We told ourselves until everything is final, we should view ourselves as foster parents. We were trying to protect ourselves.
CHICAGO — The adoption counselor caught Rebecca Bennett on her cellphone and delivered an urgent message from the birth mother:
"The baby is coming early. You have permission to be at the hospital. Go quickly. Go now!"
It was the day last June when Bennett and her husband, Joshua, were scheduled to have their second meeting with the 35-year-old Chicago woman who had chosen them — from among dozens of couples — to adopt her baby. They were planning to discuss the child's name, visiting rights and other important details.
But medical complications brought the 4-pound boy into the world two months early, thrusting the Bennetts into a premature-birth adoption that, experts say, happens more often than might be expected.
About one in every eight adoptions starts in a neonatal intensive care unit, according to the Cradle, the Evanston, Ill., agency that facilitated the adoption. The numbers mirror the rate of premature births in the state and country.
And just as medical complications vary from one premature birth to another, the way adoptions unfold after a baby is born prematurely also differ in every situation — so much so that the Cradle requires all prospective parents to attend a workshop focused on adopting at-risk children.
This past Christmas, just days after their son's adoption became official, the Bennetts considered the thriving Atticus their greatest gift of all. The birth and adoptive families are grateful for the unlikely friendship they now share after months taking turns by the newborn's incubator, exchanging text and email messages about his progress and handing off bottles of breast milk.
"There were a thousand times where I wanted to say, 'Wow. We just did a really good job with a completely awkward conversation,' " said Rebecca Bennett. "We just pulled together and got to know each other while we were pulling for Atticus."
Rebecca and Josh Bennett of Evanston, Ill., both 35, were used to things coming later, not earlier, than expected.
The couple married in 2004 and had planned to have children. But after years of infertility problems, they signed on with the Cradle in 2009.
Like other prospective parents hoping to adopt through the agency, the Bennetts prepared a handmade brochure describing themselves through photographs, stories and lists of quirky facts. The blue booklet tied with yellow ribbon described how Rebecca taught a music appreciation course at Northwestern University and how Josh had a successful career in marketing. There were pictures of each of them holding smiling babies. It also mentioned their love for roller derby and disdain for raw tomatoes.
The booklet was appealing enough that once a month, for a year, counselors from the agency called to say the Bennetts were finalists in a birth mother's search for an adoptive family. But month after month, the child went to someone else.
"Each holiday, we'd go to parties where we'd leave and say to each other, "Next year, we'll be here with a baby,'" said Rebecca Bennett. "And then the next year, we'd have the same conversation."
The birth mother, who is not being named to protect her identity, is from the East Coast and began searching there for adoptive parents. At first, she thought it would be easier for the child to grow up far away from Chicago, where she became pregnant after an affair with a married man.
But as her pregnancy progressed, the idea of an open adoption, in which she could negotiate planned contact with the child, became more appealing.
Her 6-year-old son through a previous marriage knew she was having a baby and talked about being a big brother. The little boy would have been confused if his sibling was suddenly sent away after birth with no hope of ever seeing him again, she said.
And, looking to the future, the birth mother wanted to own up to her mistakes and answer the child's questions personally about why she gave him up for adoption.
"I didn't want (him) to ever feel he caused sadness," she said. "He caused happiness."
Tiny details in the Bennetts' profile struck a connection. She was a personal trainer and loved physical activity. They loved sports such as roller derby. She had always wanted to take a road trip along the Pacific Coast. That's what the Bennett's did on their honeymoon, traveling from Seattle to Santa Barbara, Calif.
When they met face to face, their conversation flowed so freely that the couple and the birth mother didn't need the help of the facilitator assigned to the case.
In the car on the drive home, the birth mother felt certain that she didn't need to meet anyone else.
"That's it," she recalled saying aloud. "They're the ones."
After the Bennetts learned they had been chosen to adopt Atticus, they forced themselves to remain cautiously excited. They knew they could be disappointed.
In about a fifth of adoptions, the birth mother decides to keep her baby, officials said. And while birth parents relinquish the rights to a child early in the adoption process, the adoptive parents officially become mom and dad only after legal paperwork is approved by the courts, a process that takes place after a child has been in a home for six months.
With that always in mind, the Bennetts initially allowed themselves to buy only the most basic of baby supplies: a portable play pen, car seat, stroller, three onesies and three bottles.
Their feelings of uncertainty only increased when they learned the baby they were adopting was born seven weeks early and would need to stay in intensive care as he learned to eat and breathe on his own. The birth mother would keep the legal right to all decisions involving the baby at the hospital.
"We told ourselves until everything is final, we should view ourselves as foster parents," said Josh Bennett. "We were trying to protect ourselves."
But whenever the Bennetts felt especially vulnerable or overwhelmed about putting their trust in a stranger and offering their love to a struggling infant, they forced themselves to remember they weren't alone.
The birth mother "was trusting us with so much, with Atticus," Rebecca Bennett said. "I kept reminding myself that the least I could do is trust back."The couple also had faith in the medical staff that everything would work out for the best. They had been informed about the risks of a premature birth.
"It might not have been something the birth parents or the adoptive parents were anticipating, but it's one of those things and you make the best of it," said Joan Jaeger, spokeswoman for the Cradle.
Surprisingly, premature birth adoptions don't have a higher rate of falling through than any other adoptions. In some cases, the birth of a premature baby actually can help an adoption, Jaeger said.
"There are some logistical challenges, but then some of that ends up being a bit of a benefit," she said. "It gives the adoptive parents the chance to not only meet the little guy but also to care for him and for (the birth mother) to see what great parents they're going to be."
The birth mother said from the moment she saw Rebecca Bennett hold Atticus for the first time, she felt at peace with her decision. It hurt to give up the baby, but she appreciated that the Bennetts were comfortable with her continuing to visit and even pump breast milk for him, she said.
Within days, the Bennetts and the birth mother were exchanging hourly updates on how the baby sucked his thumb, got feeding tubes removed and acquired new pictures to look at on his incubator wall. They divided hospital visits into shifts and got to know one another when they crossed paths in the intensive care unit, bonding over their mutual love for coffee and lack of scrapbooking skills.
When Atticus was discharged three weeks after his birth, the arrangement the adults had negotiated — six visits a year with frequent email updates — seemed not only doable but preferable.
"I would call (the birth mom) one of my closest friends, if not my closest friend," said Rebecca Bennett. "I just felt like the whole match was meant to be."
Today, Atticus lives in Evanston, Ill., in a condominium the Bennetts finally have allowed themselves to fill with baby things. Tiny hooded sweat shirts hang from a hook in his nursery near a stack of burp cloths. Their kitchen counter is lined with bottles. A digital picture frame flashes hundreds of images of the baby's journey since his birth.
At 6 months old, he weighs 14 pounds, smiles to show off two new teeth and has mastered rolling over. Doctors have told the Bennetts that Atticus could need physical therapy to help with gross motor skills in the future. But the impact — if any — of his premature birth can be determined only with time, they said.
For Christmas, the Bennetts were heading to visit his grandmother in Michigan, to be showered with gifts and love from immediate and extended family.
Around the same time, the birth mother was flying home to the East Coast to see family who never knew she was pregnant.
"Sometimes, what you think of as a bad situation can actually turn into something a lot more positive than you think," she said