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Front Page - Friday, December 6, 2019

Want to adopt? How about tomorrow?

Ketterers’ world flipped by the call for which they’d been praying

There are days that cause a seismic shift in a person’s life. The Monday Sarah Ketterer answered her phone and the caller said, “My daughter just gave birth to a girl, and she wants you and your husband to have her,” was one of those days.

The night before, Ketterer and husband Jake had gone to bed expecting life to be the same the following day. A Realtor, Ketterer would list and stage a home, her husband would tend to his video production company and they would care for their two teenage sons, Ketterer’s from a previous relationship.

On Tuesday, their home would be inspected and Ketterer would take a drug test as part of the adoption approval process. The couple had been gradually working toward adoption for four years, but neither the moment nor the child had arrived – or so they thought.

The next morning, the phone awakened Ketterer at 7 a.m. As her husband slept, she heard the words that signaled a major life change: “She wants you and your husband to have her.”

In the midst of her shellshock, Ketterer fixated on the word “her.” The caller had said a girl was hers and her husband’s for the asking.

In that moment, the events of the last few years were distilled into a single, crystalline image in Ketterer’s mind. As she contemplated what she was mentally seeing, she could do only one thing.

A sudden gift

Ketterer became a Realtor in 2014 as part of her plan to prepare for adoption. During trips to Romania and the Dominican Republic to work with orphanages, she had felt a strong pull to assume the staggering responsibility of rearing a child that was not her own, but she says her income as a hairdresser would make that difficult.

“We were fine financially, but adoption is expensive,” she says, perched on a tall stool in her office at Keller Williams Downtown Realty. “Plus, we needed a bigger house.”

A broker friend, Gary Crowe, urged Ketterer to become a Realtor. Ketterer says she believed the move would increase her income, but she hesitated, citing her work at the salon and obligations at home as roadblocks to attending real estate school.

But when Ketterer’s husband switched jobs and was able to assume more of their responsibilities as parents and homemakers, she was free to pursue her new career.

Ketterer was busy immediately. Her more than 100 clients at the salon and friends at church formed a large pool of potential buyers and sellers, and her training at Keller Williams taught her how to fish these abundant waters.

Within a year, Ketterer’s income tripled, allowing her and her husband to pay off debt, save money and buy a bigger house. “My first year went great,” she acknowledges. “And the year after that went better.”

Purchasing the new house lifted Ketterer and her husband out of a long stretch of foot-dragging. Ketterer’s desire to adopt was as strong as ever, but she didn’t know when it was going to happen, and her husband was still warming up to the idea. But when they moved into their new home, Ketterer, a Christian, felt what she says was God say, “Start the process.”

Spurred by the divine directive, Ketterer and her husband applied for adoption at Bethany Christian Services, a local adoption agency. Although Ketterer says she believed God had promised them a daughter, they placed no limitations on the child they would be willing to adopt. (This included race, gender and disabilities.)

Ketterer and her husband also made a video announcing their plan to adopt and released it via social media.

Then, on the Saturday before the momentous phone call, Ketterer met a young girl during a listing appointment. She liked the girl’s name and began thinking about what she would name her adopted daughter.

“My husband and I sat down with our boys and we decided on Josephine, which means ‘May Jehovah add,’” Ketterer explains. “God was increasing our family. I was excited.”

Mother’s Day was Sunday. When Ketterer told people at church they had named their daughter Josephine, they thought she was nuts, she says.

Little did Ketterer, her family or their friends know Josephine had been born the day before to the daughter of a woman Ketterer knew through the salon. This friend had seen Ketterer’s video and shown it to her daughter, who had decided to turn over her baby for adoption.

When the mother saw Ketterer and her husband discussing their lives and spending time with their boys in their home, she said she wanted them to be her baby’s parents.

The first thing Ketterer’s friend said after Ketterer answered her call was, “When will you be approved to adopt?” It was a jarring wake-up call.

Ketterer was carrying several listings and working with a large number of buyers, so work was intense. “It was May,” she remembers. “Work is always busy, but summer is busier.”

Also, she and her husband were still logistically and mentally preparing to adopt. But Ketterer knew her family was meant to have the child, so she nudged her husband and said, “It’s Josephine.”

The storm after the calm

Ketterer notified her assistant about the turn of events before she and her husband drove from their home in Hixson to the hospital in Murfreesboro, both in a mental fog. Although Jake Ketterer was a loving and present stepfather to Ketterer’s sons, he didn’t have any children of his own, so he spent the two-hour drive processing what was happening.

“It was like learning your wife is pregnant and her giving birth all in one day,” Ketterer says.

When they arrived at the hospital, the birth mother had already given them power of attorney and left. But Josephine was still there, waiting for them. Ketterer says she was overwhelmed.

“It was love at first sight,” she recalls. “She was beautiful and perfect. I knew she was our daughter.”

Ketterer also remembers worrying about not having any baby supplies on hand. But even as she wondered how and when they’d be able to stock their home with everything they’d be needing, their friends from Calvary Church Chattanooga were leaving packages of diapers and other items on their front porch.

“It truly does take a village to care for a baby,” she says.

Ketterer and her husband returned home that evening, spent Tuesday in a frenzy of work and preparation, and then returned to Murfreesboro on Wednesday to bring Josephine home.

During the drive back to Hixson, Ketterer kept a close eye on the baby and reflected on the image that had formed in her mind when she’d first heard about her. From volunteering with the orphanages to beginning a new career to hiring an assistant one month earlier, she saw a single thread, deliberately weaved through the last four years of their lives.

And now that Josephine was in their care, the picture was complete – or so she thought.

Custody battle

Although the Ketterers were caring for Josephine and bonding with her more every day, the child wasn’t legally theirs. However, having survived what Ketterer says were the three most demanding days of her life, they thought they’d be able to coast the rest of the way to adoption.

And then the birth father entered the picture.

Until then, he hadn’t been a factor. But Josephine’s birth mother had given her away without his consent, and he was going to reclaim her.

Ketterer is less gracious with the words she uses to describe his intent. “He wanted his property back,” she adds, her face tightening.

The appearance of the birth father marked the beginning of a seven-month struggle to stop him from taking Josephine away. Ketterer claims he wasn’t fit to care for the baby, but in the eyes of the state, he had a right to his day in court, so the custody battle moved forward.

To secure the adoption, Ketterer and her husband hired attorneys. She and her husband also existed in a state of unrelenting stress, worried they would lose Josephine. “It was the darkest, hardest season of my life,” she recounts.

During that time, Ketterer remembered the story in the Book of Exodus in which the Israelites were able to make progress in a clash against an enemy as long as Moses held up his staff. According to the biblical account, when Moses grew tired, his brother, Aaron, steadied his arms.

“I could barely function. I was afraid I was going to lose Josephine,” Ketterer says. “But the support of my office, our church and our friends held us up.”

Ketterer’s attorneys encouraged her and her husband to yield to some of the birth father’s demands in order to avoid more legal fees and end the conflict. But she refused to budge, and even asked the birth mother to maintain her parental rights so Josephine could be returned to her in the event the father won the custody battle. “We had learned things about him,” she explains.

The uncertainty weighed heavy, but Ketterer and her husband eventually prevailed, and on Dec. 15, 2018, the daughter Ketterer says God promised to give her legally became Josephine Ketterer.

One year later, Ketterer has learned that parenting Josephine – or Josie, as everyone now calls her – is very different from parenting her sons. She doesn’t know why, though. “Maybe it’s different because she’s a girl, or because ignorance was bliss with my boys, or because I’m older and I’ve seen too many things,” she says.

Ketterer is certain, however, that the variances in the parenting experience have nothing to do with Josie being adopted rather than being her biological child. “She felt fully mine from the moment I saw her,” she points out.

Ketterer says she also battles fear more than she did when her sons were young. “I’m always afraid something is going to happen to her, so I’m very protective of her – crazy mama bear protective,” she says. “I fight that, but it’s not easy.”

One thing, however, is as simple today as it was the moment Ketterer first laid eyes on Josie: loving her. “She’s our cherry on top,” she says. “She’s the happiest, funniest, sassiest little person you’ll ever meet.”

It takes nine months for a mother to give birth to a child, but Ketterer’s journey to become Josie’s mother spanned five years. The last seven months of her quest were an ordeal unlike any she’s overcome, but she takes solace in knowing it’s behind her – and in at least believing she’ll never do it again.

“We don’t want to adopt again,” she says. “We have three kids, and my husband and I work full time, so I’m not able to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Instead, Ketterer and her husband intend to speak about their experiences as adoptive parents and encourage others to follow their example. “There are a lot of kids waiting to be adopted,” she says, “and we want moms to know there’s another option.”