Sunday, December 12, 2021

You Belong With Me

Only eight hours after signing the adoption placement papers, my depression reached the deepest and darkest depths ever. Sitting at the dinner table, surrounded my beloved family, it felt like someone was missing. It felt as if someone had died. My heart had a gaping hole in it. The sadness was all-consuming.

What started as a silent cry as I pushed food around my plate grew into an animalistic wail. My emotional state was scary. I hated myself for even introducing the idea of adoption into the narrative of my life. I was angry at my husband for being unwilling to make parenting another kid work. I was jealous of the adoptive parents, who were surely doting over the baby at this very moment.

There was nowhere I could go in my home that didn’t remind me of the baby. The triggers were ubiquitous, from the positive pregnancy test pinned to my bedroom wall and the framed ultrasound photo on my dresser to the unopened box of newborn diapers in the closet and the infant car seat that remained in my backseat. I simultaneously wanted to purge all of it but also wanted to store it in a safe location, just in case...

I was even still wearing the hospital ID bands on my wrists on the off chance that the adoptive couple hadn't picked up the baby from the hospital. Maybe, just maybe, I would get a call from the postpartum floor asking me to go back and retrieve her…

After weeping until I was breathless and bereft of tears, I found my way to bed and fell asleep. But I woke up in the middle of the night, distraught and twisting over the decision to place the baby for adoption. I thought I was willing to sacrifice the baby to save my marriage, but now I realized that wasn’t true.

My priorities, for once, were irrefutably clear:

1) the baby

2) my toddler and teens

3) my mental health

4) my marriage

I tiptoed downstairs to the couch and woke my sleeping husband.

“I’m sorry I got us into this situation,” I said. “Getting pregnant without you being fully on board was a mistake. But the baby isn’t a mistake. I need to get her back. If you are able and willing to help me raise her, great. If not, then I will figure it out on my own.”

We had a surprisingly calm and rational discussion, in which he acknowledged how heartbreaking this was for me and how he couldn’t stand to see me so sad. I recognized that I needed to be less bitchy and more loving so that our home felt like a haven, rather than a torture chamber. 

And so, it was decided: in the morning, I would tell the pregnancy counselor that I needed to bring the baby home. For once, it felt like my husband and I were on the same side again.

The pregnancy counselor, however, was not so easily convinced.

“Yesterday, you were listing all the reasons why bringing the baby home wasn’t feasible,” she said. “What’s changed in the last 24 hours?”

I told her that I hadn’t been willing to accept help with childcare before, but now I was. I was going to take my mom up on her babysitting offer. My older teen had agreed to move back home temporarily to help out. The nanny search was underway again. And, of course, my husband had pledged his support.

The pregnancy counselor hemmed and hawed. She seemed reluctant to indulge my insistence that I wanted the baby back. I was confused because she was so insistent that the baby belonged with me the day prior; now she was reluctant to return the baby to me.

But legally, she didn’t have any right to stand in the way. The baby was still mine.

She said she would call the adoptive couple and break the news to them, but that it would be up to them to determine a timeline for returning the baby. It might be today; it might be tomorrow. They got to decide how much time they wanted with her. That’s when the mama bear in me riled up. Though I said I would sit back and patiently wait for word on when the reunion would happen, the truth was that I wanted my baby in my arms as soon as possible.

As it turned out, the couple didn’t want to prolong the process, either. They arranged to have the pregnancy counselor pick up the baby that morning. By mid-day, she arrived at my door with my bundle of joy dressed in Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas that were already too snug for her long legs.

The adoptive couple had sent a bag of newborn clothes and a care basket for me that had been assembled before I’d changed my mind about the adoption. I felt terrible accepting these gifts. Didn’t they want the newborn clothes for when they finally did adopt a baby? Didn’t they need the care basket – filled with DoorDash gift certificates, tea, and organic toiletries – now more than I did?

Maybe this makes me heartless, but I decided not to dwell on the adoptive couple’s emotional state. Handling mine was difficult enough. I knew I had hurt them – how deeply I could only imagine – but I also felt like I had been honest about my ambivalence from the very beginning.

Now, my focus was on tending to the two little people who were meeting each other for the first time. My toddler didn’t quite know what to make of the sleeping, swaddled being in my arms. At times, she would lean in and give the baby a kiss; at other times, she’d swipe the baby’s bottle, bonk her on the head with a toy, or throw a jealous tantrum if I held the baby too long.

My therapist Shania told me that no matter what decision I made, there would be regrets, and she was right. Only a day into parenting two kids under 2 years old, I started to doubt my decision (again!) and wondered aloud if the baby deserved the undivided attention of the adoptive parents instead.

“Give it a minute,” my husband said.

So I did. And my husband, surprisingly, was the one who seemed to adjust most easily to the new family member. He bonded with her instantly. He was literally happy to help, picking up the slack when I became weary and weepy, tending to the baby all night long, and making sure I had time to decompress every day.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When my milk came in, my breasts turned heavy and hard. I had to stuff cabbage in my bra and strap ice packs to my chest to dry up my supply. I apparently sprained my SI joint while giving birth, but it took a few days for the pain to ramp up, and when it did, I landed in Urgent Care because I couldn’t put weight on my right leg. (Postpartum recovery was literally a pain the butt.)

The baby didn’t stay as sleepy as she was in the hospital, and as she became more alert, her fussiness increased. The sleepless nights made my husband irritable and revived his fears that he wasn’t up for raising another kid. We both felt like we were losing our minds, misplacing keys and cellphones, forgetting basic facts like birthdates and addresses, and making silly mistakes like pouring apple juice instead of milk into coffee (which we drank in copious amounts).

We are now four weeks in and it's been exactly as hard as I anticipated. The days are a logistical nightmare. There is never enough time, energy, or help. There are nights when no one sleeps, everyone cries, and we all feel like a bomb has been detonated in the middle of our already-messy lives.

I am always amazed when we make it out the door as a foursome – me, my husband, toddler, and baby – and even more impressed when I take the two little ones anywhere, even just on a walk around the neighborhood, by myself.

But slowly, painstakingly, we establish routines. We divide and conquer. I try to be less bitchy and more appreciative (some days I’m more successful than others). I practice patience (whether I like it or not).

I came to understand that this whole experience was a trauma – a self-inflicted one, perhaps, but a necessary one, too. Was the adoption drama a manifestation of my depression? My attachment issues? Something else? I don’t know. But Shania thinks it served a purpose. “You had to go through what you went through to get here,” she said (in perhaps the most therapy-ish statement ever). That horrific grief I felt after giving up the baby? It serves as a reminder of how badly I wanted her and of how grateful I am that she is here, with our family.

I was right when I predicted that I would say, “I don’t know if I can do this” every single day if the baby came home. I still don’t know if I can do it, but somehow, every day, we make it through. I am exhausted and overwhelmed. I am often anxious and afraid. Depression still threatens to swallow me sometimes. But here we are. We keep going. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

I Guess This Is Goodbye

Thirteen hours after giving birth, I returned home – without the baby. My toddler ran toward me as soon as I hobbled through the door and we sat on the floor and just hugged one another for a long time. I ate a bland dinner of soup and fruit with yogurt, then took a shower so long and hot, I felt woozy afterwards.

My toddler had a major meltdown and when we finally collapsed into bed, sleep couldn’t come soon enough. I hadn’t had any shut-eye in over 36 hours. We slept like the dead.

Morning did not bring the clarity I had hoped. I was still firmly on the fence about what to do regarding the baby. My husband didn’t want to talk about it, and when cornered, began to cry, repeating that he didn’t think he could handle another kid.

I drafted a text to the pregnancy counselor telling her I was going to the hospital to say goodbye to the baby and that she could place her with the adoptive parents, but once again, I couldn’t bring myself to send it. An avalanche of sadness crushed me whenever I thought of giving the baby up. I conjured her little face, and all I wanted to do was kiss her and love her and bring her home.

“I don’t think you’re in the right headspace to make a decision about this,” my older teen (who had been present at the birth) opined as I broke down in tears yet again. “I think you should bring the baby home and see what it’s like.”

It was what I wanted to hear, so I went with it. My teen put the infant car seat in the car and we set out for the hospital. But on the way there, I had another change of heart. I thought about the logistics of putting the baby in the car, of dropping my teen off at college, of coming home to my toddler and introducing her to the baby and then my husband leaving for work. I thought about all the newborn-related tasks we had left undone – like sterilizing bottles, setting up a sleep space, and washing onesies – and I felt overwhelmed. I questioned whether my husband was capable of feeding the baby and changing her diaper in the middle of the night (because I was co-sleeping with the toddler, and she would wake up if I left the bed for more than a few minutes). It felt like a lot to ask of him. It didn’t seem feasible. Keeping the baby was an impossible dream – beautiful, but unrealistic.

“I think we need to go say goodbye,” I told my teen.

While she understood, she was also devastated. She had been the baby’s advocate, even before the embryo transfer. She had had faith that everything would work out, even – especially – when I had not. She had been our family’s only witness as the baby entered the world. She had already bonded with her. This was her sister we were talking about, not some random infant.

We cried and cried and cried all the way to the hospital.

Between tears, I called the pregnancy counselor. She had mentioned in one of our conversations that some birth mothers have a ritual when they say goodbye to their babies. The one that resonated with me was saying a prayer over the baby with a pastor present. I asked her now if she could arrange that. She said she could, and that she would meet us at the hospital in an hour.

My teen and I reported to the postpartum floor, where a room had been reserved for us. A super sweet, maternal nurse rolled the sleeping baby into the room in a bassinet. She was wearing a new pink-and-blue striped hat with a bow on it. Somehow, the baby had become even cuter overnight. Her face had already changed. But her scent was the same, and I recognized it instantly. Holding her, I started bawling again – big, gulping, heaving tears. I could hardly breathe.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I said to my teen. “But if I bring her home, I might be saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this’ every single day.”

We wept and took turns holding the baby. A lullaby echoed in the hallway. Every time a mother and a new baby were transferred to the postpartum floor, it played again. Oh, how I wished I could just be one of those exhausted yet overjoyed mothers, having a typical birth experience.

Soon, the hospital chaplain arrived. For some reason, I assumed it would be a man (that’s the Catholic in me, I suppose), but thankfully, the chaplain was female. She had straight brown hair and wore a bright purple sweater with dangly earrings and exuded such calming, grounding, caring energy. She reminded me of a best friend I had had in high school. 

The chaplain asked me to share the backstory of my situation. I’d told this story so many times, but with her it felt especially cathartic, perhaps because I could say things like, “I don’t know what God’s will is in all this. I feel so disconnected from Him. I want to believe His plan was for me to birth this baby and give her to this couple, but it’s so hard. I feel like a part of me has been ripped away.”

“A part of you has been ripped away,” the chaplain said.

She had some probing questions, like: Did I feel any peace about the adoption decision? (Mostly no, but I had a glimmer of that once in a while.) Did this all feel like it was happening too fast? (Yes! Only two days ago, the baby had still been inside of me!) Was there a way to take more time to make this decision? (Maybe? But that would involve bringing the baby home or placing her in foster care, which I didn't want to do.) How did my husband feel about all this? (Oh, don’t even get me started.)

Then she initiated the prayer. She prayed for comfort, for clarity, for love, for compassion. I rocked the baby as the chaplain prayed, and gripped my teen’s hand for support. I came in and out of feeling comforted by the chaplain’s words. At times, my cynical brain interjected thoughts like, “This is bullshit. Just give me my baby and let’s go home.” But the chaplain kept talking about gratitude, and that word stuck with me. How had I lost that crucial element in all this drama? 

At the end of the prayer, my teen had to leave in an Uber to get to class. Since I was still (unthinkably, unforgivably) undecided about what to do with the baby, I stayed.

The pregnancy counselor arrived next. By then, I was wrecked.

“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” I said through my tears. “But I think I’ve changed my mind again. I want to take the baby home.”

The pregnancy counselor wanted to explore that for a bit, revisiting the same ground we’d covered so many times before. But this time, I felt like she was endorsing me keeping the baby. She said things like, “The baby is already bonded to you,” and “The best place for children is with their parents.”

This was news to me. The entire time I’d known her, I thought she was pushing us towards adoption.

“I wish you could drop the professional artifice and just tell me what to do,” I said.

“I honestly don’t know,” she responded. “Every adoption situation is so unique and complex.”

We sat in silence for what felt like a long while. I stared down at the baby, my gaze obstructed by my mask and my tears.

“You seem like you want to take the baby home,” she finally said. “You seem decided to me.”

But it was easy to want to keep the baby, here in the hermetically-sealed environment of a hospital room where everything was clean and contained and taken care of, where the baby slept all the time and the nurse offered to change the baby’s diaper and prepped the bottle and just handed me everything as I needed it. That’s not what it would be like at home, where it never felt like there were enough hands, no matter how many people were around to help.

And yet…the depth of the grief of giving her up terrified me.

There would be so many reminders of her. I already regretted her name (which the adoptive parents had vowed to keep). Though it was old-fashioned, it was surprisingly common. Lately, it seemed like it was everywhere, from characters on television programs to musical artists – even my husband’s therapist shared the baby’s first name!

That wasn’t the only trigger, either. The previous night, my younger teen had asked me to sign a permission slip for school – and when I left the date space blank, he prodded me to fill it in. I hadn’t forgotten – I just hadn’t wanted to write it, because it was the baby’s birthdate. How many more triggers like that were waiting in the wings to assault me?

I told the pregnancy counselor I needed to call my husband. During our conversation, he said (very honestly, to his credit) that he wouldn’t prevent me from bringing the baby home but that he could not support me as much as I needed him to. He feared that adding another family member to the mix would mean we would end up divorced – and how could that be the best outcome for any of the kids? Surely adoption was the gentler option.

Listening to him – and I was listening, deeply, because I now acknowledged how shutting out his objections pre-pregnancy had gotten us into this mess – I switched over to my rational brain. It became clear that we could not upend our lives like this. It wasn’t fair – to ourselves, to our toddler, to the baby.

When the pregnancy counselor returned, I told her that we could fill out the adoption placement paperwork. So that is what we did, while I rocked the baby and fed her, and rocked her some more. I could feel myself detaching, little by little, inching closer to acceptance that she wasn’t coming home with me.

I signed a slew of papers that I didn’t read, recognizing all the while how dangerous that was. I asked for reassurance that I hadn’t done anything permanent…just in case…

Soon, a hospital social worker arrived to fill out the hospital-related paperwork. She had zero bedside manner.

“You’re making a decision that alters your life path and the life path of another person,” she told me sternly. “We just want to make sure you’re as sure as you can be.”

I looked back at her blankly. How could I be sure of anything at this point?

“Your score was super high on the postpartum depression scale,” she continued.

“Super high” didn’t sound very scientific to me, but I wasn’t surprised. The scale consisted of asinine statements I had to agree or disagree with to varying degrees. A sampling:

I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things.

(Well, yes, because the flip-side of my depression is that my morbid sense of humor emerges.)

I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.

(Wait, you need to be unhappy to cry? I’m confused. I often cry just because.) 

I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.

(But the things going wrong are totally my fault, so…)

I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.

(I have many, many good reasons to be both anxious and worried!)

“We want to make sure you’re making these decisions in a good mental state,” the social worker said.

What I heard was: “You are temporarily insane and you’re going to regret this when you snap out of it.”

She recommended I reach out to Pregnancy & Postpartum Support MN.

“I’ve had depression for 25 years,” I told her. “But I’ve never had postpartum depression.”

Now it was her turn to stare at me blankly, as if I were an amputee in denial about the loss of my limb.

I couldn’t wait for her to leave. When she did, to fetch yet another piece of paperwork, the pregnancy counselor and I strangely indulged in small talk like we weren’t on the precipice of the biggest event of my life.

I wondered aloud how the baby would define me when she was old enough to comprehend what had happened. Was I her birth mom? A weird kind of surrogate? Would she want to meet me someday? I was looking for clues from the pregnancy counselor about how this had all played out with other birth mothers and their children, but she said she didn’t follow the cases after the adoptions were finalized.

“So I suppose you don’t know how the birth mothers cope long-term? Are they wrecked for life?” I asked.

The pregnancy counselor’s expression fell. “It’s unpredictable. Mother’s Day is hard. Birthdays can be triggering…” Her voice trailed off. I suspected she knew more than she was letting on. I just wanted her to be real with me. This all felt survivable if only someone could tell me how intense the pain would be and how long it would last.

“It’s called ambiguous loss,” she said.

I was familiar with the concept. It’s the same kind of loss women who’ve had miscarriages experience.

“It’s like a death,” the pregnancy counselor continued. “But in this case, the baby is still alive…and that can be comforting for a lot of birth moms.”

It wasn’t comforting to me. It made this situation worse. Knowing that my baby was alive and being raised by other (better? More competent?) parents sounded like some kind of fresh hell that would torment me for the rest of my life.

Once the paperwork was all finished, I had five minutes alone with the baby. I stroked her hair and kissed her stork bite and took pictures of us together, though I looked so haggard I couldn’t imagine ever treasuring them.

The pregnancy counselor returned and I put the baby in her bassinet. I asked if I could take the ID card with my last name and the baby’s birth stats on it. The pregnancy counselor said the hospital likely needed it for ID, so she went to ask for a copy. I took the baby’s little hat off her head and pocketed it, aware that no number of mementos would ever be enough to replace her.

“Would you like to take the tissues?” the nurse asked, indicating a box of Kleenex I’d torn halfway through in the span of just a couple of hours. “We’re going to throw it out if you don’t.”

It had no sentimental value, obviously, but it was practical.

“Sure,” I said, grabbing the box. “I know I’ll need it.”

I kissed the baby again and the nurse led us down the hall, pushing the bassinet. Under the bright lights, the baby finally opened her eyes. I stroked her cheek and told her I loved her.

“We’re turning off here for the baby’s hearing test,” the nurse informed me.

I looked down at my baby, trying to mentally photograph her in that moment, a moment that would have to last a lifetime. I still couldn’t believe that I was saying goodbye. But I did.

“I’m proud of you,” the pregnancy counselor said as we walked toward the parking lot together.

Proud? I wondered. Of what? Of this mess I’ve made? Of being so laissez faire with a life? Of wishing my own baby would die in utero so I wouldn’t have to make a decision about her fate? This decision was nothing to be proud of.

Soon, the adoptive couple would come pick up the baby from the hospital. The worst day of my life would be the best day of theirs. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how those two things could be true, simultaneously.

I drove home in a silent state of shock. I had a full afternoon ahead of me: a therapy session, caring for my toddler, chores. The next day, I would be back at work. Less than 48 hours after giving birth, my life was going “back to normal.” Isn’t that what I wanted? If so, why didn’t I feel relieved?

I held it together until nighttime descended, and with it, a grief so intense I thought it might annihilate me. Everything went black. The gulping, ugly crying returned. My older teen tried to comfort me, but I was inconsolable.

“I don’t want to exist,” I kept saying.

I couldn’t help but think that giving the baby up had been the biggest mistake of my life…