Challenges of Single Adoptive Parenting

Guest post on adoption by E. Kay Trimberger

Posted Oct 24, 2013

[Bella’s intro: E. Kay Trimberger, author of the wonderful book, The New Single Woman, has contributed guest posts here several times before. One of the most popular was about single women in India. When she asked me a few days ago if I would be interested in a post about the challenges facing single people who want to adopt, I realized that in all of my years of blogging, I had never addressed that topic. So of course, I welcomed her contribution. What she has to say may be a bit controversial – see what you think. I’ll add a note of my own at the end.]

The Challenges of Single Adoptive Parenting: Guest Post by E. Kay Trimberger

Last week I happened to hear an NPR interview with writer Joyce Maynard about her decision at age 56 to adopt as a single parent two Ethiopian sisters age six and eleven who had lost their mother to AIDS. Only fourteen months later, she announced that the adoption had failed and that she had re-homed the girls to another family. The interview was short and not very informative, as was a blog post that Maynard wrote in April 2012 about her decision to terminate the adoption.

Maynard’s story led me to reflect on my own experience as a single adoptive mother for more than thirty years. It also seemed like a concrete example of recent exposures of the perils of international adoption and of parents using the web to find alternative homes for adoptive children they can’t handle.

Single people, like couples, have the right to parent, and many have proved themselves as effective models (e.g., the mothers of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton). But it is harder to parent without a partner, and one needs more outside support from extended family, a network of friends and a community. Adoption provides additional challenges as does trans-racial parenting. Maynard is a case study of someone whose individualistic perspective about parenting precluded such considerations.  In her blog letter, she says: “There was no experience in life I’d loved more than raising children. I had love enough for more, and a blind faith that love was sufficient to get us all through the challenges I knew would lie ahead.”

Maynard’s adoption story is an extreme case. She was in her fifties, divorced and single, and had three, grown biological children. Few people over age fifty are permitted to adopt through conventional channels.   She probably used a lot of money to bypass age restrictions.  This thought immediately brought to mind a recent NY Times Magazine article about corruption in international adoption, including the buying of children in Ethiopia.

At her age, Maynard was unlikely to have friends and associates with young children. She transported these two African girls from a life of poverty in Ethiopia to Marin County in California, the fifth richest county in the US in terms of income per capita, a county that in 2010 was 73% white and only 2.6% black. After deciding to abort the adoption she admitted that the girls needed “a big, wide net of a support system that I could not give them, myself.”

Maynard tells us that she found a large family to take in her two girls, a family that included two other Ethiopian adoptees. She tells us nothing about how she found this family, but  probably she found them on the web. In early September, Reuters News Service published a five-part series, “The Child Exchange: Inside America’s underground market for adopted children,” based on extensive research into practices of re-homing. Reuters found a number of websites where parents advertised children available for re-adoption. Such exchanges are accomplished with a notarized letter of guardianship for the new parents and with no involvement by social workers or other state or legal representatives. This process is illegal in only a few states. Reuters revealed numerous examples of child abuse by new parents who were unqualified, a few even being pedophiles with criminal records. Maynard’s disclosure that she has had no contact with her former daughters mirrors many situations in the Reuter’s report. How can she claim that the change was good for her daughters, when she has had no contact with them?

Most of the re-homing practices reported by Reuters involved couples, not single parents, but Maynard’s experience helps me articulate issues that single people should consider when contemplating adoption.

When, at age forty, I privately and domestically adopted a five-day-old mixed race baby boy, I was clear that as a single professional woman, I could not effectively parent a child with disabilities. I loved parenting my bright, attractive, extroverted and talented son within a supportive network of friends, most with children. I lived in Berkeley, near the Oakland border in an area with a large black and mixed race population, but transracial parenting still held challenges, especially since all my close friends were white. What I did not anticipate was that a genetic predisposition to addiction would appear when my son was a teenager, confirmed at age twenty-five when I helped him find his birth parents. I had a hard time recognizing what was happening, having had no contact with the birth families and no experience with addiction in my biological family. I did too little intervention when he was young enough that it might have made a difference.

More recent practices of open adoption, where varying levels of contact are maintained between birth and adoptive families, might have helped, although the three-thousand-mile-distance between our homes would have been a barrier to information and to creating an extended family. Without extensive contact and interaction between birth and adoptive families, adoption itself can be considered a disability. Adoptive parents are trying to raise a child often quite different from those with which they are familiar in their biological families, and adoptees are cut off from their biological and cultural roots.

My son and I both had some wonderful years before he reached age sixteen, but adoption has not provided the family bonds I craved.   My son and I are in contact, but we do not see each other much or function as a family. His drinking and drug use preclude even holiday celebrations together. He currently has no contact with my extended family or with the extended families of his birth parents. All these families welcome him, but addiction prevents him from maintaining a relationship with them.

My disappointment and pain, however, seem little different from that of biological parents whom I’ve met in Al-Anon, an organization which provides support for family and friends of alcoholics and addicts.  The fact that biological parents who come to these meetings almost always have addicted or alcoholic family members doesn’t’ make their relationship to their son’s or daughter’s addiction any easier.

I am not against adoption. Most adoptive parents have positive experiences. A recent large quantitative study of a representative sample of adoptive parents in the U.S. with children under eighteen found that 87% of adoptive parents would definitely make the same decision again. The study discovered, however, that a majority felt troubled about adoptive parenting, which was harder than they expected.

Based on Maynard’s story and my experience, I recommend that a single person contemplating adoption look carefully at their motivation and at the resources for support that they could bring to single parenting. Recognize that raising an adopted child is not the same as parenting a biological one. Try to separate your real feelings about parenting from negative external stereotyping of a single, childless person. Consider alternative ways to have children in your life.  In research for my book, The New Single Woman, I found that one of the six criteria for living a satisfying, long-term single life was a connection to the next generation. Such a connection does not depend on raising a child. I include many examples of single women without children who created rewarding relationships with children and young adults.

One needs a community and friendship network to adopt successfully as a single parent, but such support also forms the basis for a happy single life without parenting.   As a society, we need to reevaluate family as only one among alternative ways to live a good life.

[Bella’s note:Thanks, Kay, for this. I’d just add that I think anyone considering parenting – whether single or married, whether looking to adopt or to parent biological children – could benefit from looking carefully at their motivation and resources.]

About the Author: Sociologist E. Kay Trimberger is writing a memoir tentatively titled Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother’s Story of Nurture and Nature. She can be reached at