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Making a choice for open adoption

Four days after the phone call came, they walked into the pediatric ward of a Delaware hospital to meet their son.

Lauren and Chris with Alfie.
Lauren and Chris with Alfie.Read moreLisa David

THE PARENTS: Lauren Hallenbeck, 35, and Chris Hallenbeck, 35, of Elkins Park

THE CHILD: Alfred Jarvis (Alfie), 11 months, adopted Nov. 17, 2021

HOW PARENTHOOD HAS CHANGED THEM: They’re more intentional about family dinner — a vegetable on the plate, and no TV, Chris says. And Lauren’s lifelong anxiety has eased. “It’s made me more focused on what is important.”

Lauren wept through her second COVID-19 shot last April. The pharmacist tried to reassure her: “It’s OK. Now everything can go back to normal.”

Just hours earlier, as she was leaving work, she’d received a call from the adoption coordinator. There was a baby, three days old, born in Delaware. His birth family had chosen Lauren and Chris.

“Do you want to parent this child?” the adoption worker asked. The two looked at each other: We’re doing this.

Through her tears, Lauren said to the pharmacist, “Nothing is going back to normal. It’s all about to change.”

They’d been waiting with Open Arms Adoption Network for nine months. But in a way, Lauren had been poised for this moment her entire life. “I’ve always, always intrinsically known that when I became a mother, it would be through adoption,” she says. “I never felt like I would need to bear a child to relate to a maternal instinct.”

Becoming an adoptive family, as well as a multifaith family, was among the couple’s soul-searching conversations as their relationship deepened. They met in the theater department at Temple University — Chris was starting a master’s degree in lighting design, while Lauren was in her final semester as an undergrad studying stage management.

Their first date was opening night of a university production of Sweet Charity. “We both approached [the relationship] in a nonserious manner,” Chris says. “But every time we hung out, every conversation, every date or not-date, it just deepened and grew.”

He dropped the “L-word” first. But Lauren realized, during a December vacation with her parents, that she wanted to share every detail of the trip with Chris. Almost a year later, as the holidays approached, she talked frankly with Chris, and with his mother, about her hesitation to be part of a multifaith family.

“I was pretty set that I wanted to raise a Jewish family,” Lauren says. “In anticipation of my first Christmas with his family, I was honest: This is going to be weird for me. My Christmas is Chinese food, not going to church.”

Both Chris and his mother said the holidays, to them, were more about togetherness and celebration than religion. And Chris was open to learning about Judaism; as the couple’s chief cook, he was the one to fry latkes at Hanukkah.

In February 2011, Lauren moved into Chris’ one-bedroom loft apartment. Though quarters were tight, they barely saw one another; Lauren’s work in theater meant she got home after midnight, slept through Chris’ departure for work, and left for her own jobs before he got home.

“It made the little moments more important,” Chris says. “When we had time together, we made sure to appreciate it.”

Two years later, on the pretext that there was a wild mink near the dock of his grandparents’ cottage in upstate New York — both are animal lovers who have provided a home to eight ferrets, three dogs, and a tarantula — Chris lured Lauren outside one evening.

“He was just kneeling with a ring,” she remembers. Both knew the answer would be yes.

They married in September 2015 at the Phoenixville Foundry, in a Jewish ceremony that included an intimate gathering to sign the traditional marriage contract, or ketubah. Lauren remembers the dance floor thrumming all night with their eclectic mix of guests: high school friends, theater friends, family members.

They bought a house, acquired a dog, changed careers — Lauren left theater for work in day care and a master’s in early childhood education, while Chris became an architectural lighting designer — and began thinking about how to grow their family.

“One of the most overwhelming aspects of our adoption process was figuring out how to get started,” Lauren says. They talked to everyone they knew with ties to adoption: people who had adopted children from other countries, folks who’d adopted domestically, adult adoptees. They even attended adoption-centric couples therapy for help in discerning which path to take.

They landed on open adoption. “We wanted to do the best we could by our future child. It seemed to us that the best way to do that was to be as open to helping them understand their biological identity as we possibly could,” Lauren says.

They were acutely aware of the losses laced into any adoption, even as “preferential adopters” — that is, people for whom adoption was a first choice, not a route chosen after struggling with infertility.

Their son can’t look in the mirror and see them reflected in his features. “There’s a loss for his birth parents that they don’t get to see him every day, growing into their future. In working with an open adoption agency, we can try to gain some of that back for everybody,” Lauren says.

They began working with Open Arms just months before the pandemic began, but continued the process — home study, background checks, family profile — online. Four days after the phone call came, they walked into the pediatric ward of a Delaware hospital to meet their son.

This baby seemed minuscule in comparison to the 1-year-olds in Lauren’s care. “I was looking at these newborn diapers and thought: This is like a tissue. I’ve never seen something so small.”

For three weeks, they swapped 24-hour shifts in the hospital — ”baby boot camp,” Chris calls it. They brought Alfie home the day before Mother’s Day. Friends dropped off doughnuts and brought flowers. Now their extended family includes members of their son’s birth family; they send monthly updates and photos, and they’ve had two FaceTime calls together.

They feel honored, Lauren says, that Alfie’s birth parents chose them specifically — they said they were drawn, in part, by photos of her colorfully dyed hair and by Chris’ yen for fishing — to be linked in a lifelong relationship.

“We’re so appreciative that they entrusted us with taking care of and raising their child. … We’re excited that Alfie has people like them in his life.”