Difficult Compromises: The Dilemmas of Age Versus Race
Women’s routes to motherhood and adoption are often dominated by a struggle in which they must weigh the age of an unknown adoptive child against his or her race.9 Mothers who give priority to the criterion of age in their searches hold the belief that intensive mothering is about sharing in the child’s infancy. U. S. culture puts great emphasis on this early bonding experience. Feeling this cultural pressure, many of the women fear that adopting older children, and subsequently missing their children’s infancy, will mean an increased risk of damaged children and diminished mother-child experiences. Women who hold this belief correlate the age of the child with the extent to which they feel they will bond with their adopted children and integrate their children into their private emotional lives.
The criterion of race, on the other hand, is more connected with the mother’s desire to integrate her child into her public life. Having a child of a different race may complicate her extended family’s acceptance of her new family. Different skin colors of mother and child could elicit unwanted and uncomfortable questions and assumptions.
In the beginning stages of the adoption process, social workers often ask potential mothers which characteristics in a child are most important to them— including age, race, gender, health, open adoption, and citizenship. Rebecca’s social worker was not unique: in the initial home study meeting, social workers confirm that receiving a white infant domestically is a privilege typically reserved for married couples. Women articulated in the interviews the process of making a mental hierarchy of different races they were comfortable adopting. Rebecca, who finally adopted a nine-month-old when she was forty-one years old, overcame her discomfort with adopting a child of a race different from her own, with her desire for a healthy infant taking precedence: 
infant before getting too old. . . . The key thing for me was T really wanted a smart child if I could pick one thing. I wanted a healthy child. So, it is trying to think [in] which country am I going to get the best.
At the time she was searching for an infant, agencies in China had available abandoned or orphaned infants. Russia did not guarantee that she would be placed with a baby, although they had plenty of white children to adopt.10 Further, she relied upon racial stereotypes in the United States that Chinese kids are smart, and this was important to her. Rebecca felt that by choosing China she had better odds of getting a smart baby even if the race of this baby was not her first choice. Further, Rebecca revealed how she categorized skin color and prioritized it: “Thinking about the race thing—it did seem like adopting a black baby would be harder for me. It felt too different. I also looked at Cambodia. So skin color felt more different than different features.” Feeling “too different” is a comment I heard a lot in these interviews. Rebecca deconstructed race into two categories —skin color and facial features. She felt that skin color that was darker than her own was more problematic than the shape of a child’s eyes.
As women wrestle with issues of race, they ask themselves: “What kind of child can I comfortably and properly mother?” Unlike the question of the age of the child, race is less about the mother’s fears and hopes for early-age bonding with her child and more about how an obviously adopted child of another race will fit into her family and community. In the years and weeks leading up to the decision to adopt, the issue of how a child of color will fit into a white woman’s circle of family and friends plagues many women. Many of the white mothers are disappointed and hurt if their extended family’s reaction to the decision to adopt a child of color is initially unsupportive. Many women, in realizing that they need financial and emotional support from their families and communities, worry about adopting children that will not be welcome or comfortably “fit.” In this study, however, all these fears and rifts within the biological family melted away once the adopted child was brought home and the woman’s parents became grandparents.
For women who firmly believe that intensive mothering during infancy will significantly shape the quality of their future relationships with their children, adopting infants is critical. Many know that placing utmost importance on the age of the desired child will mean greater possibility of receiving a child of color. Their single status compounds their ambivalence as they try to predict what they can reasonably handle, as Rebecca noted: “I knew it would be easier to adopt a biracial child because for whatever reason, they were not recruiting enough families of color. But I just thought if I remained single, and now adopt a trans – racial infant—was I stacking the deck? I wondered about whether I was up to the challenges. Was I spreading myself too thin?”
Claudia, featured in the prologue, kept postponing single motherhood each time she thought a new relationship might progress toward marriage. Her journey to becoming a mother also took many twists as she thought about the child she could comfortably parent. She began with imagining a child abstractly, but as the details of her story below illustrate, her imagined child was not just any child regardless of race and age. As she began to think deeply about her own biases, she realized that motherhood was specific and a “universal child” was not the solution. She eventually adopted a two-year-old Russian boy when she was forty-five years old. I met her when she was fifty-two years old and settled into a routine of squeezing her work into a four-day schedule, mostly during the time her son was in elementary school. As with many of the mothers, her process of deciding what age and race child she could comfortably mother was a long, arduous one. Lacking support from her mother and friends in her desire to adopt, Claudia agonized over her decision to adopt a child for over nine years before actually beginning the adoption process. During these nine years, she briefly considered asking a previous boyfriend to be a known donor. Quickly she rejected this idea, as she feared a known donor might in the future reverse his decision and decide he wanted to share her child. As she succinctly put it:
So in a sense I had already crossed the line where I saw myself doing this solo. . . Of course, I could’ve done it with an anonymous donor, but I thought if I had done it with somebody it would be more complicated. I [didn’t] want to share this child with anyone else. Or if the person said, “I don’t want to be involved,” but later came back and wanted to be involved, how much do I want him involved if it’s not a committed relationship?
Claudia gave up the dream of having a child with a partner and knew that she would be doing this solo, but couldn’t picture herself alone with a newborn. Unlike most of the women in this study, she realized that she didn’t want to be single and pregnant and then alone with a newborn. She said that “the idea of being with a baby felt more isolating, felt more overwhelming.”
As a clinical psychologist herself, she knew that single mothers have little chance to adopt white children domestically. Furthermore, she feared that adopting a child out of foster care might mean being the mother to a child who had been abused or abandoned. She also believed that the risk of birth parents coming back and claiming her child was higher in the domestic system. Adopting internationally “seemed cleaner.” Claudia wanted to be sure that the child she adopted not only would be hers permanently but also would comfortably blend into her preexisting single life. She worried that she could not handle a child who was “too different” or “the responsibility of bringing the child’s original culture into the life of the family.” She said, “It all just felt like more than I could take on.” Claudia decided that having a child of the same race and similar culture was more important than sharing in her child’s infancy.
Claudia originally had looked into adopting a child from South America, but for reasons that were difficult for her to discuss, she realized that she could not take a child of color. It gnawed at her that maybe she could not love a child of
another race, and this caused her to adjust her imagined child. She said that following this painful first attempt, she spent a year of “soul-searching” in therapy during which she reassessed her criteria for her ideal child. She gravitated to her own family’s genealogy to clarify her decision—a weak link to relatives she barely knew, but one that gave her peace of mind: “Russia was very appealing because my roots were Russian. My grandparents were all from Russia and I just felt a real connection. … It feels really good for me to say to William that my grandparents—his great-grandmother—were born in Russia, and it just feels really nice. . .. He has a strong identity about having been born in Russia.” Claudia decided to adopt from Russia not only because adoption from a faraway place reduced the risk of birth parents surfacing, but also because she wanted a white child. For Claudia, race took precedence over age in her journey to create a family and adopt a child that would fit into her white extended family and social network. Other women like Claudia who desire a white child find that international adoption through a private agency provides them with the closest racial fit— even light-skinned Hispanic and Asian children seem less different than African American children.11
Women want to be the best mothers that they can be, and so each woman wrestles with the question of what kind of child would be the best fit for her life. Rebecca prioritized age over race, while Claudia chose race over age. However, setting these priorities is a compromise in itself. Arriving at approximately five months of age, Rebecca’s baby was not a newborn. Claudia would have preferred a white American child but settled on identifying with her Russian heritage.
Women’s political consciousness of international and domestic policies is also a burden they carry forward in their adoption decisions. Race, social class, and citizenship become identities that clash, sometimes for the first time in these women’s lives. The history and politics of black-white race relations continue to lead to racial segregation and questions about adoption across race lines. International adoption has a different twist. Prospective adopters’ social class standing in conjunction with their U. S. citizenship makes them desirable candidates, and adoption creates a migration of babies from poorer countries to wealthier ones.12 Because the exact circumstances that severed birth parents from their babies and toddlers are sometimes either unknown or undisclosed, the politics of each country that releases children for adoption elsewhere become central to the narrative of how children are left in need of homes. Stopping the flow of children who are adopted from second – and third-world countries is part of an ethics of globalization to which women have no easy answers. Each woman must craft her own story to explain how her child landed up halfway around the world.
Marli, forty-six, also decided to adopt internationally, her decision shaped by her sensitivity to identity politics.13 When her chances at biological motherhood were diagnosed as not good because of fibroids, she immediately shifted to figuring out what the adoption route would entail. She was bisexual, and a significant concern for her was what she would say about her sexual orientation to the social
worker who came to do a home study. She ultimately decided not to mention her bisexuality when she was asked about her past relationships, and she presented herself as straight. But for her, the pivotal issue in the adoption process was her political consciousness. One of the lenses through which she saw adoption was that of globalization and its relationship to adoption. Are international adoptions, which largely involve children from poor countries going to parents in wealthy ones, saving children from poverty or a life in an orphanage, or are they feeding into a system of abuses, disruption of local families, and social distortion in which children are little more than commodities?15 Marli framed her choice to adopt a child from China as a way to reduce, though not eliminate, her concerns on this front, and assuage her guilt:
Once I decided to adopt, then it was unbelievably tortuous. I checked out everything, everybody. I went to the different agencies, but for me, the hard issues were around what kind of child, and the politics of it. The politics of it were problematic. … I mean, I identify myself as a leftist, so it mattered very much to me what were the conditions under which a child became eligible for adoption and how was I going to create a family which would be affirming of the child’s culture of origin. Those were the two issues. And the obvious choice at that point was to do a Central American/Latin American adoption and those were much more my plans and I had a lot of trouble with that because it felt like that these were children who were available because of U. S. imperialism.16
Another issue for Marli was the debates around the issue of interracial adoptions. Unlike one of her friends, Marli decided she did not want to get tangled up in the domestic politics of white families adopting black children. She continued:
And then I debated at one time about doing a domestic transracial adoption, like some my friends did adopting an African American child or a biracial child. And that felt really problematic. I mean, given this very politicized position of the black social workers—a whole articulated position against white families adopting black children—a cultural genocide. . . I felt very awkward getting involved.
She eliminated various possibilities through one criterion after another until she found a country, China, that offered children for adoption in a way that did not contradict her politics.17 However, she was concerned by her lack of knowledge about Chinese culture and her ability to integrate that culture into her daughter’s life. Ultimately, she decided that her own ignorance of Chinese culture was something she could remedy, whereas acquiring a child under politically problematic conditions would permanently weigh on her conscious:
In some sense, it’s funny. On that score, I actually felt much more comfortable, like at least I knew how to begin. And I knew a lot, not oodles, but as an American, I knew a fair amount about black culture, history, literature. For me the big stumbling thing for me about doing the Asian choice was I felt like I knew nothing. And how would I ever… I would never learn Chinese.
While she still wondered how she would tell her daughter that being born female in China had made her unwanted and was the reason she was abandoned, she felt relief knowing that this issue was not one that her country had responsibility for. She still had concerns about how to give her daughter a cultural identity and how she would create a transracial family, however.18 At the time of the interview she was already involved with one of the many area centers that taught Chinese culture and language. In addition, she stayed in touch, meeting frequently, with the other adoptive families (four of the six families assigned to the group were also single parents) with whom she traveled to China to adopt infants. The children were Active kin insofar as they all came from the same orphanage. Knowing neither the birth town nor anything else about these children, the parents of the children of the same orphanage created a group tie. Marli knew little of her daughter’s history except that the child was abandoned at ten months.
Another mother, Patricia, was from a large Irish Catholic family, and among her earliest memories was the wish to have a big family; her ideal situation would be to have both adopted and biological children. She was a nurse who worked for a public agency, and she saw many foster children who needed permanent homes. It was important to her to adopt a newborn as young as possible because newborns are less likely to come with emotional baggage. A domestic adoption made her feel more comfortable because the agency would have more information about the infant than international agencies would.
The child she eventually agreed to adopt was her fourth match from a private adoption agency. Even though she specified that she wanted a healthy infant of any race, the first two calls she received were placement attempts by the agency for terminally ill babies. She refused these infants. The third match she lost because the birth mother decided to keep her baby – Exactly one year after applying, she received a call saying that the agency had a newborn African American girl still in the hospital whose mother had taken drugs through the pregnancy. Since from her nursing work she had experience with crack babies, she decided that this was a child she felt comfortable accepting. Her daughter, age four at the time of the interview, had never shown signs of drug-related problems.
I asked her directly if race was an issue, and she explained her own priorities alongside the politics and arguments made against black-white adoption by segments of the African American community: 
Well, the race issue is of course an issue we deal with every day. But I felt that I had the personal resources to deal with whatever issues were gonna come. I basically said I want a healthy infant girl. And it didn’t matter what race she was. And the way our society works, children of color probably are more available at this point. Now, there’s a lot of people who feel that’s really wrong. Cultural genocide, you know the black social workers are very much against it. A lot of that has come up again recently. And that was hard for me. It was a struggle. But I felt that I really wanted to be a parent and I wasn’t saying, “I want a black baby.” I just said, “I want a healthy infant girl.” As it turns out, Maya actually was exposed to cocaine, and perhaps that helped me get her. I haven’t said this to a lot of people, but I’ve worked with cocaine-exposed children. They weren’t threatening to me. I feel like I can deal with it and actually she’s totally fine. Some people might think she’s pretty enthusiastic, and who knows what that’s from, but anyway, that didn’t intimidate me. There were some things that perhaps intimidated other people that really didn’t intimidate me.
Patricia did not set out to adopt an African American baby, even though she knew that she was more likely to be offered a child of color if she pursued adopting a newborn domestically. She confided in her sister that she did not have the $10,000 domestic agency fee. Immediately her sister called their parents and asked them to offer Patricia as an adoption gift the money they had already set aside for her wedding. Reluctantly they did, assuming that she would adopt a white child. After she hung up with the agency, she excitedly called her parents to tell them the good news: “I have a baby who is African American. I am so excited I can’t wait to hold her.” Patricia’s parents’ reaction was less than enthusiastic. Caught by surprise about the baby’s race, her dad asked her to rethink her commitment to this child. They were worried about how an African American child would fit in their large extended family of only white grandchildren and whether Patricia would to be able to overcome the troubles of the interracial families they saw in their community. Although Patricia’s excitement was temporarily dampened, she stuck to her position that she would adopt this particular child. Patricia’s sister, who was six months pregnant, was thrilled when she heard the news. Her sister’s embrace was important because Patricia knew that it meant that at the very least her child would have some extended family and a cousin her own age. And in the end, once her parents saw the baby and how happy she was, they become loving and active grandparents.
Janica, a fifty-year-old African American with two teenage daughters, fourteen and sixteen, explained how the adoption process discriminates differently against black women. She adopted her second daughter just three years before Patricia adopted her infant daughter:
I’d seen these two as little kids, and then I saw them again [in the adoption book] when I went back to adopt a second child. The little boy was biracial, and the little girl was white. Aid I asked then would they let me adopt the two of them. And she said no, because she’s white. “If you had had a white husband, they would let you adopt them.” I said, “That’s ridiculous.” So these two kids, they were
siblings and they wanted to be together. So they would have taken a single person if it was a biracial single person, or a white single person. See? So that’s the bias.
These siblings were not available to Janica, even though they were available to be adopted. Patricia, by contrast, could have adopted a biracial baby and even a healthy black baby. The racial discrimination within the adoption system between white and black women who are offered different children is in many ways similar to the practice of redlining in certain neighborhoods. Janica was better educated, had a salary twice as large, and had a better support system than Patricia. But Janica was subject to a different scrutiny.
The social worker who was assigned to Janica’s case also asked about skin coloring as part of the matching process to find the right child for her. A holdover from earlier points in time about creating a “natural” appearing combination of family members’ skin colors was deemed critical to configuring a black family. Janica explained how this preference about color worked in her broader community and how it was used by adoption agencies:
hi terms of race, I wouldn’t say “race” but “color.” Growing up, Pm dark. And my brother is dark, and my two sisters are lighter. We have a lot of Indian blood in our family. … It was funny when I got my first daughter. There was a social worker who brought up the fact that she was light. And I said it didn’t matter because that would match fine in our family because that’s the way our family was. So most people don’t realize that they are adopted because my younger daughter looks very much like me, and my first daughter looks very much like my mother and my sister. So for our family, that didn’t become an issue.
It only becomes an issue to other people. I don’t know if you realize this, but there is a race issue around color that black people have to put up with. For me,
I’m very much aware, for my children, in a way that my mother wasn’t aware of when we were growing up, because people did make a difference between my sister and myself. She got to go to a school that was just beginning to be racially integrated, and I didn’t get to go because—I knowyou’ve heard of the “paper bag test.”’91 didn’t pass the paper bag test. So sometimes I see it happening with how my daughters are treated. I stop it.
Janica prepared for a toddler, since she was told the possibilities of her being given an infant were not good. However, when Sharon, her older daughter, was two months old she was offered to a few couples who passed. Janica went to see her because she was told that if she did not see every child that was possible the agency would not consider her a serious potential parent. Sharon looked sad and was very small. But the moment Janica held her in her arms she perked up, and Janica fell in love. She kept asking questions about the birth mother and the process, since she did not want her heart broken if a couple came along. She received a call telling her Sharon was hers a few days later—she felt she was lucky that there were no couples at that particular time who wanted the child.
Two years later she was thinking about adopting again, and she returned to the agency to look at the picture books with the children that were presently
available. She really thought about a toddler this time, partly because it would be easier for her mom, who was caring for her children, while she worked. She had put her search for a second child on hold when she received a call from another adoption agency. Sharon’s birth mother had given birth to another child whom she was relinquishing, and requested that priority be given to the family who had adopted her other birth child. Janica was stunned. She conferred with the significant people in her life to see if they were on board, including her siblings, and especially her mom, who would have the greatest responsibility, caring for a toddler in addition to a new baby- Notably, she did not confer with the man who had moved in with her but was not a co-parent.20 Her mom said, “This is Sharon’s sister. You have to take her.’’ Janica called back the next day and said yes. She also told her agency that if the birth mother had more children, she did not want to be contacted. She felt two children was enough and her family was complete. The agency rushed to do an expedited home study, waiving the fees because the children were siblings. The fact that this baby was her child’s sibling became the overarching reason for this match; the factors that determined her adoption of Sharon—color and age—were not part of this second adoption. Even though love and legal stewardship were the basis of her family, blood ties between her daughters cemented her decision.
Patricia had options for children that Janica did not have. Race matters differently for black and white women, and its use in matching children with potential mothers is itself racially biased. Also, Patricia paid almost ten times the fees that Janica paid because Patricia went through a private agency, while Janica went through a public system. White women are more likely to use private agencies because they feel they will have support in their attempts to become single mothers, while public agencies will be less sympathetic.
Single mothers agonize over the choices they make as they try to find a way to comfortably adopt a child who is different from themselves and whose reflection they cannot see within themselves. They learn to accept the public gaze that marks them as adoptive mothers who do not easily blend in with the majority of families around them. Yet women also consciously attempt to create new ties to affirm their child’s racial and/or cultural identity, even if these new worlds are foreign and without precedent in the mothers’ childless lives.