No adoption journey is alike, and very few are what anyone might call “easy.” In addition to the uncertainty of the wait itself, no small number of us will get to ride the roller coaster of emotions that accompany a “failed match,” where an expectant parent makes the decision to parent. A failed match is uncharted territory for most people, and the grief is unique among griefs because the child is still alive. It is awkward to navigate pain caused by the most natural thing in the world—that a child stayed in the arms of her family. Not only is there deep heartache about the suspension of dreams, the empty arms, and the pain of going back to the interminable wait, but there can also be guilt about the joy you would have felt by the dissolution of a biological unit, about wishing for a child that you literally had zero rights to, about thinking maybe you would be a better parent than the biological family. My husband and I have gone through two failed matches, and I’ll share briefly our story and some of the lessons I’ve learned about the stages of grief.
Our first match was very uncertain from the get-go, and that helped us to temper our enthusiasm and lessened our pain when it fell through. After the match meeting, she conveyed much more confidence about adoption, and my husband and I moved forward with our preparations for a baby. When the adoption agency called to say that they hadn’t heard from her and to prepare for the likelihood that she would parent, we were crestfallen. Given a very unique aspect of this woman’s situation (for which adoption would make a lot of sense), we held out some small hope that things would proceed, but we refrained from naming the baby, opting instead for “Maybe Baby.” Two long weeks past her due date, she finally gave birth and confirmed her decision to mother her child. We were disappointed, and there were tears, but we had always known this was a real possibility. We had a great sense of peace about the welfare of the child, and it didn’t take us very long to shift back into the wait.
Our second failed match was devastating and was one of the hardest things we have been through as a couple. Unlike the first, this expectant mother lived nearby and wanted a relationship before the birth. At her invitation, we learned the baby’s gender together, and she gave me a copy of the ultrasound for our fridge. She asked to be involved in the naming, and we picked a beautiful name over one of several meals we shared. We pondered together about nature versus nurture and discussed what openness would look like for this relationship. She even fought for the adoption when the putative father voiced some opposition, asserting that they were both too young and unstable to raise a child. Given her apparent certainty, I allowed my friends to throw a baby shower, during which we wrote letters of support and love for her. The very next day, we got the life-changing call: the baby was being born, and the mother wanted to parent. Blindsided is an understatement.
And this is where I think a discussion of the stages of grief is appropriate.
1. Denial. We were absolutely in denial. We could not fathom what had changed in her situation that would make parenting feasible. We felt that she was acting impulsively out of fear or grief, and that she would surely come back to the loving plan she crafted and fought for. My husband and I just kept repeating, “This makes no sense!” I’m not sure there’s really anything you can do to get through denial more quickly; the reality just needs to sink in.
2. Anger. Upon their discharge from the hospital, I rapidly moved from denial to anger. I am not an angry person, but I was filled with a hot, passionate indignation. We never felt entitled to her child, but I felt manipulated and was frustrated with many players in this situation. I found it extremely cathartic to write swear-filled letters and shred them. It is okay to be ugly in this stage, just don’t do anything you’ll regret! In the age of social media, it is so easy to take something too far. Don’t write to her, don’t make public posts. Find someone to dump on who won’t judge you. My dear husband took the brunt of my outbursts, but some good friends and the social worker were also there for me. Also, exercise. Do hard, intense exercise that makes your body feel like your emotional state. I discovered the rowing machine, and it was an excellent release. If you pray or meditate, continue with that even if you don’t feel peace. God (or the universe) can handle your big feelings.
3. Bargaining. Since her decision felt so impulsive to us, I hung on too long to the very remote possibility that she would change her mind once the reality of parenting set in. Mostly my bargaining was in the form of prayers. I begged God to remind her why she picked us, why she made an adoption plan. I told God we learned whatever lesson we were supposed to learn and that things should go back to what we had expected. I think this stage is where my husband and I diverged the most. He was more accepting, and it hurt that he seemed to have moved on already. Remember that there is no right or wrong timeline for these stages, and that people work through things differently. Be kind to yourself and be kind to whoever is going through it with you. Try to let it go.
4. Depression. Deep blahs and listlessness. Struggling to work, ignoring phone calls, lots of naps. The depression stage is rough. We went on a weekend getaway for some distraction, and that helped a bit. Being out in nature and working to find some bit of the silver lining to our continued childlessness was useful in finding our way back to normal life. Self-care is important here. Take walks, get a massage, lean in to your trusted people if you can. Situational depression can become clinical depression, so please be sure to get professional help if you need it. Some people find that support groups for infant loss are healing; see what your community offers.
5. Acceptance. This will finally come, I promise. Having moved through our grief, we now sincerely hope that both mothers are finding joy and fulfillment with their children, and we have some peace in the knowledge that we could be a loving option for them in crisis. Grief is messy and hard, but we know this journey to parenthood will be a blessing for us eventually. Hang in there!
For those of you who have experienced a failed match, what helped you work through the pain?