Adopting a child is such a powerful, emotional experience that it's hard for parents to put it into words. But we got four families -- who adopted in different ways -- to tell us what it's like.
Everything in this slideshow
Erin and John Anhalt: Open Adoption
The couple, who live in the Florida panhandle, had endured multiple miscarriages before choosing to adopt domestically. They completed the process through an agency and brought home their newborn girl. But four days later they received devastating news: The biological mother had decided to raise the child herself. The agency had warned the Anhalts that some birth moms change their mind after the baby has been placed. (In their case, the biological mother had delayed signing away her rights, which was probably a clue to her intentions.) But it was one more setback for the Anhalts. "You have this baby, in your home, in your arms. You think that she is your daughter," says Erin. "And then she isn't."
Fortunately, the Anhalts -- Erin, 28, worked in retail sales, and John, 29, is an officer in the Navy -- didn't have to grieve their loss for long. Within a month, the agency set up a meeting with a 24-year-old woman who was in her seventh month of pregnancy. The couple spent several weeks getting to know her and asking probing questions. "We wanted to make sure that no one was pressuring her to give up the baby and that she'd thought about the emotional impact of doing so," says Erin. "We felt confident that she had, and she chose us to be the adoptive parents."
Both women had good reasons for wanting an open adoption. The birth mother was an adoptee herself. And Erin had never met her father, who vanished soon after her mom became pregnant. Erin and the birth mom connected right away. She and John drove several hours to attend the birth mom's ob-gyn visits, and they joined her in the delivery room. But as Erin left the hospital with Alison in her arms, she felt strangely conflicted. "I was thrilled about having a baby," she says, "but I felt real sadness for the birth mom's loss, because we'd made a real connection."
Their friendship has blossomed during the last two years. Erin talks to the birth mom several times a week and shares every detail of Alison's life as a toddler. Each has met the other's extended family, and they exchange birthday and Christmas gifts. Still, the Anhalts stress that they aren't coparenting. "To Allie, Erin is 'Mommy.' Her birth mom is more like a member of our extended family," says John. Both sides are committed to making the dynamic work, for their child's sake. "Alison is a very happy kid," says Erin. "I'm grateful that she'll always know her adoption story and how much she is loved by her birth mom."
Gretchen and Justin McWhorter: Semi-Open Adoption
The Atlanta couple had tried to get pregnant for a year, then endured two years of failed fertility treatments. Finally, they decided to adopt domestically -- but not without reservations. Gretchen, 30, a publicist, and Justin, 32, an executive recruiter, worried that they might have a long wait and were intimidated about maintaining a relationship with the birth mother. "We had some concerns," says Gretchen. "Wouldn't it be confusing to the child?" And what if the birth mom decided to take the baby away from them?
Since most birth mothers insist on at least some contact, the McWhorters finally settled on "semi-open" adoption: They would agree to meet the birth mother beforehand and send periodic notes about their child's progress. A friend referred the couple to an adoption agency, which had them create a "profile," a book of photos and letters designed to show that they would make suitable parents ("It was like putting together a scrapbook of our lives," says Gretchen). A month later, they received word that a single woman in her early 20s, in her last trimester of pregnancy, wanted to speak to them. "I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing," says Gretchen. But the two women hit it off, and within two weeks the birth mom picked the couple to be the adoptive parents. It was an exceptionally fast agreement -- private domestic matches often take a year or longer.
The McWhorters met the birth mother for dinner shortly before her due date and were by her side when she went into labor. "I kept saying to her, 'Kick me out at any point. I don't have to be here.' But she wanted us to stay," says Gretchen. The birth mom had Justin cut the cord, then invited Gretchen to give baby Elizabeth her first bottle. She let the newborn spend her first night with the couple (who stayed in an adjacent hospital room) and signed away her rights the next day. "Everyone was crying when we left," Gretchen recalls, "except the baby."
But it wasn't really a goodbye. Gretchen sends e-mails and photos of Elizabeth (who's now 11 months old) every week. And having read research that shows adopted children do better when they learn about their birth parents, she isn't ruling out the possibility of inviting the birth mom to visit them one day. "I believe it's in Elizabeth's best interest for us to be more open," Gretchen says. "And that's what matters most."
Erna Naert and Edward Hiar: Foster Care Adoption
By the time the Lynwood, Washington, couple decided they wanted a child, Erna was nearly 41, so adoption was the most logical option. They heard through relatives about a pregnant teenager who planned to give up her baby. After meeting her and her parents, a match was made. But the teen decided to raise the child by herself. Deeply disappointed, the couple -- Erna, now 45, a technology consultant, and Edward, 40, a development director at a software firm -- chose to adopt through foster care. This route offered several benefits: a relatively short waiting period (placement often occurs within months), lower costs ($2,500 or less), and state adoption subsidies (these vary depending on the special needs of the child). But it's not for everyone. Most foster-care kids are school-age, and some carry the emotional scars of having been neglected or abused by their parents. Erna and Edward weren't scared off. "It's no different from what some children in orphanages overseas have been through," says Erna. "And at least you get a detailed history of the child."
Soon after completing their paperwork last summer, the couple received a call about Christian, a 4-year-old boy whose mother was a drug addict and whose father was in prison. They were told that Christian exhibited "defiant behaviors." But they were drawn to him. "He was playing with the other kids at his temporary foster home, but then he'd run back to sit beside us and show us a toy," says Edward. "He seemed like a normal, sweet kid." When they returned a week later to bring Christian home, they met his 8-year-old half sister, Kai. "It was supposed to be their goodbye visit," says Erna. "But after watching the two play and laugh together, Ed said, 'You know they will be separated forever.' And I said, 'I know. What do you think?' He said, 'We should adopt Kai.' And I said, 'Sure,' and that was it."
Erna and Edward have been stabilizing forces in their kids' lives. Kai was recently diagnosed with a visual processing disorder, so they hired tutors and helped her do eye exercises to correct the problem. Now she's reading at grade level. Christian acts out a lot less than he did in his old home. At 5 he's already an avid reader. "Being a parent is the most important thing I will ever do," says Erna. "There's a simple joy in seeing our kids sleep peacefully in their beds -- because I know the chaos they lived in before."
Laurie and Travis Good: International Adoption
The Denver couple always wanted to raise a child from Vietnam. Laurie, 28, a recent medical-school graduate, and Travis, 29, a medical-school student, had traveled extensively in the country and felt drawn to its people and culture. But they knew that internationally adopted children can be at risk for physical and psychological problems, so they hoped to have a biological child first. "We thought we'd be better equipped to deal with the potential challenges once we had some experience as parents," says Laurie.
But after having trouble conceiving, they accelerated their adoption plans and received a referral for a boy within six months (the wait for a girl from Vietnam was 18 months or longer). Upon arriving at the orphanage in the town of Vung Tau, they were ushered into a room where a worker thrust 5-month-old Jackson into Laurie's arms, then showed the couple the door. "They basically tossed us the baby and said, 'Good luck,'" says Laurie. "We didn't know anything about his feeding schedule, his naps, his needs."
The first few months were tough because Jackson had serious attachment issues. He wouldn't make eye contact, arched his back to avoid hugs, and wailed inconsolably. Bedtime was a two-hour ordeal: He'd pull at his hair and scratch his skin before finally going to sleep. The couple consulted a social worker to ease the transition, and gradually Jackson's behavior improved. Within a year the Goods were ready to adopt a second child. And then they got the news that Laurie was pregnant. "Until I heard the heartbeat, I didn't really believe it," says Travis. But they moved ahead with their second adoption, returning to Vietnam last December to meet 6-month-old Shane. He was affectionate right away. The Goods spent four hours playing with him and felt ready to take him home.
Only they couldn't. Because of diplomatic conflicts, the Good family stayed in Vietnam for seven weeks waiting for approval. "I would never have asked for this delay," says Laurie, "but in the end it gave us all time to bond with Shane." Soon after returning to the States they had another family addition: Finley, their daughter, was born in March. While the boys are still getting used to sharing attention with their baby sister, the Goods are starting to feel settled. "The biggest thing is making one-on-one time so each child feels special," Laurie says. "It's a lot of work, but we're happy with the family we've built."
More About Domestic Adoption
Good for: Couples who prefer to adopt a newborn and feel it's important to have a detailed medical history of the birth parents.
Be aware: Prospective parents must put together a profile designed to impress birth moms. Depending on the arrangement, you may need to update the biological mother about your child or maintain an ongoing relationship after the birth. Plus, the number of U.S. women putting their babies up for adoption is declining.
Wait time: It varies from a few months to several years. Couples older than 40 and those requesting a specific gender or race tend to wait the longest.
Cost: $10,000 to $40,000
First step: Couples who need help being matched usually go through an adoption agency. Make sure the one you pick is licensed, and check its references. Those who find a birth mom on their own will need an adoption attorney. You can find one in your area through the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (adoptionattorneys.org).
More About International Adoption
Good for: People who are at ease raising a child of a different nationality and prefer not to have direct contact with the birth mother.
Be aware: International adoptions have declined during the past three years, and countries can suspend programs at any time (as Vietnam did recently). Some countries have added tougher restrictions (China now bans gay and single parents, as well as those above a specified body mass index or below a certain income level).
Wait time: Adoptions from Ethiopia and Russia usually take less than a year. Korean and Vietnamese adoptions typically take up to 18 months, and the wait can be up to three years for a child from China.
Cost: $10,000 to $40,000
First step: Choose an accredited agency with a strong placement record that complies with The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (which requires training for prospective parents and open bookkeeping). Avoid agencies that charge the entire fee up front, as many have closed without warning recently.
More About Foster Care Adoption
Good for: Prospective parents who don't want to spend a lot of money and are comfortable adopting a preschooler or school-age child rather than a baby.
Be aware: Nearly half of all foster children available for adoption are minorities, almost two-thirds are age 6 or older, and many have been victims of parental neglect or abuse.
Wait time: Placement is often possible within months, though formalizing the adoption can take a year or longer.
Cost: Up to $2,500, though the fees are frequently waived. States also provide monthly childcare subsidies until the adoption is finalized and, in some cases, additional financial support afterward.
First step: Most foster-care adoptions are handled through public agencies, though some states contract with licensed private ones. A good starting point is AdoptUsKids (adoptuskids.org), which provides online photo listings of children who are waiting for a permanent family and links to services and agencies in each state.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Parents magazine.