When I was a young girl, I was certain about my future – I would get married, have children, and be wildly successful. My parents instilled a sense of family as the foundation of my life; love was a foundational component of life and of giving to others as a part of life. Every woman’s path to motherhood is different. Here is mine: from infertility to fostering to adoption.
In the early 2000s, I was living in the Washington DC area. I was a part of the up-and-coming crew. I was surrounded by people who were doctors, attorneys, and professional athletes. In DC, master’s degrees were like high school diplomas. I finished my second master’s degree, had an amazing consulting gig back where I started my career (at the Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI), and was finally thinking about that family I knew I would have.
I met the man of my dreams in 2004. I was in my early 40s. We married in six months. Both of us were grown and knew what we wanted, so why not? We started trying to get pregnant almost immediately. Soon we learned that not only did I have fertility challenges due to fibroids and age, but my husband did as well. He suffered from low sperm count and motility. It seemed like the cards were stacked against us, but there was hope! Every week we went to church and prayed. I related so closely to Sarah’s story in the Bible (Genesis 15:5 22:17). She was older, but destined to be a mother. I wanted a family with everything in me! We believed in prayer with works! So we connected with one of the best fertility clinics in the country.
Our first try with in vitro fertilization (IVF) resulted in five healthy embryos. Our fertility doctor decided to transfer all five of the embryos. I laid still for 24 hours after the transfer and I prayed. I prayed that God’s will would be done. He knew the desires of my heart. We waited two long weeks to find out, and to our delight, we were pregnant! We went to the clinic to see the heartbeat and it was there week 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and then there was week 7. Week 7 there was no heartbeat. My husband shut down. I was alone in this. The doctor had warned us that there was a fairly good chance of miscarriage, but I was sure this was God’s will. I was wrong. I was empty. I failed.
My husband was no longer an emotional support to me during the next few tries. He went from being all in to a shell of a mate. We did not grieve together. I had my sister to lean on, but I could not get through to my husband. We were roommates on a mission. The only thing that could save us was a baby; or at least that is what I told myself.
In the midst of our despair, we relocated from Washington, DC to Charlotte, North Carolina. The fertility clinic in Charlotte was under the tutelage of the DC clinic. I did not feel great about it, but it was worth a try. IVF Cycle number 3 was the worst experience ever. My husband’s sperm count was lower and there was zero motility. What else could go wrong? The doctors’ injected the sperm to make them move. The transfer resulted in disappointment. I knew it: not pregnant. That is never the news a woman with fertility challenges wants to hear. The crack in our marriage was now an abyss. But we kept going.
We went to a new clinic because, just like moving from one city to another, we wanted a fresh start. In hindsight, it was ridiculous that we kept seeking a fresh start. It was still us–husband and wife–living like roommates. Our issues were still there and our union was failing under the pressure of infertility, infidelity, and insecurity. This clinic suggested we use an egg donor. I could carry, that was clear. The cost was unbelievable but we would do anything to become a happy family–with a baby. They found the perfect donor! Now we just needed to sign paperwork and get started.
Sadly, my mother-in-law quickly succumbed to cancer (a recurrence) and died. My husband rushed back to DC to be by her side. He didn’t make it in time. By the time I arrived, he was no longer the man I married. He was different. He decided he did not want to be married anymore. He dropped me off in Charlotte after the funeral and went back to DC–for good. Sounds so bleak, I know. After a few weeks of trying to convince him to come home, I had to wake up to the reality of the relationship. It started with a whisper, became a solid voice, and ended up a shout to me that I had to let go of a relationship that no longer served me. It depleted me. Time to let it go. I chalked it up to another failure. I could barely remember that successful woman who was fearless. My life had become a tragedy.
Not By Birth
Once I released myself from the marriage, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. So many people go through trauma together and make it, but we did not. Tragedy can sometimes bring clarity to our lives and our purpose. I had some decisions to make. I was destined to be a mother; I just didn’t know how.
Fast forward to 2009 when one of my best friends (Zsa Zsa, also a recent divorcee) suggested I become a foster parent. I had spent time healing from the loss of my marriage, the loss of my child, and I was ready to love. I always believed that love makes the connection, not just blood. I went for it!
Zsa Zsa accompanied me to my first session–an introduction to foster parenting. I knew I was where I needed to be. After completing the course and becoming a licensed foster parent. I let the agency know that I ultimately wanted to pursue adoption. In my state, there was no “foster to adoption” program, so I was taking my chances and I knew it. I knew God would show me the way. I asked to foster a child or children around the ages of 2–10. I felt I could make an impact and help a family along the way (if they reunited).
I received a call about a baby boy; he was two months premature and just 10 days old. He was the 11th child of the birth mother. She had lost her parental rights to the first 10. The scenario was concerning to say the least! I was not looking to foster a newborn, let alone a preemie! I had about 10 minutes to make a decision. This child needed a safe place. I contacted a respite foster mom who offered support if I needed it and went right to the hospital to pick him up. I stopped at Target to pick up the essentials–car seat, diapers, bottles, and clothes. I had no idea what was to come . . . I just knew this was the right path. I just knew.
He was chocolate brown with the biggest, most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen. He looked at me like I was there to take him home . . . and I was. For six months we were together as mother and son. The only indication that we were not a typical family were the weekly visits with the birth parents, occasional court dates attended by the court appointed Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) and visits from the GAL and social worker. It was hard for me to support the parent’s visits because I was concerned for his safety and it was a painful reminder that our relationship was possibly temporary. I knew little of his birth parents, but what I saw scared me. I just wanted him to be safe . . . and with me.
A Loss Like No Other
When my son was six months old, there was a court date. Nothing big from what I was told and I didn’t need to attend. The social worker and GAL would be there. I got a call from the social worker saying the judge ruled the child had to be given to the birth mother. I was frozen with fear. I was a rule-follower and I would follow the process. I knew the goal is always reunification, but I believed the child’s best interest would weigh pretty heavily on the court’s decision-making process. He was born with cocaine in his meconium stool (not in his bloodstream). Wasn’t that enough for them to take more time and be sure he was safe? I learned that the birth mother had met the requirements of the court and social services and he was to immediately be taken to her. I packed up five bags of clothes, toys, formula, and necessities and sent them, along with him, to the birth mom.
Nothing prepared me for this loss, not my miscarriage or divorce. This was an unimaginable pain. I was sure my child was unsafe. I sat for days. I just sat. I did not go to work. I did not do anything. I just sat, prayed, and cried. I was empty. I had nothing because I was unable to keep this child safe.
I knew his birth mother had mental health challenges, run-ins with the law, and an unstable living environment. I knew his birth father was violent. I was sure this was a bad decision. But it was not my decision to make. After maybe a week, I called the birth mother. I held my breath as the phone rang. She might hang up on me. She saw me as a part of the system that took her child away. To my surprise, it was like she was waiting for my call. We were both relieved to connect, but for vastly different reasons. I wanted–needed–to see the baby and care for him. She wanted support and needed a lot of help. While she had birthed 10 other children, she lost them to the system over time and had not cared for an infant on her own before.
That call started a six-year co-parenting relationship between the birth mom and me. I let my foster license expire and walked away with a stern warning from the social worker that I would likely give everything I had and it would never be enough. That warning rings in my ear from time to time even now.
The first three years, I got the baby on the weekends. I started getting to know the birth parents. I started helping them with housing, clothing, and food. I got sucked in. My saving grace was that I could see my baby boy every single weekend. He called me “mommy” and her “maw maw.” She agreed to putting him in preschool. The birth parents had a hard time getting up in the morning, so he started living with me most of the time to make it to school.
This relationship seemed about as normal as any co-parenting situation could be without the legal rights, me sharing the details of the late night wake up calls to “bring him home or I will kill myself” or the threats that I would never see him again. Welcome to my introduction to mental health challenges and trauma.
I learned so much about the birth mother’s background that was gut-wrenching. By the time my son was in preschool, I spent almost every day around his birth parents. I was trying to give him a sense of normalcy. I wanted him to feel like his “parents” were united and supportive of him and his future. I was also trying to help his birth parents, especially his birth mother. She suffered greatly as a young girl, had little to no support as a young woman, and experienced tremendous loss and violence most of her life. I felt compassion and fear at the same time. You see the birth mother had the ability to pull him away from me at any time and I had no rights to do anything about it.
Once I took the birth mother to visit a man she called her father. We visited with him for about an hour. It was awkward for me, but I did it for her because she was grieving the loss of her mother from a few years prior. At the end of the visit, she referred to the man as “daddy.” He said, ”Don’t call me that, devil.” And then I remembered the story she told me about her birth father who had molested her as a child. This was the man who hurt her and all she wanted was his love. I think that was the first time I felt disgust and sympathy at the same time. The visit just reinforced my need to stay connected to our son.
My brilliant little boy, who was a gentle giant in preschool, was a different child in kindergarten. He stood at least a head and shoulders above his peers. I had enrolled him in a private Christian school. He did well academically, but his behavior began to change. I later learned that he was experiencing trauma responses–fight, flight or freeze. My child was a fighter. He fought adults. He cursed. He was so quick to anger. I didn’t know what to do and had no legal rights to do anything even if I tried.
I remembered Zsa Zsa telling me that soon he would be old enough that his birth parents would make him chose between them and me over and over again. I didn’t see how back then, but I learned quickly. One day his father threatened me and my son was there, he was 5 years old. My son tried to change the subject and refocus the conversation on something else. That was seen as a betrayal by the birth father. The birth parents told my son to go with me and he would never see them again. He was so crushed. This was abuse; it was abusive.
I came to realize that I wasn’t helping the birth parents with their mental or physical health. In the name of help, I was enabling them to stay sick. By this time, I had purchased a house for them to live in because I couldn’t sleep at night wondering where my child was when he wasn’t with me. I was paying the bills in that house and mine and I was going broke.
Wake Up Calls
In late 2015, I was driving down the street with the birth mother in the front seat and my son in the back. We had a disagreement about something trivial, but this day, I talked back. How did I, the career woman who had boldly broken down so many barriers in my life, end up here where I was afraid to speak? During the disagreement, the birth mother struck me across the face with her hand. I pulled over quickly into a nondescript parking lot, got out of the car, and hit my knees for guidance. I didn’t fight back–my beloved son was in the back seat–I didn’t even consider it. That slap was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the birth mother.
A few months later, my child threatened to die by suicide. He was with his kindergarten teacher. He was five years old. Months after that, he went from talking about it to acting on it. My six-year-old son tried to die by suicide twice. He was taken to behavioral health for observation.
We are Legally Mother and Son
My family suffered at a distance for years. They spoke up. There were tons of recommendations, but I was clear the path was not to focus on the birth mother, but my child. I found an attorney and in three days I had emergency custody. It took two years of court dates, restraining orders, and attorney’s fees, but I was finally his adoptive mother. My beautiful, brown eyed boy looked to me for safety and love almost a decade earlier and I was finally legally empowered to do something about it through our adoption.
My son has multiple diagnoses ranging from PTSD, DMDD, and ADHD to depression and anxiety. I have my own diagnoses as well, but we are healing together. We have an amazing support system. He plays sports, loves football, and excels in school. He is sweet, kind, and generous. He still has challenges with behavior at times, but has come so far since the days when he was unsafe.
We have no contact with the birth parents due to safety concerns, but we do pray for them. When he is older, he can decide if he wants to reconnect with his birth parents. He knows that they are not well and that’s good enough for him–for now. I don’t hide from our past; we talk about it anytime he wants and he has other adults who love and support him through his questions.
The Power of Prayer
Remember the power of prayer, prayer with works. In Proverbs, the Bible encourages us to seek wise counsel. For my son and me, it has meant therapy and a strong spiritual foundation.
I found my mission to help others who have experienced trauma to find their voices. I share our story to let people know, that while our journey may be vastly different, we are together in this quest. We are loving parents who arrived at parenthood through distinct paths. Look at us now.