Not all jokes are funny.
My wife and I had joked for so long about there being nothing sadder than dusting an unused crib—a riff on Hemingway’s saddest story in six words, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,”—that when we finally noticed a sheen of dust across its brown varnished wood, we dusted it with a smirk, a recognition that all was not going according to plan, but that we were putting in our time, living out the sad joke.
Our smirks, though, were lighthearted, reflecting our anticipation that an expectant mother or, perhaps, couple would choose us to raise their child in an open adoption, a process intended to bestow agency upon the birth family to have a say in how, where, and by whom their biological child is raised. The process is also intended to give children of adoption a greater sense of who they are, from where they came, and, to the extent possible, who their birth families are. In some cases, birth parents maintain relationships with the children after placement.
In the bureaucracy of adoption there resides a special document: the home study. This is the report that a social worker prepares which chronicles a prospective adoptive family, from their childhoods to the present day, their careers and hobbies and medical conditions, which expectant parents review to help them select an adoptive family. The shelf life of a home study is two years, at which point it must be renewed. In 2017 we renewed ours for the first time.
We lived in a two-story, two-bedroom Victorian house in Seattle’s Central District. The crib sat in the front bedroom which looked out upon busy Twenty-third Avenue, past a tall magnolia tree whose broad, waxy leaves clacked in the wind. After entering the open adoption waiting pool in the summer of 2015, we shuttled to the Buy Buy Baby store south of the city to furnish our new nursery. The agency had advised against building out the nursery too extensively, saying that the longer the wait, the more difficult it would be walking past a tricked-out nursery day after day. But a last-minute placement was possible; any day we might receive “The Call”, the phone call from an unlisted number in which an agency social worker is instructed to say, “This is the call,” telling us a mother in a delivery room somewhere, most likely the Pacific Northwest, had chosen us, and that she was about to give birth, or in some cases might already have given birth, and we needed to get ourselves to the hospital immediately. What if we received a last-minute placement and didn’t yet have a crib? What if the bedroom we had intended to be the nursery was still serving as my wife’s office? What then? For weeks we made pilgrimages to Buy Buy Baby. We assembled the crib, cranking the bolts as tightly as the tiny monkey wrenches would allow, adorning the mattress with whatever stuffed animals we had sitting around. But we never put a sheet on the mattress. That would be too much, we decided. A dusty crib we could take but not dusty sheets. Our future child would not sleep on sheets that had been caked in dust.
Years passed. The joke continued. So did the dustings. But then our lives evolved. In the summer of 2018, we decided that Seattle, our home of nine years, would not be our permanent home. We would move to Chicago, where I was born and raised but hadn’t lived in twenty years.
At the three-year mark in the adoption pool, we were halfway through our second home study. Moving cross-country would require a new home study, a new expenditure of time, emotion, and money. Our agency charged two-thousand dollars for each home study it prepared or renewed. So, we would wait to be selected, we decided, or until our second home study expired, whichever came first, before moving.
Months passed, and as our lives evolved so too did the joke. Where we had once lamented dusting a crib, we then lamented how sad it would be to disassemble an unused crib.
Year four in the waiting pool chugged along. Our agency’s website lists all the prospective adoptive families in descending order, from those who had waited the longest to the most recent arrivals. This fact might not be obvious to casual visitors to the site, or even to expectant parents scrolling through it. But adoptive parents knew. We knew. And we watched our picture—similar to those on dating apps or social media—proceed through the queue, advancing from right to left in each row of three, up and up and up, until by late-winter we had reached the top of the list. “We’re number one!” we texted each other, jokingly. “We’re number one!” No one seemed to remain in the number one slot for long; the agency’s social workers told us that some expectant parents—perhaps sympathetic to a family’s long wait, or too stressed out by the enormity of the decision to pay it any more consideration—chose to place their child with the family who had waited the longest. We thought someone would pick us.
Meanwhile, the pressure of remaining in Seattle—a city that, after years of our trying, never felt like home—became unbearable. Each return trip to Chicago, where I’d grown up, or New York City, where my wife had grown up, where I spent most of my twenties, and where we met, moved in together, and got married, tugged at our hearts. Boarding the plane back to Seattle grew tougher with each departure. January and February passed, and we agreed that we would not, could not, stay in Seattle beyond the expiration of our home study that summer, that it would be ridiculous to renew our home study for a third two-year term in a city in which we had no intention of staying. We started scanning job listings in Chicago. Even more time scanning home listings on Zillow. We began working with a real estate agent and preparing to put our house on the market. We started to pack. Whereas three-and-a-half years prior we made trip after trip to Buy Buy Baby, we then returned frequently to the U-Haul store in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Our material lives—books and books and books, so many books—disappeared into cardboard boxes; we donated clothes to Goodwill and sold whatever yard tools we could. I quit my job, giving my employer two weeks’ notice.
After more than a month in the “number one slot,” we removed ourselves from the adoption waiting pool, deciding it would be irresponsible to allow an expectant mother to pick us as we faced a period of unemployment, as we uprooted ourselves from Seattle, drove cross-country, moved in with my mother until we found a longer-term home in Chicago. We had fatalistically braced ourselves for the email announcing our decision to our counselor for long enough that sending it felt cold, machine-like. We hired movers, drew up a cross-country itinerary, booking hotel rooms at each of our nine stops between Seattle and Chicago. We waited until the last possible moment, weeks after exiting the pool, to finally disassemble the crib. Once our house had come to resemble more a storage unit than a home, just a day or two before the movers would arrive, we had no choice but to disassemble it.
We removed the stuffed animals—puppy dogs and a teddy bear in Scottish tartan and a bright red lobster which sang “Hot Hot Hot” when you squeezed it, and when its batteries weren’t dead—and placed them in a cardboard box labeled “Baby Stuff.” We removed the mattress, covering it in blue-green, plastic stretch wrap to protect it in transit. We found the small plastic bag containing monkey wrenches, extra hardware, and the crib’s assembly—but not disassembly—instructions. We got to work. I joked that, knowing how sturdy I had wanted the crib to be when we assembled it nearly four years earlier, it would probably be impossible to remove the various screws and bolts. I sat on the ground while my wife held the crib’s increasingly wobbly side panels in place, preventing them from collapsing on the hardwood floor. At one point we asked each other how we were doing, each saying fine, and proceeded along. Over the previous year, we had commented so many times how sad it would be to disassemble a crib that, in the moment, it did not seem sad at all. More like a practical task that needed to be done, a task that, had we not joked about it so much the months before, might have been more emotionally taxing, a task that was preceded by years of dusting and jokes.
Writing this essay too I had expected to be more trying than it was, perhaps because it was an essay that sat with me for weeks before I began drafting it. I might have foreseen this essay even in the weeks before disassembling the crib. In that it was not so unlike the acts that came before it, the disassembly and the dusting. What could be more sad, I might have said, than writing a couple thousand words about disassembling a crib?
It makes me think about the little jokes I tell myself now, have always told myself, the ones I’ll tell myself in the future, the self-deprecations and self-afflicted aggressions. My wife and I have begun talking about how sad it would be to quit on adoption, to simply stop pursuing parenthood. At various meetings with social workers toward the end of our time in the pool, when they would share statistics about the length of prospective adoptive parents’ waits in the pool, the percentages of babies born with drug and alcohol addictions, and long-term prognoses for children of adoption, I started to ask how many parents never got picked, how many exited the pool not because they had been selected but the opposite, because they were never selected and had given up on the process altogether. I never received an answer. Perhaps the social workers didn’t know, or perhaps the agency did not track that data, the sort of data that did not quantify happy and fulfilling placements but instead old and childless couples. We haven’t decided, now that we are making our home in Chicago, if we will renew our home study again, or if we will continue to work with our agency on the off-chance that the next two-year window would be the one in which we are selected. We have begun talking more confidently about our potential as foster parents, thinking that is perhaps a more practical way for us to grow our family, for us to play a parental role in a child’s life, even though the prevailing mindset right now seems to be that the goal of foster care is to eventually return children to their biological families. We just don’t know.
But I do understand that we do not necessarily deserve a child, “deserve” being the operative word, because “deserving a child” suggests that our becoming parents were something that ought to happen, that, if the world were just, should have happened, that our agency somehow owed us a child. And that was never the case. We were never owed a child, nor should anyone ever be owed a child, because growing a family is not transactional, regardless of the fees paid for the agency’s adoption preparedness trainings, for the home studies, for the eventual placements. I tell myself a story, reframing the not insignificant financial aspect of this entire process, the thousands of dollars we paid the agency, as our contribution to a good agency performing the good work of bringing together birth parents and adoptive parents to create stable and loving homes for the most important people in this whole process, the children. Thousands of dollars with no strings attached, paying for a process which might result in our becoming parents, but which also might not. Sometimes I believe my story. Sometimes I do not.
At the time I first drafted this essay, the crib was in a semi-trailer truck somewhere between Seattle and Chicago. I thought about all the pieces of the crib, the glossy brown wood, the black wire frame, the bag of hardware and instructions. I thought about the stuffed animals serving as cushioning in a cardboard box filled with hand-me-down toys and onesies and bottles still in their packaging and unread children’s books. The trailer was huge—the contents of our old two-bedroom house filled only a fraction of it—and the crib shared the space with other people’s possessions, perhaps other people’s cribs—used or unused—all hurtling their way across the country. I thought about the pain we might have felt, or the idea of pain that we thought we ought to have felt, and the jokes we told ourselves to lessen the pain, and the jokes that the owners of all the other stuff in that truck were telling themselves too.
Michael Podlasek Kent is a writer who feels most at home in Chicago and New York. His work has appeared in Crosscut, The Seattle Review of Books, Northwest Runner, and elsewhere. He was the founding director of Seattle’s Melrose Promenade project. He lives in Chicago with his wife.
Joyce Polance is a Chicago-based painter working in oils. Polance was born in New York City in 1965. She attended Wesleyan University and received a BFA from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has exhibited internationally and has work in many private and corporate collections. Polance is represented by Judy Ferrara Gallery in Three Oaks, MI and Elephant Room in Chicago. She may also be contacted directly for purchase of paintings. “Spring Waves” and “Candy” were featured in ACM, as well as other images of hers in the first online issue of ACM.