We’ve been blessed with two children through open adoption. In both cases, we signed on with a non-profit agency that specialized in open adoption and provided a lot of pre-placement options counseling for expectant parents, and continued the same level of support post-placement. I remember thinking as we searched for an agency that I wanted to minimize the room for worry I’d have in my mind after a baby was placed with us. I didn’t want to worry whether she’d felt pressured or had been coerced. I didn’t want to fret over whether she truly understood the options available to her, and we as hopeful adoptive parents needed counseling on making sure we never made her feel like placing was something she owed us (due to traveling for visits, paying for expenses, etc).
The person I was before taking placement of my children was naive. I thought I could prepare myself mentally for everything and avoid the whiplash that would come from all of the emotions after placement. I somehow thought that if I repeated, “This adoption might not happen, so stay cautiously optimistic” enough times, I’d be able to guard my heart when we walked away empty-handed. The only thing that did for me was to remind me throughout the match period that this baby was not mine until the papers were signed, and even though that was an important thing to remember, it didn’t exactly guard my heart. There is no such thing as truly preparing yourself in adoption. There is no mantra you can repeat to get through adoption unscathed. All you can do is deal with the emotions as they come to you and face them head-on.
Despite trying to prepare myself, I felt tremendous guilt after both placements. Here I was holding this baby who another woman was desperately grieving over. I was frustrated in the middle of the night when I was bleary-eyed and exhausted, wishing I could just go back to bed, while another woman was sleepless because of grief and I was taking closeness with her baby for granted. I’d witness a first of some sort – first smile, first laugh, first food – and instead of being giddy with excitement, the moment would be tinged with guilt that I was the woman witnessing it and not the baby’s first mom. I’d fret over how to write the text or what to say on the call when I revealed her baby’s progress, anticipating the sound of sadness in her voice. There were times when the guilt would cause me to emotionally hold our baby at arm’s length, feeling unworthy of calling myself that child’s mother. When I’d hear the grief in my children’s birth mothers’ voices, a setback in bonding would occur due to a mix of guilt and pure empathy.
I remember having to have a discussion with our daughter’s birth mom about needing a little space to bond with our daughter around four months into the placement. Our daily text check-ins were causing me to feel like a babysitter who was checking in with the mother every day, and it was difficult to remove myself from the guilt enough to claim this baby as not only hers (she would always be hers), but mine, too. I felt so guilty asking her for the space I needed, but she said something important to me, which was basically, “I chose you, for her, to be her mother. You need to be her mother because that’s what I’ve asked you to do, and because it’s what she needs you to be.” She told me we were all on the same team and that, together, we could do hard things.
Though no mantra can erase emotion, there is something I had to repeat to myself over and over as I removed myself from the guilt, and here it is: “When my kids’ birth moms looked for a family, they weren’t searching for a family to give their babies to; they were searching for a family to give to their babies.” I had to visualize her looking through profiles. As she looked through each page, she was wondering who would be the best for her baby, because she was looking out for the best interest of her child. She didn’t get pregnant and place a child because she wanted to do something for the people who would ultimately become the parents of her child; she made a placement decision because she wanted the best for her baby, and that happened to be an adoptive family. I had to have faith in her that she made the best choice she could, and that I had nothing to do with that decision other than giving her peace of mind that her child would be loved, cherished, and protected.
I think the empathetic part of many of us feels we’re not honoring the birth parents if we don’t grieve alongside them. The trick is not letting the grief stand between you and the realization that this child needs you, that you did not cause the grief, and that the grief cannot break you because it is not your grief to own. You have a job to do, and you will honor the birth parents by doing what they’ve asked you to do: claim this child with all your heart and soul, and let the empathy you feel propel you into a lifetime of showing respect to the people who gave their children the gift of you.