Welcome to our new series, “I Had a Baby During a Pandemic,” wherein we talk about a stressful situation made even crazier by COVID-19.
Whitney Bock has a hereditary kidney disease, making it possibly risky to get pregnant. So she and her husband, Josh, adopted their first child, Caleb, in 2015 and welcomed a second child, Emerson, during the pandemic. The family was supposed to meet their daughter on Rosh Hashanah, but she was born prematurely and underweight. After some time in a Virginia NICU, she’s home in Medfield with her big brother.
Tell us your birth story!
We adopted our son in December 2015. He was a New Year’s Eve baby. And we thought, one and done. We’re all set. And then, two years ago, we were like, “Maybe we do want a second one. Maybe we do have another baby via adoption.” We ultimately put that aside for a little bit. I had some health issues, and then we came back to it in January 2020. COVID-19 was sort of a thing, but it was like, “Oh, it’s abroad. It’s not here. Everything’s fine!”
We had to do a parenting class through our adoption agency in February. And that’s when it was starting to pick up. I remember sitting next to my husband and someone else in our group sneezed, and I looked at him and I was like, “This is not good. I don’t feel good about all of this.” I had a kidney transplant in July 2018. I’m immunosuppressed. So the whole idea of someone sneezing when there’s a huge pandemic starting, whether it was in America yet or not, was like, “Oh, no. I can’t do this.”
How did you match with Emerson?
We ultimately got the call about Emerson in mid-July. Our agency called and said, “There’s a birth mother, and she’s picked you.” Our first question was, “Where does she live?” because we need to be able to drive. We’re not going to fly amid all of this. She lived in Virginia, an eight-and-a-half-hour drive. We could manage that. Emerson wasn’t due until Sept. 18, which was actually Rosh Hashanah, which we thought was fitting, since our first was Dec. 31, another New Year’s baby. Two New Year’s babies, just different holidays. But ultimately Emerson was born seven-and-a-half weeks early.
I’m imagining that maybe some people reading this might want to adopt and not even know where to start. Could you explain the process?
We went with an agency. In Massachusetts, you have to. You can’t necessarily arrange it on your own. We basically Googled adoption agencies and talked on the phone with a couple of them. We ended up going with Adoptions With Love, which is based in Newton, and felt like they were a great fit. They sent us an information packet and then an application. There’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of things that have to get notarized, a background check, financial statements, the works. You have to write a biography. You have to write about who you think you are as a parent, about your house and your family.
From there, you do interviews with the agency. They come to the house and do a home study to make sure there’s adequate heating, water, electricity and a space for the baby. You give insight into your preferences—if you’re OK with low or moderate drug or alcohol use with the birth parents, or if you’re OK if the baby’s conceived in rape, because that’s part of the child’s story. There’s a lot they delve into. Once you are approved through your home study, you then write a letter to birth parents and create a photo book, or at least this is what our agency does.
Emerson’s birth mom was 15 when she had her. She was very young, and the birth father was not involved at all in any of it. We had some Zoom calls with her to meet her and for her to meet us and to settle her nerves and be like, “Hey, we’re the people you ultimately have chosen if you decide to go through with this after the baby’s here!” There’s always a chance that parents change their mind after the baby’s born. That’s just a risk you take. Emerson was born early. We got the call saying she was born. She was very tiny, and they said, “She’ll obviously be in the NICU, but we’ll call you and let you know when you should pack to head down there.”
We had gotten a call a few days later that the birth mom was wavering. She knew it would be best, but she wasn’t sure. We had already had a failed adoption earlier in July, where someone chose us and then the baby was born and they ultimately decided to parent. Two times in one month is a lot. We really thought this baby was going to be ours. We were back to square one, feeling super defeated.
My husband and I are both teachers. And we were both in a professional development meeting on Aug. 31, at home on our computers, and our agency called and said the birth mother had actually contacted them and said, “You know what? I actually do want to place the baby for adoption.” So then, of course, we were getting all hyped up and excited. We were told to wait a few days. We wanted the birth mom to sign over her parental rights before we actually left to drive down there so that we didn’t drive down just to get turned away a second time. On Sept. 3, we started driving. We knew she was signing papers that morning. We were like, “OK, we’ll leave in the morning. We want to get there at a reasonable hour. And if we get halfway down and she ends up not signing, we’re only halfway. We can turn back around.” Somewhere in Delaware, we got a phone call saying that she had signed.
Were you allowed to visit the hospital despite COVID?
They had to do our temperature check. They gave us a fresh mask to wear; we couldn’t wear our own in the hospital. And when we got upstairs to the NICU, they could only let one person in at a time. Of course this was hard for both of us because we’re like, “This is our little girl. Who goes first? How does this work?” Ultimately, I told my husband, “Listen, you can go in first because I know once I’m in there, I’m not leaving. And it wouldn’t be fair for you not to meet her if I’m holding this little baby all day.”
When we met her, she was three pounds, 13 ounces. She was not quite four pounds yet. We needed to hit four pounds before we could do a car seat trial, and then get her out and home. I was peeking into the nursery, and all of a sudden the nurse came over, and she was holding this little bundle. I could barely see anything but her little face. And she had a full head of hair, and I just saw this bundle peeking through the window. And I thought, “Oh my God, that’s my baby. I don’t even know what to think right now. And she’s so tiny.” A woman walked by me and asked, “Ma’am, are you OK?” And I said, “I’m just seeing my baby for the first time through a window. This is crazy.” It was awful, but amazing.
Did Judaism figure into your adoption process at all?
We’ve always been very open about the fact that we are Jewish, and in our photo book and letters, we discussed that we like to spend holidays with family and had photos of Hanukkah and Shabbat celebrations. We also made sure the birth mother knew we planned to raise Emerson Jewish. We eventually will do a conversion at a mikvah, along with a baby-naming for her, when it’s safe to do so.
Where was Caleb during this?
He was with my husband’s mom and her husband up here. It was devastating knowing that our son was back here. They were staying here with him, taking him to school to keep him occupied. It was so hard having our heart in two places. We were always told, “If you have a child at home, you should always plan to go pick up the baby but have the older child join you at some point.” With COVID, there was no way. We weren’t going to keep him cooped up in a hotel when he could be at school or camp, at places he’s comfortable. It was a long three weeks being away from him.
When he saw her for the first time, he squealed. We took her out of her car seat and he’s like, “I want to hold her. Can I hold her? I just want to kiss her.” And it was the most heartwarming thing. We didn’t know how he was going to feel. We’d just left him for three weeks and picked up a new baby.
How safe did you feel given the pandemic with your in-laws in your house?
My mother-in-law is very cautious. They were wearing masks in our house unless they were eating. So anytime we were FaceTiming with Caleb, my mother-in-law would come to the phone and she always had a mask on. He was wearing a mask in the house, which at first I felt bad about. This poor kid; he has to wear one all day at school, and now he has to do it at home. Basically it was a 24/7 mask situation unless he was sleeping or eating.
How was your at-home adjustment period, in light of COVID? Could you go out and do anything with the baby?
No; that was the hardest part. Once we got home with her, we wanted to show her off. We wanted our families to meet her. We wanted everyone to see her and ogle over her like you do for any baby. We had a lot of family who wanted to meet her, but I wasn’t ready to have people hold her quite yet. I didn’t feel good about it. Luckily, this was over the summer when it was warmer, so we were able to be outside and let people see her from a distance. We ended up letting my in-laws hold her while they were masked. We put a swaddle blanket between their clothes and her. We were overly cautious because as a preemie, she’s more susceptible to things, and obviously it’s a pandemic and she’s a baby and doesn’t have a strong immune system. And not to mention that mine’s not that strong, either. So we’ve always been more cautious than some, I would say.
The hardest part is my parents live in Florida, and they have not met her yet because of COVID. They’re dying to meet her. I think that’s the hardest part—knowing there are members of my family who haven’t met her yet and she’s now 6 months old. With my son, it was within days of us getting home with him that people were over and meeting him and holding him.
If you were to give advice to another family in your situation, about adopting during COVID, what would you say?
Be flexible and cautious at the same time, and obviously be willing and open to accept help, but also know your limits and boundaries of what you feel comfortable with in terms of people being around your newborn. I think that’s a hard thing to say, especially with grandparents who want to help and hold and do all the things. It’s a pandemic. It’s not as feasible.
How are you juggling work and a baby?
My district is allowing me to teach from home for the year. I do want to be there; I just don’t think it’s worth it for my health and safety. I would like to be back in the future. I actually got my first vaccine last week. So I’m slowly but surely making my way toward safety!