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Video: She adopted a baby — and then gave him up

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    >>> we're back now at 8:12. each year, more than 130,000 children are adopted, but what happens if the child does not bond with the family? anita tedaldi recently blogged about her family's heartbreaking experience. we're going to talk to her in a moment. but first, "today" national correspondent natalie morales has anita 's story. and by the way, anita asked us to protect the identity of baby d and her husband who serves in the military.

    >> the first time i considered giving up d, i was lying alone in bed. i ran to d's room, afraid that he was already gone, but he was there, sucking his thumb and breathing evenly. i caress his cheek with two fingers and exhaled.

    >> tell me about the very first day you got that phone call and told you, we have a child.

    >> we were just overjoyed. we had pictures, and i remember i would look at the picture with my kids.

    >> reporter: as with any adoption , anita and her family were thoroughly screened and they went through counseling to help make d a part of their family.

    >> he had been found by the side of a road, but the doctor estimated he was younger than one year. d lacked strength in his legs and had a completely flat head from lying in a crib so many hours a day, but the physical or developmental issues weren't the real problem. five or six months after his arrival, i knew that d wasn't attaching. i tried very hard, maybe even harder than i would with my biological children to find a connection, and i didn't feel that we were establishing that connection.

    >> reporter: after 18 months of trying to bond with d, anita came to a heartbreaking realization.

    >> my thoughts and emotions were disjointed and came in waves. one moment i was determined to keep d because i loved him. an instant later, i realized that i wasn't the parent i knew i could be and that i should place d with a better family, a better mother.

    >> reporter: she chose to terminate the adoption and she began looking for his new family.

    >> i explained to him that he'd be joining his new family and that we loved him very much, that he had done nothing wrong. in our last moments together, i stared into his eyes and told him that i loved him and that i tried to do my best.

    >> do you feel like you failed him?

    >> i'm not sure that i failed him. i loved him and i tried my best. in that respect, i didn't fail him. he deserves the best life he could possibly have. i wish i could have been the one to give him that life.

    >> that was nbc's natalie morales . anita tedaldi is with us now along with allen pertman, executive director of the evan b. donaldson adoption institute and lisa belkman, columnist for "the new york times" magazine. good morning to all of you. anita , it's a heartbreaking story. and when you said in that piece that you just weren't connecting with d, can you explain that little more? what were the signs that there was no connection here?

    >> sure. i think it was both ways, that the child, d, wasn't connecting with us, and at the same time, while i was seeking help with a therapist, a social worker, while i was trying to establish a connection and did some attachment therapy, i also realized that on my part, there was a difference. i also had a hard time bonding with him.

    >> and when you say bonding, though, there was obviously affection. you say that you loved d, even though you weren't bonding with d, and i think some people might need a little explanation on that.

    >> sure. i loved him and i cared deeply for him. i tried to do the exact same thing that i did with my biological children, but over time , it became clear that our family maybe wasn't a good match for him, that we were unable to meet some of his needs.

    >> and the emotions, you say, came in waves. you thought, well, i should stick this out at one moment, no, we should find a better solution in another. was there one specific incident that kind of turned the corner for you?

    >> i don't think there was one specific incident. i sought help early on in the process and i spoke with a social worker who was involved with the adoption and then with a therapist. so, i came to this conclusion over time .

    >> adam -- let me make it clear, you were not involved in this adoption --

    >> no.

    >> but this is not the happily ever after story that we hope adoptions have.

    >> right.

    >> how often does something like this happen, where there isn't a bond?

    >> mercifully, not very often. this happens in biological family formation. someone, actually, downstairs as i was preparing told me about her sister who took a long time to bond with her biological kid. it happens, and the one message we shouldn't take away from this is that this is, you know, adoption is a rental where you try it out. it's not. it's permanent, it's loving and it's like every other family, but that doesn't always work.

    >> from the adoption agency point of view, is this the outcome you would rather see? would you favor someone like anita sticking with it for consistency for that child or finding a better match for the long-term betterment of that child? how do you come down on that?

    >> well, the donaldson institute is a research organization, not an agency, so i don't have to make these decisions. from a practice point of view, you want what's in the best interests of the child . i can't speak to the intimacies of this one episode because i don't know them well enough. in general, you give it all you've got for as long as you can, and in most cases, people sometimes take years to bond with their kids, especially if they're from tough circumstances, but you cannot know in one case.

    >> lisa , i know this story generated a lot of comment, and i want to be honest, not a lot of it -- there was a lot of it that was not positive. a lot of negative comments directed toward anita . were you surprised by that?

    >> i was not completely surprised. anita was hesitant about writing this. she had been a blogger on other subjects and this came up in our getting to know each other, and it took months before she wanted to write about it. i spent a lot of time saying, are you sure you want to write about it? because it's a hot topic. and the point was not to say, look, this happens all the time and to frighten people away, but the point was to say, this happens sometimes and knowing about that going in, more information's better.

    >> and anita , to the people who have judged you harshly at times, how do you respond to that?

    >> you know, i think i would have done the same thing two years ago. in fact, i did do the same thing two years ago --

    >> in terms of judging?

    >> in terms of judging. i wrote a column where i criticized somebody who had done the same thing. and so, i understand where the criticism comes from, because of course, this is not the outcome that anybody would hope for, but ultimately, we had to do what was best for the child, and so, i hoped it would have been us, but working with the support that we had, that was the conclusion we came to.

    >> real quickly, how is baby d doing? you've checked in.

    >> he's doing well. he's doing well.

    >> which i guess is the happy ending in all this. so, each though it seems like a difficult path to get there. anita , thank you very much. adam, thank you. lisa , thank you very much. we appreciate it. we want to know what you think about anita 's decision and the story in general. we'd like your comments. logon to our website at todayshow.com to weigh in and we'll be talking about that in a later program. we're right back after

By Contributor, Motherlode blog
updated 10/1/2009 9:16:56 AM ET 2009-10-01T13:16:56

The first time I considered giving up D. I was lying alone in my oversized bed. It was about midnight, my children were asleep and my husband was deployed. I was so taken aback by my thoughts that I bolted upright, ran to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. It was dark, but I could see my silhouette in the mirror and I stared to see if I was looking at a demon instead of D.’s mother.

I ran to D.’s room, afraid that he was already gone. But he was there, lying on his Thomas the Train sheets, sucking his thumb and breathing evenly. I caressed his cheek with two fingers and he exhaled. “I love you little man,” I whispered, and kissed his forehead, swallowing down the knot in my throat. I went back to my room and sobbed into my pillow.

D. was my adopted son. He’s a little boy from South America who came to our home several months before that frightening night. He arrived through Miami International Airport on a Monday afternoon, and I was so anxious that on my six-hour drive to pick him up, I dug my nails into the steering wheel for the duration of the trip, leaving marks I can still see today. I couldn’t contain my excitement. After waiting many long months, I’d finally hold and kiss my son.

I had wanted to adopt for a long time, even before I met my husband or had my five biological daughters. I’ve always wanted a large family, like the one I grew up with in Italy, and I love the chaos and liveliness of many kids.

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I did lots of research on adoption, including attachment problems and other complications that older adopted children can have. I spoke to my therapist and went through a thorough screening process with social workers to figure out if I, and my family, could be a good match for a child who needed a home. We were approved, and began the long wait for a referral. When they told us about D., I was ecstatic and convinced that I’d be able to parent this little boy the same way I had done with my biological daughters.

When he arrived in the U.S., our pediatrician diagnosed our son with some expected health issues and developmental delays. His age was not certain — he had been found by the side of a road — but the doctor estimated he was a little younger than one year. D. lacked strength in his legs and had a completely flat head, from lying in a crib so many hours a day. The first few weeks at home, people often asked me if he had experienced a brain injury. D. also suffered from coprophagia, or eating one’s own feces, which my pediatrician assured me the majority of children outgrow by the age of four. Most mornings, when I went to pick him up from his crib, I’d find him with poop smeared on his face and bedding.

But the physical or developmental issues weren’t the real problem. Five or six months after his arrival, I knew that D. wasn’t attaching. We had expected his indifference toward my husband, who was deployed for most of this time, but our son should have been closer to his sisters and especially to me, his primary caretaker.

Video: Moms judged for giving up custody?

His social worker, his pediatrician and his neurologist all told me that he had come a long way, and that attachment issues were to be expected with adoption. But D.’s attachment problems were only half the story. I also knew that I had issues bonding with him. I was attentive, and I provided D. with a good home, but I wasn’t connecting with him on the visceral level I experienced with my biological daughters. And while it was easy, and reassuring, to talk to all these experts about D.’s issues, it was terrifying to look at my own. I had never once considered the possibility that I’d view an adopted child differently than my biological children. The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was.

I sought help and did some attachment therapy, which consisted of exercises to strengthen our relationship, mostly games because of D.’s age. He fell in my arms many times throughout the day, we sang songs, read books, repeated words while we made eye contact. We built castles and block towers and went to a mommy and me class.

Still, I struggled. One day (I’m still not exactly sure what was different about that particular day) I was on the phone with Jennifer, our social worker, who merely asked “what’s up” when I blurted out that I couldn’t parent D., that things were too hard.

As soon as I said these words out loud, a flood of emotions washed over me, and I sobbed, clutching the phone with both hands. Jennifer didn’t say anything, she waited patiently, and when I had nothing left, she asked me to start from the beginning. We talked about my family; about the problems my husband and I were having with D. and, as a result, with each other; about the girls and their partial indifference toward D.; and about some of my son’s specific challenges.

For the next several weeks Jennifer and I spoke daily. She mostly listened and told me to focus on D.’s future and well being above everything else. Eventually I told her that I’d look at profiles of potential families, but stressed that I wasn’t committed yet, just considering options.

My thoughts and emotions were disjointed and came in waves. One moment I was determined to keep D. because I loved him. An instant later, I realized that I wasn’t the parent I know I could be, and that I should place D. with a better family, with a better mother.

As I wrestled with these demons, things remained very tense in my home; whenever my husband was stateside we fought incessantly. I felt I was swimming upstream until one early morning Jennifer called, and told me that she had found a great family for D. They had seen his pictures, learned about his situation, and fallen in love with him. The mom, Samantha, was a psychologist, and the family had adopted another boy with similar issues just a couple of years before.

I spoke to Samantha and her husband a few times on the phone and right off the bat I felt comfortable with them. During one of our conversations we decided that she’d come down to meet D. by herself, to ease the transition.

This meant that the decision was final. D. would leave my home.

While waiting for Samantha to arrive, Jennifer helped me to talk to my kids, to family members, even strangers, but most importantly she held my hand when it came to speaking with my son. I explained to him that he’d be joining his new family and that we loved him very much — that he had done nothing wrong. I don’t know how much he understood because of his young age and because he never reacted to my words.

For my first meeting with D.’s new mom, I was a wreck. I dressed D. in one of his cutest outfits, white polo shirt and blue khaki pants, strapped him in the car seat and took off to meet Samantha at a nearby McDonald’s.

The car ride was short, but each time I approached a traffic light, grief assailed me, and I turned around, determined to head back home and keep D.

The five-minute trip turned to a 30-minute journey, and when I finally made it to the McDonald’s parking lot I was frazzled. My hands were shaking, my mouth was dry, and my eyes were red. Samantha recognized us as soon as we got out of the car and rushed over. Her eyes lit up the moment she approached D., and she lowered herself to his height to hug him.

Over the next few days Samantha and D. got to know each other, and then it was time for him to leave with her. That morning, I awkwardly let her into the house and willed time to stop. With my hands shaking, I handed her D.’s bag and some of his favorite toys. My daughters were watching SpongeBob and said goodbye to their brother almost nonchalantly, as if he was just going out for a bit and would soon be back. Video: Woman to give up baby after embryo mix-up

I opened the front door of my home in slow motion. It felt heavy and my feet stayed glued to the ground. Samantha told me she’d give me a few minutes alone with D. and quickly walked to her car. I kneeled down and pulled D. close to me, desperately wanting to impress an indelible memory of my son on me, and me on him, inhaling his scent, feeling his soft skin and touching his coarse hair. In our last moments together, I stared into his eyes and told him that I loved him and that I had tried to do my best.

His new mom would love him so, so much; my little man would be OK.

He didn’t cry, he stared back at me, then looked to Samantha and asked for more juice. I was too overwhelmed to utter another word, but Samantha squeezed my hand and reassured me that D. would know I had loved him and that I had done a good job.

The next few weeks I felt a mix of emotions, desperation, relief, sadness, guilt, shame, and acceptance. After a couple of months at Samantha’s home, I learned that D. was doing well and adjusting to his new life. He was struggling with some issues, but I know that Samantha and her husband are the best parents D. could possibly have. They went to great lengths to legally adopt him, to welcome him into their home and provide him with the best care he can receive. The fact that he also has a sibling who has dealt with similar issues has made the transition easier. Samantha told me that D. can’t get enough of his brother or his dad’s attention.

My husband had originally asked me not to write about D., because I’d only open myself up to criticism. But I wrote this essay because D. taught me a lot about myself and about parenting and because I hope that by sharing this experience others can feel less alone in their failures. D. deflated my ego by showing me my limitations. Because of my little man, I have more compassion for the mistakes we make as parents, and I’m far less willing to point my finger at others’ difficulties.

I’m still processing this experience and I think I always will.

I don’t have anything left from D.’s time with us. Samantha didn’t want D.’s clothes, I think she preferred to make a fresh start, so I donated everything to the Salvation Army. We don’t have D.’s pictures around because my husband thought it’d be too difficult, but in my wallet, I carry a small close-up photo of D.’s face, which I took after his first haircut at a barber shop. When I think about him, I take it out and look into his big dark eyes as a deep endless sadness fills my heart.

Thank you little D. for all that you’ve been to me, to us. Despite my failures, I loved you the best way I could, and I’ll never forget you.

For more parenting stories, visit The New York Times Motherlode blog.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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