“Whatever They Think of Us,
We’re a Family”
Single Mother Adopters
CHRISTINE WARD GAILEY
Single parents now comprise about one-third of people adopting from public agencies in the United States; nearly all of these single adopters are women.1 This chapter examines the structural and cultural impediments to single mother adoption, issues confronting these adoptive families, and some of the unique ways in which these families construct kinship. Based on interviews with single mothers who have adopted domestically through public and private sources, who have adopted internationally, and who have adopted through private channels (“independent adoption”), we can understand some of the ways these adopters perceive their children’s histories and birth mothers, respond to negative images of single motherhood, and create kinship and family.
Estimates of U.S. single parent adoptions in the 1970s range from less than one-half percent to 4 percent of all adoptions.2 During the 1980s, the estimates range from 8 percent to 34 percent. The wide range indicates how poorly agencies tracked adoptions in those decades and how inconsistent state-by-state record keeping was. While we do know how many children are adopted each year from other countries, we do not know how many were by single parents. Moreover, because prospective adopters who are single women often encounter special obstacles in public agency screenings and home studies, an unknown number seek instead to adopt through private agencies or “independent,” lawyermediated religious or mass media channels.3 For all of these reasons, we simply do not know how many single mother adoptions really take place each year.
Because the available statistics are too inconsistent to obtain a representative sample for a large study, I opted instead for a smaller and more intensive investigation involving a “snowball sample” of twenty-six single adoptive mothers from three major urban areas (Boston, New York, and Los Angeles). Fourteen had adopted through public agencies, eight through private ones, and four had arranged independent adoptions privately. This sample doubtless is skewed in