This is my school photo from my junior year of high school. The year was 1984. What you can’t tell from this photo is that I was six months pregnant. I was planning on placing my child for adoption. Prior to the mid-1980s, almost all unwed pregnant girls planning on placing their child for adoption went to live for the last few months of pregnancy away from their home and family. It was thought that the girls would have an easier time transitioning back into their community if they hadn’t been seen enormously pregnant. That way, if the girl and her family chose to keep it a secret, they could do so. I was anything but secretive, but I agreed to be in foster care for the last three months of my pregnancy. Adoptions were also closed then. In each part of this series, I will share an experience during and after my pregnancy and my adoption decision that will, hopefully, shed some light on how birth moms have been treated in the past, which only added to the sorrow of placing a child.
I grew up in a very religious home. We went to church each Sunday, and I participated in youth activities each week. We had grace at meals and prayed as a family each night. We did service both for people in our congregation and for those of other faiths. My parents had specific church responsibilities, and my father was even a minister for a group of congregations in our area. One of the doctrines of our faith is that there should be no sex outside of marriage. When I became pregnant, it became very obvious that I had broken a major tenant of our faith. Going to church was, well, awkward, to say the least.
I continued to go to church. I may not have adhered to the church’s doctrines, but I believed very strongly in the doctrines and was working with my congregation’s minister to put my life back together. I wish that I could say that people were loving and kind and very Christian, but I cannot say that. Some were. No one was openly critical of me and my family, but the gossip was spread and the looks and the whispers happened, even at church.
Some of the other young women in my congregation started to ignore me at school, and I was no longer invited to their homes on the weekends. There were three girls and their families, however, who reached out to me. I was even invited to go on a week’s vacation with one of the girls to visit her grandparents so I could get a break from the stress of the mess I had caused. My group of church friends shrunk considerably, but there were a few angels that really tried to be my friends.
When I went to live with my new foster family in another state, it was almost as if I had dropped off the planet to most of the people with whom I had gone to church with since I was a little girl. The Sunday before I left, one mom of a girl my age came up to me and said, “I used to tell my daughter all the time that I wished she were more like you. I used you as the example of how a girl of our faith should be. I am ashamed that I ever said that. You are an embarrassment to us all.”
I stood there in the hall at church long after this woman had turned and walked away, stunned that someone would say that to me. I had never tried or even wanted to be anyone’s example. I had never wanted anyone to compare their child to me. I was glad that I was leaving before my belly became even bigger.
When I came back home four months later, I was dealing with the most intense grief I had ever (before or since) experienced. The delivery had been difficult, and there had been complications which left me extremely fragile physically. Leaving my child behind had left me extremely fragile emotionally and spiritually. I was in desperate need of kindness and empathy and love.
People did not know what to say. In the average person’s experience, the birth of a child is met with congratulations, gifts, and ooing and ahing over a little one. If a child is lost through death, hugs are given and sympathy expressed and meals are brought in. But what if the mother chose to place her child? What if the grief, loss, and pain is because of choice? What do you say? At church that first Sunday after my return, almost everyone made the choice to pretend I didn’t exist. In fact, I watched people avoid crossing my path, and many averted their eyes. I had never felt so alone.
Two very special women, however, came up to me, gave me hugs, and welcomed me back home. One of the women said as she embraced me, “I don’t know what to say. I know you must be hurting worse than I can imagine. You are so brave. I have been praying for you.” What she said was perfect. She acknowledged my pain and her own awkwardness but didn’t let that stop her from reaching out.
After church services, all the members divided into their own age groups for their different meetings. I found myself with the other youth my age. They were less awkward than the adults and said “hi” and “glad you’re back.” Our teacher had been made aware prior to Sunday that I would be there. The lesson that he chose? Morality, virtue, and chastity. During the entire lesson, everyone’s eyes were at the floor, and no one answered any of the questions. They were embarrassed for me. I did pretty well until the teacher said, “Lisa, do you want to talk to anyone about how your poor choices in this matter have affected you?”
I just stood up and left. As I was leaving, however, I couldn’t help but hear my friend who had brought me with her to her grandparent’s house say, “You idiot! Only someone stupid would teach a lesson on sexual purity the week that Lisa came back, but only an a** would say what you said to her!” She then found my parents and told them what happened so that they could take me home. After she found my parents, she found me and said that she was sorry I had to go through with that and that she wasn’t going to go to church anymore because of people like him. I gave her a hug and told her thanks for standing up for me.
I admit that I struggled to go to church the next Sunday. My parents even offered to let me go to a different congregation, but I decided that I wasn’t going to let a few insensitive people keep me away from those I loved. I called my friend and told her that I was going to our church and hoped that she would come with me to be my bodyguard. She laughed and agreed to come.
After a few weeks, I was no longer the topic of gossip and the whispers and stares died down. While I had been beat up emotionally by several in my congregation, I had also discovered who were true in their faith because they loved me in spite of me. As I went back to school, it was the girls from church who invited me to eat with them at lunch. Prior to becoming pregnant, I ate with another group of friends. My friends changed significantly after my pregnancy. I know that by eating with me, many of my true friends lost some of their other friends, both in and out of church.
30 years later, I have recently moved back to my hometown and am attending the same congregation I did as a youth. Almost all of the faces have changed. Yet that first Sunday back I was embraced by two women whom I love more than words can express because of their kindness to a scared, fragile, very young woman decades ago. Because of them, I learned to say to people who are going through difficult things because of personal choices, “I don’t know what to say, but I know that you are hurting. I am praying for you.”