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A better life
Jul 13, 2023
Season 8 | Episode 9

A better life

Susan always knew she was adopted. Her perception of the adoption industry changed after she placed her own baby for adoption in her 20s.

Susan grew up in a suburb of Chicago, with loving parents who adopted her when they couldn’t conceive. Her parents explained to her that her birth mother loved her very much, but was a teenager when she got pregnant and didn’t feel like she could raise a child. Beyond that, they didn’t know much about her birth mom. In the 1980s, when Susan was adopted, many adoptions were closed, meaning the birth parents didn’t have contact with their child after the adoption process was finalized. 

As a teenager, Susan started to search for her birth parents, eventually reuniting with her birth mother at age 17. 

Then in Susan’s junior year of college, she learned her birth control had failed and she was pregnant. “I pretty much immediately said, I’m going to place this baby for adoption,” she told us in an interview. It was the option that made the most sense to her. Susan has always been pro-choice, but had long felt that since her birth mother had made this decision for her, she would make the same one if she had an unplanned pregnancy. 

That decision to place her daughter for adoption would set off a chain of events that changed the way she saw the adoption industry forever. 

Today, Susan is a therapist working for an organization that serves adopted children of color and their families. Her journey through the world of adoption, as an adopted person, a birth mother, and a therapist, is both uncomfortable and illuminating. 

If you liked this episode, share it with a friend. And to get even more Uncomfortable, subscribe to our newsletter. Each Friday you’ll get a note from Reema Khrais and some recs from the “This Is Uncomfortable” team. If you missed it, here’s the latest issue.

If you want to tell us what you thought about the episode or anything else, email us at uncomfortable@marketplace.org or fill out the form below.

This is Uncomfortable July 13, 2023 Transcript


Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.


Reema Khrais

Susan was just 17. She was standing in front of a closed door and on the other side of it was her birth mom. This would be Susan’s first time meeting her. She took a deep breath and opened the door.


Susan: I remember her standing up like right away and just like rushing over to me and giving me a huge hug. And she was crying and like touching my hair and touching my face.


Reema Khrais

They were in a bland conference room at an adoption agency, the same agency that had facilitated Susan’s adoption so many years ago..


 They embraced each other, her birth mom kept saying Susan’s name over and over again… 


Susan:it was like, you know, this has been 17 years in the making. I felt her love for me and I felt her grief right away.


Reema Khrais

They shared the same curly hair, same eyebrows. Susan was in a kind of dream-like state. 


Susan: I remember her smell. I remember being like, oh, that’s what she smells like , and like really liking her perfume. 


it was a lot to take in, but it was like, oh, thank God this is finally happening. I’m not gonna have to live with these questions like, I am gonna know who I am, where I come from. And, um, there won’t be someone out there missing


Reema Khrais

That longing, all the years spent wondering…it was difficult.


For a while, those feelings left her body and mind. But what teenage Susan didn’t know at the time is that many years later she’d be missing someone else, she’d have more unanswered questions, and she’d find herself in a very similar reunion, only this time, Susan would be reuniting with her child. 


I’m Reema Khrais and welcome to This is Uncomfortable, a show from Marketplace about life and how money complicates it…


And today we’re taking a look at the ways money can complicate adoption. There’s such a huge range of adoption stories out there. It’d be impossible to cover every perspective, so we’re not going to try to do that with this episode. Instead we’re focusing on Susans’ story. We’re only using her first name cause we’re telling her story just from her perspective. 


It’s pretty remarkable and hearing it made me think more deeply about adoption — who profits from it, who can be hurt in the process and just how emotionally nuanced it can be.


Susan always knew that she was adopted. Her parents didn’t know much about her birth mom, just that she was Polish and that she was pretty young, which is why she placed Susan for adoption. When Susan was a kid, she had a hard time explaining her identity to people 


Susan:When I tell people that I’m Polish, they don’t believe me. They think I’m something else. I must be something else. But I don’t know what that is. And I don’t know how to talk to my parents about that. They didn’t have that info 


Reema Khrais

Susan has brown eyes and dark curly hair… no one knew anything about her birth father. 


She was an only child, her parents adopted her because they couldn’t conceive on their own. They’d never expressed anything but respect and empathy for Susan’s birth mom.


Susan describes her childhood as pretty happy. She grew up middle class in Chicago. She was athletic, and a strong student who volunteered in her spare time. 


Her parents would often tell her, “you were the perfect child.” And she knows they meant well but looking back, it made her feel like there wasn’t space for imperfections. 


Susan:I think for a lot of adopted people, there’s a sense of like, you know, we’ve gotta, we’ve gotta earn our place , we’ve gotta earn our keep in our families. we’ve already lost one family and we don’t wanna lose another. And so I think for some adopted people that shows up as like, you know, being perfectionists and trying to do the most all the time.


Reema Khrais

She tried hard not to get in trouble, not make waves. One of the few times she can remember getting into an argument with her parents ended with her yelling at her mom, slamming the basement door, and turning up her favorite song, Time After Time, by Cyndi Lauper 


Susan: I remember lying there.  just like lying on the ground listening to this song and crying and and thinking about my birth mom 


it was like maybe the first time where I didn’t. Like, it didn’t make sense to me that I was crying. Like I knew there was something like big there, but like I didn’t entirely understand it.


Reema Khrais

The lyrics stuck with her.


Susan: if you’re lost, you can look and you will find me. 


Reema Khrais

There was a deep well of sadness within her that she couldn’t quite name


Then when Susan turned 15, the feelings mushroomed, she couldn’t contain them anymore. She wanted to start an earnest search for her birth mom. 


Susan was adopted in the 80s, when closed adoptions were the norm, meaning there’s no contact between the birth mother and child after the adoption is finalized, adoptees get little to no information about the identities of their birth parents. Record keeping at adoption agencies was also pretty inconsistent. 


But Susan took a first step…she went to the adoption agency and asked …do you have any records relating to my birth mom? 


And it turns out …they did! The records had just been sitting untouched in an office for 15 years….


They handed her a manila folder. 


Susan: I remember being in my kitchen um, and just like devouring, the information, like just sitting at the kitchen table and like, oh my God, like what is this? 


Reema Khrais

The file didn’t include her birth parents’ names, but she got answers to some other big questions.


Susan: birth father is Mexican, native American , so that was like, okay, finally I know what I am. They also gave my parents, um, a letter that my birth mother had written to me like several days after she gave birth to me that they had had that whole time


Reema Khrais: Oh my gosh. And they just didn’t bother to give it to your parents or even let them know that it exists?


Susan: As far as I can tell yeah. 


Reema Khrais: it just blows my mind


Susan: it was, you know, this like incredibly heartfelt, like heart-wrenching letter. 


Susan: I’m pretty sure what she said was like, that she loved me that, like I was loved that this was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. She explained why she placed me for adoption, that she was, um, 16 when she got pregnant, 17 when she had me. And, um, you know, that it wasn’t for like lack of love, but like more of just like, I’m not ready to be a parent and I want you to have a better life. 


Reema Khrais

Susan’s birth mom had also left her a gift


Susan: they also, uh, the agency had had, you know, basically since then, um,

um, a necklace, a necklace that she wanted me to have.


Reema Khrais: oh.


Susan: And like I put that necklace on right away. 


Reema Khrais: Oh


Susan: Um, yeah, I mean it’s just,


Reema Khrais: I can’t even imagine


Susan: I mean, I’m 42 and I’ve known my birth mom, you know, since I was 17. And just like the fact that, you know, this can go straight into all of those feelings. It’s just like such a reminder of like yeah. Like how hard it was and how, 


Reema Khrais: Yeah. 


Susan: important it was for me to like gather these pieces of myself.


Reema Khrais

A couple years later, Susan was seventeen, the age her birth mom had been when Susan was born. She felt ready to meet in person. The adoption agency coordinated the meeting, which is where we started our story. 


After Susan and her birth mom hugged each other in that office conference room, Susan pulled out a photo album.  


Susan: I pretty quickly was like, Hey, like here’s this photo album that my mom, you know, put together for you. Like , you know, this is, let’s look at this so I can like, show you what my life has been like so far. 


Reema Khrais

Susan’s parents were also with her that day, initially they waited outside the room. Susan knew  they were having a hard time with the whole thing 


Susan: I think they even said, we wish you didn’t want this, but we’ll support you getting this I get that they were scared that like I was gonna love her more. She was gonna replace them. It was gonna make things complicated.


Reema Khrais: did you say anything to comfort them or how would you respond to that?


Susan: Yeah. I, I didn’t and I couldn’t like, and I think to some degree I got like, oh, this isn’t my job to like comfort you. Like I’m the kid , and like, you need to be the parents


Reema Khrais

Susan’s parents came to accept her relationship with her birth mom.  


Over the next several months, Susan would visit her birth mom every now and then, they lived just an hour and a half away from each other. 


And eventually Susan met other members of her birth family, including her birth father and her half brothers. It was transformative. 


Meanwhile, Susan began college and was excited about the future. She was majoring in photojournalism with the hopes of one day traveling the world. She had no interest in getting married or having kids, not now, probably never. She wanted to be untethered, a free spirit. 


She got a taste of that her junior year when she traveled to South Africa…When she came back, she started dating a guy at school, Austin. He made her laugh and had beautiful eyes. It was supposed to be a casual thing, but then… 


Susan: and we um you know, we were sexually active and my birth control failed, and I found out that I was pregnant maybe six or seven weeks after that. 


Reema Khrais

Susan was just 20-years-old. 


She remembers sitting on her bed with her boyfriend in the room and a positive pregnancy test in her hand. She felt a tension in the pit of her stomach. 


Susan: There was a fleeting thought of, what if I terminate? What if I have an abortion? Um, and that, you know, it was fleeting. It sort of came and went


Reema Khrais

Susan is pro-choice, always has been. Sitting there on the bed that day, she turned to her boyfriend…


Susan: And I pretty much immediately said, I’m going to place this baby for adoption.  I think I felt this like unconscious or maybe even conscious, like, well, my birth mother did this for me, so I need to do this for someone else. Like I somehow owed her or owed the universe like, I have to do this thing. That’s gonna be really hard. Um, because that was done for me.


Reema Khrais

There was of course another option: to parent the child herself. But that seemed impractical, she was still getting her degree, still financially dependent on her parents. 


Susan: I’m gonna have to finish school while her father like somehow supports us. And I just imagined like, you know, living in like kind of a small, you know, apartment basically, and that they’re just being struggle  and that there wouldn’t be enough time for anything and that there wouldn’t be enough money.


Reema Khrais

Susan felt clear-headed. Adoption was the best route. 


When she was two months pregnant, Susan flipped through the phone book– this was the 90’s– and she called the first adoption facilitator on the list. 


But before we move on with her story, I just want to take a second to explain the basics of how private adoption works within the US:


Agencies typically recruit pregnant people and work on matching them with families hoping to adopt. You can also go through a private attorney and do that process independently. 


While working on this episode, I was surprised to learn that there are far more people who want to adopt infants than there are people who want to place their babies for adoption. As you might expect, adoption fees are very expensive. It can usually cost anywhere from 30 to 60 thousand dollars to adopt a newborn baby domestically. A chunk of that money goes towards legal fees. But the bulk of it goes to the adoption agency itself 


After Susan called up the facilitator from the phonebook, they gave her and her boyfriend Austin, a binder of ten families to choose from. There wasn’t a ton of information. 


Susan: a letter and maybe like one photo of the potential couple.


Reema Khrais

Susan had two big priorities when choosing a family. First, it absolutely had to be an open adoption, meaning everyone involved knows each other and is in regular contact. 


Susan: My child cannot experience what I went through and I will not let that happen and I won’t do this if it’s a closed adoption. my vision is that basically we would get to see her grow up and she would always know that we loved her And that even though we felt like we couldn’t be her day in and day out parents that we, um, were there for her.


Reema Khrais

Second thing was stability. Her baby would need to have the things Susan had growing up, two parents and a comfortable, happy home. 


Susan: I had just sort of been conditioned as an adopted person to value, like, financial security and to value stability over things like blood and like lineage 


Reema Khrais

Paging through that binder of families ….Susan and Austin found one that fit the bill: 


Susan: it was just this very like white picket fence, you know, kind of stereotype of like, the quote perfect family. the mom was planning to be a stay-at-home mom, so it was like, okay, you know, they have the ability to do that. they looked upper middle class, like they owned a home, they were gonna get a dog


Reema Khrais

A picture perfect family. Susan, along with her parents, met the couple. Her parents hit it off with them right away, they ofc had been through an adoption process themselves so they bonded pretty quickly with the couple.  


Now that they’d selected a family, all Susan had to do was wait.


Susan: at that stage it was a little bit of a relief. like we know what’s going to happen and now I just have to get thru this pregnancy 


Reema Khrais

The adoptive family paid for her medical bills, and since she was still in college, Susan’s parents helped out with rent and food 


Then when Susan was five months pregnant, She found she was having a baby girl. She could feel her kicking. She became acutely aware that this was the only time she’d truly have as her daughter’s only mom. Something within her shifted.


Susan: I remember like, uh, it was like springtime and just really feeling like connected to. My daughter and to life and like, I remember like smelling flowers and like talking to her like, you know, these flowers are so beautiful and like, I can’t wait to like, show you flowers. And so yea just start like relating to her as like a person who’s going to be here. 


Reema Khrais

Susan felt the weight of her decision to place her daughter for adoption. How she wouldn’t be the one feeding her crying baby in the middle of the night. Teaching her daughter how to count to ten or clapping when she walked for the first time. She wouldn’t introduce her to all small, beautiful things in the world. 


A wave of doubt washed over her. 


Susan: you know, those feelings of like, I just really love her  and I don’t know if I can go through with this. 


Reema Khrais

Early on, the adoption facilitator had recommended she write a list of all the reasons why she wanted to place her daughter for adoption. She’d think back to it whenever she felt this way. 


Susan: you’re still in college and you’re not married and how would this work? And you know, this is the right thing to do. This is the smart thing to do. You need to stick with your plan.


Reema Khrais

And knowing she’d still be in her daughter’s life brought some amount of comfort. 

The adoptive parents would remind her….

Susan:We believe that you can never have too many people loving a child. You know, there’s nothing you can do that would make us end contact with you.


Reema Khrais

Her brain was telling her: place your daughter for adoption, it’s what she needs. But emotionally it seemed impossible. Still Susan moved forward with the plan. 


On the day of her delivery, she was surrounded by the people she loved. Her parents, her best friend, and the baby’s father, Austin. They weren’t dating anymore, but they were on good terms. 


The couple adopting her daughter would visit the next day. 


Labor was a blur. It lasted 27 hours… it was intense, it was painful ….and then Susan heard her daughter cry. She’d entered the world. The nurses immediately put her on Susan’s chest. 


Susan: I remember her like, holding onto my hospital gown, and we just like looked at each other and I was like, you’ve had a big day today,  And like, her father’s crying, like sobbing and I was just so happy to meet her and I was also really glad to be done with labor, but I was like, you’ve had a really big day.


Reema Khrais

Typically within the first hour or so after birth, a mom will breastfeed her baby, but Susan hesitated


Susan: I was fighting my desire to like bond with her cuz I was like, if I breastfeed, I don’t  think I’ll be able to place her.  if I let myself like really fully go there as a mother, like, I’m just not gonna be able to do it


Reema Khrais

It sounds agonizing…to deny a primal desire to connect with the baby you’ve been growing in your body for months. When it was time to discharge, Susan told the hospital social worker, I’m not ready. 


Susan: I was like, I need another day in the hospital. I’m not ready to separate tomorrow, which is when they like medically would’ve discharged me. So she’s like, okay, I’ll see what I can do. So she got me another day and that’s probably when I started to be like, why do I need more time and, you know, am I doubting this?


Reema Khrais

Seven months earlier, when Susan first contacted the adoption facilitator, it felt like she’d boarded a train, steadily heading towards the moment she’d eventually hand her daughter off to another family.  


After she gave birth, it felt like the train sped up and now all Susan wanted to do was pull the emergency brake. 


Susan: I just kind of kept like denying it until it was like literally a few hours before I was supposed to discharge. And then it was like,  just everything needs to come to a halt. Like I don’t know if I can go through with this.


Reema Khrais

After the break, Susan makes a decision. 


Reema Khrais

Welcome back. When we left off, Susan was considering her options, gaming out what she and Austin, the baby’s father, would need to do if they decided to bring this baby home and start parenting her. 


First Susan called the agency, looking for advice. They told her, remember that list you wrote of all the reasons why you’re doing this? Pull that out…


Susan:I am just like in the feelings of like how much I love her. I don’t even care what’s on this list. It’s totally irrelevant now, now I just have to figure out like, can I walk away from her?


Reema Khrais

Susan needed advice from her parents. 


They were actually back at home, waiting around, WITH the couple planning to adopt Susan’s baby. Because her parents are adoptive parents themselves, she felt like they sympathized more with the couple than they did with her…which stung. Still, Susan was just 21 and wanted guidance from her mom and dad. So she called them from the hospital. 


Susan: my mom was very much like, you can’t do this to them . And, um, if you don’t place her, we’re not gonna pay for your college anymore. And it was this like emotional, um, almost blackmail moment of like, you either do this thing that you said you were gonna do and make these people happy and not bring shame on our family, or


Reema Khrais: Mm-hmm.


Susan: if you’re gonna do this, like you gotta do it without any of the support that you’ve come to rely on from us, and I just like, very quickly hung up the phone and I just lost it.  I mean, money absolutely. Was a factor at that like, very critical time I I had never had to be self-supporting, much less support myself and a baby


Reema Khrais

Looking back, Susan realizes that what she really needed was an unbiased opinion. Her parents felt connected to the adoptive parents…. like her, Austin was in turmoil, and the adoption facilitator, well they’re trying to facilitate the adoption


Susan: the hospital social worker who was like the only neutral party


Reema Khrais: Mm-hmm.


Susan: like came into my room and was like, I hear that you’re having a hard time. You know? Um, very like, empathetic and like, um, um, just like, being kind and like, you know, how can I help you make this decision?


Reema Khrais

The social worker told her…


Susan:I think you already know what you need to do. What do you think that is? It was like assuming that I knew. My answers and I just needed like, permission to say them or something


Reema Khrais: And how did you respond to that?


Susan:  I felt like she deserves to have this life that I believe she’ll get to have with her adoptive family that I didn’t believe I could give her. 


I was like, I think I need to stick with my original plan and um, you know, I just need a little bit more time to say goodbye you know and then I can leave the hospital 


Reema Khrais

Throughout the pregnancy Susan had been listening to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel. One of her favorites was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.” 


Hours before being discharged, alone in that hospital room, Susan and Austin gazed into their daughter’s eyes as they played that song. 


Susan: Yeah. Um, I’m by your side.sail, silver Girl sail on by your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way. and if you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind. Think those are the lyrics. Um, so that was very much what we wanted for her, 


Reema Khrais

They cried as the song played. She decided to go through with the adoption. 


Susan and Austin left the hospital, met up with the adoptive parents, and handed them their baby. Even though she’d made the choice that felt logical, that would leave her free to have the adventurous life she’d dreamed of, the car ride home was excruciating. 


Susan: I didn’t like want to die, but I was like, it would be better if like the car flipped over and I was killed it was almost as if sh- my daughter was dead. 


Reema Khrais

The grief was overwhelming. Yet life continued. Her senior year of college began a week or two after she gave birth. She had classes, exams…she went back to her routines, as if this traumatic thing hadn’t just reshaped her world. 


Susan: I threw myself back into school I can’t just be thinking about this all the time. I can’t just like wallow in this grief I’m just gonna like grind, get this done, graduate. And um, and then go back to like what I thought my life should be like


Reema Khrais

Over the next few months, every now and then, she’d get a packet in the mail with pictures of her daughter, or a phone call with updates.


But Susan started to worry that she and the adoptive parents weren’t on the same page. They only wanted her to visit once or twice a year, while Susan had envisioned visiting more often. She wanted her daughter to feel her love for her. To not experience the same pain she did as an adoptee. 


Susan’s relationship with the adoptive parents started to feel strained. 


Then, six months after giving birth, the parents emailed her. They told her…


Susan: we have wonderful news. we actually were able to adopt a second baby. She’s just a couple weeks younger. Um, you know, we’re so happy that they’re gonna have each other growing up. And I was like, what?


Reema Khrais

The family had apparently adopted this second child six months ago, just weeks after they’d adopted Susan’s daughter…yet they’d never mentioned to her that they had intentions of doing that…


Susan: if this is wonderful news now, why wasn’t it wonderful news six months ago when you first found out that you were gonna adopt another baby? Like, I was just livid. Like I just felt completely deceived, lied to betrayed


Reema Khrais

Susan had imagined her daughter having her parents’ undivided attention, at least initially. But her anger wasn’t really about that.


Susan felt betrayed because she’d shared so many intimate details of her own life with this couple. She’d introduced them to her parents, confided in them about her fears, shared her medical details. And they hadn’t shared that they were adopting two babies, instead of one. 


Susan sat at her desk and began typing them an email. 


Susan: I did not hold back my anger. I didn’t name call and I didn’t threaten and I wasn’t nasty, but I wrote my truth,  I would not have chosen you if I knew that you were the kind of people that thought it was okay to hide this kind of information.


Reema Khrais

She told them she would’ve been happy for them had they told her sooner, but that omitting this big detail hurt her trust in them.  Austin, the baby’s birth father, wrote an email to the couple too, expressing his feelings of anger and betrayal. 


Susan: so we send them our emails and they wrote, the dad wrote back and was like, um, basically like, why can’t you guys just be happy for us? we don’t understand like why you’re so negative 


Reema Khrais

Susan showed us their email exchanges. The adoptive dad told Susan that because of her hostility they were canceling an upcoming visit. Susan apologized, she was planning to leave the country for a two year stint with the Peace Corps, she pleaded to see her daughter before then. 


Months later he wrote back with the worst possible news for Susan


Susan: We’ve consulted with our attorney and they’re advising us to end contact with you. 


Reema Khrais: Oh..


Susan: you’re, you’re too angry to be a part of our family. We don’t think it’s good for us or for our daughter 


Reema Khrais: woww…


Reema Khrais

They’d assured her, throughout her entire pregnancy,  that she would always be connected to their family. Now, No more visits with her daughter.


Susan: I was like, just in shock. And also like, like what can I, like, can I, can they do this and can I fight this? Can I fight this decision? 


Reema Khrais

Throughout the process she had every reason to believe it’d be an open adoption, that she’d have direct contact with her daughter as she grew up. 


Susan leaped into action, she called up everyone she could…and asked what can we do about this? 


Susan:the professionals that I was working with, they were like, don’t worry. We’re gonna talk to them. We’re gonna remind them of what they said and how we operate and why open adoptions best.


Reema Khrais

But that didn’t work. So then Susan appealed to the family directly: 


Susan:I wrote back and was like, will you please reconsider? Like, can we talk? Um, I think I might have said, like, I thought you said there’s never too many people loving a child. Like what happened there? 


Reema Khrais

They wouldn’t budge. Susan had lost contact with her daughter. 


When I first heard this story, well first it shocked me, and then I wondered is that even legal?  


Susan told me that she’d called lawyers but they told her look: the only way you can nullify this adoption is if you can prove that there was fraud. And that’s a tough thing to prove.  Pursuing it would take YEARS and tens of thousands of dollars. And by the time you finish– if you even win, your daughter will be old enough that leaving the adoptive parents and returning to you will be traumatic. But that’s unlikely to even happen, because you’ll probably just lose this case, be out tens of thousands of dollars, and be on even worse terms with these parents. 


So Susan accepted that there would be no quick solution that would reunite her with her daughter. Like Susan, her daughter would grow up not knowing her birth parents. 


Over the years, the parents wouldn’t send anything to Susan directly, but they’d send some updates to Susan’s parents. Susan would send birthday cards to her daughter. She’d keep the message pretty superficial: happy birthday, I’m thinking of you. She wouldn’t dare to say anything that could be construed as inappropriate for fear that the few updates she would get would also be taken away. 


Yet Susan never gave up trying to reconnect. Every few years, she’d write to the parents.


Susan: I would try different strategies. Like one time it was like, Hey, like I’m not even asking to see her anymore. Can we just talk like, as adults, can we have a conversation?


Reema Khrais

She thought, saying the wrong thing made them cut me off. So maybe if I can say the right thing, they’ll reconsider. But nothing worked. Still, she kept reaching out. 


Susan: I want a paper trail that I asked them every few years and they said no, because I want my daughter to know that I didn’t stop trying. And that I don’t know what stories they’re telling her. I don’t even know if she knows she’s adopted


Reema Khrais

Susan put everything in a binder, with the hope that one day, if she could ever reconnect with her daughter, she’d be able to show her how hard she’d fought to be in her life. 


Susan: I would send her, um, birthday and Christmas presents every year.


Reema Khrais: really? Like what?


Susan: like toys or cute dresses or like books. but I didn’t know like, Are these presents just like going into the ether?

Are they getting tossed out? I don’t know.


Reema Khrais

As the years passed, Susan kept moving forward.. She went to graduate school and became a therapist, specializing in marriage and family counseling


She came to forgive her mom for issuing that ultimatum while she was lying on the hospital bed.  


And it was during this time, in her mid 20s, when she had a kind of breakthrough moment. 

In graduate school, she’d been taking these classes on human development, learning the trauma that happens when a newborn is separated from their mother. She started to think not only about her daughter’s experience, but about what it means that she herself is adopted. 


She describes her reflections as “coming out of the fog,” it’s term that many adopted people use…


Susan: the fog represents like, the dominant societal narrative that adoption is good, and adoptees are lucky and should be grateful, and adoption is a win-win, win for everyone/and there’s no space for other feelings. I think the fog is also obscuring that adoption is an industry and that people profit from it and that, um, motivations might not always be good


Reema Khrais

Susan learned that the adoption industry is way more complicated than it seems


Susan: there are for-profit attorneys, for-profit facilitators, for-profit mediators who, um, the more placements they do, the more money they make. And that’s, that’s just a fact

Reema Khrais

Some experts estimate that the American adoption and child welfare industry is worth more than 24 billion dollars. 


Because there are relatively few babies placed for adoption compared to people hoping to adopt, agencies can increase their rates and their profits. And levels of oversight vary, each state has their own individual laws about private adoption.


Learning all of this made Susan think about her own adoption differently. Why did she grow up knowing so little about her birth parents? Why hadn’t the agency told her parents about her birth mom’s letter? 


Susan also started to think about the way that she was treated when she was pregnant. Looking for adoptive families, she was only allowed to speak to one family at a time, which seemed to really center the needs of the potential adoptive families over her needs 


Susan: and I think the professionals even said like, well, you know, this is a vulnerable thing for them, so we don’t want people to get their hopes up. And it’s like, okay, yes, their feelings matter. I get that. And in retrospect it’s like, um, you know, who’s the really vulnerable person here?


Reema Khrais

One of the most difficult parts of coming out of the fog for Susan, and for a lot of adopted people we spoke to, was that people often see criticism of the adoption industry as an attack on people seeking to adopt. 


Susan encountered that as she got more involved with adoption activism. Like if she talked critically of her own adoption…


Susan: people would feel protective of my parents, but they loved you so much. They were such good parents. Like, you know, that it’s like people can’t hold two things. 


Reema Khrais

It’s true, Susan’s parents love her, and she had a good childhood. And it’s also true that being separated from her birth parents was a deep loss, and that closed adoptions can be harmful. 


Today Susan works in the adoption world. Her organization mostly works with families after an adoption has taken place, offering services like counseling and summer camps. But they do a small number of infant placements. 


Susan will tell pregnant people who are in a similar position that she was once in that they have the option to change their mind, even if they’ve bonded with the people hoping to adopt their baby.


Susan: People, people will say to me, um, you know, they’re so nice and I’ll say, yes, they’re nice. They, you know, we have, we have nice families, they’re nice people. We believe in them, and you don’t owe them your baby. Just because someone wants to adopt a baby does not mean you owe them yours.


Reema Khrais

When I ask Susan how she would reform the adoption industry, she said only allowing nonprofits to handle adoptions would be a step in the right direction.


And Susan is critical of all the money behind marketing campaigns…the targeted ads directed towards vulnerable, pregnant women. 


For example, when we were researching for this story we saw an ad that read, “get paid to give your baby up.” When you consider that poverty is a big reason people place their child for adoption…these ads, as shocking as they are, can also be enticing. 


Susan:I think it’s creating competition and desperation, neither of which are , child centered,  this is gonna sound really gross, but there’s a sense of, okay, for adoptions to happen, we have to have the product, which is the baby, and who is the holder of that product, is the pregnant person.


Reema Khrais

She worries that professionals sometimes lead pregnant women to make decisions while they’re in a state of panic. Like Susan told me about a woman who went to the hospital for abdominal pain and discovered that not only was she pregnant, she was in labor. She had a stable living situation, but was stressed about having things she’d need for a baby, and was considering adoption.


Susan: I’m thinking about myself at the hospital 20 years ago being like, okay, if I were to bring this baby home, I don’t have anything. And so I say to people, look, babies don’t need a lot at this stage and the things that they do need, we can help you get those things. 

So it was like, what are the things you think you need in order to bring this baby home and take some time to decide. one of the things was, she was like, I don’t know that I can afford a breast pump and I don’t know that my insurance can pay for it. we had someone, you know, who donated a breast pump that we could give to her


Reema Khrais

The woman was able to go home with her baby, with basics like a car seat and diapers, and take the time she needed to make a decision. 


Susan:I think about how drastically different this conversation could have gone if it was someone who was invested in convincing her that adoption is what’s best,


Reema Khrais

And of course there are some people who simply don’t want to parent, even if they have the finances and social support to do so. When that’s the case, Susan considers it her role to make sure the adoptions are done in a way that’s transparent, where everyone involved feels supported. 


Susan: So, I guess I’m motivated to make it a more ethical experience for pregnant people. 


Reema Khrais

In the fifteen years since Susan gave birth to her daughter, she kept sending birthday and Christmas gifts, never getting a response.  It was depressing, but she’s also came to accept that this was her reality, she had to keep going. She fell in love, got married and had a son. 


Then one day, Austin – the birth father – reached out to Susan with some big news. Apparently his brother had been using one of those websites like 23 and me or Ancestry dot com. 


Susan: Austin’s brother, had told Austin, um I just got a match with your daughter,  and she’s tested on this website.


Reema Khrais

It felt too good to be true 


Right away Susan got a DNA test and submitted it to the website. When they messaged her with the results, she had a direct match. 


It read “Mother and Child,” it had both her photo and her daughter’s photo right next to each other. 


Susan: not even birth mother, it just was like mother, you know, like not conditional, just mother and child. 


Reema Khrais

Susan sent her daughter a message


Susan: Something like, Hey, it seems like you might be looking for information about me or your family. Um, you know, if you ever wanna reach out, Here’s my number, Here’s my email.

We’ve always loved you and hoped that, you know, you might wanna see us someday, but whatever you want is what we wanna do


Reema Khrais

But Susan didn’t get a response.


Then about a year later, her daughter turned 18, and so Susan reached out to her on Instagram. Told her Happy Birthday, that she loved her and she was still there if she ever felt ready for contact. 


A day went by, no response. Then, before falling asleep, Susan checked her Instagram one more time. 


Her husband and son were asleep in the bed with her. 


Susan: And I could see, even though it was like a day later, I could see that she was typing like the three dots,


Reema Khrais: Oh my gosh


Susan: and there’d be three dots and then it would stop, and then there’d like, then they’d pop by 


Reema Khrais: Your heart would stop


Susan: Yes, and it was just like, Yes. oh my God. Like such suspense , it’s happening.


Reema Khrais: What did she say


Susan: It’s so good to hear from you I’m sorry if if I, you know, haven’t responded until now, but I’m really glad. That we’re in touch something like, you know, I, I hope that we can start talking or connecting 


Reema Khrais: Oh, how did it feel to get that message?


Susan: Surreal. Amazing. Um, so exciting, healing.


Reema Khrais

Susan left the room and went on a walk in the moonlight. 


Susan: there was a lake nearby. Um, it was, you know, nighttime. And I just needed to like, I don’t know, do something that felt like ceremony or like like acknowledging like this is, this is a turning point.


Reema Khrais

The moment Susan had longed for… for nearly 20 years, it was finally happening. The baby she’d held in her arms, who she cried over that day while listening to Simon and Garfunkel, wondering who she one day might become, that baby was now a full-grown adult who wanted to get to know her birth mom. 


For the next two years, Susan and her daughter corresponded on Instagram. Susan’s approach through all of this– very social worker style, was to let her daughter take the lead, have her dictate the pace of their relationship. They’d trade Spotify playlists and talk about their favorite artists.


Susan: I would keep it a little light to some degree cuz I wasn’t sure how much depth she wanted. 


Reema Khrais

Sometimes her daughter would go months without responding. They’d never talked on the phone…


Susan: the thing that kind of shifted was, um, I actually recorded a video of myself narrating photos from an album that I had put together when she was a baby, ultrasound photos, pictures of me pregnant up until like the last time I had seen her


Reema Khrais

After years of walking on eggshells, Susan finally told her daughter the story of her adoption, the way she’d loved her and struggled with placing her, and how things had gone sideways. 


Susan’s daughter responded with a video of her own. 


Susan: I mean, one thing she said was something like, I had never heard your voice and hearing your voice for the first time just like gave me chills,


Reema Khrais

And then she asked Susan a question 


Susan: I know this is crazy. We’re in a pandemic but can I come see you guys?


Reema Khrais: Oh.


Susan: obviously yes. Like absolutely how soon can you get here?


Reema Khrais

Susan had been waiting for this moment, for her daughter to initiate their reunion. They arranged to meet in the Bay area where Susan was living. 


When Susan was around the same age as her daughter, she’d met her birth mom back at that agency office. Now Susan was standing at the airport, waiting for her daughter, Susan felt the same way she did before. All she wanted to do was see her, to hold her. 


When her daughter landed, Susan got a text with an update 

Susan: I got off the plane, I’m on my way. 


Reema Khrais

Susan was at the bottom of an escalator, watching people come down. In a few moments she’d be in the same room with her daughter for the first time since she was a baby. 


Susan: and she, she comes down the escalator and we give each other huge hugs and, um, I am crying and she’s like, are you okay?

And we just, um, looked at each other for a little bit. It, it sucked cuz it was the pandemic, so we had to wear a mask, but I’m like, can I take ? Like, I’m like, can we, let’s just take our masks off for a second. Like, I just wanna see you.  I mean she’s just, she’s so beautiful and you know, she’s so sweet and, Like, I don’t know how she felt, but for me it was like, it just felt very natural.


Reema Khrais

And the big conversations started before they’d even left the airport. 


Susan: we haven’t even gotten the car yet, I don’t think. She’s like, um, do you work in adoption because of me,


Reema Khrais: How did you respond to that? 


Susan: I was like, yes, sort of. Um, you know, I’m also adopted, so that’s part of it. But yeah, there’s, there’s a big part of me that, um, you know, wanted to do the work I do, so that people could have a different experience than the one that I had.


Reema Khrais

They got to know each other. Susan soaked in her daughter’s mannerisms, her laugh, how good she was with her little brothers. By that point, Susan had two sons. She noticed the similarities between her and her daughter, how from the nose up, they look almost identical. 


Susan gave her daughter the binder she’d made, with all of the evidence of ways she’d tried to stay in touch during their separation. It was a lot for her daughter to take in. 


Lately, Susan and her daughter have been trying to make up for lost time. They took a road trip from California to Washington, and Susan’s daughter finally reunited with her birth father and his family. 


When Susan was making the decision to place her daughter for adoption, it was because she wanted her daughter to have a better, more secure life than the one she, as 21 years old, would be able to provide. 


This phrase “a better life” is used all the time in the adoption world. As Susan came out of the fog and learned more about adoption she began to think about it differently. That adoption doesn’t mean trading a bad life for a good one. But that the two possible paths are just… different. 


That felt especially true when Susan learned more about her daughter’s childhood.


Susan: without going into detail, her family has not been picturesque I do feel like you know that on that one aspect of her having a more financially stable life than I could have given her that happened. But there were things about how she was parented that, um, were really hard for me to learn about and things that I hadn’t even like realized would happen or could happen.


Reema Khrais

It didn’t matter as much as Susan thought that they had the white picket fence and vacationed in nice places during the summer, or that there were two parents in the home. Those aren’t the only things that can make a childhood good.


Sometimes Susan thinks about what life would have been like if she’d made a different decision. 


Susan: I know that I would’ve loved her and would have done my best// and I just don’t know what it would’ve looked like for me to have parented her, you know? So it would’ve been different, and I think some things would’ve been better than what she had, and some things would’ve been harder than what she had.


Reema Khrais

But she knows 20-year-old Susan made the best decision she could with the information she had. 


She tells me she doesn’t dwell on what ifs, it’s a pointless exercise. She accepts how everything unfolded. Talking to her, I was struck by just how seamlessly she was able to move forward in life despite all the grief and anger she felt, how instead of it paralyzing her, in a way it propelled her. 


She’s always been focused on the things she can control and these days that involves organizing big family visits with her daughter, trading playlists with her and advocating for a system where adoption is focused on children, not money. 


Alright that’s all for our show this week…


 While researching for this episode, we came across a lot of great resources about adoption, that includes memoirs, articles, other podcast episodes. Wee’ve included those recommendations in our newsletter, which you can sign up for at marketplace.org slash comfort. 


And I should say this is the last episode of our season. We’ll be back in your feeds later this year, but in the meantime, if you want to stay posted on our whereabouts, definitely be sure to sign up for the newsletter. Well also have the link for that in the show notes. 


You can also find me on social media or you can shoot me and the team a note at uncomfortable@marketplace dot org. We’re going to be looking for some new stories so definitely reach out if there’s something you’d like to hear on the show or if you want to share any personal stories. 


And lastly, if you like what we do, please consider rating and reviewing the show. That stuff actually really helps us out, it makes it easier for other people to discover our podcast and, you know, it also makes us happy to see you’re into the show


Alice Wilder

This episode was lead-produced by me, Alice Wilder, and hosted by Reema Khrais. We wrote the script together. 


The episode got additional support from Hannah Harris Green, Yvonne Marquez, and Marque Greene.


Zoë Saunders is our senior producer.


Our editor is Jasmine Romero


Our intern is H Conley.


Sound design and audio engineering by Drew Jostad 


Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace’s Director of Podcasts


Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital.


Neal Scarborough is Vice President and general manager of marketplace


And our theme music is by Wonderly.

Special thanks to Mark Anfinson, Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sánchez, Schuyler Swenson, and Mars Wood.


Reema Khrais

Alright we’ll catch y’all later this year. 

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