After years of trying to conceive, novelist Jennifer Gilmore and her husband decided to pursue a domestic open adoption. They were told they’d be matched within a year; it took four. And along the way they faced complicated decisions and heartbreak.
Gilmore, who has channeled those decisions and heartbreaks into personal essays and articles for outlets such as The New York Times and The Atlantic, has now turned to fiction, her native genre, to explore the experience. Her latest novel, The Mothers, chronicles the struggles of Jesse and Ramon, a fictional couple trying to adopt who face many of the same challenges Gilmore and her husband faced in real life.
“While my husband and I were going through all this, issues started coming up, ideas about race and class and what motherhood was for us and what it was in America,” Gilmore tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, “and I thought, ‘This would be great for a novel.’ I’m sure that I could’ve written a memoir about it. I’ve read many elegant and beautiful memoirs that have affected me greatly, but I really think like a novelist, and I wanted to be harder on my character than I probably could be on myself.”
The heartbreaks and difficult decisions she and the novel’s protagonists share involve babies born too early and with developmental disorders, and women claiming to be pregnant seeking adoptive parents, but who are really just out to extort money from vulnerable couples.
Gilmore’s aim is not to discourage hopeful adoptive parents, but rather to increase awareness of the potential challenges of the adoption process.
“I don’t want to scare people away,” she says. “We actually ended up with a happy ending. … I also think that there are laws for the birth mothers, as there should be. There are laws for the child, as there should be. But there are no laws to protect these prospective adoptive parents, some of whom lose so much money, so much of their emotional reserves. … I don’t want to scare people away, but I want people to be aware how dangerous it is for you. It’s not just you sit around, you wait, and you get this beautiful baby.”
On choosing the race of her adopted child
“It was incredibly shocking to me. With domestic adoption, you get a form, you fill it out, and there are these boxes: African-American, African-American and Hispanic, and you check the boxes that you’re comfortable with. Race is completely open in that regard. And in a way, it makes sense, because if you don’t check the ‘African-American’ box, then by all means, you should not be parenting an African-American child. …
“Jessie — the protagonist — knows that if she adopts a child from Ethiopia, that child will be black, but her concern more is, how is she going to celebrate that culture for her child? Because she really believes, as I do, that you really have to give the child a sense of where he or she came from. And there’s sort of this notion of pillaging a country she feels like she doesn’t have a connection to. But she’s not against Ethiopia because of the color of the people there.
“I will say, in open adoption, all these choices you make about race, about the amount of mental illness you can deal with, about special needs and physical maladies, you have to lay all this out there before you know anybody’s story. And as you know, when you know somebody’s story, when anything is personalized, it changes everything. Sitting around the room and having people pick boxes and knowing what they’re picking is really stunning to me.”
On determining the exposure kids had to drugs and alcohol through the birth mother
“You can only determine that from talking to [the birth mother] … all these medical forms you get are all self-reports. A lot of this is going on faith. You have to learn to trust people. Of course, that worked against me and my spouse in a lot of ways, as well as the person in the book, because we were scammed a lot. We were met with a lack of compassion that I still don’t completely understand. But you do have to have a certain amount of trust or this is never going to work.”
On selling herself to be appealing to the birth mother
“Of course, we thought, ‘These babies need homes. And we’re helping these babies have happy homes.’ That didn’t turn out to be the case. There are not as many babies as there are parents who want them. So you realize it is quite competitive. You join a pool of people, and it’s sort of a business out there now, a booming one. And there are more people who want babies than can be satisfied.
“So what happens is, whatever route you take, whether you write this profile, you put it online, whether you do it privately, you’re sort of saying, ‘This is who we are as a couple’ or ‘We have this big ranch house’ or ‘We love museums’ or ‘We love soccer, we love children, we have nieces and nephews, and here are pictures of us with children.’ My husband and I made a pact when we started this that we were never going to misrepresent ourselves or lie about who we were. We live in New York; we live in a fourth-floor walk-up, so the rest of the country is confused by that.”
On getting scammed by a birth mother who wasn’t actually pregnant
“I want to say that, in general, when it works, open adoption is great. Most birth mothers are doing the best thing they can do for their children, and it’s done out of love. I do want to say that. However, sometimes it can go terribly wrong. In our situation, we had many people lying to us. … [W]omen want emotional help, they want to talk to someone. They want power in a way that they don’t have power in their lives.
“So I have maybe 100 emails from this person who insisted that we meet her; and we meet her, and I couldn’t tell if she was pregnant. She didn’t want to talk about an adoption plan, was very uninterested in her ‘child’ and an adoption plan for that child. And then we got texts from her that made us realize that she wasn’t really pregnant at all. She was saying, ‘I’ve been to the doctor! I’ve been to the doctor! Do you want to know the sex?’ And she kept taunting us over and over again. It was really early in her ‘pregnancy,’ she was maybe four weeks pregnant. There were just signs. Even the agency was saying, ‘You have to get out of this. She’s not a real birth mother.’ “
On a baby they almost adopted who was born premature and with Down syndrome
“I only had one conversation with [the birth mother] literally two days before she went into labor, so we didn’t have a very long relationship. It was actually the day my sister had a baby. And she called, and I think I was vulnerable to a lot of things. So when she said she had a baby two months early, ‘Here’s the baby, come and get her,’ we literally packed our bags and got on a plane. We talked to some people and were encouraged to do so, and we were told, ‘You don’t really know how early the baby is. You don’t really know the due date.’ We were told, ‘Girls are strong. They’ll make it through.’
“When we got there, no one would tell us any information. I’ve since found out you can tell quite easily if a child has Down syndrome. But also the baby was, in fact, nine weeks early, and you know, I’m still haunted by this experience, that I didn’t go home with that child. I don’t see how I logistically would’ve been able to stay there for nine weeks. It had just become so crazy and large, and so not the path that we had begun on, and as I said, we didn’t know the birth family that well. It was a really difficult decision, I will say, and when we did make it, we knew that there was another family that would take this baby.”