Category Archives: Birth Mother

Happy Birthday From Your Birth Mother

Forty-five years ago today, I gave birth to the first person in the whole wide world who I knew to be a flesh-and-blood part of me. (I was adopted, so this was a huge deal.) Like today, it was a Sunday. The labor was long, and I was exhausted but elated to know that I would soon get to hold my baby, examine her to see if she looked like me, and love on the human I had been growing and praying for throughout my whole pregnancy. It was the happiest I’d been in my fifteen years of life.

But the day after her birth, I awoke with the crushing weight of dread pushing down on my chest. I didn’t know what it was right away because I was barely awake. When I opened my eyes and saw the sterile white of the hospital room, I remembered: I’m going to have to give my baby away. It never occurred to me that anything else was possible; everyone assumed that I would give my baby up. I accepted it as inevitable. After all, that’s what my birth mother had done.

I had been adopted when I was a baby, and my earliest memories are of my origin story. Mama used to tell me bedtime stories, and my favorite was of how she and Daddy flew far away to get me. Mama would say, “You’re special because we got to pick you out for our very own, and your mother loved you so much that she wanted you to have a mama and a daddy.”

As a child, I often wondered about the woman who gave me up. But I didn’t miss her or long for her because I already had a mom. My birth mother was simply the woman who loved me enough to give me two parents.

As I got older, I noticed that my friends resembled their parents and siblings, and I began to wonder who I looked like. When I hit adolescence, the feeling that I didn’t fit in intensified and I began acting out. For years, I thought my fighting, vandalism, and delinquency were a result of my sick and abusive father, but my eyes widened as I read about the research that had been conducted on adopted people.

I read in Adoption and Loss by Evelyn Burns Robinson that bonding begins in the womb and that during the period immediately following birth, newborn babies recognize their mothers through their smell, heartbeat, voice, and eye contact. When this doesn’t happen, the baby can feel “hopeless, helpless, empty, and alone.”

I also read that many adopted people “demonstrated a high incidence of juvenile delinquency and…consistently showed symptoms which were impulsive, provocative, and aggressive.”

Check, check, check.

Intellectually, I knew that I was special because Mama had told me so, but I’d never felt it. Instead, I felt a deep sense of unworthiness. How could I have value if I was discarded at birth?

When my daughter and I reunited eighteen years after I gave her up, I learned that she, too, had suffered from similar feelings and symptoms. She told me that she had been depressed on her birthdays for as long as she could remember. After celebrating with family and presents and cake, she would sit by the window waiting for me to come for her.

When I Facetimed her this morning to wish her a happy 45th birthday, I asked if she was sad. She said she was okay now but had woken up crying. I didn’t mention it, but I, too, am sad and have been crying on and off all day.

I said, “I wish I could just stop over to see you.” Unfortunately, she lives in the Midwest and I live in California. We are fifteen years apart in age, yet I relate to her more than I relate to anyone else on the planet. We are almost like one person. We look and think alike, and we have the same furniture, clothes, glasses, and hairstyle. We even bleach our brown hair blonde.

I hate how adoption makes me feel—the sadness I experience when I scroll through my social media feed and see my birth sister and other family members together at events I am missing from. I also hate how much I miss being with my daughter—going shopping, cooking together, decorating. And I miss watching my granddaughters grow up, attending their recitals, and just being their grandmother.

I read, “It is unnatural for members of the human species to grow up separated from their natural clan.”

Today is a sad day.

 

Listen To My Spot on Alaska Public Radio, Adoption in Alaska

This May I was a guest on “Alaska Public Radio”, an affiliate of National Public Radio (NPR). They connected me live from the NPR Studio in Sacramento where I told my story of being an adoptee who also gave up a baby up for adoption. (Listen below.)

The Weight of Grief

My baby was born in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, but that was never an option in my Catholic family. No one ever asked me if I wanted to keep my baby, and because I was fifteen, it was assumed that I would give it up for adoption.

I got to hold my daughter just a few times during the three days I was in the hospital. They let me because I, too, was adopted and my baby was the only blood relative I had ever known. As we drove away from the hospital, I looked over my shoulder as a life with my daughter melted from view. I couldn’t breathe; the weight of my grief was crushing. Out of desperation, I turned my eyes back to the road and said to myself, “I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now.”

Those eight words became my mantra.

Audio Links

Click here to listen to my 8-minute interview

Click here, for the hour-long show, Talk of Alaska, Host Anne Hillman speaks with birth moms and adoptive moms about their experiences with adoption, how adoption has changed over time, and misconceptions about the process.

Mother’s Day weekend

If you read my journal entry on November 25, 2017 titled, “Unfinished Business,” then you might remember the life-changing experience I had when visiting the adoption agency in Anchorage last summer, 26 years after giving my baby up in a closed adoption.

As a result of that visit, I participated in, Passage Writes: Alaska Birth-Moms’ Stories, a project devoted to enabling birth-moms (women who made adoption plans for their children) to tell their stories in their own words. The organizer had read my blog and invited me to help facilitate the workshop, which took place on Mother’s Day weekend. There were six birth mothers in attendance, all with different situations and who had relinquished their babies at different times. To be in a room sharing stories with other birth mothers felt like a reunion with survivors of the Titanic.

“My participation in the workshop led to my appearance on Talk of Alaska.

My Easter Gift

Change sometimes happens when I’m not paying attention. For example: What triggered the writing slump I’ve been in for the last few months? When, exactly, did my shins turn to lizard skin? And when was I appointed as the matriarch of my family to host all the holidays and events?

I delight in entertaining my loved ones, and my 33-year-old daughter, Becca, always attends. She is a bright, creative soul with an altruistic nature. She also has a healthy self-esteem, which I lacked as a young woman. Her friends refer to her as “The Golden Child.” And, truth be told, this nickname isn’t entirely off base. I indulged her a bit when I was a guilty single mother.

I think it goes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Swiss Family Robinson. The film is about a family that, after being shipwrecked on a desert island, works together to build the coolest elaborate tree house. I suspect my fascination with this movie was rooted in its fairytale family environment, which was one of total security and trust. I wanted to be part of a family like that—and I so deeply wanted that type of environment for my own daughter.

Throughout my childhood, I had longed for Daddy to build me my very own fort or playhouse. He wasn’t that kind of dad, but I decided to be that kind of mom. For Becca’s third birthday, she became the mildly impressed recipient of an adorable cottage-style, Pepto-Bismol-pink playhouse. I also painted the trim, shutters, and Dutch door white as an accent, and I made the sweetest white eyelet curtains for the windows. (A seamstress I am not—but I tried.) When Becca was little, I wanted more than anything for her to have the kind of family life I lacked growing up and hadn’t provided for Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption when I was 15 years old. Becca was my second chance, and in my mind, I had failed her by being a single parent.

Becca’s friends call me “Momnica.” It’s probably because I have an open door where they can dump their troubles and get unsolicited advice. With all the crap I’ve gotten myself into over the years, I can match just about anything they’re going through with a similar experience. In my twenties, my life decisions were a field of domino rows in a windstorm. One problem caused another, which caused yet another, and I was always picking up the pieces. I like to think that my destiny was to transcend my trauma so I could be the sounding board and mentor I never had. The more love I give, the greater my capacity grows to give more.

Getting out of my own head and working with others has helped me so much during these last two years of writing. I feel that I have finally emerged from a swamp. I didn’t realize it, but I had been in a funk. It crept up on me—a lot like my lizard legs did. (I’ve since started exfoliating and moisturizing.) “Depressed” is not a label one would use to describe me, but it might look that way. I gained a shit-ton of weight while I was working on my memoir (half of which I have now taken off), and the once-outgoing Monica turned inward like a roly-poly bug that curls into a ball when poked. Introspection was never really my deal, and neither was writing. I have always been a talker and a doer, not a thinker. But I have had to turn inward in the process of writing my memoir, and it’s dark in there.

In the days following the recent Easter holiday, I have turned inward in a not-so-dark way to reflect on the occasional friction that I have had with my “Golden Child.” I also remembered the confusion I felt when I found out that I was pregnant with her. I was 26 and, as they say, I was not wrapped too tightly. I had been clean and sober for about 60 days and had known her father for a whole six weeks. In my naivety, I assumed that sobriety would be a magic wand. I thought life would be perfect since I wasn’t drinking and hanging around with lowlifes. I would have a white picket fence with my handsome prince, and we would ride off into the sunset with our sweet baby angel.

That’s not what happened.

I held a shotgun wedding and married Becca’s father, Kenny, in 1984 when I was six months pregnant. We drove to Reno, home of the quickie wedding chapel. As we parked in front of a tacky storefront chapel, I saw our blurred reflection in the filmy window and thought, “I gotta get him in there before he changes his mind.” A little gold bell rang as we entered.

We were a pair of plastic wedding cake figurines, Big-as-a-House Barbie and her handsome Ken perched beneath a rickety arbor, draped with a dusty vine of white plastic roses. My keen pregnant nostrils didn’t miss much. All this elegance was punctuated by the faint scent of stale beer wafting from the red carpet. I stood alongside Kenny, my hand in his, with a smile plastered on my face in an effort to trick myself into believing this wedding was the joyous event I had dreamed of. It had seemed like just yesterday when I said goodbye to Mary Claire at the hospital, and this was my do-over. I felt the vibration of Kenny’s toe tapping through his clammy palm. I knew he loved me, but he was clearly terrified by the responsibility the day represented.

While a rotund man in a preacher getup read the vows, I realized the stale beer smell might be coming from under his ’stache. Each of his embellished words further emphasized that this was a cheap and tacky union to a man who didn’t want to be there. The only thing I truly heard was Kenny’s “I do.” I was a girl with unrealistic dreams, trying to make right her sins from 12 years ago.

I internalized a huge sigh of relief when Kenny squished the 10-karat gold band onto my fat finger. I had purchased it at a discount store the day before with the last few dollars in my bank account. I remember how disappointed I was that I couldn’t afford the 14-karat band and how humiliated I felt looking into the glass case as I tried to hide my girth, hoping the other couple looking at rings didn’t notice that I was buying my own.

A few years later, after the divorce, I had a jeweler cut a slit in the band and pull it apart to set a mate-less ruby earring inside. It’s not a great ring. It looks pieced together to me, but even so, Becca has worn it on and off over the years. I guess it symbolizes what she, too, always longed for—the security of a complete family with a daddy and a mommy. Daddy moved out for the final time when she was only one year old.

Thirty-two years after Kenny left, I am still trying to create that rich sense of family for my daughter—most recently, I did this by hosting an Easter celebration. I had been asking for a few weeks if Becca and her two-year-old son, Miles, would be coming over on Easter Sunday, and if so, when. They were recovering from a virus, as were my mother and brother, and I hadn’t heard whether any of them were planning to celebrate the holiday. Easter was on pause. There were no baskets with chocolate bunnies; no plastic eggs filled with lotto tickets, cash, and candy for the adults; no food and goodies for Miles.

Then, on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., Becca told me she would be coming over at noon the next day. I was literally the last person out of the grocery store at 11:00 p.m. as I frantically loaded up on supplies for the family celebration. The manager had the look of a lost child longing for home as she followed me around while I threw the last few items into my cart. She eagerly locked the door behind me, and I had to make a second trip in the morning.

I was relieved when my mother picked up the phone at 9:00 a.m. and also agreed to come to my house for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, my exceedingly brilliant and handsome son—who lives two hours away—couldn’t make it.

When Becca and Miles arrived, she was tired and hungry. She felt crappy because her allergies were bothering her. She also had PMS and very little patience. (Her visits always seem to coincide with her time of the month.) She wanted to know why the food wasn’t ready right away at noon. When Miles could search for eggs. Why they had to wait for me before they did so. Never mind that she and Miles are the only vegetarians in the family and, because she is the “Golden Child,” I made her and Miles a special pasta salad. All of this while preparing the rest of the food, arranging appetizers in spring splendor on my pink and green depression glass, and setting out a vase of bright yellow tulips (my favorite flower).

I had bought plastic eggs for my grandson that were patterned like an assortment of baseballs, basketballs, and soccer balls. Early on Easter morning, I hid them with delight for his first formal egg hunt—all in plain sight inside of plant-less, dirt-filled flower pots, atop blooming pink azalea bushes, and nestled inside the crags on the trunk of my huge sycamore tree.

While preparing the meal, I quickly stuffed the “adult” eggs with cash and lotto tickets. Some I hid so well that they will likely become gifts for the gardener. I did this while cognizant that Becca would arrive early and be outside with Miles, scoping out the hiding places. And indeed, while Miles ran around the backyard, Becca asked. “Did you get a chance to hide our eggs?” I knew she would start her hunt early if I told the truth. “No, I’m sorry honey. I didn’t have enough time to do that, too. It was all I could do to get the food prepared.” I had just finished with my lie when she bent over and brushed some leaves out the of the hose basket to discover a pink plastic egg. Guess who got most of the cash and lotto tickets.

At day’s end, after everyone had gone home, I was cleaning the dishes and putting things back in their places. It was around 6:00 p.m., the time when the setting sun cuts above the fence and my patio. I turned in its direction as it shined warm, golden light, which was filtered through my patterned curtain sheers. It created a soft glow that illuminated my living room. I stopped what I was doing to breathe in the light and take in the melody from my porch fountain, which sounds like rain falling on a pond. That moment brought forward remnants of conversation and laughter from a few hours before, and I realized that I felt wonderful. It wasn’t the kind of wonderful I feel when I get a new pair of shoes, lose weight, receive praise, or win an argument. It wasn’t a worldly feeling—it was different than that. There was no pitter-patter of my heart, and there was no sense of the peace and gratitude I feel when praying or meditating. It was a completely new feeling.

It dawned on me that I was experiencing joy.

I once read that most people spend their lives regretting the past and fearing the future; therefore, they are unable to experience joy in the present. I suffer when I live in my head, like I did when I was newly pregnant with Becca—I created my own suffering by reliving the humiliation I felt when I was a child who was pregnant with a child. And how isolated and alone I felt keeping the secret of my virgin rape. On the rare occasion that I was seen in public during my first pregnancy, I shrank from each look of shock, pity, and disgust because they reaffirmed what I knew people thought of me…and what I thought of myself. My belly was proof of my low self worth and poor choices. This was a humiliation that I couldn’t repeat. When I was pregnant with Becca 12 years later, my mind vacillated between two opposites: (1) my vision of walking hand in hand with my handsome husband and protector, Kenny, as our daughter’s laughter filled me with absolution for my past and (2) my fear that this secure, happy family wouldn’t become reality.

I can see now that my long-time fear of life and circumstances has really been a fear of my emotions. It’s not the facts themselves that I have feared but my feelings about them. While writing my memoir during these past two years, I have dug out and swept away many of the painful remnants by naming, feeling, and releasing my emotions.

My compulsion to purge and write my wrongs had lessened. I have cleared away much of the shame and guilt in my subconscious that used to filter out the light of my joy—joy which, I realized, has been there all along, patiently waiting to reveal itself. Perhaps this is my destiny. Whether it is or isn’t, I am committed to writing and I’m eager to find the gifts that it will bring to me, still waiting to be uncovered—like pink plastic Easter eggs—whether I’m ready or not.

I Just Won’t Think About it Right Now

When I met a former English professor in Seattle last summer, she said to me, “Why are you writing your memoir? What has caused you to take this journey?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. Initially, I’d started writing to share my story of being adopted, meeting my biological family decades later, giving up my own child for adoption when I was 15 years old, and then being reunited with her 18 years later. When I was confronted by the professor’s question, I realized my motivation for writing had changed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how. I just knew that my reasons were deeper than a desire to tell my life story. I suspected it had something to do with my pain.

When I was in my early 20s, I found comfort in Johnnie Walker Black and cocaine. I told myself that I was just partying, but I was really numbing my pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about my little girl, but I never cried for her—I drank and used drugs instead. I wondered, What does Mary Monica look like? Does she have straight brown hair, and will she be short like me? Mary Monica will be starting third grade this week. Mary Monica is eight years old today. Mary Monica will blow out candles at her birthday party this afternoon. I wish I could watch her open her presents. I also wondered what would happen if she died. I was her mother, but I would never know.

I named her after myself—my full name is Mary Monica Hall. I thought it might help when she began searching for me. She was sure to receive non-identifying information containing her original name, just like the information that appeared on my own adoption order. I thought she might wonder if I’d given her my name so she could find me more easily.

She was always so close, but also just out of my reach. For almost two decades, I counted the years, months, and days till I could find her. When people asked how many children I had, she was always included in my answer. As her 18th birthday approached, I began sharing my excitement with those around me. It was then that I started getting pushback from some of my friends. “What if she doesn’t want to meet you? Maybe you should wait and see if she wants to find you first.” I was angry that they weren’t more supportive. I responded indignantly and even considered purging the doubters from my Christmas card list. “No! I know she’s just like me,” I’d say. “She’ll want to find me just as much as I want to meet her. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

I had been sober for seven years in early 1991, and my daughter would turn 18 in six months. Waiting another half a year to begin my search felt like an eternity and I couldn’t wait, so I called the adoption agency from my office cubicle. My arm shook and my heart was pounding as I brought the phone to my ear. What if they turned me down or blocked my search? I took a deep breath and explained that I wanted to get in touch with the daughter I’d given up for adoption 17½ years earlier. I was told to wait the six months and write a letter, which they would forward to her parents. If the parents approved, the agency would facilitate a reunification. What I heard was that it was all up to her parents. They might let me meet their daughter, but only if they were open to a reunification and liked what I wrote.

While I was pregnant, the nun who organized the adoption, Sister Mary Clare, told me I could write my baby a letter that her parents would keep for her, but I never did. I knew it would mean the world to her, just as it would have for me if my birthmother had written me a letter, but what could I say? I love you and I’m sorry, but I can’t keep you because I’m only 15? Everything I thought to write sounded trite and shallow. I felt powerless. My mother even gave me an example written on notebook paper to get me started, but it, too, sounded empty. In fact, I still have it, along with the pretty pink floral stationery she bought for me to write on. I kept it in the box of keepsakes from Mary Monica’s birth, right next to the pen with which I signed the adoption papers. Sadly, I never wrote that letter. It is a regret I carry to this day.

I resigned myself to waiting another six months. Then, about four weeks later, I was at work when my phone rang. It was the adoption agency. This surprised me because I hadn’t expected a call back. I was just planning to wait for six months until I had to agonize over writing yet another letter. The woman said, “I’m sorry. We’ve been so busy that we haven’t had time to get back to you, but we have a picture here.”

I was confused. “A picture of who?” I asked.

“Of a young girl…your daughter.”

When she spoke those six words, the dam broke. I lost it.

The woman told me that she would mail the photo right away. She also explained that within a few weeks of my call, my daughter and her mother had contacted the agency to start the reunification process. My daughter later told me that she wanted to get an early start in case I was hard to find and locating me took longer than six months. Just as I expected, she couldn’t wait either. (My daughter’s need for instant gratification doesn’t fall far from the tree.) For her 18th birthday, her parents sent her out to meet me. I cannot describe the joy I felt at hearing that news. I was finally going to meet my daughter.

When the adoption agency called to tell me about the photo, I was blindsided and speechless for the first time in my life. Between the sobs and snot bubbles, I managed to get out a barely audible “thank you.” Beneath the sheet of tears, I couldn’t even see the phone to hang it up. My coworkers rushed to my cubicle wondering what was wrong and who had died.

For 18 years, I hadn’t been able to cry for my daughter. The pain was too great. I had shut it off so that I could survive. When my mom and I drove away from the hospital, after we’d said goodbye to my daughter for the last time, I looked over my shoulder at the grey-and-ocean-blue walls of Providence Hospital. I had never felt such tremendous pain and grief. Eighteen years was an eternity, and the void in my chest was more than I could bear. Out of desperation, I began repeating to myself what would become my mantra: “I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now.”

Before the birth, I told Sister Mary Clare that my baby was going to be the only person in the whole wide world who was a part of me. Just as a sunflower reaches for the sun, I needed to see her. Sister Mary Clare kindly made arrangements for me to spend time with my baby even though other birth mothers weren’t allowed that luxury. Of course, her middle toes were long, just like mine. I fought back tears and tried to be brave during those three days that I got to hold her, count her toes, smell the innocence in her warm tiny neck, and stroke her velvety soft cheeks with the back of my finger. She cooed and smiled at me. She knew I was her mother.

On the day I expected my daughter’s picture to arrive, I rushed home from work during my lunch break. I pulled the envelope from the mailbox and settled into a chair on my sunlit porch among the baskets of pink begonias and rose bushes. My heart was pounding. I felt queasy and held my breath. I paused in reverence as I held the envelope in my trembling hand, absorbing the warm spring air and the sweet fragrance of blooming roses. I carefully took the photo from the envelope and gazed at my daughter’s full-grown face for the first time. She sat leaning to one side, posing in a professional full-length photograph taken to commemorate her high school graduation. It was the weirdest feeling. I felt like I was looking at someone familiar—someone I knew. I felt like I was looking at myself. I was flooded with relief and elation to finally see her face and was awed at how much she looked like me. It was surreal. I raced inside to call my mom and share my excitement.

After waiting for what felt like a lifetime, I finally met my daughter in person a few months later. She was close to my spitting image, same height, potty-mouth, crooked teeth and all. Like me, she grew up in a very conservative Catholic family—and like me, she is anything but conservative. Her mother once told me that she’d always thought nurture triumphed over nature—that people’s development is determined 80% by their environment and 20% by genetics. That was before all three of her adopted daughters were reunited with their birth moms. Now, she’s convinced it’s the other way around.

Initially, I thought my memoir was about my adoption stories, reunifications, and crazy years growing up in Alaska. But after writing for more than a year, I realized that I might be writing to find myself and heal my pain. If I were to write it all down and dissect every little piece of my seemingly screwed-up life, maybe I would understand why. Why what? Why all this crazy shit happened? What it all meant?

While writing my memoir, I tried to remind myself of the things I have heard over the years, like “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no mistakes.” For decades, I have had the sense that the seemingly bad things in my life were preparing me for something. I just didn’t know what. When I began writing two years ago, the call to investigate my past bordered on obsession. Once I began scraping the bottom of my memories, I couldn’t stop. I kept with it even when I considered giving up writing altogether because I questioned my sanity at dredging up so many painful experiences. Through writing it all out and investigating the torrid details, which triggered depression and weight gain, I have arrived at a place where I can forgive my younger self. My guilt and shame has been replaced with compassion and gratitude.

My daughter’s parents named her Mary Claire after the nun who handled her adoption, so she shares my first name. She is now approaching 45. That tiny olive-toned baby girl has blossomed into a beautiful woman and a loving mother. She gratefully accepts the kindred relationship we have and the wisdom I am able to share. This brings my life full circle. Had I not gone through all that pain, I wouldn’t be able to experience the immense joy of knowing her and watching her life unfold. As a fifteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t have realized that my sacrifice and pain would lead to strength, character, and wisdom. I did the right thing. I gave my daughter a better life, just as my birth mother had done for me. Because of this, I know in my bones that the cliché is true—everything does happen for a reason.

Unfinished Business

A few months ago, I was going through a box of keepsakes from 1973—the year I gave my baby up for adoption. Inside were the treasures I carted first from Alaska to California and then through eleven additional moves over the last 44 years.

I pulled from the box the pen I’d used to sign the adoption papers, a vintage-looking hospital pregnancy food menu, my patient wristband, and Catholic holy cards that the sweet little French nun had brought every time she visited my hospital room. There were also greeting cards from my parents, brother, best friend, and the nosey and judgmental Catholic neighbor lady who I’d hoped wouldn’t find out about my pregnancy. I wondered what ran through their minds when picking out a card. Congratulations weren’t in order, nor were “Get Well Soon” wishes. “Our Condolences” would have been more apropos, but no one had the guts to give me that card.

My 12-year-old brother’s card featured a seagull’s silhouette, maybe reminiscent of the then-best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The bird covered the large card’s entire front and was positioned against a background of emerald green with a smattering of sunlight sparkles dancing on the jeweled water. Inside the card was printed, “Miss You.” Beneath it, he wrote, “From Tim.” My sweet and mostly adoring little brother was torn apart by me giving up the baby. He stood at the nursery window for hours and talked to all the parents and visitors that came by, providing commentary about each baby. He wanted me to bring mine home; was inconsolable, my mom said; promised to babysit.

There was also the card from my mom. It was white and had a tasteful and artsy line etching of a sleeping baby in a flowing gown on its front. It was titled, “An Unspeakable Joy.” Inside, it said, “Your brand-new baby….” The card was signed, “From her loving grandmother.” My artist mom may have thought she picked it for the lovely drawing, but I wonder if it was also a subconscious choice. It had been, after all, an unspeakable pregnancy.

 

I hadn’t received a card from Paula, my childhood best friend. Our houses were so close that we once strung a makeshift phone between our bedroom windows. It was made of string with cans attached to each end. Our families had been friends since Paula and I were two, even before we lived next door to one another. Her family was also Catholic and very involved in the church, just like we were.

When I was a teen, Paula told me that her mother hated me (probably more like a deep disapproval) and thought I’d had something to do with stealing and vandalizing their camper. She also blamed me for every little trouble Paula got into, which wasn’t much next to my shenanigans. I was a shit of an adolescent and probably deserved her condemnation, but I’d had nothing to do with the camper. By the time I got pregnant, Paula and I rarely hung out because I was off with my “bad” friends. Because of the unfounded accusations, Paula’s mom was the one person who I didn’t want to know about my pregnancy.

Even though I was a juvenile delinquent, I had valued my virginity. Virginity was like a torch in my family—or at least it appeared that way. When Mom wasn’t around, Daddy would say things to my brother and I like, “Mama was a virgin. She is a saint. I couldn’t even get her in the sack till we were married.” Virginity, sainthood, and Mama were synonymous, and they were clearly the ideal.

Paula later told me that when her mom found out I’d given birth and was giving the baby up for adoption, she’d said, “It’s too bad for the baby.” For more than four decades, I haven’t been able to forgive her for that. What was too bad? That my baby was born? That she was going to be with a wonderful loving family? And what did that say about Tim and me? We had been adopted, too. Was it “too bad” we had been born? Was it “too bad” that we had been adopted? I pictured Paula’s mom—my judgmental neighbor—shaking her head in reproach while standing in front of the card rack, picking through as if she was removing lint from an unkempt sweater.

It wasn’t until that day a few months ago, going through the box of keepsakes, that I saw her card for the very first time. The front showed a charcoal sketch of forget-me-not flowers and was paired with an Abe Lincoln quote: “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.”

Inside, she wrote,

Dear Monica,
We truly respect you for the heartache you have had to accept.
May God bless you always,

The Winton family

Seeing that card kinda took the wind out of my sails. How could I have missed it?

I moved away from Alaska soon after giving birth, but I have remained in contact with Paula over the last four decades. Every five years or so, we have a phone call to catch up. During our conversations, I always ask if her mom still feels the same way about me. Paula has conveyed that I turned out to be a good mother and person, but her mom never stopped disapproving of me.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I wanted Paula’s mom to love me like she had when I was the talkative little second grader who felt enough at home to walk through the front door without knocking. I wanted her to love the same girl about whom she teased, “Mary Monica could never be a Carmelite Nun.” (I was too chatty to take a vow of silence.) Because I was so deeply hurt by her comment about my baby and the dislike and judgment she had for me, my heart formed a protective crust of bitterness and resentment. But after discovering that card, I began to envision a different story.

I couldn’t be deeply hurt by someone I didn’t care about, nor could she have expressed such compassion in that card without caring about me in return. I began to wonder if her feelings toward me may have come from a place of fear: If this could happen to the sweet Mary Monica I knew and loved, then this could happen to my child. Maybe she was projecting a fear of inadequate parenting onto me. After all, if my “saintly mother,” her old friend and neighbor, could raise a child like me, then couldn’t it also happen to her? Or perhaps it came from something from her childhood—a trauma or belief system she had in place. Or maybe she was just pissed because she thought I stole her damn camper.

While thinking about all of this, I came to the conclusion that nothing is really how it seems. Our anger, judgment, and resentment comes from within and has nothing to do with the person we direct it at. Had I opened that box years before, I doubt I would have had the ability to look at the deeper meaning of these things. Forgiveness was always right there where I left it—sitting in that box, patiently waiting to be found.

Twenty-six years have passed since I was reunited with the daughter I gave up for adoption. Even though we have a close and wonderful relationship, I have avoided reflecting on the time surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and adoption. For 44 years, I also hauled around the journals that my mom and I wrote in during that time. Over the years, I’ve known that I should give them a read, but I couldn’t bring myself to open them until recently. Maybe I’d been avoiding them for the same reason that I failed to notice the sweet card from my neighbor lady. Examining that time in my life held too much sorrow. It was just too dark inside Pandora’s Box.

While digging deeper into the box, past the pen, wristband, greeting cards, and other mementos, my eye caught on Sister Clare’s business card. The plain white card was stuck under the flap of the cardboard box. She was the sweet nun at Catholic Charities Adoption Services who counseled me and found parents for my baby. My mom took me to see her every week during my pregnancy. I made a mental note to drive by the old building when I visited Anchorage a few months later.

During my trip, I first cruised my rental car past the houses I’d lived in, getting a feel for my beloved town. There is something magical about Anchorage in the summertime with its majestic crown of mountains bordering the city, its cool, fresh air, and its lush midnight sun vegetation. “There is no place like home” kept ringing in my ears. Even though I only lived there for sixteen years, I’d felt called to return throughout my life to search for something I couldn’t define.

I didn’t have the address for the old Catholic Charities building and I hadn’t brought Sister Clare’s card with me. I used my phone to search for the map and navigation, and when I did, a phone number also popped up. As the phone rang, I wondered why I was calling since I’d found directions to get there. I told the receptionist that I’d given a baby up for adoption 44 years earlier and wondered if I could visit the office building to look inside. Minutes later, I received a call back. Lisa, the director, was completely and totally gracious, even honored to talk to me. She said she would love to meet me and told me to come right over. She also thanked me and told me what an incredible woman I was.

I was embarrassed by her praise. A part of me must have still felt shame for the pregnancy and having to give my baby up for adoption. I expected that I would be interrupting by showing up in the office—I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be treated like a visiting dignitary. I was completely taken aback by Lisa’s eagerness to accommodate my visit. As I sat across the table from her, it hit me that maybe this was the moment that I had been searching for on my many trips to Anchorage and through all the decades of toting around my keepsakes and journals.

“You are only as sick as your secrets” is a saying I’ve heard quite a bit, and I had kept my share of secrets over the decades. My mother had taken me to Catholic Charities for weekly counseling sessions to help me, but they weren’t as effective as they could have been because I never told Sister Clare what was really going on. I wasted an hour each week with meaningless chitchat and told her only what I thought she wanted to hear. I don’t remember much about what I said during those sessions. The only thing I truly recall was the lie I told her about my baby’s parentage. I said that I had heavy-petted with a boy who ejaculated on my thigh. I was still a virgin, I said—a lie that she seemed to buy.

I didn’t tell Sister Clare that the pregnancy was the result of being raped when I was a virgin. Or that I was afraid Paula’s mom would find out and have confirmation that I was the slut and horrible girl she perceived me to be. I didn’t say that my dad had abused me in a hideous wire hanger beating, or that when I was 13 he’d raged at me about the disgusting things sluts and whores do and how he loathed and despised that kind of women—said this as if I was one of them, said things a young girl should never hear (especially from her father). I didn’t tell her that being adopted myself, the only person in the world who would be a part of me was the baby she and my parents wanted me to give up for adoption.

Lisa, the present-day Catholic Charities director, was roughly the same age as the daughter I’d given up. She sat across the table from me with compassionate light blue eyes and short brown hair. Her voice was gentle and kind. At first, I wondered if it was contrived and practiced, like a funeral director’s, but as I poured out the things that I should have told Sister Clare 44 years earlier, tears pooled in her eyes. She was just the angel I needed in that perfect moment.

I finally understood the reason I hadn’t been able to let go of the journals and the box of keepsakes. I had been subconsciously waiting—or maybe something greater than myself was grooming me for this healing. I was finally at a place in my life where I could face the pain from my past and let it go. As I spoke, I could feel that something wonderful was happening. My regret rose like a flock of doves lifting a heavy robe from my shoulders. I realized that I needed to tell the truth—not just to my friends or in my memoir, but in the setting of the adoption agency. I was doing what I didn’t have the courage to do at 15. I had shown a brave face back then, but I was really just a scared little girl all alone with her shameful secrets.