When an Adoption Plan Fails: A Coping and Empowerment Guide

By Carolyn Berger, L.C.S.W

Anne and Tori were at a hospital near Rochester, New York when they learned that the pregnant woman they had made an adoption plan with had changed her mind. The news came to them via a hospital social worker who said that the birth mother did not want to discuss her decision with them. She was caring for the baby and had bonded to him. The couple called their lawyer and it was confirmed: This baby whom they had called William would not be coming home with them.

Anne and Tori struggled to make sense of it all. They had forged a powerful connection with the birth mother over the past five months, and they had made just as strong of a connection to the baby they would never see. They were overwhelmed by feelings of loss and despair.

Anne sobbed all the way back to the airport while Tori tried to comfort her.

It is a fact that adoption situations can fail. Typically, they fall apart just before or directly after the birth of the baby. We know that the loss to the pre-adoptive parents can feel as devastating as a miscarriage or even a stillbirth. We also know that there are coping strategies that can help.

The first is what I call extreme self-care: Think of everything you have done in the past that has helped you through a life crisis.

Make a list. Work through this list of strategies that you know has been helpful to you in the past.

Try your hardest to get a good night’s sleep the first night after your loss and follow through on subsequent nights. Shakespeare was right when he said that sleep “knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” Sleep will help you feel better in body, mind, and soul, and will help you deal with the difficult emotions you are experiencing. Having trouble sleeping? Turn off your electronic devices about an hour before you plan on sleeping. This may help to quiet your mind. You can also try drinking chamomile tea, or meditating right before bed.

Eating well, avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol, and getting exercise will also increase your ability to cope. Has practicing yoga helped you through difficult times, or does something more active like running work better for you? Do you feel calmer after a massage or a soak in a tub? Does being around people lighten your mood, or do you crave time alone when your world comes crashing in?

I often ask people who have suffered a failed adoption plan to consider taking a relaxing weekend away or vacation. After paying out your adoption expenses, you may not feel like spending money on a trip, but this can be money well spent. It gets you away from the nursery you lovingly furnished down the hall and from the questions of well-meaning friends and family who are unfamiliar with adoption’s ups and downs

Distraction is another great coping mechanism. Go to the movies—especially action-packed ones that give you little room to think. Do a home project: Have you wanted to organize your attic or arrange your living room furniture in a different way? Seeing a job through to completion can give you a sense of satisfaction and the awareness that you can have a positive impact on something. It can feel like a new start.

Dealing directly with the feelings you’re experiencing right now is important. Try this exercise for couples: For 10 minutes each day, one member of the couple tells the other one about how they are feeling while the other simply listens without judgment. Then the roles are reversed. This exercise has a number of positive results. Each person is heard in a meaningful way, and when each person knows they will have 10 minutes to focus on their loss each day, there is less of a chance that thoughts about the loss will fill every waking moment. Are you single? Get yourself a notebook you can write in daily or engage a friend or family member who can be your safe space for 10 minutes each day. This will give you a safe haven to turn to when emotions run high.

Consider seeing a therapist who specializes in adoption if your emotions continue spiraling downward. You can benefit from talking to a professional who has experience with failed adoptions.

Talk with adoptive parents. Chances are, even if they haven’t suffered a loss, they may know someone who has. Adoptive parents will often tell you that although this situation hasn’t worked out, the right baby will come to you in time and everything will suddenly make sense. Does this sound unrealistically optimistic? It is actually true.

How do you know when it’s time to start trying to adopt again, or even if you want to try again? Some people like to take off a few months before embarking on a new leg of their adoption journey. Others feel the need to jump right back in. You can begin moving forward at any time with the understanding that if things become unbearably painful, you can always back off for a while. In my experience, few people end their efforts to adopt after a failed situation, but this a route you have every right to choose.

When I first tried to adopt, a situation I had been pursuing fell apart. I met with my lawyer and tearfully told him about my disappointment. He listened for a while, then looked me straight in the eye and said, “Don’t forget, this is a baby you’re talking about, and a birthmother’s wishes are paramount. It is her baby!” I knew he was right.

A few months later I was in his office again. I was there to sign some papers and I arrived with my new baby son. This time, it was my lawyer’s eyes that filled with tears. He said, “I told you that if you persevered you would succeed!” He had indeed said that, and the baby I held was proof that adoption works.

Adoption can work for you, too. And your failed adoption will become just a detour on your path to parenthood.

About the Author: Carolyn Berger, L.C.S.W., has a private practice focused on Fertility, Adoption and All Forms of Family Building. Family building within the LGBTQ community is one of her specialities.