On Becoming An Adoptive Parent
Wednesday April 20th was Gotcha Day for our family. It has taken 4 years to officially became the “real mom” of my bonus babies. These girls came into my life when they were 1 and 2, just as my biological daughters were in their Sophomore and Junior years of high school. I had just turned 40 and a few months before finalized my divorce after over 20 years of marriage. I had no plans for a serious relationship, let alone starting over and raising a new family. But God had another plan for me and it was this man and these girls. When I filed to adopt them in the fall of 2019, I thought I knew what to expect in the legal process. I have helped many families work through the process of adoption. However, being a parent adopting a child is very different from being the lawyer advising the parent on adopting a child. I did my first adoption as a lawyer in 2013. It too was a stepparent adoption and it was pretty straight forward. The bio parent didn’t agree to relinquish parental rights, but the father never challenged anything or appeared at the proceedings. The vast majority of stepparent adoptions are like this. The bio parent, usually the father, hasn’t been involved or paid support and doesn’t contest giving up rights. I hoped that our case would go this way too but it did not. By the time we reached finalization of the adoption, we had been in court fighting over 2.5 years. Although they hadn’t seen their biological mother in 2 years at the time I filed for adoption, and she would not be able to see them for at least another year, she chose to contest the adoption. Adoption proceedings are supposed to move quickly to give children permanency but thanks in part to the pandemic nothing about ours was fast. The process of fighting over the kids often wore me down physically and emotionally. I would come home from court and cry. Sometimes I would feel myself holding back from the girls out of fear. The court process is really the only thing my husband and I have ever fought about. He once asked if the price we were paying (money, energy, time) was worth it and I said “absolutely” but there were days when I didn’t know if I could continue through it. Being the target of someone’s anger, fears, and regret is a heavy load to bear and I had to find a way to make it through the process that kept me sane. One of the things I did when things got really emotional and hard was to fall back on my training as a trial attorney. One of the skills I have learned to utilize in preparing a case for trial is called “role reversal.” This is a psychotherapy technique taught to help lawyers understand the perspective of an opposing party, attorney, or witness. While seeing and arguing the other side of a factual situation has never been a problem for me, accepting their perspective when it does not align with the facts is difficult. In family law, perception truly is reality. It’s a reactive system not a proactive one so we often deal with people who have been severely impacted by trauma. Our perception of life events is often skewed by our personal traumas. When the facts and a person’s reality do not align I call upon my roll reversal skills to understand their perception of reality. Role reversal involves stepping into the shoes of the other person; trying on their posture, ways of speaking, behavior, emotions and attitudes. Doing this allows you to understand how the individual reacts to their environment, sees you, and allows you to step outside your own defenses to see them. When I allowed myself to fall back on my trial training, I was better able to understand why our case was progressing the way that it was. Although I often felt attacked, I came to realize through my role reversal exercises that the attacks were not about me but about bio mom’s own internal struggles accepting her choices that led us to adoption court. It also helped keep me open to reaching a resolution that allowed her to have a place in our girls lives when the time is right that if I had sat in my anger and fear we would not have agreed to. I believe that having the experience of a parent adopting a child in a contested proceeding will make me a more compassionate and understanding judge in cases where parents are faced with losing their rights to their children. I also believe the skills I have developed, like role reversal, through being a trial attorney working across multiple areas of law will help me understand the parents who come before me in a way that is different from other judges. My goal as a Judge is to always be fair, make the parties feel seen and heard, and above all to understand the story behind how their family came before me.