FARGO — Many birth mothers struggle with the idea of allowing other families to care for and raise their children. Making the choice can be emotionally stressful as a mother deals with sorrow, pain, regret, guilt and any other feelings that come with giving a piece of herself away.
While there are many reasons a mother may choose to pursue an adoption plan, there is no wrong reason. That's something Cindy Skauge, an adoption social worker with Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, understands well. Having placed dozens of children into loving homes over her nearly four decades in the field, Skauge works closely with expectant mothers and prospective parents to create a plan that benefits everyone.
In the adoption process, birth and adoptive families meet, select each other and work together toward the placement of the child. Through a partnership with LSS and The Village Family Service Center, families have been made complete through what they call "Adoption Option" — a program that promotes openness throughout the whole process and gives birth parents, adoptive parents and the child an opportunity to create a relationship that may last a lifetime.
With search and disclosure services offered through LSS, birth mothers and their children are able to form relationships of their own, long after the placement and official paperwork have been signed.
While there are certainly stumbling blocks and losses associated with growing a family via adoption — changes of heart or reclaims are two common reasons adoption plans don't work out — there are also many success stories.
For two adopted "kids" living in the Red River Valley, their success stories have created families that would otherwise not be.
Lyn Byles' adoption journey began more than 40 years ago.
"I gave him up for adoption at birth," she says, sitting in a bright conference room at the Fargo LSS office on a sunny March morning. "I was 20 at the time, 19 when I got pregnant."
That was in 1977. Her son Jonathan, originally named Steven, was adopted by Bob and Mona Vageline three weeks after his Jan. 15 birthday. But birth mothers don't forget about their children, wondering if they're having a good life and if they're loved and safe — even wondering if they're still alive.
However, back in the late '70s, adoptions were generally open and shut cases. Birth parents were unable to contact their children for quite some time — social media wasn't around yet and children typically get new names once they've been placed with their adopted parents, making it difficult to find them.
Lyn and her husband Chris had to wait until their son was 21 before they could make contact with him — a wait Lyn says was excruciating.
"The information that LSS gave me was that he was in a 100-mile radius, or something, of Fargo and that he had two older brothers that were adopted as well," Lyn says about the first bits of information Skauge was allowed to share with her.
It took roughly a month for Skauge to get in contact with Jon. Because he was legally an adult, Skauge had to talk to him directly instead of going through his parents.
"It was a shock," Jon says. "I got a call from Cindy at about 10 o'clock in the morning in early October 1998, and she informed me that Lyn was looking for me. I discussed it with my parents and they thought I should go ahead and at least do letters with her."
Six months after exchanging letters and emails, the pair met at Fargo's Hector International Airport in May 1999.
"That first night, after the first day we met, we got hotel rooms so we could have time for just the two of us," Lyn says. "We were able to just chit and chat."
Jon and his wife Janessa spent a year and a half after they were married living with Lyn and Chris in San Diego, Calif. Nowadays, Jon and Janessa and their three children, Sydney, 12, Sophie, 10, and Ethan, 7, enjoy their visits to California to see Grandma Lyn and Grandpa Chris.
The Byles host their blood-related but still newfound family every other year at their home. Trips to Disneyland and lounging in that San Diego sun are hard to pass up, and it's even harder to pass up with such loving hosts.
"(Bob and I) don't see Lyn and Chris that often, and it's always fun when we do," Mona says. "They welcome us and make us feel very loved. I'd like to feel like I am intruding, but they don't ever make me feel that way."
"Mona is open and not worried about losing her son to someone else," Chris says. "She's just amazing. There's more people to love this way."
Adoption is anything but a selfish choice. Bringing a child into the world, enduring months of change — both in a woman's body as well as in her life and heart — and choosing to give that child away to another family to raise can be one of the hardest decisions a mother will ever make.
For Heidi McLean, the decision to give up her baby was not something she took lightly.
"I was 21 when I got pregnant and I didn't really know what I was going to do," McLean recalls. "I had explored all the options, really. I was pretty determined that I was going to raise the baby on my own."
She weighed all the options and ultimately decided to return to LSS to meet with Skauge and figure out a plan.
"I wasn't really in a relationship with the birth dad," McLean says. "So doing some soul-searching and thinking, I decided this wasn't going to really be fair to her to just have one parent, so I went back to see Cindy."
Skauge and McLean met often throughout her pregnancy, at first once a month and eventually each week. Pregnancy counseling gave McLean the opportunity to learn her options and figure out what was best for her and the baby.
"(Heidi) was — is — such a caring woman who was mature and truly was looking out for what was going to be best for baby, not what was going to be best for her," Skauge says.
Skauge presented potential matches to McLean, who had a few criteria she wanted met before choosing.
"I remember saying it had to be their first child," McLean says. "They had to have animals and they had to believe in God. And, I could be wrong about this, but I think (the adopted parents) were the first ones I really looked at."
McLean chose Patti and Ernie Patry, a couple living in Grand Forks at the time, to raise her baby girl. She gave birth Feb. 18, and her daughter, Mara Sue — now Andrea Sue — was placed with the Patrys just a few weeks later.
"There was never, like, a moment where they told me (I was adopted)," Andrea says. "I always knew. They were really open with talking about it so that was really helpful."
Andrea received everything her adopted parents had about her birth mother when she turned 18.
"I remember I was alone in my room," she says. "It was kind of weird, I guess. I saw pictures of Marty, my birth father, and Heidi."
Through the power of social media, Andrea was able to reconnect with McLean almost on her own.
"I told (Andrea) we would go through the agency to find Heidi," Patti says. "The next thing we knew..."
"Her profile picture was far away," Andrea says, "but it looked like dark hair, darker skin kind of like mine. I added her. I didn't send her a message right away, but I added her."
The reunion followed, and on Nov. 11, 2009, McLean met Andrea for the first time as an adult.
"We wanted her to find Heidi," Patti says. "We were anxious to see her again, too. We wanted that relationship to develop between them and between us if it worked out."
The relationship worked out. McLean was in the delivery room for the birth of Andrea's first child and helped Andrea get ready for her wedding day.
"I remember when we met, the day we got Andi Sue, you kept saying to Ernie and I, 'I hope you don't think I am a bad person; I hope you don't think less of me because of my decision,'" Patti says, talking to Heidi. "You don't know how thankful we are for you. Good things come out of unfortunate things. It was a gift from God, as far as I'm concerned. It happened for a reason."