how i got this baby

The Mom Who Gave a Baby Back

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Bethany wanted to be a mom so badly that she sometimes stood in front of the mirror, imagining what she’d look like pregnant. Finding out she and her husband couldn’t conceive was disappointing at first, but the couple moved on to pursuing adoption with excitement. They were chosen quickly by a birth mother, and parented a little boy for about a month before a life-changing meeting with the birth father. She discusses the process of giving a baby back to an adoption agency, 13 failed adoptions, and her current relationships with her children’s birth parents.

On fantasizing about being pregnant. I felt the pull of being a mom when I was really young. I remember putting pillows underneath my dress to see what I’d look like pregnant. The desire was so strong I didn’t even want to go to college — I figured I’d never need a degree, since I’d be a stay-at-home mom.

When my husband and I were dating, we talked about our future children, about how many we wanted to have. Adoption was always something we both felt drawn toward. Our idea was to have a few kids naturally, then maybe adopt someday. Once we were married, starting a family became more of a reality. My husband was getting his undergrad degree, and I started mine. We’d been married about two years, both still in school, and I still wasn’t pregnant.

On exploring fertility options. I went in for a yearly exam and explained we hadn’t been using any kind of birth control. The doctor wasn’t worried — she just told me to start taking prenatal vitamins. Another year went by. At my next checkup, my doctor thought it was a little weird I still hadn’t gotten pregnant. She just happened to be married to a male-fertility specialist, so she had us make an appointment with him. My husband went to see him, and it turned out there were no sperm. I think there was like one. I was 23. My husband was 22.

We looked into all the fertility options available to us. We looked into IVF and artificial insemination. We looked into sperm donors and started getting ideas about what we might want in a donor. Emotionally, we were feeling okay. It was hard to find out we weren’t going to have kids the regular, easy way — the way everyone around us seemed to be having kids. We just knew we were meant to become parents. We wanted to pursue any route we could possibly pursue.

On a “first best” way of becoming a parent. I just happened to be taking an ethics class at the time and reading a book about the different methods of human reproduction. This was a while ago, back in 2004, and I know things have changed a lot since then. Every chapter was about a different way of creating a family. I got to the chapter on adoption and it said adoption isn’t second best for the infertile couple — it’s just another way you’ve been designed to be parents.

Even though we’d always been considering adoption, I realized I had been thinking of adoption as second best. I thought the first best would be getting pregnant and seeing a child who looked like me and my partner, and I had to let go of that expectation. So I told my husband and we decided to completely let go of the idea that we would conceive a child. We took about six months to grieve that desire. During that time, we looked into several adoption agencies and paths to adoption.

On a very quick placement. We got connected with a very established agency, one that had great reviews. We started the home study, which was about a year-long process. I’d graduated from college at that point and was working on my master’s in education. We’d just finished the home study and signed the last bit of paperwork when we got a phone call: A birth mother had seen our profile and chosen us — she was in the hospital, in labor.

It was so incredibly fast. We started buying everything we needed — a car seat, a crib, diapers, formula. We met the baby and his birth mother at the agency’s office. She was very young, 18, and just a very sweet, kind person. As we were driving away with our 3-day-old baby in the car seat, we got a phone call from the agency. They said, “Just to let you know, every birth dad seems to make a fuss. But the fuss goes away pretty quickly when they realize they have no responsibility. This birth dad, though, has already hired lawyers.”

So we needed to file paperwork to say that he now needed to fight us for custody, instead of the birth mom. We turned right around and headed to the lawyer’s office to sign papers. Then we went home and settled into our new life.

But when we went to court the first time, we realized that the birth dad really wanted to take this further than just making a ruckus. We hired a very good lawyer, the one our agency told us to hire. About a month later, we were talking to the attorney on the phone. She said she’d never lost a case before but that ours wasn’t looking so good. She told us it was our choice, whether we wanted to keep moving forward.

This baby boy, he was our son. He had been home with us for a month. We really felt like we needed to meet with his birth dad, to let him know we wanted an open adoption. We wanted them to have a relationship, for him to be there at birthday parties and at different points in his life. We thought maybe if he met us, everything would be okay. Our social worker couldn’t give us the birth dad’s contact information, but she did tell us she thought a meeting might make a difference. That seemed like a thumbs-up, to us.

We ended up finding the birth dad on MySpace (that’s how long ago this was). I sent a message asking if we could all meet (he’d never met his son). We all arranged to meet at a Starbucks. He showed up with his parents, his siblings, and a load of aunts and uncles. His parents were foster parents who knew how important it is to keep families together. The birth dad was holding his son, weeping, while we were trying to explain who we were and how much we wanted him to be involved. He said, “You know, I don’t care who you guys are. You seem like great people, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to be my son’s dad.”

In that moment, we knew we could not fight him for his rights. It felt so wrong. We said, okay, and went home brokenhearted. The next day, we called the agency and explained that we had met the birth dad and now felt like we couldn’t move forward with the adoption. They told us we had two options: We could bring him to the agency, or they could come get him. I asked whether we could have another day to say good-bye. They said no, it had to be immediate.

My husband came home from work, and we drove to the agency and gave our first son back. It’s been 12 years, but I still get weepy thinking about it.

On being labeled “unfit to be parents.” The experience was devastating for us. In the beginning, we felt so lucky — we were chosen so fast. If you go on sites for prospective adoptive parents, these couples, with their hopeful expressions and pictures with their dogs, they’ve been waiting for years to be chosen as parents. We thought maybe we were giving away our one chance of being chosen.

After we handed the baby over to the social worker, the director of the agency called us into her office. She lectured us for a long time about how irresponsible we were. She told us we were unfit to be parents. Because we were no longer willing to fight for parental rights, she thought we were showing we didn’t want to be parents badly enough. She thought we just weren’t willing to spend the $30,000, or whatever it would have taken, to fight legally. But it was never about the money. To us, it was an ethical problem — we really did not feel like we could have fought the birth dad. And I don’t know how it would have gone in court, and I’m glad we never found out.

We found out later that the agency placed the baby again, after we gave him back. The birth dad fought them, and they also gave him back. I think the reason the agency got so upset with us is that we were their very first failure. They had never placed a baby with a couple before and had it not work out.

On 13 prospective adoptions. After that, we hired an attorney to do a private adoption. Over nine months, we had 13 adoptions come our way, and each failed. We pursued every single one until the door shut. It was very difficult, each time. The last one was the hardest: I was there for the birth, and I spent the night in the hospital with this little baby. The birth mom really wanted the baby to be adopted, but the birth dad convinced her otherwise. With the first birth dad we encountered, he had his family behind him — and I really felt like he had the heart to be a parent. I didn’t feel like that with this birth dad.

We stopped the adoption process after that last baby. We said no more. We had no money left, and no emotional availability left. Right around that time, we moved to start a church. We were living on a friend’s couch, looking for a place to live. We’d only been there about a week, when we got a phone call about our son Isaac.

Isaac’s birth mom was in my own mom’s Bible study. She just didn’t feel like she was in the place to parent another child, and she really believed that my husband and I were meant to be Isaac’s parents. She called us up and explained what she was thinking, basically saying that we should adopt him. We thanked her for the phone call, but told her that we had no money, no real jobs, no place to live. She said that she would call us back the following month.

During that month, we looked back on MySpace at the birth dad of the first baby, the one we were originally matched with and had for a month. We saw so many pictures of him and his dad, and we realized the baby had been able to come home. I still look every once in a while — we’re not friends or anything, I guess it’s a little stalk-y — but it’s really beautiful to see that he’s with his dad. In the end, it was a redeeming story. It makes me happy to know they’re together.

On becoming a mom. When Isaac was 3 months old, we adopted him. We had him for about a year and a half before we decided to become foster parents. Our first foster child was Emily, who was about 14 months old when we brought her home. She was born with drugs in her system and came from a severe place of neglect — it was a tough transition, for her to get used to us, for us to get used to her. A year later, we got Antonio. He was 5 months old.

Today, we have strong relationships with all of their birth parents. We try to see them as many times a year as we possibly can. We FaceTime, talk on the phone, and write letters.

That doesn’t mean these relationships don’t come with complications. There’s a reality of trauma that happens within adoption. There’s the trauma, or sadness, or devastation, of my husband and I not being able to conceive. So there’s our loss. And then there’s the loss of the birth parent not being able to parent their child, to be there and care for their child in the way they probably dreamed they could be. And then there’s the loss of the child from their extended birth family, and the severing and trauma that comes from that.

Our family is in therapy multiple days a week, to make sure our kids feel the best they are meant to feel. We want them to feel a continual sense of love and devotion. Because there is a sense of abandonment that adopted kids experience, even if they can’t name it. That happens whenever you lose whatever it is you’ve always known.

On preparing to become a mother. If I’d gotten pregnant in a straightforward way, without complications, I don’t think I would be a very different parent — beyond the therapy and the understanding that adoption comes with a primal wound.

But what might have been different, right from the get-go, is what we did to prepare. To become a prospective adoptive parent and to do a home study, we took about a year’s worth of parenting classes. Before we even had a child, we had to study so much about what it means to be a parent. We had to have a home fit for a toddler, even if we were only getting an infant. It was a lot of preparation. I didn’t read books about the size of a fetus in utero, the way a pregnant woman might, but I read a lot about what to do with a child in the house.

With fostering, we took even more classes, specifically about parenting children with trauma in their lives. But being a parent in general, I think, means coming to it with open hands. When it came to becoming a mom, I had clear expectations about what being a mother would be like. Having to let go of some of those ideals has been a learning experience. I really thought I’d be the perfect stay-at-home mom, but then I realized that I really, really love my kids — especially when they’re in school. I did homeschool my kids for about three years, but the truth is, I love working. I love being around adults. I love finding meaning outside of the home. I really expected that I would find all my meaning and identity inside the home, with my children. Being a mom, it turns out, has only added to my identity — not taken away from it.

The Mom Who Gave a Baby Back