Almost despairing

She’s a natural. No, really.

For a couple years, our Saturday mornings were all about hip hop dance. Ron and I would take turns (depending on whatever else was going on) taking the kids to classes at Supreme Dance Studio, where I looked forward to seeing my kids enjoy a serious workout while gaining some great skills and a bit of finesse. I also looked forward to chatting with other grown-ups, especially another mom of a transracial adoptee. This mom had gone with an international adoption, she confided, because she needed more certainty in the process: there were set forms and fees, a certain amount of time before getting approval and filling out more forms, etc. She needed to know, in short, how long she’d be waiting.

I could understand. The uncertainty of domestic adoption is not for everyone. In fact, I’m kind of surprised any of us make it through the process unscarred. From the time that we completed our trainings, evaluations, forms, payments, etc., until we held Dawn in our arms was actually only four or five months. It felt like decades.

Initially, it was an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions. To say that I cried every day is maybe an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Before our portfolio was shown to a prospective birthparent, we were told some basic facts about the situation and asked whether we wanted to be considered. We said yes every time – only to be told no, they had gone with someone else or decided to leave the program altogether.

As any new parent knows, I was an idiot. I should’ve been out living it up, packing in late-night concerts and shows, exploring the jazz clubs and all-night diners, in every corner of the city. Instead, after a dizzying rush to finish and defend my dissertation, I found myself in a kind of existential freefall. I applied for jobs but didn’t get interviews. I couldn’t even get volunteer organizations to call me back. I had too much time on my hands and no direction, which is a very weird place to be weeks before graduating with a doctorate. And as a result, all I could think about was the baby we couldn’t plan for.

It became harder and harder to get out of bed, to make a shopping list, to pay bills. Uncertainty and vagueness swallowed up my days, and crying was almost the only thing that helped. Ron’s unfailing optimism didn’t comprehend what I was experiencing, but he was patient and pulled us through to that amazing moment when our adoption counselor said, “She wants to meet you.”

A six-hour drive for a maybe? You bet!

2010

Ron very much wanted more kids and so, shortly after Dawn’s second birthday, we opened our search again. This was in 2010, and the adoption landscape had begun its radical transformation. There weren’t many birthparents choosing adoption, at least not through our agency. Our new counselor encouraged us to put up an online portfolio, but we were uncomfortable with the whole idea. This time, it was Ron who started to feel the despair. While my friends sent me encouraging articles about raising an only child, Ron became somewhat despondent, unwilling to concede his dream of a big, boisterous family but also feeling increasingly unable to make it happen. This sense worsened when, after meeting with a birthmom whose expected mixed-race baby seemed a perfect sister for our Dawn, she decided against us.

And then, on the Winter Solstice of 2010, a single phone call changed everything.

Choices

Written by Danelle Henden. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I wanted twins and I had the names picked out – the first name and the middle name but no last name as of yet. It is funny how life plays out. When I found out I was pregnant, I thought it was God’s idea of a cruel joke. I got exactly what I asked for when I was 9 but at a time when I couldn’t take care of them. I felt like a failure (I still do at times).

Almost one year old!

When you have to decide whose Ideals and morals will be the guiding force on how your child turns out, it’s one of the hardest decisions that could be made. However, as a birth mother I didn’t really get a long time to decide on what I wanted. I had very strong beliefs on a few things. I needed the family to believe in God, I needed it to be a two-parent household, and I needed them to be open to open adoption.

August 2020

Since I didn’t know that I was truly pregnant till around 22 to 23 weeks (as I was still getting a cycle, plus I had a week or two of denial as I felt things moving and kicking in there), I put it off but I finally went to a doctor. It took a few weeks to comprehend, then get connected with an agency once I made my choice to do adoption. I went into labor at about 30 weeks or so, which left me in the hospital picking portfolios.

I knew what my hard no’s were, and I was preparing myself to have to take these babies home as I refused to have them in the system. The social worker showed me 2 portfolios of families who wanted open adoption. I couldn’t hardly read them through my tears – I just prayed and looked at the photos. I told my social worker, “I just want to see the kids sometimes.” She took one portfolio back and said the Lundeens will be perfect.

Dusk on the Pacific, August 2020

Best decision ever!

Choosing to be chosen

Nothing kills a conversation quite like the topic of infertility, at least in my experience. Well-meaning but nosy older relative: “So why are you putting off having kids?” Me: “Actually, I had surgery for an ovarian cyst a couple months ago and…” Result: silence.

I learned pretty quickly to substitute this response: “Well, Ron and I haven’t quite figured out that sex thing yet.”

Alaska 2007

The experience of infertility lets you know, in no uncertain terms, that you don’t always get to choose how your life unfolds. Choices that you took for granted might not be options at all. When it became clear that several thousand dollars and at least two surgeries stood between us and a possible pregnancy, we decided to pursue adoption instead.

Far from being a final choice, that was just the start of a whole labyrinth of further decisions. Domestic or international? If domestic, foster or private? If private, which agency—or no agency? Infant or older? Single or siblings? Open or closed? Interracial? Disabled?

Corn maze!

Some of these decisions were easy: either one of us had a firm opinion that the other didn’t oppose, or we somehow already agreed. Ron very much wanted an infant, as close to birth as possible, and that desire made other choices for us. Primarily, it determined that we should go with a domestic adoption. Another easy decision for us was which genders and races we would consider. Ron and I were on the same page here—the answer was any! It didn’t seem right to us to judge a baby based on either of these factors. (Looking back, I realize that we were naïve, and deeply privileged, to think that it didn’t matter, because we can’t fully comprehend what our kids experience in growing up non-white and with relatively clueless white parents to boot. But that understanding wouldn’t have changed our response.)

Other choices caused days of debate and soul-searching. I was hurt by Ron’s refusal to consider a disabled child, for example, given the fact that I was a disabled child myself and that disability can happen anytime to anyone. For his part, Ron didn’t understand why I wanted an open adoption. He hadn’t talked to as many adoptees, nor did he have that felt sense that a mother should be allowed to see her child, no matter the circumstances. Fortunately, he came around on that one.

But, again, we weren’t really in the driver’s seat. Our choices would only get us so far. At the time—namely, 2007—domestic infant adoption was expensive and unpredictable. We did our part: medical and psychological evaluations, background checks, parent trainings, home inspections. We put together a portfolio with about a dozen pages of pictures and a page where we tried to sound exciting and full of adventure, rather than old and desperate.

And we waited. Our fate was out of our hands—which is a totally dramatic overstatement, but one that is somehow totally accurate, too.

Somebody in your corner

Written by Danelle Henden. One of the most consistent questions I get, once I tell someone my story, is, “Did you have any support?” The answer… Not really! I was totally in the closet about my pregnancy. I was very fearful of people’s opinions of me if they found out. I was a first-generation college student, and everyone had high hopes for me. Everyone expected me to go places, and here I was staring at being a statistic. I wasn’t going to finish college — I had no degree, no job, no car, and no place to live. So it was back with my mom. I managed to hide my pregnancy from a mother, from my friends, and from all my family.

I finally broke down and told one of my closest friends, Whitney. The amusing thing (but not really) about it is, the day after I told her, my water broke. As someone who went through all of my pregnancy without any real support, I can testify that it is immensely important to have somebody in your corner, if only just to listen to you. I neglected to do that for myself. I can say that pregnancy was one of the worst moments of my life. It’s like I put myself on a boat with no paddles and I expected to travel. However, obviously, I didn’t get very far.

After I told Whitney, she came to the hospital to see me the next day. She reacted as I thought she would — she was very shocked and surprised but supportive nonetheless.

When I gave birth the next day (two days after being admitted) at 5 in the morning, there was no one there with me in the hospital. It’s a bit terrifying after the fact. I remember the chill that I had after having the babies as the doctors tried to staunch the blood loss. I remember my eyes felt so heavy that I can hardly remember the blood transfusion that was necessary. It’s scary to think I could have been gone from this world and only one person would have known to inform my family. To think, if I’d waited any longer to tell her, no one would have known.

I say all this to say: it’s okay to ask for help! It’s okay to ask a loved one or friend for support! It is okay and it is necessary to have someone in your corner. Doing everything alone is just contrary to who we are as humans. We are social creatures, we desire other people in our lives, and we need their support.

I learned that the hard way, and I’m writing it down so maybe someone else doesn’t have to.

A few months later….

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Caregiver

When we brought Dawn home, we had three things prepared: a small bag of diapers, a hand-me-down bassinet, and a knit hat. Our adoption counselor had advised us against buying more things, in case Dawn’s birthmother changed her mind. We even had to borrow the car seat.

At the hospital, 2008

But that wasn’t the only way we were unprepared. I remember reading that parents of newborns often dramatically underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation. Yup. We were also unprepared with any childcare plan other than ourselves. I took a maternity leave of sorts, in that I was supposed to teach Women in Literature for the first summer term and gave up the class. I wasn’t assigned any further courses for the year, and so – given that Ron needed to keep working – I was pretty much Dawn’s only care provider. A stay-at-home parent of a newborn may dramatically underestimate how difficult this newfound position is. We did not want to make this mistake twice, especially with twins.

 Fortunately, a friend of a friend knew someone who might help. Were we interested in a few hours a week with an African-American grandmother who had made it her mission to help white adoptive parents with their newborns?

And how!

We knew we needed support, if just so I could get a nap or run to the drugstore. But we didn’t know that we also needed a cultural education. Melanin dries skin out – unlike Dawn, my twins needed sensitive-skin baby wash and an oil-drum-sized bottle of baby oil. And the hair moisturizers? Almost a degree program itself. Those little baby brushes with the silky bristles? Pointless.

Not often Dani’s favorite thing

And then there was that exceptional care. Bathing, feeding, getting them to sleep – she had so much to teach me! And she was truly the baby whisperer – she would calm the fussiest child, which is what Darnell was after a bath (that kid really hated water). She was so particular about their food, their clothes, their schedule. She touched every part of our lives, even stepping in to help with the laundry or dishes. And it was an utter godsend, especially once I did go back to teaching.

But this was only the beginning — she had even more to teach us. Born in Kansas City in the first wave of the baby boom, she had had a front-row seat for the Civil Rights era. She had captivating stories of struggle and of triumph. I mentioned in an earlier post that this wasn’t her first career. She had retired from an oil company, where she had been “the first Black woman” over and over again. Her favorite first was her position as the front-door receptionist. She read the Wall Street Journal every morning, in order to make polite conversation – and to stick it to the blowhards (and racists) who assumed she was just a pretty face.

And, astonishingly, she had also been adopted. What an amazing gift, to bring that additional wisdom and experience into our lives! Her adoptive parents (who were distantly related to her birthmother) didn’t tell her until she was sixteen, when they sprung the situation on her over Sunday dinner. As I remember the story, her response was along the lines of, “Well, that figures. Please pass me the chicken.”

She had built a solid relationship with her birthmother as an adult, a journey which she shared with me – and she shared memory after memory of her beloved adoptive mom, too. Her relationship with us has evolved, from the hands-on care of those early years to one of mentorship and support from afar. I think of her as my second mother. And as she herself said, she will always be our Wonder Woman!

We love you, Marie!

Unconventional Triplets

2014

Written by Danelle Henden. When you go through an adoption process, you focus a lot on losing your kids, losing the opportunities. However, in my experience, I have gained a kid to love. My relationship with Dawn was a bit touch and go at first. She was so smart and so expressive, but I could tell when she would see me and wonder where her birthmom was. I remember the dread in my heart from the look in her eyes. I just knew that, if she started having issues with me being there, I may not be able to come around anymore for her emotional well-being.

I started to empathize with how she must feel, and it strengthened my resolve to never allow the twins to feel that from me. It also empowered me to help Dawn know that she was loved. She became my little buddy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I would make sure to include her in all the things I did. I wanted her to know that I wasn’t just an adult that cared about the twins. I cared about all of them. I would make sure to bring Dawn a small gift on the twin’s birthday, especially since I usually was not in the states to attend her birthday.

I was an only child, so I never got the sibling experience, and being around all the kids makes me extremely grateful that Dawn is there to help and teach the twins.

Halloween 2011

In my mind, Dawn is another child of mine, and I love her just as much as the children I gave birth to. It was Nelson Mandela who said, “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” I pray that I am a positive difference in all of the kids’ lives because they have certainly changed mine for the better

It’s not easy being Dawn

Dawn learned to crawl at 7 months. I am not exaggerating. She had been trying for a while, with various scoots and lurches. But then she observed the trot of my brother’s Pomeranian (a fluffball of very little brain) and something clicked. Again, I am not exaggerating. The poor dog had to learn to move faster to stay away from Dawn’s eager fingers.

Dawn & Evie, December 2008

Dawn has loved dogs from that day.

When she was a toddler, I used to take her to visit a friend’s dog, a beautiful retriever-shepherd mix with yellow fur, about once a week. We would also dog-sit a friendly golden retriever on occasion. It wasn’t until we moved to Skokie that we seriously considered getting our own dog, and we ended up with two, thanks to my aunt. They were absolutely the apple of Dawn’s eye. Sadly, one passed away last summer, but we had already given in to her pleas for another dog … not to mention the guinea pigs and chickens …

July 2020

Dawn’s love of animals is a refuge for her in her storm-tossed inner world. She is emotional about pretty much everything, even while complaining that her life “needs more drama.” And did I mention that she is still genuinely mourning the lack of real magic in the world? The smallest, simplest moment can unleash overwhelming emotion, and we are talking negative emotion. Sooner or later, she will say something that clues me in: whatever this appears to be about, it’s actually about abandonment.

For example, there was the recent dad-and-kids bike ride. Dawn did not want to go. She argued, pouted, cried, and shouted until she finally took off on her bike by herself. Ron shrugged and left with the twins. Twenty minutes later, I was holding a sobbing, thrashing twelve-year-old who was desperate to cross the highway on her own to find them. They had abandoned her, she kept saying. Even though she had thrown an hour-long fit and had left going who-knows-where and …

Yeah. Intense hardly begins to cover it.

Until learning about it from Joyce Pavao, I didn’t know that it’s very typical for adopted kids to have anxiety issues centered on loss and abandonment. It’s also typical for them to be packrats. Both are true for Dawn, whereas only the latter is true for all three of our kids. I credit the involvement of Danelle in her children’s lives for mitigating the former. And I give Danelle and her mother so much credit for always treating Dawn like their own. They have gone out of their way to make sure Dawn knows they love her, especially when it comes to presents – even on the twins’ birthday!

Dawn often feels “in between,” even though she’s the oldest child. She is literally in between child and teen – and she talks a lot about being a “tween.” She is the not-twin and the not-adult in the house, doing the hard work of figuring out who she is. To navigate these years, I would really love to have the insights that her birthmom might be able to share.

As it is, I am so grateful to have Danelle’s support in negotiating the choppy preteen waters. She has stepped up to being a mentor to Dawn, connecting with her over a mutual love of games and reading (they are both into fantasy books) and always offering an ear when Dawn most needs to be heard.

Do you have any kids?

Written by Danelle Henden. This is a hard question! Before becoming a birth mom, I easily answered this dating 101 question. Now, however, I feel funny with whatever answer I give. I’ve tried to find clever ways to answer it: “I’m not raising any kids yet,” or “I don’t have that responsibility as of right now,” or just “Sort of.” It doesn’t matter if I lie or tell the truth – I always feel like I must explain.

Questions are a fear of mine. When I chose adoption, I knew it was a bit taboo. In my community, there are two choices that people seem ready to acknowledge, abortion and parenting. I thought long and hard about both. I sat and looked up videos on one and read books on the other. Both options made me ill. I was mentally and emotionally broken. I think that was the closest I’ve ever come to that dangerous side of depression. I knew right then that the deep want, love, dreams, and amazement I felt weren’t enough. The fear, doubt, lack of direction, and crushing depression would keep me from being the parent they deserved.

Lunchtime! 2012

My fear, as I mentioned earlier, is questions. As much as I dislike answering questions for new people, the twins’ asking questions makes me downright fearful. The “why didn’t you keep us,” the “didn’t you want us,” and the “did you love us” questions – I utterly dread those. So, my plan was to be there as often as I was allowed so that any questions they had would be answered before they thought to ask them.

Christmas morning, 2018

I want to stress that not all birthmothers are created the same. We all have fears and ideals that lead to why we do things. Dawn, the oldest child, had an idea of what a birthmother is. Me showing up often provided her another opinion, and at times, I think it made things a bit more confusing for her. I didn’t want my choices to make her feel abandoned because, before me, her norm was that birthmoms go away. Since I had that fear, I didn’t go away.

Just know that by no means is it easy to stay and be committed to forming a relationship. It hurts – it’s like ripping the thread out of stitches before they have healed. Watching little people you created be transformed into someone else’s kids is unnerving. It’s a search to find where you fit, and if you fit at all. I cried, often, and I still cry at times.

Ron and Dani, 2012

I understand that this decision, the decision to be open, is intimidating. However, this is for the kids. I am not raising them, but I am still a mother – and I care about them more than myself. I dealt with the pain because, from the moment I had them, all my choices were about them having better lives. Again, birthmothers are human; we all have different motivators, goals, and ideals. I’m not sure how things would’ve worked out if I had been parenting already or if my fear of questions wasn’t as strong as it is.

Danelle & Darnell, April 2019

It was C.S. Lewis who said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” I think, in the beginning, the fear I had was grief. The reason I pushed myself was because I was grieving. I was grieving being a mom. However, I knew my life had changed, and I had to change with it. Another beautiful quote was by Lana Lang, who said, “Life is about change. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s beautiful. But most of the time, it’s both.” I have never read more truthful words.

“Don’t you want your own kids?”

As you likely know, attitudes towards adoption vary across cultures. I’ve heard, from a friend with firsthand knowledge of both, that Samoan and Yupik cultures are traditionally adoption-positive, whereas I had a Japanese student who wrote a research paper asserting that abortion is a far better solution to an unwanted pregnancy than adoption. (Yeah, that one stood out among my religiously conservative students’ abortion stances.) American attitudes are all over the place, with Danelle experiencing—as she alluded to—much less understanding than we have had. Even so, I have been asked, more than once and usually by strangers, “Didn’t you want your own kids?”

2014

Ron’s response is, “Yes, that’s why we adopted them.” I’ve usually come back with a curt and more defensive, “These are my own kids.” I don’t tend to add the obvious, such as, I’m the one that’s had to tell them no about a hundred times since we walked into this store, right?

Yes, the question has to do with passing on your DNA, or with the reflexive assumption that human narcissism is the only basis on which we love our children. Yes, it implies that adopted kids are somehow inferior—another version of this question, and I swear to God I have been asked this, is, “Do you have any real kids?”

Nope, just these robot ones.

2014

But it occurs to me now that there are more layers to this question than the ones that raise my hackles. Because it’s also a question about exactly how an open adoption works. Or it’s a good segue to that issue, anyway. There seems to be a concern that if kids know their birthparents, they can’t attach to their adoptive parents. Or that they’ll experience some confusion. I can see an analogy to the fear of bringing up a kid bilingually. Won’t they be confused and never speak either language? Remarkably, no—instead, as research shows, you end up with a bilingual person. And this is where Dr. Joyce Pavao’s terrific phrase “complex blended family” comes into play. (I promise to elaborate on this in a future post.)

It also occurs to me that this same question is an even harder one when put to a birthparent, perhaps especially a birthmom. Not wanting to answer it may be a reason that so many birthparents are not “out” about their experiences. But not having an answer to it is one of the things that makes Dawn’s adoption experience so much harder than my twins’. The twins can find reassurance daily, if they need it, that their birthmother loves them. They can reach out to her whatever their mood. She puts up with a lot of goofy videos via Marco Polo, and she also listens when they feel wronged or misunderstood. (As I may have already mentioned, Danelle is the best listener!)

2013

For Dawn, instead, there is a big empty space, one that no one else can fill. We have repeated the story of meeting her birthmom so many times—just meeting the birthmom even once designates an adoption as “open.” We have told her how much she was loved—how the entire decision (to place her with us) was motivated by love. Dawn has a single, wallet-sized picture, from 2007 or so, of her birthmom and half-sister. It’s in a beautiful frame at the side of her bed.

Every year, we send our Christmas card and letter to Dawn’s birthmom. (We’ve never had any contact from the birthfather, although our lawyer reported an effort from him to disrupt the adoption finalization.) Around Dawn’s birthday, I try to get my act together enough to send an additional letter, just about her. We’ve never received anything back, although we said yes to receiving letters and even gifts. We do know, from the agency, that Dawn’s birthmom has received the letters. Once, I sent her my phone number and email, inviting her to reach out. Instead of hearing from her, I got a call from the agency. “Why would you do that?” demanded an irritated voice. Um, because I want this to be an actual open adoption, maybe? I don’t remember what I did say at the time, but I remember her response: “Well, you just let me know, if you do hear from her.”

2014

Sadly, we still haven’t.

Danelle’s Story, Part 2

Written by Danelle Henden

Almost dying during childbirth isn’t fun. Especially when no one in your family knows you were in the hospital and you don’t get the joy of taking your babies home. Some say grief is like a blanket, but for me, grief was like an ocean—and guess what? I can’t swim.

The 10-day stay at the hospital with the twins was horrific and resplendent for me. I stayed in the hospital with them for two days as I recovered from my blood transfusion. I would trek down to the NICU even once I went home. I would show up and stare at their little faces while nurses whispered and gave advice that I should rethink my adoption idea. Doubt, despair, anger, and depression encompassed me and held me tight. I tried to put on a good face when the adoptive parents were there, but it hurt. The doctors asked me to pump, as it would be good for the twins, so I would go home, pump in secret, and go to the hospital and pump. They would let me hold them with all the little wires coming out everywhere. I got to feed them, and look at those beautiful little faces I created, and cry.

A part of me is still crying and will always cry about the lost moments and missed motherhood. But I know I wasn’t ready emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially. Stephanie and Ron seemed like nice people, but at that time, they were just a countdown for me. It was wrong for me to want my babies to stay in the NICU for longer, but I had no guarantee that I would ever see them again once they left. So, when they left the hospital and communication was scarce, I thought: this is it, this is life now. I was sure that I wouldn’t see my kids again.

I was wrong. I know now getting an adoption finalized, settling in with two newborn babies while already having a toddler, and trying to bond as a family can take a minute. I know that now, in hindsight, but at the time, as I said, grief was an ocean.

We had our first two meetings at the adoption agency. It was very special to me. I got to know a bit about the two people I have picked for Dani and Darnell, and they were great people. After that, they decided to just invite me to their home. We got along great, especially once we found we had things in common. Eventually, I started to come to hang with the grownups more than the kids. It was amazing. I remember Ron had a family member or friend who asked if they were scared that I might kidnap the kids. To which Ron said, “Well, if she was to kidnap them, she’s the best person to do it, as she loves them (true), she doesn’t have the finances to get very far (very true), and she would never hurt them (especially true).” Hahaha.

I have no idea when I truly bonded with Ron and Stephanie. It could have been the frequent photos they sent, the fact that they trusted me enough to let me know where they live, the passion with which they showed they wanted me involved, them letting me bond with Dawn, or the extensive board game collection they have. Who knows what the reason was, but I am glad I have them all. They are my family! I often think I had triplets and one was just older and lighter than the other two, because I love Dawn that much as well. We have all blended so perfectly, and I couldn’t imagine not knowing any of them.

I love quotes, and it was the late, great Tupac who said, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping its dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete.” This situation is concrete: birthmothers are not given a fair shake sometimes. So, this wall, this concrete that people say is necessary for the adoption process to function can be false. Ron and Stephanie planted seeds, despite it being concrete and despite what others said, and they got a rose. We have formed something people like to think is impossible, but it happens. I have heard stories and seen the roses growing. I thought I was losing my babies, but I gained a family, and I’d call that a win.