When she got the call, Lindsay told herself not to get excited. So many things could still go wrong. Remember what happened last time?
But she couldn't help it. Her heart was racing, her stomach tight. When she told her husband, her voice shook, "The baby is coming."
Three states away, a woman they had never met was in labor.
If they drove all night from Franklin, Tenn., they might get to the Florida hospital in time for the birth of the boy they hoped would become their son.
Josh Lee, 29, started loading the new SUV. Stroller and folding swing, car seat, bouncy seat, a bag of board books: Good Dog, Carl, The Napping House.
Lindsay Lee, 30, raced upstairs to the nursery and picked up the suitcase filled with tiny socks, blankets and crocheted caps. Then she shouldered the paisley diaper bag, which had been waiting for five years.
They headed toward the highway, through the dark, in an ice storm, swaddled in silence. They prayed that the baby would be okay. And that this birth mother wouldn't change her mind.
• • •
The only thing Lindsay ever wanted to be was a mom. At age 4, she loved feeding her Baby Alive doll and singing her to sleep. She started volunteering in the church nursery when she was 10.
At the University of Tennessee, Lindsay studied education and psychology — and met Josh. That first night, they talked until dawn. He told her he was going to become a lawyer. She told him she was going to have four kids.
"I married her anyway," Josh joked. His dad had never really been part of his life, so he had always wanted to be one. He looked forward to throwing a baseball with his son, taking him camping, building him a tree fort.
"It was never, 'If we become parents,' " Lindsay said. "It was when."
They waited until Josh graduated from Vanderbilt Law School and became a lawyer for the city of Nashville, until they moved into Lindsay's childhood home, with four bedrooms. They painted the sunniest one the color of cantaloupe and set up a crib.
Right away, she got pregnant, in 2010. She told everyone and bought the paisley diaper bag. At five weeks, she miscarried and couldn't stop crying. No problem, said the doctor. Try again.
Three months later, she was pregnant with twins. She lost them, too. Three babies gone. Then four.
All that time, Lindsay was taking care of other people's children as a preschool teacher, going to friends' baby showers. And — worst of all — having to endure everyone asking: So when are you going to have your own kids? She kept wanting to scream, "We're trying!"
After a couple of years, Lindsay became a high school counselor. Several of the girls were pregnant, pondering abortions. They didn't want their babies, while she wanted one so badly.
She went to specialists, got pregnant again, and miscarried. Doctors prescribed blood-thinners, vitamins, fish oil. She quit her job and started doing yoga. When she got pregnant again, she tried not to get attached.
When she lost her sixth child, one doctor told her, "You're only 29. There's still plenty of time." Another told her to stop trying.
After miscarriage number 7, she was done.
She considered surrogacy, consulted a foster agency and ultimately decided to adopt. Maybe some child would need her as much as she needed to be a mom.
She and Josh wanted an infant. They landed on a website for Lifetime Adoption, a national company with an office in Tarpon Springs. Linsday liked that they advocated for open adoptions and let pregnant women pick the parents for their children.
They had a home study done, filled out financial statements and questionnaires.
Then the agency asked them to make a scrapbook to sell themselves to birth moms.
• • •
For many, being a parent is an aching need. In the United States, people spent close to $1 billion on fertility treatments and surrogacy in 2013, government figures show. Adoption costs vary; 51,000 children were adopted that same year.
But how can you put a price on parenthood? Without a child, Lindsay thought she would never feel whole.
Linda Rotz, director at Lifetime Adoption, told Lindsay and Josh they would need to pay about $25,000 to cover medical and legal expenses, and up to $5,000 to help the birth mother.
Some of the pregnant women are living on the streets, or just getting out of jail. The adoption fees help them get apartments, health care and food.
"Once the baby is born, the birth mother has 48 hours to sign the consent," Rotz told Linsday. "If the birth mother changes her mind, she has to pay back that part."
How often does that happen? Lindsay wanted to know. "All the time," Rotz said.
• • •
They started with yellow paper, happy and hopeful, sea-green ribbon to bind the scrapbook. They sat on the grass for the cover photo, both wearing jeans. "Dear Birth Mother," Lindsay typed on the front. "We are a fun-loving, young couple from Tennessee that cannot wait to become first-time parents."
Inside, they included 16 pages of pictures of themselves at football games, biking and tubing in the snow. Playgrounds and parks, a neighborhood pool. Their dogs swimming in the nearby river.
They hoped the birth mother would see how fun they were, how ready they were to be parents.
The final pages of the booklet were testimonials. "They will build forts and play dress up," wrote Lindsay's mom. "Their child will be the first grandchild on both sides of the family."
Lindsay made 60 copies in July and braced herself for the wait.
• • •
By September, they had a match — a woman from Florida who had seen their scrapbook. Lindsay called her and in November, drove down to meet her. The baby was due Christmas Eve. The birth mom invited Lindsay and Josh to be there.
Lindsay's friends threw her a shower.
In mid December, the birth mother's sister called. The baby was coming early. So Josh and Lindsay packed the car.
They had made it almost to Atlanta, when the lady from the adoption agency called. The baby had been born. The birth mom was taking him home.
During the long drive back to Tennessee, after hours of crying, Lindsay said softly, "You can't blame her. I mean, what mother could give up her child?"
• • •
The agency called again a month later. A Florida couple had picked their profile. Their baby was due Feb. 22. The same due date of Lindsay's last baby.
In a few days, Lindsay got a profile of the birth parents, 32 pages. No pictures.
The mother was Tiffany, a 26-year-old "phone rep." Blue eyes, 5 feet 5, 220 pounds. Her favorite color was pink. She quit school in 10th grade, but wanted "to get a GED and get into nursing." This was her seventh pregnancy — the same number Lindsay had lost.
Frankie, the father, had just turned 20. Brown hair, brown eyes, 5 feet 4, 190 pounds. He smoked cigarettes and weed and had been arrested for car theft. He had graduated high school and was studying to be a mechanic.
On the question "What would you like your child to know about you?" he had written, "That I wanted the best for her/him."
Lindsay and Josh knew the pitfalls, knew the birth mother had no prenatal care. But they wanted to be parents so badly.
The birth father called the next night. And the next week: The baby was hiccupping.
The birth mother refused to talk to them. She didn't want them to become real. But after the adoption agency arranged an ultrasound, and she saw the child curled inside her, she called Lindsay and told her, "He's beautiful."
• • •
On the dark highway, on that night in February, the ice had frozen in uneven sheets. An hour into their trip, Josh slid into a guardrail. All the baby gear rattled in the back.
He climbed out, saw the Pathfinder's smashed side, then got back behind the wheel.
They raced on through the night, saw the sun rise over the state line, counted the hours until they would get to the hospital. Then they turned the radio to a kids' station and started singing Disney tunes.
When she called to let them know she was in labor, Tiffany told herself not to sound emotional. She could do this, do the right thing. Remember what happened last time?
But she couldn't help it. Her heart hurt. When she told her boyfriend, her voice shook, "They're on their way."
Three states away, a woman she had never met was coming to get her son.
They hurried to the hospital from their house in Holiday, Tiffany Taylor moaning as Frankie Boccia steered his old Buick through the dark. On the dashboard he had taped the blurry ultrasound photo of their baby.
They took a single backpack, a couple of T-shirts and shorts. No diaper bag. No baby clothes.
At least this time when some stranger came to get their child, it would be someone they chose.
They hoped they could go through with this. They had two days to change their minds.
• • •
Tiffany never meant to be a mom. She loved her own mom and said she had a great childhood. But after her parents divorced when she was 15, she got pregnant. "Maybe I was searching for something?" She watched her mom struggle to raise her, her two younger sisters, and her infant, Joshua.
She dropped out of high school; her mom taught her to give sponge baths. She had fun playing with the baby, but by the time her son started kindergarten, she had left him with her mom — and had a second son, Kaleb, with a different dad.
Her next boyfriend gave her two more boys and beat them. Since she failed to protect her kids, social workers gave her a case plan, sent her to parenting and substance abuse classes, helped her find a job serving pizza.
She moved back in with her mom and tried to take care of four boys, under age 8. "I kept working, and working my case plan, all that time," she said. "But when I failed a drug test, they came and took all my kids."
For a while, Tiffany was paralyzed with guilt and worry. She kept calling foster agencies, trying to find out where her sons were. She knew they must be so scared, and that it was her fault.
Finally, her sister adopted the two oldest boys, ages 9 and 5. Tiffany sees them some weekends.
An aunt in Georgia took the two youngest, who are still toddlers. When she can afford to, Tiffany sends them packages sealed with kisses. She knows they've probably forgotten she's their mom.
• • •
"Man, you're so beautiful!" Frankie called across the trailer park the first time he saw Tiffany. She had auburn hair and aqua eyes. No one had ever told her she was beautiful.
Frankie had just gotten out of juvie for stealing a backpack with a gun in it. Tiffany was coming home to an empty house, after losing her four kids.
They played pool all night. She showed him the stars tattooed on her left wrist, one for each son. He told her about the three teardrops inked below his left eye. "I didn't kill anyone," he told her. "Those are for people I lost."
Each wrist had a script name. "My dad's kids," Frankie explained. "I never want kids of my own." He and his brothers had been taken from their mom when he was 5; he had filtered through 50 homes until his dad got out of prison and came to get him, when he was 9. "I'd never want to screw up and put anyone else through that," he said.
Two weeks later, Frankie moved in with Tiffany. "Things just happened so fast," she said. "We were being dumb."
When she told Frankie she was pregnant, he cursed. Then he started to get excited. He was 18, time to man up and be a dad.
Their daughter, Adrianna, has Tiffany's aqua eyes. Tiffany had never had a daughter, and kept stroking her strawberry curls.
After Tiffany went back to work, and applied for Medicaid, the social worker called. Since she had lost her other kids, this baby was supposed to be under state supervision, too.
"A bunch of cop cars came to the house," Tiffany said. Frankie's dad and stepmom took the baby so she wouldn't have to go into foster care.
Every night, Tiffany and Frankie drive to his dad's house, put their daughter into her PJs and sing, Twinkle, twinkle. Then they go home.
• • •
Last summer, when Tiffany got pregnant for the seventh time, they didn't tell anyone. She knew what everyone would say, and that she'd lose this child, too. She didn't want to be judged. She didn't know what to do.
She couldn't afford an abortion. She knew their families couldn't take any more of her kids. And that it would take months, maybe years, to complete her case plan, so this baby would be sent to some state-sanctioned strangers. She didn't go to a doctor because then the social worker would know.
Tiffany wore a baggy hoodie all the time, so no one would notice. Sometimes, she and Frankie talked about the life growing inside her. Usually they didn't.
Then one day, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Frankie was driving home from school when he saw a sign on U.S. 19 in New Port Richey, in a strip mall between a nail salon and pawn shop: Lifetime Adoption.
He turned into the parking lot, sat for a while, thinking. "Then I tied my boots, buttoned my shirt and stepped up to the plate," he said. Later, he told Tiffany, "The ladies there said we didn't have to make any decision, just think about it."
Tiffany had never considered adoption. How could she not know where her baby was, or who was raising him? But her favorite TV Teen Mom, Catelynn, had given up her baby in an open adoption, so she could get pictures and maybe even see her one day. "She did it for all the right reasons," Tiffany told Frankie.
A few days later, she got a package: 30 scrapbooks from people who wanted to be parents, stories of infertility and longing.
Tiffany made three piles: Yes, No, Maybe. She wanted a stable couple, married at least six years. A nice house but nothing fancy. She wouldn't let her kid be raised by snobs. Pets were good. But no other children. Her baby should get all the attention.
Tiffany chose a couple on the other side of Florida, but when they saw her and Frankie's background, they declined.
So Tiffany dived back into the scrapbooks and saw the cheery yellow paper, the young couple in jeans. Married seven years, picture book house, but not too showy. Two dogs, no other children. Seven miscarriages — as many as she'd had pregnancies.
"And she's going to quit her job and be a stay-home mom," Tiffany told Frankie.
They had never known one of those.
• • •
After three hours of labor, after delivering the baby before the doctor could get there, Tiffany wanted to hold her son. She touched his round nose and counted his toes.
His head was fringed with black fuzz; his eyes dark and wide, like his dad's. He rested on her elbow, looking up at her.
She had to turn away.
"Do you want me to take him and clean him up?" asked the nurse. Tiffany nodded.
Frankie went outside to call Lindsay. "He came fast," he said, choking on the words. "Seven pounds, 12 ounces."
In Room 804, Tiffany sat alone, drowning in her thoughts. She turned on the TV for a distraction — on came 19 Kids and Counting. They all looked so content, one big happy family.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Frankie asked when he came back. Tiffany didn't answer.
• • •
Lindsay and Josh got to the hospital just after 9 a.m., after more than 12 hours on the road. In the lobby, the lady from the adoption agency was waiting.
"Everything's good," she told them. "It's just, well, it's all very emotional."
"I'm terrified," said Lindsay. "I know they have every right to change their minds."
They rode the elevator to the maternity wing.
Frankie opened the door slowly, his head hidden in a hoodie. Josh stuck out his hand. "Congratulations," he said. "We're so glad to finally meet you."
Frankie looked him over, saw the kind eyes and rumpled shirt. "So you're real," he told Josh. "We weren't so sure you were real."
Tiffany sat in bed, trying to smile.
Right then, a nurse rolled in a bassinet with a bundled white blanket and asked, "Does anybody want to feed him?"
Tiffany reached out her arms, then looked at Lindsay. "You do it," she said softly. "You've waited long enough."
Lindsay sank into the rocker and the nurse eased the boy into her arms. She studied his pouty lips, smelled his soft, just-washed skin, felt him breathing against her heart. "Look at you," she said. "Oh, you're perfect."
Josh cried. Tiffany turned up the TV.
Frankie tried to leave, but a nurse was coming through the door. "Tell me about your baby," she said, wielding a clipboard. "What did you name him?"
Frankie started to blurt out, "Frankie Jr.!"
But Tiffany stopped him. "They're the adoptive parents," she said, pointing. "So . . ."
Lindsay looked up. Did that mean he was really theirs?
• • •
They named him Denton (Josh's mother's maiden name) August (for Lindsay's great-grandfather) Lee (he's the only grandchild to carry on the family name.)
They plan to call him Gus.
They talked about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which both dads adore; the Dugger family, which both moms admire; zombies; and circumcision; and God.
A nurse tested the baby's eyes, ears and reflexes and proclaimed, "A beautiful, wonderful boy."
After the lawyer came and they all signed papers, the birth parents were free to go home. The next day, Gus would be discharged to the adoptive parents.
"Can we just take one family picture?" Frankie asked. "All we need is five minutes. They'll have him . . . for the rest of his life."
Lindsay and Josh and the lawyer ducked out. Frankie took a selfie with Tiffany and their baby. "I want him to have everything he'll need," Frankie told Tiffany. "And maybe one day he'll become a cop or doctor, or a lawyer like Josh, instead of a greasy mechanic like me."
Tiffany stared at their son, fast-forwarding through the life he would have with them, and without them. "A roof over our heads isn't good enough," she sighed. "It's not fair to him."
She kissed the baby one last time and handed him to Frankie. As he held his son, real tears trickled over his teardrop tattoos.
• • •
While Tiffany and Frankie left for their too-quiet house, Lindsay watched the baby's chest rise and fall in his bassinet. What if he stopped breathing?
What if, now that they finally had him, they lost him?
Everything seemed too good to be true.
She didn't shower or change clothes the next morning; didn't want to leave her son's side. She buttoned him into three different outfits, trying to find the perfect one for his first photos. A sky blue cap her grandmother had crocheted, a white onesie she had embroidered with a G.
"Maybe he'll be a great musician, or an athlete," she told Josh. "I can't wait to dress him up like a duck for Halloween."
That evening, the nurse gave them a birth certificate, shot records and discharge papers.
As they left the hospital, the sun was sinking, painting the sky fluorescent pink. Gus wriggled in the bright light. Lindsay bent to raise the shade on the baby seat.
The nurse said, "You're a good mama."
Lindsay choked up. "I just want him to grow up to be a kind, good person who accepts others," she said. "I want him to know how much his birth parents wanted him, and wanted for him."
• • •
In her girlhood home in Tennessee, Lindsay seldom lets her son out of her sight. She shows him trees, reads to him, sings lullabies. Every milestone, she marks in a big book: Sucks finger. Rolls over. Makes eye contact.
His eyelashes grew in. When he's happy, he squeaks. He knows her voice.
After almost three months, Lindsay is starting to feel like he's really hers.
"I always felt like a mother," she said. "It's just now I have the baby to prove it."
A few weeks ago, when Gus was baptized, 20 new aunts, uncles and cousins came. Lindsay texted pictures to Tiffany.
And Tiffany finally told her own mother about the child she had given away.
To her surprise, Tiffany's mom said she was proud of her.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.