One thing most adoptive parents agree on is that every adoption story is unique. For dads Chad Gough and Clifton Guterman, their story involves what most intended parents consider the worst possible scenario; a birth mother changing her mind several days after having the baby.
Although they faced great heartache on their path to parenthood, Chad and Clifton’s story is also one of hope and resilience, showing that tough times can strengthen the bonds of a family.
Clifton, an actor and casting director, grew up in rural Georgia. In 2008, while cultivating his acting career in New York City, Clifton met Chad, a native of Virginia, on a dating website. Five years later, after the couple had moved back to the South, they returned to NYC where it was legal for same-sex couples to get married. In the years following their wedding, they started discussing how and when to start their family.
“I remember coming home one night after a rehearsal in January 2019, and Chad had spent that evening making spreadsheets and running numbers like he does, and he sat me down and said ‘If we want to grow our family, I’m ready. I think we should sell the house, and look into the next steps to begin an adoption journey,’” Clifton said.
The First Match
The couple connected with a private adoption agent who was recommended to them in Raleigh, North Carolina. Before they could start matching with birth mothers, they had to go through about six months of paperwork, background checks, home studies, and putting together a profile book, which went live in September 2019.
Clifton said they had some near matches, some close calls of being picked, but nothing happened until spring 2020 when a 22-year-old birth mother in Louisiana found them and sent them a message.
“Our adoption agent checked it, vetted her, talked to her a few times about her history, and then she was connected with us directly on Mother’s Day 2020,” Clifton explained. “Our agent guided the call, prompted questions, and made sure we covered everything, particularly about her current situation, what kind of adoption she was interested in, names, what she liked about our profile book, things like that. We all got off the call, agreed we liked each other, and were matched.”
A few weeks later, the birth mother had an ultrasound and told the husbands they were going to have a girl. Since she wasn’t due for four months, Chad and Clifton knew it would be a nerve-wracking wait before they had their baby.
As they awaited their daughter’s arrival, the couple were advised by their agent to connect more with the birth mom. She was a single mother of two young boys, working part-time and going to college. Clifton said she started following their family Instagram account and loved all their posts, including the one about their virtual baby shower.
“She was saying things like ‘That is great, she's going to love it,’” Clifton said. “We expressed our desire to use the name Cameron, and she loved it, saying she'd put that on the birth certificate. We were speaking with her every two weeks by phone, but texting more often than that.”
Chad and Clifton’s agent also helped work out how much the dads would financially support the birth mom since each state has a different cap on how much support intended parents can give a birth mother in domestic private adoptions.
They also worked on an adoption plan for the birth, hospital visit, and taking possession of Cameron. The post-placement plan determined what it would look like after the baby was placed, including their communication over the years. The agreement was set up to support the birth mother with the intention of Chad and Clifton being the intended parents.
“We were preparing, with zero red flags,” Clifton said. “With a match this long, our agent encouraged us to go visit her. So we went to Louisiana and spent a day with her and her boys. We sat around the pool and hung out, she watched us play with her boys and feed them lunch, it was lovely. We left thinking; ‘this is just amazing.’ We told everyone it went so well.”
That was one month before the baby was scheduled to be born.
The First Birth
The day baby Cameron was due was not only in the middle of a pandemic, there were also two hurricanes bearing down on Louisiana. Since the birth mom didn’t have many close relatives, the dads’ agent flew in to be with her in the delivery room while Chad and Clifton waited patiently in a hotel room near the hospital. Then, they received the first photos and videos of their daughter being born.
“The birth mom was in some of the videos saying ‘Here she is, isn’t she beautiful? You’re going to love her,’” Chad said. “It was all very positive.”
The next day, the dads went to the hospital to meet their daughter. They went into the birth mother’s room with gifts, and fed their baby for the first time. The couple then moved over to a separate hospital room, and the birth mother had a private goodbye with the baby. Next, the dads’ agent brought the baby over to Chad and Clifton’s room, and they began sharing photos and videos with their families of their new baby girl. Once the dads left the hospital, they checked into a hotel, eager to get home and start their new chapter together.
As all adoptive parents are told, each state has a different rule about how many days a birth mother must wait to sign over her parental rights, and how long she has to change her mind. In Louisiana, birth moms must wait seven days to terminate rights, even though the adoptive parents can take physical possession of the baby sooner. The state also mandates that a birth mother must have two counseling sessions. During their first week with their daughter, Clifton said they weren’t really concerned about the birth mom changing her mind.
“Throughout that week we were here in the hotel, she was back home, and we were texting, asking her advice,” Clifton said. “She’d say ‘my other kid did that, here’s what you should do,’ she was very communicative.”
In the days before she was due to sign the legal paperwork, Clifton said they stopped hearing from the birth mom. During that time, she was undergoing the state’s mandatory counseling sessions.
They started to get a little concerned, so the dads checked in with their agent, but no one had heard from the birth mother. They assumed she was just dealing with her two young boys, and perhaps needed a little space before signing the papers Monday morning.
But at around 8pm Sunday night, the dads received a text that turned their whole world upside down.
“The text said ‘You’re going to hate me. But I can’t do it. I got to have her back, and I need her now. I need to know your address. I have to come get her,’” Clifton said. “And we were just shocked. We had no idea. We didn’t see it coming.”
The couple immediately got on a group call with all the adoption agents and lawyers involved and told them about the text.
“We said, ‘What do we do?’ Everyone was shocked,” Chad recalled. “They said ‘Call her and leave a voicemail saying we can't do this by text, we've been invested in it for months, we’ve cared for this baby for six days, we’d like to chat. Please tell us what's changed.’ So we did. And she called us back.”
Their phone call with the birth mom was understandably charged with emotion. Clifton said she seemed short in her answers and was just trying to find out their address.
With Chad sobbing next to him, Clifton finally asked the birth mother the big question; “So is this it? We cannot keep her, and this agreement is over? And she said ‘Yes, and it has to happen tonight. Or I’m calling the police.”
The husbands were told to meet the birth mother’s local lawyer at his office, where they could say goodbye to Cameron, hand her over, and the mother would come to get her an hour later.
“So that’s what we did. And it was the worst night of our lives,” Clifton said. “It was like she was here, and then she was gone.”
Grieving A Loss
After leaving the lawyer’s office, the couple got back in their car, which was packed full of baby items they had bought for their newborn child. When they got back to the quietness of the hotel room, they opened a big bottle of wine and prepared to break the awful news to their family and friends.
"It was devastation upon devastation, as we told grandparents and siblings. Just simply indescribable," Chad said.
In the days that followed, Clifton said they went through every stage of grief, including anger, shock, and sadness. Instead of driving home to Georgia, they knew they needed time to process and figure out their next steps. So the couple rented a beach house in Florida for a week and gave themselves some much-needed self-care.
During that time, the husbands did find one good thing that came from their painful week in Louisiana; they learned what a great team they were, and how much they truly wanted to be parents.
Chad and Clifton’s choice to continue along the same adoption path was hard at first. But they quickly realized that their same situation happened more often than they thought and that others had gone through it and had continued on to have successful adoptions.
“We figured out that it wasn’t anything we did wrong. We talked fairly quickly with our agent about the next steps because we knew how long matches could take, and we were both 45,” Chad said. “A week later, we started again.”
This time, the couple told their agent they were only open to emergency placements because they simply couldn’t invest emotionally and financially in another months-long process which might not work out. They also wanted all prospective birth moms to know their prior story, and they opted for Cradle Care, also known as
"interim/transitional care," which involves a licensed social worker taking the baby until the birth mom’s parental rights are legally terminated.
The Second Match
It took Chad and Clifton more than a year to be matched again. But once they were, it was the placement they had dreamt of for years. Baby Griffin was born in early June 2021 in Pennsylvania. The birth mom chose Chad and Clifton to be his adoptive dads soon after he was born, from her hospital bed.
“Griffin’s birth mom said she had felt sad, and a little shameful…. until she saw our profile book and talked to us, and then it flipped to being a purpose,” Clifton said. “She said then, it felt like she knew he would have a good life. We were all crying at the table.”
Now, Chad and Clifton are proud dads to almost eight-month-old baby Griffin. They’re maintaining an open adoption with his birth mom, with monthly photos and updates, and meet-ups twice a year.
Apart from having their son, the couple said the best thing about 2021 was being able to finalize Griffin’s adoption before Christmas.
“When the judge says to you, ‘He is officially yours, congratulations,’ it’s just amazing,” Clifton said. “It had been a long journey, but everything had to happen for us to be where we were that day.”
Although their situation is rare, the couple said birth mothers can and sometimes do decide to reverse their decision about adoption. If it happens, Clifton said it’s important to grieve like you’ve lost that baby, because technically you have. And then, it’s just as important to carry on.
Both dads also openly acknowledged that they could never possibly know what it’s like to be a mother making that very difficult and traumatic choice, and then feeling she’s made a mistake in matching and wants to parent her child herself.
“We did and do not, in fact, hate her,” said Chad. “We were in shock, yes, and the way it was handled compounded the horrific news for us. But we can’t possibly know what it was like for her, nor know her version of the grief. We honor that. We hope that little girl is healthy and happy. And mother and her boys too.”
As Clifton explained, the only way to minimize the likelihood of a failed match is to put a parameter on your adoption profile that says you only want emergency placements.
"It limits you, but there’s no other way to safeguard 100 percent against it,” Clifton said. “If you stick with it, you have good representation, a good profile book, and a good support system, eventually you will adopt. It may sound cliché, but keeping hope alive really is the path to undertake.”