Inconceivable Yet True: Carolyn Savage's Journey Through Adoption, Surrogacy & Parenting
In this episode, Lori talks with Carolyn Savage, who has, perhaps, the twistiest-turniest journey to family you've ever heard of. Starting with an inconceivable snafu with a fertility clinic, within one year Carolyn (1) gave birth to a son she placed in the arms of another, and (2) became a mom to twin daughters who were placed in her arms by the woman who gave birth to them. Those profound experiences give her a unique view of adoption and of being both on the placing and the receiving ends. Carolyn shares how she and her husband have ongoing conversations with their children about the twisty-turny way they all became a family.
Hello and welcome to this episode of Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by Adopting.com.
Whether you've been married or not, you probably have an opinion on this question: is a wedding the ending, the happily ever after ending? When I ask that in workshops I lead, people laugh and say No. Sure, they say, the wedding is the end of the journey to the altar, but it's just the beginning of the journey of the marriage
And that's the focus of this podcast. Once you fill the crib and are legally joined to your beloved child, your journey is not over. It's just beginning. We cover many of the things you need to know to navigate adoptive parenting over the long view. Starting with things you need to know now, perspectives you need to hear now.
I'm your host, Lori Holden, the author of the book The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption and longtime blogger at LavenderLuz.com. More importantly, I'm a mom through domestic infant adoption to a daughter and a son, now in their late teens. Let me tell you, it's been a ride. Think of any road trip you've ever taken. There are ups and their downs and it's always an adventure. You're always glad for the trip and afterward, you might on occasion, thinking, if only I knew then what I know now. Regarding your adoptive parenting journey, we aim to help you know now.
Our guest today is Carolyn Savage, who has one of the most chaotic family building stories you will ever hear. Carolyn wrote the foreword to my book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, because as a book by and for both adoptive parents and birth parents, Carolyn was in the position of having experienced both ends placing and receiving -- with a twist.
Carolyn is the author of Inconceivable, a book that chronicles Carolyn's and husband Sean's incredible journey through something that as you'll come to understand seems truly inconceivable. Carolyn and Sean live in Toledo, OH, and have six children -- three sons, two of whom are grown and one who is entering kindergarten --and three young daughters. Here to tell us her story is Carolyn Savage.
Thanks. Thanks. It's great to be here.
It's wonderful to have you on our show today. So let's get to know your story. You had two sons the regular way? Maybe not. I'm not sure. And after that things got really interesting. Can you briefly walk us through what happened after that?
Sure. So we got pregnant the old fashioned way fairly quickly after my husband and I married. I was five months pregnant on our first anniversary, but I had had a pretty significant diagnosis of endometriosis. So we knew we needed to try right away, and we did and it worked and we are great. That was, we're blessed.
So our first son was born in 1994. And then we started trying right away for a second. And that took a little longer, but we just had an ovulation stem cycle with a reproductive endocrinologist and had our second in 1997. And then of course, we're like, okay, two boys, maybe we'll have another, and then we kind of hit a roadblock.
So we suffered with secondary infertility. It took us 11 years and an immense amount of ovulation stimulation cycles into IUIs. We eventually tried IVF and got our third child in 2008. And that was our first IVF with this particular clinic. And as a result of that birth, and that cycle, we had some frozen embryos. And at the time that my third was born, I was 39. And I knew I was kind of pushing that 40 envelope and I thought, well, Sean and I had made a commitment to give all our embryos a shot.
So we went ahead and started a frozen embryo transfer in February of 2009. And I did get pregnant but when they called to give us the good news, or what should have been good news, they informed me that they had made a mistake at the lab and transferred the embryos of another couple. And that indeed, I was pregnant, but I was not pregnant with my biological genetic child. I was pregnant with somebody else's baby.
Oh my gosh. I picture this balloon going up and getting popped in the same phone call.
So I'm sure you can imagine just a shell shock. When you go through IVF you think, you know, two results: Yes, no, positive, negative. We immediately decided it was an opportunity to behave in a way that we would have wanted somebody to behave for us.
So we knew this was somebody who had gone through IVF. We don't know who it was, they didn't tell us anything. It’s just that this particular couple had embryos stored at the same lab that we did. And we made an immediate decision to kind of do what we would have wanted someone else to do for us if our baby had been inside of somebody else. And so, immediately told the doctor that we would carry the baby to term and that we would not fight it. We wanted the child raised by his or her intended parents.
Then we went through the long process of a very difficult pregnancy. And you know, with regards to that decision, or that journey through that pregnancy, the easiest part of that was the decision to carry. What came after was just, you know, un it was a road not traveled. We didn't have anyone to call say, hey, how did you do this? There were a few cases but not with a similar fact pattern.
We did deliver him. It was a little boy. In September 2009, the parents were at the hospital. We handed the baby over, saw him for a little bit the day he was born a little bit the day after. And that's kind of how I got into the position of having given up a baby. So I do consider myself -- I love the language in your book about being the first mother. So that meant a lot to me because I was more than just a vessel for this child to be born.
After he was born, I was done and couldn't have any more c sections. So are so we were advised not to, but we had our embryos that hadn't been transferred. So we worked with a surrogate, and we had a successful twin pregnancy with a gestational carrier who we are so close with today. We had twin girls born in 2011. And they are just about to turn nine.
And then lo and behold, I turned 45, and two weeks after my 45th birthday, I was feeling a little bit off, and boom, I was pregnant. Which was the shock of a lifetime. I had not had a naturally occurring pregnancy since 1994. The only other one we had was our first son.
So our oldest and our youngest are 20 years apart. Nicholas was born in November of 2014. So we have six kids, three boys, three girls, they all came to us. I always joke: the boys came through me, the girls came from the petri dishes. I had to order them. So the boys came from a biological conception.
So we have run the gamut. I know what it's like to receive that gift from our gestational carrier. That was the most humbling experience I've ever been through. And my girls, we still honor her and talk about her and our kids know her and, then you know what it's like to give up a baby. So it's definitely both ends of the spectrum.
Wow, that's so much. I'm picturing the Brady Bunch for the grid for you and your family. So all the twisty parts began about 11 years ago and you're now 11 years on the other side of placing your son and the son you carried into the arm with his other parents. Can you talk with us -- sounds like you really love your son, the boy you carried, you love that baby. Talk with us about some of the emotions you've had then and now and in the years in between.
So, you know, the pregnancy was very, very difficult. We were... it was so hard to get our brains around actually birthing a baby that we so desperately wanted and had worked so hard to get, and then just hand him over to somebody else. Um, it was that was probably what I thought at the time was going to be my darkest point of my life, not realizing we worked really hard. We worked with a therapist during the pregnancy to try to reframe that moment when he left with somebody else, and what we didn't expect was the darkness that came after he left.
His name is Logan. So between Logan and the twins there were two years and I would say the six months after placement or after his birth were probably the darkest moments in my life. I always say I am very thankful for my other three kids we had at the time, because I feel like they kind of saved my life.
There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him. And it amazes me because every single day, I think of him. And it's not just like, Oh, yeah, that happened. It's, oh, I wonder what he's doing. I wonder how he's doing. I wonder, like, if I see my kids doing something, I have a daughter who's 12 they were 18 months apart. I often think, Oh, I wonder if he's doing the same thing. Like, she's really into Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. She loves reading and I wonder if he likes to read. Does that kind of stuff.
So you just have this, this kind of unknowing piece that over time you learn to live with a lot like a loss and so it never really goes away. You just kind of learn to like weave it into the fabric of your daily life. So for those first years, there were a lot of tears, they would kind of sneak up on you and or sneak up on me. I didn't know That's gone. Now. That doesn't happen any more.
There's a a woman who was a therapist and an adoptee. Her name is Betty Jean Lifton, and she wrote about the Ghost Kingdom in adoption. And I know your world is not exactly adoption. But that sense that you're talking about of that ghost child that is not at your table, and how birth parents often feel that, and sometimes adoptive parents often feel the biological child that is not at their table. And the adoptees are sometimes feeling the birth parents that are not at their table. And so this Ghost Kingdom that we're all trying to navigate in some different ways.
So that's that's revealing that you had such strong and enduring ties with Logan.
And I think it has positively impacted our relationship with our gestational carrier who carried the twins. I just treat her the way I would want to be treated. So it's kind of that “do unto others.”
So, um, you know, she gets calls, holidays and Mother's Day and the twins know her. She doesn't live near us. So it’s not like we can just drop by and visit, we try to do a visit. At first we are doing them annually, I do follow her lead on whatever she's comfortable with. Our door's always open, and I know enough to know that I have to keep telling her that. Because she may not feel like she can call and say hey, I need a fix or I need to come see them. Um, so I'm constantly letting her know Do you want to come up, but I don't want her to feel like we want it. You know, it's a very sensitive kind of fragile line that I try to be very respectful of boundaries there.
But if you talk to my twins and pretty much well if you talk to all of my kids. So the six that we have, and even the five year old, um, they know about Logan. They know about Jennifer who is our gestational carrier. We've equipped them with developmentally appropriate words and storylines for that. I don't think they know too much. But as they get older, more gets revealed because they're able to understand more and they understand the, you know, my, with the exception of my 12 year old who does but the little ones don't even know about the birds and the bees. So it's very difficult for them to understand how any of this happened.
But we've come up with a developmentally appropriate explanation that is truthful, you know, we just tell them, doctors put babies one of the ways the baby can get them I always tell me is a doctor put them there and the doctor just made a mistake with Logan, they put the wrong baby in my tummy, but we took care of them and then returned them cuz of course we would do that.
And then mommy's tummy was kind of broken. So we had to put our babies in Jennifer's and she volunteered to do that for us. And, and they're like, oh, okay, to the point where like, we went to Disney World two years ago, and I do not know what possessed my twins. Do you know how when you're de-planing, you're all stuck on the plane? They start telling their story to the people behind us, like, I don't know. I don't remember but she's like, Oh, yeah. And I didn't grow in my mom's tummy. I grew in my mom's friend’s Jennifer tummy, but my mom had a baby. And I'm like, oh, Lord. And the funny part was is that, um, the woman who was hearing the conversation or was receiving this information, looked at me and she goes, I think I know who you are
She heard the story.
But that's what we were advised to do. We were advised. And we sought that advice. It was such uncharted territory, and we wanted to make sure we handled it in a way that would cause the least amount of emotional trauma for our family. So we were advised to be as truthful as we could about it and just make it part of their stories and make it normal, just normalize it. As they get older, of course, they're going to recognize that what we went through wasn't normal. But right now, there's no point in making it feel traumatic for them.
Um, and so, you know, they talk about Jennifer, they have pictures of Jennifer they, she's just part of our life, but they also know that genetically or biologically, they're ours, like they look like their siblings. And so I think the big key there was just normalizing it for them. And as time has passed, we've normalized it for ourselves, as much as possible.
I love a couple of the pearls that you're dropping here. The first one that I just love is going into these relationships with a golden rule as your guiding star, treat others the way you wish to be treated. And I think if adoptive parents can do that and understand what it's like, on the birth, mother side, on the birth father side, adoption can be a lot kinder and more compassionate. So I'd love that that's your guiding star.
And the other one is that you are normalizing this with your kids. You're making it so that there's nothing you can't talk about. You've worked out your own stuff so that the kids don't stumble as they're kind of figuring out their own story. They don't have to stumble over your triggers and worry about what might go off if they touch something sensitive. You've just made it. Okay to talk about everything.
Yeah. And that's what we were advised to do. And obviously it wasn't just easy, but I'm a trained educator -- I was a teacher, I was a principal of an elementary school. And I also always used to tell the parents of my students, that kids are very resilient, but they will follow your lead. So if you treat something like it's taboo a secret or you cloak it in mystery, darkness or shadow, that's what they're going to carry away. And that's they're going to, they're going to take that on.
So it doesn't mean that we didn't have behind the scenes, very difficult moments or complicated emotions and feelings. We just did our best to parse that out and not lay it on our kids. And it's interesting. I always say that I want to be the kind of adult that my children, come adults, they'll be proud of me. So because, we all have that moment where we stop seeing our parents as parents, and we see them as the people that they really are.
So I'm not perfect. And I'm sure there'll be questions about why I allowed too many chicken nuggets or, like, but like the big stuff, you want to get the big stuff, right. So they're not coming back at you when they're 35-40 and going, why did you put that on me as a kid? Because here's how it impacted me. So I, I think that's been our overall goal is just, you got to be able to answer to that.
And I think with regards to our twins, I didn't want them ever to come back to me and say, Why didn't you let us know her? And I've always said she loves them. I mean, it -- she doesn't love them the way I love them. And what's wrong with another loving, nothing, you can't have enough people, adults in a child's life that love them. So that's just an added support person for them.
You've given us a lot of insight on how you are dealing with the relationships and the story for the twins that you received. Let's talk about the son you gave birth to and placed into another couple's arms. What's your relationship and like with them and with him over the last 11 years?
Probably not as straightforward as we would have liked or could have predicted. One of the things Sean and I said over and over again that I wish I could take back is that we said we were going to give him to them with no strings attached. Meaning we had no requirements, it was going to be completely up to them, wWhat they told him about us.
It's not that I didn't think they had that right. I just know now that I would be more at ease if I knew a little bit more. So, we live in that ghost world a lot. And as time, you know, the first few years as I think this is predictable to, it was a little bit more open. Things got really good when the twins were born because I think his biological mom or second mom or intended parents had a lot of guilt.
I mean, they, they understood what we were going through for them and they were, they were they dealt with a lot of guilt. And that and I think guilt is a really common emotion in any of these triads.
And when she found out about the twins that made it easier, like okay, that'll fix it. But it didn't. I don't think it did in the way that she had hoped it would. We never really developed the kind of relationship where we can talk like that.
So the first few years were good. We would see them kind of annually, sometimes maybe two times a year but then we have not seen him. I think it will be seven years in October. It just got down to birthday. I know in the state he lives they start school the day after Labor Day. That's just their rule. So I always send her an email the night before the first day of school and ask for a first day of school picture. And I always thought I would never ask for anything but I think for my own sanity I have to. I just need to know that he's okay and that he's happy. And of course, I have no way of truly knowing that.
And I think that that's something that I work really hard to make Jennifer know that the twins are well taken care of. That they have openness; they have the ability to be in touch with her. There's an open line of communication, I think that makes her feel better. There's just this responsibility you feel towards a human being that you bring into the world. And in my case, I wasn't biologically related to that child. But it doesn't matter. You still want to know.
So if I could go back, I would say I would have required, you know, six month updates. The interesting piece of it is whenever I work out, or whenever I reach out to them She responds tenfold. she'll send me 20 pictures and huge updates. But I always have to ask. And so it's not a comfortable thing having to ask, if that makes sense.
So Logan is going to be heading into adolescence soon. As he becomes a teenager and a young adult, what are some of the concerns you have about him building his story, his narrative, his identity, you know, that core work we do in our teen years?
So, you know, that's an interesting question. They handled their family differently than ours. And that's not for me to judge. It just is different. So for at least the first four years that we were when we were kind of visiting, I always had to sit Mary Kate, who is a year and a half older than him, down and remind her that Logan and he has two older sisters. They don't know that Logan grew my tummy. And she just looked at me really bewildered, like, Well, why not? But see that comes from the fact that we've just normalized it for her. So she's like, Well, why wouldn’t you tell him that? And I’m like, it's just the way their family is and we respect that.
I am under the impression now based on our most recent communication that he knows a little bit. I just don't know exactly how much he knows. The indication to me was that he knows I was there when he was born. So yeah, I was there.
But I can't predict what he knows. I think they're really good parents. They'll guide him through that in a way that best meets -- I have to believe that they will guide him through that in a way that best meets his needs. I think someday. She always said that someday she wanted him to knock on our door and say thank you. And I always would kind of cringe a little bit because I'm like, I don't really want that. I don't, he doesn't need to say thank you. But boy, would we love for him to knock on the door and say, Hey, can we hang out for an afternoon? You know, I would just like to know.
So I think she feels that there's a gratitude there and I would have that same I have that same gratitude towards Jennifer. But it's more than that. It's the need for a relationship that I think just helps him shape who he is and helps our twins shape who they are. So I think we'll see. He's gonna be 11 and I'll tell you these last 11 years have flown by, in some ways, some ways they haven't. But our story's not completely written yet. So we will see.
Could you boil things down to your best piece of advice for placing parents about the long view?
I think try to envision -- it's so hard to, like I said -- we spent a great deal of our pregnancy um just thinking we just gotta get through the birth. We just gotta get through the birth and that moment where he leaves the hospital with somebody else, like that's going to be horrible. So try to set up a plan for yourself immediately afterwards. That includes some mental health care. That's going to be really important, more than you can understand, cuz you can't when you're in the thick of it. I mean, when you're pregnant, you can't think past the delivery.
So then I would think very carefully about what you could possibly want, as that child grows, and then ask for those things. And you, it's easier to dial something back and say, you know, I want monthly updates, or you know, whatever it is, I know, that seems like a lot, but ask for the moon. And if you decide later on, you only need the stars, then then it's easier to go backwards. If you can't go forwards. It just doesn't work. I mean, I'm sure it does work in some cases, but it's very uncomfortable to ask for an increase in information, be easier to roll it back.
So I think that would be it. It's very difficult to and the other thing is: start to really embrace the story in a way that it becomes part of you and you normalize it for yourself. So that as your life moves forward you have the ability to communicate about what you've been through the decisions you've made in a way that is comfortable for you and productive for your future, future relationships, future children, future family.
That sounds like great advice for the other side, as well, which is my next question. And possibly my last question, which I asked all the guests. What is your best piece of advice for adoptive parents about the long view?
I think the best piece of advice I can give is exactly what I've already said. Be upfront, truthful and developmentally appropriate. I think that stories can start out very simple. And then you can add details as you get older as the children as the child gets older, but truthful and appropriate, so that there's never a big reveal. It just, I just don't believe in my heart that that's the best way to go. Um, I think you want them I don't think you would try. You want your child ever thinking that you are keeping a secret from them of this magnitude. That being said, I think always as busy as life gets and as far away from that moment you get where you walked out of the hospital with that baby. Um, again, I think it's normal to experience a little bit of guilt. Um, figure out a way to deal with that productively, um, to as busy as life gets 11 years later, know that the first mother of your child is still thinking of that child and every day probably, and that you want to give them what they need to continue to be comfortable with their decision.
Excellent. Thank you so much, Carolyn for sharing your experiences and your insights and your wisdom about all that you experienced in your journey to build your family. How can people find out more about your story if they want to know?
So I do have a book. it's on Amazon and Inconceivable is the title. I also have a public Facebook page under Sean and Carolyn Savage. So it's interesting people do reach out through public or private message, and I always respond, if anyone needs any advice or any just listening ear, that's how they can get hold of me.
Wonderful, Carolyn. Thank you. And thanks to each of you listeners for tuning in, and investing in your adoption’s long view. May you meet everything on your road ahead with confidence, capability and compassion.