Google the phrase "alternative parenting" and you'll find sites addressing everything from homeschooling to same-sex parenting to parents who take their kids to rock concerts. You'll also find sites that address adoption, foster parenting and foreign exchange student hosting.
It seems there are infinite styles of parenting-and a few unique and creative avenues to actually becoming a parent, alternative or otherwise, without actually giving birth.
Take adoption and foster parenting. In 2011, according to the U.S. State Department, American families adopted more than 9,000 children. Most recently the highest number of children have been adopted from China, followed by Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine. In Tennessee alone, there are currently 9,017 children in foster care, 1,717 of whom are eligible for adoption (www.AdoptUSKids.org).
Or take foreign exchange student hosting. A kind of fostering, host families looking to share their culture with a teenager from another culture, and to have their own cultural understanding expanded, invite one or more international students into their homes for a summer or an entire school year.
I spoke with four local moms about their experiences as adoptive parents, foster parents and exchange student hosts. In every case the sentiment was the same: the challenges are great, but the rewards are grand.
Ask Paula Hurn how she came to be mom to twins Marcus and Marianah and she'll tell you the story of how she almost didn't. How she and her husband missed their first adoption orientation meeting and then almost missed the second one too. She'll tell you how she was working on the extensive application process, which required, in addition to a home study, letters from friends and family attesting to fitness for parenting, multiple questionnaires, a statement from their priest, as well as personal written biographies-and that, just as she was finishing up the last of her requirements, her computer lost the file. How she and her husband were notified that they'd been approved for twins-a boy and a girl-and then were notified that the twins had been reunited with their father. She'll tell you how their caseworker quit. And how, all the while, they were working against the clock, as Romanian adoption policy specified that the mother could not be over 40 years old, and Paula was, well, 40 years old.
But then she will tell you how they did make that second adoption orientation meeting, and how it had a tremendous positive impact on her husband, Danny, who started the adoption application process himself. How she ran to a neighbor's house and pleaded for help with her computer after she lost the file, and he was able to rescue it. And how, in February of 1996, she and Danny flew at last to Bucharest, then boarded a train to Suceava, in northeastern Romania, and became proud parents of 18-month-old Marcus (given name Marius, pronounced Mari-oos) and Marianah (the Hurns added the "h").
"They were tiny," recalls Paula-19 and 16 pounds, respectively. "They were the size of a six- to nine-month-old!"
In addition to the challenges of traveling to another country to adopt their children, the Hurns faced challenges at home. Because Marcus and Marianah were small, they were often the targets of bullying at school. They made the decision to move them to Ivy Academy, an environmental education charter school in Soddy-Daisy, where they flourished. This spring, Marcus and Marianah will be among the first graduating class, and are headed to Chattanooga State in the fall. Marianah, who has volunteered more than 1,000 hours each year at McKamey Animal Center since she was 14 (and where mom Paula is director of operations), has shown an interest in veterinary medicine, sports and sports medicine, and Marcus is looking into business management and photography.
What, I wondered, is the biggest difference for Paula, between parenting an adopted child and parenting a biological child? When there's an issue, Hurn says, they don't waste time searching or blaming their genetics.
"We simply look at the reality of the situation-what's the problem?-and then we determine what we need to do to address it."
And the rewards? There are many, many rewards, she says, but she short-hands it by saying they keep the following quote on their wall at home:
Not flesh of my flesh, Nor bone of my bone, But still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute, You did not grow under my heart, But in it.
(Fleur Conkling Heyliger)
Whatever you do, don't call 34-year-old Leslie Morales a "host mom."
"I hate that," she says. "I'm 'Mom'."
And mom she is, to 12-year-old daughter Bria, but also, over the years, to nine Brazilian exchange students ranging in age from 15 to 21. Five of them-all boys-spent last summer with Leslie and husband Miguel Morales, learning the culture, making friends and riding the bus to and from their jobs at Miguel's restaurant, Carrabbas.
The kids come and go, says Morales, and are very independent. Still, there are a lot of schedules to keep up with, and there's a lot of emotional energy involved in the job of mom and dad to so many kids passing through. "I have to be very flexible," she says.
"Brazil is a very family-oriented culture. Kids often live at home until they are married, and sometimes they stay even after they are married," Morales explains. "They're used to being taken care of. I was cooking and cleaning all the time! Luckily, I'm very high energy!"
Currently in the home full-time are Bria and 16-year-old Fernanda, who is spending her entire tenth-grade year with the Morales family. "The girls are truly sisters now," says Morales, complete with authentic moments of jealousy, irritation and love. It has been challenging, she says, and it has been good learning for both of them.
"Bria has learned patience, and Fernanda has learned to pick up her pace!"
Fernanda returns to Brazil June 4th. "Fernanda holds a very special place in our hearts, just as they all have," says Morales. "I am just not sure how we will handle it. We (she and Fernanda) made a deal not to talk about her leaving. It makes us both tear up just mentioning it."
But, she adds, just like the boys they hosted last year said, "It's never goodbye, it's see you later."
Angie has lived a life of uncertainty as a mom. As a young woman trying to get pregnant, her hopes were dashed time and again. She had surgery for endometriosis, believing it would solve her infertility issues. It didn't. She and her husband looked into in vitro fertilization as well as other avenues of reproductive medicine.
"It was so difficult. I wanted kids, and I cried constantly. It was all I thought about. I firmly believed God would allow us to have children."
And He did, she says. Just not in the way she'd planned.
She and her husband were approved as foster parents in January 2012, and in March 2012 they received a call about two children in need of foster care, a two-month-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They picked up the children and cancelled a planed vacation to Las Vegas, realizing they had hit the jackpot right here at home.
Angie has been a mom ever since. Still, according to the courts, the biological parents come first, and the
goal is always reunification. There are progress reports and goals the parents must meet before the children can be returned. The children could be with them a year, or longer, or less.
In some cases with foster children, of course, adoption does become an option.
"It's hard," Angie admits.
"You don't realize you will fall in love with these children. You watch them recover, eat better, get potty trained, see their speech get better. . . But with foster children you don't know what's going to happen." Always, she says, you want what's best for them.
Given the uncertainty, would she do it again?
"As difficult as the not knowing is," Angie says, "I couldn't imagine my life without them in it."
Her solution is to try not to worry about the future. "We just enjoy every minute we have with them."
More than 13,500 children a year are in the Tennessee state foster care system. In 2008, 40 percent of the children in Childhelp's foster family agency were adopted by their foster parents to become their "Forever Parents."
9 out of every 10 adoptive couples said the relationship they share with their adopted child is "very close." Nearly half said that the relationship is "better than expected." More than 9 of every 10 adoptive parents said they would "definitely" make the same decision to adopt.
More than 90 percent of adopted children ages 5 and older have positive feelings about their adoption. Today, 99 percent of adopted children ages 5 and older know that they were adopted.
-U.S. Department of Health released adoption statistics from a 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents (from AmericanAdoptions.com)
Janet is not just the mom to three adopted daughters ages 20, 25 and 27, as a social worker she has also conducted countless home visits to help other families adopt children throughout Chattanooga.
"Used to be kids were matched to parents who looked like them (Americans with Americans, Caucasians with Caucasians, etc.). Now, however, with so many overseas adoptions-China, Africa, Russia-the kids often don't look anything like the parents."
She is a case in point: while one of her children was a domestic adoption, the other two are from India.
Because of this change, she explains, the tendency has shifted from a culture of secrecy around adoption to a culture of openness: making certain the child understands from a very early age the circumstances of his or her birth and often helping the child to embrace his cultural heritage.
And the face of adoption has shifted in other ways as well, Janet explains. In the past, adoptive parents were almost exclusively couples unable to conceive. Nowadays adoptive parents might be a thirty-something couple who haven't even tried to conceive because they feel there are enough children
in the world already. Or they might have one biological child and are looking to adoption for their second.
"There are people adopting who simply feel it's the right thing to do." It helps, she says, that the culture is more accepting and open about adopting. And often, that's why a couple decides in the first place to adopt. "If someone in their church has a good adoption experience, it can encourage others to follow suit."
"In China they call the day the adoptive parents meet their child, 'Gotcha Day,'" she explains. "It's a special day, the day you get your child, and it's a date we celebrate every year in addition to their birthdays.
It reminds them that their adoption was an important day in your life."
Also important, she adds, is calling it what it is. "As a social worker I educate adoptive parents about how to talk to their children. I tell them not to call their child 'a gift from God.' We're ALL gifts from God, but that isn't the phrase their child is going to hear on the playground from another child. We use the "A" word. We call adoption 'adoption.'"
"And," she adds, "we call it forever."