Just inside Chad and Erin Oban’s Bismarck home sets a small storage bench. A row of neatly organized trucks, trailers and other toy vehicles line each shelf. It is no surprise a busy 3-year-old boy lives here, too.
The Obans’ son, Evin Liam, has developed a friendship with the city’s waste management staff and a fascination with the garbage truck they drive. On trash pickup days, Erin makes sure to crack the front door open so Evin can wave and watch his friends work. The little boy often insists on delivering muffins or other baked goods to his friends. When muffins don’t happen, oranges suffice. Evin’s friends return the kindness, offering a toy truck or a ball to play with. Sometimes, they’ve even opened their wallets to hand him a dollar or two.
“The dream is to raise a boy who’s nice. And happy,” Chad says.
Erin agrees. She recalls a recent walk with Evin where they passed by a “Little Free Pantry.” She proceeded to explain how some people need help buying food. Evin responded by saying, “We buy food for hungry people, Mom?”
“I didn’t know I was capable of loving another person this way,” Erin says, as Chad looks at her with a sense of understanding.
“It’s interesting to try to remember life before Evin. So much of everything is about him,” Chad says.
Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that the Obans’ path to parenthood was uncertain. Adoption provided the map to what the Obans knew was always meant to be.
Adoption was the way to Evin.
Before they were married, Chad and Erin had conversations about family and children. They agreed that if kids were not part of their story, that was OK. After operating as a family of two for some time, Erin and Chad thought more about children.
“We both came to the conclusion that we wanted to be parents,” Erin says.
Then, Erin had a miscarriage. They were devastated. Two months into their second pregnancy, she endured another miscarriage.
“Both were absolutely devastating. I struggled even more after the second. As the man, I was going through the emotional side of things. But as the woman, Erin also had to deal with the physical side,” Chad says. “I remember telling Erin, ‘I can’t see you like this anymore. You don’t deserve to be in pain.’”
“It’s hard and uncomfortable and confusing, but happens all too often for so many people,” Erin says.
“People don’t talk about miscarriages enough,” Chad says. “At two months along, you’ve already had those baby conversations. And then, suddenly, you’re faced with loss.”
The Obans considered their options. They knew people who had chosen both in vitro fertilization (IVF) and adoption, and they were comfortable with the idea of adoption.
“Everyone has their own way, and there is no right or wrong way to have a family,” Erin says.
Many years later, with Chad’s 40th birthday approaching and Erin’s father, Jimmy Hill, battling advanced leukemia, the couple found strength to keep pushing forward and start the adoption application process. They knew they wanted a baby and felt adoption was the best choice for their family.
‘A VERY SELFLESS THING’
The Obans were fortunate to have the help and advice of a close friend, whose law practice includes family and adoption law, through the adoption process. They chose a mid-sized agency licensed in a handful of states, so the pool of adoptive families would be smaller, and the experience would be more personal.
“(The agency staff) were really, really solid people, and most were adoptive parents themselves,” Erin says.
“They weren’t just a social worker that we met with periodically,” Chad adds.
When selecting an adoption agency, the N.D. Department of Human Services (NDDHS) tells prospective parents to understand the costs involved and be up front with questions about fees and payment schedules. Private adoption agencies charge fees of $5,000 to $11,000 or more for both domestic and inter-country adoption, according to NDDHS. These fees represent just one of the many financial costs commonly associated with adoption.
“You also help support the needs of the birth mom, too,” Chad says.
In the spring of 2015, Chad and Erin began the adoption assessment or home study phase of the process. They took their time completing the necessary requirements, including a background check, extensive training, application materials, interviews and legal matters.
One of two exercises the Obans found extremely helpful was a 100-question self-assessment. Chad and Erin completed the task separately, which asked each parent questions about their own childhood, values and discipline styles. Then, they came together to discuss differences. Another assessment helps adoptive parents identify potential hidden biases, to evaluate if they are good candidates for adopting a child of a different race.
“It made us do some self-reflecting and have real conversations. There are things you might not think about. Communicating as a couple is way different than communicating as parents,” Erin says. “In adoption, you also have other people deciding if you should be parents. It definitely made us feel like we had to be as prepared for this as we could possibly be.”
“I never doubted our ability to be parents because Erin was one of the two parents!” Chad jokes.
By December 2015, the Obans had completed the adoption assessment and began the matching phase, when agencies share adoptive family profiles with birth families, and vice versa. Chad and Erin selected an open adoption, which the Child Welfare Information Gateway defines as “a form of adoption that allows birth parents to know and have contact with the adoptive parents and the adopted child.”
In February 2016, the Obans got a call notifying them that a birth mom was interested in meeting. After an in-person visit, Chad and Erin learned they were going to be parents to a baby girl, due in May. They received regular updates and reassurances from the agency along the way, including information on the emotional and physical condition of the birth mother.
Chad says it was both a time for excitement and anxiety.
“The birth mom has the right to change her mind at any point” until post-birth parental rights are terminated, Chad says. “You try to relax and know that things are out of your control, but also prepare yourself for that, as much as you can.”
The morning before Mother’s Day and the Obans’ wedding anniversary, on May 7, 2016, the phone rang again. Their baby’s birth mom had gone into labor, but the outcome was not anything they could have anticipated. The baby was stillborn.
“We were not – not – prepared for that,” Erin says. “The pain we were feeling was awful. But I hadn’t carried the child. Knowing that we couldn’t be there to help comfort (the birth mom), that pain was indescribable.”
“The heroes that nobody talks about in these stories are the birth moms,” Chad says. “They are the mature people that are able to sit back and say, ‘I can’t do this.’”
“There’s a reason they call adoption a very selfless thing,” Erin adds.
Amidst that pain, Erin’s dad was nearing the end of his life. She would have to share the devastating news with him.
“I think part of my dad really gave up that day. He had already told me he couldn’t do it anymore, but agreed he would keep fighting until we came home with our baby. And then this happened,” Erin says.
About a week after the stillbirth, Coleen, the adoption agency director and licensed social work associate, was in town and asked to see Chad and Erin, which she had done countless time before.
“We all sat in the living room crying together, and we were just in no place to try again,” Erin says.
Coleen didn’t push the matter, but as she was leaving, she said, “I did just have a birth mom come to me that I think would be an incredible match for you guys.”
Chad and Erin took a couple of days and decided to look at the birth profile.
“For some reason (Coleen) told us about this one, and for some reason we said yes, and for some reason we got chosen again,” Erin says.
The day before Jimmy died, as he laid talking beside his daughter, just the two of them, he told her, “I just don’t feel like there’s any hope left.”
“So, I just told him, ‘We were just chosen by another birth mom. We will be parents to a little boy due in October, Dad,’” Erin says.
A few weeks after Jimmy died, Chad and Erin traveled to meet the new birth mom.
“She was brilliant, sweet and smart. She cared about politics. She was mature beyond her years. She found ways to connect with us,” Chad says.
The anxiety that something would go wrong continued through this pregnancy, but at lunch with Erin’s family on Oct. 2, 2016, they got the long-awaited call. Within a half hour, the car was loaded and they were off to Rapid City, S.D., where their baby’s birth mom was in labor.
At mile marker 158 on S.D. Highway 79, in spotty cell phone coverage, Erin got a voicemail.
Congratulations! You are a mom and dad to a healthy baby boy!
Hours later, Chad and Erin met their 8-pound baby boy, with his birth mother at their side. They named him Evin Liam, a nod to Vin Scully and in honor of Chad’s late father and N.D. state representative, William (Bill) Oban.
Scully was the voice of the L.A. Dodgers for 67 years and was calling his very last game while Evin was born. Since Chad is a diehard Dodgers fan, Erin agreed on the unusual spelling of the baby’s name.
“Nothing puts Erin to sleep better than the sound of Vin Scully’s voice!” Chad teases.
When they held Evin in their arms, everything made sense.
“Without question, Evin was supposed to be our son,” Erin says.
The new family of three spent 16 days in South Dakota waiting for the paperwork to clear so they could return home. Chad, who is the executive director of North Dakota United, says the support and flexibility offered by his “pro-family” employer during this time was exceptional.
“It’s hard for us not to think about how this timeline would affect other people who don’t have the flexibility we do. It’s partly why Erin and I are such huge proponents of paid leave for all people in the state of North Dakota,” Chad says.
A former math teacher, current director of community engagement for the Central Regional Education Association and N.D. state senator, Erin says, “Our story is not unique. Everyone has things they have to go through. No one should have to choose between job security and spending time with your new baby or a loved one during their last days.”
Chad and Erin did their best to keep the news private until the legal process was complete, but being discreet with a newborn, two doting grandmas and a large support network is not easy.
“Our network, our friends, our village … I can’t say enough. These people didn’t need to do anything, but they did. It was really cool,” Chad says.
In April 2017 during her first legislative session as a mom, Erin asked Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner for a one-time favor.
“We have court to finalize Evin’s adoption, and I really don’t want to miss a vote during floor session,” she told him. Sen. Wardner obliged the scheduling request, without question.
Before a judge and a courtroom full of family and friends, Erin and Chad legally became Evin’s parents.
“I’ve never respected more how different every family is, how unique families are. I love that everything happens in its own way,” Erin says. “Who am I to tell anyone else what ‘family’ is or what it should look like?”
‘A WORLD WE DIDN’T KNOW’
“The biggest bit of advice I can give to adoptive families is you’ve got to go with the flow. Figure out what you can control and can’t control,” Chad says.
“It’s impossible to prepare for,” Erin adds. “There is no such thing as a normal adoption.”
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
“Adoption is great. We’ve talked to other parents. Our experience was incredible. The outcome was worth every question along the way,” Chad says.
“I would never try to guess about how other people feel about parenthood. It is so enormously fulfilling, and so frustrating at times,” Erin says. “It’s given me this whole new respect for a world we didn’t know. It’s made me realize the impacts that the people around a child have on his or her life, for good or for ill. We’re so glad to have a village of amazing people supporting us and loving Evin right alongside us.”
Chad and Erin are steadfast in their determination to raise a boy who knows who he is.
“We want to make damn sure he’s empowered to be proud of who he is and knows his story,” Erin says.
For right now, that story involves toy firetrucks, reading books, morning donut dates, laughter and a whole lot of love.
Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.