Nestled in the corner of White Rock Coffee, Whitney Kielwasser bravely tells the story of how she and her husband fulfilled their dream of becoming parents. She hasn’t told the story in a while, so as she reveals the details of their long journey towards parenthood, she’s understandably emotional. It’s a combination of sad and happy tears as she talks about her daughter Maria’s diagnosis and reflects upon the tiny miracles they celebrate each day.
Kielwasser and her husband endured eight years of failed fertility treatments (one round of intrauterine insemination, two rounds of in vitro fertilization) and several trips to Ukraine to finally become adoptive parents to 2 ½-year-old Maria.
The story doesn’t end there. After Kielwasser and her husband brought Maria back to the United States, they discovered their new daughter had fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD), something the adoption agency in Ukraine was not aware of.
More than 10 years later, despite all the hardships, Kielwasser has taken Maria’s diagnosis in stride and is now an expert on FASD.
Special Needs: Did you always know you wanted to be a mom? Whitney Kielwasser: Yes, absolutely, that’s why we tried for so long.
After the failed fertility treatments, did you want to give up trying? No, it wasn’t really a consideration. We just knew that our next step was adoption and luckily had some other friends who had already gone down that path.
You adopted Maria from Ukraine instead of someone in the United States, why was that? When we decided to adopt, we started looking locally and thought we would foster to adopt. The process was intense, but it just didn’t work out for us. The idea of adopting internationally became appealing because we wanted to be free from any local ties with the birth parents.
What led you to adopt in Ukraine? We knew someone who had adopted a child from Ukraine and had a great experience. We were able to give the agency our specifications, and they would match you up a child they had in their program.
What were your specifications? I didn’t really care about gender, but my husband really wanted a girl. We both wanted her to be as young and healthy as possible.
You mentioned the adoption process took four years, why was that? Well, it took several visits over there to visit with the agency, and then there is a ton of paperwork, called your dossier, that you have to fill out when adopting. The dossier has strict timelines it has to be reviewed within, and we had the deadline run out on us several times.
When you brought Maria home, did you suspect that she had any health conditions? The agency in Ukraine had told us Maria had rickets, which is caused by a vitamin D deficiency, but that was all.
When did you discover that Maria had FASD? Our first visit to our pediatrician. He looked at her and immediately suspected FASD because of some of Maria’s facial features that are common with the diagnosis. He referred us to a geneticist who confirmed the diagnosis.
How much did you know about FASD at the time?Nothing but I immediately began doing my research. There’s not a whole lot of awareness about FAS in the community.
Were you angry or resentful about Maria’s diagnosis? No, not really. I had much more resentment and anger when we were going through the fertility process. Ukraine is a beautiful country, but it’s so impoverished, and the people there just don’t have the resources or education like we do. I don’t think they had any idea there was so much wrong with her.
What are the qualities of someone with FASD? FASD causes brain damage, which leads to developmental and emotional delays and oftentimes, many challenging behaviors. Maria’s impulsive and doesn’t understand consequences. It can be impossible to reason with her. She’s also very distractible and can have big mood swings. But, she’s so physically healthy and strong, and we’re so grateful for that.
How have you coped with Maria’s diagnosis? I’m hard on myself. I’m always wondering whether I’m doing what’s best for her. It can be easy to go negative because of all the uncertainties of what her future will look like. I have to remember to focus on the joy of the little things.
What is day-to-day life like with Maria? It’s very uncertain. I’m always on edge because I don’t know how she’s going to react in certain situations. We went to CVS the other day, and she got scared by some stuffed animals and had a meltdown, so we immediately had to leave.
You changed Maria’s birthday four years after bringing her home—why is that? She was just so developmentally delayed, we wanted to give her a chance to catch up. I researched and learned it wasn’t the first time adoptive parents had done that before. So, we readopted her through Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth and changed her birthday from November 15, 2005, to November 15, 2007.
What will Maria’s future look like? It’s so uncertain. She will definitely need long-term assistance. We have made a will and made my niece the executor so she can make decisions for Maria once we are gone.
Have you connected with other parents whose children have FASD? We have. There’s an FASD parent support group that’s held every month. The children are much older than Maria, so it can be tough to hear about the struggles their children are having, like running away or getting in trouble with the law.
Before having Maria, did you envision having a large family? Not really. The process to get her took so long that we figured we would just have one. We had told the agency we would take siblings if they were available. Sometimes I do wish Maria had a sibling because I think it would help with her social skills.
Do you think Maria knows she’s different? Yes, and it makes my heart so heavy. She’s asked me what’s wrong with her before, and I tell her nothing. I struggle with that. I haven’t sat her down yet and explained her diagnosis, but I do want her to have a better understanding.
Does Maria know she’s adopted? Yes, we talk about going back to visit. But there’s no deep thinking from her there; she’s never asked about her mom.
You still have two part-time jobs, in addition to being a mom full time. How do you balance those things? I have worked really hard to make them manageable. Maria is in school all day, so I teach my classes at the YMCA in the mornings, and my job as an assistant to a real estate agent is very flexible. I love all the people I work with so that really helps.
Hails from Baton Rouge
Lives in The Preston Hollow area of Dallas
Alma mater Louisiana State University
Significant other Her husband of 30 years, who came to LSU on a wrestling scholarship
Sibling Younger sister, Arden, who lives in Austin and older brother, Brad, in Atlanta
Offspring Maria, 12
Previous career Worked in the title business
Current career Part-time Pilates instructor at the YMCA and part-time assistant to a real estate agent
Don’t hold it against her She’s an LSU and Saints fan