How Walking A Mile In A Birthmother’s Shoes Changed Me As An Adoptive Parent

This guest post is by Rachel Garlinghouse, an adoptive mother and author

072Six years ago, my husband and I were waiting to adopt our first child. It was a long, torturous, uncertain fourteen months.

The summer before our daughter was born, we took a vacation to celebrate the freedom of our childless-ness (by sitting oceanside reading adoption books and talking about baby names).

We had seafood dinners at upscale restaurants (the ones that didn’t have kid menus, Crayon packets, or cups with lids), stayed up to late, and slept in until 10 a.m. each morning.

On our way home, we had lunch in the airport terminal, reminiscing about our adventures and clinging to our last bit of time away from the daily grind. Our quiet conversation was interrupted by the defining cry of a newborn baby.

The cry grew louder and louder. We looked up to see a young woman carrying a newborn baby, a middle-aged man following behind her with a tray of food and some luggage.

As any expecting adoptive parent would, I couldn’t hold myself back for long. I said hello to the young woman and the man who I found out was her father. I asked her all about her beautiful baby: a bi-racial boy whose name I cannot recall. His cries quieted as she slipped the bottle nipple into his mouth.

She then told us that she was a single mother, working in a hair salon, and living in a small apartment above her place of employment. Just a few weeks ago, she had given birth to her son and was in the process of placing him for adoption.

She put the baby in interim care for a week while she considered her options. Ultimately, she couldn’t go through with the plan, despite the fact that she didn’t have the baby’s father to help her raise the child.

She gazed lovingly at the boy in her arms while her father beamed with pride in a way only a grandfather could.

Like many waiting adoptive parents, I let my obsession with becoming a mother overtake my good sense and sanity. I begged God to get me a baby: ASAP.

I came up with at least ten combinations of baby names. I researched vaccines and BPA-free bottles. I complained about how long I had to wait to have a baby in my arms. Pity-parties galore.

After my daughter arrived, I reconnected with an acquaintance: a twenty-something woman expecting her first child. Her plan: place the child for adoption.

She wasn’t sure which guy was the father and if they could pinpoint him, if he’d support her wish to be a stay-at-home mom and raise her baby in a quaint house in her hometown.

She wanted to live the American dream, but she didn’t have the right partner for the journey.

The months leading to the baby’s birth flew by. She had selected an adoptive family, talked the potential fathers, toyed with the idea of parenting, convinced herself into believing that placing the child was the “unselfish” and “most loving” choice: words fed to her by the adoption agency and reaffirmed by her persistent parents.

A healthy baby girl was born, and my friend waited for me to arrive at the hospital before holding her baby. She was intimidated by the decision ahead and holding the baby was reality making its appearance. I visited a few times and took her a car seat in case she decided to bring the baby home.

Still uncertain if placing was the right choice, she put the baby in interim care for a few days. She talked to the possible fathers, had a DNA test done, and eventually, decided to place. She called me to tell me she had signed TPR papers and asked if I’d go to the placement with her.

I felt sick standing beside her as she caressed her baby for the last moments of being the child’s only mother. My heart was pounding, my palms sweating, knowing the adoptive family was eagerly waiting just one room away. It was time.

When the moment came for my friend to hand her baby to the adoptive parents, I was screaming inside, “No! Keep her! You don’t have to do this!”

The particular agency had a placement ceremony. It was small and intimate. They read a short poem and the social worker said a few words.

Tears streamed down my face the entire time. I used my friend’s camera to snap several photos, and then, there was nothing to do but say goodbye and leave.

On the way home, we got my friend’s favorite Mexican food. The casualness and normalcy of having tacos with a girlfriend was juxtaposed with the event that had transpired that evening, and the reality of what her decision meant for the rest of her and the baby’s lives.

I once was the adoptive parent who wanted nothing more than to be a mom. For some unfortunate expectant mother to stumble upon our profile, know in her heart that we were THE ones, and place her child with us.

She would then move forward with her life, like a Hallmark movie, feeling completely at peace with her decision. We would send her the occasional letter and a few photos to let her know her child was happy and thriving.

Three adoptions later, as well as several friendships formed with all members of the adoption triad, I know this to be true. Adoptive parents’ gain comes only at a very high cost: the loss of the biological parents and the adoptee.

And though adoption is sometimes necessary and oftentimes rewarding, it is no less bittersweet.

Walking a mile in a birth mother’s shoes drastically changed me as an adoptive parent. I have seen the hardships and joys of a mother losing her child to adoption.

I see how my friend is a mother without a child on her hip. I feel the weight of each Mother’s Day, the baby’s birthday, Christmas. I have seen her tears of joy and her tears of pain, sometimes those tears being simultaneous.

I see how adoption always starts with brokenness, and how that brokenness is never fully healed, though it certainly evolves.

If I could share one piece of advice with new adoptive parents, it is this: when you are feeling desperate, uncertain, and impatient, remember that your joy will only come when someone else succumbs to a decision to endure a lifetime of loss.

I don’t say this to instill guilt, shame, or fear in adoptive parents. Rather, I wish for them to begin their adoption journeys accepting adoption for what it is: a beautiful mess.

Rachel Garlinghouse is a mother of three through transracial, domestic, open adoption. She’s the author of Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Mother’s Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children and blogs over at White Sugar, Brown Sugar. Her articles have appeared in Adoptive Families magazine and on the websites: I Am Not the Babysitter, Slow Mama, MyBrownBaby, and 

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