A Guide to Surviving a Failed Adoption Placement

This guest post is by Sarah Pirtle, an adoptive mother. 

Our adoption placement failed on a Tuesday, 50 hours into the 72-hour post-birth wait required in our state for a placement to occur.

On Wednesday I woke up, pulled the covers back, and put my feet on the floor. As I stood, I had the distinct sensation that I was walking out of a fog into a clearing.

I picked my son up from his crib, threw on my shoes, grabbed the stroller, bolted out the door, and walked the neighborhood in the August humidity until my legs nearly buckled, speaking this story into my phone as a voice memo until it was complete.

Through one adoption wait and now a second, this had been the experience I’d wondered if I could emotionally survive.

surviving-failed-adoption-placementNo one had told me what this failed-placement-thing was really like, how bad it could hurt, or how exactly they managed to get through it.

I knew I had to write these things down that had become crystal-clear to me overnight. I wrote myself a guide for surviving a second failed placement—should this happen again.

1. This is not your fault. Don’t blame yourself.

I like to think we behaved with a reasonable amount of grace during our five-week match.

We took calls that felt more like interviews from the expectant parents’ relatives.

We hosted the expectant family in our home for a meal, and then offered a full tour of our home.

We answered questions fully and freely, and then offered more. We took breakfast and hugs and reassurances to the hospital.

We uttered the words that terrify many waiting families: “If you choose to parent, that’s the right choice, because it’s right for you. You can not hurt us beyond repair, so choose for you and your baby alone.”

Still, I doubted myself after the placement failed:

“Did we make her think we weren’t in love with the baby by telling her we supported her choice to parent?

Did we say too much about [insert one of many uber-personal topics]?

She hated the name we picked, didn’t she?

She saw how awkward I was when I held the baby, trying to show that I was both thrilled but not coercively-happy, didn’t she?”

No, no, and more no. This woman’s decision had absolutely nothing to do with what we had or hadn’t done, and everything to do with her immense desire to mother her child.

This was not about us at all.

2. This is not their fault. Don’t blame them either.

Have you ever seen a brand-new child freshly laid upon his mother’s chest for the first time? I hadn’t until then.

I can’t begin to express the power of that moment. The instant and incredible bond that blossoms before your eyes. The earth-shattering love that fills the room and threatens to make it burst at the seams.

As we followed the new mother being wheeled out of the operating room and back to recovery, I felt an overwhelming sureness that this was not my moment.

I wanted to sprint down a hallway, slip out of the building, and text her later, “Are you sure about this? Did you see him? Did you see yourself looking at him? You felt all that exploding love up there, right? I believe in you, Mama! YOU CAN DO THIS!”

I didn’t leave, of course, because it was my honor to be in that room. To share in those miraculous hours. To be there for as little or as long as she needed me.

And then—if she still needed me at the end of those 72 hours that would need to pass before she could sign consent to place her child for adoption—it would be my honor to be a mother to her child.

As it turned out, she must have heard a similar voice in her head in those days following delivery: “I CAN DO THIS!”

She’d had logistical challenges to parenting that had felt insurmountable to her before giving birth.

But when her son arrived, everything changed. And I can’t blame her for that. Not for a second.

3. This baby was not meant for your family. Accept this. Move on.

Cliché, maybe. But if this had been “meant to be,” that baby would be with us, at home, cooing in that spaceship-y swing that cost entirely too much but works like a charm.

This doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a beautiful part of our family. He was stunningly beautiful. He had a head full of dark hair and the sweetest peach-fuzziness covering his skin from head to toe.

I could picture him with my son in the years to come—fort-building in the backyard, terrorizing my clean house, making us laugh with their best-friend-antics.

But this is the plain truth: I don’t want to adopt a child whose parents desire and feel capable of parenting—even if the odds, no matter how largely the odds, seem stacked against them.

I want to know that when my child’s birth parents leave their precious baby in our care, they do it in confidence and peace, knowing this decision was right—for them.

4. Yes, this could happen again. Be brave anyway.

An adoption professional I’ve come to trust told me, “I’ve seen expectant parents throw up a hundred red flags, and then still place their children. I’ve seen expectant parents who were 100% positive change their minds at the very end.”

As a waiting adoptive parent, I am not owed a guarantee. A guarantee of a child is not one of the cards I was dealt.

I was dealt a card that says, “Can get pregnant any day,” and another that says, “Has genetic trait that makes successfully carrying a child unlikely.”

But because I have the blessing of having adequate resources and a partner I trust to walk through big storms with—I also got a card that says, “Gets to wait to adopt a child.”

I get to wait to adopt a child.

I get to make myself vulnerable, write the nitty-gritty details of my life story on paper for social workers to review, and—God willing—accept the honor of walking alongside another expectant parent who picks us as a possibility. A possibility—not a guarantee—no matter how sure s/he seems.

Today, I get to work on having the stamina and strength to keep waiting until it’s right—for the child, for the birth parents, and for us.

And that? That’s a gift worth being brave for.

Sarah Pirtle is a marketing writer turned stay-at-home-mom of a wildly fun toddler named Frank. She and her husband Doug live in Columbus, Ohio, where they recently adopted a second time.  

Do you have an open adoption story? Email us or Share it with our community.

Help us remove the stigma surrounding open adoption. Like us on Facebook.