When I was pregnant with my son, I wrote an article called “Gestating on the Job” that shared tips for handling potentially uncomfortable workplace situations during pregnancy. Since then, thanks to my friendship with a woman who has had trouble conceiving naturally, I’ve learned a lot about a different kind of gestation: adoption.
As I’ve learned about the adoption process through my friend’s experience, what’s been most surprising is how little I knew in the first place. While everyone, even those who don’t have children, are relatively familiar with pregnancy and childbirth—at least at a high, sans-gory-details level—few people are aware of the complicated logistics, legal requirements, and financial risks that accompany adoption.
The adoption process comes with a whole host of emotional challenges, but it also presents some unexpected professional situations. And while it may seem like these obstacles apply to a small sector of people, the truth is that the policies and rules that dictate how adoptive parents are treated set the tone for all parents working within an organization.
Let’s start with the lengthy, unpredictable “gestation period.” Barring medical complications, most pregnant women can anticipate a 40-ish week pregnancy and a mostly accurate due date. Though it’s not a sure thing, the ballpark date allows moms and dads to prepare for their impending absences by training a temporary replacement or winding down projects. But for adoptive parents, a “due date” is elusive. Parents going through international adoption are at the mercy of foreign courts, which can set hearing dates on short notice, requiring multiple last-minute international trips. Domestic adoptions are similarly unpredictable, with many parents going through several “failed matches” with birth mothers before finally bringing a baby home. The result is a process that can take, quite literally, years.
Because of the volatile timeline, prospective adoptive parents face difficult decisions about notifying their managers and colleagues. Should they share their plans and risk having to publically announce heartbreaking news when a birth mother changes her mind or a foreign court delays adoptions indefinitely? While pregnant women face a similar predicament, most can safely discuss their pregnancy after the first trimester, but prospective adoptive parents might experience consecutive losses (in the case of my friend, two in under six months). Or, from a professional development standpoint, should they disclose a decision that could force them to miss weeks of work during the “gestation period” for home inspections, birth mother visits, and court dates, before they even take formal family leave?
There’s no easy answer to these questions, but it’s clear that a corporate culture that embraces flexibility and provides support to prospective adoptive parents would likewise benefit biological parents, so it’s important for everyone to advocate for policies that help parents across the board.
I had no idea adoption could span such great lengths of time, and I was equally unaware of the adoption process’s financial risks. I knew adoption was expensive—court fees, attorney retainers, and last-minute travel (and that’s just for starters). But I didn’t realize that prospective adoptive parents are at risk of losing all the money they’ve “invested” should the adoption fall through at the last minute.
For example, one prospective adoptive mother I’ve spoken to, a high school teacher, was one of the four couples who were in Russia about to adopt a child in late 2012, just before the country began prohibiting American adoption of Russian children. She came home without the child she’d been waiting for (and, at that point, visiting) and lost the tens of thousands of dollars she’d spent on home inspections, Russian court fees, and travel. Along the same lines, couples adopting domestically can pay close to $50,000-$60,000 between attorney fees and prenatal care for the birth mother, regardless of if the adoption is ever finalized.
I’m certainly not arguing against the validity of these costs or the importance of legal regulations that protect birth mothers and adoptive parents from exploitation. I do think, though, that our culture is uncomfortable with discussing the financial implications of having any type of family, and that both biological and adoptive parents would be more prepared to make smart professional decisions if there were more accessible information about the financial impacts of raising a family. Our existing corporate culture treats family planning as a liability associated with women of childbearing age, not an everyday activity undertaken by both sexes. This outdated stance puts women in the awkward position of having to stealthily research leave policies and their financial implications, often only understanding the full details after they’ve announced their pregnancy or intention to adopt.
Imagine if employers distributed information about financially planning for your family the same way they distribute information on financially planning for retirement, promoting their policies and sharing best practices the same way they do for 401(k)s. This would help create a corporate culture that encourages informed employees and leverages the strengths of all employees, regardless of sex, age, or family planning choices.
Finally, adoptive mothers are much less likely to get paid maternity leave because they don’t qualify for short-term disability. Since adoptive mothers aren’t “disabled” by childbirth, they don’t have access to short-term disability, the vehicle through which most women take at least some paid leave. Adoptive mothers can take unpaid leave through FMLA, but paid leave will either be the result of vacation time or a special program offered by their employers.
While the fact that adoptive mothers aren’t going through the same physical process is obvious, the bonding time between parents and children is still a critical period, regardless of genetic connection. The fact that adoptive mothers aren’t covered in the same way reveals the outdated model of paid maternity leave. Classifying childbirth and post-partum recovery as “short-term disabilities” pathologizes motherhood, encouraging corporate leaders to treat pregnant women and mothers like vulnerable creatures. We shouldn’t consider motherhood a medical condition, nor should we consider bonding with an adopted child like an extended vacation. If businesses offered paid or partially paid leave to parents in both camps, they’d attract highly qualified workers and create a culture that promotes employee retention.
It’s difficult for me to comprehend the emotional experience that my friend has gone through after two adoption attempts have resulted in painful, sudden failures. It’s even more difficult for me to express how much I admire her strength as she enters into her third match in six months. While biological and adoptive parents face different challenges, it’s truly in the best interest of career-loving biological parents to advocate for the rights of career-loving adoptive parents. Doing so will create a more welcoming workplace for families of all kinds.