'These Kids Are Worth It': Debunking Foster Care Myths
 

Subscribe on iTunes

The number of kids entering foster care is increasing, but conversely, the number of foster-care homes are decreasing. And many people believe, incorrectly, that the kids in foster care are there because of behavioral problems, or juvenile delinquency. Greg Eubanks, CEO of the World Association for Children and Parents, has a personal and professional connection to foster care. And in this episode, he dispels the myths about foster care, and the kids in foster care: “What I get to see every day is healing, and recovery, and a child find out that they’re worthwhile, and they belong somewhere.” 

Greg Eubanks and his wife, Marci, have four children — three through adoption.

Greg Eubanks and his wife, Marci, have four children — three through adoption.

Greg Eubanks, WACAP CEO, hiking in the Pacific Northwest with his granddaughter.

Greg Eubanks, WACAP CEO, hiking in the Pacific Northwest with his granddaughter.

 
'This Is It': Adopting Through the Foster-Care System
 
Matty and Jillian pre kids.JPG

Even before they were married, Matty and Jillian Mitchell knew they wanted to adopt — specifically, through the foster-care system in Washington state. But their path to parenthood was not an easy one.

 

 
 

Subscribe on iTunes


 
Matty and Jillian Mitchell with their son, Jack.

Matty and Jillian Mitchell with their son, Jack.

 

Show notes

The adoption agency Matty and Jillian worked with to adopt Jack is called Amara. I got my statistics about the foster-care system from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Transcript

KRISTIN KALNING: When Matthew Mitchell was 17 or 18 years old, he saw a movie called “Major Payne.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s a 1995 comedy starring Damon Wayans as a super-tough U.S. Marine who has trouble adjusting to civilian life. Eventually, he lands at a prep school, training a group of misfits and delinquents to compete in the Virginia Military Games. Along the way, the Major finds himself softening his hard edges, particularly toward a pretty co-worker, and an adorable 6-year-old orphan, who is a cadet at the school.  

Here’s Matthew, who goes by Matty, describing what stuck with him from “Major Payne.”

MATTY MITCHELL: and like it’s one of those comedies and he falls in love, and they end up adopting this child at the end of it.  I’m not very hippie-dippie, I literally had this flash in my head like, ‘Oh, I’m going to adopt a black child, a child and he’s going to be black,’ I could just see it in my head. It wasn’t something where it was like, I want to do that. It was just in my head.  

KRISTIN: If the accent didn’t tip you off, Matty is Australian. And adoption isn’t very common in Australia. In fact, there were only 315 adoptions finalized in Australia in 2017. But for Matty, adoption seemed normal. His mother was adopted by her stepdad, Matty’s grandfather. It wasn’t a big secret, and it also wasn’t any big deal. It was just normal. And Matty thinks that’s why it was so easy for him to imagine adopting, just like Major Payne.

I’m Kristin Kalning, and this is Real Life Adoption, a podcast of stories from people whose lives have been touched by adoption. In this episode, we’re going to hear Matty and his wife, Jillian, describe their path to adoption, through the foster care system in Washington state. A heads up—we are using Matty and Jillian’s real names, but a pseudonym for their 6-year-old son, Jack. I’m doing the same for our two kids, Scott and Peter. OK, on with the story.

In 2004, Jillian Price was 20 years old, a focused, ambitious young psychology student at the University of Portland in Oregon.  Toward the end of her college career, Jillian chose to spend a semester in Australia. On her very first night in the country, she met Matty. I’m gonna let her tell it.

KRISTIN: When did you meet Matty?

JILLIAN MITCHELL: Yeah, it was the first night that I got there. 

KRISTIN: Wow, tell me about that.

JILLIAN: It was maybe 3 of us that got there a day early in the study abroad program.

KRISTIN: And where were you? What university was this?

JILLIAN: University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle. Our liaison student who was looking after the study abroad students said, ‘How about I take you guys out for dinner, since nobody else is really in your dorm yet and I’ll bring a few of my friends.’ So this guy brought a few of his friends and their roommate who ended up being Matty.  So there was really only 6 or 7 of us sitting around the table, and he walked in and there he was, it was over.

KRISTIN: Really?

JILLIAN: Yeah.

MATTY: From my side of the fence, it was like: These Americans are coming. I was, being an Australian, being a young lad thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have so much fun, bring on the American girls.’ I walked into the restaurant thinking, ‘I’m going to charm these girls.’ Jillian made a joke and my friend was sitting in front of us and I had to look around and we locked eyes. I literally said: ‘You’re funny.’ And we hung out from that day on.

JILLIAN: Every day. It was something we couldn’t stop. We tried. It made no sense whatsoever.

MATTY: It made no sense.

JILLIAN: We were like, this obviously isn’t going to last. This will just be a fling. You know we really weren’t even telling people. 

KRISTIN: Things got serious, fast, with Matty and Jillian. And as in any new relationship, they did a lot of talking – about their ambitions, their plans, and their dreams. Matty’s vision of adopting a child someday came up in their conversations. Jillian thought it was sweet, but figured it didn’t pertain to her. After all, this relationship made no sense. It couldn’t possibly go the distance. 

After four months, the semester was up, and it was time for Jillian to fly back to the U.S. It was a difficult separation – both of them cried at the airport, but figured that was it.  A few days into her backpacking trip across the East Coast, Jillian called Matty from a pay phone. “This isn’t right, this doesn’t feel good,” he told her. Whether it made sense or not, Matty and Jillian decided that they just couldn’t live without each other, and carried on the relationship long distance until Jillian graduated.  

MATTY: I was such a buffoon back then. I was literally paycheck to paycheck,  partying or skating or doing something silly with my friends. There was no responsibility other than getting to my job on time.  Then as soon as we made that commitment my brain said, ‘OK, let’s get serious.’ 

KRISTIN: With the couple now committed to a future together, the talk about what their family might look like took on a new weight. And Jillian says she was always on board to adopt.

KRISTIN: Were you even thinking about wanting kids at this point?

JILLIAN: Yeah, it seemed like, ‘Well yeah, I’ll want kids’ and that will be a part of our story: Us having a family. Like I mentioned to you before, when Matty said, ‘I really do want to adopt,’ I said, ‘OK, I feel like the right thing for us to do then is foster-toadopt.’

KRISTIN: And you knew that right then? How old were you? How did you have any concept of foster-to-adopt?  That’s pretty advanced.

JILLIAN: I was 21 maybe 22 when we talked about the process that we would adopt and that we would adopt a child that needed a home. We would provide a great loving home for someone who didn’t have one.

KRISTIN: But you did not know much about foster-to-adopt?

JILLIAN: Not really.

MATTY: We still looked into other avenues, but that was on the table.

KRISTIN: Did you know anybody who had done that?

JILLIAN: No.

KRISTIN: So you were you just kind of idealistic?

JILLIAN: A little bit idealistic, yeah.  

KRISTIN: Matty and Jillian got married in 2006. The next year, they moved to the U.S., outside of Seattle, and did what many young couples do: They built their foundation. They knew kids were in their future, but … later. They hung out with friends –none of whom had kids yet. And they focused on their careers. Matty went to design school, and worked at a boutique design firm. Jillian worked – and still works – in health care.

After four years of this, they were ready to grow their family. Matty and Jillian took a different route from most: They chose to adopt from the foster-care system first, and try for a biological child later.   

MATTY: We bounced back and forth on this a little bit. Deciding what we thought would be best for the child. Are they going to be better that they’ve got somebody to look up to or are they going to be better that they have our full attention?  Then, what age gap is that?  We ultimately decided that them having our full attention, for however long it’ll be, was the best route.

KRISTIN: Here’s some background about foster care that will help as we go through Matty and Jillian’s story. There is currently, in the U.S., a massive shortage of foster parents. One reason for the shortage is that it’s hard to recruit and retain qualified foster parents. The other reason is the increase in the number of kids entering care. Much of that is due to substance abuse, primarily, opioids.

In the eyes of the state, the ideal scenario is that the child be reunited with his or her biological family. That can mean mom or dad, or it can mean kinship care, like a grandparent. Adoption by someone not related to the child is the last option.  

Of the 10,068 children currently in foster care in Washington state, about 2,000 are available for adoption. They are what’s called legally free. Their birth parents have had their parental rights terminated by the courts, and typically, the children who are legally free tend to be older. Most children in the system are not legally free. They remain in foster care while the birth parents try to work out their issues. In the majority of cases, children are returned to their birth parents if the courts are satisfied that the kids are safe, that their needs are met, and that mom or dad are prepared to parent.  

The Mitchells were looking for a child with a low legal risk, or a low probability of the child being returned to his or her birth family. But low doesn’t mean nonexistent, and there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to adopt a child that you’ve fostered for any length of time. That’s what’s tough about adopting from the foster care system: You’re looking for permanency from a system where so much is in flux. 

In Washington state, prospective parents must be foster licensed, even if their ultimate intention is to adopt. To become licensed, parents must attend an orientation, and complete Caregiver Core Training, which is 24 hours in total. In addition to the training, there’s a lengthy to-do list, which includes a home study and home safety inspection, medical reports, background checks, and CPR certification.

Those looking to adopt through the foster care system can choose to work directly with the state, or through an agency. The Mitchells opted to work with an agency, choosing Amara, which is based in Seattle. According to Jillian, they worked with an agency so they’d have a social worker who could help them navigate through the legal parts while fostering. Their social worker didn’t have much ability to change anything, but he was a valuable support to them.  

Once they’d chosen their agency, the Mitchells began working through the to-do list and the trainings. They’d been told by their social worker that the average time to get everything done was a year. Jillian, who describes herself as very efficient, had blasted through the list in six months.  And it turned out to be a little too fast, so they stopped, and took a breather. 

JILLIAN: It was scary. I think talking about it, training for it, and doing all these preparation things is one thing, but then to start getting those referrals and possibly bringing home a child that next day… was scary. Because then again, usually they say, ‘Usually, it’s about six months.’ But you have to be ready that next day. It could be your child. So once that set in -- this could be a matter of a week or two from right now, from once we get licensed and then we get a child right away –  

MATTY: We also had a young friend group.  So we were still hanging out doing stuff socially with them.

JILLIAN: We were young.

KRISTIN: How old were you guys?

JILLIAN: 27 and 30.

MATTY: I was 29

JILLIAN: When we brought him home, we were 27 and 30.

MATTY: Yeah, when that part was done.  But the whole leading up to it, when we had to sit for six months or a year.

JILLIAN: Six and 29 days

MATTY: I feel like you were less ready than I was.

JILLIAN: Yeah, I think so too.  I was 26 and I was like, ‘Whoa.’

MATTY: That was real adult stuff

KRISTIN: Matty and Jillian said that initially their friends and family were a bit puzzled by their decision to adopt.

MATTY: People were supportive. But they were always supportive in a hesitant sort of way. Like, ‘oh that’s really good for you, but you can have a biological one…’

JILLIAN: A lot of asking, ‘why?’ Not understanding, why we would. But supportive, like, ‘OK you do your thing.’

JILLIAN: I distinctly remember my dad did not understand either. I remember, we were driving in the car one day, he was driving, I think we were going out to a movie at night.  He said, ‘I didn’t really understand once you started talking about adoption, why you would do this. Between your genes, and Matty’s genes you could have a super baby!  Why you wouldn’t just do that. Then I think about Henry, your nephew and I think of him being without (he was only two or a toddler at the time) and I think of him not being in the best care or being neglected and that breaks my heart.  I can understand now.  I can understand and I see how it’s right for you.’ That was huge, to have that support.  It felt like a family decision, and ever since then, it’s been a full family supporting network.  

KRISTIN: All told, including their hiatus, it took a year and a half to be foster-licensed. And the Mitchells started getting referrals for children immediately. They’d both be notified, via email, and the email would contain information about the child who needed placement. 

In some cases, they’d get just a paragraph, with or without a photo. With others, they’d get more information. Sometimes, they’d need to make a decision right away, because the child needed immediate placement. Over a period of five months, The Mitchells estimate that they saw at least one referral per week. And they said yes to about a dozen. But that didn’t mean that they’d automatically get the placement.

JILLIAN: Then, sometimes when we’d say yes then we have our phone attached to us. ‘Cause we could then be getting the call at any time that we were chosen. Sometimes we’d hear back: this child was placed with somebody else. Sometimes we would never hear. So then after a while we’d think, I guess we didn’t get that one.

KRISTIN: What was that like?

JILLIAN: It was a lot of emotional eating.

MATTY: I would say from that point on up until the official adoption … we should have had shares in Menchie’s. We should have started our own shop. We would have been great.

JILLIAN: I would say we stuck together. That was how we got through it. We would be together.

KRISTIN: How did you work? You have your phone on you, your life might change at any moment.  What did that feel like?

MATTY: It’s hard to explain. Your interior is nervous, but you’ve got to work. You’ve got to get your job done. So you’re plugging away and I had people at work who knew what we were going through. I was lucky enough, that my boss at the time he had adopted. 

JILLIAN: That was very nice, he was very understanding of the whole process.

MATTY: Maybe, even knowing that somebody had been through, hearing his story. I felt, ‘oh okay, these are the bumps in the road that everyone goes through.’

JILLIAN: To go off of that …I had to have the conversation with my bosses. ‘I could have a child at any time. We’re planning to adopt. We’re licensed.’ 

MATTY: They were very supportive.

JILLIAN: Any day I could have a child.

Kristin: That’s hard to plan around, isn’t it?

JILLIAN: Extremely hard.

KRISTIN: They don’t know when you’re going to be gone.

JILLIAN: No.

KRISTIN: So how did the whole process make you feel of seeing these referrals?

JILLIAN: Totally in limbo. But also, really like this was the right thing for us.

KRISTIN: How come?

JILLIAN: It just felt like our child’s out there. Our son’s out there.

MATTY: I think once you’re invested in that far, you’re pretty deep at that point. We’re going to end up with a child.  When you think about that process, you actually have a knot in your stomach. It’s going to happen, it’s not, it’s going to happen. The highs and lows are all over the show through the whole process.

JILLIAN: Oh, yeah. Even just planning for anything.  I remember that summer, we were just getting licensed, we had five weddings. I specifically remember, we were like, ‘yep, we think we’ll go.’ We just had to know and change our mindset to, ‘we’ll just keep on living and if plans change, plans change.’ Of course it’s going to be happy when it does; we’ll make it work.

JILLIAN: You were saying what it was like at that time, going through these referrals and seeing some very sad stories. I remember almost crying, thinking, feeling the love of our potential child.  Thinking, ‘what if our child is out there having some of these stories happen, but he hasn’t been found yet?’ Like if CPS hadn’t found him yet, and feeling the sadness, possibly.  It’s a very odd thing.

KRISTIN: Fast forward to the holidays, 2011. December 27, to be exact. The Mitchells were pulling into their garage, after dropping Matty’s grandmother at Sea-Tac airport. She’d been visiting for the holidays. Matty and Jillian had been advised by their caseworker at Amara that things were pretty quiet around the holidays.

MATTY: At that point we thought we could relax. We’ll get back into this in January or February.

JILLIAN: We drove into the garage, I was driving.

MATTY: We both get an e-mail on our phones.

JILLIAN: We hear the ding, we’re in the garage.  We open up the referral, and we thought, ‘there he is.’

MATTY: We were sitting on the couch, we had made a decision, and we thought, ‘This is it.’

JILLIAN: So we went inside and we were sitting on the couch and we were reading over it over and over again.

KRISTIN: But how did you know, yes?  Tell me what it was about that specific referral, that specific child that made you say yes after seeing dozens.

MATTY: Have you ever made a half-court shot in basketball?

KRISTIN: I can’t say that I have.

MATTY: But have you ever done something like that?

KRISTIN: Yeah.

MATTY: So you’ve let the ball go, you’ve done something where the motion just lets you know that whatever happens at the end that, is going to be perfect. So we get that e-mail it just felt like, we both looked at each other and thought, ‘this is it.’ Just like when we looked around the table at each other and thought, ‘this is it.’  Maybe that should be the story when we write a book?

KRISTIN: I might steal your title.

KRISTIN: The child in the referral was a four-day-old baby boy.  His birth mom, who we’ll call Anna, had tested positive for PCP. But the baby was full term, and showing no signs of withdrawal. And it looked like this child was likely for adoption, because Anna had had a child previously who’d been adopted. This baby needed to be placed within 24 hours. He was being discharged the next day.  

Matty and Jillian gave an unequivocal yes to their caseworker, and then, they waited. Matty was off work until New Year’s, so he was at home. Jillian went to work, but it was nearly impossible for her to focus. She called Matty at home to see if there was any news, and while they were on the phone, their social worker called on the landline. That’s a requirement to be a foster parent, you gotta have a landline – and so Matty had his wife in one ear, and the social worker in the other.

Matty learned that the state social worker would be going to court that day to finalize Jack’s placement. And the Mitchell’s would need to be at the hospital to pick him up at around 2:00. Matty got the details, jumped in the car to pick up Jillian, and off they went. Jillian remembers walking into Univeristy of Washignton hospital with an empty car seat, and walking out with it full.

KRISTIN: Describe what it was like to see him.

MATTY: That’s like the best part of the story. We walk in and we see this child sitting there.  We go in, they take us into this room. There’s this child in this medical bassinet and they’re talking to us and we just feel like there’s nothing around.  There could have been an elephant running through the room next to us and we could not have noticed.  We were just look at this child. We used to go through scenarios like, “who’s going to hold him first?” I was like I’m going to hold him first. When we get to that situation I thought, “Of course I want the mother of my child to hold him first.”  So Jillian picks up Jack … he’s sitting there and we know that it’s just little baby nerve reactions, but he opens his eyes and wiggles his head over to me and back over to Jillian, and this smile comes over his face and then he snuggled in and goes to sleep and we thought to each other, “did that just happen? Are you serious?”  We were smiles, ear to ear. They put us through the nursing tests, you’ve to feed him, you’ve got to change him. They would tell you things like, “if he’s crying, it’s okay to just walk out of the room.” They tell you that over and over again.  I think after two hours then we head home.

JILLIAN: It was crazy.

MATTY: Crazy. Such a good feeling

KRISTIN: You get him home.  You spoke earlier about the QFC moment.  Can you talk a  little bit about … so, it was theoretical, you have this child, then you have this child …

JILLIAN: We have this child and I didn’t foresee an infant. Infants are so rare to go through foster to adopt. So we had pictured toddler.  We get this infant, we get him home. We brought a couple packs of the formula from the hospital that they provide for us. We had a card table that we put up for a changing table that had towels on it. We got everything jimmy-rigged for the first couple of nights. We get home and we get it all set and I thought, ‘oh god, we need to get more food for this child.’ I can’t physically feed this child anything other than formula. I was like, oh! The one thing I have to do!

MATTY: The first thing we did … we read that if you hold the child to your…

JILLIAN: Oh yeah, we did some skin-to-skin.

MATTY: It wasn’t all panic, it was the excitement and stuff. I think once stuff settled down we then thought, ‘we’ve got to do some adult stuff here.’

JILLIAN: I was like, ‘I’ll go to the store to get some formula.’ I go and I was starting at this wall of options and it was all swirling around.  It was the first time I was like, “whoa, this sh*t got real.”  I’m in charge of this person and this is the rest of our lives. It all starts today.

A week later, Jack started his court-mandated visits with Anna, his birth mom. The visits were four times a week, for three hours at a time. A state social worker transported him to his first one, but after that, it was Jillian or Matty. There are people whose job it is to transport foster kids to their visits, but the Mitchells were adamant that they should be with Jack as much as possible.  

So, four times a week, Matty or Jillian would make the 30-minute drive to the children’s services office in South Seattle. They’d drive in the back, to avoid contact with Anna. The state social worker had warned the Mitchells that Anna was not happy about the situation, and that it was best if the two sets of parents didn’t interact.

MATTY: I think at first you’ve got a little bit of naiveness. I mean, it’s hard --

JILLIAN: It’s so short-term.

MATTY: It’s so short-term. We didn’t know that she was so hostile during the visits. At first you think he’s a baby chilling out.

JILLIAN: At first it’s just more about getting the logistics down. There’s a lot of importance to getting him there on time. All we are is a foster parent.  All we are is a home for this child who’s in limbo. It’s our duty to get him there on time. It’s hard enough to get out the door with an infant to begin with, but we had to make sure that he was fed for the longer car trip, diaper changed, totally clean.  Because, that was an issue -- if she saw that he was dirty, if he spit-up in the car, I would have to change him before we went in.

MATTY: And he was a spitter-upper.  

JILLIAN: He was a spitter. At first we just thought, this is a real pain.  Just logistically. Then as he got older, just a couple weeks, and we could see a difference in him.

MATTY: Like if he had three days without it, he’d be calm.

JILLIAN: And more willing to be passed around.

MATTY: But if he had a visit, he would be cranky afterwards. Not wanting to be away from us at all.

JILLIAN: Not at all. Not even to be down in a bouncer or anything.  Just wanted to be held. 

MATTY: Still now. He could probably be held all the time.

JILLIAN: And there started to be cracks in the system at that point. We saw … she would sometimes start not showing up. So it would be this whole rigmarole to get there. So you’d go in and, I think it was 15 minutes, that she would not show up and he would come back out and we would go home. Then a couple times, the visit had to be ended.  I’d just get back from work and I’d get a call from the social worker saying the visit had to be ended because the birth mom was acting so inappropriately.

KRISTIN: Like how?

MATTY: Usually yelling at the social workers.

JILLIAN: She was yelling at the social workers because she was mad at the situation and she should have her child.

MATTY: Or it could have been about anything.

JILLIAN: She didn’t want any parenting advice. So if the social worker was trying to help her with feeding or anything it would set her off.  She knows what she’s doing, she knows how to care for this child. A couple times the police had to be called, because she would not hand him over. She would be screaming, he would be screaming, and she’s just holding him, refusing to give him up and so they would have to wait for the police to come as he’s screaming in her arms. He’d just kind of whimper on the way home.

KRISTIN: And then what would it be like to then have him -- what would he be like at home after something like that?

JILLIAN: Just very clingy. Very clingy. Just --

MATTY: The first part was over his one to three months, so as you know children grow so fast. So for the first couple of weeks you think, ‘well he’s a baby, he might cry.’ As he’s starting their personality and what they want,  then you start noticing he’s really clingy, he doesn’t want to go to his aunties and uncles anywhere near as much. Just putting him down in his crib he would act as if he didn’t want to be put down or away from us.

JILLIAN: Even napping, we’dput him down, and no, no, no.  He’d scream upright, and you’d have to hold him while he napped. For a long time.

MATTY: It wasn’t just that he’d want to be laying on you, he’d be grabbing us.

JILLIAN: Grabbing with his tiny little fists.

MATTY: Grabbing your hand, or your hair.

JILLIAN: Just like, “Don’t let me go.”

KRISTIN: Because of Anna’s volatility, the state social worker had the visits moved to a different CPS office, in West Seattle. That office was staffed with a full-time security guard, who could intervene if Anna became agitated. The office was an even longer drive for the Mitchells, and baby Jack.

It took four months of these visits until CPS figured out that the drug test they’d been giving to Anna didn’t include PCP, her drug of choice. PCP is known to cause euphoria and calmness, but also, combativeness, disorientation, and irrational behavior. CPS tested her for the drug, which came back positive. The visits stopped, and Anna disappeared. A month later, the state started gathering materials and files to terminate Anna’s parental rights.

In Washington state, the court can petition to have the parental rights terminated if the child has been in foster care for at least 12 of the last 19 months. Those don’t have to be consecutive months either. This covers cases where a child returns home to his birth parents and then is removed a second time. In other words, a failed reunification. 

The petition to terminate can be filed sooner, if it’s in the child’s best interest. And also, if at least one of the following criteria are met: 

  1. The child is determined by the court to be an abandoned child;

  2. The child has been in foster care for at least six months;

  3. Aggravated circumstances have been found by the court. Some examples of aggravated circumstances include a parent being convicted of sexually or physically abusing the child.

Every state office runs things slightly differently and every judge or court also has different ways of moving cases forward. While the policy and law is consistent, the ways that the state implements and interprets policy may vary from county-to-county or even office-to-office.  

In the Mitchell’s case, the court required that Anna submit to a series of psychological evaluations to determine if she was able to parent. And they wouldn’t administer the test until she’d been off drugs for 90 days, so that the test was an accurate representation.  

In August 2012, four months after she dropped out of sight, Anna popped up in rehab. The state stopped its efforts to terminate. Anna was, in their view, trying to get her act together. There was still a chance she could parent her child. So the visits started up again. The courts rarely take away visit rights unless there is a significant danger to the child, or there is a no-contact order. 

KRISTIN: The visits start up again, and you’re going up to Everett.

JILLIAN: So that was in August. That’s when she meets us. Because of the setup of that residential rehab facility, there wasn’t an inconspicuous way for me to be dropping him off. I would be handing him to her directly. That was horrible. He’d be screaming. At this point --

MATTY: He’s aware enough.

JILLIAN: He’s eight months old. He would be screaming bloody murder. Grabbing at my clothes.  She’s yelling at me to hand him over.  She’s yelling at the social worker, ‘You see what she’s doing?’ I’d just be sitting in the car, waiting. It was just too far for me to go anywhere between.  That’s when we really pushed with the state social worker to diminish the visits. It was too much for him.

KRISTIN: Your pediatrician weighed in, correct?

JILLIAN: Yes, we got a letter from her that three hours is so long for an infant and that they needed to be shorter and less frequent. At that point, we got them down to three days a week for two hours.  Which was a win, but it was still more than he wanted.  But those lasted for only about five or six weeks.  And then –

MATTY: It was on the drive up there.

JILLIAN: You were driving him there, and I had gotten the call that she had left rehab and there wouldn’t be a visit that day. They didn’t know where she was. We thought that was it.  We were like, ‘oh my gosh.’

MATTY: We made it, we’re done.

JILLIAN: I’ll never forget, you sent me a selfie of you and Jack on the swing out back under the tree, with these happy smiles when you got home, like we’re done. Home free.  

KRISTIN: The Mitchells say that Jack was much calmer and happier once the visits stopped. Logistically, he wasn’t being hauled around as much, and so he could get on a regular eating and sleeping schedule. And it was nice to have their family on their terms.

Then came February 2013. By then, Matty and Jillian had been fostering Jack for 14 months, and six months had passed since Anna had left rehab. The Mitchells were in line for a court date when they got the call: Anna was back in rehab, and she wanted the visits to start up again.

JILLIAN: So we delayed and delayed as much as we can. I think we got two weeks out of it. Again, it was me physically handing him to her. It was awful.

MATTY: You could hear him crying from outside.

JILLIAN: Because he’s almost a year and a half at that point.  He has separation anxiety already.

KRISTIN: Was he verbal at this point? Could he speak?

JILLIAN: Yeah. He’d say, ‘no, no, no’ getting in the car.

MATTY: The first several times he was going there, he was like, ‘Oh, what’s happening?’ But then he would recognize her.  You would be calling me saying he was saying, “no, no, no.” 

JILLIAN: I’d just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ She would just be like, ‘What are you saying sorry for? I’m his mom.’ Not registering that he is bawling. There was no comforting to him. There was no caring about his feelings on her end. It was really hard. I’d just be sitting in the parking lot and I could hear his crying through the building. The whole time. It was awful. It was just … powerless.

MATTY: A couple of those got canceled as well, right?

JILLIAN: Yes, because he was so distraught and he would be crying until he vomited and they would stop then.

KRISTIN: While the visits continued, the court date to terminate was delayed, because Anna’s attorney was overwhelmed, and didn’t have time to work on her case. By that time, Anna had been off drugs for the required 90 days, and so could finally do her psychological evaluations. The Mitchells didn’t see the results of the evaluation, but they did see the court’s recommendation: that Anna was unfit to be a parent.

Still, until Anna’s parental rights were permanently revoked, she was entitled to visits. The court date to terminate moved two more times. The Mitchells were frustrated, and dismayed to learn that despite the court’s recommendation that Anna was unfit, she still might get custody of Jack. The state’s attorney wasn’t sure that the case against her was strong enough. There was talk about another court delay.

But then, December 2013, almost two years since Jack had been placed in their care, the Mitchells got another call. Anna had dropped out of rehab, and had signed an open adoption agreement on her way out of town.  

JILLIAN: And it just felt like silence, all of a sudden, in the world. And it was like … is this how it ends?

KRISTIN: With a whimper and not a bang?

JILLIAN: Yes! Exactly, and here we are. I guess we’re done.

KRISTIN: The agreement entitled Anna to three visits a year, and periodic updates about Jack, with photos. The Mitchells also added a paragraph stating that if they went over a year without hearing from her, the agreement was null and void. Same if Anna showed up at a visit under the influence. A week after signing, Anna filed an appeal, which added months to the process. But on May 27, 2013, the Mitchells finalized Jack’s adoption.

Today, Jack is in the first grade. That’s him, in the background, playing with my son, Peter.

KRISTIN: How do you think that those visits impacted him?

JILLIAN: As a parent you’re always trying to analyze things. You never know … if it’s just the way he was wired to begin with or if it was because of what he went through or because of the parenting we did, you never know. But he definitely is very shy, he does not like any new people, he does not like any new places.

MATTY: We have seen him grow in the last year or so. Just with maturity and stuff like that.  Because that was after the May 27, so like a year or so, two years after, that … if this was the room we were walking into he might just grab to our leg and be like, ‘We’re not going in.’

JILLIAN: He’d start acting out or something. He did not want to go into closed spaces, you’re totally right.

MATTY: Especially with strangers. With us, he’d be like, ‘Oh cool, what are we doing?’  But for a while there it was just, ‘No.’ Then he was going to a Montessori.

JILLIAN: Preschool was a struggle, even though it was a year and then two years post, it was a struggle for him to be dropped off. That transition of me leaving.

KRISTIN: Describe the struggle.

JILLIAN: Well, it was a flashback for both of us, I feel. Because the drop off is in the parking lot. It seems like such an innocent thing to so many other families to have this teacher come out and to take your child from the car and into the school, but it was just so similar to those visits. I think for both of us. He’d just be clinging, not wanting to go, and then sometimes screaming, going in with his teacher. I’d drive away, and sometimes he’d calm down, sometimes I’d have to go pick him up early because he couldn’t calm down.

MATTY: He’d just sit by the window, looking out.

JILLIAN: Just crying by the window, waiting.

MATTY: He got a friend there --  this is when we say, was it our parenting? I kind of feel like …  he needs to push through and then he’ll get to that happy point. But I didn’t think that school, a brilliant school, lovely people there, just wasn’t right for him.  So I think that if we had put him in one that was more based around playing or activity, like running or doing stuff like that, that played into his real strengths, then he would have been easier.

JILLIAN: Yeah, you never know what to parent through and what to put the kid gloves on for.

MATTY: I feel like we’re getting better at that, reading him. Where for a while we were like, why? We’re both very outgoing people so we’re like, of course, just walk into that room.

JILLIAN: We were tired of also having the effects of the whole process. We just wanted to be done with it. We just wanted to move past this, let’s not feel this trauma anymore. There’s no way to ignore, so we’ve gotten better at dealing with it, and he’s gotten better, so much better.

KRISTIN: What do you attribute that to? Did you seek out additional counseling?

JILLIAN: No, it’s just been time.

MATTY: We read books.

JILLIAN: Yeah.

MATTY: Podcasts and stuff like that.

JILLIAN: Yeah, it’s just been time, and honestly just listening to him.

MATTY: I think also, us figuring out how to be …  he’s not doing this out of anger toward us. Even if he’s saying the most horrendous thing, it’s not because he truly understands what that means or that he truly means that.  So he’s trying to tell us something, but that’s not it. If we stay calm or don’t get offended by it, that it would disappear in two minutes rather than two hours of a tantrum because we were all frustrated.

JILLIAN: He has a harder time being away, which means, I go to play dates. And drop offs for the first few times take a while, take patience. Usually a couple trips to the bathroom. They just are what they are, and he is who he is. We just roll with it more now.

MATTY: It’s getting way better.

JILLIAN: Yeah it’s gotten way better because of that.

KRISTIN: At six, Jack is shy. And, Jillian says he’s more prone to anger and frustration than many of his peers. But they also say that he’s a happy, playful little boy. He’s tricky, and loves to hide, and loves to tell jokes. He’s partial to potty humor, like every other 6-year-old boy I know. And Jack’s also a big brother, to three-year-old Mary.

The first six months of having a new baby around were a little rough. Jack’s attachment to his parents, and to Jillian in particular, were a test for him.

MATTY: I could only entertain him so much until he needed that mama fix.

JILLIAN: So he had a hard time for the first --

MATTY: It’s not like he had a hard time towards her though,

JILLIAN: He’s always loved her to pieces. 

KRISTIN: What was that like for you to see?

JILLIAN: Heart exploding. The best times.

MATTY: Even now, we text each other and Jillian would send me a picture and they’re just cuddling together on the couch. We’ll just be like, we’ve done something right, yes!

JILLIAN: They sleep in the same room.

MATTY: Because they choose to.

JILLIAN: They want to be together. They seek comfort from each other.

MATTY: They still butt heads sometimes.

JILLIAN: Obviously, we have that all the time. Sharing toys.

MATTY: She keeps up. We call her The Beast.

JILLIAN: She keeps up.

MATTY: She thinks that she’s six.

JILLIAN: Yeah. He would be upset about the attention she would take. Not at her, but getting used to not being the only child.  And he had so much of our attention, because he required it for so long. And we wanted to give it to him, because we thought he deserved it and needed it and our family was happier when he had it.

KRISTIN: What has he taught you about being a parent? About being a couple?

MATTY: Patience, for sure.

JILLIAN: So much patience. And … he is so joyful. He is so joyful. He sees the world that way. If you want to be serious or talk about things that aren’t fun. He’s like no thanks, I’m just living life, I’m just going to have fun. I think that’s been fun to see. It reminds me to do that more.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Path to Adoption
 

Real Life Adoption host and creator Kristin Kalning thought starting a family would be no big deal. But the traditional route – pregnancy – led her and her husband, Steve, down a difficult path of infertility and uncertainty. In this inaugural episode, Kristin shares the couple’s struggles, and how a deserted beach and a podcast episode changed everything. 

 
 
 

Subscribe on iTunes

Our dossier, before we sent it to our adoption agency.

Our dossier, before we sent it to our adoption agency.


The beach in Roatan, Honduras, where I realized that I was ready to adopt.

The beach in Roatan, Honduras, where I realized that I was ready to adopt.


Show notes

The agency we used to adopt Scott was called Children’s Home Society and Family Services. They have since merged, with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. They’re now called CHLSS, and they’re still one of the most ethical adoption agencies in the U.S.

The second agency we used was WACAP, or World Association of Children and Parents. They’re located in Renton, Wa., which was closer to our house than Minnesota. I was so impressed by our experience with them that I joined the board of directors in 2016. They’re also an incredible agency with a tireless, dedicated staff.


Transcript

Kristin Kalning The day I realized I was ready to adopt I was on a beach in Roatan, Honduras. It was a beautiful beach, and deserted, which was exactly what I needed.

The rest of the group, including my husband, Steve, was at the monkey sanctuary nearby. That was part of the excursion: Zipline through the jungle, check out the monkeys afterward. I like monkeys, but at the moment, the empty beach appealed to me more. So I parted from the group, rolled a beach towel out on a lounge chair, and queued up my iPod with all of my downloaded “This American Life” episodes.

Let me back up for a second. I was in Honduras as part of a cruise around the Caribbean. The cruise was a perk for all of the employees at Steve’s company. No work was expected, and employees brought their spouses and families. It was a welcome, sunny break from Seattle’s winter weather.

Still, I’d been dreading it. For one thing, I like to go places and hang out for a while. The whole cruise model of sailing around and disembarking for a day just wasn’t my idea of travel. But it was a free trip, and a new experience. We got to see glimpses of Roatan, Belize, and Cozumel, Mexico.

There was another reason why I was reluctant to go on the cruise. I was dreading being around our friends and their kids. Because despite all our efforts, Steve and I still didn’t have kids of our own. It was eating me up. It was putting a serious strain on our marriage.

I’m Kristin Kalning, and this is Real Life Adoption, a podcast of stories from people whose lives have been touched by adoption. For this first episode, I’m going talk about what led Steve and I to choose adoption. Our path was infertility, which means that you’re not able to get pregnant after one year of trying. Women who can get pregnant but cannot stay pregnant may also be considered infertile. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.1 million women in the U.S. have difficulty getting or staying pregnant. 

Well before that trip to the Caribbean, and that beach in Roatan, Steve and I were newly married, and living in San Francisco. We weren’t in a huge hurry to have kids. At that point, we were enjoying being childless and traveling and eating out and throwing parties at our tiny apartment overlooking Ocean Beach.

But after awhile, it felt like we’d sort of … done everything. After a year of marriage, we started talking about taking the next step, and the next adventure: becoming parents. I was 34, and Steve was 33.

I went to my OB-GYN, who said: “You are sickeningly healthy. I’ll see you when you get pregnant.” I went off birth control, and figured it was just a matter of time.

But month after month, my body refused to cooperate. My OB-GYN was puzzled, but suggested we give it a full year before looking into fertility treatments. We started being a bit more strategic with our efforts. I read books and got lost on websites and forums discussing fertility. I took my temperature every day, and charted the results.  

In the summer of 2005, Steve’s company shut down its Bay Area office and we decided not to follow his job to Orange County. He landed his dream job in Bellevue, Washington, a little while later, and so we bought a house and moved to the Pacific Northwest. We still weren’t pregnant, but we chalked that up to stress. I tried acupuncture. Nothing. We took a vacation. Still nothing. By this time, I was 35, and starting to panic.

We’d heard the stories of other friends and acquaintances who’d had trouble conceiving. One woman I knew cashed out her 401K to fund round after round of in-vitro fertilization, or IVF. A friend of ours, who’d gotten lucky with just one round of fertility drugs, suggested that we decide ahead of time how far we were willing to go. Steve and I talked about it, and decided to draw the line at IVF.

I know many, many families who’ve chosen IVF with great success. I am the last person to judge how people choose to create a family. But IVF just wasn’t for us. Steve and I both decided at the outset that it was too expensive, and didn’t have a high enough rate of success to feel comfortable. We also weren’t tied to the idea that our children had to be biological. Adoption was something we’d always talked about. We just wanted to see if we could have a biological child first.

After a year of trying for a biological child, I typed “fertility treatments” into Google. I got pages and pages of results. We chose a facility near our house. The nurse practitioner was kind, even-keeled, and had an impressive track record. 

She recommended a full workup for both of us. For Steve that meant a sperm test, which came back A-OK. For me it meant an HSG test, where a doctor shoots iodine dye into the uterus to see if the fallopian tubes are blocked. I had an ultrasound to check for ovarian cysts. And for good measure, I was also tested for PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. All of those tests came back negative. My blood test revealed the real problem: I had anovulation, which meant I wasn’t ovulating regularly. Which meant, I was the problem.

If it’s been awhile since fifth grade health class, let’s recap: Every month, fertile women develop follicles in their ovaries. These follicles are very tiny sacs filled with fluid. In the first couple of weeks of a woman’s menstrual cycle, hormones trigger a few of these follicles to grow, and the egg inside the follicles to mature. Eventually, one follicle becomes dominant, and that’s the one that will release a mature egg during ovulation.  

Typically, ovulation lands right in the middle of a woman’s cycle, but there’s lots of variation there. Her most fertile window is the day of ovulation, and the five days preceding it. After that, the body enters what’s called a luteal phase, which lasts about two weeks. In that phase, the ovaries make the hormone progesterone, which tells the lining of the uterus to thicken up and prepare for pregnancy. If no pregnancy occurs, the lining sheds during menstruation. I wasn’t even getting to the ovulation phase. I was an ovulation failure.

This news was both devastating and infuriating. Up to that point, I had always been able to bring my body to heel. At 15, I developed anorexia, and forced my body to stay under 90 pounds with a 500-calorie-per-day diet. In the ensuing years, my eating disorder waxed and waned, eventually morphing into exercise bulimia. The voice in my head commanded that I exercise at least an hour a day, and sometimes, twice a day. I taught Spin classes to sneak in an extra workout. I trained for running races to hide my obsession. Everyone thought I was just a disciplined athlete, but in truth, I was grappling with an eating disorder that would rule my life for 27 years. But that’s another story. 

Up to this point, our nurse had been coding our visits and treatments as “ovarian dysfunction,” and our insurance was paying. So I went on Clomid, an ovulation-inducing drug. It was relatively inexpensive and easy to take. But it did a serious number on me. I had headaches, nausea, and big-time mood swings.

Steve joked that there should be a safe house for Clomid husbands.

At one point during this process, I suggested to Steve that he should just leave me, and start over again with a younger woman who could give him children.  

Interview with Steve about my suggestion that he leave me for a younger woman.

Kristin Kalning Do you remember when I said that to you?

Steve Kalning Yeah I do, I think I laughed, which, in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best response to give at that moment.

Kristin Kalning Yeah, I was a little fragile.

Steve Kalning Yeah, but I think to me it was funny in some ways because I was like, well, is that what you feel you bring to the table? Like, you can have biological kids, and if you can’t, get out? You know, move on, get out of here! So, yeah, I guess maybe it is a little funny in hindsight.

Kristin Kalning Yeah, in hindsight, for sure.

Steve Kalning Yes. I think -- and maybe I was there, thought-wise before you were -- but it felt like at that time we started talking a bit about, you know, there’s multiple ways to have a kid, not a kid, but to have a family

Kristin Kalning Right.

Steve Kalning You know, biological wasn’t the only way we could go- we started talking about adoption, foster care.

Steve Kalning Various avenues like that, and I think the other thing we talked about back then was, “What if the problem was me?” Right? What if, after our doctor visits and tests it was like well, “Your guys just aren’t swimming fast enough?” or whatever it was, it’s not always…

Kristin Kalning But it wasn’t.

Steve Kalning No, but again, it’s not always the woman who’s, you know, the problem, or the issue, right? So it’s just good to have those talks, I think.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.  

Kristin Kalning It did feel important for me to have confirmation that Steve was going to stick with me during this demoralizing and discouraging process. But the suggestions from the sidelines were enough to drive me crazy. Everyone had an opinion about why I wasn’t getting pregnant. My mother told me to stop eating sushi. One of my friends told me that I should quit my job and spend all my time focusing on getting pregnant. That one really bugged me. My job, as an editor and writer for Msnbc.com, was one of the things in my life that felt good. One of the only places where I felt successful. I did not quit my job.

I did spend a lot of time blaming myself. Did my decades of anorexia and bulimia cost me my fertility? And if so, could I undo the damage? Our nurse – and the fertility specialist that followed – weren’t particularly interested in determining the reason for my anovulation. They wanted me to focus on the big picture: Getting pregnant.  

So every month I did the same thing. Kick off the process with an ultrasound to check for cysts. Take Clomid for 5 days. Go in for more ultrasounds and blood tests to monitor follicle growth and hormone levels. And then a “trigger shot” of HCG, or human chorionic gonadatropin. The purpose of the trigger shot was to sync up optimal follicle growth and ovulation for a better chance of fertilization, and pregnancy. And then, later in the cycle, I’d get a progesterone shot to see if I had ovulated. Every month, I still wasn’t pregnant.

As a Hail Mary, I started taking Metformin, a diabetes drug. Metformin had an off-label use to help spur ovulation, but it didn’t work for me.

Our nurse recommended that we try one last cycle with IUI, or intrauterine insemination, otherwise known as the “turkey baster” method. I spent the morning of July 4, 2006 at the fertility clinic. I was on my back with pillows under my hips, and a nurse shot Steve’s washed sperm into me. It was six days before my 36th birthday.

“You have about six follicles in there,” said the nurse with the turkey baster. “Have you thought about the fact that you might need to do selective reduction?” What she was saying is that it looked so likely that I’d get pregnant, with all of those follicles and potential eggs, that I might need to consider if I wanted to carry multiple babies to term. What she was saying is that I was going to get pregnant this time, with at least one baby.

I was so sure that the IUI was going to work that I let myself daydream about how I’d tell Steve I was pregnant. Would I leave out the positive pregnancy test on the counter? Would I buy a big teddy bear and tie a note around its neck? Or would I go big, and announce it on the Jumbotron at Safeco Field during a Mariner’s Game? The IUI didn’t work. I got my period while rollerblading down the Sammamish River trail on a sunny summer afternoon. I locked myself in the public bathroom, and cried.

At this point, our nurse told us she’d done all she could do. It was time to go see a fertility doctor. Our insurance company had figured out what we were up to, and had stopped paying. We were on the hook for thousands of dollars’ worth of treatment.

Kristin Kalning We go to Seattle Reproductive Medicine, and they had the big fancy office, and … how do you remember that experience?

Steve Kalning I remember it being a little clinical, it was pretty no-nonsense. I remember the waiting room being very busy. 

Kristin Kalning Yeah.  

Steve Kalning There seemed to be a lot of people in there, sort of anxiously looking on their phone, reading through the magazines and sort of, you know, just a little bit nervous, I guess.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Steve Kalning Anxious.

Kristin Kalning Yeah, anxious energy.

Steve Kalning Yeah.

Kristin Kalning I remember the doctor was nice. She was very brisk, you know.  

Steve Kalning She was pretty to the point, she didn’t seem to care what, I mean, she cared what we went through before, but it didn’t matter.

Kristin Kalning Right.

Steve Kalning It was more just like, “That’s great. Here’s what you should do next.”

Steve Kalning These are your options and this is what you should do.

Kristin Kalning She told us that our next step should be IVF, no other options were given. That was our best option, that was what she … wholeheartedly recommended for us.

Steve Kalning Yeah and then, I think we kind of looked at each other and we were sort of like, “Is that the end of the game, like, is this it?” Is this …  the end of the road? We couldn’t really get a guarantee from her that it would be successful. And the cost was not insignificant.

Kristin Kalning True.

Steve Kalning And I think I remember, like, during the meeting, we just kind of turned to each other and we’re both going like, “I don’t know if we really wanna do this.” It didn’t feel right. And I remember her being kind of confused and a little disappointed, almost like, “Well, why are here?” Right?

Kristin Kalning Yeah. ‘I can get you pregnant if you just do this.’ 

Steve Kalning Yeah. Just do it enough and –

 Kristin  Kalning It’ll take. 

Steve Kalning Yeah. It’ll finally work, maybe.

Steve Kalning And I think that’s when I started thinking like, well maybe this isn’t the right route for us. Maybe adoption is what we should really start looking into. 

Kristin Kalning Yeah, I definitely was, had been feeling up to that point, that, um, maybe there was a reason I wasn’t getting pregnant. Maybe my body was throwing up red flags and I was just choosing to ignore them, but I wasn’t quite where you were yet. I do remember the doctor said, “There’s one thing that you could do, I guess.” And it was Follistem, which is a-

Steve Kalning Oh yes, the Follistem-

Kristin Kalning Yes, the follicle stimulating hormone shots. And she sent us away with this prescription and told us to think about our diminishing options because of my age. But I went home and I ordered the Follistem, which was also not inexpensive, and it came, and I put it in the refrigerator, kind of in the like little side door thing next to the mustard and the capers and I told you it was there, and do you remember what you said?

Steve Kalning Yeah, I think I took a look at it and sort of your, I don’t know, almost hesitation, of like “This is where we’re at now, we’re gonna start giving each other, well not giving each other, but giving you shots to see if we can, you know, get this going,” and I think I was like, we need to take a break.

Kristin Kalning We took a break from fertility treatments – and each other. We spent a lot of time that winter on opposite ends of the house. Steve had moved on, and was talking more about adoption. I was still down that rabbit hole of infertility treatments, asking myself what if? And why me?

Then, two things happened. My boss sent me to a writer’s workshop at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. During a layover at DFW airport, I spent two hours on the phone, arguing with my insurance company over payment. “Your coverage does not extend to fertility treatments,” the customer service person said over and over. I went to the ladies’ room and had a good, long cry.  

The workshop, though, was a revelation. The sunshine and the caliber of talent in that room was intoxicating. I felt like I was at a summer camp for reporters. I came back feeling motivated and energized.

The second thing was the cruise. Which brings us back to that beach in Roatan, and the monkey sanctuary, and “This American Life.” The episode I chose to listen to is called “Unconditional Love.” The second segment, called “Love is a Battlefield,” told the story of Rick and Heidi Solomon, who adopted a seven-year-old boy from Romania. After an initial honeymoon phase, this boy, Daniel, started to act out. Not typical tantrums, but hours of rage. He put thousands of holes in the walls of his room. He gave Heidi a black eye. She called the police several times a month. She took him to countless psychiatrists. One of those psychiatrists told Heidi that her son would never love her.   

 There was this line in that episode that I can never forget. It changed everything for me. The narrator, Alix Spiegel, said that Heidi believed strongly that people should do what they’re capable of. And throughout the many trials with Daniel, including a point where Rick considered moving out, Heidi’s love for Daniel never wavered.

I listened to this episode about this extraordinary family and I cried until I felt wrung dry. I wasn’t sad though. I was relieved. I could leave this miserable, punishing journey of infertility behind, because there was another way. People should do what they are capable of. And we were capable of loving a child that wasn’t biologically ours. For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful.

Back on the boat, I changed into my running clothes and went for a four-mile run. It took 16 laps around the tiny track to equal a mile, but I didn’t mind the monotony. While I ran in the stifling heat, the thoughts flowed in and out of my head like gentle waves. Where would we adopt from? We’d figure it out. What if it took another year or more? Then it would take another year or more. A year or more was going to pass anyway, and this path seemed to have much more certainty. I ran and ran until I was drenched with sweat. It felt like a baptism. It felt like starting again.

Steve Kalning Yeah, so you came back from your run, and I remember you just kind of burst in through the door, slightly -- manic’s probably not the word -- but with a very excited look on your face and you just said, “F@#$ this. Let’s adopt.”

Kristin Kalning (Laughter.) That sounds like me. What was your reaction to that?

Steve Kalning Silence! It was kind of like, you know, internally I think it was more like, “Well OK, it’s about time.” But, I think I was happy excited, relieved.

Kristin Kalning I think we celebrated. I remember, when we went to dinner that night, we bought a bottle of champagne and celebrated, ‘cause it felt like,

Steve Kalning We got over this hill, right,

Kristin Kalning Yeah, totally.

Steve Kalning We got over this hill we’d been climbing forever it felt like, with no results, and it felt like, this is a path, right, that we can now start going on, right?

 Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Kristin Kalning When we got back to Seattle, we started to research adoption agencies – and share our decision with our friends and family. Some people didn’t understand why we wouldn’t try every avenue possible to get pregnant, but we were over that. We also had little patience for the many people who told us, “Oh, once you adopt you’ll totally get pregnant.”

Kristin Kalning So I never, ever think about what it would have been like to have biological kids. Do you?

Steve Kalning No, it never really crosses your mind, and you hear adoptive parents talk about that … you know, once you adopt, your kids are your kids,

Steve Kalning And it doesn’t matter what they look like, where they’re from, or any of that.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.  

Steve Kalning And before you adopt, I don’t think you believe them, because you’re like well --

Kristin Kalning They don’t look like you!

Steve Kalning Yeah, they don’t look like you! And, it never crossed my mind and the funny thing that starts happening is that you start being told that you guys look alike.

Kristin Kalning (Laughter) That’s right.

Steve Kalning Like, before you know it, they’re like, “He has your expressions!” or “He looks like you.” And it’s like, that’s impossible, or at least I think it is.

Kristin Kalning (Laughter) Yeah …  and now people don’t believe us when we say that, that we’re like, I couldn’t care less that I don’t have biological children, and more than that, like, if we did have biological children, we wouldn’t have our kids.

Steve Kalning Yeah, that’s probably the best way to look at it.

Kristin Kalning Yeah. I mean, once that door was closed for me, it was closed.

Kristin Kalning There were lots of decisions ahead. The first one: Would we adopt domestically, or internationally? We quickly decided that we wanted to adopt internationally. At the time, it was the quicker route, although that’s changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Private adoptions could often fall through, and we didn’t feel like we could handle the emotional roller coaster of adopting through the foster care system. At that point, we had been trying to become parents for three years. We wanted a path that would likely lead to a child.

First, we looked at China, which at the time was well-known for its orphanages full of female babies. Back then, China had a rule that a couple had to have been married five years if either partner had ever been divorced. I had a divorce in my past, and Steve and I had only been married for four years. So we moved on to South Korea – another country with a long history of adoption to the U.S. In that case, the wait time was upwards of three years – too long for us. I started researching Ethiopia, a country I had long been curious about.

Many people only know about Ethiopia because of the devastating 1984 famine, and the Live Aid fundraising concert. But I had learned a bit about Ethiopia in an anthropology class. I’d read about Lucy, the 3.2-million year old human ancestor, whose skeleton was found in Ethiopia. I’d learned from my father, a history buff, that Ethiopia was one of two countries in Africa that had never been colonized. (OK, it was briefly occupied by Italy in 1936, but that’s still pretty impressive.)  Ethiopia has its own calendar, and its own way of telling time. They do things their own way. I liked that.

We chose an agency, Children’s Home Society and Family Services, or CHSFS, in St. Paul, Minnesota. We chose them because of their reputation for integrity and transparency. They also, at the time, had one of the most established Ethiopia programs in the U.S. Steve and I really wanted a steady, experienced hand on the rudder during this journey. So we filled out the application packet during a long weekend, and on July 6, 2007, a year after the turkey-baster fertility treatment, we were officially accepted into the Ethiopia program.

OK, so a few definitions here for the adoption newbies: A dossier is a collection of documents required by both the U.S. and the country where you hope to adopt from. The dossier requirements will vary by country, but typically, it includes a home study, medical reports about the prospective parents, immigration pre-approval, financial and employment information, reference letters, police reports, on and on. It took us seven months to assemble all of the paperwork for our dossier.

Most adoption agencies have relationships with NGOs, orphanages, and state officials in the countries where they work. As children are relinquished, in-country staff pull together what they know about the children – their history, health, disposition, and so on. And based on that information, the agency will match the child with one of their waiting families. When a child’s information is shared with a family, that’s called a referral.

After submitting our dossier, we waited a year for our referral. I don’t really remember much from that period except that it was weird. We were two people in our mid-30s who knew next to nothing about parenting. CHSFS required us to do a series of educational webinars -- on Ethiopian culture and traditions, on parenting, and so forth. But it still felt very abstract.  We’d ask our friends with kids how we could prepare, and they told us to sleep late and go to lots of movies. We chose a pediatrician, and asked her the same thing, and she told us just to trust our gut.

While we waited, we made contact with the Center for Adoption Medicine at the University of Washington. The center has three pediatricians, and all provide general pediatric care for fostered and adopted kids. They also provide pre-adoption consultations on referrals. The physicians there, and at other adoption clinics around the country, have specialized training and expertise in adoption medicine. They are familiar with the nuances of foreign systems. They know what kind of growth patterns to expect from a child who’s been at an orphanage in China versus Ethiopia. They can look at a photo of a child and determine whether they have fetal alcohol syndrome. In other words, the doctors at the Center are an invaluable resource for parents who have just a few days to say yes or no to a child that lives thousands of miles away.   

Dr. Julia Bledsoe, one of the three physicians, had helped us with our medical conditions checklist. The checklist has parents decide which medical conditions they are willing to look at in a referral. It is one of the documents that goes into a family’s dossier.  

Filling out the checklist is an awful experience. But it does help the adoption agency narrow down which children to show you. It also forces parents to get real about what they can handle. Some of the questions were easy: Yes, we’d look at referrals of children with low birth weight. Yes, we were fine with cleft lip and palate. But no, we didn’t feel equipped to parent a child with blindness, or HIV. I felt beyond horrible doing this checklist, but Dr. Bledsoe reminded us there were people who stepped up to adopt the children with Down’s Syndrome, or cerebral palsy. In fact, there were people who only adopted children with those conditions. Steve and I needed to be honest about what we thought we could handle, and for our first adoption, we requested a healthy child.   

By the time January 2009 rolled around, we knew from Rachel, our adoption coordinator, that we were at the front of the line. I still wasn’t quite ready to fix up the guest bedroom into a nursery though. Steve and I would stand in the front of the room, and talk about where we’d put the crib, and what color we’d paint the walls. But after years of infertility, I didn’t want to jinx anything. I wanted to wait until we had a referral, an actual child out there that was ours.

 At the end of February 2009, I was in the Bay Area for my then sister-in-law’s baby shower. The day before the shower, she went into labor, a full six weeks early. The doctors tried everything to stop the labor, but it was no use. Little Malcolm Robert was on his way. He was born at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California, at 10:12 p.m. on March 1. I got to see him as he was wheeled into the NICU. I got to see my brother become a father for the first time.

I was able to squeeze in one last visit to the NICU before my flight the next morning, and I stayed a bit too long. My parents were driving me to the airport, and I was crammed in the back seat with my suitcase.

We were crawling down Howe Street toward the 580 freeway when my cell phone rang.  It was a number I didn’t recognize. I was a reporter back then, and I was used to getting phone calls from PR people, so I picked up. It was Rachel, our adoption coordinator. She asked if now was a good time to talk. I knew instantly that this was “the call.” She told me that Steve and I had been matched to a 9-month-old baby boy. She told me he was absolutely adorable.

Audio with Mom

 Kristin Kalning So I’m gonna give my mom a call here, and see what she remembers from that day.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) (Ringing) Hello?

 Kristin Kalning Hey Mom!

 Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) Hey Kick!* What’s going on?

 Kristin Kalning Oh nothing, just doing some podcast stuff and I thought I’d give you a call and ask you some questions.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) OK.

Kristin Kalning OK. So I wanted to find out from you what you remember about that day in the car after Malcolm was born, and, you know, I’m in the back seat, and I get a phone call and it’s our adoption coordinator, and of course, you couldn’t hear that side of the conversation because you weren’t on the phone with me, but what I remember is, it’s like as soon as I took the call it’s like you almost knew. What do you remember about that?

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) Well, my memory is very vivid of that day, I think I’ll always remember it. We were in the car trying to get to the airport on time, because you had wanted to visit your little nephew before you got on the plane, and we were running a little late, and so it was a little tense, and the phone rang, and you looked at the number and you said, “I don’t recognize this, but I’m gonna take it anyway.”

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) So you took the call and I didn’t hear you say anything and … I waited and I kind of turned around and looked at you and you had this look on your face and, like, tears in your eyes, and I just knew that it was the call you had been waiting for. And, I just remember that. I’ll always remember that day.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) So, you know it was kind of an amazing day for me because my grandson had just been born less than, you know, twenty four hours before, and I knew that you had just gotten the call that you had been waiting for, and I had a suspicion that I was gonna be a double grandma in less than 24 hours.

Kristin Kalning And you were!

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) Yep, I was.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) And we just, Dad and I felt so fortunate that we were both there when you got that news, and, you know, I just know that I’ll never forget it and I know he won’t either.

Kristin Kalning Yeah. Kind of like you got to be there for two births, in a way.

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) Right, and you’d been waiting for a long time for that call, you know, it hadn’t come, and it hadn’t come, and then, for it to come then, was just …. it will always be a memory for me.

Kristin Kalning Yeah, it felt a little bit like a miracle, didn’t it?

Marilyn Mellone (Kristin’s mom) It did, I know it was a miracle. It was like, you know, two grandsons in 24 hours, and you know, to have it happen that way, I know it was a miracle.  

Kristin Kalning Back on the phone, Rachel gave me as many details as she could, and then promised to send me an e-mail with the full referral as soon as we hung up. I immediately called Steve. I got his voicemail. I left a message that conveyed how much he really needed to call me back. Minutes passed, and I called again. Dude, you really need to call me. As we pulled up to the airport, still no call. So, I called the front desk and asked the receptionist, who knew was what going on, to page Steve right away. She got the picture. Steve called me back seconds later.

Kristin Kalning So I finally track you down after calling you and leaving you messages and having you paged. So when I had you paged, did you know what I was calling about?

Steve Kalning (Laughter) Yeah I think I had a pretty clear idea. Yeah, I think the message was: You need to call your wife right now! I was like, Oh. OK. 

Kristin Kalning Were you excited?

Steve Kalning Yeah, I was super excited, but you were trying to get on the airplane.

Steve Kalning And it was, you know, before the day where you had Wi-Fi on the airplanes and you could send me a bunch of stuff, so it literally became, I have the form, I have the referral, I have everything- I’ll send it over to you when you land, meet me at home.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Steve Kalning And you know, you weren’t flying back from across the country.

Kristin Kalning No. Thankfully.

Steve Kalning It was just down the coast, so it wasn’t super far, but, yeah, I think I was excited to see what, you know, to get to my email and take a peek and see what was going on.

Kristin Kalning And then, what did you feel when you saw him? You saw him before I did.

Steve Kalning Oh … he’s just this beautiful little boy. I remember actually showing a picture to a coworker, which I know you’re not supposed to do but I work in a shared office and,

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Steve Kalning And they’re like, “She’s beautiful!” And it’s like, aw, he’s a little guy, he just happens to be wearing a pink sweater —

Kristin Kalning (Laughter) A pink sweater.

Steve Kalning A pink sweater.

Kristin Kalning That pink sweater.

Steve Kalning And a shaved head.

Kristin Kalning Yeah.

Steve Kalning ] I think, you know, just kind of running home and start making the appointments to call for the doctors, and to get the referral, to go over all the medical information but you know, it felt like, you know, it felt like that was our son.

Kristin Kalning Yeah. Absolutely.

Kristin Kalning Meanwhile I raced to catch my plane. I was really, really late. The baggage counter guy at Southwest reminded me of this fact about three times, but I was totally bulletproof that day.  

I tore up to the TSA counter, and when the guy asked me how my day was going, I blurted out: I’m a mom! He looked at my belly, and then at my face, and then waved me through.

I ran to my gate and down the jetway, and the door of the plane closed behind me. I was crying and laughing at the same time, and I plopped into the first empty seat I found. I must have seemed insane, because the woman next to me got up and changed seats. I spent the next hour and 50 minutes staring at the seat in front of me. It really felt like I was in a movie – one where the heroine finally gets good news and everything changes to soft focus. 

All of a sudden this was HAPPENING. This was REAL. We had filled out the paperwork and submitted to the fingerprinting, and to the social worker visits, and now there was a real, live child that had been matched to us. I couldn’t wait to land, to download the zip file that would contain his picture and his full details.

The second the plane touched down, I took my phone off airplane mode and searched for Rachel’s email. When I found it, I clicked on the zip file containing our child’s photo and information, and waited while it downloaded. I was still waiting for it to download at baggage claim, but there it was. My heart was thudding like a sledgehammer as I clicked and there was my child, the most adorable, beautiful, smiley baby in the whole world. I was in love, totally head over heels in love, with this baby boy.

Steve and I pulled up at the house at the same time. I remember sharing a look with him, one that said absolutely everything. Everything we’d been through, and now, finally, someone had decided that we could parent this beautiful boy. We hadn’t given up. And it looked like our efforts would finally result in a family.

Steve cautioned me not to get too attached, that we still needed to get our pre-adoption consultation, but it was way too late for me. Barring some undiagnosed syndrome, he was our boy.

Steve and I went to Ethiopia that June, and brought home our son. I’d tell you more about our Ethiopia trip and the amazing lifelong friends we made during it, but that’s a story for another time.

Before we left, we had some notion that we’d name our son Noah, but once we met him, we decided to keep his Ethiopian name. It suits him. Still, because he’s a minor, we’re having him use a pseudonym for the podcast.

Kristin Kalning Hey so: What do you think you want your podcast name to be?

Scott Kalning Scott, because my favorite Marvel character, one of them, is Ant-Man, and his first name’s Scott, so …

Kristin Kalning OK, but you don’t want me to call you Ant-Man?

Scott Kalning No thank you, please.

Kristin Kalning OK, it’s Scott.

Scott Kalning Yes.

Kristin Kalning OK, Scott, how old are you?

Scott Kalning Ten.

Kristin Kalning What grade are you going into?

Scott Kalning Fifth.

Kristin Kalning OK. And, what sorts of things do you like to do, Scott?

Scott Kalning Play outside, play basketball, play soccer, play video games.

Kristin Kalning OK, thanks.

Scott Kalning You’re welcome, have a good day.

Kristin Kalning A few years later, we started looking into adopting again from Ethiopia, but CHSFS had closed its program. We began working with another agency, WACAP, in Washington state, but the wait times were growing longer and longer, up to four years. Eventually, we decided to adopt our second child from WACAP’s China program. And in 2015, Steve, Scott and I boarded a plane for Beijing. The little boy we brought home is six years old now, and as you’ll hear, he likes pretty much everything.

Kristin Kalning So … what do you want your podcast name to be?

Peter Kalning Peter.

Kristin Kalning Like Peter Parker?

Peter Kalning Yeah.

Kristin Kalning Like Spiderman?

Peter Kalning Yeah.

Kristin Kalning So you must like superheroes.

Peter Kalning Yeah.

Kristin Kalning What are some of your other favorite things?

Peter Kalning Everything in the whole wide world.

Kristin Kalning Wow.

Peter Kalning And monster trucks. And superheroes, and supervillains, and candy. And food, and playing with parents, and going on trips, and trophies, and pictures, and posters, and China.

Kristin Kalning Steve and I had done lots of prep with Scott about becoming a big brother. We expected some blowback from him. He had been an only child, the undisputed prince for six years, but I don’t think we anticipated how hurt and angry Scott would be. Don’t get me wrong, in the initial days Scott was a huge help with Peter, but then it started to dawn on him that he had to share our attention, and Peter needed a lot of attention. At three years old, he was in 18-month-old clothes, and he was pretty fragile. He needed to be carried up and down stairs. He couldn’t run or jump. I remember lots of joy from that period and lots of firsts. But there was also a bit of strife, as we tried to balance the needs of our new son, and those of our first one.

Three years later, our two boys get along, most of the time. Those rough early days have settled down into pretty typical sibling rivalry. I’ll be honest, the teasing and the screaming and the rough housing can be pretty annoying most days, but if I take a step back, I remember how much I longed for a home full of noise, and laughter, and family. And then I go pour myself a glass of wine.

Real Life Adoption is hosted by me, Kristin Kalning. And I got a lot of help with this inaugural episode from my husband, Steve Kalning, and our two boys. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stacy Harris and Dave Nelson from Lens Group Media for helping me get this podcast off the ground. Dave, in particular, has done everything from provide me with hardware recommendations to performing magic on my audio.

To learn more about the podcast, including how you can pitch an idea, go to Real Life Adoption podcast dot com. We’d love to hear from you!

——————————————————————————————-

*Kick was my childhood nickname. And yes, my family still uses it.