THE PARENT: Katherine Muns, 41, of Wissahickon
THE CHILD: Marshall Michael, 1, adopted May 12, 2020
THE KIND OF MOM SHE WANTS TO BE: Like her own perceptive mother, who recognized that Katherine’s occasional “sick days” as a child were really about not wanting to be picked on at school. “Later, my mom said, ‘I knew you were faking it, but everyone needs a mental-health day.’ ”
After Katherine submitted her profile book — “like the most stressful dating profile you’ll ever complete,” she says — to Open Arms Adoption Network, all she could do was wait.
She nested. She ran. She attended the adoption agency’s support groups for prospective parents. And when she went to yoga class, she would close her eyes and breathe. “I would try to send out positive energy to my child and their birth mom, wherever they were,” she says. “I’d try to feel they were out there.”
Katherine hadn’t always wanted to be a parent. The youngest of three children, she hopscotched from Dallas to Colorado Springs, then college in Chicago, law school in Washington, and a yearlong clerkship in Alaska, a remote village near the Arctic Circle.
“It didn’t make any sense, it completely terrified me, and that’s why I decided I should probably do it,” she says. A job with the public defender’s office brought her to Philadelphia.
“I was never the kind of little girl who thought about weddings and kids,” Katherine says. When she was in law school, her sister — who died of a drug overdose seven years ago — became pregnant and realized she could not care for the child. Katherine considered adopting the baby.
At the time, she was accruing student debt and in a relationship she wasn’t sure would last; her future after law school was uncertain. “I didn’t know if I wanted kids, back then … and I thought maybe this child could use a clean break.” Her niece was ultimately adopted by an unrelated couple.
But sometime in her 30s, Katherine changed her mind about children. “I didn’t have a partner, and I thought: Which was more important — to continue to try to find a partner, or to have kids? I decided it was more important for me to be a mom.”
She chose a donor who seemed “smart and creative” from a sperm bank and did five rounds of intrauterine inseminations. “The testing said my eggs had gone bad,” she says. “The idea that I wouldn’t have children was devastating.”
So she began training for a marathon, doing 8-mile runs after work in the frosty December dark. “I spent a lot of time distracting myself from what I was feeling. Finally, I said: ‘OK, Katherine. You should adopt.’ ”
The process — especially the seminars on birth mothers' use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy — made Katherine think about her sister and the “brave, difficult, heartbreaking” choice she had made. It was challenging to cede control, to know that she couldn’t manage every variable of her future child’s development. She also thought deeply about the implications of a transracial adoption.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, love is enough,’ but you can’t pretend to be color-blind. I wanted to make sure I could help a child be comfortable in their identity, that I could provide access to their birth culture.”
The idea of open adoption appealed to her. “More family is good, right?”
Eighteen months after delivering her profile book, which included anecdotes about her home, travel experiences, and annual extended-family reunions, Katherine got the call. “There’s this baby …” the adoption coordinator began, and Katherine began to yelp. After a barely coherent conversation with her boss — “I may not be coming back for six months … actually, I’m just going to take tomorrow off. … I just got this call about a baby!” — she phoned her mother.
Two days later, the two walked into a hospital in Paterson, N.J. “Complete panic was shooting through every nerve ending of my body,” Katherine recalls. Outside the NICU — the baby had been born six weeks preterm — she and her mother had to scrub and put on surgical gowns.
A nurse handed Katherine her son. “He was so beautiful. I burst into ugly-crying right away. I remember that all the things I’d been so scared about were gone. As soon as I had him, I knew what to do.”
For the next six days, she and her mother and Marshall hunkered in a hotel room. Katherine changed diapers and fed Marshall; she wept every time she read him a children’s book. “It was all of this emotion that had been so pent-up,” she says.
Once home, she had steady help from her mother, then from her father and stepmother, who came to stay for a week. Gradually, the every-three-hours, round-the-clock feedings relaxed into a happy, if hectic, routine: baby yoga classes, meeting friends with their babies for lunch and walks, relishing her maternity leave.
Then COVID-19 came, “and one day we were told, ‘You can’t leave the house.’ ” Suddenly, their world shrank. “I’m hearing-impaired, so my house is quiet,” Katherine says. "The only people who hold [Marshall] are me and my mom.
“And even still, honestly, if I was religious, I’d say I feel blessed. There are so many tragic things happening in the world, and I feel like I live in this blissful bubble with this amazing little guy.”
Katherine is plagued by the “normal parent worries,” she says, plus the additional fears that come with raising a Black son. She considers the lessons of Marshall’s babyhood to be prophetic for her life as a parent.
"He was trying to roll over; he was very determined, and yelling and crying because he was frustrated. I wanted to just roll him over. But that was not the right thing to do.
“It’s a scary world out there,” she says. “That’s reality. I can only give him the best tools I can, and I think those tools are going to evolve over time. I worry about the world he has to face that won’t always be kind to him. I want to make sure I’m strong enough to be an advocate for him until he can be his own advocate.”