That Time We Unexpectedly Adopted a Baby

courtesy Whitney Sandoval

I always knew I wanted to adopt one day. How we ended up doing it wasn’t at all what I expected.

It started just over a year ago. My brother and his girlfriend were pregnant (well, she was) and — we would come to find out — intensely addicted to drugs. Despite the physical, chemical, and emotional turmoil her body was subjected to daily, she eventually gave birth to a perfect little boy, who happened to be born with opiates in his system. That Little Man eventually became our son.

I love my brother, I always have. In some ways we couldn’t be more similar. We are stubborn, we are always right, and are willing to drop whatever we’re doing to help. However, most of the time, our mutual teachers and friends couldn’t believe we were created by the same two people, that we grew up in the same home. Where I’m cautious, a planner, a people-pleaser and a rule-follower, he’s impulsive, defiant and doesn’t always think about the effects of his actions; he figures things out along the way. It is our differences that have shaped our stories and created rifts. It is our similarities that ended up embedding Little Man into our home.

On a Wednesday about 14 months ago, I received a text from my brother’s girlfriend. They were at hospital after having given birth and they were finally realizing they would not be allowed to leave the hospital with their baby. On Saturday, we picked Little Man up from the hospital. That means we had three days to prepare for a newborn baby to join our family that already included our biological child, a 14-month-old girl. We jumped in with no preparation, no maternity leave, no chance to figure it out. Luckily, we had very recently done the baby thing so we had the items we needed. Little Man wore pink onesies occasionally, but he happens to really like pink.

When I imagined us adopting, it was an international baby whose parents had abandoned her. I never imagined that my adoption story would start with me coaching the baby’s biological parents on how to install the car seat into my car. There was no joy, no positive anticipation of a homecoming. Instead, it was my husband and me trying not to break down while encouraging my brother and his girlfriend that it would all be okay, when it very clearly wasn’t.

In the months since bringing Little Man home, we’ve been told by many people how special we are for taking this child into our home. We’re not. It was the only logical solution. We were his family. The only family he could go home to because we were the only ones in the county. There wasn’t time to think about it. It was gut. And our guts are there for our families.

We also are quick to tell people that we didn’t know what we were getting into—and we didn’t. We didn’t know we’d be receiving monthly visits from a caseworker and lawyers (for whom I’d want to present a clean house – on top of my working full-time and going to school full-time and caring for two kids under two). We didn’t know that we’d have to get approval before doing certain things, like leaving the county for a daytrip. Once I wanted to take the kids to a pumpkin patch, and as I packed up to leave, I realized I couldn’t take Little Man because I didn’t have prior approval to drive out of the county. We didn’t know that we’d have to take him to weekly visits with his biological parents. And there were several times we had to ask our friends to get a background check so our kids could stay at their house, even for a couple hours. Little things suddenly became moral dilemmas. Do we look bad if we go without him? Do we alter our family time to include our maybe-not-permanent baby?

The hardest adjustment was navigating our own family. My brother moved in with my mom, and since he wasn’t allowed visits with Little Man without a court order supervisor, we could no longer go down to my mom’s. Or, we could go, but without Little Man.

If we had known what we were getting into, I’m not confident that we would have said yes. The past year has been hard. It has been so, so hard. We’ve hung in there because we made a promise to Little Man that we would take care of him the best we could. And we are really trying. There have been hours of his uncontrollable screaming, acid reflux, and inconsolability. We’ve also been debating whether or not to put our own baby-making on hold. We ultimately decided to try to get pregnant, but miscarried. I will never fully be able to describe how it feels to care for a baby who somehow, despite his mother’s lack of prenatal care and his birth mom’s body frequent drug exposure, was born perfect, while my healthy body would not give me a baby. We also began to question how much time we were taking away from our daughter, how we gave her less than our whole selves because had to share ourselves with Little Man now too—all without the promise that he would be staying.

The first six months, we truly believed that Little Man’s stay with us was just temporary. At 11 months, the courts terminated parental rights for his birth parents, who still had the right to appeal the decision, but they didn’t. It wasn’t until month thirteen that the time for appeals was up, and we could move forward with the adoption.

It was hard not to look back on the past preceding months and all the hours that I could have spent holding him but hadn’t because I didn’t want to get attached. Months of trying to bridge a gap between he’s not my child and he is my child. Months of trying to remember that it’s not because I’m not his “real” mom that I don’t know how to help him when he cried. Since then, we have been trying to make up for all those months of cautious love: those months of trying not to hold him for too long, trying not to feel too invested in his first smile, trying not to sigh too deeply with the smell of his full head of hair.

We’ll be going to court to finalize the adoption in a few weeks, marking the end of one tide and the beginning of the next. We’ll begin to navigate the uncharted territories of having an adopted son. How involved do we keep everyone? Birth parents? Birth grandparents? Birth aunts and uncles and cousins and beyond? How involved do my son’s parents become in all of our lives? There is a lot of trust and vulnerability to this adoption. Our circle has grown larger. There are more people to care about, to worry about, to factor in, to see.

We also have to revisit old territories that are now altered. What should happen at Thanksgiving? What will he call my brother until he knows his story? When do we tell him his story? And how much of it?

I’m not sure if there is a typical adoption story. Through our experience, I have met others who have also adopted, and each story is very much its own story. Each story is full of its own kind of wants and regrets, desires and faulted feelings. There are many things I don’t know and many things I’m not sure about, still. But one thing I am sure about: I thank god and the universe every day that we didn’t know what we were getting into.

Welcome to the family (legally), Little Man.

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Whitney Sandoval lives in Wichita, Kansas with her husband, two toddlers, newborn baby, and ill-behaved dog. When she is not hiding in her bathroom from her children, she enjoys running, yoga, lattes, and $10 bottles of wine.