Eighteen Years Later: An Adoption Story

by Michele Fried

Our adoption journey was one filled with great ups and downs.  The first potential match fell through before it came to be when I surprised my husband at our celebration dinner at our favorite restaurant by saying I did not want to be matched with this pregnant woman.  Why?  I remember quite a bit of information about her even today and though there was nothing specific about her or her background that made me say no, it just didn’t feel right.  So I said no.  Saying no was hard, but it was the right decision.

Our next match we accepted.  It was exciting as we received updates for close to three months.  It all ended though when the birth father’s mother decided to raise the baby herself.  Left with this information and never learning the gender of the baby, I will forever remember this loss (soon to be coined an “adoption miscarriage.”)  I cried incessantly and called our home study social worker in hysterics, feeling foolish and lost, only to find her reassuring and spectacular not to call me crazy!  I called my friend from my childhood town and cried to her.  She too surprised me with great compassion recalling her mother once telling her of an adoption loss she and my friend’s father once experienced.

In a short time I realized that I needed to continue with our adoption journey so I spoke to an attorney who promised quick results with a Colombian adoption, but after a few calls, I didn’t feel comfortable with the attorney.  So I looked into agencies in another State.  I learned of a toddler who needed a family and found myself challenged by his social worker who asked me, “Why would a white couple want this child?”

After these and other ups and downs we found an agency that was in its first year of operation.  This is where we heard the term open adoption. I remember sitting in their office with my husband… nervously waiting to meet with the social worker.  During that wait, in a cramped office in the outskirts of Philadelphia, the director of the agency bounced in the office and waved at us.  I don’t recall her exact words but it was something to the affect of:  “What a young cute couple you are!  You will be picked so quickly!”  Picked?  What did that mean?

We soon learned that “being picked” meant “open adoption,” at least to this new agency.  We were shown a large three-ring notebook with one-page (back to back) profiles held together by a plastic insert.  I remember flipping through the book and viewing countless profiles of married couples of all ages hoping to be “picked” by a potential birth mother.

Wow.  So many couples; so many people to compete with; I was overwhelmed. I was not so concerned about a to-be birth mother choosing an adoptive family for her baby.  But I just didn’t want to be “one” of a large group of people.  I told the social worker how I felt and she seemed genuinely surprised.  “I want you to profile us when you really think that we would be the right family for someone.  All of these families can’t be right for everyone.”  She didn’t debate me and after a brief dialogue seemed to say okay.  In retrospect it was probably because we were open to a baby of all races that there was no reason to debate as the people in the book were seeking a healthy white infant.  I wanted her to realize however that healthy white infant or not, how could a woman flip page by page and find the right family… and by the way, how did one get put first or last in the “big book?”

Well, being open to race or not, didn’t make our being “picked” any easier.  There were times the phone rang and other times they didn’t.  The first call was regarding a pregnant woman who was parenting two to three children already.  After receiving some basic information about her, I agreed that our profile could be shown.  A day or two later the feedback was we “were too young for her.”  What happened to being young and cute?

More time passed and then the call came.  He was born already and we could pick him up tomorrow.  The funny thing is neither of us remember hearing whether the baby was a boy or girl. We just remember hearing about a baby, being selected and taking a baby home the next day.  We were numb with excitement.  You know what I mean if you have experienced “the call.”  The social worker says she told my husband it was a boy, but he didn’t remember by the time he had me pulled out of the class I was teaching.  It was a baby.  That’s all he could remember.

Adopting Zachary was one of the greatest experiences of our life.  I can remember it as if it were yesterday.  If you don’t mind, I will take you from 3 days old to 18 years later as fast as I can… we drove to the hospital to meet the birth mother and the agency social worker and take home our baby… sounds simple but you know it wasn’t.  After having my husband pull over due to my intense cramping from nervousness, we almost never got there.  Arriving at the hospital we learned that the birth mother was so emotional that she couldn’t get dressed to come back to the hospital to sign her surrender papers.  After what seemed hours, I was convinced that at any moment we would be told to go home without the baby.  As I shared with you in Part One of this article, we had already experienced many adoption miscarriages and I truly felt that I could not bear another loss.  We eventually were called into an office in the hospital where we were introduced to the birth mother and her mother.  There were hugs, tears and surprisingly some giggles.  She and I caught one another trying to look at the other. I remember holding hands and hugging her.  I remember truly thinking that it was okay if she took home the baby.  I told myself that I was able to wish her well.

Her mother cried a lot and talked a lot.  She herself only recently realized her youngest daughter was pregnant.  By some sheer miracle, I heard his birth mother say, “I want them to have the baby.” My husband and I embraced and cried.  How do you thank someone for the greatest gift in the world?

Fast forward to age 15 months.  My husband went to some conference in NYC… why I can’t remember… this is the same guy who let me do all the learning about adoption now he was so involved in learning more himself… he came home excited with new information on what open adoption really meant.  He reported that it didn’t mean being “picked” and sharing the photos and letters we reluctantly sent to the agency.  It meant bigger (and scarier) things.  Scary for me, yet it seemed like “the meaning of life” for my husband.  I thought it meant that he didn’t love our son as much as I did.  What he was purposing was preposterous.  Yet somehow in the next few months I was convinced to write a letter to our son’s birth mother including our telephone number and inviting her to call us.

One evening the telephone rang.  It was his birth mother and her mother.  It took us off guard but birth grandmother actually was distrustful wondering if we were thinking of “giving him back.”  My maternal reaction set her straight.  The birth mother was joyful believing she was never going to see him again until he was 18.

Our open adoption began with a visit in a restaurant without our son; then a visit at McDonalds with our son when he was 2 years old; then celebrating at his 3rd birthday party in our apartment!

After that we saw each other one to two times per year, sometimes more often, including them in all special events, especially as our family grew.  Our parents and siblings and other relatives got to know them and our relationship grew each year and we truly became extended family members.  Even when we moved out of state I worked hard to maintain contact.

So let’s fast forward to age 18 ….  Where has she gone?   His birth mother I mean.  I have her phone number and her home address and she has ours.  But she didn’t show at the last family picnic in Philadelphia and hasn’t called in the past few years on his birthday.  I am grateful that her parents remain in touch.  But the other children she is raising are younger and have relied on their mother to keep in touch with their older birth brother, so naturally we haven’t heard from them either.  Nonetheless, I have encouraged my son to keep in touch and to drop her a note the last few birth mothers’ days.  But he never seems to do it on his own so I get out a card and send my best wishes and ask if he wants to sign the card too.  He usually does and I mail it.  I ask if he wants to telephone his birth grandmother, sure he answers, but doesn’t pick up the phone.

For 18 years I have worked my hardest to maintain and grow our open adoption.  I have to keep on reminding myself about something my son’s birth grandfather said to me when I was devastated that his daughter didn’t show for the annual picnic.  After all, we did travel to Philadelphia for the visit.  I was angry and very sad.  Was I sad for myself or for my son?  “It’s about time Michele that you stop painting a perfect picture for him.” I think his birth grandfather actually shouted at me. “You can’t cover for her and try to protect him all the time.  It’s not real life.  Real life is the truth and my daughter’s choices are often irresponsible.”  In reality he said some harsher things but his message was clear.  Did she hurt Zack by not showing up?  Was I hurt because I was projecting my feelings onto him?  Was this open adoption too much for her after all these years?

I have tried to discuss her non-involvement in the past few years with my son but it never turns into a deep conversation.  I told him that now the ball is in his court if he desires to push things further.  He is disappointed about the ceased contact with his birth siblings.  He said he just might need to show up on his birth parents’ door steps at age 18.  How ironic as that is EXACTLY what I was trying to prevent for him by having an open adoption.  Well, at least he has their contact information.

“If that’s what you feel you need to do,” I told him.  “You would have to be there with me,” he responded.

I wouldn’t change having an open adoption as I still can easily site the benefits for my children and for myself.  However, if I had to do it all over again would I call her to remind her to call “our” son?  I did several times as he was growing up. Would I have sent her all those letters encouraging her to keep in touch with him? I don’t remember a time that she wrote back. Would I have pushed her to urge his birth father to show up even for a few minutes during one visit? He did show up for a few minutes that afternoon, but never again. Would I continue to make excuses for her embarrassing lateness to almost every visit and event?  I did every time.  I learned a great deal from my son’s birth grandfather – who by the way – stays in touch.  I remember the first time we really spent time with him (at his home) and as he was saying goodbye to us he said, “this open adoption thing is really a beautiful thing.”

The funny thing that occurred is that I miss keeping in touch with his birth mother.  I now force myself not to call her…  Though I seem to be forever sending those birth mother’s day cards… I guess because I will always be grateful to her for giving us the greatest gift in the world and because I will never truly know the great sacrifice she made.

The memories of the past many years rush by me, often second guessing my actions. I realize now that I sought after the perfect open adoption.  Only to learn that there is no such thing.  It’s just a relationship – a relationship with real people in real life circumstances.