Open hearts, open arms bring families together

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2010 - 2:16 PM

A Minnesota woman and the couple who adopted her child share their stories of how Mason, who just turned 1, united them.

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Jenni Taylor, holding Mason, considers Julie Degnan, at right, to be a part of her family. “It was just like we had known her all along,” she said.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Julie Degnan was 41 and the single mom of two teens when she became pregnant via a relationship she knew was going nowhere.

She was certain of two things: She wanted to have the baby but knew, deep down inside, that she just didn't have it in her to start all over again with an infant.

"I couldn't even wrap my head around it," said Degnan, a pharmacy technician from St. Charles, Minn. "I could have done it, but I just thought, 'I don't want to.'"

Her next step was clear. She began looking for a family willing to be involved in an open adoption, an option growing in popularity with birth families because it allows them to be in contact with the adoptive family and have a role in the child's life.

Degnan was matter-of-fact about her search: "I knew I wanted a family that was far enough away that I wouldn't run into them at the grocery store but close enough so it would be easy to go and see them."

Through the open-adoption program of Lutheran Social Service (LSS), she met Mark and Jenni Taylor of Farmington, who live about 90 minutes from her home. After several meetings with them over the summer of 2009, Degnan chose them to be her child's adoptive parents. And when she went into labor on Oct. 29, 2009, she called them right away so they could meet her at the hospital to be there for the birth.

"As soon as I called her, she was like 'Wooo-hooo!''' Julie recalled of Jenni's response. They met at the hospital, where Mason was born that day.

"It was such a unique and amazing experience," Jenni said. "Both of us were in the room -- we had agreed on that before he was born. I held her leg and saw him come out. Mark cut the cord. It was very touching."

A busy 1-year-old

A year later, Mason goes back and forth easily between Jenni and Julie during visits, although his focus during a recent get-together wasn't on either one of them. Two bright trucks caught his eye in the playroom at LSS' Center for Changing Lives in Minneapolis, where the families took part in an open-adoption forum this month.

The families said they exchange e-mails and photos regularly and get together once every two or three months, with Degnan most often driving up to see Mason. Degnan sent Jenni a Mother's Day card and the Taylors sent Julie's two children photos of Mason in frames for Christmas that said "Big Brother Ryan" and "Big Sister Heather."

"It's like Julie's family is our second family. They could knock on our door at any time and be completely welcome," Jenni said. "When he's old enough to understand, we'll be sharing the story of how he was born."

The first steps

After contacting LSS in spring 2009, Julie started scouring the agency's online "books" of single people, couples and families who were hoping to adopt a child. She was immediately drawn to the Taylors, who wore T-shirts in their photo that said "Hopeful Adoptive Parents."

Degnan also liked that they were sitting on a snowmobile and that their entry included photos of their parents, who wore shirts that said: "Hopeful Adoptive Grandparents."

"The biggest draw for me was the importance of family, because my family is huge to me," she said.

After several meetings and a visit to the Taylors' home with her children, she knew they were the right choice.

"I was so comfortable and they felt so comfortable. It was just a match right away. It was like, this is right," she said.

Jenni Taylor, 36, who works at the Hartford Insurance Co. in Bloomington, said she and Mark, 41, who owns a home-construction business and works for his brother as a salesman, clicked with Julie right away.

"We had lots in common," she said. "It was just like we had known her all along."

The Taylors, who have experienced fertility problems, are already planning to add to their family via adoption.

Growing acceptance

Rachel Faust, the LSS pregnancy and birth counselor who worked with Julie, said it went smoothly from the beginning. "Working with Julie was so exceptionally easy because she's so wonderful and calm and personable," she said.

Asked if most open adoptions go as well as this one, she said it's fairly common to find families that are a good match. "This is the type of outcome that makes my work so rewarding."

Rachel Walstad, an infant adoption manager with LSS who also works with adoptive families, said 90 percent of the agency's adoptions have "some degree of ongoing contact" between the families. When it is a closed adoption -- meaning no contact -- it's generally at the request of the birth parents.

Adoption expert Harold Grotevant, a former University of Minnesota professor, said open adoptions are becoming increasingly popular, partly because people are more accepting of the varying ways that families come together now.

"In the 'Leave It to Beaver' days, there were mainly two-parent families where the mom stayed at home," said Grotevant, now an endowed chair with a focus on adoption at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Now families are built in many ways: with stepparents, single parents, same-sex parents, and through reproductive technology, adoption by kin and foster care. Open adoption is just one of the many ways in which families come together."

Looking back

For Degnan, who has met someone new and plans to get married next year, the experience has been bittersweet.

"I thought I was prepared for it," she said about the day Mason was born and the following day, when the Taylors took him home from the hospital.

"They called me when they got home and told me everything was OK. It was a very hard couple of days, but never once did I second-guess myself. I knew it was what needed to be, that everything fell into place for a reason.

"I feel blessed to have given them something they might never have had."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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