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Steps to Take When Your Adoption Falls Through: From Heartbreak to Hope

When our first adoption unraveled at the eleventh hour, I wasn't sure that we could move on.

by Susan Dodge

My husband, John, and I were walking down the street, arguing over a word. “It counts,” I said. “It doesn’t count,” he said, “that was babbling.” Suddenly a small voice boomed out, “Momma!” Our son, Ben, was looking up at us quizzically from his stroller, having just yelled at us.

“OK,” John said, laughing. “That counts. His first word was ‘Momma.’” I couldn’t imagine feeling happier. “Momma” was a word I thought I’d never hear. It had been seven years since John and I had first tried to become parents. The journey was filled with sadness so overwhelming it threatened to crush us. There had been many invasive tests for me, tests for John, scores of pills and shots, ultrasounds, and three in vitro fertilization attempts—but no child.

I began researching adoption after our first in vitro attempt failed. We weren’t going to let agonizing fertility problems keep us from the joy of raising children. For a number of reasons, including our desire for a newborn, we decided on a domestic adoption. Our research of adoption agencies led us to an agency that emphasized open adoption, in which birthparents and adoptive parents stay in touch after the baby is placed. John and I felt it would be best for our child to know about his birthparents as he got older.

After a litany of questions, much soul-searching, fingerprinting and background checks, endless paperwork, and a home study, we at last placed a newspaper ad and set up a toll-free number so birthmothers could call us. One of the first calls we got was from a 17-year-old girl, who said she was very nervous, but sure that adoption was the best plan for her baby: “We’re just too young to raise a child.” Her 18-year-old boyfriend agreed.

We met them shortly afterward, in the town where they were living with the birthfather’s parents, and we all bonded immediately. We talked about the girl’s pregnancy and the baby’s future with us. We all cried when she said she wanted us to be the parents of her baby.

Then, on a beautiful morning in June, we got the call that she was in labor. We rushed to the hospital, because she wanted us with her during the delivery. From ultrasounds we knew the baby would be a girl, and we had already picked her name, Isabelle Celia. I was struck with amazement when her little head peeked through at the delivery.

We had a few wonderful moments of holding her, looking into her bright blue eyes, and marveling at how tiny and perfect she was. Two days later, we were allowed to bring her home.

Three days after we brought Isabelle home, we got the heart-stopping call: Our adoption-agency counselor said that the baby’s mother had changed her mind and wanted her back. We were in shock. We had known this could happen, but we thought that, if it did, it would happen in the hospital right after the baby’s birth—not now. But the baby’s grandfather had arrived from out of state and promised to help raise the baby. Although the baby’s father’s mother tried to reason with her, our birthmother had made up her mind. She wanted to keep the baby.

Amidst tears, we took some pictures of baby Isabelle and told her we would always love her. We wanted her to have a good, happy life.

Moving On

Many of us hoping to adopt a child have experienced the devastation of unsuccessful fertility treatment. We have been too long, and too often, in doctor’s waiting rooms. We’ve spent months, if not years, trying to conceive a child. Some of us have suffered the trauma of miscarriage—sometimes more than one. The quest to adopt, however, sometimes turns out to be as unsettling as the highs and lows of infertility.

“It is important to approach independent domestic adoption with the understanding that prospective birthparents may change their minds until the adoption papers are signed,” writes Richard Mintzer in Yes, You Can Adopt!: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents. “It is equally important to remember that once a child is in your home, the odds are more than 99 percent that the adoption will be finalized and your child will be part of your permanent, ‘forever’ family.”

My husband and I lived through the gnawing ache of being so close to parenthood, only to be told that we wouldn’t become parents after all. “It’s a tough thing to go through,” says adoptive mother Marlee Hasson, a psychologist who specializes in grief and loss.

Although it turned out well for us in the end, the pain of Isabelle’s loss was acute. If this happens to you, I hope the following strategies will help. They are culled from our personal experience and experts’ advice:

  • Take time to grieve. While there is no societal ritual for marking the loss of a failed adoption, it is nonetheless real. You may need to experience the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Take time off work if you can. If you don’t want to answer questions when you return, have a friend or colleague let your coworkers know that. And postpone making any major life decisions for a while.
  • Accept help. An adoption that falls through is emotionally shattering; you may need the comfort of others. If friends or family invite you out for dinner, say yes. It will feel good to vent about what you have been through, or to talk about something else entirely.
  • Talk to a pro. A mental-health professional who specializes in grief, loss, adoption, and/or infertility can be a good sounding board and can guide you to a better frame of mind.
  • Realize that people grieve in different ways. While your spouse may want to get back to work, you might feel lost, stuck in your grief, unable even to go out for an evening with friends. And that’s OK, as long as you recognize that you are each coping in your own way, and that you’re there for each other. Give each other lots of hugs.
  • Don’t try to figure it out. No one can know what is going on inside someone else’s mind, so there isn’t much point in trying to analyze why an adoption fell through. It can happen for many reasons.
  • Deal with the baby’s room in your own way. While some can’t bring themselves to look at a baby’s room after a failed adoption, others find comfort sitting in the room to remember and grieve. Some will quickly box up the baby clothes, while others are content to shut the door to the room for days or weeks.
  • Get out of the house. Going to see a funny movie helps (avoid anything too heavy). Long walks, a concert, or revisiting a hobby can also be therapeutic.
  • Express your feelings. Consider writing how you feel in a journal, or in a letter you might—or might not—send to the birthparents. You may also want to have a quiet ritual to mark the loss, such as lighting a candle or saying a prayer with your spouse.
  • Have a sit-down with your agency or attorney. If you have residual questions about why the adoption failed, ask them. See if there is anything to be learned.
  • Go slow. You will likely be guarded if you resume the adoption process. You may be cynical about birthparents, bitter about your experience, and resentful that you have to begin again. It’s scary to face the prospect of new birthparents and possibly another failure. But if you truly want to adopt, give yourself time to heal and then move forward.
  • Take comments with a grain of salt. People around you may direct clichés your way. We heard everything from “It wasn’t meant to be” to “I had a funny feeling about this.” Try to cope the best you can. I bought When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold S. Kushner, just so I could let the title comfort me.

Nine months after our first adoption fell through, our son, Ben, was born. Not long before, we had met his birthparents. Instantly, it was as if they were old friends, and we sat in their kitchen talking and laughing for hours. They had three children through previous marriages and wanted to help a childless couple by placing their baby for adoption.

We eventually decided to tell them of our previous experience because we wanted them to know that, if we seemed hesitant, it was because our hearts had been broken. They went out of their way to create a positive experience for us, even though it was painful for them to say goodbye to their newborn son. I will never forget the words of Ben’s birthmother as she held him in her hospital bed. She looked at me and said, “Let’s let his mommy hold him now.” And then she gave him to me.

Susan Dodge, a freelance writer, lives with her husband and son in Munster, Indiana.

4 Comments about Independent Adoption

  1. Younger prospective birthmothers are the most likely to change their minds, according to Maggie Gill-Benz, an adoption counselor with the Center for Family Building in Evanston, Illinois. In our own failed adoption, the baby’s parents were 17 and 18 years old, respectively.
  2. It’s critical for the baby’s birth grandparents to support the adoption. The younger the mother or father, the more important it is to have this support. In our case, the father’s parents were supportive of the adoption, but the mother’s family urged her to raise the child.
  3. Our prospective birthparents had a name picked out for the baby and seemed disappointed when we had a different name in mind. They also said they might want to visit the baby every week. They were clearly ambivalent about relinguishing parental roles.
  4. Good psychological counseling is critical for any one contemplating placing a child for adoption. If your adoption professional does not include this service as a matter of course, change professionals.


To read more from families who successfully adopted their children independently, check out these articles in the Adoptive Families online archives:

Join the Support Group: Dealing With a Loss in Adoption

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