By Stephanie Andersen
“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.
Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.
“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.
I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.
Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.
She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.
I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.
I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.
One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.
“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”
She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”
I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”
For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.
“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”
“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”
“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.
Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.
* * *
I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.
In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.
The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.
* * *
Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.
“Knock, knock,” she says.
“Who’s there?” I ask.
She giggles. “Egg.”
“Egg who?” I say.
“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.
It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.
“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.
I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”
“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.
Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.
When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.
This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.
What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.
I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.
I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.
What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”
Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.
I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”
I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.
Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”
The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.
* * *
A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”
“I can do it,” I begged.
“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”
No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.
At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.
As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.
I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.
At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.
Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.
And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.
I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.
“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.
“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.
“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”
“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.
* * *
Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.
A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.
“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.
“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.
We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.
Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.
It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.
Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.
Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”
And I respond. “How do I not?”
Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.
When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.
“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.
“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”
I heard a tiny giggle in the background.
“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.
“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”
Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.
It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.
Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA
“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.
“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”
“Why now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”
Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”
“I don’t think so.”
“What will I say to her?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”
“When?” I asked.
“Are you coming home for the holidays?”
I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.
She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.
“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.
She’s silent for a minute.
I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.
“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”
I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.
My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.
“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.
“I don’t know,” I say.
* * *
“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.
There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.
Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.
I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.
* * *
It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.
In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.
A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.
Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.
My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.
* * *
Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.
I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.
“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.
I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.
“No,” I whispered.
“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.
I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.
* * *
I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.
“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.
“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.
Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.
One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.
“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”
I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.
“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.
“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”
And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”
We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.
“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.
And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.
Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.
Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Brain, Child (Winter 2008)