The road to LeLe: A true story of the older child adoption process

I have wanted to be a mother my entire life. As soon as I could write, I started making lists of possible names for my future children. Strangely, the names I picked 25 years ago, like Hannah, Emily and Sophia, have become extremely popular in recent years! I desperately wanted a girl, but would throw in a few boys names (Mason was a favorite) "just in case". When I was 20, I fell madly in love with my very own Mr. Wonderful. He was a few years older than me, handsome, funny, smart, kind, very responsible and settled. Our romance was on high speed. After a few weeks (of seeing each other daily) he dropped a bomb. He didn't want kids. Ever. He felt like we needed to discuss this because it seemed like something that would be a deal breaker to me. It probably should have been, but I was so very young and so very in love. I thought he was a once in a lifetime happening and that I would be okay with sacrificing my dream of kids for him. That's what I tried to convince myself anyway. The truth is, I felt confident that he would change his mind. I thought, of course, he would decide he wanted to have babies with me down the road! We got married one year after we met. Years went by and I waited for him to change his mind. I waited and waited and waited. I nagged and nagged and nagged. He held his ground. He didn't want a baby. Too much responsible, too loud, too stinky. After a few years, he said if he was ever to be open to having a child, it would be through adoption of an older child. He had said it didn't make sense to him to bring a "disgusting baby" into the world when there were children already here who needed parents. I started bringing up the possibility of adopting an older child on occasion, but held out hope for a baby, as well. (Ideally, I wanted to do both - get pregnant and open my heart to a child who needed a Mom!)

About seven years into our marriage and at an extremely stressful time in our life together, I had an "oops" with my birth control pills. I didn't even realize I was pregnant until the miscarriage started. I was devastated to lose something I had wanted so very badly before I even had a chance to rejoice in it. It just seemed so cruel. My Mr. Wonderful was so very sad, but it was because I was in pain. He was totally freaked out by what almost was and was relieved it wasn't going to be. It became painfully obvious to me that he didn't want a baby. He really, truly didn't. Babies aren't something that should be a compromise or ultimatum. I didn't want to continue trying to change his mind and wind up with a baby that he resented having even in the slightest bit. So as much as I wanted to see what a little person that shared both of our DNA was like, I gave it up. It was a very difficult time for me. Not only was I mourning the baby lost through the miscarriage, I was morning the possibility of any other baby.

When the fog of my sadness started to clear, I realized that I just wanted to be a Mom. That's all I had ever wanted and how that was accomplished didn't really matter. Each time I brought up the possibility of adopting, I seemed to get a stronger "maybe" from my husband. We worked our way out of the rough patch we had been in (which was external. Our relationship stayed strong despite the garbage the universe kept throwing at us!). We sold our itty bitty house that was Mr. Wonderful's bachelor pad and bought a house that would be perfect for raising a child in. "Maybe" turned to "someday". We started talking about our future daughter on a daily basis. I started doing extensive research on older child adoption. A few months after we bought the house, I told Hubby about the classes we would we need to take. To my utter shock, he said, "Sign us up." We were moving out of "someday" land!

We started six weeks of full day, Saturday classes in May of 2009. Three other couples finished the classes with us. We had started with more than double that. We explored the grief, trauma and behaviors that come with older child adoption, which is also called "special needs adoption". Our instructor frequently spoke of children who pooped in their new parents shoes in the night or molested the family dog. We had piles and piles of paperwork to fill out and a long "to do" list. We had to buy a fire extinguisher and get it certified. We had to have our home inspected by the health department, where they looked inside every cabinet with a flash light for bugs and checked the temperature of our refrigerator. We had to be fingerprinted multiple times for background checks at the city, county, state and national level, including FBI. We had to have physicals and our doctors fill out evaluations of our past, current and future health. Our dog had to have the same! At the same time, we were still attending our Saturday classes from 9 AM - 4 PM and had a homework packet for the class to complete each week. The classes were emotionally draining as they were filled with gut-wrenching videos, role playing and very personal conversations about ourselves.

When we finished the classes, turned in all of the paperwork and checked all the items off the "to do" list, our home study began. A caseworker came to our house twice for lengthy interviews. She asked deep, probing questions about our childhoods, marriage, beliefs, family and every aspect of our histories individually and as a couple. She gave us random situations and asked how we would respond as parents. She helped us use the information we learned in our classes to determine what sort of child we would be able to parent best. She toured our house, collected references from our friends and employers and studied our financial information. At the end of July we were approved to adopt a waiting child from the foster care system. We were approved for straight adoption only. We were not interested in becoming foster parents. The goal of fostering is always to reunite the child with the biological parents. We wanted to be forever parents and didn't feel we were good candidates for the foster care program.

When you hear about all of the children waiting to be adopted, it sounds like you can just go out and pick them off trees. They make it sound so easy and instant. That's not the case at all and is very misleading. The work that led up to our home study being approved was just the beginning. In our area of Florida, prospective parents are left on their own to find a child to adopt. We spent hours every day scouring Internet photo listings of waiting children, inquiring about those we thought we might be able to parent and emailing every adoption social worker we could find contact info for to get the word out about ourselves and the child we were hoping to find. Searching for a child became second full time jobs for both of us. Evenings and weekends were spent glued to the computer. I started a spreadsheet to keep track of all the children we inquired about.

In October of 2009, we were invited to a "matching event" at an arcade in Tampa to meet a ten year old girl we had inquired about. All of the children available for adoption in the Tampa area were at the arcade, along with dozens of families who were interested in adoption. We were invited to a meeting with the case worker and guardian ad litem of the little girl. We were surprise to find several other couples there when we arrived. They were meeting with all of the families they were considering to parent her at the same time! It was extremely awkward and several of the couples spent the rest of the day fighting each other for her attention. We also inquired about an 11-year-old girl who was at the event.

A few weeks later, we learned we were chosen to be presented at "match staffing" meetings for both girls. This is when they narrow the list of interested families down to just a couple and one is chosen by the child's case worker, guardian ad litem and other agency staff. Each family is presented by their own case worker (the one who did our home study). I was certain we were meant to parent one of these girls. The meeting for the 11 year old was first. Our case worker was unavailable to call in to present our family that day, so one of her colleagues did. We received an email the next day that we weren't chosen because the girl wanted a home with siblings and she would be an only child in our home. I was devastated by the loss of being a mother to this little girl, but knew it must be because the first girl was meant to be ours.

The meeting to pick parents for her wasn't until December and occurred when Mr. Wonderful and I were on a cruise to Mexico to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. The week prior to this was Thanksgiving, and we were presented as possible parents of a little girl in Texas at the beginning of that week. The girl was listed on the photo listing as having "mild" needs. Our case worker paused her phone meeting with the Texas workers to call us when she learned that wasn't exactly the case. In fact, the girl was currently in a psychiatric hospital due to aggressive behaviors. She asked if we still wanted to be considered. We said yes. We knew if we were chosen we could find out more information before agreeing to proceed.

We didn't hear back about the child in Texas before our cruise and paid a small fortune to check our phone messages and email from the ship to find out if there was any news on the girl in Tampa. Nothing. The day after we returned from our cruise, our case worker called us to say that we weren't chosen for the girl in Tampa. It turns out she had a history of making false sexual abuse allegations and they didn't feel it would be a safe situation for my husband's career as a teacher. We had been communicating with people about this child for three months and that was the first mention of this. She still hadn't heard anything about the girl in Texas.

I felt we would never be chosen to parent a child. We had inquired about over 200 girls at this point and never heard back from anyone on the majority of our inquiries. Friends, family and co-workers just couldn't understand our frustration, anxiety and sadness. To them, it had been less than six months - no time at all! To us, it was an eternity of searching. We tossed around fostering again, but it just didn't feel right. We heard back about a six year old girl in north Florida. We were chosen to be part of ten families out of literally hundreds that had inquired about her. It turned out that she had significant emotional issues due to the abuse and neglect she suffered and attended a special school. A local family was chosen so she could stay at that school, but we were chosen as the "back up" family. If we had been chosen, we would have most likely needed to decline. Her needs were just too great. Still, being chosen as number two out of hundreds gave us a bit of a confident boost.

On December 16, 2010, our case worker forwarded us an email from Texas asking if we were still interested. The email was from weeks earlier and had been bouncing around inboxes of workers in Texas and Florida who were out on vacation or sicknesses. We had been chosen as her parents after all! We said, "Yes! We're still interested!" and an email with more information about this little girl, who had just turned 9 (while in a psychiatric hospital) arrived. The breakdown of her behavior seemed so situational to us. We felt a strong pull to her. She was diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorder and depression. She had been bouncing around the foster care system since age 4 and had two failed adoptions (one by a biological relative) before they reached the finalization stage. She had five siblings who were all either adopted or to be adopted separately. We were sent her file and spent a whole day reading. We maintained our yes. We knew there would be challenges, but we felt we could handle it.

Skip forward to May 17, 2010 (the six months in between is enough to merit being written about separately!). We were finally able to meet our daughter in Texas! We arrived home with her one week later. We finalized the adoption November 29, 2010 and are quickly approaching our one year anniversary as a family. Is it hard? YES. Is it exhausting? YES. Does she drive us crazy sometimes? Oh, YES. She has major separation anxiety, an inability to talk about her past or feelings and will scream for an hour at a time on occasion. She is also so very brave, funny, adorable, smart and kind. We adore her and are confident that she loves us back. We have bonded and she has attached to us. She wants to do well. She wants to be healthy and happy. We are all working hard to help her heal. Being her Mom is the greatest accomplishment I could ever make. She is what I was meant to do all along.

I won't have the opportunity to use any of the names from my girlhood lists, but that is just fine with me! I have given my daughter the love, home, safety and future she needed and that is much more important than giving her a name. She actually chose a new middle name for herself when we finalized the adoption. Her full name is filled with significance now. Her first name was given to her by her biological parents, she gave herself "Diamond" as a middle name, and we gave her our last name. I must confess, that I nicknamed her "LeLe", an abbreviation of her first name, before I even met her and to my delight, it has stuck!

Our little LeLe was worth all of the time, effort, tears and anxiety (I actually ground holes in two of my teeth in my sleep!) of the search and wait for her. Older child adoption isn't for everyone. We found out they really do call it "special needs" adoption for a good reason! If you think you have the room in your heart and life to give to a child that needs a family, please explore it. Your house might be filled with giggles and glitter like ours before you know it!

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