The Extended Family of My Two Open Adoptions

Most adoptions in the U.S. today are open; I’m taking the opportunity to create a big, loving—if complicated—family.
Steve Snodgrass/flickr

I follow Donna out to the car where she shows me the festival of pink fabrics she’s planning to use to make a quilt for my seven-year-old daughter, Eve.

I touch the colors and coo. Donna is not Eve’s godmother or even a family friend. She’s her biological great-aunt. As Donna and I talk quilts, Eve is inside the house, getting ready to hold her birth mother’s new baby, born just a week ago. Laney is almost 30, and more settled than she was when she gave birth to Eve. She has chosen to raise the new baby herself. As I walk in, Laney’s tight, rust-colored curls fall on Eve’s face as she places the infant in Eve’s arms. My energetic little girl becomes calm.

This is so far from where my husband Marty and I were eight years ago—with one miscarriage, three failed inseminations, vial after vial of expensive fertility drugs, endless Chinese herbs, countless acupuncture needles, an exploratory surgery, and three failed in vitro fertilization procedures. I even visited a shaman. All that flailing effort and disappointment, and yet we were still so devoted to the concept of having a baby with our own bodies, with our own coils of DNA. We thought we could will a baby into being if we just kept trying. 

I remember the day that I let all that go, finally, and allowed myself to truly consider adoption. I was alone, walking through my living room in the afternoon. I'm not prone to dramatics, but when the acceptance hit, it felt like a sailboat boom swung around in a high wind and smacked me in the chest.

It was quite a leap to make after so many years of fierce effort. We had to give up any genetic connection to the child we would raise. Our hope of passing on my curly hair or Marty’s blue eyes? Forget it. I also had to give up all control of the prenatal period. Someone else would carry our child, eat and drink and think whatever they wanted, and might or might not give the baby to us when the pregnancy was over. No law can make them, and I wouldn’t want it to. I just had to hope and trust that they would decide that baby would be mine.

I had to let go of the illusion of control. Over anything.

But in the end, all of this sounded better to me than never having a family at all. The scales tipped, and I said yes.

*  *  *

That was late 2005. I said yes, specifically, to open adoption. Because I knew that's how I would want it handled if I were adopted—with my birth family fully knowable to me. 

Nowadays, 95 percent of adoptions are “open” to some degree. Even as recently as 1997, only 16 percent of the general public approved of birth mothers sending cards or letters to adoptive families. Even though the current trend is toward openness, incorporating birth family members into the life of our child did not sound like an easy or comfortable thing. But when an adoption social worker told me that the family could be whatever the adoptive parents and the birth parents decide to create together, I calmed down.

We were lucky. We didn’t go through an agency and pay the fees associated with that. Marty’s cousin Susie, who’s an obstetrician, knew what we were going through, and told us that from time to time, a patient came in pregnant and asking about how adoption works and where to go. If we wanted, cousin Susie would tell the next nice-seeming pregnant woman about us, and we could try to arrange a private adoption.      

Susie warned us, though, that sometimes years went by between potential birth-mom sightings. We hunkered down and got ready for the long wait.

Two months later I got an email from Susie that said only “Call me.”

The pregnant woman was named Laney, and she was 14 weeks along. She lived in Charleston, two states and 10 hours south of us. The baby inside her was a girl. Just what we’d hoped for.

Three months later, after much emailing and a few phone calls, Marty and I walked into the restaurant where Laney worked. There she stood, next to a self-serve case of single-serving yogurts, looking so pregnant I thought she would burst on the spot.

I embraced the petite, curly-headed blond woman who held the tiny person we hoped would be our baby, and in that crystalizing instant, everything felt right. What could have been a terribly awkward and anxiety-producing time just wasn’t. Laney was young—22—but sure of herself, and somehow already sure of us. We were already sure of her, too.

That weekend Laney happily answered our questions. She adored her hometown, and rarely left it, and she wanted to be a chef someday. She loved babies, but now just wasn’t the time. Laney still lived with her mom, and as soon as she told the baby’s birth father she was pregnant, he had made himself scarce.

We answered all her questions, too. Told her what our childhoods were like, how we met, how we married the weekend after September 11, and, of course, the details of our five years of infertility.

It was natural and at the same time surreal. We were relaxing and communing with someone who had, frankly, more of an emotional claim on the human being inside her than we did.

“Don’t worry,” Laney said, as we sat on the patio of a Mexican place, demolishing baskets of chips. “I’m not going to change my mind.”

We nodded and smiled, but we didn’t take her at her word. Not really. Birth moms change their mind all the time, we’d heard. They just can’t help it. And we weren’t the ones in control.

That Sunday, we sat with Laney and her mom Paty in a big, bright old house that had been converted to a restaurant. They brought photo albums of Laney as a baby, excited to show us the big-eared, freckly little girl she’d been, playing in the sands on Sullivan’s Island.

When we got home, I finally let myself buy a baby outfit.

*  *  *      

On July 25, 2006, we spent the entire day and most of the evening in the waiting room of the labor and delivery unit with Laney’s mom, Laney’s cousin, her aunt, her other cousin, her other aunt, her step-mom, her grandmother, her dad, and her three closest friends. Everyone there seemed to have accepted us as the parents of the new person who would soon arrive.

At 10:22 p.m., Evangeline Virginia emerged into the world with a fever, jaundice, and the cord wrapped around her neck and shoulders. When she finally made it into Laney’s arms for the first time, Laney held fast to her. She looked up at us, apologized and said she just couldn’t. Not yet. 

This felt like the whole thing beginning to unravel, and I myself came unraveled in the car on the way home from the hospital in the wee hours of the night.

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Suz Redfearn is a writer based in northern Virginia. Her work has appeared in Slate, Politico, and The Washington Post Magazine

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