Let me open with an apology. First, to birthmothers, for presuming. Second, to readers, for withholding. I’m sorry if protecting their identities makes Birthmother A and Birthmother B seem inconsequential. As sterile it sounds, I assure you—these two women hold extraordinary meaning.
The day we met Birthmother A, we brought her flowers, a bouquet of daisies (and wasn’t there some alstromeria?), and she told us she was having a girl, what I’d always wanted to have. At the agency, in a cramped room painted baby blue, we stayed on “safe” topics. We made eye contact. We made smalltalk. The social worker suggested we take Birthmother A to lunch, for a little more space. I chewed two or three bites from a dry club on wheat. Birthmother A ate breakfast. Pancakes? I know for certain she had a notepad with a list of questions. She asked us if we had much experience with kids. She asked how many years we’d tried to get pregnant. She did not ask for the bag of homemade muffins my husband bought for her as a special treat on our way out, but she did ask how we planned to get her back on her feet after the baby.
It isn’t uncommon to provide compensation for birthmothers, to help them with food, shelter and medical bills until the baby arrives. This compensation was and is reasonable, and yet, the question still curdled. We told the social worker that when we were alone, Birthmother A had asked us about money. Was this standard operating procedure? The social worker said it was unusual for a birthmother to be so direct, but added it was nothing to worry about, so we buried the question beneath the anticipation of our little girl.
After an ultrasound appointment, Birthmother A’s question resurfaced. Instead of pancakes, she ordered a hot turkey sandwich on white bread with gravy from a can. I remember that gravy, a synthetic shade of yellow-brown, but what was the color of her maternity top? Birthmother A kept touching her belly while her friend, the one she rented a room from, the one she insisted wasn’t the father, did the asking. He asked how we planned to get her back on her feet after the baby.
The aunt of the friend of Birthmother A had a car. Nothing new. Nothing fancy. He didn’t mention the make or model, but said she’d sell it for three grand. No need to tell the agency, he said, and Birthmother A nodded. He promised they wouldn’t say anything. Whatever gifts we provided would stay between us and the walls of Russ’, a family restaurant since 1934.
When we paid the tab and left, I assumed terrible, probably false assumptions. I assumed our certified preowned BMW had made Birthmother A and her friend see green. I assumed that Birthmother A didn’t have an abusive husband, that her five other children didn’t exist, that her friend was some kind of pimp, that she invited us to go to the ultrasound before Russ’ on purpose, that for her, the adoption was just a transaction.
We cut the relationship with Birthmother A not long after Russ’. Trust, a tightrope in even the most straightforward of adoptions, had severed.
I cannot fully comprehend the struggle of contemplating giving up a child, just as those who readily conceive cannot fully comprehend the struggle of those who can’t make the stick turn blue. “Unless you’ve walked in a birthmother’s shoes...” Adoptive parents are taught this from the onset, they’re encouraged to reserve judgment, to respect the birthmother’s (and in rare cases, the birthfather’s) boundaries and wishes. I’m ashamed of judging Birthmother A, but I did not, and do not, regret parting ways. The regret came with owning our abandonment of her unborn child, our little girl.
The breakup felt like another failure, only we played a starring role in the loss. My husband and I chose to end the relationship, and therefore, terminate the pregnancy. Our family and friends supported our decision, but the thoughts of abandonment lingered. Birthmother A had confided she had five kids in foster care. What would happen to the baby she hoped we’d name for the flower of innocence?
It isn’t likely we’ll ever know what happened to Lily, if that’s even her name. Birthmother A, who refused to disclose critical details of her life, ceased all communication with our agency. She may have kept Lily. She may have contacted another adoption agency. She may have sold the baby, if selling a baby is something that actually happens outside of made-for-TV movies.
I ached for Lily over the days and weeks that followed. Strange to ache for a baby, since for me, infants had once been akin to aliens. In my twenties, the batteries of my biological clock stayed hidden in a drawer jammed with impractical lingerie. I had work to do, grad school to finish, love with my best friend to nurture. I had plenty of blessings and what I assumed (that word again) was the blessing of time—many years left to procreate. In my early thirties, I finally quit the pill. I figured, like my friends around that age figured, I’d be expecting in six months, a year, two years tops.
Three years went by with no new arrivals. By thirty-four, we “tried” in earnest, with the aid of ovulation detectors and Clomid, and handy advice about stressing less and relaxing more. My husband wore boxers. I wore a pillow under my hips after sex. Elevation, after all, could lead to success!
The trend of no baby continued. Then a particularly painful period resulted in the particularly painful diagnosis of endometriosis, a health condition that’s hard to spell, harder to pronounce and hardest to endure. Endometriosis can cause infertility, but its cause is unknown. The treatment can include surgery to remove any scar tissue and cysts, and to improve the likelihood of pregnancy.
During my surgery, I have a cyst about the size of a grapefruit removed. I also lose my left ovary. Six days later, my father dies of an irregular heartbeat in an ER about an hour away from where I live. On the seventh day, when I’m breaking the news of his death to my side of family, it hits me: if I ever have any children, I will never get to introduce them to their maternal grandfather. They will never meet.
The loss of a key part of my reproductive system is followed by the loss of my father is followed by the loss of my paternal grandmother is followed by the loss of our Labrador Retriever is followed by the loss of a pregnancy born of IVF is followed by the loss of trust in Birthmother A is followed by the loss of Lily. Another three years had gone by with the arrival of new, unprecedented grief.
I lose weight. I lose sleep. I lose way too many tears, way too often in public places. I begin to lose faith in the idea of being a mother.
On our mantel sits a frame that holds the Dalai Lama’s words: “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” Armed with skepticism, I placed it there at the beginning of our adoption journey. Despite our lack of closure with Birthmother A and the surrender of Lily, I leave the Dalai Lama’s words in their rightful place.
Five months later a different baby is born. A healthy delivery. A Safe Delivery. A different, single question is asked. Yes? Or no? We’re given a handful of hours to decide if she’ll be ours and we’ll be hers. We decide. We tell our parents. We make a frenzied visit to Babies “R” Us for car seats and crib sheets and diapers and bottles and the ingenious innovation known as a onesie. Less than twenty-four hours later we drive to a hospital on the east side of the state.
We did not bring her flowers. We did not take her to lunch. We did not buy her muffins or a car. We neither met her nor assumed anything about her.
We gave Birthmother B nothing and Birthmother B gave us everything.
It's funny how regret can beget incredible opportunity. Without Birthmother A, we wouldn’t have found Birthmother B, or rather, she wouldn’t have found us. Birthmother A plus Birthmother B equals our wonderful stroke of luck. Some might call it shitty math, but for us, our one and only Ava is the sum of all that’s beautiful and buoyant.
PS. Dear Ava, your mom struggles when writing nonfiction because she fears sounding like a sentimental sappity-sap. But she has no words to describe how thankful she is for your arrival in her life. She loves you and is the luckiest.