Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Twenty-three Years of Shame Lifted Away Like an Untethered Balloon
By Stacy Bernal
It was July 2020 and the world was in a limbo of seemingly endless upheaval. There was a global pandemic, my kids hadn’t been in school since March, and we were smack dab in the middle of the weirdest, socially-distanced version of summer. To top things off, we had recently switched pediatricians, and today was the boys’ first well checks with the new guy.
I had dutifully filled out the new patient forms which the doctor was now skimming over as he entered the exam room. He seemed nice enough and he immediately set the boys at ease when he answered Eli’s biggest concern: Would they have to get shots today? We collectively breathed a sigh of relief when he said no.
Glancing back at the paperwork, he asked, “So you have three kids?”
“Yes,” I replied. “My oldest daughter is married and lives out of state. She’s actually about to have my second grandbaby.”
He glanced at me with a look of surprise. I got that look a lot, especially when I was flanked by my 15- and 8-year-old sons. It was as if a perplexing math problem was formulating in his brain. Before I could provide my usual explanation, Haiden piped in.
“What about our other brother?”
The question hung awkwardly between all of us for a moment. Now the doctor was really doing some mental mathematics. He looked at me, his arched eyebrow awaiting an explanation. I laughed nervously.
“Oh, yes. They have an older brother. I placed him for adoption in 1994.”
He nodded nonchalantly and continued on with the boys’ appointment. I inwardly questioned my decision, not for the first time, why I had ever spilled my secret to my kids, particularly my autistic and unfiltered teenager who saw no reason why he couldn’t share this tidbit with any random person he met.
The truth is that the decision to share this part of my past with my kids came as a natural progression to how I had opened up about it to, well, basically the world. Because, like so many other women who have placed babies for adoption, I carried an overwhelmingly heavy burden of shame about it for years. And shame, that sly beast, gnarled inside me and kept me bound in silence for most of my life.
I was the drum major of my high school’s marching band in the fall of 1993, a distinct honor since I was only a junior. I would automatically assume the role again in my senior year and I was giddy with band-nerd power. Our marching band was one of the best in the state and we traveled frequently for competitions. We had a trip planned to march in a parade at Disney World in January and I worked diligently at fundraising, selling everything from Vidalia onions to Krispy Kreme donuts to World’s Finest Chocolate Bars. I was so busy with these activities that I almost didn’t notice that I had missed my period in October.
One day in early November I snuck the car that I shared with my older sister and drove to the local Food Lion, head down as I quickly made my way to the feminine product aisle. I snatched the cheapest pregnancy test I could find and skedaddled to the cash register hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I paid with exact change, ran to my car, sped home, and managed to slip back into the single wide mobile home without any of my siblings suspecting a thing.
I locked myself in my bathroom, my hands trembling as I unpackaged the pee stick. I sat down, did my business, and set the test on the bathroom counter for the instructed two minutes.
I am a good girl, I told myself. I am the drum major. I’m an accomplished clarinetist. I am Mormon. I am a good daughter and sister. I do my homework and get good grades.
I peeked at the test and saw the unmistakable brightness of two pinkish-red lines in the result window.
I am pregnant. Shit.
Dazed, I went into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and took out a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I plopped down at the table and began formulating my plan. I considered NOT telling my mom but knew that she’d inevitably notice in a few months. She was a labor and delivery nurse, a trained professional, so there would be no escaping it. I’d have to tell her and hope she wouldn’t murder me.
One night the next week we were at Cap’n D’s for dinner, just me, her and my friend Adam. I don’t remember what my two brothers and two sisters were doing but they weren’t with us that night and I decided it would be the perfect time to tell my mom the news. We were in a public setting and I had a witness so hopefully my mom’s reaction wouldn’t be explosive.
Between shoveling bites of fried halibut and hush puppies into my mouth, I somehow mustered the nerve to casually say, “I think I might be pregnant.” Mom’s and Adam’s jaws both dropped in cartoonish comical unison. I continued to chow down, hopeful that both of them would do the same. Instead, my mom started a surprisingly calm interrogation.
“What makes you think you’re pregnant?” she asked.
“Well, I took a test and it was positive. It could have been a false positive though, right?” I asked hopefully.
“Not likely,” she stated. “What are you going to do?”
I nearly choked on my food. “What do you mean, ‘what am I going to do’?”
She eyed me as she carefully spoke her next words. “I’ll support you, whatever you decide.”
My mind immediately went to the paper I had just finished writing for a school assignment. I had written a persuasive essay on why I was pro-life and, as part of my research, had gone so far as to go to a clinic where a kind receptionist had gifted me with a small pin of a tiny set of gold-plated feet, meant to represent pro-life. And now my mom was challenging me. Now that it was happening to me, was my stance the same?
I wiped my greasy hands on a napkin and shrugged. “I guess I’m giving it up for adoption. There’s nothing else I would do. I certainly can’t keep it.”
My mom looked both proud and sad about my decision. This would be her first grandbaby and her own mother’s first great-grandbaby. I was already envisioning a life for the baby and it didn’t include being a part of my family. My parents had recently divorced and our family of six was living in a single-wide, three-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of our small town. I couldn’t imagine that I could be what this tiny human needed.
My mom helped me set up doctor’s appointments, take the right prenatal vitamins, and combat morning sickness. I tried to concentrate at school, feeling completely exhausted and having to dash to the restroom to vomit occasionally. I had to pretend things were business as usual since I wasn’t ready to tell anyone about it. We also needed to find a family for my little bun in the oven. We discussed a few options but nothing felt quite right to me.
One night at work my mom told a co-worker about my situation. She immediately suggested the name of a nurse who worked on the post-partum floor who had been unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant for a while. My mom brought it up with me the next day and I figured it would be worth a shot to meet this woman and her husband.
It was early December and their immaculate home in a nice neighborhood was decked with boughs of holly and full of fa-la-la-la-la holiday cheer. We sat on their plush couch in front of a blazing fire, their Golden Retriever lying on the rug on the floor. It was as magical a home as I had ever seen and I knew instantly that this was where I wanted my baby to be raised, and by the beautiful couple who so desperately wanted to be parents.
Now that I had found them, all I had to do was make it through the rest of the school year (hopefully under the radar) until the baby’s due date at the beginning of July. Each month, my belly protruded a little more. When we went to Disney World in January, I had to jimmy rig my drum major uniform by looping a rubber band through the buttonhole and around the button, which I then concealed under my cummerbund. After we marched in the parade, we were free to spend the day around the park. I made excuses every time a friend asked me to go on Space Mountain or any other ride with the warning for pregnant women.
Elastic waist pants, shorts, and baggy t-shirts became my best friends. I was getting so close to the end of the school year and I honestly thought I might make it out without anyone knowing. And then one day in late May, I walked into a bathroom stall and saw the writing on the wall. Literally. In sloppy black Sharpie, someone had scrawled: “Stacey Ribino in an knocked up hoe.” (Let the record show that they misspelled both my first and last names AND the sentence was grammatically incorrect.)
I was mortified, by both the bad English and the fact that OMG PEOPLE KNEW. Shame and hurt bubbled up in me like a bad heartburn. I fought the urge to run away and never come back. Instead, I went to the guidance counselor’s office and inquired about taking summer school classes. I only needed two credits to graduate so I signed up and resolved to get the hell out of my high school as soon as possible. I grudgingly made it to the last day of school and then immediately started the summer school program. The only problem: I could only miss a maximum of two days of classes and still be able to graduate. And the baby’s due date was quickly approaching.
On a Wednesday night in late June, I woke up with a horrible stomachache. It intensified off and on for several hours before I realized that I was in labor. I called my mom who was finishing up her night shift at the hospital. She called the adoptive couple to let them know it was game time. They were excitedly waiting for us by the time we arrived at the hospital. After what felt like an eternity of enduring contractions, I was finally wheeled into a delivery room. Exhausted, I pushed and breathed and pushed some more until a tiny human being with a slightly cone-shaped head slid out of me.
He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe I had made him, that my body had constructed his. I held him for a few minutes and then he was taken by a nurse and I was shuttled to a recovery room. The rest of the stay was a blur, until the moment the lawyer showed up with the paperwork for finalizing the adoption. I was allowed to hold the baby as this would be the last time he’d be “mine.” Tears streamed down my cheeks and onto his head as I rocked him against my chest, willing the love in my heart to wrap around his. I signed away my legal rights and he was whisked away to be united with his mom and dad.
I delivered him on a Thursday. I was back to school on Monday. Six weeks later, I walked across the stage to receive my high school diploma. I smiled for pictures and celebrated with family and friends. But I felt broken, a hollow shell of the girl I had been just a year before. There would be no senior year; no marching band competitions; no applying for scholarships to go to college. I now had a past that I was pretty ashamed of and no real positive outlook for the future. In some ways, I had given up my life when I gave him his.
The experience set in motion what I can now see was a slow, steady downward spiral. Not only was I stained by the stigma of teen pregnancy, I was also a survivor of years of sexual abuse by my father. The trauma of the abuse was never fully addressed and was, in fact, exacerbated by the inept mishandling of church leaders when my mom sought their counsel. The patriarchy protected the predator and I was left vulnerable and feeling at-fault for my father’s wrongdoings.
At 17, the stretch marks on my belly, upper thighs, and breasts marked me like a scarlet letter, a constant reminder of my sins. Shame left me feeling small, quiet, dirty. It told me I was less than. It allowed me to be objectified and dehumanized, and it told me I deserved it. Sometimes I could dull the pain, washing it down with wine or keeping it at bay with a few beers. But it was a constant weight and tremendously heavy for me to carry. So I wrapped up my stories, my past, and I shelved them deep in the recesses of my heart. Safe and sound and untold.
I didn’t publicly share my adoption or abuse stories until 2017, the year my birth son turned 23. I shared his adoption in a presentation for some work colleagues and I likened the process to pearls. When an irritant like a grain of sand gets into a mollusk, its defense mechanism is to create a barrier against the offensive granule. The chemical reaction coats layer upon layer of iridescent mother-of-pearl so that, once the mollusk is cracked open, the end result is a lovely orb.
My irritant started the day I saw the words “knocked up hoe” scribbled on the bathroom stall door. And the pearl that I was finally able to crack open was that I am a “badass birth mother.” The years—TWENTY-THREE YEARS—of shame lifted away like an untethered balloon. I finally recognized the beauty in having placed my son for adoption rather than the shame of being a “bad person.” I made the difficult choice and gifted a family with a human being. I’m proud of 17-year-old Stacy.
My kids talk about their older brother, creating a space for him should he ever decide to find us. Once, during a heated sibling argument, my autistic son asked if I could “give away” his younger brother like I had with his older one. I explained that’s not how adoption works and inwardly chuckled at his unfiltered and sometimes painfully honest sentiments.
I’ve since written a book and given a TEDx talk based on this, and many other experiences, that taught me how to step into my story and embrace my authenticity. My hope is that by sharing my stories, someone else can find the courage to share their own. It gives purpose to the pain I felt the day I held my sweet baby boy, covered in my tears, and kissed him goodbye. I would love for his story to one day weave back into mine and my family’s. But even if it never does, I will forever carry his heart in mine.
Stacy Bernal is an author, TEDx speaker, and coach whose mission is to inspire others to live their biggest and most badass lives. She’s a wife, mom, grandma, ultra-marathoner, and an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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