In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Denise Emanuel Clemen
When I relinquished my son for adoption, there were many things for which I was unprepared. A naïve 17-year-old, I believed what I was told: that the secret I carried would grow lighter, not heavier. I believed that the pain of separation would fade. I believed that the poster I saw in the adoption agency’s office, proclaiming, “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life” was a harbinger for my new beginning.
I would be a college girl, respectable, confident, and happy that my traumatic past was behind me. All of this turned out to be miles from the truth. Still, I plowed through life sometimes doing well, other times not so well, unaware that my biggest post-relinquishment challenge would begin more than a decade later.
When I fell in love with my college boyfriend, he seemed a perfect person to incorporate into my new life. He was undeterred by my confession of my scarlet past. He seemed almost relieved when I told him I didn’t want to have any more children. We were the perfect couple, mostly skipping through life, only occasionally plodding a bit.
A dozen years into our marriage, when the ticking of my biological clock synched up with an up-tick in our income, we reconsidered our childlessness and had a baby. I was thirty-four years old when our daughter was born.
It had been sixteen years since I’d placed my son in the arms of a social worker and walked into a sweltering Iowa summer without him.
I don’t remember anything untoward in the pregnancy with my daughter. I remember happiness, clear skin, and a craving for chocolate milkshakes, in which I regularly indulged. I don’t remember flashing back to my son’s birth as I labored with her. What I remember is that I couldn’t stop marveling about the comfortable hospital birthing center. It was furnished with a rocking chair, and a bed instead of a delivery table.
My doctor treated me like a human being. My husband was there every minute, and the two of us were served a steak breakfast before we were released the next morning. The birth was straightforward, and our baby was healthy and beautiful.
The Santa Ana winds were tearing through Los Angeles the day the three of us drove home. I’d crocheted a yellow sweater and hat for the baby, complete with a matching blanket. Minutes after I’d dressed her, the nurse instructed me to strip our daughter down to her T-shirt and diaper and sent my husband outside to cool off the car. Stepping out of the air-conditioned hospital lobby into a triple-digit day, while clutching a baby who was ramping up to a full-out wail, was my passage through the gates of hell.
The baby was still crying when we entered our apartment. I tried putting her to the breast, even though my nipples were already sore from the little bit of breastfeeding I’d tried in the hospital. The day spiraled down into pain and tears for both of us. The night was nearly sleepless, and the next morning, my husband went to work.
That day, and the next, the one after that, and the coming months spiraled downward too. Wheel chair, I’d say mistakenly when I meant rocking chair, if I tried to tell anyone how much time I spent rocking in an attempt to comfort the baby.
Something was going wrong, and I wasn’t sure how it had begun. My daughter’s pretty face was also my son’s face, the two of them swimming in front of me in a sea of my tears.
Each day, rocking and rocking, the list of things I was sure of became even more certain.
- My daughter did not like me. She didn’t trust me. Who could blame her? Why would you trust a woman who’d given away your brother to complete strangers?
- I was not cut out for motherhood. Look what happened the first time. And now look: I was terrible at it.
- I should not have given up my son. Why hadn’t anyone explained to me what it was like to hold your baby day after day and look into its eyes? Even this baby that didn’t like me was part of me, and I was part of her. I had transgressed life’s most primal bond.
- My baby would not stop crying because God was punishing me for forsaking my son.
- My husband did not understand the mother/child bond. He didn’t understand me. He didn’t understand the baby. He didn’t understand anything.
After six weeks of crying and rocking, my siblings, through a series of telephone conversations, perceived that things were not going well and sent our mother out to California to stay with me. My mother was a great comfort. She fixed my breakfast while I sat at the kitchen table and fed the baby. She told me that babies sometimes cry for no reason. She told my husband that even though he was launching a new law firm, he had to be home no later than 8:00 p.m. All of this motherly intervention improved things somewhat, but still, I could not shake the feeling that I was doomed.
I wanted support as I struggled with new motherhood and grief over the loss of my son, but I wasn’t sure where to get it or even what to ask for. Psychology was not the province of small-town Midwesterners, and the only counseling I was familiar with involved sending unruly high schoolers to the guidance counselor’s office. My husband had volunteered for a suicide hotline in college, but my mostly unspoken misery was barely a blip on his pre-occupied radar screen. The pediatrician downplayed my anxieties about the baby. She had colic. That was all it was, and there wasn’t much to be done. Friends were kind and caring, but most of them didn’t have children—and even those that did were unaware of my past.
Any personal resources I should have been able to muster were nowhere to be found. The secret grief that welled up each day needed to be kept secret, so I swallowed it down over and over again.
It was seven months before I made it out the door to a La Leche League meeting. Finally I was in the company of other mothers who felt they needed support too, albeit over breastfeeding, but at least I had one morning a month where I could tell other women I wasn’t feeling optimistic. Some weeks after that I arranged for a mother I’d met in the group to babysit while I went to see a psychologist.
I could barely talk at the psychologist appointment. I squirmed, overwhelmed with discomfort. I didn’t like her or the paperwork she’d had me fill out. She asked me if I had anything to add to information on the forms.
With my heart exploding, I told her I’d had a baby that I’d given up for adoption, “But, I said, I’m over that, and I don’t need to talk about it.” She believed me. Or maybe she didn’t—in any case, she moved on.
Instead, we discussed how overwhelmed I felt at being a mother. “Do you feel that you might be a danger to your daughter?” she asked. Sick with terror that she might have my baby taken from me, I assured her that I would never harm her, all the while wishing I were dead.
The next week, I cancelled the follow-up appointment. I was feeling much better, I said.
With the friendships I made in La Leche League, there were opportunities for play dates, playgroups, birthday parties, and outings. Friendship brought some of the comfort I sought, even if a dark voice inside me couldn’t help wondering if my daughter’s shyness, her tantrums, her somewhat late developmental milestones were my fault.
When my daughter was three-and-a-half, I had another little girl, and I began to grieve for my son all over again. This time, my mother and my aunt were there from the beginning. They made their plans to visit the moment I told them I was pregnant.
As I recall, the conversation involved an anecdote about some relative who’d put her baby into a pot on the stove and might have cooked it if the husband hadn’t saved the day. My mother, who was still working, spent her entire two-week vacation with me. My aunt, who was retired, stayed for an additional month.
While we did not once discuss my secret teen-age pregnancy or the ensuing adoption, at least I was never alone.
When my younger daughter was about a year old, I sat at a picnic table in the park with a friend from La Leche League. As we sat nursing our girls, her eyes filled with tears, and she told me she given up her first child—another daughter—for adoption.
She told me she thought of her constantly and that she was going to search for her. I went with her to a Concerned United Birthparents meeting, and even though I was told there was no hope of finding any information in Iowa that might lead me to my son, I decided I’d search for him anyway.
By the end of that year, through a cloak and dagger intrigue that involved a large sum of cash in a plain brown envelope, I learned my son’s name and contacted him. We were reunited while my daughters were still young enough that they don’t remember not having a brother.
Now into my third decade of reunion with my son, my daughters’ lack of loss is one of the things for which I’m most grateful. I sometimes still suffer pangs of guilt over my older daughter’s early years and the compromised mother I was, but she and her sister know their brother. They know his wife. They know their nieces and their nephew.
And I know that the lies I was told as a 17-year-old handing over her newborn did very little to prepare me for what lay ahead.
Denise Emanuel Clemen’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines. She’s received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Ragdale Foundation. Her memoir, Birth Mother, was recently published by Shebooks. Denise’s website is: deniseemanuelclemen.com.
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