I love medical dramas, and there is currently a storyline on one of my favorites, House, that I've been watching with more interest and amusement than usual. The hospital administrator, Dr. Cuddy, is a single woman in her 40's whose biological clock has been ticking the entire show. It's not a major plot line, but in the last five seasons she has gone through fertility treatments, and slyly interviewing colleagues as potential sperm donors. Last season her in vitro failed and she signed up with an adoption agency. In typical movie fashion (i.e. not at all what would happen in real life) Cuddy met (alone!) with a potential birthmom at a coffee shop, and they decided it was a match. Since it's a medical show the unlikely scenario that unfolded involved the birth mother contracting a rare medical condition, the baby nearly dying, and in the end the mother deciding to keep the baby after all, devastating Dr. Cuddy. But! Lo and behold just a few episodes later the POW (Patient of the Week, in House-speak) turned out to be a teenager who had just given birth and then conveniently, and tragically, died. Cuddy became the foster mother of the newborn. Because it's t.v. she apparently did this all off-screen, without a homestudy visit, and this week found her frantically trying to get ready for her social worker to come see her house for the first time, while also learning to be a mother and trying to run a hospital whose most famous doctor is a bit of a soulless rogue (that would be the main storyline on the show).
I had to laugh at much of this drama, but no one who has signed up to be an adoptive parent wouldn't cringe in sympathy with Cuddy's anxiety over that first visit by the social worker. Her house is a mess, her baby is screaming, and she is terribly worried that they'll take the child away. The social worker, however, isn't phased. He tells her, basically, that she's a stable person with good income and the sense to be ashamed of a messy house and that's better than he can say for a lot of people out there.
That's the part of the story that really does ring true.
Home visits are terrifying. Even after writing copious amounts of personal information down on paper, giving away our social security numbers, bank account balances, and credit reports, the home visit seemed like possibly the most judgmental and invasive part of the homestudy process. In my online adoption buddy group this is the part that most of us are most keyed up about. Just today there was a discussion by one woman who is getting ready to schedule hers about whether or not to hire professional cleaners.
Andrew and I were no different. We didn't hire professionals, but we did scour every inch of our 736 square feet of home. We sorted through closets and tossed out several garbage bags of unnecessaries. Clothes, books, pictures, and a futon all left us never to return. I dusted, and Andrew scrubbed the baseboards. Our cats retreated to their special place under the bed until that, too was disturbed by the vacuum. And, despite all of this my anxiety was pretty high. Where should we put the fire extinguisher? Were two smoke alarms enough? Would she see the mildew stain in the back corner of the bathroom cabinet and think it was black mold? Was it black mold? WHAT IS BLACK MOLD?!?! Andrew - who I must admit did the lion's share of actual cleaning - talked me down from panic more than once during the week-plus of cleaning and prep.
Then the time came, and our experience was a lot like Dr. Cuddy's. And, from the anecdotal evidence I've heard from friends who've gone through it, a pretty typical experience all 'round. Our very nice social worker, a woman about my mom's age, arrived right on time. She ooh'ed and ahh'ed appropriately at my Christmas decorations and noted the smoke alarms and fire extinguisher, which was sitting out on the dining room table for lack of a better place to put it. She suggested we store it under the kitchen sink. And then she was done looking and ready to talk. I had to press to get her to even go in the bathroom. She could not have cared less about the very clean meticulously organized closet. And while she patiently endured my lengthy explanation about just where baby will sleep/play/bathe and my detailed plan for cloth diapering I got the distinct impression that she would have been just fine without them.
Of the three hours that Karen spent in our home, less than fifteen minutes of it was used actually looking at the place. True, it's not very big. But what she was really there for was to spend time with us in our place, to see how we inhabit it, and to find out who we are together. It's a smart move - Andrew is a very different person in a room full of strangers than he is on his own turf. Perhaps I am as well, though I'm not shy in either scenario. We talked about our parents and siblings, about life experiences and how we met and fell in love. She spoke to us separately and together.
So, turns out, the important part of qualifying to be an adoptive parent isn't where you live, or how clean you keep it. Those things are important in their own way. But the real point of the home visit, at least for us, was to give us a chance to examine our own selves, and yet again answer those questions that we'll be working on the rest of our lives about how we live together, why we want another person to join our life, who we are going to be as a family. Even our week long cleaning spree related to this as we sorted through what possessions we really need or want to have around, and what stuff we can get rid of, to make room for someone new.
The main take-away for Dr. Cuddy from her Hollywood version of a home visit was that her standards for herself were a lot higher than those others would hold her to. I bet that's true of a lot of people who adopt - we're forced to put a lot of the stuff biological parents take for granted under a succession of microscopes and really think about what we see there. But the people who are judging us don't expect super-parents to emerge from this process. They're looking for people who are ready to love a kid, who care about bringing that child to a clean, safe place, who are comfortable in their home and their own skins. That's a lot of us, really.
And the long and the short of it, for us, is that we received our final acceptance into the AAI program yesterday. Next time Karen comes to visit us, she'll be visiting a household of three!