The Day the Lightbulb Went On

The Day the Lightbulb Went On

I still remember the exact moment it happened – not the precise date and time, but where I was and how it felt. Like that proverbial lightbulb going on – I had the realization that my life was up to me. On my way home from work, I was walking from the bus stop to my house in Jersey City. It was dusky, early fall, and the weather was crisp but not uncomfortable. I dragged my finger along a chain-link fence as I meandered. I had a cat at the time, but she could take me or leave me, so there was no one waiting for me, no reason to hurry.

It was on that walk that it dawned on me that all of the results I’d achieved, the situation in which I found myself, were mine and my doing alone. I was 27 and pregnant. Unmarried, and unlikely to marry the birthfather. And while it would have been quite easy to blame him and get angry with him for not stepping up, (a) that wasn’t going to solve anything and (b) it wouldn’t absolve me from my role in the pregnancy. I realized in that moment that I couldn’t blame anyone else for my lot in life: I couldn’t blame my parents, my son’s father, my siblings, my schooling, my church. There was no one else to point the finger at. Sure, all of those people and organizations had influenced me – but the choices I made were mine.

No one forced me to choose my high school or my college or to date Tony or to move to New York or to take a job at Lehman Brothers or to have unprotected sex or to carry the baby. Good and bad, my choices had been up to me – and at that moment, I took ownership for them.

It’s amazingly freeing to take responsibility for your own decisions, to realize that what you’ve done, accomplished, achieved – or not done, not accomplished, or not achieved – is really up to you.

I didn’t get married until I was 43 – remember how until the early 20th century, a woman still unmarried past 21 was a spinster, likely to remain single forever? Even as recently as 2015, the average age of first marriage for women in the U.S. was 27.1, and for men it was and 29.3.* So both John and I skewed the average quite a bit. Could I have gotten married sooner? Probably – if I’d ever agreed to a second date with any of the guys I met on Craigslist before meeting John. But why should I have? I didn’t like any of them enough for a second date, let alone to marry them. Yet I think many people fear being alone more than they fear marrying the wrong person. I owned my choice to be single for years longer than average – and have been so vastly rewarded in meeting and marrying the right guy. The choice to wait proved immeasurably worthwhile.

One of my birthmother friends was a Peace Corps volunteer. And when I was dating before meeting my husband, I met a writer/photographer for whom Phoenix was a pitstop as he traveled the world. Then I had a roommate briefly who literally backpacked across Eastern Europe. I used to envy these friends and others who traveled. Until I realized that envy wasn’t going to get me anywhere. They traveled because they prioritized traveling. All of my excuses – particularly the “not enough money” excuse – were really just bullshit, because if I’d really wanted to be a world traveler, I would have been. I liked the idea of world travel – but I wasn’t exactly prepared to get a passport, pack my backpack, leave my pets behind, take a sabbatical from my job, and just go.

Perhaps that’s why my first novel (forthcoming this year) is about a guy who travels around the world with his dog. I’m living vicariously through my fictional character, Stan. So far, my world travel has been fairly limited. My goals are shifting, though, as I see more trips on my horizon in a way I hadn’t until relatively recently. I’ve been a little worried about marketing a book about world travel when my own travel has been so limited. Hmmm… What were the choices that led to this place? The choice not to travel, coupled with the choice to write about a guy who does travel. I wonder who got me into this situation? Oh, wait – I did!

Everything that has happened in my life has led me to this point, today, writing this blog and preparing to (finally) launch my novel. I’d be a different person if I’d chosen to parent Eric. My life would likely have had radically different outcomes if I’d stayed in New York/New Jersey instead of moving back to Arizona. I sometimes wish we had the opportunity to take both roads so we could know which outcome we really preferred. Those who study quantum physics might tell you that there are parallel universes, where we could (or do) simultaneously make different choices. That’s heady stuff, though. In practicality, I live in this world. And so I can only make one choice at a time and experience one outcome, as a result.

The best thing I ever did – and I think I have Eric to thank for it – was realizing that every choice is mine. No blame, no finger-pointing, no excuses. My choices led me to today – and what a remarkable day it is.


“Outed” as a Birthmother

“Outed” as a Birthmother

Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the bio and adoptive families agree to provide access to varying degrees of each others’ personal information and have the option of direct contact. Although open adoption is becoming more and more the norm (67 percent of private adoptions in the U.S. have pre-adoption agreements of at least a semi-open adoption*), secrecy still often surrounds the adoption, in terms of birthparents revealing that they have placed children.

I’ve long thought that revealing one’s status as a birthparent must be similar to coming out as being gay, particularly for those who have kept the information secret, for whatever reason. You’re never sure how people will take this bit of news. Mostly, they seem to wonder why it took you so long to get around to telling them. How badly must you have thought of them to have been fearful of confiding in them?

A birthmother friend of mine, whose son is a few years older than I am, had the unusual experience of trying to remember exactly to whom she had revealed her secret over the years. She was 19 when she got pregnant in the 1960s, and was forced by her parents to go to a maternity home. Shame and secrecy shrouded her entire adoption experience, and she told very few people. Eventually, she put her name on the international adoption reunion registry, and in his 30s, her son found her. She met him – and their reunion went well. Having him in her life going forward, however, meant having to tell a certain number of people about him. She laughed as she explained, “I just didn’t remember which ones I’d told about my pregnancy, and which ones I hadn’t. Some people I assumed knew didn’t know – and with others, I was sure I was revealing a big secret, and they said, ‘Yeah – you told me years ago.’”

Up until my son was nearly 5 and I moved away from the New Jersey area, I did a fair amount of speaking to adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, social workers, and hospital staff. Typically, Judy Greene, the Spence-Chapin birthparent coordinator, would introduce me and any other birthmoms who happened also to be speaking. Judy wasn’t a birthmother – she was a social worker who’d ben working with birthmothers for about 26 years at that point. Nevertheless, every time she would introduce me, I would hold my breath waiting for her to trip up, to say something to misrepresent the birthmom experience. And never once, in all the times she made those introductions, did she ever misspeak on behalf of me or other birthparents.

Judy would begin by cautioning the audience that our identity as birthmothers was confidential. If by chance, we later happened to run into each other, they should be discrete about having met us and where. This came about because one birthmom who gave similar presentations to me was sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone with a friend when an adoptive couple she’d met a few weeks earlier strolled past and yelled out, “Hi, Cheryl!” When Cheryl didn’t recognize them, they announced that they’d met her at an adoption panel. In this particular birthmom’s case, Chery’s friend knew about her adoption, but if she hadn’t, it could have been a very uncomfortable situation.

I never had any worries about being “outed,” and always told my audiences as much before I began my presentations. But I can respect any woman’s decision to keep that information private.

Here’s the thing, we can’t normalize adoption until we destigmatize the birthmother’s role. It really is rather strange to me that people seem to have more of an emotional reaction on hearing that a woman placed her baby for adoption than that she had an abortion. A good friend of mine, a birthmom I met through the birthmother support group at Spence-Chapin, got pregnant her senior year in high school. This would have been in the early ’80s in a Baltimore suburb. She said that a number of girls in her class got pregnant – but they either got married the week after graduation or they had abortions. She was the only one who chose adoption, and she was ostracized for it.

I’m not sure what makes people so uncomfortable about birthmothers. My guess is that it’s birthmothers themselves who unintentionally further the stigma. Many have unresolved issues with grief and guilt and shame. And if you walk around feeling bad about something – like many gay people did in the past (and, sadly, some are still made to today) – it’s hard to own up to it, wear the mantle proudly, identify with it, or be public about it.

We made a start by formally acknowledging birthmothers with Birthmothers’ Day, which has been commemorated annually since 1990 on the Saturday before Mothers’ Day. We say commemorated – not celebrated – because being a birthmom is, typically, bitter-sweet at best and has, for some women, been downright harrowing. Even those of us who have had pretty positive adoption experiences and/or reunions still went through some level of emotional trauma before, during, and after the placement of our babies.

And as nice as it may be, having a day that acknowledges us is a small step, really. A look at the adoption literature – even on a website dedicated to adoption-themed books like – shows a dearth of books by, for, and about birthmothers, especially when compared to the scads and scads of titles written by, for, and about adoptive parents. And if you think birthmothers get short shrift – imagine being a birthfather! They are still pretty much personas non grata throughout the adoption world, so I’ve gotta imagine that guys coming clean about their status as birthdads is even rarer and more isolating than what birthmoms experience.

It’s time for birthparents – mothers and fathers – to throw off that mantle of shame that so many of us picked up somewhere along the way, and instead wrap ourselves in cloaks of majesty and dignity. We made a tough decision in choosing adoption over parenting or abortion. Whether others think it was awful, brave, or somewhere in between should not be our concern. However, we’ll give them a lot less reason to think badly of us if we come out voluntarily, speak openly about our experiences, and freely educate anyone willing to listen.

*SOURCE: 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents

Responding to the Question, “Do You Have Children?”

Responding to the Question, “Do You Have Children?”

I made a pledge to my son, before he was born, that I would never deny his existence. If people asked me – as is so often our way when we make new acquaintances – “Do you have children?”, I would never duck the question and always answer in the affirmative. That hasn’t proven to be 100 percent possible – occasionally, it has just been necessary/easier to say “No” and keep moving. But whenever possible, I have kept my pledge.

In the early years, when the pestering follow-up questions would come, I might simply say, “He doesn’t live with me,” not caring what conclusions the other person might draw. Depending on the time constraints and my relationship to the individuals, I’ve offered a number of people specific details about the adoption on initial meeting. But if I felt a person were asking with no concern whatsoever about the answer – or if I felt that telling them was going to take me down a rabbit hole that would be difficult to exit – I would curtail my answer.

Over the years, Kathy would send me snapshots and Eric’s annual school pictures. For the duration of my Investment Banking stint at Lehman Brothers, I kept a framed photo of him on my desk, just like other proud moms. One of my friends, Wayne from the mailroom, would occasionally ask how my son was doing, and I would give him the latest update if I had one. Interestingly, a birthmother friend of mine told me that by doing that – embracing my son so publicly – I was putting the people I worked with in an awkward position. Project much, Alissa?

My position has always been that if my honest answers and public acknowledgment of my son made anyone else uncomfortable, that was their problem – not mine. I’ve often suspected that Alissa might have had some shame or guilt or other unresolved negative emotions about her own adoption that made her feel squirmish because I was comfortable talking about my own situation. It wasn’t a competition, but neither was I willing to pretend to be uncomfortable to make her feel better.

I had long heard that people’s responses to birthmothers was often, “How could you do such a thing?” I think Alissa was worried this would be their response if she told them about her birthmom status, so she chose to keep quiet. The thing is, I believe that we get back whatever we put out into the world. If we expect people to accept us, they will; if we expect them to judge us, they’ll do that instead. I was happy with the family I chose for my son – and though I naturally had some grief issues, I never felt guilty about my decision. As I told the other mothers in the birthmother support group, if I’d felt guilty about it, I never would have chosen to place. So it was fairly easy for me to talk about my son and the adoption with almost anyone who asked.

Over all my years as a birthmother, only two people have questioned my decision. One was the petty woman who was my boss’s boss at Lehman Brothers. She was a terrible manager who treated her staff like Joan Crawford did her daughters in Mommie Dearest, sowing division by pitting them against one another. I believe I may have been the only one of the 14 females under her direction whom she never made cry, perhaps because I never gave her the ammunition or power to do so. I was always cordial, but never friendly, having learned early that this woman would sock away bits of information like a mad squirrel, bringing them out later to use against you if/when it suited her. So it was no real surprise to me when she asked, at one point, why I hadn’t just gotten an abortion.

The other person was a man named Tim, with whom I was madly in love in my mid-30s. We had an emotional affair, but never dated. He knew the whole story of the adoption, and would celebrate my son’s birthday with me every year. I don’t really remember the context of the conversation, but once when Eric was about 8, Tim said to me, “I don’t know how you did it. I just don’t think I could have gone through with it,” – it being the adoption.

“It feels like you’re judging me,” I said in response.

“I’m not – I’m just saying…” Things got quiet then, and he apologized.

But that was it. In 23+ years, virtually no one has had what I have perceived as a negative or judgmental response to the news that I placed my son for adoption at birth.

It used to be that I didn’t know a person five minutes before I revealed that I was birthmother in an open adoption. It was just important to me that they know up front, so that if it ever came up in conversation later, they wouldn’t look at me and say, “You have a son?” I realized at a business meeting recently that this is no longer the case. It’s a monthly meeting where we share our accomplishments since the last meeting, and I mentioned starting this blog. As I began speaking, I realized that most of the people in the room probably did not know about Eric, so I had to explain. I’m not sure what has changed – after 23 years, the novelty is gone? Familiarity has set in? My life is in a different place now?

Regardless, I still typically answer yes to “the question” and brag about the kiddo when given the opportunity.

Laura Orsini is an author who works with other authors to help them make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

Talking and Talking and Talking

Talking and Talking and Talking

Almost immediately upon confirming my pregnancy, I knew I wasn’t going to parent my son – that I would place him for adoption. Which sounds good, in theory, but how the hell does one go about actually finding parents for a baby, as yet unborn?

I confided in my manager at Lehman Brothers, and she told me that a woman in an adjacent department had recently adopted her baby from a New York City agency. She offered to get me the details. The next day, she had a name and a phone number for me. I should call Judy Greene, the birthparent coordinator at the Spence-Chapin agency, located on New York City’s Upper East Side.

I worked up my nerve to call Judy, and she was very kind. She asked me lots of questions, seemed gracious and concerned without being overly solicitous. The day after that, I received a phone call from the woman who would become my social worker, Mary Weidenborner. I was stunned when Mary repeated back to me, virtually word for word, the things I had told Judy I thought I was looking for in prospective adoptive parents. To this day, I don’t know if Judy took shorthand, recorded our call, or has a photographic memory.

Judy knew her stuff, because Mary was the perfect fit for Tony and me as a birthparent counselor. Thing is, I’m not sure how she divined that, because I hadn’t revealed all that many details about us. Mary was the mother of boys, a baseball fan, and a card player. We were both baseball fans, and Tony was, at least back then, a Black Jack player extraordinaire. Tournament-winning good. Now to say he was reticent to be involved in the adoption is putting it mildly. Mary knew that, and did what she could to engage him. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, he referred to Spence-Chapin as “the baby sellers.” This from the man who wanted me to have an abortion. But, to his credit, he went with me to the first six or seven meetings with Mary.

They told me that the average prospective birthmother sees her social worker four or five times. I saw Mary 21 times before Eric was born and 12 times after. I don’t recall very much of what we talked about during all of those sessions. I just know that talking –  and talking and talking and talking – helped me work through all the feelings, some of which were extremely difficult to put into words. Mary understood, though, because like Judy, she was very good at her job.

Growing up a reader and having earned a creative writing degree, I have always turned to books as a staple of my education on any topic – even in the internet/information age. On learning I was pregnant, I remember looking for a book about adoption that was geared at birthmothers. There was virtually nothing. Perhaps one memoir – a birthmother sharing her harrowing ordeal. And The Primal Wound – a super comforting book about how traumatic adoption is on the baby removed from his/her birthmother at birth. Other than that, the Barnes & Noble shelves were littered with books offering info on the inside track to adopting a baby – cheat sheets, if you will, all but promising gullible parents that THIS book would teach them the secrets that would guarantee an easy and flawless adoption. Liars all of them – as no such thing exists. Adoption is a human institution, and humans come ready made with flaws. Glitches happen – best thing is to set a goal to have a few as possible.

Since I had no books to turn to, I turned to the birthmothers I met at Spence-Chapin. I was invited to a birthmom support group meeting where I met Peggy, Lynn, Karen, Cathy, Alissa, and Cheryl. The first four had placed between 12 and 25 years ago. Alissa’s adoption was fairly new – her son was just 6 at the time I met her. Cheryl’s son was just 18 months older than Eric, so we seemed to share more similarities in our experience than any of the others. Meeting them all gave me hope – they’d all lived through their adoptions. While there was pain, they hadn’t died and had managed to come out on the other side. Peggy still stands clear in my memory. At the time I met her, her first daughter was in her 20s. She had been tiptoeing around a search for years, but as she’d subsequently had two other daughters with the man she’d married (not her first daughter’s birthfather) and none of them knew about her first pregnancy and the placement, she was hesitant to commit to a search. We all wondered how she had faked never having been pregnant before.

It was only after I’d placed my son that I learned about Patricia Roles’ book, Saying Goodbye to a Baby. I read it and wept because I could have used so much of that information while I was pregnant – although it was still helpful afterward. That was my biggest suggestion as part of Spence-Chapin’s Birthmother Advisory Board: give a copy of that book to every prospective birthmother who walks through the door. At the time I left the Tri-State Area, they were doing just that.

One thing Roles’ book touched on – which I later realized later that Mary had helped me navigate – was a thing called anticipatory grief. That’s what all of the talking was about. Knowing some hugely difficult feelings were headed toward me – an unavoidable emotional tsunami – if I intended to go through with the adoption, I could talk through a lot of them before they hit, so that when they did actually pummel me, they were somewhat softened because I had prepared for them in advance.

Once I placed my son with Kathy and Bruce, I was no longer a prospective birthmother, so I was able to join the support group. Peggy told me privately that she had hoped, that night she met me, that she’d never see me again. That was sweet – and also a wish though the lens of a birthmother who still had unresolved guilt and grief issues. At meeting after meeting, I would frustrate the other women because, while I could empathize with their guilt, I could not relate to it first-hand. “How can you not feel guilty?” they would demand to know.

“I’m not sure – I just don’t. If I’d felt guilty, I never would have done it.” I didn’t mean to be flip with my answer, but that was the honest truth. I wish I could have done the adoption without hurting Eric – but to this day, I’ve never quite felt guilty about it.

I think part of the absolution of guilt might have come from Father Bede Wilks, a Fr. Francis Bede Wilks, O.P. - St. Thomas More Newman Center, University of ArizonaDominican priest on staff at the UA Newman Center while I was in college there. For a brief time one semester, I made a practice of attending daily Mass. It was during one of those weekday services that Fr. Bede gave a sermon about the emotions of guilt and anger. “Guilt,” I very clearly remember him saying, “is from the devil. It is a useless emotion.” Now paraphrasing, he continued, “It ties you up in knots, paralyzes you, and makes you feel terrible. But it’s not helpful. Nothing productive ever comes from guilt. Anger, on the other hand, can be a very positive emotion, because anger can motivate you to change things.” I’ve since come to learn that anger, unchanneled, is also destructive – perhaps deadly.

I’m not sure Fr. Bede’s sermon was a magic wand, per se, but I know that I never viewed – or practiced – guilt the same way again. Without judging other women’s choices, I know that I did everything I needed to do to be OK with the adoption – and I’ve been fairly well adjusted about it from the beginning. Many birthmothers are not as fortunate.

Is There a Birthmother in Your Life?

Is There a Birthmother in Your Life?

When I was 12 years old, attending St. Agnes Catholic School in Phoenix, we had a remarkable assembly in the parish hall one afternoon. To my recollection, it was the only assembly of its kind we ever had. I have no idea who orchestrated it, or to what end. The meat of the presentation was an adoptive couple telling their story. What I took away from it was: Be a good girl. Don’t have sex, or you could get pregnant. But if you do get pregnant, choose adoption, not abortion. And definitely don’t even think about keeping and raising that baby.

I’m not sure why the memory of this assembly still aggravates me so much, but I get agitated as I recall it because it strikes me today – 38 years later, in the midst of an open adoption with a seemingly well-adjusted kid who is, himself, 10 years older than I was at the time of that presentation – as brainwashing and/or propaganda.

I was 27 years old when I got pregnant – and yet my very first instinct upon confirming my pregnancy was that I wasn’t going to keep the baby; I would place him for adoption. Who does that? What kind of mother even thinks that way? Why, when the birthfather asked me to, did I consider abortion for two days but never, not once, seriously consider parenting?

I also remember being 14 and thinking that I was never going to have children. So maybe it was just a thing with me – the biological clock skipped over me. My younger sister got married and pregnant at 22. Her first husband made Tony, my son’s birthfather, look like Ward Cleaver by comparison. David did eventually mature and mellow out a bit over the years, but he was fairly irascible and somewhat easily triggered until his death of heart failure nearly five years ago. He wasn’t marriage material, though, and my sister soon found herself a single mom, so I had a front-row seat for all that entailed. Additionally, my mother had raised my older sister on her own, and I saw the results of that relationship in my dysfunctional sibling. Come to find out, my mother had health issues that did not make her the ideal candidate for single parenting – but these were the facts, as I knew them, when I found myself pregnant.

I have heard that birthmothers tend to go one of two ways, when it comes to having additional children. They either never have another kid, or they get married/find a partner very soon after the placement and have several children in quick succession. I most definitely fall into the first camp.

I was 42 when I met my husband – first marriages for both of us. We hit it off well from the start and were pretty sure we were going to get married by about four months in. His sister and I are the same age, and she had a 1-year-old daughter at the time. Because of my age, John and I were forced to have a difficult conversation very early in our relationship: did we, or did we not, want to have children? If we were going to, the timer was ticking loudly. Even had we decided that we did want kids, nothing was guaranteed, and health-wise, things could have gotten dicey. As it turns out, we decided – together –that we were fine with not being parents. I did occasionally ask John for a long time afterward if he was really OK with our decision. You see, because even though I did not parent Eric, he is still my son and we have a nice relationship. John won’t ever have that, and I needed to be sure he wasn’t feeling bad about it. He finally had to tell me to stop asking. Yes, he was fine with the decision. No, he did not have any regrets. Yes, really.

I don’t know who that couple was who first planted the adoption seed in my head. Their child would be about 40 now, I’m guessing. I hope whoever he or she is, that they grew up well adjusted. That adoption would have taken place about a dozen years before open adoptions began to become more commonplace. I hope that he or she found their birthparents – if they wanted to – and that their reunion was a positive one.

I’ve no idea who is reading or will read this blog. No idea what kind of influence I’ve had over anyone with regard to adoption through the years. If I could leave one lasting legacy with regard to this crazy, mixed up, incredibly peculiar way to build a family, it would be that birthmoms embrace their roles in their children’s lives and be fearless in claiming that role – to themselves and to all who know them. It’s time for birthmothers to come out of the closet. Everybody knows an adoptive parent and someone who was adopted. The thing is, there’s a third side to the triad. The stork didn’t bring that baby, a birthmother did. And you probably know a birthmother, too – you just may not realize that once upon a time she placed a baby with another family. That she is also someone’s other mother.

Walking Your Good Christian Talk

Walking Your Good Christian Talk

Good Catholic girl that I was, I was raised to be pro-life. I would still describe that as my general philosophy – but I’ve changed my political position a bit, in that I don’t think being pro-life and being pro-choice are antithetical. I believe to my core that abortion is a heinous act that should be a last resort; I’m not convinced that it always is, at least in America. However, the barn door is open and the carriage long gone – so making abortion illegal again is not the answer. Whom do you charge, and with what crime? Pro-lifers are trying to give personhood status to fetuses – something I don’t necessarily disagree with, except that it would mean charging a woman, who likely has already undergone some serious trauma, with murder. Whom does that benefit? You could charge the doctors – but what about the nurses, anesthesiologists, and other assistants? Are they to be charged as well? Where does it all end?

Having experienced a first-hand understanding of why women choose abortion, if anyone were to ask my personal opinion, I’d tell them I think abortion is a seriously flawed idea. But, then again, I’m not in anybody else’s shoes. I’ve heard and read heart-rending stories of women who experienced miscarriage after miscarriage – only to end up deciding to abort the one pregnancy they would carry to term because the baby would be so sick it would not survive. There’s always a bigger picture. So yes – let’s reduce the need for abortions. Let’s educate women – young and not so young – about where babies come from and how to avoid getting pregnant.

I remember reading a question from a woman in an adoption chat room – do you remember chat rooms at the dawn of the Internet age? She was pregnant with her fourth child, and her question went something like this: I had my first baby at 17, had an abortion at 18, placed my next baby for adoption. Now I’m 20 and pregnant again and I don’t know what to do. Really? Stop having sex! Or use some goddamned protection, for crying out loud! The problem is that so many of the people who oppose abortion also oppose birth control. Listen folks, you can’t have it both ways. We could make abortion a lot less necessary, but I don’t think either side really wants that. It’s like the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s efforts to “end” breast cancer. What would they do with themselves – and where would the money come from – if they ever actually succeeded?

So it was back in my high school days that I used to picket abortion clinics. You know the signs with the mangled fetuses? That was us. I honestly thought I was saving babies and doing a good thing. Then three things happened in short succession to bring an end to my picketing days.

First, I began to notice that I was often the only woman on the picket line. While I’m glad men feel compelled to get involved, unless a man is the father of an unborn child whose mother is contemplating abortion, he doesn’t really have a voice in this argument. And even then, it is the woman who carries the baby, gives birth, and – usually – takes on the bulk of the responsibility for raising that kid, should she choose to parent. So at its core, it’s a woman’s issue – and there really weren’t many women involved in the picketing, at least at the time and in the place I was doing it.

Second, we would begin each picketing session with a prayer. Imagine my dismay when my fellow “Christians” started to pray for the destruction of abortion clinics and the people who worked inside of them. Um – no! My God did not respond to prayers for the destruction of anything.

Third – and the issue that made me permanently hang up my picket sign – was the fact that the teenage daughter of one of the local right-to-life bigwigs suddenly found herself pregnant. Did that family walk their talk? Give that life a chance? Encourage the girl to carry her pregnancy to term? No, they did not. They marched her right down to the local Planned Parenthood and paid for an abortion so no shame could come to their good Christian family name. This wasn’t for public knowledge, of course – I overheard a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear.

I remember pestering my dad, right about the same time, about what we would do to help the babies who needed our assistance. He didn’t really understand my question. “Well, if we’re pro-life and we want these girls to have their babies, why aren’t we inviting them to come and live with us until the babies are born?” In short, why aren’t we doing the very thing Jesus would have us do? That didn’t go over so well. I kept at him for a while, but soon I knew that enough was enough. I’d probably made my point – but we were a Christian family who was going to leave the heavy lifting to someone else.

Sister Joan Chittister has made headlines with her “scandalous” position on the meaning of pro-life. This quote is from her famous 2004 interview with Bill Moyers on PBS’s Now With Bill Moyers:

It’s so easy to be a one-issue voter. It’s also so superficial to be a one-issue anything. It’s a narrow, delimiting approach to the very essence of life. As in, “I go to church every Sunday but I don’t believe in welfare. I’m not going to support slackers. If people worked as hard as I do, they could take care of themselves, too.” Or even worse, “There’s no such thing as equal.”


As we prepare to cut one-third of the social services of this country, as we intend to balance the US budget on the backs of women and children for the sake of the affluent and the privileged and ignore the effect budget cuts will make on the lives around us, we have no right to call ourselves pro-life.*

Sister Joan hit the nail on the head. I don’t care what your position is on abortion, or any issue – when the time comes to put up or stand up, we recognize those who stand by their words because they not only mean what they say, but they also do what they say.


When You Hope You’re Nearly as Smart as Your Kid

When You Hope You’re Nearly as Smart as Your Kid

When I was pregnant with Eric, I expressed concern to my social worker that the adoptive family might not be able to keep up with him, as he was bound to be a very smart kid. “You don’t know that for sure,” she said every time I raised the issue. Yes, I knew that – more or less for sure. Yogi Berra’s quote comes to mind: It ain’t bragging if you can back it up. I had my reasons for believing this: I was always at the top of my class and in various gifted programs, and Tony was the smartest person I’d ever met. Actually, that record still stands – he is still the smartest person I have ever met. Intellectually, anyway. He didn’t ace the SATs but was in the top ½ percentile. Point is, our kid was very probably going to be of above average intelligence. I’ve long thought the reason Mary tried to caution me was in case something went wrong and he was born with a disability of some sort. She needn’t have worried.

I don’t remember Eric’s Apgar score – Kathy probably knows it. But I watched that baby – maybe 15 minutes after he was born – roll himself over on the examining table. He was close to 2 when he figured out how to unlock the baby gate. And he was 2 when he told Kathy his first joke. She asked him where he’d put his socks. His response: “In the refrigerator. Ha, ha, ha!” In my January 9 post, I mentioned that he was also loading his own software on the computer at 2..

I’ve always been grateful that he attended a Montessori preschool. When he moved to a traditional grade school, the teachers had a hard time keeping him occupied. Kathy told me he would finish his assignments before everyone else. So when a child on the other side of the classroom would drop a pencil, Eric would run over to help them pick it up – he was done with his work; what else was he going to do?

At his high school graduation, his sister told us how frustrating it was that he was so good at math when she struggled with it. She’s 10 years older than Eric, but said that when she was in high school, Eric would offer to help her with her math homework. She might have been joking – but the point is taken, nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly how long it took him to solve the Rubik’s Cube – but it was measurable in minutes, just like his birthfather. I saw a logic puzzle at a seminar one time, and to date, three people I’ve shown it to have figured out the answer: Tony and Eric were among the three. And the third person came up with an alternate answer that, while technically correct, is not the answer that is the “easiest” to spot. Here’s the puzzle:

card challenge

Moving only one card, make 2 rows of 4.
Answer at the VERY end of this post.

So when Eric proposed playing a board game while my husband John and I were visiting him and his family last month, I was hesitantly enthusiastic about it. Which board game? How much logic would be involved? And how much did prior experience factor into things?

The first night we played Scattergories, a word game where each player has to name 12 objects (provided on pre-printed lists) that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet. Objects we had to name included: World Capitals, Female Celebrities, Models of Cars, Things in the Ocean, Things with Tails. If the letter for a particular turn were “A”, we might have come up with Addis Ababa (worth 2 points!), Adele, Alfa Romeo, algae, and African spider monkey as our answers. You get the idea.

This was a word game – I am a writer. Should have been a piece of cake, right? Not really – because the timer was ticking, naming some of these objects was challenging, and I was trying to outsmart a very smart kid. I’ll admit, it was an interesting source of pride when Eric and I would come up with the same answer for the same object (neither player gets credit for their answer in that case) on numerous occasions. We played three games: I won one; Eric’s girlfriend won one; and Eric won one. So we played a rubber game for the match, which I took by a hair.

sequence game

The next night, we played a logic game called Sequence. Chess players may take offense, but it reminded me of chess, in that you have to watch the whole board and plan a number of steps ahead. As a result, you also have to consider what your opponents’ probable next move(s) will be. I don’t remember who won those games, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Lastly, we played a game John and I had received for Christmas, called Exploding Kittens. It’s another strategy card game – ridiculous, really, as if the title weren’t enough of an indicator. I won the first game and Eric won the second. He was really excited after the second game because he felt he’d figured out the strategy, and hence, how to win. We left that game with him, assuming he’d get a lot more use out of it than we would.

One of the things that really impressed me was that this 22-year-old college senior and his friends sincerely enjoy hanging out and playing board games. Make no mistake – Eric and Meaghan spent a lot of time on their phones, too. But Meaghan also pointed out that Eric has seen surprisingly few movies. I’m guessing he was occupied with school? So you know what you do while you’re playing board games with your friends? Drink beer, of course. And you also have conversations, typically without the TV or other distractions pulling at you.

puzzle of the world

Another thing Eric and I share is a love of puzzles. He’s far surpassed me in his mastery of the jigsaw puzzle, though, having completed a 9,000-piece puzzle of the world over a recent visit home from college. He’s found the next one he wants to tackle; the challenge is finding space for it in his small Boston apartment.


Lately I’ve been playing a logic game of my own on my iPad. It contains multi-colored pairs of dots on a black background. The goal is to connect each dot to its partner, filling in the entire field. Whenever I complete one of these levels on the first attempt, I congratulate myself and think, Yeah – I can still keep up with the kid.

the answer

You Can’t Return a Baby Like He’s a Pair of Shoes!

You Can’t Return a Baby Like He’s a Pair of Shoes!

There are at least two sides to every story – and as I flip through the search engine results today for “60 Minutes Russian babies returned to adoption agencies 1995-1996,” I can see there was probably more to the story than I remember. But shortly after my son was born, one of the TV news magazine shows – my guess is that it would have been 60 Minutes because that’s the one my dad watched – aired a program about a couple who was returning their adopted baby to a Russian agency because he was sick. I couldn’t find a link or any information about that show, specifically, but if memory serves, a lot of sick babies were being placed for adoption at the time, presumably much of the illness fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

The ’90s were a heyday for Americans looking for a low bar to international adoption, as Russia relaxed its laws allowing foreigners to adopt infants. This is admittedly an oversimplification of things, but couples who think they will have an “easier” time with an international adoption because there’s no pesky birthmother to deal with frequently underestimate all the other challenges that come with adopting overseas. Such has been the case for many Americans who have adopted eastern European children from the early ’90s through today.

At the time I saw the TV report, I was incensed. I was visiting my folks, whom I had yet to tell about their grandson, when this story aired. My poor father had no idea why I was so angry. “Oh, come on. You can’t just return a baby like he’s a pair of shoes!” I remember screaming at him. But sometimes you can. And sometimes, it might be the more humane option.

One 2012 Reuters story I came across in my research reports:

“Not every international adoption ends happily,” the office of Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, said in a statement. “According to official data only, 19 Russian children died at the hands of U.S. citizens over the last 10 years.”

Now the other side of that story is that many of these children have had severe physical and emotional challenges, up to and including brain damage, that would be difficult for any parent to handle. But what would have happened if that baby had been the biological child of these parents? If they’d borne a son or daughter with a heart defect, cognitive issues, or developmental disorders? To whom would they have returned that baby? Murder isn’t really the solution, is it? So obviously there are screening issues with some of these prospective foreign parents. It’s probably easy to look the other way about red flags when enough money is involved. However a friend reminds me, sadly, that bio parents also occasionally kill their children. Susan Smith may be one of the most infamous, but there are, unfortunately, too many others.

Back to the money for a moment, though. Remember how I mentioned in a prior post that the baby is really no more than a commodity when it comes to an adoption contract? Well, overseas, babies go for big bucks. An August 2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reports: [C]orruption, U.S. and Russian officials maintain, has led to increased costs for prospective parents, who pay up to $30,000, plus travel costs and cash “donations,” to adopt a Russian child. And according to The New York Times, some Russian “gypsies” want cars in addition to cash for the children they sell to Americans.

When it comes down to it, adoption can be a pretty creepy (i.e., peculiar) institution. It reminds me a little of assisted suicide – in that you have to be absolutely certain all parties involved are completely on board, that no one is being coerced. Of course suicide is not reversible – and the whole point of this post is that adoption is. What I cannot imagine is taking a baby from a mother – or taking a life – simply for one’s own gain. Yet the human brain is facile at concocting all kinds of rationalizations for why we do things. The baby will be better off with me. Aunt Jane’s not in pain anymore. But how are we ever certain? I don’t think we are.

When it comes to adoption, we owe the birthmother and the child our very best effort at making damn sure that adoption is the best decision, and that the mother is making that decision freely. That means counseling and difficult conversations and coming to terms with aspects of ourselves that we may prefer to keep hidden. Unfortunately, counseling – particularly for the prospective birthmother – quite often gets short shrift in “private” adoptions, those not facilitated by an agency or sanctioned organization. And in the case of minor children becoming pregnant, their parents’ desires often supersede their own. Which makes it legal, but not necessarily right.

We also need to keep in mind that it’s not just foreign adoptions that go awry. In a post from a November 2009 U.S. edition of The Guardian, one brave British mom details her decision to re-place her adopted son with a new family because she felt she was failing him as a mother. Strangely, my anger toward her is greatly diminished, compared to how I felt all those years ago watching that TV show about a similar situation. The story about this mom’s struggle includes some fascinating statistics:

The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) estimates that one in five adoptions break down, although children who are “handed back” are usually older. The younger the child, the lower the chance of the placement breaking down. A study by the Maudsley Hospital in London found a breakdown rate of 8% after one year and 29% six years later. On average, adoptions that broke down did so 34 months after placement.

Despite the negative publicity that overseas adoption has attracted in recent years, there is no evidence that they are more likely to break down than domestic placements. Many studies have concluded that international adoption has, for the most part, been very successful, including for children who have spent their early years in institutions.

And even as I’ve now had some time to contemplate this a bit further, I find myself going back to Sharon Roszia’s explanation that adoption is an extension of infertility. If you decide to do it, you have to go into it all in. That precious baby you so longed for is yours now. Every parent wants a perfect child – perfectly healthy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly intelligent. What we get are tiny people – all of whom are flawed in some way. Some of those flaws are small, relatively easy to correct or mitigate. Some are substantial, and may change their families’ lives forever in ways unexpected. But those are the dice we roll when we enter the parenthood game. Returning an imperfect baby should be the second-to-last bad option.


When You’re Not Invited to a Party You Didn’t Want to Attend Anyway

When You’re Not Invited to a Party You Didn’t Want to Attend Anyway

My friend Cecelia and I worked together at Lehman Brothers in the 1990s – I for the Fixed Income Division, and she in the facilities/design department. We weren’t particularly close, but our work paths crossed with some regularity and we occasionally had lunch together.

I think it was an off-the-cuff comment about my former roommate and Tony’s best friend, Mike, that led to the idea of fixing him up with her friend, Annette. Now Mike is a big guy – tall, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’4”, and also a large man, girthwise. He’d been single for a while, having married and divorced his high school sweetheart when they were both 20. Eventually moving East to get out of the Iowa sticks where he and Tony had grown up, he was soon to become our new housemate; I was less than thrilled at the news.

Mike was a liberal and much more politically aware than I was back then, but we had some really interesting conversations. I could talk with him for hours about all manner of subjects, whereas Tony’s interests were generally limited to baseball, blackjack, his CD collection, the Boston Celtics, and all things Macintosh (Apple). Tony’s political persuasion was nonexistent – but he would have been a Libertarian, if he’d cared enough to get involved. I still remember him arguing that seniors didn’t deserve any kind of price break at a movie theatre or on a bus, as they didn’t take up any less room than anybody else. To be fair, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether he was serious or kidding. Mike eased my mind when he, who’d known Tony for about 16 years at the time, told me he was never quite sure, either.

The thing is, my friendship with Mike seemed to rattle Tony. Years later, Tony explained to me that he was a master compartmentalizer – and it just hadn’t computed for these two disparate parts of his life (his childhood best friend and his adult girlfriend) to overlap in the way we had. At some point it became obvious that Mike had feelings for me – but I never saw him that way. It wasn’t just loyalty to Tony – I was never romantically attracted to Mike. Damn, I’d wished I was – would certainly have made things easier!

So Mike was lonely. I don’t think he had any particular ideas about the physical description of the woman he wanted to meet – but she had to be relatively smart, at least able to carry on a good conversation. At 6’2”, Ceclia’s friend Annette was tall for a woman. And so it was based on that very foundational commonality – height – that Cecelia and I arranged The Blind Date. If I’m not mistaken, Mike’s first comment when I asked how things had gone was that she had horse teeth.

“But did you like her?”

“Enough, I guess. We’re having lunch again later this week.”

Within a couple weeks, they were seeing each other regularly. Since Annette was Cecelia’s friend, I’d never met her, so Mike arranged for the three of us to have dinner at South Street Seaport so that she and I could get to know each other. I still grit my teeth recalling that ridiculously uncomfortable meal. Annette was the first to arrive at our appointed meeting place. I arrived a few minutes later. We were both about 10 minutes earlier than Mike. Aware that Annette was working in the art department at Estée Lauder, I tried to start a friendly conversation with her. I opened by asking if she paid particular attention to her competitors’ TV commercials and magazine ads. Her answer, through clenched teeth (and, I imagine, looking down her nose) was, “Oh, I don’t watch television.” All right, then. Eventually Mike showed up to break the silence that had ensued – and we walked over to the Seaport together. We must have looked quite odd, me at my full 5’2” stature, walking with this pair of Goliaths.

As long as I’d known Mike, he loved pizza – would willingly eat it seven days a week. Adding peppers and onions to it was as close as he came to ever eating healthy food. He and Tony had devised a weird gastric concoction, a combo of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Hormel Chili that they called “Domestic Violence.” One of the funniest things I remember was when one of them bought a bottle of habanero pepper sauce. The instructions on the bottle said: “CAUTION: Do not add more than a couple of drops of this sauce to your dish.” These idiots added almost a teaspoon and then tried to eat it. The stuff was so hot, even they – who were used to eating food so spicy that all you could taste was the hot – couldn’t eat it and had to throw it away. So we were at this seafood restaurant – Mike, his new girlfriend, and I. Imagine my surprise when he ordered a salmon sandwich.

Again trying to further the conversation, I asked whether Mike had told Annette about the adoption. Annette said she had no idea what I was talking about – so before I continued the conversation, I gave her a quick rundown about having placed my son with Kathy and Bruce a year or so earlier. Later during the same meal, Annette made a comment that indicated she had known about the adoption prior to my telling her. Christ, this woman was a piece of work! I’m still not sure why she had me tell a story she already knew, but I went from being uncomfortable with her to intensely disliking her, and we were less than two hours in. We made it through the dinner – and within a few months, Mike proposed to her.

This was all happening at a point when Tony and I were definitively OFF. Not dating, rarely speaking. Of course he would be Best Man. It took me a long time to get over, but even though I was one of the two people responsible for the blind date through which Mike and Annette met, I did not receive an invitation to the wedding. Damn, was I pissed! It just seemed like such a thoughtless, graceless thing to do. I’m sure they were worried I might create a scene and mar their special day – but obviously they didn’t know me very well, because I just wanted the courtesy of the invitation. I had absolutely no intention of actually attending the wedding. Isn’t that ridiculous – to be upset not to be invited to an event you didn’t want to attend in the first place? But perhaps you can relate.

I heard from Mike after the wedding that Annette had forbidden him from bringing anything from his prior life – other than his clothes and computers – into their new house. It was as though she wanted to eradicate anything from his life that pre-dated her. I understand wanting to start fresh, but for crying out loud, the man was nearly 30 years old when he met her – of course he’d had a life before her! That worried me at the time – but they’re still married, so who am I to say?

The last time I spoke with Mike was September 12, 2001. He worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center and was among those fleeing the rubble from the Twin Towers. I called to make sure he was safe – thankfully, he was. Social media changes everything, though. Peeking through his Facebook posts a few days ago, I learned that Mike’s mom passed away just this past November. It would be quite odd for me to reach out at this point – but I send love and good wishes through the ether, ever grateful for his friendship all those years ago.

What do you think the chances are that my invitation just got lost in the mail?

Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – So Why Not Drag It Out for Years?

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – So Why Not Drag It Out for Years?

In spite of my habit of deserted friendships, I’ve never been one who can just cleave a romantic relationship, as one of my mentors, Chuck Trautman, refers to it. It would definitely be easier, but it’s just not my way to end things in one fell swoop. When it came to breaking up with boyfriends, every one of those splits was a long, drawn-out process. Not because the guys wanted it that way, but because I just held on and held on until I was finally able to let go.

New Age classic, The Celestine Prophecy, explains the reason for the difficulties in disentangling from a long-term relationship. Our aura – or personal energy field – becomes entangled with that other person’s aura, each one forming tentacles that intertwine and fold in on each other. Even though you break up – literally and figuratively disconnect from one another – it takes time, deliberation, and focus to peel back the tentacles in order to fully free yourself, energetically, from the other.

I continued this habit of prolonged good-byes with Tony. Good gawd – I dragged that out for a loooonnnnng time. Understandable, perhaps, as it was my longest-term relationship and we did have a son together. I finally managed to wean myself from trying to contact him after close to a year. Then 9/11 happened, and we started talking again. Before I knew it, I was making plans to go back to New Jersey over Valentine’s Day weekend 2002.

In the two-year interim, Tony had dated a woman named Molly. In a case of what I might charitably call “what comes around goes around,” she strung him along for a while and then finally dumped him to get back together with an old boyfriend. But not before he helped pay her child support for a number of months, took her and her boys on an expensive tropical vacation, and shelled out a lot of other cash for her and her family. I’m not saying she was a gold digger, but he certainly made life quite comfortable for her until the other guy gave her an ultimatum.

So the Valentine’s trip back East was eye-opening. Seeing the apartment I’d shared with Tony looking so different was startling. It was clean and neat and organized. When I lived with him there, we’d had a third roommate – his childhood best friend, Mike. Mike was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever known. We had the most amazing, hours-long conversations – discussions that Tony and I could never have. But to call Mike a slob is like calling a marathon a casual jog. At the time he lived with us, he was a VP at American Express. And it wasn’t unusual for him to need to dig through the empty pizza boxes littering his bedroom floor to find his tie or suit jacket. I’d never seen anything like it … until I met my husband, John. The interesting thing is that I found in John a guy who seems to embody the best parts of both Tony and Mike.

As I write this, John and I are preparing to move. I was packing today and came across a slew of old journals, written on yellow legal pads. The following undated entry was the top page on one of those notebooks – but based on the contents, it must have been written the first week of February 2002.

Was thinking about Mike B. on my way to work today. I asked Tony the other night if he’d talked to Mike lately. “Not for a few weeks,” was his answer. I asked him if Mike knew about Molly’s departure. Negative.

So then I got to thinking about how much things changed over the years. I went East. Tony followed. Then Mike showed up. Followed by one year of hell living with him because I couldn’t find the voice to tell him that we didn’t live in a fucking pigsty and my title was NOT maid! Then I moved out. Got pregnant. A few years later, the whole Gwen thing. A couple more years and I moved back to Phoenix. Oh yeah – and somewhere in there, Cecilia and I fixed Mike up with Annette, and they got married.

So now Mike’s got this life out there. Wife. Kid. House. Real job. I’m not sure it’s what he wanted. Envisioned – yes. Wanted? I kind of doubt it. She makes all the rules and he follows them.

Then you have Tony and me. Tony got started down the treacherous path toward a normal life – and I could tell the house of cards wouldn’t stand for long. Gee – how many different ways have you said, “I told you so?” Another unflattering realization.

And what about me? My life? What does that even mean? I’ve got so much enthusiasm and so many ideas, and yet I feel like I’m moving through mud trying to achieve them. Here I am with a ticket to go back to NJ/NY next week. Why do I have this sinking feeling that I’m moving BACKWARDS??

Things were OK until last night, when Tony wanted to chat with someone named Kelly more than talk to me. But why am I jealous? I don’t even know if I want to consider seeing him again, but I’m still upset at the thought of him talking to someone else.

The only thing I know is that I don’t want to stay single. But I’m not convinced that my partner is lurking anywhere in my immediate vicinity. Back to trusting the Universe, I suppose. Nothing else ever seems to work.

Come to find out that even though the two of us had done a bit of growing up over our two-year break, Tony and I were together for one lovely night before we began pushing each others’ buttons in all the same old ways. I continue to think that if I were to run into him again tomorrow, he and I would find that same initial, comfortable simpatico we’ve had since we met in 1989 – but long-term, it was never meant to be. Fortunately, we both moved on, married other people, and seem to have embraced our respective lives.