Valentine’s Day with “The One”

Valentine’s Day with “The One”

Today is my 9th Valentine’s Day with my husband, and I have lost track of the number of cards and gifts he has given me in the years since we met. Such a stark difference from my relationship with Eric’s birthfather. I told John the other day that I can probably count on two hands the number of gifts Tony gave me over the 10 years we were “together.”

“Really?” John asked. “Even including birthdays and stuff?”

Yep. Including birthdays and stuff.

I still remember what may have been the only Valentine’s Day gift I ever received from Tony a Chieftains CD the year Eric was born, 10 days before his birth, to be exact.

Looking back now, there were so many clues that Tony wasn’t “the one,” and yet I clung to that relationship for dear life. I had a loving father and (through no real fault of her own) an absent mother. I remember realizing how similar my relationship with Tony was to my relationship with mom. Although I lived in the same house with her, it was like she wasn’t really present. And though I was in a relationship with Tony, he was never really around. One of first things I had to get used to with my husband was being able to go to the movies by myself by choice, as opposed to going alone because he didn’t happen to be calling me back that week.

I long ago gave up trying to figure out the low self-esteem that must have driven my willingness to stay and stay and stay through the years. I’m just grateful for the day I finally had enough and decided the only way we were truly going to move on from each other was by putting physical miles between us. When I originally moved to New Jersey, it was with the thought that Jersey would be just a pit stop; ultimately I would make my way to Boston. Though I visited Boston a couple times, I never made the move there. Interesting, it’s where Eric chose to attend university.

By the time I was finally ready to leave Tony, I had neither the money nor the emotional stamina it would take to start over somewhere new, so instead of moving to Boston, I moved back home to Phoenix even though the desert has never, ever really felt like home to me. Those divine plans being what they are, it still took nearly 10 years for me to disentangle all the tentacles from my relationship with Tony so that I could finally be open to meeting John. We met though a blind date via Craigslist in July 2009 and have never looked back.

And just as there were all those signs that Tony was not the right guy, there were many signs that John was. For one thing, he had a cat. A single, 30-something guy had taken it upon himself to head to the Humane Society in search of a four-legged friend. He told me he had originally intended to adopt a dog, but when he saw Libby, she told him she was going home with him, and she did.

He was also the first one in our relationship to give the other a greeting card and a gift. Long was my habit to be the first to make such a bold move, but on our third date, John brought me a card and some flowers. He’s sentimental like his grandmother was. When she passed away in June and we cleaned out her house, we found what appeared to be every greeting card she’d ever received, going all the way back to high school. Whether it’s his birthday or Christmas or our anniversary, John sets the cards out on the coffee table or his desk in his office and displays them for a while.

Most importantly, though, John was where he said he’d be when he said he’d be there. He had a job that required him to be up before dawn, so even on weekends he went to bed early. I remember going to his apartment one Friday night around midnight to leave a surprise on his car. I wrote messages on a couple pads’ worth of heart-shaped sticky notes and stuck them on the back windshield of his car in the shape of a large heart. As I made my way over to his place, the old doubts started creeping in. Would he be home? Would his car be in its regular parking space at his apartment complex? Man, what a sigh of relief I breathed when his Corolla was right where it was supposed to be.

Over the years, he has surprised me with concert tickets, flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, jewelry, and seemingly countless other thoughtful gifts, big and small. Today will be no different, I am sure. The best thing about Valentine’s Day with John is that it’s not that big of a deal because every single day with him is special.

One of the best relationship books I’ve ever read is The Surrendered Single, by Laura Doyle. In it, she explains that the right guy will never make you wait for his call or wonder if he cares about you. He will treat you like a queen, and you will always know how much you mean to him. I spent a lot of years giving the wrong guy the benefit of the doubt. He was the right guy for just long enough, though, or our son would not be here. Nevertheless, I couldn’t be happier that I moved on and gave the actual Mr. Right a chance.

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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.

Prospective Adoptive Parent Profile #10

Prospective Adoptive Parent Profile #10

After turning down Cold Fish Lady and her husband, as I’ve come to think of them, as  adoptive parents for my son, I was as resolute as ever to find the right parents for him. Shortly thereafter a new profile appeared – and it was like a miracle, a beacon of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. These seemed like my people. The husband, Joe, was friendly. His wife, Patricia, strongly resembled my own mother, right down to her dark hair and olive complexion. As I’ve said before – we had no idea that Eric would be blond.

He was a professor and she worked part-time, in my mind, the best of both worlds. She got out of the house to spend time with other adults but would be available to raise a newborn. They were Catholic, had been married for nearly 10 years, and lived in Nyack, an idyllic place to raise a little boy. They did not have any other children yet, which was a demerit, but everything else about them looked good, so I was willing to give them a chance.

We had a first phone call, this time from the privacy of my apartment, and it went fairly well. Up till the part about my parents. Again with the strong urging of, “They deserve to know.” But nothing had changed since the last time I’d had this conversation, and I remained steadfast in my determination not to tell them. We got past that, though, and ended the conversation on an up note. I told Mary I thought I might like to meet them. She was beside herself, her fingers probably still secretly crossed behind her back. She told me to make the arrangements – whatever time was good for me to meet them would work for her. She’d change her schedule, if need be, to make it work.

So I called them back. That’s when they told me something odd. They would not be available for any phone calls or meetings for the next two weeks. WTF? Any adoptive family who was this close to getting a baby would be available from the moon, if need be. What did they mean that they wouldn’t be available for two weeks? I tried, politely, to get some further explanation, and I was shut down cold. “We won’t be available. Period.”

So, of course, I called Mary. “Hmmm. That’s very strange.” She validated my feelings of concern and promised to look into it – which meant consulting their caseworker. As with all reputable agency adoptions, Tony and I had a social worker assigned to us, and Joe and Patricia had one assigned to them. It took a bit of prodding and prying, but eventually the couple revealed to their caseworker that Joe would be undergoing elective surgery to correct a heart valve issue. It was not in any way life-threatening – more of a precautionary procedure – but he would be in recovery and they’d be unable to travel or talk with a prospective birthmother for about 10 days.

Here’s the thing: when they filled out the paperwork to apply as prospective parents through Spence-Chapin, they were required to disclose a full health history. But they had neglected to mention this little heart issue – which is probably why they were unwilling to explain their two-week unavailability to me. Upon hearing this, the immediate response from a colleague at Lehman Brothers was, “Of course not. They were afraid you’d turn them down if you knew.” Turning them down because of the husband’s health had never even entered my mind. I just wasn’t thinking in those terms. It was their lack of transparency that concerned me, not Joe’s potential heart issues.

After the dust settled, Mary asked me what I wanted to do. I told her that if Joe and Patricia were willing to talk to me, to explain why they’d opted to be so cagey, and to apologize, I might be able to set it all aside and continue the process with them. She was relieved, and agreed to put it to them, via their caseworker. A phone call was arranged, and I tried to be polite, diplomatic even. I think my goal was just to listen. All I remember from that phone call was a single sentence: “We don’t owe you anything.”

It took every ounce of control I could muster not to slam the phone down on that woman. I don’t remember how we ended the conversation, but I know I asked her how she could say such a thing when the whole reason we were even talking was because I was considering entrusting her with the most important thing in the world, my son. The least I felt she owed me was the truth.

In hindsight, I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be in her shoes. I absolutely hate being wrong. Worse still is when I am wrong, it’s put in my face, and my nose is rubbed in it. This couple behaved badly when it came to honesty about something really important, so it should shock no one that I decided not to go with them. But they must have been hurting a great deal.

I later learned that just months earlier, Joe and Patricia had formed a bond with a pregnant woman who had promised to place her child with them. Now, nothing is firm until the papers are signed. In an honorable adoption situation, the pregnant woman has every right to change her mind and decide to keep her baby, right up to the moment she puts her pen to that paper. In some states, she has days – even weeks – to reconsider. Is that hard on the prospective adoptive parents? Of course – which is why Sharon Kaplan Roszia counsels them to consider adoption an extension of the infertility process, not a silver bullet. But it’s the right way to do things – to be sure the birthmother is sure. So even though they knew it was possible that their prospective birthmother could change her mind, Joe and Patricia were hopeful. They had connected with her, bought her maternity clothes, begun to love her and her child. No doubt, they were utterly devastated when she gave birth and snuck out of the hospital without even telling them she had changed her mind.

I can also imagine things from this mother’s point of view, though. She knew that she couldn’t surrender her baby – and more than that, she knew how much telling Joe and Patricia would hurt them. Was her behavior cowardly? Maybe. But it was all she could do, and I would never tell her she was wrong to do it that way. Nevertheless, Joe and Patricia were shattered. And they hadn’t completely healed from that experience when they dove back into the adoption pool and met me. So I can cut them a little slack now, too.

Adoption is many things – and one of them is messy. There’s no neat, clean way to break up one family in an effort to form another, even when the birthmother is fully on board. There’s loss and there’s gain – and in the middle is a child. When that child is blessed, as mine is, he knows he’s truly loved by both sets of parents.

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

Where Are You on the Happiness Spectrum?

In re-reading yesterday’s post on the subject of victim thinking, I can see how it might have come across as offensive. That wasn’t my intention. The fact is, I’ve been blessed with an optimistic streak for which I can take no personal credit. I realize that it’s a gift from God, the angels, and/or the Universe. I did nothing to deserve it and I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried. Which means I, perhaps, had a head start in dealing with the supremely challenging emotions that come with surrendering a baby through adoption.

And it’s not like I didn’t struggle with my own bout of depression following the adoption. My depression manifested through anger. For the entire first year of my son’s life, I was pretty much angry at the world. I remember being reprimanded at work by a manager for something not work related and I told her off something fierce. And my apartment was a disaster. My sister, Corina, came out to visit from Phoenix and we spent her entire visit cleaning – boy was that eye-opening. Eventually through meetings with my social worker and my birthmom support group, I found my way back to equilibrium.

Now, as I mentioned in a prior post, I did a lot of work to be OK. But you can only do the work if you know that doing the work will help. What is one supposed to do if they’re stuck in the mire of sadness and have no idea that talking to someone or exercising or meditating or praying or hiking or making art or dancing or listening to music or playing with a pet or gardening or doing yoga or watching children at play or cooking will help them feel better?

Some people’s brains are wired completely the opposite of mine. Their natural default is sadness, pessimism, and depression. I’ve only recently started to get a sense of how truly awful that must be and feel a lot of empathy for them. I can’t understand it, personally, and neither can I imagine bearing that burden day in and day out.

I mean, little things that would set off a lot of people typically don’t bother me. Missing a plane, getting lost, running late for an appointment. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned not to care what other people think. However, I tend to think there’s more to it than that. Not to mention that I’ve watched friends – people I consider incredibly spiritually grounded – get incensed over something like spilling food on an expensive pair of slacks. This isn’t to say that I’m an angel and never lose my cool – trust me, I’m embarrassed to recall the way I’ve responded in certain situations when I’ve been angry (i.e., depressed) or stressed out. It’s just not my normal baseline to be irritable, angry, or sad. And those are the little things. Imagine when it comes to the big stuff.

Corina was two years younger than I. We grew up in the same house with the same parents. Presumably, when it comes to the nature/nurture side of things, our nurture experience was pretty similar. But she was a grudge-holder. She knew how to nurture negative feelings, hold onto them, and sometimes turn them into all-consuming soul fires. She was pretty sure that’s what caused the cervical cancer that eventually took her life. And even as she knew that it was anger that ultimately made her sick, she was unable to release it so that she could properly heal. She started to recover – was even on an upswing. We saw the tumors shrinking and knew she was getting better. But then she let the people with whom she’d been angry back into her life, without having developed a coping mechanism for dealing with the still-unresolved anger. And before she knew it, the anger was back, and the cancer raged on.

I am sad for my loss, so sorry that her life was cut short and that while she was here, her experience was so different from mine. I remember her telling me one time that her estranged husband – her daughter’s father – was probably going to disappoint her, so it was better to expect that and be right, than to hope for the best and be let down. She had impossibly high expectations, for herself and for everyone else, so she spent a lot of time being disappointed in people. And angry that they couldn’t give her what she thought she wanted or needed.

Even as I mourn my sister – it’s coming up on two years this February 12 – I know that her journey was her journey, just as mine belongs to me. We had different outlooks on life, different approaches, different coping mechanisms. I can wish all day and all night that Corina’s outcome would have been different, but it won’t change things. So I talk to her, I remember her joyfully, and I recommit to living my life well and happily. As I write this, I realize that anger seems to be the way my depression manifests – because I spent the majority of 2016 being angry at the world. I cursed at more drivers that year than I probably have throughout the entire rest of my driving life. And yet again, over this past year, I seem to have found my way back to my baseline of fairly happy and optimistic.

No doubt the same dichotomy that existed between my sister and me exists for birthmothers. We live at all points along the spectrum from happy to sad. Each of us occasionally waivers from our “normal” – but we all tend to come back to that place that is our natural state of being, of looking at the world.

How does one who is unhappy change things? That’s a complicated question I’m not in any way qualified to answer. People spend their entire lifetimes trying to decipher the scientific, medical, and spiritual answers to that question. I’m guessing it largely depends on the source of the unhappiness – if it’s a chemical issue, there’s one approach. If it’s physiological – brain wiring – there’s another approach. The thing that’s probably simplest to address is circumstantial sadness. Please note, I am not conflating simple with easy. Even for a typically congenial person, it doesn’t necessarily take much to get into a downward spiral. One negative thing happens, so you’re feeling bad about it, and then some other small trauma occurs. Then another. Even if you’re usually in a pretty good head space, you can get caught up with feeling like you’re on the merry-go-round to nowhere good.

I believe in the Law of Attraction – we get more of what we focus on. So if we’re heading down that path of sadness, anger, resistance, and victimhood, chances are good we’re focused on what we don’t want, rather than on what we do want. Please understand, I know this sounds easier than it may be to put into practice, but I swear to you that if you are in that negative space and you can find ONE THING to be grateful for, and focus all of your attention on that one thing, you can start to shift out of the negativity to at least a more neutral emotion. And chances are, no matter what your circumstances, you have many things for which to be grateful.

  • Did you sleep in a bed last night with a roof over your head?
  • Did you wake up this morning, able to breathe on your own?
  • Were you able to stand up and walk to your restroom with indoor plumbing on your own two feet?
  • Does the water from your tap run clean? Do you have easy access to clean drinking water?
  • Is there food in your refrigerator?
  • Is there one person in your life whom you love unconditionally – and one who loves you the same?
  • Do you have a pet or a plant you can talk to?
  • Do you have free/easy access to music?
  • Is the air inside and outside your home clean enough that you can breathe easily with no need of a face mask?
  • Do you have more than one pair of shoes?
  • Are you reading this on a phone, computer, or device you own?

You get the idea, right? Every time I stay in a hotel, I am reminded how blessed my husband and I are. There, in one room, we have more luxuries than most people in the world: carpeting, a nice bed, a closet with hangers, clean running water, hot shower, AC/heat, a fridge, a coffee maker, an iron, a TV, multiple pairs of shoes, several changes of clothes, toiletries…

Yet we can get in this place where we start to take life for granted, instead of being grateful for the small things. And if we are unable to muster gratitude for the little things, there’s absolutely no way to appreciate the big ones. Our culture teaches us that instead of celebrating the victories of others, we should envy them: if they win, it must mean we are somehow losing. For example, I heard the other day while in the Houston Hobby Airport that the person who recently won the $450 million MegaMillions jackpot was a 20-year-old kid from Florida. I mentioned this out loud to my friend, who was sitting across from me, adding, “Good for him!” I was sincerely happy that this kid is now set for life. The man sitting behind me immediately started to grumble, “What’s a 20-year-old gonna do with all that money? Spend it all and lose it. He’ll be sorry.”

I’ll bet if I asked that same man to name five things for which he’s grateful, he’d struggle to come up with them. Not because he doesn’t have anything to be grateful for – but because he’s become habituated to focusing on what he doesn’t have and what he doesn’t want. I’m no expert, but I think that before we can be happy, before we can even love, we have to learn to be grateful. It’s not just a cliché – an attitude of gratitude really can change everything.

Birthmothers – Victims or Victors?

Birthmothers – Victims or Victors?

My friend Therese Skelly, therapist turned business coach, once said something that has always stayed with me. “We live in a culture that celebrates brokenness.” It’s very true. We love victims: being victims, watching victims on TV, making victims into celebrities, commiserating with victims, blaming everyone but ourselves for the people and circumstances that show up in our lives. This is no less true in the world of adoption. For this post, I’m focused on birthmothers – and the different approaches and outcomes to a shared experience.

I recently met a woman named Kelly at a conference who was from a small town when she got pregnant before getting married. Though it was scandalous – and her father was furious – she chose to carry, keep, and parent her child. Her best friend was less fortunate, though. She got pregnant while in high school, and her parents gave her no choice: over her vocal and robust protestations, the baby was placed for adoption. Kelly told me her friend was never the same. Her personality changed, as did her physical demeanor, after losing her child.

Two women in similar circumstances – completely different outcomes. Sometimes birthmothers thrive – but sometimes the wound is so great it is nearly impossible to overcome. Does that make those birthmoms victims?

Another birthmother I know who has had a joyous reunion with her now 32-year-old son still gets anxious and depressed each year as his birthday and the anniversary of his placement come around. I think sometimes we hold on to our wounds because they become so familiar that we know no other way to be. Without them, we’d have to change our identity – become someone new. And we fear the pain of change more than the haunting pain we’ve grown accustomed to.

Occasionally, though, the wounds hold onto us. A birthmom friend of mine knew a woman who had placed her child for adoption at birth – and within months of the placement, she began to develop debilitating arthritis, so much so that eventually the entire right side of her body became crippled and nonfunctioning. Many years later, she and her daughter were reunited, and following the reunion, her body began to recover and the arthritis corrected itself.

It was late 1995, and my son was less than a year old. Although I was attending Spence-Chapin’s birthmom support group, I was still looking for other moms to relate to. So I went digging around online – wayyyyy prior to Google and search engines – and came across a birthmom chatroom. Without meaning to, I pissed off a lot of women in that group. They were all just so negative. Angry, sad, blaming, accusing, and more than anything, focusing all their attention on their victimization. Some, like Kelly’s friend, had been forced by their parents to choose adoption. Some had been in maternity homes. Others had boyfriends who’d promised marriage and then skipped out on them. Each had a reason for their intense emotions, but it didn’t seem like any of them had any desire to move past these emotions; they were hanging onto these negative feelings with every shred of energy they could muster. They had created their group to help feed and celebrate each others’ victim status. Instead of being supportive, the group was demoralizing and completely unhelpful.

So one day, I wrote a post in the chatroom that went something like this: “The sooner you can take ownership over your part in the adoption – even if it is only owning the fact that you had sex – the sooner you will be able to move past the anger, blame, and victimhood to feel the grief. And once you feel the grief, you might be able to forgive yourself and start healing.”

You would have thought I was Satan incarnate. Good golly – I have never seen such a rabid pack of angry jackals, screaming for my ouster from the chatroom. What right did I have to judge? How dare I suggest they move on from their very justified negative emotions?! One woman told me, “Your son is only 6 months old right now. Just you wait. Come back when he’s 5 and tell me how well-adjusted you are then. It only gets worse from here!” As it turns out, the older my son has gotten, the more emotionally resolved I’ve become about being his birthmom, and the stronger my relationship with him and his family has grown. And that was after starting from a pretty stable place. But in my experience, people who want to stay in victim mode tend to try to avoid those who prefer to move on with their lives.

Historically, some heinous crimes were committed against women who never intended to be birthmothers – babies stolen from poor mothers and given to “more worthy” families, the crimes sanctioned by police and local governments, social workers, and others in places of authority. If you saw or read Philomena, you’re familiar with the abysmal treatment some birthmoms received in maternity homes, particularly in Ireland.

Generally speaking, however, modern American birthmothers are not victims – any more than couples who get divorced or teens who don’t get into the college of their choice are victims. Of course, this is my blog and these are my opinions. Are there intense emotions surrounding each of these scenarios? No doubt! But it’s up to each individual to choose which emotions they want to focus on and how they want to handle their disappointments.

There’s no question that the feelings are real: grief, shame, abandonment, loneliness, regret, guilt. If we allow them to, such emotions can swallow us whole. If, however, we intend to live through the pain and come out on the other side, we’ve got to find a way to navigate those emotional waters and focus on something positive. Sometimes that means finding someone to listen who won’t indulge our victim language, thinking, and behavior. More to the point, it means developing a will to release fear and embrace change that is larger than our desire to hold onto our old familiar friend, pain.

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