There was a time when I could not speak the word “adoption” aloud. It was so charged with pain, the very thought of it overwhelmed me. Thorns of bitterness accompanied the word forming a thick barrier.
Adoption represented trauma and deep, unresolved grief.
As a young teen at the very end of the 1970’s, I became pregnant. My parents turned to their church for advice which led to me being sent to live in a foster home far from everyone I knew and loved.
While I was learning how to grow a healthy baby and attending high school, a plan was laid in place by the adults in my life. It made perfect sense to their logical minds. I was young and still in high school. There were good Catholic couples unable to have babies.
These two factors added up to a great plan—I would place my baby for adoption and the longing of a waiting couple would be fulfilled.
I took classes on natural childbirth and read every book I could on pregnancy and childbirth. I knew my parents would not help and support me if I kept my baby, but I was determined to find a way.
Then my boyfriend, who had promised his mom would help, ended our relationship. Now my baby and I were completely alone.
I was devastated. Without a single adult willing to help, I crumbled in defeat. I still daydreamed an old friend or teacher would show up to rescue us, but my hope was sinking.
My son was born on a cold, winter night. I struggled through labor, which was far more painful than I ever imagined. Despite my foster mom dozing by my side, I felt profoundly alone in my suffering.
I cried out to God, birthing a lifelong journey of faith as I struggled to birth my child.
He was born and laid on my chest and I cried tears of joy and sheer relief.
For three days I kept him with me, only returning him to the nursery when the nurses insisted. I prayed over him in the simplest ways and cried many tears.
When it was time to leave the hospital, my foster mom and I bundled him the blanket I’d made for the short drive to the agency. The plan was that I would take him to the caseworker and leave him there.
Unable to make ourselves drive to Catholic Charities, we went to a park overlooking Puget Sound, where we held him and cried together. Years later, my foster mom told me she had been strictly forbidden by the agency to offer any help. She felt paralyzed to counter them, which felt akin to opposing the church.
Finally, she started the car and we slowly drove to the Catholic Charities office. I was given a few more moments to say goodbye, then I stood, placed my beautiful boy in the arms of the agency director, and walked out of the office. I took three steps and collapsed on the floor in sheer grief.
My decades-long journey of sorrow and loss began that day.
I hated adoption. I hated what it had stolen from me and the gaping wound on my heart. I hated the way people spoke of it as if it were joyful. A friend, who was an adoptive dad, once said, “Adoption is so beautiful,” and I quipped, “I guess it depends if you’re on the giving or receiving end.”
It was not beautiful to me—it represented manipulation, lies, and ultimately the sense that my child was stolen from me. This was not a willingly made adoption plan. It was defeat on a primal level.
A few years later, I married my husband, Russ, who brought healing to my soul. Together we created a large love-filled family, with children filling my arms and massaging the scar on my broken heart. The wound was still there, but no longer gaping, except for days when the scab was pulled away by a word or memory.
Sixteen years after my son was born, he sent me an email with the subject, “Is this for real? I’m your son.”
Our reunion blew my heart wide open. Over many years, we navigated the complex relationship of family/stranger/mother and son. We developed a sweet relationship which I cherish.
Together we learned of lies the agency had told both to me and his parents. My anger and bitterness toward the agency, my caseworker, and adoption was solidified.
Twenty-eight years after losing my son to adoption, one of my best friends called to tell me she and her husband were adopting two little boys from Ethiopia. I can only describe what happened next as a profound, spiritual experience.
The hard shell around my heart began to crack open. It seemed that perhaps adoption wasn’t all bad. In fact, maybe there were times when it was necessary. There were so many children who needed families.
If there was anything I loved, it was being a mother. I believed children were a gift from God and there was no limit on how much love I could give.
Russ and I talked and prayed and then, like our friends, we began the process of adopting two little boys from Ethiopia. This soon grew to include the little girl we were sponsoring at an orphanage.
I still could not speak the word “adoption,” so I wrote “Ethiopia” on the folders containing our piles of paperwork. The idea that I would be an adoptive mom still threw me off balance, but I was ready to be a mom to children whose beautiful faces were still only in photos.
I already loved them.
I called my best friend, an adult adoptee I met years before in an adoption support group for those searching or reunited. When I told her our news, she half-jokingly said, “You’re crossing over to the dark side.”
Becoming an adoptive mom challenged everything I believed about adoption. Despite the injustice my son and I experienced, I could no longer hate adoption. My children were coming to me through this process and my heart embraced them fully.
I committed myself to honoring their first families and seeking as much connection with them as possible across the continents. I could not do to them what had been done to me.
Not knowing if my child was doing well, was loved, or even alive was unspeakably cruel and devastating.
A year after arriving home with our three children, we returned to Ethiopia to adopt one more daughter. On that trip, we went on the greatest adventure of my life seeking relatives in remote areas. We found aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins, all overjoyed to hear about the children.
We gave them small photo albums of the children including our contact information in the hope that one day we would hear from them. It was clear our children were loved by their families and we wished they had not been separated from them, but it was too late to change what had happened. All we could do now was assure them of our great love for our/their children.
Today, eleven years after becoming an adoptive mom, my world has changed for the better. My thoughts and heart have expanded to include ideas and people I would never have known apart for adoption.
I live in the tension of birth/first mom, former foster youth, adoptive mom, and more recently, foster mom.
While I can’t say I’m thankful for losing my son and finding him again, I am grateful for my unique life experiences, which make me a better adoptive mom and advocate in the world of adoption.
Creator of One Thankful Mom, Lisa Qualls is a writer and speaker with a passion for offering hope, sharing wisdom, and mentoring adoptive and foster moms. Lisa and her husband, Russ, are parents of twelve kids by birth and adoption. In 2016, they celebrated their 32nd anniversary by becoming foster parents. Lisa’s adoption journey has been marked by joy as well as challenges of trauma and attachment. As a TBRI practitioner, Lisa walks alongside families with kids from “hard places.” Parents who want to learn new skills, gain confidence, and renew their hope can find resources at her website, The Adoption Connection. She earnestly believes there is hope for every family. Stop by to schedule a free virtual coffee. You are not alone!