My first daughter was born on February 12, 1992. I was seventeen-years-old.
I signed the papers relinquishing my parental rights on Valentine’s Day. The legalities were complete. In my next moment alone with my daughter I whispered in her ear, “I relinquished my rights, but I will never relinquish my love.”
The following day, I secured her in a car seat. I kissed her, and through torrential tears I said, “good-bye,” then I stopped, turned back to my tiny daughter and said, “wait… not ‘good-bye’… I mean, see you later.” My social worker’s car drove away with my daughter in it. I stood in the hospital parking lot and watched the car until it disappeared entirely.
After nine months of anticipation, three days of labor, and three days of trying to take in every sight, smell, and nuance of this infant, I went home from the hospital empty handed. I got in my mom’s car. “Where do you want to go?” she asked. I had been crying for the better part of three days and saw no end in sight. “What I really want is to go to a hotel room, close the blackout curtains, curl up and die.”
“Well, Rachel, that’s not really an option.” So, mom took me home, set me up in her bed and cared for me while I recovered. After a few hours my older brother, Lex came in. We talked for a while and before I knew it he had me laughing. This really surprised me, because there was a part of me that felt like laughing was some sort of betrayal after what I had just been through. I had honestly wondered if I could ever be happy, laugh, or ever smile again. I wrote in my journal “I don’t think I have ever felt a pain this deep. Or a loss so great.”
For months I heard the echo of my baby’s cry in my head, with no way to stop it. I’d wake in the middle of the night to the sound of her crying, and I’d sit straight up in bed and finally wake enough to realize that there was no way to comfort her and worse, no way to comfort myself. She was gone. It was a closed adoption. I could only move on.
Placing a baby for adoption shaped me, it changed me. While other teenagers were worried about prom dates, I was wondering if my daughter was cutting teeth. I felt decades older than my peers. I couldn’t relate to teenagers and their problems, they seemed so petty and silly. In fact I was changed the moment I found out I was pregnant. Suddenly my focus was no longer on myself, which is remarkable for a sixteen-year-old girl. I realized in that moment there was another human being in the picture and my choices would not only impact me, but they would also forever impact this innocent child. In that moment my complete self-interest transformed to the point where I was actually capable of considering my first selfless act.
It’s been nineteen years now, and in the last year I have been able to see that I made more than one choice that Valentine’s Day in 1992. Yes, obviously I chose to give up my child but I also made another choice that was not as obvious to me at the time. I chose that day to give up my happiness. I suffered. I agonized. There was no end in sight. No guarantee that I would ever see my child again. I couldn’t even see that I made that choice then, but I can see it now. Somehow I decided that if I suffered for the rest of my life, it would prove my love for her. So, in 1992, I bottled up my happiness and put it on the shelf.
Every January I spiraled downward, consumed with thoughts about the long past weeks leading up to her birth, the pain, the sadness, and the loss. As February neared, I would often wake to find that I had been crying in my sleep. My husband and children knew the familiar sound of my long sighs or swallowed sobs. They knew that mom might be sitting at dinner with tears rolling down her cheeks. I stifled my cries into my pillow at night, and my husband would pull me close to him, hold me, and tell me it was going to be okay and I’d sob like a seventeen-year-old who had just lost everything she loved.
February was the climax each year, but all year long I thought about her. All year long I wondered. There’s no way to calculate the total hours over the years that she was on my mind. I was haunted, for lack of a better word. Her birthday would come. We’d celebrate it and the cycle began again, as I was now consumed with thoughts about the days and weeks after she was born. The pain. The sadness. The unanswered questions.
This past May (May 2010), my daughter contacted me. She sent a Facebook message to me on Mother’s Day. I collapsed in tears of relief. “It’s today! It’s today! IT’S TODAY!!!” I sobbed uncontrollably. It was if I had been doing time and had finally received word that I had just completed my life sentence.
I met her, I held her, and took in every sight, smell and nuance… again. Then, I was shocked to realize that my years of suffering had no influence on her choice to meet me. She hadn’t even known about it. I couldn’t help but wonder what the last nineteen years would have been like for me, if I had instead sentenced myself to a life of peace, happiness and the right to celebrate my strength, courage and beauty… every single day.