I Didn’t Place My Love on a Shelf

When you place a baby for adoption, your love for that child doesn’t end up on a shelf like an withered book. A parent’s love for a child doesn’t collect dust in the absence of a physical being. Love goes deeper than the physical, and it reaches the deepest parts of our minds and souls. Lasting relationships take time to develop. While I’m still unraveling the knotty tangles of my life, I’ve made some very surprising and welcome discoveries.

The Day I First Heard Her Voice

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 1986 – BROWARD COUNTY, FL.

Monthly Kaypro Computer Club meeting was that night, and two friends I hadn’t seen for a while had recently bought Kaypros. So, they were coming with me. We met for dinner first.

Jan and GeeGee began discussing problems with their grown daughters. “I can’t, for the life of me, understand her!” type of talk.

Then they turned to me and asked, “What do you think, Carol?”

That turned us to the search I opened in 1975. GeeGee was the widow of my cousin and was one of the few friends I had left who knew my story. My few other confidants, including my cousin, had died one after the other over the past three years.

It wasn’t easy to talk about the adoption. I felt a lot of shame and remorse and, oh, so much regret. So, I kept it pretty much to myself. I told them I gave up hope a few years before and was resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to look for me. Nevertheless, I would always love her.

Later that Night

When I returned home that night, the first thing I noticed was the steadily blinking message light on my phone. I found only one message. An unfamiliar voice requested that if I returned before midnight, to please call (it sounded like) “Steven”, collect, at a number with an equally unclear area code. It could have been 402, 302, or maybe 202. But whoever it was would accept a collect call, so what did I have to lose?

It took the operator three attempts before we reached my caller (area code 202) in Washington, D.C.

On connection, a feminine voice said, “Oh yes, operator. I’ll accept the call.”

Then I heard someone ask, “Are you Carol Bird?” An odd feeling churned in the pit of my stomach. I answered yes.

“My name is Susan,” the voice continued, “And I’m your daughter.” I was engulfed by shock waves of hope, panic, wonder, gratitude, joy, and every other conceivable emotion.

All I could say was, “Oh, my God…oh my God…oh my God! Where are you? I was just talking about you tonight. I thought you’d never look for me…Oh my God.”

It seemed like a miracle; we’d just spoken of her, and suddenly, after 32 long years of separation, I was hearing the voice of my love, my baby girl, for the first time.

The Hours of Love Years Earlier

SATURDAY, FEB. 13, 1954 – EDGEWATER HOSPITAL, CHICAGO, IL.

The contractions began on Friday night at around 9:00 p.m. The pains were spaced five minutes apart and they didn’t subside. We thought it was false labor, but finally at around 1:00 a.m., Mom drove me down the icy roads to the hospital. The contractions went on all night, waking me up from the all-too-short catnaps I took in between.

I was of small stature (5′ 2″, never weighing more than 107 pounds before pregnancy), and the doctor said that either the baby was large or my pelvic area was small. The little bump that was my baby kept pushing up under my heart, as if fighting coming out.

Finally, I got into the delivery room, got a spinal, and knocked out. I gave birth at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday afternoon to a 5 lb. 4 oz baby girl. She would be placed with people I didn’t know to live a life I would never share. I was 19 years old and unmarried in 1954.

I wasn’t supposed to see or hold my child.

“It is best that you don’t,” people told me. “That way, you can put it all behind you and go on with your life.”

(A few weeks later my doctor would proudly tell me: “I did such a great job that no one will ever know you had a baby.”)

Thus, I plummeted into the depths of secrecy that I knew as a closed adoption.

The Day of Love

I found my baby girl accidentally the next morning, Valentine’s Day 1954, when I took my first walk down the hallway. The nursery window was right next door to my private room, so I searched for her in the tiny faces of all the little bundles in the bassinets. Of course, I couldn’t recognize her.

But, as I stood there, something interesting began to happen. The nurses began bringing babies, one by one, to the window where I was standing. Just to my left, behind the glass, was a scale and open ledger. It was weigh-in time, and I had a front row seat.

I had my first look at my little girl when a nurse marked her weight next to my name in the ledger; easily found, though upside-down. I watched where the nurses placed her, and from that time on, even raging bulls couldn’t have chased me from my new watching post. She was the love of my life.

Every day, at every opportunity, I was at the window. They’d close my door when the babies went to their mothers for feeding and reopen it when they were settled back in the nursery. Then I would make my way to the window where I watched a nurse, seated in a rocking chair, cuddle and feed my baby. I loved those highlights of each day.

“Would you like to dress your baby?”

On the last day, dressed to leave the hospital, I went back to my “station” at the window for a last look and silent goodbye. It was her feeding time. To my incredulity, when the nurse finished the feeding and put my baby back in the bassinet, she came out to the hall and asked if I was leaving today.

I said yes. She smiled kindly and asked, “Would you like to dress your baby or do you want me to?”

Surely she knew I wasn’t supposed to see the baby, much less hold her! After all, she never came to me for feeding; I never got the chance to cuddle her. Of course she knew! She just decided to break the rules.

“Please, yes. I’d like to dress her. I have clothes for her.” In those days we didn’t have advance knowledge of a baby’s gender. So, when picking out “going away” clothes for my baby, I chose my favorite pastel: a soft mint green—a color suitable for either boy or girl. Everything—the kimono; sweater, cap and booties set; receiving blanket; crib blanket; and even the heads of the diaper pins—was a soft mint green. For her final “wrap-up”, I brought out a beautiful crocheted baby shawl of the same color.

Stolen Hours

After a short while, the nurse came to me with my daughter, diapers, a bottle, and a friendly wink. I not only saw my daughter, but I also held her in my arms, fed her, diapered her, soothed her, and whispered of my love for her for more than two beautiful, stolen hours of bonding. Then the lawyer and my mother walked into the room. The lawyer was horrified, and my mother was stunned. But I had enjoyed two hours of love, and they could never, ever, take that away from me.

Illinois law required that we cross the threshold of the hospital together. A nurse carried my baby out of one door and the attorney and my mother walked with me. Upon exiting the hospital they made me stop, and in horror I watched as the nurse continued down the walkway, carrying my baby to a woman waiting next to a taxi.

She was a tiny woman cloaked in a fur coat so long it must have swept the ground. A dark veil that didn’t fit her stature any more than the coat did hid her face. As clearly as I would remember my baby’s face, tiny body, fingers, and feet through the years, I would also remember that tiny fur-clad woman standing at the taxi.

Suffice to say, the ache never, ever, goes away.

Rejoining Our Lives 32 Years Later

DECEMBER 1986 – BROWARD COUNTY, FL. 

Years later, on that December 16th, Susan and I talked for hours. She announced that I was the grandma of a 4-month-old baby girl. Oh joy of joys! Another sweet girl to love! She gave me a synopsis of her life, and I told her about me and my family. After hours of exchanging thoughts and “history”, we arranged for a New Year’s Eve reunion and broke the phone connection.

She was spending the holidays skiing in Colorado with her husband’s family, and I was spending Christmas with my siblings in north Chicago. I would go to Washington on December 30th. Miles apart, both Sue and I stayed up all that night gathering pictures to send Express Mail (and our packages crossed in the mail).

Ironically, it was Sue’s very supportive, sensitive mom who set the wheels of reunion in motion. Sue had made a previous attempt to locate me when she was around 20, but the clergyman whose help she’d sought warned her off with a charge of “ingratitude”. She didn’t attempt again.

I registered with ALMA (Adoptee’s Liberty Movement Association) in January 1974 in anticipation of Sue’s 21st birthday. Along with gender, date of birth, city, hospital, attorneys, etc., I noted the mint-green “going away” clothes I had dressed her in that last day. I also sent notarized letters to the doctor, law firm, and hospital, giving my address and phone number and requesting that they release information about me to anyone inquiring.

Fearful of disrupting her life, I decided that I would not actively search. The years passed with no knock on the door; no phone call; no word. My hope faded, and I began having problems with depression. I finally resigned myself to a sense of permanent loss of the daughter I couldn’t help but love.

For the Love of Fate

But Fate had other plans for me. One morning in early December 1986, Sue’s mom tuned in to a Phil Donahue show and discovered that the day’s topic was “Adoption and Reunion”. She lost no time placing a call to our daughter—a nursing mom home on maternity leave—to urge her to tune in. She thought the show might give Sue an idea of how to go about finding her birth mother. The show highlighted ALMA, and with the phone number in hand, Sue called to request a registry form.

On the morning of December 16, 1986, within a few days of sending in the completed form, Susan received a phone call from ALMA.

“We think we have a match,” they told her. “Could you answer a few more questions?”

One of those questions was, “Do you have anything from your birth mom?”

Sue told them she had a crocheted baby shawl. Sue’s mom had saved the shawl all those years and presented it to Sue upon the birth of our first grandchild in August 1986. It was, indeed, a match. The person from ALMA gave her my name, address, and phone number. Sue placed the call, left the message, and waited.

Reunited in Person

DECEMBER 30, 1986 – REUNION, WASHINGTON, D.C.

The morning we had arranged to meet, I climbed the stairway leading to the waiting area of the Washington airport with what can only be described as fearful anticipation. From the dozens of pictures she sent (from babyhood to marriage), I knew what Sue looked like. She’d quickly recognize me from the snaps I sent her, too. But would we hit it off? Would I really be accepted?

As I reached the landing and stopped to quiet my racing heart and compose myself, I spotted her, her husband, and my grandbaby. We cried and hugged and cried some more, while my chubby little granddaughter quizzically scrutinized me as if to say, “Now, who is this one?” (She still occasionally gives me that look, even after ten years.)

We dropped my son-in-law at his office and went home to talk, and talk, and talk. Her mom phoned. Yes, the fur-clad woman at the hospital was her. The lawyer had told her to disguise herself. She told me she never forgot the look on my face that day.

“I felt so terrible leaving with Susan without even meeting you,” she said.

Her older sister (her parents’ only biological child) called. Friends called. I stayed at a nearby hotel for four days, taxiing up in the morning and back late at night. We spent New Year’s Eve viewing reels upon reels of home movies taken by her parents. One film showed her mom carrying her into the house in Michigan shortly after picking her up at the hospital—she was wrapped in the mint green baby shawl. A year later, Sue and her husband transferred parts of those films to a video to give me at Christmas.

My Life before Meeting Her

THE INTERIM YEARS

You need only to meet my daughter to realize that she was raised in a very loving family. She’s well-adjusted and level-headed. Her mom and dad are wonderful people, pretty much the same age as my parents. Besides a sister, three years her senior, she has a brother who was adopted when she was 11 months old.

I’ve met many of her family members—aunts, uncles, cousins—and am grateful for the love they all share with her. She had a happy life, a good education (a BS and MS) and married at age 31. My first granddaughter was born only a year later. When she was 18 months old, my second granddaughter joined her. I placed one for adoption and got back three.

The Lost Years

While I’m satisfied that Sue had and continues to have the life I hoped adoption would give her, I feel a deep, deep loss and ache when I hear about those interim years between 1954 and 1986. In the earlier years, I was overpowered by my jealousy of her mom, and it took a long time to overcome that unfair reaction.

When Susan Was 5

I remained in Chicagoland after placing Susan. I worked and went to school, eventually landing a job in the publishing field—my career niche. But the memories of my baby continued to haunt me. Thinking she was still in Chicago, I constantly looked for her.

In 1958, just months before Susan’s 5th birthday, I moved to Southern California. I tried for a new life, but she never left my thoughts. Relationships came and went without becoming serious because I always succumbed to shame and guilt. I wondered who could respect a woman who placed her child for adoption, because I didn’t even respect myself.

For a long time, I confided only in one very close friend; that was the shoulder I could cry on in times of need. Other than that, I was alone. No one seemed to really care about my loss. Not even my mother, who couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why I couldn’t “put it behind me”.

When Susan Was 12

When Sue was 12, I returned briefly to Chicagoland. My younger brother was already married and had a son. Another younger brother (five years my junior) married within weeks of my return. My older brother, an engineer in the Merchant Marines, was home for a six-month R&R. I also had two sets of parents, another brother, and a younger sister all in Chicagoland.

I never told my Dad about Susan because I wanted to wait until we could reunite before breaking the news to him. (Dad was Italian; need I say more?) By 1968 my youngest and only sister had married, and then my older brother finally met his match. Two days after his wedding, I fled again, this time to south Florida where I remain at this writing.

Thinking It Was Love to Punish Myself

I never married. In my most vivid imagination, I saw myself meeting my child and having her reproach me with something like, “You placed me for adoption, but went right ahead and married and replaced me with other children? How could you?”

After years of reading the stories of other birth moms and several years of post-reunion therapy, I’ve come to understand that I carried deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. Consequently, I created all sorts of ways to “punish” myself. I find that many of my sister birth mothers have had similar hang-ups.

Ironically, one of the first things Susan asked me was, “Do I have any siblings?” She actually hoped I had other children.

I can laugh at myself now, thank God.

The Love in Our Epilogue

JUNE 1997 – BROWARD COUNTY, FL.

It has been slightly more than ten years since I reunited with Susan. My first grand-angel will be 11 in August; my second was 9 last February. They are the light of my life and I’m happy to say that, in spite of the distance separating us, we share a very close bond. We’ve been corresponding since even before they learned to write. I “wrote” letters to them on audio tape and would read books I bought them on tape, too. Today I get real letters, drawings, copies of school work, things they make, and the efforts of a budding author (the 9-year-old).

My relationship with Susan is still developing. It has taken me a long time—and many therapy sessions—to understand that I can never go back; I can  never undo the past; and I can’t step in and assume a role I relinquished in 1954. Sue has spent her lifetime as a beloved member of her adoptive family. She has a wonderful mom and dad. I know I hold a special place in her heart and am learning to be content with that.

Post-reunion is not easy. Dr. Abraham Low, the psychiatrist who founded Recovery, Inc., warns that “high expectations can lead to great disappointments”.

So, take it slow, and don’t expect too much right away. Lasting relationships take time to develop. Fortunately, we have help today that wasn’t available to us older birth moms of the 40s and 50s and 60s. I’ve taken advantage of it, and I’ve benefited a great deal from therapy. I’m still unraveling the knotty tangles of my life and have made some very surprising and welcome discoveries. The most important is that I can’t repair four decades of wounded psyche in just ten years. And that’s ok. It just takes time.