MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
About a year ago, we aired a story about a Chicago woman, Suzanne Plunkett. She's single, in her 40s. Our story chronicled Suzanne's efforts to get pregnant by in vitro fertilization, efforts that eventually ended in failure. Shortly afterwards, she started trying to adopt a baby instead. Suzanne is white, and she decided that she would like to adopt an African-American child. That's called a transracial adoption. Producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, in association with Chicago Public Radio, followed Suzanne through the adoption process. This is her story.
Ms. SUZANNE PLUNKETT (Adoptive Single Mother): (Reading) Dear birth mother, writing a letter to someone who could change my life so dramatically is scary, to say the least, but nowhere near as scary as the task I know you face in choosing a future for your child. I'll start by introducing myself. I am Suzanne. I was blessed...
I wrote this letter to an audience of women I haven't met, women who will use this letter to help them decide if I am the best person to raise their child. It's one of the first steps in the adoption process, and it's kind of one part autobiography, one part marketing piece.
(Reading) Personality-wise, I'm very outgoing, warm and affectionate, with a sunny disposition. I'm extraordinarily perceptive and caring and have been known to cry at commercials. I was taught to be open and...
I'm working with a domestic adoption agency. And they'll pass my letter along to these women who've chosen to place their baby with another family.
(Reading) As you may know, I'm single. Unfortunately, now that I feel like I could be the best wife and mother yet, it's harder than ever to meet Mr. Right. The upside to this, however, is that your child will be my number-one priority. I want you to know that I will love and cherish him or her with all my heart.
Unidentified Woman #1: All right, all right, all right, all right. We're going to get started.
Ms. PLUNKETT: The state of Illinois requires me to take parenting classes before I can adopt. Because I'm open to a child of any race, especially because the waiting period can be much shorter for babies of color, my agency suggested this series of seminars on transracial adoption led by biracial women.
Ms. MICHELLE M. HUGHES (Adoption Attorney): My name is Michelle M. Hughes. I'm an adoption attorney. The workshops that we're doing right now, the primary purpose--I joke, it's basically training white people to raise kids of color.
Ms. PLUNKETT: The fact is there are so many babies of color in this country that are not being adopted, agencies actually make the fees more affordable to try to find a home for these babies.
Ms. HUGHES: There's, frankly, a supply and demand issue. There's just not enough parents stepping up to the plate to adopt African-American children. Consequently, it means that agencies discount these children in order to get them placed.
Unidentified Woman #1: Tonight, what we have is four panelists for you. And all of our panelists are parents, have already transracially adopted...
Ms. PLUNKETT: One mother told us about her biological daughter who's white. And this daughter had a really good playmate down the street, but when the family adopted their first African-American baby, this friend just kind of disappeared. The mother's pretty sure that the parents of this little girl said she couldn't play with their daughter anymore because of their adopted black baby.
Unidentified Woman #2: And we had to explain immediately that family's family, and this is no friends. It's a hard thing. It will hit you immediately.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And then they also told a story about taking their child to an African-American barber. And then at one point, the barber said, `You are not the mother of this curl-headed boy.
Unidentified Woman #2: I said, `Oh, yes I am. That's my son.' `No, you are not a mother of a curl-headed black boy.' And one of the things I have learned from being up there is that I will never disrespect anyone. Never. But I hold my ground. So I simply said, `My son was born 12 weeks early. When he was addicted in the hospital, I'm the one that went every day; I held my son; I've adopted my son; I've taken care of him for five years. I am the mother of a curly-headed black boy.' He said, `OK.' We're friends now.
Ms. PLUNKETT: That's a whole 'nother aspect that I kind of hadn't really thought much about, is, like, you know, prejudice from the black community as well, that, `What do you, you know, you white lady--what are you doing with this baby, one of our babies?' I know where their heart is, but I think it seems a little misdirected because these kids would most likely go into the foster care system. But if you could be sensitive to the child's cultural heritage, then that's a pretty darn good compromise.
ANN (Adoptive Single Mother): And I'm Ann. I live on the northwest side of the city of Chicago...
Ms. PLUNKETT: There are a couple other single mothers in the group. And one woman, Ann, announced that she had been placed with a baby. She had a referral for a baby, had met the birth mother, and the baby was due in May. And so that was received with, you know, warm applause and hoo-hahs.
ANN: And I had lunch with her today.
(Soundbite of applause)
ANN: Yeah. So I'm very happy.
Ms. PLUNKETT: It was heartening to me because she was single and actually got a placement pretty quickly after she had signed on with the same agency that I'm using. And I just was really anxious to hear the story of how her meeting with her birth mother had gone.
ANN: And she said that she thinks at the beginning it's going to be very tough for her, although she wants me to be there when the baby's born. But so far...
MS. PLUNKETT: Wow, Ann. Congratulations.
ANN: ...it's better than I had let myself hope it would be.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Right.
ANN: You know?
(Soundbite of beep)
Ms. SHEILA MALONEY: (On answering machine) Oh, Suzanne, this is Sheila Maloney...
Ms. PLUNKETT: Less than week later, I got a call from Sheila Maloney, who's a private adoption attorney and a friend of my family's. I had asked Sheila to keep an eye out for a baby for me.
Ms. MALONEY: (On answering machine) There's something brewing...
Ms. PLUNKETT: `Something's brewing,' I think she said.
Ms. MALONEY: ...and I need to talk to you to see if this is something you want to go with...
My name is Sheila Maloney. I help my clients run various ads in newspapers to attract birth mothers that might call in on an ad, something similar to `Adoption would be the answer to our prayers.' It's like a 60-word-or-less way to sell yourself.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Sheila had said, `Listen, you know, you should give me your birth-mother letter because sometimes I get these women who call, and they are, especially if you're open to any race baby--my clients are mostly white, and they want mostly white babies, and so I have to refer the women of color away usually to an agency. So she said, `I could just refer them to you.'
Unidentified Woman #3: I came across this ad in the paper. And I think her name was Sheila. And, well, I started talking to her, but I didn't give, like, my name or nothing like that. I had gave another name, just to see how it was and how it was going to play out.
Ms. MALONEY: She said, `I have a friend who has a child that they cannot keep,' and would this family be interested in adopting this baby? She told me a little bit about the situation with the child--the child was about two months old then. This is a full African-American situation. Suzanne has always been very open to that. So I sent her the profile of Suzanne. And when I talked to the birth mother about the fact that this was a single parent that I was going to send her, she said, `That's fine, that does not matter to me.'
Unidentified Woman #3: I been around a bunch of single women who had done it by theirselves without a man's help. It too much didn't put, like, any doubt there. Race doesn't really matter to me because, like, people are people.
Ms. PLUNKETT: So I agreed to meet down in the south suburbs and got the address of a little pancake house. And so, drove down and went to the pancake house, and a woman came striding across the parking lot. She introduced herself as the friend. And as we were going in, she had a couple kids in the car, and said that her sister came along to watch the kids, and she would take her baby inside.
So we went inside of this place and sat down. And the baby was on the same side as me on the bench part, and she sat on the seat opposite. And I said, `Now, what is your baby's name?' And she said the name of the baby that was to be adopted. And I suddenly realized that this was the baby. And I looked at her, and she kind of smiled a little sheepishly, and she said, `It's actually my baby that is being adopted.'
So here I was looking at this baby that could possibly be my daughter. And it was, like, angels came out of the clouds and harps started playing. And you know how babies sometimes will, like, stare really intently at you, and it's probably because they have gas, but, you know, this baby was looking right in my eyes. That's what I felt. I just felt like we had a little moment together.
Unidentified Woman #3: I saw the joy in Suzanne's eyes. It kind of gave me just a little bit of hope that she was going to be a good mother, and that she needed the opportunity.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And we proceeded to talk for about two hours. And this woman is just a delightful woman who already has three children, and she's 23, and she just knows that she can't handle this herself.
Unidentified Woman #3: Blowing from place to place and knowing whether or not you was going to have a place to sleep--that was the major thing that was going on in my head. In my heart, I felt like I would be cheating her and couldn't give everything that I knew a baby should have.
Ms. PLUNKETT: I got into my car and just wept. I just cried and cried and cried tears of joy. You know, I held this baby, and I realized that, `I think I've met my daughter. I think I just met my daughter.'
Since that first meeting with the birth mother, things have been moving really fast. We've spoken on the phone a number of times, and she's having several counseling sessions with the social worker, which is required by law. So I could end up getting this baby in a matter of a couple of weeks. But I'm reminded tonight at my last transracial adoption workshop that the rug could be pulled right out from underneath you.
ANN: I'm Ann. Last month when I was here, I had been picked by a birth mom, and I had it fall through after the baby was born.
Ms. PLUNKETT: The mother went into labor really early, and so Ann dropped everything, you know, raced down to this small town in Illinois, was there for the birth, literally held the mother's hand through the whole birth experience.
ANN: And the baby, who I spent, like, five days in the hospital with the in the nursery, which was just awesome, got placed with the birth mom's father, who had wanted the baby all along.
Ms. PLUNKETT: It was kind of a reality check. I mean, I did kind of take a step back and go, `Whoa, this could happen and I need to sort of keep this in the back of my head.'
Ms. MALONEY: Well, good luck.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Thanks.
Ms. MALONEY: And stay in touch.
Ms. PLUNKETT: OK.
Ms. MALONEY: I feel hopeful and excited for you.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Thanks.
There are a couple of things that worry me about my situation. The birth mother's mom doesn't know her daughter's plans for the baby, and they all live together.
Unidentified Woman #3: We don't have such a great, open relationship to the point to where I would actually talk to her, you know, because she's already going through stuff herself. She's not that parent that you can say, `Do you understand what I'm going through?'
Ms. PLUNKETT: This really concerns me because there's this specter in my mind that the mother will figure it out and try to talk her out of it. The other thing that's really keeping me up nights is that the birth mother hasn't been able to get me the medical records for the baby yet. The birth mother has actually already signed temporary custody papers, which means I could essentially take the baby at any time, which she actually seems really anxious for me to do. It's really tempting, but my gut says to wait until I get the medical records to make sure the baby doesn't have any physical or developmental problems. This is something that is profoundly personal for me.'
MARY (Suzanne's Mother): I'm Mary, Suzanne's mother. With two of my children, there were problems at the time of birth which resulted in handicaps, one severe handicap. And I know what that can mean to a family and to a mother. Suzanne just took on chores that a child her age wouldn't normally take on. She looked after the next one in line and worried about the other children.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And I just feel like I've kind of paid my, like, universal karmic dues in that regard. And it's just a lot of extra time and energy and money that, especially right now, as a single person, I don't think I have and I don't think I am equipped for.
Unidentified Woman #4: (On intercom) Good evening, Target guests. Can a guest of a black Nissan Sentra...
Ms. PLUNKETT: Well, we're here at Target, my mom and I, because we are going to look at some baby things.
Do you want to go over here first or do you want to--what do you want to look at first?
This is kind of the crash course in baby preparation.
MARY: A car seat; crib; a gate.
Ms. PLUNKETT: First of all, you know, I had to share all my decisions and opinions with my mother who I love, but, you know, she's my mother.
And maybe a changing a table.
MARY: Oh, you don't need that.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Oh, boy. Here we go. This'll be fun.
MARY: You don't. First of all, it takes up space. And I got through all you kids without one of those things. You just change them on the bed.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Yeah, but then you have to bend over, and--hurt your back. Mom...
MARY: If your back's that weak, I don't know if you should have this baby.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Mom, whose baby is it? Mom? Mom, whose baby is it?
MARY: Well, I don't--OK.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PLUNKETT: Could I ask you where something is?
Unidentified Woman #5: Sure.
Ms. PLUNKETT: The snugglies, you know, that you carry the baby on your front?
My favorite purchase was the purchase of a little baby carrier sling that you carry on yourself. It was kind of funny because my mother zeroed in on one right from the start. She said, `This one looks like the best one. It looks soft.' And I think maybe just to defy her, I had to go all through all the other ones first.
Well, this is nice. It's pretty simple. Right?
MARY: Yeah, but it's this nylonny stuff.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Mom, I think they're all nylon.
MARY: You're going to be--I don't think this one is.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And then it turned out she was right. Imagine that. My mother was right.
Mom, I hate to say it, but you were right.
MARY: Shh. Oh, I know it hurts, doesn't it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PLUNKETT: And that also feels really practical and personal, like, I'm going to be taking that with me to go get that baby.
MARY: I could picture a baby in there, but, you know, it's the kind of thing that I don't want to do because things could happen.
Ms. PLUNKETT: There's still a chance that this might not happen. But when I got to the store and I got sort of seeing all the stuff, something clicked in about, you know, that this is really happening, and I got really excited. And I think my mother is still very concerned about protecting me, and protecting herself.
You know, just for fun now, Mom, can we just have the joy of this because there will be a baby. So you're kind of killing the joy by kind of keep reminding me that it might not happen.
MARY: Well, I guess I'm trying to...
Ms. PLUNKETT: Just don't--I understand what you're doing and I understand you and I know you well, but for me, it's more fun to be excited about this.
MARY: Well, I'm excited. There's no question about that.
Ms. PLUNKETT: There will be a child. So we're buying this for my baby. OK, just...
Ms. PLUNKETT: ...go with that, work with that.
Unidentified Child: (In the background) Mommy!
(Soundbite of an automobile engine)
Ms. PLUNKETT: Well, for the past, I'd say, almost week, we've been waiting for the birth mom to provide medical records on the baby and anything that she had on herself about her prenatal care. And I just found out just yesterday that she had all the records, and she read them over the phone to me, and all the correct tests were negative for both herself and the baby. And that was a big relief.
So I'm on my way. I'm on my way to go pick up my daughter. I have my mom and I, and we're talking my mom's car because--I'm not sure why we're taking my mom's car.
MARY: Well, because I wouldn't let my granddaughter ride in a car like yours.
Ms. PLUNKETT: (Laughing) Thanks a lot.
Unidentified Woman #6: Hello.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Hi.
Unidentified Woman #6: Party of four?
Ms. PLUNKETT: We're actually going to have five. We're meeting one more person.
Unidentified Woman #6: Five?
Ms. PLUNKETT: Yeah.
We're at the Olive Garden. And we're in the suburbs. And the pickings were slim. I called churches to see if any churches were open in the evening in the area, and none were. And she didn't want to do it at her house, of course, because her family was there. So where do you do something like this, you know? And it was either an Applebee's or an Olive Garden. And I opted for the exotic Olive Garden. So that's where we are. Maybe she'll always love Italian music because of that.
And I'm just waiting for the birth mom to show up. She called ahead and said that she was running a little bit late.
MARY: And we waited and waited. And I couldn't say anything to Suzanne, but my mind was saying, `She's not going to come.'
Ms. PLUNKETT: So I waited in the vestibule, which was the longest 15 minutes I've waited in a while. And then she called me.
(On the phone) Hello?
She actually called from the parking lot and said she was there.
(On the phone) Oh, good.
So, I went out and met her. And she was with her sister. And she had the baby, of course. And went out and gave her a hug.
How are you?
Unidentified Woman #3: How you doing?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PLUNKETT: She seemed like what I had come to know, which was a very sort of poised and relaxed and gentle, easygoing woman. She didn't seem nervous to me. But she's kind of got this sort of imperturbable way about her. I think it's protection, you know. I think it's just how she copes.
Unidentified Woman #3: I was nervous, though, really. Really tense, really nervous. But it wasn't like a bad type of emotion; it was more like, you know, like a happy one, like I knew she was in the right place.
CHRISTIE (Server): All right. How's everybody?
Unidentified Woman #7: Good, thanks.
CHRISTIE: Good. My name is Christie. I'm going to be your server. Hi there.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Hi.
We sat down at the table, and the baby was facing the birth mom. So I couldn't really see the baby.
MARY: She was almost like in no-man's zone. She didn't belong really to either mother.
(Soundbite of phone cell ringing)
Ms. PLUNKETT: So we were eating, and her phone rang. And she answered it. And it was her mother asking her if she could take her to work because her car had broken down.
Unidentified Woman #3: Would you be mad at me if I said I had to leave?
Ms. PLUNKETT: Do you have to leave?
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Do you really?
Unidentified Woman #3: I have to go drop my mom off at work.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Oh...
So now we were sort of forced to address what we were all there for, which was to give this baby to me.
Honey, are you OK about this?
Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Ms. PLUNKETT: I'm fascinated by somebody who has been, you know, pretty unemotional about it, even on the moment that she handed the baby to me.
You want to give her a little kiss?
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.
Ms. PLUNKETT: I think she kissed her and whispered something, you know. I kind of looked away. I wanted it to be a private moment for her.
Unidentified Woman #3: I started talking to her, and I said, `Grow up to be the best you can be. But in all, don't dislike me for the decision that I made.'
MARY: I guess, you know, at that point, I had more feelings for the mother and what she was leaving behind than I did for Suzanne and what she was being given.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And my heart was pounding. Everything was just magnified in that moment because I just knew what was happening.
Unidentified Woman #3: Well, I'll talk to you later, OK? Bye.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Yeah, I'll be in--we'll talk to you this week.
And in her kind of typical, matter-of-fact way, you know, gathered her things together. And I gave her one last hug.
MARY: And then they got up and walked out, left the baby there, and never turned around. And I just thought, `Oh, what a brave thing to do; to love a baby enough to turn it over to someone who could care for it better.'
Ms. PLUNKETT: And there I was with my baby.
It's unbelievable. I just can't believe it.
Or, I should say, the baby at the time. I don't think it felt like my baby, you know? And I said, `Mom, do you want to hold her?' It was the first time my mom had gotten to see the baby.
MARY: I hadn't thought about what the baby would look like because that was so secondary to the baby itself. But then I saw this baby with these enormous eyes and this beautiful little mouth. And I think worried more than ever that this mother could never give up this baby. I think I waited a long time for that mother to turn around and come back in, and say she had changed her mind.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And then a man came from across the way, a big African-American guy came over and extended his hand and said, `God bless you. Congratulations. I wish you the best of luck.'
Unidentified Man: God bless you. You'll be in my prayers.
Ms. PLUNKETT: Thank you so much.
It just seemed like sort of a little visit from a little angel or something, you know, just giving me the blessings.
(Soundbite of Italian singing; a door opening)
Ms. PLUNKETT: I've just pictured myself walking into the house with her, you know, saying, `This is our house.'
Here's your house. This is where we're going to live. It's been waiting for you.
(Soundbite of baby cooing)
Ms. PLUNKETT: I'm going to show her her room.
Look at all the cool clothes you have already.
(Soundbite of cooing)
Ms. PLUNKETT: I bought this in Mexico.
MARY: And, you know, when you bought that and that sweater, I just thought, oh, you know...
Ms. PLUNKETT: She's dreaming?
Ms. PLUNKETT: I was dreaming. And it's come true.
MARY: Oh, you're a lucky baby. You're going to be the belle of the ball.
Ms. PLUNKETT: And I'm so lucky.
(Soundbite of baby cooing; music)
SIEGEL: Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions in association with Chicago Public Radio. And you can hear a longer version of the story at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.