Every person or couple adopting envisions finally getting THE call. After all the waiting and preparing, what will it look like when you finally have a match? There are so many scenarios that play out in your minds about what that will look like. Maybe you will get to know the birth mother and go to doctor’s appointments with her, and you can be there for the birth. Perhaps you will get a phone call that your child is waiting for you at the hospital. Every trip you take, you mentally plan for a quick return in case you get that phone call while away. You chat with your boss about the possibility of leaving at a moment’s notice if that call comes through.
I remember that waiting game vividly. For my husband and I, our waiting felt more exciting than difficult. We could not wait for that phone call, but we weren’t waiting so expectantly that we jumped at every ring. We felt pretty relaxed, knowing the process could take some time, and we were committed to riding an emotional roller coaster on that journey. We had known of a couple of different biological families that would be seeing our booklet, and there was some hopeful emotions at those times, but none of those scenarios became reality. We are both teachers in the same building and fairly open with our coworkers and our high school students about our adoption journey, so in our case, it wasn’t just us waiting for that joyful phone call.
Biological families have much to consider before even choosing adoption as their birth plan, and once they choose to create an adoption plan, there are still many decisions they have to make and hard paths they have to navigate. The circumstances and situations a birth family faces before bringing their child into the world can change quickly, and there are so many variables that can influence their decision. Imagine that they have met with an agency and chosen an adoptive family, then a couple weeks later, the birth mother sits down with a trusted friend to confide in her about her choice, and her friend shares fears, fears that the birth mother thought were gone when she got the chance to meet you. What does she do now? Or, maybe the birth mother’s mother finds out that she is pregnant and considering adoption and is heartbroken when considering she won’t ever know her grandchild. Or what if a birth mother thinks she just can’t financially prepare to raise another child on her own, but then the birth father decides to step up and be involved in her life again. There are so many scenarios that a birth family can face after a match takes place, and it is so difficult for adoptive families to consider these scenarios in the middle of their own dreams of a family.
You are overjoyed to receive the “match” phone call because your family is finally growing after all that time waiting. Your hope is a bit more tangible. Now, there is a picture or a biological family profile or a sonogram that makes it so much more real. There is now another person that is trusting you to raise her child, to give her child a beautiful life.
For us, we hadn’t received a call about a match until we were about six months in. And then it came. In the middle of teaching a lesson to my high school class, my phone buzzed with a call from our social worker. I told my class that I had to take the call in the hallway. While out in the hall, our social worker let me know that a birth mother had chosen us to parent her child that was due in 3 months, and she was hoping to meet us beforehand. It was finally happening. I frantically pulled my husband out of class so he could hear the news directly from our social worker. We were both in shock that we were finally here. Our classes knew right away because we couldn’t contain our elation, and during the passing period, we called or texted as many friends and family as we could. It felt like the circle of our community was buzzing with excitement for us.
That next week, we got the chance to meet the birth mother, and it was everything we hoped it would be. We connected right away, and her story was one we had prayed for. She told us that she just knew from the moment she found out she was pregnant that the little girl growing in her was destined for someone else to parent; she was someone’s firstborn, someone who would not get to experience parenthood any other way. She gave us a sonogram picture and said, “This is your daughter.” We fell in love. We were able to meet with her for dinner a few other times and met her 2-year-old son. I even had the opportunity to meet her doctor and attend an appointment where we got to hear her heartbeat. Every part of the process seemed to draw us closer and closer to the birth mother and closer to our baby girl. We also got to meet the birth father separately, and he gave his permission for the adoption, and we were well on our way.
The scenario we really didn’t want to entertain though is that our joyous match may turn into a heartbreaking nightmare. We didn’t want to be skeptical that this fragile dream could dissipate because the joy just felt so real. However, it could come through a text, a phone call, an appointment, or just a vibe. The unknown variables that a birth family endures may have finally created a breaking point, and no matter how it is handed to you, the result is absolutely heart-wrenching. All those hopes you began to realize are crumbling before your very eyes.
I had a sweet colleague that gently cautioned us in the middle of our joy. “You just don’t ever know. Please just be prepared that things can change. I know you are so happy right now, but things can change, so just be guarded.” I knew he meant well and that he had experienced the heartache of birth families changing their minds after a match. I could not imagine how that could happen to us, but then it did. We received a call from our social worker to come in for a meeting. She handed us a letter from the birth mother. Our dreams were dashed.
If a birth family changes their mind, what do you do next? How do you cope with the pain? How do you move on? How do you hope again?
– Allow yourself to go through the stages of grief. It may sound cliché, but you will work your way through all the stages of grief. It’s possible that each stage can feel consuming in its own way. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
You may struggle with facing your new reality. Those dreams you imagined are not easy to let go of. The denial phase for us began as soon as we left our social worker’s office. “Surely this is all a mistake. She will realize that she wants to go through with the adoption after a few days. She just got scared and will contact us soon.” It was so difficult to face reality, but as soon as we were in our home, we were confronted with a deafening silence. We broke, sobbed, and held one another.
When you begin to feel anger, it can be directed in many directions. Be aware of where you allow yourself to channel your anger. The anger we felt was centered more on the circumstances the birth mother faced rather than her. We were angry she didn’t feel like she had any other options. We were angry she felt alone. We were angry we couldn’t change anything.
Bargaining is an attempt to regain control of a situation that feels out of your control. We bargained with our social worker with a ton of what-ifs. “What if we were able to write her a letter. What if she would agree to meet with us.” Most of our bargaining was with God though, pleading for things to work out differently.
Then you face the low point: depression. It was so hard to face the sympathetic “How are you, guys?” We had to force ourselves to say “yes” to our friends who asked us to come over or go out to eat. We just wanted to stay home and isolate ourselves. Thankfully, together, we were able to rationalize enough to know our pain was temporary, but it consumed every moment of every day. I constantly thought about what we could have had or what the birth mother was doing or feeling. I hated to have time by myself because it was so hard to keep it together. This suffering happens in silence too. My husband and I would just sit quietly together. We would reach out a hand to comfort one another because we knew we were both aching, and the silence confirmed how present our pain was.
Acceptance can feel both freeing and deeply saddening. You are admitting that the family you were so close to achieving will not happen in the timeframe you hoped with the birth family you met. However, acceptance gives you the chance to hope for a different future on a different timetable. It was easier to get out of bed when I was able to tell myself that the daughter we imagined for our family was going to be loved even though it wouldn’t be by us. Acceptance was necessary for us to begin to hope towards our next match.
– There are no timelines when coping and healing. You and your spouse are on very different grief journeys even though they are happening simultaneously. He may appear to be ready to move on as he begins to busy himself around the house, but that doesn’t mean he has recovered. It could also mean that his anger towards the hurt you’ve experienced manifests in snippy answers or shortened temper. The root of the difficulties you face during this time are because of pain, pain that comes in waves with periods of acceptance and feelings of normalcy. It’s important to be aware of how your pain is showing and give grace to both yourself and your spouse. Do not set an arbitrary timeline for yourself or your partner. Instead, work hard together to give one another grace and communicate openly about how you are doing during your grief journey.
– Lean into your support system. If you are married, go through the pain together. Care for one another. When you notice your partner hurting, it is an opportunity to console not only your partner, but also yourself as well. It’s important to be sensitive to where your partner is in his or her grieving process. Make time for one another intentionally. It may be difficult to prioritize someone else when you yourself feel so broken, but working through your pain together can help you heal together. If anyone understands the depth of the sadness you are going through, it is your significant other. If you are a spiritual person, you can lean into your faith community as well. I was on my knees in prayer many times, trying to sort out the hurt we had been dealt and praying for the future of a vulnerable birth mother and child that were embarking on a difficult journey of their own. Prayer and my faith community gave me support when my husband and I were too broken to carry one another.
– Rationalize as much as you can during your big emotions. When you have to cope with crumbling dreams, very often, a hopeless internal dialogue can take over. My mind was reeling with questions about the future: “Would we ever have a child? We missed our chance at being parents. It will never happen. We are not ever going to be parents.” These thoughts were the product of my pain and hurt. I had to recognize these and rationalize during them. When one of these thoughts crept in, I had to rationalize myself out of them. Adoptions DO take time. Matches CAN be made. We WILL be parents. My thoughts had to be reined in, and I had to talk sense to myself.
– Busy your hands for the chance to heal your heart and mind. It is important to allow yourself space and time to reflect and heal, but for some, idle time can be really dangerous. I needed to busy my hands with something that didn’t take much thought while I tried to reign in my thought processes and worked to have a more positive attitude. I enjoy painting furniture and chose to paint my kitchen cabinets. It was a long project, but it was just what I needed. I had plenty of quiet time by myself, and my mind was able to wander and reflect, but I was able to create something that made me feel like I accomplished something. I was able to look at the product and feel proud. My family was concerned that I was using the work to avoid processing the heartbreak we’d been through, but it was really something that helped me create a more positive outlook. You could write, craft, crochet. You could do puzzles, crosswords, or any other activity that allows your mind to fluctuate between wandering and focusing.
Build hope. As you heal, allow yourself to build images of your future family. When we were matched with a birth mother, we developed these images in our minds of what it would be like to raise our daughter. We imagined what she would look like after meeting both of her biological parents. When you find out that those dreams will never be reality, it’s as though the only thing you can dream for a time is emptiness. This is part of the healing process and normal. It is not a sign that you will never have a family—a lie that I had begun to believe for a while. When you’ve taken time to grieve, try to imagine what it would be like to get a phone call, that you have a son or daughter waiting for you, that you get to hold a precious baby in your arms. It is okay to hope again. I remember wondering if I would ever feel joy if we were notified of a birth mother match again. I couldn’t imagine feeling elation like I did the first time. I knew that I would feel guarded, hopeful, yet skeptical. Again, this is normal, but I assure you there is joy when you receive the call, along with some deep breaths to ground yourself again. There is joy when you sign custodial paperwork. There is joy when you hold your beautiful child for the first time. Give yourself the chance to heal, but more importantly, give yourself permission to hope.
Callie Smothers is a writer, English teacher, and softball coach from the midwest. She and her husband have a family built through adoption, including two ornery, beautiful 4-year-olds that are actually 5 months apart. Her family specializes in making messes, creating imaginative stories, and playing hard outdoors as much as possible. Check out her other writings on her Worship in a Warship Facebook page.