The long road to finding Ben


One mother's story of adopting the world's most beautiful boy By Susan Dodge

Photo courtesy of Susan Dodge John, Ben and Susan at the Indiana Dunes.

My husband John and I were walking down the street, arguing over a word. "It counts," I said. "It doesn't count," he said. "That was babbling."

Suddenly a little voice boomed, loud and clear and strong.

"Momma!" came the voice. Our son Ben was looking up at us quizzically from his stroller, having just almost yelled the word at us.

"OK," John said, laughing. "That counts. His first word was 'Momma.' "

I couldn't imagine feeling any happier. Momma was a word I never thought I'd hear.

And yet here we were, pushing our beautiful boy in a stroller, watching him smile and listening to him giggle, the best sound in the world.

It had been seven years since John and I had first started actively trying to become parents. The journey was filled with sadness so overwhelming it threatened to crush us, but capped by joy in the end.

I am not sure that I can explain in words what it is like to want a child so much, but not be able to conceive one.

It is an ever-present ache. It's an overpowering grief that you can't escape, because, if you're a woman trying to become pregnant, every month you are reminded your body failed you when you get your period again.

Adoption had always hovered in our minds as a light at the end of the tunnel: A way for us to finally become parents.

But it is difficult to make the leap to adoption when it seems as though you should be able to have biological children. Doctors have a term for this: "Unexplained infertility."

Many invasive tests for me, sperm tests for John, months of fertility pills and shots, ultrasounds and three invitro fertilization attempts later, we still had no children. I had only been pregnant once in what was called a "chemical pregnancy," or a very early miscarriage after our first invitro attempt.

Surveys show that up to 5 million people in the United States suffer some sort of impaired fertility.

I had begun researching adoption online after our first invitro attempt failed. I also found a wonderful Web site,, full of information about infertility and adoption.

We weren't going to let our fertility problems stop us from the joy of raising children.

We decided we wanted to do a domestic adoption because we wanted the experience to be as close as possible to having a biological child. We wanted to know the medical history of the birthparents, if possible, and we both wanted to adopt a newborn, something that is usually only possible in domestic adoptions.

We began researching adoption agencies and narrowed our search to the Center for Family Building in Evanston, an agency that emphasizes open adoptions where birthparents and adoptive parents stay in touch after the baby is placed for adoption. We both felt it would be best for our child to know more about his birthparents as he got older.

Maggie Gill-Benz, our counselor at the center, was wonderful and immediately put us at ease.

One of the most daunting parts of the adoption process for me was facing a list of questions from Maggie about what we were willing to "accept" in birthparents. A biracial child? A child of another race? A birthmother who smoked throughout her pregnancy? A birthmother who drank alcohol during her pregnancy or took drugs? A history of mental illness? A baby with correctable medical disabilities?

People trying to conceive a child biologically do not face this sort of checklist.

They were tough choices that we spent time thinking about with an entirely different perspective as future parents.

We each had physicals done for the adoption, along with criminal background checks, which included being fingerprinted. Even our dog had to have up-to-date vaccines and a recent exam.

We also needed to have a home study. We cleaned our house furiously the night before the social worker was scheduled to arrive. I baked banana bread, too. I was nervous about what she would think of us, and whether she would think our home was good enough.

Jennifer Pedley also made us relax the minute she walked in. She told us people always cleaned like fanatics before she arrived, and usually baked something. But Jennifer wasn't interested in whether we had mopped. She wanted to talk to us more about what we had read about adoption and what were our expectations.

She recommended excellent books to us about talking to our child about the fact that he or she was adopted. Talking to him or her about it from the very beginning is important, all the experts say. If you make a mistake, it doesn't matter when you're talking to an infant.

We wrote a "Dear Birthmother" letter, summing up our lives and explaining why we hoped we would make good parents. We had an 800 toll-free phone number installed at home so birthmothers could call us if they read our ad in the newspaper.

One of the first calls we got was from a 17-year-old girl who said she was very nervous, but also sure that adoption would be the best plan for her baby. Her boyfriend, who was 18, was also supportive of adoption as the best option for their child.

"We're just too young to raise a child," she said.

We met them shortly afterward, in a town where they were living with the birthfather's parents. We bonded with the birthparents right away. We talked about the girl's pregnancy and the baby's future with us.

The birthmother came down the stairs ladened with gifts for us: A hand-knit baby blanket that the birthfather's mother had made, along with baby clothes. We all cried as she said she wanted us to be the parents of the baby.

One beautiful morning in June we got the call around 5:30 a.m. that she was in labor. We rushed to the hospital.

The birthmother wanted us in the delivery room with her. From earlier ultrasounds, we knew she was having a girl and we had already picked out a name, Isabelle Celia.

When a little black head of hair finally peeked through at the delivery, I couldn't believe she was being born. It was amazing!

We had a few wonderful moments of holding her, and looking into her bright blue eyes, marveling at how tiny she was and how perfect.

Two days later, we were allowed to bring her home. We were so thrilled and the phone kept ringing with family and friends offering congratulations.

We spent a few sleepless nights with her in the bassinet next to our bed, even enjoying the middle-of-the-night feedings we had waited so long to experience.

On the third day little Isabelle was home with us, I was out running an errand and John got a call from Maggie, our adoption agency counselor.

Maggie told John that the birthmother had changed her mind, and wanted the baby back.

We were shocked. We knew that the birthmother might change her mind, but we were prepared for that to happen after the baby's birth, in the hospital.

In Illinois, a birthmother cannot sign relinquishment papers until a minimum of 72 hours after giving birth, and the birthmother had not yet signed those papers.

When I got home from my errand I had never seen John so upset. He was crying and said there was nothing we could do.

The girl's father had swooped in from out of state and told her he would help raise the baby. The adoption agency's social worker and the birthfather's mother had talked to the girl, but her mind was made up. She wanted her baby back.

We took some pictures of baby Isabelle, while crying, and told her we would always love her. We just wanted her to have a good, happy life.

My parents were on their way to see her for the first time, and we weren't able to call them in time to tell them not to come. They were devastated for us.

Up to 20 percent of adoptions fail, but the vast majority of them fail when a birthparent changes their mind shortly after the baby's birth, in the hospital.

We were two of the unlucky people who bonded with a baby in our home before we had to give the baby back.

But, that little taste of joy-having the baby in our home-made us eager to continue to try to adopt. We were scared, but we felt wiser from the experience.

We knew we needed some help just to cope with our grief. We took Maggie's advice to get out of the house, even if it was just to see a "dumb movie."

We went to a wonderful counselor who helped us through the loss. Our family was there for us, too. I remember my legs felt like rubber for days after the adoption failed. I think I was in shock.

In the meantime, we were advertising again. We dealt with a series of disappointing situations that seemed to go nowhere.

Finally, exhausted from our long battle with infertility and now adoption, we decided we needed a vacation. We went to Florida, where we ran and walked on the white beaches and stared out at the water.

On the last day of our vacation, we got a call from our adoption agency.

They said a birthmother had called, very interested in our ad. I didn't want to call her back. We were on vacation and I was trying to escape from everything for a few days. But they urged me to call her.

When I called, the woman sounded very mature, sweet and thoughtful. She had a sense of humor, too. John and I went to meet her and the birthfather soon after we got back from vacation. We sat in their kitchen, talking, laughing and drinking coffee for four hours.

Between them, they had three children from previous marriages and didn't want another child, but wanted to help a couple who couldn't have kids.

We were thrilled when they told us they wanted to help us! On March 7, the birthmother called to tell us she was having contractions and we rushed to the hospital again.

Ben was born at 2:59 a.m. on March 8, 2002.

He was-and is-the most beautiful baby I've ever seen.

We spent two days in the hospital with the birthparents and Ben, sharing some wonderful moments. While it was extremely difficult for them to part with the baby, they were mature and grounded enough to feel they were doing the right thing. Their unselfish kindness restored our faith in the human race.

We share pictures and cards and letters with them, and they sent a hand-carved wooden train the birthfather made for Ben for his first Christmas.

But they have given us the far greater gift. Every day, we wake up to a smiling boy with dimples looking at us from his crib.

We recently returned to the Center for Family Building to get ready to adopt a sibling for Ben. We can only hope to find people as wonderful as Ben's birthparents the second time around.


Susan Dodge is Ben's mother and a writer living in northwest Indiana.


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