Storying Your “Wait” in the Adoption Process

One’s faith is surely tested in the process of adoption. Whether waiting for an international referral, or, waiting, for the expectant parents to choose the adopter(s), in the context of domestic adoption, the wait can feel interminable. Each minute seems like an hour and each month feels like an eternity.

Over the past 22 years in the adoption field, I’ve seen some patterns worth articulating in case they can help ease the pain for some prospective adoptive parents. I’ve noticed that, how one ‘stories’ one’s experience of “why” can deeply affect one’s experience in adoption. Families may have a story running silently in their minds about “why” they may have had infertility or “why” they’re adopting or why there is a waiting period that ticks like a loud clock. Your personal story about ‘why’ can affect how you feel about the wait, regardless of how long the wait really is.

I first became aware of this pattern when clients, during an orientation, presented themselves in the following way. “We are your one percent family,” they stated.

“How so?” I asked.

The wife explained, “One percent of people have our kind of infertility. One percent of people with our infertility are encouraged to have a certain kind of infertility treatment. And for one percent of those people, the treatment doesn’t work. We were that one percent.”

At the time, I just sat there taking this message in. I had no way to say yes or no to a future unknown. They had clearly ‘storied’ their infertility experience. They were ready to carry this self-concept and identity, into their adoption process, whether warranted with respect to their future reality or not. In fact, they were chosen in an ordinary period of time and had an uncomplicated adoption case scenario. Their little one percent is entering high school.

Another family’s story of their experience had more of an impact on their path. They had two disappointments along the way – a mother in one case and a father in another case had changed their minds before birth of the baby. They had not lost any money on either of the matches and both situations had been relatively brief in duration. But how they storied these disappointments affected their ultimate decision about whether or not to keep trying. They didn’t say, “What will be, will be.” They didn’t say, “Guess that wasn’t our child. We’ll wait for the child who is meant to be ours.” They didn’t say, “This is disappointing; we’ll take some time to heal and try again.”

They called and said, “We think this means that G-d doesn’t mean for us to be parents.” 1

“What?” I responded in dismay. These two individuals were idolized by their nieces and nephews, had jobs that gave them, each, lots of time and flexibility for parenting and both valued hearth and home. They spent a lot of time with children in their extended family and everyone was eager for them to have a child on whom they could lavish their love. I thought they’d be warm, loving and nurturing parents. They would be child-centered and thoughtful. In conventional religious terms, they were the last people on earth that I would have guessed would have storied their experience in terms of G-d’s finding them undeserving or unworthy of the joys of parenting.

I offered to go with them to their priest; I was happy to talk with them in the context of G-d, faith and the random, meaningless, happenstances in domestic infant adoption. But they were clear that G-d had spoken.

It is possible there were other factors in their decision not to purse adoption further. I will never know. But the conversation we had about their perspective, the way they storied their experience, has stayed with me.

Since that time, I have particularly urged prospective adoptive parents to view the adoption matching process in domestic adoption as having some similarities to dating. If a potential match does not move forward to placement, this is like a relationship that does not move to marriage. As disappointing as that can be, it doesn’t generally mean there’s no one else to date or marry. It doesn’t mean one won’t fall in love again or that someone else won’t love them again. Likewise, it doesn’t mean there are no other expectant parents who will choose the family or who would be a good match.

I also normalize the fact that this analogy hasn’t occurred to them before – dating is public and ubiquitous; adoption happens behind closed doors. I point to the number of adoption agencies and professionals throughout the country – clearly more than two women a year contemplate and complete an adoption plan. They should remind themselves of this when there are months that go by without a ‘nibble,’ when an expectant mother expresses interest and then makes a different plan. Adoption happens frequently enough to keep many professionals busy and they should assume there will be other expectant parents, who the adopters like and who will be interested in them.

I am also reminded of the words of a close friend. It was winter and we were hovering, in bathing suits, outside the door of an outdoor sauna, with a group of friends, on the edge of a pond. We were all going to dive in and get right out – a Scandinavian-style winter lark if ever there was one. “Remember, it’s cold, but not pain…it’s cold,” observed my friend. And, indeed, the refreshing dip was cold, but not painful. The distinction has stayed in my mind for many years. My analogy to adoption would be this – the wait is agonizing, uncomfortable, and, at times, even inspires despair, but that does not mean your adoption effort is hopeless. There’s a difference.

At the beginning of my adoption career, colleague Carol Owen LICSW said, “You know what I call adopters who stay in the process during the interminable wait?” I was waiting for the answer, some cute moniker that I hadn’t heard before. “I call them parents,” she answered with a smile.

I once complained to a Pennsylvania adoption colleague about the revocation period in his state. Long revocation periods have never seemed to me, to be in the best interests of children; babies need to bond with their family and have stability as soon as possible. The revocation periods are also agonizing for the prospective adoptive parents. “Yes,” he said calmly, “I understand that period of time can be excruciating. My revocation period is now 21 years old.” I remember having a sudden pool of tears in my eyes.

If a family has questions about whether G-d means for them to be parents or suspects that they are traveling under a particular cloud of unlikely success, this can add to their discouragement. It can make the process even less comfortable. It can also make them prematurely exit the adoption process. The meaning an individual or couple attaches to their process of infertility or their beginning adoption process can have tremendous impact on whether they are able to tolerate the waiting, the frustrations and the general discomforts in the process.

There’s a kind of therapy that is particularly effective in helping people identify the meanings which they are attaching to their experience. It’s the same therapy that is considered ideal, these days, for helping resolve the impact of trauma: EMDR. This essay isn’t about EMDR, but I want to make sure to mention it and why it’s related to the subject of ‘storying’ one’s waiting and overall adoption process.

The process of coming to a confirmed diagnosis of explained or unexplained infertility can be traumatic. Even having to undergo the scrutiny of a home study or “market oneself” with a Dear Birthmother Letter can be traumatic. At the beginning of a family, these were not expected steps on the road to parenthood. For one spouse, the wait can feel like a punishment for something earlier in their life; for the other spouse, the wait can feel like prayers that are simply unanswered. Some will blame themselves and some will blame their adoption professionals. Their invisible and silent negative self-statements can give off negative messages like a time-release capsule. They can also press up against and aggravate any buried feelings of shame, unworthiness or of being unlovable.

Blame can feel more comfortable than sitting with the unknown. Blame has an anchor, an object and a satisfying conclusion as to where the dart lands. The ‘unknown’ adds the element of powerlessness in a society where we can accomplish many things by simply talking out loud to our ‘smart’ phone. But blame adds intensity to the agony and doesn’t build a story that gives any hope. It can be hard, but important, to sit with the sheer unknown about why a family’s adoption match has not shown up yet.

The most oversimplified explanation of how EMDR can help with this is as follows: when a war veteran returns from the battlefield, s/he might have a moment when a car door is slammed and the sound of that might reverberate in their body, on a physical level, similarly to the sound of the gunfire that killed their buddy in combat. S/he runs for cover, underneath the kitchen table and everyone thinks she’s nuts. The reason for this is that the moment when his/her buddy was killed, the trauma of the moment included the fact that the sound didn’t pass through the language making part of the brain – it was too quick and horrifying.

EMDR is a method that helps the soldier call up that difficult time, take it slower, sit with the remembered gunfire and, through a technique of ‘bilateral stimulation, ‘ the person is able to identify the meaning of the experience for them and to process similar sounds linguistically –‘that’s a car door that has slammed; it’s not a friend being killed.”

In the context of infertility and the adoption process, prospective adopters have often been through harrowing medical procedures, tragic hours during a miscarriage, excruciating decisions when learning that their fetus has a life threatening medical problem and so forth. If they’re ‘storying’ this as a punishment or prayers unanswered or some other meaning that is always unique to the person, little can calm them down. In order for the tragic-meanings not to be carried over into the adoption process, some kind of therapy, possibly weaving in EMDR, can be helpful.

One often hears prospective adopters, who are waiting, experiencing some pain on learning that a relative or coworker is pregnant. “I’m happy for them, but sad for me,” is the common observation. EMDR may not make that sadness less so, but the adopter has an opportunity to make new meaning. “Our time just hasn’t come up yet.” “I have faith that our child is out there; we just haven’t connected yet.” The meanings are usually more personal and not simply parroting an aphorism.

In terms of religious stance, those adopters who have self-statements such as, “What’s meant to be is meant to be.” “It’ll happen when the time is right,” generally have an easier time with the wait. It’s not that they’re tighter with G-d or simply have a sunnier disposition, though sometimes that is also true. But they have a way of storying their experience which doesn’t draw up buried negative self-statements like a hurricane gathering waves in the ocean. They cling, instead, to the sense that, despite the uncertainties and the absolute void of silence for months at a time, their moment will come when it is meant to be.

This doesn’t work for everyone, clearly, but to the extent that this is useful, this is my observation: Two different families can wait the same period of time and one family can have a smooth ride and the other a turbulent one simply based on how they story the wait for themselves. And it is not a conscious process that they can ‘will’ differently.

If a family would like to borrow a self-statement that some find useful, it might be this one, “Everything is information gathering until the ink is dry.” By that, what is meant is that, even if you have a confirmed domestic match and the expectant parents and you have settled on names for the child, hold on to your heart because they have not conclusively signed adoption papers yet. If you have an international referral for a particular child, this is great news and you can take this as information. Be open, but not so porous that you’re saturated with hope and devastated if the domestic expectant parents decide to parent their own child or if an international country suddenly delays or pauses their program. It’s all information, but it’s not a conclusion until it’s a conclusion. It’s like dating, even ‘going steady,’ but it’s not married, yet.

There is another element about this issue of ‘storying,’ your wait. It has to do with more traditional meanings of faith. I’m an unlikely candidate for relying on spirituality. I come from a tradition that says, in essence, “If you don’t watch out for all the details, serendipity will surely trip you up. Be ever vigilant and proactive on your own behalf.” That doesn’t blend easily with attitudes that sound more like, “God will provide,” or “Have faith and your prayers will be answered.”

I joke that, ironically, with each passing year in the adoption field, I feel as though my beliefs slide over to the camp. As I become more expert as a professional who is trained in and uses two disciplines, I also, sometimes, feel like a vessel through which grace simply ‘happens.’” This is not an attitude borne of my early life experience, but, rather, it is central to and infused throughout my adoption experience. I feel as though I experience grace with each adoption – by this, I mean that there are ways that people open to each other, are authentic, focused on the well-being of a child and truly graceful with each other in a challenging time of transition. As each adoption case unfolds, with its unique flavor of connection between the families, I sometimes sit back, wide-eyed with gratitude for the kindness in human nature and the good that can come of a joint effort on behalf of a child.

When a family is anxious about whether they will ‘ever’ be chosen, I sincerely don’t have that same worry. Rather, I worry about whether they can tolerate the wait and the inevitable ups and downs in the journey. I worry about how they ‘story’ the waiting process, whether they will start being down on themselves or down on their adoption professionals, whether they’ll get so discouraged that, when finally chosen, they say the translated equivalent of, “Yeh, sure, we’ll believe it when we see it.” This attitude can sour everyone’s experience, including, in subtle ways, the birthparents’ experience. But there’s never been a family about whom I’ve believed that they couldn’t be parents if they could tolerate the wait.

What I hope and pray is that adopters can become self-aware of the stories they tell themselves. Sometimes these stories are based on unresolved pain on very deep levels, for example, about basic lovability. It takes time to heal those stories so that the wait becomes more bearable and so that the process of parenting can be even more joyful when that day arrives.

Marla Allisan, JD,LICSW