A New Kind of Marathon

IMG_8664Autumn has long been my favorite season. For running, for traveling, for baking, for being outside… simply for being. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Autumn is typically the time of year when I run the most miles and some of my best races. This autumn, though, things have been different. Very, very different, in fact. I’ve hardly run any miles at all, let alone any races and certainly no marathons. I withdrew from the November ultramarathon I had signed up for, and I have traded my morning runs for walks. I have fallen woefully behind in my quest for 2,017 miles this year, while pushing to the back burner other things that normally occupied my free time, including writing in this space. Instead, I started a new kind of ultramarathon this autumn… one that requires a different kind of endurance and involves more sleep deprivation than any running race I can imagine. I became a mother.

On September 28, just over two months ago, M. and I received a phone call that changed our lives instantly and forever. I had just returned from a beautiful afternoon walk with Frieda after a long study session for my Russian language class. There was a voicemail on my phone from one of the birth family counselors at the adoption agency where we had submitted an application many months earlier. I returned the phone call immediately and learned that a baby girl had been born that morning, and her mother had chosen us to be her family.

Stunned, I began pacing the room while the counselor gave me the details of the situation, explaining that we would need to read, print, sign, and notarize a few forms immediately, as well as wire the adoption funds that had been sitting in our savings account in anticipation of this very moment. As soon as that was done, we would need to pack our bags and travel as soon as possible – that night, even – to the state where the baby had been born, so that we could reach the hospital and and meet the baby’s mother within 24 hours. To call it a whirlwind of emotions would be an understatement. I felt excited, anxious, overwhelmed, and most of all, petrified, all at the same time. For lack of a better way to say it, shit got real with that phone call. The worst part of those moments was that M. was not yet home from his own Russian class to hear the news with me, to pace frenetically around the apartment, and to start throwing random pieces of clothing into a duffel bag in a hasty attempt to start packing.

When he did get home just a few minutes later, I told him the details of how our lives were about to change forever, that he would become a father overnight, with no warning or notice, and he, always the calm one, helped me to slow down, take a few breaths, and savor this pinnacle moment in our lives. We hugged each other with tears in our eyes, in shock that a baby girl was waiting for us. We spent the next four hours discussing logistics with our own adoption counselor, getting the necessary paperwork signed, notarized, and sent, wiring the funds, arranging for our friend to take care of Frieda, renting a vehicle (our car is in storage during our temporary assignment in Virginia), and packing our bags. By 7:00 pm that evening, we got on the road, after deciding that it would be more practical to drive, even though it was a long drive, to the baby’s state of birth.

During our drive, we called the baby’s birth mother and spoke with her for the very first time. I had butterflies in my stomach like I’d never had in my life. What if she didn’t like the sound of our voices and decided to change her mind? What if she had already changed her mind? Upon hearing her voice and introducing ourselves to one another, I instantly felt at ease, and I hope she did, too. She was very friendly and sweet, and sounded positive and in good spirits. The phone call was brief, but I think it made us all feel better about meeting each other in person for the first time the next morning. We offered to pick up some breakfast for her on our way to the hospital in the morning, and she accepted.

As we continued driving, we called our families and closest friends to share the exciting news with them. They were as shocked and excited as we were, hungry for details, and eager to see photos of the baby. Talking to them helped us feel a bit less overwhelmed and it also made the time pass. It was only then that we shared for the first time that we had actually received a phone call from our adoption agency two days earlier, in which we learned that the baby’s mother had seen our profile and was interested in learning more about us. She was expecting a baby boy on October 23, and wanted to have a conference call with us, facilitated by her adoption counselor, in order to get to know us a little bit before officially deciding whether she wanted to move forward with us as an adoptive family. We had been so caught off guard by that news, and overwhelmed at the idea that we could potentially be parents just a month later. We had absolutely nothing in our house for a baby… not a single diaper or piece of clothing. We went ahead and scheduled the phone call for the following Monday, just six days later. We had decided not to tell anyone our news until after the phone call, only because we didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, including our own. We never imagined that the baby would arrive nearly a full month early, just two days after we were first notified of the possible adoption opportunity. We were still processing the idea that a birth mother was actually interested in selecting us as an adoptive family. Suddenly, October 23 seemed so far away, with plenty of time to prepare. We didn’t have that sliver of time after all. And, there had been an apparent mix-up at one of the baby’s mother’s prenatal care visits, because the baby is a girl! Although, we would have been just as thrilled to welcome a little boy to our family.

M. and I had begun our adoption journey nearly two years earlier, just a few months after we moved to Latvia. We hadn’t seriously discussed when or whether we wanted to expand our family until that time, and when we did, adoption seemed like the right path for us to do so. Many people leap to the assumption, perhaps due in part to my age, that we had decided on adoption after experiencing infertility, but that is not the case. We both felt that we have a safe, caring, loving home, and that it would be a good place for a child to grow up. We have a lot of love to give, and we were ready to share that with a child.

The path to adoption quickly proved overwhelming. We spent months researching various types of adoption- international, domestic, adoption through foster care… there were endless possibilities, and we didn’t even know where to begin. After speaking with a couple of friends who had adopted internationally, and joining an online community of fellow Foreign Service families who had adopted or were preparing to adopt, we connected with a social worker experienced in helping families like ours – employed by the U.S. government but living overseas. He helped us decide that domestic adoption, from the United States, was the best fit for us, given that we were living overseas and moving so frequently would not work for a foster care situation. We slowly began the process but put it down for a few months because it felt so incredibly daunting. The mountains of paperwork were ultra-intimidating (at least, to me): our life histories, described chronologically; federal, state, and international criminal and child abuse clearances; medical exams; letters of reference from family members and friends; our parenting philosophy; how we would address cultural and/or racial diversity; at least ten hours of adoptive parent training…. And all of that was before we even had a home study and made contact with an adoption agency.

When we finally decided that we were ready to continue the process, we finished the mountains of paperwork and our social worker visited us in January of this year for our first home study. The visit went smoothly and we received approval to adopt a single child or twins of any race, up to age four. After receiving approval, we were faced with our next major decision: which adoption agency to go through? The choices were numerous, and it was hard to know what made one adoption agency better than another. While our social worker couldn’t outright endorse a particular agency, he steered us toward a few with which he had worked, and from those, we finally settled on a national agency that places children from all over the United States with adoptive families. It was very transparent in its requirements, the process, and most importantly, how it focuses on the best interests of the children and supports both the adoptive families and birth families throughout the process. Overall, we have been very happy with the agency that we chose.

Each agency operates a bit differently, and ours required us to make both a print and a video profile. These profiles would be then be shown to expectant mothers (and fathers, if they are involved), who use them to get to know prospective adoptive families a little bit before choosing one for their child. Although making a video about our lives isn’t really our style, we could appreciate the value it would have in helping a birth family gain a deeper understanding of what kind of people we are and what our lives are like. We were fortunate to have dear friends appear in our video and speak on our behalf, while others helped us with the filming. In addition, we had to complete an extensive questionnaire, which covered everything from our lifestyles and hobbies to our views on discipline, and also included questions about how open we were to various adoption situations, such as the race of the child, the birth parents’ medical and social histories, and having an open adoption with the birth family. We tried to be as open and flexible as possible. Meanwhile, birth families must also complete a questionnaire in which they indicate what they are seeking in an adoptive family. The adoption agency then uses an algorithm to match adoptive families with birth families based on both parties’ questionnaire responses.

By the time we fulfilled all of the requirements of our adoption agency, we were nearing the end of our time in Latvia. Although we had been approved to go active (meaning that our profile would be available for showing to expectant birth families), we decided to wait until we transitioned back to the U.S. We knew it would mean repeating a few steps in the already complicated process, including undergoing a new home study and meeting Virginia’s specific state requirements, but the thought of potentially caring for a baby or toddler while trying to move internationally sounded too chaotic for everyone involved in the process.

We tried to get a head start on completing our new home study by doing everything we could while still overseas. That allowed our new social worker to visit us within days of our arrival back in Virginia. She was absolutely wonderful and helped us so much in getting our paperwork completed and approved as quickly as possible. On August 25th, we were officially active with our agency. We knew that it could take many months – years even, from the day we became a prospective adoptive family until the day we received a potential match. In fact, there were no guarantees, and there was a chance that we would never receive a match. Or, that we would receive a match and then it would fail. The possibilities were all over the place, which makes the process quite an emotional roller coaster.

Thus, hearing nothing from our agency after becoming an active family was not a surprise to us. And while we hoped that we would receive an adoption opportunity sooner rather than later, given that we will be moving to our next overseas post again next summer, we never imagined that we would receive that opportunity exactly – and only – one month after becoming an active family. The adoption agency’s algorithm had matched us, as well as several other families, with a birth mother. Knowing that she chose us is incredibly humbling and weighted with emotions that I find difficult to describe.

During our journey to meet our new baby and her birth mother for the very first time, M. and I talked a lot about the enormity of what lay ahead of us. Adoption prepares people for parenthood in many ways that the conventional method doesn’t necessarily: it requires prospective parents to think very, very carefully about various aspects of child rearing, and there are usually several hours’ worth of training coursework involved. We also took an infant and child first aid and CPR course. Yet at the same time, without a single baby item in our home and no time to secure any before meeting our baby for the first time, we were utterly unprepared in a way that most new parents are not. No time to get used to the idea of baby; no time to set up a nursery or buy any baby clothes and supplies. I hadn’t even started, let alone finished, my research on diapers, baby formula, and all of the other things that people research when preparing to have a baby.

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On our first night at home, our new baby slept in a laundry basket, because we hadn’t had any time to get a crib. (We got one the next day!)

By about 1:00 am, fewer than 12 hours after learning that we were about to become parents, when we were too tired to drive any further, we stopped at a hotel to rest for a few hours before hitting the road again at 6:00 am. We finally arrived at the hospital a little before 9:00 am. We had stopped on the way to pick up some breakfast and a few things for the baby’s mother… a little care package of sorts, and a card. I had read in our adoptive family guide that this is a common practice, and is well received by birth families when they meet adoptive families for the first time. Still, it felt a bit ridiculous to me. All I could think was, this woman is giving us her baby, and we’re giving her a bag from Burger King, some lotion, and a candle. It all seemed so hopelessly inadequate.

We spent the day visiting with and getting to know our new baby and her birth mother a little bit. It was such an emotional day, and I will never, ever forget it. There were a lot of tears, on all sides: of happiness, of sadness, of grief, of joy, of fear, and on my part, even of guilt. Our baby’s mother was so warm toward us, and seemed so resolute and at peace with her decision in spite of her tears of sadness; yet, I found myself feeling guilty that her baby would grow up with us and not with her. Our adoption agency required us to agree to at least to a semi-open adoption, meaning that we must send letters and pictures to the birth mother, according to a schedule set up by the agency. Beyond that, it is up to us and the birth mother to decide on how much contact we would like to have with one another. M. and I would like for our baby girl to know who her birth mother is, and how brave she was to put her trust in us to give her baby a good life and loving home. We look forward to a growing relationship with her over the years. The responsibility I feel toward her is enormous and goes far beyond the level of responsibility that is inherent in raising a child. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of her and give thanks for the wonderful gift she has given us.

On the same day that we met our baby for the first time, her mother signed the adoption consent forms. A few days later, we received from the attorney assigned to our case a court order that named us as the baby’s legal guardians. We had to remain in the baby’s birth state for several days until we received official legal clearance to take her out of the state and return home. Our adoption must still be finalized through the court in the baby’s home state, which we hope will happen soon after the new year. Until then, we are doing our best to navigate life as new parents.

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Holding our newborn baby the day we met.

Today marks two months since our sweet baby girl was discharged to us from the hospital, in the car seat that we had purchased from Target at 9:00 pm the night before. Our lives have changed dramatically in the last 60 days. We figured out the diapers (we chose cloth); we found a good formula (Earth’s Best Organic); and we have been reading, as much as we can, about transracial adoption. Our baby has been showered with gifts and donations from family, friends, and even strangers. Truly, people have been coming out of the woodwork to bestow their generosity upon our little one, and for that we are so grateful. We met a woman in the baby section of Target who helped us choose a bottle, and she met us a few days later with a huge box of nearly new size newborn clothes. Friends of ours whose children are just a bit older have given us their hand-me-downs. Other friends hosted a wonderful surprise baby shower for us. The kindness has been overflowing.

As we start this new chapter in our lives, we are so thankful for all of the support we have received. There are many different perspectives and opinions about adoption, and we have received a lot of questions from people about what led us to pursue it. While there are a lot of things I would like for people to know about adoption, above all, it is that adoption is not charity. For us, adoption has been a beautiful path for us to grow our family and to share our love with another person. Each day has been a new adventure in getting to know our sweet baby, to see her big beautiful brown eyes grow with curiosity, to see her smile her first smile, and to feel her tiny heartbeat when I snuggle her close. I know we won’t be perfect parents, but we’ll always do everything we can to do right by our baby and her birth mother.

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Two months old and full of sweet smiles!

Thank you for reading!

7 thoughts on “A New Kind of Marathon

  1. Thinking about you, and your sweet little family, already made me smile. Reading the details of your adoption story only makes my smile even wider and my heart fuller. I’m so very happy for you.

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  2. Beautiful, wonderful you! Climbing mountains is as big a job as running marathons, and with all your experience in building stamina you are one hellacious climber. With the paperwork mountains conquered, you’ll face the others as they come. From mountains of diapers to school reports and college applications, “Excelsior!”

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  3. Congratulations Deena to both you and M. Am thrilled for you all (and Frieda). Wishing you a lifetime of happiness. Your baby is very beautiful. xx Ilga

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