"The Stages of Waiting"

In this personal essay, one prospective mother wonders, "Are all the bewildering ups and downs I've experienced during our wait typical of the international adoption process?"

Waiting to adopt sometimes feels like one question after another

Fifteen months ago my husband and I filled out an application to adopt siblings from Ethiopia. Are you familiar with the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model for the stages of grief? It consists of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I feel like waiting to adopt has taken me through similar distinct stages. While it may be true that the only thing that Dr. Kübler-Ross and I have in common is that she was a psychiatrist and I need a psychiatrist, I believe that these “Stages of Waiting” do, in fact, exist.

Stage 1: Relief. My husband and I have finally landed on the same page regarding our family building. We agree on the country. We agree on the agency. We agree to the expense.

Stage 2: Joy. There is a light at the end of a long, nine-year tunnel. I’ve become a member of a club that has, up until now, excluded me.  I have a spring in my step. I can walk by a playground without weeping. I can talk about preschool. I’m childproof. I tell everyone I know about our plans.

Stage 3: The win/win-naiveté-Melissa Fay Greene Stage. I read There Is No Me Without You. I think, not only am I helping myself, I am helping Africa. We want kids, and millions of orphans need families. It is a win/win situation.

Stage 4: Ethical questioning. Many Ethiopian children placed for adoption are not actually orphans. In fact, a lot of them have parents, as well as siblings. They are relinquished because their family cannot afford to feed them. This is when I start wrestling a lot: “If I really cared about Ethiopia, I would take these thousands of dollars we’re paying in adoption fees and donate them to an organization that would do everything it could to preserve this family.”

Stage 5: I am a selfish jerk.  My white, privileged need to have a family is much stronger than my need to help Ethiopia. My mothering hormones are not going to be dissipated by my concern for struggling Africans. I am a jerk.

Stage 6: Bargaining. I am a selfish jerk, but I agree to change my need. This is when I announce to my husband one morning, “I think that we should adopt a 12-year-old from Ethiopia, instead. We will make sure that she is a true orphan, an only child, and HIV-positive. We have good health insurance.” (At this point I think my husband, who likes more than anything to make a decision and stick with it, is starting to wonder why he ever married me in the first place.)

Stage 7: Outrage. Why doesn’t everyone know how bad things are around the world? Why aren’t people doing more? Unfortunately, this outrage turns into self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude, which send me spiraling back to…

Stage 8: Guilt. I feel guilty for judging, guilty for adopting, guilty for eating. You name it, I feel guilty.

Stage 9: Resolve. I will do something. I will raise awareness. I will start a project that will help. I will make a difference.

Stage 10: Renewed optimism. It’s OK. We will move forward. I’ll call our agency and write the check for the third payment they requested. I will continue to read about parenting. I will do my best to be a mother to these two children.

Stage 11: Doubt in the adoption. Are we doing the right thing? Our agency has worked in Ethiopia for a long time, and I am fairly confident that they operate in an ethical manner. But really, how would I know? I do know that the program has changed dramatically in the past year, because so many more people are choosing Ethiopia.

Stage 12: Doubt in myself. Am I too (insert any of these adjectives here: old, dejected, cynical, impatient, selfish) to adopt?

Stage 13: Doubt that it will ever happen. We know several couples who applied after we did who have already received their referrals, have traveled, and are now happily ensconced with their new families. Is this just one more thing that works out for everyone except us? I have days when I believe that we will never get to adopt. This feels precarious, and reminds me of a feeling I’ve had before. Our four pregnancies didn’t work out, so why did I think this would? (This stage also involves envy, but envy is so yucky, let’s not give it its own stage.)

Stage 14: Disillusionment. This is when all of your warm and fuzzy feelings about adoption don’t feel warm and fuzzy anymore. They feel messy and worrisome.

Stage 15: Exhilaration. A couple of weeks ago, I was at home with my husband and our dogs. All of the sudden, I thought, “This is going to happen! We are going to be parents! There will be children here, in our house, SOON!” I grinned like an idiot. This stage lasted exactly 90 minutes.

Stage 16: Unexpected, renewed faith in humanity. Where have you people been all my life? There is something special about the adoption community. It takes someone with a big heart, I think, and at least some sense of adventure, to adopt. I am so grateful to have met so many incredible people on this journey. I mean it.

Stage 17: Joyful, uneasy anticipation. The uneasiness may disappear when we get our referral, but maybe it is important to always feel uneasy. Being a prospective adoptive parent is complicated. Obviously, the people who are really going through something are the birth families and the children. Their losses are much more difficult and devastating. If I am lucky enough to become a parent, I must continue to question. I will do my best to remain observant, to monitor agencies’ activities and message boards, to help those who come after me, and to help those who are left behind.

The feelings of joy and anticipation are substantially less complicated. A little more than a year ago, our social worker let us know we were Waiting Family #103. Today, we are Waiting Family #3. We want this more than anything. I can’t wait to see my husband be a father. I can’t wait for my parents to meet their grandchildren. I can’t wait to sing someone to sleep, to make someone laugh, and to bandage a skinned knee. We are ready for our joyful, uneasy, happy ending.

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