“Will they even let you adopt? I mean you’re no longer married.” I was a little taken aback by the question my mother posed. It was 2013 after all, it’s not like we were back in the 50’s when women needed their husband’s permission for lots of things we now take for granted such as opening a bank account. Admittedly, I chuckled in a slightly derisive way and my quickfire response of, “of course Ma, times have changed” was both right and wrong.
Raised in a large family of nine, my mom was the sixth of seven children, having only one child had not been in her plans—neither had divorce. She and Daddy separated when I was only two years old. Her dreams for additional children died with their marriage. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had attempted to become a foster mother in the 70s when I was a child. Back then, however, single women were not welcome.
I’d always planned to adopt. I honestly cannot recall a time in my life when I didn’t see adoption in my future. But life doesn’t always unfold as planned. By July 2013, I was a successful non-profit leader and a divorced single mother to a wonderful 8-year-old boy. I was still smarting from a breakup and grieving the loss of my father who’d succumbed to pancreatic cancer just six months earlier. Adoption was not on my radar, at least not for me personally.
My best friend, however, was in the advanced stages of completing the adoption of her son from Haiti. Diagnosed with infertility several years earlier, she was single when she decided that motherhood was such an important aspect of her life that she was unwilling to forgo it due to the absence of a partner. She’d bravely embarked upon this journey armed with years of experience as an elementary school teacher, insight into child development, and a keen awareness of racial inequities and the challenges she’d face as a White woman adopting a Black child. A highly engaged aunt to nine nieces and nephews, she’d read what seemed like every book on bonding, early childhood trauma, and interracial and international adoption. In short, she was as prepared as she could be.
When my friend asked me to join her on the bonding trip to meet her son, “yes” was the only possible answer. I was there to support her and chronicle their first days together. It was during this trip that I met an extraordinary little girl who would eventually become my daughter. The details are a story for another day, it wasn’t love at first sight or anything out of the fairy tales. Actually, I left the orphanage thinking I’d never see her again despite the connection I felt to her. I kissed her forehead and prayed that she’d be blessed with a forever family. I prayed that she’d grow into an independent woman. I cried . . . and bid her farewell.
Three years later, after much heartache, bureaucracy, and a seemingly interminable wait, that beautiful little girl joined my son and me to form We Three—my name for our trio. This month marks our fifth anniversary as a family. As I reflect upon lessons learned and advice for people choosing to go it alone as single parents, I share the following in an effort to offer hope and insight. Single parenthood is every bit as challenging as you think it will be, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.
If you’re considering adopting as a single parent here are a few things to consider:
1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Prepare for your child coming home. I’m not talking about painting walls and buying cute furniture or picking out clothes and toys—although you should do that to your heart’s content. I mean, prepare. Prepare for meeting your child’s needs. Take the courses offered by your agency; do the webinars; read the books; and learn all you can about child behavior, attachment, and the near, medium, and long-term impacts of trauma—even if you’re already a parent! If you’re adopting a child from a culture, race, or language different from yours, learn all you can about your child’s origins as possible. And make a plan for keeping him or her connected to his or her culture. This will be one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.
I’d been a biological mother for 11 years and a stepmother for 15 years when my daughter came home. Yet, I still had so much more to learn about parenting and, particularly, attachment. While I’d raised neurotypical children who’d faced the emotional turmoil and loss of divorce, none of them had spent four years in an orphanage in a third world country. None of them lost their native tongue, nor will they ever experience the psychological impact of never knowing their actual birthdate or birth parent. Mothering my daughter required a presence and mindfulness that was on another level. And it wasn’t her disability—she was born without eyes—it was her psychosocial emotional needs that made me level up.
One of the best things I did was participate in a two-day Empowered to Connect workshop for adoptive parents. Rooted in the teachings and research of Dr. Karyn Purvis of Karyn Purvis TCU Institute of Child Development, the sessions explored the themes of connectedness, dysregulation, trust-based relational intervention, and loving your child through the most challenging behaviors. Ostensibly, I participated to better prepare myself for my sweet girl’s arrival and transition, but I wound up learning more about myself and my parenting style. The lessons were invaluable.
Admittedly, not every course I took was great, but every course offered something of note that edified me. I also did my own research, read articles, and watched videos. I spoke to friends who had adopted and friends who were adopted. I asked what they wish they’d done differently; what they wished they’d known. They gave me great insight.
And, I had the benefit of supporting my best friend as she walked this path as a solo parent. With nearly two years of close observation and being tagged in when she needed a break, I witnessed the trauma first-hand when my friend’s son struggled with nighttime fears, inability to sleep, or overeating.
The social worker at our agency said “you’re so prepared.” And yet, there were many thing that threw me for a loop. Many moments that I feared might break me and more tears shed (hers and mine) than I care to recount.
For me, the biggest surprise was the depth of trauma that stems from not having had a mother in early childhood) and how it manifests in the most painful, unimaginable, and unforeseen ways— pain that I, alone, will never be able to heal for her. It breaks my heart … and yet I know I’m her rock, her home base, her terra firma. That’s the unspoken stuff of adoption. And despite classes and workshops and discussions and webinars—the reality is altogether something that a course can never fully prepare you for. But prepare anyway, it’s worth it. And there will be plenty of situations that you deftly handle because of it.
2. Create A Village
The oft-touted African adage “it takes a village to raise a child” may sound trite, but it is true in its purest sense. The saying at its essence means that no one person can be all things to anyone. It takes many different people to contribute to our personalities and shape our beliefs. Moreover, it takes many people to support parents.
As a single parent, everything falls on you—decision-making, tasks, childcare arrangements, groceries, cooking, laundry, cleaning—it’s all your job to get it done. Raising a child, particularly one with a rough start in life, requires an incredible amount of emotional energy and intentionality. In order to pour into another, you must ensure that your own well is flush. When you’re the sole caregiver it’s imperative to have a trustworthy crew you can rely on, whether they be friends or family, you will need support, you will need a listening ear, and you will need a break!
Conventional wisdom says that in the early days, parents should limit the child’s exposure to others so that the adoptee comes to trust the certainty and permanence of its caregivers. Being with anyone around the clock for weeks on end can be taxing, but imagine that that person needs everything from you and you alone. For your own sanity and well-being, as well as that of your child, you must have a trusted group of people who can step in when you need a break, be your counterbalance, and allow you to lean back and just be.
Deliberately establish a small circle of trusted go-tos who can be your back up babysitters, surrogate aunties and uncles, or simply have your back when the going gets tough—because it will. Whether you need a sounding board or companionship, affirmation or grace, a strong reliable village that cheers you on, pushes you, or offers you a judgment-free safe space to vent can be one of your greatest assets.
3. Money, Money, Money
There are many routes to adoption; each has its own costs. The process can be expensive, but it does not have to be cost prohibitive. Consider consulting a financial advisor at a minimum and ideally a tax accountant as well. These professionals can assist in mapping out a strategy to not only cover the cost of adoption, but also ensure that you’re carefully considering savings, health care costs, education, caregiving, and tax credits. Be sure to check for any employer benefits including parental leave and/or adoption fee contributions.
Legal fees are another consideration for some. In the case of international adoptions, re-adoption in the U.S. is strongly encouraged; costs vary by state and this can be accomplished with or without an attorney. Also, international adoptions may take several years which spreads the costs over time which can not only lessen the impact but also provide more time in which to save.
Adoption agency fees vary also, some can be quite expensive, while others are more moderate. Be sure to get a clear fee schedule and ensure there are no hidden costs on the back end. Adopting on a single income does not require extraordinary wealth, just patience, planning and foresight.
4. You Can Do This
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a resource portal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of single parent adoption is on the rise and represents nearly one quarter of all adoptions. This amounts to less than 20,000 people annually. The bottom line is, you are not alone.
Single parent adoption is infinitely harder than you think and you can still do it. Know that other people’s experiences will be illustrative, not fully demonstrative of what will or will not occur with you and your child. Be open to hearing the challenges and successes of others and glean whatever nuggets you can. But remember your child’s adjustment will be unique to him or her. You cannot overprepare for receiving and transitioning your child into your home and life. With sound financial planning and a strong support system you and your kiddo will be just fine. You got this!
Karin Norington-Reaves is an award-winning CEO of the nation’s largest workforce development system (chicookworks.org) where she connects people to careers and businesses to talent pipelines. A former lawyer, elementary school bilingual teacher, and adjunct law professor, of all her roles Karin considers “Mama” her most noteworthy title. She is a divorced single mom with a blended family of biological, step- and adopted children— her parenting journey represents her life’s greatest and most heartbreaking rewards, lessons, and challenges. She and her “crew” are based in Chicago.