In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Lynn Sollitto
Note to Readers: All names have been changed to pseudonyms to protect privacy.
My husband and I always wanted to adopt through foster care. When our biological son was four years old, we decided to start that journey.
Our home study was almost complete when I received a call from Carole. She and I had met in a Bible study a couple years earlier. Her daughter, Ruth, was due to give birth in a couple months. Ruth’s husband David was in prison. Ruth’s 15-month-old daughter, Payten, was currently living with Carole, because Child Protective Services (CPS) was involved. Carole asked me to be Ruth’s birth coach.
In the required foster-adopt classes, we were taught the importance of being supportive of the biological parents. “You may hate these people for what they’ve done to their kids, but despite how bad they were as parents, they are still the child’s mom and dad.”
So I said yes to Carole about being Ruth’s birth coach, but for entirely selfish reasons; I hoped that seeing the other side of the story would be helpful when we eventually adopted.
In August 2008, I picked up Ruth and took her to the hospital. On admission, she had an ultrasound, because she hadn’t had any prenatal care. It was there that we learned Ruth was having a girl. In the birthing room, I held Ruth’s hand when the doctors inserted the epidural needle. I placed a cold, wet washcloth to her forehead when she was in labor. I cheered her on when she pushed. I soothed her when she cried out for her husband.
And then I watched her give birth to Paige by C-section. I cut Paige’s umbilical cord and then held her immediately afterwards. I looked down at her squishy newborn face and thought, you’d fit in well with us. And then I fell hopelessly in love. I was sitting by Ruth’s hospital bed in the recovery area when Paige started experiencing drug withdrawal.
Ruth had been going back and forth on whether or not to place Paige for adoption. “I already have a bond with Payten and want to focus on getting her back,” Ruth had told me during our drive to the hospital. Despite Ruth’s poor choices, she wanted the best for her children. On the day of her hospital discharge, I found her sitting on the hospital bed crying. She had purchased a small, stuffed angel and a piggy bank for Paige. She was writing a note on the stuffed angel’s card, and asked, “Do you think it’s okay if I sign this ‘mom?’” I told her I thought it would be fine.
Ruth could not recover from her C-section alone, so my husband and I took her in for five days. It was then that I realized how isolated and lonely it was to be an addict. It was a heart-opening experience to learn about the person under the addiction. Ruth and I had some oddly random things in common: We both liked to read; we both liked white mochas; we both had a dry sense of humor, and we both hated swallowing pills.
It was a sad day for me when Ruth went home. I had grown to love her as I learned more about her, and wished her nothing but the best. She sent a card a few weeks later, but she didn’t reach out again beyond that gesture.
My husband and I had planned to adopt an older foster child, because there are so many who need homes; however, my heart couldn’t let Paige go. I spoke with my husband about adopting her. At first, he wouldn’t consider it. However, when the doors continued to open, he agreed to move forward.
“No promises,” he warned me. “We’ll wait and see what happens.” The first thing we needed to do was reach out to Ruth. We wanted to respect her wishes for Paige – she originally said she wanted a closed adoption, because she thought it would be easier. In light of that, if Ruth didn’t want us to adopt Paige, the decision would be made for us. We broached the subject with Ruth, and she gave us her blessing. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
Paige was three months old when we had the “first” visit with her. Because of her severe drug withdrawal and reflux, she had experienced failure to thrive. She was tinier than she had been at birth! But she was alert and full of smiles. Despite my husband’s initial reservations, he fell head-over-heels too.
During the next six months, I attended all of Ruth’s CPS-mandated court hearings. It was not only to make sure things were moving along legally in regards to Paige, but also to provide support for Ruth. I sat with her in the lobby before the hearings and sat on the defense side in the courtroom.
When Ruth sobbed at the hearing where she refused court-mandated services for Paige, I hugged her and told her, “I tell Paige about you, and she hears her birth story every night before bed.” When the case moved from CPS to Adoptions, we sat together on the curb outside, and I held Ruth’s hand. “Even though it was your choice, I know it still hurts,” I said, handing her a tissue.
Paige moved in with us in January of 2009. She continued to suffer seizure-like drug withdrawal for the next couple of months. She was a difficult baby, and I often questioned if I was up to the task of raising a child who’d been exposed in utero. Daily, I questioned if she would be better off with a more patient and selfless mother. When I was having a particularly difficult day, God’s loving voice told me, you need her as much as she needs you.
Paige had gross motor delays; she was fourteen months old when she began to crawl. We got her into physical therapy and were told she had sensory issues. Unfortunately, Sensory Processing Disorder in and of itself is not considered a diagnosis, so she didn’t qualify for occupational therapy. We were blessed with a therapist who took the time to give us sensory exercise information, and did what she could to incorporate sensory therapy into her physical therapy.
In July 2009, Payten was reunified with Ruth and David. (David had recently been released from prison.) My husband and I decided to invite Ruth, Carole, David and Payten over to celebrate Christmas Eve. My husband and I spoke beforehand that, in our wildest dreams, we never fantasized about spending Christmas Eve with our adopted daughter’s biological grandmother, sister, and recovering-addict parents. That evening, we ate pizza and exchanged gifts. The kids made it snow with white tissue. The only damper on the evening was the realization that Ruth and David were high.
In January 2010, Ruth, David and Payton were homeless. Their social worker called and asked if we would temporarily house Payten while she helped Ruth and David get it together. She stressed it would not be a foster case but rather us helping out as friends. We told her that if it became a foster case, we’d be more than happy to provide a home for Payten; however, without CPS being legally involved, we weren’t comfortable doing it. “I understand,” the social worker said. “I’ll call you if Payten comes back into CPS custody.”
That’s exactly what happened in February 2010, two days after my son turned six. David and Ruth had discontinued all their court-mandated services. They didn’t show up to the six-month-review court hearing, and CPS thought they were going to run away with Payten.
The social worker left a message that we would be fostering Payten, and Ruth and David dropped her off at our house later that day. That night, we went to a fundraiser at Panda Express. I was worried Payten wouldn’t eat, because I knew she was picky. She gobbled down everything we offered her. Since then she refuses to touch it… I’m reminded of that day whenever I eat at Panda Express.
We were responsible for taking Payten to visits with her parents. Again, I witnessed Ruth’s heartache and tried to appease it with hugs. Each time Ruth went through losing her children, my heart broke. Being with her during childbirth created an unusual and inexplicable bond. She would always be in my heart, no matter what poor choices she made; she was, after all, the other mother of my daughters.
Because of Paige’s physical challenges, we delayed finalizing her adoption. We wanted to make sure she qualified for the help she needed. Paige became legally ours in April 2010, which was fifteen months after she moved into our home.
Ruth and David had missed their prior visit at the end of April 2010. A week after Mother’s Day, we learned Ruth and David had ended up in jail a couple weeks before. Like a movie reel, my mind played over and over Matthew 25:36 …I was in prison and you came to visit me. I knew God wanted my husband and me to visit them. We knew then that Ruth and David definitely wouldn’t reunify with Payten. During the visit, we reassured them that we would adopt Payten, so the sisters could stay together.
We initially had an open adoption with Ruth and David. Less than eight months later, we discontinued contact, because they were using drugs again. They have gone in and out of rehab and jail since then. It hurts too much to get my hopes up, and so I’ve asked Carole not to share anything she knows. I wish Ruth and David nothing but the best and hope someday they are healthy and can be involved in the girls’ lives, on some level.
We finalized Payten’s adoption in January 2011. She went into therapy shortly afterwards, because since coming to live with us over a year earlier, she still had daily tantrums. She still hadn’t bonded with us, and when she did show affection, it was rote. She constantly needed to be in control and would go to any means to obtain it. Most alarming was that she approached strangers with the same familiarity that she approached friends.
We learned the ongoing challenges were due to Reactive Attachment Disorder. I was heartbroken when I learned this. RAD was the one thing my husband and I had listed in our pre-adoption paperwork as a condition we wouldn’t consider. To parent a child with RAD, one must be extremely patient and selfless. You can’t take any of their acting out personally, or show emotion when they are trying to get control or attention. Finally, and it is only recently that I have been able to admit this, the worst part is that the relationship is one-sided; if they do show affection, it is hollow.
I questioned my ability to be Payten’s mother. I initially believed that her acting out would eventually improve; however, with this diagnosis, who knew what would happen? But then I remembered something they told us in our adoption classes; “These kids don’t need your love, they need your commitment. Love will come later.” So I made the commitment to raise Payten and prayed that the love would come. It slowly has.
Payten is now eight years old. She has worked hard with her therapist on learning to identify her feelings and trust us. She has made a lot of progress; the most notable is that she will exhibit spontaneous affection. In fact, just the other day, she spontaneously told me she loved me. This was huge, because up until that time, she has only done it in the context of routine or with a social cue (i.e. imitating children at school).
Paige just turned seven. Despite her tumultuous beginning, she is on track. She makes up for her small size with her large attitude. She still struggles with SPD but is learning to use her sensory aides – weight vest, trampoline, spinner, etc. Children with SPD tend to have a lot of anxiety and fear new things. Until she was three years old, she would scream if a stranger so much as looked at her. Now she is comfortable enough to try a new ride at the fair, and it makes my heart smile.
My daughters have been through a lot and have also overcome a lot. I am very proud of them. I am also proud of my growth over the last seven years. Life took me down a road with a detour. At times, the road was bumpy and full of potholes. There were times it was smooth like a newly paved street. But with flexibility and an open mind, I stayed belted in the car and navigated the directions, even though they weren’t always clear. And I am glad I did because if I hadn’t persisted with these things over the last seven years, I wouldn’t have my two beautiful daughters!
Lynn Sollitto lives in Sacramento, California, with her husband and three children. She is working on a memoir about adopting her daughters. She advocates for foster care adoption on Twitter and Facebook, and blogs about her experiences at www.bittersweetadventures.com.
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Filed under: 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, adoptees, attachment disorder, attachment in adoption, birth, birthmother grief, birthmothers, domestic adoption, foster care, open adoption, raising an adopted child