THE PARENT: Krista Morse, 41, of King of Prussia
THE CHILD: Emerson Alice, born March 21, 2018, adopted September 24, 2018
HER FIRST GLIMPSE OF HER DAUGHTER: "Red hair. Little button nose. Full lips, perfect ears. Pretty big: 7 pounds, 12 ounces. It was so easy to love her."
She was the kid who dressed her dogs in baby clothes and pulled her niece, born when Krista was 12, in a red Radio Flyer wagon. When her cousin dated a woman with two children, Krista loved how they pronounced her name, "Fwista," because their toddler tongues couldn't manage the K or the R.
It was no surprise, then, when she graduated from high school, signed with a nanny agency, and moved from Montana to Jenkintown to care for a 5-year-old boy and his 8-week-old sister.
The experience was a reality check: learning to discipline a recalcitrant preschooler, remaining patient when the baby shrieked with colic. "I learned this is not just a doll; there's a lot that goes into [parenting]," Krista says.
After a year of full-time work, Krista returned for freshman year at Montana State University. But after her sojourn on the East Coast, that area felt empty of opportunity. She came back to work for the Jenkintown family — the baby was now getting ready for preschool — then for another family with three girls, including toddler twins.
In the meantime, she completed her business degree at Temple University. There wasn't much time for dating, and none of the guys she met seemed like "the one." At 31, Krista met a man who seemed to have long-term potential. They lived together for three years.
"He always said, 'You can have anything you want.' But when I said, 'I want to start a family,' he said, 'Anything but that.' " He suggested they get a dog as proxy for a baby. Krista declined.
"Age 35 was kind of that line in the sand. After that, they say it's harder to get pregnant. I said I would do it on my own."
She didn't feel intimate enough with any male friends to request their sperm — "It's not like asking, 'Hey, can I borrow your sweatshirt?' " she laughs — so she browsed the donor catalog at Fairfax Cryobank, searching for physical traits that rhymed with hers (blond, blue-eyed, of northern European descent) and qualities, such as a strength in math, that could complement her weaker points.
After six unsuccessful cycles of insemination, the fertility specialist recommended surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. Then Krista tried to conceive seven more times. In hindsight, she can spot the uh-oh signs: the bad omen of spraining her ankle on the day of her first fertility consultation; the time her doctor, during an appointment, grabbed another patient's records.
After her final intrauterine insemination in February 2017, Krista had such a strong hunch the procedure hadn't worked that she didn't even go to the doctor for a two-week check of her hormone levels. When a nurse phoned, nonetheless, to say, "I'm calling with your blood results," Krista knew it was time to switch gears.
She briefly considered international adoption but found many countries did not smile on single parents. An educational meeting at A Baby Step Adoption convinced her she'd found the right agency.
She was matched after two months with a woman in Omaha who said she was due with a biracial baby girl. But there were uh-oh signs here, too: The woman had used drugs in the past, and she didn't have any ID. It turned out she was faking the pregnancy, sending the agency ultrasound images that belonged to a pregnant friend.
"It was crazy," Krista recalls. "Everyone kept saying to me, 'You're handling this so well.' I thought: What am I supposed to do?"
On March 13, A Baby Step sent another email: a healthy baby, gender unknown, due later that month to parents who lived in Iowa. Krista flew there on the 20th, the day before the birth mom was to be induced, and met the couple at a local restaurant.
"I was super-excited, but they were completely on the other end: They'd been though this pregnancy for nine months, and now they were going to hand their baby to a complete stranger." Despite the birth mom's natural shyness, they found common ground: she had a cat named Sammy, the same name as Krista's dog.
"When we left, I said, 'Can I give you a hug?' " Krista recalls.
At the hospital the next day, she paced in a room near the nursery — texting friends, checking email from work, reading Cinder, her book club choice for the month — while nurses gave periodic updates: She's fully dilated. She's laboring down. The baby's born.
"There was a screaming baby lying on one of the carts with the heat lamp on her. The nurse said, 'She's here. It's a girl.' Shortly after that, they brought her to my room. It felt very surreal."
Emerson, a name that means "brave one," had red hair and full lips. She slept through nearly all of a hellish travel day — 12 hours from Sioux City to Philadelphia, with a four-hour delay in Chicago — snuggled in a carrier that made Krista feel like a 19th-century work ox.
Despite her nanny credentials, parenthood was an anxiety-spiked learning curve: Why did Emerson sound like Darth Vader when she breathed? And that cry — was she hungry or tired or wet? They needed bananas; was the trip out of the house really worth it? "Two months ago, I could just walk out the door. Now it's different. It's not just me anymore."
Krista wonders about the future. "The more open I can be, the more comfortable she'll be. But what if she gets to be 10 years old and says, 'I hate you'? Is she going to want to meet that [birth] family and decide that's a better fit for her?"
At the same time, she says, "I can't imagine being on the other side, having to make a choice that you can't take care of your own child. I'm a complete stranger to them, and they're handing over their baby. The whole journey has been so humbling."