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Becoming an Adoptive Mother

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author JoAnn Ponder writes as follows:

I myself was one of those women who wanted it all—an advanced degree, successful career, financial security, husband, and child, more or less in that order. Like many other women over the last few decades, I postponed childbearing until it was too late. I went through years of treatments for infertility, but never became pregnant. After the failure of in vitro fertilization, my husband, Carl, and I decided to adopt. Nonetheless, I occasionally thought about how some women miraculously became pregnant after adopting a child. Hope can be both relentless and unrealistic, and my fantasies of pregnancy did not fully disappear until menopause.
The decision to adopt a child provided tangible hope, but also prompted new concerns about where to adopt. Carl and I soon ruled out the United States due to the limited number of infants available, the extremely long waiting periods, and the increased prevalence of open adoptions in this country. Open adoptions have become the norm for a variety of reasons, such as decreasing the child’s sense of abandonment and maintaining his/her ties to family and cultural heritage. However, I was unsure about how to navigate a relationship with another mother, especially if she had drug/alcohol issues, exerted a negative influence on the child, became unreliable in keeping promises, or abandoned the child again. Conversely, I worried that an adopted child entering the turbulent teenage years might prefer to live with the birth mother. This is probably rare, but I nonetheless felt insecure as a prospective parent, my confidence likely shaken by my inability to conceive. Carl and I did not consider adopting an older child from the foster system with a history of neglect, abuse, or other trauma. I intended to continue working as a psychologist and did not think that I had enough inner resources to knowingly take on a child with special needs.

An International Adoption

Carl and I decided on international adoption, luckily before this window started to close due to policy changes in various countries (Koch, 2008). We ruled out Eastern Europe due to the prevalence of alcoholism there, which was a concern both in terms of genetic predisposition and prenatal exposure. Moreover, the overcrowded orphanages there resulted in fairly high rates of attachment problems. Hence, Carl and I decided on China, especially given that we preferred a girl. I also recall Carl laughingly making comments that Asians are intelligent. While he and I did not really expect a “trophy child,” we wanted a healthy baby who was likely to develop typically.
After more than a year of evaluations, paperwork, and delays, Carl and I received the exciting news that the Chinese child placing agency had assigned a 10-month-old girl to us. We were informed that she was abandoned within a day after birth. She spent several weeks in an orphanage, where she was assessed as normal, and then placed in a foster home. She was moved to a different foster home after an accident that burned and scarred her legs, though records are inconsistent about when that happened. The adoption agency emailed photos of the baby girl to Carl and me. I was drawn to look at the photo, yet also fearful of doing so, afraid to become attached lest something happen again to spoil my good fortune. I stared at the photo of the baby girl with brown skin, black hair, a round face, almond-shaped eyes. She was cute, but was she really mine?

Traveling to China

It was three more months before Carl and I were approved to travel to China to bring our daughter home. Finally, the adoption staff brought the baby from her foster home and handed her over to us in a hotel hallway. Her clothing was odd to us, and she bore the unfamiliar scent of a stranger’s home. I gazed at her, trying to take in a permanent mental picture as I told myself, “This is my baby. This is my baby now.” Intellectually, I knew that she was my child, but I did not feel like a parent yet. Similarly, she did not know that Carl and I were her forever parents or even her new caregivers. She cried inconsolably for hours until she fell asleep, then awoke periodically and cried softly through the night. All three of us were exhausted the next morning when we met with adoption officials. We changed the name that the orphanage assigned, translated as “Island Facing the Sunshine,” to the Western name of Caitlin. She did not cry much those next two weeks, but seldom smiled and often glanced around as if seeking her foster mother. Caitlin tolerated physical care but did not allow me to comfort her. Intellectually, I knew that it was a positive sign that she missed her foster mother rather than indiscriminately attaching to me. Though I had read about infant mourning and knew what was happening, it was gut-wrenching to see.
Carl, Caitlin, and I had a meeting with her foster parents in order to ask questions and say goodbye. Caitlin obviously recognized them, yet seemed subdued, likely due to feelings of confusion. Through an interpreter, I told her foster mother about Caitlin’s apparent sadness and asked if the baby smiled much. The foster mother reassured me that Caitlin was a happy, easygoing baby, and informed me how well she ate. When I started crying, the foster mother reassured me that everything would be fine—though she and her husband, too, started crying when it was time to say goodbye. Despite my sadness for Caitlin’s current distress, I felt relieved that she was placed with a couple who clearly loved her.


Koch, W. (2008). Fewer foreign children adopted. USA Today, Feb. 10.

Becoming an Adoptive Mother

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Becoming an Adoptive Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
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