A Personal Story
I was seventeen years old in 1978 and living in a small rural Midwestern American town of eight thousand inhabitants, when I became pregnant. The father, Thomas, had been my ‘high school sweetheart’ and we had been intimate since I was fifteen and he was seventeen. In an attempt to be ‘responsible’, Thomas and I had secured a prescription for birth control pills – not an easy task at that time or place. One summer day, my mother found them in my dresser drawer and “all hell broke loose” as they say in that part of the country. The pills were immediately taken away, the prescribing MD was promptly called and all my dermatology appointments were unilaterally canceled (the latter, a white upper middle-class form of punishment, would have been funny if the consequences of the former had not been so tragic). My already strained relationships with my mother and step-father deteriorated even further.
Yet, we never spoke of the ‘incident’ again. Although it was 1978 (and, interestingly, the first year in the decline of the numbers of American adoptions) and the United States had recently experienced the Vietnam War, the resignation of a president over corruption, the rise of ‘the counter culture’, feminism and civil rights, it was as if this little town was untouched by events it could not directly see or know through its senses. Similar to many rural communities in those days, the church bells still rang out on Sundays, women went about their charity work, the men gathered on Main Street for morning coffee and the local pool hall did not admit women – all remnants from the 1950s in the midst of social, political and economic upheaval and turmoil elsewhere in America and the rest of the world.
High School Senior
I discovered that I was pregnant during the last weeks of my senior year of high school. Given that I had a job as a lifeguard for the summer before I was to go to university in the fall (Thomas was already in university), I decided that I had a window of time to determine if we were going to abort or raise the child – adoption was never an option. After visiting several abortion clinics, we decided this was not our path and that we would raise the child. Neither of us had any religious or other objections to abortion. The option just didn’t seem right at the time; even knowing we would need to postpone our education and endure certain hardships, to which neither of us was accustomed.
The day finally arrived when I was forced to reveal my secret to my mother, when she asked what weekend would be best to visit the dorms on campus. Needless to say, the news was not well accepted and all university funds were withdrawn. A meeting was convened (par for the course for any disturbance in family routines), which consisted of Thomas and his parents, my mother and step-father (my father lived in Florida and, although I loved him very much, he had been estranged for years and would have been of no help in this circumstance) and me. An ultimatum was issued: either get married NOW and live in that town OR leave the house as “we will not have an unmarried, pregnant daughter parade around town – it’s an embarrassment.” I had obviously broken a female moral code of the time and I would be made to pay. Just how dearly a price I would pay was unknown to me at the time. We stated that we would not marry immediately and, as a consequence, I was no longer welcome in the house. I went to live with my extremely supportive grandparents. Both are now deceased, but I still thank them daily for creating a temporary oasis for me, in what was to become a tumultuous storm.
We were young, scared, naïve and without any money (or future funding) except $1,500 I was given from an old child support fund, $1,000 a friend gave us, our savings from our summer jobs and a ¾-ton econo-line Ford van that we purchased from some of our summer savings. The message was quite clear: if you leave, you are on your own. We packed the van and left the Midwest in search of a place more conducive to raising a child and to escape what we perceived as the insanity of our parents’ thoughts, beliefs and actions. We headed West and lived in our van for many weeks; sleeping on inflatable pool flotations. We eventually ended up in Mendocino, California where ‘like minds of the times’ gathered. As I grew larger, our already short supply of funds shrank even further. Even though Thomas was able to pick up temporary and intermittent painting and carpentry jobs, we were forced to apply for food stamps and welfare for pre-natal medical care. Our parents offered no assistance, except a few dollars from Thomas’s father when he begged him to sell some stocks. Oh yes, I was to ‘pay’ for my “sins” – and we were.
I spent most of the days of my pregnancy alone, as Thomas was always looking for work or doing an odd job here and there. I mainly read and kept the fire stoked to stay warm, as we could not afford heat nor a heater. In the latter part of my seventh month, the abhorrent realization that we could not afford to take care of ourselves, much less a child, finally surfaced into my consciousness. The only way to give our child a chance in life was ‘ADOPTION’ – the word itself made me literally ill. I threw up all day when I realized I had no viable choice but to choose this option – an option which had never entered my mind until that day. When Thomas returned home that evening, I shared my thoughts, feelings and decision. Not only did he go into a type of denial, but he decided that he would see an attorney to try to reverse my decision and take it upon himself to raise the child. After several days and counseling sessions (paid for by welfare stamps), he reluctantly agreed that adoption was ‘best’ and we began seeking, via looking through files, ‘parents’ for our child. We started natural birthing classes (again, paid for by welfare) and painfully tried to brace ourselves for what was about to happen. When we told both our parents about our decision, each offered to raise the child, BUT, did not offer assistance for us to raise the child. I always found and still do find that utterly bizarre!
Yuan (as we named him) or Eric ( as his adoptive parents named him) was born in January, 1979 in California. My labor lasted more than twenty-four hours. The attending MD and two mid-wives conjectured that it was so long because I was unwilling to ‘let go’ – perceptive on their part! Contrary to earlier practices, I was able to breast feed and Thomas and I were able to hold and bond with our son for several hours. We left the hospital mid-morning the day after his birth and his ‘new’ parents arrived within two hours of our departure. The ‘transfer’ was complete. All was signed, all was over. I was numb. I felt like a walking zombie. Returning to our place without our son after leaving ‘with’ him less than forty-eight hours prior was surreal. I watched the sunset over the Pacific Ocean the night after returning from the hospital. I watched the beautiful orange being overtaken by darkness, a darkness that would envelope me to varying degrees for years to come. I remember staying in bed for days and then jogging; bed and then jog – like a gerbil’s repetitive running in a wheel. I was overwhelmed by outrage, sorrow and disbelief.
Within a year, I (we) had relocated, enrolled in college and had assumed what looked like ‘a life’. Yet, I was seeing a therapist, battling anorexia and struggling with depression, attendant with intermittent states of disassociation lasting from one to five minutes. At present, I believe I would have been diagnosed with PTSD. However, in those days, that diagnosis was not recognized in such circumstances. There was a laissez-faire attitude of “just get on with your life” or “you just committed the most selfish or selfless (according to whoever was talking) act of your life.” I managed to finish university and go on to attain two Master degrees and a Ph.D.. Although I naturally excelled in academia, my drive came from a place much deeper within -a pact with the devil- as I have always termed it. The pact: if I was going to relinquish my son so that he would have a shot at a good education, which I felt I could not provide at the time, then I had to accomplish those degrees myself – almost an act of atonement. Logical? NO. Common guilt-driven pact/behavior? YES.
Thomas and I eventually married and then divorced a few years later. We both re-married (other people), but neither of us have children, as we both felt that it would be a betrayal to Eric (also a common feeling among birth parents). Both our spouses have been extremely supportive regarding our past experiences and the despair that would set in around his birthday and other holidays. I was in and out of therapy for several years, but none of it really made a difference in my life, as no one I saw understood the severe emotional and psychological impact of adoption. Thankfully, times have changed and there are now wonderful therapists who specialize specifically in adoption issues. During all those years of graduate school, degrees, my own private practice and professorships, I was always uncomfortable around children and I NEVER talked about my experiences with anyone, except a very select few. It was my guilty, shameful secret which unconsciously colored my entire my life. Even to this day, my step-father has never mentioned the adoption.
Four and a half years ago, I received an ecstatic and elated call from a friend who had also relinquished her son in California under similar circumstances. After years of searching, her son had finally found her. I quickly learned from her that all the laws regarding adoption had changed and that all I had left for Eric to review when he was eighteen years old was no longer in existence. I would have to go through all the paper work again. Up until that time, I had ‘assumed’ that he had the information necessary to contact me and that he had ‘chosen’ not to pursue a reunion, or couldn’t because of some unknown reason, or he was dead – the most dreadful thought possible. I, therefore, didn’t search, as I didn’t want to ‘invade his privacy’ – another misperception held by many birth parents. In fact, he did file search paperwork when he was twenty-one years old with the help of his adoptive father. Within hours of knowing about the new laws, I filed the necessary papers and started searching for him. Something transformed in my heart and NOTHING was going to stop me from finding him. Within three weeks he had received my ’phone number and address. Within four weeks, he e-mailed and we spoke on the ’phone. Within eight weeks, my husband and I flew my twenty-seven-year-old son to our home in Hawaii for our reunion. There are simply no words to describe seeing and hugging your child, now a young man, for the first time since saying goodbye to him as a day-old baby. There are simply no words to describe the bursting forth of love, energy, aliveness, amazement and, yes, shock as well. It was the single most important and greatest moment of my life.
Eric and I eventually ended up talking for hours and comparing fingers, toes and ears during his first trip, of many, to the islands. He told me as much as possible, at the time, about his childhood, growing up and his relationship to his adoptive parents. His adoptive mother had even sent a photo album with him, so that I could view the different stages of his life. Both of his adoptive parents have been supportive of close contact between Eric and myself, as well as themselves. I met his adoptive mother during a trip to visit Eric and his partner and she and I exchanged gifts and had a wonderful lunch together. Now we exchange Christmas cards and e-mails. Although Eric and I have discovered many similarities in preferences about many matters, probably the most eerie discoveries were, that we graduated from the same undergraduate institution, that my first professor there was his last, that he had lived on Maui for several years while I lived on Oahu and that he grew up and now lives three hours from where his birth father, Thomas, now resides. After his first trip to Oahu, he met Thomas for the first time about a week later. Because of their proximity and bond, they pal around together quite frequently.
It has been four years since our ‘reunion’ and although the ‘honeymoon stage’ is over, our connection has strengthened and grown stronger – albeit, not without some bumps along the way! One of the main hurdles to surpass during the first year was his sense of obligation to assuage the pain Thomas and I had experienced. This is not uncommon for an adoptee. After these and some other issues were sorted through and some necessary distancing for a short period of time, all now feels very natural and integrated – like the family it IS, not the family that it could have been, but IS.
In all my years in academia and even during my years in practice as a psychotherapist, I had not picked up nor read one book on adoption. I did not speak on the topic and, if it arose, I switched the topic. Since the reunion with Eric, I have read everything I can get my hands on, speak freely about the topic and my experiences with many different types of people, write on the topic, and have joined a triad group which includes all members of the adoption circle, including a therapist. The forbidden, guilt-producing, crippling, immobilizing, shame-inducing, “secret” is gone. This is not to say that I still do not struggle, because at times I do, especially in my relationship with my mother. However, my struggles are not with my own closeted demons. They are openly human struggles which are part of the healing process.
I urge everyone, in any part of the triad, or who is in any kind of relation with those affected by adoption, to educate themselves (ignorance is NOT bliss) and to discuss their experiences. A safe environment in which to speak is very important at the beginning. Also to write about their situation(s) – journaling is a wonderful way to begin the healing process. The healing journey is long and not easy, by any means: pre, post, or no reunion at all. It takes courage. But, when you feel your heart break open with a ‘lightness’ – even if for brief moments – rather than hollow with empty yet onerous space in your soul, you’ll know. You’ll know all the hard work the journey requires is worth it!