Not everyone has strong parental aspirations. For some, children are a must to have the life they want. For others, children are a bland or even frightening idea. If you do want children, though, the drive to have a family can be extremely strong, but for women motherhood can be a risky undertaking. Fulfilling, absolutely, but at the same time very difficult to control.
Women’s parental rights stand in stark contrast to those of men. Radically unequal custody, staggering rates of motherlessness, and the mental anguish of child and mothers separated from each other all attest to the fact that mothers are not respected as a member of the family by modern society. This unbalanced and gynocentric approach to the family has been legally codified on some level at least since the early 19th-century and has only been worsened by growing cultural misogyny. Mothers are deemed superfluous and interchangeable, one woman being as good a “mother figure” as any other.
What, then, is a woman dreaming of motherhood to do? There are no “single mothers by choice” except via surrogacy. To mother a child, a woman needs the father’s ongoing and enthusiastic consent because from conception through to birth; fathers are given every opportunity to opt-out while mother’s options are limited to condoms, vasectomies, and vows of chastity. Add no-fault divorce, pro-father court bias and unenforceable visitation, and mother’s rights are left up to the child’s father.
That isn’t to say women should never reproduce conventionally. Most children—if only by a disturbingly slim margin—have a healthy, active relationship with their mother, at least on a national average; in some communities, especially African-American, a woman is betting against the house if she hopes to live with her children. I’ll leave it at calling the prospect chancy and let individual women decide if they want to take that risk.
What I really want to address in this article is the topic of single women adopting children to raise by themselves. The preamble above was to set the backdrop against which women have to make the decision of how to become mothers, and why adoption can be a controversial but smart option.
When thinking of adoption, many people picture a woman and a man—often older or sterile—taking in a child when they can’t have one of their own. Single individuals adopting doesn’t tend to fit the mold, and even more so when it’s a woman. When I propose the idea, most people react with confusion, wondering why a single woman wouldn’t just find a nice boy to settle down with and have a family. Single fatherhood by choice—a man intentionally becoming pregnant without the involvement of the mother—is becoming more culturally acceptable. Many people nod in understanding at such a decision, sympathizing with “how hard it is to find a good woman” and with the man’s biological drive to have a family.
Women, though, lack the biological capacity to have a child alone (post-conception). Why, then, has adoption by single women not seen a rise in acceptance matching that of single fathers? It comes down to a lack of empathy: the public has consumed the message of the challenges faced by single fathers and is willing to accept that a man might need to go it alone in order to do it at all. Mothers, however, are held to a much higher standard. The barriers to parenthood faced by women are overlooked, ignored, and sometimes actively reinforced by wider society. If a woman wants a family she needs a man, and that means meeting his every demand—when it comes to children, the buck stops at Dad. For most people there is no scenario in which a woman is justified in intentionally becoming a single parent. The usual assumption is that if she can’t get a man she must be a loser. Inversely and symmetrically, a man who becomes a single father can’t find any woman who isn’t a loser.
Luckily, the tide is shifting. More and more people are aware of the injustices faced by mothers, but change can’t come soon enough. For many women—young, middle-aged and older—motherhood is a core life goal, but a domestic partnership is risky enough to make them stop and think. This is where adoption becomes a good option; if a woman has the necessary funds and residence she can adopt a child to raise on her own. Is it in the best interests of the child? Children raised by single parents suffer on many metrics of life happiness and success, but they still fare much better than in foster homes or orphanages; and the very act of choosing to adopt means the mother has made a conscious choice to undertake parenting, hopefully demonstrating good responsibility.
There are more children in need of adoption than there are adoptive parents, so I fully support any fit adult choosing to adopt. There aren’t any legal barriers to a single woman adopting though I’m sure some women go up against personal biases in the vetting process. As with any non-traditional life style choice, the lack of social acceptance can be off-putting to adoptive mothers. Why, though, do so few people understand why a woman might want to forgo traditional family in favor of adopting? The willful ignorance surrounding mother’s rights is staggering, but the topic of adoption offers a prime opportunity to illustrate the plight of mothers and why some women want to go it alone. There is a stark contrast between the rights of women in father-mother pairs and those who adopt alone, and a brief thought experiment inverting them can show the difference:
Let’s imagine a different kind of adoption process. For the sake of this exercise, only women can apply. When one does, she has to select an “adoption overseer”. There are lots of overseers, millions in fact, and she can approach any overseer she likes. It’s up to the overseer, though, whether or not to take on the woman as a client. This overseer has complete discretion to decide if the woman will be allowed to adopt. He sets his own criteria and can turn her away at any point, no refund provided. Of course, the woman can try as often as she wants.
Once a woman finds a friendly overseer and wins him over, she gets to adopt. Presto, she’s a mother! She has a daughter or son to raise and love, to give everything to and do everything for. The overseer’s still there, though. In a sense the child isn’t even the mother’s; Junior is really just loaned to the mother because the overseer can revoke the adoption at any point. Based on a whim, on new-found dislike for the mother, on thinking another woman would be more fit, the overseer can cancel the adoption and take the child away. No proof required, no show of unfitness. The woman can appeal—if she has the money—but the odds aren’t good. She’s got no guarantee of maintaining contact and the judges almost always side with the adoption overseer. Even if she does win some partial retention of parental rights, there’s no enforcement of them or punishment for thwarting them.
If adoptions were like that, if an adoptive parent were at the near-total mercy of the personal feelings of one individual overseer with no accountability, how many people would go through with it? How many women would say “That shit’s crazy” and just walk away?
The reality of mother’s rights is even worse, though. Extending the thought experiment, imagine if, after opening negotiations with an adoption overseer, he could force the woman to adopt even if she changes her mind? It goes on and on, beyond what anyone would believe in a thought experiment. The reality of mothers’ lack of rights is far stranger than any piece of fiction can express.
Yeah, that shit’s crazy, and that’s why fewer and fewer women are willing to marry. A lot of them, though, still want to be mothers and adoption will become an increasingly appealing option. If you manage to adopt, you only have to answer to adoption agencies and Child Protective Services, and at least, they have some accountability and regulation. Are CPS agencies without fault? Absolutely not. In some states, they’re coming under investigation for misconduct, and they can and do abuse parents’ rights. But are they better than betting your family on the Russian roulette of family courts? I say absolutely. Women need to be able to be parents on their terms, to embrace their own, personal brand of mothering with confidence. No one’s child should be able to be taken away based on another person’s feelings, but that’s exactly what family law does. No need for demonstration of unfitness, no enforcement of rights.
The sad truth is that a mother is only considered a real parent if she’s the only parent.
Author’s Note: This article is not meant to provide legal advice or information on the adoption process. Each state, province, and country has its own laws regarding adoption, and a would-be parent should always research the requirements in their region before deciding whether or not to pursue adoption.