At age 42, I decided that I couldn’t wait anymore for my life to work out perfectly. I hadn’t found the husband that I thought I would, but I decided that, while I needed to be someone’s mother, I didn’t have to be someone’s wife. In February 2011, I contacted Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to start the process to adopt. In August of that same year, I got that magical call that we adoptive parents wait for our whole lives. There was a baby boy, 6 months old (ironically born in February, the month that I had started my adoption process…)– Could I be his foster parent? Saying “yes” to Eli changed the trajectory of my life forever, and I am forever grateful to everyone who helped me along that journey – including the rock star social worker who advocated for a placement for me, my supportive mom and sisters, and my friend and co-worker, Sarah, who talked me down off the wall when I was freaking out. It’s very different to work in adoption, and to actually be IN an adoption process, after all…
Over the past 8 years, as a single mom, I have been able to adopt three infants, all siblings as they share the same biological mother, through the state of Massachusetts. Adopting young children through the state usually starts as a foster-to-adopt process, as the children aren’t yet legally free to be adopted. The state works with the biological parents to see if there is an option of reunification – the preferred option when possible – while simultaneously planning for adoption in the case that reunification isn’t possible. This means welcoming a child into your home and heart without the guarantee of adoption as a final outcome. It is most definitely a leap of faith. I remember, particularly with my first child, Eli, rocking him at night and wondering if someday he would really be mine. There were so many ups and downs, but 14 months later, in November 2012 he was adopted as part of National Adoption Day. What a joyful day that was!!
Then two months later, in January 2013, I got the surprise call that Eli’s mother had just given birth to a baby girl, and the baby couldn’t be released from the hospital to the mother. Did I want to foster the baby? That meant picking up an unplanned baby at the hospital the very next day. Shell-shocked I said yes – I had always wanted more than one child – but I just wasn’t ready for that child TODAY! Still, it was Eli’s sibling, so if nothing else, I would be providing love and care to his sister while her final path was determined. Mimi came home to us right out of the hospital. I remember everyone scrambling to help me. My co-workers stepped up in a huge way. Maryanne bought a car seat and installed it in my car. Eileen showed up from lunch with diapers and wipes. Sarah turned up the next day with bags of new baby girl clothes, including warm outerwear to bring the baby home in. She also came with me to hospital to pick up my new bundle of joy. I remember us leaving the hospital in absolute awe that we had a 3 day old baby in the backseat. It was a pretty incredible turn of events. There were many ups and downs with Mimi’s process, but again, I was able to adopt her in June 2014. Two beautiful babies adopted through the state. My life was so full and so complete. So I thought!
I first found out about Bella as she approached her first birthday. She had been living with a wonderful foster family who loved her to pieces. After a lot of uncertainty, discussion and prayer, it was determined that Bella should be with us, raised with her brother and sister. And so on January 20, 2017, (Trump’s inauguration no less), 14 month old Bella joined our family. I remember the first morning I went into her crib to get her, she looked confused but not unhappy. Her brother and sister no doubt helped with her transition. She was amused and enamored with them. Within weeks, much sooner than I thought possible, she was fully adapted. She was legally adopted in July 2018, and the unique difference in her adoption versus Mimi and Eli’s is that her adoption required an open adoption agreement with her biological mother. This meant, starting from August 2018, we would have four in-person meetings with her mother each year. While only Bella was required to be present at these meetings, (both Eli and Mimi had closed adoptions with their mother), I decided to bring all children to the meeting. After all, in today’s world with all the social media outlets, there really is no such thing as a closed adoption. How could I ever explain to Eli and Mimi that Bella got to see their mother by they didn’t? But I wasn’t sure how Eli and Mimi would respond to seeing their mother, after having no contact at all in their whole lives – they were 7 and 5 at the time. I was gearing up for the “big discussion”. As the visit date approached, I blurted out to Eli and Mimi, “how would you like to meet Mommy Christal?” (This is what we call their biological mother.) Both kids very nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah. That would be great.” Then they changed the subject. I was shocked. That was it? That was the only reaction? I quickly learned that I had a lot more drama surrounding this than they did.
Preparing for the first meeting was anxiety provoking. I didn’t know how it would go. I did the kids’ hair in the best way I could – the girls are African American, and hair is most definitely “a thing”. I let them choose their clothes. Mimi chose her prettiest dress to meet her mother. Eli was the most excited of all. I was a nervous wreck. What would I say to this woman? Only because of her inability to parent, am I a mother. The whole situation was awkward at best. The meeting was set for an hour. I guessed it would go longer, but a maximum of 2 hours, I figured. My goal was to just get through it and not say too much – this was not about me. It was about her and our children. All in all, I would say the meeting went as well as could be expected. She was so happy to see the children, exuberant even. She hugged and kissed them and told them she loved them – absolute gold for an adoptee. The kids also did well. And, I survived, which was another goal of mine, despite Mommy Christal’s criticism of my hair skills. The meeting ended up being just short of two hours, and soon we were on our way home. In the days and weeks that followed, there were a lot of discussions about adoption and growing in another mommy’s belly – another mommy who we now knew.
Seeing the children with their mother had a profound effect on me. While the visit was hard, very hard, in fact, it was also just incredible to witness. I could almost feel my kids gaining a piece of themselves, figuring out that age old mystery asked by countless adoptees before them, “who do I look like?” Eli in particular bears a tremendous resemblance to his mother. The shape of his face and eyes. His cheekbones. He is almost identical to her. And I definitely saw Mommy Christal getting a piece of herself back. She was grateful to me for bringing all the children, not just Bella, and her joy was palpable. I know this meeting was the start of something very important for all of us.
Since that first visit last August, we have met several times, and each one gets just a little more comfortable. I feel less anxious before the visit, I know what to expect now. Also my hair skills have dramatically improved over the last year so I’ve even gotten compliments from Mommy Christal. We are now preparing for our next visit that’s coming up in a few weeks, in November. I know visiting with their mother is so important for the children. It gives them a real person to know, instead of the ghosts they create in their heads. It gives them real information instead of filling voids with their own imagination. And it gives them a truer sense of their own history and identity. All in all, as challenging and emotional as it can be, it has been so positive for all of us. If there is one thing that I have learned as a single mother to three children, there are never too many people who can love your children. And as long as Mommy Christal continues to be appropriate, kind and loving to the children, there will always be room for her in our lives. I’m eager to see what the future holds and how this relationship develops over time as the children grow up and become adults.
— Debbie Mansfield
Our second year has been filled with lots of small moments where we have slowed down to connect, heal, and build something new. We will all admit that what we are building is not perfect and the process is often messy. But… it is us weaving our lives together. It is how we define our family.
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