For two and a half years, the flash of an unknown phone number on their cellphones induced a heart-stopping moment of hope and fear for Chattanoogans Sarah and Ryan Russell.
Was it someone calling to say they were getting a child?
Adoption is something both had always independently wanted, and after having one child-a girl named Emily-the couple set out in June 2015 on the journey to their son, Andrew.
The unknown number story is one the couple said illustrates the peaks and valleys of emotion they encountered along the way.
They had disappointments. Once, they were practically on the way to the hospital, but the birth family felt strongly about the newborn being an only child. So that ruled them out.
The uncertainty of the situation was difficult, and reminders of the void in their life popped up, sometimes unexpectedly with the ring of a phone or a question from Emily.
Their daughter would ask when she would have a new brother or sister. That’s what she wanted to pray for at night, they said.
There was also a sense of insecurity when a birth family chose someone else: Was it the way they answered a certain question? Did their house look too small? Should they reshoot their adoption film to make a better first impression?
The best analogy they found to describe the feeling they carried is that it’s like an invisible backpack; it’s something they felt all the time but no one else could see.
“Every [unrecognized] phone number is another brick in the bag,” Sarah said. “It just really starts to weigh on you.”
The couple had a supportive group of friends and family, but the process could still be isolating.
“It’s the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life,” Ryan said.
They wanted to share their blessings with a child and its birth family, they said.
“We both feel like we’ve been privileged in a lot of ways,” Ryan said. “We both grew up in two-parent homes where neither of us had to worry about if we were going to have food that night or if we were going to be safe or anything like that. So we are very aware of our privilege.”
And they wanted to honor the selfless decisions birth families make in wanting more for their child, even if that means having a life with another family, Sarah said.
“We felt that passion of being able to … say … ‘We hear your heart and we see your bravery and we want to support you in that,'” she said. “That was really important to us.”
When they finally got the call on a Friday night, they’d almost numbed themselves to the emotions. They had to ask their social worker to repeat it several times-a family had chosen them as parents and wanted to meet them.
Saturday morning, they met with the birth family.
“We looked at them and just started crying,” Ryan said. “All four of us [cried].”
It was stressful and awkward, but both families wanted the same thing-the best life for Andrew.
The Russells said they felt a deep respect for the birth family, who wanted to know if their son would have his own bed, if he’d get to go to the beach, if he’d have a large extended family.
The Russells could only imagine what it would feel like to make the decision to give a child to another family.
“They are so smart and wise and brave to be more emotionally aware than I ever could be,” Ryan said.
Their adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, requires a 24-hour waiting period for all parties after meeting to make sure they want to move forward.
After that, the birth parents surrendered their rights but had 72 hours to change their minds. Then, there was a period of six months and one day during which Andrew lived with the Russells, but the family had to have evaluations and follow rules, such as notifying officials if they left the state.
Then, in April, Andrew took his new parents’ name at a court hearing to grant them guardianship.
“We didn’t know him before he was born, but our heart is just so full for him,” Sarah said. “It’s been such a beautiful thing-getting to be his parents. It’s so humbling.”
There is a variety of adoption methods.
For the first six months, the Russells focused on connecting with a family via private attorney.
In this situation, a family might meet a woman who knows she wants to go with adoption and the involved parties work out terms with a lawyer.
The adopting family would pay legal fees and whatever else is agreed upon. For example, the family might agree to a monthly payment for the birth mother or to cover all medical bills.
Working with foster children and through the Department of Children Services is another option, one that the Russells said they know less about.
After about six months, the Russells connected with Bethany, which has local and international adoption services.
They said they found valuable assistance through Bethany, which also offers an array of services to birth mothers-something the couple said is important.
Bethany did three home study evaluations of the couple.
The first involved a lot of paperwork and was when they could make decisions about what kind of child and birth family they wanted. The Russells left broad parameters and chose “will consider” for many of the options.
The second was intense. The couple answered difficult questions separately.
What was their parenting philosophy? How did they support each other when one was stressed? How might their childhoods affect their parenting?
“It’s really funny because when you biologically have a child, no one really asks you anything,” Sarah said.
At the hospital, they ask you if you can buckle the car seat and that’s about it, they said.
The third visit was easier and focused on topics such as home safety, they said.
Their cost was about $27,000.
Bethany’s fee was $20,000-half of which is paid before the adoption and the other half after, Sarah said.
In addition to that fee, there is an array of other expenses, such as drug and medical tests, which often aren’t covered by insurance, the couple said.
Costs vary from state to state.
The couple got two small grants and donations from friends. They also worked overtime and saved every bit they could because they didn’t know when a child would come.
One of the topics for which the Russells chose “will consider” was about what the relationship would look like between them and the birth family.
Through Bethany, there’s a range of options based on the comfort of those involved. The Russells said they wanted to honor whatever the birth family wanted.
“It’s not about us,” Ryan said. “This is a very emotional thing they had to do, and we wanted to honor their choice, no matter how tough it would have been for us.”
Right now, the Russells send monthly photos to the birth family to let them know Andrew is doing well.
But because the birth family isn’t sure how they will feel about contact in the future, it’s unclear what the relationship will be, which the Russells said is understandable.
Andrew will know he’s adopted and know how much his birth family loved him, and if they want to meet him someday, the Russells said they are open to it.
They look forward to the day when they get to explain to Andrew about his birth family’s great love.
Their backs may still be sore from carrying the invisible backpacks, but the journey was worth it, they said.
For every moment of disappointment, there has been another of happiness-like when Andrew says “dada” or when Emily informs others to be careful with her baby brother.
“Do not turn off those emotions,” he said. “It is the deepest of valleys and the highest of peaks. Open yourself to that. You’ve got to feel it, absorb it, sink into it [and] feel the lows and love the highs.”