A First Mother’s Agony, Part 1: Choice, Coercion, and An Unheard Protest

A First Mother’s Agony, Part 1: Choice, Coercion, and An Unheard Protest

Introduction by Carrie Goldman, Host of Portrait of an Adoption

During the month of January, the Huffington Post reran a 30-day series from my blog called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, a series that gives voice to many different points of view of adoption.  As many adoptive parents discovered, there was a group of commenters on the HuffPost series who took an extremely negative view of the institution of adoption.  Whereas some of the comments expressed valid concerns with adoption, many of the remarks were so tinged with anger and disdain that any rational points were lost in the packaging of the message, and it made it difficult for people to engage in productive back-and-forth discussions about improving adoption.

Therefore, I was intrigued when I received a private message from Casey (written in a civil tone, by the way).  “Casey” wondered if I had ever published a piece about the negative aspects of adoption.  I have published these types of pieces, (because I am committed to truth, even when it is ugly) and I invited her to share her story.  She was very surprised — and hesitant to share her story — and I suggested she write anonymously to protect herself and her son.  “I wasn’t expecting your offer,” she explained later, and after reflecting upon it, she decided to go ahead and do it.

Over the past month, we have developed a friendship – cautious at first, based on emails and Facebook messages – which turned into constant back-and-forth messages.  One day, Casey emailed to tell me that she had harbored an instinctive revulsion for all adoptive parents for many years, based on her horrible experience, and she wanted me to know that I was “the first adoptive parent [she] had ever begun to trust.”

I wrote her back, sharing my private phone number, asking her to call me in person if she felt up to it, because I wanted her to know that I am a real person, that her voice is being heard, and that not adoptive parents are like the parents she encountered in the past.  Call me, I urged, so you can be sure that I am someone you can trust, and we can collaborate on writing your story.

She called.  There were some tense moments when we each talked about where we stand on adoption.  I am a pro-adoption adoptive parent, but that doesn’t mean I am blind to the faults in the way adoption works.  She is against adoption as it is currently practiced, especially infant adoptions, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t feel differently if changes were to be made.

We talked about our children, her daughter’s wedding, my daughter’s love for Star Wars.  It was good.   And we have talked some more since then.  And it is good.

When I asked Casey what she hopes to see come out of her story, she answered, “I want people to know that what happened to me is still happening.  I want people to know that it is real, and I want people to have real conversations about it.  For my entire life, no one has believed me when I talk about why I feel the loss of my son so strongly.”

And so, Portrait readers, my hope is that you will really read, and listen with your whole heart, and share your thoughts.  I am sharing Casey’s story for many reasons, and one of them is that she is speaking HER truth and only her truth.  In your comments, you may share YOUR truth, but I will remove comments that make discriminating attacks on whole groups of people.  If your adoption experience was terrible, you may write about it here, but you may not write about how all adoptive parents are evil, or about how all birthmothers get what they deserve, or about how all adoption agencies are corrupt, because this platform will be closed to you immediately.  This story is for people who want to work together to share ideas for change, not a place to pick apart strangers online.

A First Mother’s Agony, Part 1: Choice, Coercion, and An Unheard Protest

By Casey Anderson

How I became an unexpectedly pregnant, unmarried eighteen year old in the summer of 1990 is more or less the same story told a thousand times before.  How I came to be here, now, in this place, with these facts and these emotions isn’t knowledge nearly as common.   I’m not usually interested in telling it, but I realized that if I don’t tell it, who will?

My family members—consisting of my mother, a younger brother, maternal grandparents and a phalanx of aunts and uncles—were beyond disgusted when I broke the news.  Abortion, they agreed, was the only sensible course.  That I didn’t want an abortion mattered little.

“You? A mother?” my own mother sneered. “You can’t keep a goldfish alive for a week. You can’t even get a real job. What makes you think you can take care of a baby?”

After a couple of weeks of refusing to abort the chorus became, “you made your choice, don’t bother me with it.”

Seeking a little peace and a lot of hope, I purchased a one way Greyhound ticket to a town in which I’d lived with my mother several years earlier.  I had no family there, only a few old friends whose acquaintance had been lost.  Twelve hundred miles felt too close, but no one was going to cross nine states to harangue me.  I had almost $400 when I boarded the bus and no idea how I was going to provide for the little life inside me.

The town had changed in my absence.  I found a cheap hotel, paid for two nights in advance and tossed on the lumpy bed, second-guessing my decision to leave home.  The only place I could afford to live was a 20’x8’ camper shaped like an elongated silver egg that reeked of mold no matter how often or hard I scrubbed.  It had an afterthought shower, half-sized refrigerator and two working burners but the rent was cheap.  Two days later, I found a part time job at a convenience store making $4.25 an hour.  It wasn’t much but it was a start.

I first heard about adoption a few weeks after my arrival while chatting with Mary, who lived near me in the trailer park.  She had given her child up for adoption months earlier.  When I confessed my worries about being able to care for the baby when he arrived, and bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t been able to collect any baby items since every dime I earned went to food, rent and electricity, Mary suggested that I give her agency a call. “You know you can’t take care of it,” she said, “so why not find it a home?”

Angered by my mother’s echo, I returned to the trailer in a huff.  The words bounced around my skull, creeping up on me when I least expected, and after more conversations with Mary I called the agency.

I will hate yellow for the rest of my life.  The woman who greeted me led me to a small, cluttered office with yellow walls, yellow carpet and uncomfortable, yellow cushioned seats.  Her first words to me after introductions were, “what sort of parents are you looking for?”

“Oh no,” I responded. “I’m just here for information, just in case, you know.”

“Just in case?”

I fidgeted. “Just in case something happens and when I leave the hospital, I don’t have anywhere to live with him.”

Over the next thirty-odd minutes she managed to extract my history, my reasons for leaving home, my dreams for the future and current living conditions. “College will be difficult, almost impossible for a single mother,” she said, appearing to muse over her notes.

“And to start college you have to go back to high school for a diploma,” she continued, jotting numbers on a yellow legal pad, comparing the cost of daycare and diapers and formula to my meager pay.  She asked about my baby’s father, commented on the difficulties faced by fatherless children and asked, almost innocently, how my fatherless childhood had been.

It all whirled around my thoughts like debris in a tornado as I lay sleepless that night. Fatherless. . ..diapers. . ..college. . ..babysitters.  . ..fathers. . ..

I’d agreed to talk to a “crisis pregnancy counselor” a few days later and despite my misgivings, I went, thinking I’d hear something, anything that would help me keep my son.  This woman was different, younger and reserved, but the yellow remained the same.  When I asked how I could keep my baby, she snorted. “Welfare.”

I cringed.  Welfare?  I didn’t want to go on welfare.

“Have you seen a doctor for prenatal care?” she asked.  When I shook my head, she sighed. “Do you have health insurance?” When I shook my head again, she pulled papers from a drawer and pushed them across her immaculate desk. “You’ll have to get the Medicaid paperwork started today.  We have a doctor who works with us; I’ll make an appointment.”

I wanted to say, “Wait a minute. I don’t want Medicaid,” but then it hit me.  The store where I worked didn’t offer insurance, and I certainly didn’t have thousands of dollars for a hospital bill.  Why it hadn’t occurred to me before this I can’t say, but suddenly, I felt as if I were watching from the deck as the last lifeboat dropped off the Titanic.  I completed the paperwork and nodded obediently when she handed me a card with the date and time for my first prenatal visit.

I was four and a half months pregnant.

I worked in a daze that day but didn’t cry until I was in bed.  I didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to even think it, but it hovered: I couldn’t afford to bring my baby into the world, much less diapers and babysitters and all the things that I, in my ignorance, thought a baby requires.

The agency woman landed the killing blow a week later. “You know, dear, there are lots of couples out there who can give your baby everything in the world.  Why don’t you look them over and see what you think?”

The profiles were effusive tales of annual vacations to Disneyland or exotic locales, large homes with green back yards missing only a swing set, people older and smarter and prettier and wealthier than I, tales of woe that only I could alleviate.

I met Tom and Susan two weeks later.  They were the sixth couple I met out of seven profiles I selected. The first four flunked The Question: do you ever see yourselves getting divorced?  Having grown up in the smoldering ruins of a venomous divorce, the answer mattered.  Tom and Susan said they’d been through rough times as a couple and had kept their vows to each other for ten years.  They said that committing to a child meant keeping both parents in the home.

I mulled it over for a couple of days before informing the agency that I’d chosen Tom and Susan.  Yet I hadn’t given up hope of finding some way to keep my baby.  I had no idea how, but I hoped and prayed and in the wee hours of the night frantically begged God to help me keep my baby.

I was allowed to know Tom and Susan’s names but not their address or phone number, so when labor started on Black Friday, I didn’t know who to call.  The doctor must’ve known because shortly after he arrived at the emergency room, Tom and Susan were there.  I was sick, sicker than I’d ever been.  The drug stopped the contractions but also caused violent shaking and continual vomiting.  Susan pressed cool rags to my forehead, Tom paced nervously and I was frantic between bouts of dry heaves and convulsions.

Six and a half months was too early for delivery, and the baby wasn’t moving as much as usual.

I spent eight days in the hospital trying to adjust to the medication and keep food down.  Tom and Susan came to the hospital once or twice a day, bringing flowers or magazines or little things to pass the time. When I asked why, Susan responded, “It’s terrible your mother isn’t here, and since you’re alone, we want to help you any way we can.”

During the hospital stay, when I wasn’t gagging or shaking the bed apart, they promised that my son would know all about me.  He’d know what I went through to make sure he was healthy.  He’d know that I loved him, and they would even give him a letter from me, if I wanted to write one.  I would not be a stranger in my son’s mind, they vowed.

The doctors forbade my return to work.  Nearing hysteria, I called the agency and asked what to do. “Apply for AFDC,” she said. “We’ll bring you the paperwork.”  I was adamant– I did not want welfare, but the specialist insisted that working, even part time, would restart labor.  I was to stay at home, preferably lying down or sitting, and take the medication as directed until the labor returned or my due date arrived.

In the ten weeks that followed, I became completely dependent on Tom, Susan and the agency.  I’d walked to work, the grocery store, everywhere and I was suddenly housebound, vomiting every hour or two around the clock.  I made short grocery lists that Tom or Susan retrieved using the food stamps I was ashamed to have, and the grocery bags always contained more than I’d listed.  I couldn’t walk to the doctor’s office so Tom, Susan or the agency woman took me every Thursday afternoon.  Lying in bed in the dingy trailer day after day with only a scavenged radio for distraction, stroking my expanding belly and talking to my baby, I gradually lost hope of finding a way to keep us together.

I asked him if he’d be happier with them.  I told him all the reasons I wanted him and all the reasons everyone said I couldn’t have him.  I cried, I prayed, I turned it round in my head, and as the days passed, I fell into despair.

At 38 weeks, I traded food stamps for five minutes of long distance on Mary’s phone.  I begged my mother to let me bring my baby home.  I promised to get a better job, to do anything she wanted, if only she’d let me bring him home.  She said one word before hanging up on me: No.

I wrote the letter that week, trying to explain why, struggling to convey how I love him, how desperately I wanted us to be together and ensure that he was safe and happy, but I couldn’t find a way to make it happen.  I gave him every piece of information he might need if he wanted to find me—SSN, date of birth, parents’ names.  I gave the letter to Susan the next time I saw her, and she promised me that he would get it when he turned eighteen.

At 39 weeks the doctor, Tom and Susan decided to schedule a cesarean for the following Monday. The doctor said that my baby was lying sideways and had to be surgically delivered, but I overheard Tom and Susan saying they wanted to avoid a middle-of-the-night surprise delivery.  I said nothing.

I’d had my share of crying bouts, but that weekend was an entirely new experience.  I never stopped, only varied in intensity.  Added to the nasty head cold I’d developed, my head felt as if it would explode. At 7 am Monday morning, Tom and Susan arrived to take me to the hospital.  By then I was barely able to manage simple conversation.

I asked Tom and Susan to leave the pre-op room and sobbed.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t let go of the child I loved, the child I talked to in the middle of the night, the child I’d left everyone to keep.

When the OR staff came to take me to surgery, I lost it.  Rolling down the corridors, I started to moan, then flail, yelling, “No! I don’t want this! Stop!”

I tried to get off the gurney but was held down.  A woman near my head glanced furtively at me.  When we arrived in the operating room, I fought them, screamed that I wouldn’t do this, they had to stop!  The doctor I’d been seeing for prenatal visits was there with the surgeon, and I heard him tell someone to gas me.  I remember the mask descending, trying to stop it but someone grabbing my wrists.  I held my breath as long as I could.

I woke sometime later under a bright light.  Fire streaked across my belly.  Confused, I tried to pat the baby but my belly was flat.  I passed out again, crying.

I woke again to beeping machines.  The fire was still lodged in my gut; my baby was still gone, and I was alternating between sweating and chills.  A nurse came into view.  I managed to croak, “What?”

“You have pneumonia,” she snapped, not looking at me.  She did something to the IV and left.

I drifted in and out of consciousness for a couple of days.  When I woke my chest and abdomen burned and breathing was almost impossible.  The nurses told me to exhale into a strange tube, but the shallowest inhalation caused coughing spasms and made the wound in my gut feel as if it were going to split open.  The room was completely bare.  I asked if anyone had come to see me and they only shook their heads.

I asked about my baby but no one would answer me.  I asked to see him but they said nothing, leaving as soon as their tasks were complete.  The only verbal response I received came when I asked if my baby was dead.

The lawyer appeared the afternoon of day three.  He strode into the room and pushed the tray to the bed, a pile of papers and a fountain pen atop it, without saying a word. “I want to see my baby,” I said between coughing fits.  He refused, insisting I could infect my son. “I want to see him,” I repeated.  He stormed out of the room.  A minute later the nurse came in with a syringe and injected the contents into my arm.  Moments later my head was spinning.

I remember the bassinet.  I was afraid I’d drop him, but a nurse settled him into my arms, wrapped in a pristine white blanket.  I stared at him.  He was perfect, beautiful, with a head of dark hair and deep blue eyes that turned to me the moment I spoke.  His perfect tiny lips puckered and he cooed.

As I kissed him I began to cry, which started a coughing fit and set my chest afire.  The nurse snatched him up and hurried away.  I cried, “No!” but she kept going.  I was dizzy now, the room spinning, and I closed my eyes.

“Wake up!” the lawyer insisted, grabbing my wrist where the IV was taped into my vein.  He put my hand on the tray, the pen in my hand and growled, “Sign.”  I must have signed it, but I don’t remember.

I was discharged into a taxi ten days after my son’s delivery.  The agency woman paid the driver and gave him my address.  I stumbled inside and fell on the bed.  I was supposed fill prescriptions but I had no money, no way to get to a pharmacy and honestly, I didn’t care.  My baby was gone, so what did it matter?

The fever returned the second night I was home.  I don’t know how long I lay in that bed, feverish, shivering, chest and stomach afire, waking, gasping for air, coughing and falling back into something like unconsciousness.  It was at least five days, probably a week.  I woke one morning without the fever, dismayed to discover I’d wet the bed for the first time in memory and apparently more than once.  Then it hit me—he’s gone—and I cried again.  I managed to strip off the sheets and my fouled clothes, then fell back into bed with only a blanket and slept until the afternoon.

I woke then only because of the banging at the door.  When I opened the door, the agency woman audibly gasped. “What is wrong with you?” she asked, more accusation than inquiry.  I didn’t want to see her, but she pushed past me.  She opened the refrigerator to find soured milk and a couple of eggs.  I had a box of cereal and two cans of soup in the pantry.

She smelled it then, the stench of stale urine, and gave me a disgusted glare. “If this is the best you can do,” she announced, “it’s better the baby is with them.”  If I’d had the energy, I’d have punched her.  She stopped by an elderly neighbor’s home on her way out and asked the woman if she’d check in on me and perhaps bring me something to eat until I got back on my feet.  I never saw the agency woman again.

The neighbor was a sweet soul.  She brought me a meal every day for two weeks.  She even laundered the soiled bedclothes for me, but she never once asked what happened, and I hadn’t the nerve to ask if she knew.

I last saw Susan leaving the pre-op room.  Three weeks after my discharge Tom came by.  I was still a mess.  The pneumonia and surgery and horror had taken their toll.  I didn’t care if I lived or died and it showed.  He didn’t stay long, and before he left he said that he wished he could help me get home, but Susan would be furious.

By the time I could stay awake more than two hours straight and walk more than a few feet, three more weeks had passed.  I called a law office from a pay phone and asked if I could get my son back.  The paralegal said no.  I told her the circumstances surrounding my signing the paperwork, and she said that they could try to have it revoked, provided I gave them a $700 retainer.

I knew then that my son was lost to me.

To be continued in A First Mother’s Agony, Part 2

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.  

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