Shifting Gears: The Adoption Option

It's your first IVF cycle and you're feeling pretty good about the chances of conceiving. Or you're heading into your fourth at bat and your confidence is getting shaky. Maybe you're looking at your sixth in vitro go-round and disappointment, anger and grief are bursting through a dam of denial.

You may be at any point on that assisted reproductive continuum when you begin contemplating another family-building option: adoption. Thinking about it now can be a wise move. Educate yourself early and well, the experts say, before and during infertility treatment.

"We make better decisions if we have all (the) options in front of us," observes Adam Pertman, an adoptive parent, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City and author of Adoption Nation. People should consider all routes to family-building "before the fertility issue becomes conclusive," Pertman believes, because that knowledge helps you make clear-headed choices in case the medical routes don't work for you.

When Becoming A Parent Is Paramount

It may be hard to wrap your mind around adoption while you're in the throes of pursuing a genetically linked baby. But all of us have a breaking point when the stretch and stress-emotional, physical, financial and social-of one more medical procedure feels intolerable.

Making the transition to adoption "happens over time," says adoption counselor Amy Rackear, a CSW in New York. "People come here when they are still entrenched in treatment but recognizing that what's most important to them is to become a parent. That's really the key to adoption."

Granted, adoption is different. But, says Pertman, "different isn't better or worse, it's just different. Infertility can stay with people forever, but that doesn't make them bad adoptive parents, because they do fall in love with their adoptive kids."

"Culturally, we're conditioned to think there's only one right way to make a family," asserts Pertman. Adoption, he says, is often "considered second best." In reality, it may be second choice, but it's not second best.

Aaron Britvan, the father of one adopted daughter and two biological daughters, puts it this way: "It was two months after we took custody of my daughter that we found out my wife was pregnant. If we had known earlier, we might not have gone forward and that would have been the saddest part of my life. My oldest daughter was meant to be. To me, the miracle of adoption is that the love was instantaneous."

In his experience as an adoption lawyer, Britvan finds a couple of things people often say about adoption. One, in looking back it wasn't as hard as they thought. Two, once they see their child they know it was destiny.

Two Worlds

Familiarizing yourself with the language and lore of adoption while trying to conceive is one thing. Actually trying to adopt while riding the treatment seesaw is quite another.

"It can be emotionally wrenching," says Carolyn Berger, Path2Parenthood's adoption coordinator. It takes a lot to endure the hormonal and psychological ups and downs of fertility treatment at the same time you've undertaken the search for the future birth mother who may be the one for you. Both tracks carry the potential for loss and disappointment as well as joy.

"Each one demands a lot of energy and resilience," says Amy Rackear, CSW.

So don't feel pressured to actively pursue both courses. You can do them sequentially. Indeed, says Sarah Barris, a clinical psychologist and Path2Parenthood board member, many people "need to come to a point of closure" with their fertility treatments before they can enter the adoption arena (and some agencies won't work with people still under medical care). Especially because, in general, "successful adoption isn't as age sensitive as treatment," says Berger.

Still, many people do go after both at the same time with finesse. Still others flip the sequence and adopt and then continue with the medical option. Whichever path you choose, be "open and mindful of your experiences and feelings," says Barris. And forget the myth that if you adopt, you'll conceive. "Some people do get pregnant following adoption," she says, "but that has to do with their reproductive issues, not some magical power of the adoption process."

Saying Goodbye

If you do leave treatment and pursue adoption, understand that ambivalence may follow for a long time. Not only do we experience the feelings of failure and inadequacy of infertility, but women-and men-must surrender the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, an experience most of us assumed was a birthright. We are left to mourn the longed-for child that combines a couple's best traits. It could be acknowledging the end of your family's genetic lineage.

Just know that as with all major losses, allowing yourself to grieve is crucial to healing.

"Some of us have a difficult time saying good-bye to the doctors and nurses who have played such important roles in our quest to have a baby," says Path2Parenthood's Berger. "Leaving the familiar world of the fertility clinic for the new world of adoption can be daunting. That's another loss that's often overlooked but should be acknowledged."

Some experts, like Patricia Irwin Johnston, author of Adopting After Infertility and a nationally recognized adoption specialist, advise making peace with the disappointments of infertility as much as possible before adopting.

She identifies key losses brought on by infertility, and says each couple must figure out their own bottom line:

  • Loss of control. If you're in treatment, you're on a schedule. You may surrender sexual privacy and be mired, for a while, in uncertainty.
  • Loss of personal genetic continuity. "For some, it's not a big deal," says Johnston. "But those raised in cultures where blood is thicker than water will strongly feel this loss," and relatives may lard on the guilt.
  • Loss of the dream of conceiving a child with one's life partner. "We have an expectation in a heterosexual relationship, that children will blend our genes and become a symbol of our love," says Johnston.
  • Loss of the satisfactions of pregnancy and birth "We have an absolutely false assumption that bonding happens only in pregnancy and in the delivery room," says Johnston. Men in particular "fear that they won't be able to love someone not genetically related to them."
  • Loss of the chance to parent. It is the one loss adoption can remedy

"If becoming a parent is your most important loss to avoid," says Johnston, and you feel you can deal with the others, "adoption is an almost guaranteed route to parenthood."

Just make sure you and your partner understand the ramifications of alternate family-building choices. Examine your finances, your ages, emotional and physical capacities. You don't have to talk to your doctor about adoption, but he or she should know your limits, says Johnston.

Some couples are split by indecision-one partner wants to keep trying for a biological child. The other wants to move on.

"It can produce stress in a marriage when one wants to move ahead and the other wants to try one more cycle," notes Amy Rackear. "One worries the other won't catch up. They usually do." With each unsuccessful treatment, "you revisit what you're trying to do," moving couples "closer to what they really want - which is to be a mother or be a father."

Adoption: Myths, Mysteries, Practicalities

To be sure, adoption can be a vortex of emotional, bureaucratic, cultural and political crosscurrents. So prepare yourself, suggest specialists. Don't be surprised if you find yourself feeling insecure, fearful, guilty, or even ashamed of attitudes about adoption that you yourself may have absorbed. As a couple you'll need to monitor what's really going on in both your hearts and minds.

There are some common worries and fears. What if your family is disappointed by or disapproves of adoption? Will you and your relatives bond with and love a child without that genetic connection? Guilt that you want a smart, healthy child and the anxiety that you might not get what you're hoping for. (Of course, we forget that there are no such guarantees with biogenetic offspring either.)

Experts advise couples to be very honest with themselves about their own views and sort them out. It's especially important because once you have children, they do pick up on and can be deeply affected by parental feelings.

At the same time, attitudes have changed. "Adoption has broken through a barrier in people's minds, because it's good for kids who need homes," says Pertman. "Adoption teaches us just how much we can love a child regardless of birth."

Once you're comfortable with your decision, then you're ready to move forward with the adoption process itself. Each country has its own laws, procedures and paperwork covering international placements, and sometimes they can change unexpectedly. With domestic adoptions, too, you must thoroughly research agencies and lawyers, understand your state's statutes well, and seek out support groups. "Speaking with others who have been there or are taking the same path as you is invaluable," says Berger. "You'll make friends and you may realize that making the transition to adoption can be liberating."

According to Dawn Smith-Pliner of Friends in Adoption in Middletown Springs, VT., many of the infertile couples who come to her agency ".feel jubilant at putting infertility treatments behind them, and are raring to go."

Others are initially lukewarm and become more committed as the process unfolds. Berger entered adoption ambivalent and still in treatment. "It wasn't until I started talking to potential birth mothers that I got excited. It was unbelievable to me that someone I didn't know was really going to help me build my family."

Smith-Pliner says: "If you can celebrate adopting as you would celebrate conceiving, you're probably ready to move into the adoption arena."

"It's more common than you'd think that infertile adoptive parents say: 'This is why I went through all of that," says Rackear. "This child is meant for me. Many of the kids who come home to us do turn out to be our dream children after all."

Supporting the Transition to Adoption

Parents who have adopted, independent support groups and infertility patient organizations provide many resources to help you wade through this challenging terrain. Legally, socially and emotionally. The Internet is rich with educational links, including reputable supports groups such as the Adoptive Parents Committee and, of course, Path2Parenthood.

We know how you feel. We've been there. We can help. Please log on to Path2Parenthood's website: or call our toll-free number 1-888-917-3777.