Addressing families who have adopted children, Pope John Paul II said in 2000, “To adopt a child is a great work of love. When it is done, much is given, but much is also received. It is a true exchange of gifts.”
He continued, “Adopting children, regarding and treating them as one’s own children, means recognizing that the relationship between parents and children is not measured only by genetic standards. Procreative love is first and foremost a gift of self. There is a form of ‘procreation’ which occurs through acceptance, concern, and devotion. The resulting relationship is so intimate and enduring that it is in no way inferior to one based on a biological connection. When this is also juridically protected, as it is in adoption, in a family united by the stable bond of marriage, it assures the child that peaceful atmosphere and that paternal and maternal love which he needs for his full human development.”
November is National Adoption Month. The following are interviews with four Catholic couples who adopted children—some who also have biological children, others who do not. They described the challenges and blessings of becoming adoptive parents.
“Infertility was my greatest gift”
Lottie and Tate Hilgefort of Cincinnati, Ohio married in 2000. They were both anxious to be parents, and were grieved when, after three years of marriage, they could not conceive a child and carry him or her to full term. Adding to Lottie’s frustration, her sister, who was much less anxious to be a parent, conceived on her honeymoon.
Lottie’s doctor suggested in vitro fertilization (IVF). She was tempted to use it, but knew IVF was contrary to Catholic teaching (for more on IVF, read “Church teaching on in vitro fertilization”).
“It was a real test of faith,” Lottie said. “I loved my husband dearly, and I wanted to have his child. But he encouraged me. He reminded me of the dignity of human life.”
After three years of trying to conceive, the Hilgeforts decided to pursue adoption. So far, they have adopted three children, ages six through nine. Ironically, in 2008, Lottie did finally conceive and carry the baby to term. She has since had two more children.
“I tell my adoptive children, ‘Infertility was my greatest gift. I got the three of you,’” Lottie said.
The Hilgeforts’ temporary experience with infertility helped the couple increase their faith, Lottie reflected. “This was the first time my husband and I had to struggle with something out of our control,” she said. “It brought us to our knees.”
One of the challenges in the adoption process, Lottie recalled, was the large amount of paperwork the couple was required to complete, as well as the accompanying parenting classes they were required to attend. “Everyone else seemed to be handed a child, but I felt like we had to prove we were worthy of being parents,” she said. “But it’s the process, and in the end, it was worth it.”
The Hilgeforts’ adoptive children maintain open relationships with their biological parents. Lottie sends them photos of the children as they grow up, and emails them news about the children’s progress. The biological parents, she said, are happy to see their children are being well raised.
Infertility can be a lonely time for a couple, Lottie said, so to help others who struggle as they once did, the Hilgeforts launched a website, www.catholicinfertility.org. The site tells their story, discusses infertility and adoption, and provides prayers and resources for infertile couples. The Hilgeforts are contacted regularly by people who share their stories and ask for advice and prayers; there are also the occasional angry emails from those who object to Catholic teaching.
Lottie said, “When I talk to people through the site, I remind them that God’s plan is better than our own. Also, once they go through the process of learning about Church teaching regarding reproductive technologies, they’ll see that there is a beauty in what the Church says.”
“Even though they’re still babies, they’ve given up on life.”
Paul and Claudine (their adoption agency requested their last name not be used) of Newport Beach, California, married when they were middle-aged; Paul had two children of his own from a previous marriage and Claudine had never been married before. Although having a child together would have been a welcome blessing, the couple was not distressed when they could not conceive one of their own. They intended to become adoptive parents.
“We wanted to help with children who had had less fortunate backgrounds than ours,” Claudine explained.
They participated in a foster-adopt program, first fostering children with the willingness to adopt if the children could not be returned to their biological parents. They have fostered six children; three they have adopted and one is still in their foster care. They range in ages from two to five.
The challenges in their particular adoption process include a willingness to accept disappointment, Claudine said, as a couple can bond with a child only to have the county return the child to his biological parents.
“It can be very difficult if you have to give them up, but you know you’ve made a difference in their lives,” Claudine said.
The children in the foster-adopt program have material needs, but an even more pressing need is for emotional stability. “They need to be held; they need love,” Claudine explained.
One of the typical reasons a child goes into the foster-adopt program is drug-addicted parents, who can be neglectful and abusive. Children in these situations quickly lose their ability to trust adults, and often suffer developmental delays, such as in being slow to learn how to speak. The kids can often catch up and overcome their abusive pasts, Claudine said, but it takes time and patience. “Some of these kids don’t speak, they scream, even though there’s nothing medically wrong,” she said. “Even though they’re still babies, they’ve given up on life.”
There is a huge need for more adoptive parents, Claudine said. In fact, after they brought their last foster child home, they received seven calls from the county requesting they take home other infants from the hospital. While at the time they were unable to, in the future they are open to adopting again.
Both Paul and Claudine come from active Catholic families, and their faith has been an invaluable aid in being foster and adoptive parents. “You pray a lot,” Claudine said. “You have a child that is not speaking who should be, and you try to figure out what’s wrong, so you pray. Your faith becomes stronger.”
Claudine loved her professional career—she worked in the cosmetics industry and for a high-end clothing manufacturer before she married—but being a mom is even better, she says. Despite the challenges, the rewards of being an adoptive parent are great: “Our kids, when we first got them, didn’t even smile. It’s so rewarding now to see their faces light up when something makes them happy, or when they call me ‘mom.’”
“I believe God has chosen us to raise these boys”
Mary Ann and Denny Shields, also Southern Californians, were married in 1998. Mary Ann was 45, Denny, 49; it was the first marriage for both. They both wanted children, but since Mary Ann is a paraplegic and because of her age, a pregnancy would have been risky.
Mary Ann recalled, “Denny told the doctor that he didn’t want to lose his wife, so adoption would be a wonderful thing.”
The couple went through “a long and sometimes frustrating” adoption process, which included being introduced to two children who were not a good fit for them. But, in 2004, they met two brothers, ages four and five, and “instantly fell in love with them. We knew they were the ones God had chosen for us,” Mary Ann said.
The boys had rotated through many foster homes and shelters, as well as periodic stints at their birth mother’s home (who has since had her parental rights terminated). They had no discipline, Mary Ann said, and after six months in a home the boys would act up “so they could move to a new home and get new toys.”
It was a long-term process to get the boys to understand that they were home for good; up until a few years ago, the boys still had the perspective that their stay with the Shields would be temporary.
Vital to the process, Mary Ann said, was her Catholic faith. “I don’t see how you could go through this without faith,” she said. “I feel a huge responsibility, as I believe God has chosen us to raise these boys. I pray to our Blessed Mother every night that if I’ve made mistakes that day, please sweep them up.”
Mary Ann advises other couples considering adoption to say their prayers, and to be realistic about what they think they can handle. Also, she said, “Realize that adoption is a full-time job. Moms need to be home with their kids, building bonds with them.”
“St. Joseph has been a great role model”
Two years ago, Shane and Mary Gomes adopted a three-year-old boy through the County of Los Angeles. They have recently begun fostering another newborn baby boy in hopes of adopting him. When they married in 2006, the couple was open to adoption, Mary said, because, “While it’s optimal for a child to live with his birth parents, when that’s not possible, every child deserves a home. We wanted to provide one.”
One of the Gomes’ great joys was baptizing their son when the adoption was final (foster parents are not allowed to have a foster child baptized). Their son Joseph is now old enough to ask questions; he’s asked his mother, “Was I in your tummy?” The couple has been straightforward in telling him he was adopted, but add, “Now you’re part of our ‘forever family.’”
Mary observed that there is a big demand for adoptive parents, particularly for older children. She hopes to hear more Catholic leaders encourage adoption; they are inspired by the example of psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi, who provided an adoptive home to 10 children. As they prepared for adoption, they read Guarendi’s book Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It.
Shane remarked that one of his favorite saints is St. Joseph, foster father to Christ. “Christ lived with his biological mother and an earthly father who was not his biological father,” he said. “But they both loved him and were totally dedicated to him. St. Joseph has been a great role model for me.”