Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adopting as a Single Parent

Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adopting as a Single Parent

by Lee Varon

The first guide of its kind, covering all stages of the adoption process

Adopting on Your Own addresses the questions and concerns of prospective single parents. Lee Varon, a practicing therapist specializing in adoption counseling and the single mother of two adopted children, helps readers make an evenhanded assessment of whether adoption is right

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The first guide of its kind, covering all stages of the adoption process

Adopting on Your Own addresses the questions and concerns of prospective single parents. Lee Varon, a practicing therapist specializing in adoption counseling and the single mother of two adopted children, helps readers make an evenhanded assessment of whether adoption is right for them, then leads them through the different stages of arranging and financing the adoption. She weighs the advantages of open versus closed and international versus domestic adoption for the single parent, and demystifies potentially daunting steps such as choosing an agency and preparing for the home study.

Adopting on Your Own also offers up-to-date information on the latest developments in interracial adoption policy, the legal rights of gays and lesbians to adopt, and the evolving attitudes of agencies and social workers toward single-parent adoptions. Throughout the book, Varon draws on personal anecdotes and the experiences of her clients to offer honest, insightful advice on every step of the adoption process.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Herself an adoptive mother of two and a counselor who has helped thousands of clients through their adoption decisions, Varon candidly covers just about every issue of concern to single men and women who are considering adoption in this excellent guide. She starts at the beginning--with making the decision--and offers insights on a variety of crucial questions: How old is too old to parent? How much money do I need to adopt a child? Can I adopt if I had cancer five years ago? Are there right and wrong reasons for wanting to adopt? She then walks readers through the adoption process, from determining which child is right for you to different types of adoption, including international. She covers the ins and outs of choosing an agency and preparing for the home study--including whether or not potential adoptive parents should be open about their sexual orientation. Varon also discusses issues that commonly arise with adopted children and offers suggestions on how to handle them. There are exercises, suggestions for keeping an adoption journal and an extensive resource section that concludes the book. While Varon's primary focus is on adoption for singles, anyone considering adoption will find this an invaluable resource. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.95(d)

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Chapter One


In my thirties I really didn't think about becoming a mother. I was very involved in my career and happy working seven days a week. Then it suddenly hit me as I got close to forty. Suddenly I wanted to be a mother more than anything else in the world—nothing else seemed as important.

—Amy S., mother of Kate and soon-to-be mother of Alana

CLAIRE IS A FORTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD physical therapist who also teaches at a large university. She is an independent, resourceful, and self-sufficient woman. She describes her life as hectic but happy. Yet despite her happiness, Claire has begun to feet a sense of toss as she approaches forty-five. "I always thought I would have a family. In some ways I still feel surprised that it didn't happen. But I guess over the last year I've been coming to terms with the fact that it didn't, and also that unless I do something, it never will." Although Claire was thrilled to receive tenure at the university where she teaches, she felt her promotion had a certain hollow quality when she weighed its importance against the satisfaction of being a parent. "I realized how much I'd always wanted to be a mom," she says.

    At a conference Claire ran into an old friend who had adopted a daughter from Peru, and that meeting became the catalyst for Claire's exploration of adoption. After the conference, Claire stayed in touch with her friend, and her interest in adoption grew.

    "I think when I was younger," she says, "I was not ready to get marriedand begin a family. My own parents divorced when I was still in grade school, and my mother raised my brother and me on her own. My father supported her financially but not emotionally, and I watched her struggle. I didn't want the same thing to happen to me."

    As Claire has become closer to her former classmate and her adopted daughter, her feelings of toss over not having a child have intensified, yet she also feels some ambivalence about changing her life in such a dramatic way. She wonders how raising a child would fit into her demanding career and active life. In particular how would being a parent affect her extensive conference schedule? "I wonder if I can make the necessary changes to have a child in my life. Would I have the kind of quality time I would need to be a parent?" she asks, but then she concludes with this thought: "If I don't look into it, I'll never know."

There are many paths that lead single people to consider adoption. For some there is a precipitating event: turning thirty-five, forty, or even fifty, the end of a marriage or close relationship, a close friend's adopting or a relative's giving birth, the diagnosis of infertility. Some single people feel ready to parent but don't want to have a birth child with an unknown donor or with a person with whom they are not in a close relationship. For others, it is not a single precipitating event that propels them to consider adoption, but rather a growing desire to create a family and be a parent.

    Like Claire, I felt satisfied with many aspects of my life as a single person before I adopted my children. Yet I, too, felt that something was lacking. I knew I didn't want to be eighty and have missed the experience of being a parent. I felt strongly about wanting a child, yet my ambivalence was also great. I was so uncertain about adopting that even as I was about to board the plane to pick up my son from El Salvador, I clutched my friend's arm and asked, "Do you really think I should do this?"

    Once I began counseling prospective single adoptive parents, I discovered that this mix of fear and excitement wasn't unique. Like Claire, people come to me with strong and conflicting emotions, hope and fear being the primary combatants. They often say that although they long for a child, they are not sure that adoption will work for them.

    You may have picked up this book with many of the same questions and uncertainties that bring prospective parents to my office. As you explore the decision that is right for you, you will gain insight and tools that should help you to avoid the predicament that Claire had found herself in for many years before coming to see me. "For years I was on the fence," she explained. "I'd get close to thinking I was ready to adopt, and then all of the old fearful voices would come back. And so I'd panic and do nothing. And then I'd become depressed at the thought of never having children."

    Caught in a state of limbo, Claire could neither grieve the loss of the child she would never have and move forward with her life, nor could she make plans to become a parent.

    As people like Claire begin to seriously explore the possibilities of adoption, some who felt certain that they would adopt may realize that adoption is not the right choice for them, at least at this time in their lives. They may decide that before they adopt, they need to get other aspects of their lives in order: their job, finances, living situation, or their feelings about being single. Other people who felt skeptical about their readiness or ability to adopt a child may begin to feel that they are ready to go forward.


It is important to look at who you are, what you want, and what your resources are before you begin the adoption process. As Claire said: "Adopting a child isn't like buying a car. You can't just bring it back if you realize you don't want it." Sometimes it may seem unfair that people who want to adopt must go through so much scrutiny, when millions of parents have birth children without even thinking about it. In some ways, however, as adoptive parents we are lucky to have the opportunity to evaluate our decision to parent thoroughly before going forward. One doesn't have to complete a course on communication and intimacy to get a marriage license either, but imagine how much better off some people might be if they did. Whether or not you ultimately choose to adopt, you certainly will learn a great deal about yourself and your goals and priorities by going through the adoption decision-making process.

    In the process of looking into adoption, people often ask whether there are right and wrong reasons for wanting to adopt. The reasons you want to adopt a child will probably be complicated and diverse: And although there are no right or wrong feelings regarding adoption, there are some desires and expectations attached to adoption that may cause problems, especially when these desires and expectations seem to predominate. (See Exercises 2 and 3 at end of this chapter.)

    Having concerns is a normal part of the process. As one woman put it, "You'd be crazy not to have some fears. After all, this decision will affect the rest of your life. You can sell a house, you can get a divorce if you realize you've made a mistake, but once you're a parent, you're a parent forever." In Exercise 4 at the end of this chapter you will have the opportunity to explore in greater depth some of your fears and concerns about adopting.

    In order to feel comfortable about being single parents, we need to be at peace with being single. That doesn't mean we may not hope to find a partner eventually. But we need to recognize that children can never fill the role of a partner or confidant, nor should they be expected to provide adult companionship for their parent. Such expectations place an unfair burden on a child, and they can lead to complications and heartache for you both. Although we all hope to have a close and mutually fulfilling relationship with our children, if you sense that what you are really looking for is adult companionship, you should address these needs with a therapist before adopting.

    Other issues may arise when a person has had an unhappy childhood and by adopting hopes to create the kind of family she never had. This feeling may be a factor in choosing to parent, but it can cause problems it! it is a primary reason. Not only is it unfair to live through your child in this way, but you may also enter parenthood with unrealistic expectations of being the perfect parent and creating a perfect family. Unrealistic expectations of either yourself as a parent or of your child can lead to tension and disappointment. They can also get in the way of developing a close and lasting bond with your child.

    Related to this desire to create an "ideal family" is something the director of an adoption agency called a "savior complex." If you feel that by adopting you are on a mission to save the world, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment and placing pressure on your child as well. Your child may feel he always needs to act happy and grateful. If you want to do something noble, donate money to a good charity rather than adopting. If you sense the "savior complex" is at work, examine your feelings carefully to find ways to be more realistic and balanced in your conception of what it means to be a parent.

    Single people who adopt, like couples who choose to parent, do so because they want to love, nurture, and form a deep connection with a child. They want to create a family. They feel that parenting will give them a sense of fulfillment. Single people who adopt usually think very carefully about how their decision will affect their child. It is not a decision made lightly or in haste. Having run decision-making groups, I know how single people grapple with all the issues surrounding their decision to parent, including how their child will feel about being raised by a single parent.


Prospective adoptive parents tend to have similar concerns when it comes to adoption. We'll explore some of the more common ones in the following pages.

How Old Is Too Old to Parent?

In general, most agencies you will work with will require that you be twenty-one (often twenty-five) years old to adopt. But what about the top age limit? Today, forty and forty-five, even fifty isn't what it used to be. In an age where octogenarians are running off on safaris and many people work well beyond the age of sixty-five, older applicants are viewed in a different light. As reproductive technologies have increased the upper age range of women who are bearing children, the upper age of parents who are adopting has also increased.

    In an article written for The Boston Globe in 1994, Barbara F. Meltz found that there were four reasons women became mothers late in life: a history of infertility, failed relationships, a successful career, and lack of prior interest in parenting. The same reasons are often true for men. In the Adoption Network workshops people usually gave a combination of these reasons when explaining why they were adopting in their forties or fifties.

    Many people who come to parenting later in life feel ready to embrace the role fully. Often they possess maturity and a strong sense of self. One difficulty that mature adopters often face is that they may be dealing with helping elderly parents at the same time that they're creating their own family. In addition, some mature parents can feel a sense of isolation. They are not accustomed to caring for a young child, and many of the other parents they meet are much younger. "It's really helpful to have a support network of older parents. Not many of the mothers of my daughter's friends are watching Teletubbies and reading books about menopause at the same time," one fifty-three-year-old mother of a toddler explained.

    Older parents worry about the effect their age will have on their children. "It's one reason," Joel said, "that I'm an advocate for adopting more than one child. If something does happen to me, at least they'll have each other. It's easier to deal with an aging parent when you have support. The other thing that helps is having lots of younger friends who are involved with your kids."

    Many agencies will ask that there be no more than forty to forty-five years between the parent and the child. But some agencies have increased the upper age limit because they have come to see age as indicative of maturity. They will place children—even infants—with single people over the age of forty-five. In the Adoption Network groups we have had a sixty-year-old woman who adopted an eight-year-old girl and a fifty-four-year-old woman who adopted a two-year-old from Russia. Several people in their late forties have adopted babies or toddlers, domestically as well as from Russia, China, Guatemala, and other countries.

    The answer then to the question is, yes, you can still adopt—even a younger child—if you are in your late forties and sometimes even past fifty. But any good agency will want to discuss carefully the provisions you've made for your child in case you aren't around to parent her.

    If you are older, you will need to give even more attention to your support system and your resources. You must consider finding a guardian as well as having friends or relatives who will be available to take an active interest in your child.

    In many ways older parents can bring positive qualities to parenting as Maude, a fifty-one-year-old director of a nonprofit agency, points out: "Jennifer was three when I adopted her, and now she's entering first grade. It was the best decision I ever made. Even though I am a new parent, and she is my first child, I feel that my age is actually an asset to my parenting. I know I am much more patient and relaxed than I would have been in my thirties or forties. I don't expect Jennifer to be some perfect vision of a child. I am happy to see the person who is unfolding before me. People sometimes say that she's a lucky little girl since she was past infancy when I adopted her and had some delays. But I am the lucky one, to be a part of her life."

    John, a forty-nine-year-old social worker, echoes Maude's sentiments: "The older I grew, the more I regretted not having been a parent. I adopted Jason when he was four. We've been together two years. Am I exhausted? Yes. Am I happy? Absolutely. What's it like being an older parent? I let a lot of the little things slide. I realize in the scheme of things they don't much matter. What matters is that we're a family."

There was a time when I did not think each day a wonderful adventure, but now I see the world through the eyes of a four-year-old child, and all sorts of strange things bring joy to me.

—Catherine Pomeroy Collins, widowed in her fifties, who went to Vietnam to adopt her son, Ewan. From McCall's April 1973


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Meet the Author

Lee Varon is a social worker with a Ph.D. in social welfare policy and the co-director of the Adoption Network, a counseling and referral agency that focuses on single parents. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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