A family of a different sort

From left: Lucy, Erin and Oscar Schmidt oil wood for the ceiling of their house near Lawrence, Kan. (Courtesy of the Schmidt family)

A photo of David and Erin Schmidt with their two children, Lucy and Oscar, might well pass for an updated version of "American Gothic," but the backstory is hardly prosaic, challenging as it does standard ideas about family.

Stumble into one of their Christmas celebrations, for example, and it might take a notepad and a flow chart to figure out all of the associations of those engaging in the storytelling, gingerbread house construction, and games.

Lucy and Oscar were adopted. Their cases were open adoptions and they come from different birth parents. The open part of the adoption means that the children and their birth parents -- those who so wished -- have remained in touch, celebrate holidays together and become a regular part of the family in an extended way. That also goes for grandparents, adoptive and otherwise, as well as half-siblings who might arrive later (several have) and other relatives who want to be included.

In many ways, theirs is a thoroughly heartland story. David, 46, was born in Colorado and moved with his family to Kansas when he was around 3 and eventually ended up in his mother's hometown of McPherson. Erin, 44, was born and raised in Kansas.

They met when he was 18, she was 16. They worked in the same restaurant and he was attending community college. She was, and is, a constant smile.

"She was really spunky and just fun. She was always having fun and laughing. I always liked that about her." He is her opposite in that regard. "To my own chagrin," he self-describes, "I am more serious than you want to be."

When she decided to go to Kansas State University, he decided to go there, too. He graduated in 1992, landed a job across the state border in Kansas City, Mo. She took an internship at the Federal Reserve Bank in the same city and graduated in December 1993. They had apartments about a mile apart.

He proposed in the summer of 1993. They were married the following February and planned to wait a few years before starting a family. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom like her mother.

They worked for several years, she for a consulting firm in a job that required a lot of travel. "Dave had this itch to be an entrepreneur," she said, so he tried his hand at selling supplies to make beer and wine at home. It worked, but not enough to support the family they had in mind.

David became Catholic about a year after they were married. Their last adventure before settling into starting a family was a four-month jaunt through Ireland and Wales during which they stayed with six families, working on farms and helping with tasks like herding sheep, gardening and house painting. It would prove foretelling.

On returning from that trip, David got a job at a consulting firm, and as soon as he did, Erin "quit in hopes of becoming a stay-at-home mom," she said.

A year or so passed, she said, and "we realized we weren't able to achieve a pregnancy."

Unlike many couples who face that sad realization, David and Erin decided to forgo other fertility options. She said she was not interested in infertility treatments.

She took her cue from her parent's approach to her youngest brother, Casey, who had Down syndrome. "My parents were really opposed to altering his appearance in any way.

"I was opposed to altering our bodies in any way," she said. "This is the way God made us. He made us so we can't achieve a pregnancy. We just took our situation, not as a way of thinking, 'Oh, we'll never have a family.'"

They thought, instead, "Our family will be constructed in a different way. My brother Casey, I think he was perfectly made. I think we are made perfectly, even though we can't have children. Achieving a pregnancy was not the path for us."

They didn't struggle much with the decision to head down the adoption path, she said, even though one of the adoption groups they attended turned out to be largely a support group for infertile couples.

Erin, said David, did most of the heavy lifting on the adoption research. In the end, they decided to manage the process themselves instead of going through an agency. They decided to hire the professionals involved, the most important of which -- both for them and for the birth mother -- was the social worker involved. They also hired a lawyer.

"We had a lot to learn about what a birth family is going through in this whole ordeal," David said. "Because we wanted an open adoption, we wanted to make sure the birth families were well-prepared to make this commitment and that they would be counseled prior to and after the adoption so that they could be comfortable with their decision."

They met Lucy's birth mother months before her due date and were able to spend considerable time with her, preparing.

"Our social worker was adamant that there be no surprises at the hospital," Erin said. That's why they produced lists of boys' and girls' names so that they could come to consensus. They agreed on the boy's name. They didn't want a last-minute name change to be a deal breaker.

They had yet to decide on a girl's name when Erin and David received the call that the birth mother was in labor. "She's going to have a girl because we don't have a girl's name," Erin recalled saying on the way to the hospital.

They couldn't think of another, so they proposed Lucy and the birth mother agreed.

The relationship with Lucy's birth mother made it easier in the delivery room. "At the last second, the doctor asked if Dave wanted to cut the umbilical cord," said Erin. "It was pretty amazing that we were able to participate in the birth to that extent. Dave actually was used to warm up Lucy, who was having trouble warming up. The nurse told him to take off his shirt, and they placed Lucy on his chest."

Oscar came along 20 months later. David knew the birth mother's doctor. The attorney in this case was not an advocate of open adoption, but all went well.

Both of Oscar's birth parents are still involved in his life and have become part of the family.

Oscar and Lucy were each homeschooled until midway through fifth grade, and then began attending Catholic elementary school. They are bright and successful in school. They are also learning a fair number of extracurricular skills as they help their parents in the construction of a bale house they've moved to in an area near Lawrence, Kan., after spending most of their lives in a neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo.

It's an adventuresome family that raised chickens in the city, where they also managed an impressive vegetable garden. David, who now works as an analyst at a telephone company, and Erin, who works for an engineering company in administration, still have a dream of developing a small farm with chickens and goats. But first, they have to put the finishing touches on the house, a kind of construction that uses straw bales as a component.

From their earliest years, Lucy and Oscar were made familiar with details their parents kept in a "life book."

"We would read it to them a lot," Erin said. "There are lots of pictures of them and their birth parents."

Dave and Erin spoke to them about their adoption plan, how it was made "and how they became part of their family. I felt that by two years the kids knew the story," said Erin. "We didn't wait. We started before they even knew what we were talking about. They had the facts of life at an early age."

Perhaps some luck was involved, Erin said, in the good fortune they've had relating to birth parents. "We've never felt threatened in our role as parents," she said, emphasizing, "This is not co-parenting, and they get it. I think, honestly, that they are glad to be involved in the kids' lives, to be there for baptisms and birthday parties and everything else."

It is family of a different sort, and one that caused her to pause when confronted with a Catholic teacher's explanation that one of the prime reasons the church could not accept same-sex couples was because they were unable to be "fruitful."

"Oh my God," she said to herself. "Does that mean we're not a family? We're not fruitful."

Does it mean, she wondered, that "the church ought to give out fertility tests before you join" if you want to get married?

"We adopted. We're not fruitful. It's an interesting question."

She said she has "no problem with gay parents adopting and having kids and calling that a family. You enrich each other and support each other and nurture each other. That's more important for a strong and healthy family than the bloodline."

The couple's definition of family, by necessity, "has certainly been broadened," she said. "We feel like we have a big family. I don't know that I feel that it's different. We're not Oscar's and Lucy's biological parents but we are their mom and dad. Family is just a group of people that love each other and are there for each other and that can look very different from a mom and a dad and kids."

They also can act a bit differently -- by necessity. The first Christmas or so with kids in tow taught them a lesson. In order to accommodate the extended family "we celebrated Christmas 10 times. We had to stop after that. We said, 'This is not the meaning of Christmas.' The kids received a total of 30 stuffed animals that year. We totally rethought Christmas."

The revised version is a day where everyone gets together. They do things like make gingerbread houses and bars of soap. They conduct elaborate bingo games based on the family, and David's brother prepares a reading of a story for the celebration.

There are no gifts exchanged (the same goes for birthday parties), removing an element that they realized could quickly get excessive.

It is a day described as "just hanging out." Birth mothers and grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, as well as half siblings get to spend time with one another across the usual family lines.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org. Roberts and his wife, Sally, are friends of David and Erin and happened in on one of their holiday celebrations a few years ago. The Schmidts agreed to share their story in this time of the church's focus on the family.]

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