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'The First Time I Saw My Adopted Child'

Debra Monroe was in the car with her teenage daughter, when she said in a mind-wandering way, "Do you ever think about how different it would be if I weren't your mom, if someone else was? Or if I had a different kid?"

Marie, her 14-year-old daughter who was adopted at birth and whom she describes as "very aware," responded, "OMG, I do! I think, how could it be anything but this?"

The sentiment is spelled out over and over by adoptive parents as they explain how their family came together. Some had years to prepare; others became parents with only hours' notice. Some traveled to far corners of the world to adopt, and others found a child within their extended family. The commonality among them is a sense that they are supposed to be together.

Here, 10 adoptive parents share what it was like to meet their children for the very first time. From blissful to fearful, here's what they felt.

For author Debra Monroe, meeting daughter Marie, now 14, was full of fits and starts.

"It was a short series of sudden surprises and sudden let-downs, because I'd had three adoptions come up and fall through in three months, and then, about a month later, I became a mother," she recalls.

Her first glimpse of the top of Marie's head was through a Texas hospital window.

"Her birth mother had walked in off the street, in labor. I had a more erratic process than a lot of adoptive parents have. So I tried not to think anything for three hours [in the nursery], to just be present, to trust that the right baby would come at the right time," Monroe says. "When the social worker and the nurse came back and said, 'Congratulations, you are a mother,' I think my thoughts were: Holy cow, you're kidding. Really?"

After speed lessons in baby care, she assured the newborn that it would be the two of them forever. They've returned to that hospital window and celebrated birthdays visiting adoption agencies. Being an interracial family helped them address adoption early and honestly, Monroe believes.

"I wanted to be a mother. A child somewhere needed a mother. Two problems with one happy ending."

Next: Pale, bleary eyed and the most beautiful baby they'd ever seen ...

After two years of waiting and three excruciating flights to a Russian town on the border of China, Meg Rhem and her husband, Don, sat on a ratty couch in the orphanage, waiting to meet their child. When a nurse carried her in, they were "enervated and exhausted and on the verge of overwhelmed," Meg recalls.

"She had almost no hair, she was pale to the point of translucence, and had bleary eyes and a runny nose. Oh! She was so beautiful!" she remembers.

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Tears came. Baby Laney sneezed.

"Suddenly I was crying and holding this baby who had a huge gob of snot hanging out of her nose," Meg recounts. "I was a rookie. Don was a rookie. We had no idea what to do about this. There was no handy box of Kleenex. Then [the adoption agent] walked over to us, tutted at Laney sweetly, and then just grabbed the snot off her face with a bare hand.

"Revelatory in so many ways! To feel her little body in my arms! To feel suddenly this connection with this beautiful girl! And to realize that being a mother means you're likely to end up with a handful of snot at some point, and that I couldn't wait to be that lady."

Next: Raw, awkward and heartbreaking ...

Bringing home a little boy from Ethiopia has not been all sunshine and roses, says Julie M. It is raw and real, she recalls about the first moments with her son, who is now a part of the family with Julie, her husband and young daughter.

"I immediately wondered if we would ever attach to one another, if I could prevent us from becoming a sad statistic," Julie says. "The overwhelming fear of potential reactive attachment disorder and the work ahead of us crashed up hard against my desire to love the reality of this small boy, even as we awkwardly clutched each other in the sunny courtyard."

Next: I wanted to be the biggest strongest mother ever ...

"Our adoption was kind of like applying for a job with the FBI while simultaneously going through an IRS audit while all the while experiencing different episodes of the Jerry Springer show live," Leah Waarvik says.

Her son's biological mother, a family member in jail and struggling with a heroin addiction, signed over custody to Waarvik and her partner, Jennie Flanigan.

"If we hadn't chosen adoption, the possibility of [son] Seamus ending up in a horrible situation was huge," Waarvik says, "and I don't think either of us could have ever let that happen."

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Flanigan witnessed his birth; Waarvik met their son 15 hours later.

"I felt like I wanted to be the biggest, strongest mother ever, but felt like the smallest weakest person with my hands tied," Waarvik remembers. "I actually knew I'd love him even before I met him, but seeing him made it all real. I've never felt so protective, I just knew he needed us and we needed him. Jennie and I look at each other all of the time and say, 'I can't imagine if someone else had him.' It's as if he was ours from the very beginning."

Next: I was very overwhelmed, but also smiling so hard ...

Marlynn R. Jones went through two-and-a-half years of in vitro treatments and an emergency C-section before delivering her daughter. Tragically, the baby suffered a brain bleed and died hours later in her mother's arms. Jones was hit with a wall of depression until she realized she had a great life that she wanted to share.

"What I wanted most was to be a mother, not just to have a child," the single mom says. She opted for adoption and was in the delivery room when baby Faith was born.

Since her biological child had been whisked off to surgery, the experience of cutting the umbilical cord was new. She counted fingers and toes. The nurse who attended her emergency C-section visited and took photos.

"I was very overwhelmed," Jones recalls, being scared she would do something wrong. "I was smiling so hard. Mostly, I felt peace."

Next: Something inside me just clicked ...

Adoption was "the best of choices" to same-sex couple Shannon LC Cate and her partner, Cole. They frequently discuss meeting Nat, now 7, and Selina, now 5.

"But those," Cate says, "are their private stories."

Cate's transition to motherhood was instant.

"Something inside me just clicked and said, 'This is your baby.'"

Today, she describes Nat as intelligent and empathetic and calls Selina "adventure girl" for her playground bravery. All too frequently, Cate notes, adoptive parents are told, "You are so good to adopt" or "Your kids are so lucky."

"Our children are as lovable as any others; it doesn't require saintliness or heroicism to love them," she counters. And on comparing adoption and birth, Cate says she just thinks, "I am so lucky to get to do this thing that most people never get to do!"

Next: Were we going to be good enough parents?

"We chose adoption as a way to help children in our area who needed us just as much as we needed them," says Jenn, who faced medical issues after her oldest son was born.

The challenges continued. The adoption process was stressful, she says, "kind of a fear of the unknown."

What they knew was how to bring home and bond with a newborn. What they were embarking on was adding a toddler and 8-month-old baby to the family.

Jenn and her husband wondered, "Were we going to be good enough parents to help these children deal with the issues that will arise? Did we have enough love to parent three children?"

Today, Jenn's active kids are ages 12, 6 and 4, and she assures them—and herself—with steady faith, explaining, "If God entrusted us to take care of you, then we know that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing."

Next: I feel as though they are all from my own flesh and bone ...

Comedian Dan Kulp grew up with three adopted siblings, but his dedication to adoption was sealed when his fiancée worked in China as a physical therapist. She fell in love with the culture and grew concerned about the orphanages. Her stories "completely cracked my heart wide open," Kulp says, and they began their marriage with a plan to bring a child home from China.

Kulp and wife Elizabeth, now parents to three adopted special needs children and one biological child, have been told their oldest son was the first child with Down Syndrome approved for international adoption in China. Meeting each of them, he says, brought relief that they were all together.

"I feel the same strong bond [with all my children]," he says. "I feel as though they are all from my own flesh and bone. Most of the time I forget that the first two are Asian and noticeably didn't come from us!"

Next: I just marveled and I don't take his flaws personally ...

"My first thought when I saw him was, 'Is he OK?' I had never seen a 3-day-old baby before, and his scaly hands and scrawny body alarmed me," says Jane D., mother of three, including Simon, adopted as an infant.

Once assured he was fine, Jane relaxed.

"I noticed his very blue eyes, his calm gaze, his silly tuft of hair. I wondered if they were really going to let us keep him, something so tiny and precious."

Jane says the experience of meeting Simon was very different from giving birth.

"I didn't think about myself at all when meeting him. I just marveled," she explains. "With my belly babies, both girls, I immediately wondered who they looked like, what traits they would have inherited. Even now, I'm less likely to have expectations for how or who Simon should be. I don't take his flaws personally and really just wonder at the wonderful person he is."

Next: Adoption felt very much like birth ... you wait for months!

For Matt Borst and wife Stacey, parents of five kids, adopting felt very much like a birth, "in the sense that you've waited for months to meet this child, and we were very excited," Borst says. "We were just as in love, committed, and full of anticipation. The only difference is that our children were toddler age, and so we were not the beginning of their life—and we recognized that they had a life and history before we met them."

"[I felt] humbled that we were entrusted to love and care for these children," Borst says of his first days with his kids. "Joy and surreal amazement that were finally seeing our children in person instead of just looking at their pictures and trying to imagine their voice, laugh and personality."

The older children have traveled with their parents to China and Uganda, tending to orphans and helping to bring home their siblings. Borst recalls that his 5-year-old son acclimated slowly to the family, first playing cars and then soccer with them.

"He loves to hear us tell him about our first night together and how we stared at his cute little toes once he was asleep. He loves to watch videos of our first day meeting him," Borst says.

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