by Nick Patterson
These seven words encapsulate my feelings of gain and loss, all my hopes and fears, and ultimately the belief that everything happens for a reason.
This is the story of my wife Chelsea and me becoming parents, then having that relationship taken away from us. We thought it was the culmination of our long journey to adoption. Instead it became 74 hours that were among both the best and worst of our lives, during which we experienced the greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Yet it was also a time when we felt an unbelievable amount of love and support from our community, both during the time the baby was home and in the aftermath.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m writing this. Maybe it’s to let others who have experienced loss know they aren’t alone. Perhaps getting all the words out is just my method for coping. But know that this is not a plea for sympathy. As difficult as this has been for Chelsea and me, this is not a tragedy. There is no death involved, and we are already finding our way through.
This is the tale of Chelsea, me, and baby “Abraham.”
(The names of the baby, birth mom, and adoption agency counselors have been changed to protect their privacy.)
It’s a late-October afternoon when I casually check my email on my phone and see the subject line, “The Call.” Immediately, my nervous system kicks into overdrive.
For the past 16-and-a-half months, Chelsea and I had been waiting for this moment. Two years ago we took our first steps in the adoption process. We both knew we wanted to be parents, but having married late—I was 41 and Chelsea was 40 when we wed in 2015—we knew we might not be able to have our own biological children. In the fall of 2017, we decided to explore our options.
Chelsea identified an adoption organization that promotes open adoptions, ones where the birth mother or parents remain a part of the child’s life, and we immediately connected with that concept. We agreed that an open adoption would be the best for the child, who would have fewer identity questions because they knew their biological parent(s). We were ready to welcome a birth family into ours, and we knew our large and enthusiastic extended families would provide a tremendous community for the newcomers.
Following a long process that felt a lot like being back in school, we entered the pool of prospective adoptive parents in June of 2018. We created a profile, and the birth moms or couples choose the adoptive parents after going through the profiles in the pool. The idea is for the birth families and adoptive families to meet prior to the birth, then figure out whether they’re a good match for a lifetime relationship. It’s a little like internet dating, which Chelsea and I know all about since it’s how we met.
The wait in the pool is a test of patience. We had no real idea whether we were being considered by birth parents. Occasionally we’d receive a screening email for a last-minute adoption, asking if we were willing to commit to an immediate placement based on a quick description of the birth mom. Although we usually responded in the positive, we were never chosen.
The average time in the pool was 17 months for 2017 and 16 months for 2018. The wait can feel interminable. When we got “The Call” at 16-and-a-half months we were bang-on average.
Chelsea raced home from work, and we received a call from Jennifer, the agency counselor who was working with Rose, the birth mom who chose us.
Rose is a woman in her late 20s who’s originally from Africa, but has been in the U.S. for nearly a decade. As Jennifer described Rose to us, it was as if someone had built a birth mom to our specifications: strong female, no substance usage, and a deep religious faith—a characteristic she shares with Chelsea. She was even using a midwife rather than a hospital, which is what Chelsea would have done had she been pregnant. Jennifer described Rose as a “rock star,” and we agreed.
Rose had no insurance, which meant the expenses were substantially higher than average, but we did not hesitate. We were ready to meet.
Rose was having a boy who was due to be born in mid-November. Having gone through the agency’s training, we knew that the prospect of raising a black boy as a three-quarters white couple was going to be the challenge of our lifetimes. But we were ready for that challenge.
Our agency’s adoptions fall into two categories. The first ones are planned adoptions, where the birth families and adoptive families meet in advance of the birth to get to know one another and determine whether they are a good fit. In a perfect world this process begins six weeks before the birth of the child. The second category involves ones like the previously-mentioned last-minute adoption, where adoptive families may have to respond within 45 minutes of receiving notification and be ready to head straight to the hospital to pick up a baby. Such immediate adoptions happen roughly a third of the time.
With Rose, we had three weeks to work together, so we agreed to meet on two consecutive Wednesdays. The first meeting was to get to know one another, and, if that went well, then the second was to plan the adoption.
However, babies have a way of making their own schedules.
While we were waiting to meet Rose for the first meeting, we received an email from Jennifer explaining that Rose’s birthing center was going to induce Rose the following Tuesday. So the timeline had to be pushed up. The second meeting was moved to the following day. Chelsea and I backed out of our planned weekend trip to New Orleans with Chelsea’s family.
We met Rose, and she was everything we had expected: petite and soft spoken, but with the spirit of an individual who, as a teen, had decided to leave her home country because she wouldn’t be afforded the opportunities she wanted, simply because she’s a woman. We were immediately drawn to her.
That first meeting we spent four hours talking, with Chelsea and Rose in particular finding a connection. We expressed our eagerness for having her become a part of our family. After parting, we happened to cross paths again and decided to have dinner together.
It was the same the next day when we met to plan the adoption, and we all agreed to move ahead. Chelsea had found the Biblical name Abraham for the baby, and Rose said she loved it.
Over the weekend, we frantically enlisted our families and close friends into aiding us in preparing for the arrival of our new son.
However, come Monday, we were informed that the birthing center was not actually thinking Rose would be induced that Tuesday. Indeed, she wasn’t, and all our harried preparations proved premature.
What followed were 25 days of wondering whether this would be the one. We joined Rose at one of her midwife appointments, during which we were told that we’d be welcome in the building when she gave birth, but not inside the room. However, Rose, being a private person, changed her mind about these arrangements, so we prepared ourselves to be near the birthing center when the baby arrived.
Rose’s due date came and went.
We wondered whether we should go to my family’s celebrations the weekend before Thanksgiving and were alarmed when we discovered that Jennifer would be out of town for four days and might miss the birth. Though another counselor would be on call, Rose had grown particularly attached to Jennifer.
We went to the celebrations, but amidst inquiries from family we had no updates. The delays ominously pushed the birth into Thanksgiving week.
We decided to take Monday off work, and that morning Jennifer told us Rose had begun early stages of labor Sunday night. We headed out so we could be near the birthing center, which is an hour from our home, when the baby arrived. We waited… and waited.
After exhausting the surrounding area of its evening hangouts that aren’t bars, we decided to get a hotel room. There was a good chance the baby would be born overnight and we’d get the next update in the morning.
At 8:30 Tuesday morning Jennifer told us the midwife said the baby would be here by noon. So we waited … and waited. We arranged for a late checkout from the hotel. Nothing. We went to lunch. Nothing. Finally, at 3:30 p.m. I texted Jennifer, who said she hadn’t received an update. We went to a movie, keeping our phones sitting in plain view in case we were contacted. Just as the movie ended, I received a text from Jennifer saying she’d be calling with an update.
After 32 hours in labor, they were transferring Rose to the hospital. We were told the hospital expense could be up to or even greater than $27,000, an added amount we didn’t readily have available, and we were given an hour to decide if we wanted to continue with the adoption.
We made emotional calls our parents. In the end, we decided that money wasn’t going to be the deciding factor, especially when the situation felt so right. We called Jennifer back saying we were still in, and she told us to go back home and get some sleep in our own bed.
The next morning we were informed that Rose had had a C-section and that the baby—almost two weeks overdue—was healthy and doing well. We were told a meeting with the baby would be arranged that evening. But Rose later decided she didn’t want us to come to the hospital until she was discharged, which would be either Friday or Saturday.
We canceled our Thanksgiving Day plans.
Finally, on Friday morning we were told birth mother and baby would be discharged between 10:30 and 11:00 that morning. We raced to the hospital, and in our haste we accidentally left our gift bag for Rose in the car. I hurried back to get it, and when I returned it was about 11:00 a.m. and found Chelsea in Rose’s hospital room feeding baby Abraham.
I cannot tell you what that moment was like. After all those days waiting, all those false starts and emotional flashpoints, finally seeing Chelsea being a mother affirmed life’s meaning.
I immediately went to Rose and hugged her, thanking her with all my heart. We hadn’t decided on a middle name yet, hoping Rose would want to leave her imprint. She suggested a name in her native tongue. It was perfect.
And so was he. Abraham came into my arms with no fuss as I received my first chance at feeding him. He already had this full head of soft hair, and he hungrily suckled on the bottle as he looked out through these huge, dark-brown eyes that swallowed me whole. I was immediately in love and already fantasizing about his future. Chelsea is a singer, so would he learn to sing like his mother? I was an athlete, so would he become a great soccer player or swimmer? He was perfect, and at that moment his future would be, too.
It was so perfect I’m not even ashamed to admit that Abe’s first outing was a stop at Taco Time on the way home from the hospital.
The adoption wasn’t yet finalized, so we’d limited the number of people who knew about Abe to our inner circle, who had been kept abreast throughout our long wait. But those people wanted to meet Abe as soon as possible. So we called our parents and Chelsea’s sister Tara and told them that while we needed some time to settle, they could come over any time after 6:00.
We had arrived home about 4:00 p.m. that Friday. At 6:01, our doorbell rang, and the cascade of visitors began.
By ten after, our living room was one big party. Chelsea’s close friend Kristi was in Iowa when Abe came home, but her plane landed at 8:00 and she was at our place by 10:00. These were the people who knew us best, who knew of our deep desire to be parents, and they were so happy for us.
And Abe was perfect with them. No crying, no fussing, completely content to be passed around like a championship trophy. This kid isn’t just beautiful, he’s adaptable.
After everyone left and the euphoria of bringing Abe home had worn off, new-parent reality set in, and that first night was terrible. Abe never settled. Chelsea and I were up the entire night feeding him, changing him, giving him his pacifier, anything to try and get him to sleep. Abe didn’t finally nod off until 7:00 a.m., giving Chelsea the chance to catch a nap, while I’d already given up on sleep and decided to do chores instead.
What we finally realized was that we weren’t feeding Abe enough. We’d been told what volume to give Abe at feedings, but that was based on giving him formula. Chelsea had found some new mothers who were willing to donate excess breast milk, which we were feeding Abe, and breast milk isn’t as filling as formula. Once we figured that out, Saturday night was so much more restful, with Abe letting us sleep for three-hour stretches between feedings.
Our first parental victory!
Meanwhile, we settled into the parenting routine of bottle washing and diaper changing. We discovered Abe’s least favorite thing was being changed, as he’d wail throughout the process. But once the final snap of his onesie was secured, he’d stop crying, almost as if a switch had been flipped.
The importance of skin-to-skin contact for the purpose of bonding was stressed during our agency’s training, and that was our favorite time with Abe. He’d lie on my bare torso, and I’d gently rub his back, feeling the skin that was ever so slightly too big for his tiny body. We marveled at Abe’s frustrated struggles to turn his head while lying on Chelsea’s chest. We were all giggles, encouragement, and consoling.
Chelsea and I made a good team. Given our differing personalities, we weren’t certain how this would work. I tend to be the worrier, but during the wait in the adoption pool, I was the calmer one while Chelsea was more anxious. I was convinced that the moment the baby came into our home, this would flip. I imagined that Chelsea would enter her comfort zone while I would begin freaking out.
But we immediately fell into an unspoken rhythm of shared responsibilities. Through the night, it was understood that we would take turns getting up to feed Abe, with the only slip happening when I slept through one crying fit because our cat Alki decided to bed down on the pillow I use to cover my head at night, thus turning the pillow into noise-canceling headphones.
By the third day, the routine felt normal. Little did we know that routine would end so abruptly.
THE SECOND CALL
I’ve never been more distraught to see my cell phone light up.
Here’s the thing about adopting a newborn in Washington State. Once the adoption paperwork is filed with the State, the birth mother has 48 hours to change her mind about placing her baby for adoption. It’s not common, but these disruptions happen in about 7 percent of our agency’s placements. Those 48 hours are the white-knuckle period of the adoption.
Furthermore, those 48 hours have to end on a business day.
At our first seminar with our agency, an attorney and the social workers told us the doomsday scenario for enduring a possible disruption is Thanksgiving week, when both Thursday and Friday are holidays, meaning the 48-hour period could stretch almost as long as a week. Rose gave birth Wednesday morning, and although her paperwork was signed and filed prior to that day, the transfer of parental rights would not be completed until the following Monday.
But when we arrived home on Friday afternoon, we weren’t thinking about a possible disruption. We were too wrapped up in being parents. Besides, we’d been assured all along, by Jennifer, the midwife, the doula, and Rose herself, that although there were no guarantees, Rose was not inclined to change her mind. Being a single mother at this stage of her life was not part of her plan, and as we discovered throughout this process, Rose does what Roes decides. When her mind is made up, that’s the final word.
Except this one time.
It was nearing 8:00 p.m. on Sunday when my phone began buzzing. Kristi had just brought her husband and two young daughters over to meet Abe for the first time. Introductions were being made when I saw Jennifer’s name appear on my phone. I froze. I answered and asked her if I needed to bring Chelsea with me into the other room. When Jennifer said yes, my heart sunk into my heels.
Jennifer said Rose didn’t intend for this. But whether it was the traumatic nature of the birth, the two days in the hospital with Abe without us, or some other factor, the mothering instinct had kicked in. Rose had changed her mind. She had decided to raise Abe herself.
We were devastated.
I cannot describe that feeling in words—the feeling of having your life’s biggest hope fulfilled, then having it taken away. We were empty.
Jennifer and her co-worker Michelle preferred to pick Abe up the next day because Rose didn’t have a car seat yet, but they were willing to figure something out if it would be too painful to keep him overnight. Of course we were going to take care of him as long as we could.
We were forced to go out to the living room and tell Kristi and her family what had happened. Kristi, tears in her eyes hugged us and ushered her family out the door. After the door closed, Chelsea and I both started sobbing.
That night was one of the longest of my life. We had our last skin-to-skin time. Instead of sleeping, I laid in bed listening to Abe’s breathing the entire time. When it came time for feeding, we dutifully obliged. And when it was my turn, I tried my best to stay positive so I wouldn’t transfer any of my sadness to Abe. As long as he was in our home, we were going to treat him like our son.
The next morning was a hazy struggle of trying to time feedings with Abe’s departure and determine which clothes to dress him in for the transfer. All while trying to manage our own grief.
Chelsea’s magnanimity blew me away, as she prepared a care package including diapers, formula, clothes, and a baby bed to give to Rose. We took turns holding Abe until Jennifer and Michelle arrived. Somehow I ended up helping figure out how to make the straps function on the car seat that was about to take my son away.
After saying one last goodbye to our son, Jennifer, Michelle, and Abe left. It was about 1:00 in the afternoon, and we’d been Abe’s parents for 74 hours. In total, the journey that began with an email informing us we’d received “The Call” lasted 40 exhausting days, and it ended with us once again sobbing in one another’s arms as the door closed.
I never understood how couples who experienced the loss of a child handled it. One hears stories about how frequently the death of a child results in the eventual end of a relationship—that the grief is so strong that just the sight of one another becomes unbearable.
But life needs to continue to be lived.
As soon as Chelsea and I finished crying after Abe was taken, we knew we needed to get away. We needed to get out of the house, out of town, out of the environment that conjured nothing but sorrow and pain.
We left to take a walk along Alki Beach in West Seattle. (Yes, our cat is named after the beach.) Since it was a Monday in late fall, we had the usually crowded walk mostly to ourselves.
There was enough chill in the air to require hats and gloves, but the sun was shining through the clouds, giving us beautiful pastel pinks and purples, both in the sky and reflecting off the water. We took turns saying what we loved and appreciated about Abe: the squishy suckling sounds he made on his bottle, the cute case of hiccups he’d get after good feedings, the old-man face he’d make when he’d start crying at a changing.
One question we couldn’t help but ask was, “Why did this happen to us?”
I like to think that one possible reason is because we were strong enough to endure it. At our first seminar with the agency, all the couples in attendance shared the stories of what brought them to adoption. We heard the traumas other couples had experienced, from multiple miscarriages to having foster-to-adopt procedures fall through at the last moment. I felt guilty that our story was simply that we got started late. I suspect there are some people in the adoptive parent pool who wouldn’t have been able to handle this, who would have said that’s the final straw and given up on parenting. Us? We were told to take as much time as we needed to recover emotionally before going back into the pool. During our walk, we decided we were ready to go back into the pool the next day.
After our walk, we went to see a movie: A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood. The Seattle Seahawks were playing a Monday Night Football game at the same time, so we had the theater to ourselves and felt free to shed tears. It was while watching Tom Hanks play Mr. Rogers that I was reminded that it’s OK to feel sad.
While we were gone, our mothers, Tara, and Kristi came to our house and scrubbed it clean of all signs of a baby. They boxed up all the baby supplies, clothes, and furniture and stashed them in the garage. On top of that, Chelsea’s mom donated some of her Worldmark hotel points, and my mom donated some airline miles so we could leave the next morning for four days in Palm Springs, where the healing process could continue without Abe’s presence lurking in every corner.
Our community is amazing. We know this. But we also know that this episode served as a reminder of just how fortunate we are to have the people we have in our lives. We were humbled by the way our community rallied, whether it was before, during, or after the time we had Abe. I don’t know how we would have done it without them. I will never understand what I did to deserve such a loving and supportive group of family and friends.
And maybe that’s why Abe needed to return to Rose. Rose, being in a foreign country, doesn’t have all of her community here. Her strongest advocate, her mother, is back in Africa. I can’t get out of my head just how much that baby, nearly two weeks overdue and requiring a C-section, didn’t want to leave his mother. Maybe Rose needed this child–and the community he helps build–more than we did.
Our love will be with Abe, no matter where he goes. He won’t remember his three days with us, but in a small recess of his mind he’ll always know what it felt like to be part of our large and loving and environment. Should he need it, his intuition will be able to access and apply that to his own life. Hopefully that’s one final gift we were able to give.
It’s now been more than a month since Abe was returned to his birth mother. We won’t be seeing him again, as the open relationship only applies when an adoption occurs. And I still have my moments. His face or one of his mannerisms will occasionally flash into my mind. I might have the slightest bit of a tear well up in the corner of one eye. Or I might break into a grin.
I don’t regret this experience.
Abe was a blessing, even if it was only for a short while. Chelsea and I will be parents one day. The right situation will find us. And when it does, we’ll be all the stronger, both as individuals and as a couple, because of this.
Nick Patterson is a reporter with the Everett Herald, a Rainier Beach resident and a board member of the South Seattle Emerald.