March 2, 2013 at 10:42 PM ET
Every now and then, you hear a story that’s equal parts pain and joy, weakness and strength, fear and bravery, despair and hope.
The birth and adoption of Leo Doud, which came to light last week in a poignantly candid account written by Leo’s birth mom, is one such story.
A 25-year-old photojournalism student at the University of Iowa, Callie Mitchell chronicled her unplanned pregnancy, delivery and decision to give her baby up for adoption in heartbreaking detail and with gorgeous, moving photographs in the college newspaper, The Daily Iowan. The story gives articulate voice to someone we don’t often hear from in the adoption process: the birth mother.
Her saga began last spring when she discovered she was pregnant, then saw her relationship with her boyfriend, the biological father, crumble.
Alone and expecting, Mitchell was faced with the daunting decision of whether or not to keep the baby. To sort through things, she began writing a journal and capturing the private moments of her anguish via a self-timed camera on a tripod.
By the time she was six months pregnant, Mitchell decided to document her journey as part of a photography project at the newspaper. She says she wanted to be “as honest and open as possible” and put a real story of adoption “out there for the world to see.” She admits the project at times – if only briefly – took her mind off her troubles.
“It was very cathartic for me to take the pictures,” she says. “I could focus on that instead of being trapped in my sadness. You’re hormones are going crazy. You’re dealing with being alone. The emotions are so intense.”
Mitchell’s beautiful photos show everything -- from her growing belly and increasing physical discomfort to the emotional roller coaster she was experiencing to the intimate moments of childbirth (taken by Daily Iowan photo editor Rachel Jessen). While she and the biological father had both initially agreed on adoption and Mitchell started the process through a local agency, she continued to feel conflicted about whether it was the right thing to do.
A month after her meeting with the adoption agency, she writes in an entry dated July 25, 2012:
“Today, I have decided I am going to keep my baby. I never wanted to give my baby away … I want to look at him every day and tell him that I love him. I can feel him fluttering around in my belly, and I want to meet him so badly. I can’t wait to see the amazing boy he grows up to be. Already, I’m so proud of him, so proud to be his mom.”
In the next entry, dated a week later, Mitchell writes:
“I told him I wanted to keep our baby. We fought. I then promised him I’d put our baby up for adoption. I just want this constant fighting to end.”
In late August, Mitchell decided a couple from Ohio, Kristen and Brian Doud, who she describes as “perfect for my son,” should be the baby’s adoptive parents.
But her indecision continued to haunt her.
“They both have college degrees,” she writes. “They are very active and like to spend time outdoors. They are both very hard-working, but how do you judge what makes a good parent? … Is it reckless of me to trust two complete strangers with my baby based on a four-page profile and an hour-long phone conversation?"
‘Adoption isthe right choice’
On the other end of that phone conversation were Kristen and Brian Doud. After trying to get pregnant for a year, they had gone through medical tests and found it was unlikely they could naturally conceive.
“We did not even research infertility [treatment],” says Kristen Doud, 32, a clinical researcher for University Hospitals of Cleveland. “We automatically said, ‘Adoption is the right choice.’”
After more than a year of paperwork, background checks and home visits, the Douds were approved by an adoption agency as a potential family in June of 2012. Shortly thereafter, they got an email about a prospective mom named Callie.
Despite limited contact (she saw only one photo and spoke with Mitchell for just an hour via phone), Kristen Doud says she immediately felt a bond with the college student, something she demonstrated through care packages and messages.
“In my heart, I’ve loved [Callie] for a year, ever since we were approved,” she says. “I’ve cared about her and worried about her.”
But the Douds also felt the uncertainty many prospective adoptive parents feel. Would Mitchell decide to keep her baby?
In Iowa, where Mitchell gave birth, the law says birth parents have 72 hours until they sign consent documents giving the baby up for adoption, says Karen Nissly, owner of Graceful Adoptions, the agency that matched the Douds with Mitchell. And after that, they have 96 hours to change their minds.
“You have very little control over the whole situation,” says Doud. “At any moment you are aware the birth mom can change her mind. You keep feeling ‘This could end at any moment.’ There’s a part of you that continues to hold your breath.”
The Douds met Mitchell in person for the first time ten minutes before she started to push in the delivery room. Mitchell describes the meeting in an entry dated December 6, 2012:
“I wanted to meet my son’s parents before I gave them this amazing gift. I started wondering what they were like, what it was going to be like meeting them. I thought about what it was going to be like hearing my son cry for the first time. What would it be like to not have him anymore? The moment I saw her, then him, enter my hospital room, a big smile came across my face. They both rushed over and each gave me a hug.”
Daily Iowan photo editor Rachel Jessen, in the delivery room to take photos of the baby’s birth, says the room was emotionally charged.
“Emotions were running high on everyone's part – Callie's, the birth father's, the adoptive parents’,” she says. “But just the fact that Callie wanted me in there to capture all of that, the hours leading up to the birth, the pushing, the pain, the moment that Leo came into the world, you knew she was very dedicated to telling the story in its honest entirety.”
The Douds were in an adjacent room when they heard the cries of the baby boy, Leo, who would be their son.
“We both started crying together,” says Kristen Doud. “When we finally got to hold him, we were so in love with him.”
After Leo’s birth, the Douds spent a week at a hotel where Mitchell, as well as the baby’s birth father, visited daily. A mutual affection – for each other, and for the baby – soon took root.
Leo, whose name was picked jointly by the Douds and Mitchell, turns three months old this week. His middle name, Arthur, honors Kristen Doud's grandfather, a World War II veteran who died a few weeks after Leo was born.
As part of their open adoption, the Douds originally agreed to send Mitchell monthly updates and pictures and visit with her once a year. But their friendship has since eroded the agreement.
Kristen Doud and Mitchell communicate daily by phone and text and occasionally Skype. Mitchell, who has resumed her college courses and newspaper work, says she often will talk to Doud and say, “Where’s my baby? Where’s our son?”
Mitchell says seeing pictures of Leo sometimes makes her cry, but out of pride rather than sadness.
“The love that you feel is so intense,” she says. “It’s weird. It’s hard to grasp. This thing came out of me, and it was part of my body and blood.”
Now, the college student hopes other women who are struggling with the decision to adopt will feel empowered by her experience.
“Never ever, ever be ashamed to give your baby up for adoption,” she says. “Yes, you are giving up a baby. But it’s such a selfless thing. Seeing [the Douds] with Leo is amazing. ”
Now that Mitchell’s story has gone public, Kristen Doud says she’s proud of Mitchell and hopes that the process will help her heal.
“In going through the adoption, we tried to educate ourselves a lot on birth moms, what they go through,” she says. “It was eye opening for us. That’s what’s so powerful about her article. People have a stereotype about what birth moms are. They want to put them in a box. The reality is they are average, normal people who are faced with this horrible decision.”
Graceful Adoptions owner Nissly, who has become close with both Mitchell and the Douds, calls theirs "a fantastic match" and credits Mitchell's strength and poise for making it so.
"You have to be smart enough and strong enough to go through with an adoption process," Nissly said.
Doud said she originally wasn’t sure what kind of relationship they would have with Mitchell, but is happy the way things turned out.
“I didn’t know if it would help or hurt her grieving to get pictures of Leo. I wanted more than anything for her to heal. I still want her to heal and to be able to move on in a healthy way,” she said.
With spring break coming up, Mitchell says she’s planning a visit to Ohio to see Leo and the Douds. She says she can’t wait to hold the baby and is also looking forward to something else.
She and Kristen Doud have made a pact to get matching tattoos: a side profile of a lion with two arrows in its heart and a banner that reads, “Be not afraid.”