March 14, 2019, fell on a Thursday. To most people, the day was relatively insignificant. Another day of work, school, or housekeeping. In eastern Idaho, where my family lived at the time, the icy gray cold of winter was still dragging on despite my protests prompting my little family to escape to California for a long weekend of much-needed sunshine.
That Thursday, we were walking along the beach. Since it was in the pre-COVID days, there were crowds and crowds of people exploring the shops, lounging in the sand, and riding bikes along the long stretch of sidewalk. Despite the general carefree mood of the place, I was rather anxious, stressed, excited, and overwhelmed. Take your pick—all those words apply and not because of the beach, the crowds, or the ice cream cones we’d promised ourselves that afternoon. No, those feelings of anxiety had nothing to do with where I was and everything to do with a phone call we were preparing to make.
You see, over two months ago in early January, our lives had changed forever when a newborn baby girl was placed in our arms. I hadn’t carried her or given birth to her yet here she was entrusted to my care. Our adoption journey had been relatively smooth compared to some, and we met our baby girl just minutes after she was born. We spent the next few days in the hospital alternating turns holding the baby with her wonderfully brave birth mother. We watched Star Wars, we told embarrassing stories, we sent my husband on McDonald’s run after McDonald’s run when the hospital cafeteria food just wasn’t enough, and when Monday came we said goodbye to that heartbroken young mother and strapped our new daughter into her car seat driving away as a new family of three.
But of course, our story didn’t end there. If anything, it was just beginning. At the time we left the hospital, we were just temporary guardians on paper to this perfect little baby—not her parents. While we assumed the role of mom and dad that very night by waking up seemingly one hour after another, shaking up bottles of formula, and changing diapers at 2 a.m. in a muddled haze, we would not legally be her parents until the adoption was finalized.
Finalization happens at a finalization hearing where a judge reviews the entire adoption to ensure all laws have been followed. Only after such a hearing would my husband and I have permanent legal custody over our little girl. And finalization is not a quick process. For some, it may be as short as a month or two. Others wait half a year or more for their court date. Of course, the exact experiences of this limbo stage of parenthood vary from situation to situation as well. For some, it can be incredibly stressful. For others, it is as smooth as a sudden transition to parenthood can be.
For my husband and me, it was a somewhat emotional ride. We weren’t able to return home for a good month after placement because our daughter was not born in our home state. Our first few weeks with a newborn were spent away from home staying with relatives kind enough to let us sleep in their spare room. Once we were permitted to go home, we found our lives quite upended by the arrival of a baby. We didn’t have much warning before her arrival and were lacking some basic baby supplies. So we had to juggle our school and work schedules. We had a good relationship with our daughter’s birth mother and stayed in touch with her during those months.
We were relatively confident that she had no intention of changing her mind and deciding to parent instead (which in our particular adoption, she legally had the right to change her mind up until finalization, which is unusual). And yet despite this confidence, there was always the possibility she would choose to parent. That slim possibility gave way to a lot of inner turmoil for me. Should she decide to parent, I wanted to be supportive and encouraging. Yet, I also selfishly wanted the opportunity to parent this little girl myself, and sincerely hoped she would continue to move forward with finalization. But then I would feel bad for feeling that way and tell myself I should just be happy with the time I had with this baby which would then make me sad to think that our time was short. All in all, it was simply a game of emotional tug-of-war leading up to that day of finalization.
Which brings me back to that day on the beach: March 14, 2019.
Our finalization hearing was done over the phone though they had given us the option to be there in person. At the time, we didn’t think we would be able to make it and so we opted for the remote option. The fact that we were in California at the time of the hearing was not intentional, but it just worked out that way. As the scheduled time for our hearing approached, my husband and I pushed our way through shoppers and beachgoers to find a secluded little corner behind a row of shops. There was a small bench in the shade and we wheeled our stroller over and gathered around the phone as our daughter was sleeping away beside us.
The only other people on the call were our lawyer and the judge, and to be completely honest, I don’t really remember all the details of what was said. I remember sharing our intentions to be good parents to this little girl, explaining our commitment to her, and opening up about the humbling privilege of getting to be her mother. Our lawyer rattled off in legalese all the essential details proving that everything was in order. Then, the judge made it official in the eyes of the court. Our baby girl who had been in our home for over two months was now our daughter on paper. Our adoption journey from seeking a match to meeting her birth mother to bringing her home was finalized. We hung up the phone, hugged, got ice cream, and snapped a quick picture. As we walked away and made our way back to the car, I remember the question that popped into my head.
So, now what?
Everything we had been through financially, emotionally, and mentally had led up to this moment. Finalization. It was done. Official. Stamped and sealed. Mom. Dad. Daughter. Nobody really discussed what happened next. What about the day after finalization? Or the next week? The next month? Of course, we would continue to parent our daughter there was no question about that. But after all the mental and emotional efforts and energy put into the adoption process, what came next?
I soon learned that despite the term “finalization,” adoption does not end after that final hearing. Our daughter’s adoption story is an intrinsic part of our family. And as such, the day after finalization was in many ways no different from the day before. The same thing about the day after and the day after that. And I don’t mean just that we were doing the same things or living the same lives. Because of course, that was the case. I also mean that we were the same people.
Consider, for example, my relationship with our daughter’s birth mother. This relationship may be one of the most important things to remember in thinking about what happens after finalization. I have already confessed that during that limbo stage prior to finalization, I struggled to reconcile my deep desire to parent this daughter with my greater concern for her wellbeing. When there was a legal possibility for her birth mother to reclaim parental rights and choose to parent instead of me, I worked hard to be okay with that and put aside thinking of myself in favor of thinking of her.
As such, I sought to make every day with my baby girl a precious one while striving to maintain a relationship of trust and support with her birth mother who I knew was struggling with emotions, decisions, and loss the likes of which I couldn’t begin to imagine. You might think that the day after finalization would feel like a day of victory. A day in which I didn’t need to juggle all these emotions because there was no chance our family situation would change, the adoption was finalized. Parental custody was mine and my husband’s. However, to think it should feel like a victory could not be further from the truth.
Adoption is not a competition or a battle. There is no winner or loser. It is a situation of relationships: birth parent, adoptive parent, and child. It is a tangled story of love and loss. The day after finalization and every day since then, I have continued to strive to maintain a relationship of support and trust with that wonderful woman who gave me the blessing of parenting her daughter. Why? Because maintaining that relationship in whatever boundaries are set within a specific adoption, is a key part of life after finalization. Finalization does not mean your child’s adoption is a thing of the past. Their birth family lost a child the day you gained one and your child lost a parent the day he or she gained you. And no legal hearing changes that.
Too often I hear stories of adoptive parents who promise to act one way in an open or semi-open adoption and then hightail it after finalization never to connect to their child’s birth families again. And that makes me sad, not just for the birth family or for the child but for the adoptive parents as well. Because that kind of behavior implies a belief that the finalization was the end of the adoption and the start of the family. But finalization is not an end or even a beginning. It is the continuation of a journey and a story that began long before that day in court.
The day after finalization you may feel a sense of completion, joy, or even relief. But it should not be a day in which you are suddenly a different person than you were the day before. Those promises you made before, keep them. Those communications you had with the birth family, don’t stop. The careful perhaps even confidential way you discussed your adoption with others, there’s no reason to stop that. The day after finalization will be so important to you, but it really shouldn’t look that different than the day before.
I’m not saying that finalization is not important or significant. It absolutely is. I called my mom as soon as our hearing was over so that I could gush over the phone about my perfect little family. And of course, we celebrated. We got ourselves ice cream cones and then found some overpriced Italian food for dinner that night (because apparently food is the only way I know how to celebrate). But what we were celebrating was the conclusion of the legal chapter of our adoption: the paperwork, business calls, and financial obligations. We were not celebrating the end of our daughter’s adoption journey. Because that story is one we are still living days, weeks, months, and years after finalization.
And how does that story go, you may ask?
Well, for my little family, it looks like family walks, omelets for dinner, and storytime three times a day. It looks like a baby brother joining the family not too many months later. It looks like laundry piles and nursery rhymes and dance time with Dad. And it looks like an adoption blog with only one reader, a young woman who loves my little family as deeply as I could’ve hoped. It looks like long text conversations, photos exchanged, and lives intertwined. It looks like my life, my family, and my daughter’s adoption. Finalized, but not final. And life goes on.