OBG Editor’s Note: In this edition of Member Monday, our long-time member Shelley shares this insightful reflection on the experience of losing a claim to a voice – as a woman, a mother and a birthmother in an open adoption.
Come on you poor unfortunate soul/ Go ahead!/ Make your choice!/ It won’t cost much/ Just your voice!”
– Ursula the Sea Witch, Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)
I’m trying to remember the first time I had that feeling. The loud screaming desire to be heard on the inside but dead silence on the outside. I definitely remember the feeling during my first OB/GYN visit at a free clinic. I was 5 months pregnant and had never had a “female” exam before, but was too ashamed to tell anyone. I doubt I said anything during the entire visit unless it was a response to a direct question. I remember the caring African-American doctor asking me if I had any questions at the end of her visit with me. I just shook my head. I had a million questions, but was so terrified. Nothing came out of my mouth.
I honestly don’t know if that counts. I hadn’t even decided on adoption yet. I remember being in the hospital after I had my son, alone in my room. After months of near constant attention during my high risk pregnancy when it seemed like every person in the medical field needed to know everything about me and had instructions for my every move, I suddenly felt invisible. My adoption counselor has graciously made my choices known, so that I did not have to explain anything to anyone in the hospital. My son was taken to the nursery and no one bothered to tell me where the nursery was. I was no longer pregnant and not exactly a mother, a seemingly forgotten woman in the maternity ward. I guess I could have pushed a button and asked the basic questions swimming in my head. Can I get out of bed? Can I eat or drink? Can I go to the bathroom by myself? Where is my baby? But somehow I felt like I didn’t have the right to bother anyone, my questions stayed in my head.
I’ve heard many discussions over the years between women who are pregnant and women who have been pregnant. I wanted to take part. I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had a child. I have experiences to share, advice to give. But somehow it didn’t feel right. They knew I wasn’t raising a child, would they look at me like I have two heads? Would they ask me what happened to my baby? Would they just gossip and make up the story when I wasn’t around? So I usually just keep silent.
Eventually, I became old enough for people to ask me directly if I had any children, a question that always catches the breath in my throat. Somehow I’m never prepared for it. Somehow I’ve never developed a really good answer. I have answered or avoided answering that question many different ways over the years. Always assessing the situation in the moment and deciding in an instant what I think the appropriate response might be. I have occasionally said something like, “I have a son that I gave for adoption years ago.” It seems like a truthful and reasonable response, but is very often more than I want to disclose. I just don’t want to be forced to tell the story every time a random person asks what they think is a harmless question. I really don’t want to lie or deny the existence of my child either. So most of the time, I avoid answering using any technique I can come up with quickly.
By now, most of my friends and co-workers have children. Of course, they talk about them, what they are doing, funny stories, etc. They discuss parenting struggles and choices. I listen, I offer support when I can, but mostly I keep silent. I have a son, but I have never been a parent. I only know a few stories I’ve been told by others and what right do I have to offer an opinion on choices I’ve never had to make.
My son is now 18 and a high school graduate. We have a relationship. We are facebook friends, text and talk on the phone sometimes. I want to talk to my son, but more than that, I want to listen to my son. I want to know everything about him. Besides, what do I say and how do I say it? He has a mom, his mom’s girlfriend, a step mom and a birth mom. He doesn’t want or need another “mom voice” in his life. I am amazed at how his mom, who is half his size, can use her “mom voice” with him and get him to listen. He seems to love and respect all the parent figures in his life. I want to speak to him like a friend, but in my heart and soul, I am his mother. So mostly, I just ask questions and listen to him speak.
My son has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as was his birthfather. Over a period of 15 years or so, I have lived with a total of three bipolar people and personally struggled with clinical depression, PTSD and anxiety. I feel like I have history, experience and knowledge to share with his family that might be helpful or comforting to them. But who I am I to tell the people who have lived with and raised my son for 18 years anything? They have done and continue to do everything they can for him. They don’t need anything, least of all advice, from me. So I keep my thoughts to myself.
Even among other birthparents, I sometimes keep silent. Sometimes I don’t go to the meeting and gatherings because I worry that what I have to say will hurt people. I know from experience that birthparents live on fantasies. Picturing my son living his idyllic life on a farm with a mom and a dad surrounded by people who love him and would do anything for him or imagining the day when my adult son would choose on his own to be my friend, spend time with me and tell me his deepest thoughts. Oh, the things we would have in common, could do together and talk about for hours. Those fantasies got me through my darkest days. But now that he is legally an adult, the rosy fantasies have been replaced by harsh realities, dark thoughts and disturbing fears, who I am I to lay that at the feet of new birthmothers and those not yet reunited with their children still holding onto hope for a blissful, happy ending.
When I made the choice to give my child a better a chance at life and two very deserving people the ability to be parents, I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I understood my sacrifice and what I was giving up. I knew I was giving up my right to parent my child, but it never occurred to me that I was also giving up my voice, my right to express myself and all that I have learned.