When I was a child in the 1950s, white middle class society pitied childless women. They had few options for a productive life outside of motherhood. The husband of a childless woman was well tended, though. That's all the poor woman had to do.
His shirts seemed whiter, his collars more pristine, his shoes shinier and nails more buffed than all the other men. However, if this self-immersion in domesticity was not enough for the unfortunate wife, if she complained of loneliness or boredom, she was said to be "an hysteric," the husband pitied for what he had to put up with. If, after years of waiting and dashed hopes, the miracle of adoption never happened, people spoke of her in whispers, about nervous breakdowns and crying jags.
Single women were of necessity childless—society would tolerate nothing else—and called old maids or spinsters.
Thankfully, times have changed. The 1960s came along, and my generation reached full roar. For the girls it meant we would no longer abide social constrictions when it came to our productive lives, or reproductive lives. We came of age during the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras; we fought our way out of the boxes our mothers and grandmothers had endured; we changed society. We made careers and realized ambitions and found out too late that there was a downside to our victories: Many of us mistook the biological clock as an inconvenience, and postponed childbearing far into our 30s and 40s. So we battled our own biology with infertility treatments, until science was exhausted, and we had become childless women, no longer society's sideliners, but unhappy with this outcome nonetheless.
But there were some women who still refused to accept no for an answer. And, as always, some changing of societal norms was required, and a lot of courage. Think bi-racial adoption.
My friend Fran Finch is a powerhouse financial analyst with Merrill Lynch, a woman who once trained to drive a dogsled across Alaska, then did it, in her 40s. She's a very determined woman. Yet like many in our generation, she found that the thing she wanted the most, to have children, was not possible. She was single as well, and in her mid-40s, and it seemed like her only choice was to suck it up and count her other blessings. But never one to give up, she called an adoption agency, even though she was afraid of adoption, afraid of waiting years and being disappointed, sure her age and marital status would immediately disqualify her. So she dialed the number fearfully, not knowing what she was about to step off into. "I wanted a baby," she said, "and I knew the odds were really against me."
The phone interview was brief, the social worker asking questions in a matter-of-fact way, until Fran said she would be pleased to adopt a mixed-race child. "I hardly thought about it when she asked the question," Fran says now. "You believe something all your life and when the time comes to stand up for it, you have to. You know?"
But her "yes" answer cracked open a door that few, if any, white women have passed through in Mississippi. Celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell, Nicole Kidman and Michele Pfeiffer had done it. But could Fran Finch do it? Though mixed-race children are more available than white ones, they are not easily accepted by white adoptive parents, from Maine to California, and the social worker discussed this with Fran, who didn't change her answer.
But she still wasn't hopeful about finding a baby, of any color. "I didn't call back to schedule a home visit. I was trying to be practical." Then about a year later the social worker called her. She had remembered that Fran was willing to adopt a mixed-race child, and one was available, a 12-month-old girl, who could barely crawl because she had lived in a hollowed-out sofa for most of her short life.
"We had to do the home visit and finish the paperwork. Everything was rushed. I drove to Meridian to see the baby, thinking I was going to have a few days to decide. I'd read that a baby bonds with its mother between 12 months and 30 months, and I was pleased this child was only a year old, but I'd been told she was in bad shape."
But the social worker was prepared to hand over the baby that day. "I was scared. My friend reminded me I still had a choice. Then I saw the baby. She was beautiful," Fran says. "She looked at me, and her eyes lit up and she handed me a toy. I took her home." That was more than four years ago.
Fran named her baby Nathalie, the French spelling, in honor of the mixed-race heritage of Creole women, and of her own family's French roots. Her home is decorated with African and French styles. It is full of African books. Nathalie is a very lucky little girl; that seems obvious. But she is also a gifted child, talented in sports, who at age 2 began teaching herself to read. And now she has a sister, 7-month-old Juliette, another mixed-race baby. "I call them my Creole girls," says Fran.
She's never regretted her decision to adopt mixed-race children, and hopes to adopt a third child, but I had to ask her the hard question: What reactions has she gotten from other people? "My family has been supportive from the beginning, everyone has." Then she frowns. "Well there was one bad experience, with a neighbor. He came to my door and told me he didn't approve and didn't like what I'd done to the neighborhood. He sold his house and moved." Then she leaned over and said, "My children are beautiful. They are exceptional. People need to know they can adopt mixed-race babies. They don't need to go around the world to Russia or China."
To inquire about mixed-race adoption, call Jeri Strickland at the Mississippi Children's Home Society, 601-360-0583.