Karen Moline saw her son’s face for the first time in an e-mail message. The baby had brown tufts of hair and round cheeks, and he immediately captured her heart.
“Can you imagine this is how you see your child on your computer screen?” she said of the son she was about to adopt.
Moline was a single 46-year-old when she flew to a small orphanage in Vietnam to adopt the baby she named Emmanuel. She has joined a growing number of single women in their 40s and 50s who are taking alternative paths to motherhood.
In the last several decades, the number of older, single women adopting children has been increasing slowly and steadily in both domestic and international adoptions, advocates say.
The advocacy group Single Mothers by Choice estimates that 25 percent of its members are women in their 40s and 50s who have adopted babies. Marni Thompson of Children’s Hope International says that more than 30 percent of the agency's clients are single mothers, and their numbers are rising.
Adoption agencies, advocates say, are quick to see the advantages of single mothers who have more life experience and are increasingly more financially independent.
Moline was in her mid-40s and was a successful freelance journalist and novelist in New York when she realized what her life was missing. “I’d already gone to every party I needed to go to,” she said. “I’d already had some nice relationships and some really bad ones. The one thing I hadn’t had was a child.”
And she was not alone.
Spence Chapin Services has seen a sharp increase in the number of single mothers adopting over the last decade. These older, single women go through the same process as couples trying to adopt, the agency says.
In domestic adoptions, birth mothers flip through catalogs and select either couples or single women for their babies. In international adoptions, the agency matches children with potential parents based on a country’s regulations.
Single women tend to adopt internationally. The process is shorter and there is a greater chance of adopting a younger child. In the U.S., birth mothers most often choose couples over single people for their babies, said Thompson of Children’s Hope International.
“You have to sell yourself, and frankly, if I were a birth mother, why would I give my kid to a 45-year-old single woman in New York?” Moline said.
After one false start with a questionable agency and more than a year of waiting, Moline flew to Vietnam to meet her 6-month-old son. She took a bus down a winding dirt road to the orphanage where Emmanuel had been found in a field a few months earlier. He was dehydrated and underweight, but otherwise healthy.
After bringing Emmanuel home, Moline encountered difficulties that many single parents face.
She was not prepared for how physically, emotionally and financially demanding being Emmanuel’s lone parent would be. Before adopting her son, Moline would write late into the night. But late night feedings and loss of sleep caused her career to suffer. Moline’s income plummeted in half as her expenses doubled. Fortunately, she had saved money ahead of time.
Moline was blessed in a way that some older single mothers are not; both of her parents are still living and she has a sister who baby-sits frequently.
Single mom Naomi Nissen was not so lucky. Both of her parents and her only other relative, an aunt, had already passed away when she adopted 8-month-old Irina from Kazakhstan.
Counselors from Spence Chapin ask single mothers like Nissen about their networks of support because older parents often do not have relatives to help out.
Nissen relies on support groups like those organized by Nancy London, a single mother and author of "Hot Flashes and Warm Bottles: First Time Moms Over 40" (Ten Speed Press, 2001). London realized no one was discussing the specific needs of 40- to 50-year-old mothers who are raising young children. She uses her Web site, www.mothersoverforty.com, to provide a forum to address this group’s unique parenting issues.
London says many older women struggle with high expectations after investing so much in fertility treatments or traveling around the world to adopt a baby. These mothers often feel guilty when they long for moments of solitude and the independence of their former single lives.
London advises single mothers to let go of their guilt and address their personal needs, both for themselves and their children.
A single parent herself, London cautions women to educate themselves about adoption and consider the reasons why they want to adopt in the first place. Single parents must think about the time they can dedicate to a child and whether they have a support system in place.
Moline agrees with London that with the abundance of resources and support groups, single parents, or those aspiring to be, have little excuse to be in the dark about the adoption process and go-it-alone parenting.
To Moline, having the chance to raise Emmanuel is worth all of the sleepless nights and worries over money.
“Nothing,” she said, “is better.”