Thursday, October 15, 2020

My Story: Before I was Adopted

Content Warning: birth, birth trauma, separation, infertility, brief mentions of sexual assault.


It was the early spring of 1985 when a 13 year old girl stepped off an airplane. Seven months pregnant, she had arrived to what was now her new home. Her sister lived here, in Tennessee. And she had flown well over 1,000 miles to her sister the moment her mother discovered she was pregnant. It is hard to imagine the thoughts that must have gone through her sister's mind, 14 years her senior, as she greeted her at the gate. The young teen carried with her only two maternity outfits and a few sample size toiletries. She had a story to tell, and her big sister would be the first to hear about it.

I was part of this story. But it would take 25 years for me to hear it. This is the story of where I came from, and of how I got here. On this earth. I have written and re-written, published and un-published, this story multiple times. I was not finished with the blog post I wanted to publish today. I thought about what I could write instead. Searching through my blog, I found this narrative. I had forgotten that I unpublished it yet again some years ago. I struggled to tell this story because I had only ever heard it through the eyes of other people.

After we reunited, my first mothermother told me that she attempted to hide that she was pregnant with me. She attended school each day wearing a men's large winter goal to conceal her growing form. It took nearly seven months, but her guidance counselor finally took notice. Question after question, my mother couldn't answer. The counselor called her mother, my grandmother, to come retrieve her. Shortly thereafter, she was sent away on that airplane.

When I think back about all of the times I attempted to share this story, I feel an immense compassion for my younger self. At times, I felt challenged to decide which parts of this story were mine to share. At other times, when I was advocating for legislative change, I was met with the criticism of legislators. Some claimed that adoptees will just use their access to information to embarrass their families. No one wants to fulfill a stereotype.

There was another story that ran parallel to this one before the two stories would converge.

At the same time, and for the nine years prior, a young couple prayed fervently for a child. They tried for nearly a decade to conceive. Knowing very little about adoption at the time, the couple heeded the advice of their church family to pursue adoption. They found a nearby faith-based adoption agency and applied.

This couple, my eventual adoptive parents, never minded telling their part of the story. Being able to adopt a child had been one of the best moments of their lives. They only ever knew their part of the story. From their perspective, it was not much different than the stories told by many adoptive families at that time.

While they were praying, my first mother was enrolled at a school for pregnant teenagers. She was also signed up for counseling at a religious adoption agency at the behest of her big sister's pastor's wife. At counselling, she learned different concepts than the life skills taught at her unique high school. Her adoption counselor talked to her about adoption. She asked her to think about what it would be like to create an adoption plan. Computer print-outs were slid across a table for her review. They contained early versions of what we now know to be "adoptive parent profiles." What might it be like for this librarian or this engineer to parent her baby along with their well-adjusted son as a big brother?

At this point in telling the story, another memory creeps over my shoulders as to why this has not been an easy story to share. I recall being a newly minted social worker going on job interviews. Some potential employers spent hours on my blog, scouring for all of the right opinions on adoption. At least one mentioned that they had done so, outright. My concern in the social services sector, even as one of its professionals, is that it is too taboo to describe situations when agencies do wrong. I fear not being believed, because this part of the story has not always been met with belief. It is hard for people to accept that professionals within an institution that people commonly associate with positivity could do something wrong.

Unfortunately, the story has not yet reached the worst of it. My first mother went into labor, one week after her 14th birthday, at 40 weeks and five days gestation. It was in that moment, she later described to me, that she could not longer keep me safe from the outside world. To her recollection, she was a mere bystander in the delivery room. A sheet was drawn in front of her face. She pushed for what seemed like forever. When she was certain she heard my cries she also heard a prompt to tell her to count backwards from ten. I was delivered with forceps, according to records. She woke up, childless, and no longer on the maternity unit.

That part of the story has always made me hesitant to share it. It feels violent and violating. I see the pain that it causes people when I relay my birth. I am capable of carrying the story without falling apart. But I am not always sure that others are. I consider it my burden to bear. And no, I do not regret knowing.

My future parents continued through the application process at this point. They were unaware of my existence at this time. My future father was facing a potentially positive career shift that would move them to New Jersey. Would the time spent applying at this agency be wasted if they moved before a baby was available? My unsealed files would later reveal that this is why they were chosen. They would be far away from where my first family originally resided in New England. And, they would be far from where my first mother currently lived, in Tennessee. It was noted that this reduced the chance that my first family would ever find me.

My first mother did not understand why the adoption worker from the agency was now at the hospital. She did not know who called to inform them that she was there. She did not understand why she was away from the other mothers and babies - separated from me. She described it as "an act of Congress" to get to hold me. She did get to hold me, though. My aunt was there to advocate for her. 

She named me "Christen Davida," after her brother who made her feel included and after her other brother who recently died. She grew up the youngest of 9. Food was scarce and parental attention scarcer. Getting an decent serving of food at a table of siblings growing up was always a struggle.

When it was time for her discharge, she refused to leave without me. It seemed that the minds of the hospital staff around her were already made up. Her sister went to the nurse's station for help. She was willing to help raise me with my first mother and her three children, if that is what my first mother wanted. Now alone in her room, my first mother received a visitor. It was an adoption worker from the agency. She brought with her papers that she asked my first mother to sign. She wanted her to sign me into foster care.

She thought back to the printout of the potential adoptive parents she selected "just in case" she chose adoption. She had chosen the profile of a journalist and his wife. They had a son, which was important. My first mother had never known life without siblings herself. Back in the hospital room, the adoption worker proceeded to ask her a series of questions that she could not answer.

"How will you care for this baby? What do you have to offer her?"

It would be an "open adoption," she was told. I would be given all of the information about her. She could receive updates about me yearly by contacting the agency. When I turned sixteen, they would facilitate a reunion. They promised that our separation would not last forever.

She signed the papers. And I was gone.

The agency began the legal process of terminating my biological father's rights. In my files, I found notifications to the court that they tried to locate him and that he would not respond. I did not expect to find any response from him. Admitting that I was his would seal his fate with the district attorney. There is enough emotion in this entry as it is. I will save my conception circumstances for another day.

In a month's time, my first mother needed to appear in court. The time for my "free" room and board with the agency's foster parent had expired. If she would not sign over her rights, she would have to pay. She had to say "yes" to terminating her rights multiple times, because the judge was unconvinced of her answer. She was unconvinced of her answer. The worker from the hospital was there that day. She was intimidating.

Before long, my parents would receive a call. A baby was available. I was available. My future father and mother, a land surveyor and a homemaker, were told they were just what my first mother wanted. My records would later indicate that the agency believed them to be a good match because I could pass as their genetic offspring. They clung to each other and jumped and danced in their kitchen.

My first mother gave the adoption agency an outfit for me. She gave them a small stuffed bear, a twin bear to one that she would keep with her always. I never got them. The agency told my parents that I was unwanted. That I had no name. They were truthful about how I was conceived maybe because it made the agency narrative that my first mom just wanted to "move on" with her life, more real. My parents had desperately wanted to be parents, but never at anyone else's expense.

In a private room in my foster home, I met my new parents for the first time. They were not allowed to meet my foster parents. They were warned ahead of time that I cried relentlessly for other pre-adoptive couples. I did not cry for them. My adoptive mother often told me throughout my childhood about the little boy who slipped into the room. She thought he must have been my foster brother. He wanted to say goodbye. "Goodbye Sarah" he said. Maybe that had been their name for me?


They were given a slender folder with my agency narrative. This file contained a few bits of information from the agency and a one-page heavily censored narrative that described my original family. Almost unnoticeable in the file was a tiny scrap of paper my foster mother had slipped inside. On this note, she had written my birth statistics with very faint pencil lines.

High school continued on for my first mother. My biological father was prosecuted for his crime. He did not receive the full sentencing that he deserved. My new parents offered a sample of my blood to the agency to pass along, but were told it was not needed. The agency told the district attorney that my new parents had refused to cooperate. For the next 25 years, my first mother would carry the agency's words, that my new parents thought the DNA request was "inappropriate."

I received the third name of my life thus far, at 8 months old. My parents named me "Amanda" which means "worthy to be loved." My middle name was JoAnn, which means "Gift from God." The agency pressured them to adopt soon after. They could not afford to. I was raised an only child.

I do not think it was ever intended for me to know this story. At the time of my birth, my birth and adoption records were supposed to be forever sealed. When I was in the 9th grade, hundreds of miles away, activists in Tennessee changed that law. They made it so I could find my information, so that I could find my first mother, and so that I could fit the pieces together. 

Now I'm the one that gets to tell the story.

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