This World Maternal Mental Health Day, we’re sharing the story of Sophia, Connor and their adoption journey.
Before becoming Connor’s mom, years of fertility treatments and adoption preparedness fueled Sophia’s anxiety and depression. When a family member called to discuss a potential adoption within the family, Sophia’s heart raced with hope, while her world remained full of uncertainty. She was navigating a highly emotional situation in which she had little control but lots for which to prepare. Would the pregnancy be healthy? Would the baby be healthy? Would the birth mother change her mind?
Connecting with a psychotherapist, other families who have been through adoption, listening to podcasts on parenthood and adoption — all of this can bring perspective, supporting a mother’s mental health journey through the adoption process and beyond.
It can also be meaningful to dedicate time to reflection, no matter where you are in your journey. Write out all the thoughts related to your life role of mom — potential or realized — paying attention to both helpful and unhelpful thoughts related to motherhood. And if you’re considering adopting a child from a different cultural, racial or ethnic background, be open to increasing your own cultural awareness.
Here’s Sophia’s story.
Arizona heat. I could smell the rubber melting off the bottom of my sandals as I waited in line with a pack of diapers tucked beneath my arm. My only reason to leave the comforts of an air-conditioned car and iced sweet tea, was him. Connor.
A tiny human filled the car seat in the back of our rental. Sigh. It felt like ages since I breathed. As I stood there, I thought over and over: ‘I’m a mom’. Me. It felt surreal — like floating on air.
A young cashier behind the counter greeted me and asked if this was my only purchase. When I responded yes, I added that I had a newborn in the car.
“Congratulations!” she said.
I realized that was my very first congratulations. After the months, in fact years, that my husband and I waited to become parents, I couldn’t help but smile and escape, for a moment, into that sheer joy.
“What’s your baby’s name?” she asked.
“Connor,” I replied. “We just arrived from Virginia a few days ago to adopt him.”
“Oh,” she said, in a lower tone of voice. “How’s the birth mom?”
My heart froze.
In that split second, I was flooded by my fears of what it means to be a mother. And the imposter syndrome I battled for years, once again, engulfed me in shame.
In a daze, I found my way back to the car through the blazing heat. My husband, Sam, who had slept less than six hours in two days, opened the car door from inside. I sat down. Buckled my seat belt. And cried.
If I started from the beginning, I would have to dive into the heartbreak of infertility. The failed attempts of IVF. My relationship to sickness, fear, and shattered hope. Countless appointments spent with doctors telling me, “Let’s try again in a few months.” I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. I questioned and doubted my faith in God for giving me a desire for what I couldn’t have.
After months of psychotherapy and body acceptance, we explored the world of adoption. Too many children exist in this world in need of a loving family; I knew that was something we could offer. Sam was ready to be a dad. I marveled when his face lit up from research on adoptive families and local agencies. I felt excitement, once again, at what was possible. Simultaneously, I noticed waves of intrusive thoughts gently knock, or sometimes bang, at my mind’s door — only to remind me of my perceived unworthiness to be called ‘mom.’
Swimming helped a lot. In fact, it was lifesaving through my bouts of anxiety and depression. After one morning swim, I got a call from my aunt who lives on the outskirts of Phoenix. Her daughter, Jill — my younger cousin — was pregnant, again. I could tell by my aunt’s tone of voice that she wasn’t exactly thrilled by this news. Jill had two children and a history of personal challenges that made it difficult to care for her own needs. My aunt couldn’t bear the thought of watching her daughter and newborn grandchild go through unnecessary suffering. But she had heard through our family’s grapevine that Sam and I wanted to adopt.
During that call, I realized I never considered the possibility of adopting a child within my own family — especially an infant. The news struck me, and a thousand questions raced through my mind. How might this affect our family? Will Jill ever see me as worthy enough to raise her child? Would I ever see myself as enough?
We partnered with a well-known adoption agency near Ashburn, a suburb of Washington D.C. Our maternity social worker, Pattie, had 20 years of experience and seemed to be the right match for Sam and me. She understood our long road ahead and promised to be with us through each step.
Pattie did her best to find resources for infantile kinship adoptive parents, but we quickly discovered the scarcity of quality information and community. In many ways, it seemed that mainstream maternal health had largely unexplored our unique situation. This lack of awareness within adoption services made us feel isolated, and our frustrations intensified as hopeful-soon-to-be parents. We felt like pioneers, carving a path with the tools and resources we had access to and, at the same time, exploring the unknown within our niche as adoptive parents.
Over time, I grew comfortable with Pattie’s routine home visits and background checks. Sam and I tried to sprinkle in lightheartedness out of such private moments: comparing ourselves to federal agents getting screened for covert operations. We deeply appreciated the outpouring of letters Pattie collected from our family, friends, faith community and coworkers, who shared stories about our lives and values that made us fit to be “good parents.”
We packed our suitcases, and reserved our airline tickets. Several weeks remained until we made the trip to Arizona, but I wanted to be ready. Sam and I were still working full-time, and my heart ached for time to rest. I couldn’t help but compare how my experience differed from pregnant women in the final weeks of their third trimester. I wasn’t asked the same thoughtful questions about the baby’s room décor or my thoughts about becoming a first-time mom. Yet, my body and mind prepared in similar ways.
I wanted to “nest.” To finish painting the walls sea foam green in our third bedroom. To not be called into last-minute conference meetings or receive demanding emails at 2:00 a.m. for spreadsheets and presentations. I craved the thoughtfulness and respect of any expectant mother.
And yes, logically, I know every mother’s story is different, and life’s realities are far from perfect.
But these small subtleties only fueled the fire for my inner critic to gain traction and speed — to wreak havoc on my mind and send my emotions into a downward spiral.
1:37a.m. Panic. Attack.
Our flight to Phoenix arrived on time. A blast of dry heat hit me seconds after I stepped off the plane. Our three suitcases were on the conveyor belt by the time we reached baggage claim. Sam and I each had a suitcase with the third solely dedicated to the hopeful addition to our family.
Jill declined to share medical details with us throughout her pregnancy, which left us in the dark about pretty much everything. The hot air was thick with uncertainty. Despite all the invested time and money, we knew the possibility of a return flight home for two. She had every right to change her mind and keep the baby after giving birth. My chest tightened. I didn’t know if my greatest hope or deepest fear would come true.
I laid in bed at my aunt’s home the night Jill went into labor. She knew we were in town but didn’t want to see Sam or me. Was this the right choice? I pondered. Adopting a child whose mother I know? Would it have been easier if we had no relationship, if we didn’t share the same bloodline? Would she see us at family reunions, weddings, funerals and ask to have her child back? Those questions seemed futile at this point. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and turning back now was not an option.
“Hello, Sophia? This is Kathy Lynn, the director of Beautiful Births. I’m sorry to call you like this, but Jill’s social worker quit two weeks ago, and we have a situation at the hospital.”
“What kind of situation?” I asked.
“Jill locked herself and the baby in the restroom. No one can get her to open the door. Since you all are family, do you mind going over there and having a word with her?”
“Wha…what?” I stammered. “Well, what do you want me to say to her? They won’t even let me inside the hospital with all the Covid regulations.”
“I suggest getting as close to her as you can, Sophia. Your cousin needs you to be there for her right now.”
Twenty minutes later, Sam and I were in the hospital parking lot. I couldn’t believe what was being asked of me. When did my role switch to therapist and life coach? Not a single parenting workshop could’ve prepared us for this moment.
“Are you gonna call her?” Sam asked.
Suddenly, my cell phone rang. It was Jill. Her voice sounded tired and shaky. I consoled her in the best way I could and imagined what words may offer some comfort.
“You don’t have to do this,” I told her. “You can keep the baby if that’s what you want to do.”
The other end of the phone went silent. I have no idea how my lips even formulated those very words. My heart pounded. Then, I heard the gentle sound of a baby coo and the creak of an open door.
“Thanks, Sophia,” she said, sniffling. “That’s all I needed to know.”
The next day, Sam and I returned to the hospital and were escorted to a private room at the end of the maternity ward. A nurse entered with a baby bundled in pink and blue striped blankets. She placed the baby in my arms, said a few words, and left the room. As new parents, we didn’t expect a parade, but some warm bedside manner would’ve been kind.
My arms and legs weakened as I sank back into my chair. Sam embraced me in one arm while perfection stared back at us. I wanted to teleport the three of us home to Virginia at that exact moment. By law, we couldn’t leave the state for at least two weeks, and Jill still had the right to change her mind. As I held the baby in my arms, I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him go. Hope fulfilled tasted so sweet, and I wanted it forever.
Weeks later, Sam, Connor and I boarded a red-eye flight back to Dulles Airport. I played with his tiny fingers and pressed my lips against his soft, round cheeks.
“Such a beautiful baby,” said the flight attendant. “He’s got your face, mommy.”
“Thank you,” I said softly.
Mommy. My lips curled into a bright smile as I looked into Sam’s eyes. He kissed my forehead and rubbed Connor’s cheeks. I sighed as the plane departed from the terminal on our return home as a family of three. My heart filled with both gratitude and peace.
Looking back, this is not the path to parenthood I would’ve chosen for myself, and I would do it all over again to be Connor’s mom. At the end of the day, we have a son to raise and a family of our own. Although I haven’t seen or spoken to Jill, the occasional thought pops into my mind that she’ll randomly show up at my front door. I don’t know what our first conversation may entail, but I know I have the inner strength to endure whatever may come.