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Challenge: What Makes a Family?

I thought our open adoption became closed. Until THIS happened.

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Our adoption of Leyla. Photo Credit: Deanna Gemmer

When a foster child comes into your home, they do not come alone.

They come with history.

I'm not talking about the "stuff" of foster care: the what's and how's and when's of deep loss and love.

I'm talking about the who's.

When our daughter Leyla came into our lives through foster care, we knew to ask about the people of her history. To find out what happened to her bio parents. How her current foster family felt about the placement and about her future. And along the way, we learned that she had a bio grandma who wanted to keep a relationship with our soon-to-be child, but was not able to adopt herself due to her health.

I wish I could say I embraced the potential for this relationship with a bio relative with open arms. The truth is that I approached her grandparents the same way I approached bio mom -- at an arm's length away.

I knew the benefits of open adoption. I knew that one day, our daughter would likely want to find her bio parents, and I did not want it to be a Thing. I wanted it to be a "no-big-deal, we've kept in touch all along, no secrets there" kind of deal.

And so we sat on the bench outside the courtroom for more than an hour negotiating the terms of an open adoption with her bio parents.

Bio mom was inconsolable. At one point, she said we were taking her baby away. I'm sure it felt exactly like that to her. Lawyers representing parents and the state talked most of the time, reminding her of her options, or lack therof.

Ryan and I sat silent. We did not know what to expect from court that day, but sitting outside the courtroom on a hard wooden bench, next to a broken weeping woman and being stared at by what felt like an army of people (GALs, case workers, social workers, lawyers, her first foster parents, etc) was not it.

Silent tears slipped down my own cheeks. We offered an extra Skype visit, and went back and forth on visits for Christmas or birthdays, or winter or summer, and came up with a plan only for bio Mom to feel yet again that it was not enough.

The hard truth was nothing would be enough. She was losing rights to the child she spent 9 months getting to know in her womb, then giving birth to. And then spent the next year and a half loving from a far with her baby away from her arms much more often than in them.

No matter her faults, no matter how necessary this tearing apart blood-from-blood had to be ... it was excruciating to watch.

At long last, the lawyers had enough of the lack of progress we were making. They separated us from Leyla's bio parents, only to return a short while later with papers for us to sign. And so we lettered our names over this adoption agreement that had been cried over, fought for and fought against.

Friends congratulated us when it was over. We felt shell-shocked, and their warm words washed over us like rain being swept away from the windshield without ever wetting the occupants.

And then ... all the dates we haggled over, all the conditions we so carefully worded, all the disclaimers and safeguards came to nothing.

In spite of our openness and adherence to the agreement, bio Mom has yet to follow through on a visit. I don't say that with judgment, so please, don't judge her either. Maybe it is too hard. Maybe there are a million things keeping her from her twice-a-year visits.

At this point, our open adoption agreement is null and void. The adoption part is still valid of course. But we are no longer legally required to offer visits.


Our journey to family was long and hard. But so worth it. Photo Credit: Delayna Schneider at Graceland Photography.

Our open adoption began feeling very much like a closed adoption, except for infrequent emails on both our ends. And as nervous as I was about maintaining healthy boundaries with bio Mom, I now found myself sadder still at the prospect of Leyla not having her roots to her family.

But there were these packages that kept arriving twice a year. The worker at the front desk of the Department of Child and Family Services would call and let us know one was waiting for us, and I would almost always forget to pick it up in a timely manner. But sure enough, once I had it, there was a an assortment of gifts for Leyla, and a small one or two also wrapped for our oldest daughter Maddy.


Opening a package from Grandma Pat and Grandpa Tom at Christmas. Photo Credit: Rachel Lewis

I always told the girls they were from "Grandma Pat and Grandpa Tom," referring to the names that were carefully scrawled on each wrapped parcel.

They did not question who these new grandparents were and I didn't offer. Just that they were family.

Warmed, yet still cautious, I extended the email I set up for communication with bio Mom to Grandma Pat. I sent a few pictures and updates to her when I sent them to bio Mom. I often took pictures of Leyla and Maddy opening their gifts, but only sometimes remembered to actually send them to her in email.

I always said thank you, but admittedly, my graititude was often late in coming. Her replies, however, were always prompt.

As the packages continued through the years -- full of books, handmade items, and always a brand new beanie baby -- and the emails were sent -- always marked by appreciation for any communication on my end -- I came to realize what had been missing in our relationships.


This couple had been offered a lifetime with a grandchild they loved, but they physically couldn't take care of her. Through no fault of their own, they were forced to relinquish their rights as grandparents and next of kin so that perfect strangers could raise their granddaughter, and not have any legal requirement to keep in touch at all. I am sure they felt the full weight of what could be lost when they said no to her adoption.

And yet ... in spite of their blood relationship to our daughter, in spite of the circumstances that stacked against them, they never, not even once, made any demands of me.

Not a single, "But we are family..." Not one, "She is our granddaughter, so you should ...."

Only grace. Only gratitude. Only giving, no taking.

In time my skepticism gave way to compassion and from compassion to appreciation and appreciation to love as family. Over time, I shared our regular email, and when they continued to respect my boundaries, I gave them my home address to make package deliveries easier.

I gave her my number, and we "met" for the first time last summer over FaceTime.

But I was so often sick during my pregnancy last year, and planning for a baby, and so we talked about maybe one day we'll get together, but I didn't know how or when it would come about.

And then, we planned a vacation with my in-laws this summer in the same state Leyla's grandparents are from. And so we made tentative plans.

We needed to figure out a time and place to meet. The place was easy. They recommended a public park in between our locations.

The time part proved harder. I didn't know how Leyla would respond, so I was hesitant to meet at the beginning of our vacation, lest it put her in a funk for a few days. The middle of vacation would just add an extra day of driving, which we didn't really want.

And so we decided to pick our last day of the week. We decided to secure overnight accommodations as the 3-hour drive to the park, plus a visit, and the another 6-hour drive might be too much. Plus, in case the visit went well, I didn't want to rush things.

So we picked the time, and picked the date, (and of course we were late). As we got closer my nerves grew. I wondered how they would respond, and how Leyla would take to her grandparents she had never met.

As soon as we parked and got out of the car, my fears crumbled underneath the love I saw in their eyes.


Leyla with her bio grandparents. Photo Credit: Rachel Lewis

While I knew we were anxious to see them, nothing could compared to their feelings from the 5 years they waited to meet their grandchild for the first time. I watched Leyla closely, and she instantly took to Grandma Pat and Grandpa Tom.

True to their tradition, Leyla's grandparents bore gifts of books, handmade items and beanie babies for each of my girls. We took turns talking, playing with the girls and playing photographer. When the 106-degree heat proved to be a little unbearable, we moved to McDonald's where the girls played and the adults caught up.

We shared histories. We pulled up our favorite pictures and videos of Leyla, including of course the epic Easter picture where it was quite clear from my girls' expressions who won the battle to hold the giant Easter egg. They laughed and laughed over her ability to make faces. They told us about her half-sisters and cousin, and more about her bio Mom. I shared with them my story of how God seemed to plan her entrance into our lives perfectly after the loss of our ectopic pregnancy. Grandpa Tom shared that he had foster brothers and sisters growing up, and knows the pain of having a foster child leave the family.

We shed a few tears, and promised to keep in touch better, and affirmed what a joy it was to have Leyla in our lives.

And then, we said goodbye.

Leyla doesn't quite understand the implications of this summer's visit. But that's ok. One day, she will. In the meantime, I feel a bit like Mary when strangers came to meet her child and shower him with gifts...

As for me, I will always treasure these things in my heart.

And I don't think I'm the only one .... Grandma Pat and Grandpa Tom have taught me so much about a patient love, a timeless grace, a selfless loyalty.

Some will say that my husband and I are the selfless ones. The truth is, accepting their love for Leyla, and all our girls, has never been self-sacrificial. It is the most natural thing to do.

After all ... We are family.

All together -- our family! Photo Credit: Rachel Lewis

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