As adoption becomes more and more common, for a myriad of reasons and motivations, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the stories of these brave mamas who choose this journey. We have dear friends in Los Angeles who founded a non-profit, AdoptTogether, six years ago that helps families afford the price of adoption and through them have learned a lot about what a powerful tool adoption can be in creating loving homes and a family for every child. When I was growing up I didn’t know any of my peers that had been adopted, but I think that’s not the reality of today’s world and I’m so glad that it’s something that people are talking about more and more. So if you’ve ever considered this journey for yourself, keep reading as we chat about the challenges, the surprises, and more on adoption. Plus, these mamas are doling out all of their best advice, too. (PS. Are you an adoptive mama? I would love to read about your journey in the comments. Thanks in advance for sharing!)
1. Why did you choose adoption?
Kelly Mindell, Owner of Studio DIY: I am a cancer survivor and have a multitude of ongoing medical issues which we were pretty sure would make it difficult to have biological children. Long before Jeff and I got married we had discussed all our options, and we were both always very open to and excited by adoption. About six months into our marriage, we started down the fertility treatment path and my assumptions were quickly confirmed with several failed treatments and two miscarriages. We decided that the excitement and possibility of adoption felt like the right path for us and never looked back.
Nicole Radtke: My husband Bill and I had always considered older child adoption someday, but when we found out we are unable to have biological kids, we decided to pursue adoption sooner. So, we decided on Domestic Infant Adoption.
Jessica Ludwig: We chose adoption because we saw a world around us where not everyone had the same chance at life. When it came to what we could do to help, we didn’t have a ton of financial resources to deploy to solve the orphan problem in the world, but we knew that we did have another important (and vital!) resource- love. We had plenty of that to share, and so we decided to open our family to some kids who were in need of that.
Julie Halton: We chose adoption because we could! I never had strong feelings about having a biological child or experiencing pregnancy, and the statistics about the number of kids in foster care are pretty compelling. My husband had never considered adoption but was open to it. It was our first “big talk” when we were dating and starting to get serious!
Sara Brinton, Owner of Penguino Travel: We chose adoption because we wanted to grow our family and we recognized there were kids who needed families. My husband Mark and I have three biological sons: Asher, Micah and Zeph. When I was pregnant with our third, I ended up in the hospital on bedrest for months. One of my nurses was a friend from college. Her family was in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia. After Zeph was born and Eli came home from Ethiopia, we sat down over dinner to learn about their experience. This meal had a big impact on our whole family. Our oldest started to pray at bedtime for a sister from Africa! Sometimes people say that a “calling” is the intersection of your desires and abilities and others’ needs. As we learned about the needs of children around the world, our hearts were drawn to East Africa. At the time, Uganda was just opening up to international adoption and there were children in need of families. We knew we had room in our home and our lives for another little person. And we began to fall in love with a child we’d never met. When we put these three together, we felt like we were called to adopt and began the process.
2. What did you find to be the most challenging part of the adoption process?
Kelly: The most challenging part for us was the few weeks between when we were officially “matched” and when our son was born. You are at such a crossroads. Your life is about to change and you have to plan accordingly. You have to buy all the baby things and prepare to come home with a newborn, all while knowing there are no guarantees and at any point, a birth mother could decide to parent. You are so excited but also completely terrified, preparing for the happiest moment of your life or potentially the most heart shattering one. It wasn’t until an hour after Arlo’s birth, when I held him in my arms, that I breathed my first sigh of relief.
Nicole: There are so many challenging parts! I’ll pick two. The first was deciding what we were “open” to as it relates to what kind and frequency of drug and alcohol use the birth mother reported during pregnancy. The unknowns of that and how the baby would be affected was really difficult. We felt like we were already turning children away during that time. It was as if they were lined up in front of us, and we were putting a “yes” or “no” label on them without ever knowing them. The other challenge was the time we spent in the hospital with his birth mom and her family. It was beautiful. We really loved that time, but the challenge was not knowing how she was truly doing with it all. We would ask, and we offered her and gave her lots of time with her son, Manny. She just never really seemed to have a strong opinion about anything so I worried about that. We hoped she wasn’t going to change her mind, but we didn’t want to show her that either! I’m sure she didn’t want to show us how hard it was on her. I know the grief is heavy for birth parents. However, on discharge day, the room was heavy, and I knew she was grieving. In that moment, I was at a loss for what to do since I felt like I was the one that was causing it. All I could do was eventually acknowledge it to her – to say out loud that I realize that today, my best day, is her worst day. And I was sorry for it being her worst – how could I help? We just hugged while she sobbed and thanked us. It was amazing. She is so strong.
Jessica: The most challenging part of our process was dealing with the reaction of people who were upset that we would open our family to the risks, challenges, and the unknowns that adding non-biological children could bring. We got a lot of, “but your family is already perfect”s, and a lot of warnings about the kinds of “issues” adoptive kids can have. Our experience with teens showed us that it’s not just adoptive children that can have “issues,” but still, it was a concern and hesitation that we had to confront throughout our process. We believed from the get-go that it was never about having the “perfect” family, but about loving well, and bringing wholeness to the lives of others through the way we “do” family. The other challenging part (aside from ALL the paperwork) was the wait between referral and travel- when we knew our kids were sick and not in great care, but couldn’t get to them fast enough.
Julie: For us, the most challenging part of the process was letting go of control. Some people say that part is easy, since there is simply nothing you can do to influence the process, but we are both pretty type-A and it was tough sometimes. The information you have about your case and its trajectory can (and typically does) change ALL the time.
Sara: Often people talk about the paperwork, the cost or the waiting. All of these are challenging! A home study means hundreds of pages of paperwork. Adoption can be incredibly expensive. And waiting is hard. But for our family, the most challenging part of the adoption process was loss. When we completed our dossier to adopt from Uganda, we were first matched with an 18-month-old girl. She was HIV positive and living in an orphanage in a slum in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Just a few days after we said yes to her, we got a phone call we never expected. In Uganda, most cooking happens outdoors over an open fire or stove. This little girl had burned her hand on the stove. The burn became infected. Her body was weak from untreated HIV and malnutrition. By the time they took her to the doctor, it was too late. She was gone. Our hearts broke into a million pieces. We knew the statistics about HIV and poverty and injustice – but losing her made it all real. A few months later we were matched with our daughter, Ella. We were also matched with an older child from a different orphanage. We went to Uganda to adopt both girls. Ella’s adoption case went well, but the other little girl’s case got stuck in the courts. We brought Ella home, but as a result of corruption – something that is very common in international adoption – we had to say goodbye to the older girl. Adoption means letting yourself get close to brokenness. And sometimes that hurts. We’ve come to believe that loving and losing is better than not loving at all.
3. What has been the most surprising thing about adoption for you?
Kelly: Our relationship with our birth mother has been the most surprising. I think a lot of people go into adoption, us included, fearing the relationship with the birth mother. We knew we wanted a relationship with our child’s birth mother, but how would that look? Would it conflict with our parenting? Would we be scammed? Would we say the wrong thing? It’s like the “great unknown.” But we have developed such an amazing relationship with Arlo’s birth mother. She gave us the ultimate gift and we are forever bonded and forever grateful to her. We speak with her often and absolutely love sharing pictures and updates with her. At the end of the day, we all want what is best for Arlo and we are all working towards that. It just seems silly now to think how much I didn’t understand that before.
Nicole: The most surprising thing has been how easy it has been to have an open adoption. We love Manny’s birth family so much and feel so honored to have such an open adoption for them, for us and for Manny’s sake. Another surprise for me happened with Manny was about two years old. The hardest part of infertility for me was that I will never have a child that looks like me. I will never be able to say he has my eyes or he has my husband Bill’s nose. But when Manny was two, my friend, who had not seen Manny since he was a baby, visited us. One of the first things she said was that she noticed was how similar Manny’s mannerisms were to mine. She said, “He sounds just like you in the way he talks and how he moves when he talks!” It was a great moment, because I had never considered how Manny would reflect Bill or me in these ways!!
Jessica: It’s been almost three years that we’ve been all together, but it still catches me off guard that we are continually approached by people in public telling us how the sight of our family is a beautiful encouragement to them. I knew we would be a conspicuous family, but I wasn’t expecting to bring so much joy through that.
Julie: We were surprised at how (relatively) easy our fost-adopt process turned out to be. There were definitely challenges and sleepless nights, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate and sometimes even joke that we won the foster care lottery. We finalized our adoption within 13 months after our first placement, with few hold-ups, which is not typical at all and pretty astounding to our friends in the fost-adopt community.
Sara: The most surprising thing about adoption is how much it has changed our whole family. What we discovered about ourselves and the world through adoption has changed the course of our lives. Before we adopted, our lives were simple and safe. We lived in a big house in a friendly neighborhood. On the surface, everything was perfect. But deep down, my husband and I had dreams we were scared to chase down. We were a restless. When we adopted Ella, we spent three months in Uganda with our boys – then two, four and six-years-old. Adapting to life with tiny kids in Africa was hard, but it was also transformative. We came home with the courage to follow our dreams, even if that meant stepping outside our comfort zone. Over the last six years, we moved from Seattle to London to Austin. We’ve traveled with our kids in Europe, North Africa and Central America. My husband went to grad school. I wrote a book. We’ve landed and quit jobs – and launched a start-up! Our kids’ lives are different too. They are growing up with an awareness of what life is like around the world. As a family, we’ve discovered a sense of purpose that goes far beyond adoption. None of this would have happened if we hadn’t said yes to Ella!
4. Any advice for others out there about to start the adoption process?
Kelly: Talk to anyone and everyone about adoption. I’ve been shocked to learn that just about everyone I know has some sort of connection to it, it’s just that not many people talk about it without being asked! Talking with others is how we learned that private domestic adoption was the best option for us, it’s how we met our adoption team that helped us find Arlo and it’s how we felt comfortable in finally taking that leap. My second piece of advice is to trust your gut. We had so many potential situations before we met Arlo’s birth mother, but with every single one we had an instant gut feeling that it wasn’t right. Don’t rush into something just because you are so desperate to be a parent. I know that feeling so so well, but your gut will guide you to what’s right, even if the wait is longer. When we learned about Arlo’s birth mom, it was the first time where we didn’t have that uneasy feeling. And five weeks later we brought home our son! And my last piece of advice is be prepared for everything to change and nothing to go according to plan. We put together an entire birth plan with Arlo’s birth mother and then basically threw it out the window once we were at the hospital. And that is OK. It doesn’t mean that anyone is changing their mind, it just means that nobody can prepare themselves for the feelings or events that are going to ensue once it’s actually happening. Birth mom and her well-being come first, and you have to put your fear and emotions aside to stand by her side through a decision that is hard to even fathom.
Nicole: Most people don’t like when I say this, but when you decide to start the adoption process, no matter if you have gone through an infertility journey or not, you have to be willing to let go of expectations and maybe even dreams of what you hoped this journey will be like. The adoption process is a very amazing journey, but it is a very difficult one. If you have expectations or dreams of what you’ve always wanted your family to look like, it will probably be very different and will probably let you down if you’re not able to let go of those. If you are able to let go of those, this journey will be beautiful for you. If you’re in a situation where you can embrace a birth family, do it with your whole heart. Let go of fear of open adoption, get educated about it, and celebrate it. Your child will need you to embrace open adoption. Your child’s birth parents made a life-giving and life-changing decision for all of you. Love and honor those birthparents in every way that you can. Every Mother’s Day, I celebrate Manny’s birth mom in every way I can. I am blown away by the realization that I am only a mother because of her choice.
Jessica: Research & listen. Always get second opinions. Trust your gut. Put a few good people around you who know you well, and allow them to be a sounding board and source of strength for all you are processing and going through. And remember- in the end, this is your family, and it doesn’t have to look (or act) like anyone else’s. Oh, and join an online community for the type of adoption you are doing (Facebook has some great options). These communities have been & continue to be a wealth of knowledge and perspective for me.
Julie: I have so much advice! A lot of things depend on the route you take. With foster care, make sure you entirely trust your agency and social worker. We said yes to every call we received because we really felt like our worker knew us and our capacity. We’re also in a foster family play group and it’s been great to check in with otter families going through the same process. Be open to educating yourself as much as you can. I read tons about trans racial adoption, multiracial families, stories of adult adoptees, etc. Adoption through foster care is beautiful and deeply sad at the same time. It’s important to understand that adoption is only possible because of loss and grief. The more we can honor that and what it means for my daughter, the better. Finally, if you think you can be a fost-adopt parent, you can!
Sara: Take a deep breath! Learn everything you can. Listen to families who have adopted. Go into the process with your eyes wide open. Every family considering adoption or foster-care need to learn about attachment and trauma. When we adopted, we naively thought that our experience parenting our boys would make it easy to parent an adopted child. We were wrong. We’ve had to learn a whole new way of parenting to meet our daughters’ needs! We also thought that the first year after we adopted would be the hardest. This was also wrong. At each developmental stage, there are new questions. Helping an adopted child heal from trauma and make sense of their story is a life-long process. If you are considering international adoption, it’s incredibly important to learn about ethical adoption. Adoption should be about finding families for kids, not finding kids for families. Consider whether your family could be open to a child who is older or who has special needs. This is where there is the most need. Look for adoption agencies that are committed to putting the needs of children first. If you want to learn more about ethical adoption, I wrote a book about it here.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to these incredible mamas for sharing their stories with us. Are you an adoptive mama? Would love to know if you’ve had a similar journey or have experienced unique challenges or surprises that we didn’t get into here. For more on motherhood, check out our Real Talk series.