VOL 123 NO. 4
A Loving Choice
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
Ask most parents and they will surely tell you that when their child was placed in their arms for the first time, it was a moment of pure joy and wonder. They may also have felt a fierce protectiveness mixed with the terror of having the unparalleled responsibility for the life of another human being. To have a child is truly a gift from God. To give away a child to another in the best interest of that child is the most courageous, selfless act imaginable. To choose to give life to an unborn child that is unplanned or unwanted rather than abort the child is brave and self-sacrificing.
*Barbara, who lives on the east side of Syracuse, is one such person. Barbara discovered she was pregnant after she had broken up with her boyfriend who was verbally abusive and didn’t get along well with her children. Barbara isn’t the stereotypical woman that finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy. She is in her 40s, has three other children and is trying to get her life back in order. “I was 39 years old, had just broken up with the birth father, was living back at home with my parents, and raising my youngest child alone,” said Barbara. “I had gone to Planned Parenthood twice to have an abortion, but chickened out. On my way out of the office, I saw the pamphlet for Catholic Charities and held on to it until about six weeks before she was born. I knew at that point, I wanted to give the baby up for adoption, so I called them.” The pamphlet explained open adoption and the brave decision that Barbara made forever changed the lives of a couple who had been waiting to adopt.
Open adoption is a cooperative venture between the birth parent, the adoptive couple and the agency that acts as mediator, educator and counselor. In an open adoption, the birth parents choose the family that they want to raise their child. Together, the adoptive family and the birth parents create a legal, individualized plan for ongoing visits and the exchange of photos, letters, phone calls or e-mails. The process begins when a birth mother is presented with several prospective parent books. The scrapbooks chronicle the lives of the prospective parents and often include letters along with photos and narratives. The birth mother reviews the books, which helps narrow her choices to one or two families she would like to meet. A meeting is then set up between the two parties to determine their compatibility. The encounter benefits both sides because it also gives the adoptive parents the opportunity to reject the association if they feel the birth mother is not an appropriate candidate.
*Alexis and *Don of Manlius found out in 1990 that they couldn’t have children. In 1991 they started the adoption process when they were told by an acquaintance that a young girl they knew was coming to Syracuse to give birth and to give her child up for adoption. The entire process moved quickly. “Within three days, we had our home visit and background check completed and had lawyers involved. After investing $3,500 in attorney’s fees, the girl changed her mind,” said Alexis. Don and Alexis investigated the possibility of adopting a baby from Korea but didn’t want to wait the amount of time it takes for an international adoption. That’s when they went to Catholic Charities to learn more about open adoption. In 1991, two weeks after they began their relationship with Catholic Charities, their book was presented to a 20-year-old mother to be. “We were in a relationship with the girl for several months and found that she was not an appropriate candidate for open adoption,” said Alexis. They cancelled the adoption proceeding. Over the next several years, Alexis and Don’s book would be presented to five different birth mothers. Two of the mothers decided to keep their babies and Alexis and Don turned down two others.
In July 2001, Alexis and Don’s book was presented to Barbara who chose them as prospective adoptive parents. “We met Barbara only once before we spent time with her in the hospital,” said Alexis. Eight days after she was born, Barbara’s daughter went home with Alexis and Don. Gail Van der Linde, the Infant Adoption Coordinator at Onondaga County Catholic Charities, said that 99 percent of the women who give their children up for an open adoption are happy with the choice they made. “When they can see that the child is happy and well-adjusted, the birth mother sees that she’s done the right thing,” said Van der Linde. “Open adoption is not for everyone. Very few adoptive parents want a relationship with the birth parents,” she said. “It’s a process to educate them. We have a wide range of options for the levels of openness in the relationship between the birth mother and the adoptive parents,” explained Van der Linde. Those options range from accepting a gift or letter at the time of placement to submitting annual updated information to the agency about the child’s welfare. The extent of the relationship between the birth parents and their families is also negotiable. While Alexis and Don’s legal obligation to Barbara is only one visit per year, they see her about five times a year. Sometimes Barbara brings her other children along as well. Alexis and Don are satisfied with this arrangement. “I want our daughter to know her half-brother and half-sisters,” she said. Barbara and her children are introduced to the child as family friends. When she gets older the toddler will be told their true identity.
Barbara’s two older children, who are in their twenties, have mixed emotions about their mother giving up her child. “My son, I think, is in denial. He has never participated in our visits. I’ve asked him to go, but he hasn’t.” Barbara’s college-age daughter is fine with her mother’s decision. “She knew I couldn’t handle it at the time with the things I was going through,” said Barbara. “Whenever she’s home from college, she goes with me to visit the baby.” Barbara’s youngest daughter loves the baby but is not aware of the relationship.
Van der Linde points out that some birth mothers or their families have a problem with the boundaries set in the contract. Van der Linde said that Catholic Charities counsels the birth mothers extensively. In addition to setting up contracts between the two parties, they also work on the birth mother’s feelings of regret and guilt. “Often the birth mother suffers from feelings of inadequacy, guilt and low self-esteem,” said Van der Linde. Van der Linde said that mothers struggle with the fact that they don’t have the resources they need to raise a child. “We tell them they are making a loving sacrifice and that there is nothing wrong with them just because they are not prepared for this role in their life.”
*Stephanie is another woman who made a loving sacrifice. She became pregnant after being forced out of her home by her mother’s boyfriend. While living with friends, Stephanie admitted that the lifestyle she was living could be considered “wild.“ “I met someone and did something stupid. I was upset and took care of it in the wrong way. I got pregnant at 18,” she said. Stephanie and her boyfriend were in the process of splitting up when she discovered she was pregnant. “That was the icing on the cake for him,” she said. “He wanted me to terminate the pregnancy.” Instead, with the support of a friend and his family, Stephanie went to Catholic Charities. Her friend had been adopted by Catholic Charities and his parents told Stephanie positive things about the agency. “They told me what wonderful things Catholic Charities had done. They spoke very highly of it.”
That was five years ago and Stephanie has only occasional regrets about placing her son up for adoption. “I couldn’t see him going without because I messed up,” said Stephanie. “I didn’t have the means to take care of a baby. It wouldn’t have been fair to him if one day, I couldn’t buy formula.” Stephanie decided to go with an open adoption because she would be able to see her son every now and then. She said that her decision was both easy and difficult. “It’s hard because sometimes when I see him and I see how big he’s gotten, I wonder what I missed -–– him going to school, his first words, things like that.” On the other hand, Stephanie also said that instead of wondering where he is and whom he is with, she gets to see his progression and how his parents interact with him. “I get the peace of mind of knowing he’s doing okay,” she said. The couple who adopted Stephanie’s baby waited 12 years for a baby. They began adoption proceedings in 1986. At that time, the adoption process at Catholic Charities meant prospective parents added their name to a waiting list. “Catholic Charities told us there was a five-year wait,” said *John and *Paula. The couple called Catholic Charities every few years to see where they were on the list. After five years, their names hadn’t moved up. Ten years later, Catholic Charities called them to see if the couple was still interested in adopting. By then, the agency had moved toward the open adoption process. In May 1998, Stephanie chose John and Paula’s book and the couple brought their son home. At five years old, their son knows that he is adopted and considers Stephanie a family friend. “He knows he didn’t grow in mommy’s tummy, but in her heart,” said Paula. John said that there have only been two events in his life that had an incredible emotional impact –– when they received the call from Catholic Charities that they had a baby for them and when their son was placed in his arms. John explained that he and Paula don’t blame Catholic Charities for the amount of time it took them to be placed with a child. “It’s just the way we did things,” he said. “We didn’t network.” John’s wife agreed. “Other people who network are more successful,” said Paula. “If we had networked better, maybe we would have had more than one. I want people to know that because we waited 12 years doesn’t mean that others will. Things are different now.”
Both adoptive couples agreed that they had much to be thankful for. Alexis considers open adoption as a Christian process of inclusion. “We champion the birth mother constantly,” said Alexis. “We continue to acknowledge her for doing something so self-sacrificing.” Stephanie is 24 years old now and has been married for two years. Her message to other teens is, “It’s the best decision you could ever make. It’s kind of the best of both worlds. You give a family who would never be able to have children a child of their own. At the same time, you get to see him, hear about his first steps and see how he’s growing. It’s like having a second family,” she said.
* The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect the privacy of the families.