Scared to Death When You Get Your Adoption Match/Referral?

Dawn Davenport


What happens if you don't have a feel of "just knowing" when you receive your adoption match or referral. Does your fear mean you should not accept the match?

What happens if you don’t have a feel of “just knowing” when you receive your adoption match or referral. Does your fear mean you should not accept the match?

I received this intriguing question.  I kept thinking about it, and when I realized that I couldn’t answer it briefly, I decided to turn it into a blog.

Hi, Dawn. I love your site, I love your manner.  Do you have any words of wisdom for families where one parent feels sure and confident in a child’s special needs file and the other one does not?

My husband and I are about half-way through our home study and intend to adopt from China’s special needs program. Last week, we came across a blog of a family who has adopted a girl with albinism. We were touched and added that condition to our list of needs to consider. Today, our agency sent out a list of profiles and there was a 3 yr. old girl with albinism. It was just crazy enough that I thought it might be God. I asked for her file, and when I saw it, I did not feel the “this is our daughter” or “just knowing” that many moms speak of, but when I showed it to my husband, he was excited and ready to pursue her. Thoughts?

Distrusting “Just Knowing”

Yes, I’ve had lots of thoughts.  I distrust that feeling of “just knowing’. I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe it’s a right brain/left brain thing, and for better or worse, I’m more of a left brain type.  Or maybe I’m a little jealous of those gifted with certainty, since I’m usually stuck with questioning, second guessing, and stepping out on the limb with just faith, hope and prayer. Although this question deals with seeking certainty with an adoption, I hear it from people throughout the trying to conceive/infertility/adoption spectrum.  “I just wish I knew for sure whether __________________ (this next cycle would work, donor egg is right for me, to adopt, I’ll regret stopping treatment).  I feel your pain.

My Terror of Heights (and why that matters)

I’m afraid of heights—well, terrified really.  A couple of years ago, we went to a Family Weekend at a nearby camp with our two younger kids. We had a great time doing family art projects, music, and games, and were looking forward to the promised special treat in the afternoon.  I had visions of S’mores, or at the very least hot cocoa, but when the time came our perky fearless counselor announced that the “special treat” was the high ropes course.  For the record, the word “treat” should only be used in connection with the words “chocolate” or “frivolous purchase of shoes”.  It should never, repeat never, be used to describe an experience involving thin ropes precariously strung three stories above a concrete floor.

Since death defying feats deserve proper attention and encouragement from the ground (and since I was scared spitless), I selflessly volunteered to be the group cheerleader.  Unfortunately, one of my kids quickly decided to join my cheerleading squad.  What a parental dilemma!  I didn’t mind being a chicken, but I did mind patterning that behavior for my child.  (Being a role model sucks!)

Sighing deeply and cursing my discomfort with hypocrisy, I told my son that I was really scared, but that I knew it was safe and that I didn’t want to miss something just because I was afraid.  He could decide for himself, and it would be OK either way, but I thought I would try the course.  He, no doubt also sighing deeply and cursing my discomfort with hypocrisy, said he would try if I would go first.

Now here’s the illogical part of fear: I was totally harnessed in and on a belay rope the entire time.  Logically I knew that I could not get hurt—embarrassed, yes; physically hurt, no.  But logic was nowhere present as I stepped out on that rope.  Making that first step took every bit of courage I could muster, and every step after was a step of faith.  I wanted desperately for a handrail to add certainty to my steps, but all I had was a very thin rope.

What to Do When Scared Spitless

For me, that’s how it is with most of the big decisions in life.  I know a lot of people report a sense of “just knowing” what is right, but I seldom have it.  In fact, “just knowing” almost seems like cheating or taking the easy way out.  In my mind, big decisions should be weighed; pro/con lists should be made; a certain amount of angst should be experienced.  I also wonder if others really have the sureness at the time, or if it is only after the fact that they remember “just knowing for sure”.  It’s easy to know what’s right when you see how it turns out and to forget the uncertainty, the fear, the confusion, and the fervent prayer experienced when actually making the decision.

So, here’s the truth: there were moments when I was scared to death before our adoption.  I dithered and debated with myself about whether her special needs were too big or too unknown for us to handle. Were we nuts to have so many kids?  I wondered if I was making the right decision for my children, or if I was I selfishly satisfying my desires to their detriment.

The “Preponderance of Feeling” Test

My approach to big decisions is to combine research with my self-named “preponderance of feelings” theory.  I read everything I can find, talk with people, weigh pros and cons, and take frequent readings of my emotional temperature.  If my fear and uncertainty is going up, that’s a sign to back away.  If they’re going down, even slightly, then that’s a sign to move forward.  I take a day or two where I try to walk through the day living out the decision.  What would my day be like if I decide one way or the other?

Once we accepted the referral, I had more and more moments of blissful certainty.  After I held her in my arms I was overcome by clarity.  That was my pattern.  I know that for many certainty doesn’t come the moment they hold their child.  It may arrive months later with a smile or a hug.  Some don’t ever need to know that they made the “right” decision.  For them, it only matters that this is the life they are now living.

How to Decide Whether to Accept This Adoption Match/Referral

I don’t know whether this is the child for you, and I would never tell you to put your concerns aside and just step out on faith.  What I am saying is that I wouldn’t let your lack of the mystical “knowing” be the deciding factor.  Rely on how you have made big decisions in the past?  Research albinism and all that it would mean for you to parent a child with this condition, and what it would mean for your family.  (There is no better place than the Rainbow Kids Special Needs page for starting this research.)  Read up on albinism at the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation website.  Talk with your doctor and a specialist.  Analyze how well this child’s age and gender would fit within your family structure.

I suspect part of your uncertainty comes from how quick this referral came.  You haven’t had much time to prepare mentally for any child, much less a child with albinism.  If you still have a lot of fear and uncertainty after you’ve paid your dues with research and indecision, then maybe that’s your answer.  I work on the theory that each spouse has veto power over major life decisions.  It’s fair for your husband to try to educate you and sway you, but if you still say no, then the answer is no.

I wish I were a person who didn’t want the handrail of certainty in life.  I know deep down that there are no guarantees of a perfect decision leading to the perfect happily ever after, but I still envy those people who think otherwise.  For me, I’ll just have to be content with stepping out on that very thin rope with a lot of faith, hope, and prayer.

Image credit: Gerald Davison

02/03/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Scared to Death When You Get Your Adoption Match/Referral?

  1. Avatar Robyn C says:

    I can’t speak to international or foster adoption, but I can speak to domestic infant adoption. When do you know that a baby is yours? When TPR has been signed. It frustrates me when PAPs say “I know this is our baby” before a baby is even born. Until the baby is born and TPR is signed, that baby belongs (for lack of a better word) to the woman who is pregnant with said baby, and to the baby’s biological father.

  2. My mother always tells me, “Make decisions based on what you DO know, not what you DON’T know.” I have a tiny excerpt from The Eye of Adoption that I’d love to post here, with your permission.

    Thanks again for a spot-on topic!

  3. Avatar Beth says:

    This is something that has weighed on my mind. So glad you addressed this!

  4. Avatar Lindsay says:

    I have been asking myself that question since 2/25 when we got “the call” from our adoption agency. As the possible adoption progresses, I try to remind myself that when we started this process so long ago, we wanted to provide a home for a child who needs one. We think we’re going to get that chance. But I keep questioning myself. My husband is much more certain. I over-analyze everything, so he is probably correct.

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Yes I have read both of Kathy’s books and listened to your podcast with her twice. Dawn, thank you for the great suggestion- perhaps we could “throw ourselves on the pile” of potential adoptive parents and see what happens (I understand that our state allows that). We certianly want the very best outcome for our foster daughter, but I am just not sure that we are that family. (Sort of like the story of Lucy in Another Place at the Table where Kathy would have been happy to be her mom but then the PERFECT family was found.) That is what I wish for my beloved child- whether that family is us, or someone else. Perhaps I need to consult with you!

  6. Avatar Crystal's Mommy says:

    I could identify with a lot of the statements at the beginning. If only I knew for certain this next cycle would work. We will have to use up all our savings. So if we go for it, we’ll have to wait years before we can save enough money to adopt. On the other hand, if we don’t go for it one more time, will I always wonder if we would have succeeded. Where is that handrail when you really need it??????

  7. Avatar Kim says:

    We are struggling with knowing “is this the kid for us?” also. We are bio parents to a 4 year old and foster parents to a 2 year old. We had intended to just foster (we have fostered two other kids prior to this), not adopt, but our foster daughter’s birth family is not meeting their goals and she is very likely to be up for adoption. So the question we are being asked is, do we want to adopt her? On the one hand, we love her very much, she fits well into our family, and her special needs and her age may make her “undesirable” to others from an adoption standpoint. This makes me think we should adopt her. On the other hand, we got into this to foster, not to adopt, and I wonder if we can do more good long term by continuing to be good foster parents (which there aren’t enough of in my state) to multiple kids over the years instead of adopting. Also I wonder if she wouldn’t be better off with a fmaily who truly felt that CERTAINTY about her- that “oh this girl is mine” sense that we don’t completely feel about her, at least not yet. I welcome any thoughts on this tough decision.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Oh Kim. that is such a hard decision and not an uncommon one that foster parents sometime find themselves having to make. Have you read the book, Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison (?). We interviewed her on the Creating a Family show in the spring of 2009 and I recommend that you listen to the interview and read the book. She also faced this decision as a foster mother. One thought I had is to see how many families step forward to adopt her and then decide. Don’t know if that’s allowed or if that would be fair to the other families. Good luck with the decision.

  8. Avatar Laura says:

    I sent Dawn the question. (Ellie, like you, I consider Dawn to be a trusted guide in this process!)

    We are moving forward and compiling everything we need to send our Letter of Intent.

    Noel, I agree that referral pictures may not do our children justice. In the first photos I got, her eyes were shut. She was outside in all of them! The albinism will make her eyes sensitive to light, so she was squinting hard and had somewhat of a grimace. When we told our agency we wanted to pursue her, they were able to send us updated photos. Now I have one where she is smiling. And she is beautiful!

    Geri, I feel like God set this up. That we would be in the right place in the process to jump in. And that’s what I feel like I’m doing. Taking a leap of faith. I don’t know to what degree the albinism will affect her vision, nor how much developmental delay orphanage life will have caused. We’ll walk that out as we come to it.

    I was drawn to adoption before my husband, but he had “veto power.” He decided he was game. It seems fitting that he would be drawn to our daughter first and I came around.

    The night we got her file, I thought about what she needs. Vision aids, sunscreen, sure. But she needs a family. We can be her family. So we’re leaping in.

    Many thanks to you all.

  9. Avatar Ellie says:

    I identified with the person who asked the question and I really identified with Dawn’s response. I am someone who also wishes for the handrail of certainty, but usually has to go forward without it. That was the case with our fertility treatment. I questioned whether we should keep pouring money into what didn’t seem like it would ever work. Then I questioned whether to use donor eggs. For us, none of these options have been successful and now I wish I had some of the money to use on adopiton. We are saving our money and I am now questioning whether we should do another IVF or adopt. That rope I’m stepping out on seems very thin. Thank you for your show and for your balanced and fair approach to all family building options. You have become our trusted guide through the show, the site, and your blog.

  10. Avatar Noel says:

    My “knowing” moments have come and gone, so while I may have them momentarily, I also have moments of thinking “what am I doing?” I recieved a call to tell me about our referral. As they told me his name, tears fell uncontrolably. We had already decided to keep our child’s name as his birth name as he would be 2-ish, at least when we brought him home.

    My mother had passed away about 10 years prior to recieving the referral. She had been pregnant twice, with boy and girl names picked out each time. Both times she had girls but both times, the boy name was Christopher, the name of the child whose referral we had just recieved. I just knew it was a sign. And yet when I got home that evening and saw his picture, I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t “feel” it. My husband said let’s do it, so we did.

    We first visited him in July and it was a complete nightmare – he cried constantly. And he didn’t smile once. In fact, after accepting his referral in Feb., it wasn’t until Nov. that we even saw pictures of him smiling.

    He was in the earthquake in Haiti – just 2 miles from the epicenter. He has been home just 1 month. Still not even legally ours. I have had moments wondering why we decided to this. It has been REALLY REALLY hard. But despite the tantrums and sleepless nights, he is such a ham. It is already amazing to look at pictures over the 4 weeks and see how much he has changed. How comfortable he is getting. And I swear this kid is on his way to being a model – smiles and giggles all the time (ok, aside from the tantrums – with the first public tantrum occuring today!), loves the camera and loves his accesories – must have sunglasses at all times, even inside, and kept pointing to his new Converse, showing Papa, all throughout dinner.

    I can’t tell you I am 100% certain we have made the right choice sitting here right now. Talk about completely unexpectedly turning our life upside down – especially when we weren’t expecting him for at least another year and everyone is telling us how happy we must be that he is here and is safe – when we weren’t really feeling that way (of course we were happy he was safe but happy, well that was another thing). But I can’t imagine the truama we would cause him if we were to change our mind at this point. And when I find the time (haha – time, what is that) to reflect, he has come soooooooooo far and is adjusting quite well.

    I don’t know if or when I will ever decide that I “know” it was the right choice, but I would agree with Dawn, I would go with what you went into this wanting, not the sudden “feeling” you have when seeing a picture. As a side note, not that it is about cute, but my son is soooooooooo much cuter than his referral pic – everyone is in love with him – one parent told me during our parent trip that we had the cutest kid there with her own child sitting on her lap – she had to look around after saying it to be sure none of the other parents heard – and this is pre-smile stage. So, I haven’t found that referral pictures do these children justice, having seen other friends’ child’s referral pics…

    Good luck!

  11. Avatar Geri says:

    We adopted our first son from Vietnam in 2000. My husband and I both “clicked” with his referral picture the moment we saw it. He was our first child, we both chose adoption as our way of having a family. We opened our referral packet together. There was just such joy and “knowing” when we saw his picture that “this is our son.” It was like we had seen him before and we had been waiting for him.

    With our second son, I felt entirely different. My husband said he felt the same feelings when we opened our referral package. (We adopted our second son from Vietnam in 2002.) I saw this little baby boy’s picture and felt nothing. He looked nothing like our first son, and for some reason, I felt he should. I didn’t have that “click.” I went through the motions, pretended I was happy – my husband and son were. When I traveled to Vietnam to see him (this was during the two trip phase before the first shut-down), when the placed him in my arms, THEN it clicked. Oh, THIS is my son. Yes, now I see you. I needed that physical connection with him. Now, I love him to death, and my older one is always accusing me of favoring the younger one – sound familiar?

    I wouldn’t put too much in a referral photo. I think that you are referred the child you are meant to have (in our situation, God placed the children He wanted us to have), and once you hold them, the love will come.

  12. I will simply throw in my experience in case it eases any fears. We adopted from Guatemala. We loved (the idea of) her from the moment we saw her photo. But there was no strike of lightening that I knew this child was The One the second I saw her face. I simply knew she was beautiful and I started loving her through photos. When I met her, there again was no lightening strike of her being The One. There were a lot of emotions and I cried and loved her a little bit instantly but it wasn’t because I felt she was destined for us. I moved to Guatemala to foster her until the adoption was finished. I felt like a babysitter for weeks. I didn’t feel like I was her mom until we had spent weeks struggling together to make our odd little Guatemalan life work. Now? I can’t imagine her not a part of our lives. She is totally perfect for us and our family. I know in my heart she was meant to be ours. But that knowledge grew inside me over time. It wasn’t a lightening strike.

    I found out I was pregnant (surprise!) about 6 months after my daughter and I came home from Guatemala. Again, I loved the idea of the new baby but I spent the entire 9 months in fear that I could never love her as much as I loved my older daughter.

    Not saying that the person submitting the question should force things if she is unsure, but I don’t think we should beat ourselves up if we don’t have those moments that some other adoptive parents have.

  13. Avatar Christy says:

    I can’t yet speak about adoption because we’re in the early stages (in the midst of our homestudy). But I do have two biological children and I had very different reactions to their births. With my son I felt no connection during pregnancy at all. Everyone talked about how exciting it was and I was just scared and miserable (awful pregnancy, DH was deployed, and didn’t know if I would be a good Mom, etc., etc.). The moment DS was born I was in love, I knew that this was God’s plan. Complete certainty. With DD my pregnancy was just as horrible (or worse) but esp. due to a miscarriage between I was just so ready to have her in my arms, I was connected during pregnancy. When she was born I thought – oh, she’s healthy, good – felt very little “connection” to her and just spent my time worrying about DS who was with someone that I trusted but wasn’t warm and fuzzy with and didn’t feel like she knew my son well enough (we were desperate – we moved to the area in Oct – DD was born in early December). Once DH was with DS and things calmed down that night in the hospital I started to bond with her and now she is Mommy’s little girl and it’s wonderful. But first sight does not mean much, in my opinion.

    Now these decisions also depend on how comfortable you are with the disability and your ability to provide for and care for this little one. I wish you luck and no one but you can know how to move forward. Hugs!

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