Means of Labor
With adoption, the issue of labor is an issue of labor. When the birth mother Kinzey agrees to meet me and Evan, and throughout her pregnancy, she’s a struggling single mom working at Subway, a fast-food job in a right-to-work state that depresses wages, keeps its workers depressed, oppressed, pressed for cash and any benefits. The social worker who connects us (herself pressed) works to get Kinzey and her three-year-old daughter on Medicaid so she gets the professional care she needs. At least from the doctor. Her customers do not give her a break. No care can keep her off her feet or grant her extra rest as her belly and her ankles swell. A legal ban on monetary gifts that could give any appearance of buying a baby keep us from supplementing her funds.
And we have the funds. Evan has been promoted in the office of the Graduate School and I recently received tenure and promotion in my position as a professor, both at the same state university that, while the income is still well below regional salaries, nonetheless gives us access to state employee benefits. I plan and prep and teach my two classes – an undergrad class on writing nonfiction, and a graduate poetry workshop, both courses I love. Occasionally students behave like they’re customers paying for a passing grade, but we both know I’m the boss. I meet with committees to discuss pedagogy, and with graduate mentees, helping one select exam readings on proletarian literature. I can wear cute heels because much of my work is seated; much of my work is flexible, can be rescheduled as necessary.
Once I announce our pending adoption, my department chair works with me to negotiate maternity leave. He willingly reveals to me what other mothers have asked for and received. Together, we secure from the Dean a course release which, when paired with the course release I already receive for directing the annual writers conference each March, means no teaching scheduled for the spring semester, so I can stay home with our newborn son. While our university, like many, has no standard maternity leave policy – each mother must negotiate her own – the leave agreement I’ve procured is praised across campus as a progressive move: the first such leave granted to an adoptive mom. Word travels fast – colleagues contemplating adoption stop me in passing for details, hopeful I’ve set a precedent that might stand for future adoptive parents in other departments.
Kinzey gets paid by the hour. For doctor visits or to meet with us, she asks her coworkers to switch shifts. Or, she bargains with her boss for time off. Even with Medicaid, ultrasounds may come out of her paycheck. It also costs her favors and take-home pay. To say nothing of the costs to her body, the work it is doing assembling femurs and fingers and organs into the form of a baby as she mops floors or cleans greasy mayonnaise from her red uniform which is growing tight against her form that grows to press against the steel counter where she assembles sandwiches. What wages she does make can’t pay for both an apartment and childcare. She soon loses both. She moves in with a friend’s family in public housing despite the caps on residents per unit. They hope the RA won’t notice. Ashamed, she tells no one – not us, not the social worker – so no one helps her.
Thus, by the time she goes into false labor, she’s technically homeless. She calls in sick to work, then labors throughout the night, through Braxton-Hicks contractions that never advance. We drive through the night to be with her. As we stand uselessly around the birthing room, it doesn’t escape me that she is laboring for us, unpaid labor for which we can never repay her. I rub her aching back, and then her feet, pressed into my squishy stomach, our strangely similar physiques grown so dissimilar. Finally, the doctor sends us all home, crying in frustration over a false labor that doesn’t feel false, forcing the body to work but produce nothing.
As we’re all leaving, her boss calls, and when he discovers she’s being released, asks if that means she can cover her shift. She gets off the phone swearing. I don’t know whether she went in, went from one labor to the next, pushing a push-broom, exhausted. Exhausted, we drive home, take the day off to recover.
When the real labor happens two weeks later, New Year’s Eve, it is fast and efficient as an assembly line. From check-in to birth in less than an hour. This is not to say the work isn’t hard – the line just sped up. Having discovered her homeless situation, the social worker works through a holiday weekend to line up housing for her upon release, but for the following days, we all agree to allow Medicaid to pay for the maximum maternity stay.
During that time, we alert our jobs and HR, who congratulate us, say they can’t wait to see the baby but add we should take whatever time we need. (It would never occur to them to question my work ethic, to call me lazy.) We add Wyatt to our health insurance so he can be covered from the moment he’s released. Before we’re released, we’re encouraged and allowed to get Kinzey a small gift: a necklace with a garnet pendant – Wyatt’s birthstone – a color she dubs “Subway red.”
And when we’re all released, we return home, where I begin my months of maternity leave and even Evan uses his generous two weeks paid vacation time and some FMLA without fear of losing his job. While we’re tired with keeping the baby’s unpredictable hours and adjusting to parenthood, neither of us has gone through labor and delivery, are not in recovery. In those first days and weeks and months, I camp out on the couch, cradling Wyatt while binge-watching Supernatural and binge-ordering Chinese takeout and pizza, which we can afford, or enjoying pans of carb-licious casseroles, which we are offered. Our parents each take week-long shifts to help with the new grandbaby. Soon after, I pay a family friend to watch Wyatt a few hours a week so I can go for a run, write, or plan the upcoming conference.
In those first months, after Kinzey’s parental rights are terminated and the cloud of coercion is lifted, we research what aid we can offer. But the laws that prevent babies being sold also prevent real help. And yet, despite being legally (and rightfully so) blocked from literally paying for a baby, I’m still obsessing over this issue of compensation.
Earlier, when I said I was aware she labored for us, I was mistaken. She labored for the life inside her; the fruits of her labor would be borne regardless. Women are forced to labor for labor; women – I – choose the labor of mothering. I remind myself we adopted Wyatt and not Kinzey – that our resources are redirected to raising him, as they’re supposed to be. My guilt at this system is the burden I carry, and continue to carry. At what cost to me? Despite the ban on buying babies, our relationship is, at its heart, transactional.
But is it commodified? Some seem to think so, asking us how much Wyatt cost us. I can redirect, explain about fees for home visits, pre-counseling, and legal filings, none of which went to Kinzey. Would I feel better if it had? And why – because compensation for a service feels more honest? Because a discharged debt is dismissible? What labor do I feel has gone unpaid? Because honestly, there is no debt – the transaction is not an exchange of money for services, but rather an exchange of gifts: her labor of labor for our labor of parenting.
This realization, however, does nothing to change this fact: that the mechanisms that govern the transaction of adoption have the effect of keeping each of us – me and Kinzey – in our socioeconomic place.
We send prepaid gas and grocery cards until her address suddenly becomes undeliverable.
Six days after giving birth – two days after her hospital release – Kinzey is moved into her new housing and back at her hourly work for hourly wages. From where I sit on my couch, cradling Wyatt, I imagine her behind the Subway counter, hard breasts seeping inside her shirt, lifting trays of fresh-baked bread, legs sore from bracing, or pressing a softening but still-swollen belly against the counter as she reaches for cheese. I don’t know if any customers notice. I don’t want to imagine one of them asking when she’s due as she rings them up, takes their money, closes the till.
Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose. This essay is from an adoption memoir-in-progress, Real Mother. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com