Nine-year-old Grayson King dangles a plastic camera over the railing of the stairs as he swings the toy around from the first landing. His dancing, downy-blond head can barely be seen below. The toy belongs to his two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Samantha, who tearfully wants it back, clamoring at the bottom of the stairs and shaking her dark curls, which match her coffee-with-cream complexion.
Covering his mouth with his hand, Grayson darts up the stairs to his room as their mother, Martha, restrains Samantha from running after him. Meanwhile, Claudia, the mocha-toned, pig-tailed, seven-year-old middle sibling, entertains herself with her own plastic camera, which she proudly says even has a flash.
This is a normal day at the King household. The only thing that might set it apart is that all three children are adopted. Martha was present only for the birth of Grayson, but she met Claudia the day after her birth and Samantha a few weeks after hers. Martha says she and her husband couldn’t conceive and didn’t try fertility treatments for long. This is why she credits The Cradle, an Evanston adoption agency that’s one of the oldest in the country, with helping her create the family that they have always wanted.
“Growing a family is in so many ways similar to doing it biologically,” she says. “After you change sixteen poopy diapers, you feel like a mom.”
Located on the corner of Ridge Avenue and Simpson Street, The Cradle offers an unusually open place for many associated with adoption: newborns whose birth parents are unsure of what step to take next, couples such as the Kings and single women around the world who want to become parents, and seniors who volunteer at the agency’s on-site nursery.
The warm, pink-striped walls of the The Cradle’s lobby give way to huge bookshelves in the living room, crowded with albums of records and pictures of all of the children the agency has helped place. Photos of smiling children at different ages—toddlers, middle schoolers, high school graduates—fill every surface. Just down the hall is the “wall of fame,” where pictures of The Cradle’s more-famous adoptive parents hang: entertainer Bob Hope, former Chicago Bears player Gale Sayers, and film star Al Jolson.
The Cradle was established in 1923 by Florence Walrath, an Evanston resident looking to help her sister find a child to adopt. Walrath assumed that there must be children in hospitals that birth parents wouldn’t be ready to raise, says Joan Jaeger, the agency’s director of marketing and communication. Walrath also wanted to provide a trusting site where people looking to adopt or place a child could connect with each other. Her research turned into her passion, Jaeger says, and the private adoption agency grew into one of the most-respected in the country. “The organization is around 85 years old, and that’s not by accident,” Jaeger says. “More than anything, our commitment to children keeps us steady.”
Each year The Cradle fields 750 to 800 calls from expectant women and about 1,000 calls from individuals looking to adopt, Jaeger says. The agency also offers counseling to both birth parents and adoptive parents–even ones who didn’t adopt through The Cradle. This includes managing crisis pregnancy situations on their 24-hour hotline, counseling to “explain what adoption looks like,” and workshops to help families through the process, on subjects such as the prenatal effects of substance abuse and the mental impact of adoption on the child.
One of the central tenets at the agency is open adoption, when birth parents stay in touch and have a meaningful relationship with their children. The Kings decided to try it, and say it has added a rich dimension to their family’s life.
“People are always fascinated by open adoption. It’s so funny to me that it’s so bizarre of a concept to others,” Martha says. “It so wonderful to have that relationship because it’s great for the kids to have those people in their lives and feel secure that their birth mom really loves them. In adoption, there are never too many people to love a child.”
She says that her family has close relationships with the birth families of her first two children, but Samantha’s birth mother didn’t want to be involved. Martha stresses how non-threatening these relationships are. “We are clearly our children’s parents,” she says. “It’s not a major issue. Sometimes people worry about it, but very rarely do I hear that there is a problem. Probably the adoptive parents want to have more of a relationship with the birth mother, so when that doesn’t happen the adoptive parents are disappointed for their child. In our situations, everyone has done everything they said they’re going to do.”
Jaeger describes open adoption as “a commitment to a meaningful, ongoing connection with the birth and adoptive parents that holds the child’s best interests above all else.” While the policy is neither legally binding nor mandated, she says it’s something that The Cradle suggests to all birth parents as an option, whether it takes the form of e-mails, letters, or visits.
The Cradle is also the only private adoption agency in the country to have an on-site nursery, Jaeger says, and every baby it receives in its care gets adopted. Consisting of a 24-hour staff and pre-screened volunteers, the nursery allows the agency to “establish a quick picture” of the health and needs of each child, as well as provide a haven for babies whose birth mothers may not know what to do next, according to Victoria Brooks, who’s in charge of nursing.
Located on the third floor, the nursery accommodates several white cribs, the walls delicately painted with vines and leaves curling over the heads of sleeping newborns. In the middle of the room stands a counter with a sink where staff and volunteers must wash up to their elbows before donning hospital gowns and after handling each infant. The nursery typically cares for six to seven babies at a time, and each usually stays about 17 days–although the room can accommodate up to 20 babies if necessary.
To keep the nursery running all day, volunteers serving as “cuddlers” help the nurses hold and feed the babies in two-hour shifts. There are about 50 cuddlers altogether, and although some time slots need more, in general there’s a two-year wait list to even be considered, background-checked, finger-printed, and interviewed for the job, which isn’t paid. “It’s a real popular program,” says Lynne Firestone, The Cradle’s volunteer coordinator. “It’s very soothing and pleasant to stop and hold a baby. I think people just want to hold babies.”
Winnetka resident Janice Russ, 70, says that’s why she volunteers. She used to drive by The Cradle on her way to work every day thinking she’d apply to the program when she retired. About a year ago, Russ got in contact with the agency and now has a regular shift every other week—and has even placed herself on the substitute list. She calls it the best job she’s ever had. “I usually come five to eight times a month, but that’s hardly enough,” she says. “It puts you in a zone: It’s peaceful and I get more out of it than the babies do. I like to put my nose in their neck and smell that sweet, sweet smell. The babies touch your face and you have that fragrance of a baby.” When she leaves, Russ says, the first thing that goes through her head is, “When can I come back?”
Samantha Ptashkin, a 22-year-old Northwestern student who has worked at The Cradle for two years, says a co-worker once suggested she pass by the nursery when she was having a bad day. Though the Medill senior’s job mostly involves entering data on who donates and adopts, a recent interview Ptashkin did for a journalism class led her to a birth mother who gave up her baby 14 years ago. “It was a really compelling story to hear, and she was crying a lot when talking to me,” Ptashkin says. “It was the first time I realized, wow, they’re making an impact on people’s lives. People need The Cradle. What would she have done without it?”
Increasing awareness of adoption in the black community is another priority, Jaeger says, since The Cradle gets twice as many calls from blacks looking to place a child compared to parents looking for a baby of that race.
Martha and her husband decided early on that they would be open to transracial adoption, meaning they were willing to adopt children of other races. That, among other factors, shortened their time on the wait list. The King parents are white, while their son is part Asian and their two daughters are half-black and half-white, but the family talks about it comfortably.
“My daughters have questions but they go to school with people that look like them, where they talk about race all the time,” Martha says. “Typically, kids notice skin color at age three and our middle child goes through phases where she wants to talk about it. It comes up when we bring it up so if she has questions, she can ask.”
The Kings speak at agency workshops about both transracial adoption and children with special needs—such as Grayson, who has mental retardation. “We didn’t know about it when he was born and didn’t figure out he had major issues until he was three,” Martha says. “We believe it’s something that happened at birth, like birth trauma.”
Still, everyday life doesn’t center on adoption, Martha says, because raising three children in a house that’s being renovated, with construction workers hammering through parts of the day, and two dogs underfoot has its challenges enough. When it’s time to feed Ginger (“Bad Dog”) and Kaylee (“Good Dog”), Martha enlists Samantha to help. “Here,” Martha says, handing her a cup with dog food. Samantha trots over and empties the cup into the dogs’ dishes as Ginger and Kaylee begin to eat. One of the construction workers emerges from the kitchen to say that he’s leaving, and Martha wishes him good night. Samantha climbs onto the living room sofa, pulling a blanket over her body and sucking on her pacifier as she watches the kid’s TV show Arthur.
“This is a way to form your family. Once you have all your kids, it’s about school and getting homework done,” Martha says. “I’m an only child. It was a quiet family, so I probably sought this out. It’s chaotic, but that’s sort of how we like it.”