In honor of Respect Life Month, Good Catholic looks at open adoption. Birth mom Bri Grantham and adoptive parents Andrea and Chris Dunlap offer an intimate look at open adoption. Bri gave the Dunlaps the gift of two beautiful daughters, Payton and Megan. In turn, she gained a second family and gets to watch her daughters grow up in a stable, loving home with a mother and a father.
Their First Meeting
The meeting between a birth mom and the adopting family often makes for an intense and awkward scenario. Chris Dunlap broke the ice right off the bat when he blurted out, “The first thing you need to know is we’re not very good parents.”
Bri, 21 at the time, laughed, not a bit fazed.
“We explained, ‘No, we’re serious.’” The Dunlaps wanted to offer the truth and not pretend they were the ideal parents.
“Everybody’s trying to project [an air of] perfection. There’s a sort of artificiality about that,” they explain. “We wanted to acknowledge that our son stays up too late, and we use bribery.”
Bri appreciated the Dunlaps’ honesty. “I would choose them over anyone else all over again,” she says. “They’re down to earth.”
According to the World Health Organization, one in six people worldwide experiences infertility. Andrea and Chris knew the struggle well. They were married seven years before the birth of their son, Nathan, in 2006. A few years after his birth, they began throwing around the idea of adopting a baby. When Nathan was three, the couple moved from California to Boise, Idaho, and that’s when they began seriously pursuing adoption.
A year later, Andrea was surprised to discover she was expecting another baby. However, a difficult road lay ahead for her and husband. Andrea miscarried at five weeks gestation due to a condition called molar pregnancy, whereby the placenta doesn’t form normally. Chances of conceiving another baby seemed bleak to the Dunlaps, so they began the paperwork to get on the adoption waiting list with A New Beginning Adoption Agency in Boise, ID.
Chris Dunlap shares, “We were on a waiting list to get onto the waiting list.”
Cancer and Crashing
When Andrea continued to bleed well after the miscarriage, doctors discovered she had a rare form of cancer caused by the molar pregnancy. In October 2010, they removed the 37-year-old’s uterus and started her on chemotherapy treatments. That’s when the agency called the Dunlaps to ask if they still wanted their name added to the adoption waiting list.
“When they said they had an opening, we jumped at it,” says the couple, who attend St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Boise. “The agency asked us, ‘Don’t you need to process and grieve?’ And we said, ‘Oh, we’ve been doing that for a while. Let’s go for it!’”
Another twist on the rollercoaster of life happened when, after 20 rounds of cancer medication, Andrea experienced a severe allergic reaction to methotrexate.
“Doctors said her lungs looked like they were full of glass,” Chris recalls. “Her oxygen levels were down into the seventies. They went in for the biopsy, and the surgeons thought they would lose her. She was crashing.”
Luckily, doctors pulled Andrea through the life-threatening allergic reaction, and the surgery and chemo eradicated the cancer.
Waiting for God’s Plan
Andrea overcoming cancer, living through her near-death experience, and making the adoption waiting list so quickly seemed miraculous to the Dunlaps. They saw God working in their lives and felt open to His will. However, they never guessed they’d experience the long game with adoption and the accompanying frustration, rejection, and self-doubt.
For three years, the Dunlaps waited. Chris and Andrea began to wonder what was wrong with them because only one of the mothers had asked to meet with them, and that meeting didn’t work out. In 2013, the contract with the agency was up, and they asked the Dunlaps if they wanted to renew for one more year.
“We had almost thrown in the towel, but we talked and prayed about it, and we said, ‘All right, we’ll give it one more year,’” Andrea recalls.
Chris adds, “They tell you at the agency, ‘Right baby, right family, right time,’ and ‘trust God.’ At some level, you take that to heart and try, but they’re also saying most couples get their baby within six months. So when two or three years have rolled by, you wonder what’s wrong with you.”
Worth the Wait
However, soon, the Dunlaps’ life would change quickly. On the day they signed their new contract with A New Beginning, the executive director called Andrea, saying, “We have a birth mom who already had her baby. She tried to raise her, but circumstances came up that she just doesn’t feel that she’s providing the best life for her child. She wants to put her baby up for adoption.”
The director added, “The birth mom has a special place in her heart for adoption because she was adopted.”
Making a Difficult Choice
After poring over all of the profiles of the adopting couples, one reason Bri chose to meet with Andrea and Chris was because she liked that they were practicing Catholics.
“The structure that religion and private school give—I could have never given Payton that,” shares Bri, who didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home.
Choosing to look for an adoptive family for her baby wasn’t an easy choice for Bri. Payton was around eight months old when Bri realized she could not care for her daughter’s needs.
“I was just struggling so much. I didn’t have any education. I was working a minimum wage job and living with my mom, and I could barely afford to take care of my daughter.”
She adds, “Payton was pretty much in daycare all day. And I’d only see her for a few hours at the end of the day.”
Bri wanted her daughter to grow up with a dad. Her then-boyfriend didn’t want to parent, and even though he and Bri had known one another since elementary school, he abandoned Bri and his unborn child as soon as he found out she was expecting.
“He wouldn’t talk to me, so I contacted his mom and told her, ‘I’m pregnant.’ And she’s like, ‘You should get an abortion.’ I said, ‘I’m not doing that. So, bye,’” Bri, who considers herself pro-choice, recalls.
Because her parents were divorced, Bri’s father was also out of the picture. The lack of structure and support didn’t seem ideal to the young mother.
“I wanted to give her better than that. So, I found the Dunlaps.”
From the moment the Dunlaps and Bri met, they hit it off. Bri especially appreciated Chris’s sense of humor. After talking for a while, she asked them if they would like to meet Payton because she was in the next room at the adoption agency.
“It was all good fun. We sat on the floor and played with Payton,” Andrea says.
After the meeting, the Dunlaps assumed they would have to wait to hear whether they’d become Payton’s parents. While still outside the agency, the caseworker and the executive director ran after them, saying, “That was her sign! If she wanted you to meet Payton, then you were the ones—she picked you!”
The Dunlaps felt taken aback. “We were like, ‘What? She’s picked us?’ It was all happening too fast.”
They had waited from 2010-2013 to adopt a baby, and then suddenly, they found out that Payton would be theirs in two weeks, when Bri’s parental rights would be terminated.
“Payton became ours on her eighth month birthday,” Andrea says.
Bri knew she was doing the right thing for Payton, but she also felt gutted after terminating her parental rights. On October 3rd, 2013, she dropped her daughter off at the adoption center since the Dunlaps were coming to get her.
“I set her down in her carseat and said goodbye to her, and it felt terrible,” she recalls.
Thankfully, the Dunlaps invited Bri to come for dinner, so she wouldn’t be alone the whole day after making such a sacrifice.
Walking into the Dunlaps’ home and seeing Payton smiling, Bri could breathe a sigh of relief.
“Just seeing her happy and the Dunlaps crazy happy about her, seeing her room, everything they’d set up for her, I thought, ‘She’s safe. She’s loved. I made the right decision.’”
Bri also liked how her daughter had the same blonde hair and blue eyes as her new older brother, Nathan, who was seven years old. He was ecstatic to finally have a little sister. He even wrote and illustrated a book about how he loved Payton.
Bri found a better job working at a camp and thought she was getting her life together.
“We had Payton for about a month when Bri called and said she was pregnant,” Andrea remembers. Bri still wasn’t ready to parent, and the father of her unborn child—not Payton’s biological father—turned out to be dangerous.
She trusted the Dunlaps and asked them if they would adopt her baby. Andrea and Chris were a little shell-shocked by the news of a second baby. They wanted to say ‘yes’ but were worried about how they would come up with the money to adopt another baby. They could only answer Bri once they went through all the legal channels.
“We said we need to pray and think about it, but of course, we’re interested,” the couple recalls.
The process for this adoption was much simpler because they didn’t have to go through the choosing stage. They already had a home study done, so the Dunlaps only had to worry about the legal and financial side of the matter.
Megan’s birth turned out to be a hectic day. On July 17th, 2014, Bri was in labor and delivery. Below her in the emergency room sat the Dunlaps’ son Nathan, who had broken his wrist. And then, a nurse overfilled the bathtub, and when Bri stepped into it, the bathtub overflowed and flooded the gift shop.
Bri found the crazy circumstances a foreshadowing of Megan’s personality: “She’s this chaotic firecracker—gosh, I love her so much. She’s so confident and funny,” Bri laughs.
After Megan’s birth, Andrea stayed in a room with Megan.
“Bri wasn’t caring for Megan because she knew she was ours,” Andrea shares.
In such a short time, the Dunlaps’ lives had changed completely. When all those other birth moms didn’t choose them, Andrea thinks it was because two little girls were waiting in the wings for them.
The Dunlaps consider Bri a family member, and Bri spends holidays and birthdays with them. Her extended family also plays a role in the Dunlaps’ lives.
“We’re not working hard to create this artificial extended family; we’re just going with the flow and trusting the Lord,” Chris shares.
Through the adoption and after, Chris and Andrea have tried to remain open, to trust God, and to be supportive of Bri. They may not know it, but they’re living out what Pope St. John Paul II called “radical solidarity.”
Explaining the term, Most Reverend Michael F. Burbidge, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, writes, “Being in radical solidarity with women who are pregnant or raising children in difficult circumstances means putting our love for them into action and putting their needs before our own. Pope Francis reminds us that solidarity ‘refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset,’ a transformation within our own hearts.”
That transformation didn’t happen immediately for Chris and Andrea. Initially, the concept of open adoption seemed weird to them: however, they say the adoption agency did a good job educating them. The couple looked at case studies and read a lot about open adoption.
“The research is pretty clear that open adoptions are good for everybody,” Chris says.
Seeing Payton nestled in the crook of her Dad’s arm while he shares her story, with Megan popping in and out of the room—showing us the book she is writing about cats—and their black, calf-sized dog leaping on the couch to sit next to Andrea, it looks to me like beautiful chaos.
When I asked Payton, now 10, about any difficult aspects of being adopted, she said, “I only wish that I could see Bri more often.”
Bri wishes there was time to see her more, too. Since having her daughters, she’s earned a molecular, cellular, and biomedical biology degree and hopes to earn an advanced degree.
“I pursued college to show them that the choice I made [to give them up for adoption] wasn’t in vain,” she declares. “I’m going to make something of myself and show them they can do anything they put their mind to.”
A Call to Action
Bishop Michael Burbidge “invite[s] all Catholics to think about building a culture of life in terms of radical solidarity. We are the Church. Our prayers, witness, sacrifices, advocacy, and good works are needed now, more than ever.”
He adds, “We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today and we each have a personal responsibility to care for one another.”
To learn how to celebrate Respect Life Month and “stand in radical solidarity” with moms in need, visit respectlife.org/celebrate.
Have you been touched by an adoption story?
Were you or someone special to you adopted?
What can we do to assist mothers in need and help them have happy endings like Bri and the Dunlaps?
Let us know in the comments below!