Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 10 of Holl & Lane Magazine.
Interview by Sarah Hartley // Words by Stephan Bontrager and Michael Kostiew // Images by Molly Jones
Q: When and how did you decide that you wanted to adopt a child?
When we first started dating over ten years ago, we figured out right away that we both wanted kids someday. At the time it seemed like there were many obstacles to overcome for same-sex couples considering parenthood, but we had faith that attitudes toward non-traditional families were changing. A guiding light for Stephan was Dan Savage’s book “The Kid,” which is all about Dan and his partner’s journey through adoption. It’s hilarious, profane, and profoundly moving, and it was published all the way back in 1999 so we knew adoption for two dads was possible somewhere out there. Thankfully adoption for same-sex parents is becoming more and more common and we’re delighted to see all types of diverse families like (and unlike!) ours these days.
Q: Tell us about the process of adopting your daughter, Elle.
The Dan Savage book introduced us to the concept of “open adoption” which is becoming a common standard for adoptions these days. Open adoption encourages an ongoing relationship or understanding between the baby’s birth parent(s) and the adoptive parents. Each adoption is different and the parties involved need to make a choice that works best for them and their situation. We are very happy with the open adoption we’ve experienced with our daughter, Elle. When we determined that international adoption wasn’t the right fit for us, we were very lucky to find a local agency that encourages open adoptions and had a great track record of working with same-sex couples. Elle’s birth mom saw our open letter on our agency’s website when she was seven months pregnant and asked to meet with us to determine if we would be a good fit as parents for her daughter. Meeting her was such a nerve-wracking experience! It’s like the most unusual blind date you’ve ever been on and the stakes felt very high. We were so relieved when we hit it off with her at our first face-to-face meeting. Immediately everyone just took a breath and relaxed, and we knew things would be okay.
Elle’s birth mom is a lovely, lovely person and was so generous to invite us to the hospital to meet our daughter the day after she was born. It was very important for us to give Elle’s birth mom her space and plenty of time with the baby at the hospital. Those are special days that will always belong to the two of them. Saying goodbye a few days later at the hospital was very hard, but we brought Elle home with us knowing that everyone involved in this adoption process was on the same page and it wasn’t a “forever goodbye.” Then Michael drove our new little family home from the hospital at 15 mph and Stephan worried that the car seat wasn’t installed correctly. Just like all new parents we were slightly terrified but our hearts were bursting.
Q: Because you are in a same-sex marriage, did you face any additional obstacles that other couples may not during your adoption process?
Boy, our expectations of difficulty versus the reality of what happened were so different! There were a million little questions in the back of our heads as we ventured into the relatively new territory of same-sex parenting. Will we be treated differently during the adoption process? Will people be openly hostile to us because they don’t agree with our desire to be parents? Will local or federal laws change suddenly to take away our rights as a couple and a family? Luckily, none of these fears came to pass. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was legal across the United States it felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. We felt the protection of equality. It’s very moving to think of the LQBTQ parents who came before us, who had a much more difficult battle back when times were different. They raised their kids despite enormous challenges and fewer protections and are the pioneers to whom we owe everything. We’ve found time and time again throughout this parenting journey that when faced with the unfamiliar, people choose kindness. Some folks may take a moment or two to piece together that our little trio is different from other families when they see the three of us together, but overwhelmingly people are kind. Most people treat us just like any other family at Target desperately searching for the family bathroom while realizing we left the diaper bag in the car.
Q: You have mentioned that you have an open adoption, in which you have an ongoing relationship with Elle's birth mom. Was this something that was important to all of you? Is it difficult to manage that relationship?
Our open adoption with Elle’s birth mom is so special to us. Her decision to make an adoption plan that included us is a story that we are proud to tell Elle, and we have a special photo book that we use to explain that story. She’s still too little to ask questions, but we want her to grow up knowing that her birth mom loved her very much and gave her daddies the tremendous honor and responsibility of being her parents. We have get-togethers with Elle’s birth mom and are so fortunate to live in a time where technology helps us stay in touch easily when we’re apart. We share photos often in a special private Facebook group. Having the ability to post pictures of significant milestones as Elle grows up has been a wonderful way for her birth mom to feel connected to our family.
Q: What do you think others should know about the adoption process?
We’ve often heard the phrase “adoption is not for the faint of heart” during this process, and that’s true to some extent. There’s a lot of anxiety and waiting and doubt that you’re doing the right thing. On the flip side, there are a lot of those same anxieties for families that are expecting a baby through pregnancy! Our daughter constantly delights us. She is such an incredible, inquisitive, active little person. Parenting is unbelievably hard sometimes, but we have never regretted our decision to adopt. The joys of raising this little girl make the difficult parts well worth it. She is a part of us.
Q: For those who have loved ones going through the process, do you have any advice as to how they can be supportive?
If you have a family member or friend going through the adoption process, be excited for them! When they announce they are exploring adoption, congratulate them because it’s a big step toward creating a family, just like announcing a pregnancy. Another piece of advice—offer your assistance and be specific about what you can do beyond a general “let me know how I can help.” Because we only had a month or two to prepare for Elle’s arrival, we didn’t have time for a baby shower. After the baby came home our friends threw us a “virtual shower” to help with the items we needed to get quickly. Their thoughtfulness came through every time the doorbell rang with another UPS package delivery, or when they’d arrive in person with food or donated goods from when their own kids were newborns. We’d also encourage everyone to do some quick Googling to get up-to-date on the vocabulary of modern adoption. Do a quick search to find out why the phrase “putting a baby up for adoption” is no longer used, or why a woman is not called a birth mom until she actually places the baby with adoptive parents. It can be confusing but trust us, your loved ones going through adoption will be grateful that you took the time to speak the language of adoption.