Why “just adopt” is more complicated than it sounds.

For Infertile Couples, “Just Adopt!” Is More Complicated Than It Sounds

For Infertile Couples, “Just Adopt!” Is More Complicated Than It Sounds

Snapshots of life at home.
Sept. 5 2016 8:30 PM

No One Ever “Just Adopts”

Why it’s the one thing you should never say to an infertile couple.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

This essay has been adapted from The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs. Published by Graywolf Press.

It was the day of Nate and Parul Goetz’s baby shower, a surprise event at Nate’s office, when Parul got the call from the adoption agency. An economist at a social-services nonprofit in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area, Nate described the shower as so “incredibly awkward and weird”—there was no baby or due date yet—that he’d gone out with a friend for drinks afterward while Parul sorted through their gifts and took the unexpected call.

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It was an unusual situation, she was told. The child, a boy, had been born five weeks prematurely just days ago. Kate, his birth mother, was on her way to Utah—home of the adoption agency and laws giving birth mothers only 24 hours to change their minds—when she went into labor and delivered at a rural Indiana hospital. Soon after, she was transferred to a better-equipped hospital in Kentucky. Kate had seen Parul and Nate’s profile and had chosen them to be her son’s parents—they could say yes or no, but if they wanted to adopt him, they needed to be there the next day, the agency representative told Parul, and be prepared to stay in Kentucky for the three weeks it would take to complete the process.

Parul started packing immediately, stuffing armloads of unwashed baby clothes, the bounty of their well-timed shower, into suitcases. She and Nate left at 3 the next morning and were in Kentucky by the following afternoon.

It was July 2010. In April and May, they’d spent weeks creating the family profile they hoped would appeal to someone like Kate: writing the story of their lives, describing their home and community in North Carolina, taking photographs of Parul gardening and Nate golfing. Parul tried to put herself in the birth mother’s shoes, imagining what she might want to know about the life her child would lead with them.

But it wasn’t the carefully constructed life story that mattered to Kate, a 23-year-old woman who first gave birth at 14 and, with limited resources and education, had adopted her other children out to members of her extended family. North Carolina law permits birth mothers—wherever they’re from—access to home studies completed there, and Kate had requested and read Nate and Parul’s. She was struck by a strange symmetry in their lives—she’d had six children before this baby, and Parul had had six miscarriages. This baby—her seventh—was also Parul’s seventh attempt at a family. It seemed fated.

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Belle Boggs

Trace Ramsey

It’s compelling to think that if you don’t have luck conceiving a child, perhaps fate has something else in store for you. After my husband, Richard, and I stopped intrauterine insemination treatment, I wondered if maybe I was meant to adopt—that’s the way I thought of it, as the revelation of some long-obscured plan.

In Blue Nights, Joan Didion describes the adoption of her daughter with an emphasis on its mythic elements. Like the Goetzes, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had little time to decide whether they wanted to claim the child waiting in the hospital, and they also said yes right away. They named her Quintana Roo, after a territory they’d seen on a map in Mexico a few months earlier, when the idea of a daughter, adopted or otherwise, was “dreamy speculation.” They’d never been to the rural territory—“The place on the map called Quintana Roo was still terra incognita,” Didion writes. But they didn’t hesitate when the hospital asked what her name would be. They knew right away, just as they knew that the child described to them over the phone as a “beautiful baby girl at St. John’s” was the very child they wanted.

I never pictured a newborn or the birth mother, but I thought about what it might be like to have a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 10-year-old. I drew on my experiences as a teacher, the bonds I had with children who weren’t genetically related to me. I thought especially of my first-grade student Daniel Hall, his face so full of sunshine I could send him anywhere in our dilapidated school building and he’d come back with precious supplies: photocopies or pencils from the office manager, snacks from the cafeteria workers, chalk or markers from a neighboring teacher. My heart sank on the few days he wasn’t there to greet me in the breakfast line; I’d agreed to teach first grade—a shift from my role as a writing teacher to the whole school—only if Daniel would be in my class. I knew if he was there, I could tolerate anything: our laborious and impossible bathroom process (we had to stand single file in the hallway, completely silent, while the children took turns one by one), the increased paperwork pressure and additional scrutiny from a principal we called Darth Vader.

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How great it would be to skip the hard, boring infant years and move right into the things I knew about: reading Ezra Jack Keats and decorating our house with messy art projects, riding bicycles and going to museums. Worries about advanced maternal age would disappear—I’d be relatively young as the mother of a 6-year-old! And perhaps I’d be a better mother to a child not genetically related to me, I thought, more accepting and careful. I wouldn’t see my own faults written in his behavior.

But Daniel had two loving parents, and when I imagined adopting someone like him, I was conjuring a fantasy. The adopted and foster children I’d taught were often troubled beyond my help or their parents’—they refused to come to school, acted out, were suspended. A few years after teaching Daniel’s class, I had an AP English student who struggled—despite her intelligence and her loving, well-resourced home, she found it so emotionally difficult to come to school that she accrued too many absences to graduate. At the beginning of the year, before her truancy began, she frequently spoke or wrote about her adoption and the lingering scars she carried from being neglected and unwanted. I was shocked when I learned that she was only 8 months old when she was adopted.

Adoption, whenever it takes place, is traumatic for someone involved: the birth mother or father, the bewildered new parents, the child. Sometimes all of them. Yet it is also a powerful, attractive narrative, especially in the face of infertility. Look up any list of things not to say to infertile couples, and you’ll find the suggestion “You should just adopt”—we’ve heard it, and read it, and probably even thought it ourselves. There are so many children in the world who need homes, the story goes, millions of them. To focus on your loss, your inability to become pregnant or have a genetically related child, is selfish.

I liked imagining myself as an adoptive mother. I signed up for a foster-adopt class, scanned adoption blogs, and researched the international programs with the shortest wait times and the lowest in-country fees. Richard, initially skeptical, found it hard to argue with my reasoning: If adoption depends on completing paperwork and telling stories about your life, wouldn’t we, two writers, have a better-than-average chance at success? I imagined us convincing a social worker that our long marriage and my work as a public school teacher would make us ideal adoptive parents. I thought about giving up the expensive, unpleasant treatments for good and turning to a series of steps over which we’d at least have some control. I saw us passing a test my body had failed.

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For a while I thought we’d adopt from Ethiopia, but then ethical concerns about that country’s surging program emerged, and officials there halted new adoptions. Perhaps Haiti would be better—we met with an agency that processed Haitian adoptions, and I spoke to a woman who’d adopted a Haitian daughter. But the agency couldn’t assure us that the same thing that happened in Ethiopia would not happen in Haiti, another country with rumors of coercive, unethical practices and a sudden spike in adoptions from the United States.

In my support group, we talked occasionally about adoption, sharing news about programs we considered favorable: wait times less than two years, comparatively low fees, a chance of adopting an infant. I told the group I’d read that you could get a newborn from Morocco in about a year. A couple of women leaned forward: And?

You have to get an in-country medical exam, I explained. And convert to Islam, if you’re not Muslim.

I’d brought up Moroccan adoptions as a way of joking about our desperation, and people laughed. But the truth was, I’d thought about it—imagined myself getting religion at age 35 and also deceiving a foreign government with a fake conversion. Either way I’d be a mother, the experience of religiosity or deception—or deception that turned religious—integrated into the story of my family.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Parul and Nate Goetz didn’t know about Resolve: The National Infertility Association when they were struggling with infertility, though “it would have been useful,” Nate said. I actually met them through Resolve—they visited my support group to talk about the foundation they started in 2011, which seeks to educate infertile couples about domestic adoption and provide financial assistance to couples adopting after unsuccessful infertility treatment. At the time they were meeting with couples and small groups in their home, for free.

Before they adopted, Nate and Parul spent years under a reproductive endocrinologist’s care. Together and individually they saw a psychologist at Duke Fertility, and they attended an eight-week-long support group with other couples in treatment there. By then, after six miscarriages in five years, they’d stopped treatment and were the only couple in the group who did not bring a pregnancy to term.

Parul said that after their last loss, twins, she’d finally come to accept that fertility treatments would not work and that what she’d always imagined as a happy experience—starting a family—was becoming unsustainably stressful. Still, it was hard for her to give up on trying. She had a professional doctorate of pharmacy and a lot of responsibility at her job as a clinical pharmacologist. “At this point in my life,” she said, “I’d never had a failure.”

They’d been mostly silent with family and friends about their repeat miscarriages and their fear they might never have a child. When Parul’s younger sister, one of the only people she’d told about their fertility problems, gave birth in Los Angeles, Parul found out through a call from her father. She’d had no idea that her sister was pregnant.

Parul flew to be with her sister and meet her niece the next day. Though her sister had thought she was protecting Parul’s feelings, Parul was hurt by the decision she made to keep the birth secret. “All the emotions of wanting to be a mom and not being a mom came out,” she told me; in retrospect, she thinks she was too hard on her sister. She bossed her about breast-feeding and nutrition—all the things she’d read about and planned for her child. I thought of my own childless time: how lonely I felt, how separate from other women, but also how ready to make a decision, to stop living in the liminal space of childless. Parul came home to North Carolina a week later and talked to Nate about what they truly wanted: a child, they decided, whether or not he or she was genetically related to them.

We were sitting together in their living room, a comfortable but minimally decorated space where Nate and Parul met with other couples to give their domestic adoption seminars. Aldo, their dog, snored in a corner; Noah, the son they adopted at 1 week old, was at preschool.

“When we were trying, we tried to imagine what the child would look like,” Parul said.

“You invest in that concept.”

“You become trapped in it,” Nate added.

Isolated from most everyone outside the clinic, Parul and Nate didn’t know anyone who’d gone through something like their experience, and by the time they decided to pursue adoption, they didn’t know anyone from that world either. They hired a consultant who talked them through the steps of adoption during a series of phone conversations. They completed a home study and selected an agency, then began compiling the adoptive-family profile the agency would use to match them with a birth mother. But the night they matched and had to decide to travel to Kentucky, their consultant, who’d charged them $2,500, was on vacation and unavailable.

Parul and Nate don’t regret any decisions that led them to their son, but they note the emotional distance they felt from the consultant, who told them I’m not a therapist, as if deflecting any claim on her empathy.

“The information was good, but it was also just business,” Parul said.

The adoption business, Nate added, “has very little empathy, and that’s a problem. You’re talking about three different people: the birth mother, the child, the adoptive parents. It requires a great deal of empathy.”

This perceived lack of empathy was one inspiration for their foundation—they thought they could do better than the impersonal, businesslike, and piecemeal approach they’d found with their consultant. Another inspiration was a desire to pay homage to their son’s birth mother. “We were so moved by her selfless act of love,” Parul said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we give thanks?’ ”

They send photos and letters describing their son’s life to the adoption agency; she can choose to collect them or get in touch. Mostly, they don’t hear from her.

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Most primate babies are what is known as semiprecocial: not as helpless at birth as a baby rabbit or rat but requiring a lot of costly caretaking; attractive not only to their mothers but to other members of their species. This can work out well for mothers, who may need to hand off their infants while foraging, and sometimes less well for babies, who are occasionally kidnapped by ill-prepared but highly interested adolescents. Primate mothers have even been documented as oblivious or insensitive to an accidental switch. And zookeepers will often place primate infants with adoptive mothers, either to broaden the gene pool of a breeding group or when a birth mother rejects her infant.

Human parents usually require help, from grandparents, family and friends, day cares and schools. It’s hard to imagine human families without the recourse of adoption—there is no guarantee we’ll live long enough to see our offspring safely to adulthood or that some other misfortune won’t separate birth parents and their children. In the United States alone, some 120,000 adoptions are completed each year, which is about double the number of births by in vitro fertilization. Of parents seeking to adopt, three-quarters are infertile or subfertile (subfertile people experience reduced fertility or prolonged times to conception).

Still, adoption can be as frightening an unknown—Didion’s “terra incognita”—as the process of assisted reproduction. We’ve all heard the nightmare stories of adoptions that go wrong for the birth mother, the child, the parents-to-be. Nate and Parul told me one: Two clients pursued an adoption with an unvetted domestic adoption agency. The birth mother, who chose the adoptive parents and completed the relinquishment period, neglected to tell them that the child’s father was in prison. The agency neglected to determine his whereabouts. Maybe the birth mother thought that because he was in prison he had no rights. He was released, and he claimed the child, against the wishes of the birth mother and to the despair of the adoptive parents she had chosen.

Stories like this one have long made domestic adoption a fearful choice for the infertile, who perceive the risk of emotional trauma and financial loss as too similar to what they have already endured in the fertility clinic. Often, we have become so used to failure that we accept it as our due, so self-focused that we define it only in relation to our own experience. Of course something will go wrong—the birth mother will change her mind, will want the child back after we have held him, fed him, fallen in love with him.

This is one reason that for the past couple of decades so many American adoptive parents have been drawn to international adoption. By the 1990s, better access to contraception, a lower teen birthrate, and decreased social stigma surrounding unmarried parenting meant that fewer American-born infants were available. International adoption looked simpler and less expensive, with far more infants available; by the year 2000, U.S. adoptions from other countries had doubled, to about 20,000 a year. (Because of ethical concerns over programs such as the ones Richard and I researched, that number has since been cut by more than half.) The children were presented as orphans in need of homes; their surviving family members, if they had any, were presumably too poor and far away to take them back. These family members would be grateful to have their children raised in a prosperous country like America, and in a few years the child could return for a tour of her birth country.

My friends Mark and Rachel Alexander saw adoption as the best way to add to their family when they began the process of adopting Dejen, their son, who was born in Ethiopia. The Alexanders already had a daughter, Violet, when Rachel had a miscarriage at age 39. (Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Rachel became more attracted to adoption than to assisted reproduction. She had a close colleague who had adopted from Ethiopia and who recommended There Is No Me Without You, a book by Melissa Fay Greene that detailed the plight of thousands of children in Ethiopia orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mark and Rachel looked forward not only to another child in the family but also to becoming a multicultural family. Mark is an artist, Rachel a family physician who specializes in transgender health and HIV care.

“When you get into it, you think it’s a kind of pure thing, to help some little boy or girl whose parents are dead or unable to take care of them, and at the same time to have the larger family you want. Everybody wins,” Mark told me. “But of course it’s more complicated than that.”

At first they envisioned adopting a toddler, but the more Mark thought about the challenges of toddlerhood, and the age difference such a young child would share with Violet, who was then 7, the more he was attracted to their agency’s “waiting children”—kids slightly older or with special needs, who were considered harder to place. Scrolling through photos on the agency’s website, Mark noticed a photo of a 4-year-old boy with round cheeks and soft, brown curls, holding one hand over his chest. “He looks like a sweetie,” Mark told his wife.

And he was. Just months later, after completing multiple rounds of paperwork, Mark and Rachel flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and went directly to the orphanage to meet Dejen. Children about to be adopted are prepared for the arrival of their new families with photos and reminders about the day they’ll arrive. Dejen, who’d been playing with a group of children, jumped up and ran across the courtyard, leaping into their arms. “It was pretty wonderful,” Mark said.

They spent the next couple of days with Dejen, then took him to the embassy to complete his adoption paperwork. On the fourth day, they left him at the orphanage and took a four-hour Jeep trip into Awasa and another two-hour drive to Arbegona, the remote town closest to Dejen’s birth family. They passed beautiful, rugged scenery that also gave them a glimpse of the poverty they’d read about: intricately woven reed huts, a field plowed by a single ox dragging a sharpened eucalyptus limb. At a community center in Arbegona, they were introduced by their translator to the social worker who helped arrange the adoption and to Dejen’s aunt and uncle, who cared for him before he went to live in the orphanage. They had made a two-hour journey on foot to meet them. Such introductions are common—they create a sense of openness about the adoption process but also provide adoptive parents a chance to collect resources and information about their child’s birth family. Mark took hundreds of photographs.

Through the translator, he and Rachel asked about Dejen’s birth mother. What was she like? Tall, they were told, with a great sense of humor. Everyone in town loved her. How did she die? They couldn’t be sure; she was sick for a long time, and the nearest hospital was a prohibitive six-hour drive from their home. When Mark and Rachel returned to the hotel with other adoptive families, they were struck by the similarities of stories people had been told—so many birth mothers who were tall and lovable and funny. But, they reminded themselves, many people are remembered in general, glowing terms after they’re gone.

Back home, they settled into life as a family of four. Mark and Rachel put together a book of photographs of Ethiopia and of Dejen’s family, and when he got a little older, they would sit and talk to him about the way he became part of their life. Your parents loved you very much, they would tell him, but they died. And Dejen would say, No, my parents didn’t die. Well, yes, I’m sorry, they did, they’d say. No, he always said. My parents aren’t dead.

Eventually he told them that he believed the man and woman who’d presented themselves as his aunt and uncle were in fact his parents. Stories like this one were becoming common in Ethiopian adoptions—the presence of translators and corruption, the absence of documentation such as birth and death certificates, and overwhelming interest from wealthy countries made it hard to tell whether birth families were fully informed about the way Western-style adoptions work and whether the children were truly orphaned.

In 2014, Mark and Rachel hired an Ethiopian investigator, who traveled to Arbegona to look into Dejen’s birth story but didn’t discover anything definitive. They felt it was their responsibility to Dejen, but it’s not like they would have sent him home—he’s their son. A 10-year-old boy who loves soccer and books and remote control cars and is sometimes rigid and anxious. I remember visiting their house once for brunch and seeing a list of numbered rules, the sort you might see in a classroom, posted in the dining room. I learned later that the family had made the rules together as a way of making mealtimes more peaceful. “Dejen thrives at school,” Mark explained, noting how in this way—with an insistence on schedules and clear expectations—he is temperamentally like Rachel but also a good match for Mark, who sees his own, more casual approach to life, his resistance to schedules and timelines, as a challenge he needs to work on for his whole family.

Like all families, theirs is a work in progress. They go to therapy, are part of an adoptive-family community, and last year attended an Ethiopian culture camp in Virginia. For Dejen, thinking about his adoption and the loss of his original family, country, and culture, plus the simple fact that being born in Ethiopia makes him different from most of his peers, can be extremely stressful. Mark and Rachel try to honor Ethiopia’s history and culture, but Mark also notes that their son is black, while Violet, Mark, and Rachel are white, and that makes for another kind of navigation.

“I was thinking, for instance, how if I was black I couldn’t do what I do, which frequently is walk around neighborhoods pointing cameras at houses,” Mark told me in an email. “And of course I worry for Dejen and for how difficult it will be, and already is, for him to navigate being black, and on top of that being in a white family.

“I remember feeling so in love with Dejen right away, and feeling so lucky to have him, but also feeling like the whole thing was a tragedy, even before we suspected that his aunt and uncle were actually his parents,” he continued. “Maybe life is really just like that. Actually I’m pretty sure it is—and we don’t really do what it takes to fix it.”

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

We don’t really do what it takes to fix it. What if all the money spent on international adoption went toward development in those countries—would the “aunts and uncles” of Ethiopia or Haiti be able to keep their children? What if the money spent on domestic adoption went to education and food and housing for birth mothers—would Kate, the young woman whose generosity inspired the Goetzes’ foundation, have kept her baby? What if all the money spent on IVF went toward health care for the poor? Could I fund instead someone else’s more direly needed reproductive care?

Adoption and IVF are often treated as radically opposed choices, each with its own separate virtues. The adoptive parents were not selfish; they used their resources to do some good. They saved a child and enlarged their own community. They saw beyond genetics, skin color, background. The IVF parents were maybe selfish but definitely lucky; they didn’t have to get involved with anyone else’s pain. In their child they see a mother’s eyes, a grandfather’s stubborn streak or gift for mathematics.

But look at the obstacles to both kinds of birth stories, and you’ll see that there is a kinship between them. We might cheer the adoptive family or pity the fertility patient, but they are offered little in the way of the support that matters. A $13,400 federal tax credit, retroactive and nonrefundable, favors adoptive families of means and hardly covers the associated expenses. Most insurance plans cover few of the costs of fertility treatment.

For people who reason that adoption is good because it means a woman did not abort her fetus, IVF can be seen negatively or positively. On the negative side, the IVF patient, like the abortion patient, is interfering with nature, with God’s creation. She is exerting too much control when we expect her to take what comes, grasping through science instead of accepting with dignity and faith. But more positively, perhaps the extra embryos created in an IVF cycle can be adopted, treated as “snowflake babies” whose home is selected by the original gamete bearers, rather than as collections of cells that might be donated to a fertility clinic or destroyed when the patients no longer need them. By participating in the “adoption,” the IVF patient and recipient parents-to-be wittingly or unwittingly bolster the argument that embryos are children.

And closer still: The adoptive family does not give up on genetic links after all. New research shows that we are natured by our nurture. I once audited an evolutionary biology class in which the professor explained that we usually conceptualize genes as architects drawing blueprints. Instead, she suggested, think of genes as trucks pulling up to a loading dock, full of materials and waiting for instructions from lived experience. So a fruit fly’s genetically coded number of bristles can be altered by water temperature at the pupal stage. And so, when a parent adopts, she is not merely accepting what someone else’s genetic lottery hands her. She is part of that lottery too.

“It is unfortunate to hear the label ‘biological mother’ applied to a woman who has given birth to a child and given it up for adoption,” writes Sarah Hrdy in Mother Nature, her book on maternal instinct. “Such a woman is more nearly the genetic or gestational mother. By contrast to a genetic donor, the biological mother nourishes, nurtures, and provides the environment in which the infant develops both physically and psychologically.”

Even the brilliant Hrdy wades into tricky waters with her correction of biological—what about that phrase “given it up for adoption”? A birth mother I know, a talented young poet who had a daughter at 20 and still regularly communicates with both the child and her adoptive mothers, takes issue with give up, which implies a lack of care, choice, or agency. I asked her if placed sounded better. She thought for a while, then told me that there weren’t any words that worked.

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Like Frost (“Good fences make good neighbors”) and Shakespeare (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”), Didion is sometimes misapprehended outside of context. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” a quote from The White Album, sounds to some like an argument for the importance and usefulness of storytelling; it is even the reassuring title of my Everyman’s Library edition of her collected essays. But Didion isn’t a reassuring writer, and The White Album isn’t about the uplifting or salvational nature of stories—it’s about the collapse of narrative, its uselessness in the face of chaos.

Following progressive adoptive parenting advice, Didion and Dunne created and retold a “choice narrative” for Quintana Roo, with Dunne describing the way he selected the beautiful baby girl with a ribbon tied in her dark hair (“Not that baby … that baby. The baby with the ribbon”) and Didion describing the call from the doctor who delivered her, which came while she was in the shower. “Do that baby,” Quintana would beg them. Or, “Tell the part about the shower.”

Later, Didion realized that the narrative that she thought her child accepted and found solacing was also a source of anxiety: What if you hadn’t answered the phone when Dr. Watson called, she would suddenly say. What if you hadn’t been home, what if you couldn’t meet him at the hospital, what if there’d been an accident on the freeway, what would happen to me then?”

The story she told did not hold together; it was not sufficient to allay Quintana’s fear of abandonment and instability, which began with her birth story. Didion wrote that after Quintana’s official adoption, at 7 months, she thought that fear had left them; only later did she realize that it would reside in her daughter forever. There is no such thing as an uncomplicated adoption, no matter how fortuitous it seems. No one just adopts, because no child is ever just adopted.

It is impossible for stories to protect us or to travel unchanged through time, but still we lean on them. Courting a sense of adoptive-parent fatedness was a way of claiming an identity that allowed me to feel lucky and special, possessed of a unique story instead of driven to last resort. I held on to it as a possibility for a long time, checking websites, reading blogs of happy families, scrolling through descriptions of kids with a love of animals or sports or nature, kids with glasses and toothy grins and cartoon-character T-shirts. A representative from the adoption agency I chose warned me that her agency preferred to work with people who were done with fertility treatment—it was too difficult, in their experience, to balance both pursuits at once. I told her we were done, for now, but the truth was, we weren’t. As complicated and risky as IVF felt to me, I worried more about getting adoption wrong—choosing the wrong country or state, the wrong agency. I never got far in the process, never completed a home study or enrolled in a foster-care class, never formally contracted with an adoption agency or paid any fees. I still get letters in the mail from my county’s foster-care program. I recycle them guiltily but don’t ask to be taken off the list.

Nate and Parul are careful to avoid the narrative of fate when talking to their clients, even though the perception of fate—six babies, six miscarriages—played a role in their adoption of the boy they named Noah.

“We tell people adoption isn’t the way to build a family,” Nate said. “It’s a way.” They have clients who go on to adopt successfully and clients who return to IVF, donor-egg, or donor-embryo cycles and are successful that way. Some of their clients, even the ones who have not adopted, come back as volunteers or donors to their foundation. They attend potlucks and Halloween parties. The Goetzes, once isolated from other couples and families, now have a wide circle of friends who know what it means to wait for the life they wanted.

All families start as stories, however true or untrue they become. A person has something in mind—a refrigerator covered in bright tempera paintings, a whole afternoon watching frogs in a pond. Board books chewed at their edges.

Mispronounced words. Accidental wisdom. Milky breath. The tooth fairy. Ballet recitals. Time standing still and time moving too quickly. A community of people who feel the same. Feeling the same as the community.

The life an infertile person seeks comes to her not by accident and not by fate but by hard-fought choices. How to put together the portfolio of photographs. How to answer at the home study. What clinic or doctor or procedure. Donor egg or donor sperm or donor embryo. Open or closed adoption. What country, what boxes to check or uncheck. What questions to ask, and ask again. When to start and when to stop.

What to say when her child says, Tell me my story.