People often ask me whether it wasn’t hard adopting in France at the age of 50. No, I reply. It was much easier than waiting 30 years for a man to agree to have a baby with me. I am from the first generation of women who had real choice about when and if to have a child, with the corollary that men also had real choice. I’ll get back to that. But as for adoption…
Adopting in France is a simple matter – at least it was at the time, 15 years ago, when I had the joy of being entrusted with a very small girl from Mali, my daughter Djeneba. At the time, I had recently lost my mother, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 75, four years after my father passed away. My theory is that, in his absence, she lost the will to live.
I had always wanted children, but it hadn’t happened. And my parents had not been very supportive of the idea of adoption as a single parent. So I let the matter ride.
One day, while I was still grieving for my mother, I learned through a chance conversation here in Paris that it was possible in France for single people to adopt. I went along to an information meeting, terrified that I might be rejected on grounds of nationality (American) or age (49 at the time), and was surprised to find that I was neither the only single person at the meeting, nor the only foreigner, nor the oldest.
What I learned was that single people and married couples may adopt, but not couples who are living together. I believe this is changing now as France rethinks its policies on a range of lifestyle issues including gay marriage, surrogate mothers, etc. At the time, it was a firm policy – and, happily, one that included me in.
The rest of the French phase was very simple, a matter of filling out forms, visiting a psychiatrist and a social worker, and waiting for a document, known as the agrément, that would authorize me to adopt. It usually takes nine months – ha ha – to obtain the agrément, but in my case they gave it to me in just six months, perhaps speeding things up because of my age, or perhaps, I like to hope, because they thought I’d be a good mother.
And this was major. For the first time in my life, I was being certified as a good prospective mother. After years – no, decades – in the trenches of the sex wars that ensued when women began demanding equality, after three long-term relationships with men who wanted and then didn’t want children, I was finally being given permission to satisfy my heart’s deepest desire. It was just fabulous! I would be a mother.
With the agrément in hand, I was able to proceed to the next stage: applying to adopt a child. In order to adopt a French baby, you had to be both French and married. As I failed on both counts, I was channeled toward international adoption.
This meant appearing at an office on Boulevard Saint-Germain to meet with a woman sitting behind a computer. She fed in my personal data and out came a list of 17 countries where I met the criteria for adoption. Great!
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but in fact there are only three where you stand a chance of success – Russia, Romania and Mali.’
‘Hang on a moment,’ said I. ‘What about some of these other countries on the list, Chile for example?’ I had friends who had adopted in Chile and were very happy.
‘Well,’ said the woman, ‘you can apply to Chile, but they have a rule saying that adoptive parents can be no more than 40 years older than the child. This means you would be adopting a child of 10 or older.’
Everyone I’d spoken with about adopting, including the psychiatrist, had said it was best to adopt a baby if at all possible. And I liked the idea of accompanying a child through the earliest stages of life’s journey. Exit Chile.
‘What about the Philippines?’ I asked. I had worked there on a journalism fellowship, and knew that there were many children waiting for adoption.
‘No,’ she said. ‘You can apply, but unless you are Catholic you have little hope of success.’
Once I’d understood that there were really only three countries, my decision was easy. While posted in Moscow as a journalist, I had visited orphanages and found the conditions frightening. The children awaiting foreign adoption had psychological or physical problems and were receiving minimal care. By all accounts, the situation in Romania was far worse. As a single woman, I didn’t feel prepared to take on a child with problems beyond the basic fact of abandonment. I wanted to give a chance in life to a normal child.
Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, was the obvious choice. Its West African tradition of extended families, I hoped, meant that the children awaiting adoption were more likely to be surrounded by tender care. As it turns out, I was right.
I mailed my application to Mali’s Ministry of Women, Children and Family. One year later, I received a call to say that Djeneba was waiting for me. I flew to Bamako and met my daughter – a beautiful, loving girl who was suffering from serious malnutrition. As soon as I began to feed her, she perked up like a little flower that needed watering. It was by far the most moving experience of my life.
The entire adoption process took 18 months – the span of two pregnancies. It was easy and very joyful. Absolutely nothing hard about it.
Now Djeneba is a teen, with all the issues that go with it. But I am happy to say that she adopted me as her mother as quickly as I adopted her as my child. Our bond is very strong. She is the light of my life.
Now then – getting back to men. My generation of women, born not too long after World War II, was the first to experience true sexual freedom. It was fantastic, but while the pill empowered us, it also empowered men to avoid the fundamental consequence of sexual love: conception. Like many other women, I wasn’t strong enough to counter a man’s refusal to have children. I wanted a full partner in childrearing. I didn’t cheat. I took the pill.
This is how I ended up childless, and very sad, at 50. But, as they say, a door closes, a door opens. Without that experience, I would not have considered adoption. My darling girl would not be in her room sleeping, as she is now, after partying last night with a boy she wants to date. It’s heading toward noon. Soon she will get up and tell me about it. My life is very full.
This article was originally published in Panache, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Paris Alumnae Network.