Invincible Summer — a personal photo of the author’s daughter shortly after she was born, wrapped in a yellow blanket.

Invincible Summer

(Or, our adoption journey: part 2 of 3)

Erika S. Olson
18 min readOct 13, 2020


For obvious reasons, names, places and identifying characteristics have been changed. Read Part 1 here.

The day after we learned that Serena had decided to parent her son, I cleaned my guest room frantically, preparing for a well-timed visit from a group of college friends. I couldn’t wait to get my mind off the rollercoaster of the past few months and just attempt to relax with some of the women closest to me.

Over the vacuum I heard my phone ring and saw it was our adoption team. I assumed it was a condolence call now that we were back to square one.

It wasn’t.

In a cosmic twist of fate, there was another birth mother, Natalie, who had been mulling over the adoptive couples she wanted to be matched with and had finally decided. However, the couple she chose had been picked by a different birth mother the day prior.

So they gave Natalie our booklet as an additional option, and after reading it she immediately wanted to be matched. I couldn’t believe it. (But seriously our booklet was the best.)

Then our adoption representative started rattling off information — Natalie was due in a few months with a girl. A girl! I had always envisioned myself as a mom of only boys — I will admit I was nervous about this news, but could also feel excitement creeping in.

The rep went on to say that while nothing is ever guaranteed, they were almost positive that Natalie would not choose to parent because she shared joint-custody of another child with her ex, and was in a complicated situation.

“There is one thing, however…”

Here it comes, I thought. The other shoe is about to drop.

“Natalie has been going to rehab for opioid addiction since she found out she was pregnant. She feels awful about this and is terrified no one will want to be matched with her.”

There it was. My heart dropped.

Ten months prior

“Would you be willing to adopt from a birth mother who has substance abuse issues?” our attorney asked.

During the three-hour meeting where my husband and I responded to dozens of adoption scenarios we would or would not be OK with, this was the easiest question yet.

“No — that’s actually my nightmare,” I replied. Case closed. Next question!

The lawyer looked at me with the facial-expression-equivalent of “Oh you sweet, naïve child.”

She went on to explain that a significant percentage of adoption opportunities would be closed off to us if we held firm on this one. She said that most birth mothers smoked, and that many would have addiction issues.

I felt sick. This entire meeting was just seriously, seriously messed up in the first place. When someone has a biological child, they “get what they get,” for lack of a better phrase. Going through what seemed like an unending list of possible physical issues and mental-health risks and potential future diseases that are known to run in a birth mother or father’s family seemed wrong — like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie where you could splice bad stuff out of a baby’s genetic code. What made it worse is that every lawyer we met with as we learned about adoption tried to joke about this aspect of the process, commenting that getting to say no to certain scenarios was the silver lining, or comfort prize, of it all. It was clear they assumed we would’ve preferred to have another biological child and that adopting was somehow “less than.” It infuriated me.

But I still had to answer the questions. As I mentioned in Part 1, I have a Type A personality and like (read: need) to control things. What’s more, in middle school, I watched as my beloved grandpa lost his battle with lung cancer, and as a result I have never even smoked a cigarette much less taken any drugs (I’m the life of the party, clearly). Now I had to wrap my head around not only NOT having any control whatsoever over this process, but also actually accepting that our birth mother could be doing things that would harm the baby.

I wouldn’t budge. My husband already knew I wouldn’t budge on this, and the lawyer didn’t keep pushing, as I think she could see it would be a losing battle and that my brain was about to short-circuit. But she did say that when the time came to actually start the matching process, we should rethink this stance and take adoption opportunities on a case-by-case basis. She encouraged us to never say no to anything upfront — we should always at least have a conversation with the birth mother before closing the door.

All I could think was, “She doesn’t know me. There’s no way.”

What happened in between

While it seemed like overkill at the time, since we already had a child, one of the best things the state of Illinois requires adoptive parents to do is to attend hours and hours of online and virtual training, as I mentioned briefly in Part 1. The sessions include panels with adults who had been adopted as babies or children, panels with birth mothers, panels with adoptive parents, lessons on how to respond when people make rude or ignorant comments about adoption or a child who looks differently from you, lessons on how to talk to your child about the fact they were adopted (spoiler alert: start immediately before they have memories, so it’s just something they’ve always known and not something they find out later like it was a shameful secret), and educational sessions on every kind of substance imaginable — from caffeine to nicotine to pot to cocaine — and how much was actually known about what those substances would do to a fetus in utero.

We read articles our adoption team sent us about the “crack baby” phenomenon of the ’80s and ‘90s — my formative decades. I remember the media coverage so vividly. It was terrifying. Those headlines and stories shaped untold millions of Americans’ views and assumptions about babies who are born into addiction.

Except, almost none of the awful predictions made in these stories, which weren’t based on actual medical studies, came to pass, as covered in this 2009 New York Times article entitled “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.”

Worse, when I read some of the ’80s and ’90s media coverage about “crack babies” now, it’s so very clearly racist, especially when compared to journalism about the opioid epidemic of present day, as this Atlantic article covers. The media demonized both Black crack-addicted mothers and their Black children, who they insinuated would surely grow up to become criminals and super-predators. However, the opioid crisis affects mostly white Middle America, and is portrayed empathetically as an epidemic of despair.

As my husband and I educated ourselves, I realized how much of my apprehension about adopting a baby who would be born addicted was based on false information. The reality is, smoking and alcohol abuse (abuse, not having a glass of wine here and there) wreaked worse havoc in utero and resulted in more long-term effects than some hardcore drugs. It was the opposite of everything I had ever assumed … the opposite of what years of hearing about crack babies had led me to believe. While of course drugs and pregnancy are a dangerous, potentially life-threatening combination, now I knew exactly what we were dealing with, and it was not that worst-case scenario.

Natalie’s situation involved opioid abuse. When I told this story to a friend of mine, he admitted that he didn’t understand what opioids were in the first place, and if I hadn’t gone through this experience, I wouldn’t have either. So let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. Opioids are a class of drug that includes heroin, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and pain-relief pills available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and many others.

Some opioids, like heroin, can be in powder form. But when you read about “the opioid crisis” in the US, that’s mostly referring to the abuse of highly addictive prescription pain-relief pills like Oxycontin and Vicodin.

As I would come to learn later, Natalie had been a great student who sang in her church choir and had a promising future. She had started college and was interning at a children’s medical office. Until her own mother got her — and her sibling — addicted to pain pills. Natalie’s mom gave Natalie the pills to help with period cramps. And continued to supply them out of her prescription she’d been getting renewed for years for back pain.

Decision time

“Natalie has been going to rehab for opioid addiction since she found out she was pregnant. She feels awful about this and is terrified no one will want to be matched with her.”

No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no nooooooooooooooooo!

“Are you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” I replied.

“Natalie would love to talk with you as soon as possible. Could you call her right now?” our adoption contact said.

After conferring with my husband, we decided to follow the attorney’s advice from 10 months prior. I would talk with Natalie and see how it went. We could always say we didn’t want to be matched.

And so I called her.

My immediate impression was that she came off like a kindergarten teacher. So, so, so incredibly sweet. To my surprise, she brought up her addiction. About how she had stopped taking pills the second she found out she was pregnant, and about how she was now on the lowest possible dose of methadone in an outpatient rehab program to control her addiction.

I assured her we were well-educated about all of it and that she didn’t need to worry.

But I did need to worry.

We hung up, and I sobbed. I knew we would say yes to the match. But I just couldn’t believe the adoption scenario I most feared was actually happening. The difference between that moment and ten months prior, however, was that we were now armed with knowledge. We now knew we would most certainly go through withdrawal hell after Baby Girl (as Natalie called her) was delivered. But we also knew that, unlike many other substances, once opioids were out of a newborn’s system, the worst was likely over. Once Baby Girl made it through her methadone withdrawal, the odds were that there would be no lasting side effects of her opioid exposure. It had only been minutes and I already felt my protective instincts kicking in. We were going to do this. We would make sure Baby Girl was OK.

You might be wondering why Natalie was taking methadone as part of her rehab, since methadone IS an opioid. Let me explain.

Real talk: As a huge Breaking Bad fan, when I first heard the word “methadone,” I assumed it was some form of crystal meth. Short for methamphetamine, meth is in the same class of drugs as cocaine: stimulants. Those drugs can be devastating for developing fetuses. But they’re totally different from opioids.

Methadone is an opioid that has the effect of blocking the high from other opioids. That’s why it’s used for addiction treatment, though it’s not without controversy. Natalie would go into her clinic every day and get a dropper of methadone in her mouth. This was to avoid using a pill, which can be triggering for addicts. Methadone had similar effects to the pills Natalie had been addicted to, but was administered at a very low dose. Just the amount that would prevent her from relapsing and wanting something stronger.

For that reason, it was important that she stay on methadone while she was pregnant. If someone who is using opioids while pregnant suddenly stops, they could lose the pregnancy. It could cause more problems — fetal distress, miscarriage, birth defects — than if the low-dose treatment continued until delivery.

And so we accepted the match and I had to do something I’m not very good at: trust that other people knew what they were doing. I had to trust Natalie’s doctor had drawn up the best treatment plan for her. I had to trust that Natalie would go to the rehab facility every day. I had to trust that she would take her prenatal vitamins. I had to trust that she would go to her OB appointments. I had already learned from our initial match with Serena that I was going to have to let go of my controlling instincts as much as possible.

I aged 10 years in a matter of months. We met with Natalie several times. Sometimes it was both my husband and me … other times just me. We also met with Jon, Baby Girl’s birth father. He grew up in a strict and religious family, and seemed in disbelief that this was all happening. He and Natalie had stopped seeing each other, but they did communicate. Natalie warned us that he likely wouldn’t even say five words. But we bonded over Game of Thrones and had a nice lunch with him. (As you may remember, Serena and Kevin were GOT fans as well — and now both Natalie and Jon were, too. Who knew this series would turn out to be such an adoption icebreaker for us? Which is why it will always have a special place in my heart. Yep, even after that pretty awful final season.)

Sympathy for the devil

When we matched with Natalie and Jon, we received self-reported medical and background information sheets on both of them. One section read, “Is there anything you wish you could change about yourself?” Natalie answered, “If I could go back in time, I would have never taken any pills. I wouldn’t have some of my family close to me. I wish I could change my addiction.”

I oozed hatred for her mother, the woman responsible for Natalie’s addiction.

But then, one day I had planned to meet with Natalie alone for lunch. I got there early and had just parked in back of the restaurant when I saw a text light up my phone.

“Hey my mom is with me. She just wants to meet you. She won’t stay.”

I don’t know how to describe the immediate physical reaction I had to Natalie’s text. There’s panicking… and then there’s PANICKING. I broke out in a full body sweat. My face and skin got red and splotchy. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I called my husband. “I can’t do this. I cannot meet this evil woman. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

But I knew I couldn’t bail on the lunch. I then had some sort of out-of-body experience where it was like I became Cher from Moonstruck and literally slapped myself across my own face and yelled “SNAP OUT OF IT!” … still in the driver’s seat of my car in the back parking lot.

I told myself I was about to give an Oscar-winning performance. Little did I know it would not be the last one required of me in the months ahead. I put on some makeup and tried to calm my shakiness and walked to the front of the restaurant.

Thankfully I spotted them in the parking lot and had a few moments to compose myself and get over my shock. Natalie just waved and yelled “I’ll see you inside!” and disappeared. Her mom came straight toward me.

She was not the horrible lowlife I had envisioned. She looked 30 years older than she actually was, and walked slowly with a cane, hunched over in baggy clothes. She came up to me with a look of immense sorrow and regret, eyes brimming with tears. She hugged me and whispered “Thank you” quietly in my ear. And then she turned around and shuffled away.

I said nothing. Did nothing. I just stood there, and could’ve been knocked over by a feather. Another assumption proven wrong.

The second performance

Natalie went into labor a few days before her due date, and we made it to the hospital in time. I pulled one of the incredible nurses, whom I’ll call Alison, aside to ensure she knew that Natalie was in rehab. Alison said the entire team was aware, and that within three days it would be clear if Baby Girl had neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is the term for when a baby is born addicted to opioids and experiences symptoms of withdrawal.

Just a few hours after we arrived, Baby Girl made her grand entrance. I was the first to hold her, skin to skin, immediately after she was born. (I didn’t even get to do that with my son, as I’d had an emergency C-section.) Time seemed to stop. She was here! She was perfect.

The author and her daughter Summer a few hours after Summer’s birth.
Me and Summer a few hours after Summer’s birth

The next day, one of Natalie’s friends came to visit. Natalie’s friend was also an addict. She had several children born into addiction who suffered various related health problems — two of them were with her. Right in front of me, she tried to convince Natalie not to go through with the adoption, promising to help take care of the baby and pressing Natalie to ensure she’d really thought it all through.

I’ve enjoyed a decade-long career as a film critic and movie blogger, so I can assure you I have the deepest respect for the likes of Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Viola Davis, Regina King and the other best actresses of our time. But I put them all to shame that day, sitting there doing my best not to react, just feet away from this woman trying to talk Natalie into parenting the baby we’d decided to name Summer. But Natalie never once wavered in her decision. I just stared down at the floor and kept silent.

And then the third morning arrived.

The angels

Alison woke us up in the visitors’ overnight room. “She’s being transferred to the NICU.”

My heart sank. I knew it would happen, but nonetheless I’d clung to a shred of hope because Summer seemed fine. However, during those first few days, her little body was simply burning off the drugs it had stored up. Now that her supply was depleted, she started to exhibit signs of NAS.

It isn’t what you think. At least it wasn’t for Summer. I had such awful visions in my mind of what a baby going through withdrawal would look like. I’m sure you have awful thoughts in your head right now, too. But it’s all very subtle. Extra sneezing. Higher temperatures. Explosive poos. Yawning. Tight muscles.

The only thing, in retrospect, that I would still recognize in an instant was the cry. It is not a normal cry. It is a unique, high-pitched cry. I’ve heard it only once since Summer’s been born — I honestly don’t remember where I was at the time and I never actually saw the baby who had made this cry, but I do remember stopping dead in my tracks and feeling my whole body go cold. It is a terrible, terrible sound. But it’s only terrible after you know what it is. When Summer was born, we just thought that was her cry because we hadn’t heard anything else from her.

What the nurses — or the angels, as I will forever call them — do is watch for all of the symptoms I mentioned above and they rate them on a scale every three hours. Once a baby gets a certain number of points three times in a row, they immediately start treatment, which involves a dropper of morphine squirted into the baby’s mouth every three hours. The goal is to eventually lower the morphine dose until the baby has been completely off of it for 48 hours with no NAS symptoms. They told us to prepare to be in the NICU for up to five weeks.

At that point, we couldn’t keep our secret anymore. We had not told our families that Natalie had been in rehab while she was pregnant, or what that would mean for Summer. After our match with Serena fell through, we still figured there was a chance that things wouldn’t work out with Natalie, and so why freak anyone out? But the adoption papers had been signed, and we needed to figure out who could help watch our son for that long.

I had to calm myself down before each call I made. I knew every member of our extended family would love Summer no matter what. That was never a worry. But I remembered all the misconceptions I had. I remembered all the judgments I had made. I remembered how years of messaging in the media had ironically resulted in me being ill-informed.

Yet as with many things in life, people can surprise you. Everyone was supportive. Some friends had suspected something was up, but my husband and I felt nothing but love.

And so we dug in. We stayed at the hospital with Summer about 18 hours a day, but the nurses urged us to take a break and sleep in an actual bed every night.

The author and her daughter Summer in the NICU room.
Me and Summer in the NICU room

Now comes the time when I thank Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Hart and The X-Files team, as I would hold Summer and watch stand-up routines and old episodes of my favorite series hour after hour on my iPad. I had headphones in and I remember a few times I laughed so hard that I would wake her up from all of my stomach-heaving. Is it weird that I have fond memories of such a tough time?

All you need is love

They told us Summer’s withdrawal would take five weeks. Instead, it lasted fifteen days. The care team — many of whom are considered national experts on NAS and travel the country training hospital staff in cities where the opioid epidemic is raging — wanted to use our experience as anecdotal evidence. They believed the reason why Summer went through her withdrawal much more quickly than expected is because we were simply there, holding her and loving on her for 18 hours per day. The type of research they, and others, were doing around the country has led to drastic changes in the treatment of babies suffering from NAS in the years since Summer was born.

After her withdrawal, Summer never showed any other effects of being exposed to opioids. If there were going to be health problems — trouble hearing, certain vision issues and developmental delays are the more common ones — they would mostly likely appear in early childhood. She has been tested several times and, thankfully, everything has checked out. We know we are lucky. (Summer does wear glasses, but that’s due to a genetic issue shared with Jon.)

Both Jon and Natalie came to visit Summer in the NICU. We snapped a picture of us all together. Summer has seen this picture, and — per our adoption training — we’ve told her about Jon and Natalie since day one. She knows she was in Natalie’s belly, and that Natalie loved her very much and picked Mommy and Daddy to be her parents. Summer’s two favorite stuffed animals are the ones Natalie bought for her. We have stuck to our promise to send email updates and tons of pictures to Jon and Natalie on an agreed-upon schedule. We dressed up as Game of Thrones characters for Summer’s first Halloween as a nod to them. Jon said he framed the picture. I’ll provide an update on Natalie in Part 3.

Halloween pic of author as Daenerys Targaryen, her husband as Khal Drogo, and her children as dragons from Game of Thrones.
Our Halloween nod to Jon and Natalie

Our story has a happy ending. But there was another baby in the NICU whose stay overlapped with ours — he was already there when we arrived. He did not have a parent present. The nurses took turns holding and feeding him. We each had our own little windowless room, so I only caught a glimpse of him a few times per day, but I was there when his birth mother came in to spend the required 24 hours before being allowed to take him home. That was the only time I saw her.

After the other baby went home with his mother, the nurses told me horrible things. They told me about seeing stories on the news about children they had once helped. Children who ended up being abused, hurt, or worse. I could not imagine. I could not witness this heartbreak day in and day out. Like I said, these nurses are angels.

This is the part where I remind everyone that there are almost 443,000 children in the United States foster care system right now — up for the fifth year straight, with the increase being attributed to the opioid epidemic. I fear what the 2020 numbers will be, considering the pandemic, a related spike in opioid-related deaths, record unemployment and unprecedented economic devastation. And of course there are also god-knows-how-many children in abusive homes with birth parents who didn’t want them but would never pursue adoption.

Perhaps our leaders — and we as a society — should prioritize helping these families and these children before championing policies and laws that would lead to exponentially more children suffering?

What’s in a name?

Summer has always known that she is loved by many, many people. But eventually the time will come when we’ll have to tell her the whole story about the first few weeks of her life and about Natalie’s addiction. I dread that day, but I am thankful for the resources I have to prepare us for it. I know it’s coming even sooner than I realize. For now, though, I will remain in awe of my little girl and all she has already overcome.

My husband and I had loved the name “Summer” ever since we watched The O.C., where Rachel Bilson played a character by that name. But I’m also a collector of inspirational quotes (yeah, I know it’s cheesy). The circumstances of Summer’s birth brought a whole new meaning to one of my all-time favorites, from Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus. We gave a bracelet inscribed with this quote to Natalie, and Summer has this quote framed on her wall.

It reads, “… in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

The full Albert Camus quote referenced in the post, with the “invincible summer” sentence highlighted.

Continue on to Part 3.



Erika S. Olson

Author and freelance writer. Film critic and movie blogger. Fan of all things pop culture.