Actress Beth Hall [Mom, Mad Men] shares the story of adopting her daughter through foster care, the disrupted adoption she experienced along the way, and the importance of safely surrendered baby laws.
“Our daughter is a safe surrender child, and I don’t feel like it’s shameful to say that. Safe surrender is a wonderful thing, and a lot of people don’t know what it is, so I want to put it out there: Use safe surrender. No shame, no blame, no names. You don’t have to give your name, no one is going to blame you for it, and there’s no shame. My daughter’s birth mother was pregnant and went into labor, and she called the hospital and said, ‘I’m not going to keep this baby, can I have her in the hospital?’ And they said, ‘Yes, come on in.'”
Beth Hall is a triple threat — stepmom, adoptive mom, and former stepdaughter herself, who sat down with Raise founder Jessica Butler to discuss her experience with the L.A. foster care system, the emotions of becoming a mother overnight, and the one thing she won’t tolerate as an adoptive mom.
ON HER OWN EXPERIENCE AS A STEPCHILD
Beth Hall: My mother remarried when I was in sixth grade, a man with nine children.
Jessica Butler: Did you have other siblings as well?
BH: Yes. There were three of us and nine of them, and my stepfather’s mother and sister also lived with us. My mother took us to see Yours, Mine and Ours to prepare us, and we were like, “This is going to be so great!” I was all gung-ho going into it, and it had its moments. They were married 7 years, and then they split up.
JB: Did your experience as a stepchild influence your stepparenting?
BH: I think so, a little bit. But in my mother’s case, her husband’s ex had passed away. I’m a stepparent to two daughters whose mother is very much in their lives, and they are very close.
When I first met my husband, they were seven and nine. We got married when they were thirteen and fifteen. We went through some hard times, but now we all get along. They are adults now with their own children.
JB: How old were they when you decided to adopt?
BH: They were grown. My oldest stepdaughter was married. One of them was a little insecure about it, and I almost didn’t do it because I didn’t want to rock the boat. My mother said to me, “You’re going to make this decision about someone else? Not about your own life?” It would have been so ridiculous [to have not adopted] because my stepdaughter loves my daughter, and it’s not an issue at all. She loved her right away.
ON ADOPTING FROM FOSTER CARE
A lot of people who feel they can’t afford to adopt can, through foster care, and there are so many children, especially in LA, who need a home.
JB: What inspired you to adopt through foster care?
BH: We didn’t have any money. We considered international adoption from China or Russia. I’m of Russian descent, so I thought, “Oh, a Russian child!” But it was very difficult and very expensive, and we just didn’t have the money to do it at that time. And I thought, “There are so many kids in foster care in the U.S. who need a home,” so we went thru the foster program. As soon as you sign up for foster care, you get on a list, and you move up the list as time goes by. You go through meetings and training, and we were at the top of the list for a year or two. It took us a long time. We knew we wanted a girl and we waited for the right situation. The right situation for us kept changing. We thought we would probably adopt a three-year-old because we were older, but the social worker that we had, whom we loved, just kept suggesting younger and younger children.
JB: And you experienced one potential adoption that was disrupted?
BH: Yes. We had a 10-month-old girl in our house and we thought we would adopt her, we loved her, but because of the way the system works, they had other ideas. A social worker can just decide your life like that. It wasn’t a reunification, she was adopted by another family. It was tough. We had to recover from that before we could decide if we still wanted to go on.
The system is not perfect, it’s a risk, but the reward is great.
We got a call one night from our social worker, and she said, “There’s a safe surrender baby that’s just been born, and you’re at the top of the list.” We literally had one day to decide if we were going to have this child for the rest of our lives. Even though you’re in the process, and you’re in the system, it’s still jarring. We weren’t prepared. All we had was the crib from the first baby. Nothing else.
JB: How did you make the decision? What did you actually do? Sleep on it? Talk it through? Take a bath?
BH: My husband was happy with the way things were, so he left it up to me, and that was tough. I cried about it all night. I went to my mom’s house the next day and she made blueberry muffins. She came down to the hospital with me, and we looked at my daughter, and I named her. I’ve never regretted it.
I’d love to say that it was love at first sight, that I just embraced it and that it was all roses, but it wasn’t. That first day, I was like, “Well, the birth mother has 10 days to change her mind…” And it’s so unnerving to just have it thrust upon you. You don’t have nine months to prepare and bond with your child. It’s just all of a sudden, “This is your kid.”
JB: Do you feel like there was a period before you were able to accept that it was real?
BH: Oh yeah, for sure. The first day I was like, “I’m not sure I can do this.” And then I thought, “This is wonderful.”
ON SAFELY SURRENDERED BABY LAWS
Our daughter is a safe surrender child, and I don’t feel like it’s shameful to say that. Safe surrender is a wonderful thing, and lot of people don’t know what it is, so I want to put it out there: Use safe surrender. No shame, no blame, no names. You don’t have to give your name, no one is going to blame you for it, and there’s no shame. My daughter’s birth mother was pregnant and went into labor, and she called the hospital and said, “I’m not going to keep this baby, can I have her in the hospital?” And they said, “Yes, come on in.”
California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law allows parents to leave their baby with an employee at a designated location [such as a hospital, fire station, or church] within 72 hours of birth, no questions asked. Locations vary county to county. For more information on L.A. locations, visit the county’s official website. For a list of safe haven laws by state, click here.
ON TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT ADOPTION
BH: We formalized her adoption when she was 10 months old, which is very quick through foster care, and we always celebrate that day. When she was little, we would tell her the story of her adoption. “Another woman had you in her tummy and she couldn’t take care of you, so the hospital called us, and we were so happy to go there. When we saw you, we knew you were our daughter.” She would want us to tell her that story over and over. She loved it.
BH: When you have an adopted child, you certainly become more sensitive to things, like people talking about a kid’s resemblance. I never like to do that in front of her. I never say to someone, “Oh, you look just like your mother,” because my child doesn’t have that. It’s hard.
Our foster care class would bring in speakers, and they had a person who came to talk about attachment. She told a room full of foster parents that the first 15 seconds after birth, when you lie the child on the mother’s chest, that attachment defines the child’s whole life. There are so many different things that people are putting out there that are detrimental to feeling good about adoption.
The one thing I won’t tolerate is someone saying to me, “Does she want to meet her real mother?” I’m her real mother. Yes, she has a biological mother and if she wants to meet her, I will certainly help her try do that, when she’s an adult. Some people feel like they are missing out on something, and they need that, but I don’t think everyone does. My father’s parents disowned him when he married a Jewish woman. I never met my grandparents, and I never had any desire to meet them. Even before adoption, I didn’t feel like, “Oh, you do for your blood,” or something like that. To me, people are people.
JB: How do you handle family tree projects?
BH: We just use us. We’re her family, and we’re her tree. But when the projects start to involve genetic markings, I think she’ll get very curious about that.
JB: How do you respond when mothers are swapping birth stories and ask you about yours, or ask how you lost the baby weight so fast?
BH: I just say, “Oh, I adopted.” If what we are trying to do is make it a matter of fact thing, then that question shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. You’re not outing your child. These are parents asking your story, and your story is that you adopted. Or sometimes I would just say, “Yeah, the day after she was born, I was back in the gym!”
JB: Do you ever forget that she’s adopted?
BH: I do. It just doesn’t enter my mind sometimes. But then I’ll be talking to a parent and they’ll say something and I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, she’s adopted.” My daughter doesn’t really look like me, so sometimes people want to put a label on it. They want to know what’s happening — why doesn’t that child look like that woman?
ON HOW TO BECOME A FOSTER PARENT
JB: Where should someone start if they’re considering foster care but don’t know anyone personally who has gone through it?
BH: There are different private agencies that deal with government foster care, and you can sort of shop around a little bit. The agencies provide classes and things like that. You’ll have a social worker assigned to you, and you can talk to them about anything. People say to me, “I could never afford to adopt,” but you can afford to adopt through foster care because it doesn’t cost anything except the safety precautions you need to childproof your home. Once you get a child, the government gives you a stipend to make sure they’re clothed and fed, so a lot of people who feel they can’t afford to adopt can, through foster care, and there are so many children, especially in LA, who need a home.
JB: Would you do it again?
BH: Yes. The system is not perfect, it’s a risk, but the reward is great.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of "Raise Magazine," stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to "Raise," she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and five-year-old son, Levon.