Mommyhood: The Sweet & Lowdown


Never in all my years of infertility did I comprehend how much richer my life would be with a child.

Each day brings a new lesson not only about the development of this human being I created, carried and birthed taking her from helpless being to self-sufficient adult, but also about myself.

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My mom, who raise four children of her own, told me right after Dagny was born that having a baby would bring up all my own issues. My childhood, my subconscious fears, dreams and desires.

Mom knows best.

Something I learned about myself in these eight months – that I could be very happy making someone else the center of my world.

It’s not a lesson you’ll learn easily. A fellow mommy friend told me once, rather openly and bitterly, that I better enjoy my life now before it becomes “all about someone else.”

The transition from single girl to married woman seemed a larger leap than married woman to married mommy. Perhaps it’s all that getting used to sharing living quarters with a man (I never co-habitated).

In each new experience – from eating her first piece of banana to sprouting her first perfect tooth – makes me feel reborn.

But it’s not all roses.

I’m tired. All the time. I feel so drained at the end of my days that I sometimes fall asleep on the couch – a habit I detest.

I’m growing rather indifferent to her cries and find myself distinguishing between “real” cries and “it-can-wait-til-I-brush-my-teeth” cries.

My body’s become a beat up vessel to carry me around the world. Working out used to give me a mental break and now, when I do go, the time flies as I tick off my many chores back at home.

Work’s been a main thrust of my life. A job well done gives me immense satisfaction.

But that takes a back seat more often than I would like. Yet I know the more I work, the better her lifestyle will be growing up.

But what’s more important? More money or more time with mommy?

As I tried to sneak out for a business meeting this week, I heard her make a noise of greeting from the living room.

I paused in time to see her crawl around the corner of the couch, see me and light up like the Fourth of July as if to say: “See what I’m doing?”

Her chubby, wobbly hands marched forward, her knees kept up making careful advances. I stood still, making her meet me in the kitchen and when she did, she grabbed my shoe, pulled herself up and reached for me.

My eyes welled up with pride. I bent down to meet her excited little face, kiss her soft round cheek and hug her.

“Oh, little Bird! Look what you did!” She giggled and hugged my neck, absolutely tickled with her big accomplishment.

It’s a moment too beautiful for words – one worth every struggle.

WARNING: Cute Baby Pictures May Cause Peeing (Lots of peeing)


I’m a major sucker for cute baby pictures.

My Pinterest account’s been largely created just so I can scope out adorable, wrinkly, chubby-cheeked darlings in all their precious glory.

So, imagine my excitement at dolling up my own little princess for cutsie pics.

About three weeks before my due date, my family photographer Melissa Jacobs began asking if she could shoot our princess.

Melissa’s more than a photographer – like any great photographer, she’s part of the family.

I met Melissa while working for Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. On the professional front: she’s the best. I’ve seen her all over town, from the PRSA Bernays Awards to weddings to elected official press conferences.

I’ve recommended her to clients (and they’ve always been pleased), plus she’s done my professional headshot and some shots of us when I was five months pregnant which we used for our 2011 Christmas cards.

The one below got rave reviews from family and friends:

Right away, I pilfered my Pinterest account for this little magical shot.

In true Melissa form, she responds saying “no problem” and she can’t wait to meet her when she arrives.

What I loved about the above picture: it focuses on the size difference of the baby. Can’t you just “feel” that cute little baby’s soft skin?

I just happened to have a cute stuffed elephant my mom gave me for the nursery this past Christmas.

Here’s Hank all ready for Dagny to come home:

When Baby Bird arrived two weeks ahead of my due date, it threw off our photo session calendar and instead of being two weeks old – she was three weeks on the dot.

I thought those baby photo sites must be nuts for recommending a baby be 10 days old or younger for newborn pictures.

What’s to shoot? All she did was sleep.

Bingo.

All the mommy sites recommended I have her well-fed, calm and be prepared for another soothing feeding.

But our best-laid plans quickly devolved into a comedy of errors made more intense by her screaming bloody-murder.

  • Best lighting caused her to blink angrily.
  • Peaceful visions of a naked baby butt replaced by a screaming, kicking, Army-crawling baby.
  • Sitting up to snuggle with the elephant. No. Laying down with the elephant. Kinda (see below).
  • Peeing. Lots of peeing. Peeing on hubs (he changed his shirt for the family shots), peeing on the nursing glider, peeing on the carpet, nearly peeing on Melissa.
  • Pacifier did not earn it’s name. She would either purse her lips or spit it out like a watermelon seed. The only thing that kind of worked was giving her hubs finger to gnaw on between shots.

After the sitting up pose flopped, Melissa re-assessed.

“Let’s lay her sideways with the elephant.”

Worked in theory (like the rest of the shoot), but she kept throwing her leg up in the air as soon as the camera started clicking and showing the world her pikachu.

Hubs sighed: “I’m failing already.”

Here was the best of the lot (it’s not cropped or touched up):

We finally took the elephant out of the equation and went far more simple.

Once Dagny calmed down and focused on Melissa, some beautiful shots materialized.

Hubs and I originally didn’t plan on being part of any shots and so, we didn’t get gussied up.

But since we were throwing plans out the window, what the heck?

I’m glad we did because she snapped some candid shots of hubs calming Dagny that brought tender little tears to my eyes.

Plus, she captured the three of us in our natural three-weeks-postpartum state: tired, unsure and making lots of mistakes.

I thank God everyday for bringing this priceless creature into my life.

She’s already teaching me how to let go (quite literally).

Our deepest appreciation to our dear (and patient) friend Melissa – she’s a celluloid maven.

Here’s some of my favorites from the day:

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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.

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.

Doctor Four and the Great Fainter


We have wandered down the road of infertility for nearly three years.

The stages of our path mimicked those of grief and we have emerged from those dark early days with hope. I’ve learned to be more open when folks ask those once painful questions.

Plus, we see ourselves as future foster/ adoptive parents, with a particular organization in mind. We just need a schedule to coincide with the classes.

But sometimes, I still get a gentle shoulder pat or a look of pity. But it rarely bothers me anymore. I know mostly what others struggle with in knowing we’re childless has more to do with them than me.

When I quit my job at the County of San Diego a few months back, Brian added me to his Navy health care plan which allowed me to keep my dentist and optometrist (woohoo!), but lose my longtime family doctor, Dr. Roth (boo!).

The process of finding a new doctor gives me hives.

It’s one more person who knows all about my medical history; truly, the most intimate nonsexual relationship we have. I had the same family doctor until I was 23 when I moved to California 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve had three.

But what I found behind doctor door number four has been a pleasant surprise so far.

“You’re 33, healthy and no babies,” Dr. Deckert began. “Let’s talk about that.”

I thought back to my early dark days struggling with depression at discussing this very topic.

“I wish my therapist had been this warm,” I thought.

She asked about all the testing I had been through, which had all come back suggesting on paper I was a Fertile Myrtle. One test, somehow, had escaped me and she wanted to eliminate that factor straight away.

I was game. My heart and mind was ready for whatever this final progesterone test revealed.

Over drinks with two of my close girlfriends, I told them I was going through another test. Their mouths dropped open.

“I thought this was all done,” one said.

Yep, me too.

The morning of my lab appointment, Brian sent me a text message: “Good luck, this morning, Pica.”

I’m notoriously bad at giving blood. The American Red Cross would not take me in a million years; I’m a faint risk. But I find if I tell the nurse I’m a baby upfront, breath slowly and pay no attention to what’s going on, I can get through it fine.

I sat in the chair while the nurse reviewed all the testing my doctor ordered for me. I felt fine and calm until I saw her pull five tubes.

“A lot of testing this morning, huh?” she asked. “Don’t worry. I have a gift from God; I’m the best at this.”

Turns out, God was off-duty during my visit.

First, I nearly fainted followed by an embarrassing bout of shock. She pinned me back in the chair until help arrived. By the time she and another nurse virtually dragged me to a table to elevate my legs, I had sweat through my clothes, my pupils looked like pin tips and all the blood drained from my face.

Eventually, all five tubes were filled while I lay limp and soggy on the table. I sat up very slowly to find three nurses peering in at me from the hall. Like a good little girl, my nurse rewarded me with a chocolate chip cookie and a can of Pepsi.

The next day, I was driving to meet Brian for dinner when my cell phone rang. I answered my silly earbuds headset and it was my cheerful doctor.

“So, I like to see a 10 or better for progesterone levels,” she said, getting right down to business. I took a deep breath. “You’re at 18.5. You have the fertility of a 20-year-old girl.”

I was silent.

“Erica?”

“I’m here,” I said, and smiled. “Thank you for calling.”

She was right. It was good to know. And amazingly, I felt not one ounce of regret at how it all played out over the years.

I called Brian, emailed my girlfriends and then talked to my mom, who had her youngest child at 42.

Later at dinner, a cloud came across Brian’s face. He had been through his share of testing too and this meant more was likely on his horizon.

“So, it’s definitely me,” he said, sounding resigned. My heart broke.

I could see his wheels turning the information over in his mind. Then, the eternal optimist smiled.

“Well, if it has to be one of us, I’m glad it’s me,” he said.

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, for one, I can handle needles.”

Not Quite Dickens: Part III


Part III in my series on adoption.

When I burst into the adoption orientation, my heart was pounding.

Mostly because I was late, late, late. Seems I’m late to everything these days, especially to the finish line of the mommy race.

Suddenly, I realized that unlike the four other couples seated around the conference table, I was wearing a business suit. The facilitator Sarah greeted me with a smile.

“Barry called the other day,” she said, almost before I sat down beside Brian. “Thought I might have already met you, but I’m glad to meet you now.”

I quickly scanned the room and felt burning questioning eyes upon me.

“Yes, well, it seems we know a lot of the same people,” I said.

After learning about the process from the outside through the trusting eyes of my friends, Barry and Mindy, I sat in the room they once sat in looking across a long conference table at other people like us – childless. 

Sarah opened up the meeting by asking us to speak to one other person and share our story. It was a way for us to feel connected, maybe not feel so alone or odd in a world dominated by the happily fertile.

I turned to my right and met Jeff. He and his wife, a slight woman, went through Hell to get pregnant with their first daughter six years ago. Then, they faced the assisted reproduction process all over again. Finally, they were exhausted and decided it was time for another option.

He spoke softly and looked defenseless, raw. He and his wife wore their stress, their sadness, their longing like soaked heavy blankets from their thin frames.

We soon moved on to a topic he more enjoyed: his landscaping business.

The couple on the end seemed the youngest of the group. They were perky, cheerful and unlike the other couples, were eager to start the process without knowing a single thing more than what they knew when they arrived. 

“Can we start tomorrow?” he asked at one point.

A third couple diagonal from me were slightly older than Jeff and his wife. In their household, she was the one who resisted adoption.

“She’s a school teacher,” it was explained, as rivers of tears flowed from her eyes. “She sees kids all day and for her, it was important to have a baby of her own.”

The couple directly across from us met later in life at a sporting event. He seemed gregarious and she, a quiet wallflower. She looked at once hurt and relieved when Sarah explained that she has limits on the age of her couples, which we all qualified to meet. Whew!

Sarah detailed the various forms of adoption for both international and domestic.

Her nonprofit, Adoption Center of San Diego, offers independent adoption. She facilitates the adoption between birthparents and adoptive parents, suggests though doesn’t mandate any particular adoption attorney to handle the legal matters, offers counseling both to birthparents and adoptive parents, and makes the connection with the county for the home study visit after the baby is born and home with the adoptive parents.

In theory, any couple could arrange such an adoption with a willing birthparent, an attorney, and a home study appointment. However, Sarah’s 17 years of adoption matching does seem to suggest she knows what she’s doing. That, and I had seen the results of her successful matching for my friends.

She showed us a video of some of her matched birthparents and adoptive parents with the children. I had watched it online before the meeting, but the school teacher clearly had not. In a few minutes, the tissues on the table of hardly touched food was passed her way.

I recognized several of the interviewed adoptive families, and one new one that I somehow overlooked before. I learned forward, looked at Sarah and she mouthed: “I thought you would know them too.”

Most of the birthparents were actually single birthmoms. The ages ranged from 16 to 36. Sarah said her oldest birthmother was 44. In each instance, the reasons to place for adoption was different.

One 20-year-old single mom already had a baby and was unable to care for another. Another 36-year-old single birthmom always wanted to be a mom, but her partner left her alone without means to care for her baby.

One of the birthmoms sat beside her adoptive mom and explained why she felt good about her decision: “She told me that I gave her this great gift, but she was the gift. I don’t have to worry that my baby will grow up in a good home.”

The rounds of questions began post video.

The number of birthmothers who change their minds? In nearly two decades, less than 10.

How close are you with birthmoms after the birth? Really up to you and the birthmom, but communication before the adoption can deliniate your path.

Then, the school teacher’s husband asked: “How many of the birth dads have contested custody?”

Sarah looked around at the men: “None.”

Silence.

“You’re surprised?” she asked. “I’m not sure why they don’t, but I’ve thought about this over the years. I think if they had other options, I probably wouldn’t get a phone call.”

Then, Sarah explained her “funnel” theory.

You take all the potential qualities of a child: race, sex, mental/ emotional/ physical disabilities, fetal drug or alcohol exposure. From that, you determine the width of your funnel. The less restrictions, the wider your funnel and the more likely you’ll be matched sooner than those with a more narrow funnel.

I considered my funnel as we wrapped up the three-hour session. Could I care for a disabled child? What about a child exposed to alcohol or drugs? Would a child of a different race face social problems?

I realized that I wasn’t prepared to define my funnel.

A funnel. Not something I dreamed about when I wanted to be a mom.

I did dream of how I could deliver the news: a romantic card to my mate asking what they were doing on the due date. I even imagined the dinner scene and maybe I’d even tape the positive testing stick inside the card (cleaned, of course).

Then, just as we were about done, Sarah passed out her fee sheet.

And that’s when I almost passed out.

Based on our income, her new fees could be $20,000 to $25,000 depending on the additional cost I had not considered (care of the mother). That was roughly $5,000 to $10,000 more than we expected and even then, we would be tight.

The federal government allows for an adoption tax credit of nearly $14,000 and the Navy reimburses costs up to $2,000 for Brian. But much like my college years, the feds just don’t quite get me there.

Still in the fog of sticker shock, Brian and I discussed the matter over a beer. We were excited to be parents and we wanted a baby. But like the rest of America, we have to be financially smart during the economic downturn. Neither of us expected income increases anytime soon and our safety net funds would need to grow by leaps and bounds to swing it.

As the weeks wore on after orientation, our hope peaked and valleyed.

We continued to save as much as possible and reviewed the after-orientation meeting letter from Sarah. The next step would be to sit down with her for an in-depth meeting to discuss our path. 

What to do? Continue saving and hope for a windfall? Reconsider that path and attempt to navigate the County adoption process hoping its less than the average 2 year wait? Go back to fertility treatments and roll the dice while Brian’s Navy care could pick up those heavy costs?

Two weekends ago, I went to my third baby shower of the year (a fourth happened last weekend out-of-state). I tooled around the Babies ‘R Us seeking out registry items, something I’m becoming more proficient at than wedding registries, when I saw this young pregnant woman with her little girl in the shopping cart.

As they passed by, the little girl smiled and waved at me. I returned the gesture.

The next day, I sat besides my girlfriend Erin H. at our girlfriend’s baby shower while she breastfed her newborn, Lily. She, like our many other friends, asked about our adoption plans. I told her where we were and from the outside, it sounded like I had it all figured out.

Really, I still felt like Alice dashing through limbo asking the Cheshire Cat for directions with the clock-ticking White Rabbit ushering me to hurry, hurry, hurry.

Two days later, a fifth friend announced her pregnancy. I congratulated her and then, I checked my watch.

“I have to go. I’m late for a meeting.”

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.

Not Quite Dickens: Part 1


Charles Dickens captured the isolation, fear and shame of orphan life in the spare, cold prose of classics such as “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations.”

How dare undernourished Oliver ask for more gruel at the workhouse?

Hard to imagine facing a world alone, never knowing your “people” and wondering like Little Orphan Annie clinging to her half of her parent’s locket: “Who am I? Where did I come from?”

“I’m going to have a regular mother and father, like a regular kid,” she told Daddy Warbucks. “I am! I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’ve been nicer to me than anybody in the whole wide world, but I’ve been dreaming of my folks for as long as I can remember, and I’ve just got to find them.”

Heartbreaking for Annie; heartbreaking for Daddy Warbucks.

Facing the major life decision of becoming an adoptive parent, I realize these images of both fiction and popular culture shaped my own education on the subject of adoption. I’ve known adoptees (one of my best friends since 1st grade was adopted) virtually my whole life and yet, I know very little on the topic.

I’m a research demon. And for me, it’s made every one of my life decisions easier because I’d rather know than be surprised. I’ve already compiled a list of some books to read (I’m open to more). Of course, my mother knows this and cautioned that I shouldn’t “research and over-analyze this to death.”

So, I’ll try to strike a balance.

Simply put, adoption means assuming the parental rights and responsibilities to rear a child born of someone else as their own. Today, adoption helps build a family, but that wasn’t always so.

Let’s go back to the origins of adoption.

The first orphanages sprung up in the 1st Century as a place to house and raise children whose parents either died or could not otherwise care for them. This practice dates back to Jewish and Athenian law as a means to care for the offspring of killed military members. 

Plato considered the public charge of caring for orphans as a duty of a community to raise up a proper next generation no matter its relation – a fairly kind ideal.

But in ancient Rome, adoption merely allowed for political gains and powers for the exchange of wealth and prestige between families – much as marriage might also have served. Therefore, it’s no surprise many of Rome’s most powerful rulers were adopted. In other cases, Roman adoptees served more as slaves and therefore, trade commerce.

In other civilizations, such as Indian and China, adoption of abandoned children allowed for the continuity of religious teachings and a means of passing on culture.

After Rome fell, the world’s attitude about blood lines shifted.

Family history and preservation took a front seat to political or monetary gains and the practice of adoption all but became verboten. The result: a higher population of abandoned children. (Cue the image of a swaddled baby left at a church doorstep.) 

During the middle ages, the volume of abandoned children taken in at monasteries eventually led to the children being either sent off permanently or by day to  area households or workhouses upon a certain age as trade apprentices.

Later, orphanages largely replaced monasteries as public institutions to house abandoned or orphaned children. The settings became ripe for scandals throughout the Western world.

Much like the abandoned children of Europe caused the rise of institutions, the rapid influx of immigrants to the United States and aftermath of the Civil War created the rise of orphanages.  Most of the adopted children served as family nannies or farm hands (like my “Anne of Green Gables, ” who was supposed to be a boy for farm work).

But the huge numbers of orphaned children overwhelmed the system and rampant mistreatment and exploitation led to the formation of protective laws. In the early 1900s, the Progressives fought to end the orphanage system altogether and figure out a new way to place children who could not be cared for by their parents.

In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt said the nuclear family presented the best suited environment to raise abandoned or orphaned children. By 1923, the foster and adoptive system virtually conquered the orphanage system.

Soon after, Wales and England followed the trend and later, the rest of Europe.

Despite the movement, bloodline concerns still plagued the stigma of adoption. Enter Hitler. Following the disgraceful Nazi beliefs of eugenic ideology leading to the “cleansing” campaign during World War II, attitudes greatly shifted.

Since the 1950s, the orphanage setting began to slowly disappear under the public scrutiny of horror stories, such as girls being shipped off to have a child in secret and be shamed into silence of the birth, or children growing up and reporting cases of horrific abuse.

As child-birth related deaths decreased, the need for such institutions followed suit. More and more, charities focused efforts on assisting birth parents to work through parenting obstacles, such as housing, finances, family support or drug/ alcohol abuse. The law began to also opt for more aggressive parent-child reunification.

From these ideals, the popularity of adoption arose in the 20th Century and largely, it’s considered an American institution.

From 1945 to 1974, illegitimate births rose as the sexual cultures progressed during a time known as the Baby scoop era when adoption rates skyrocketed. At the same time, science began to give more credence to nurture over nature, which further reduced eugenic issues.

And the result: a solution to both an unwed mother and infertile couples. Today, adoption practices span the globe, but even still – the United States leads the pack.

Adoption in the United States peaked in 1970. Some believe invention of The Pill and legalization of abortion affected the recent three-decade decline.

Annually, the United States successfully places about 127,000 adoptive children with roughly 4 million live births each year. Since the 1980s, nearly 500,000 children nationwide wait in the foster care system – either for reunification with their biological parents or permanent placement with an adoptive family.

The adoption system utilizes two general practices: closed and open.

Open adoption allows identifying information to be shared between biological and adoptive parents. The degree of openness varies depending on the people and agencies involved. Open adoption can be an informal arrangement with little direct contact between the parties or as interactive with face-to-face meetings before, during and after the birth.

Closed adoption maintains secrecy of all identifying information that prohibits the disclosure of the adoptive parents and adoptees identity. Some information may be exchanged, such as medical history, religious and ethnic background. Surrendered or “safe haven” babies, where the children are anonymously and safely surrendered at hospitals, fire departments or police stations shortly after birth, are considered closed adoptions.

Avenues to adopt include: private domestic, foster care, international, embryo and common law (think common law marriage).

Infertility caused most parents to seek adoption to unrelated children. One study reports that infertile couples account for 80 percent of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care.

Through modern medicine, many infertile couples now have far more options to exhaust to fit in the Western culture mold of a mom, dad and 2.5 kids. For couples that are unsuccessful with infertility treatments and continue to deeply desire their of their own, they can turn to a surrogate. If biology isn’t as important, they consider adoption and begin that journey.

Popular culture champions adoption due to such famous adoptive parents as Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock, making the process seem easy and trendy. But private sentiments reflect a vastly different opinion.

Recent adoption attitudes studies show that nearly one-third of those surveyed believed adoptees are less-well adjusted, more prone to medical issues, and predisposed to drug and alcohol problems. Yet those same people believed adoptive parents were “lucky, advantaged, and unselfish.”

Views on foster children went further. Negative views reflected in the study so far as to conclude that children in the foster care system could never help create a “normal” family. 

Leapin’ lizards.

Well, I hate to break the bad news: no family is “normal.” Never met one including mine. And I know all about a parent raising unrelated children. My father raised my older half siblings and to this day, I’ve never heard my brother call him anything but “dad.”

Through all the Oliver Twists and turns of the system, two facts remain unchanged: too many children and not enough parents.  

As the late famous adoptee Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s fast food chain, said: “Every child deserves a home and love. Period.” And maybe a chocolate Frosty once in a while.

*Not Quite Dickens: Part II will examine our chosen adoption path.

Released from Hopeless Prison


“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

Years ago, I visited a prison as a newspaper reporter to write a story about female inmates convicted of non-violent offenses who assisted the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection during wildfires.

The inmates considered the sentence a gift – a chance to get outside and be productive during their time. One of the girls I met looked to be about 20-years-old with the eyes of a much older, broken woman. Her crimes: drugs, petty theft and prostitution.

I asked what she missed most from home.

“My baby,” she said.

Years later, I found myself in prison.

I committed no crime except the one of expecting life to magically fall in line, and fulfill all my hopes and dreams of motherhood. When it failed to deliver, I played right into the hands of doubt, fear and cripling ego that dealt me a dreadful blow.

After more than a year of riding emotional tidalwaves between feeling fine about being childless and utterly consumed with despair – I hit a significant crossroads: my mother.

As a Christmas gift, I offered to pay for half of my parents plane tickets to come visit with us for a couple weeks. I missed my parents dearly and the time apart during such a miserable life experience left me missing them more than ever.

By that point, I had grown rather accostomed to pretending all was well. Projecting a put-together and well-adjusted career woman as no Meryl Streep performance could measure against and fooling most anyone into either believing the facade or being given reason enough not to ask.

Though I did underestimate my most devoted fan.

My mom saw through the garbage straight into me for who I was. She saw me as a child who allowed time and life experiences to pile a lot of nasty gunk on top of my true self. All those emotional, physical and material changes which may distract, but can never truly alter who we are at our deepest roots.

One day while the house was empty, she pulled me outside to the porch and pointed me to a chair at the patio table. She yanked a cigarette from her pack, tapped it lightly against the back of her hand, put it to her mouth and said: “We’re going to talk.”

She possessed the most unmistakeable and famous of “mom tones.” Even as a child playing as far away as possible from the house in our neighborhood, she would yell for us to come home for dinner. Despite the volume and distance, I could distinguish between “normal mom yell” and “you’re in trouble.”

“What is going on?” she asked. “Do you know what you’re all about?”

Frankly, I didn’t. My emotional state led me to become a work-a-holic prone to superficial distractions. It drained me so that I hardly recalled myself not under deress or strain.

All I could manage in response: “I don’t know. I’m lonely.”

She puffed out smoke and said: “I believe that you are. You need to find yourself and learn what you’re all about again. You need hope.”

Hope.

Powerful, gigantic word when you feel so small; like a field mouse lifting a boulder.

Her direction: Stop listening to all the outside noise.

Seemed outside noise rang in my ears daily. I let my ear be bent by every person on the street who would instantly deem themselves fertility specialists by beginning: “My cousin did this …” or “You should do that …”

“What do you want?” she asked. “You have all the answers to your problems, but you have to love and trust yourself.”

Again. Hope.

Hard to find it when you feel isolated; trapped by the misery of your own design. The silence and shame hung around my neck and chained me down for a death sentence.

“You’re my most put-together child,” she said. “You’ve gone through a Hell of a lot to get where you are. Don’t let this stop you.”

I explained that I did not want to nor could I emotionally handle the trial-and-error process of fertility treatments right now. Perhaps it could be a later option.

“OK,” she said. “That’s a start. What about adoption?”

Adoption. It started an argument earlier in the process when I contacted the county for information. Brian didn’t want to “raise someone else’s kid” and thought I should “make more of an effort to exhaust all other options.”

My mom squashed out a cigarette and began a new one.

“I’ve seen you with kids, Erica,” she said. “A child from you or someone else will be your baby. Talk to him again.”

But what if he still rejects the notion? Where do we go from there?

“You have to be brave – life requires it,” she said. “Darlin’, I didn’t think I’d be divorced from my first husband with two young kids. Shit happens. And as hard as it was going through all that, I don’t regret a day because I would have missed out on your dad. Hell, keep trying doors until one opens.”

Mom knew best: I could give up or I could get up.

After our talk, she made me a lunch that provided solace as only a mom could. We sat at my dining room table talking about other sunnier topics.

I felt the chains loosen and grow lighter, a knot in my chest disappeared and my heart opened.

I felt free.

That night, I told Brian that I could be a better “me,” but I needed him to meet in the middle. He did not object; the conversation had begun.

Two days laters, I took the whole family to a drive-in movie to watch a double feature of “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Blind Side.” The winter air forced us all to stay in our cars – Whitney with me and Brian during “Sherlock” and then she switched to sit with my parents during “Blind Side.”

The second film was based on the true story of a white Southern family who adopts a teenage African American future professional football player. On the way home, Brian said: “That was better than I was expecting. Sort of changed my mind about adoption.”

A lock released. A door opened.

Over the next few months, my hope grew greater and stronger daily.  I spoke to a friend, Barry, about the adoption of his daughter a decade ago through Adoption Center of San Diego and tomorrow, I’ll speak to another friend, Mindy, who went through the same nonprofit for her adoption.

Our orientation on May 13 – once a months away appointment – now happens in just over a week.

Today, its hard to remember the sad inmate my mother spoke with at Christmas. I hope to never meet her again. I hope to never lose sight of my true self. I hope to be a mom this time next year. I hope my baby’s laugh sounds a wonderful as it has in my dreams.

I hope.