*Note: Our first two foster children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
I still remember the first time I saw Erin. It was April 4, 2009. She wore a blue shirt, khaki capris, and a white cardigan. I wore a pink shirt, pink sweater, and khaki pants. In our e-mail the night before I asked her favorite color and she said pink. I wanted to make her as comfortable as possible since this would be her first semi-blind date.
We met at the Caroline Ale House on Falls of the Neuse Road in Raleigh. I hadn’t been there before, but as I would learn that evening Erin had been to nearly every restaurant in the Tarheel state. Every place I mentioned she had eaten there, had dessert there, or had a glass of sweet tea there. It was maddening! But it was also charming. I took it upon myself to find places to visit she had not been before. That’s the biggest reason why, seven months later, we took our first honeymoon to New York City (our second honeymoon was two months later at Walt Disney World).
I’ve given much thought to why I fell in love with her. I am very much the analytical thinker who reserves emotion until I am alone. Someone always has to steer the ship in the storm, as they say. In moments of crisis, emotions get in the way. My family always depended on me to be the rock in times of need, so I learned to keep my emotions in check until the crisis has passed. Erin, on the other hand, cries a lot. And the funny thing is the crying is not necessarily sadness. She has great compassion for people and she wears her emotions on her sleeve. I don’t mean to give the impression that she a hot mess. She’s just the opposite of me; I take care of the logistical side of life and she takes care of the personal side of life. We complement each other like the yin and yang.
I knew she was special when she reached out and touched my hand across the table at the Ale House. We both told a funny teacher story and were laughing out loud when she reached out to touch my hand. I looked into those autumn eyes and I felt something I never experienced before. I was smitten. The next morning I emailed her to thank her for the lovely evening. Then, I sent her flowers. I know, I know! It’s cliche, but I wanted her to know I really enjoyed spending time with her.
By our third date we both detailed every relationship we ever had. Neither of us wanted any skeletons in the closet. I prepared to leave for a tour of Civil War battle sites with my parents while Erin left with her nephew to visit her sister in Texas.
The funny thing was neither of us could focus on our trips. We only thought of each other. I came across a small gift shop in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia that sold sliver and pewter jewelry and household items. I wanted to get Erin a gift. A silver claddagh (klad-uh) charm for her necklace caught my eye. The symbol is a pair of hands holding a crown-topped heart. This would be a great and poetic way to explain to Erin how I felt about her. For the rest of the trip all I could think about what how I would use such a small gesture to show Erin how much I missed her and my future plans for us.
When I returned home it was early May and I immediately called Erin to see if she could come over. To say she rushed over would be an understatement. She missed me as much as I missed her. When she came into the house I greeted her at the door and gave her a hug. Up to that point, and much to her chagrin, I had not kissed her. We sat on my sofa in the living room and I pulled the little package from my pocket.
“I missed you terribly while I was gone. I bought you something. It’s a claddagh. My family’s ancestry is Irish so I thought it was appropriate for you to have something that reminded you of me. But it’s more than just a charm. The symbol means something. The hands symbolize friendship, and Erin, you are the best friend I could ever ask for. The crown stands for loyalty. Erin, I want to be loyal to you and only you. I wish to see no other person than the beautiful woman sitting before me. Finally, the heart stands for love. And Erin, I do love you.” All Erin could say was, “I’m so glad you said it first!” We embraced and finally kissed for the first time. From that moment forward we knew a pair of soulmates had found each other.
Even from those early days we both were clear in our desire to be parents. Erin told me she had been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a condition that meant her reproductive cycle would be irregular and any hopes we had of having a baby would mean medical intervention. I didn’t care. Yes, I wanted to be a father of a large brood, but my love for Erin was bigger than any dream I had for the future. No matter the issue, we would face it together.
We were married on October 31, 2009. Halloween was our favorite holiday and we both adored the weather and fall colors. I was thrilled to be marrying Erin near my childhood home. The mountains were the perfect backdrop for our ceremony. I even managed to include them in my vows:
“Erin, I can think of no better place in which to marry you than here in the foothills of my beloved Appalachian Mountains. And I can think of no better time of year to marry than here in the autumn, when the earth rewards the year’s hard labor with a bountiful harvest. This marriage is also a harvest for me; it is a harvest of the years of prayers I have offered to God to send to me the person with whom I will spend the rest of my life. And Here you are. My vow is eternal. My love for you is as true as the Northern Star. Each year when the crimson and gold cascade down the mountainsides to the hills, hollers, and piedmont beyond; when pumpkins swell on the vines and apples droop beneath the gnarled branches of their trees; I will remember this day, look into those beautiful autumn eyes, and fall in love all over again.”
It was pure luck that Halloween fell on a Saturday that year. Our rehearsal was a costume party while our wedding ceremony was fall themed with Halloween elements at the reception. We gave each child who attended a painted jack-o-lantern bucket filled with candy and treats. Each guest received a candied apple and bag of treats. Erin and I delivered them to each table. When the ceremony was over our guests told us it was the most personal, sweetest wedding they had ever seen.
Those early days of marriage were a period of adjustment. Both of us had lived alone for some time and we were set in our ways. I had the biggest adjustment. I was too selfish and too much focused on what was in my own best interest. It wasn’t my intention to be self-centered, but I had not yet come to understand what it meant for two people to function as one. Luckily, we both kept level heads, learning and growing together.
Our initial efforts to start a family fell through. I wasn’t too concerned at this point, but I could see Erin’s growing frustration and self-doubt. She blamed herself for the whole situation. I tried to comfort her but I was not yet equipped to deal with such strong emotional reactions. I suggested we seek medical help. Enter Carolina Conceptions.
Erin’s exam went as expected: PCOS. I had to be tested as well. My fertility count had to be measured. I asked how that was supposed to happen. When the nurse told me, I was MORTIFIED! How in the world could I be expected to go in that little room and do what I had to do knowing there were people walking around outside knowing what was going on in there!? But I did it. The results made the problem worse from an emotional standpoint. My counts were high. Erin had yet another reason to continue her descent into self-loathing.
We started on Clomid. When that didn’t work, we moved to Clomid, shots, and estrogen suppositories. The third month of this routine Erin’s cycle was four weeks late. We were hesitant to take a pregnancy test because we didn’t want to get excited. We watched for other signs of pregnancy, but it was hard to tell if the symptoms were real or if they came our strong desire to be pregnant. At the sixth week Erin’s cycle started and it was the most painful, most extreme she ever had. To this day I am convinced she was pregnant and miscarried.
Erin mourned as if we had a child die To her, that’s exactly what happened. She convinced herself this was all her fault, that God did not want her to be a mother, and that I needed to find someone else who could give me children. This was the moment that made me realize how much, how deeply and without reservation I loved Erin Jenkins. Nothing else mattered to me except helping Erin find her peace. Many nights I held her in my arms while she cried. I offered no words, only comfort. I sent her flowers on random days and wrote little notes and poems to her. I wanted to give her the reassurance that I wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t matter to me if we never had children. As long as we were together, everything would work out for us in the end.
Early in our marriage I mentioned the idea of adopting children. Erin shut it down immediately. She wanted children of her own. She felt there was no way she could love a child who came from another mother as much as she would love a child of her own. I accepted her point and moved on. Occasionally we would see a commercial or a web post about children waiting to be adopted. Erin, though not as resolute as before, said she didn’t feel it was the right time.
In early 2011 we faced an important decision. We were not yet pregnant and the bills for treatments ballooned. Our public employees health plan did not cover infertility and we paid the cost out of pocket. We now had to decide if we wanted to try IVF. The cost would be about $15,000 per attempt with no guarantee of success. Erin and I talked about it for weeks. I was willing to pay the cost, but Erin felt if we went that route and she never got pregnant she would hate herself for wasting all of that money. While we waited on making our final decision, we decided to attend a potential foster/adoptive parent meeting at our county’s Department of Social Services. Boy, was that a mistake! The people who were there saw fostering as an opportunity to supplement their income. Nobody was interesting in adopting. In fact, we didn’t get the feeling that anybody was there to help the kids! We heard some horror stories, so we left the meeting as quickly as we could. We reached our lowest point. Not only were we not pregnant, we were out thousands of dollars and we saw no path to becoming parents. We went home and comforted each other as best we could.
Ultimately, we decided to halt our fertility treatments and see where life took us. After a couple of months Erin had a chance meeting with an old colleague who was planning on taking foster care classes with a faith-based nonprofit agency. Erin researched on her own and decided this might be a good fit for us. She reached a point where she wanted a child to call her Mama even if that child did not come from her body. Putting away her reservations, Erin gave foster-to-adopt a chance. The only caveat was Erin only wanted an infant or a toddler. No school-aged children or teenagers. She had thoughts of a teenage foster child sneaking into our room to kill us. Crazy, right? But if you watch the Lifetime Movie Network your will see where those ideas come from. We took the classes and completed the process. In July of 2012 we became foster parents. The very next day we received our first two placements.
On July 13 I received a phone call from our case worker asking if we were interested in a three year old girl who was nearing availability for adoption. The only issue was that the mother still had visitation rights and we would have to work with the social workers to arrange those. Also, the little girl (we’ll call her Amy) had been in numerous foster homes already because the biological mother moved around a lot. She was a recovering addict who was going to have one of her legs amputated. The case worker said it was just a matter of time before Amy would be up for adoption because the mother had no home or way to care for Amy. A trial to terminate her rights was imminent as soon as her surgery was complete and she sufficiently recovered. We agreed to be a part of the reunification plan and then see what happened. An hour after Amy came into our home, I received a second phone call. Another case worker from our agency called and asked if we could take an eighteen month old boy. I was floored! Two toddlers in the same day! The case worker said that the family was well-known to social services and that this would most likely be a long-term placement with strong potential for adoption. We eagerly said, “YES!”
Well, we fell into the foster-to-adopt parent trap. We instantly fell in love with those two babies and began planning for the day when both would be ours. Amy came to us from a foster mother who had taken excellent care of her. We had to purchase next to nothing. The little boy (we’ll call him Jake) came to use with two trash bags full of old clothes, nicotine encrusted toys, and dead bugs. We took both bags to our storage shed and then bought everything brand new. Jake was precious, but we knew he wasn’t developing normally. He wasn’t yet speaking and his eyes were crossed, but he had the cutest crooked smile you’d ever seen. Jake latched on to my mother like you wouldn’t believe. She, like Erin, was born to be a mother.
Amy was smart a whip and beautiful to boot. We believed she was mixed race caucasian and Hispanic. She reminded us of Jennifer Lopez or Pocohontas: long silky black hair and a creamy brown complexion. She was gorgeous.
We had a few hiccups at first. Erin still worked each day (at the time she taught on a year round schedule while I was teaching traditional) so I had to be Mr. Mom. I was totally unprepared. I was clueless. I over scheduled everything and was fussy over minutia. After the first week I wasn’t sure what I’d signed up for. Erin reassured me that it would all be OK. The next issue was our impending trip to Walt Disney World. Jake didn’t require a plane ticket, but Amy would. Plus, there was the added pressure of going on such a long vacation with two toddlers. We were totally unprepared. We didn’t bring enough diapers with us, and when our flight was delayed six hours we had to buy more at the airport at exorbitant prices. Next, we had no idea that apple juice caused massive bowel movements. I’d never seen so much toddler poop in my life! That problem didn’t resolve itself until we returned a week later. I had ordered a case of apple juice for the hotel room and I was determined not to let it go to waste. I learned my lesson about apple juice on that trip.
On our last day at Disney our case worker called. The social workers from Jake’s home county had found a half-sister living in Oklahoma. Jake would be going to live with her. I was furious! Why had they not found her a month ago? We had totally rearranged our lives and our EXTREMELY expensive vacation to take the kids with us. We felt betrayed. The day after our return the social workers met us at Cracker Barrel so we could transfer Jake back to their care. We hugged him and kissed him goodbye. I pleaded with the social worker that if he came back into care to call us because we would gladly take him back. We never saw Jake or those social workers again.
Amy continued to live with us as our lives as parents became a routine. Both of our families accepted Amy as a full member and we were happy each day.
The parent visits were haphazard because the birth mother frequently cancelled at the last minute. After her surgery, the birth mother made arrangements to meet Amy at the social services office. This proved to be a mistake because the mother lost her balance and fell out of her wheelchair. The surgical suture came loose and blood poured from her knee where her leg had been. Amy saw it all. I was terribly upset as well. That was the last time we saw Amy’s birth mother.
Christmas 2012 passed and we started 2013 with high hopes of adopting Amy that year. The second week of January we received a call from Amy’s home county social worker that Amy’s mother had signed her parental rights over to the couple who had originally fostered Amy when she was an infant. We and our agency protested. As it turned out, this was the plan all along. Amy’s home county had promised that if Amy were freed for adoption she would return to that family. Nobody told us or our agency this. We were not allowed to say goodbye. We packed all of her belongings and left them at the daycare. The social worker and Amy’s forever family would pick her up that afternoon. We broke routine and both Erin and I dropped her off. We stuck around as long as we could. I had to pry Erin off Amy so we could leave for work. To make matters worse Amy said, “Mommy Erin! Don’t forget to pick me up today!” After we walked out the door I held Erin the parking lot beside her car for what seemed like hours. We would never see Amy again.
I put together a quick beach trip over the MLK holiday to help heal the wounds I invited my parents because my mother and Erin have a special bond that helps in times of crisis. We laughed, we cried, we froze our toes off in the winter sands of Ocean Isle. But we also started to feel a bit guilty. For the first time since July we were able to sleep in without interruption and our routines returned to relative ease. It was like getting a reprieve. We asked ourselves if we were happier just being Erin and Josh instead of Mommy and Daddy. For the moment, we decided to stop worrying about it and enjoyed living in the moment.
What we didn’t know was that ninety miles away we were the topic of conversation in a meeting of social workers in Fayetteville. Two little boys needed a permanent home and we were suggested as a possibility. In the same town, a pregnant woman struggling with addiction sat in her mother’s home carrying a little girl who would be born a month too early and in desperate condition but would show resilience even a superhero would find hard to match. To be continued…….
Part 3: The Price of Trust: Phillip’s Adoption Story
Part 4: Child of Anger: Carl’s Adoption Story
Part 5: Little Boy Lost: Jon’s Adoption Story
Part 6: Though She be but Little, She is Fierce: Autumn’s Adoption Story