Meet three families who chose open adoption (they keep in touch with the birth mother) and see how they make it work.

Hands holding paper cut off of family
Credit: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Raising a Southern Gentleman

For Katy Lawrence, a 19-year-old high school senior with an unplanned pregnancy, the hardest thing about giving her son up for adoption wasn't handing him over to Monica and Rodney Rogers; it was the drive home from the hospital afterward. "Your arms feel empty," she says. "It feels like a baby should be there, and it's not."

Although she'd chosen the Rogers, a couple from South Carolina, to adopt her son, had met them several times, and had exchanged innumerable emails and calls, the day she gave birth, she didn't know when her next communication with them would be.

For about five days after the birth, the birth mother and adoptive parents kept in touch--at a distance. Monica and Rodney, stuck in their hotel until interstate adoption agencies approved their departure for home, were thrust into the demands of parenthood. Katy and her mother wanted to visit but were also concerned they'd alarm them. By California law, a birth mother has 30 days to change her mind. (A year earlier, the Rogers had lost a baby when the birth mother reclaimed her after six days.)

Getting through the Tough Times

"It was a trying time," Rodney says. "And then Katy and her mother showed up with chicken noodle soup--that's when I knew we were all family."

At that meeting, Monica handed Katy the baby, whom they'd named Grantland, a family name. "They were so comfortable letting me hold him," says Katy. "And I never felt like, I want this child. He was never mine to keep."

In the six years since his birth, emails, texts, phone calls, birthday cards, and gifts have made Katy a regular presence in the Rogers' lives. She keeps a Facebook page with pictures and videos of her birth son and his family.

Now 25, married, and working toward a teaching degree, she's been to visit the family twice since his birth. When she visits, Grantland calls her Katy. "Or Miss Katy, like a Southern gentleman," she laughs. When Grantland took his first steps, Katy was the first person the Rogers called. They recently sent her a video of a school project on "Where I come from." In it, Grantland tells the class that his mommy's stomach was broken, so his parents flew to California to get him out of Katy's stomach.

It was the class favorite.

The New Baby on The Block

When Kolene Zittel, a 26-year-old X-ray technologist, found out she was pregnant, she knew she wasn't ready to be a parent. But abortion wasn't an option either. And as an adopted child herself, one who has no idea who her birth mother was or the circumstances under which her mother had placed her for adoption, she had a keen interest in choosing who would raise her child.

Kolene wanted her child to grow up in a small town, raised by a family with strong Christian faith and a large extended family, as she had. When a friend told her about open adoption, she began searching the internet, looking at potential families on agency websites. Then she stumbled on the Zumdahls. "I liked the way they looked, and they fit everything I wanted," she says.

Greg and Whittney Zumdahl, of Baileyville, Illinois, had been married three years and had been trying to have a child for two years. They had grown up in neighboring small towns in Illinois, with most of their extended family in the immediate area.

Kolene sent them an email that night. She was four months pregnant.

The match seemed ideal from the start. Just weeks after her first email, the Zumdahls flew Kolene in from her home in Omak, Washington, to meet the entire family for Christmas. "That nailed it for me," she says. "They were so nice, such a big, warm family." In May the Zumdahls flew into town for the birth. The plan was to be in the room while Kolene delivered. However, the birth wasn't progressing as the doctor had hoped, and an emergency c-section was necessary. The doctor told Kolene she could have only one other person in the room for this procedure. "Of course, she chose her mother," Whittney says. "Who else would you choose?"

Keeping in Touch

Eight-pound Greyson Jeffrey was born on May 26, 2009.

The Zumdahls stayed with Kolene for three days, until the hospital released her. They took the baby to their hotel after that and stayed in town until they knew Kolene was on the mend. That week, Kolene came every day to their hotel room to hold the baby. "It was sad but happy," she says. "Seeing him with his parents just proved to me that it was the right decision for him."

In the months since the adoption, Kolene and the Zumdahls have kept in near constant touch, via text, email, Facebook, and the occasional phone call. "It's exactly what Greg and I wanted," Whittney says. "We view Kolene not only as the birth mom but as a new member of our family." They want to bring her out to Illinois again for a visit with everyone in October.

"I hope I can," Kolene says, "but I have to get the time off from work." Friends tell her that baby Greyson looks like her, she says. She doesn't see it. Mostly, when she looks at his photos, what she feels is warmth and gratitude--and no regrets.

"I feel like he's family," Kolene says. "I know that he's my son, but I think more about how they're his parents and they're raising him. He's a lucky boy."

A Family Adopts a Second Daughter

Bill and Tracy McQuaid, of Huntington Beach, California, always knew they'd adopt. She'd had ten surgeries for endometriosis and ultimately a hysterectomy, so when it was time to start their family, they pursued an open adoption. They came to know the birth mom of their daughter Allyson, now 6 1/2, well during her pregnancy. They expected that their second adoption, coordinated this time by the Independent Adoption Center, would follow a similar arc. But when plans to adopt from a birth mom in Colorado fell through, they were placed on the agency's "last-minute hospital placement list," meant for women who opt for adoption at birth.

They got the call one morning that Jennifer Penrose, a 19-year-old who had hidden her pregnancy from her family, had just given birth. She had picked them out of a book of prospective parents. "I liked that the McQuaids loved to camp," she says. "I went camping when I was growing up. I wanted my child to have that too." She liked that Tracy was a nurse and that Bill was a fireman. They were young and lived nearby. She also liked that they already had an adopted daughter.

Making the Right Decision

The McQuaids took the baby home with them that night, and Jennifer signed the relinquishment papers the next day. That night, she sent the McQuaids an email: "I know I've made the right decision, and you're the right parents for my baby girl."

Although they live 15 minutes from each other, drop-ins don't happen. "We text," Jennifer says, "and they email photos." She and her family attend holiday gatherings and birthdays.

Now 23, Jennifer is living with her boyfriend and working in a family day-care center. When she visits, the McQuaid girls run to her, calling her "Jennie" or "Birth Mom." Her daughter Julie, now nearly 4, is the spitting image of her as a child, she says. "I'm happy they've let her know what's going on, and that I'm not just a nice lady who comes around," Jennifer says.

At a recent visit, Julie pointed to Jennifer and said, "I grew in your tummy." Then she pointed to Tracy: "And I grew in Mommy's heart."

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.

American Baby