“I did not realize the dreadful facts of life. I did not know that a pattern forms before we are aware of it, and that what we think we make becomes a rigid prison making us.” Margaret Drabble, The Millstone
“Action is possible if you stop off feeling.” --A.S. Byatt, “Sugar”
The adoption would be facilitated by the county Welfare Dept, and Mrs. Pettingill, a grandmotherly woman with white hair, would be my social worker, the one who would guide me through my ordeal. I saw her regularly once a week and toward the end more often than that. I considered her a friend, and when she assured me that I was not being a bad mother by relinquishing my baby, I struggled to believe her. She told me I could describe the kind of family I wanted for my child: not too much religion, though I realized that most people were religious to some degree. I wasn't religious, but I knew finding an agnostic family might be difficult, so I allowed for what I called “normal” religion. Not Catholic, but Jewish was OK. I wanted educated parents, as I was certain my child would be bright. Other children in the family were fine too. As it happened, this description fit David's adoptive family pretty well, something I would learn more about years later.
My parents came out for Christmas and took a day to drive to Ithaca from Hamilton to meet with Mrs. Pettingill. The four of us--my parents, Mrs. Pettingill, and I—met in Mrs. P.'s office. She explained that a family had been found. The parents were well educated and they already had an adopted daughter. My mother asked to speak with Mrs. P. alone, and I was sent from the room. I was always being sent from the room, usually when my parents wanted to talk to my brother and sister-in-law without me. It was humiliating, and because I couldn't stop crying, I felt like a child and hated myself for my weakness.
Mother emerged from Mrs. P.'s office with a look of resignation, if not relief. I didn't ask what they had talked about, and no one offered to tell me. I was convinced that Mrs. P. was on my side, that her main concern was my emotional wellbeing. “Come talk to me any time,” she had said, and I had stopped by her office without an advance appointment more than once. I wanted more than anything to do the right thing for my child, and I needed to be told over and over that if I loved my baby I would want him to have a good home with parents who could provide for him in ways I couldn't. My doctor told me much the same thing, if with perhaps less sympathy. My parents had said flat out that they wouldn't take the baby to raise. They were too old, my mother said, and now that I am in my sixties myself I realize that she was undoubtedly right about that. I felt so guilty for hurting her that it never crossed my mind to expect anything from her. I felt I had to protect not only my child but also my parents. I could see all too well their suffering, their shame, their helplessness. I loved them and didn't want to cause them this pain.
Sitting at the little desk in my basement room, I wrote long letters to my mother and father, apologizing over and over for what I was putting them through. “You are wonderful parents,” I wrote. “I had such a happy childhood. You don't deserve this.” It must have been too much, because I never got a direct response to these outpourings. Dad wrote to tell me to write some cheerful letters so they could show them to my aunt back in Greencastle.
Everyone was kind. I believe that's why it took me so long to integrate the truth of what happened to me. For years I truly believed that Mrs. P. was a saint. She seemed to have endless patience, but at no point did she ever so much as suggest that relinquishing my child might not be my only option. “But what if there's something wrong with the baby, and no one wants to adopt him,” I asked. “When that happens, the doctor usually sees to it that the baby doesn't survive,” she responded, as if that would be comforting.
It's difficult to describe how it feels to carry a baby you know you're going to give to strangers to raise. For me, the only way to get through the worst ordeal of my life was to go numb. It was as if I were walking through water or into a strong head wind. I just concentrated on getting through the days, going through the motions, sealed off from everyone and everything.
I'd been raised by a mother who believed women needed protection and the best way to get that protection was from a man, a good husband in other words. Failing that, a woman should be able to support herself, but that was a definite Plan B. When David's father failed to make an honest woman of me, all I could think of was finding another man to lean on. I'm ashamed of that now. I hate it that I was ever that weak, that dependent, but the truth is, I was. When I was growing up, I was discouraged from having after-school jobs. I was allowed to babysit, but I was forbidden to be a waitress or work in a drugstore, as many of my friends were doing. I didn't really need money; my parents made a comfortable living, and I had nice clothes given to me pretty much on demand. I didn't have a real job until after I graduated from college. So when Bob appeared and fell in love with me, I felt relief as much as anything else.
When I didn't go to my brother's on the weekends, I stayed with Bob at his studio in Hell's Kitchen, where he had moved after leaving his job at Colgate. An artist, he was determined to make it in the big city. He and my brother had been good friends, but I think Bob was a bit contemptuous of Jim for sticking it out in academia. I latched onto Bob and believed I loved him, but I was numb. This was when I began living with half my heart, when my emotional equilibrium was thrown completely out of balance, when I could no longer bear to be alone but was always lonely, even when in company. I had become an exile in my own life, as surely as an Ellis Island immigrant. There was a rupture, a fault line in my life that would forever separate me from all I had been and done. But I was told by people I trusted that I was doing the right thing. My baby would be “better off.” I'd be able, as my mother carefully pointed out, to return to Greencastle as if nothing had happened. My Aunt Agnes would never know my shame, my old teachers would not feel sorry for my parents, and the future? Well, I don't think anyone was thinking very much about the future.
For over forty years I carried a load of guilt that had it been lead would have crushed me. I've thought a lot about shame and guilt and the difference between the two. Shame is a feeling of being unworthy because of something you can't help, like having bad skin or being fat. Guilt is self-punishment for something you have actually done that you know to be wrong. I was not ashamed of being pregnant and unmarried, nor was I ashamed of my relationship with David. I felt guilty for hurting my parents, for the look on my father's face when he greeted me at the airport when I returned from England. “You're so beautiful,” he'd said, as he embraced me. For my mother's tears when she thought I couldn't hear her. Ours was a family of silences and secrets and always had been. Even now, whenever I disclose something private to a friend, I can feel my mother's disapproval. I'd been divorced from my Bob for over a year when I returned to Greencastle with two of my three children one Christmas. My Aunt Agnes asked me where Bob was. “Why, he's in Akron with his family,” I answered. “You know, we're divorced.” My mother had never mentioned my divorce to the sister she was closer to than anyone except my father. If my divorce was unmentionable, how much more damning was my first pregnancy.
I didn't want anyone with me in the hospital. I submitted to being told to take a shower, despite having just bathed before checking in, then being shaved and given an enema. Mrs. P. had given me a pamphlet purporting to explain the birth process, but the drawings were incomplete and the language vague. I knew nothing of the stages of labor, breathing techniques that would help, or waters breaking. I was given drugs to speed labor, while I gripped the hand of whichever nurse was closest when a contraction hit. I was left alone for long periods, until at last I was wheeled down a hallway to the delivery room, where everything was bright and gleaming. My legs were put in stirrups and strapped down, as were my wrists in leather cuffs. I protested and assured the nurse that I would not interfere with the doctor, but I was told it was standard procedure. I lay on the delivery table, feeling like a trussed pig without a shred of dignity. This was it; my baby was coming, and I didn't want him to. So long as I was pregnant, I had him with me. I knew his birth would not be a beginning for us but the end, and I couldn't bear it.
“Oh, God, I don't want to see this happen,” I cried. I now suppose the doctor and nurses imagined that I didn't want my baby, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I didn't want to lose him. When I began to push, a nurse stood on either side of me and pressed on the top of my belly, helping the baby through the birth canal. As I write this, I am remembering a detail that I have forgotten for over 46 years: the clock on the wall. I remember black clock hands on a white face, and the time was 6:00. In a few minutes the baby came out, and it was all over. A nurse whisked him away—they told me it was a boy—and I heard him cry, but he wasn't given to me to hold.
Did they assume I would forget my baby? He was their grandson. They loved my brother's girls. Surely they could feel something for my son; he was their flesh and blood too.
I felt guilt for hurting my parents, but with time that guilt faded. I married Bob and had other children, and we never mentioned my lost baby. I was able to return to Greencastle for visits, as my mother had wished, without the need to explain a fatherless child. Everything returned to normal, or seemed to, and gradually I began to feel a different guilt. I had signed away my son. I had been treated gently, especially compared to many other girls of my generation who were threatened or shamed or disowned altogether. My parents had been hurt, not angry, my social worker kind. The only person to blame for the loss of my son was myself. I had done the unthinkable; I had given away my own child.
Recently, I saw the image online of an X-ray of what is called a “stone baby,” a fetus that was never born. The picture was of a 40 year old fetus in the body of an 80 year-old woman. It seems impossible, but apparently she carried that petrified baby without anyone's realizing it was there. I wonder if she realized it herself. My guilt felt like that stone baby, heavy yet invisible, a death in life.
I was finally allowed to hold David once a nurse ascertained that I was over twenty-one. Had I been a teenager, I suppose I wouldn't have been allowed to see him at all. (David is the name his adoptive parents gave him, coincidentally the name of his father. I didn't name him, as I knew his adoptive parents would, but I thought at the time I might have called him Matthew. A further coincidence was that the hospital gave him a provisional name: Christopher. Although David's father went by his middle name “David," Christopher was his actual first name. What are the odds of that?) I couldn't wait for feeding time, when I would hold him against me, feel his warmth, and smell his head. I examined his fingers and toes and stroked his black hair. I gazed at his little face, his sweet mouth and his chin that quivered when he cried, and committed every detail to memory, knowing the memories I had of him during those few days in the hospital would be all I would ever have. They would have to last me a lifetime.