Adoption 101: The Weight of the Wait

The Weight of the Wait by Julie Corby

I am sitting on my couch in my pajamas. I pop another Hot Tamale into my mouth. Wads of used tissue and empty candy boxes surround me. My two pups bolt from the room to avoid hearing the strange sounds emanating from my chest. It is 8 a.m., and I have spent the last 90 minutes watching adoption videos on YouTube, and crying.

At the end of 2007 my husband and I made an adoption video of our own. It was taken the evening we filled out our application to adopt two children from Ethiopia. I am uncharacteristically giddy in the video. I speak, very animatedly, to our future children. I tell them that we love them, and that we can’t wait to meet them. We toast to our future, and to what we hope will be a happy ending.

My husband and I have spent the last nine and a half years trying to become parents. We have battled infertility. We have had four short-lived pregnancies, and I have had a bout of thyroid cancer thrown in for good measure. International adoption, we thought, would at long last bring the pitter-patter of little human feet to our Los Angeles home.

On January 10th, 2008 our adoption agency approved our application. We became “officially waiting” and were told to expect news of our children in six to nine months. At last we had our resolution. I would be a mother to someone who did not have fur, and my husband would be a father to someone who did not eat Milkbones. Happiness would inevitably ensue.

Sixteen months later I am chin-deep in my adoption wait, and struggling to remain above water.

Under Pressure

The wait during any adoption—international, domestic, foster-adopt—is weighty. It weighs on your mind, on your heart, and on your spirit. It takes you to exhilarating highs, and pushes you down into some deep, dark lows. The emotions are intense, and the happy ending feels like it just may end up being another thing that doesn’t work out.

The wait gives you plenty of time to consider every aspect of your adoption. It causes you to examine your own motives and needs. What may have started as a joyful journey to family becomes something much more complicated. The doubt and uncertainty of the wait, for me, is compounded by feelings of self-loathing and guilt as I realize I am waiting for someone else’s tragedy to unfold. My future children will have lost everything. I will take them from the only lives they have every known and plunk them smack down into the middle of mine.

Adoption is about loss—loss for the birth family, and loss for the children. With that in mind it seems unconscionable to use the word difficult when referring to what a potential adoptive family goes through during the wait. But there’s no denying that the constant uncertainty and lack of control do make it a challenging time.

Ann Alden of Washington, DC, has been waiting 20 months for a domestic adoption with no matches. “I wish that I had better coping strategies. It’s so hard to wake up every day and wonder, is this going to be the day?” she says. The daily disappointment with no definite end in sight makes her wonder whether she can go on. “At this point it’s very tempting to just quit completely, not because we don’t want to be parents but because it’s too hard to deal with the uncertainty.” All potential adoptive parents wait, knowing that at any time the whole thing could fall apart. In international adoption, countries close down, and adoptions stop. In domestic adoptions, birth mothers change their minds. In foster-to-adopt adoptions, children are reunified with their birthparents. It is all heart-wrenchingly precarious.

Many potential adoptive parents reach the lowest levels of despair, according to Carole LieberWilkins, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who counsels people in all stages of the adoption process. Unmet expectations and lack of structure are the hardest parts of the wait, according to LieberWilkins. “Not knowing when something will happen leaves us feeling like it never will.” It can be hard on couples, too: Both men and women experience fear, anger, and frustration, LieberWilkins explains, but they experience it differently. “Women are ready and they just need a baby in their arms,” she says of the clients she’s seen. Because men and women do not experience the wait in the same way, LieberWilkins emphasizes the importance of respecting each other’s feelings.

Wait Training

The wait definitely gives you a lot of time to reflect, educate yourself, and gather resources. I have had time to research and select the best elementary school for our kids. I started an online book club featuring books about adoption, parenting, and Africa. I have gathered a blogroll of smart, adoptive families who are handling challenges like attachment and racism in ways that I would like to emulate. I have started to learn Amharic (the main language spoken in Ethiopia). Over a year ago we started attending a monthly gathering of adoptive families, whose support has been invaluable. We have made some incredible friends and met some truly astonishing children. Everyone who manages the wait finds his or her own ways to do it, but here are some particularly helpful strategies.

•    Stretch your spontaneity. Seeing an impromptu movie, sleeping in, going away for the weekend, and staying out late are all things that will be more difficult when your child comes home.
•    Exercise your libido. Several therapists advised me to have more sex, and my friends, now home with their children, corroborated (adding, “Do it now, while you still can!”).
•    Run it down. Kathie Krause of Chicago, Illinois, spent her wait training for a triathlon. In the six months between her immigration approval and her child’s referral, she completed five sprint distance triathlons and lost 40 pounds. “It definitely filled the time and gave me something else to focus on,” she remembers. “And now that I’m carrying and chasing a 25-pound 13-month old, I’m glad I lost the extra weight.”
•    Be the change. Volunteer; find a cause to get behind. Meghan Walsh, of Madison, Wisconsin, raised $16,000 dollars for Doctors Without Borders while waiting for her son Zeke to come home from Ethiopia.
•    Practice. Offer to baby sit. Take a CPR class. Childproof your home. Learn about strollers and car seats. Find a pediatrician.
•    Join the club. Find a group to join, online or in person. In some cases you may find that the only thing you have in common with the members is the desire to adopt; in others you may find friends you feel you’ve known your entire life.
•    Keep track. Start a journal. This can be the most private written record, or a very public online blog. It may be something that you will want to share with your child when they are finally home with you.

Second Wind?

It seems like the strain of the wait would lessen once you’ve been matched with a child, but LieberWilkins suggests the wait may actually become more unbearable when there’s a face attached to it. When the parents receive a photo or a video of a child, this person they’re waiting for is no longer a fantasy for them but an actual person, and they begin to bond. “That truly becomes their child,” she says, “and the adoptive parents feel like their child is somewhere without them.” Jess Vogel of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a mother-of-four who is also waiting for her daughter from Ethiopia, agrees. “When I tuck my kids in at night and give them a kiss, I wonder what my child is doing, and if anyone has kissed them today, or said I love you. I am reminded of all of the little things, likes coughs and colds, ear infections, scraped knees, fevers, bad dreams, and I worry about how my child is doing, and if they’re scared or lonely. It’s hard not to.”

Not all people have had such real-life reminders. Tucking a child in, reading him a story, or kissing him good night are things that many people have only experienced in their imaginations. LieberWilkins says that for these people, once that match is made, the wait may be a bit easier because something is happening, and with a picture in hand, they can now start to visualize these loving events occurring in their own lives. The match can engender a hope that had, until now, been too tenuous to hold onto.

“The wait before and after was filled with elation, uncertainty, anxiety, guilt, and fear,” says Nancy Meyer, of Evanston, Illinois, who is finally home with her three-year-old daughter Makena from Ethiopia. “But through it all there were lessons, and there was hope. Hope was a constant companion, and one so alive that it worked like a mediator bringing a daughter and a mother together. And once we met, all the time in between was vapor. All the panic in the wake of waiting—it completely dissolved.”

Training for a marathon, wrestling with ethics, reading about attachment, visualizing a child in your arms, or even inducing lactation are all ways to cope with the wait during the adoption process. In what I hope is my home stretch, I’d like to tell you that I am lacing up my running shoes while loading the pod cast, “Parenting with Love and Logic” (in Amharic) onto my iPod. The truth is I’ve got a hot date with YouTube and a family-sized pack of Twizzlers. Craig and Susan are about to meet their baby Dawit in Addis Ababa and I don’t want to miss one tear-soaked minute.

Julie Corby writes about her life and her adoption at http://theeyesofmyeyesareopened.blogspot.com. Her online book club is http://eyesonbooks.blogspot.com. Julie recently signed on as a contributor for http://www.antiracistparent.com. She lives in Los Angeles where she can be found most days eating copious amounts of red candy and thinking about her future.

(special note- photograph used in thumbnail was taken by Tom Davis used with permission)

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