Wed May 22, 2013
Fictional 'Mothers' Reveal Facts Of A Painful Adoption Process
Originally published on Wed May 22, 2013 2:38 pm
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In their attempts to adopt a child, the most horrible and unbelievable things kept happening to my guest Jennifer Gilmore and her husband, including being scammed by a woman who claimed to be pregnant. She and her husband decided to adopt after years of trying to conceive, including five series of in-vitro treatments. They decided on domestic, open adoption because international adoption seemed volatile and several countries were closing to Americans. And they approved of the ideals of open adoption.
When they started the process, they were told they'd be matched with a baby within a year. It took four years. Along the way, they faced complicated decisions and heartbreak. Gilmore has written about her adoption experiences in several magazines, including The Atlantic. Now she has a new novel about a couple trying to adopt called "The Mothers." The main characters, Jessie and her husband Ramon, face some of the same challenges Gilmore and her husband faced.
Jennifer Gilmore, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a brief reading from your novel "The Mothers," and you're welcome to set this up in any way.
JENNIFER GILMORE: Ramon and Jessie have started on the road to their open adoption. They've started their training session, and this is sort of the rationale of why they chose domestic adoption.
(Reading) In the end, Ramon and I decided on domestic adoption because we didn't meet the criteria of many countries due to my illness, but mostly it was because we desired an infant. I put out of my mind the notion that a mother could come back to take the child away and what that could feel like, because we were told that once there was a match with the birth mother, we could be in the delivery room holding her hand.
(Reading) The birth mother, we were told, would be like family. This became the fairytale narrative we lived by, there from almost the beginning of our once upon a time. I imagined as we headed to this agency down south, away from New York and its difficult laws that few agencies were licensed in, that we would name our baby Grace, like a lot of the adopted girls I knew, Grace as in divine, as in God's grace because of all we had to do to find her, the child that was ours from the ancient beginnings of time but that we had tried and tested and trained to find.
(Reading) The birth mothers, we were told, are real. They have what we want, not the stitched pink stripe, the ticking black spot, not the hand-forced specimen swimming free in a sterile cup but flesh and blood and bones, a thread sutured to life. I thought about Grace now on this highway. Ramon and I were relieved when we decided on adoption, and now we felt relieved that finally this process could make sense to us. There would be logic to this Grace.
GROSS: And that's Jennifer Gilmore reading from her new novel, "The Mothers." Jennifer, your novel is pretty autobiographical, about your own experiences with your husband adopting a baby. You were interviewed in Paris Review, and you told the Paris Review that you wrote a novel because you wanted to make your life interesting to yourself as opposed to wanting to blow your head off. And I'm wondering: How does writing an autobiographical novel make your life more interesting to yourself?
GILMORE: That's funny. Well, I'm a fiction writer, so - I'm a novelist. So for me fiction is really the best way to tell a deeply personal story. But it made - while my husband and I were going through all this, all these issues started coming up, ideas about race and class and what motherhood was for us and what it was in America. And I thought this would be great for a novel.
I'm sure that I could have 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.
GROSS: Why did you and your husband decide to adopt?
GILMORE: Well, I'd been through several IVF treatment, many, many - too many to count, or - I think about five. And we decided we didn't want to do this anymore; we were financially strapped. And we decided let's adopt. Of course when we decided let's adopt, we expected a child to sort of fall out of the sky, which was not the case at all.
And we decided on open adoption because we would have a child from infancy, and from all the reading I did, open adoption is the best thing for the child. All parties involved - the birth mothers, sometimes the birth fathers, the adoptive parents and the child eventually - they all know each other to varying degrees.
So a closed adoption, you know, everything is closed until the child is 18 and can decide if he or she wants to find out who his birth parents are. In open adoption, there isn't this fantasy about who their birth parents were, but there's also more transparency in regards to medical records, and the birth parents get to talk to you and choose you, and you at the same time get to in certain instances choose them, choose what, you know, the baby that they're carrying and choose also them because you connect well with them.
So there's a lot of choice, and there's also a lot of transparency in open adoption, which makes it really attractive. Also, you can have a child from infancy, which is really attractive to a lot of people who believe that if you have the child from day one, it's a lot more beneficial than getting a child who's six months or a year or two.
GROSS: When you were deciding to adopt, it was actually a transitional time in international adoption. There were countries that were no longer options to you. In your novel, your main character considers Ethiopia and says the orphanages there are said to be good, with loving care. The main character is warned, OK, but that means your baby's going to be black, and that could pose problems.
You had to go through that process of choosing, like, before you decided on domestic adoption, you know, what race, what ethnicity you were interested in adopting. How awkward is that to decide on, like, what race you want your baby to be?
GILMORE: I mean, honestly, it was incredibly shocking to me. With domestic adoption, you get a form, and you fill it out, and there are these boxes, you know, African-American, African-American and Hispanic, 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, by all means you should not be parenting an African-American child.
In regards to Ethiopia, I mean of course Jessie, the protagonist, knows that if she adopts a child from Ethiopia, that child will be black. But her concern more is how does she - how is she going to celebrate that culture for her child because she really believes, as, you know, as I do you have to give a child the sense of where he or she came from.
And there is sort of this notion of pillaging a country that she feels like she doesn't have a connection to. But she's not against Ethiopia because of the color of the people there. But 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. And sitting around a room and having people pick boxes and knowing what they're picking is really stunning to me.
GROSS: Did the boxes that you checked change over time? Did you fill out forms again and change your mind about certain criteria you had specified the first time around?
GILMORE: You know, they tell you, you know, agencies and lawyers, they tell you be as open as you possibly can because that will quicken your wait. And in regards to race we were always very open to all races. My spouse is a native Spanish speaker, and all of these - you know, so Hispanic children made sense. I mean, we, we were very comfortable with race.
But other people we saw them open up a lot over time. And I think we opened up to drug use. If you say I don't want any drug use, that means somebody who in the first trimester, you know, if they had a beer or two, you're not going to see them. I mean, I'm not sure that that's always the case, you're just going to have a beer or two, but we became - you know, we did a lot of research on certain drugs and we became much more open to that as a concept.
GROSS: So can you determine the difference between the woman who's had a couple of beers and the woman who is an alcoholic or is, you know, using heroin? Like how...?
GILMORE: You can only determine that from talking to her and hoping that you - you know, all of these medical forms you get, they're all self-reports. And you have to - you know, a lot of this is going on faith. So 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 we still don't completely understand.
But, you know, you do have to have a certain amount of trust or this is never going to work.
GROSS: One of the things you have to do when you're doing open adoption, the way I understand it from your novel, is basically like sell yourselves to the birth mothers who are looking for adoptive parents for their children. So did you think of it that way, that you were trying to, like, present yourself and your husband in the best light possible so that you would seem very appealing to a birth mother?
GILMORE: We didn't think that at all at first. Of course we thought there are more babies - I mean these babies need homes, and we're helping babies, you know, 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. And 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 you - whatever route you take, whether you write this profile and you put it online, or whether you do it privately, you're sort of saying this is who we are as a couple.
You know, we have this big ranch house or, you know, we love museums, or we love soccer, and you're sort of presenting yourself. We love children. We have nieces and nephews, and here we are - here's pictures of us with children. And, you know, 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.
But we live in New York, you know, we live in a fourth-floor walkup. So the rest of the country is confused by that. And, you know, so it was interesting. I will say I overheard something that struck me. It was two men who were - sometimes birth mothers choose two people, you know, to get their profiles, and they talk to two people, and then they choose one or the other. So that's very painful for the people who didn't get chosen.
So this couple had said - I overheard them talking to each other, and they said: Do you think we should have added the skiing? Do you think that would have helped? Do you - you know, and that was so heartbreaking to me because really, how do people make a choice? One woman told me, an adoptive parent, that her birth mother chose her because she cut her Christmas tree down from the backyard just like she did, and it reminded her of family.
You don't know, I mean as with all of us, what's going to connect you to someone.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Gilmore. Her new novel, "The Mothers," is based on the experiences she and her husband had when they were adopting their child. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: You mentioned earlier that once you were out there in the open adoption process, you were scammed several times. I want to talk a little bit about some of those scams. And you say the most horrible things kept happening to you. You met at least one birth mother who was a fraud, who wasn't even really pregnant. Would you tell us that story?
GILMORE: Sure. That - you know, you can't really call that person a birth mother because she wasn't pregnant. I want to say, in general, when it works, open adoption is great and that most birth mothers are doing the best thing they can for their children, and it's done out of love. I just do want to say that.
However, sometimes it can go terribly wrong. In our situation, you know, we had many people lying to us, and I don't know - for a while we were out there on the Web, and we stopped that because, you know, there isn't - I have a big digital footprint because of my - I'm a writer, and we had to put our first and last names out there. I mean, it was crazy.
So you can get scammed in two different ways. You can get scammed if someone wants money, and they tell you I'm pregnant, and, you know, here's the confirmation of pregnancy, here's this doctored ultrasound, and can you start giving me money? And that goes through the agency, but there's no way that we can necessarily say that this is not true.
So in other ways women 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 spent - I don't know, I have maybe 100 emails to and from this person, who I went - who insisted on we meet her, and I went to meet her, and I couldn't tell if she was pregnant, but she didn't want to know about - didn't want to talk about an adoption plan, was very uninterested in her, quote-unquote, child and an adoption plan for that child.
And then we got texts from her that made us realize that she really wasn't pregnant at all, and...
GROSS: How could you figure that out from texts?
GILMORE: Well, she was saying I've been to the doctor, I've been to the doctor, do you want to know the sex - you know, she was - and then she kept taunting us over and over again. And it was really early in her, quote-unquote, pregnancy. She was maybe four weeks pregnant. So there were just signs. I mean even the agency was saying you have to get out of this, she's not a, quote-unquote, real birth mother.
So we at first, you know, it was more me, but I was just - I believed everything. I just wanted to believe everything. And I'm very naive in that way. I still believe what people tell me. But, you know, these things starting piling up, like they are for the protagonist in my book. And so - and then also she and I and my husband and I were picked over. We didn't satisfy what some birth mothers wanted.
GROSS: One mother who had accepted you was on methadone for migraines, and you write you've had migraines, you were never prescribed methadone, you were kind of skeptical about methadone as a migraine medication. How did you decide to go forward with this?
GILMORE: You know, we did a certain amount of research. We talked to a pediatrician. Methadone isn't the worst thing that you can do - that a birth mother can do or anyone can do to a fetus. So we went forward because we were advised to do so because again we - we just kept opening up our ideas. If this had happened to us at the beginning, we probably wouldn't have.
And we knew so many - we have a pretty big adoption community here in New York, and we did know people who had had that experience, and it had worked out fine. So this person seemed kind of wonderful and probably was wonderful and very, you know, articulate. And again, once you hear a person's story, you know, it changes your idea of what hypothetically it could be.
You know, in the book the protagonist talks about: this baby was just a transparent, glass baby. We had no idea who it would be. So all of a sudden it becomes less hypothetical. That she was lying, or I thought she might have been lying, was a concern. And like I said, you just put these things aside.
GROSS: So, you know, you accepted her and accepted, you know, that you would adopt her baby. But the baby was born, what, two months premature, and it had Down syndrome.
GILMORE: Well, yes, and I will say I had only had one conversation with her, 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 that she called, and I think I was very 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. So we literally packed our bags and got on a plane. We did talk to some people, and we were encouraged to do so. We were told you don't really know how early the baby is, you don't really know, you know, the due date. We were told girls are strong, they'll make it through.
And so when we got there, no one would tell us any information. We were - you know, I've since found 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, about not going home with that child. I don't see how logistically I would have been able to stay there for nine weeks.
It just had become so crazy and large and so not the path we had begun on, and as I said, I didn't know this family, the birth family, that well. And it was a very difficult decision to make, I will say. But when we did make it, we knew that there was another family that would take this baby.
GROSS: Well, you had actually checked that that was one of the things you didn't want.
GILMORE: Precisely, yeah.
GROSS: That was one of the things you said no to. But you still had to ask yourself, when presented with the reality of a living baby who had Down syndrome, would you change your mind, would you accept this particular baby.
GILMORE: Yeah, I mean I held that baby, and yeah, I mean, it became a decision. It wasn't like, OK, we're out of here. I mean it was a real decision.
GROSS: So I don't mean to put you on the spot, but can you talk a little bit about what it was like to have held the baby, to have been there so early in this baby's premature life and then say no thank you?
GILMORE: It was gut-wrenching, and the nurse said, do you want to hold the baby? And I was not going to say no because I did want to hold the baby. I mean, the baby needed to be held. And it was - when we left the hospital room - the baby was on the NICU; I mean we had to disinfect ourselves and all of that. And when we left, you know, I had left my cellphone number as a contact.
You know, it wasn't clear to us what we were going to do, but then when we left, we didn't say anything to each other, and we just kind of both knew. The worst thing was having to call the birth mother and say that we weren't able to do this. Yeah, it was terrible. I...
GROSS: Who made the call, you or your husband?
GILMORE: I made the call. You know, with open adoption, it's interesting. You know, I am not a 1950s housewife in any way, but this - the conversations with the birth mother generally falls to the women.
GROSS: Jennifer Gilmore will be back in the second half of the show. Her new novel is called "The Mothers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: There's one more story I'm going to ask you to tell, and this is another, this is a - this is a terrible story. You adopted a baby, took the baby home with you and you couldn't keep it. What happened?
GILMORE: We did have a relationship with a birth mother in Pennsylvania - this is not in the book - and we went down to visit her many times, we met the child that she - her biological child that she was parenting, we met her boyfriend. And we were told the baby could either be the boyfriend's baby or this Mexican guy she had an affair with - a brief affair. So when the baby was born he was, in fact, Hispanic and our hearts soared because we thought, oh great, it's not the Caucasian boyfriend; they're not going to want to keep the baby. And I will add, they were in no condition to be parenting a baby at that point, financially, emotionally, all of it. And because of interstate laws, you have to stay in the state where the baby is born different amounts of times depending, while the paperwork is filed. If you cross state lines, you're kidnapping the child.
So we stayed in Pennsylvania and we were there a week and a half, two weeks and got a call. My husband got a call from the birth father because he only spoke Spanish - and as I said, my husband is a native Spanish speaker - and he in fact, been in the next town supporting the birth mother and wanted his baby. And he had every right to his baby. So that, you know, and so we had to give the baby back and that was pretty terrible. We did a DNA test just to make sure and then found out much later when the birth mother texted my husband several months later, that we were in fact cast in this role so that she could get away from her abusive boyfriend and go back to the man she loved.
GROSS: Which is the Mexican father?
GILMORE: And she wanted to keep the - yeah. She wanted to keep the baby safe. And she was part Native American. And as you might know, it's called ICWA, the Indian Child Welfare Act. There's a huge case being tried in the Supreme Court now. ICWA is the only federal law in regards to domestic adoption. But it means, if you're Native American and registered with a tribe, you have different laws apply to you; you have different amounts of time that you can choose and relinquish and so on. So she knew she had a certain amount of time - 30 days, in fact - to make this decision. She wanted to keep the baby safe.
It was terrible. We had named the baby. I mean yeah, there's no getting around it; that was really pretty awful. Yeah. I mean it sounds - like we've had a very unusually tragic adoption story. But part of why I...
GROSS: I'll say. Yeah.
GILMORE: (Laughing) ...part of why I wrote this book. But I was noticing, when I talk to my friends and distant relatives who had adopted, they had one horrible, horrible story. And then they had the good story, which is the arrival of their child, so the bad story somehow faded for them. And I wanted to capture this moment, you know, not to just write a, you know, a depressing book because it's not depressing. I mean it's actually quite funny. But to mark that process and to mark the narratives that weren't being told about this - because it's very painful for people and it was really painful for us. I mean I - that was a lot to get over. I'm not sure that I totally got over that.
GROSS: What did you say to the woman who was using you to protect the baby while she ran back with her other boyfriend? Did you express your anger? Did you express how - it might have protected the baby; it was a very cruel way to treat you and your husband?
GILMORE: You know, you never really get that chance. I mean I can express anger very well. (Laughing) And, you know, as she was talking to us we kept trying to parse out everything, we weren't understanding what was happening. And then by the time it had happened, we weren't talking to her anymore. So you're left with all this - in addition to the insane amount of grief, you're left with a lot of anger and nowhere to put it. I mean I will say that this, like the book, for my husband and myself, I mean it puts an undue amount of strain on a marriage. And so in the book I try to examine, you know, what that does to a relationship. But yeah, a lot of these adoption stories for everyone, they don't have proper endings. It's, you know, for a novelist who wants a beginning, a middle and an end, these narratives they just, you don't know what happens. The actual fact of this is, the last we knew about it, this baby was in fact in foster care. They never did get the baby. So they didn't hire the proper lawyers and, you know, I don't know where that stands now. You know, I sort of can't follow that story anymore, as horrible as that sounds. So...
GROSS: Do you want to scare people away from going the open adoption route? Because the stories that you've told are really depressing and upsetting.
GILMORE: You know, I don't want to scare people away. We actually ended up with a happy ending. And I just want - and I'm not trying - as I said, when open adoption works it's great. I think it's wrong to think that not all the parties aren't approaching this with a certain amount of grief. And 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 that protect these prospective adoptive parents, some of whom lose so much money, some of whom lose so much of their reserves of, you know, or their emotional reserves. And a birth mother is totally entitled to change her mind. Anyone who thinks otherwise, I mean I think is ethically crazy. But when there's lying, cheating, stealing, it changes the narrative. And so I guess I don't want to scare people away at all, but I want people to be aware of how, you know, dangerous it is for you, and that it's not just you sit around, you wait and then you get this beautiful baby.
GROSS: You point out in your novel that one of the things that changed the adoption process was Roe v. Wade because when abortion was legalized there were fewer babies available for adoption. I'm wondering if your really long process of becoming an adoptive mother affected your opinion at all about abortion.
GILMORE: Absolutely not. It didn't affect my feeling or my politics in any way. However, my husband did say to me at one - when I went to a Planned Parenthood rally recently, he was like, you know, we probably should be not campaigning for this. (Laughing) But it was a joke and I staunchly believe in Roe v. Wade and all of its resonances.
GROSS: You got your baby after several years. How did you get your baby?
GILMORE: We got our baby in Colorado and, you know, it was just as dramatic as everything else was, but then we brought him home and we have him and he won't be taken away and that's kind of wonderful. And it's true that the past starts to fade. And in that way I'm glad I've written this book because I read parts of it, I don't even remember writing it. It was written in such a white heat.
GROSS: So how did this baby come to be your baby?
GILMORE: We were matched with the birth parents and they saw our profile - not online. We weren't doing online anymore. And we talked to them via Skype and then they wanted to meet us so we went out to Colorado. It was an interesting situation because the birth father was very involved. This, of course, was attractive to us because then the birth father couldn't come out of nowhere. Often that's what happens and the birth father has rights, as he should. So that was really kind of a wonderful thing. We went out there. We met them. They're young. And we developed a, you know, a relationship with them. You don't know the degree in which you will have that relationship, how long it will last, but we're thinking about the baby and we want him to have a sense of who he is, where he comes from so he doesn't have this sort of fantasy, or he doesn't have, at 18, to choose: do I want to find my birth parents or do I not? Because that seems like a crazy - a very hard decision to make.
GROSS: Do you have any contact now with the birth parents?
GILMORE: Yeah. A little bit. We saw them a couple of weeks ago, which was very soon. You know, our baby was born in January. We set up a Facebook page so they can see pictures when they want as opposed to, you know, emailing them. When they're ready, you know, when they're able to look at them, they're there for them. You know, as I said, they have a lot of grief, so you want to do what you can to make everyone as happy as possible in this situation.
GROSS: Do they know that their baby contributed to the happy ending of your new novel?
GILMORE: Don't tell the ending of my new novel.
GILMORE: No. In fact, the baby was just born in January. This novel ended...
GILMORE: ...a long time ago.
GILMORE: So it was all I could do to make an ambiguously happy ending when I was not, in fact, in a happy ending. And that's an interesting thing, writing, you know, something parallel to your life and then having to figure out how it ends when your story hasn't ended. But it really is a lot different than my actual story.
GROSS: Right. So your baby is just a few months old.
GILMORE: Yeah. He is.
GROSS: How is motherhood comparing to what you thought it would be? It's something you worked at for so many years.
GILMORE: It's such an interesting question because this idea of what is hypothetical, what, you know, the protagonist in the book and me as well, what does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to carry on the generations? How will motherhood be? How will I, you know, I've been sort of taken away or not included in all these aspects of society, and that's actually more the protagonist feeling this than I do. But when you actually get the child, it's really - you have no luxury for this kind of imagining. You know, you're attending to his physical needs, the eating, the sleeping, the pooping, the singing, and so it's much more physical and the story, the love there and it becomes much less hypothetical. I know his family, and then he's just become our baby.
GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Gilmore. Her new novel "The Mothers" is based on the experiences she and her husband had during the four years they spent trying to adopt a baby. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So having been through such bad experiences before having the good experience of finding your baby, do you have any thoughts on how you think the adoption industry should change?
GILMORE: I think that the adoption industry would be more helpful to prospective adoptive parents if the - and birth mothers, frankly - if the laws in each state weren't so radically different. So there's a lawyer in New York who doesn't necessarily know all the laws in Colorado. So then the agency or the lawyer in Colorado doesn't know all the laws in California. So, and the laws are how long the birth mother has to change her mind, how long she has before she can sign papers, how much money she can accept, how many months of support.
You know, a lot of people talk about adoptions in Florida. Florida, the mother can't change her mind after 24 hours - I believe that's correct - and then, but at the same time she can be paid unlimited amounts, so - and the lawyers as well. So that's, you know, that's the trade-off. But nobody wants to wait a long time because they fear they're going to change their mind - the birth mothers - as is their right. But I think it's like the Wild West out there and it hasn't sort of jelled yet. There's no, you know, with international adoption you get in the queue and then when it's your turn there's your baby. Because of the notion of choice, which - and transparency, which is kind of wonderful about open adoption you, you know, you can be contacted - as I said - at any time. There has to be somebody vetting things at all times. And I think in a lot of situations there are, but it depends, you know, how much money can you pay? How much time can you put into this? Some people have a lot of money and they're waiting for their baby and that's their job. So, you know, I think there needs to be some sort of universal way to deal with the situation, and I think the laws need to be all the same in each state so no one is at a real disadvantage.
GROSS: This might be too personal, but how much money did you pay your baby's birth mother while she was pregnant?
GILMORE: I can't even remember. I'm not even sure. We've paid a variety of people a variety of amounts of money. And then before that, we paid so much money for IVF that wasn't insured. I think that is, like, the $200,000 baby, basically.
GILMORE: Which is funny because...
GILMORE: ...I am not a heiress and, you know, I'm a writer and my husband's a painter. So it's been interesting.
GROSS: So the money that you did pay the birth mother, was that for her healthcare while she was pregnant?
GILMORE: No. She was on, is it Medicare or Medicaid?
GILMORE: Medicaid. But a lot of birth mothers aren't and you do have to pay for prenatal care. Sometimes you need to pay for their rent if they're, you know - look, a lot of birth mothers are in trouble, so you might have to pay for their electricity, maternity clothes, their rent. And of course you do these things willingly and you want to help this person who's giving you the most sort of generous gift.
When it doesn't turn out that way, it's confusing and, you know, not least of all, you know, it is financially difficult.
GROSS: So if you weren't paying for the birth mother's medical care, what were the payments for?
GILMORE: Rent, electricity.
GILMORE: You know, maternity clothes, food. And usually it goes through the agency or the lawyer so they're paying the landlords directly. They are giving them gift certificates for the grocery store. It doesn't always work like that, but sometimes it does. And that's what I'm saying about sort of these universal laws.
GROSS: So at what point do you start telling your baby the story of her birth?
GILMORE: You know, that's an interesting question because it's almost like how do you tell a child, you know, that your parents are getting - it just, depending on how old they are, you have to see how much of a story you can tell. So we're still - I mean, he's almost four months so he does not understand...
GROSS: Oh, he is. OK. OK.
GILMORE: ...the story yet. But eventually, you know, he has already met his birth parents. As he continues to, you know, we're going to start to tell him who they are and, you know, they'll have certain names they want to be called. We haven't decided that yet. And they may be in our life for a long time and, you know, they may not. I don't know what will happen.
So all of those sort of factors depend, you know, help decide how you're going to tell the story. And, you know, I think a child's story of his birth is so important. I mean, of course, I've written so many things about him and my husband, being an artist, has already incorporated him in so much work that he's pretty well documented.
GILMORE: And our desire for him is pretty well documented. But in general, you know, telling the story of how he came to us is a really important part of a child's well-being.
GROSS: Jennifer Gilmore, thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on your son.
GILMORE: Thank you so much. It's been such a delightful...
GROSS: I wish you a wonderful life together.
GILMORE: Thank you. It was great to be here.
GROSS: Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the new novel "The Mothers." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.