Discover more from Liz Explores
Auditioning to be a Mom
Am I worthy of adopting?
“Do I look like a good Mom?” I asked Seth the moment he got home from work.
In fifteen minutes, a woman from the state foster care system would be knocking on our door for our first of three “home study” visits. She would be the person deciding if we were fit to be parents. If the home study went well, she would issue us a license that would allow us to adopt a child from foster care. If she didn’t like what she saw, she could reject our adoption application and close the door on one of our few remaining paths to parenthood.
I’d dressed myself (for the first time in weeks?) in a red-and-blue L.L. Bean flannel shirt that my mother-in-law had sent me for Christmas a few years back. It was the first time I’d worn it in years, because my social isolation during the pandemic had obviated the need for more than one or two shirts, which I wore to my monthly doctor’s appointments and fertility treatments. The rest of the time I sat home in fuzzy pajamas, or left the house in quick-dry workout clothes for a run, bike ride, hike, or ski.
The flannel shirt was recycled from my morning doctor’s appointment, because I could wear a short-sleeved shirt underneath and unbutton the top layer for yet another blood draw. I decided it looked sensible and down-to-earth, and I would keep it on for my audition for motherhood that evening. I added a beaded bracelet with a penguin charm, a pair of navy-blue hiking pants that sort of passed as dressy, and my favorite necklace—a metal circle with mountains in it, to prove I was outdoorsy. I brushed my hair and tied it back in a low ponytail, but did not wear makeup.
Seth said I looked like a great mom.
“Should I put on my wrinkle cream so I look younger? Or leave it off so I look more mature?” I pressed him. I had just bought my very first wrinkle cream as a 43rd birthday gift to myself, a sophisticated-looking jade-green jar of thick white paste that I slathered on my face religiously, twice a day. Seth gave the correct answer that I am beautiful just the way I am, he didn’t see any wrinkles, and I didn’t need that silly cream.
My perfectionist parts had been on overdrive for days, grasping at what little I could control at this point on our three-year quest to have a child. I’d spent the entire weekend cleaning and organizing the house to bring it as close to Martha Stewart standards as my eclectic decor would allow. Having no idea what a home study entailed, I envisioned this woman scrutinizing every nook and cranny of my house. The mess of papers on the desk? Bad mom. The dried ketchup goo on the shelf inside the refrigerator door? Bad mom. The drips and spatters of dinner prep on the cabinets around the stove? Bad mom. The ring of rust on my white kitchen counter from the metal base of the coffee can? Bad mom. The crumbs and grease at the bottom of the toaster oven? Bad mom.
My obsessive brain decided that all of these details needed to be corrected before I could pass the test, so I spent all day Saturday and Sunday scrubbing every spill and stain, putting every bill and bank statement in the filing cabinet, and tucking away all the possessions tossed here and there that made the house look lived-in. I decided to leave out the cute Valentine’s cards and gifts that Seth and I had given each other, as well as my birthday balloons and banner, to show how sweet and loving and fun we are. I was glad that we had finally framed and hung our wedding and engagement pictures from three years ago showing us glowing with love. By the time I was finished, my house painted a picture of a mature couple who lived a neat, organized life and were totally smitten with each other.
Seth had left work early to make it home in time for our appointment, driving three hours from the construction job he was assigned this week (of course they had to send him a hundred miles away on our big day). He made it with fifteen minutes to spare, and he needed to shower and change out of his grubby work clothes. I protested that showering now would leave the bathroom all gross and humid and the shower curtain wet, plus I’d spent the past two days wiping every stray hair out of the tub in case she inspected it. But I realized that it was probably more important for Seth to look and smell decent than for the bathtub to be pristine, so I conceded. Ten minutes later he was back downstairs in olive-green slacks and an orange-and-green L.L. Bean flannel shirt, also a Christmas gift from his mom. We laughed about looking like we’d just walked out of the L.L. Bean catalog, but it was too late to change. She could be pulling in any minute.
A few minutes before 5pm, I gathered a neatly organized folder containing all of our submitted application documents and placed it on the glass coffee table I’d just wiped down, along with a notebook and pen if I had questions. It was then that I noticed my dog Baxter’s brown butt-stains on the top of my off-white leather couch, in the spot where she always perches like a cat watching the neighborhood. I raced to the kitchen for a wet paper towel and scrubbed. Good moms don’t have crusted brown dog-butt-juice on their couches!
Seth and I settled in awkwardly on the couch together (we never sat on the same couch), staring across the room at the empty chair our home-study supervisor would sit in, waiting for her knock on the door. At five minutes past 5pm, we heard her car in the driveway and I put on my N-95 mask and jumped up to corral the dogs and let her in. Jennifer arrived at my doorstep with her own pile of papers and folders, fumbling with her full hands to put on the mask I’d asked her to wear during her visit due to my ongoing Covid paranoia. I opened the front door and Baxter and Laney would barely let her in, they were so excited to have a new human in our house for the first time since 2019.
“Should I take my shoes off?” Jennifer asked as she stood on the rug at the entryway. “Oh no, don’t worry about it!” I blurted a little too forcefully, even though I’d always banned shoes in the house because they track in toxic chemicals from the ground next to the gas pump and germs that were coughed on the floor of the grocery store and God knows what else that I don’t want touching my bare feet at home. I cringed as she walked to the living room and little flecks of mud fell onto my hardwood floor. Maybe I should have said yes? But I didn’t want to seem uptight and controlling. Good moms don’t freak out about a little dirt!
We took our seats in the living room and the dogs went nuts, with Baxter jumping from couch to couch and Laney shedding white fur all over Jennifer’s black pants while she shoved her giant tongue toward our guest’s face. “It’s OK, I have dogs!” Jennifer assured me when I apologized for their excitement and tried to make them settle down. None of us knew what to do or say or where to begin in the chaos of wagging tails and eager tongues. I glanced at the small wooden sign on the bookshelf that says “Beware of Dog Kisses.” I wondered if Jennifer noticed that, and if she thought it was cute.
The meeting began with going over more paperwork we would need to complete before our next home-study visit. I took the documents and glanced at them before adding them to my folder. One packet was a 10-page questionnaire to help match us with a child, covering everything from which circumstances and behaviors we were willing to accept (would we adopt a child conceived through incest, or one that displayed behaviors such as stool-smearing or fire-setting?) and to match our specific skills and interests with a prospective foster child (do we like science, math, cooking, or video games?). They also required proof of insurance, proof of employment, a financial statement, credit check, and a copy of our marriage license and my divorce decree from my previous marriage.
The rest of the meeting involved questions about our work and lifestyle. Seth talked about his construction job, and I confessed to being a self-employed Life Coach, wondering if that would conjure images of Chris Farley’s motivational-speaker character on Saturday Night Live “living in a van down by the river!” Is life coaching something that a social worker in northern New Hampshire would consider a real job, if she had ever even heard of the profession? She asked if there was any licensing requirement for life coaches, and I confessed that there wasn’t; that anyone could hang up a shingle and call themselves a coach, but I had spent two years getting certified by the top coaching school in the world! I further proved my legit-ness by rattling off the additional training and certifications I’ve pursued in Positive Intelligence, Internal Family Systems parts work, and the Enneagram. If she didn’t believe me, I was ready to pull up my UNperfectionism website, or show her all the inspirational magnets on my fridge.
I was all jazzed up in my Martha-Stewart-meets-Tony-Robbins vibe when Jennifer switched gears and asked us to walk her through a typical day in our lives. I glanced at Seth to prompt him to answer first, because I felt like I was doing too much of the talking, and because I don’t have much of a typical day. He told her about setting his alarm for 5:30am and leaving at 6:15am to get to work by 7am, then driving wherever they sent him to rig cranes or move heavy equipment or get sub-contracted out as manual labor for the dirty jobs that companies don’t want to do themselves. He talked about coming home from work and doing groceries or yard work or fixing the cars, then cooking and cleaning up dinner and making his lunch and going to bed to do it all again the next day. I watched an incredulous look come over Jennifer’s face, as if she’d never met a man who worked all day AND shopped AND cooked AND cleaned AND made his own lunch. She turned to me expectantly, and I read on her face: “And what do YOU do all day?”
Umm… uhhh… “I get up around 7 or 8,” I lied, implying that the time my bladder wakes me up to pee is the actual time I get out of bed. In reality, I always crawl back under the covers to work on my phone for a few hours until the dogs start squeaking at the back door. “I get up and make breakfast and let the dogs out,” I said, trying to weave together details that would make my life sound structured and normal. I had, in fact, made oatmeal once or twice in the last week (a new habit I was working to develop), so this wasn’t too much of a stretch. “I work in my office over there,” I said, gesturing to the corner off of the dining room where my L-shaped glass desk sat neatly arranged with a laptop, professional-looking microphone, and organized stacks of papers and books. I didn’t specify exactly when I worked or how much, letting her imagine me plopping down in my office chair at 9am and taking client calls and responding to emails all day, a reality I often imagined for myself but never realized. Then I confessed: “I’ve cut back a lot on client work this year as we’ve been going through fertility treatments,” and I talked about how the workload had taken its toll on my physical and mental health the past few years, how stressful it was to navigate four miscarriages while running my own business (I’d even done a podcast interview about this!), and how much better I’d been feeling lately with a more flexible schedule.
This confession turned the conversation toward the topic I most dreaded: my mental health. Jennifer suddenly had a litany of questions about my emotional stability. “Well, I inherited anxiety from my dad and depression from my Mom,” I said, trying to make it sound oh-so-normal and not-at-all-my-fault. I didn’t launch into my full alphabet-soup of diagnoses; instead, I emphasized all the tools I’d learned in my years of treatment. I rambled about how I’d tried a lot of different medications and nothing really worked for me, but that focusing on exercise and self-care and nutrition (vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free!) had made such a huge difference, and I’m like, totally normal, see?
“Do you have a therapist?” she asked.
“Yes?” I replied, thinking that was probably the right answer, but aware that I’d had my final appointment with that therapist this very morning because she was taking a leave of absence, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to find a new one.
“I’ll need to talk to your therapist,” Jennifer said, looking down and making a note on the papers in her lap. What I heard in the silence that followed was: “…to make sure you’re not a crazy person who is disqualified from having children.”
“Of course!” I replied, surprised by the request because I had already submitted a medical statement from my doctor saying I was good to go. “I told my therapist this morning about our home study, and she was so excited and told me that I’m going to be a great mom,” I emphasized, smiling a little too big for a little too long.
Over the course of the mental health conversation, Seth had scooted closer to me on the couch and taken my hand in his, a gesture of silent support. He squeezed it now, sensing the tension in the air and the unspoken words.
I quickly changed the subject back to my day, skipping ahead to the part where I take the dogs out almost every afternoon for a run or hike. This mercifully shifted the topic to “What do we do in our spare time?” and I looked at Seth to defuse the tension and give my rambling mouth a break. He talked about fixing things and building things and cooking things, and I chimed in about his artistic talent, pointing out the stained-glass mountain-and-moose scene hanging in the window behind us that he’d made me for our first Christmas together, back when he was still living in New Orleans.
Now I finally got to brag about all my outdoor adventures—the hikes and backpacking and camping trips, and my crowning achievement: peak-bagging the hundred highest mountains in New England, twice, including a full round in winter (I was on a podcast for that, too!). I talked about how we spend our summer weekends at Seth’s parents’ lake house, swimming and paddling and boating, and how we take a trip to the beach a couple times a year. I said that depending on the season, if I’m not running or hiking, I’m biking or cross-country skiing. And in the evenings, I said, I usually read or listen to podcasts (I left out the part about binge-watching 40 hours of Yellowstone earlier this month).
I couldn’t read the look on Jennifer’s face. Was she thinking what I hoped she would think: “Wow, these people have an awesome life that would be so fun to share with kids”? Or was she looking at us incredulously because we have the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want, and thinking, “Why would they want to give up their freedom for the responsibility of parenting?”
Had I made too big of a deal about the adventure thing? After all, how would that lifestyle fit in with sick kiddos and school plays and soccer practice and PTA meetings?
Between the life-coaching thing and the peak-bagging thing and the vegan-gluten-free-sugar-free thing, I was starting to realize that our life looked a bit alien compared to the majority of people in our rural community, who spend their days working blue-collar jobs, riding snowmobiles and ATVs, shopping at Wal-Mart, and eating at McDonald’s. At least Seth’s construction job fit the mold, but he’s not your typical beer-drinking, football-watching kind of blue-collar guy. I sensed the disconnect and made a nervous joke about our hippie lifestyle, but it didn’t elicit any reaction from our social worker.
“What are your house rules?” is the next thing Jennifer asked, and again, I froze. Besides not wearing shoes inside, I thought? This was probably a boilerplate question directed at prospective foster parents who already have their own kids, and who have established things like curfews, screen-time limits, and whatever else parents do to manage their household. Seth and I have no such “rules” that I am aware of.
“Don’t be a jerk?” I blurted out. “And if you are a jerk, say you’re sorry?” What I really wanted to say was “Don’t be a dick” or “Don't’ be a bitch,” but those didn’t seem like words that a good mom would use. Seth gave me a look and later told me he felt like this comment was directed at him, though that was not my intention; certainly I screw up and apologize as often as he does. Did I just imply that my husband was verbally abusive, or that I was? Oh shit.
I racked my brain for anything else to say, but my mind was blank when it came to rules. Jennifer finally prompted us with the screen-time example and I exclaimed, “Right! No television, no video games, and no cell phones for our kids!” Because that’s what a good mom would do, right? And Jennifer quipped back: “Try taking away a teenager’s cell phone and see how that goes.” We all laughed nervously.
Lastly, she asked if we had any other pets, besides the two dogs that had been in her face for the past hour. “Not unless you count the beetle that lives in the bathroom,” I joked. “Well, it’s a different beetle every few months, but we named him Bond and I talk to him whenever I go in there,” I added, before realizing how insane this made me sound. I stopped talking when I saw the blank look on her face, and decided not to mention that I’d written an ode to Bond the beetle and published it on my blog. Best not to mention my blog at all, I thought, in case my candid writing raises any more red flags.
Jennifer looked at the clock and said we’ve covered everything for today; would we mind giving her a tour of the house? (“Should I introduce her to Bond?” was my first thought, but I decided against it.) The dogs had finally settled next to Seth and me on the couch, and they sprang back to life when we got up. I walked her in a loop from the living room through the dining room and kitchen, then down to the basement, where all our outdoor gear and Seth’s tools and projects hung neatly from the hooks and shelves he’d constructed. She peered around our piles and I started to worry that we looked like really well-organized hoarders. I wondered if Seth had left out his stack of 15 nested plastic pickle jars, or his bucket full of 10 empty pretzel containers with big round lids that he screws to the basement ceiling to store various sized nuts and bolts. I brought her upstairs and she poked her head in the bedrooms and bathroom, but there was no scrutinizing the tub drain for hairballs, and she probably didn’t even notice that I’d wiped the spots off the bathroom mirror from the plaque that lands there when I floss.
The end of the tour concluded our visit, and we made plans for a second home study in two weeks, when Seth and I would each be interviewed separately about our relationship with each other. I held back the dogs as Jennifer walked out the front door, and as soon as she backed out of the driveway, I ran around with a paper towel wiping the mud off the floor. Then Seth and I collapsed on the couch and took off our masks to debrief.
“I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable,” I told him. “Wasn’t that awkward? Like, I thought she would walk in the door and see what cool people we are and what a nice home we have and that it would be like chatting with a friend. Instead, I felt like I was at a job interview. I couldn’t read her reactions.”
He didn’t pick up quite the same vibe I did, but we had fun imagining what might have been going through her mind, and re-creating her inner monologue, especially around the life-coaching, outdoor-adventuring, and vegan-gluten-sugar-free parts of the interview.
“Oh, and did you notice that I took out the trash and left the kitchen trash can clean and empty?” I asked him.
“Nice job, honey. We’re not the kind of family that makes trash,” he said with a wink.
Thanks for reading Liz Explores! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.