When Adoption Doesn't Go As Planned

by Erin O'Connor
Originally Published: 
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As I sit here at 45 years of age, I think of how blessed I have been. I have an 11-year-old daughter. I cannot express in mere words how much I love her. I have a husband whom I love and to whom I have been married to for 21 years. I’m a full university professor and head of my program. I’m happy and fulfilled. Yet, something in me still feels incomplete. I long for another child to be a sibling to my daughter and a partner in our family’s adventure along life’s path. It is not a feeling of sadness or loneliness, but desire for another human being to join our family.

The journey for a second child has taken us down many roads — natural fertility treatments, miscarriages and failed adoptions. Nothing prepared me for the sense of loss following my obstetrician’s report that she could not hear a heartbeat, and the fear of the scheduled DNC to follow. Losing a baby in utero can be a gut wrenching emotional trauma. People don’t tend to speak about miscarriages in terms of death. But what else is the spontaneous stopping of a human heart?

I thought I was a bit more “immune” to the sting of loss when we suffered our first adoption setback. At this point in my life, I had not only had the miscarriage but lost my mom suddenly and watched my dad recover from a serious injury. Loss had become woven into the fabric of my life. However, as many know, previous loss does not prepare one for future loss.

In February 2018, I was coping with the reality that my father was getting re-married. She is a lovely woman who takes good care of him. However, watching my dad walk down the aisle and say “I do” to another woman was also saying another goodbye to my mom. My mom was no longer my dad’s only wife in this life.


The sense of confusion and loss I felt at the wedding was swept away, however, when we got a call that a birth grandmother had chosen us to raise her daughter’s infant son. The biological mother had just started college, and felt like she was not ready to parent. She wanted to be at a different point in her life before taking on such responsibility.

We were overcome with joy. Kevin was back at home, when we got the call, and Ashley and I were still with my dad following the wedding. Kevin got the first flight out and Ashley and I drove 14 straight hours to meet our son/brother. We drove so as to have a car to bring him back in, not wanting to expose his young ears to the change in pressure of the airplane or his young immune system to germs.

The day after we arrived in town, we picked him up from his grandparents’ house. The grandparents were lovely. We spent several hours with them and the baby. The grandmother and I both cried. They were in many ways saying goodbye to their first grandchild, and they too were feeling a sense of loss and confusion. We had planned an open adoption, but still, they were giving their grandchild to us. We then packed up Sean in his car seat and drove back to our hotel. We were in shock and elated.

We had to wait almost two weeks to get ICPC, the intrastate adoption agency, to finalize papers. We spent those two weeks bonding as a family. The Winter Olympics were on, so while Ashley and I watched figure skating and skiing with great intensity, Kevin napped with Sean on his chest. Ashley got up with me several times a night to help with feeding and diaper changes. We took long walks around the city, and ordered obscene amounts of room service. We were so happy as a family.

Getting back home proved trickier than planned, as Ashley had to be back in school sooner than we had permission to take Sean out of state. Ashley and I boarded an early flight back home one morning while my mother-in-law simultaneously boarded a flight down to Kevin and Sean. A day later, a judge signed the ICPC papers and Sean was free to come to his forever home. Kevin and my mother-in-law drove 16 hours to bring him home.

Once home, Sean became the center of attention. However, six weeks later we got a call from our attorney. His biological mother wanted to raise him. It was a call that made my heart stop and tears flow freely down my cheeks. Loss was once again rearing its ugly head. Two days later we were meeting the same lovely grandparents we had over a month ago, and saying goodbye to Sean. This loss was incomprehensible to my then 9-year-old. She suffered more than any of us. Her capacity to love was still so naive and uncomplicated.

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My daughter and I have always been very close, so what I was not prepared for was her reticence to talk about having Sean leave our family. Her teacher was loving and supportive. She encouraged Ashley in having her and her entire class write notes to him about their time together. It felt to me as if she was more comfortable speaking to others about what happened than me. I worried that she blamed me for his returning to his biological mother.

What I learned was that loving silence can be the most supportive gesture when a child (or anyone) is in need. Once I stopped asking Ashley how she felt about the experience and just sat with her, she opened up about her sadness and disappointment. We were able to talk about how sad and lonely we felt.

It took time to overcome the feelings of loss and to grieve. As much as I wanted to take away those feelings from Ashley, I could not. Only through allowing her to feel those emotions and giving voice to them were we able to come back together.

My fifteen years as an attachment researcher had not prepared me for the complexity that truly is attachment. Attachment involves not just one or two primary caretakers in early life and partners in later life, as we often say in the research world. Attachment is a system that incorporates individuals across our social networks. No matter how hard we try, we cannot stop experiencing insecure attachments with others or protect our children from the same. Life and love are too complex to be fully measured through quantitative studies or neurobiology. We can try to find those protective factors that will shield us and our children from pain and loss, but ultimately only through resilience and compassion will we really understand attachment.

We remain committed to adopting our second child. At this point, we hope to adopt a baby girl due April 27th. Continuing our adoption journey has been painful and difficult at times but nonetheless fulfilling. Having Sean in our life made us realize our commitment to this journey!

Update: Our daughter was born early, and as of yesterday we became adoptive parents to a baby girl. Our family is over-the-moon happy. The adoption journey has been one of ups and downs for us, but in the end we have become part of two amazing families, and been blessed with a second daughter.

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