|Stephanie Conway, left, enjoys a carousel ride with her daughter Aubrey at the Nashville Zoo, along with her husband Wade Conway, at right, and the couple’s son, Aiden. Behind them is Melanie Webb, the children’s birth mother. The Conways adopted their two children through Catholic Charities of Tennessee. They follow an open adoption model, which allows Webb to have regular contact with the children. Photos by Theresa Laurence
Stephanie and Wade Conway stroll through the Nashville Zoo with their two adopted children, Aubrey, a boisterous, curly-headed 3-year-old girl, and her brother Aiden, a quiet and curious 2-year-old. They are celebrating the two-year anniversary of Aubrey’s “Gotcha Day” when they first became a family.
Celebrating with them is an honorary member of the family: Melanie Webb, Aubrey’s and Aiden’s birth mother, who gave both her children up for adoption so the Conways could give them the life she couldn’t.
Taking a break from the animal exhibits, Melanie watches Wade tumble around on a padded play area, laughing with his children. “That’s what I couldn’t give them,” she says, “a dad and a mom, and the zoo …” she trails off, lost in thought for a moment. “I did my best, but it’s better now.”
Two years ago, Webb made the most difficult decision a mother ever could; she chose to give up her two children for adoption, one of whom she had raised, on her own, for almost 13 months.
“When I got pregnant with my second child, I decided that since both fathers had left me I needed to do something so I wouldn’t be overburdened,” Webb said. She met with several adoption agencies before settling on Catholic Charities of Tennessee to help facilitate the adoption of her unborn son. She did not yet know that several months later she would also make an adoption plan for her daughter.
|Wade Conway assists his daughter Aubrey in taking a photo of his wife Stephanie, right, their son Aiden, and the children’s birth mother, Melanie Webb, left. Webb and the Conways worked with Catholic Charities adoption counselor Deasree Williams to facilitate an open adoption where Webb can maintain some contact with the children she gave up for adoption.
Catholic Charites adoption counselor Deasree Williams introduced Webb to the open adoption process and began a relationship that continues to this day. “Unique things happen” with open adoptions, Williams said, but “nothing about this situation is normal,” least of all the birth mother’s own decision to give up her 1-year-old for adoption.
Webb, who lives in public housing in Springfield, Tennessee, was always nervous about the fate of her daughter. Just a few weeks ago, a bullet shattered a front window of her house and forced her to hide out in the pantry. “I just couldn’t let my kids grow up like that,” she said.
In the process of planning the adoption for her son, Webb looked through a number of profiles made by prospective adoptive families and narrowed her choice down to two, the Conways and one other family. She saw that the Conways loved animals, especially their old mutt Sasha. “They had lots of family, a full life. They looked stable and happy,” Webb said of her first impressions of the Conways.
“When I met the Conways, I immediately knew they were it,” Webb said, and decided not to meet with the other family.
When Webb visited the Conways’ Mt. Juliet home to see the nursery where her son would sleep, she let her 1-year-old daughter explore the house and could see that Aubrey was drawn to Stephanie, following her and tugging on her skirt. After witnessing the safe, middle-class suburban life that was a possibility for the children, Webb began some serious soul searching, and decided what the Conways could offer them was so much more than she could.
|Stephanie and Wade Conway, holding their two adopted children, pose for a photo with their children’s birth mother, Melanie Webb, second from right, and Deasree Williams, their Catholic Charities adoption counselor who helped facilitate the open adoption.
“Melanie loves those kids. She loved that little girl so much to do what she did,” Stephanie Conway said. “It’s an amazing testament to her.”
The counselors with Caring Choices, Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy and Adoption department, work closely with birth mothers to ensure that they are very much in charge of their decisions, and that they clearly understand the adoption process. “Catholic Charities in particular stuck out to us because of the way they handle families and the birth moms,” said Stephanie. “They continue to nurture the birth mothers and that relationship.”
Catholic Charities counselors facilitate all different types of adoptions, including domestic and international, and can offer guidance to both birth and adoptive families. They urge families to pursue open adoptions, where identifying information about birth and adoptive families is shared, and there is on-going contact after placement occurs. Open adoption does not, however, mean shared parenting; adoptive families have full parental rights. Beyond those parameters, there’s no standard blueprint or legal guideline for how open adoptions work; each one is as unique as the families involved.
Adoptive families and birth mothers – and in some cases birth fathers – see each other several times a year, and keep in touch by sharing photos and cards. Not having a rigid schedule for visits generally works well for families involved in open adoptions, Williams said. “Each family comes up with a good pace for them.”
Webb wasn’t sure she wanted an open adoption at first. “I had not planned on doing it because I thought it would hurt so much. … I wanted to close off and not feel anything,” she said.
Now two years into an open adoption, Webb says she’s at peace with her decision and is thankful to have an ongoing relationship with her children’s adoptive family. “The Conways didn’t take anything from me. They just took over the parenting part,” she said.
“When you talk to people about openness, people are scared,” said Wade Conway. He was also apprehensive when he and his wife first started the process. However, “our preconceived notions were way off.” Now, “we wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
In addition to gaining two children through the adoption process, the Conways also added an extra family member, which is how they see Webb. “In our family, love is thicker than blood,” said Stephanie.
The children, ages 2 and 3, have been told basic, age-appropriate and honest information about Webb. “I didn’t want the children to grow up and not have answers,” Stephanie said.
The children know Webb as “Aunt Melanie,” and they know that they grew inside of her but that Stephanie and Wade are their forever Mommy and Daddy.
‘Meant to be’
While Webb had “an emotional struggle” when she first let go of Aubrey and Aiden, “I’m definitely more at peace now,” she said. “The kids are taken care of so well, they’re loved and respected. There’s not much room for pain,” she said. “I suppose there will always be a little emptiness that will never go away.”
As she walks beside the Conways at the zoo, she reaches out to the children every now and then, just to touch the back of Aiden’s head or grab Aubrey’s hand. For the most part, the children are receptive to it, but they would rather be held by Stephanie or Wade.
“It was hard, it still is sometimes,” Webb said of the adoption process.
In her teenage years, Webb thought she would one day be married with kids. “But it didn’t quite work out the way I planned,” she said.
Growing up in Florida as an only child, Webb spent years in and out of youth facilities for behavior issues. “I really didn’t have a chance to gain the skills I need,” she said. “I’m still struggling to become independent.” She has also struggled with depression.
“I’m not sure what’s next,” she said of her future. “I’m kinda lost right now.” When asked about her goals, Webb timidly admits that she dreams of becoming a veterinarian or opening an animal shelter. “But that seems over my head.”
With the help of therapy, Webb continues to search for her path in life. While she hasn’t quite found where she’s going, she does feel confident that she has not lost her children along the way.
Webb has already given the Conways the greatest gift they could imagine.
“Without her, we would not be a family,” Stephanie said. “That’s something special to remember.”
“It’s meant to be,” she said. “We waited a long time but this is definitely the right situation for all of us.”
“We couldn’t think of a more perfect ending.” Wade said.
But with open adoptions, Stephanie reminds him, “This doesn’t have an ending.”