Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine
By Joanna Laufer
In a Texas hospital room, my husband and I met her: the birth mother who had asked us to be the parents of her child. She had just given birth to a baby girl. We stood by the hospital bed eager to hold the baby, who was still in the hallway nursery. We knew, before we flew to Texas from New York, that this was the birth mother’s condition of our adoption going through. “I need to see her in the arms of her mother,” she said.
Meeting each other for the first time discharged something deep in us, awkwardness and confessions we didn’t even try to hide. My husband and I gushed out our gratitude, our promise to devote our care and love; she reciprocated with her gratitude, her plans for college and a career. We were raw, open, strangers linked in the most intimate way. She told us, almost apologetically, looking sheepish and crushed, that her boyfriend – the father of the child – hadn’t shown up for the birth.
“Who does this?” she asked me, as if we had known each other for years. “Am I pitiful if I call him?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Maybe he’ll even call you.”
I had no idea whether or not her boyfriend would call. I wanted to say something consoling, and this seemed to put her at ease. Those few words, and others that flew out later, were words I would come to regret.
This had been a recent and rushed adoption match. We had made a connection with this birth mother, through an adoption agency, a week before she was due to give birth. Paperwork had been faxed and over-nighted to us, which covered only the basics. We knew each others ages – she was 20, we were in our mid-thirties at the time – and we received the birth mother’s medical history. The agency had sent her photos of us clipped to a letter we wrote about the love and good life we felt we could give to a child.
We had one phone interview, which seemed to go well. She said she chose us because she saw we love children from the photographs of us hugging our nieces. Photos of the two of us in a rowboat in Central Park convinced her that we’re happy and close. She was sure about choosing us after reading that we’d provide a good education and nurture a love for the arts. She even liked the design of the paper we wrote the letter on, the swirl of pink colors along the border. We’d been advised by the agency to pick paper that would be enticing and stand out. We were told that this would actually make a difference.
“Should I even speak to him?” she asked, and then started to sob. “He’s actually an amazing guy.”
I nodded. I told her I’d give him a chance to explain. I added that it was wrong and unfair that she’d given birth alone, but seeing their baby being born might have been too painful for him to face. “Despite what it looks like right now,” I said, “He might still be that amazing guy.”
She seemed comforted by this, which is what I had hoped for her to feel but, again, this was something and someone I knew nothing about. All my husband and I knew about her boyfriend was that, included in her plans, she wanted to have kids with him in the future.
My husband and I had spent our 20s and part of our 30s sometimes wavering, sometimes adamant about putting our careers before having a child. Once the desire grew strong and we weren’t able to conceive, we went through a year of tests, ovulation kits, and seven months of artificial insemination. Though we felt a great loss, each month, not conceiving a child, we declined fertility drugs and extensive treatments. We weren’t invested in having to have a biological child, so adoption was a choice we welcomed. We cringed when hearing concerns from well-meaning people, their comments about the risks of raising a child with unknown genes and unfamiliar personality traits. We heard a litany of adoption stories gone bad, sensational ones seen on the news, about birth parents returning and kidnapping their children.
We dismissed these warnings as best as we could. We argued that when it came to genes, including ours, there were never any guarantees. As for kidnapping, we went on faith that this wasn’t in the cards. We had all agreed to a closed adoption.
I was dying to hold the baby and kept looking for the nurse. This was a huge moment for my husband and me. We were finally close to becoming parents and to putting a tough adoption process behind us. Just as past or recent breakups are topics to avoid on first dates, we didn’t mention the hardships with prospective birth mothers before her. One woman had a miscarriage. Another woman we had gotten attached to left her premature infant in the hospital and couldn’t be found to sign the consent forms.
A nurse wheeled in the baby on what looked like a changing table. She had thick black hair with a little clipped-on pink bow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, her precious oval yawn. My desire to pick her up was excruciating to restrain, but this was the first time her birth mother was seeing her, too. “Do you want to hold her first?” I asked.
She stayed consistent with what she had requested all along, to see the baby one time only, and only in my arms. “No,” she said. “Just you.”
Holding a child you are going to adopt, even for only a few seconds, is different than holding someone else’s child. My heart opened instantly. I held her head gently against the nook of my throat. I kissed her and she flinched. “That’s a kiss,” I told her. I assumed it was her first. She fell asleep in my arms.
I looked up at the birth mother. It seemed too clinical, at this point, to think of her as birth mother. As she watched me hold the baby she had just given life, her heart opened instantly, too. She was crying, but attempted to stop. Crying was replaced with something like prayer. She kept saying, “I want her to have,” and “I’m grateful she’ll have,” before filling the sentence with her priorities for the baby: two loving parents, self-esteem, a good future without needing welfare. She took a deep breath and nodded, finding strength from these words. Then she said them again to the baby.
She asked not to be called or considered mother, or the alternatives: first mother, natural mother, or real mother. She said it would be unfair and misleading to the baby, and to me. She didn’t mind the woman who gave birth to the baby. I thought she deserved something more, though I’ll admit I was relieved. Being called adoptive mother made me uncomfortable, too. I wanted to love, raise, protect, and nurture my child. If she was the natural or real mother, who was I?
I held the baby close. I inhaled her sweet smell. My husband leaned into me and put his finger in the baby’s tiny hand. I placed her, fast asleep, into his arms.
We had started preparing to bring the baby to our hotel the next day, and home with us soon after. Texas law required us to wait 24 hours, from the time the baby was born, before the adoption consent papers could be signed. We had already bought formula, receiving blankets, onesies, wipes and diapers, and a pink and white stuffed lamb rattle. We’d rented a car with a car seat and had a crib set up when we checked into a residence hotel. As we were leaving to go back to the hotel, her cell phone vibrated. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God.”
She made a hand motion requesting we stay, while she answered the call. She tearfully told her boyfriend (mouthing “thank you” to me first) that she would give him a chance to explain. We listened to her listen, sensing where this was heading. Not because we heard anything her boyfriend said or could tell much from watching her face. We sensed where this was heading because our deep-down fear, as adoptive parents, was that we didn’t earn or deserve a child that was handed to us, no matter how much we wanted a child. We could tell ourselves that we’d leave the next day with a daughter that was ours, but we knew she’d also always, in some way, be theirs.
If it had gone the way it was set up to go, nothing and everything would have changed. She would go on to college as planned and would forever carry on her shoulders that she had a child she didn’t keep. Instead, her boyfriend came to the hospital after we left. When our social worker went to her room with the consent papers the next morning, she brought back only a note. It said: Thank you. We held the baby all night. We’re both really, really sorry.
We called her room several times, but no one picked up. We then went on autopilot while handling loose ends. We returned the baby book our social worker had given to us, a gift for clients to record memories and milestones. My husband called our family and friends, who’d been waiting to hear good news. We returned the car seat to the airport at Dallas-Forth Worth. We barely spoke on the plane ride home.
I imagined what I might have said if she’d answered the phone. It might have been something pleading, urging her to reconsider. Or something stoic, forcing myself to say that she and her boyfriend should follow their hearts if they wanted to raise their child. I actually tried to talk myself into believing that this was true. I moved through grief and anger, seeing, as never before, that being told you were “chosen” didn’t come without a price. You can be un-chosen, without warning, and without a say. A child who is adopted also comes to know what being “chosen” means. If someone chose you and really wants you, someone else out there didn’t or couldn’t.
As soon as we returned to New York, I closed the door to the room we’d set up for the baby. Yet some nights, I found myself walking inside. I’d sit on the rocking chair I had pictured myself rocking her on. I spent many hours there hoping her parents would change their minds. It was a strong desire and one I struggled with, knowing that what I wanted was in no one’s best interest anymore, that I would become her mother only if, after finally coming together, her family would be broken apart.
Three weeks later, after another rushed adoption match, we were back in Texas. The hospital had a room set up for us to sleep in, before the consent papers would be signed. My husband and I knew, discussed, and weighed the risks. The birth parents still had time to change their minds in the morning after we’d have been with the baby all night. It was pain we didn’t want to feel again, but we knew we’d regret declining if this was our child. We agreed, for the sake of what could be our daughter, and what did turn out to be our daughter, that it was a risk worth taking.
We have learned through time that adoption, our greatest gift, is also hard to get right. We might have gone overboard making sure our daughter felt that our ties are as strong as blood ties. That she is our heart and light. Instead of telling her we chose her, we said families form in different ways and ours was meant to be. Whether she fully understood this or not, when she was 9, she told this to a friend and her friend accused her of lying. We were at Parents Observation Day at The Alvin Ailey Dance School, where she studied ballet and West African dance. Most of the kids in class were African American, and my daughter, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired girl, wearing a West African lapa while she danced for the parents, could pass for looking like me.
“You’re not adopted,” her friend said. “You look like your mom.”
I told her friend I was flattered she thought I looked like my daughter, and my daughter and I both smiled. But what I didn’t say, before her friend walked back to her parents was, “Yes, we did adopt her.” I was proud that we did and never hid this fact, but sometimes I just didn’t want the questions and stares. Sometimes I didn’t want to be reminded that she might look like someone in a family that isn’t ours, one that might long for her and wish they would have changed their mind, or might have moved on and tried not to look back. That, despite our fierce love, there’s a missing piece for her, an identity involving blood and birth that we are unable to give her.
At times, I wonder what became of the baby we didn’t take home. What had once been unbearable for us we could now be grateful for. A family was born that day, one we weren’t meant to be part of, and it led us to our daughter. She is 23 now, no longer looks like me, and is finding her own way to make sense of her story. As we have had to make sense of ours.
Joanna Laufer is the author of the book Inspired and of short stories and articles that have appeared in various publications. She lives in New York City with her husband and adorable cat. www.joannalaufer.com