My Personal Story of Adoption
It was a cool spring morning and two women were both anxiously waiting for a life-changing event. One waiting by the phone for the call that would finally tell her that a baby had been born, the other waiting to give birth to the child that she would be forbidden to keep. The first woman, full of hope, at last, as she looked forward to becoming a mother while the other mother sank into deep despair knowing that she would soon loose her baby. Strangers, with only one phone call and a promise between them, their lives would become intricately intertwined forever more.
It was 7:52 a.m. on a foggy May morning when Maryellen gave birth to her baby. Only 15 years old and in 9th grade she had the womb of an adult, the experience of giving birth and becoming a mother. “It’s a girl” she heard the doctor say. Then, just that quickly before she could even hold her baby or count her toes, her baby girl was swept out of the room.
Shrouded in shame and secrecy, “Baby Girl B” was born. In a flash her whole world disrupted, separated from her mother, her provider, her protector, everything that she knew up until that moment, she laid quietly in the hospital bassinet alone without the familiarity of her mother’s scent, or the familiar sound of her voice, she waited to see what would happen next. Too well accustomed to the unexpected, Baby Girl B already experienced a world of hunger and homeless, of the harsh realities of the world, of random sex for love, of not being wanted and of being a mistake. She already knew that survival required taking what you could when it was there to take, but not expecting it to be there again.
Maryellen and her baby girl had been through a lot in their nine months together, each surviving a terrible ordeal. At 14, Maryellen was a little girl who looked and acted more like a woman than a child. Late at night, she would sneak out her bedroom window to get away from the chaos of her abusive alcoholic home. She and her girlfriends traveled by bus to the USO on Main Street or to the docks in Long Beach to visit the sailors. Attractive and maturely built, the sailors paid attention, making her feel special, wanted and loved. She needed to feel loved and she found it in the arms of young sailors.
It was soon after her 15th birthday that Maryellen realized that she was pregnant. Fearing her father’s reaction, she ran away from home. She choose, Tanya an unquestioning girlfriend to go along. First they would disguise their appearance. In the bathroom of a dirty gas station they dyed their hair black then set off to the bowling alley where they met two men who were leaving LA and driving North. They agreed to take the girls along. Once the men tired of them, they left them in Oregon. With no money or shelter, the girls found work in an apple orchard. During the day they would pick bushels of apples for a few cents a day. In the evening they would use their earnings to buy a meal; a can of tuna and a bottle of beer and then they would find a cozy tree to sleep beneath.
Months went by before the authorities found Maryellen and her unborn child. Transported back to L.A., they were taken to Juvenile Hall. Visibly pregnant by this time, Maryellen’s mother fainted when she laid eyes upon her pregnant daughter. Her father became enraged as he looked at her swollen belly. Fear filled Maryellen as she was taken home and held hostage and confined to her room for the duration of her pregnancy. On occasion she was allowed in the backyard when the sheets were washed and hung on the close line. She would walk between the hanging sheets and talk to the baby that she would not be able to keep. Maryellen and her unborn baby spent several months like this and although not an ideal environment, they were together. Baby safe within her womb where she was nurtured and growing within.
My Birth and Delivery
On the eve of my delivery, there was no family in the hospital waiting room to greet me, no one looking forward to my arrival, no one to support and congratulate my new mother. Maryellen’s father had already warned her of what he would do to her if she tried to bring the baby home. Her mother had wanted to give the baby to a Maryellen’s great aunt and uncle. But at 15, Maryellen’s maternal instincts were strong and she knew that she would do anything to protect her baby from the abuse that she suffered from that uncle and so she choose to give her baby to strangers.
Not with her first mother long enough to officially be given a name, she would only be known as “Baby Girl B”. Maryellen however secretly named her baby Marcella, but that was a secret that she would carry alone and within, for the rest of her life. For the rest of Baby Girl B’s life, her identity would be shrouded in secrecy, her birth certificate sealed in shame.
Across town Dorian, the 23-year-old expectant adoptive mother picked up the phone and heard her attorney say, “The baby’s been born. It’s a girl… but she’s been born with a hole in her heart.” Horrified Dorian waited by the telephoned for her husband to call. At hearing the news, he rushed home to be with his wife. They had been trying to conceive for the five years that they had been married. Dorian desperately wanted to have a baby but was never able to conceive and so in an attempt to become parents, they turned to adoption.
Dorian and Harold decided that they would take the baby, even with a hole in her heart, knowing that they would do whatever was medically possible to fix the baby girl’s heart. They did not understand that they could not fix the psychological hole that she carried within her heart, no matter what they did. For that hole was the symbol of the profound loss that she suffered at birth, from the separation from the mother that created, carried and birthed her. There was no way to make that hole disappear.
Late that night, Maryellen laid in her hospital bed empty womb, empty arms, alone with no one to comfort her, no one to hold her. She cried and cried and cried. Longing for her baby was worse than any pain she had already known. A kindly nurse befriended her and brought the baby to her. She held her baby’s sweet little body close, kissed her little neck, smelled her sweet baby smell and whispered in her ear. Secret words between mother and baby. A message was sent; she would love her always, they would be together someday.
That night across town, Dorian and Harold lay in their bed, anticipating picking up their baby in the morning. They were happy, thrilled but also frightened and apprehensive. Would the teenage girl really give them her baby? How would they live the next six months filled with such anxiety until the adoption was finalized? What if the teenage mother changed her mind and want the baby back?
That night they decided to name the baby Tracy Lynn. It was a name to honor Dorian’s great-grandmother and Harold’s favorite grandmother. Their baby would be the first grandchild and great grandchild in the family. They joyously told the family how they were honoring the name of family members, but Dorian’s grandmother did not approve of the name. She said that that name should be reserved for a child who was born into the family and so in that moment Dorian and Harold had their first experience of feeling like, “only adoptive parents” and reliving the shame of being unable to conceive.
In the morning they left for the hospital, Dorian, Harold and Dorian’s mother. In and out of the hospital as quickly as they could, they felt more like baby snatchers than new parents. Reeling from the experience, Dorian handed the baby to her mother in the back seat of the car as they headed home. After experiencing Dorian’s anxiety, Baby Girl B relaxed in the arms of her new grandmother. A grandmother who she would share a deep and cherished relationship with for all of their years together.
Maryellen spend that night in the hospital alone. Watching other mothers nurse their babies, her breasts hurt for her baby. The following day she was sent home. At 16, unable to tolerate her loss or her home life anymore, she ran away to the streets of Hollywood where she found others who shared her history of abuse and neglect. She found friends there. Sympathetic ears to listen to her story of the loss of her baby. Her new friends were determined to help her find her baby and bring her home, but it would take Maryellen another five years to find the strength to begin the search for the baby she secretly named Marcella.
Searching and Longing
Married at age 20, at the insistence of her mother, Maryellen married Ron, a man that she had known for less than a year. Her mother hoped that it would get her daughter off the streets and help her settle down. She did not budge when Maryellen came crying and pleading on her wedding day not to marry.
One night shortly after their marriage, Ron woke to his new wife’s crying hysterically and uncontrollably. In her pain and despair, she told her new husband of her secret and her longing to reclaim her baby. He did not understand and therefore could not offer support to her. He did only what he knew to do, he forbade her and opposed her, and so began the end of their marriage as Maryellen faced her demons alone. Soon thereafter, she left her husband of less than one year and again took to the familiar streets of Hollywood, where people shared her pain and listened to her sorrow.
The search for her baby took off when she accompanied her mother and grandmother to the family OB-GYN for their annual exams. It had been this doctor who had arranged the baby’s adoption. Knowing that there was information on the identity of the adoptive parents in her medical file, she waited for the right minute. The doctor had gone into an exam room to see another patient, the nurse left the front desk, and Maryellen went behind the counter and took her file out. Quickly she scanned the pages and there in black and white, were the names of the “prospective adopting couple.” She memorized it. Not a second later, the nurse came back and started to yell at her. The doctor emerged and became irate. Her mother and grandmother began screaming. The office was ignited with emotion. Maryellen left with the information imprinted on her mind but she needed more. Late one night, her friends from the streets broke into the office and took her file. Now she had all of the information that she needed, she knew where to go to find her baby.
Five years after her baby was born, Maryellen was doing the very thing that Dorian feared; she had come to take her baby. Sitting in a parked car just outside the cul-de-sac on which they lived, Maryellen watched her daughter play on her street with the other children in the neighborhood. To Maryellen, she looked so happy, so well. She had no idea that her child was quietly grieving for her. She didn’t know that the child secretly harbored fear that it could happen again; somehow she could lose her new family too. On some psychic level I must have felt Maryellen’s watching as I began having a reoccurring nightmare that would follow me well into adulthood. In the dream I would be playing outside with my neighborhood friends and a stranger would come up and try to take me. In the dream, I was so scared that I would have to fly up into the sky to get away from the dangerous child snatcher. There high up above I could watch my friends still playing, but I could not see my house nor did I know how to fly down and get back home. Waking from the nightmare I was fearful and anxious and quietly weep as I lay in my bed alone. This nightmare would occur throughout my childhood and even plague me well into early adulthood.
Maryellen sought help from her grandmother who told her that if she really loved the child, she would not disrupt her life. Just as the social workers had told her at the birth, her grandmother also told her to leave the past behind and get on with her life. And so she tried once again. Although Maryellen stopped going to the street that her daughter lived on but she continued to secretly grieve and long for her baby.
The Consequences of Profound Loss-How Adoption Has Affected All of Our Lives
Maryellen never did get over the loss. Years of low self- esteem, self-punishment and unhappiness plagued her and infiltrated into her new family. She suffered secondary infertility (infertility not caused by medical explanation) for the first five years of her marriage from the psychological scarring of her womb. Her emotional reaction to the thought of being pregnant again, prevented her from being able to conceive. She and her husband began adoption proceedings. They were about to have a child placed with them when Maryellen became pregnant. She went on to have two boys and another girl.
The daughter that Maryellen kept, Karen Lynn, was also born in May and she looked very much like the first daughter. The birth of another girl and the resemblance between them was far too overwhelming for Maryellen and she painfully avoided handling and caring for her new baby girl. Feeling rejection from her mother throughout her childhood, it was not until I reunited with the family and my siblings learned of my existence that Karen was finally able to make sense of the relationship that she had with her mother. Much of the damage from those years was too deep to heal as Karen had given up on wanting her mother and was more closely bonded to her primary parent attachment, her father.
Thoughts & Reflections
Would I have been better off staying with my first mother? Probably not, but the wounds that I suffered as a result of that separation were deep and painful. I now realize that it was not only the separation from my first mother that created my wounds, but it was experiencing them alone, without the help and understanding of my family that seared the depth of the wound. As a clinician, I know that grief that is shared with another human leads to a bonding experience whereas grief that is buried and experienced alone leads to a sense of isolation and being alone in the world. I also know that it is far healthier for an adopted child to know their birthparent, and to be able to hear from them directly that they were loved and never forgotten.
A poem that I use in my practice that really speaks to me and to many of those whose lives have been touched by adoption is:
The Loss That Is Forever
By Maxine Harris
When a tree is struck by lightning
If it survives, it’s growth is altered
A knot may form where the lighting hit.
The growth on one side of the tree may be more vigorous than on another side,
The shape of the tree may change.
An interesting twist or curious split
has replaced what might have otherwise been a straight line.
The tree flourishes;
It bears fruit,
becomes a home to birds and squirrels.
It is not the same tree it would have been had there not been a lightning storm,
But some say it is more interesting this way.
Few, can even remember,
the event that changed its shape forever.
I love this poem because it says to me that had I not been relinquished and adopted at birth, had my birthmother raised me, I would have been a different person. Perhaps less wounded, perhaps not, but different. I am who I am and what I am today as a result of my earliest experiences. Over the years I have learned to embrace those differences and my vulnerabilities. I am no longer ashamed of my being adopted and of the sensitivities that resulted from this life altering experience. I now surround myself with the kind of love and understanding that help me feel more loveable and worthy and makes me feel more whole and complete.
I was adopted in the “closed adoption system,” which means that at the time of my adoption social workers were teaching adoptive parents to tell their children early on that they were adopted. This thinking came out of the earlier era where professionals didn’t believe that parents had to tell their children at all. They thought that if a child was adopted at birth that they would not remember the event and therefore there was no reason to tell them.
As a profession, we have discovered that it was not in the “telling” that makes the impact, rather it is the actual experience of being separated from one’s mothers and being handed over to strangers that creates the wound. We now know that the memory of this event is stored in a somatic fashion in implicit memory chains in the brain and on a cellular level. As a profession, we have also learned that not telling children that they were adopted and keeping family secrets has a way of coming out and destroying relationships. Inevitably a person discovers that they were adopted, only to feel betrayed by the very people, their parents, whom they had trusted.
In my family, we never talked about adoption. I knew that the discussion hurt my mother so I never brought it up or asked any questions. I didn’t want to hurt my mother and I feared that if I did, she too wouldn’t love me anymore and then maybe she too wouldn’t want me anymore. Even though I didn’t talk about what was going on inside of me, I was suffering, and I was doing it alone. Grieving, confused, feeling abandoned, unworthy and unlovable, trashed and left behind, I felt all alone in the world. The only place to let out those feelings was by myself while in the shower as the sound of the water drowned out the sound of my tears or with my dog, my best friend and my safest emotional connection in life.
As an adult I worked hard to figure out and understand those feelings. I began to understand that what happened to me at birth, being taken from my mother and never having an opportunity to grieve that loss, or understand the loss, had a tremendous impact on my sense of worth, of being loveable, on my sense of security and trust. Wondering how she could have not wanted me, believing that she moved on and forgot about me furthered my belief that there was something inherently bad about me.
Today, I am able to embrace all of who I am because I have the information to do so. My parents are my parents and nothing can or will ever change that. My first mother and my half siblings and their children are important connections that allow me to feel whole and complete.
I still suffer from the years that I was separated from my first mother and from the years of wondering if she was real or alive, if she ever thought of me, or if I might be passing her on the streets. Despite being reunited with my birth family, I feel as though have no lineage. My lineage stops at my birthmother. I do not want to be related to the people who abused her and who were the ones who forced her to leave me. I do not carry their legacy. My legal lineage (if there is such a thing) stops at my adoptive grandparents. I do not own their lineage. I do not feel connected to it yet hey talked about it as though it was, causing me to feel like an imposter in my family.
Family Legacy Of Adoption
My birthmother’s suffered a five -year period of infertility that was a direct result of the trauma she sustained as a result of relinquishing me. It’s called secondary infertility. It can be pervasive and lifelong for many women. Fortunately my birthmother was able to finally conceive and give birth to three more children. Sadly in 2004, she lost her first- born son. At 40 years of age, his once athletic body betrayed him after being confined to a wheelchair for nearly 20 years following a spinal injury. He passed away on the 16th anniversary of the day that I found my birthmother. For me the loss of Keith was completely intertwined with my deep understanding for my birthmother who had already known and grieved the loss of one child and now had lost the precious first child that she was allowed to keep.
My birthmother’s older brother was 17 years old when my birthmother was pregnant with me. He enlisted in the service around the time of my relinquishment. He impregnated a girl he was dating. He did not want to marry her. She put the child up for adoption and he never saw the baby, a boy. He is still missing from our family.
My birth mother’s youngest sister was 9 years old at the time of my relinquishment. Although she was never told of what was transpiring in the family, she somehow learned that adoption was a option for an unplanned pregnancy. When she and her husband of twelve years and three children split up their marriage, she became pregnant and relinquished the baby. That child, a boy is also still missing from our family.
My birthmother’s middle sister suffered from infertility and is the adoptive mother of two children. Sadly her oldest child died of a heart attack at the age of 39. His birthmother does not know.
My birth sister, became pregnant and an unwed mother at the age of 20. She still did not know of me or of the secret that her mother was keeping. I often wonder what it was like for my birthmother who was her daughter’s birthing coach, helping her to keep her baby when her own secret was still so buried. Karen kept her baby and raised her as single mother. Her daughter grew up never knowing her natural father.
Thirteen years earlier, I too became pregnant and an unwed mother at the age of 20. My son’s father also left me when I was pregnant. He said that he was not prepared to become a father and so he took no responsibility for the pregnancy or for his son. I was determined not to let happen to my child what had happened to me. I would undo my history by giving birth to my son and taking care of him by myself. I did not realize at the time that I would be inflicting the same losses upon my son as he like me would never know our biological fathers. For me though, mere words cannot describe the joy and the healing that the birth of my son brought to me. My pregnancy was filled with joy and love and connection. His birth brought me the first biological relative that I had ever seen. He was a joy to raise and a joy to watch grown into a beautiful man, husband and father. Today I am the proud doting grandmother of three beautiful and biologically related grandchildren. My birth and adoptive families legacies live on in these precious children, as they are products of both aspects of who I am.
Mothers and Their Adopted Daughters
Several years ago I lost my adoptive mother. She was only 74 years old, young for many people, but unfortunately too many of her years were spent depressed and not properly taking care of herself. As she became bedridden. I cared for her along with a village of people that helped us to keep her at home and to make her days as rich and comfortable as they could be. The last months that my mother and I had together helped us heal the wounds of adoption that had been ever present in our relationship. Sadly she had always been terribly insecure about the fact that another woman gave birth to me. Despite the fact that I was always a loyal, loving and devoted daughter, she remained hopelessly angry, jealous and worried about my connection to another mother. My adoptive status created secrecy and shame that adversely impacted our relationship.
The last months of her life offered us a turning point. I had the opportunity to tell my mother, and she could hear and take in, what she meant to me, how much I loved her, my family and my life. I had the opportunity to share with her how important she was to me and how I blossomed and became the woman that I am by being raised by her and my father. Taking this in brought great comfort and peace to her and to us. My mother’s passage brought us closer together. It allowed me to put down the wall that I had erected between us. It allowed her to put down the sword that she used when she felt threatened. It also brought new understanding of the importance we had in one another’s lives and how we impacted one another. Days after her passing I looked in the mirror and for the first time I saw my mother in me. It wasn’t in my features or my coloring or my height, but it was there. My mother was there in my style, my taste in things, my flair for fashion, the way I put on my lipstick… I loved being able to see her in me. I loved feeling the connection between us.
I found the experience of caring for and losing my mother incredibly full of emotion. I was loosing a mother again. A huge transformational experience occurred when she passed I was left once again forever changed. Even though I was losing my mother, I was able to have her in a whole new way. I felt resolved with the issues that I struggled against with for so many years. I emerged from the experience feeling complete and at peace. I am grateful for this. Despite the fact that it had been many years since my mother took care of many and me more that I took care of her, I miss her love and care for me. I think that I will grieve her for a very long time and probably differently though the years as life brings me events that I want to share with her. It is an adulation of just how much she meant to me.
I have come to understand, in a new way, that deep and powerful emotional experiences have the power to “move us” and to change us. I share my personal experiences with you because I believe that as a community of adoption, we are all still learning from one another. My hope is that sharing this inspires you all to work toward this type of resolve, not through loss, but though love, understanding and the deep and sometimes tough emotional experiences inherent in being a family brought together by adoption. I hope that it is beneficial for your personal growth.