Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

As far as I’m aware, there’s no rule that a pregnant woman considering adoption must have counseling, although it is highly encouraged. I remember hearing once – again, research to support this piece of anecdotal information yielded nothing – that by law, counseling had to be offered to a woman considering adoption, even a private attorney adoption, but that’s pretty much the extent of things. As you might imagine – particularly if you’ve ever dealt with (or been) a pregnant woman – she has lots of bonus hormones looking for a place to land. Combine that with an ill-timed, out-of-wedlock, and/or crisis pregnancy and a woman considering adoption, and you’ve created the emotional perfect storm.

It’s not the time for remembering details – or hearing, let alone acting on, the information. Particularly when someone says, perhaps as a casual comment, “Oh, by the way, counseling is available if you want it.” That’s why an agency adoption is so important for the prospective birthmother. She is assigned a caseworker who makes sure to talk her through the most essential details – and offers an ear to listen, as well as (hopefully) wise counsel and answers to any questions the pregnant mom does think to ask in her flustered state. That’s the problem, though, with a first-time pregnancy. You don’t know what you don’t know.

On the other hand, I don’t envy the job of an adoption social worker – or any social worker, for that matter. At least a baby usually finds a (better) home at the end of an adoption, so I guess there are pluses. But I imagine there’s a lot to know and remember to explain along the way. Still, it would seem there should be a checklist of topics for the caseworker to discuss with the pregnant mother, whether or not she decides to keep the baby. If she’s going to carry the pregnancy to term, things will come up and decisions will need to be made.

Yes, there’s that ubiquitous book, What to Expect When You’ve Got Anything at All to Do With Having a Kid, EXCEPT Be a Birthmother. That book – and all the others like it – focus on the happy event, assuming the baby will go home from the hospital with the same people it went in with, which is exactly what does not happen in adoption. Not ideal reading for the prospective birthmom. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Patricia Roles’ book, Saying Goodbye to a Baby, came closest to answering and addressing my questions, but (a) I didn’t find it until after my son was born and living with his other family and (b) even it didn’t cover some of the more basic issues.

As a matter of fact, after scoping out the Amazon reviews for Roles’ book (two 5-star reviews; two 2-star reviews, and one 1-star review), I think I’m going to order another copy so I can re-read it, 22 years later, as it seems my perspective just may have shifted. I do get the sense that the writer of the 1-star review is one of those people I wrote about in a prior post who has no desire to release her grief or heal from the adoption wounds. Yes, her pain is real, and there is no timeline for getting over it. But forward movement after any trauma is probably a healthier option than choosing to live in that pain forever. Yes – for many people, birthmothers included, living in pain is a choice.

So here are the things I wish I’d known before they occurred:

My scoliosis would matter when it came to the epidural. Epidural is a drug commonly used during labor and delivery. It is inserted into the spine by an anesthesiologist, with the command, “Hold still or you might wind up paralyzed.” I had a single dose that helped for the first little while, but the second dose didn’t “take.” We later deduced that the curve in my spine meant the epidural hadn’t gone where it was supposed to go. The nurses told me the pain I experienced was the equivalent of natural childbirth. You’re welcome, kiddo!

Those little red dots all over your neck and chest are capillaries that broke during the “pushing.” Nothing earth-shattering here, but it would have been a good thing to know so I didn’t have to freak out about it.

The birthparents make the circumcision decision. It was a bit surprising to find out after the fact that my OB/GYN did not perform this procedure. So Eric had to go home a happy kid, and come back a week later to be mauled and – some might say – mangled. Although a huge debate churns on about the merits of circumcision, as I understand things, the child still generally does whatever the father did. Had I realized ahead of time that it would be important to know my doctor’s stance, I would have made other preparations.

Breasts are milk producers. Duh, right? But not when you’re not expecting it. No one prepared me for my milk to come in, or informed me of the need for nursing pads even though I wouldn’t be nursing. Not to mention that nursing the baby you will place for adoption is an option. It would seem immeasurably more difficult to surrender a baby with whom you’ve shared that kind of bond, but I have known birthmothers who’ve done it.

I could have had Eric baptized in the hospital and been there for the ceremony. This is, of course, specific to Christian religious belief – in our case, Catholic. It wasn’t until I read in a chatroom about a birthmom who did this that I was even aware it could have been a possibility. Again, this is less important to me now, but it would have been a very special moment to share and is one of my very few regrets.

Grief can show up as anger. Though I discussed this in a prior post, it’s worth noting again here. I spent the entire first year of Eric’s life extremely pissed off at the world, and it wasn’t until someone I didn’t even like very much pointed it out to me that I recognized that anger as grief. I’m not sure there would have been anything to do differently, but it feels like it would have been useful information at the time.

It seems unlikely that Patricia Roles will update her book – so maybe it is time for a new book. And maybe my job is to write two of them: one, a handbook like Roles’ for birthparents, and the other my own adoption story.

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.

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.