During National Adoption Awareness Month, I will introduce you to numerous guest bloggers, highlighting many parts of the adoption journey. I “met” LeighAnn over Instagram. She was generous enough to share her story with us. This is a great example of how you might start the adoption journey with certain thoughts and criteria, but if you go through with an open mind and an open heart, things may shift. And that’s ok. This is a beautiful story of openness in adoption.
By LeighAnn Phillips
It wasn’t long after my husband and I got married that we started trying for children. We were diagnosed with having infertility and at that point, turned to adoption. My husband has two sisters who were adopted, and my cousin is adopted, so we were no strangers to the idea. I wasn’t comfortable with doing IVF treatments, so we began our adoption journey by finding a large agency that we felt comfortable with and filling out their application.
The adoption application asked us to think about what kind of birth mother situation would be acceptable to us and what kind of baby we were hoping for – our “preferences.” We did prefer a baby under 12 months. After that, the next item we came to was sex and race. This would be our first child. If I had become pregnant, I wouldn’t be able to choose the sex so we were ok saying either on that one. As for race, my husband and I are both white but he has two sisters adopted from Korea. We had no dreams of having all white children and we knew it would be much easier to adopt a baby if we were open to any race. We preferred to have a baby who was healthy and we didn’t think we were prepared at that time to adopt a child with Down Syndrome or other disabilities, though it was hard to say no to anything. Next section focused on the birth mother. Was it acceptable if she had taken drugs during the pregnancy? No. What about cigarettes? No. How much contact would we allow? This was a new concept for me because everyone we knew had a closed adoption. However, cards and letters and a visit later in the baby’s life seemed harmless enough. After all, this young lady was giving us her child, right?
After we filled out the application, we got excited about the new bundle of joy that was soon to come our way. We told everyone! We lived in an area where there wasn’t a lot of exposure to adoption – and definitely no open adoption – so people were naturally curious. Every couple of weeks, someone would ask us how it was going and we had nothing to give them. We heard nothing from the agency for months. We became frustrated, wondering if the agency was doing their job. Had we wasted thousands of dollars?
The agency called after six months advising us to change our preferences. They thought it might help our chances if we allowed smoking during the pregnancy. Reluctantly, we said yes. Shortly after that, the phone rang. It was a birthmother who was interested in us as the adoptive parents of her baby. She was 17 and had become pregnant in high school. The birth father had wanted to marry her and keep the baby but he conceded to her choice and signed away his parental rights. We hit it off right away talking about hobbies and movies we liked and we arranged a meeting. They would come to see us in two months.
When she was 8 months along the birth mother of our baby, Heather, came to visit from California with her mom, Karen, hoping to get to know us better. They were really wonderful, and we felt like kindred spirits already. We were getting to know each other. They wanted to know how we met, our beliefs, our hobbies. Then we moved on to our thoughts about open adoption. Not having been parents before and not being familiar with open adoption, this was uncharted territory. We had to be honest and say, while we can definitely promise cards and letters, we didn’t know how we were going to feel about visits once the child was old enough to understand the situation. We’d have to see how we felt but we did promise them a visit when the baby was 6 months old. They seemed to be ok with this.
They spent a few days with us and one day when we were out shopping, a sales clerk asked Heather what she intended to name the baby. She and Karen looked at me with wondering eyes. They didn’t want to offend me by claiming a name but this was her time, not mine. I looked at her and said, “Didn’t you say you liked the name, Marie?” We were in this together.
Closer to the due date, the birth family sent us a list of expectations they wanted for the delivery and hospital stay. Karen would be with Heather in the delivery room. We would wait in the waiting room. We would have an hour a day to hold the baby and we would take the baby to a hotel at discharge. They wanted to have the baby dedicated in their church a few days after discharge.
When Heather went into labor, her mom called us and we flew out to California. We met the extended family in the waiting room and they were all happy to meet us. Up to that point, we didn’t know the sex of the baby so when Karen came in and said, “the baby’s here!” we found out she was a healthy baby girl! It seemed unreal that she would be ours. We held her every day. My husband James bonded with her immediately but I held onto my heart until I knew it was permanent.
At discharge, two days later, we felt like we could let our guard down. We called family and told them this would be the day we could take our baby girl home – or at least to our hotel. Heather’s parents met us at the hospital door and told us that Heather had decided to take the baby home with her. She hadn’t changed her mind but needed more time to say goodbye.
James was crushed, I was angry. I thought we would surely be going home empty-handed. We had no support system here in California and we needed someone to talk to. The hospital staff had looked at us curiously during our stay there. They’d never seen an open adoption before. We found the office of a hospital social worker and asked her if she’d be willing to talk to us. She said she didn’t think she could help us. We told her it didn’t matter if she helped. We just needed a sounding board. We needed to vent our emotions. She allowed it and it helped.
We showed up to their church the next day for the baby dedication they had planned. Our nerves were stretched tight and it didn’t help that the birth family showed up thirty minutes late. Heather hugged me when she arrived and thanked me for the extra time with the baby. We participated in the dedication but I was shaking too much to hold the baby. After the ceremony, we were able to take our baby to the hotel! As new parents, we muddled through putting her in the car seat, feeding and changing.
Our friends who happened to be in the area met us out that night to meet our new addition. Having someone there to share our joy made all the difference in the world! The last day we were there, the birth family requested one more visit with us before we left. They wanted one more chance to see the baby. Handing our child back to the birth mother when our emotions were still so raw was extremely difficult but we got through it. Finally, we were able to leave with our new daughter but I didn’t let my guard down until we crossed the threshold of our house.
For six months I had nightmares that the birth family was coming to take my daughter away. It was irrational I knew. Heather had signed away her rights and in all that time she never contacted us. But the six-month visit was coming up. My daughter had bonded with us and I felt more confident when the birth family came to see her. They were kind to us as they’d been before and we were on our home turf. There were a few tense moments but mostly it went really well and my nightmares did not return.
Two years later we were ready to adopt again. We were about to fill out another application when I discovered I was pregnant! Now we had two daughters- Bethany and Joanna. Bethany has brown skin, brown eyes and hair and Joanna is blond with white skin, like us. When Bethany was 5 years old, she started asking natural questions about how babies are born. I explained that babies grow in their mommy’s tummies. Joanna grew in mine and she grew in her birth mother’s. I told her that her birth mother loved her, but wanted a mommy and daddy for her.
We took the questions as they came. We learned it was best not to force the conversation. We lived in New Mexico when Bethany was 9 years old. A neighbor girl told her that adoption meant that her “real” mother didn’t want her. She wasn’t trying to be cruel- she just didn’t know any better. Because we had prepared her and answered all her questions, I watched as my little girl defended who she was and why her birth mother had chosen adoption. Another little boy at the playground, after realizing that both girls were going home with me, asked if Joanna would turn brown when she grew older. That made us all laugh out loud and we explained adoption to him. I occasionally got the quizzical glance at the store or the “Are they both yours?” but we didn’t care. It was an opportunity to educate people about adoption.
My next door neighbor’s husband groped with questions about adoption with me. “How can you love a child that’s not genetically yours?” he asked. I admired his honesty and I could tell he needed to know. I explained what I had learned. Love is something you do, something you choose to give. Family can be any group of people that love each other.
Joanna and Bethany didn’t see any difference in our family and other families. Bethany was getting cards and presents from her birth family on Christmas and her birthday and one day Joanna expressed that she didn’t think it was fair that Bethany received one more present than her. We agreed to get her one more present to even it out and that was the end of that problem. Living in New Mexico, Bethany blended well with many of the neighbor kids. My husband, Joanna and I were the ones in the minority in our neighborhood.
When Bethany turned 11, her birth grandmother asked if they could visit us. I knew it was time and we talked to Bethany about it. We asked her over and over again how she felt about it. Exasperated she said, “What’s the big deal? It’s just people who love me and want to see me?” She was right and the trip went great. We hit it off with them just like we had in the beginning.
The next year it was the birth mother’s turn, but this time it was less about Bethany and more about her birth mother’s healing. She needed to know that Bethany didn’t hate her because of the choice she had made. We all had a great time and there have been visits back and forth since then. Two years ago we all went to Bethany’s birth mother’s wedding in Lake Tahoe. Bethany was able to meet cousins, aunts, and uncles and even her 80-year-old Dutch great grandmother! The connection with Bethany’s birth family has broadened her view about who she is and made her feel loved by not just us but by many people. It has also changed our definition of what a family is. We feel like people who love us and love our children are our family.
In 2016, my dad and stepmom decided to adopt a teenager through the foster system. That got us thinking about adoption again. In August, we brought home our new baby daughter, Melanie. Her birth mother is in federal prison. We visited her in prison this week and we’re learning about her world that is so different from ours. We met her family and they already feel like home. Both of our adoption journeys have brought together the meaning of family and what it means to truly love a child.
Born and raised in Florida, LeighAnn met her husband, who is in the Air Force, just after graduating from nursing school, and they have traveled across the country together ever since. They lived in Ohio, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Colorado. Now they are back in Florida and trying to put down roots.