Letters and photos a few times a year. That’s what we thought it would look like. A relationship with our child’s birth mother that would be arm’s length and comfortable for us.
Yet at each turn of our journey, our walls were broken down and this theoretical “open adoption” became a real woman. A real child. And, ultimately, a real extended family relationship.
It started the way any good relationship does: over skillet queso at a small-town Chili’s. Except we didn’t even get the queso because we were too nervous to eat. My husband and I had flown a few states over to meet an expectant mom who was 37 weeks pregnant. I remember talking about Christmas traditions. And laughing about dogs and sorority recruitment. I saw the baby moving around in her belly, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know if I should. After almost three hours and probably 17 Diet Cokes, we were all still fairly timid, but I also felt like I had known her forever. I had a little note stashed in my pocket with my phone number and email address. Our case worker advised us that it might be wise to hold off sharing identifying information at first, but I didn’t care. Something deep in me felt a connection to this beautiful woman sitting across the table. And hell – she was inviting us into one of the most vulnerable and sacred spaces in which one could be.
It was this first meeting with our son’s birth mom and the two failed adoptions we experienced the year before that prepared us for what was to come. My husband and I went through some incredibly painful moments that, at the time, felt so unnecessary and terrible. But we know that life is not just about pain avoidance. By exposing our hearts and experiencing those losses, we learned more about the heart of a birth mom and the complexities of adoption than any seminar could have taught us. I wouldn’t change a thing about our adoption journey, pain and all, for that reason. After we left Chili’s, we spent three weeks texting with and getting to know her. What a privilege it was to communicate with her during that time. We learned about her. We prayed for her. And we waited for a baby boy to be born who would change all our lives forever.
She was in labor for days. And was incredibly brave through it all.
I will never be able to adequately put into words what it felt like to be next to the woman who was laboring with the baby that I would end up mothering.
I wished that I could take the pain away and endure all the discomfort for her. It was a night full of so many emotions. I was in awe of her strength. And then, at 6:38 a.m. on a Monday in February, there he was. The moment was chaotic, but time seemed to stand still. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and I still to this day can’t believe I had the privilege to be there in the delivery room. His birth mom told me that since she had nine months with him, it was my turn. She wanted me to hold him first because I was going to be his mom.
She let her most painful moment be my greatest. Such bold love. Such selfless love. Such brave love.
We spent two days in the hospital together. I remember her grace and poise during a time that I can only imagine was filled with overwhelming emotion for her. We talked for hours about our lives and when we would visit each other. I showed her pictures of our guest room. She told me about her new dog and how she wanted to go to nursing school. We looked at her baby pictures. It was quality time not just with her, but with extended family members and friends as well. We were welcomed with such kindness. Our family grew by dozens of people during that emotional, exhausting, beautiful, difficult, miraculous 48 hours.
We returned to Texas with our newborn, committed to an open adoption. But what was that supposed to look like? There is no manual for this. No one hands you an instruction book.
I remember an awkward moment during our first in-person visit when her little brother said, “this used to be Sissy’s baby.” I locked eyes with her as we both stood frozen, neither of us knowing what to say. Eventually some words fell out of my mouth: “You’re right, buddy. This was your Sissy’s baby. And now he lives with us in Texas.” Who knows if that was the right thing to say. She and I talked and laughed about it afterwards. We were loving and honest. And that is the foundation that we build upon to this day.
“Mom, who else has brown eyes like me?” he asks as he snuggles in for bed. “Your birth mama, does, buddy. She has beautiful brown eyes just like you!”
When we talk about her (and we do), it’s not typically big, dramatic moments. Throughout the past six years, it has been a steady and consistent thread that we intentionally weave into ordinary life. It’s not perfect but we do our best. And it’s because we see her at every turn. He’s got naturally highlighted hair that gets even dreamier in the summertime, just like her. He loves baseball, just like her younger brothers. He has a deep love and compassion for animals, just like her. He’s got this sweet, calm, introverted personality, just like her.
We make connections to his birth family as often as we can because we know it’s important. We talk about his birth mom when we flip through the scrapbook she made him when he was just a few weeks old. We have photos of her in our yearly family album. She comes and visits us in our home whenever she can; she gets tackled in bed by our kids and we go get donuts together in our PJs. It’s the most fun to call her about all the cool things he does. When he wins an award, she’s one of the first people we tell. When he jumps off the diving board for the first time, we text her a video (or two or three). We love celebrating milestones with her because she loves this kid as much as we do.
We also honor her through elevating her accomplishments. We speak aloud about cool things in her life so our son knows how cool she really is. When she graduated from nursing school, we were there in the auditorium and embarrassed her with loud cheers.
Our son hears about his birth mom’s successes and joys because we want to raise him to always respect and admire her, just as we do.
We have grown so much in our adoption journey and how we view our son’s birth mom. It’s like you draw these empty outlines, these shapes, of how you understand the love and bravery of a birth mom to be. Then when you’re actually experiencing it, watching it right before your very own eyes, the shapes get filled in in the most messy, beautiful, painful, amazing way. And you’re never the same.