A Bittersweet Adoption

SHARED BY KATIE SONDERGAARD

Facing the Blue Line

It was late, close to 2 a.m. The front door had just closed behind Andy as he went home. It was early September 1995, I had just turned seventeen, and I was wrapping up a perfectly great teenage summer. My boyfriend, Andy, had been home from his first year of college at the University of Iowa, and I was looking forward to my senior year of high school and then heading there, too, to get my nursing degree.

But that night, it was late, and I was sitting alone at my parents’ kitchen table. A few minutes later, I heard my mom’s footsteps coming down the stairs. She walked into the kitchen, glanced at me, and got herself a cup of water. “Andy was here awfully late. You two all right?” she asked me. I mumbled something or another, and she turned slowly, looked at me carefully from across the room, and stated more than asked: “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

There was a split second when my brain processed my options. Should I lie and then have to apologize and explain that down the line? Or just get out with it? I wasn’t sure how to handle any of it just yet—the line had turned blue only a few hours before.

I nodded, and we stayed quiet for a few minutes. My mom sighed, looked at me, and told me to get some sleep. She touched my shoulder as she walked past me and went back to bed.

The rest of the weekend was long and contemplative. We all just kinda sat with it: myself, Andy, my parents. On Sunday evening, my mom called me out of my bedroom and handed me a fresh pregnancy test, just to be sure. After it was confirmed, we sat on the couch, and she asked me what I was going to do. I told her that, while I wasn’t certain yet, I was feeling like adoption would be my path. I knew that an abortion was definitely not something I was comfortable with, and I didn’t think I was prepared to be a mother just yet. She took my hand and said that, no matter what, my family loves me and supports me, and she reminded me that God would be with us.

Making Decisions

The next few months were low-key: slowly telling friends, family, and loved ones about the pregnancy and the adoption plan. Andy withdrew from Iowa and enrolled at the community college nearby to be there to support me. With almost no exception, everyone was encouraging, forgiving, and helpful. I was so frequently grateful to my mom, whose attitude from the very start was to care for me, and not judge or make me feel any guiltier than I already did. She was my biggest supporter, my advocate.

Before long, a strange phenomenon started happening. Mail.

With startling frequency, we would get letters from all over. “Dear Katie, I am a friend of a friend of a friend, and my husband and I heard that you are expecting a baby and considering adoption . . . ” They would usually have several pictures and beautiful letters. We also had stacks of family profile folders from the agency we had chosen—all of them amazing people, looking to adopt.

Andy and I, along with our families, pored over theses letters, scrutinizing all sorts of things, trying to picture each family with our baby in them. It was incredibly challenging; they all seemed so wonderful! Eventually, Mona, our birthparent counselor, gave us some advice: get picky. With her help, we started to narrow down the profiles. For example, Andy was an only child and I was one of five, and we both agreed that having a sibling was a priority for our child. We pulled all the families that did not already have at least one child, either biologically or via adoption. Andy is Jewish, and I am Protestant. I anticipated we would struggle over that but was pleasantly surprised when he assured me that, in Judaism, it is fairly common for children to take the mother’s faith. We compromised fairly easily on Catholic families.

Finding a Match

Meanwhile, the pregnancy was progressing smoothly. I was feeling well, hitting all of the milestones, and ultrasounds looked great. I was keeping up well in school, and as second semester began and I was starting to show, I took the time to talk to each of my teachers. I shared with them that yes, I was pregnant, and shared about our plans for adoption. I went to a very large public high school in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, a school that to this day is nationally ranked, one of the very best high schools in the country. As large as it was, however, until I had gotten pregnant, I had not known or seen a single other pregnant girl. My teachers were great, making some accommodations for me. The baby was due in late May, during finals week, so we made some plans to make sure I’d be able to graduate on time, with my class.

Andy and I went to birthparent support groups, although he was frequently the only guy there. We met with our counselor regularly to talk about how we were coping, what to plan for, and what to expect. Usually, we would return a few family profile folders and take a few more to look at. We were sitting at my parents’ kitchen table when we opened a particular one. The first thing I noticed was an adorable little cartoon sketched in the corner of the “dear birthparent” letter. The letter was written by Brian, the potential adoptive dad, which was quite unusual, and struck us both. He and Christine had a little girl and were quite open about sharing her adoption story. This was 1996, and the concept of "open adoption" was actually relatively new. The family pictures they included had extended family and vacations and an overall sense that they were genuine, unique, and very good people.

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We were able to set up a "match meeting" with them at the agency offices, and we liked them immediately. The thing that stood out from that first conversation was how natural and relaxed they were. Andy and I both felt strongly that we had found our baby’s family. They invited us to their home for pizza a few weeks later, and it was a blast. We also had a chance to introduce them to our own families, and it felt right.

Tears of Grief and Joy

And then came May 17, 1996. It was a Friday afternoon when my water broke. All things considered, it was a perfectly simple and straightforward delivery. Everything went smoothly, and within just a few hours, a beautiful little girl was in our arms! She was healthy, and as I took my first breaths of her, the whole world seemed to flip. All of a sudden, the confidence I had in my adoption plan—and in our daughter’s adoptive family—was gone, and all I wanted was to hold her forever, to look into that sweet face. Andy and I had made a plan to have our baby stay in the onsite nursery at the adoption agency, since the law requires a waiting period. The agency had recommended, wisely, taking more than the three required days, and we were invited to visit the nursery as often as we liked.

Those next ten days were long, filled with heart-wrenching discussions with our friends and family. Could we do it? Could we find a way to keep her? Our parents were as reserved as possible, really wanting us to make the decision for ourselves. We knew they would support us either way, really, but we needed to work through it ourselves. It felt awful; how could we let her go?

After so much soul-searching, Andy and I sat on the couch, and cried, having made a decision. We were hurting, grieving desperately, but in each of our hearts, we knew that we had to trust that our plans for her were good—we would follow through. We picked up the phone. I couldn’t speak for fear I would burst into tears, so Andy let Brian and Christine know that we would like them to be our daughter’s parents. They cried too, although we all knew that our tears were coming from different places. It was the first time I really felt an understanding of the word "bittersweet." A few days later, we had a chance to physically place her into their arms, to truly feel that bittersweetness flowing. Brian and Chris named her Nora Kathleen Allison, choosing to keep the name we had first given her as a middle name!

Adapting and Thriving

Andy and I stayed together for a few more months, but the toll of the adoption, life, and loss had been hard on us, and we felt it was better for us both to move on as friends. It was hard for each of us, in the beginning, to know how to feel about each other and about our futures and to adapt to a loss not everyone fully understood.

Over the years, we learned how, by trial and error, to balance the idea of an open adoption. For the most part, there were letters and pictures, and occasional visits. That concept of bittersweet had some days that were more bitter and, fortunately, many that were quite sweet. I remember around the time Nora was ten years old, the letters that had been so diligently and wonderfully written by Brian and Chris through the years started to include more notes from her! It was lovely to see the way she was growing up into such a great kid, and before we knew it, a beautiful young woman! Becoming friends on Facebook a few years ago was a game-changer—getting to see her in a much more real, daily sense than the letters and pictures of years gone by. I’m friends with her parents there, too, and it is such a joy to connect with them in a tangible way, since our lives and hearts have been bonded by adoption.

These days, I am a married mother of seven, as well as a busy nurse! Nora is almost twenty-one, a junior in college out of state. We try to catch up when she is in town, and recently some of my kids got to visit her in Arizona! My own brother and his wife adopted through the same agency we used, several years later, and it has been an amazing blessing to see adoption from another angle because of my nephews.

This post was originally shared on April 4, 2017.

 
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