Good Grief

We could not believe that we had been so deceived.

After months of preparation for adoption, first through foster care, and then from a birth mother who had approached us at church, we were within days of our twins being born. Only there were no twins. There were no babies at all. The birth mother was not even pregnant. We had been robbed, deceived, heartbroken.

Grief. The dark hole of the soul that seems to have no limits to its depth.  My plans, my dreams, my joys, were ripped out from under me and my heart tumbled in a free fall into the murky pit of grief.

I mourned the children that never were. Though they had names, they had never existed. How do you grieve someone who never existed?

I grieved motherhood. For years I had prayed that God would make me a mother, and I had believed that I was at last realizing that dream, only to have that dream snatched away.

I mourned my plans. My plans were to spend the first half of the summer devoted to being home. Though I knew the crazy schedules and sleeplessness would be exhausting, those disruptions were desired and loved. Now, I would have to take on a tremendous load of work — my regular course load, plus my course load that was meant for me when I worked my way back from maternity leave.

I grieved all the baby things waiting in new packaging that we would never open. The letters spelling Palmer and Emelia crafted with such love that would never be hung on the wall. The mural that would never light up two pairs of tiny eyes. The matching outfits that would never elicit the question from strangers: Are they twins?

I mourned the excitement of others, who were also waiting with bated breath for the twins’ arrival as they asked, “Any news about the babies?” Their hopes would be dashed as well, as soon as I could choke out the words to tell them.

But in the suffocating downward spiral of grief, we were not alone.  In the midst of the mourning, there was never a moment in which I felt that God was anywhere but right there in that endless pit of grief with me. In the darkest nights of sorrow, there was never an hour that I doubted that we were exactly where God wanted us to be. 

For a while, I pondered what purpose God had behind the situation. Perhaps we would be able to prevent the “birth mother” from defrauding someone else. Perhaps our story would serve as a warning to others who were considering independent adoption. Maybe God was delaying our adoption until our actual children were ready. Perhaps God was increasing our dependence on Him.

Any of these were possible, but the truth is that God does not answer to me. The point of surrendering my life to God is not so that He can help me fulfill my dreams, or achieve my goals, or even make me a mother. The point of surrendering my life is to glorify God, even if I must glorify Him in the midst of mourning. 

I would rather be falling into a dark pit of grief, knowing that I am in the center of God’s will, than be living my dreams without God as the center of it all.

Even in grief, God is good.

Good grief.

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Betrayal

Maundy Thursday. The day of betrayal. On that night, two thousand years ago, Jesus was betrayed by one His chosen disciples, even as He was demonstrating absolute obedience to the Father.

Maundy Thursday 2011 was the day of our betrayal as well. Or at least of its discovery.

I awoke that morning with the acute realization that the twins were coming any day. Though their due date was May 20th, they were expected before the end of April. After all, the birth mother was 44 years old and carrying twins. The time had come for us to bring babies home!

Maundy Thursday afternoon, I received a call, but not the one I was hoping for. A friend of a friend of a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) wanted Ken and I to know that our birth mother had faked a pregnancy the year before, and that if we were involved with her, we needed to be very careful.

Faked a pregnancy? Surely not. She was huge! She had thin extremities, and a protuberant abdomen that we had watched grow over months.

We had been asking our attorney for proof of pregnancy from the birth mother since we started paying her living expenses, but our attorney’s response had always been, “Well, it is hard to trust . . . ” while still telling us that we were required to pay the birth mother’s living expenses.

I began to backtrack.

The Pregnancy Care Center. The birth mother had been seen there initially for services before we even met her. No, they had not done a pregnancy test.

Agape. The adoption agency we were paying to do birth mother counseling. No, they had never confirmed she was pregnant.

Friends who were going with her to appointments. Every time they were available to go to a OB appointment, the birth mother would have a reason to cancel. When they weren’t available to go, she would go by herself.

Vanderbilt Medical Center. She had been receiving prenatal care there because she was classified as high risk. No such patient existed in their medical record system.

The more I searched for information and asked questions, the more I realized how little we actually knew. What I did find revealed that everything she had told us was likely not true.  She did not live at the place we had been paying rent. Her home had not been flooded in May 2010. Her husband had not left her for Ghana. We weren’t even sure of her real name.

Finally, a face-to-face confrontation: We didn’t believe her story. Either take a pregnancy test to prove pregnancy right then, or it was over. No more money. No more support, from us or anyone else.

The “birth mother” walked out the door and has not been seen since.

Betrayal.

Oozing with Love

With our legal affairs taking shape, and the birth mother continuing to near her antipated due date, Ken and I needed to figure out how afford all the accoutrements of raising twins, while paying for the birth mother’s living expenses. And indeed, the expenses did start to rise. Shortly after the birth mother reached the third trimester, the people she had been living with for free decided to start charging her rent, which meant that they were charging us rent. She also was having trouble receiving food stamps and WIC, so she needed additional food. She also needed cell phone minutes and clothes and a laptop. In addition to attorney fees, we quickly began to see how the $20,000 estimate was a realistic one.

We realized that we could not afford to buy many baby items. I began to research what the bare minimum necessary was for bringing infants home: car seats, diapers, formula, a place for the babies to sleep, clothes. I began my search for the bare minimums. I stacked coupons with sales and other special offers and was able to get diapers for less than ten cents/diaper. I went to the Goodwill outlet, where I was able to get plenty of onesies and pants — and since it was priced by the pound, I was able to get a basic layette for the first year (approximately 40 onesies and 20 pants) for less than $10. I signed up for freebies, and baby club memberships. We scoured yard sales.

But there was a somewhat unexpected source for the other items for the babies: the generosity of others, especially our church.

Sure, I knew that people in our church generally liked us and wished us well. But we were never in a service with the majority of the congregation. Our Sundays consisted of middle school service, then college Sunday school, a small third worship service, lunch with the college students, then back in the evening for small groups. I wasn’t really sure if people knew us or wanted to be a part of our adoption journey.

Boy was I wrong.

The outpouring of love and generosity from our congregation exceeded all of my expectations. A crib, a double stroller, beautiful clothing, toys, chairs, bouncy seats, pack and plays, and on and on. Hundreds of people gave us gifts supplying us with nearly everything we could imagine ever needing! And if that wasn’t enough, a mother and daughter came to our home to hand paint a mural that matched our crib set, spending hours carefully planning and painting. It was as if love was oozing through the walls of the church every time we walked through the doors.

There were others outside of our church who demonstrated generosity as well: former students and classmates, coworkers, family members, and friends –each of whom believed in the process we were going through, and loved us.

As the due date neared and our pockets were emptied with adoption-related expenses, God reminded us that He is reponsible for providing for us when we are obedient to Him. He reminded us so beautifully that we were not in the process alone, but that the Family of God was adopting these children as well. What a wonderful environment to bring children into: a place oozing with love!

Gulp

By the time we had made up our mind about adopting, the birth mother was already nervous about the delay in our decision, but was very grateful that we had indeed decided to adopt the twins.

The next step was pursuing the legal process. Youth Villages let us know that they could not facilitate the adoption. I was also disappointed to hear from other infant adoption agencies in town that in order to use an agency, we had to have another home study written, even though we already had one that was just a couple of months old. Had it been inexpensive, we would have gladly had it redone, but it was $2000-$3000 of unnecessary expense. Each of the adoption agencies recommended the same thing: independent adoption. Working through an attorney, who would handle the legal process, and an agency to handle birth mother counseling, we could piece services together to adopt the twins.

I had heard from several other adoptive couples, and from the adoption agencies themselves, that the lawyer of choice for adoption. Everyone had wonderful things to say about one particular lawyer.

But there was another option.

A friend of mine from church, who was a recent law school grad, was interested in adoption law, but needed experience in order to specialize. She was also giddy with excitement over helping Ken and I build our family through adoption. She also was a single mom with some unfortunate circumstances in her life, and I thought giving her the opportunity to earn some money and gain some experience would be a blessing to her as well. I met with her, and told her that I would consider letting her take our case if: 1. She would find another attorney who would oversee her every step of the way. I told her that my preference was the attorney that everyone recommended, but if she was not available, I would consider others. 2. If our case was too much for her to figure out (a birth father in another country, a closed adoption between people who already knew each other, no agency involved, etc.) she would refer us to another attorney who was more qualified to help us.

She agreed to meet with the more prominent attorney, and the next week wrote to let me know that she did have a meeting to get things narrowed down. The following week at church, she let me know that everything was all set with her mentor, and that she felt comfortable and excited about taking our case.

We had a phone appointment to officially discuss the adoption case, in which our attorney explained to me that in the State of Tennessee, adoptive parents “can and are often required to” pay for living expenses of the birth mother in the third trimester up to the time that the infants are 45 days old, including medical, legal, social and psychological counseling, housing, food, clothing, utilities, and transportation. She told me to expect $20,000 in expenses before the twins were even born, and the birth mother could still keep the babies if she changed her mind, and she would owe us nothing in return.

Gulp.

Twenty thousand dollars was not something we had planned or saved for, and we were already in the month of February, and the third trimester was just a couple of weeks away. While I knew that the birth mother was definitely in need, we didn’t have that kind of money.

Then I began to think about it: the birth mother was living with someone for free (she was helping to care for a disabled woman in exchange for rent), WIC and food stamps were both something she qualified for, I had a small stockpile of groceries from couponing, she was already on TennCare, some of the members of our church had already finished paying off her car. Maybe this would work.

 After all, if God had brought us to this situation, He had a plan already worked out.

Out of the Mouth Come Babes

In the first week of January, we decided to meet with the birth mother of the twins, who was already very large for only being four months pregnant. She told us the story of her husband leaving her to return to Africa, about losing her home in the floods, and about losing her mother in the fall to brain cancer. With so much misfortune in her life, and her age of 44, she could not imagine taking care of twins. She had considered having an abortion, but others in our church had convinced her that someone in the church would adopt her babies, and she was glad to know that it could be Ken and me. She wanted a closed adoption, because she did not want her 5-year-old daughter to find out that she had siblings. We indicated our interest, but knew that we had to think and pray about it, especially since we considering all the other doors that had been opened.

However, over the next few weeks we found the other doors to adoption closing. Most of the children were simply placed in other homes. The social worker overseeing the eight year-old girl we were very interested in scheduled meetings with Ken and I four different times, but always ended up cancelling. Eventually, she stopped returning our e-mails. Within a month, every other adoption door closed.

Still, Ken was unsure about adopting the twins. It was an unusual circumstance to be approached by a birth mother, especially one who was of advanced maternal age. The risk of the twins having birth defects rose to 10% in 44 year old females carrying twins, and he wasn’t sure that we were prepared for caring for special needs infants, especially since both of us work full-time.

I felt differently. I thought that because of my medical training, and God’s guidance, we could certainly parent the twins, no matter what their health. To be given the opportunity to be asked to parent infants was too great to pass up. Sure, it wasn’t what we were originally thinking, but we would be helping this woman who had seen so much misfortune, and helping the twins to be raised in a loving Christian home with a loving church family.

We sought the wisdom of others, who nearly unanimously agreed that it was a wonderful opportunity. I questioned those in our church who knew the birth mom best. Is she legitimate? Do we know her story is true? All agreed that they were certain of her story, and trusted her implicitly. While she was very needy, she was slow to ask for help and always gracious in receiving it. Many in our church had helped her recover from the flood and several loved her dearly. It seemed like a win-win situation.

But Ken was not convinced, so he began to pray for clarity from God. The weekend we knew we were going to decide, Ken went for a walk and prayed that if God wanted us to adopt the twins that I would talk to him about wanting the twins. Not because of a sense of duty, obligation, or pressure from others, but because I wanted them. When Ken returned from the walk, the first thing I said to Ken was, “I want the twins.” And then I proceeded to explain why I wanted the twins and how I believed that if God called us to adopt them that He would give us strength, and provide for us to be able to care for them . . . .

But Ken didn’t need any explanation. When the words “I want the twins” came out of my mouth, he knew that God was speaking.

We decided to adopt the twins.

The Many Doors of Opportunity

I would love to say that a week in Florida gave us clarity and vision for adoption — but it didn’t. We returned home and waited for the call that was supposed to come before Christmas.

On New Years Eve, I got a Facebook message from Rondy, a pastor who is on staff with Ken at our church, asking if we would be interested in adopting from a Jamaican woman who was planning on giving her twins (due in May) up for adoption. Her home had been flooded in the May floods, and her husband had left her and gone to Ghana. She had a 5-year-old already, and wasn’t prepared to care for twins.

Then 30 minutes later, we got a call about an 8-year-old girl who needed a placement through DCS.

In less than an hour we went from discouraged to delighted. Our only problem? How to decide?

We had not considered infants before — mostly because infants aren’t generally “in need.” There are many people who will adopt infants, and the wait is usually long, and can be difficult and disappointing. But after all of the frightening stories we had heard about children in the foster care system during PATH training, and the situations we had encountered doing respite, the thought of adopting infants seemed refreshing.

We knew very little about the 8-year-old girl, but everything we knew, we loved. I’m sure she wasn’t perfect, but it seemed like a very good situation.

During the next few weeks, our phone became increasingly busy. We had a couple adoptive placement offers, but the placements involved children who we did not think we could parent, even though we had very few criteria. There were also respite calls that were likely going to be pre-adoptive — including one for a sibling group of four! Then we found a sibling group of two elementary aged boys who were with another agency, and were academically gifted, and we put in our home study to be considered for them. And one child in another region was being considered for transfer to our region so he could be placed in our home. How could we decide between all of these!?

We decided . . . not to decide. We decided to open doors, and let God close them. So we prayed that God would point us in the right direction, and cooperated with every process we were asked to participate in. Over the next few weeks, it became increasingly clear which door God was going to leave open.

Holding Our Breath for . . . No One

Once Thanksgiving break was over, we knew that it would only be a short amount of time before we got an adoption placement call. Our social worker told us that the agency was very excited about getting kids into our home, and our phone would be ringing off the hook! After all, there are so many kids who are in need of a permanent home!

We did start to get phone calls, but they were not adoptive placements, but respite placements. Respite is when foster parents give other foster parents a break, or offer childcare if a foster family needs to go out-of-state. Respite placements can also sometimes be to evaluate whether a child and a family will be a good fit for a long-term placement, such as an adoptive placement.

We had two respite placements before Christmas, and enjoyed them both immensely. But any long-term sort of arrangement was not available, and as we approached Christmas, we recognized that our hopes of having a child in our home for Christmas were not going to be realized.

We also began to hear from other foster families about their experience with adoption. Some adoptive families had been taking respite placements for years, in the hopes that they would eventually get an adoptive placement. Unfortunately, it seemed that the philosophy that “children are best raised by their birth parents” was more ingrained into the fabric of the foster-to-adopt system than I thought. We began to see a different picture of the world of adopting through foster care. Birth parent rights were so heavily weighted against foster parent rights that I began to realize that Ken and I had a fundamental difference from the Department of Children’s Services (who oversees Youth Villages) in how we believed children should be protected and raised.

Disappointed in our new findings and our empty home, we decided to spend Christmas on the beach in Florida. Away from Tennessee, away from the adoption world, away from just about everything — except our laptops and our dogs. We needed to think and pray about where God was leading us.

The PATH to Parenting

On October 2, 2010 we were anxious and excited to begin our PATH classes. We gathered together with about 20 other people — both singles and couples– to receive training to become foster parents.

We soon learned that the process of adoption through the State of  Tennessee was really only through foster care, and that foster parents were given first priority in adopting a child who was already in their home if the birth parents’ rights were terminated. “Children are best raised by their birth parents,” was the mantra of Youth Villages, which I found curious, since we were there to pursue adoption.

In the first class, the social worker asked if there were any particular children we were interested in adopting. Again, we mentioned the lovely young lady on the Youth Villages website. “I’m not sure if she’s still available,” she answered. “I sit in on placement team meeting and we’ve not discussed her in a long time. Is there anyone else you’re interested in?”

Actually, there was. On the website there was an elementary aged sibling pair — with freckled noses, strawberry blonde hair, and crystal blue eyes, they looked like they could be ours!  They were no longer available either.

Eventually, we realized that by the time the children were placed on the website, they likely already had placements, and that was okay but I should stop feeling attached to pictures on a website.

By the middle of the first session, the social worker recommended that we go ahead and prepare our homes for incoming children because there would be some of us who would have children in our homes before class even ended in mid-November!

We took the list of requirements for becoming a Youth Villages home with us, and went to work on it. New fire extinguishers, moving flammable materials outside, putting all medications under double locks, rules posted in every room, a fire escape plan on the refrigerator. We bought bunk beds and two sets of gender-neutral bedding. We planned on turning our TV room into another bedroom if we got two children of opposite gender, or having them share a room if they were the same and within 3 years of age of each other.  Then we worked on paperwork: essays about why we wanted to adopt, our childhood memories, budget worksheets, photographs of ourselves and our home, references, and on and on and on.

One of the toughest things we had to decide was what kinds of children we did not feel like we could best parent. Our social worker recommended that we be as open as possible. So we were. Out of the pages and pages of potential disabilities, criminal activities, and behavioral problems listed, we selected just a few that we felt would be not a good fit: a smoker (because of my asthma), and a child who had themselves molested other children. One of our greatest desires, though, was to help a child go to college, and since my tuition remission benefit at work is so unique, we added severe mental disability. Our social worker told us that because we were so open, she was sure that we would have children in our home by Christmas, but of course it could not be guaranteed.

We laughed and learned through the PATH classes and made some wonderful friends. Youth Villages did a great job of preparing us for some very frightening circumstances. There were many times during the class that Ken and I wondered if we could indeed make it as foster parents. Were we experienced enough? Were we too naive? We decided that we sincerely wanted to try, knowing that God would give us strength and wisdom as we needed it.

By the day before Thanksgiving, we were the first couple in our PATH class to have our homestudy complete and be certified as foster parents. We were ready for the parenting to begin!

Beginning a New PATH

After not hearing a response from DCS, I began to search on my own for other ways to find out about this young lady. So as any laptop-wielding person would do: I googled her. I searched on adoption blogs. I scoured the internet . . . and I found her! To my surprise, she showed up on the website of Youth Villages! She was listed there as being one of their children who was available for adoption.

I called Youth Villages, and within 12 hours, two different social workers from the agency had called me. They spent a couple of hours on the phone with me, asking me questions, orienting me to how they work with DCS, and finally asking me if Ken and I could come in for an orientation meeting. Of course, I said yes! I did let them know that there was a particular young lady we were interested in from their website. They indicated they would check to see if she was still available. (As of this writing, this young lady is still on their website as being available for adoption.)

Ken and I attended the orientation, and learned more about the process of adopting through the foster care system. To our surprise, adoption through foster care is completely free, and there is even a daily stipend given to support the child until the adoption takes place. How incredible! One of our biggest concerns about international adoption was the expense!

Youth Villages made us aware that they dealt with children who were considered difficult to place, but often that was merely because of their age. We didn’t have a problem with adopting older children, and we could see ourselves adopting more than one. Youth Villages was clearly pleased and asked if we would consider filling out an application, and beginning their free “Parents as Tender Healers” classes (PATH), which were required by the State of Tennessee for adoptive families.

Before the end of our orientation session, we had filled out an application and were signed up for PATH classes, beginning the first weekend of October. We were excited that we had officially begun the process!

The Search Begins

After the adoption meeting at our church in July of 2010, I asked Ken what type of adoption he wanted to pursue. My only requirement for adoption was to help a child in need — I didn’t care as much where the child came from, how old they were, or why they were available for adoption. But still we had to start somewhere, so I asked Ken what he thought. “Why don’t we look at international adoption?” he replied.

Of course, I began furiously researching international adoption programs. I asked for recommendations from friends, looked at what agencies were local, and spent much time online. It became increasingly apparent that the state of international adoption was very much in transition, and Tennessee’s record of international adoption “incidents” didn’t help. But there were other problems. We were already too old for some programs. Some programs excluded me because of my asthma, even though it’s now well-controlled. Some of the programs had income requirements that we’ll never meet. Most of the programs had extended waiting times. All of the programs were extremely expensive.

With some discouragement, I reported to Ken that it looked difficult, but doable. Our biggest concern was the cost. We knew that God could provide through fundraisers, taking on extra jobs, or by borrowing the money, but the process was daunting.

I brought up the State of Tennessee website where I had been looking at profiles of children available for adoption. I told him about how many children were looking for a home. They weren’t young children, but many of them seemed to have so much potential. I have a free tuition benefit by working at Trevecca, and maybe we would be able to give a teen a chance to go to college who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. There was one particular girl who had caught our attention: she was a lovely Christian young girl who leads children’s programs at her church, and served as a camp counselor for troubled girls in the summer. I found a video interview she had done with a news station. She had been through so much heartache in her young life, and just wanted to help others who were in similar circumstances.

We were so taken with this girl, that we had to figure out how to adopt her. From what we knew, she seemed like a great fit for our family.

So we laid our international adoption plans aside, and I decided to call Department of Children’s Services, and left a message indicating our interest in adopting through them.

They never returned my call.