Temporary daughters: What happens when adoption falls apart

     Kipp Jarecke-Cheng and his partner with their adopted children. Their daughter's birthmother later changed her mind and decided to parent the child after all. (Image courtesy of Kipp Jarecke-Cheng.)

    Kipp Jarecke-Cheng and his partner with their adopted children. Their daughter's birthmother later changed her mind and decided to parent the child after all. (Image courtesy of Kipp Jarecke-Cheng.)

    Last October, we received the call from our adoption agency that all adoptive parents hope and wait for. But our story doesn’t have a happy ending.

    For the past two years, my partner and I have been in pursuit of adopting our second child through domestic open adoption. Since spring 2012, we’ve been “in the books,” which means our profile is available for a birthmother (and a birthfather) to view, and if they like what they see, they’ll place their baby with us.

    Last October, we received “the call” from our adoption agency telling us that a baby girl was born in Bethlehem, Pa., and her birthparents chose us to be her forever parents. It’s the call that all adoptive parents hope and wait for.

    But our story doesn’t have a happy ending. Five days after we were given custody of a beautiful, perfect baby girl, we got a follow-up call from our adoption agency telling us that our temporary daughter’s birthparents had changed their minds and decided to parent their daughter after all.

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    Disruption, disappointment

    In adoption parlance, it’s called a disruption. That’s when a placement goes haywire and adoptive parents must return to her birthparents a child that they had grown to love and cherish.

    I wrote about the loss of our first temporary daughter on my blog, and the outpouring of support that we received was humbling. Few people, however, including many members of our extended family and even some of our closest friends, know that this past April, my partner and I were placed with another baby girl, one who we cared for and loved for nearly four weeks—until our second temporary daughter’s birthmother changed her mind as well. We were six days away from termination of parental rights being finalized.

    Receiving that call was like the Bizarro World opposite of the initial call that a birthmother had chosen us to be her child’s forever parents. The overwhelming joy and gratitude that I felt was erased in an instant, replaced by a despair and then a rage so deep and furious that I could feel the ache in my bones.

    The loss of any child is heart wrenching and soul crushing, but the loss of a child through a disrupted adoption is fraught with conflicted emotions. Unlike the miscarriage or death of a child, there is some solace in the fact that the child is alive and well, and (hopefully) will live to her fullest potential with her parents. Still, it’s difficult to know that out there in the world there is a child who could have been ours, whose life we could have affected in so many good ways — and vice versa.

    The first question people ask about our disruptions is whether it’s legal for birthparents to change their minds. The answer is yes, of course it’s legal. In Pennsylvania, the waiting period before termination of parental rights is final is 30 days. At any time during that period, birthparents have the legal right to change their minds, for whatever reason, no questions asked. The second question people ask is why the birthmothers changed their minds. I don’t know the answer, and frankly, it’s none of my business.

    Going into the adoption process, we always knew that there was the risk of a disruption. While we had statistics on our side — less than 10 percent of domestic open adoptions end in disruption — I never imagined that we’d fall into that small statistical gap, not once but twice.

    Distress, also hope

    While I could quantify the financial toll and the reels of red tape that the disruptions have imposed on my family, the considerable expenses and logistical aftermath don’t compare to the devastating emotional price that we’ve paid.

    Both losses have been horrible for my partner and me, but they’ve been especially heartbreaking for our 6-year-old son, who is also adopted. Since the disruptions, he has asked us on multiple occasions, “How come every time I have a baby sister, the birthparents and the adoption agency take her back?” It’s a simple question with no easy answers.

    As a father, I’ve learned that there is uncertainty in all of the decisions that we make for our children. For birthparents making an adoption plan for a child, I imagine that the uncertainty never fades. How could it? I’m sure they wonder their entire lives if they made the “right” decision to place their child with an adoptive family. But adoptive parents struggle with our own set of uncertainties. We wonder whether we are ever good enough to have the privilege of parenting a child who is (rightly) forever linked to another family. We wonder if this child will love us as unconditionally as we always will love her. We wonder if we are always doing right by our child’s first families as well as our own families.

    There are days when I barely think about the baby girls that I had the great honor of calling my daughters. Then there are days when the memory of their happy, beautiful faces and the thought of what could have been are all-consuming. I suppose if I were being honest, I’d say that I still spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my temporary daughters, probably more than is either healthy or productive. The heart wants what the heart wants, I suppose.

    But I know it’s time to move on. Whenever feelings of sadness or anger threaten to overwhelm, I remember that we were lucky to have had these precious girls in our lives — if only for a moment. And as much as I have wished that circumstances were different or that the birthparents would change their minds again, I know that’s unlikely. I hope our temporary daughters will lead wonderful lives, and maybe one day when they are old enough, their parents will tell them about how deeply and profoundly another family once loved them, too, if only temporarily.

    Kipp Jarecke-Cheng writes about the joys and terrors of being a dad to his precocious six-year-old son at Lazy Dad’s Guide to Everything.

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