One+one makes a family

Growing numbers of single American women are adopting children in the US and abroad.

Jeanne Becker always assumed she would have a satisfying career and a family.

But while her career in marketing and public relations progressed steadily, marriage proved elusive. A long-term relationship ended when she was in her late 30s, forcing her to confront a hard question: What should she do about starting a family?

"I gave it about a year's worth of thought," says Ms. Becker, president of Becker Consulting Services in Coral Gables, Fla. She decided to adopt, beginning an odyssey that would take her far from home. It also put her in league with a growing number of unmarried women who face complex decisions about adopting children alone - decisions that involve everything from finances to child care to cultural differences.

Last year, nearly a third of adoptive parents in the United States were single women, according to the Children's Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

As these women - a majority in their 30s and 40s, educated and financially secure - reach out to children in the US and abroad, they are forging new territory in the changing landscape of the American family. Many find their divergent path to motherhood deeply rewarding. Yet "arduous" is also a word that comes up in conversations as they describe the adoption process and solo child- rearing.

"Expensive" is another word they use. Costs for international adoption can range from $12,000 to $30,000, averaging between $15,000 and $25,000. A domestic adoption averages $16,000, although expenses can vary widely. A federal tax credit that took effect last year offsets $10,000 in costs for both domestic and international adoptions.

Like many single women, Ms. Becker first hoped to adopt a baby in the US. But after learning that birth mothers favor married couples, she researched China and Russia, the top two countries for overseas adoption. She chose Russia, her father's ancestral homeland, and worked with an agency in New York. Mountains of paperwork were followed by hours with a social worker who conducted a home study.

After the agency approved Becker, she received a "referral," a videotape of a 9-month-old Russian boy. She showed it to several physicians, as well as a speech therapist and a physical therapist. "Everybody gave thumbs up," she says. A Western-trained doctor in Moscow also examined the infant. The exam revealed some minor problems, but nothing major.

Becker made two trips to Russia. The first time she traveled alone to appear in court and to meet the son she would name Ethan.

The second time a friend went with her to bring the 14-month-old child home. Smiling in approval, a Russian judge told her, "Life begins at 40." The whole process took 13 months, a fairly typical time frame.

Another adoptive mother, Darsie Bowden of Skokie, Ill., traveled to China six years ago to adopt an 11-month-old girl, whom she named Elizabeth. As a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Ms. Bowden needed to find a country that did not require a lengthy stay to pick up a child. "China was very straightforward, and the kids tended to be pretty healthy," she says.

Since then, China has imposed a quota on single women, limiting them to 8 percent of adoptions. Many countries allow only married couples to adopt.

Initially, Bowden shared a nanny with another family. Elizabeth also spent time at a family day-care home. In those early months, Bowden recalls, she was "tired all the time." She also had to adjust her social network. "Some friends are more accommodating than others when you abandon them for a period."

Although she gradually reestablished the network, the process was hard.

She and other single parents emphasize the importance of lining up outside support and including men - grandfathers, uncles, friends - in their children's lives. When Bowden must work in the evening, a friend who is Elizabeth's godfather picks her up. "He adores her and so does his wife. It's a male role that's important for her."

Adoption specialists also encourage parents to establish cultural links with their children's native country. Five of the six families who traveled to China with Bowden live in the Chicago area. They get together often to enjoy Chinese-oriented activities with their daughters. This includes celebrating Chinese New Year and "Gotcha Day," the day they picked up their infants.

When Linda Hill of Pocatello, Idaho, began considering adoption in the mid-1980s, she focused on South American countries that accepted single women. Working with an agency in Texas, she chose Peru. She spent a month there, adopting a 2-month-old daughter in February 1988. But the baby became ill and died a year later.

Ms. Hill, director of admissions counseling at Idaho State University, started over. In May 1990, after three months in Peru, she adopted a 6-month-old girl, named Rosa by her birth father.

"As much as we're emotionally prepared to be a parent, you can never totally comprehend the impact [children are] going to have on your life," Hill says.

Noting that the first adoption cost $15,000, she adds, "I knew I would be in debt for a good part of my life, but I knew why I would be in debt."

For some single women, adoption creates a mixed-race family. Eliana, a professional woman in the San Francisco Bay area who does not want her last name used, adopted a daughter from Haiti in December 2000.

As an older, single white mother with a dark-skinned child, Eliana has become keenly aware of the complexities of transracial adoption. Such matches, she says, "require a lot more thinking, planning, and reflection than would otherwise be the case."

Betsy Burch, executive director of Single Parents for Adoption of Children Everywhere (SPACE) in Boston and the adoptive mother of four black children, now grown, finds a lot of support for adopting transracially. But, she adds, "I don't encourage people to do that who are not certain about it."

Among black women, adoptions tend to be within the US. At the Black Adoption Placement and Research Center in Oakland, Calif., which handles only domestic adoptions, 40 percent of placements are to single black women. Most are professionals between the ages of 30 and 50. Although some of them request babies, executive director Gloria King finds that many are open to adopting 3- to 5-year-olds. Most of the children have special needs.

Other unexpected challenges can come in adopting older children. Agencies caution that the older a child, the longer the adjustment can be. Children who have spent years in orphanages can exhibit what experts call "institutional behavior." Because they have never lived in a family, they do not know what a family structure is.

Although acceptance of solo adoption is growing, many women still face criticism. "There are always objections to single adoptions on ... grounds that children should have two parents of opposite genders," says Hope Marindin, retired director of the National Council for Single Adoptive Parents in Washington. "Ideally, that is the best thing."

But when that is not possible, relatives and friends often show heartwarming support. Julie Asfahl, a marketing consultant with IBM in Boston who is adopting a baby girl from Kazakhstan, describes her family as "thrilled."

Among dozens of people Ms. Asfahl has told, only one or two have questioned it. "People say, 'It's going to change your life for the next 20 years.' I say, 'Not 20 years, for the rest of my life. Good! I've lived my whole life for myself.' "

In both domestic and international adoptions, specialists caution that prospective parents should be clear about what they can accept in terms of a child's race, disabilities, and medically correctable conditions. Says Krissi Bates of, "You have to be really honest with yourself about what is OK and what is not OK."

For Elli Holman of Holliston, Mass., single motherhood began with an in-vitro pregnancy and the birth of a daughter, Jessica, now 5. Two years ago, when she was over 40, she adopted a 7-month-old girl from Romania.

Outsiders have been more accepting of Ms. Holman's adoption than they were of her pregnancy. "People are just shocked when you say you're going to go out and have your own baby, as opposed to adopting, which seems to be more natural," she says.

Joan Nicholson of Ojai, Calif., traveled to India in the fall of 2000 to adopt a daughter, Sarita, now 11. Although she had thought about adoption since high school, she says she "couldn't orchestrate it" until decades later. Now, she adds with a laugh, "I'm an exhausted 65."

"It's been glorious to have a child in my life, to see her grow and develop," Ms. Nicholson continues. She describes her daughter as "enormously bright, a natural dancer, a natural comedian, and a budding basketball star." But she is also "very intense."

Speaking of the adoption, Nicholson says, "Two-thirds of it has been joyful. One-third of it has been very arduous."

Joyful and arduous go with the territory of all child-rearing, of course, and these adoptive mothers are quick to emphasize the joys.

"I'd do it again in a second," Bowden says.

Becker agrees. Referring to Ethan, who is now 6, she says, "So many lives are enriched as a result of him coming. I really think he's given me more than I have ever given him. It's not a one-way thing. He's a very special child."

For any single woman considering adoption, Melissa Ludtke, author of "On Our Own," suggests a "reality check." She says: "I'd ask [the prospective mother] about community supports and family supports. Has she ever gone out and priced quality day care, whatever she can afford? Also look into after-school care."

Holman, the mother of two, offers this advice: "Really make sure you can handle it both from a financial and an emotional aspect before you start. You have to be sure you have your backups, and you have to be able to do it yourself. It's the most rewarding thing you'll ever do, but it's also almost the hardest thing you'll ever do."

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