Childless no longer…


A slight and soft creature, a tender 7 pounds in weight, with thick dark hair and an angel kiss on her forehead lay still in the crib beside me.

Hubs matched her exhausted, motionless state in the spare bed of the postpartum room at Naval Medical Center San Diego while I absorbed the moment.

After hours of chaos, it was silent.

A nurse walked in quietly and presented a tray of food. If I could have, I might have lunged at him for what amounted to very bland hospital fair.

I ate greedily adding up the hours in my head of my last meal: about 35. The makers of Jell-O would be wise to get hungry new moms to write their ad copy.

With my tray sufficiently scarfed, I turned my attention to the gentle sleeping face of my new little girl eying every strand of hair, her tiny finger nails, the curve of her mouth knowing all that grew within me.

I laid back in bed trying to rest but it was hard. Everything about her fascinated me.

Just as I was about to drift off, she began to cry in hunger. Hubs hardly stirred as I pulled her crib to me and feebly, awkwardly lifted her out.

Once cradled in my arms, her soft eyes opened and I felt the first of many awesome waves wash over me: I’m her mother, her teacher, her life giver.

We lay embraced for some time before hubs stirred and the spell was broken with the interruptions of nurses and doctors caring for her and me.

Sunday, I celebrated my first Mother’s Day with hubs, my mom and sis, and of course, my Baby Bird.

As I got ready for our celebratory brunch, I thought of a Mother’s Day several years ago when I attended Skyline Church service alone in the midst of our infertility struggles. Countless women filled pews wearing corsages, holding hands with their children, dressed in their Sunday best.

Rev. Jim Garlow began to bless the service with a special prayer for all the women who longed to be mothers and were dealing with infertility. Painful tears streamed from my closed eyes.

The road to motherhood since amounted to as much pain and sorrow as that enormous joy payload in those first precious silent moments alone with Baby Bird.

One day in the midst of my pregnancy, hubs caught me in thought and asked why I was shaking my head to myself.

“Even now, I know that it happened, but I still find it hard to believe.”

He smiled and said: “Everyone keeps saying it’s because we stopped ‘trying.’ But we stopped when we started the foster care process. Maybe it happened because we were finally ready.”

In life, some seeds of happiness just won’t grow no matter what we do.

While they might not be what you expect, life just might surprise you with something (or someone) greater than you ever imagined.

My first postpartum nurse came in to wish our little girl a happy birthday and write a note up on the wipe board for her. She asked how to spell her name and as she began writing with her back to me, she turned around with a confused look.

“Did you make that up?’

In the weeks following our ultrasound, we slogged through the girl’s section of a baby names book several times over. One night in bed while reading “Atlas Shrugged,” hubs was rebuffing my latest name suggestion and I jokingly said gesturing at the book: “How about Dagny?”

He looked it up in the baby name book sitting bedside. Old Norse meaning “rebirth.”

In the months that followed, we “tried it on” to see if it fit and sometimes I wasn’t sure until hubs brought her to me for our first collective snuggle.

She lifted her head, opened her dark and stormy eyes and looked at me.

At 34, my life started anew.

A New Year, A New Life


New Year’s Eve. A night for letting go of the past, hoping for the future and counting the many blessings in life. No year brought so many surprises for me as 2011.

I embraced my role as a foster mom and all that entailed – foster parent classes, ceritifications in water safety, CPR and first-aid, professional and personal referrals, baby-proofing, child-rearing education and re-assessing my professional life to make room for three weekly visits with caseworkers and biological parents along with the court records that each visit required to be filed.

It was an immense undertaking, but we were ready.

Then, we found out just as we were about to cross the last “t” that we were expecting.

One might think it would be an easy shift. A better outcome.

But there’s that lingering desire deep inside transformed by compelling stories that longs to be a foster parent.

In the midst of such confusing emotions, we dealt with new weirdness: unwelcome parenting advice, weight-gain assessments, career pressures and a family torn between wanting to be involved but not knowing the child’s sex.

My growing belly and the active girl inside nevers lets me forget for a moment that I must overcome and ignore all fearful obstacles. My life does not belong to me alone anymore.

There’s as much solace in that notion as anxiety.

I try to take each day as it comes and drown out the doubts as I prepare for my most incredible life achievement: child birth.

On Tuesday, we’ll meet our doula who will be our one constant child birth expert throughout the miraculous experience. The Navy system does not assign you the care provider you’ll deliver with –  you get whoever is on duty.

In life, you get so few opportunities to feel the complete understanding and meaning of life. When this year began, I resigned myself to never having a baby.

I thank God for giving me a chance.

For all the difficulties, confusion and heartbreak, I thank God. How else would I have ever so appreciated this experience as I do?

We only get so many days on Earth; never miss a moment to be present in the good as well as bad times. Each second is a precious lesson, a chance to know yourself and be better.

So long, 2011. Thanks for the curve balls. You kept me on my toes.

Expecting the Unexpected


Just a week after our Angels Foster Family Network classes concluded, Brian found out he finally made Chief Petty Officer after 14 years of service.

It’s an exciting and highly honorable distinction among enlisted sailors, but the time requirements during induction ate up his clock from 4 a.m. sometimes until midnight or later.

Reluctantly, I contacted our caseworker Emma to let her know our home visit would have to be rescheduled hoping there would be some way she could do the 2 to 4 hour visit without him. Of course, she couldn’t but said to contact her once we were ready. We still had just a few basic items to finish in our checklist, including the burdensome floor plan which requires square footage and diagrams of our entire house including outdoor landscaping.

Tedious. But I knew I wasn’t in control. I had to let go and follow the process; no use in fighting it.

During his many hours gone during the day, I busied myself with those foster paperwork chores, cleaned the house over and over, bought a combined carrier and stroller and a hiking backpack for a little one, searched online endlessly for baby furniture (why is it so expensive?) and found a few bedding sets I loved.

I was in full nesting mode.

Aside from all those baby tasks, I picked up a couple clients and got downright busy sun up to sundown and hardly stirred when he would collapse next to me in the wee hours of morning. Suddenly, I was tired every night and passing out before 9 p.m.

As he approached the end of his induction phase, I began to think of scheduling our home visit and finishing off those little red tape chores when one night, hubs made a startling declaration. The next day, he expected me to get an Aunt Flow visit.

Trouble was – I had no indications she would be in town. None. Zero. Zip.

A few days later, he was helping me unpack the groceries when he pulled out turkey lunch meat and a pint of mint chocolate chip gelato.

“What is this?” he asked, comically. “I don’t think I asked for this.”

“I wanted it,” I said. His eyes widened.

“Who are you?” he asked, laughing. “You want a sandwich and ice cream? You’re pregnant.”

But after a four-year struggle with infertility, one doesn’t jump to rash conclusions. In fact, you flat out ignore such things and move on.

In this case, I ignored it for five whole days.

Finally, on my way home from a Padres game with a client, I decided to stop at CVS and face what I’d faced many other tearful times before – a negative pregnancy test.

The clerk double-bagged the kit. I laughed, flashed my wedding ring and said: “It’s cool. I’m not worried.” He laughed and shrugged as if to say: “That’s not the norm in here.”

At 10 o’clock at night, I certainly didn’t expect the test to be positive even if I were preggers. Your hormone levels are quite low.

Shaking my head in disbelief that I was even going through with the exercise, I read the box, unsheathed the test strip and waited … about a second. My eyebrows crinkled. I grabbed the box, looked at the picture, then at the test strip and then back at the picture.

“Plus means positive,” I read out-loud quietly, slowly.

It was the first time I wept with joy holding a test strip.

I crept upstairs with the strip in my hand, touched hubs leg and switched on the light. His eyes barely cracked open. I couldn’t speak, I held the strip in front of his face.

He sat up, grabbed the strip, looked up at me and asked sleepily: “Did you just pee on this?”

“No,” I joked. “I’ve had it for years. Just been hiding it.”

He did the math. I was five weeks and all the signs hit us at once. In fact, I had lots of them beyond the dietary switch ups and fatigue, only how would we know?

The next day, I had a doctor’s appointment which happened to be pregnancy related. Hubs bolted home from work early, his first since induction started, and walked into the doctor’s office just as the results came back from the lab.

She greeted him at the door with a smile: “Congrats dad!”

That day, I called Angels and told the office manager Annika. She eased my strange feeling of survivor’s guilt when she burst into laughter: “So, you’re the couple.”

Apparently, there’s at least one couple a class who gets pregnant just before or right after a first placement. She prefers our situation because pregnancies can be stressful enough without dealing with the rigors of foster parenting. She put us on the respite list for now and told me to focus on having a healthy pregnancy.

At 10 weeks, I met hubs at Liberty Station to meet our certified nurse midwife for our first ultrasound. After all the questions and basic exam stuff, we got down to the moment we dreamed of.

Suddenly, it was there on the screen. It had a head, hands and feet, tiny fingers and toes, a fluttering heartbeat and then just like that, it kicked and jumped.

Pure magic.

“It’s a dancer,” I said.

Our midwife giggled and warned: “An indication of the months to come.”

I hope so. I’m enjoying every moment until I meet this miracle baby in April, who forever changed me in immeasurable ways because it wasn’t another obligatory check in the blocks of life. It forced me to really question how deeply I wanted to be a parent and to let go of controlling outcomes.

In our silent weeks since finding out, I’ve had to fib many times to many loving friends and family wanting to know when we’d start fostering.

A few nights ago, hubs and I celebrated our last day of the first trimester. He made a confession: “At first, I thought about Angels and felt bad. Then, I felt relief that we didn’t have to go through all that garbage right now.”

But we did go through “all that garbage.” It was just different than we expected and every new opportunity presented new challenges.

We didn’t choose our baby, like a luxury item we thought we deserved, it chose us when the time was right. It’s the pregnancy of none expected ever.

Perhaps, it’s the future older sibling of foster or adopted children. Maybe it will have other biological siblings, maybe not.

I’ve learned it’s best to leave the future alone. You’ll never figure it out, anyway.

Baby Steps…


After a few months of wrestling with the idea of open adoption, we reluctantly decided it could not be afforded right now. I sent an email to my friend, Mindy, who recommended the Adoption Center of San Diego and told her about our decision.

“I understand,” she wrote back. “But there are other ways. There’s Angels. I know its tough, but let me know how I can help.”

Fast forward six months, and here we are – eight weeks of classes completed and just a couple more steps to take before we foster a baby.

At first, we could not see ourselves providing care to a child we may not adopt. You love a baby, feed, cloth, change its diapers for possibly up to 18 months and then may relinquish your obligation. On one hand, that could feel good knowing the parents did right by their child. On the other hand, you will hurt and miss a baby you grew to love.

Oh, so many months ago, I wrote back to Mindy and told her I wanted to know more. We agreed to talk and before we met up, I called the Angels office to sign us up for the next orientation.

What could it hurt?

I remember back to the orientation where Angels’ founder Cathy Richman gave us an honest, full explanation of the program and answered our questions in about an hour.

Cathy worked in foster care for years and saw two things: babies residing in three living situations before their first birthday and a system that didn’t support the foster parents enough to succeed for the children. As a result, those children failed to attach to any one caregiver and learn empathy or trust. At worst,  the child develops reactive attachment disorder, which can lead to sociopath-like behavior.

Today, nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated were at one time in foster care.

“So what’s different about us?” she asked rhetorically. “Well, we do a lot of hand holding to make sure you and the babies you care for have the best experience possible. You will not go through this alone.”

Angels provides one caseworker to just a handful of families, provides the parental training and other arrangements to qualify as a licensed foster family, helps fascilitate the sometimes tense visitations with the birthparents, offers counseling and support for the families, and works through all the court-related matters.

What do they ask for in return?

You must submit to a mental health evaluation, background check, commit to only taking one foster child at a time possibly from birth to 18 months, and – the biggie – one parent must stay home during the length of the fostering.

In her 11th year, Cathy has placed more than 460 babies. When the county calls her with a referral, she goes down her list of waiting families and starts making calls. Sadly, there’s more babies than families.

During our classes from the wonderful Angels caseworkers, we learned about the power of human bonding and what breaks those bonds. It’s not always the physical abuse that leaves the most damage, but the neglect leading to failure to thrive. It’s hard to imagine leaving a child alone for hours at a time unattended, but it happens.

In basic, the system works like this: Angels receives a call, they place the child with a family, and then follow the orders of the court on reunification. If the judge determines the child was removed hastily, it will be reunified within a couple months. Otherwise, the judge sets a list of requirements that parents must abide by in order to regain custody and the case is reassessed every six months up to 18 months.

Roughly 50 percent of the Angels foster children are adopted.

Before she let us go at the orientation, she told us her last of many stories.

A 20-year-old drug addict gave birth, the baby tested positive for drugs in the hospital and was removed from her care. An Angels family fostered and eventually adopted the baby. Less than two years later, the same woman had another child that tested positive for drugs and the same family adopted that child to keep the siblings together.  

Eight years later, that Angels family had adopted all six of that woman’s children when Cathy received a call that the woman delivered her seventh child, which tested positive for drugs. The Angels family finally said no more – they had already moved twice into bigger homes.

“What we say around here is ‘be careful what you wish for,’ ” she said, half kidding. “Of the many struggles our biological parents have, fertility does not seem to be one of them.”

Our sweet caseworker, Emma, set our appointment to walk through our home in a couple weeks to make sure we have knives, chemicals, prescription drugs, and lighters under lock-and-key. We’ve nailed down a few options to install locks throughout the home. From all the mind-numbing paperwork to all the classes, plus a 4-hour CPR/ First Aide class, a 2-hour water-safety class, to the walk-through – we’re only just beginning.

Once we’re placed, we’ll see Emma, the County caseworker and the biological parents each at least once each week. We must document every clothing item purchased with a minimum expense required, register for WIC formula, take and file court notes from our bio-parent visits, take regular pictures and keep a memory book to go home with the child, run and log regular fire drills, maintain all our safety certifications and above all – make the child’s safety and care our top priority.

It’s a heck of a lot to keep track of and just thinking about what we’re in for sometimes gives me anxiety. But I try to take it one day at a time and reassure myself that it’s all going to be worth it.

Of all the emotions our Angels workers said foster parents experience, it’s anger and frustration. Anger at a system that puts so much pressure on us knowing the child came from an unsafe environment.

A friend recently told me he considered fostering, but he said all the paper work made him and his wife feel like criminals.

“What the heck does the County care what my home floor plan looks like?” he asked rhetorically. “These babies come from terrible conditions and somehow, what my lawn shrubbery looks like is a concern.”

It does feel silly, even downright aggravating. Especially when you find out that joblessness and homelessness are not reasons a child cannot be reunified with their parents. The standards are a bit askew. But you can’t fight city hall, I guess.

I visited my darling friend and new mommy, Tanya, this week to see her little man. She doesn’t have the space for a nursery at the moment. I instantly thought of all that would keep her from fostering, simply because of her home environment, and yet you couldn’t find a more doting mom.

It’s a damn shame; the world’s all topsy-turvy and a kid’s just lucky to survive.

But I’m going to jump these hurdles and keep jumping because somewhere out there, my little prince or princess needs me to keep going.

“No One Will Understand What You’re Going Through”


Angels Foster Family Network classes really take you on an emotional ride.

One session, we talked about our first experiences with grief and loss. Thankfully, I was the last one to talk and I breezed through the suicide of the brother’s friend quickly because everyone was drained.

In another session, we talked about actual foster baby cases that dealt with everything from physical and emotional abuse to basic care neglect and failure to thrive.

Thankfully, most of the faces in the room went blank when the words “spica cast” were used, which is a cast on an infant from ankle to under the nipple area due to a femur break. Breaking an infants femur, due to it’s relative flexibility, is pretty tough.

The reason for these emotionally-charged classes: we will indeed experience grief in knowing how these children came to be in the system, loss when they go back to their birth parents and perhaps the worst – anger. Anger at a system that sometimes fails these kids, who we will most assuredly love.

We are not fostering babies with the express intention of adoption and knowing how we’ll deal with that sadness becomes vital to how well we do as foster parents.

Our most recent session a couple nights ago brought us face-to-face with foster parents, their foster babies and a birth mom whose baby is currently in foster care.

The first couple had tried to get pregnant for seven years – seven! They finally decided to check out being foster mommies and the orientation sealed the deal. Their cases ran the gamet from having a baby for a couple weeks to more than a year before reunification. In one case, the reunification failed and they’re now adopting him and a second baby, whose reunification also failed.

The child they reunified with was born with severe heart defects, which they were unaware of at the time they first picked him up. A system loophole allowed him to reunify with his father, a known drug user, and the baby somehow ended up in the care of another family member. He was taken to Children’s Hospital when he became very ill. That’s when Angels called the foster parents to meet him at the hospital and found him “grey, almost blue.”

The other mom said, while holding her 10-month-old: “You have all these thoughts in your mind what these bio-parents are going to be like. It’s nothing like what you think; sometimes you end up feeling like you want to foster them too. They came from the same circumstances their own kids are coming from when we get them.”

The second couple foster just to help out families in trouble with no intention of adopting. They’re on their 9th placement with a baby girl, whose mom was there. Mom currently resides in a rehabilitation facility. Her first child lives in Mexico with his grandparents.

“Fostering fills a place in our family, our hearts,” said the foster mom. Referring to two of her present foster children: “This is my baby, this is my baby. They’re all my babies.”

The young mom, who shed a few tears, said: “The first foster family who cared for her was really mean to me. They would sit at visitations, arms crossed and look at me like I was a monster. I’m not a bad person. We all make mistakes; some of us just more than others. I’m so glad I have this new family for my baby until I’m ready.”

Overall, she’s making excellent progress in her program and could be reunified as early as the six-month trial. She’s hopeful, saying: “It’s all on me to do this and I want to succeed. I don’t have any family of my own. She’s all I’ve got.”

Our caseworkers cautioned us: she’s not a typical birth mom.

The last couple still has their one and only placement. At 10 months, the little boy has seen his mother very little since he was born positive for drugs. At the six month trial, the judge rendered what he considered a generous offer to continue offering county rehabilitation services. She’s spent less than a week in any one program.

The foster mom expressed as much sadness as confusion about the birth mom, who had her first child at 15. She comes from a family of nine siblings, and from what she can tell, all but one suffers from some form of drug or alcohol problem.

“She’s made an attempt at visitations maybe two or three times in 10 months,” the foster mom said. “During a second round of visits, she suddenly showed up with a brand new baby blanket saying it’s his favorite. He was six months old at the time.”

Their county caseworker recently changed the recommendation to terminate services for the birth mother, which is a step toward termination of parental rights. Despite what might seem like a possible path toward adoption could easily take a turn, depending on the judgement of the court.

I asked the couple how their friends and family react to their being foster parents and their situation.

“No one will understand what you’re going through,” she said. “They just assume he’s staying because they look at the case as black-and-white. We know that nothing means anything unless the courts decides it’s so. We have to keep telling ourselves he could go back tomorrow.”

I asked them all the same question: “Would you do this again?”

All gave a resounding “yes,” saying that the satisfaction you feel in helping a child in need outweighs any amount of grief you feel in the separation.

As we left, I realized this isn’t just be about us being foster parents. It will affect everyone in our lives and in ways we cannot know.

Unlike coming from the hospital after a nine-month pregnancy, we could be sitting at dinner with friends when we get an emergency call to fetch a child from a variety of situations in a multitude of conditions.

Prospects seem as exciting as scary and all the while, you hope you might do some good.

The first couple took in one 9-month-old girl for a few months who experienced severe neglect. She was so stiff from lack of physical interaction and activity that she couldn’t crawl. In just a couple months, she went from crawling to standing and eventually, tried to walk.

“You’re so overwhelmed sometimes and then you have one of those moments,” one foster mom said. “It’s hard to imagine life without these kids.”

It’s the closest to saving the world we may ever come close to.

Foster Babies Sometimes Lead to RAD Kids


Our fist Angels Foster Family Network class two Mondays ago left us with the word “RAD” ringing in our ears.

What’s RAD? Your first thought might be 1980s surfer lingo, but in this case, it’s a bit more serious than catching a sick wave.

RAD: Reactive Attachment Disorder. All our relationships throughout life stems back to these basic feelings in utero of feeling loved, wanted and cared for throughout our first three formative years, or just the opposite causing a break in the human bond.

Without those three qualities, some children develop RAD.

Researchers continue looking into root causes, but basically even the symbiotic in utero relationship can be strained if the mother is experiencing trauma of her own: abuse, domestic violence and other prenatal issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse. The stress hormones pump through their shared connection; and unborn babies can also hear.

More than 25 percent of Angels children separate from mom in the hospital due to being born positive for drugs. The numbers drop off significantly, but include basically physical neglect, abuse and emotional maltreatment in concert with other domestic violence or crime. Other reasons for separation include sexual abuse, parents with their own developmental delays and abandonment.

Nationwide, most children end up in foster care due to neglect, which is when the child’s basic needs of food, shelter and care are not being met. Statistically, foster agencies across the country report that bonding with children of sexual abuse tends to be the hardest and most frustrating for foster or adoptive parents.

I’ll spare you the descriptive words used by our fabulous case workers at Angels who explained how to spot sexual abuse. But let’s say, it’s tear worthy stuff.

Angels contracts its services to the County of San Diego system, as regulated by the State of California. But they operate under a different business model.

We agree, as an Angels family, to care for a little one – mostly infants – until the court-ordered reunification succeeds or the parental rights are terminated and the baby becomes available for adoption. In cases of reunification, that could take 16 months and for adoption, about two years.

The County allows for multiple children to be placed and there’s no commitment on the part of foster parents to provide care until the case resolves. Angels aims to provide just one home, rather than multiple temporary homes, to reduce the disturbances in living situations.

But it’s a heavy commitment – both of time and of heart.

Our class of about 15 couples seems dedicated, capable and split down the middle of those hoping to adopt and those wanting simply to provide a loving, nurturing home to these fragile children.

More than half of Angels babies do not reunify with their biological parents. What we’ll know about the biological parents will be limited to the reasons for separation. Should we make it to the adoption stage, we’ll get the “telling” of the parents – a case history of their lives and how they came to lose their kid. Often, these are sad stories showing a cycle of abuse they themselves experienced.

Though we love all the support we’ve received from family and friends, what we can tell you about our foster baby will also be limited. No identifying information can be made public about the child so long as it’s a foster child. Basically, you’ll have to visit us and take a turn (or two) holding that little darling.

And that’s a good thing. I’m learning more about the power of bonding than I ever would have before.

Bonding doesn’t just mean holding or touching, though those are powerful indicators. Bonding begins with the voice in utero and the eyes upon birth. It’s the two initial indicators a being has of connection with other humans.

Example: Ever talk to someone who looks around a room when you’re trying to engage in conversation upon first meeting? How does that make you feel? Often, I walk away thinking they were completely disinterested in me and generally lacked the confidence to look me in the eye.

Those signals tell of a deeper issue in human bonding, which begins at our basic foundations to experience confidence, love and trust. Without the ability to feel and develop those connections with other people, forming healthy human relationships becomes a tougher hurdle. In comes the feelings of isolation, abandonment and in rare, extreme cases, pathological behaviors leading to a complete lack of empathy for others.

Imagine never feeling sorry that you hurt someone because you never felt anyone cared if you were hurt? Sounds pretty lonely and can lead to those other dangerous, at-risk criminal behaviors.

After two and half of hours of these classes, I leave feeling down and drained. But it also motivates me to really dig deep for these little ones who might benefit from my contact in their lives.

Growing up in a family where my parents are still married and they raised four healthy, self-sufficient kids gives me a different perspective of “family” than these biological families.

One that tugged at my heart strings is about a toddler, though Angels doesn’t place many, who watched her foster mom make dinner in stone silence one night. As they sat down to dinner, the little girl finally asked cautiously: “Are you going to jail now?” The foster mom looked at her in confusion and asked why she might think that. The little girl pointed at her beer bottle.

At three, a child’s brain is nearly a 90 percent formed adult-sized brain. They’re little sponges soaking up every experience and in tough situations, trying to survive.

Early intervention in formative years becomes key and while some fear the “drug baby” scenario, we’re learning those kiddos have as good a chance at bouncing back as any other kid provided they’re in a supportive environment. Some of the tougher cases to rectify with corrective behavior tend to be the toddlers who experienced abuse and neglect over a couple years.

Tough, but not impossible.

As I go blind on paper work, I read through our lesson plans that discuss the sort of behavior issues we might face at the end of this eight-week journey. Even in my loving, two-parent family, was I prone to “aggressive behavior,” “yelling” and “tantrums?” You betcha.

No kid born is without challenges and as my friend Erin keeps reminding me, no path to parenthood is easy. At the end of the day, it’s about having a family and that sounds pretty rad (surfer meaning, of course).

Got a question about our experiences? Feel free to contact me at erica.b.holloway@gmail.com.

Not Quite Dickens: Part II


After the press conference promoting San Diego County Adoptions concluded, my boss asked to see a picture of the adoptive mom’s children.

The pictures of beautiful waiting children through the county’s Heart Gallery program surrounded us. The pictures would tour the county’s libraries to promote the county’s adoption program. One picture of a young boy captivated me (above).

Kim, the adoptive mom, reached into a bag and pulled out – not a wallet – but a 8 x 10 framed picture of sisters, 7-year-old Melody and 6-year-old Valina, with her and her husband.

She beamed with pride as Pam asked about the little girls. The new mom shared their personality differences and her 2 1/2 year process to complete the adoption.

“They’re beautiful,” Pam said, showing the picture around to the library director and others.

“They’re my whole life,” the new mom responded.

I turned to my co-worker Jill, who knew of my infertility struggles: “I’m going to adopt.”

A few weeks later, I found myself on my fourth jury duty and unable to locate a parking space at the El Cajon Courthouse.

Luckily, as a county employee, I could park at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency building nearby, which just happened to be the child services office.

After the court released me and the remaining jurors, I marched right into the child services office.

“Do you want to foster a child?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t think I could give a child back.”

The idea of mothering a child that could be returned to birth parents or extended family seemed too difficult.

I came home with information for Brian. A letter would soon come in the mail with some upcoming adoption/ foster care orientation meetings. We would simply pick one, attend and the process would begin.

When the letter arrived, I felt some dread. The adoptive mom at the press conference said it took 2 1/2 years and in some cases, adoptive parents foster a child first. We had already been trying for more than 2 years and I was eager to move forward.

A light bulb went off and I recalled that my dear friend, Barry, told me years earlier that he adopted his daughter after I said how much she resembled his wife (I still think she does).

I fired off an email and asked how he adopted: through the public county agency, a private agency, an adoption attorney? Was it open, closed, semi-open?

He soon wrote back and offered to speak with me. He and his wife went through open adoption through an independent facilitator at Adoption Center of San Diego. Little did I know, it was the very same organization that fasciliated the adoptions of five other couples I knew.

I immediately took his offer and explored the company’s website.

Open adoption seemed weird.

All the parties know each other, they meet before the child is born and essentially, select each other. Though I longed to adopt, a birth mother carrying a child for nine months knowing someone else would parent it felt odd to me.

The day I was to speak to Barry, I had my questions written out. A million butterflies clanged around inside.

“Do you know what open adoption is?” he began.

I gave a very basic response that all parties know each other and disclose pertinent details (medical history, racial and ancestral information, etc.).

Correct.

But, as he explained it, the relationship could vary from the vary basic (meet before the birth, relinquish rights, occassional correspondence) to very close (meet and become friends, stay friends with the birthmom after the birth, visit in person regularly).

His experience tended to swing more to the “very close” with his birthmother. But as his birthmother grew up and had a family of her own, the relationship loosened up some and visits over 10 years became less frequent.

Along with all the other open adoption aspects come the standard legal requirements for the signing over of parental rights to the adoptive parents, background checks, character references and the home study, when the county performs an inspection of the home.

It all begins with the orientation, a follow-up one-on-one with the fascilitator and then, the Dear Birthmother letter introducing yourself to potential birthmoms.

While its a much faster process, its also a much more costly option than public county adoptions. The nonprofit bases all the possible associated costs on a sliding scale according to income – anywhere from $15,000 to $22,000.

Gulp. That’s a sizeable bite.

While most of the birth parents are just birth moms, there are some couples and not always the stereotypical teenagers. The reasons they seek to place their children through adoption are as varied as adoptive couples’ reasons to adopt.

“Don’t think for a second they’re ‘giving up’ their children,” Barry said. “It’s a tough decision and they are trying to find the best possible couples to parent their child.”

From start to finish, his adoption took a few months (not years).

I grew very excited and took all my notes home for Brian.

The range of the relationship spectrum with the birthmother concerned Brian. There’s no way of knowing how close the relationship might be and what constitutes sufficient contact (birthday parties, Christmas, or the annual picnic hosted by the organization).

I shared my plans with my current and former bosses, both of whom responded to my emails in mere seconds with the kind of loving support you would expect from your parents. Very touching.

I reached out to another Adoption Center couple and this time, I spoke to the mom. She’s also a friend whose first adoption fell through; a possibility that gave me pause despite knowing it worked out well in the end.

Mindy immediately agreed and we met a week before our orientation meeting for coffee.

After catching up on the latest political happenings, we dove into the topic she and I had been discussing for years: motherhood.

We first met nearly six years ago when the baby itch hit her hard. She spoke at a club I presided over and during a meeting break, I asked how her job with the governor was treating her.

“Some days, I just want to give it up, stay home and have babies,” she said very matter-of-factly.

Months later, her husband told me they were having a hard time conceiving. I was heartbroken for them.

She felt she waited too long and devoted too many years to her career. She even toyed with writing a book on the subject (which I still think is a good idea).

A few years later, here we were in the same boat.

I remember when their first adoption fell through. An email popped into my mailbox explaining to their friends and family what had transpired to handle all questions at once.

Then, just a few months before the Presidential Election, another email arrived.

They were the proud parents of a baby boy! A few days later, I met tiny Zach at a Cindy McCain event in Coronado. Love at first sight.

The successful adoption match took place in a matter of days.

“We met on a Thursday, we liked each other and the process was under way,” she said. “Zach was born the next week.”

My mouth hung open.

“I know,” she said. “But we already had much of the other requirements done.”

Her relationship with the birth mother also contrasted Barry’s and has been nearly non-existant since the birth.

She pulled out a picture book of Zach. At 2 years old, he was quite the charmer.

Mindy sits on a board for a foster care organization that tries to reunite children removed from the home with biological parents, if possible.

“In the middle of all this fertility and adoption stuff, here I am reading cases of parents putting out cigarettes on their babies,” she said. “Some of those babies never attach, never get held and feel loved. They grow up dysfunctional.

“The world needs good mommies,” she said.

I looked forward to my orientation the next week and felt like I belonged for the first time in a few years.

As you grow up, you find ways to feel connected to those around you – learning to drive, turning 18 and 21, graduating college, traveling, weddings and marriage and finally, parenthood.

My girlfriends who conceived spontaneously will luckily never knew the pain of my struggles. As a result, they can’t relate to my experiences anymore than I can relate to theirs.

Mindy and I laughed about knowing more than anyone should about conception, drawers filled with testing sticks and that day when you find an old birth-control pill packet and toss it away.

When she decided to adopt, she said it felt like a weight lifted off her shoulder and knew then it was right.

Like magic. Like love. Like faith.

As my girlfriend Erin W. keeps reminding me, no one way to become a mom is easier than any other. 

You have to take risks, and you have to be brave. 

Learn more about foster and adoption services:

*Not Quite Dickens: Part III will examine our orientation meeting.