A neighborhood friend sauntered down his front yard to meet us. I was all smiles, the story spilling out of my lips without restraint, I held up my flip phone so he could see tiny pictures of my son and me in the hospital. My mom stood by. When I came out of the hospital, she drove me to her house, where I stayed for a week recovering. One of her rules was that we take a walk everyday. This was our daily walk. From my perspective now, I think that first month could adequately be described as shock. It wasn’t debilitating. It was the opposite. It was without feeling, without realization. It was like the reprieve between contractions.
The last day in the hospital, I sat up in the bed, cradling J in my arms, probably awkwardly. I brought a leg around to the floor, where his new mom stood. Our arms made the exchange. He must have been startled awake because he began to cry and the sound tipped off some primordial system within my body, energy called into action, crashing into a hardened exterior, bouncing erratically inside.
My hands lay frozen in my lap, still. Never to respond to the urge, that instinct, to sweep up and hold and comfort.
That story would lay dormant, held delicately in my mind for years. I told it to one person a couple of years later. To a support group a decade later where I was blindsided by my own tears, having thought I’d expelled all tears and emotions relevant to these stories. And to my husband.
We took pictures together against the wall, the parents with smiles betraying a shock of their own, me with dead eyes and an awkwardness in my postpartum body and post adoption identity.
And then a nurse wheeled me out the front doors where my mom’s SUV was waiting. I remember no emotions. But I was silent.
We would get word that J was sent to a Children’s Hospital as his PKU results were positive. No one mentioned before or after that I had two cousins with PKU. That was something I’d find out in a few years after adding my estranged extended family on Facebook.
Phenylketonuria, or PKU, is a rare genetic disorder in which your body can’t break down one of the amino acids in protein, leading to a buildup of phenylalanine, which without treatment, quickly leads to incapacitating brain damage. Miraculously, the advances in medicine mean I have cousins and a birth son who can take a special formula every day and follow an extremely restrictive diet, and live entirely full, normal, able lives. Years ago they would have been institutionalized and impaired. But at, then 17, I didn’t know anything about it, and today I only know what I’ve read, absent the intimate kind of knowledge one would get from caring for a child with PKU for eleven years.
After a week of resting on my parent’s couch with my mom’s homemade ice packs, I returned to the apartment. I don’t remember that next week where we lived together for some reason no longer visibly present. I lost weight easily and I remember buying some new outfits, though I don’t know whether that was then or a month later.
And then I woke up on a Sunday and walked out to the couch, and with confidence and ease I called him out to sit with me and told him some form of ‘this isn’t going to work. I’m moving out.’ And I don’t remember his response, though I think it was despairing, lasting longer than my interest in it. I called my parents who were out of the state at that time and we arranged for me to move back home as soon as they got back. I must have left while he was working, but there are no memories of how I transferred my belongings, or what belongings I even brought, or if anyone helped me.
I do remember the blue room in the upstairs, left-hand corner of my parent’s house, tucked away from the other rooms, neighboring the laundry room. It wasn’t my old room, it was my dad’s office; he had moved his gun stuff and desk into my old room, which was more spacious. I remember the blue walls. They would color the next few years of my memories. I returned to a twin mattress and found it unbearable to sleep alone, unbearable to deal with the perpetual loneliness. It was amidst those blue walls that I began having nightmares, not too frequent, but too much nonetheless. Now I believe that it was my subconscious trying to process trauma, since my cognitive brain wasn’t interested in processing anything.
The dreams were all unique and all utterly identical. The father and I would be the same age, or we would be ten years older, our son would be an infant or a preteen, but we would be a family. And inevitably towards the end of the dream I would sense the adoptive parents approaching and we would be running, hearts pounding, souls slowly threaded out of us until we could no longer escape the recurrent fate: giving our son back.
I would wake up from these dreams in more anguish than I’d felt leaving the hospital.
And so, in perhaps a way that is not uncommon among freshly broken up couples who will always find some small but integral part of themselves glued together, I would visit him and spend nights with him. I needed warmth, familiarity, intimacy, belonging. We didn’t fight, my body still healing from childbirth removed the previous thorn in our relationship. But I was using him, and he was needing me.
Eventually, he lost it. He punched holes in the walls, he trashed the entire apartment. He drank excessively. I heard rumors about his lost job, his parents taking him in while also disowning him for the decision I’d forced upon us all.
I would drive him to counseling where he was combative and closed. His father had been adopted in the BSE, a term no one had used at that time, but one which I now understand. Much to my anger and resentment, he would repeat the negative experiences his father had had because of his adoption. I pleaded with my counselor – a birthmom herself- to make him understand how he was just ignorant of how wonderful adoption was now and how they don’t do things like they did before and how normal adoptees turn out to be and how he would love us.
Part of the agreement with the attorneys was that I would have lifetime access to free counseling and support groups with a partnering organization, which later became an independent adoption agency.
N, my birthmom counselor, was a kindred soul. Or maybe she was just a dark-haired artist, a free spirit like me. Two of the first things she worked on with me were learning to call our son by his real name, not the name we’d given, and also to not refer to him as “it”.
Never in the course of my pregnancy or postpartum did I naturally refer to him in any maternal sense. Calling him a “baby” or the baby, or our son, or even his name felt exactly like saying “panties” or “diary” or “mom” or “thank you”. Maybe these are normal words for the rest of the population, in which case: referring to the baby in any maternal sense felt embarrassing and required a vulnerability and confidence I did not possess.
You wouldn’t know it, considering my sexual history which has not even been touched in these pages, but I was very much an uncomfortable prude at heart. As an adult, I’d learn that I had “attachment issues” stemming from a traumatic early childhood before my parents divorced and moving away from my biological mom. I wasn’t able to attach to a maternal figure securely. I still haven’t. And I was never particularly feminine, most commonly described as a tomboy. I dog- and cat-sat growing up, never baby-sitting. My future dreams as a child were living on a farm with my two best girlfriends, breeding horses and owning as many animals as my heart desired. I couldn’t comprehend anyone wanting to help me lose my virginity, much less me getting married and being someone’s mother.
And so somehow or another, this all translated into me being excited to be a teenage mother and simultaneously gagging at anything I felt was “mushy”. And it also meant I’d become a birthmother who referred to her child as “it”, maybe “him.”
N worked with me graciously and patiently and I was able to overcome that unnatural tendency within a few months. And I understood that it wouldn’t make sense to refer to him by a name with which he’d never identify.
I was deeply encouraged to write a letter to J and send it as quickly as I could, while the experience and feelings were still fresh, for his adoptive parents to give to him when the time came. I wrote the letter. And I wonder now what I wrote in that letter, trying so hard to be mature and wise, writing to a future teenager with questions and experiences I couldn’t imagine.
I nagged the father to do the same and our relationship with J and his parents reminds me of the scene in front of me as I type: my daughter laboring to drag a bulky wagon behind her, stopping periodically to return fallen items. I drove him to counseling, I set up times to meet so we could look through updates together, I made copies for him, I reminded him to write and to take initiative. I don’t think he ever did.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care, I realize, though that’s what it felt like. He and I were “touched by adoption” from entirely different angles. I had freedom of choice, complete agency and will. I made my decision and I made it hard. And healing from a decision you’ve made purposely is much different than healing from a trauma enforced upon you, and that’s more like what his experience was. I called my son “it” and he retreated into a dark void within himself where you didn’t do things like make contact with the people touching and holding and loving your son.
He had no good choices, but many feelings and many desires. He wanted two people. He wanted family. His abuse and turbulence was his responsibility as my own was, yes, but it was also the expected result of fundamental brokenness. And also the idiocy of immaturity. We had been set loose into the world as baby adults, drawing up all of our shattered resources from the past seventeen, eighteen years to manage a crisis pregnancy.
I don’t blame him anymore.
Nine years later, I tell him to forgive me and he tells me to stop dwelling on it. He tells me I’m a great mom and person and I need to move on.