Sunday, September 26, 2021

Are You My (Baby's) Mother?

You gotta give it to life: it sure does get creative with the conundrums. Just when I think there’s nothing new under the sun, I find myself in a dilemma that makes me wonder “WTF is even happening right now?” Take, for example, our recent “match meeting” at an adoption agency.

The meeting took place in an antiseptic conference room on a Friday evening. There were three tables arranged in a U-shape; my husband and I sat at one, the adoptive couple sat opposite us, and the adoption agency staffers sat in between. My older teen and my toddler played on the floor nearby.

The couple was everything I hoped they would be. I’m limited by confidentiality agreements from getting too detailed, but suffice to say they were young, attractive, educated, compassionate people with professional and personal ties to the Christian Church. They didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk, having spent years overseas as missionaries. They were "better" than my husband and me on every metric, if it's appropriate to even say such a thing. I felt old and dumpy and even a little dumb in comparison. 

Each side began by sharing how we had ended up at this juncture. The couple had struggled with infertility and, after a period of prayer, decided to give up on medical interventions and focus on adoption instead. I explained how “we” (let’s be honest: it was mostly me) had come to decide to start a family together a few years ago, realized that might not be possible with our own genetic material, and ended up going the donor embryo route. I added that we’d once considered adoption, but figured that as a blended family, no birth mother would ever pick us. Everyone in the room laughed. I hadn’t meant it as a joke.

Ah, but the laughter didn’t last. As soon as the pregnancy counselor asked me to share my feelings about open adoption, I started crying, and she had to fetch a box of Kleenex.

“I’m conflicted about the open arrangement,” I said as I wiped my eyes. “I know it’s better for the child, and I want her to always feel like she can reach out to me with questions or meet me in the future, but I just don’t know if I can handle receiving updates or pictures.”

I was torn between feeling that contact would help me feel better about the placement (i.e. "Look how well she's doing!") or worse (i.e. "Look what a wonderful child I gave up.").

I explained that so far, my best idea was to set up a dedicated email account to which the adoptive couple could send a monthly update for the first year, then annually after that. This way, I would only open the updates when I felt strong enough to see them. As for in-person visits, I didn’t want to say “never” but I couldn’t imagine myself being able to do that unless the child requested it.

“I don’t want to interfere,” I barely managed to choke out.

The couple had some questions for us, mostly about our motivations for pursuing adoption and what was behind all my flip-flopping. I felt my reason was utterly uncompelling. “I’m overwhelmed,” I said. “I don’t know if we can be the kind of parents this baby deserves given the amount of stress in our lives right now.”

They wondered: was this sense of overwhelm pandemic-related? Unfortunately, no. The pandemic has actually made life easier in a lot of ways because it limited our activities and outings, allowed my husband to work a more flexible schedule, and gave me more time to freelance.

Was the stress something that could be remedied with more social support? Maybe, but where would that support come from? “One of the major flaws of our family system is that we have no support,” I told them. Our parents are too old, we’re not close enough to our siblings to rely on them for childcare, we have no friends with young children, my teens are not available enough anymore to help us to the extent we need, and we have no other community to speak of. Daycare is out of the question and the nanny search is ongoing (and has yet to produce any viable candidates). We’re really doing this whole parenting thing on our own.

The couple asked what had been helpful in contemplating the adoption decision. I told them, honestly, that nothing had been helpful so far; that’s why I’ve changed my mind so many times. I am in a battle between the head and the heart. My rational mind says there is no way I can handle another child but my heart can’t bear the thought of severing what little bond exists between me and the baby.

What I really need is someone to tell me what to do; I’ve often fantasized of having a “professional decision-maker” to weigh the options and choose one for me. I would pay pretty much any price right now to hire such a person, though as far as I can tell, no such professional exists. Alternately, I wish my husband would sit me down, look me in the eyes, and say, “You don’t have to make this decision because I am going to do everything I can to make sure we can keep, and care for, this baby.” But I don’t think he has the balls, quite frankly, or the ability to follow through. So now I have to be the bad guy and make this impossible decision all by myself. Topic for a future couples counseling session, if we ever go back (yup, we dropped out).

When it was my turn to ask a question of the couple, I had only one: “How would you explain this child’s origin story to her?”

I asked because I had no idea how to “spin” this in a way that wouldn’t make her feel abandoned, or rejected, or inferior. But everyone else was as stumped as I was on how to explain this situation in a positive way. All we could come up with, collectively, is telling her that she was so very wanted and that even though her origin story would be unorthodox, it was still beautiful. I was not fully convinced that this would be enough to satisfy her, but it was the best we could do at the time.

During the meeting, my toddler would play for a bit, then crawl into my lap for some cuddles. Juggling this heavy conversation with her needs made me feel like a natural mother. I thought, "There's no way I can go through with adoption. Nor do I need to. I am fully capable of caring for another child."

And yet, just the night before, my toddler had been up for two full hours in the middle of the night, treating our bed like a bounce house and refusing to go back to sleep. I passed her off to my husband twice, then returned to bed, where I wailed like a wounded animal because parenting is so freakin’ hard. I felt raw and exposed and exhausted. I was barely functioning. The thought of dropping a newborn into that scenario felt insane.

I had half-hoped I wouldn’t like the couple, that they would reveal some glaring flaw so I could put this adoption idea to rest already. But I couldn’t find one. I know no one is perfect, but I couldn’t have asked for better adoptive parents. I had no doubts that the baby would be loved immensely and that she would be doted upon and well-cared for. (Hell, I wish they could adopt me!)

As the meeting drew to a close, the pregnancy counselor asked where we wanted to go from here.

A thought flashed through my mind. "What if I just decided to give the baby to them? Could I be at peace with that?" It would make the couple so very happy. It would free up money, time, and other resources to tend to my toddler. And yet, every time I envision leaving the hospital after birth empty-handed, I see only darkness and grief, an emotional weight so unbearable it could crush me.

“I can’t make a decision about this until the baby is born,” I told the couple. “I don’t want to make a promise to you that I can’t keep.”

The couple said they understood – and I didn’t get the feeling they were just saying that to be nice. I truly believed them when they told us they’d been praying about the outcome of all this and that they trusted God would make something good out of it, whether that was some sort of situational or emotional change that would give me the strength and support to parent or if that meant that I would give them the gift of parenting.

“We’ve accepted the uncertainty,” they said. “And if this meeting is as far as our relationship with you goes, we are OK with that.”

I could hardly say “thank you” through all my tears. It was so sweet of them. I wish I had that much faith. I barely have any these days. I’m afraid that no matter what decision I make, I am going to hate myself for it.

"I wish I were mature enough to just say, 'I'm giving them the baby and I'm going to take the next two months to prepare myself for that,'" I said to my husband as we left.

"I don't think it's a question of maturity," he responded.

Then what is it? Selflessness? Beneficence? Detachment? What makes a mom able to give up a baby? And is that what’s best for the baby – or anyone else – in this scenario?

I just want to be a good person and do the right thing. Why is that so hard?

I have no answers, only questions. So I took them to my therapist, Shania, who, while also unable (or unwilling) to tell me what to do, helped me sift through the muck in search of some clarity...

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