Adopting My Son Changed My Understanding of Family

People told me that a parent’s love is different from any other kind. Now I know better.

A baby playing in a room with back to the camera
Angie Smith for The Atlantic

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.    

We were ready to try again. This time, Eric and I worked with an agency. We’d passed background checks, completed adoption trainings, and were just waiting for a call. Then it came. “She wants to meet you,” Kaitlyn, our agency representative, told us, so we canceled everything. On a Wednesday morning, we drove two and half hours to Boise, Idaho, to meet a 32-year-old pregnant woman named Nicole.

Kaitlyn prepped us before the meeting with a list of questions: the ones Nicole might ask us, and the ones we were not allowed to ask Nicole. “Stay focused on her,” she said. “Ask about her interests, what she likes to do for fun.” She encouraged us to bring Nicole a token of our appreciation, so I made a batch of cookies, rich and chocolatey with a hint of orange. But what if she doesn’t like chocolate? I worried. What if she doesn’t like orange?

We’d been waiting for more than a year. People kept telling us that you never really know love until you have a child of your own. Their words bothered me, especially as a person hoping to adopt. Don’t tell me what my heart is capable of, I wanted to say. And who counts as a child of your own? But I did want to be a parent, to fully understand how it might change me.

So far we’d had only one other near match with a woman who’d interviewed us and another couple. She chose the other couple. “What did we do wrong?” I asked Kaitlyn when she delivered the news.

“You did nothing wrong,” she said.

I wanted there to be something I’d done wrong, because then there would be something I could do right. But that isn’t how this process works. Instead, it involves phrases like trust the timing, words like journey and surrender.

We’d chosen this agency for its philosophy: It let the birth mothers drive the process, the timing, the decision making. It was feminist, we felt, and ethical. The only part Eric and I had any control over was the book we made to tell prospective matches about ourselves. I was obsessed. I printed and reprinted so many revised pages that the person at our local copy shop became invested in the outcome. “Any news?” she’d ask when she saw me, her fingers crossed for good luck.

Kaitlyn met us in the agency’s parking lot. She’d arranged couches in the back room, near an open door, she explained, with a fan running; we were in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, but this was not the kind of meeting you can Zoom into, or to which you can wear a mask. Nicole would be trying to discern if her sense of us in real life measured up to what she’d read in our book. It’s too intimate, the stakes too high.

“Just be yourselves,” Kaitlyn said, and Eric and I opened the door to the back room. Nicole sat on a red-leather couch. She was radiant, with long purple hair. Will she choose us?

“Thanks for coming all this way,” Nicole said.

“We would have driven a million miles to meet you,” I said and then worried Too desperate? I was more nervous than I’d ever been, with wet palms and a quick pulse. Nicole had the power to make us parents. But when I could lean into the profoundness of what we were doing together—potentially finding, and growing, kinship where we weren’t taught to see it—my breathing slowed. Nicole’s mother sat next to her on the red couch. Three generations of their family were in that room, including Nicole’s child-to-be.

Nicole told us about working nights. About singing in her church’s choir. About her amazing 13-year-old daughter. Nicole asked about our values, our religious beliefs, how we’d discipline and care for our child, why we chose adoption. The conversation flowed. We made each other laugh.

And then Nicole’s mother said, “Tell us about your foster daughter.”

portrait of a couple on a porch
The author and her husband at their home in Hailey, Idaho (Angie Smith for The Atlantic)

Ten months after we brought home a three-day-old baby, whom we’d expected to keep, she’d been reunified with her birth mother. We understood that reunification is always the goal, but still, our grief was shattering. We’d debated whether to include her in the adoption book, but Kaitlyn had told us that birth mothers respond to vulnerability. She told us that our grief would help us connect with a birth mother’s grief, and to an adopted child’s. So we’d written about the heartbreak that brought us to adoption.

Nicole told us that she’d always believed she was meant to help another family have a child. She’d tried to be a surrogate. She’d worked with an agency, been matched with a couple, readied her body for pregnancy. But at the last minute, she was disqualified because she’d had a kink in her umbilical cord when she was pregnant with her own daughter; she was deemed too high-risk. She was devastated.

The agency told her that because preparation for surrogacy had affected her hormones, she probably wouldn’t get her period for a while. So when she noticed that she didn’t feel well, a few months after the process had ended, she chalked it up to the hormones, then to having COVID, then to working nights. But finally she went to the doctor. “Something’s not right,” she told him. “Look, my stomach’s moving.”

“Because you’re pregnant,” the doctor said after a few tests. She was about six and a half months along.

Nicole told us that when she saw her fetus on the ultrasound monitor, her first thought was Who does this child belong to? That was something only she could decide. That was something she would maybe decide today.

After an hour or so of conversation, Nicole said, “I think that’s it.” She stood.

Eric and I drove home, dissecting everything we’d said. We fell into bed, exhausted. My phone rang. Kaitlyn. “Nicole wants to meet with you again,” she said. “This Friday.”

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“It’s not unusual,” she said.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“This is a big decision. It makes sense that she’d like to meet you more than once.”

We drove back to Boise on Friday. When we passed through the Camas Prairie, which blooms blue every spring with lilies, a rainbow arched across the highway. We pulled over and took a picture.

“Thanks for coming back,” Nicole said, her mother sitting next to her. “I just have a few more questions.”

What makes a family? How would Nicole know if we were the right people to trust with her child?

“Will you vaccinate?” Nicole asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you swear?”

“Hell yes,” Eric said.

“Do you wear sandals with socks?”

“Never,” we said at the same time.

I loved Nicole already. I loved her mother. I loved her daughter. I loved the baby she would give birth to, even if the baby wouldn’t be ours. Even if this would be the last time we all saw one another.

portrait of a woman with purple hair outside
Nicole, the birth mother (Angie Smith for The Atlantic)

“I have one more question for you,” Nicole said. She got down on one knee. She held out a pacifier, like an engagement ring. “Are you willing to parent this child?” she asked.

“Yes,” we said. “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” We were all on our knees, crying and laughing and hugging. She chose us, and we chose her. The serendipity of it. The wonder.

When our friends threw us a baby shower, Nicole and her daughter came and spent the night at our house. Nicole gave us a teddy bear. When you press the bear’s belly, you can hear a recording of the fetal heartbeat, and of Nicole’s.

Our son was born a few weeks later. At the hospital, Nicole had one room and Eric and I had another, and the nurses put bear stickers on both doors to remind the medical staff that ours is an unusual situation.

Sometimes our son’s see-through bassinet was in our room, sometimes in Nicole’s. We texted with and called Kaitlyn, who couldn’t be in the hospital because of COVID. “It will be like a wedding in one room and a funeral in the other,” she reminded us. Nicole had the right to change her mind, to decide that she wanted to parent, but Kaitlyn told us not to worry if she kept the baby in her room the whole time. “Give Nicole as much time and space as she needs,” she said. “She has to say hello and goodbye all at once.”

Nicole gave us a child. He has her blue eyes, her long fingers, her ears, her lips. We gave him the middle name Nico to honor her, a thread of connection that can never be cut. Our son will know he’s adopted. And he will know Nicole and Nicole’s daughter and mother and his birth father. Their families are our family now.

Two weeks after our son was born, Nicole spent the night at our house again. Though placing her baby for adoption had been her plan all along, she was grieving. “I’m not doubting my decision,” she said. “I’m just feeling it all.” Her body was still recovering from pregnancy and a difficult birth. Her arms were bruised from so many IVs. When she stood, her stitches ached. When she held our son, her breasts hurt.

“Is she like an aunt?” a friend asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s like a birth mother.” Another kind of relationship entirely.

Our closeness with Nicole scares some people. Other mothers say to me, “I couldn’t do that,” and what they mean is they couldn’t share their motherhood, as if having Nicole around somehow undermines my role. At first, I had that insecurity too. I was scared to refer to myself as mama in front of Nicole. I didn’t want to hurt her. But Nicole uses that word all the time. “There’s your mama,” she says when she holds our son, and she points to me. Who am I to doubt what she asked me to be?

Some women who place their children for adoption like to be referred to as birth mother. Others prefer first mother. “What do you want to be called?” I asked Nicole.

“Whatever he chooses to call me,” she said.

Two women and a baby
Angie Smith for The Atlantic

I still think about what people used to tell Eric and me—that the love they feel for their children is different from any other kind of love. Now that I’m a mother, I want to say that the kind of love I feel, the love Nicole has given us, isn’t exclusive. It’s not the kind that marks some as mine and others as not mine. It’s not us-and-them love. It’s expansive. And it’s available to anyone who understands that kinship is a practice, something you do. This kind of love knows that any stranger can become family, and it lets that knowing change everything.