Nike claims that it doesn’t employ any child labor even though their contractors, who manufacture only for Nike, do hire children, you can’t get away with the “we can’t control foreign service providers” excuse. You hired them and your clients hired and trusted you. If you can’t find good people to work with then don’t do adoptions! It is that painfully simple. We all make mistakes. But when people don’t learn from them and continue to hand out cases to evil associates, they become as guilty as can be.
You also have a responsibility to the trade. Yours is a trade that is under constant scrutiny. You know damn well what I mean! And if the trade fails, children suffer. I know this a lot to place on your shoulders but tough shit, that’s the way it is. No one made you become an adoption provider. You could have taken the easy route and marketed food products if you wanted the simple, mundane way out. But you didn’t and now you have to pay the price.
Realize that while there are many good peers in your trade, there are also way too many slimebags. Despite whatever you may have experienced yourself with someone, remember that you are not experiencing that person as a client. As hard as it may be, be extremely skeptical about how your professional friends behave. As soon as you become trusting and sure, you become complacent and they may be making a fool of you. You must work hard to root out the scumbags in your profession. They are a malignant tumor on every good person who works in adoption.
Try to understand that your clients are good people who have been through an incredibly traumatic time in their lives and are heading into a more difficult period. Deciding to adopt internationally and following through on that decision are enough to drive anyone insane. In order to minimize the impact of this craziness, be extra honest and upfront. Grasp that once in a while, you’ll get a real loony tune that you will need to manage. But the other 99% of the time, we can handle whatever this stinking world can throw at us.
Intercountry adoption is not what it should be! To a large extent, you are to blame. So stop trying to protect your interests. Stop being afraid of what will happen. Become vigilant! Treat your clients with respect. And revel in the wonderful way you earn a living.
Well now that I've shared our adoption story with the world the book takes a decidedly different tone in the form of open letters to all the various consitituent groups involved in the ICA debate. The first is to the NGOs and humanitarian groups.
I warn you in advance that I held nothing back and this does contain some explicit language. Sorry, but that's me...
An open letter to the Non-Governmental Organizations and Governments involved with issues impacting intercountry adoption
By Kevin Kreutner
Get off your fucking white horses and out of your god damned ivory towers!
Children’s lives are at stake!
A year or two ago, I watched a very funny segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It was a spoof on President GW Bush’s “healthy forest initiative” that would allow trees to be cut down in our national forests in order to save them. The commentator explained that this is like much of Bush’s policies -- we have kill trees to save trees just as we had to kill Iraqis to save Iraqis.
The rationale being used in developing highly restrictive intercountry adoption systems is nothing more than this same faulty logic promulgated by Pres. Bush. When you create a system that claims to “clean up” intercountry adoption but ultimately results in making it next to impossible to complete an adoption, you are sacrificing some children to save others. No matter what else you may claim, you are turning some children into involuntary martyrs in order to serve the supposed common good.
But what common good is served?
We all know that there is only way to make sure that there is no corruption in intercountry adoption – end the practice altogether.
Yet despite this fact, every convention, treaty, or resolution reached by the international community has come to the conclusion that intercountry adoption is a viable option for some children and is preferable to things like institutionalization or living on the streets. Why is that? Quite simply because CHILDREN HAVE THE RIGHT TO A FAMILY!
The extreme poverty being faced by a huge percentage of the world’s population is a matter that should bring shame on every living adult who doesn’t know what it is like to go hungry at night, not be able to afford shoes for your children, or sleep without a roof over your head. Yet instead of feeling this shame and working to resolve the fundamental cause of why children enter the intercountry adoption system, you instead try to pretend that you understand the plight of the poor. You create the appearance that you are trying to defend their rights and protect them from exploitation. There is the old saying about how until you walk a mile in someone’s moccasins that you can’t judge them. Well in this case I’d go so far as to say that you, and I for that matter, don’t know what their moccasins look like, much less what they feel like! Extreme poverty is a valid reason for a woman to decide that her child is best off being relinquished for adoption. Extreme poverty could place her in a position where she knows that trying to keep a newborn child with her could likely result in her other children suffering or dieing. So please, DON’T TRY TO CLAIM TO KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR PEOPLE IN SITUATIONS YOU CAN’T COMPREHEND! REALIZE THAT THERE ARE GOOD, VALID REASONS WHY WOMEN DECIDE TO RELINQUISH!
As an adoptive parent, it is very hard for me to even support the idea that a child is “best off” with his biological family. I state that not as some sort of call that biological parents should have their children stripped away. I state it because it is hard for me to imagine that there could be any difference between the love and environment my adopted daughter will grow up with and what she would have experienced had she joined my wife and I biologically. This is not to say that as she grows up she will not face any emotional issues resulting from the stigma of adoption or from her own questions about her heritage and genealogy. But very few of us grow up with no such issues and it is dealing with them that makes us stronger. So please STOP TRYING TO DISCOUNT THE VALIDITY OF THE ADOPTIVE FAMILY UNIT – IT IS NOT SECOND-CLASS!
It is amazing to me how far the world has come in regard to racial equality. While huge disparities still exist, most of the westernized world (that being the receiving countries) realizes that race is insignificant. Whenever asked for my race on a form or questionnaire, I simply answer “human”. This is a key understanding in how you should view intercountry adoption. It is okay for a child to be a part of an interracial family. Overwhelmingly so, the children will not be penalized for having darker skin or different shaped eyes than their parents. Once again, this is not to say that the child will never experience any pain because of this. Once again, it is to say that it is something to make them stronger as adults. So please REALIZE THAT CHILDREN CAN THRIVE IN AN INTERRACIAL FAMILY!
Much of the “developing world” has different cultural norms regarding race and adoption. It is time for you to realize this!!! We can debate forever on whether it is “preferable” that a child remains in his/her country of birth. But that debate becomes irrelevant when there are no viable options for the child in his/her country of birth. Latin-American culture, for example, is not accustomed to formal adoption and as a result, very few of the families who might be in a position to do so would consider it. In addition, taking Guatemala as an example, most of the children’s biological mothers live in extreme poverty. Anyone who knows about the socio-economics of the country knows that this means the children are likely from an indigenous bloodline. That means darker skin, possibly a shorter stature, and more almond shaped eyes. The wealthy in the country still harbor much prejudice against the indigenous people and as a result, they would not consider bringing such a child into their family. Maybe this explains why the current President of Guatemala’s daughter has gone to the Ukraine to adopt – so that she can bring home a nice light skinned child! With this in mind, why do you try to push for outrageous legislation that delays a child’s right to join a forever family? Do you have any proof that children who could find homes domestically are instead being “exported” to foreign families? You seem to have plenty of money to research allegations of improprieties, yet I see none that looks at the fundamentals of why intercountry adoption is necessary. My point is that if we create cookie cutter schematics for how every sending country should shape their system we are likely to ignore the unique qualities of each individual culture. So please DON’T USE YOUR SOCIAL NORMS AS A BASIS FOR DEVELOPING INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION SYSTEMS. ALWAYS BE SURE TO BASE THEM ON THE REALITIES OF THE INDIVIDUAL CULTURE.
One of the things annoying me most about your agenda is the apparent criterion being used to define “success” when adoption reform has been achieved. I have read far too many reports that point to a huge decrease in the number of intercountry adoptions as evidence that “the rights of the child” have been achieved. These reports do so without researching child mortality, malnutrition, the number of children being abandoned, the number of children institutionalized, the impact on the quality of institutional care, rates of domestic adoption and a sundry of other things that would logically be used to define success. Instead you take what to me appears to be a negative statistic – that fewer children are joining loving permanent families – and paint it to be a sign of astounding success. This is appalling, deceptive, and quite simply ignorant. So please JUDGE THE SUCCESS OF REFORMS BY THE CONDITIONS CHILDREN LIVE IN, NOT BY THE NUMBER OF ADOPTIONS COMPLETED.
Human beings are imperfect beasts and there will always be some degree of corruption in anything that involves money and humans. Nothing will ever change this fact. So one of two things needs to happen. The first is that we can try to remove the financial incentives from the system. This makes great sense in theory but is next to impossible to implement because there is no pot of gold available in countries already dealing with a complete lack of social systems and an extremely impoverished citizenry. So unless the NGOs and governments of the world are ready to shell out the dough to provide foster care, medical care, food, etc to children before their adoptions are complete, there will need to be a cost to adoptive parents. And until the governments and NGOs are able to devote enough human capital to run efficient systems, there will be a need for private adoption practitioners who have the right to earn a living. Given that the governments of most third world countries have proven their affinity for incompetence and corruption, it is unlikely that this is soon to change. The other option is to realize that it is an imperfect world, accept that fact, and work hard to minimize the amount of improprieties that exist. Try everything possible to enforce laws that create a viable option for children while also ensuring ethical processes. So please, DON’T EXPECT COUNTRIES TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE, WORK TO HELP THEM DO WHAT’S POSSIBLE.
All improprieties are not the same in intercountry adoption. There are such things as victimless crimes and it is wrong to create victims in the pursuit of ending victimless crimes. We need to focus on ending the crimes and improprieties that really harm people. We need to stop grouping those in the same line as crimes that only create an imperfect system. Let’s take some key examples. There are those that claim birthmothers are being coerced or paid to give up their children.
Are these equal sins?
Anyone with a sane mind would come to the conclusion that it is an absolute tragedy for any woman to ever have a child taken from her for adoption involuntarily or under duress.
Now consider an extremely poor woman who works as a migrant laborer harvesting crops. She has four children that she on her own needs to feed and care for. She finds herself pregnant and, realizing that she can’t earn an income with a newborn in tote, she decides to relinquish the child, who is subsequently adopted by a loving, stable family. There are a few different “facilitators” that she can relinquish the child through and one of them offers her some money to do so. Or maybe one offers her more money than the others. This is money she can use to take her daughter to the doctor for her ongoing cough as well as to buy her sons some shoes. Who is the victim?
Let’s change the above scenario only slightly. Let’s suppose that she has not decided to relinquish and that the offer of money makes her decide to relinquish voluntarily because she feels it would be the best thing for her family. Any victims yet?
One more modification to see at what point there becomes a true victim. Now let’s say this woman is not pregnant. But she hears from a friend of hers that if she gets pregnant and agrees early on to relinquish the child, the facilitator will give her some money and provide her children with food and shelter during her pregnancy. This would get them out of the rain and squalid conditions of the fincas and give them some much-needed stability their lives have been yearning. Any victims yet? Is the adopted child a victim? Is some other child who would have otherwise been adopted by the adoptive family a victim? Or does the fact that there are far more families looking to adopt newborns than there are adoptable children negate this?
I do not claim to have all the answers. But it certainly seems as though you have not been giving these issues the type of philosophical thought that you need to. Would it not be an improvement if all cases of coercion were prevented even if some other less-than-perfect conditions, even crimes, remained? Is it not better to have some payments to birthmothers occurring than it is to end the chance for thousands of children annually to join permanent families? So please, FOCUS YOUR EFFORTS ON ENDING ADOPTION RELATED CRIMES THAT INVOLVE TRUE VICTIMS. DON’T CONFUSE THOSE WITH DEBATABLY VICTIMLESS CRIMES.
Despite the profanity that started this letter, I do not believe that you have anything but the purest of intentions in your quest to curtail intercountry adoption. I believe that you, too, want to see a world where children can thrive free from exploitation. I believe that you at this moment truly feel that curtailing intercountry adoption is the best global solution. I believe that it pains you to know that this will be detrimental to some children but that you feel there is no choice.
I do not believe, however, that you have taken the time to play devil’s advocate against your position. I do not believe that you have been introspective and open to other points of view. I do not believe that you have really tried to grok the entire intercountry adoption environment, instead choosing to hold fast to first-world liberal ideals as your base for judgment. So I have taken the liberty in this letter to offer some points and advice to aid you in developing your positions and goals. At no cost to you at all I reiterate an eight-point plan to get you off your fucking white horse and out of your god damn ivory towers and I am always willing to discuss it with you.
1. CHILDREN HAVE THE RIGHT TO A FAMILY!
2. DON’T TRY TO CLAIM TO KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR PEOPLE IN SITUATIONS YOU CAN’T COMPREHEND! REALIZE THAT THERE ARE GOOD, VALID REASONS WHY WOMEN DECIDE TO RELINQUISH!
3. STOP TRYING TO DISCOUNT THE VALIDITY OF THE ADOPTIVE FAMILY UNIT – IT IS NOT SECOND-CLASS!
4. REALIZE THAT CHILDREN CAN THRIVE IN AN INTERRACIAL FAMILY!
5. DON’T USE YOUR SOCIAL NORMS AS A BASIS FOR DEVELOPING INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION SYSTEMS. ALWAYS BE SURE TO BASE THEM ON THE REALITIES OF THE INDIVIDUAL CULTURE.
6. JUDGE THE SUCCESS OF REFORMS BY THE CONDITIONS CHILDREN LIVE IN, NOT BY THE NUMBER OF ADOPTIONS COMPLETED.
7. DON’T EXPECT COUNTRIES TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE, WORK TO HELP THEM DO WHAT IS POSSIBLE.
8. FOCUS YOUR EFFORTS ON ENDING ADOPTION RELATED CRIMES THAT INVOLVE TRUE VICTIMS. DON’T CONFUSE THOSE WITH DEBATABLY VICTIMLESS CRIMES.
This week's chapter is the actual story of our adoption. It is quite long and so to spare everyone's eyes, I converted it to a PDF. I do ask that no one print or forward it to the masses.
As I went through it yesterday and did some editting, reliving the experience and memories brought to tears to my eyes. I hope you enjoy it as well....
This weeks chapters may be abit of bore for many. They depart from our story and talk about the adoption process and that wonderful period known as the Hague Fiasco. Luckily they are not too long and I'll get the next good chapter up shortly.
Jumping Through Hoops
There are many great resources where one can find detailed information on the specifics of the adoption process in Guatemala. The website www.guatadopt.com is a perfect place to start. In order to have the joyful part of this story, our adopting Isabel, flow more easily, at this point it is probably a good idea to give some basic description of what goes on when one is adopting a child from Guatemala. This will prevent having to invade the story too much for process details and explanations.
Basically there are two concurrent processes taking place, one for each country. The United States process is to validate that the child meets the official criteria to obtain orphan status and thus be permitted to immigrate. It is worth while to recall that the adoptive parents have already been approved to adopt a child. The orphan status is by and large pretty straightforward and logical with a few notable exceptions.
Currently, a child does not meet the orphan status if the child has two parents or the birthmother is married. In theory this makes sense when we consider the conventional dictionary definition of “orphan”. But what this ultimately means in practical terms is that if a couple has a child and decides that the best interest for that child is to be relinquished for adoption, they best divorce before the child is born and not list a father on the birth certificate. Otherwise, the child can not be adopted by Americans. No such requirement currently exists for children adopted domestically in the United States. As this is written there are bills before congress that would change the orphan status requirements and allow married couples to relinquish their children for intercountry adoption to the United States.
In the process of validating that the child meets the orphan status, a few steps take place. Your Guatemalan attorney first presents numerous documents to the Embassy in Guatemala City. At this point the Embassy issues an approval to conduct a DNA test.
Once the DNA results come back and the maternity is proved, the Embassy goes through all of the documents in detail. If they have questions or concerns, they can take further actions to investigate the case. One common thing is that they require that the birthmother be interviewed by Embassy staff. It is rumored these interviews had at times been downright degrading to the birthmother.
Ultimately the Embassy does one of two things. Generally everything is fine and a Visa Pre-Approval is issued for the child. Occasionally, the Embassy will issue what is called a NOID – notice of intent to deny and, subject to appeal, that child can not be adopted by a US citizen. With a Visa Pre-Approval issued, the child is promised a visa once the adoption is complete.
The act of making the child legally your son or daughter is conducted by the Guatemalan authorities. Much of this work is done through what is called the “notarial” legal system common through Latin-America. In these systems, the notaries are sort of a mix between a lawyer and a judge. The idea is to allow non-litigious legal matters to be handled outside of the government bureaucracy. The adoption process is that once the birthmother formally relinquishes the child, the adoption of the child by the adoptive parents must be approved by two government offices.
The first stage on the Guatemalan side is to go through Family Court. The role of Family Court is to ensure that the birthmother is voluntarily relinquishing the child, make her aware of her rights, and deem that the adoption is in the best interest of the child. Most of this work is done by a licensed social worker from the Family Court. During this stage, the social worker interviews the birthmother and the foster mother. Then the social worker writes a report, generally recommending the adoption. Lastly a judge must approve the case based on the social worker’s report. The predominant issue with Family Court is generally that some of the social workers are not conceptually supportive of intercountry adoption. Often trying to get the interviews set up and the report written can take quite some time. In their defense, these social workers are likely extremely busy as they also work on more traditional non-adoption cases like domestic violence and neglect. In addition, for some time one of the six Family Courts, court three, was notoriously anti-adoption and cases could linger there endlessly. To which court any given case is assigned is a matter of chance, although lawyers are permitted to once pull a case and have it again randomly assigned.
After clearing Family Court the case moves on to the office of the PGN, Procurador Generál del Nación. PGN is in many ways similar to our Justice Department. Really their job is simple. They just go through a variety of documents and make sure everything looks kosher. The case file is randomly assigned to a PGN lawyer who approves the case. Then it must be signed by the head of the PGN. But as is always the case with intercountry adoption, nothing is so simple. Often it can take many months to get this done. If the PGN lawyer opts to be difficult, they can issue a “previo” stating some document that is incorrect, missing, or otherwise not acceptable. Sometimes this can be something as irrelevant as a minor spelling error. Other times, they decide to create some new document requirement with no warning or legal authority. Earlier I mentioned the document we created with every fathomable version of our names and salutations. The purpose of this document is to reduce the odds of being previod because of your name appearing somewhere in some document in a way that you have not legally defined as being yourself.
The kick in the rear about being issued a previo is not only the delay, but also that sometimes the PGN attorney does not go through all the file, list all of the corrections needed, and then previo the case. Sometimes they find one correction and kick the case out. As a result, people can be kicked out of PGN multiple times. Because of the time it can take to obtain new documents and have them blessed kosher by all the necessary pundits, each round of previo can delay a case by weeks or months.
Once the case has been approved by PGN, the notaries must obtain the birthmother’s final approval of the adoption and then the official decree can be issued, making some soul in the United States a hell of a lot happier. From there, a new birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parents names. This must be obtained from the Civil Registry in the part of the country where the child was born which can at times be challenging in a country where sometimes they run out of the tax stamps needed to certify the document. With a new birth certificate in hand, the child can be taken to get a Guatemalan passport.
The United States and Guatemala processes by and large take place independent of one another. One major caveat is an agreement between the PGN and the Embassy that PGN will not release a case until the Embassy has issued the Visa Pre-Approval. The reason for this is to avoid the possibility that the adoption is legal but the child still can not enter the United States.
Once the child has a Guatemalan passport, all of the Guatemalan documents are furnished to the Embassy and within a few days a “Pink Slip” is issued. This Pink Slip says that you are pretty much done. All you need to do is have the child examined by an Embassy approved doctor and then head on down to the Embassy for a quick interview and then the next day you will have a Visa for the child and at last the child can come home!
That Pesky Hague Convention
There was something else going on with Guatemalan adoptions in general that merits a book on its own rites. After much deliberation on how to integrate this into the story, it seemed most viable to describe it on its own and then just allow the emotional agony it caused to naturally make its way into the story itself.
This “something else going on” was Guatemala’s attempted accession to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The topic of international human rights type agreements as they relate to intercountry adoption will be focused on later, for the time being let it be enough said that these things can raise holy terror on the poor folks that get caught in the middle of a country trying to comply with one. The Hague Convention in Guatemala was no exception.
The Hague in Guatemala will be described as how it came to us as we went through it. To step back in time, unbeknownst to us, in November while we were in the middle of our homestudy, Guatemala essentially agreed to join this Convention. This in itself was not a major cause for alarm. Most countries take years to develop a system of compliance and formally accede to the Convention. Our adoption should have long since completed by the time this would happen. Then on March 13, 2003, the Guatemalan Congress made a surprise announcement that as of March 5, 2003, it had formally acceded to the Convention.
What this meant to families like ours was uncertain. Quickly, the in-process families were divided into two groups, “pre 3/5” and “post 3/5”. Determining which category you fell into was not clear for many families because of the official criteria needed to be “pre 3/5”. If the birthmother’s relinquishment, called the “first acta”, and the power of attorney were both formally registered before March 5, then you were considered “pre 3/5” and your case would be able to proceed according to the old rules. Because these two criteria were not normal milestones to parents in the process, they were generally not noted by the adoption agencies or communicated to the parents. As a result, it took many people quite some time to find out which group they were a part of.
We were clearly in the “post 3/5” group, which appeared a more precarious situation. For a few months, everything pretty much proceeded normally except for the fact that no one could ultimately get out of PGN, because there was no legal system in place for adoptions covered under the Hague Convention. The Convention itself is a bunch of principles. It is up to the country to work out the details of how to implement those principles. Guatemala had not worked out the details. So for the time being, until they enacted the new system, we were caught in limbo.
Early on in Isabel’s adoption, I wasn’t very concerned about this. The rumor in the adoption community was that a few new documents would be required and that it would all be put to rest within a couple of months. Since we were early on in the process, it would already be a few months before we got to the point of being stuck in PGN with no way out.
In June, UNICEF brought the head of the PGN (the PGN had been declared the official “Central Authority” for adoptions as is required when one accedes) to the Hague. Because of UNICEF’s public and covert attacks on adoption, we knew this could not be a good thing. When the head of the PGN returned, it became clear that he now had changes far greater than just a few documents in mind.
On July 1, a new adoption system was announced. Sort of. It was very clear on a few things. First of all, the notaries and lawyers were now out of the equation. Private foster care was to be ended and only four hogares in the country were authorized for housing children being adopted. In addition, all future referrals had to come directly from the government. All referrals for cases that were “official” (same standards as “Pre 3/5”) before 7/1 would be recognized.
Now the community was split into three groups. Even though months had passed since March, very few of the “pre 3/5” cases were being completed. Then there were the people like us who were no longer “post 3/5”. We were now “pre 7/1”. The new “post 7/1” group, while fewer in numbers, were in the worst situation. Because of what had been announced, they did not know if they would be allowed to adopt the child whose picture and vision they undoubtedly already loved.
What was not clear was how someone was supposed to receive a referral from the government, what would physically happen to the children currently in foster care, or how parents were supposed to complete the cases. We were told that all cases needed to be presented to the Central Authority, a new office located within the PGN. But since they were claiming that our lawyers and notaries no longer had any involvement and they had not made it clear what would happen next, parents realized that trying to have the files moved to this Central Authority could very well mean they were losing their only representation in Guatemala. Some lawyers did comply and turned over the files. But because of efforts underway to try to turn back the Hague altogether, most lawyers and parents waited to see what would happen to those cases that were given to the Central Authority before doing so ourselves.
A legal battle challenging the constitutionality of the Hague Convention in Guatemala now rose to new levels. There were a number of different fronts to this battle. As I understand it, one challenge had to do with the fact that the Guatemalan Constitution prevents the government from becoming party to international agreements that it was not involved in drafting. Another focused on Congress having overstepped its legal authority in acceding to the treaty. Yet another involved the fact that by naming PGN, which is part of the executive branch, as the Central Authority and leaving the implementation up to them, Congress had effectively granted legislative powers to the executive branch – an understandable no-no (except for in the United States where Congress seems happy to see the executive branch usurp its sole authority to wage war!). Finally, the Guatemalan Constitution, to its credit, is very specific in the rights of the woman to decide the course for her child. And the notarial system is deep rooted in its function and purpose. What was happening here went beyond just the adoption laws, it was setting legal precedent. I’m still not sure how these issues combined into different formal legal challenges. The bottom line was that there were a few different challenges being brought before the Guatemalan Constitutional Court that could overturn all this Hague nonsense.
There was another front to be waged in this battle. This had to do with the nature of the Convention and I apologize for the disgustingly technical details. By definition, the Hague Convention is only valid between countries that have implemented it. The United States had not implemented the Convention. The United States had signed on to it, agreeing to implement some day. But it had not implemented it and thus adoptions between the United States and Guatemala were not covered under the Convention even if none of the constitutional challenges worked. There was hope that if the United States officially declared its “Third Party” status, everything could go back to normal until the United States eventually implemented it.
A group of lawyers banded together into an organization known as the Associación Defensores de la Adopción (Association in Defense of Adoption) and sought out the help of a reluctant Guatemalan Bar Association. One notorious and brave attorney took the gutsy and unprecedented move of keeping the community of adoptive parents abreast of what was happening. I venture to say it was gutsy because by doing so she was to a certain degree laying the legal battle’s strategy out for all to see. Secondly, much of what she said was her best and honest opinion. But people desperate to get their children home took this as the gospel and were quick to jump to conclusions if things didn’t go as they should. In addition, for a time these updates were done on an e-mail list known as “The Big List” with over two thousand members. Inevitably, her voluntary updates led to some uncomfortable debate and endless questions being asked of her. I’m sure that she also got infinite e-mails from parents looking for help because of some intricacy involving their case. Lastly, it created an awkward situation where many parents knew more about what was going on than did the adoption agencies they paid to represent them. For many agencies, Guatemala was a very small portion of their operations and they weren’t deeply involved in the details. This I am sure led to some of sort of schism for her openness in an unfortunately secretive industry. Nonetheless, “Thursday Updates” became a ritual for many and about the only thing they had to lust for in the week. These updates, when copied and pasted into a word file, make up anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred twenty-five pages depending on the font size.
From July through the beginning of August, the adoption system for the most part came to a screeching halt. The US Embassy stopped processing cases, refusing even to grant requests to initiate DNA tests. The cases presented to the Central Authority weren’t going anywhere and the children were still in foster care. Cases were receiving Previos from PGN for not being Hague compliant and there was no known way to be Hague compliant. Even the “pre 3/5” cases weren’t being completed. An abyss for certain! The most difficult part for most people was the fact that there was no guarantee of any end in site. Something had to break sooner or later, but which it would be was unknown.
At one point of group of ninety-seven notaries filed a legal proceeding called an “amparo” (appeal), accusing the PGN of breaking the law by not allowing the notaries to perform their duties as defined by the Constitution. The courts agreed with the notaries and if everything proceeded according to law, cases should have started moving again even if the Hague challenges were still up in the air. In a symbolic way, this was also the courts agreeing that the Hague was unconstitutional in Guatemala. The only problem was enforcing the amparo. In order to do this, criminal legal charges had to be brought against those not abiding by the amparo. This took more time, money, and resources. It is worth noting that by and large the notaries did not solicit money from in-process families in order to fund these challenges, although some families did have to pay for incremental foster care as cases were taking much longer than expected.
On August 13, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala sided with the notaries that Guatemala’s acceding to the Hague was unconstitutional. The battle had been won, although it didn’t seem like it for quite a while. For starters, the decision would not be official until the day after it was printed in the national newspaper, El Diario de Centro América. Exactly one very long month of skeptical unease later, the decision became official. Because of the stand still that had occurred, even then it took quite a while to get past the backlog of cases that had been stockpiled.
In total, it’s estimated that 1500 – 2000 families were caught in the middle of what is now known as the Hague Fiasco. While it was a trying time, it was also a time of great solidarity in the adoption community. Lawyers, agencies, and parents were working together and much of the secrecy disappeared. Grassroots efforts of various sorts were organized. Elected officials were lobbied. Groups opposing intercountry adoption and supporting the end of adoptions in Guatemala were targeted with information campaigns and petitions. While all these efforts ultimately did not impact the outcome since the lawyers had really taken care of it unilaterally, it brought together many people, enlightened some on the politics of children, and gave others a new direction and outlook in their lives.
While the whole Hague Fiasco may only have been five months from start to finish, it seemed like an eternity to those in the eye of the storm.
Author's note: If you are at this moment inn a paranoid sort of state of mind about your adoption, you may not wish to read this chapter right now. As the chapter title explains, it deals with some exceptionally hard times in our adoption journey...
It was a normal afternoon in the office spent preparing for an important set of sales meetings in San Francisco and Orlando. Having a reputation for putting together fun Power Point presentations for these meetings; I did not want to leave my audience disappointed. I was introducing a new product I believed had great of potential for success. It tasted better than the entire competitive set. Consumer taste tests had proved that. It offered preparation advantages over the competitors as well. There was a large opportunity because most of the market used a competitive form. And the size of the market was growing. There was only one thing that I needed to ensure success and that was the support of the sales team. This presentation was my chance with them. I decided not to do a normal presentation and instead took the information and converted it into a game show. Members of the sales team would be contestants and the answers to the questions would all lead to the fact that this new product is just what we need.
Putting together these kinds of presentations takes a lot of time but it also one of the most enjoyable things I get to do because it is creative. The presentation was almost completed and I was feeling confident about it. In short, I was in a pretty good mood when the phone rang.
It was Carol Anne.
We had been trying to get an answer to some question and she was, finally, getting back to us. I can’t recall which of the many questions we had it was at this particular time. It is amazing how weird intricacies cause so many questions throughout the process. Carol Anne answered the question we had and then we were chatting a little bit. She sounded like she had something on her mind that she wasn’t sure she wanted to tell me. Adoption professionals are a weird sort. I think it must have something to do with the environment under which they operate. They have to be careful because they can get it from all sides. In any case, I didn’t know what was on Carol Anne’s mind so if there were something to tell me, she would get around to it.
There wasn’t exactly something to tell me.
There was, however, something to ask me.
An unexpected surprise
Alejandro was about four months old and was riding in a bad stream of luck. He had been referred to a family after he was born. He ran into some problems when a medical test said he had some form of rubeola. In the wake of discovering this, the family backed out of the adoption. It turned out that it looked like the test had been a false positive as subsequent tests had come back negative. It didn’t take much for me to believe there could be a false positive! He had been taken to see the man the adoption community considers the best pediatric doctor in Guatemala. Alejandro’s issue was his age.
Believe it or not, being four months old was a strike against him. This is one place the critics of ICA get the fodder for their fire because the kids do get to be like sports cars in a way. People want to adopt infants as young as possible so that they have that time with their child. While there were some waits for girls, there were not for boys. If Alejandro had been an Alejandra, four months would not be an issue. But if people could choose between the newborn and the child who is older, it makes sense that they would choose the newborn without realizing what that might mean for the other child. The reality is that all infants, newborn or not, and generally toddlers can be found a family. It just takes a little more work.
Because of Alejandro’s age, Carol Anne told me that the lawyer would give us the referral and then just wait until we got our INS approval to start the work. That way the lawyer would know he had Alejandro placed with a family. Carol Anne wanted to know if we were interested.
I was in a state of shock and almost speechless. It is true that things never happen the way you expect them to. I wasn’t prepared for this right at this moment. I think I babbled some question to Carol Anne to stall her for a minute and give me the chance to breathe. Then my mind cleared and I thought, “What the hell is the matter with you?”
Of course we were interested!
I didn’t have to commit or anything like that. Obviously I’d have to talk to Sheila first. We also would definitely want some time to look into this medical test thing. While Sheila and I would have to discuss it, I knew his age would not matter to either of us.
Five minutes later Carol Anne had e-mailed me Alejandro’s picture.
The sensation of opening up that picture file was amazing. I didn’t know what I was looking for and couldn’t quite capture the reality of what I was looking at.
Was this my son?
Is such a thing possible?
Could this be?
This is another adoption feeling that is difficult to define. In one way, you already love that child. In another way, he is a complete stranger.
For the shallow readers dieing to know, he was adorable. He was more Spanish than indigenous in his appearance. He looked like a stocky fellow with the potential to play linebacker for Notre Dame. He was very handsome and cute at the same time. Maybe he was my son.
After looking at his picture for a minute I forwarded it on to Sheila and called her on the phone with the news. It is very hard to sense emotion in Sheila, especially on the phone. She just doesn’t use lifts in her voice as much as most people. So I couldn’t really tell what was going through her head. I’m sure it was excitement, surprise, fear, and skepticism. Since I had been the one to talk to Carol Anne, I was naturally going to be more comfortable about the false positive. Carol Anne’s southern draw and soft voice makes it very easy to have faith. I gave Sheila the time to digest and we agreed to discuss it that night when we’d be together.
By the time I got home from work, both of us had already made up our minds. But we both wanted to give the other the promised discussion. We tried to make it sound like we were really thinking it all over. We even tried to play up concerns. But we both knew that unless something was not as Carol Anne described, there was no way we were going to pass on this referral. We did agree to talk to some doctors to get some more opinions on whether we should feel safe about his health.
Before we could officially accept the referral, we needed to get a series of documents from the lawyer in Guatemala. The usual referral package has a photograph, a copy of the child’s birth certificate, a copy of the birthmother’s cedula, the results of some blood tests, and a document certifying that both the child and the birthmother are HIV free. All we had was the picture.
Everything seemed positive and we were very excited. This adoption thing was for real. We now had a child. All we needed was the paperwork to prove it. So while the lawyer got us the documents we needed, we could verify the medical stuff. I had to leave for my meetings the next morning so I agreed to try to squeeze in the doctor stuff when I had time on the road. We didn’t have long to celebrate together, but we felt it inside.
Fear and loathing in Las Vegas
Some say that it isn’t smart to start showing pictures of the child to people and referring to him as your child until much later in the process. I can agree and debate with this perspective. While it certainly makes sense because many referrals do not result in adoptions, it is very hard to deny the adoptive parent the pleasure of finally showing someone a picture of “my son”.
On my business trip, I could not show the pictures of Alejandro to enough people. I was a proud daddy and no one was going to stop me from proving it. While on this trip, I was able to e-mail with the doctor in Guatemala and got his assurances that Alejandro was fine. I also managed to talk to a couple of specialists that did not seem to be overly concerned if I was confident in the second test. There weren’t any other tests we could have done to be more certain unless we wanted to request another retest of the original one.
Another important thing happened while I was on this trip. Sheila came home from work and low and behold there was an envelope in the mailbox from the INS. We had received our I171H. We had everything needed on our end to begin. But we still did not have all the documents we needed from Guatemala. Once we had them, we would sign a Power of Attorney to the Guatemalan Attorney, have it notarized, certified and authenticated and get it down to Guatemala with a check. Then we’d be official. But until we had the documents, we were not going to sign that Power of Attorney or send any money. Carol Anne agreed with us.
A little over a month had passed and we still did not have all the referral documents. We were getting quite frustrated with the delay. We did not know what the hold up could be. Carol Anne wasn’t exactly full of answers either. We starting to get a little bit concerned but were actually being pretty calm and patient.
My dad had arranged a family get together in Las Vegas. My elderly grandmother was going to be there as well. We were very excited to be able to show her pictures of her great grandson. Alejandro would be my parent’s first grandchild and my grandmother’s first great grandchild. My brother, the perpetual bachelor, was even going to let his girlfriend meet the family. My dad’s brother and my cousin would be flying in from New Jersey. It was something to look forward to.
There are no exciting stories to tell about a trip to Las Vegas with your grandmother. At least not mine. Needless to say, the baby, the pictures, and the ten-second video of Alejandro we had were the hot topics of conversation. My grandmother was the one family member we were concerned with accepting a child from another ethnicity. She comes from a much different time. Strange as it may seem it is very hard for a Jew who barely escaped the Nazis to believe that race doesn’t matter. She had seen that it does matter, on the receiving end. So it was a huge relief to see her smiling at the pictures and enthusiastic about the adoption.
When we returned home from Las Vegas there was a message on the answering machine.
It was from Carol Anne.
She was calling to tell us that she had lost faith in our lawyer. She said that he was a great guy and that he used to be on the ball but had just become incredibly flaky. She said this started with one of her other clients and was obviously apparent with us thus far. We had already talked to the other family she was mentioning and knew about what she was talking about. We had been trying to just hope something would get better with movement on our case. Carol Anne made it pretty clear she didn’t see that happening.
Her advise to us was to abandon this referral since we had not yet signed or paid anything. We could tell that she felt really badly about it. In fact, her reputation with the Guatemalan lawyers could be damaged for having one of her families back out. She made it clear that the decision was ours and that she supported whatever we decided to do. But she also made it clear to us that if we stayed with this case, it would be the last one she did with this lawyer. She also told us about a couple of infant boys through a different lawyer ready to be matched if we decided to make a change. She had e-mailed us their pictures.
We had a very difficult decision to make.
So many thoughts and emotions were spinning through our heads. We had become attached to Alejandro. At least we thought so.
Or maybe it wasn’t actually him but just what he represents?
We are not ready for a process that is going to be a struggle!
How we can leave him behind?
We should trust Carol Anne!
Should we trust Carol Anne?
Why can’t anything ever go as planned?
We started to make a big mistake by looking at the pictures of the two new referrals as we were discussing what to do. It suddenly became very bothersome. The reality of what we were doing started to settle in. Here we were looking at these three kids deciding which one we wanted. There was nothing commercial about it but nonetheless the futures of these three kids lied in the hands of a couple of gringos in California. We both agreed that we needed to step back for a minute.
Whether we had two possible referrals waiting was not what was important. The first thing we needed to decide was whether or not we were prepared to walk away from Alejandro because of the lawyer’s incompetence. So we placed the photos of the two children face down on the table. We then had to put the emotions and attachment we had for Alejandro in a prudent place. We needed to take those emotions and place them on paper as being one of the considerations that would favor continuing with his adoption, but we had to be objective about it and not let them control the other considerations. In other words, we weren’t going to try to ignore the emotions we both knew we had. We were going to stop them from being the whole enchilada.
We really did trust Carol Anne. I reminded Sheila of why it was that we hired her. It was because we felt confident that she was honest, would look out for our best interests, and have the knowledge to navigate the process. If that’s what we were paying her to do, then how foolish would it be not to follow her advise. She was basically telling us that she didn’t think she could get this lawyer to do his job anymore. If we were her last case with him, he might even go slower on our case just to piss her off. It did not sound like something to look forward to. As much as our hearts were sincere in wanting to adopt Alejandro, it had already been over a month and this lawyer couldn’t even fax us documents that should have been sitting in his office. This was probably a sign of things to come. If we had paid him anything, I would have been wondering if he was crooked. But given he didn’t have any legal commitment or payment from us, it seemed like real incompetence.
As we continued the conversation we realized that we should take Carol Anne’s advise. The prospect of being one of the adoptions that takes forever when we had the chance to prevent it was more humanity than we had in us. We felt regret and sorrow about it. There is no doubt about that. But we had to have the strength to remind ourselves that while we were being selfish in a way, we were also being honest about what we were capable of. Being put into these types of decisions is not what one imagines adopting will be like. Going in, we’re not prepared for them and yet when they come, you have to answer.
It is sad and wrong that a child like Alejandro should ever be the pawn in the chess game of adoption. I will always feel some guilt for having played in the game myself. We didn’t choose to ever have to make a decision like that. When thrown onto the chessboard, we did the best we could to look at the whole picture and develop our best strategy. In an unfortunate way, we had to realize that Alejandro was just one of many pawns on the board. We were not in control of the game nor could we understand everything our moves might mean. It felt like we just figured out how it is that the knight moves and we were playing against the famous Big Blue computer.
It was time to move on and leave the past behind. We still had those two photographs sitting face down on the coffee table. With the decision about Alejandro made, we now had to separate ourselves from it and move on to the next decision. As I sit here writing this, I honestly cannot recall how we came to which of the two children we were going to adopt. Maybe there was some reason or maybe we picked at random. After all, our heads were still spinning at the time. I know we didn’t choose by picking the cuter one or anything like that. However it was that we decided, we did, and his name was René Ottoniel.
He was a little guy with a very hairy face. He looked like a little baby wolfman. Behind the fur was what appeared to be a very handsome indigenous child with beautifully soft features. Rather than living with a foster family, he was living at a hogar in La Antigua. The hogar had been started and was run by an American and was known for providing a level care in line with “American standards”. The location was a plus because La Antigua was a very nice tourist area. It is where most Americans stay if they are fostering their child. It would be convenient when we visited. So while we knew he probably would not get the level of attention he might with a foster family, we were confident he’d be well cared for. We had done some research on the lawyer handling the case and had heard nothing but good things about him. We even came up with a nickname for him because it was so hard to say his names with the proper inflection. We called him “Rocket Boy” after a cartoon character whose name is Otto.
There was no wait for the referral documents this time around. But within a day or two of giving Carol Anne the go ahead, we had a new problem arise. Rocket Boy wasn’t sucking. The nurses at the hogar were using an eye-dropper to feed him because of this. The condition is not all that uncommon, so it wasn’t a something to worry excessively about. Usually children just figure the sucking thing out sooner or later. But to be sure he was okay, the director of the hogar wanted to have him checked out by a pediatric neurologist before we made anything official. This reassured us about the people we were working with and their integrity.
It took a couple of weeks for them to finally feel everything was okay with Rocket Boy. They had one of the hogar employees acting as a wet nurse and he seemed to be feeding okay that way. He must have been holding out for the real thing! The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with him. At last we were finally going to have an adoption officially started. So we signed the power of attorney and instead of using Fed Ex to get it certified and authenticated, we used Kev Ex. I got in my car and drove to Sacramento to get it immediately certified. Then I got back into my car and drove to the Guatemalan Consulate in San Francisco to get it authenticated. By noon I was at the bank getting a certified check. The power of attorney and check were in the capable hands of Federal Express later that afternoon and were in Guatemala sometime the next day.
Once you have sent in the check and signed the papers, you have one of the last moments of peace you will experience until your child comes home. It’s because you have nothing to be upset about so far as the pace of your case is concerned. This peace does not last long, as nothing is more unbearable than “nothing new” after a while. Because we had never made it official with Alejandro, we had not quite reveled in things like getting the house ready. That was different with Rocket Boy. We were enjoying these types of things.
We had some time to come to peace with adopting him. We received regular updates on him that we never received with Alejandro. We felt a part of his life. We even sent a care package out for him. It had a little soft photo album that said “My Family” on the cover. Carol Anne had sent us this photo album in the mail and we added the pictures. We, actually Sheila, also made him his first tie-dye. Babies in tie-dyes are a love of mine. So we also sent down some extra dyes for the other kids at the hogar. This whole thing felt real at last. You’ve probably noticed I had that feeling every time we reached a milestone. You are correct. This is, however, exactly how it felt to me. Maybe I should be saying “more real” instead. More accurately, “closer to real” is the best description.
Amongst our excitement we started to seriously talk about Sheila going to La Antigua to foster Otto. We weren’t sure if there might be some way to integrate fostering and helping at the hogar together. And of course, even if she opted against fostering, we were anxious to visit. Until the point in the process where you have had the DNA test completed, visiting is generally not much of an option. The reason is because the DNA test is the first and only time since the birthmother relinquished the child that she has to see the child. In fact, the laboratory that takes the saliva samples is required to take a picture of her holding the child. So the common logic is that if she has second thoughts and might reclaim the child, this is probably when it is going to happen. As such, best not to have parents visit the child until after the test has been done.
Our patience was running dry as we couldn’t see any progress on the case. Rocket Boy was six weeks old now and we really just wanted to visit him.
I had an interesting experience while at a trade show in Las Vegas. At one of the social events, there were tarot card readers you could sit down with. I had never had my cards read and I could certainly use a little look into the future on this unpredictable adoption thing. So I gave it a shot. The card reader impressed me. When the topic of children came up, she said the cards showed a child coming over seas. Guatemala isn’t across the ocean, but the prediction was close enough to keep my interest. She thought it would be pretty soon but couldn’t elaborate. She said the child would bring us great happiness and joy. And then she said it would be a girl. Hmmm. We do live in the Bay Area. Rocket Boy did have very soft features. I joked with Sheila that maybe the card reader could tell he was gay or something. Don’t take that wrong, Sheila and I would have no problem accepting our child’s homosexuality if that ever proved to be the case. But somehow with no prodding she managed to pick out the intercountry adoption thing – impressive even if she did get the gender wrong.
A short time later back in my office, it was another average late morning. Nothing special was happening worth noting. The next couple of days were going to be interesting. My company had hired some Harvard professor to conduct a seminar for the management staff. It was going to be a couple days back in academia where I’d be chilling with the big whigs. So I was trying to get things in order so that I’d be okay to be out of the office for two days. Like I said, nothing special was happening. I was on some business call when my administrative assistant came in to tell me I had another call I needed to take. There was only person that I had a “I can take a call anytime” policy for.
It was Carol Anne.
She was barely coherent and very hard to understand. She was obviously in tears. I couldn’t follow exactly what she was saying. She finally got her composure a bit and told me that Rocket Boy had a problem the night before. He had stopped breathing. The nurses had tried CPR. They had rushed him to the hospital.
Rocket Boy was dead.
Rocket Boy had a condition called hydroencephela or something like that. This condition is not normally detectable unless you’re closely looking for it and does not manifest itself until right around his age. She said that if they had been able to save him that night it would have only been a matter of months before he passed away.
I was not mentally in my office when I hung up the phone. I have no idea where I was at the time. I couldn’t feel anything. I was caught somewhere between shock and denial. I sat in my office for a few minutes, trying to shed the ocean sized tear I felt in my heart. The tear refused to flow from my eyes. I wasn’t sure what to do, how to feel, whether to lose it or try to keep my composure. I suddenly realized that what I needed to do was tell someone. I needed to share it. I needed a hug as soon as possible. I walked down the hall to a coworker’s office with whom I felt the most comfortable and told her what had happened. I’m a pretty open person so she had been keeping up on us since infertility. She had been supportively following our adoption path. I don’t remember what she said. It didn’t matter because I just needed to tell someone to let it out of me. The hug brought me back to the real world.
Obviously I had to tell Sheila. I had no idea of how to tell her. Nor did I know when to tell her. Sheila’s job at the time was not one where she could leave very easily. While under these circumstances I wouldn’t have worried about whether or not I had permission to leave, Sheila is more responsible than I and wouldn’t push it. So if I went and told her, she’d likely be at work for hours before having some time to dwell. On the other hand, could I really go home and not tell her until she gets home at around eight o’clock at night? Could I sit there for hours without being to able to hold my wife? In a completely selfish manner, I needed her!
After talking to a couple more people in my office, I realized I had to tell her. While driving to her work I tried to figure out how to do it. Keep in mind that I was struggling to keep it together myself. On the outside I seemed okay. On the inside I felt my anguish building up and it was just a question of when it was going to come barreling out. Determining the words to say was so hard that I couldn’t even get beyond trying to figure out what environment we’d be in when I told her. Sheila worked in the service department of a car dealership. I kept imagining the sounds of an auto shop like the drills used to take off lug nuts in the background and couldn’t get beyond that to think of the words to say.
I brought Sheila outside of the shop and told her there was something wrong with Rocket Boy. I didn’t need to say any more. I can still remember her looking at me and asking, “What happened?” in a very quick, almost stern matter. Her face looked normal, except for the pressure building in her eyes. They were already red. She did not have a problem opening the tear ducts. She already knew what was about to come out of my mouth so I think I just said, “he died.” Then I held her in my arms.
We went someplace less public to have a few minutes alone. I told her everything Carol Anne had said, which I was only beginning to be able to remember. Really, we didn’t talk much. I do remember a few minutes just pondering how such an innocent life could be taken like this. We were not just mourning our loss, but also his. We held each other for a while but mostly we just stood there together in awe, unable to connect with what our lives had become. I think that for both of us all the pain we had ever experienced in this simple desire to be parents came thrashing back at us all at once.
There is supposedly a point in torture where a person has been beaten so badly that he ceases to be able to feel any pain. This was Sheila and I. The upside is that as long as you can stay in that state, you function pretty well. After having only about fifteen minutes together, we both somehow managed to feel we were okay and Sheila went back to work. I went home, had a beer, and listened to the Grateful Dead.
When Sheila came home from work, I was amazed at how strong she was being. She said that she had to step away from her counter a few times during the afternoon, but overall was able to handle being at work. I felt so absent that I don’t think I could have done it. I think being at work would have forced me into reality and the workplace would be no place for that. We sat down and talked for a while, chain-smoking cigarettes as we did.
The next day we tried to go back to normal. My boss had left me a voicemail the prior afternoon to offer his condolences and let me know to take as much time as I need. It was very kind of him and the organization. It occurred to me that in the workplace, the higher you are on the chain of command and the more you get paid, the better you get treated in times like these. Poor Sheila didn’t even feel comfortable leaving after she got the news and I was being offered as much time as I needed. Despite this offer, I decided to attend the Harvard professor seminar as planned.
There was some part of both of us that felt that because this was an adoption and we hadn’t met Rocket Boy yet, we somehow we weren’t entitled to much personal grief. It was as if we felt like it should be taken in the same light as if some child in your neighborhood that you don’t really know passed away. It would be a tragedy and you would feel bad about it. But you wouldn’t be taking off of work. We were definitely in a state of denial.
Toward the end of the first day of the seminar, the pain I had been holding inside of myself started to manifest. I lost my ability to pay attention to the seminar. This is a scary thought when you have a Harvard professor talking business strategy. My mind kept moving to Rocket Boy. All the obvious questions that have no answers filled my mind. I felt the pressure building in my eyes. I’d try to contain it and would manage to for a moment. But I knew that wasn’t going to last for long. I got up, whispered to my boss that I had to leave, and got in my car as fast as I could. I was about to explode. A logical person would have probably parked somewhere. I, instead, got onto the freeway. As I got my car into a steady position, my face turned red. Tears flowed down my cheek. Every muscle in my face tensed. All the pain rushed out of me at once.
I let out in an extended roar, “WHY!”
Just a few days after Rocket Boy passed away, we had plans to go to North Carolina for a wedding. In order to explain what this entails, I’ll spell it out. I’ve mentioned my group of friends from high school and that I originally moved to North Carolina because a roommate from college lived there. Over the years, my group of best friends from high school and my college roommate’s group of best friends had become the best of friends. Weddings are one of the precious few times that we all got together. So four days in North Carolina actually translates to four days of partying, bonding, and jubilation. We may be a crazy group at times, but we always have a great time.
Sheila and I had to decide whether or not we should still go to the wedding. We weren’t feeling very festive. We already had the plane tickets and we had already taken the time off of work. If worse came to worse we could always stay camped in at our hotel. We decided to go and hoped it would prove therapeutic.
At some point before we left for North Carolina, Carol Anne called to see how we were doing. She also had something to ask us that she once again wasn’t comfortable with. It was a referral. A little girl named Isabel. Carol Anne explained how she totally understood if we wanted to wait a while. But because she knew Sheila had originally preferred a girl and she had received this new referral, if we were interested she would forget about the waiting list for girls. The kicker was that we couldn’t wait too long to decide because there were families waiting for girls. This made it hard but we understood. We both knew that our misfortune shouldn’t delay someone else’s blessing. We told her to e-mail us Isabel’s information and picture and that we’d let her know when we got back from the wedding.
It was very difficult at that moment to think about another referral. It was hard to look at the photo and believe that there was a real future child of mine on it. We hadn’t been given very much time to adjust and accept what had happened. I had cut myself off from it for part of that time. This was so soon after that I wasn’t sure if we were ready. I was pretty confident that I wasn’t. When we boarded the plane for Raleigh, my heart was telling me to wait. It would be interesting to see what the trip would hold.
A good friend picked us up at the airport. In fact, she and her husband were named as godparents for our home study. They were one of our references as well, and not the one who screwed up. Asleep in the back seat was her infant son, who we were meeting for the first time. The little boogers that make you angry at other people’s joy were not taking over luckily, though it was hard to enjoy him like I ordinarily would a friend’s child. She took us straight to our hotel, where we would have a few hours before the camaraderie would begin.
Without going into detail about everything that happened, the trip brought us back to life. We had a wonderful time and felt the love of friendship. We didn’t dwell on what we had been through. Instead we enjoyed the moment. We put it all aside and appreciated where we were. In a way, we came to terms with our sorrow.
Sheila even danced, wore funny hats, and acted goofy.
Following the wedding reception, the party moved to our hotel where many of us were staying. Sheila and I were sitting in our room before joining the crowd. We were looking at Isabel’s picture. I think Sheila had made up her mind earlier than me. For me, it took being around all these friends and enjoying the precious moments of life that made me realize we had to move on. Rocket Boy’s death did not change the fact that we wanted to be parents. Waiting for some comfort level to arrive that we haven’t felt since Stage One of infertility didn’t make any sense.
We decided to accept the referral.
We were going to adopt Isabel.
At least we hoped so.
Despite having previously made the decision to continue our IUI treatments until the end of the year, once we had gone through the "what next" process and landed on Guatemala we opted to end infertility treatment a few months early. We did not feel comfortable going down the two paths at the same time and worried that we could end up in a situation where we were committed to an adoption only to find out we were pregnant. In reality, that could not have happened because of the time required to get to the point of accepting the referral of a child. But we were new to the process, still learning, and if nothing else, while it may take some time for a referral, the adoption costs start to incur very early in the process.
We realized that the first thing we needed to do was hire an agency to conduct a home study, essentially showing that we are fit parents. The larger decision of who would handle the Guatemalan side of the equation did not need to be made yet. Since your home study agency has to be licensed by your state, you generally have only a few choices of agencies that operate in your local area. So we attended an introductory meeting at one local agency to learn a little bit more about it. They seemed nice, honest, and capable so we went ahead and hired them.
I could be a good daddy, really
The home study process is when you first start to realize the frantic and paranoid mindset that will guide you through the entire adoption process. While the home study is actually a very simple process, it is hard to believe this to be the case while you are going through it.
First of all, all of the forms and explanations seem to have been written by someone whose last job was writing the instructions for how to install a new dishwasher. They are very vague and don’t seem to make sense given some unique thing about your situation. What you don’t realize at the time is that you don’t need to think about it so much. There’s no need to try to analyze exactly what they mean by something. We could really just answer off the top of our minds based on a first read of the question and be safe. But because of the mindset you are in, you study every question as if you were trying to understand the federal income tax code.
We gave deep thought to who our personal references would be. We had to make sure that these references would show what good, well-adjusted people we are. How many of them needed to be local? How long do we need to have known them? How closed-knit should they be? Yeah, let’s throw in a pastor. That would be impressive! Wait, we better have people with kids. What about an employer to show we’re responsible and hard working?
How were we supposed to be able to pick three people or couples that represent all the wonderful reasons why we deserve to be parents?
Pure frustration! Unnecessary, pure frustration!
There are also a variety of medical tests you have to go through. There were two issues with this. The first was the fact that our HMO (Kaiser Permanente) may have been great for IUI, but they are not supportive of adoption. You can’t just march on down there with a letter from the home study agency and have them give you the tests you need. It is really a shame. It took us a bit of creative maneuvering to accomplish, and would take much more later on, but we got them to do the tests. The other issue was once again the ambiguity in the forms. It wasn’t clear what exactly they were supposed to be testing in some cases and calling the agency didn’t make it any clearer.
One example was the urine analysis. I’ll admit, the Deadhead in me heeds caution to piss tests. Maybe it is just a scar from my youth. Maybe I had spent so much time trying to cover up things I was doing that there was a Pavlov’s Dog reaction. Even when I have had to take drug screens for employment, knowing darn well that I’m clean, I get nervous. Whether it is the fear of a false positive, a nested psychological reaction, or the feeling of an infringement on my civil liberties, these things make me nervous. The medical form didn’t say what they needed to test for. Did I need to avoid going to a concert or other place where someone might be smoking a joint? I’ll admit it, I live in the Bay Area and I come in contact with marijuana. Heck, using the restroom at PacBell Park during the World Series probably put enough ambient THC in me to trigger a positive! There are many questions you can get answered by asking someone who has been through it already. But it is extremely uncomfortable to ask someone you don’t know well if the urine test includes a drug screen. It turns out, no drug screen. I guess we can place civil liberties in the win column on this one.
The last major part of the home study is the home visit. This was one where we really had no idea what to expect. We had gotten the scoop of what was required if you are being approved by Social Services, but this was entirely different. We didn’t know if we had to put covers over all the outlets and kid-proof the cabinets. We decided that we probably didn’t need to go those lengths now but did make sure we had more important things like a lock on our Jacuzzi cover. How spotless did the house need to be? How much of our clutter should we hide? We don’t want to appear disorganized. Yikes, do I need to take down the American peace flag from the kitchen wall? Maybe they think pacifists make bad parents!
Physical inspection aside, we really didn’t know what kinds of questions we’d be asked by the Social Worker. This could get very personal and while we had nothing to hide, there were things from both of our pasts that we’d rather not get in to. The adoption mindset made it so that I was unsure what a proper response to some of my teenage indiscretions would be. We of course wanted to appear perfect in every way. What if she somehow asks us both the same question and we answer differently? What if she finds things where we don’t see eye-to-eye? Do we need to act cuddly and cutesie to show we’re happily married?
As it turns out, the home study is not something to fear. It really seems to serve the purpose for which it is intended. In reality, the home study process seems more like a driver’s license or gun permit. You have to give them good reason to reject you. The argument can be made that there should be more to it. A few months ago there was a tragedy that occurred when a father killed his recently adopted child from Guatemala. Apparently the child had a bout of diarrhea and the father freaked out after having to repeatedly clean and diaper the child. The father dropped the infant boy into the bathtub three times, fracturing his skull and killing the child. I read one account where it said that this couple had actually been rejected in the past but somehow they got one agency to approve their home study. Maybe there was some signal that this man, who had no record of violence, had the potential to crack? Maybe they should have dug deeper to see the potential that lurked within him? Most likely, there was nothing to clue them in. But because of the adoption brand, this instance will be judged in that regard separate from all of the other fathers who do the same thing.
We were asked some very personal questions. There were things that came to light that we were glad to have discussed with the Social Worker. Those things are too personal and not necessarily my own so I can’t go into detail. But we had one situation caused by one of our references who stupidly put something down he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t anything that would impact our ability to parent, but it was something that had to be carefully crafted into the home study report so that it would not be misunderstood when translated into Spanish.
It was just about Christmas now and we had a notarized copy of a home study report conducted by a licensed social worker recommending us to be approved to adopt up to two children up to two years of age from Guatemala. (Even though we were only planning on adopting one child who was much younger than two years old, it’s best to widen your approval just in case. You never know what will happen along the way.)
Now all we needed was the approval of the federal government.
The Home Study basically clears you with the state and tells the US Department of State that they’re cool with us being able to adopt. Ultimately, the feds have to grant you that approval. We had actually filed the federal application, the I600A form, a few months prior, just as we began the home study. It goes without saying that this INS approval did not come quickly. No one knows exactly what they look for to approve you, but it can take about six months for them to do it.
We know there are background checks. Standard procedure was to have two fingerprint and background tests conducted. One is for the state to see if you are wanted for any crimes as well as to be sure you are not a registered sex offender. This one is actually conducted for the home study. The other is for the federal approval process and is used by what was at the time called the INS. In our case, because we had lived in California less than two years, we also had to have an FBI background check conducted. This concerned me a bit.
This is one of the instances where the reader has to really try to think with my brain. It’s pretty clear to you by now I tend be a little left leaning politically. At the time that this was going on, the peace movement was in full swing. The government had used the Patriot Act to prevent peace activists from boarding airplanes. While I wasn’t actively involved outside of attending some peace rallies, how did I know what they might have on me? I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I gave money to Pacifica Radio. I signed petitions. I had even worked on starting a Green Party local when I lived in New York. I remember my mom warning me to be careful about what I put in e-mail, just in case. And my mom is not the political radical than I am. Sad as it may seem, I had genuine concern that the feds might try to block me.
While they took their sweet old time doing it, we eventually received what is called an I171H, an approval to adopt.
Stepping back to a paramount leap of faith
We need to jump back in time a few months. We received our I171H in early March as I recall. In order to receive the I171H approval, you had to specify the name of who you would be hiring to handle the foreign side of the process. This can be the same agency that conducted the home study, but does not have to be. In fact, this does not even need to be someone licensed in any way if adopting from Guatemala. The foreign government, not the USA, institutes any such requirements. So we are now stepping back to the time that we started the home study and had to make this agency/facilitator decision.
It is impossible to stress the importance of picking the right people to work with. There will be a full section on this later in the book that will be written from the “what I know now” perspective. For now, as I tell our story, I’ll do my best to keep it from the angle of “what I knew then”. We got pretty lucky and fared amazingly well given how we went about it. Had we known more, it would have been a much more exhaustive exercise.
The internet was once again the place to go. The topic of adoption and the internet is deserving of and will receive a full section later on. First off, there are websites that list available children with links to the agencies representing them. These are commonly referred to as “photolistings”. There are upteenth different agency sites, all of which proclaim their deep love of the children, respect for the families, ethical responsibility, communication skills, knowledge, and experience. I’m not sure exactly how we determined this, but somehow it was clear that all of them do not live up to these standards in practical application.
There are also a variety of other wonderful adoption related resources specializing on individual countries. Every adoptive family in the process should fully utilize these. So what we did was sort of combine all three of these types of websites and e-resources to get the full picture. We also kept the option of working with our home study agency for the foreign side open. There was some feeling of reassurance in having the agency close by and having the opportunity to meet face-to-face with those would be working on our case.
At the time, we imagined that Sheila would be the one managing the process. As such, I felt it was her right to make the final decision of which agency to choose since she would be the one interacting with it on a regular basis. My job was going to be to narrow the field to a few choices, all of which had my seal of approval.
After doing much poking around, reading internet lists, and asking some questions of others in the community, I had narrowed it down to a few. The things that seemed to be the most important were how involved they were in Guatemala, which in turn reflected their relationship with the lawyers who hold the real power in the process, their level of experience, and then just a plain ole gut feeling on their level of integrity. Unlike many families at this stage, we did not try to focus on things like who was known to be fastest or who had long lists of waiting families in queue.
It’s worth noting that there tends to be a longer wait for girls in Guatemala than for boys. I have many theories about why this may be. Most of them seem to center around the kind of males that are enthusiastic about an interracial and intercountry adoption. In our case, gender was not abundantly important. We knew that Sheila would prefer a girl. I really had no preference. The machisimo in me did favor a boy, but somehow I pictured us with a girl and that picture was beautiful. Gender was something that was going to be a matter of chance. Although not specifying a gender usually meant it would be a boy since there were longer waits for girls. As an example, if the smoking section of a restaurant only has three tables and you specify no preference, the odds are there is a long list of people waiting for smoking so you’re going to sit in non-smoking.
Now it was Sheila’s time to choose an agency. We had pretty much decided against the local agency because they did very few adoptions from Guatemala and we were not confident they had the experience we wanted. Sheila started calling the agencies I had found and requested their informational packages. It was very hard for her to choose as each had its own best areas and it was very hard to judge people’s integrity based on a phone call and printed claims. As I did when describing how we picked Guatemala, I’ll just go into how we chose the agency we did.
Our agency pick was not really an agency but a law office. And it wasn’t really a law office, it was just someone who facilitates adoptions that happened to be a lawyer. She was working on becoming a licensed agency, which would also allow her to conduct home studies, but had not yet completed that process. Carol Anne had two children that she had adopted from Guatemala. She was well revered in the internet community for knowing how to maneuver the system. She had a reputation for having stepped in to help families in trouble even though they were not her clients. In fact, she hadn’t even been facilitating adoptions for very long. So she had the weird contradiction of being new to the business and experienced in it at the same time.
***author’s note: the name of our adoption facilitator has been changed in this book. That should in no way be construed as meaning anything. She was not comfortable with my using her name if she couldn’t read the book first and I didn’t want anyone feeling they had editorial control over the book. As you’ll read, we had an overall positive experience in our adoption. Having her true name in the book wasn’t important to the story, so I agreed to change it with no animosity. In fact, I at times recommend her agency to prospective parents.
Sheila and Carol Anne hit it off very well on the phone. Carol Anne has a wonderful personality with a sweet southern accent that makes her very hard to dislike. We were assured with the fact that she had been through the process herself since that should make her understanding of our needs. She seemed to be very buttoned up about her business and confident. She did not come across like she was trying to sell you. She had the correct attitude of seeing if she was a fit for us rather than trying to prove she was.
Carol Anne also impressed us in some other ways. She really seemed to be all about the kids and concerned about the country as a whole. She was involved in a humanitarian project to help care for children who can’t be adopted. She worked with a hogar (orphanage) that focused on special needs and handicapped children who are hard to place with families. Her website was the only one that offered a history of Guatemala and its people. It was the only that told the plain truth about the CIA’s involvement in the devastating thirty-six year civil war that left an estimated two hundred thousand civilians dead. Despite the fact that President Clinton had formally apologized to the Guatemalan people for the US’s involvement, no other agencies felt the need to teach parents this basic of a knowledge about the country. Carol Anne also supported contact between the adoptive parents and the birthmother. This was something that we felt strongly about as well. We did want the birthmother to know good people adopted her child.
When push came to shove, we were confident with our decision to work with Carol Anne. We knew that there were no guarantees, yet she just seemed like the type of person that would understand us and meet our needs. So we signed a long contract that proved to us she was in fact a lawyer, mailed a deposit, and we had made it over one more hurdle.
Killing more trees
We were quickly overwhelmed with the array of documents that would come to be known as our “dossier”. With the exception of our money, this was basically everything we need to provide the Guatemalan side. There are a few things that made putting together our dossier a real bitch. And they are much the same as those that made the home study a challenge.
First off is trying to figure out exactly what they want and how you are supposed to get it. For example, all of the documents need to ultimately be “authenticated” by a Guatemalan Consulate in the United States. Which location of the Consulate is not a function of where you live but rather where that document originated. In addition, at the time, the list of states under the jurisdiction of any given Consulate seemed to be in flux. Even more confusing was trying to determine what you had to do to any document before it could go to the Consulate. The worst example was my birth certificate. It was issued by the City of New York. Before going to the Consulate in New York it had to first be certified by the state. In order to be certified by the state, it had to first go to the county so that they could certify that the person who signed it for the city was in fact legitimate. And this was of course after I had to order three copies of my birth certificate just in case we might need them.
The stream of documents was extensive. It included basic things birth certificates, marriage license, passport copies, employment verification, and new letters of reference (we got to weed out the idiot from the home study). There were also some interesting ones.
My favorite document was the name affidavit that has to list every name that could ever possibly be used to represent you. While I did not have to include “asshole” in the list, it was an exercise to try to come up with every possible combination of initials, abbreviations, and name combinations possible. See how you well you do on a first try. Start by taking your full legal name. Now imagine that for your middle name you use an initial. Now for your first name and your middle name you use an initial. Now for the first name you use an initial but you use the full middle name. Now what if you don’t use the middle name. Don’t forget with and without a surname. This was especially difficult for Sheila who has a maiden name, had a prior married name, and was not consistent with her use of being a hyphenated women like Hillary Rodham-Clinton.
The medical documents were a challenge this time as well. The ones for the home study of course would not work. This time the requirement was just a very simple letter from your doctor saying that you are generally healthy, HIV-free, sane, and capable of parenting a child. The kicker was that it had to be on the doctor’s stationary, signed, and notarized. This raised a variety of problems with Kaiser Permanente. As I mentioned before, they are not supportive of adoption and shame on them for that. Problem number one is that the doctors are not allowed to sign any letters of this sort. They first have to be approved by some mysterious office that can be quite elusive. This means it will inevitably have to be presented to a panel of lawyers to cover the corporation’s ass and make sure that they aren’t accepting liability if I go nuts and drop the child in a bathtub or something. Please let my sick humor represent the level of frustration I had with these people.
The next problem was that I had to somehow get them to put my words on their stationary. This would not be an easy task with a department that is very hard to reach on the phone and doesn’t have an open office in the medical facility. To solve this one, I actually doctored up a piece of letterhead by using stuff we had received in the mail from Kaiser. The third problem was that it had to be notarized. Unlike virtually every hospital in the United States from what I am told, Kaiser did not have a notary on staff. So I had to somehow get this office to contact me so that I could arrange an exact time for them to deliver the blessed little one paragraph letter to the doctor and hire a traveling notary to be there.
It is no joke that I know people whose insurance has been through Kaiser that just went to another doctor and paid full fees so that they could complete their dossier. The activist in me was not going to let that happen. I had made the decision that my HMO was going to provide this stuff and I was not going to pay them a penny to do it. I accomplished this goal with much perseverance. Without incriminating anyone I’ll just reveal that the mystery office did not come through and that while the folks that take the Hippocratic Oath may work for the evil corporation, they are human.
Only those that have been through the dossier collection process can understand what it is like. I’m sure those people have had a few laughs while reading this. You have to understand the mindset of the parent at this point. Very few agencies will refer a child to you until the dossier is completed. Even though you may still be waiting for your home study to be completed or your INS approval, you are on a mission to get these things done. It’s understandable because some of them can take some time. Realize that each of these documents has to go through the authentication process. Each time you have to send it off to some government office, it is out of your hands for an undetermined amount of time. There is always the risk of them getting lost. At times, there is also some doubt about whether you are sending it to the right place or if you’ve told them the exact thing you need done to it. In order to save time and feel protected that they won’t be lost, you use Federal Express or UPS to send them and have them returned to you.
The rush to have it done can make us not manage the process intelligently. For example, if there are five documents that all need to go the same Consulate, we send them one at a time as we have them rather than in one shot. It’s not stupidity at play. It is sanity! For once you have some bit of control in growing your family. You have things that YOU need to do to get it done. That is empowering as much as it can be frustrating. So while some of the things we do may not make logical sense and may cost us some money, they keep us sane as well.
The cost of putting this dossier together should not be overlooked. Notaries generally charge ten dollars per signature and significantly more if they are traveling somewhere to get it. Every city, state, and Consulate certification costs you another ten to twenty dollars. And for anyone not used to using overnight shippers, they are not cheap. So by the time you are done with the dossier, you have spent more than you thought.
There is a great feeling that comes from getting that last document back from a Consulate. Remember that in adoptions from Guatemala, you are matched with a child at the beginning of the process that essentially starts with an INS authorization and a completed dossier. So as soon as you have the dossier completed, you start to realize that your child may be alive already. At a minimum, the birthmother is in her third trimester. This is one of many of the feelings and emotions of adoption that is hard to put words to. But after all the waiting, knowing that your child is out there is very powerful. It’s also exciting because very soon you will have a face and name to connect to that dream known as your child.
Around this time, Sheila started spending a lot of time searching the photolisting websites. I’d joke with her that she was shopping for babies again. She knew that none of these kids would be ours because that’s not how the process works. But she knew we were so close to having a picture of our own, that it excited her to see all these other little Guatemalan angels.
Even though we had our dossier completed, we had not yet received our approval from INS. This was quite frustrating but unfortunately there was not much we could do about it. Their official “how long you should expect” was four months from the date they registered our application and cashed our check. It had been just about that amount of time so we knew we just had to be patient.
Patience was, of course, at its end.
This chapter was a bit too long for one entry. So here is the very end of it. Read the posting just below this one first.
Back to the story...
There is something very strong to be said about being able to account for your child’s life before being adopted. It’s not hard to understand why it would be important for adult adoptees to have some answers. This is an area that many countries need to work on. It is one thing to protect the privacy of the birthmother, it is another to deny the children of things like their birth name or infant photographs. I say this because it was a real strongpoint for Guatemala. If you piece together some of the things that have been brought up you’ll understand. In an adoption from Guatemala, you know about the birthmother. You have pictures from the time the child is just a few days old. You can visit the child soon after. This means that you will be able to show the child how young they were when they first physically came into your life. I’ve been told that the second grade can be a real killer on children adopted from some countries. The second grade is apparently when it is a standard assignment to bring in your baby pictures. It actually meant something to us to know that our child would not have to avoid that assignment.
All arrows were pointing straight for Guatemala. In our analysis, it offered us the chance to bring home the youngest child possible. We would have the ability to visit the child along the way. We’d be able to have some information about the birthmother. The children are generally very healthy and well cared for. And if we wanted, we could provide that care. There was a natural attraction to the country and visiting would not be a chore. We felt good about the process. We were confident that it provided the best option for being able to raise the child given the uniqueness our family would have.
We had been through a lot. We had done our research. We had reached an informed decision. All the simple stuff was done. It was the time for action.
It was time go down the golden road to unlimited devotion in the land of eternal spring.
Once we had made the decision to pursue adoption, it opened up a whole new pandora's box of options and considerations. Conceptually, it seems as though it should be a pretty straightforward process to match a child in need of a home with suitable parents. One would anticipate a detailed amount of paperwork would be required in order to protect the child from being matched with an unsuitable home. But beyond that, there doesn't appear to be much need for any complexity.
Unfortunately, things are not as they should be. For example, there is no reason why there should ever be debate over whether a child is adoptable. It seems relatively simple to determine. Did his birthparents give him up? Was she abandoned? Are his birthparents deceased? Is there a family member that wants the child? By answering these few simple questions anyone could intuitively determine whether an adoption would be appropriate. Yet in our world, there is rarely black and white. Even questions as simple as these don’t always have direct answers.
There is no one place to lay blame for what has occurred in adoptions. It has happened because governments, professionals, and the families have all influenced what are today’s adoption systems. Because of the self-interest that has infected all stakeholders in adoption, the systems have slowly evolved into what they are today.
The harsh reality is that the sacred institution of adoption has been transformed like so many other truly important institutions essential to our society. A philosophy of mine will be introduced now that will become a consistent theme used throughout much of this book as it continues. It is one of the foundational values on which all things surrounding adoption must begin. The philosophy is rather simple and just states that the very nature of the function of adoption, providing families for children who need one, makes it one of the elite “functional areas” in society that has to be judged and evolved from a non-economic or self-interest perspective.
While this seems a no brainer, it actually just joins adoption in with other things like education, health care, religion and charitable work. These are all integral services to society. While the individuals working in these industries have every right to try to secure their own economic stability and career goals, they must do so with an overriding understanding of the importance to the common good of the role they serve. As soon as personal drive and motivation take precedence over this understanding and dedication to it, the organic nature of it becomes susceptible to a myriad of problems. It causes wheels to start spinning and suddenly you are where we are today.
Let’s just look at one example from one of these other industries. In health care everyone would agree that the priority is to give people the medical care they need to be healthy. Doctors should earn a good living as a reward for the years of education they endured and the pressures and expertise of the job. That goes for pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and hospitals. But we have a world where the corporatization of all these segments of the industry have made them more focused on profitability than health care. After all, the stockholders aren’t investing to save the world. They are doing it to make money. So you have HMOs making decisions about whom and what to test based on minimizing their total costs. They have to weigh the average cost of being proactive and diagnosing something early against the odds that not doing so will lead to more expensive treatment later. There are sue-happy patients who have driven the cost of malpractice insurance through the roof. Doctors must now consider the potential for litigation into how they go about serving their patients’ needs. The drug companies face heavy competition and have had a recent tendency to focus on developing “life enhancing” drugs like Viagra instead ones that may end some rare fatal diseases. This is a simple decision for the corporation because there is a larger potential market for the life enhancing drugs. In the quest for profits, they also spend at least as much money on marketing as they do on research. The combination of these things has caused us to have a system where the self-interest of each stakeholder group prevents maximization of the overarching goal – providing people the best possible care. This is not to say that people do not get good care or the medications they need, it is just a realization of the maze one must go through to be confident it is what they are receiving.
Adoption is much the same way. None of the stakeholders is evil or trying to damage the institution. Each of these stakeholders will be examined in detail later in the book. For the time being, the point to keep in mind is that each of the different adoption options has a slightly different set of stakeholders. As such, each has evolved differently and poses different risks and considerations. So in order to weigh the options, one must take this stakeholder approach to reach an informed decision on which is best for any prospective adoptive parent.
It is sad to admit that the best way to really dig into the intricacies of the options is by looking at the self-interest that is able to influence it. Because no other form of research will provide one with this kind of understanding of the potential flaws that could come into the system, this is the route we must take. Stakeholders in any of the options have a vested self-interest in trying to promote the positive things about their option and minimize or hide the negative. I do not wish to imply that this is all done out financial self-interest because that is not the case.
As an example, people in government jobs aren’t going to make any more money by instituting some policy. But they may be able to influence some sort of statistic on which they are judged by their superiors, special interests and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and ultimately the voting taxpayer. This new policy may or may not be beneficial to the objective of adoption. Whichever the case, the policy could be put in place because someone was using self-interest as their primary motivation.
The lesson of the day for anyone about to go through this process is to be skeptical of everyone and play the devil’s advocate in your own mind. This even holds true when talking to people that have been through one of the processes. Every adoption story is unique and people deal with adversity in different ways. Unless it is someone you know very well, it is hard to understand how another person’s circumstances would have impacted you. In addition, you are only getting the story through their eyes, often there is much that can be left out and things that sound like facts are really more opinion. A natural bias is also going to be inherent. I have a beautiful, sweet daughter who I love more than words can say. We adopted her from Guatemala. With very few exceptions from people who have gone through horrendous situations, who is going to be pessimistic about the process that brought them their Isabel?
Be very objective and be astoundingly self-aware. As hard as it may be, you have to leave your emotions at the door. This is not to say that emotions don’t have their place, but emotional considerations have to be judged objectively. If someone’s emotions make them uncomfortable with the prospect of the birthmother playing a role in the child’s life, it is obviously an important factor in examining the options. My point is that it needs to be taken as a hard objective fact rather than something that you just let eat you up inside and try to talk yourself out of.
We did go through this exercise. I can’t say that it was done in this rigid or formal a manner. Much of this is coming back to me in hindsight. One great thing about graduate level studies is that you are forced to really think about things in an academic sense and that requires objectivity. I believe that type of thinking helped us to slip into examining the options well. Another benefit is that we are both quite frankly cynical. Sheila’s natural draw to the half-empty glass was a real asset because she could pretty easily come up with the worst-case scenario and reasons not to choose a particular option. This is probably more valuable than seeing the reason to choose an option. My natural drift was to the latter.
There is no best adoption option. Each has its own challenges, intricacies, benefits, and drawbacks. It is really a function of which is the best fit for you. You have to know yourself and not be ashamed of anything that may mean because ultimately you must be comfortable with the option you choose and prepared for what it entails. We picked the option that was best for us as a couple based on who we are. That should not imply to anyone that they should feel the same way. I think the questions we asked could be of use to any couple, but the answers, interpretations, and decisions may not. Everyone must see these options through their own eyes and I do not wish to imply that our way was the best way.
Where to begin
It goes without saying that you will either adopt your child from your home country or abroad. There are no other options until the Martians open up their planet for interplanetary adoption. In the pages to come, I’ll get into many of the differences between the two. We’ll explore how children are relinquished and adopted, interracial families, and as Gov. Schwarzenegger would say, “all those things”.
There is something else that strikes to the core of deciding between domestic and intercountry adoption (ICA). It is something worth discovering about oneself very early in this process. It is a fundamental part of who we are and how we view the world. And while it won’t necessarily rule out domestic or ICA, it’s a good starting point for where your decision may go.
An exact name for this does not come to mind. For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to it as “national pride”. It is how you view yourself and your role in relation to the grandiose world we live in. I will try to not to be overly USAcentic as I believe this must hold true for others making the domestic versus ICA decision. I don’t imagine there is a huge difference between the psyche of the American and people of other wealthy, developed, and westernized nations. Almost without exception, these are the other countries providing the parents interested in ICA.
Whether one takes an active opinion in political issues is not important. As human beings, we all feel a certain responsibility to the rest of the human race. Can you imagine anyone saying that we shouldn’t try to help fight the AIDS epidemic in South Africa or the starving children in Ethiopia? Of course not! No one would say that we shouldn’t care what happens to those people and just chalk it up to survival of the fittest. At least I hope not. The fact is that we realize we come from the countries with the power, finances, and infrastructure to make a difference for those less fortunate. We’re aware that we have at least some responsibility to do so. How one goes about that and with what level of support may be things for debate, but the responsibility itself is universal.
In the same light, we all are impacted by our sense of self and this impacts an underlying psychology for adoption, especially where it relates to the domestic versus ICA decision. This isn’t about adopting someone from a different ethnicity. We could have adopted a Ladina domestically and we could have adopted Caucasian though ICA. That is another topic. This is about the role you are serving by providing a child a family and how it relates to your perceptions regarding your national pride. There are two schools of thought involving interpretations of what it is to be proud of and loyal to your national identity and your role within it.
There is one school of thought that believes we have a responsibility first to help our own and then worry about others. This makes logical sense and rationally leads one toward domestic adoption. It goes to believe that if you are providing one child a home, why not help make your country a little better off. After all, there are many children in this country who need and deserve families. There are new ones being born every day. There are teenagers getting pregnant as you read this that do not have the ability or maturity to raise a child. There are children whose parent is a drug addict and the state has decided to pull parental rights. There are many thousands of children stuck in group homes and questionable foster homes.
This school of thought can be especially strong for those who do not believe in legalized abortion. They understand that there needs to be other options. They realize that there will be children born who just can’t remain with their biological families. More so than anyone else, they believe a child should not be punished for who gave birth to them. This is clear to see if one looks at all the things done by Catholic Charities. Within this chain of thought is the fact that in order to minimize the need for and ramifications of ending legal abortion, there needs to be a good flow of families adopting children domestically. It does not invalidate this school of thought to point to the fact that there are huge waiting lists of people trying to adopt infants domestically. Quite to the contrary, the fact that there are huge waits points to the popularity of this school of thought.
The second school of thought takes a very different approach. It takes a stance of national pride that focuses on recognizing how minimal the problems are domestically in relation to the rest of the world. While there are children domestically deserving homes, with a few exceptional situations they are receiving much better care than children elsewhere. The child living in a group home or uncaring foster home domestically still fares better than a child living in an orphanage like those that became so notorious in Romania years ago. So while it does not condone denying the children domestically, it finds that the greater good may be found elsewhere.
If we agree that all children deserve a loving family but realize that some may not get one, it is rational to say that it’s best to give the home to the child in the direst of situations. If it were possible to create an evolution of improvements where one could adopt the domestic child and then the child in another country could move to the U.S. foster home this might be another story. This is, of course, a moot point because no such thing is possible.
The realization that we are blessed and fortunate leads this school of thought to find that the opportunity to be able to offer “The American Dream” to another is testament to how ones views one’s role in the world. This is not only in a humanitarian sense but also out of a belief that it is things like this that make our nation great and give it the ability to continue to have the responsibility to the rest of the world. In other words, if the realization of the American Dream fails to continue, that being the dream of immigrants to come to this country, assimilate, and succeed, then America loses the elements of that dream. It is the fact that we are the country that can offer children homes and do so that gives us the ability in the first place.
Understanding which school of thought you prescribe to surprisingly does not make the domestic versus ICA decision a done deal. While it does impact how we view things in the macro sense, there are many other considerations. On the micro scale, we all realize that we are just looking to adopt one or two of the hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who need a home and family. Just as no single person’s SUV is going to impact our dependence on foreign oil; no one adoption is going to save the plight of children. Very few of us are adopting primarily for humanitarian purposes, further making the school of thought not the deal breaker. The school of thought is just a reference point to know where you may have a natural bias.
It also is something to keep under consideration as you try to imagine the long-term commitment you are about to make. By the time infertile couples get to the point of adoption, they are so eager to have a child that it is easy to overlook anything other than achieving that goal as fast as possible. It is in this respect that one should be cognizant of their school of thought to avoid making the wrong decision.
Why buy milk from the store when you’ve got the cow at home
For most people just starting to explore adoption, I think there is a natural tendency to gravitate toward some form of domestic adoption. ICA has a sense of excitement about it, but also seems like something great that other people do. At least this was the case for us. All other things held constant, it seemed to be more sensible to stay domestic. For one, we are exposed to so much information and experience in domestic adoption. Virtually everyone knows a family who adopted domestically, and they all can’t speak highly enough about their experience.
All of these families of course adopted at least twenty years ago when it was a much different environment. Today, domestic adoption is no longer as simple as going to an orphanage and picking up a child as depicted in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. That may be an exaggeration of how things have changed but I did quickly come to see that listening to the stories of people who had adopted any more than five to ten years ago was not of value in learning about the process.
As we started to look into domestic adoption, it seemed as though there were basically two ways to go. One was to do an adoption through the county’s Social Services Department. The other was through the private adoption system. A disclaimer is in order at this time. I do not purport that we looked into every imaginable domestic adoption available. Nor do I claim we learned all the intricacies of each option. This book is about what we learned and how we digested it to make our decision. In no way should this be implying that reading this will give anyone all the information they need to make their own decision.
Adopting from the man
If we were going to adopt domestically, why not help take a burden off the taxpayers at the same time? We decided to sign up and attend an informational presentation about adopting through Social Services. While we waited for it, we started doing some research on our own about it.
We knew already that there were increased risks of things like crack babies and children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. From everything we could tell, it looked like most of the children end up okay and the problems that manifest are mostly behavioral like ADHD. Up front, we are both people who believe that a lot of things that used to just be considered someone’s persona are now being diagnosed as behavior problems. One of our dogs is absolutely nuts and can at times be an incredible nuisance. But he is also the sweetest doggie in the world and part of the family. So while who he is does make our lives more difficult, it’s just who he is and something we have to live with. He’s not something we regret. All in all, we were not prepared to abandon the idea based on this concern alone, it would be something to better understand if we became more serious about pursuing this kind of adoption.
I realize that I have set myself up for some serious criticism here. So let me reiterate that this is just where my mind was. I fully realize now and also did then that a child is much more difficult in this regard than a dog. You can’t just put a child in the backyard or lock him in his crate when he’s gone too far. I also realize that it is and was impossible to really give full weight to how difficult it must be to parent a child with significant behavior problems if you haven’t done so.
The Social Services presentation came and we learned a lot about the process. Basically, you go into it as a foster parent with the intent to adopt. The children have almost always been seized by the state as opposed to having been voluntarily relinquished. This has generally been due to consistent drug abuse, alcoholism, neglect and abuse. It was not rare to have a child placed with you very soon after birth. They were upfront about the fact that the primary goal of the state is family reunification. But they also went on to describe how the process goes for the state removing legal parental rights and explained that for couples who are serious about adopting versus fostering, they do their best to place children with you that they do not believe will be returned to the biological family. One thing they really seemed to downplay was the children’s potential health and behavioral issues. They didn’t ignore or deny it, but they definitely did not raise it as an important consideration or cause for caution. The whole presentation definitely had the feel of a timeshare pitch.
One very interesting thing about this path was the financial one. This is because it is by and large free. In fact, you automatically receive foster family payments until the adoption is finalized. In addition, you can actually file some forms and receive this compensation until the child is no longer a minor. Maybe this shouldn’t matter but Notre Dame isn’t cheap! It was a positive thing to think that college could be paid for by the state just for adopting a child through them. This factor never played a role in our decision, though I have to admit I couldn’t keep it out of the back of my mind.
We felt okay following the presentation and it was time to digest it all. Some concerns quickly came to light. First of all, there was something not right about how they seemed to try to keep off of the health issues. We had heard stories about how these Social Services departments are overloaded and overcapacity. This has caused the problems of the foster care system that have been all over the headlines. Florida, for example, had been losing track of kids. How possible was it that they were not being completely transparent because quite frankly they need someone to take these kids to get them off of their desks? While this does reek of the self-interest dilemma described earlier, it may be one where it still does contribute to the common good.
The fact is that if they were focused on selling us on the idea and were not really concerned about how well it fit into our desires, it is with good reason. If they focused on the negatives, their challenges would only grow greater and the system would be more strained. This would have a negative impact on children. But if they find a family and get adoption papers signed, that child has a family who will love him. So even if the parents are faced dealing with something they were not prepared for, they will deal with it because they will love this child and have no other choice. It could be defended in the same manner as the military draft. If there are not enough people volunteering for a needed service, than some of the people should be forced to step up to the plate. Obviously they can’t force anyone to adopt, but I think this does make a good example of how the preservation of self-interest and common good are not necessarily at odds, even if self-preservation is the driving force.
This selling us on the idea by minimizing the health risks also has more to it. In their pitch, they eluded a few times to the fact that you get to test drive the car before buying and this was almost always attached to the health risks questions. Because you serve as foster parents for quite a while before you can adopt the child, you have the opportunity to change your mind. The implication was that if the child’s behavior or health needs were too much for you, there was a way out. I didn’t realize at the time how this could be fitting into an overall motivation of getting parents to commit. In my experiences with ICA, I have seen how parents become attached to a child with nothing more than a photo and name. They love that child and nothing could keep them from him. Surely the same must hold true and be even more the case if the child is living in your home and you are essentially the parent. Even if you knew the child was the next Hitler you wouldn’t be able to turn away. The Social Services people must recognize this fact, making their test drive nothing more than a red herring. Besides, many of the problems do not present themselves for years. So they likely would not be apparent until long after the adoption was final.
There was one more thing that came to mind in regard to the health risks. It stemmed purely from that sense of academic thinking that at times borders on paranoia or conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, I analyze things like life is a game of chess where you have to be pondering all the impacts of any move for many rounds to come. I was remembering how they had said that if you want to adopt they would try to place you with a child least likely to be reclaimed by the biological family. Then I remembered the process the state goes through to remove parental rights and that the primary goal of the state is family reunification. Combining all those things together made me wonder how f*cked up the biological mother would have to be for it to be deemed a case where reunification is doubtful. It seemed to me that if you go into the process planning to adopt, you are that much more likely to bring home a child with more serious issues. This is not to say that some birthmothers don’t decide it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted because she realizes the severity of her own problems. But if you go back to how we were analyzing things, this was a logical way of looking at things.
The goal of the state to reunify the family was really the final nail in the coffin for us. In general, it would take an estimated eight months with the child in your home before you could begin formal adoption proceedings. During this time, if the birthmother showed any interest in the child, a plan would be developed to facilitate reunification. In that case, it was likely that she would have visitation rights. If the birthmother seemed to be making progress, the process could take longer and of course, she could have the child returned to her. We were not sure if were prepared to go through this. It’s not the same as open adoption where you maintain contact with the birthmother. This could very easily be a situation where you have to have that contact knowing full well that she wants the child back. In our position, we would have to be hoping the worst for the biological mother of a child we love. And of course, the possibility was always there that we would lose the child and have to send him back to a situation we considered unsafe and unsuitable. This just did not seem like a viable option.
Writing about this in such an honest and cutthroat manner is not easy to do and brings about a great deal of guilt. While I feel no shame for how we thought, it is hard to digest when put down on paper. These are the real feelings that go into the decision. It must be remembered that we did not decide to adopt for humanitarian reasons. We decided to adopt because of our own infertility. We wanted to adopt a normal, healthy child and we did not want to have to worry about the government giving that child back to someone who may or may not be capable of providing for that child. It is very easy to look down upon us for this when you view it from ten thousand feet in the air. At that level you see that we were scared off because of our selfishness and as a result some child may not be adopted. But when you look at it from ground level and try to walk a mile in our moccasins, you see that these are normal thoughts and valid considerations. It’s true that it serves to commoditizing the child in the process, but it’s also true that there is no child adoption mandatory draft. Until there is such a thing, parents have the right to choose the option most appealing to them and hopefully there is enough diversity of opinion in that choice that no subset of children are given a larger burden than others. It’s sad, but it’s reality.
Pick me! Pick me!
The private adoption industry in the United States is flourishing. There are many good reasons for this. First of all, people are starting families at much older ages and thus face increased odds of infertility. The rise in dual-income families also contributes in the same way. These things not only increase the number of people looking to adopt, but also means that they have more financial resources to devote to adoption. Finally, as women’s family planning options have been expanded and made more socially acceptable, fewer women face unwanted pregnancies and those that do are less likely to choose placing the child for adoption. The net result is an open market that in some ways can mirror many commercial ventures.
As always, this is not all financial and it is not to create the impression that it is to the detriment of any children. The fact is that there are many more families looking to adopt infants than there are people relinquishing children for adoption. While the costs associated with it can be excessive, effectively removing the option for many families, until there are children going without homes because families can’t afford to adopt, the costs cannot be deemed a detriment to the children. All other things held constant, there is an argument that it is to the benefit of the child as financial security does improve standard of living, level of health care, and educational opportunities in the United States. That does not mean that poor people don’t deserve to adopt. It just means that unless we believe that wealthy people make inferior parents, the argument could be made that the child’s life and future may be better served with more financial security and the high cost of domestic private adoption help ensure it.
The bottom line is that there is a tremendous sense of competition in the private adoption system. The birthmother gets to choose who the parents will be. There are no geographic limitations domestically, so she has a pretty large field of candidates. I believe that most birthmothers take this responsibility very seriously and do pick based solely on who she believes will be the best parent(s). While it is not legal to pay a birthmother, it is legal to reimburse her for various costs and lost wages. At it’s worst, this can be quite considerable and different prospective parents may have different limitations in this arena. So it is foolish to believe that the money never rears its ugly head into the decision. After all, the birthmother has many seemingly perfect families to choose from. Why not pick the one willing to throw a few more bones?
Despite my seemingly negative description of this system, it was one we seriously considered. So far as we could tell, we should fare pretty well. We were a young couple but not too young. We’re both decent looking people. We have a good stable income. Sheila was going to be a stay at home mom. We’re both well educated. We have a beautiful nursery ready for the child. We live in one of the greatest parts of the country. While it was very hard to get a good idea on what the actual cost would be, we were confident we could handle it. There was no reason why we shouldn’t get picked.
There was also a sense of optimism about this because it was possible to have a child in the home very quickly. Many birthmothers don’t decide to place the child for adoption until late in their pregnancy. How long a particular family has been waiting for a family is not important most of the time. With a little bit of luck and karma in the bank, that nursery could be occupied in no time. With private adoption there are no guarantees or real frames of reference for how long it will take to be matched. It could be one day. It could take years.
I had a really difficult time grappling with one aspect of the competitiveness. I discovered this while I was looking at some websites parents had to put together to try to attract birthmothers. Then I read about service providers who initiate direct mail and e-mail campaigns to get your profile into the hands of more agencies that represent birthmothers. It dawned upon me that this was a bona fide marketing campaign not any different than the ones I’ve done professionally for pepperoni, lemon juice, and instant mashed potatoes. The product was our ability to be good parents and the customer was ultimately either the birthmother if it was a consumer campaign or the agencies if it was a trade campaign.
Some people tell me that this should have been enticing. With all of my education and experience in marketing, I should have a competitive advantage. Maybe I have some inner fear that I’m not as talented a marketer as I believe but this marketing of myself was quite honestly repulsive to me. It’s very hard to put to words why this is. It’s not based on some higher moral imperative. There is some truth to being afraid of how I’d feel if it was taking too long to get matched, though it is not based on professional pride. I tend to be a control freak so I think I could grow unbearably focused on getting this done. I think it could blur the clear sense of definition between my private life and my career that I maintain for my own sanity. It would be like the worst of infertility all over again but worse, because I’m supposed to have expertise on what it takes to make it better.
There is enough material to write a book solely on the topic of how open an adoption one is comfortable with. An adoption can be completely closed where once the child is adopted, the birthmother has no further involvement in the child’s life; at least not for quite some time. On the other end of the spectrum is what many people had their eyes opened to when 20/20 did a show on open adoptions. This is where the birthmother almost serves as a co-parent in many ways with an ongoing, active role in the child’s life. I believe there is enough psychological evidence showing both ends of the spectrum are better for the child to conclude that no one really knows. Most likely, if all parties are comfortable with the situation, wherever it lies on the spectrum, then that is the best thing for the child.
On the surface, Sheila and I were pretty open to most open adoption arrangements. We like to believe we’re pretty new age thinkers. We’re close enough to enlightenment to see the beauty in the idea of the birthmother having an active involvement. What better way could there be to show a child that they were not placed for adoption out of a lack of love? There would obviously need to be some caution in it because you have to be confident the birthmother is responsible and serious enough about the arrangement that she won’t bail out at an age when it could be traumatic for the child.
When we gave this more serious thought we realized that we’re not quite as enlightened as we’d like to be. We really weren’t secure enough ourselves to be comfortable with an everyday type role for the birthmother in the child’s life. We never tried to develop an exact definition of how much contact we’d be open to but we realized that it would have be within some bounds. It’s good that we didn’t end up just following our initial instincts on this one, because it could have had a bad outcome. It just goes to show how essential being honest about yourselves can be in making adoption choices.
There are many advantages to private adoption. One is that there is the best opportunity to learn about the biological family. This is not only likely positive for the child psychologically, but also for things like health risks. Secondly, I believe it has the best access to information about where you stand in the process of any of the options. Because we have a pretty developed legal system, once the match is made the lawyers make it as simple as a few signatures. If you choose not to take an active role in marketing yourself, I believe it can be a relatively stress-free process outside of the wait. This would be better written by someone who has been through it, so these are only my perceptions.
While there still are risks of things like fetal alcohol syndrome, they are not too great because of the active involvement the adoptive parents can have in monitoring the pregnancy. I suppose it is also a testament to the birthmothers who tend to relinquish their children in private adoption.
I should also add that there are many private adoptions that do not mirror the system I’ve been describing. There are many private adoptions where the match occurs not through adoption professionals and intermediaries but through other sources like doctors, clergy, and friends. These can basically happen anytime someone has some connection to both a birthmother and a prospective adoptive parent. If you believe the six degrees of separation philosophy, it’s easy to see how these matches can happen. These often are the smoothest and simplest of adoptions that occur and are more likely to be free of any sort of corruption or commercialization. We did not want to count on this technique because it seemed like all luck. We were not active in any sort of community groups, were new to the area so we had a limited sphere of acquaintances, and did not have other established relationships to rely upon. So while we would certainly keep our eyes open if we had chosen private domestic adoption, it was not what we were going to base our game plan on. The marketer in me did come out on this one. There was already a plan for trying to get on the air on the predominant progressive radio station in our area to try to reach out to some hippie-chick who had been knocked up.
While we were far from experts on domestic adoption we felt confident that we had enough information to understand the options and make an informed decision. We were pretty sure that the Social Services choice was not for us at the time, though we had an interest in maybe doing so later in life. Private adoption still seemed a viable option. It had some drawbacks and concerns, but we also knew that there was not going to be any perfect choice. The question was which was the best choice for us.
Viva la revolución
I believe we can all take great pride in the fact that people are increasingly able to look beyond national boundaries in so many ways. With the advent of the information age, people became more aware of the rest of the world. Globalization has also opened the doors to many types of relationships between countries that would not have been possible in the past. Adoption is just one example. Not too many years ago ICA was virtually unheard of.
Following the attack on Iraq, the United States State Department received a flood of inquiries interested in adopting Iraqi children who may have lost their families. Without getting into the reasons for why none of them would be able to adopt an Iraqi orphan, it shows how people are thinking and the impact the media and information can have on people’s mindset. As such, it should be of no great surprise than many families are interested in ICA.
The increases in the numbers of families adopting internationally can also be attributed to the fact that there are huge waits to adopt domestically, yet we know there are many children internationally who likely will never have a family. Some would break this down in commercial terms as simply being Keynesian economics at work. There is an increase in the demand from Americans for children to adopt. There is a decrease in the supply of children available domestically. Outside of the laws effectively prohibiting ICA in most of the world, there is a near endless supply of children who could benefit from being adopted.
For us, it really didn’t mean anything one way or another if our child was born an American. Our decision would come down to what it would take to complete the adoption and what it would mean for the long term. Adopting internationally does bring with it many considerations beyond the country seal on the child’s original birth certificate.
When you embark on ICA, you have to leave your American flag at the door. You are now dealing with a new culture and society. They have different ways of doing things and operate under a completely different paradigm. I remember going to a concert in Tijuana as a teenager. It was a pretty large festival type show headlined by Oingo Boingo, my favorite band. As you crossed the border into Mexico you were handed a little pamphlet. The nuts and bolts of the pamphlet were to let you know that you are now in another country where different rules apply and you had officially lost many of the rights you take for granted. It went on to give some examples of things you couldn’t do and things that could be done to you for doing them. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to wait up to two years in jail waiting for a trial on a public intoxication charge!
Because we are dealing with a different culture, we have to be prepared for all that may entail. Laws can change at any time. Foreign bureaucrats can make new arbitrary policies or just plain decide to make things take longer. It is possible that the status quo way things are done may border on illegal under U.S. law. By choosing ICA, you are signing up for this. There is really no way to prepare for this because it seems to vary all the time. The adoption environment in a foreign country is very dynamic, having the potential to change as fast as you can get that last document ready. In short, with ICA you are almost guaranteed of some kind of adventure sifting your way through a foreign government’s process.
For some reason, there is an air of secrecy that surrounds ICA. It’s nothing sinister but it seems to make the processes very hurry up and wait. Because you are dealing with foreign intermediaries and a foreign government, it is often hard to get answers about where you are or what you are waiting for. You find out when you find out and move on from there. Compared to domestic options, ICA success seemed to be much more based on who you work with and who they know.
There is another kind of information that is often missing in ICA. This is information about the child. Depending on the country, you may or may not even know the child’s real name at birth. Finding out things like medical histories of the family are virtually impossible. Even in a country like Guatemala where it is possible to locate the birthmother, the odds of her being able to tell you that the men in the family tend to have high cholesterol and the women are prone to ovarian cancer are virtually nonexistent. After all, poor indigenous people in Guatemala don’t get to have doctors diagnose them very often. The most they would be likely is that someone was approximately forty years old, he got sick for a while and wouldn’t eat, and then he died. This is something to consider because there will be questions your child will ask you in the future that you will not be able to answer. There will most likely be many holes in the child’s personal story.
Another factor to consider with ICA has to do with various health factors. Because you will know very little about where the child came from, there is no way to be confident of things like whether the birthmother had proper nutrition during her pregnancy. While this may be true to some extent for domestic adoptions as well, one can’t ignore the fact that things like malnutrition and disease are more prevalent elsewhere. Maybe this concern stems from American arrogance; nonetheless, there is a little bit of a wild card sense when it comes ICA, especially on your first adoption.
One thing that hugely separates ICA from domestic is that the possibility does not exist for you have a newborn child in your home. The average age of children coming home varies from country to country but you can be certain what you won’t have them home until months after they are born. There are a few things that this means. One is obviously that you will miss the first days of your child’s life. But because of the uncertainty in the level of care, the longer it takes for the child to come home the greater the risk becomes of things like it having a permanent developmental impact on the child.
The fear of getting caught up in some kind of scandal also crossed our minds. We are guilty of having watched the news and learned about the horrible baby smuggling rings here or there and the families who paid all kinds of money to adopt a child who had never even been born. I know a lot more about these areas now than I did when we were deciding to adopt. At that time, this was a real consideration to me as I had heard some horror stories.
When one adopts internationally it also does bring about some responsibilities. These will be discussed completely later, for the time being I can say that this was something that we had to consider. A child’s nationality stays with them and unless parents don’t plan to tell their kids they were born abroad, which would be horrible to do, then the child’s heritage is something you have an obligation to keep in tact as much as possible.
Have I got a deal for you
There are many positive aspects about ICA that ultimately brought us to it. And while this is trying to separate ICA overall from domestic adoption, there was already some investigation of potential countries to choose underway. The decision to pursue ICA was not done in a vacuum.
The single greatest reason for us was that with ICA we knew that once the child was home with us that was the end of it. In ICA, there are no birthmothers changing their mind after you have the child. In all domestic adoption options, this was not as certain. Just as the possibility of in vitro resulting in a miscarriage turned us away from it, the possibility of losing a child in domestic adoption had the same effect. We were not prepared to think we were parents only to have it ripped away from us. It just wasn’t an option.
Not having to compete for a child was also another consideration for us. The ICA programs had more of a defined system in place to get you matched. Some of them were complex and could take some time, but they all had a clear road to being referred a child. In domestic adoption, it just seemed like more of a game of craps.
When you put these two primary reasons together, you can see that we chose ICA because it seemed like the clearest path to be assured that we’d have a child home within some defined timeframe. And this would be a child that we knew wasn’t going anywhere. I imagine that if we had been diagnosed as infertile early on and had skipped all the time and stress of the treatments, we may have chosen a different route. We had had enough of leaving things to luck and what should happen. We also were not ready for huge emotional risks.
By going through the exercise we did, it helped us to be able to make the best decision on where to adopt from. We now had learned a little bit about the different programs; more so, we knew more about our concerns, our priorities, and ourselves. We had developed a decent mental schematic for how to judge the different countries available on how well they fit into our plans.
Before we could really give serious thought to which country to choose we had to do some soul searching regarding the implications of being an interracial family. The same discussion would have been necessary if we had chosen the domestic route. And as I have tried to point out before, all of these decisions were not entirely happening chronologically in the order that they are being written. I would rather suggest that this might be an appropriate order for someone just starting to research options. “If I knew then what I knew now” certainly can be used to describe the differences between this book and some of the minutia of our story.
I wrote earlier that adoption in itself is a brand or stigma that does differentiate our families from the norm. Creating an interracial family through adoption makes this all the more so. The decision does not come down to whether or not you would be able to love a child of another ethnicity. I think that this would be apparent to most people who would have this problem and thus it would never need to be put under the microscope. In fact, this was one of the largest complaints I had about the John Sayles movie, Casa de los Babies. In it, one of the women adopting a child from a Latin-American country shows a clear belief in racial superiority, believing that her future child’s genetics were going to be something to be wary of. I found this personally offensive because this woman would have never chosen to create an interracial family and it misrepresents those of us that do.
The real question in creating an interracial family is the stigma attached to it and whether you are prepared to contend with that stigma. The fact is that you will get noticed and you will get asked questions. People will view your family differently and it will create some basis on which they form all other perceptions of you. Your child will likely be harassed about it as they grow up. Like it or not, you will be a representative of society moving beyond traditional barriers and you will be a revolutionary in that movement.
There are concerns for the child beyond just a little teasing from peers. It can be difficult for the children to find a comfortable place in which they consider their own identity. As much as we may try, we will not be able raise our child in a Latino, Chinese, or African-American household if we are Caucasian. We can try to teach them about their heritage and make a go at observing traditions, but we are whom we are and that will still be the primary culture the child is raised with. So imagine when the child suddenly enters high school. Despite the fact that it is a good, racially diverse community, the children seem to segregate themselves. It’s not racism or bigotry; it’s just the phenomenon of animals seeking out their own kind. Where does your child fit in? They have the behaviors and mindset of the Caucasian kids and yet they are not Caucasian. They don’t really connect well with the kids of their ethnicity and yet experiencing the segregation makes them feel as though they should. Every child has a hard enough time going through adolescence and discovering himself, this can be made all the more complicated in an interracial family.
Creating an interracial family requires a different kind of dedication and honesty on the part of the adoptive parent. Discussions on and openness about the fact that the child is adopted will need to happen sooner and the timing may not be under your control. It is likely going to have to be something that is brought to the surface at a very young age. Parents will need to be in enough control of their own insecurities so as not to make the child feel like a second choice or booby prize. As you can see, these are the same as overall adoption related issues for the most part but they become far more relevant for the interracial family.
There is one unfortunate consideration that still does exist to this day – the racists. While I have yet to meet anyone who was not supportive of our interracial family, I know many others who have. This can come from friends and family as well as strangers who may stare at you with a clear disdain and even come up to you and make derogatory remarks. If you live in an area where your child’s race is a small minority of the population, they are likely to face this type of abuse more from their peers. For example, if your child is Latino in an all white community where the only Latinos are landscapers and dishwashers, this is going to be projected on to your child.
Much of the racism and lack of support interracial families face comes not from people believing in any sort of racial hierarchy or segregation but rather from some deeply held conviction that it is wrong. In some cases they genuinely believe that it is not in the best interests of the child. You can’t argue with these people and you can’t really allow yourself to be too annoyed by them. But you have to be ready for that to happen.
As we talked about the interracial family question we realized that none of the issues associated with it were of a concern to us. Speaking for myself, I kind of looked forward to it. It wasn’t going to be a critical criterion in country selection, but I think I already knew where my mind was going. For Sheila, I think it just really wasn’t an issue one way or the other. She was impartial. We were prepared to stand proud in a family obviously formed through adoption. We were prepared to show that people do look beyond racial barriers. We were ready for all the special treatment, good and bad, forming an interracial family could bring.
While I spent only a small space discussing the implications of forming an interracial family, it is an area that should be given far more focus when actually making the decision. There are inevitably many more factors to it that I have yet to understand. The ones I have mentioned may be fairly simple to comprehend; however, they take quite a while to digest and analyze. It’s not easy to know how you will handle the looks and questions from strangers. I enjoy it myself but there are many others who become offended because it is none of the other person’s business. It’s another shining example of how important it is not to try to fool your self when making these important decisions. These are things that will become a part of your daily lives. You don’t want to make a mistake.
Sometimes I come across people who are not sure if they are prepared to start an interracial adoption. They usually have some important family member like a mother or father who they know will not be accepting. Then they continue to express the concern they have for whether it is what’s best for the child. In these cases, the person tries to fool herself into believing that she is prepared for the interracial family. She does this out of the best of intentions because she knows she is not racist and so she feels guilty that she’s uncomfortable with the idea. It does not make one racist to believe that an interracial family is not the best option. Until we can figure out how to shut ourselves away from the outside world, valid external forces that we cannot control are enough of a reason not to pursue an interracial family. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We felt differently, but that was only given our own situations. If we had different families or lived in a vastly different environment, we may have felt otherwise.
Time to get a passport
There’s a television commercial where a couple envisions themselves at a variety of vacation locales as they are researching vacations on-line. That is very much the initial process in deciding which international program to choose. At the time, while we knew which countries were the most popular, we really didn’t realize that so few were realistically options. So once we had decided to go international and had open minds so far as ethnicity was concerned, it was kind of like taking a spin around the globe imagining what it would be like to adopt from various places based on the natural stereotypes we have of the country. While it was a fun game, it wasn’t doing much to help us make a decision.
The U.S. State Department has a website that lists a plethora of countries and has basic information about their ICA systems and the number of adoptions completed each year. After having gone through almost every country on the list, I wonder why they don’t just delete the ones where it is completely illegal. For example, Islamic Law does not recognize adoption. The Koran clearly speaks to the obligation of the populace to care for orphans, but your bloodline is your family and there’s no getting around it. Another thing you come to find is that a whole shitload of countries have joined some Hague thing and there’s not many adoptions coming from those countries anymore. Some of them will only allow it for a biological family member of the child; others require that you reside in the other countries for six months or more. One after one of these Hague countries didn’t want us adopting their kids - that was for sure.
We were disappointed to see that we could not adopt from El Salvador. We have a friend from El Salvador who had been telling us all about the country, about how his sister had been a Senator and had connections, the children are so beautiful, and he could give us places to stay. (As a disclaimer, he was merely saying he’s got family out there who’d be there to help if we needed them. His sister is not involved with adoptions in any way and the statement about her connections should be taken in context, it was not meant to be sinister.) It seemed like a decent idea until we learned that they have a requirement that you had to be married for at least five years. It also appeared as though they really don’t match children to international families very often, part of that Hague thing I guess.
Once you’ve gone through the list you see why there are only a few popular programs. It’s because they are the only ones that are feasible. As I recall, that list at the time consisted of Russia, China, Korea, Guatemala, and Kazakhstan. There were a few others that were somewhat plausible, though they appeared to be very slow processes. So all we had to do was compare these few countries and at last we’d be able to get this adoption thing going.
The Land of Eternal Spring
Rather than go through each of the countries and how we debated them, it makes more sense to just move right in to why we chose Guatemala. For one, I’m not sure I remember all the details of each of them. Secondly, it would get tedious, boring, and redundant. We had our reasons for choosing Guatemala and it certainly was destined to be our choice. We can tell because Isabel was meant to be with us.
One of main reasons we chose Guatemala is a very common and controversial one. It has to do with the age of the child. In Guatemala, children can be referred for adoption virtually at birth. In most of the other countries the children are older. The time for serious commentary for the critics of ICA from Guatemala about this is later in this book. For the time being, I will just state that I take no shame in preferring to have my child home at as young an age as possible. It is not wrong to want to experience your child’s earliest days and to minimize the stress of adapting to a new environment.
Another interesting thing that differentiated Guatemala from other countries was the fact that you are matched with a child at the beginning of the international part of the process. In most of the other countries you go through some sort of approval process or delay and only get matched with a child at the very end. Most of the programs take approximately the same amount of time, but with Guatemala you are charting your child’s development from birth. You are also allowed to visit the child during the process. So you have the ability to spend time with them along the way if you desire.
There was even the possibility of being able to serve as the foster parent during the process. This was something that we were very interested in. There was no way I would to be able to stay for months but Sheila thought she might like to. We figured that maybe she could do it midway through the process so that we wouldn’t be separated for too long. Since we planned to visit anyway, it was not as if we’d be apart for months at a time. Fostering did present the possibility of heartache if the adoption falls through; which can happen for a variety of reasons. The most important being that the birthmother has the right to reclaim the child anytime until the very end of the process. So while you don’t have to worry about that once the child is home, if you act as the foster parent you could face it while staying in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s system seemed to be the most straightforward and easy to understand. The coming pages will show this not to necessarily be the case, but we could understand what the actual stages were along the way. It had the most transparent system in that it is actually a private legal agreement between you and the birthmother. It is facilitated by private lawyers just like the domestic private system. As a result, you get to have some basic information on the birthmother, what part of the country she is from, and her age. In fact, you even can get a copy of her cedula, or state identification, which also has a picture.
One of the things we were very concerned with was the health of the child and standard of care. In both of these arenas, Guatemala’s system seemed to be the best. First off, drug addiction and alcoholism are quite rare among the birthmothers. This is not the case with all of the countries. Secondly, most of the children live in private foster homes until the adoption is final. They do not spend time in overcrowded institutions where they get little to no individual attention. Obviously, this puts much faith in the quality of the foster homes. Since I believe that most people could not do anything but love an infant child, I was confident that this was safe. It is a pretty standardized policy that you receive regular, generally monthly, doctor’s updates so you know the child is growing well and being well nourished.
There was something else that had quite honestly been creating a bias in me along the decision trail. My experiences with the U.S. Latino population had an impact on me. I had a deep respect for the people, their history, and their ambition. They came from a strong sense of family devotion with a work ethic beyond normal bounds. I was able to speak the language fairly well. My understanding of past U.S. foreign policy in the region and how it directly impacted the struggles faced today also drew me toward a Latin American country.
The importance of this went far beyond the fact that I think Latino children are the most adorable in the world. When you adopt through ICA, especially in an interracial situation, you have an obligation to teach the child about their biological culture and country. You have to bring them back to the country to visit through life. In the case of Guatemala, this was something I would look forward and enjoy. It was not difficult for me to imagine the different ways to incorporate her Guatemalan heritage into our daily lives. Even in areas as simple as what we have for dinner.
There are people I know who adopted from other countries and realize as their children age that they do need to return for a visit. Most of them are not looking forward to it. They are distant places and not necessarily the most suitable for a family vacation. Language barriers can be enormous when you’re visiting a place where not many westerners go. To take a Russian child from Siberia to Moscow does not necessarily bring them close enough to the nest. In the case of Guatemala, these are not major issues. Most of the children live in the capital city during the process. In many ways, it is really the connection to their time before coming to the United States. I had traveled to Mexico more times than I could remember. I know that Guatemala had a general cultural environment I was comfortable with. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when we visited.
In my ever self-conscious fear of being offensive, I wish to admit to certain stereotypes and generalities I have made. The first is in repeatedly using the term Latino because it does not necessarily represent the children of Guatemala. However, the term is commonly understood and serves its purpose. If I used “Mestizo” instead, many readers would be lost. I also wish to point out that I have implied that Mexico and Guatemala are one in the same. To address this would entail a history lesson I am not prepared to provide. The truth is that, as the countries do share a common border, in some areas of Mexico, the people are closer to the majority indigenous population of Guatemala. Mexico has tremendous ethnic diversity within its population. I felt comfortable that my experiences in urban, developed Mexican cities would not differ too much from those in Guatemala. This does not imply that the two are not distinctly different places. After all, in Guatemala they use black beans, not pintos, in their refried beans.
To finsh this chapter, see Adoption Option Part 2
It didn't take us long to start trying to have a child. Many people advised that we wait a while. The common reasons: we should give ourselves some time to enjoy one another, we should do some traveling first, we should be sure that our marriage is doing well before throwing such a huge change into it.
For us the reality was this. We both knew we wanted to have kids. Sheila had been ready for years and had gone through a miscarriage in her first marriage or what we affectionately call her "practice marriage". I'm an impatient person. Once I make a decision to do something I do it. As an example, if I go out to look at new televisions or cars, chances are I'm coming home with one the same day. It just didn't seem to make sense to wait for waiting's sake.
Despite the nature in which I skipped around the country for a few years, I am basically a homebody. Sheila is even more so than I. So while we understood that doing some world travel while we could made sense, it wasn’t something we saw ourselves doing. Plus most of my vacation time was being spent on friends’ weddings, family visits, and other less grandiose excursions. The types of trips we were taking were exactly the kinds that work great with kids. There went another reason to wait.
It’s impossible to predict the future. As the classic Beatles song says, “Tomorrow never knows”. So while it’s true that starting a family soon after getting married is gutsy and will create some challenges, it also had inherent confidence attached to it. Sheila and I have to this day never had a real drag-down fight. We’ve never gone to sleep angry because something was not resolved. We had a good deal of faith in the security of our marriage. To be honest, I also gave thought to whether I thought that if we ever did split up, would it be civil or a battle. I couldn’t imagine the scenario where it would be ugly and I imagine Sheila felt the same. So even in the worst-case scenario, we were comfortable that we could raise a happy child.
Trying to get pregnant works in stages. First there is the stage when you just stop trying to not get pregnant. This is the closest thing to free love I’ve ever experienced – anywhere, anytime, there are no limits. It’s all cool with god. It’s legal. It’s morally acceptable to virtually anyone in the world. If you get pregnant it’s great. If you don’t, there is always next month. There’s no pressure, because in your mind you’re just trying to get pregnant, just like we’re all trying to watch less television or trying to eat fewer carbs.
As time goes on and there’s no pregnancy, you slowly move on to stage two. This is where you still are not frantic or anything like that, but move on to consciously trying to get pregnant. You start using the disposable ovulation kits just for fun. It actually adds spice to your love life as you have to spontaneously have your planned “raca raca”. During this stage, you start to tell people that you are trying to get pregnant. What you don’t realize is that you are actually opening the door to the next stage of trying. Because once you start telling people, you feel some responsibility to deliver. Each month that passes reminds of you of the fact that people might be starting to wonder what’s wrong with you.
Maybe they think there’s something wrong with our sex life.
Maybe they think we’re on the rocks and changed our minds about a kid.
They must really think we’re psycho!
These thoughts don’t come into our conscious mind, but they are out there swimming around in our subconscious. They start to grow and multiply, creating a new insecurity in your mind. Keep in mind, this is still just stage two in the process. As these boogers multiply in our subconscious, they eventually run out of room there and have to move on to the conscious. So where they use to be the little voices in your mind, they are now using a fricking megaphone.
Once you get to the point where you are starting to spend your few spare moments thinking about why the pregnancy hasn’t happened, you can welcome yourself to stage three. This is where the fun really ends and the quest for parenthood begins. First off, you’ve now moved on to the hundred-dollar electronic ovulation kit. You are charting the cycle. The spontaneity is gone. Quite frankly, it does take a toll on your intimacy.
Stage three begins where you have certain days before ovulation when you have to abstain. This in itself is not a big deal. But at least for this guy, there’s something about knowing that tonight’s not the night for love that impacted me from the time I’d get home from work. I know it sounds terrible but I guess I still looked at every night as being a night in a meat market dance club. If you know you don’t have a shot, you don’t bother buying the girl a drink. I suspect that while this sounds incriminating and shocking, the only differences between me and every other guy who goes through it is that I’ve realized it and admit to it.
Every month you go through a period of optimism only to have it crushed. It starts to become really become hard to deal with. I think this part is worse for the female. At least this was our case. Each month brings a new bout of depression. After all, we’re only trying to do the most natural thing in the world. We start to doubt ourselves. We wonder if it is a sign – maybe our child would be the next Hitler or something.
Trying to get pregnant now starts to test the relationship. I apologize for putting everything into physical terms, but it works for description. If every month finding out that you’re not pregnant brings you down and you have a week or two of controlled love making that ruins spontaneity, it does not leave many days in the month where you can just try to be a normal happily married couple.
This wears you down after only a few months. Suddenly trying to get pregnant becomes the basis of the relationship, not a byproduct of it. I think this period was made more difficult for us due to a job change and move from Kansas to New York. Sheila didn’t have her mom to counsel her and we moved into a less than optimal situation when we made a horrible decision in a home purchase. The house was cute and affordable, but the inspectors had missed the fact that it was a wreck. One day while I was out of town in the heat of the summer, something went wrong with the fire alarm in the house and it wouldn’t turn off. It was hard wired into the house and so the only way to get it off was to turn off the electricity to the house. The humidity in the house was insane and without electricity, poor Sheila was stuck and drawn to tears. It really impacted her, and I’m convinced the not pregnant issue cast a haze over all of life’s other challenges.
On to Stage Four: Devastation and Desperation. You now know that something is wrong and you’ve completed your first visit to an infertility specialist. Of course they behave like you came into them at the beginning of stage one. So they tell you to do what you’ve been doing and add some new handy tips. They tell you not to take hot Jacuzzis and you better quit smoking. Having to live with the knowledge that you’re an idiot for being addicted to cigarettes is normal. But now this doctor is telling you that it is keeping you from getting pregnant at a time when the smokes are such a wonderful solace in your desperation. You “try” to quit in the stage one sense of the word, but ultimately you just end with more guilt and depression because your depression is keeping you from quitting.
After a couple more months of not getting pregnant and begging your doctor to just start real treatments, you are a real mess. There is now a new little booger to keep an eye on. It’s the one that brings you a resentment of sorts for others who get pregnant and for that damn teenager who didn’t even mean to get pregnant. These boogers are just starting to lay down roots in your subconscious. For the time being, they are almost without detection. But if you don’t get pregnant soon, they will be rearing their ugly little heads in full force as you start to have a hard time in social situations.
Eventually, your efforts pay off and the doctors are finally ready to take your infertility seriously. In many ways, at this point trying ends. You have now by and large taken it out of your own control and into the hands of the professionals.
Treatment and blame
Initially, beginning formal treatment takes some weight off your soldiers. The optimism you lost has returned. You suddenly are a firm believer in the marvels of modern medical science and technology. With all these tests and computerized gadgets, this thing has got to be a slam-dunk. It’ll be some smooth sailing and then on to parenthood.
It starts off with diagnosing what the problem is. Sheila already knew she had endometriosis. For those unfamiliar, it is a common condition where there is scarring to the endometrial tissue. Don’t ask me what that means but it is a condition that doctors don’t know much about other than the fact that it for some reason complicates getting pregnant and can increase the odds of miscarriage. There is no cure but there is a surgical procedure that seems to help for a little while after it is done. There were also a variety of other things that could have been impacting us on Sheila’s end to be tested for.
Sheila really believed that it had to be something wrong with her that was keeping us from getting pregnant. I was less convinced of this. I based this on the fact that I had only been in two prior longer-term serious relationships. In both of these relationships, it would not have been surprising if a pregnancy had occurred. Yet within a couple of years of our splitting up, both of these women got pregnant and not intentionally. This seemed to say to me that there were pretty good odds I bore some of the responsibility.
With whom the problem lie is not really an issue, at least it shouldn’t be. But it is in a reverse thinking manner. Neither partner is going to blame or think any worse of the other. Quite to the contrary, it is your sense of self worth that dwells on who the infertile one is. This seems to be one where the stereotypical gender-based assumptions hold true.
For the male, it is his machisimo. A man is supposed to be the provider. What kind of a man can’t supply the sperm needed to have kids? Maybe this makes me less of a man. I get horny as much as the next guy. I can perform well in the sack. I have no need for Viagra. So why in the hell can’t I knock up my wife? For me personally, it was also a feeling of defeat. Throughout my whole life, there was never something I really wanted and couldn’t achieve based on my own natural abilities and talents. Not being able to have children would be that fatal weakness that could prove my own fallibility and send the deck of cards crashing to the ground. This is serious shit we’re talking about. So if this isn’t the beginning of the end, why in the hell can’t I knock up my wife? Maybe it’s for a reason. Maybe the spawn of my genes would create the next Hitler or something.
For the female it is the nurturer. I’m a devout feminist so I hope this is not taken out of context when I say that the natural function of the female is still to be the bringer of life and nurturer to make it grow healthy. Obviously, this is not all the worth that women have. I’m just claiming that there is a natural phenomenon that occurs inside the chemical makeup of the female brain that still contains this message. Some women tune this message out to the point where it is mute and there is nothing wrong with that. But for the woman in full knowledge of and compliance with it, the realization that one may be infertile strikes the very purpose of one’s existence and self-worth. Ultimately, the woman reaches the same conclusion as the man. It is as Billy Joel says in the song Summer Highland Falls, “For all our mutual experience, our separate conclusions are the same”. Either we are less than what we should be and have no faith in what the future holds or our biological child would be the next Hitler.
The process of diagnosing the cause of our infertility did not occur on a good parallel timeline. As such, it took a few more months before we really had the whole story. The net result was that we both had problems. Sheila’s was just the endometriosis. I had a low sperm count with a little below average motility. Neither of us was clean nor could either of us be the cause. We “could” get pregnant anytime. There was nothing scientifically stopping us. I had live sperm, she was dropping an egg a month, and there was nothing really preventing the two from hooking up. It only takes one sperm to get the deed done and I had many thousands of the suckers on their way. Those odds seemed pretty good to me.
Unfortunately, understanding science has never been my strongpoint. While it was hypothetically possible for us to get pregnant, our two problems combined made it exponentially more difficult. The doctors started by putting me on a drug to increase my sperm counts. It of course takes a month before you can tell if it is working so there went another month in the process.
I didn’t like the idea of having to take a pill everyday. I have a very odd opinion about drugs and medication; I only believe in them for a high. This stuff did not meet my criteria and it scared me that I had to go three weeks on and then one week off of the medication or else the levels of the stuff might get too high. What were they giving me? Sounded like arsenic to me! All joking aside, the drug did seem to make an improvement in my sperm count so maybe that would take care of it.
Stepping it up
We had a new wrench get thrown in the process that cost us quite a few months of time. After living in New York for just one year my company was selling off the businesses and we were off again to a new job and a new place, this time that being the San Francisco Bay Area. It had been a really hard year. We had gone through the stages of “trying”. We had pumped thousands upon thousands of dollars into the house. Sheila had put heart and soul into turning it into a nice place to live. We called the house Mountain Girl after the former Merry Prankster and wife to Jerry Garcia. My little girl, Cassidy, had also fallen prey to cancer. She seemed perfectly healthy when we moved, maybe it was something in the soil. All in all, it had been a tough year and now having to move, find new doctors, and get them to go into the real treatment we now were convinced was necessary was going to take at least two to three months.
The move proved to be a great thing for us in many ways. First of all, we now lived in what I believe is the greatest part of this country. I had spent my entire life living in places where I was considered a radical pinko: Orange County, Greensboro, South Bend, Wichita, Dutchess County – all extremely conservative places. Now I was among my own people where as often as not I am the more conservative one. Secondly, my group of best friends from the high school years all lived in the Bay Area. We bought a nice, newer house that wouldn’t require so much effort. And my new job was with one of the best, most respected, and highly ethical companies in the industry. These things lifted the fog for some time and made the wait for infertility treatment more bearable.
That comfort did not last once that wait was over. After going through more tests for Sheila and my arguing with a new doctor that the drug I was on is in fact a valid treatment for low sperm count, we were back in the same boat with the same diagnosis. We finally got them to begin IUI treatments. IUI is just a fancy acronym for what is commonly known as artificial insemination. The doctors basically take my sperm, fire them up and weed out the bad ones in a centrifuge filled with some goo goo juice and then inject it into Sheila while she’s ovulating. In addition, the sperm get a handicap because they put them right into the correct spot so they don’t need to count as much on their sense of direction.
I believe it was December or January when we started the IUI treatment. The doctors felt that it was best to give it a try for a while before doing the surgical procedure I mentioned earlier on Sheila. While the surgery can help your odds, you also lose some time in the process because you have to be absolutely sure you’re not pregnant when you have it and it takes some time to recover before you can begin IUI again. So you lose the chance to conduct the IUI treatments for a few months. We agreed with them and decided to wait until July to do the surgery. This would give us six months of IUI treatment.
These were not a bad six months for us overall but the boogers I mentioned had just started to populate your subconscious were now a fairly sizable community. It was just a matter of time until they were again top of mind. We started to almost stop caring because we had lost faith anything would work. We both found solace in the fact that we agreed that we would become parents one way or another. We hadn’t pushed the question more than that, we weren’t yet really thinking about specific options. We were still holding fast to my machisimo and Sheila’s nurturer. Although losing hope in something that is driving you does not do great things for the psyche.
I was used to the fact that my love life was now really just about the act of procreation even though that procreation was not going to occur through making love. I got used to the mildly embarrassing and self-conscious monthly visits to the clinic where I had to go supply the sperm. I got used to taking Sheila to the doctor’s office with a test tube of warm juiced up sperm solution between her boobs to keep it at the right temperature. And I got used to saying “maybe next month”.
The summer came and Sheila had the surgical procedure done. We didn’t feel any new optimism or hope this time. We were done emotionally. We knew we had to go through the process, but our hearts were no longer in it. This was probably a defense mechanism as much as anything else. Our minds had had enough of the monthly disappointment. Besides, those boogers had done just as I warned. They made their way into our conscious mind.
It is a very sad thing when your own struggles start to make you unable to feel good about others’ good fortune. There’s a Grateful Dead song named Ripple that says “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup is full, may it be again.” I love the philosophy of that line but it just wasn’t working for us. Our own desperation was causing us to resent the joy of children that permeates the world. As an example, I’m someone who always tries to make funny faces at the child in the restaurant booth next to mine, but not during this period. I wish I could have looked at kids and seen why it was we were going through the invasive process we were. They were the light at the end of the tunnel even if our train had the comfort level of a cattle car on its way to Auschewitz. Instead they stood as a symbol of our shortfalls, especially when I’d see a parent who obviously did not deserve to be one. It makes you start to question everything. You start feel a bit like JOB yourself. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for it all. If we can’t have kids it’s fine, just tell us so. If we can, why put us through this aggravation month after month?
As if infertility had not already proven itself to be an emotional terrorist, it has to take things one step further. Just as you have finally managed to contain that glimmer of hope in its little box in the back of your mind, it proves itself to be Houdini and break free. How such a thing happens is simple. It is the month when for some reason menstruation comes late.
There are a couple of different kinds of near misses that we had the luck of experiencing. The first is the kind when you’re a couple of days, up to a week, late. You know that it is too early for a home pregnancy test.
But her cycle was usually right on time.
We had the charts to prove it.
The electronic ovulation kit also showed how predictable a cycle she has. Until you can take that test to prove it, you get excited and start to behave like pregnant people do. No more wine with dinner. The female starts to feel something tingly inside. It’s actually a fun period of time and is one of the few where you get to feel like a normal couple trying to get pregnant wondering whether it worked.
The other kind of near miss hit us while we were out of town. Sheila was about nine days late as I recall and we were heading off to South Bend for Sheila’s first Notre Dame football game. The doctor had had her come in for a real pregnancy test just before we left. We were hoping they’d be able to call us on my cell phone with the results before the weekend began. We drove from Chicago to South Bend anxiously awaiting the call. I was in a great mood, excited to be going to the game. Things seemed right. After all, Sheila was late to the point where the doctors wanted the test done. It had to be our month. It just had to be. We never heard from the lab but we kept our spirits high, acting as if we knew we were pregnant. We bought a full wardrobe of unisex Notre Dame baby apparel and I think we both secretly snuck in a prayer while visiting the Basilica and Grotto on campus. When we got home, we found out those prayers had not been answered.
I’m not sure if I think that near misses are a good or bad thing. On one hand, they provide a much needed solace. They create some small amount of faith in you that you will end up pregnant. This may be just the little charge of energy you need to continue with the treatments. It is very tempting to say “to hell with it”, just to protect yourself. That of course can’t have the ending you are striving for and so anything that gives you the courage to continue is an asset.
On the other hand, a near miss is a direct hit when the truth comes out. You feel like you fooled and misled yourself. This phenomenon is even greater in the adoption process. It is one where you are desperate. When something comes your way that could somehow be the thing you are waiting for, you snatch it up and convince yourself to believe. In some ways, it’s like a crack addiction because the reality is that once you come down from the high and the facts are clear, you feel worse than you did to begin with. At that point, you blame yourself for being such a fool. You feel like you should have known better. The same exact thing happens the next time around and the anger at yourself grows exponentially each time this cycle repeats itself.
At some point, you have to say enough is enough. The treatments aren’t working and you aren’t getting any younger. You feel a little bit guilty for being a quitter because it could always happen next month. What if you stop and the next month had your ticket? But that could be an endless cycle. There was no reason why we had not gotten pregnant yet and there was no reason to have faith it was coming in the future.
Sheila and I decided to give the fertility doctors until the end of the year and at that point, we were going to take a different route. For the most part, we did our pondering of the options to ourselves. We both needed some time to digest. It wasn’t easy to do while we were still going through the IUI treatments. It’s hard to think about the other options while you’re still wondering if maybe it is a moot point.
Really, there were only three broad avenues open. One was to attempt in vitro fertilization (IVF). The second was adoption. The last option was some sort of surrogate arrangement. Since we both knew that we’d become parents one way or another, it didn’t really feel like any kind of defeat to admit that we were going to have to go to these lengths to make it so. In fact, the realization that we had infertility issues to begin with was far more difficult than taking this next step.
IVF is very popular nowadays and has a good success rate. They basically fertilize the egg with the sperm outside of the uterus and then place the fertilized egg back in, creating a pregnancy. But while it sounds simple, like everything else in the world, once you get involved with it, it is not so easy. In fact, there were many things to consider.
The most superficial of these considerations was money. While IUI was covered by our insurance, IVF was not. The first attempt with IVF would cost about $10,000 and each subsequent attempt would be a few thousand dollars more. We could afford to go this route. For a while that is. But we had been through months and months of IUI treatment. If we had the same bad luck with IVF, which is not unheard of, we’d be broke and without child. If that happened, our adoption options would be much more limited; we would already have blown our nest egg on failed IVF attempts.
The next concern was the antithesis of the financial concern. What would we do if it worked too well? Have you ever noticed that there are more twins nowadays than there used to be? This is likely because of IVF and the increased rates of infertility. When doing IVF, doctors don’t implant a single egg. They implant multiple eggs. The result of this can very often be multiple pregnancies. This raises two intertwined questions. The first is whether you’re ready for twins, triplets or more. The second is whether you are prepared to selectively abort if too many of the eggs stick. Sheila and I saw very differently on these questions. I was not prepared to bring in anything more than twins, which already seemed like a near impossible task. Sheila did not believe that she was capable of selectively aborting in order to reduce the number of potential pregnancies to a manageable number. There is no right or wrong answer on this type of thing. Ultimately, we both have to respect the other’s viewpoint as this is not something where compromise is necessarily a viable option.
Our third concern with IVF centered on the possibility of miscarriage. Sheila’s endometriosis still increased the likelihood of miscarriage. IVF in itself raised the risk somewhat as I recall. We had to be mentally prepared for the possibility of getting pregnant and losing the child. We had to be sure that this was something that would not put us over the deep end. I had to remember that Sheila had miscarried once before and that fact made this whole process all the harder on her. She had been trying to have a child much longer than I. The possibility of miscarriage also brings you back to the financial concern. If you get pregnant from IVF and miscarry, you’re back to that first $10,000 fee again and starting all over.
There was also something about the IVF process that did not make us comfortable. In part it was what Sheila would have to endure such as regular injections to make her super fertile. She had had to do some of this in IUI but nothing as severe.
I hope the next few sentences do not overly offend anyone as they do not mean to disparage IVF for those who choose it. There was something unnatural about it to us. This seems crazy but it came across like someone trying to pull the wool over god’s eyes. Despite the fact that I am not a religious person, I am very spiritual with a deep respect for the ecosystem and will of nature. IVF struck me in much the same rationale as why I don’t believe in genetically modified foods. There’s a reason why the genes of salmon are not naturally found in produce or grains. If god meant for these two things to be able to combine, they’d be able to do so through cross breeding. I don’t believe scientists should be circumventing god’s will. On that same note, if Sheila’s and my genes were not meant to combine, then there must be some reason. Today, I realize that there was this reason because I know what we were meant to do. Admittedly, at the time I was more afraid that crossing our genes might create the next Hitler.
Adoption was the second area for consideration. While our society has become impressively supportive of the adoptive family unit, there still remains a stigma about it. It is still a classifier or brand placed on the individual and family. In reality it is probably nothing more than all the hyphenated identities used to describe people. If there are African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Iraqi-Americans, why should Adopted-Americans be any different? A natural response is that the others are all more ethnically or geographically oriented. But then why is it that no one calls himself a Canadian-American or French-American? My point is that I think it lies in whether the identity is something that really sets one aside from the norm. I believe that being adopted does that in a stronger way than having a French accent does.
There are also no easy avenues to adoption. There are many options, but not one is a simple process. All adoption processes took time and a whole new type of invasion into our everyday lives. Obviously this is with good reason, but it was still something to ponder.
The one thing that was clear was that neither of us had any concerns about being able to love an adopted child in the same manner as a biological child. We were both one hundred percent confident of this. It will probably traumatize Isabel someday to read this and know that I had this confidence because of my dogs. I am a dog person and my dogs have always been both children and friends to me. Obviously, the possibility of having a puppy be biologically yours does not exist. Though it is a great marketing idea… Nonetheless, when one brings a new dog into the home, it is a stranger. It’s true that I love dogs in general, but that is the same for kids. It’s also true that in no time flat you feel the parental skill set come to life when it is now your dog. This not only differs from just being around dogs but also directly relates to the needs of bringing an adopted child into the home. When that new dog comes into the home, I immediately bond, love, and care for it no matter how hard a time it may have adjusting. No different for a child. Lastly, that new dog needs to sense my love and feel confident in it in order to be happy. This too is no different for an adopted child and I have always been told that while my dogs may not be the best behaved, they are always immensely happy creatures. So while it may sound irrational and immature, knowing my emotional reactions to my dogs did dispel any concerns I had about parenting an adopted child.
The third “what next” option was some sort of surrogate agreement. I will mention it tacitly because it never really came into serious consideration. We did discuss it and even had pondered about one friend in particular who we thought might be willing. It still wouldn’t alleviate my half of the infertility issue or things like the risk of miscarriage. Most of all, it was understandably not something Sheila was prepared for and I think the same would have held true for me if we had given it more thought.
Obviously, adoption was the path we chose. Once we looked at the options, there really wasn’t any need for debate. It was clear to us that it was our only option and was one that we had no doubts about. The obstacles and social implications were not any issue for us. We were used to feeling different and had finally grown to a point where we almost cherished it as a point of differentiation. This would just be a natural for us to test the bounds of normalcy without losing our self-identities.
While we would never claim that we adopted for humanitarian purposes, there was still the nice thought of providing a child the family she deserves. We figured there must at least be some nominal karma bank account deposit for undertaking an adoption and most likely we would need it very soon.
Now the question was just how to go about it.
Maybe it is just the egomaniac in me, but I thought much of this book might be lost without a certain amount of background on your humble author. I don’t mean the stuff that could potentially occupy the real estate on the back cover flap of a hardcopy. I mean a fundamental understanding of who I am and how my mind works. I alluded to this in the prologue and will elaborate more now.
This book should not leave the reader feeling as though I have this whole intercountry adoption thing figured out. To the contrary, they should have the desire to sit down with me in a smoky jazz joint, quaff a beer, and engage in spirited debate. As such, you best understand my frame of reference in order to know how to digest my perspective – you'll need it! Much goes into how we analyze information and form opinions. As will be explored later, we can't take our little world and assume the things we consider norms will hold true in places where the commonalities to our daily lives and struggles don’t go much beyond breathing air and drinking water.
While my experience-based thought process is most likely far more similar to the reader than, say, to Isabel’s birthmother, it also likely does vary significantly despite the fact that I come from a fairly typical upbringing. Nonetheless, I see the differences between how my wife and I digest and analyze information because of the vast differences in our experience. And if she didn’t have the opportunity to understand why I think the way I do…. Well let’s just say we’d be arguing much more than we do. In fact, come to think of it, this may be why we seem to argue less now then when we were still newlyweds learning about one another.
A not-so special beginning
On July 1, 1970, the city of New York legalized abortion. That also happens to be the day I was born in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. It was as if I popped out and suddenly everyone realized that choice wasn’t such a bad idea. I was born into a family that is what America aspires to believe is near universal. Married, loving parents. Middle class income. Stay at home mom. A brother three years my elder.
Culturally, we are New York Jews. I don’t know that I need to say more. Not overly religious people, but practicing nonetheless. Not quite what Woody Allen depicts, but not too far off from his later pictures. From this culture came the foundation that things like family and education are a given. A Jewish son never worries that he might lose his mother’s love, no matter how hard he may try. We’ll get to how hard I tried later.
I spent my first four years as a New Yorker. I have very few memories of this time. I have one clear memory of playing with a child younger than me who had hit me and stolen my miniature Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate bar. His mother told me to hit him back. I could not hit a baby. I’m told of another occasion when I stood up for my cousin because my grandfather was teasing her. My grandmother tells me I was always a “do-gooder”.
Then my parents followed the California dream and we moved to Orange County. Growing up in Mission Viejo, a place that aspires to be a sister city to Stepford, undoubtedly had a huge impact on who I’d become. First of all, it is one of the most politically conservative places in the country. This was one way I was different, my parents accounted for 10% of the Democratic Party’s membership. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but take it in stride. Unlike New York, we were one of only a few Jewish families, the rest of who made up the other 90% of the Democratic Party. People in Mission Viejo have blonde hair, defined muscles and nice tans. I am a skinny, red headed dude who burns and peels; tanning is not an option. And the people in Mission Viejo don’t feel a great sense of community; they are very comfortable in securing their own prosperity. I’m not claiming that this is something evil, in fact it is the real lesson of the world we live in. But I have never been able to accept that, not even as a child.
All these things inherently impacted me because quite frankly, I never had a chance of being a cool kid. I was no social outcast, but definitely not on the top of the popularity food chain. If all the things mentioned above weren’t enough, there is one more worth mentioning, the kiss of death for coolness. I was a smart kid, a mentally gifted minor as they called us back then. Yes, I was branded. As such, I always got good grades as a young child. More so, I was able to get decent grades without doing much work in High School.
The net result of that is that I ended up primarily with one close-knit group of friends – a group of people who remain my best of friends to this day. My parents probably wish that this had never happened, as we were rebellious lads. I never got into any serious trouble, though this is due to great luck more than anything else. As I like to say, “they called it High School, I just played the part”. If you don’t understand what that means, it’s a nice way of saying I was a pothead.
The formidable years
High School was not really of interest to me. I disliked and did not respect nearly all of my teachers. But what should one expect when he sees his Physical Education teacher buying cocaine before the Air Guitar show we were both participating in. We had a teacher who had married a prior student just after she graduated. Mostly, it just wasn’t a challenge to me. It was all rules that had no logical basis to me. Why can’t I sit in my van during lunch hour? Why do I have to sit through a history class being taught by a near-senile man affectionately known as ‘The Colonel” who does little more than show us old propaganda films? And why do I have a math teacher grading me down for getting the right answers using good logic just because I did not “follow the recipe” for Math Analysis?
There is one notable exception to my high school academic experience. It was a government class. I’m convinced that my teacher must have been quite a hippie, though most people would never notice. His class was strict and difficult. In fact, it was known for being the hardest class in the school. He pushed you and challenged you. He asked you to think for yourself but in an intelligent way. Best of all, he was a screaming liberal. He introduced me to the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour and gave me my first sense of the realities of United States foreign policy. I will always remember a video he showed us about Iran-Contra. It showed Pres. Reagan giving a televised speech telling the public “there was no arms for hostages agreement” and then a strong voiceover came in and said “President Reagan is lying to the American public”. So say what you will, it was the only class my senior year that I never skipped and was the only class I can honestly say I seriously studied for. How I managed to graduate with a 3.25 grade point average is not a strong testament to the quality of public education.
During this time, work was more important to me than school. While I did just enough to get by with decent grades in school, I tried very hard to excel at work. I did foodservice work like so many other kids. But because of my ambition and hard work, I was always quickly promoted into leadership positions. Whether it was as a Shift Leader, Department Captain, or Lead Server, I found immediate gratification for my efforts at work far more than academically.
Restaurants are not necessarily the best place for a rebellious, intelligent, and mature in some ways kid to be. There are many people older than you that you socialize with since everyone is a part of the team. But you are also susceptible to habits you may not be ready to manage.
My parents and I had some very difficult years during my teens, once again part of what is my “normal” background. It got ugly for a while. Our problem really stemmed almost entirely around one thing – drugs. I was never a hoodlum or what anyone would consider a druggie. The fact was that I was enrolled in college prep and honors classes and was doing well enough. As I once reminded my vice-principal when he was threatening to kick me out for excessive truants, “I’m bringing up your test scores, you can’t kick me out”. I was very responsible so far as work was concerned and I was by and large a happy kid. But as I mentioned before, I was a pothead. My parents just couldn’t handle that. Whether it was the dope that made me ditch class or the boredom of school that made me choose smoking a bowl over English class is something still up for debate. In my opinion it was the latter. My parents saw me much differently than I saw myself. Of course, they never got to see the smiling kid goofing around at work with the chick he’s got the hots for. They only got to see the kid who didn’t enjoy being at home because he was always in some kind of trouble. Love was never a question for us. But somehow we just failed to find a way to enjoy the times when it wasn’t their valid parental duty to be upset with me.
The net result was a few years where I really just wanted my own independence and I wasn’t going to be my happy self anywhere I didn’t feel it. I have some serious regrets for things I did during those times, primary of which is having run away over Mother’s Day weekend. I didn’t do it because it was Mother’s Day, but numerous other goings on that all fell into place made that the time for me to exert my independence. I am sorry for that. I think I didn’t let the Mother’s Day thing stop me because as I wrote earlier, a Jewish son knows his mom will always love him; I take family as a given and therefore, for granted. I’m not defending the behavior; it is an admitted personal shortfall and one that I try to work on to this day.
During this period, I gained my first exposure to the Latino immigrant community. One of my myriad of restaurant jobs was running the happy hour buffet at a very popular nightclub and restaurant. Part of the job was to do the prep work for the buffet – cutting the vegetables and fruits, creating the platters, things of that sort. My peers at the time were a group of Mexican immigrants - some with legal papers, some undocumented. They had a lot of fun goofing on the young gringo, but I really liked these guys and considered them friends.
Most of all, it was literally my first exposure to those less fortunate than myself. It brought to life all those things that comfortable white folks get to form opinions on but never feel the ramifications of. I learned about their lives, their families, and their hopes. I earned a deep respect. Many of these guys had families back in Mexico that they wished could come to the United States. They were forced to live away from their families in order to survive. That gives new meaning to Harry Chapin’s song “Cat in the Cradle”. It was hard to fathom their reality because it was so different than my own. It also became more difficult to keep a blind eye toward the needs of real people whose worst crime was being born in am impoverished nation. Needless to say, this is a theme I have brought with me through the years.
All in all, I survived the high school years in tact. I got into a decent college, my parents and I were still speaking to one another, and I didn’t have a criminal record. What more could you hope for?
College is supposed to be a time when a child becomes an adult. I’ve heard it said that college creates and tests responsibility. I’d argue that college creates and tests self-accountability.
My original college plan was to attend San Diego State University, a school known for its party atmosphere. When the time came for final decisions to be made and deposits to be mailed, my parents decided they weren’t exactly comfortable sending me away for school. That shouldn’t sound bad, it wasn’t a punishment. They couldn’t stop me from going nor would they try, but they also didn’t have to fund it.
While I was upset at the time, in hindsight I’m grateful because it said something to me. I knew how important education was to my parents. Growing up, it was never a question of “if college” but rather “which college”. I also knew that they would have been happy for me to go to any college I chose, unlike my poor Isabel who will be brainwashed into striving for Notre Dame. Even though I had gone years not really caring what my parents thought, this mattered to me because in their hearts they didn’t believe I was ready to be responsible for myself. Mentally, the challenge was on as I had to prove them wrong.
I attended the California State University at Fullerton. It’s not a bad school, it’s not a great school - it is a good school. It was a long forty miles from my home, which can take quite a while in Orange County traffic. Unlike high school, I never missed a class. In fact, I cared about my grades. I cared about the subjects. I studied, a lot! At the end of my first semester I got a grade card in the mail for my calculus class. I received an “A” with the note “highest grade in class”. That cards still hangs framed on a wall in my mother’s home. This was a new beginning.
My school did not have much of a college atmosphere. It is by and large a commuter school. Living so far away and having a mindset that socializing equates with beer is not a good combination. I worked hard in school, was still waiting tables, and had been basically free of trouble. I deserved a college experience. So I saved up what money I could and moved up to school. Alas I was free.
I may have been free but my rent wasn’t. Things were getting tight and I knew that soon I would need to be groveling to my parents for help. Rather than do that, I concocted a genius plan. My grandparents were out visiting from Florida. They were a handful, very much like the people at the Florida retirement community in Seinfeld. So I invited them to come see my place at a time when I knew they’d be stuck in serious traffic and my parents would have them chattering in the back seat all the while. They’d see why the commute was unrealistic. About two weeks later, my parents started picking up the tab for me to live at school.
College was a huge success for me. I did phenomenally academically. I had perfect grades three semesters in a row and graduated with honors. I found that education can be invigorating and I learned to stand on my own. While I was a business major, I liked to take writing classes for my electives. I wrote some pretty bizarre things in a creative writing course that caught the eye of one of classmates. He also happened to be the editor of the school newspaper. He thought I’d do great writing an Opinion column so I gave it a shot thinking it was a one-time deal. Well they liked it and it soon turned into a weekly column. Giving a microphone to someone that has a beef with the status quo can be dangerous, especially in an election year.
So here was this screaming liberal living in an ultra-conservative area with a free reign opinion column as the man from Hope, Bill Clinton, campaigned to end the twelve years of tyranny under the Reagan and Bush administrations. When I asked about what I could and couldn’t write, my editor told me I could write anything so long as people read it and sent in letters. It appears as though letters to the editor are the key success factor in gauging the ability of an opinion writer. I could handle that easily and was up to the challenge.
One thing I had going for me in the quest for letters was that I didn’t get to choose the titles for the columns. That was my editor’s responsibility. She certainly helped by choosing the most inflammatory title she could that somehow reflected a point made in the column. One was written about the homeless problem. It started by saying that unfortunately “will work for food” had become the sign of the times. I went on to discuss how the government wasn’t doing much to combat it and how Reagan’s ending institutionalized care for many veterans had exacerbated the problem. The column went on to discuss some ideas for programs to combat the problem and ending with a comment that for the time being, maybe the best thing one can do is give the homeless person a bottle of whiskey because it will bring them comfort for the night. The title chosen for this column was “Give the Homeless a Bottle Gin Because Nothing Else Seems to Work”. I’m told my editor later went on to become a Press Secretary to former California Governor Pete Wilson.
One valuable lesson came to me as a result of writing this column. Admittedly, I relished the letters to the editor and found them empowering. I enjoyed the celebrity as my classmates eagerly awaited the next way I was going to piss off the student body. But one day I was working on my next column in the newspaper office and someone came in asking about where the letters to the editor went. It so happened that they went into a basket right next to the computer I was sitting at. I noticed it was a response to my last column that she held in her hand. This was a column shortly after the election about how a woman’s right to choose was safe and about how California’s electing Senators Boxer and Feinstein was a victory for women’s rights. As she placed the letter in the basket and started to walk away I introduced myself as the writer. She looked at me and tears literally began to fill her eyes as she said, “I don’t know if you realize it, but you hurt a lot of people”.
To this day, I don’t know what it was that she found so offensive. I learned that we do all see things very differently and that we must be cautious not to overstep in assuming these differences are not great. It’s beyond me to comprehend why that column could bring someone to tears. I believe I would have toned it down if I could see this - that was never my intent. Firing someone up to that extent is not effective; you lose your ability to communicate. That is far from spirited debate.
After four and a half years of college, about twenty Grateful Dead shows, and a mindful of memories, I had achieved the one thing that my parents considered their last real parental duty; their youngest child was a college graduate.
All Grown Up
The economy at the time was miserable and a degree in marketing basically qualified one for a variety of commission-only sales jobs. My degree was focused in advertising, yet no one in the industry was hiring anyone not out of the top universities. Since it looked like I’d be waiting tables for a while I decided to do it elsewhere. My last stage of full independence was to leave California.
I decided to move to North Carolina where a roommate of mine from college now lived. It was January and President Clinton was soon to be inaugurated. The new hope had come alive and he was having a big public party to celebrate it. So I decided to turn the move into more of an odyssey across the United States. In a rented minivan, Boingo, my pet bunny, and I set out on an adventure across America.
Really, it wasn’t all that exciting of an adventure. Though I did get interesting looks from people when I took Boingo out of the van to see various points of interest like the Grand Canyon for himself. I had one interesting experience in New Orleans while hanging out with some guys my age from Germany. We were at a bar and there was a big biker guy wearing a black tee shirt with nothing but a large white swastika on the front. These Germans were livid to the point of me having to stop them from confronting him. What was interesting was that they were more offended at it because of what the Nazis had done to their country and nationality than I was for what Hitler did to my own family and religion. It goes to show that national pride is powerful and can cause people to act in extremes – another theme that will be taken into adoption.
The Clinton Inauguration was a blast. The highlight for me was hijacking a spot on the official presidential caravan from Monticello to D.C. that began the festivities. This is no joke. The day before, much to my chagrin, I discovered it was not a public caravan. So I parked along the route to wave like the other half a million people. As the caravan began to pass there were a lot of sedans that looked like standard police cars without sirens. Then came the busses carrying the soon-to-be President and his entourage. Next I noticed a stream of minivans rounding out the caravan. They were the same make, model, and color as the one I had rented. So as the last minivan passed I bolted out onto the highway and joined the caravan.
It was not as if my van couldn’t be deciphered from the rest. First of all was the American flag attached to the rear wiper flapping back and forth. Then there were the signs on the sides about taking back America. But the most interesting thing that I would love to know if any media noticed were two bumper stickers on the back. The more notorious of the two read “Will Be President For Food”.
There was really no way for the authorities to keep me off the caravan - it was speeding down a mountain highway with all police officers assigned to keeping the road clear at future intersections. So as we passed the cheering crowds along the way the police waved me through the traffic lights as part of the caravan. I honked and waved as people cheered – they noticed this different minivan. When the caravan stopped I made sure I quickly got out and talked to the driver of the minivan I had been tailgating for many miles. I didn’t want to be arrested – who knows if I had committed some federal offense. The minivans were for the Secret Service and the driver had no issue with me tagging along. He seemed to feel the excitement as well.
When I finally got around to settling down in Greensboro, NC I quickly had a job waiting tables. It was okay. I made friends and could pay the bills. The Grateful Dead’s Spring Tour was just around the corner so that was something to look forward to. After being in Greensboro for about two months, something strange happened and I had a position as the Assistant to the President of small advertising agency. Oddly enough, I went to North Carolina from Southern California in order to begin my planned career in advertising.
This was a fun position and I was soon running the business office and in charge of producing the television and radio commercials. It was creative and challenging. The only problem was that my boss was broke and had milked the business dry. He was hugely in debt and more and more of my time was wasted dealing with creditors. These people were quite frustrated with me. They weren’t accustomed to a deadbeat company being honest with them. They didn’t know how to handle it when I told them we didn’t have any money and that when we did, I was going to pay salaries and the utilities first and that only then could I consider paying off the long list of creditors. Some of these bozos actually made me lie to them and tell them some amount they’d receive on some date. They couldn’t log it as a completed call without some payment promise.
The financial situation also impacted the business because among the creditors was virtually every talent agency in Nashville, where we had to film because that’s where the only film company willing to work us was located. What ended up happening was that the only way I got my job done was by giving people my personal assurances that they would be paid on time. I told them that either they’d be paid or I’d no longer be working for the company. Eventually, I had to proactively live up to that promise. I was placed in an ethical dilemma and my good sense won. I left the job.
After spending some time waiting tables and doing freelance film work, I realized that things were not going well and I needed something more of a career. Because of some family issues, my brother had asked me to come back to California. A friend of my father who owned a number of restaurants had also offered me a management position. So back to the nest I went to start on a new career.
El Rojo Loco
It was humbling to be reduced to managing a low-end family style restaurant. At least that was how it felt. It really wasn’t so much because of being a Restaurant Manager, but more because I had worked in many more interesting, higher-end restaurants over the years. I had served former President Reagan, many country music stars, and the like. This was a step down for this bona fide foodie.
The experience proved to have a large impact on me and my sense of humanity. While in the past I had been the peer of the low wage immigrant workforce, now I was the jefe. I was the pinchi manager who seemed obliged by his position to exploit their poor fortune. At least this was how it seemed to be, especially to my employees.
In Robert Heinlein’s novel JOB: A Comedy of Justice, the main character finds himself being tested like in the Bible story, at one point washing dishes at a restaurant in Mexico. He looks at the huge stacks of dishes and takes great pride and effort in completing his task. For me as a Manager, I judged the person not by the fact that they are a dishwasher, but rather on how well they contribute that necessary service to the team. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the norm. Despite everything we aspire to, there is a de facto segregation and prejudice against immigrant workers. They are certainly treated like second-class citizens or people from a lower caste.
It is true that America has been made great by its diversity and assimilation. It is also true that all immigrants have had to do their time at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Nonetheless, I did not feel as though the totality of the challenges facing immigrants were justified for people only trying to earn a living to support their families. The system where restaurant labor costs and food costs are treasured naturally causes management to act in a manner that makes these challenges greater and less bearable. Low wages, virtually no benefits, and difficult schedules are the net result. The employees have little recourse as they can’t afford to leave the job and often times have no rights since they are not documented. Instead they feel disdain and the segregation becomes even greater.
Managers and owners are faced with a difficult dilemma. I’m not trying to imply that they are bad people or racists. It is not easy to reconcile connecting with the plight of the employees with a focus on maximizing profits unless one has serious long-term vision. So in order to justify what is viewed as the demands of the competitive business environment, I believe it is a natural psychological response to separate oneself from the fact that these are human beings. I believe this is the same psychology that allowed normal soldiers to engage in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and it is something that experts have concluded is a natural human response.
Always trying to prove myself as different, it was not easy to win the trust of my employees. I tried very hard to show respect, joked around a lot, and over time the crazy red head stated to break through. It was actually amazing how much staying human can accomplish. Miraculously, despite not having the authority to raise wages and benefits, I found I was able to help in various ways.
I had one employee who was a single woman with two beautiful kids. She was a hard worker and overall a very sweet person. I could see the stress she was under in her eyes, it never went away. We had a tree for Operation Santa Claus in the restaurant and I called the organization to see how this employee might be able to participate the program. She clearly deserved the help. Unfortunately, she didn’t qualify because she was employed. Ain’t that a kick in the butt? So I organized a group of the gringo employees and we all chipped in to get presents for her kids. A couple of the waitresses went overboard, buying a bike for her son. When I delivered the gifts to her it was the only time I didn’t see that stress in he eyes. She was overjoyed and for once at ease. One major challenge for her, providing un feliz Navidad to her kids, was taken off of her shoulders. I went and visited the restaurant a few years later, she came to tears when she saw me and we remembered back to that Christmas.
At one point I was promoted and moved to another store. The prior General Manager was someone who was justifiably quite hated by the employees. He did things like buy himself cigarettes out of the tip pool set aside for the cooks, dishwashers, and other back-of-house staff. The employees automatically resented me as the new gringo when I began, despite the fact that the employees from the other store had told them I was a good guy. They used to call me “Sepellin” and it was obvious this was somehow making fun of me. Having no idea what it meant, I asked a friend of mine who was from Mexico.
It turns out that Sepellin was the star of a popular children’s show, the Mexican Captain Kangaroo I was told. He looked a little like me because of his red hair and beard. I decided to take a gutsy move and have my friend teach me the theme song. So the next time that a group of employees mockingly called me the name, I belted out the theme song along with a jovial dance. I had taken away their power over me, that name was their way of being able to protest safely and feel some sort of power over their environment. But they also saw that I wasn’t offended and was playing along with them. Suddenly, the entire atmosphere of the restaurant changed and we had a real team.
There were still times when it was clear that the employees could not fully trust management. I remember one time when a great, long-time employee wanted a raise. He wanted $.25 per hour or an extra ten dollars per week before taxes. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to give him one. Because every day he would spend about five dollars on his lunch – a hamburger and salad bar – I told him that instead of a raise, I could let him eat for free. When you take taxes into consideration, this would put about thirty to thirty-five more dollars a week into his wallet. He wasn’t buying my story - he wanted a pay raise.
This employee was an intelligent guy but he had no education and was thus illiterate and unable to do much math. I had him bring a friend over and used a calculator to explain it to him. After talking with his friend, he thanked me and apologized for not trusting me.
Ultimately, the frustration that the bigotry toward Latinos brought me caused me to move back to North Carolina. I could manage restaurants anywhere, I wanted to go somewhere I’d feel more comfortable. People on the west coast tend to believe that bigotry and prejudice are most rampant in the south; I did not find this to be the case.
After spending a few more years in North Carolina I was feeling restless. One day, my boss and I had lunch and he told me I was next in line for promotion. A strange sensation came over me, like the moment of clarity many alcoholics describe bringing them to sobriety. Somehow I knew that I needed to get out of this business. Deep down I knew I wanted a family some day and the restaurant business is not one conducive to that. Evenings, weekends, and holidays are when you are busiest, leaving little time for family. So I thanked my boss and gave him two months notice that I was quitting, I had decided to go back to school.
I knew I wanted to come out of school with a good, stable, well paying career. I was ready to join the corporate machine. Since my bachelor’s degree was in business, an MBA seemed the logical choice. There was a decent school right in Greensboro that offered a program designed for people with jobs: most classes were at night. I figured I could get a simple job and tackle the coursework as I could. Eventually I’d graduate.
Because of my high grade point average in my undergrad studies, I needed only a low to average score on the GMAT exam in order to be assured I’d be accepted. So I didn’t bother to do much preparation for the exam, it wasn’t really important that I kick butt on it. I was amazed to get the results and see that I did in fact kick some serious butt, scoring in the ninety-seventh percentile.
I had started classes at this school and everything was going according to plan when something amazing happened one day. It was late at night when I came home from work. I was once again waiting tables. My roommate, a great friend of mine from California who never got involved in advanced education, was passed out on the couch and woke up when I came in. He told me that some school had called. He couldn’t remember which one but “it’s a good one, like one of those Ivy League schools”. He had an 800 number written down that they had given him. Knowing that I’d get nothing more than answering machine at that hour, I called the number.
“You have reached the MBA office of the University of Notre Dame.”
Why were they calling me up out of the blue?
The next day I called back and found out that they were inviting me to their first ever “MBA Scholars Preview Weekend”. I politely declined, as flying out to South Bend, Indiana was not something I could afford to do to learn about a school. Besides, I was already enrolled in an MBA program. The person informed me that they were picking up the tab for the entire trip – airfare, hotel, food – and they only wanted me to learn about and consider their program. Apparently, they were trying to raise their academic rankings by recruiting students with high GMAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. They had gotten my name because I had filled in some box on the GMAT exam allowing my results to be made public. Boy am I ever thankful I filled in that box!
It was an amazing weekend at an amazing place. Anyone who has ever been on campus at Notre Dame feels that there is something magical encompassing the place. The university wined and dined about twenty of us and basically told us that we were accepted if we chose to apply and that the real question was going to be the size of the scholarship we’d be offered.
After that weekend, I realized I was kind of stupid for not researching schools earlier as I obviously had good credentials. So I set out looking into schools while I waited to hear back from Notre Dame on the scholarship. I discovered that Notre Dame was a Top 50 program, but toward the low end of that designation. But it was number one in the area of Business Ethics. This seemed like something I could find interesting. In the end, the scholarship offer was impressive and off to South Bend I went with my little girl, a border collie mix named Cassidy.
Anyone who has a connection to Notre Dame is amazed and at times angered by the manner in which I ended up there. There just are not many people who get an unsolicited phone call from the university asking them to please attend their school, and don’t worry about the tuition, they can take care of that.
Maybe it was just plain old luck. I believe strongly it was karma. The funny thing about good karma is that you kind of deposit it in a karma bank account as you venture through life. The only thing is that you don’t get to decide when to withdraw and utilize that karma. That part is done for you and out of your control. For some reason my karma account was dried up the day that I took the GMAT exam and filled in that little box.
The Golden Dome
For one glorious year I got to enjoy the real college experience. For the first time in my life since I was fourteen years old, I was unemployed. While I feel badly that I don’t keep in touch with nearly all of the friends I made at Notre Dame, they created times I will always remember and cherish.
The integration of ethics into much of the curriculum at the school was impressive, as I don’t believe that to be the norm. This is not to say I felt like it went far enough, especially in the MBA program that would likely yield future CEOs, CFOs, and successful entrepreneurs. But it was there and it did at a minimum teach people that ethics are something to consider. I enjoyed all of the courses I was able to take that were actual ethics courses.
I found that many students really couldn’t grasp that there are real limits to what businesses should do in the quest for profitability, limitations that go beyond mere compliance with the law. I also saw that many students seemed to lack the backbone of personal confidence, they seemed unable to behave proactively with future career superiors. Teaching those two things seemed to be the gap in the courses.
In an international business ethics class I wrote a term paper called Life in the fields: an exploration of migrant labor in America’s agricultural industries. I was able to utilize the base knowledge I had on the issue from my experiences in the foodservice industry. I even interviewed one former employee to create a single human tie-in throughout the academic research. I learned many things in the process of researching the paper. This was a much more complex issue than I had believed, one that stretched into the arenas of food safety, children’s rights, and the complacency of the American consumer. By the time the paper was completed, my respect for the drive and determination of the Latino migrant community and for the conditions that brought them to the United States had become more entrenched than ever. The paper ended up being chosen for publication in a book of MBA ethics papers.
One cannot describe time spent at Notre Dame as a student without mentioning football! My one season there was not a good one for the team, but that did not hamper on the experience. All the parties, tailgates, “kegs and eggs” celebrations, and the like were of course a blast. Yet there was something more to it. The tradition of the whole thing and the sense of community felt by generations of people who share a common love and respect of the university was amazing. I was and am proud to be a part of that community. To this day my eyes tear up when I stand on campus looking at the Golden Dome.
One notable thing I did was to organize a group of fellow MBA students to participate in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. While I never managed to bond well with my little brother, it was a rewarding experience because many others who participated did make an impact on their kids. My little brother had a rough life with a drug addicted mother, but he also lived with a wonderful grandmother and had a network of older people to serve as rolemodels for him through his involvement with his church and other community activities. And the fact remained that this poor African-American kid and I just didn’t find good ways to connect. It was sad for me to see how he and his peers felt very little connection to the university. They would play in the street in front of their homes rather than take a ten-minute walk to the campus with all its grassy fields and open space. They never got to attend the football games that brought in all the wealthy white people a few weekends a year. It’s interesting to look at and experience something as all-American as Notre Dame football from two contradictory perspectives.
Unlike with my undergraduate degree, my timing was impeccable this time around. The economy was booming and companies were snatching up MBAs like there was no tomorrow. Also, this time I was coming out of a very reputable university. I ended up with numerous job offers in a variety of fields. The most promising one was for a database consulting firm in Chicago. It was a very reputable firm, paid well, and was in an industry just beginning to flourish. Another interesting one was to do marketing for a manufacturer of meat products for the foodservice industry. That position was in Wichita, Kansas. In the end the decision was simple.
I was unable to rent a house in South Bend with a fenced yard. As such, my dog, who had been accustomed to a large yard, was forced to spend a year on a chain or leash while outdoors. When this happened I had promised her that when we got done with grad school, she’d have a large yard again. Well I had very little money in the bank and real estate in Chicago is not cheap. My odds of being able to offer her a good yard in Chicago were not good. Wichita was another story. There, she could have the largest yard ever, almost three-quarters of an acre to be exact. No one could ever claim I wasn’t a good daddy to her who kept his promises. I took the job in Kansas.
The Sunflower State to Today
So now I had my independence. I had no criminal record. I had the good marketing career I had been striving for. I had managed to keep my integrity in place. And I had a large backyard for my dog.
What else could I need?
Wait a minute. I had left that Restaurant Management career because I wanted to have a family someday.
Someday was now.
I needed to find me a wife.
This was not a simple task. The bar scene was not my cup of tea. I knew no one in the entire state with the exception of my good friend I convinced to make the move with me. He also knew no one. I wasn’t a religious person so meeting someone through church activities was not going to happen. My office was fifty miles away, I wasn’t going to meet anyone through work.
I always try to be involved with some sort of non-profit, charitable or society-saving organization. This time I chose the Make A Wish Foundation. Admittedly, I was also hoping that maybe I could meet someone likeminded that also was involved with them. Why couldn’t charity work be a win-win? I became a Wish Granter and while I never found me a wife though it, I did meet some incredible children. These kids, despite their ailments, were upbeat and optimistic. They all knew and understood what they were facing, and yet they were the ones that had the strength to help me deal with it in my attempts to make their wishes come true. Unfortunately I also saw the dark side of parent’s exploiting their child’s illness and not getting beyond personal relationship issues in order to truly grant their child’s wish. Adversity should bring out the best in us. This was not the case of the kids’ parents.
Back to the quest for a wife…
I was at a loss as to what to do except for one thing… the internet.
Internet dating seems crazy but it actually can be a wonderful thing. It is just something to remove the stroke of luck and offer the good ice-breaker some of us need. The site I went to, American Singles, was one where you can look up the profiles of people in your local area and e-mail them if you like. It is really designed to meet a compatible person, not like a chat room to espouse your nasty habits to a stranger. The idea is that you exchange e-mails in order to decide if you’d like to meet in person. It was here that I met Sheila.
Sheila’s profile was fine and she seemed to meet all the basic things I was looking for. It wasn’t until I got about two-thirds of the way through her listing that anything great stood out. It said that the person who can identify where her e-mail address came from was likely to win her heart. Her e-mail name was “Miss Friday”. Very few people would make the connection unless they were fans of the author Robert Heinlein. This was a reference to one of his characters. I got so excited that I immediately e-mailed her to see if I had called it right and to introduce myself. It would be great if we both shared the same favorite author.
Next I decided to continue looking through her profile which was a smart idea but also a potential deal breaker. It read, “must be Christian and have Christian values” or “must be Christian or have Christian values”. We still debate over which it was. In either case, I wasn’t Christian and while I believe I have “Christian values”, I’m sure avidly religious people would disagree. Plus, someone who was very religious just wouldn’t be a good match for me. So I immediately e-mailed Sheila again explaining that while I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, I was raised Jewish and personally felt more agnostic than anything.
Needless to say, she replied to my e-mail.
The Impossible Dream
Sheila and I immediately got into a multiple times a day e-mail relationship. It clearly felt like the first dates when compatible people never struggle for conversation. They learn all about one another and find it interesting. It was a little hard trying to move it on to the next step with her did but I did. I was actually out of town on a business trip and Sheila missed me, even though we had still not met in person. Given that, she realized it was time for the first real date so she armed her brother with my name, phone number, and address in case I was an axe murderer and took the gutsy step of meeting some dude from the internet in person.
Our first date went wonderfully and after a nice dinner out we stayed up until the wee hours at my house snuggling and talking. Isn’t that sweet? It sure was and that date led to a second date the next night and that led to third date the following morning and in no time at all it was clear this was a serious relationship.
It’s really kind of surprising Sheila and I connected like we did. We have entirely different backgrounds and not much in common. Her family comes from small towns in the Midwest. They are very religious Christians. She grew up in a strict environment. We also have very different personalities. Sheila is pretty introverted and keeps very even keel. When my friends first met her they hard time believing she doesn’t smoke pot because she’s so mellow.
I think the thing that really brought us together was not who we were but more who we wanted to be and what we saw for the future. We had both been through some tough relationships and just wanted someone honest and faithful we could trust. We were both able to laugh at our past mistakes and ready for something better. After a couple of months, I think we both realized that while we may not have been the whimsical, cutesy, in la la land couple discovering new love, we were perfect together and meant for one another. We found that our vast differences, things that can separate people, actually provided the things the other needed to improve upon.
As some examples, I needed to release myself from some obligation I felt to try to be super-successful economically. Sheila came from a somewhat humble upbringing where this type of thing wasn’t stressed. She is the first member of her immediate family to graduate college. Instead of this building a wall in our goals and outlooks, it served as a balance. A ying to my yang, so to speak. Sheila, on other hand, can be overly focused on the negative side of things and dwell on them. I have a pretty care free spirit that accepts what I can’t change, changes it if I can, and does not have a hard time saying “screw them” and realizing that the world is not a perfect place. This is an energy and outlook that Sheila needs in order to find her happiness.
Six months later we were engaged. We had one little problem. I did not believe in marrying someone without first having lived together. Living in sin was not kosher with Sheila’s family. This was not how they believed and I respected that and Sheila’s desire not to upset them. With an engagement ring on her finger, they handled it wonderfully and off to the races it was planning a wedding.
Wedding celebrations are something far different for New York Jews and Kansas folk. Needless to say, punch, cake, mints, and nuts at the church following the ceremony is not synonymous with a hora playing band and a gala event. My parents, bless them, helped out a lot and Sheila got to have her first real taste of Jewish culture dealing with my mom as the plans developed. Please don’t take that to sound sarcastic or negative because it wasn’t that way. It truly was a cultural initiation.
We had one real struggle in that we wanted a rabbi and a pastor to do the service. Believe it or not, the only local rabbi in Wichita not only refused to participate in a mixed marriage, which was his right, but he basically said that he would try to prevent it. Apparently, common practice would be for a rabbi to contact the local rabbi for an invitation before coming into his hood to perform a wedding. And the local rabbi would not make such an invitation. I was absolutely livid and ashamed. I imagined how that would come across to Sheila’s parents, who had been wonderful in accepting that I was not Christian (as my parents were about Sheila not being Jewish). If I was them, it would seem that the religion was saying that their goyish daughter wasn’t good enough to marry a member of the tribe. That was not the religion that I was raised in! We ended up just hiring a pastor who integrated Jewish wedding traditions into the ceremony and kept all the religious stuff to the Old Testament.
Our wedding was wonderful. I had a ton of family and friends come to Kansas for it and in many ways it was more of four-day festival than anything else. Nearly everything went according to plan (keep in mind that this is the male’s perspective, Sheila could tell you twenty things that went wrong) and everyone had a great time. We had been seriously worried about how the two sides would come together. In the end, we were reminded that at the right times and under the right circumstances, differences become irrelevant and we’re just people.
Our song for our first dance is perfect to describe our love and I leave this chapter of the book with its lyrics. I’ve written far more than I intended to about myself and feel self-conscious about it. I’m sure I’ve succeeded and now you’ve got my mindset down pat if you managed to make it to this point. The song is from Alphaville and is called The Impossible Dream.
Sometimes it seems so strange
The way I feel for you
It makes my life so quiet and free
And when you smile at me
It’s just that special love
A kind of liberty I never felt before
I keep my fingers crossed
I never want to lose
This new found world that’s so alive angel
I’m so in love with you
My heart has circled in the past
The demons of deceit but now aside I’ve cast
I don’t need to be a poet
I don’t need to be a hero
When all I need to do is keep on loving you
I just have to be me
And I don’t need to be
The stranger anymore I used to be
In my impossible dream
For almost two years now, I have been working on a book about our adoption experience and ICA as a whole. My original plan was to make it a commercial venture for publication, with the intent of using half of what I earned for non-profits and the other half to go into my kids' college fund. But life is too busy and I can't ever seem to get to editting it. Some day I may publish it, and there are some possibilities on how it may be reworked in the future. But for the time being I figured what the heck, why not share it.
Each week, I will post one section of it to Guatadopt. This week is a short one, the prologue. As this develops, feel free to comment on it. My hope is that it will help some folks understand their own feelings and stories, be of valuable information, and provide some solace. Those who have followed my writing on Guatadopt know that at times I can be pretty controversial. Feel free to comment on things you disagree with. But I will post one point of caution - this is a very personal story from the deepest depths of my heart. Our adoption experience changed me in more ways that I can mention. So please, depite my thick skin and love of a good fight, remember to be kind...
What an amazing year 2003 proved to be. For me, it is a year of great contrast. In most every way, it was one of the worst years of my life. War in Iraq, SARS, Mad Cow, the loss of a grandfather, a tough year for my employer, and more all contributed to a general malaise not only personally but also for the world at large. I’ll admit, I felt burnt out and depressed, not the norm for a pretty jovial fellow. This wasn’t really caused by all the things mentioned above, I was able to handle a world gone mad and some personal turmoil. It was caused by the fact that virtually the entire year was spent in the intercountry adoption process. I remember telling a friend as the process neared to an end that in a way, I almost wished that the adoption would not be completed until 2004, so that nothing could change my memory of the year that shouldn’t have been. In the end, on December 17, 2003, the whole year became one of the greatest I could possibly ever know. For on that day, Isabel finally was home.
The year changed me forever, and not only in becoming a father. Maybe it was because of the year it was. Maybe it was because of the person I am. Maybe it was because of the person I wish to be. Whichever the case may be, the intercountry adoption experience, my experience, left me with a changed outlook and focus in my life. This book is about that change. I write it for myself as much as for anyone else who may read it. My hope is that it will help to serve as a guide for all stakeholders in the adoption community. I hope that my story may give some insight not only for fellow adoptive families, but also for those more deeply involved with the institution and its processes. But most of all, I hope that it serves as testament for myself to prevent me from losing my passion, interest, and desire to make my own contribution to an institution for which I owe so much.
As you embark on reading this, please be forewarned. There will likely be some parts that will anger and offend you. There will be some parts that make you laugh, and possibly others that make you cry. At times, you’ll need to put the book down and think about what it is you just read and what are its implications. You will be forced to challenge the paradigm in which you generally feel comfortable. It will raise uncomfortable questions for families like mine that have been formed and grown through intercountry adoption. But by the end, my first ambition is that you don’t wish to strangle me. Beyond that, it is that you will have been put through some introspection and are better able to form your own perspective.
While admittedly I have very strong opinions and they inevitably will come out as I write this book, I do not claim them to be any sort of gospel. Opinions belong only to the person who holds them.
In college, I wrote an opinion column for the school newspaper and had the dubious honor of setting a new record for letters written to the editor in a semester. Only a selective few were in support of what I had written. Nonetheless, I was voted “Best Opinion Columnist” by the newspaper staff. My last column before graduation tried to leave things on a conciliatory note. In it I wrote, “Why be offended by what some shmuck writes in the opinion column of a college newspaper” and went on to describe how hearing opposing views should make one more secure in their own beliefs. I take that same philosophy to this endeavor. You don’t need to agree with me and you don’t need to be offended by what I believe. I use passionate, at times inflammatory, verbiage and hold very strong beliefs. Trust in good faith that I am an ethical person whose self-pride comes from a dedication to morality, honesty, and conviction that can at times be to my detriment.
If you come away thinking that I am some sort of radical, left wing, unpatriotic, tree-hugging ideologue, that’s okay. It’s your opinion and you own it. Hopefully the book will not have been for a loss. If nothing else, now you can better understand the psychology of the radical, left wing, unpatriotic, tree-hugging ideologues of the world. Though it is more than likely that those who begin this book coming from a mindset quite different from my own will depart from it realizing that we aren’t so different after all. We all have a similar vision for what “should be”, especially when it comes to the well being of children.
The world of adoption is not what it should be. After all, children are the most precious of all god’s gifts. Somehow, it would logically seem that it should be fairly easy to reach consensus on decisions regarding what’s right for children. Everyone agrees children deserve special protections and rights. However, if this was so obvious and unworthy of debate, I wouldn’t be writing this book. My experience would not have been what it was. I wouldn’t have become actively involved in the world of intercountry adoption. And I wouldn’t know how fortunate I still was because my experience was nothing compared to what others I know have been through. There are questions, there are topics in need of debate, and there are many gray areas where common sense, immediate versus long-term goals, and practical reality don’t see eye to eye.
We all have a natural tendency to view adoption issues through the specter of which we are involved in it. Parents, adoption agencies, lawyers, bureaucrats, and humanitarians all come from different perspectives as they approach any of the hot-topic issues. While I too am guilty of this by default, I have tried to overcome this and approach adoption from a different mindset – that of the child born in an impoverished nation like Guatemala. Even more so, I’ve struggled to keep the well being of the child alive in the macro sense while not sacrificing any child in the micro sense.
With all these warnings in the open air, I must remember this is also a heartwarming story. It is a story that I’m ecstatic to reveal has the happiest of endings. My daughter is home, happy, and healthy. She is the joy in my life. We now have the family we sought out to create years ago. My lovely wife can finally call herself a mom. And through the process my wife and I had many different adventures, many of them wonderful and unforgettable. From being unexpectedly swarmed by a bus full of children as we gave away tie-dyed tee shirts in an indigenous village on our first ever full day in Guatemala to the tears in the eyes of our foster family at the airport as we left with Isabel on her way home to the joy in my parents’ smiles as we exited customs and Isabel officially became a citizen, there is a lot to rejoice about in the pages that come.
With all this said, I hope the idea of this book has captured your interest. If it has, I’m sure you will enjoy the hours spent reading it. In order to make it easier to read, and allow the reader to flip channels between CNN and Lifetime so to speak, I have broken the book up into different sections. The content of the sections will intermingle and I apologize in advance for any redundancies. But I felt it would be better to separate the saga of our adopting Isabel from the larger societal issues facing intercountry adoption. So if you are someone in the process of an adoption, you can read the tale of our adoption to help you know that you are not alone in your emotions and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But when that same person suddenly realizes all that surrounds international adoption and wants to understand it more, the other sections will be a welcomed read.
I dedicate this book to my wife Sheila and my daughter Isabel who not only gave me some days alone in the house to write this, but also serve as my strength, inspiration and purpose. Some day, I know Isabel will have questions about what brought her to us. This book serves as one piece of that understanding in a personal as well as societal sense.
Being the rebel I am, I also have a counter-dedication for this book. Because while I do not wish to thank them or promote their agenda, it is true that without them this book would likely never have even been conceived. So to the kind folks at the Hague, UNICEF, Casa Alianza, and others whom in my opinion all allow their idealistic vision to blur their common sense and humanity, I couldn’t have done it withoutcha!