It’s a typical Tuesday evening in the Waldens’ home in Norfolk. Husband and wife Zach and Kearsten prepare dinner together while their 8-month-old son, Maverick, delivers some enthusiastic coos and cackles to his favorite TV show, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
Through a simple glimpse into their lives, one would never know the journey that the couple took in order to get to this seemingly simple moment or the heartbreak they endured as part of steps to make their family complete.
Zach, a firefighter with the City of Hampton, and Kearsten, social media coordinator for the Virginia Zoological Society, have been married for six years and hoped from the beginning that being parents would be part of their future. When that didn’t happen naturally, they considered in vitro fertilization, a costly procedure, but ultimately tried two rounds of IUI (intrauterine insemination) at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine. “It was a lot of medication and timing and deadlines, and I just started to feel like a science experiment,” Kearsten says.
The couple had casually talked about adopting throughout their relationship, and in 2015 they took the first steps by attending certification courses on foster care through The Up Center in Norfolk.
Once they decided that adoption was for them, they started researching agencies, ultimately choosing Lifetime Adoption with locations in California and Florida. After applying and being accepted by the agency, they filled out a comprehensive checklist about their preferences. Some questions, like gender and age, were easy. They were open to a boy or a girl, and since they knew they wanted the experience of a newborn, they chose 0–6 months as the age range. But other questions required some personal reflection and many open conversations between the couple.
“A biggie is any medical conditions and health concerns,” Kearsten notes. “Would you accept a child who is deaf, blind, ADHD, drug addicted, HIV positive, has a history of bipolar?”
“What can we actually afford? What can we actually deal with emotionally?” Zach says are some of the questions they had to ask themselves. “We didn’t fill it out in 20 minutes. It took us a couple days to talk through each single one.”
Another conversation the Waldens had was about their race/ethnicity preferences. “We were generally concerned about—since we’re interracial—if we got a child that was all white or all black, would they have trouble relating to one of us at some point or clinging to one of us based on their ethnicity?” Zach says. “2015, 2016 was when a lot of police shootings were happening. If we had a son naturally he’d be half white, half black. But if we had a son that was all black … what can I tell my son about being black in America?” Zach pauses. “How do we tell the adoption agency what type of child we’re up to adopting?”
In November 2016, once they’d filled out the paperwork and set up their adoption profile on the agency’s website, the next step was waiting for a birth mother to choose them to be adoptive parents.
Lifetime staff advised the couple that the average wait time is six to nine months. “The closer we got to that six-month mark is when I really started getting anxious and feeling like, ‘When are we going to get that phone call?’” Kearsten remembers.
On May 4, 2017, they got the call they’d been waiting for. They had a potential match with a birth mother in Georgia who was six-and-a-half months pregnant. The agency shared with them general information about the mother, along with ultrasound pictures of the baby, which they learned was a girl.
After a 30-minute phone conversation, both the birth mother and the Waldens agreed to a match. “It was all very natural, kind of laid back,” Kearsten says. “We texted our coordinator that night to let her know it was a match.” “After we cried,” Zach adds.
From then on, the Waldens stayed in contact with the birth mother through texts and phone calls and started preparing for their daughter. Their friends and family hosted a baby shower for them, and they set up the nursery. “It was very exciting knowing your baby is only three months away,” Kearsten says.
Nearly two months later, Zach and Kearsten got a call that the birth mother was scheduled to have a C-section, so they packed their bags and headed to Georgia. They took her out for dinner the night before and drove her to the hospital the next morning for the baby’s birth, where Kearsten got the opportunity to be in the delivery room. “I’d never imagined I’d be in an operating room watching a baby be born, and I’m the first person this baby gets to touch and hold,” she says. “It’s a very dear experience.” Kearsten stayed in the birth mother’s room that night and started bonding with her new daughter.
The next day, the Waldens noticed a mood change in the birth mother. “She just got to be sort of irritated as the day went on,” Kearsten remembers. They decided to run to Target to buy a gift for the birth mother and were planning to take their daughter home the next morning upon hospital discharge. “We were halfway to Target when she called,” Kearsten says. “She was just like, ‘I can’t do it.’”
The couple didn’t know why the birth mother had changed her mind, but at this point, they knew that there was nothing they could do. They headed back to the hospital to collect their bags and the clothes they’d brought for the baby. The birth mother didn’t want to see them again, and they weren’t allowed to the see the baby girl, who just the day before, they’d started to love as their own.
“Nobody writes a book on this,” Zach says. “There’s no manual of how to go through this. The first step was finding a tiny bathroom in that hospital and crying for a while.”
The moments spent with the baby girl they almost adopted remain precious to the
couple. "It's such a vivid memory that I don't want to forget it," Kearsten says.
The next and most difficult step for the Waldens was returning home with no baby and trying to figure out how to go on. “You come back empty-handed, and you have to pick up life like nothing happened,” Kearsten says.
Once they got back into their routines and had time to grasp the situation, they needed to determine if they were ready to begin the process again. “It’s a loss of a child essentially,” Zach says. Whether it’s a miscarriage or a death or what we had, it’s the loss of a child. That tears a lot of people apart for understandable reasons. For us it brought us together, even closer than we were before.”
“There’s a certain amount of intimacy in that heartbreak,” Kearsten shares. “I’ve never been hurt that way before. We had to lean on each other a lot and let each other into this very personal space of hurt and anger and working through all of those insecurities.”
Another aspect Kearsten said she had to work through was the step of letting go. “The want to have control in all of this is so great because there’s so many variables, but you really have no control, so I had to be OK with … this is what we signed up for, and what will be will be. And that was a hard thing for me to do.”
Ultimately, they decided to open their hearts again to the possibility of bringing a baby home. “This very tragic and traumatic thing happened, and I need to know that it can happen again,” Kearsten says. “But it might not. So let’s take a chance.”
Just a month later the Waldens received a call from their agency that they had another potential match—this time for a Florida woman named Shannon who was eight months pregnant. “She was very quiet and kind of matter-of-fact, and it didn’t necessarily ring any alarms for me,” Kearsten says. Still, she wondered if it was another situation that was too good to be true.
During the conversation, the couple learned that the baby was biracial, which seemed like a great match for them, and that the baby was a boy, which was difficult for them to process at first since they had been preparing for a girl. Still, they decided to confirm the match and started preparing for a son.
The next phone call they received from Shannon was notifying them that she was in labor. It was during Hurricane Irma, and since flights were delayed going into Florida, the Waldens had to drive the 13-hour trip.
The couple missed the baby’s birth but received a text from Shannon that he had been born. “That made us really nervous,” Kearsten describes. “She’s going to have this much time with the baby.” Shannon told them the baby was going to the nursery and that he’s ready for them. “This is all good stuff to hear,” Kearsten explains. “But at the same time I needed proof.”
They arrived at the hospital and bought some flowers for Shannon at the gift shop. “We were super nervous,” Kearsten says. “This was our first time meeting her.” They walked into the hospital room, and within a minute, she handed them the baby. Kearsten remembers still feeling hesitant at that moment. “I was very guarded,” she says. “This is potentially my baby, but I can adore him from afar. I’m going to love on him, but I’m not going to let myself love him just yet.”
Zach had some reservations as well. “The first baby, I was kissing on her and hugging her and getting emotionally invested. With him I was just holding him close, but I wasn’t showing outward emotion, other than I’m going to take care of this baby in my arms.”
That night, Zach and Kearsten were unable to stay near the hospital and had to book a hotel room further away. “It was the longest night.” Kearsten remembers thinking, “Is she bonding with the baby? Is she making other plans?”
The next day the Waldens arrived at the hospital, followed by a legal team. “There were six people in the room,” Zach remembers. “[The lawyer] was reading off stuff, one person was double checking it, one person was stamping, one guy was there because he had to attest that everything was right. It was affecting us, and you could tell it was affecting [Shannon] as well. She was holding the baby the whole time, saying yes, I agree to give this baby up. It got super fast and super emotional—for everyone.”
After completing the necessary paperwork, the Waldens were told it was time to get the car seat and say goodbye to Shannon. “I didn’t prepare myself for what I was supposed to say,” Kearsten says. “I’ll take care of him,” she promised Shannon. “I’ll make you proud.’”
From the first conversation, the Waldens and the birth mother, Shannon, agreed to
an open adoption. "There's no way for us to repay her," Kearsten says. "The least
we can do is send pictures and emails."
Zach and Kearsten exit the hospital with baby Maverick, a moment in which Zach
says is when the situation began to feel real for him. "As I was watching them
together, it was a sense of relief."
One happy family: Kearsten and Zach with 6-week-old Maverick and their dogs,
Artoo and Misha (Photo by Sweet Trade Photography).
Eight months later Zach and Kearsten are enjoying their lives as first-time parents and making memories with Maverick. “I’ve never been so happy and so tired at the same time,” Zach laughs.
“He is goofy and super affectionate, and he’s inquisitive and brave,” Kearsten says. “I wouldn’t trade him for the world. I can’t imagine not having him. He fits into our family so seamlessly.”
Zach and Kearsten plan to be transparent with Maverick about his adoption story. “As soon as he’s able to understand, he’s going to know,” Zach says. The couple reads books about adoption to Maverick, and Kearsten often shows him the photo of his birth mother hanging in the nursery. “We want it to be more of an organic conversation,” she says.
As part of the adoption agreement, the couple sends Shannon monthly email updates, but they’re also connected through social media. “She follows us on Facebook and Instagram,” Kearsten says. “We’re very lucky and blessed to have such a good, positive, open relationship with Shannon.”
“If we didn’t have—or at least attempt to have—an open relationship with Shannon and his birth family, that could later create animosity in our own family between Maverick and us,” Zach says. “We want him to know that this is your family, and that’s your birth mother, and that’s your birth family. I don’t want him to ever have to search for people and figure things out on his own. I want to give him the tools to be able to make his own decisions if he wants to have a relationship like that later on.”
Although their dreams of finally getting a baby have come true, Zach and Kearsten say their hearts are still healing from the first experience of a fall-through adoption. “I’ll always remember that for a day I had a daughter,” Zach says. “Always.”
“It still hurts, and it’s still something I think about often,” Kearsten says. “The want for a daughter is still there, and I don’t think that will ever go away. But I don’t find him as a replacement. He fills so much more of my heart than I ever thought possible.”