Veronica and Em successfully adopted internationally, but not without some bumps along the way. Here’s their story.
First Name: Veronica (Rhodes) – pen name
Partner’s First Name: Em
Hometown/City: New York
Age: 52 and 48
Number of Children: 2
Names of Children: Ann and Mary
When did you decide you wanted children?
That was a bit of a roller coaster – part of my coming out process was grieving the loss of the children I always thought I’d have. But between 1990 and 2000 the world seemed to change, and the possibility suddenly seemed… possible. I never thought Em would be interested, since she took longer to come out, but she’s the one who actually suggested it!
We wanted children for the same reasons anyone does, I think – to give us a bigger purpose in life, to have someone to love and love you back in a way that nobody else can, to be invested in the future of the human race in a whole new way. I think it was Dan Savage who put us over the top – his book called The Kid describes his decision to become a parent in a way that made us laugh out loud, but also really think. He describes what life would be like without a child, spinning several scenarios that all sound great but all end with strangers coming in to empty out your house and throw all your stuff away and you’re done. We didn’t want our lives to end that way. Dan has a lot to answer for around here.
How did you decide to either biologically have a child or adopt a child?
Another roller coaster – we originally talked about adopting from China, but when Em’s dad died she experienced a new sense of biological imperative just as China closed the door on gay adoptions anyway. We spent a year trying to conceive, with no success, before we turned back to adoption.
Did you share your journey with your family and friends? If so, have they been supportive?
Very few people knew about the AI tries, but once we decided to adopt we opened up a little more and shared the process and waiting with more people. They’ve all been completely supportive, and since I started this process much later than my siblings did, our kids ended up with an army of big cousins who completely adore them and spoil them.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced raising children as lesbian parents? How have you overcome those challenges and what advice would you give new parents in a similar situation?
The hardest part is probably that you have to be OUT all the time – no more “passing” once you have a child. We have to be ready every day to cross out FATHER and add a second MOTHER to school forms, medical forms, sports forms, everything. Any internalized homophobia has to go! We have to show our children every day that we’re proud of our family, of ourselves, and of them.
Now that our kids are school age we get ongoing questions about where the dad is, how can there be two moms, etc. We need to deal with that candidly and matter-of-factly as it comes up.
What do you wish you would have known before you started?
I honestly thought I could get whatever information I needed online – but I was really wrong. It’s tough to get details on the process in a public forum, and people have to be very careful about what they say online. Our agency agreed to accept us as clients only after much soul-searching and many phone conversations – and no paper trail that has a second parent in it at all. I was completely invisible in the process, and that was really hard for me. And I wish I’d known that some social workers and agencies would turn us down – I wasn’t prepared to have made this big decision to share our lives and raise a child, and lined up the money to do it, only to have the first social worker we called say no, she wouldn’t do our home study.
I also wish I’d known how much you have to surrender yourself to people and organizations out of your control. We wrote checks to people we’d never heard of, waited weeks and months for updates, and had to travel when and where the agency told us to, with no ability to control the timing or the happenings. For a control freak like me, it was really difficult. (Although perhaps not knowing what awaited us made me more likely to go through with it – I don’t know if I’d have started down that road had I known what it would be like!)
How has your life changed during this process? Before having kids and after having kids?
I knew we were about to suspend our grown-up vacations for a while once kids came along, and stop eating at upscale restaurants. But I didn’t know I wouldn’t use the bathroom alone again for five years! Seriously, I don’t think anyone can ever understand how kids completely and totally permeate your life – they are THERE, 24/7, even when they’re asleep! And even when you’re not physically with them, they drive your every move, your every choice, your every decision. You start to think in terms of your child’s timeline, not your own!
How much did you budget for the process? How much has the process cost so far? What were the actual costs and how were they different from what was planned?
International adoption is wildly expensive, no doubt about it. For our first adoption, I kept a careful spreadsheet of every payment – every document and agency fee, every FedEx charge, every travel expense – mostly as a way of maintaining some sense of “control” over a really out-of-control process. It totaled over $30,000. For the second adoption I didn’t have the luxury of keeping such good records (having a two-year-old and all), but it was much more expensive, primarily because it required three trips overseas instead of just two. Also, since Em adopted as an unmarried woman, I was not allowed to go with her, and we didn’t want her travelling alone. So each trip required us to pay travel and hotel for whatever friend accompanied her – for a while there it felt as if we were running the “Send a Friend to Russia” program!
I would guess both adoptions together cost about $75,000, all in, but it was spread out over those three years. Sometimes you’d barely notice it – what’s another $10 to get a certified copy of whatever document they were asking for next? – but some were killers (airfare, “program” fees, hotel bills).
Was your state/location a challenge to the process? How did it impact your decisions, if at all?
We’re fortunate that we’re in New York, where we have access to all kinds of translation services and expediters, and where international travel is direct. (Of course, we had to fly in those accompanying friends from all over the country, which was a bit of a challenge.) And New York allows second-parent adoption, which is terrific – we are now both legal parents to both kids.
Did you prepare your children to answer questions about their donor/biological parent(s)?
We’re as candid as we can be, in age-appropriate ways. Truth is we don’t know a whole lot about either biological family, but what we do know we share as we think appropriate as they ask or seem to want to know.
Would you be willing to share the name of the agency/sperm bank/other resources you used and why? If so, please list them below (and if you have any notes – was your experience good, poor? why or why not?)
For the AI tries we used Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia and Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. RMA was great – very gay-friendly, a recommendation from my lesbian ob-gyn. Unfortunately I can’t share the name of any of the social workers or agencies we used or talked to during the actual adoption process. Any one of them could lose their license if they were publicly identified as working with gay clients.
What was your biggest setback in the process?
We had a couple of setbacks – the first came after our big decision to adopt from China. We’d set our timeline for beginning at the first of the year in 2001. That was exactly the time when China posted new rules on its website – single applicants had previously not been asked anything about their sex lives, but the new rules said that unmarried applicants would have to sign an affidavit saying they were not homosexual, and their agencies and social workers would also have to sign statements saying they knew the applicant to be heterosexual. So not only would we have to lie, but we’d have to ask our social worker and agency to lie for us, or else we’d have to lie to them, too. We knew that we couldn’t base our new family on such a bed of lies, so we changed course from China before we even started.
Then there was the failure of our AI attempts, which was hard to accept. We’d said we’d try three regular old inseminations, no more. After those failed we said we’d try three more with a different donor, but no more. After those failed we said we’d try three cycles with Clomid, but no more. After 9 months, the doctor said we should try IVF – at that point we realized we’d already spent more time and money on this than we’d intended to, and we could be halfway to a complete adoption by now. The biological imperative didn’t seem to loom as large any more, so we abandoned that course and moved into the adoption track.
The other big setback was our first adoption referral – we were matched to a little girl in Russia, and we watched a video of her at age 9 months, smiling and happy and engaged. We were delighted to accept – she seemed healthy and bright and we found ourselves falling in love with her from that short clip. But by the time Em went to Russia to meet her she was 14 months old and a changed child – Em described her eyes as “empty” and her behavior as abnormal. She told me over the phone that “every time I look at this little girl I start to cry.” After lots of crying ourselves, and lots of discussion with our adoption pediatrician, Jane Aronson, we decided we could not accept this match. Em was due in court in just a few hours to adopt her when we officially declined. It was six more months before we were matched to another child – six terrible months thinking about this little girl that we’d left behind, wondering if we’d ever be matched again, despairing of the whole process.
Did you ever consider giving up?
Never, even in spite of the setbacks. We were always able to keep our eye on the prize, which in our case was raising a child. For us the prize wasn’t pregnancy or biology, it was parenting, and we were always confident we’d get there.
What was the funniest thing that happened along the way?
Anyone who’s every scrolled through sperm bank databases looking for likely prospects can probably attest to how surreally funny that whole process is. But we had some other funny moments, too – like when we realized we needed a country other than China as our adoption destination. We went through endless lists of requirements from different countries and ended up with a matrix of countries and rules that we could pore over and figure out our next move. One country didn’t allow singles at all, another didn’t allow anyone over 40, another only considered applicants with ancestors from that country. The only one that had previously allow gay couples to adopt had closed to international adoption.
At one point we were looking at the rules from Peru on our matrix – they allowed singles, but those over 40 were only matched to older children, not babies. And there was an excess of boys, so that was the most likely match. I thought about all those years in which my vision had been of us with our little Chinese baby daughter, and I tried to swap in a five-year-old Peruvian boy, and I just burst out laughing, the whole process was just too bizarre.
But the moment of actual laugh-out-loud funny came when a friend challenged me on why we were adopting from overseas instead of from the United States. I explained that we’d talked it over at great length, and for many reasons decided it wasn’t for us. One of the big reasons was our fear of putting ourselves out there in a “Dear Birthmother” letter – who would pick us? I said to my friend, I keep imagining some 16-year-old lying in her maternity ward bed, looking at parent portfolios, from all these straight white couples offering a solid Christian upbringing to their baby. Now add celebrities into the mix – I’m a pregnant teenager, who am I going to pick? The two chubby lesbians from Queens? Or Calista Flockhart? Em did an actual spit-take, spraying red wine across the table.
Veronica Rhodes is the nom de plume of this writer, editor and gay adoptive mom in the NYC area. Follow her blog about being a gay parent – and more – via her column at ParentDish