The Wild Journey of Adoption

The month Ellen and I got engaged, she went to the doctor to check on a mass on her side. An ultrasound spotted a tumor. A surgeon found it wrapped around an ovary.

“Don’t worry,” her doctor told her, “I’m pretty sure it’s benign. You’re too young to have ovarian cancer.”

A biopsy said otherwise. She had ovarian cancer.

We started our journey toward marriage with the looming question of whether she was going to be well. When follow-up tests found that it was Stage 1 and entirely contained in the tumor, we felt relief wash over us. Soon after, our attention turned to the possibility of future children. Complications from the surgery had made having biological children unlikely for us, so we quickly shifted to thoughts of adoption.

Having worked with adopted kids and knowing friends who either had adopted or were adopted themselves, we had some familiarity with the notion. A few years after we’d settled into married life, we began the process.

Some adoptions are closed, meaning there is an intermediary agency between the birth parents and the adoptive parents. Information about the birth parents is given sparsely and the families have no contact. Others are open adoptions, allowing all parties to know each other and communicate. We decided to pursue an open adoption.

We met a 17-year-old young woman named Jennifer who wanted to make an adoption plan for her not-yet-born daughter. Jennifer was smart, funny, determined. We like her immediately and she liked us, so we made a connection somewhere around the mid-point of her pregnancy.

“EVERY ADOPTION STORY IS UNIQUE.”

For the following five months, we met with her every month to talk about our dreams for this child. She wrote down a list of names she liked and we did the same, then we picked the name that was on both lists. In mid-January of that year, Christy was born. Ellen and I were in the delivery room with Jennifer and her mom. It was a transcendent experience, seeing another woman labor for the child you were going to raise.

Christ proved to be extraordinarily smart, curious, high-energy, more than a little stubborn. She was an early talker and an early reader. Nearly everyone who met her commented this brilliant, precocious little kid.

Two years later, Ellen got a call from her aunt in Virginia. A Guatemalan woman had walked into a laundromat and asked if the attendant knew anyone who could adopt her baby. She was about seven months pregnant and had received no healthcare. Word traveled back to Ellen’s aunt who thought of us. Ellen thought the idea was exciting and worth considering. I thought it sounded terrifying and unwise.

I agreed, however, to call our adoption attorney who said, even with all the potential barriers, that it could be done. I called an adoption attorney in Virginia who confirmed the same thing.

So in the span of two months, we ended up accomplishing what normally can take two years with home studies and legal filings and all the rest. We had an attorney in North Carolina, one in Virginia, an attorney for the birth mom, and a guardian ad litem for the baby. Somehow it all came together.

The call from Ellen’s aunt was around early June of that year. In mid-August, Abbey was born with a full head of dark hair and plump little arms and legs. She proved to be a sweet, happy, giggling baby. As a child, she was eager to please and deeply empathetic.

Our family seemed set for around 12 years until we had a conversation with a family in Charlotte who knew of two Liberian siblings in an orphanage who were waiting to be adopted. Their younger sister had been adopted that year by a family in Charlotte, but no one had stepped up to adopt this older brother and sister. We looked over the profiles of the two kids and began to have conversations about this out-of-the-blue possibility of adopting two more kids, this time from West Africa.

We printed out the profiles and took our girls out to dinner at Moe’s. Over burritos, we talked about these two kids and shared what we knew. Both of them were instantly enthusiastic about these children joining our family. We began the adoption process around December of that year. By the following April, the adoption had been completed an approved in Liberia. However, just as they were ready to leave, the president of the country put a moratorium on all adoptions.

“OUR KIDS WERE FROZEN [IN LIBERA] FOR TWO YEARS.”

Our kids were frozen in place for two years. During that time, we arranged to get them out of the orphanage and into what was essentially two different foster homes. When it seemed like there would be no progress, we even began to consider the possibility these two would never join our family, even though they now had our last name.

Without notice, the government allowed the adoptions in the pipeline to clear. I found out about this on Tuesday. By that Saturday, I had obtained a visa and was flying into Monrovia. A week later, the brother and sister–Daniel and Maddie–flew back to the U.S. to start their new adventure.

Our family of four instantly became a family of six. Along the way, we faced learning and attention issues, emotional struggles, racial and cultural issues, and much more. There were some incredibly stressful years filled with frustration and worry and even sadness. But there was also a lot of joy and laughter. Today, all four of them are flourishing. Two are finishing college. Two are working full-time. As young adults, they all live independently and have good relationships and healthy lives.

Everyone’s experience of adoption is different. Several studies have found that adopted children face more emotional, behavioral, and learning problems than non-adoptees, even though, as one study concluded, “the majority of adopted youth are psychologically healthy.”

Some kids have psychological wounds from the adoption experience, while others have none. Some kids in closed adoptions long to meet their birth parents, while others have no interest. The experiences of adopted kids–and adoptive parents–are wide and varied.

Some factors that contribute to all this variety of experience include the age of the child at adoption, the child’s temperament, biological family history of mental illness or learning problems, the emotional health of the adoptive parents, the social context, previous experiences (for older adopted children), social support, and others.

With all those variables, every adoption story is unique.

What we do know is that adoption is different than having biological adoption. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad or worse; it just means different. Even if our children were not racially diverse from us and each other, they would still have their own unique biological and, in the case of the Liberians, social histories. We don’t act like the differences don’t exist. Instead, we embrace and often celebrate these differences.

And yet, despite all these differences, when we are together–as we will be over the holidays–it’s clear we are a family. We have a shared history and deep emotional connections. We laugh together and know each other’s quirks and charms We’re forever connected, not by blood, but by the powerful experience of being a family.

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Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey. Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.

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