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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005 07:24 pm

Family values


Normal is whatever feels familiar to you, whatever seems plausible, perpetual, and permanent. Sometimes what seems normal isn’t, really; instead, it’s just your life, and you don’t know any better. What’s normal to you might not be normal to me, and vice versa.

Here’s an example: Adoption seems abnormal to most people, but it feels perfectly natural to me. I grew up knowing that I was adopted and knowing that my brother was, too. When we were little kids, Hank and I thought all families got their children by way of a phone call from the “mission home.”

But as I grew, I became increasingly curious about the process. When I reached that early-twenties “who the heck am I?” stage, discovering where I came from and how I got here became more of a priority. And that’s when I started looking at my adoption.

As it turns out, the business of the early ’60s was in many ways upside down from the modern adoption trade. Nowadays, couples are rigorously probed and screened — getting fingerprinted for a nationwide background check, sharing their life stories with a social worker, and submitting references and medical and financial forms (including, in some states, a doctor’s statement of infertility). Back then, couples hoping to adopt had to submit letters from their family doctor and minister and be interviewed by a social worker.

In the 1960s, birthmothers were the ones under the microscope. The agency where I was born even required birthmothers to take IQ and aptitude tests. Sounds tasteless, I know, but my birthmother loved it. “It’s where I found out I was smart,” she says.

I also learned that I was a blue-light baby. The fee for my adoption was reduced by half because the man who became my dad served on the board of directors of the home for unwed mothers where I was born. Finding out that my tab was a few hundred dollars plus change felt somewhat embarrassing, but I didn’t have anything to compare it to. After all, my brother was a discount kid, too.

He never went through that questioning phase. Like many adopted kids, he landed in a happy spot and never thought much about how he got there.

Fast-forward a decade or two, and I’m looking at adoption from a whole different point of view — that of a prospective adoptive parent. As my husband and I began researching agencies, I was haunted by flashbacks of my “curious” phase.

What if we got a baby who turned out like me — inquisitive about the circumstances of his adoption, about how he joined our family, right down to the financial details of his placement fee?

For the rest of our adventure leading to adoption, whenever we came to a fork in the road that required us to make a devilish choice, we asked ourselves how we would explain that decision to this child when he’s 12. Or 24. Or 30.

I’m not sure how many of the people running the adoption industry stop to ask themselves that sort of question. When I set about researching this week’s cover story — about how agencies charge different fees on the basis color of the baby’s skin — I realized that all the professionals I interviewed were genuinely concerned with helping women experiencing crisis pregnancies find good homes for their babies.

But when I asked them to explain why they based fees on race, many of them gave me answers that boiled down to this: It’s just normal. How this answer will play with a rebellious twentysomething kid in the year 2027 remains to be seen.

As for me, I wanted a newborn who would match our family perfectly — on the inside, because that’s the part that counts. We ended up with an African-American baby boy, adopted through an agency that charged a flat rate and encouraged real openness with his birth parents.

So how much did he cost? My fervent hope is that he never asks us this question. If he does, though, I could give him the “bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a Yellow Cab” answer and say that he cost more than we could comfortably afford, yet only a tiny fraction of his true worth. Or I could compare his value to that of his big brother, whose fee was tabulated in months of indigestion, hours of labor, and miles of stretch marks.

And the truth is: When I look at the two of them, playing or fighting or sleeping together, I notice that they both have the same value to me: exactly $9.79 gazillion.

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