Sunday, September 26, 2021

Are You My (Baby's) Mother?

You gotta give it to life: it sure does get creative with the conundrums. Just when I think there’s nothing new under the sun, I find myself in a dilemma that makes me wonder “WTF is even happening right now?” Take, for example, our recent “match meeting” at an adoption agency.

The meeting took place in an antiseptic conference room on a Friday evening. There were three tables arranged in a U-shape; my husband and I sat at one, the adoptive couple sat opposite us, and the adoption agency staffers sat in between. My older teen and my toddler played on the floor nearby.

The couple was everything I hoped they would be. I’m limited by confidentiality agreements from getting too detailed, but suffice to say they were young, attractive, educated, compassionate people with professional and personal ties to the Christian Church. They didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk, having spent years overseas as missionaries. They were "better" than my husband and me on every metric, if it's appropriate to even say such a thing. I felt old and dumpy and even a little dumb in comparison. 

Each side began by sharing how we had ended up at this juncture. The couple had struggled with infertility and, after a period of prayer, decided to give up on medical interventions and focus on adoption instead. I explained how “we” (let’s be honest: it was mostly me) had come to decide to start a family together a few years ago, realized that might not be possible with our own genetic material, and ended up going the donor embryo route. I added that we’d once considered adoption, but figured that as a blended family, no birth mother would ever pick us. Everyone in the room laughed. I hadn’t meant it as a joke.

Ah, but the laughter didn’t last. As soon as the pregnancy counselor asked me to share my feelings about open adoption, I started crying, and she had to fetch a box of Kleenex.

“I’m conflicted about the open arrangement,” I said as I wiped my eyes. “I know it’s better for the child, and I want her to always feel like she can reach out to me with questions or meet me in the future, but I just don’t know if I can handle receiving updates or pictures.”

I was torn between feeling that contact would help me feel better about the placement (i.e. "Look how well she's doing!") or worse (i.e. "Look what a wonderful child I gave up.").

I explained that so far, my best idea was to set up a dedicated email account to which the adoptive couple could send a monthly update for the first year, then annually after that. This way, I would only open the updates when I felt strong enough to see them. As for in-person visits, I didn’t want to say “never” but I couldn’t imagine myself being able to do that unless the child requested it.

“I don’t want to interfere,” I barely managed to choke out.

The couple had some questions for us, mostly about our motivations for pursuing adoption and what was behind all my flip-flopping. I felt my reason was utterly uncompelling. “I’m overwhelmed,” I said. “I don’t know if we can be the kind of parents this baby deserves given the amount of stress in our lives right now.”

They wondered: was this sense of overwhelm pandemic-related? Unfortunately, no. The pandemic has actually made life easier in a lot of ways because it limited our activities and outings, allowed my husband to work a more flexible schedule, and gave me more time to freelance.

Was the stress something that could be remedied with more social support? Maybe, but where would that support come from? “One of the major flaws of our family system is that we have no support,” I told them. Our parents are too old, we’re not close enough to our siblings to rely on them for childcare, we have no friends with young children, my teens are not available enough anymore to help us to the extent we need, and we have no other community to speak of. Daycare is out of the question and the nanny search is ongoing (and has yet to produce any viable candidates). We’re really doing this whole parenting thing on our own.

The couple asked what had been helpful in contemplating the adoption decision. I told them, honestly, that nothing had been helpful so far; that’s why I’ve changed my mind so many times. I am in a battle between the head and the heart. My rational mind says there is no way I can handle another child but my heart can’t bear the thought of severing what little bond exists between me and the baby.

What I really need is someone to tell me what to do; I’ve often fantasized of having a “professional decision-maker” to weigh the options and choose one for me. I would pay pretty much any price right now to hire such a person, though as far as I can tell, no such professional exists. Alternately, I wish my husband would sit me down, look me in the eyes, and say, “You don’t have to make this decision because I am going to do everything I can to make sure we can keep, and care for, this baby.” But I don’t think he has the balls, quite frankly, or the ability to follow through. So now I have to be the bad guy and make this impossible decision all by myself. Topic for a future couples counseling session, if we ever go back (yup, we dropped out).

When it was my turn to ask a question of the couple, I had only one: “How would you explain this child’s origin story to her?”

I asked because I had no idea how to “spin” this in a way that wouldn’t make her feel abandoned, or rejected, or inferior. But everyone else was as stumped as I was on how to explain this situation in a positive way. All we could come up with, collectively, is telling her that she was so very wanted and that even though her origin story would be unorthodox, it was still beautiful. I was not fully convinced that this would be enough to satisfy her, but it was the best we could do at the time.

During the meeting, my toddler would play for a bit, then crawl into my lap for some cuddles. Juggling this heavy conversation with her needs made me feel like a natural mother. I thought, "There's no way I can go through with adoption. Nor do I need to. I am fully capable of caring for another child."

And yet, just the night before, my toddler had been up for two full hours in the middle of the night, treating our bed like a bounce house and refusing to go back to sleep. I passed her off to my husband twice, then returned to bed, where I wailed like a wounded animal because parenting is so freakin’ hard. I felt raw and exposed and exhausted. I was barely functioning. The thought of dropping a newborn into that scenario felt insane.

I had half-hoped I wouldn’t like the couple, that they would reveal some glaring flaw so I could put this adoption idea to rest already. But I couldn’t find one. I know no one is perfect, but I couldn’t have asked for better adoptive parents. I had no doubts that the baby would be loved immensely and that she would be doted upon and well-cared for. (Hell, I wish they could adopt me!)

As the meeting drew to a close, the pregnancy counselor asked where we wanted to go from here.

A thought flashed through my mind. "What if I just decided to give the baby to them? Could I be at peace with that?" It would make the couple so very happy. It would free up money, time, and other resources to tend to my toddler. And yet, every time I envision leaving the hospital after birth empty-handed, I see only darkness and grief, an emotional weight so unbearable it could crush me.

“I can’t make a decision about this until the baby is born,” I told the couple. “I don’t want to make a promise to you that I can’t keep.”

The couple said they understood – and I didn’t get the feeling they were just saying that to be nice. I truly believed them when they told us they’d been praying about the outcome of all this and that they trusted God would make something good out of it, whether that was some sort of situational or emotional change that would give me the strength and support to parent or if that meant that I would give them the gift of parenting.

“We’ve accepted the uncertainty,” they said. “And if this meeting is as far as our relationship with you goes, we are OK with that.”

I could hardly say “thank you” through all my tears. It was so sweet of them. I wish I had that much faith. I barely have any these days. I’m afraid that no matter what decision I make, I am going to hate myself for it.

"I wish I were mature enough to just say, 'I'm giving them the baby and I'm going to take the next two months to prepare myself for that,'" I said to my husband as we left.

"I don't think it's a question of maturity," he responded.

Then what is it? Selflessness? Beneficence? Detachment? What makes a mom able to give up a baby? And is that what’s best for the baby – or anyone else – in this scenario?

I just want to be a good person and do the right thing. Why is that so hard?

I have no answers, only questions. So I took them to my therapist, Shania, who, while also unable (or unwilling) to tell me what to do, helped me sift through the muck in search of some clarity...

Friday, September 17, 2021

If You Love Something, Let It Go

Having a family is equal parts wonder, exasperation, and heartbreak. Lately, it's been heavy on the heartbreak.

My oldest daughter left for college recently. Though she's not even half-an-hour away, her departure felt like a death. I know I shouldn't compare the two things, because the dead cannot text or call or visit like a college student who lives nearby can, but the blow of her absence was as devastating as losing a loved one. You don't realize how many little, yet meaningful, interactions you have with someone you love and live with until they're gone. In many ways over the past year, I had become closer to her than my husband.

"I guess you'll have to talk to me now," my husband said. Before I could stop myself, I laughed out loud. Talk to my husband? Ha! The suggestion seemed ludicrous.

The first couple of days without my firstborn, it was a struggle just to get through each moment. I felt like I had a gaping wound right through the center of my chest. I tried to distract myself with outings and beauty and mind-numbingly stupid entertainment, but the sadness would break through and I couldn't stop crying. It was a bottomless well of emotion that kept surging up. Nothing helped me feel better.

Sure, I'd heard of Empty Nest Syndrome, but I guess I thought it was something that much older helicopter moms with no lives of their own experienced. I thought that being relatively young (for having a child in college already) and having a job would protect me from it. And just in case, I started having babies again to guarantee I would continue to feel like a mom and keep my house full and my life busy. But it doesn't work that way. You can't replace people, not with busyness and not with more people. That probably seems obvious to everyone reading this, and on a rational level, I knew that, but to feel it was a whole 'nother thing.

So instead of being too preoccupied with other things to grieve my firstborn leaving, I had to grieve while also managing a household, working, and parenting a very needy toddler – not to mention growing a baby that I still feel deeply ambivalent about.  

And the losses just kept on coming. No sooner did my older teen depart than my younger teen got a car, returned to in-person school, and started a new job. In other words, we never saw one another. 

Then my toddler entered daycare – and to say it was a rough transition would be an understatement. I thought we had carefully selected a quality Christian child care center, but taking a 10-minute tour and actually surrendering your child to a bunch of strangers for 20 hours a week are two completely different things. My toddler wailed and thrashed when I passed her off to the daycare caregivers (who suddenly seemed to be different people every day rather than one consistent, caring presence). I would hold my emotions in until I was out of sight, but I started crying in the hallway and continued into the parking lot and all the way home. 

Though the daycare sent me pictures of my toddler, looking complacent if not content, every morning, when she got home in the afternoons, she was more volatile than ever. She wouldn’t eat, her naps shrunk to just over an hour a day, and she acted out more often. She clearly wasn’t happy with the new arrangement.

Nor was I. All of a sudden, I found myself at the kitchen table in an empty house, the deliciously cool, autumn-esque breeze blowing through the screen door, hours stretched ahead of me with no one demanding my attention. This is what I wanted, wasn't it? Peace and quiet? Breathing room? So why, instead of relief, did I feel like I’d been deserted on an island? Why did it feel like I had lost all of my children in the span of only a few days?

Instead of luxuriating in the new normal, I regressed to old coping mechanisms. I baked huge slabs of brookies and binged. I answered an ex's email. I immersed myself in grisly true crime stories (my current obsession: all things Dr. Death). I was wasting most of my daycare time trying to avoid or medicate my feelings about daycare! I did every unhealthy thing in my arsenal to check out until it was time to go pick up my little one.

One afternoon when I went to pick up my toddler from daycare, she had dried snot stains running down her face, indicating she'd been crying, hard. Another day, I arrived and heard her wails all the way from the front door. I raced to the toddler room, where my daughter was so relieved to see me and so eager to get into my arms, she ran too fast and face-planted.

“What happened?” I asked, thinking my toddler had been injured prior to my arrival.

“It’s just a sympathy cry,” the teacher said, claiming a little boy had gotten upset and my toddler was simply reacting to his emotions.

I looked around the room. No one else was crying.

Perhaps impulsively, I contacted the center’s director that afternoon and announced I was pulling my toddler out of daycare. What I didn’t realize is that in doing so, I was forfeiting a week's worth of tuition and seriously limiting my childcare options. Now I'm racing to find a nanny (which I really can't afford and are in short supply anyway) or a different daycare center (which I really don't want to traumatize my toddler with, and besides, the good ones are all full) before the baby is born.

And speaking of the baby, you’d think that given how wrecked I've been over my older teen leaving for college, how in the hell could I even contemplate giving a baby up for adoption? But, in the midst of all this emotional turmoil and change, I initiated what's known as a "match meeting," meaning my husband and I are going to sit down with a childless couple to talk about the possibility of them raising our baby. 

Why did I do that? Because, I guess, I realized that children are no buffer against sadness, against loss, against heartache, against much of anything, really. They help you inch closer to understanding the meaning of life but they can also make you feel like death warmed over. As a mom, I often feel like my choices boil down to: whose heart should I break? My child's or my own?

I don't know how hard it would be to give up a newborn baby, but I do know how hard parenting is. And I don't know if I can take any more…

Sunday, September 5, 2021

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Lies

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but are any of them true? My experience with portrait photography is that at best, it captures the idealized image you have of yourself or your loved ones in your head; at worst, it's downright visual manipulation. Add social media to the mix and you've entered a world of highly cultivated bullshit.

That's a cynical preface to a post about maternity photos, I know. And yet, I went ahead with this third-trimester tradition anyway. Given how deeply ambivalent I've felt about this pregnancy since day one (OK, not that early; sometime around week six), I thought maybe getting a fresh perspective vis a vis a pro's camera would help stoke some excitement about my baby-on-the-way.

I did not go to the same photographer from my last round of maternity shots. She was too expensive and busy and honestly, I wanted this process to be as anonymous as possible. (Why, exactly, I'll get to in a moment.) So I booked one of the photography services where you choose a date, time, and location and are assigned a photographer at random. You get a 30-minute session with the photog for free, then only pay for the pictures you like.

"You're so small!" was the first thing my middle-aged and somewhat grizzled photographer said when we met up on a Sunday morning at a rose garden in Minneapolis. I've heard this refrain before and it always boggles my mind. If this is small, what do objectively "big" preggos feel like? Because I feel like a fucking whale and I still have 10 weeks to go until D Day.

"Thanks," I told her. "Though I don't feel small."

The shoot was rather uneventful. She walked me through the garden, stopping me along the way for some very awkward poses that I was sure would look ridiculous later. (A model, I am not.) I focused on not looking directly at the camera (anathema as far as I'm concerned) and tried not to appear too surly, though I felt anything but smiley.

Halfway through, she led me to her dusty, old sedan, popped the trunk, and showed me a couple of maternity dresses she'd brought along in case I wanted shots in something other than the skin-tight blue gown I'd bought off Amazon. One was a short, velvet purple frock that never should have left the '80s and the other was a regal, dark green number that I never would have chosen for myself but that she insisted would look great with my coloring. Feeling pressured to please her and accept this generosity, I opted for the latter. She popped a portable changing room upright, I made the swap, and she finished shooting.

The photo shoot triggered something in me. It felt so frivolous and vain. It did not make me feel more appreciative of my pregnant body or connected to the baby. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Like people who excessively photograph themselves being all gooey with their significant others (and force the rest of us to look at, if not "like" it), it reeked of desperation.

I'd put thoughts of adoption out of my mind, despite having met with the pregnancy counselor, filling out all the paperwork, and choosing and communicating with a potential adoptive family. Now, those thoughts about giving the baby up (or, as the current woke vernacular goes, "making an adoption plan") came rushing back. I wondered: Am I capable of parenting another child well? Do I want to parent another child? (According to the pregnancy counselor, not wanting to parent even if you are fully capable of doing so is a totally valid reason for making an adoption plan.) Is it wrong to bring another child into the world just to give our toddler a sibling, playmate, and lifelong companion? Am I meant to bestow the gift of a baby to a family who would be more enthusiastic about welcoming her? Is this story not one of me raising another baby but about giving one away? Is it, in fact, selfish of me to have four children when others have none? What does God want for everyone in this situation? Does God even give AF about me and my petty dilemmas anymore? 

I tried to stifle those questions throughout the week as I waited to see the maternity photos. When they arrived I was about as dis/satisfied as I expected to be. Out of 50 photos, only a few didn't make me cringe. It wasn't the photographer's fault; I am just merciless when it comes to judging myself. I nit-picked my way through the gallery. Too old. Too wrinkly. Too lumpy. Too frowny. Too veiny. I found something wrong with every image, even the ones I liked. Part of this was that the photography service doesn't do any editing (or so I thought). And part of it is probably just old-fashioned self-loathing.

After spending way too much time attempting (and failing) to Photoshop the images I purchased, I texted the photographer to see how much she'd charge for airbrushing. She said couldn't provide that service, contractually speaking, but that the company could. I inquired with the company and was given an estimate for editing, which I eagerly paid just so I would have something worth posting for my paltry social media following and to enlarge and frame on the nursery wall.

The pictures came back lightly airbrushed. My skin looked smoother but it was still me. My body was still my body. And my attitude still stunk. And yet, I posted the pics on Instagram and Facebook, just like all the other approval-hungry pregnant women out there. The whole process reminded me why I've cut way down on my social media use (I've only posted twice so far this year on my personal Instagram, and both times were unnecessarily fraught). The process makes me feel obsessive and unhappy and inferior. I doubt any of that comes across to the few people who bothered to scroll and "heart" these new maternity pics, though. To them, I likely appear feminine and elegant, blissed out and blessed. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but in this case, they are lies.

I do not like how my body looks. I hate how it feels. There is nothing wondrous about being pregnant this time, despite all the effort that went into "achieving" this pregnancy and the fact that this is the last time I will ever be pregnant. I wish I felt differently, but I don't.

My hope is that a massive wave of relief and love will wash over me when the baby is born, that the positive emotions will be strong enough to erase the mental hell of this pregnancy and make me grateful that the baby is finally in the world and in my arms. My hope is that I will be freed from all this negativity, that the darkness of these nine months will seem like a psychological glitch, that I will return to a place of gratitude and contentment (happiness is far too lofty a goal for me, given my almost lifelong depression). My hope is that I will want this baby, ferociously.

That is the picture I try to paint in my mind. I just don't know if I believe it yet.