The Winding Path to Parenthood: Our Family’s Adoption Story

I’m Kathleen. My husband is Jeff. Our son is Matthew. We adopted him from South Korea in 2009. This is our story . . . .  

I had a plan. We had a plan.

It was a plan that looked like one of many other couples: Get married. A few years later, have kids. Probably two, maybe three. Some dogs.

But, life had other plans for us. Little did we know that this winding route to parenthood ended up being the very thing that was meant for us all along. At least, that’s what I believe. Because it led us to our son Matthew, and I honestly can’t imagine our life without him.

Our “short story” goes like this: Unable to get pregnant. IVF. Pregnancy. Stillbirth. Adoption of our son.

The full version of our story is much, much longer.

As I reflect on our path to parenthood, that path reminds me of those steep, winding roads that we traversed in our travels during the early years of our relationship to places like Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and our honeymoon in St. Lucia. Every curve swerved us close to the edge of steep cliffs, and we were quite literally “hanging on for dear life.” We trusted the driver, who knew the roads, and the other drivers seemingly ready to hit us head-on as they came down the steep, narrow mountain roads that we were ascending. Beyond every blind curve was an unexpected outcome—and in our path to parenthood, those outcomes were mostly sad. But at least one was very, very happy.

I often think back to what we could have done differently. For example, we did get married at slightly older ages than many of our friends. I was 29. He was 31. But, as newly minted professionals (both of us got a later start because we earned advanced degrees), we didn’t have the money to get married right away, and I wanted the whole shebang: Church wedding, big reception, lots of friends and family there. Which required lots of planning and lots of money. So, we were engaged for 2+ years while we scraped and saved enough money to pay for our wedding. Did we waste precious time that we could have spent getting pregnant? That is a question I choose to not dwell on, but it does enter my mind from time to time.

But, let me back up. I’m getting ahead of myself.

I met my husband (Jeff) in 1995. He’s a university professor and hurricane/severe storms researcher. I’m a writer/editor/social media coordinator in the scholarly publishing field. I work for a nonprofit. We married in 1998. We thought, “We’ll wait a few years, and then we’ll work on getting pregnant.” We were in no rush. Even though I was in my late 20s already my doctor was throwing around that dreaded term that still makes me cringe: advanced maternal age. I remember, at 29, that term made me feel so old.

So, as I said, I had a plan. We had a plan. And, then, oooof, it was like a sucker punch to the gut, finding out that getting pregnant was not going to be as easy as we thought. Apparently, like so many perfectly well-laid plans, our plan just wasn’t meant to be. At least, not the way we had envisioned it.

If you told me then that our life as parents would eventually be far better and more satisfying than we ever could have imagined, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly what happened. From loss, hope. After clouds, the sun. From the ashes, a phoenix, rising. As cheesy as it all sounds, that’s exactly what happened.

And our fantastic family of three was born. But, I’m getting ahead of myself—again.

After we decided it was time to start a family, we struggled to get pregnant. Month after month, and nothing. After about a year—and after seeing a counselor who helped us through the emotional and psychological aspects of our early infertility struggles—we decided to consult a fertility specialist. We were wary. Especially me. I was cautious and unsure from the start. But, we wanted to have a child, and our insurance covered it at (get this) 100%, so the decision to go through IVF was sort of a no-brainer. We made the decision to proceed with IVF—which, despite a dim outlook by the doctors, was actually successful after the very first round. In Spring 2006, we were pregnant—and elated! We were due in January 2007.

But, then, we experienced a life-shattering loss. In August, my water broke way too early (it’s known as preterm premature rupture of the membranes, or PPROM). I was rushed to the hospital on a frantic Friday in rush-hour traffic—from downtown DC all the way to my home hospital in suburban Maryland, about a 30-minute drive without traffic. It was absolutely terrifying. I was admitted to the hospital. After a frustrating and unsuccessful week of strict bed rest, I had no choice but to have the baby, knowing that he would either be stillborn or would die soon after. His little lungs needed just a few more weeks inside the womb—weeks that they wouldn’t, couldn’t, get. My water was too low. My womb was no longer the safe space in which he could thrive and grow. But, neither was the world outside: He was too little to live out here yet. His lungs hadn’t fully developed enough to be able to function on their own, outside my body. (Had this happened a few weeks later, the outcome could have been very different. But I try to not go to the “coulda woulda shoulda” place in my head; it’s just too painful).

I was induced. I went through labor. People forget this fact all the time; I have been told countless times what it’s like to be in labor, and sometimes I respond with “I know; I went through it, too” and other times, I just smile and listen politely, knowing that my truthful response would just generate even more questions that I won’t feel like answering.

On Labor Day of 2006 (see the irony there?), I gave birth to Christopher. He was, indeed, stillborn. We met him, baptized him ourselves (no priest was available), sat with him for a few minutes, and then said our good-byes.

Ahhh. Such a small space between the hello and the good-bye. It shouldn’t be like that.

After that, we went home and tried to get back to life as usual. Whatever “usual” was. “New normal” was more like it. It was difficult for me, especially. I became depressed and descended into what I can only describe as a dark haze for a while. (For details on what I went through, see my related article on my personal experience with post-adoption depression). Therapy helped. So did yoga and meditation. And quiet nights of my husband and I playing cards and Scrabble while the dog snoozed and Pat Metheny’s jazz music hummed through the house. I threw myself into work. I took 2007 “off” (we ceased all parenthood-related efforts, temporarily). I enrolled in a year-long intensive course to become a certified yoga instructor. I began teaching yoga, and I continued taking yoga: It helped me heal.

As 2007 wore on, I wasn’t sure what we would do, but I did know what we wouldn’t do: I was NOT going down that IVF road again, even if there was a chance that I could become pregnant. I heard such a strong inner voice telling me “no, no, no, no, no!” So, I listened to it.

At the end of 2007, I started doing a lot (and I mean a LOT) of research into adoption as a potential way to become parents. I talked to friends who knew people who had adopted. I asked for their contact info and called those people and had extensive conversations. I talked to them in the car while driving to work. I ducked into conference rooms at work to ask them what their experience was like, what adoption agencies they recommended, what we should expect with the process. I talked to people who had adopted domestically. I talked to people who had adopted internationally. I developed a master spreadsheet, of sorts, that contained all the different agency names and details. I added facts as I gathered them. I was in prime investigative reporter/journalist/researcher mode. My approach was methodical, organized. Case in point: A few years later, I was asked to share my spreadsheet with another couple (I didn’t know them; friends of friends) who was in the early stages of deciding whether they should adopt. At this point, we had Matthew home with us. After I sent the spreadsheet to them, they called me to say thanks, incredulous that I had done such a thorough (and clearly time-consuming) job of centralizing all the information in one place and had kept it so meticulously organized and updated. We narrowed my list to three adoption agencies we wanted to check out. We went to informational meetings. Ultimately, we decided on Catholic Charities.

In 2008, we walked through the doors of Catholic Charities in Baltimore for the first time, and there we found an extended “family” of people, couples in the same or a similar situation as ours. Caseworkers who knew how to sensitively interact with families like us who had been through so much pain and were starting to grasp at tiny glimmers of joy—like the prospect of becoming parents to a child from another country, or to a child in the United States whose family was unable to care for him or her. We met couples who wore sadness on their sleeves and in their faces—sadness that only we, in our shared life experience, could see beneath their polite “nice-to-meet-you” exteriors. Couples just like us, trying to get by, childless in a world full of friends with children. All of us so wanted to be parents. I’m sure I am not the only one there who felt vulnerable and exposed, being at that agency, at those meetings with others, feeling like I was wearing a big ole “I’m infertile!” sign plastered across my forehead. But, all of us kept showing up. We had to: Our children were waiting.

After several meetings and initial paperwork, our caseworker talked it through with us and helped us choose international adoption as our preferred route. Having six children of her own (two adopted from India, four adopted from South Korea), she told us about her experience of parenting children from South Korea. It sounded like a good match. We chose South Korea based on, basically, a “good gut feeling.” Our international adoption agency was Holt Korea, based in Seoul. Catholic Charities and Holt did a fantastic job of guiding us through the long and complicated process. I never hold back on telling people that the adoption paperwork process is grueling and complicated and seemingly never-ending. I always say, “Think mortgage paperwork: And triple it.” But, rest assured, it DOES end. I think it was absolutely worth it. All that waiting, mounds of paperwork and fingerprints and background checks and home inspections—all of that, for all of this. “This” being the joy I now feel, the son whose body I wrap my arms around daily. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

One thing that Catholic Charities did that we really enjoyed was the Waiting Parent Support Group meetings, which were held monthly. Every month, they’d have a different featured speaker. One month it was an international adoption pediatrician (he gave a presentation, and we were able to ask him questions). Another month, it was a librarian who shared with us some great books that we could read aloud to our children—books about children who had been adopted, books that contained positive messages about adoption. Yet another month, it was “Grandparent Night.” All of us could bring our parents, those who would be grandparents to the children we were waiting for. My parents came down from Pennsylvania to attend this—on a weeknight! The agency asked our parents what names they’d prefer to be called. Grandma? Grammy? Grandpa? Pop-Pop? Pa? Nana? They asked about our various cultures, and what names our cultures have for grandparents—the stories behind those names. Another month, the agency asked actual new families to speak—parents who had just come back from bringing their children home. The whole family came, so we could see the children and parents interacting. Those were the most exciting of all the meetings because we knew most of these families. They had sat there, where we were sitting, along with us, waiting. And their wait was over! Hope really was at the end of that tunnel. We had the chance to ask the parents questions about their experiences, their frustrations, what surprised them, what didn’t, what it was like. (And, later on, when we were “that family,” we were asked to speak at a meeting ourselves and talk about our experience). At those meetings, in a tiny room in Baltimore, we were all biding our time, waiting for that magic day when we’d get “the call.” Many of the people who sat in that room with us during those Waiting Parent Support Group meetings remain our friends to this day. Our children know one another. We created an adoption playgroup of parents in the Baltimore area with children adopted from South Korea. We used to get together at various houses every few months. Now that our children have gotten older, and schedules busier, we don’t do this as much, but, we share a special connection that will always be there. And we remain in touch.

While we waited, throughout most of 2008, I kept busy teaching and taking yoga, working, venting to my therapist, and singing in my church choir. Music brought me much peace and stability during that uncertain time. I took a class on how to make beaded jewelry and even sold some at a local craft fair. I wrote about my feelings and frustrations in my journal. I also started blogging about my experience as a waiting adoptive parent. The blog was “a week-by-week chronicle of our personal experiences and journey in adopting our first child.” (I still update it from time to time, but it’s slowed down a lot now that the waiting is over and parenthood is in full swing!) I wrote letters to both of my sons—the one watching over me in Heaven and the one waiting for me in Korea. When Matthew is old enough, I will share those letters, let him see my heart, and remind him of just how much he was loved by us before he even came home to us.

In December 2009, after so many years of heartbreak and frustration and disappointment and loss and grief, we adopted our beautiful son, Matthew Seong-jin, from South Korea. He was 9.5 months old. (Note: Now, as of 2018, children from South Korea are adopted at a much older age due to the country’s recent efforts at increasing domestic adoption within the country.) We met him for the first time at Dulles Airport in Virginia, surrounded by our family members. (Note: At that time, parents could opt to either travel to Korea to meet their child and bring him home after a few days or have him transported to the U.S. We chose the latter. International adoption laws have changed since then. Now, in 2018, parents who are adopting from Korea must travel to Korea and stay there for several weeks.) My family had made “Welcome, Matthew!” signs and brought gifts and had oh so much love waiting for this child. My father-in-law brought his laptop and started tracking Matthew’s plane, updating us every few minutes.

Matthew’s plane was delayed, so we went to an Irish pub and got a big plate of nachos. We ate nervously, even though not many of us were actually hungry. There was lots of nervous coffee drinking, as well. And it was late at night. His plane was due to arrive around 11:00 p.m., but they didn’t land until after midnight. My sister-in-law and brother came from New Jersey to be with us. My sister and parents came from Pennsylvania. My in-laws came from nearby Manassas. Everyone couldn’t wait to meet Matthew! And our friends had offered to come and videotape the entire experience and take candid photos from a distance, so that Jeff and I would someday be able to relay to our son the story of our family becoming a family—moment by moment, expression by expression, interaction by interaction.

And then, he arrived! At long last! Meeting him, seeing this plump baby boy in a light blue fleece onesie with tons of black hair being transported by his escort, Mr. Kim, was probably the single most joyful moment of my existence. Jeff took him from Mr. Kim, and then we both sort of held Matthew together for a moment before Jeff passed him to me. For the first time in a long time, the tears I cried were happy ones. And my life changed forever.

I’m not exaggerating. I will never forget seeing my child for the first time, holding him for the first time, rubbing my hand on his back, soothing him, convincing myself that what was happening really WAS real. After all this time, I was a mom! I was wearing a necklace that a friend had made for me: It was a pendant with Matthew’s photo embossed onto it. It was on a thin black cord. He yanked it right off my neck and started to play with his picture. I tell him that story all the time, and he laughs out loud every single time I tell it. As we interacted with him in those early moments at the airport, we noticed that he was sweating profusely, and he started to fuss. I walked him around and around, but he wasn’t settling. My mom looked at me and said softly, “Well, do you think maybe the reason he’s crying is because he’s dressed in about five layers of clothing?” I smiled knowingly and started peeling off layer after layer of sweat-soaked, cold-weather clothing. I put him in something dry.

Moms always know.

Once he got cooled off, he cooled down. I had gotten him a cute little jean jacket with a hood, so we put that on in preparation to go outside. We left the airport with his sweet little-hooded head bobbing over Jeff’s shoulder, me pushing the stroller, right behind them. Our family helped us to the car, and we got him into the car seat. He settled in pretty quickly. As we pulled away, we waved goodbye to our family, promising to call them soon after we had a few days at home alone as a new family of three. There were transitions to navigate such as the three biggest challenges we had been cautioned about:

  1. Babies in Korea are used to sleeping on the floor, right next to the caregiver, and not in a crib. In Korea, the floors are heated.
  2. He would likely be experiencing intense jet lag due to the time difference. Sleep could be an issue because of this.
  3. It was likely that he would be grieving. In his short little life, he had been in the care of two foster families after birth, he left his birth country, he got on a plane with Mr. Kim, and then he was handed to us. Infant grief is real (read about it in this article I wrote on infant grief earlier this year). And, grieve he did: For a full account of the grief that Matthew experienced, and my depression that followed, see my earlier article on post-adoption depression.

The day we brought Matthew home was a time of almost explosive joy. I relive those early moments in our family almost daily. And I’ll cherish them forever.

Looking back, I realize that I was NEVER comfortable with having doctors physically manipulate my body and convince it to produce a baby—a body that, perhaps, was never meant to carry children. I’m not much of a pragmatist, but, I am when it comes to this. I’ve come to accept the fact that having birth children was just not in the cards for me. This is not a judgment or a negative slam on those couples who have had wonderful success using IUI, IVF, and other procedures. I have a million friends whose children are in this world only because of that miraculous technology! And I am so happy that IUI and IVF gave my friends the chance to be parents and to have GREAT kids! No, this is just me, speaking from and about my own experience, my own feelings and reflections on what motherhood means to me. As I’ve discovered in my travels on this remarkable journey, the method of becoming a mother has always been way less important to me than the outcome.

That outcome? My “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy.” (Lyrics courtesy of John Lennon.)

When I hear John Lennon singing that lovely lullaby, I always think of my Matthew, with his scruffy head of black hair and his penchant for snuggles even now, at age 9—oh, and his incredible imagination and intelligence. John may be singing about Sean, but when I sing along with John to that song, I am singing about my Matthew.

What is that wonderful spoken-word piece that Lin-Manuel Miranda performed while so many of us watched him at the Oscars a few years ago? “Love is love is love is love is love.” It matters less how the love got there than the fact that the love is there. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned on this winding path to parenthood. Family takes many forms. For us, it came via adoption. And it was perfect.

I don’t want this story to be a pity piece, and I definitely don’t want it to darken the happy ending to our story (namely, our now 9-year-old son who is sleeping in the room above me as I write this). I am strong and confident—always have been—and together with my husband, we made it to the other side of those Very Dark Days. In fact, I gained even more strength and confidence after all of this. Am I saying that I wanted to have trouble getting pregnant? Heck no. Am I saying that I regret going through IVF and successfully getting pregnant, only to lose my son Christopher when I was 18.5 weeks along? Heck no. I think about him every day, and Matthew knows and talks about the brother he has in Heaven—the angel who keeps his sweet eyes on us and protects us as the three of us live our life.

I can talk about it now without crying because I am truly happy. Happier than I ever thought I would be when I realized that having biological children was not the route that God or the universe intended for me, for us.

I can go on and on—there’s so much more to say—but this is a good stopping point.

Jeff, Matthew, and I have a wonderful life as a happy family of three. We have two dogs, one a sweet senior beagle/basset mix named Jupiter who will be 12 in November, and the other a feisty, 7-year-old sprite named Tyson, a beagle mix who loves to snuggle, especially with Matthew.

My life is amazing. I feel so blessed. I have a plaque that a friend bought for me when Matthew was very new to our family. The plaque reads as follows:

“However motherhood comes, it’s a miracle.”

It really is.

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