Family Ever After: Our Adoption Story

“I’ve been thinking about adoption,” I said as we drove to Children’s Hospital for the last time.

“Me too,” said my husband.

With tears in our eyes and the deepest of sorrow in our souls, we spent three more bittersweet days with our dying daughter. We surrendered her to Jesus, ushered her into heaven, and drove home with an empty back seat, weary and overcome with grief.

Our almost 2-year-old son was once again an only child.

This was not how we had imagined growing our family.

We always knew that adoption would be a part of our lives, but in our perfect plan we would have our biological children first and then continue to add children through adoption.

But after two unplanned albeit necessary c-sections, my body was now limited in how many children I could grow in my own womb. Additionally, I needed to wait at least a year until trying to conceive again.

Even assuming my next pregnancy and delivery would happen without any complications, the thought of waiting that long to have another child felt like an eternity.

Maybe God was leading us down the road of adoption now. Or maybe we were crazy.

Were we being impulsive? Were we just desperate for a baby to hold? Were we rushing through our grief?

We prayed and prayed. We sought counsel from people who love us enough to tell us the truth. And the resounding affirmation was: Yes. Adoption.

It had always been on our hearts, so we knew we weren’t being impulsive.

We did long for a baby, but we knew we weren’t desperate. We weren’t grasping for a rebound baby. No child could ever replace our daughter. We were seeking a beautiful, unique addition to our family. We love being parents and we desire to have several children. We wanted to keep growing our family.

We weren’t rushing through our grief. Adoption takes time. And we knew that our grief would change and certain healing would come even as we continued to move forward.

So we took our first step and contacted Christian Adoption Consultants and Burlington United Methodist Family Services.

Then we filled out mounds of paperwork. We prayed. We went through hours of training. We cried. We read piles of articles. We grieved. We completed a laborious home study. We hoped. Then we were ready to start presenting to expectant birth families. We waited.

And a whole new wave of doubt and fear crept into our hearts. What if the adoption fails and we lose another baby? What if the birth family lies to us about health issues? What if we unknowingly get matched with a very sick baby? Our hearts can’t possibly endure the NICU again. Or worse yet, death. What if…?

But it seemed like every fear we uttered in prayer was replaced with a stronger promise from the heart of God.

I will never leave you or forsake you. (Deut. 31:6)
I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:13)
There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear. (1 John 4:18)
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9)

There are no guarantees in adoption. There are no guarantees with biological children. But these things are guaranteed: God is loving. God restores. God sees. God redeems. God heals. God saves. God is powerful. God is for me. God provides. God is good.

Day by day, we trusted God to direct our path in his perfect will.

And then we got the call – just 5 1/2 months after beginning our adoption journey. We were chosen by a courageous birth mother in West Virginia. Her baby boy was due on August 5th – less than a month away.

On August 8th he made his grand entrance into the world:
Sawyer Levi / 8 lb. 7 oz. / 20 in.

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In God’s sovereign plan, he chose to intersect the lives of our family with Sawyer’s birth family, each with our own journey of heartache, and forever join our hearts through the life of this beautiful baby.

We spent three precious days in the hospital with our baby and his birth mom, then we drove home with a sleeping infant in the back seat, our hearts brimming with restored joy and a renewed sense of hope.

On April 10th he officially and forever became a part of our family.

It’s almost impossible to describe all of the ways Sawyer has enriched our lives. Or the ways God has used him as an instrument of healing in our hearts. Or the elation we feel when Caleb kisses and hugs his little brother, reads to him, comforts him, and pokes him a little too hard like big brothers do. Or the ways our faith has been strengthened because God called us out into the unknown.

We know all too well that not every story has a happy ending on this side of heaven. But we know with an even deeper confidence that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purposes” (Rom. 8:28).

We praise the Lord that he can miraculously bring beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61),  that he can take seeds of sorrow and create joy (Psalm 126:5), that he withholds no good thing from those whose walk is blameless (Psalm 84:11).

This is certainly not the way we imagined growing our family. But we are thankful that we’ve never walked alone. And we are thankful that even though sorrow may last for a night, joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

We now have a little blue-eyed cutie pie to snuggle with every day, squishy cheeks to cover with kisses, and tiny toes to tickle. His laughter and gummy smile fill our home with endless delight. We have this incredible baby to love and cherish and nurture.

The Lord has done great things. And we can finally say:

Welcome to our family Sawyer Levi Smith. We love you forever, our dear son.

Be A Breast Milk Donor

I love to be a giver. But lately, it seems like I’ve been on the receiving end of things more often than not. I suppose that’s okay though. Life has its seasons, right?

Over the last six months I’ve received thousands of ounces of breast milk. For the baby, just to be clear.

And if there was ever a time that it takes a village to raise a baby, this would be it. To date, there have been 15 ladies who have donated to our little babe. A few of them are friends, a few are acquaintances, and some are total strangers.

At first, I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable asking people for their milk. Feels a little weird. But when my attempt at re-lactating didn’t cut it for our growing baby’s needs, I realized that I valued the benefits of breast milk more than my feelings.

After swallowing my pride, I asked some friends directly. I also posted a request on a local “mom” Facebook page. This carried us through for a couple of months. Some donated over a thousand ounces. Others donated less than 20 oz. Every drop was precious. But when the milk started to run low, I became more willing to cast the net wider. (At times we’ve supplemented with formula to stretch the breast milk a little bit longer. And oh, how thankful I am that formula is out there.)

I posted requests on two nationally recognized groups called Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets. Then I waited and prayed.

I went back to the basics of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus teaches us to say:

“Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
(Luke 11:2-4)

So my prayer literally became, “Lord, please give us enough milk for today.” And as sure as the sky is blue, on more than one occasion when we were down to our last ounces, another donor came through for us in the 11th hour.

Daily bread milk.

One mom had a freezer full of milk – probably over 1500 oz. altogether. She thought she would have to throw it away. We drove an hour and a half to pick it up.

And days before that milk ran out…

Another mom, who lives on the other side of the country, was traveling for business and not-so-coincidentally happened to be staying in my not-so-big town. (God is masterful at connections like this.) She found me through one of the breast milk sharing websites, and pumped milk for us the entire week she was here. Look what she wrote on the storage bags. As if giving us her milk wasn’t kind enough, she had to go and be one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Melted my heart into a puddle on the floor.

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I’ve wondered over and over again, why does God even care about providing breast milk for our child? It seems so silly, so trivial in light of the multitude of other needs in the world. After all, I can give our child formula and it would still be very nourishing and beneficial. But here’s what’s true of God’s heart:

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13).

God loves to give good gifts to his children. He loves providing breast milk for our baby. Because His heart is generous and good.

And when the milk starts to run low again, the Lord leads me to some truths that help me rest in His faithfulness:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life… But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34, excerpt)

Our chunky baby has been primarily on breast milk for over 6 months now.

Because God is faithful.

And because the women He has connected us with are generous, kind, sacrificial, loving mamas.

If you’re able to be a donor, please consider it. I’m certain there are babies in your area who could benefit from your milk. Sick babies. Adopted babies. Babies whose mommies can’t produce enough milk or any milk at all. You will be a blessing. I guarantee it.

With tears in my eyes, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and love for the women that have given us such a valuable gift, expecting nothing in return.

So thank you Christa, Erin, Sarah, Margot, Nikki, Danni, Brigid, Sarah, Anna Jo, Meredith, Jessica, Heather, Natalie, Gabbi, and Kara.

We love you.

And these thigh rolls thank you as well.untitled-design-1

3 things that have surprised me about adoption (so far)

{The above picture is of our family’s hands, minus Caleb because he was having a toddler moment and didn’t want to participate in the mushy gushy. Oh well.}

November is National Adoption Month. It’s also Banana Pudding Lovers Month, No Shave November, Aviation History Month, and a whole host of other notable observations.

And while I do enjoy bananas, beards, and the miracle of flight, none of those things come anywhere close to the deep well of love that I have in my heart for adoption.

So in the spirit of November and adoption, I thought I’d share a few things that have surprised me (so far) about this beautiful, emotional, holy way to build a family.

1 . I Love You All The Same
Many adoptive parents wonder if they’ll be able to love their adopted child with the same love as a biological child. We wondered what it would be like for us once we met our little babe. Would there be an immediate connection? Or would it be a process? But since the beginning, it’s always felt…normal. We can testify that the love of a parent doesn’t distinguish based on DNA. A parent’s love is non-discriminatory, all-inclusive, forever and ever, amen. (Only good ol’ country music fans will catch that last reference.) We’ve even had a couple of family members share, with great vulnerability, that they were nervous about loving our adopted child with the same love as our biological children. But through smiles and tears, they confessed that there has never been a difference. Not even for a moment.

2 . My Love For Birth Mom
Let me grab a tissue real quick. Because it’s hard for me to talk about our child’s birth mom without getting emotional. I knew I would be grateful to her. But I never expected such a deep, deep love for her. In many ways, she is a part of our family. To put it too simply, if it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have our third child.

From the moment we heard about her, met her, and said goodbye to her, there was within my heart a new space that opened up. Her life has not been easy. But even in the midst of the hard stuff, she chose to put her baby’s needs above her own, giving the child of her womb the opportunity for a life that she felt she couldn’t provide right now. The courage, the sacrificial love, the selflessness, the strength that it takes to make a decision like that is beyond commendable. We pray for her. We speak of her with dignity and honor at all times. We love her so much.

3 . The Most Popular Question and Comment
I was as prepared as I could be for a whole host of questions. Generally, they come from a place of loving curiosity from friends and family and even strangers. The various questions can be a wonderful opportunity to share about the beauty of adoption and to educate people on the process, to some degree. Many of the questions we’ve received have been fairly predictable and easy to answer. Others have left me dumbfounded, shocked, floundering to give an answer wrapped in grace and truth, being honest while also not feeling obligated to share personal information. But mostly, I’ve been surprised at the most popular question and comment that people have had for our family…

Most popular question: How old is your baby’s mom?
My answer: I’m 31.

Most popular comment: You look great for just having a baby!
My answer: Thank you!

Has your family adopted? What are some of the things that have surprised you?

Facing My Giants

The story of David and Goliath is a highly requested saga at bedtime in Caleb’s room. My fearless toddler lives vicariously through young David every time – rescuing his daddy’s sheep from bears and lions, courageously approaching the Philistine army with nothing more than a sling and stone, until the climactic “BOOM!” down goes Goliath. It gets him every time.

We try to emphasize that God gave the victory to David. When we trust in Him, “no weapon forged against you will stand” (Isaiah 54:17).

Turns out each time I explain these things to my toddler, it’s really my own heart that needs to remember where my victory lies, and that God is big enough to knock down any giant in my life.

Because let’s be honest. Giants are big. And scary. And hairy. And powerful. They can instill fear, doubt, despair and hopelessness through their fiercely deceptive intimidation, leaving us crippled and ineffective and unproductive.

But with Jesus, there is victory in every battle. Period.

The latest giant in my life has been breast milk. Scary, right?

It all started when we began our adoption journey earlier this year. And we recently brought our newest baby home. (Surprise! We’re waiting to share more details until later on down the road.) I wanted to try adoptive breastfeeding (it’s a thing – crazy, I know) so that our little babe could have the nourishment of breast milk and we could experience the bond of nursing.

We had a strong beginning, but soon after we started, I knew I needed to supplement the nursing sessions with the breast milk that I had stored in the freezer from December and January – milk that my body had produced for Evelyn.

After she died, I had the option to donate the frozen milk to a milk bank, but I chose to keep it by faith, knowing we would soon add another child to our family through adoption, and our little one could benefit from the liquid gold.

But when the time came to descend into the basement of my in-law’s house and uncover the milk from the abysmal corner of the deep freezer, I wasn’t so sure anymore if I wanted to use it. For nine months it was out of sight, out of mind. I had unintentionally avoided this particular aspect of my healing and grief. Now walking into the basement felt like I was re-opening an old wound that had been conveniently concealed up to that point.

To my relief, there was no time to pause and reflect on the surfacing grief feelings because I had to rush home to tend to my family. So I grabbed the milk as quickly as I could and stuffed it in the freezer once I got home. I shut the door so that once again it was out of sight, out of mind. Avoidance prevailed.

Then at 3:00 in the morning, our hungry infant awoke, in true infant fashion, so I went to the freezer to retrieve a few ounces of frozen milk. I thawed it, poured it into a bottle, and as I began to feed our sweet child, the suppressed emotions from earlier in the day erupted from my heart, and tears began to fall. As I wept there in the quiet of the night, staring at a sleepy, hungry baby, I  knew I was experiencing a sacred moment. I said out loud to my little one, “This is Evelyn’s milk. It’s her gift to you.” And the tears continued to cascade from my tired eyes until we both went back to sleep.

The next day I returned to the freezer to get more milk, but being the middle of the day, I was more alert to my surroundings, compared to the midnight feedings where I struggled to stay awake. I took the milk, and without giving it much thought, I read the label. It said 12/23 @ 7:00am. This was the first bottle that I had pumped after Evelyn’s death. It vividly took me back to the sterile hospital room where my husband and I sat side by side, exhausted in our bodies and spirits, as we held our lifeless baby in our arms. It’s a chapter of my life that I don’t like to revisit often. And in that moment, it was too much for my heart to bear, so I shoved the bottle back into the freezer and chose a different one.

But every time I went to get milk, that particular bottle was emphatically staring back at me. I was afraid to use it. I don’t know why exactly. I guess it felt sacred and using it seemed dishonoring. Or maybe it brought back too many painful memories. Probably all of the above.

Day after day I avoided that bottle, until I felt like the Lord was tenderly asking me to reach in and use it. He gently led me to my place of fear so that he could help me overcome.

Scripture tells us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

It wasn’t really the breast milk that I was afraid of, but rather everything that it stood for.

Death. Sickness. Disappointment. Sadness. Fear.

It was a tangible leftover from Evelyn’s life. It was something wholesome that my body miraculously produced specifically for her. It symbolized my connection to her. But it also symbolized her departure from me. And when there are so few tangible mementos to hold on to, each one feels precious. If I used the milk, it would be one less physical connection to Evelyn.

On the other hand, if I didn’t use it, then it would sit in the corner of a freezer for months and months (or perhaps years and years) until it became worthless. What good would it be then? Instead, I could use it presently as a source of nourishment for our growing infant.

I had approached a fork in the road. Would I let this breast milk keep me chained to the painful memories of the past, rendering it useless and leaving me in a state of fear and pain and avoidance? Or would I allow it to propel me forward, so as to create an opportunity for redemption? This thing that had reminded me of Evelyn’s death could now be used to promote life in our third child. What once brought sorrow could now fuel the joy that I feel when I hold my sweet baby.

In that moment, I decided that I would not let the breast milk (and everything it stood for) have power over me. I would not give in to fear and despair. Instead, as weird as it sounds, I would lift up the breast milk as an offering to the Lord. I would not hoard it, but rather I would surrender it to him. I would receive strength from the Lord so that he could help me keep moving forward. I would give him my pain so that he could bring healing.

So I thawed the milk. I fed it to my baby. And then it was gone.

But what stands in the place of that empty bottle of breast milk is a growing sense of freedom from the past and a budding courage as I look ahead to the future. It doesn’t mean my sadness is gone. It doesn’t mean my grief has reached its completion, as if that were even possible… It simply means that the painful memories will not rule my life and keep me from healing and, dare I say, enjoying life once again.

There will be more giants in this journey of grief. Of that I am sure. But I am confident that God will see me through victoriously.

After all, if Jesus can defeat the greatest giant of all – death and sin- certainly he’s capable of giving us victory over every other circumstance, no matter how dark or sad or painful. He is faithful and so powerful and oh, so merciful.

And now, the denouement…