The XX Factor

Single Mom by Choice: Why I Adopted a Girl From China

Someone said to me the other day that all mothers feel at some point as if they are single parents. I understand what she meant, but I’m not sure I agree. There is a difference between having someone to share a child with and having sole responsibility. Jen Shelton addresses this topic below in the piece she sent in about being the single mother of her daughter, Zuzu.

My daughter is adopted. I had a long career path, partly because I left a career as a financial journalist to get a Ph.D. in British modernism, which turns out to be a difficult field to get a job in.

Nevertheless, I managed to, and when it was clear the book I’d written would find a publisher (or rather, when I started to believe people who said it would), I started proceedings to adopt. Zuzu was born in China. I adopted her just before China barred single adoptions. She is five now, and I got her when she was two days shy of her first birthday.

My calculus was sort of like this: My book was accepted two days before I left to get her in China; I was certain to get tenure at that point; I have a job that is demanding but flexible (I can take her to class with me when she is sick, for instance-luckily, she’s very healthy, so that only happens once a semester or so).

I thought that I would be able to spend a good bit of time with her, and that I wouldn’t be bringing her here to spend all her time in daycare. I adopted rather than having a child biologically partly because I knew there were babies out there who needed families, although it would have been faster and cheaper to give birth myself. Also, I didn’t have a great support system here-I’m 2,000 miles from my nearest relative-and I thought it would be really hard to cope with a newborn, recover from childbirth, and teach, all on my own.

In short, I had my child in the way that I thought was the most likely to turn out well for both of us. Being single and a mom is not that different from being married and a mom, I often think, except that if I were married, I would be richer and could get someone to help me with things like housework and yard care.

Also, when your baby has an ear infection and screams for six nights straight and you don’t get even one minute of relief-when there is literally no one who can help you at all-that is pretty hard. But luckily, that is temporary.

I don’t have to fight with someone over the best way to raise my kid, or at least, when I do fight, I’m going to win because I’m actually Zuzu’s mother. I don’t get pissed at anyone for not helping with household chores, because obviously I’m the one who has to do it all.

I have all the blessings of motherhood with none of the hassles of having a man in the house, so it’s a choice I’d make again. I wish I could have another child, but I don’t think I could support another kid, so I guess we’re done. We do have three cats, so we’re not totally solitary. Zuzu has lots of people besides me to love-godparents, friends, an extended family (though we see them just at Christmas time)-so I don’t feel that her life is particularly bereft, though I do worry that if I’m hit by a bus, there’s no one else who has her history.

She has already lost part of her history because of the circumstances of her birth, so I try to construct elaborate scrapbooks and storybooks for her so that if something does happen to me, she’ll still have something. She’s one of the happiest and most well-adjusted kids I know.

She feels sorry for kids whose parents didn’t adopt them, but I tell her that their parents love them just as much as I love her. I am keenly aware of how my choices affect her, and though others tell me Zuzu is lucky to be my daughter, I’m more inclined to say, “Well, I’m better than an orphanage.” I try to read everything I can to help me understand what she’s likely to experience as she grows older because of the mildly peculiar nature of our family and circumstances of her birth. My aim is to help her process any difficulties she might have with this. But I don’t know whether my desire to have a daughter somehow diverted her life from some happier outcome she might have had without my intervention.

Like many parents, I have my child because I really, really wanted her. I am exhausted all the time, and my house is never clean, and I get summonses from the city every summer because of the state of my yard, but having this little person in my life is far and away the best thing I’ve ever done and brings me more joy (also more frustration, but no one said it would be easy) than any other thing I’ve done-and I’ve done some things that are at least reasonably big accomplishments likely to bring happiness.


Jen Shelton is an Associate Professor of English at Texas Tech University.

Photograph of Jen and Zuzu Shelton courtesy of Jen Shelton.