When you lose a child in any way, you look for a reason. There has to be something. Something that was done. Something that wasn't done. Anything. Anyone. Something or someone to blame. In the absence of something concrete, we blame ourselves. In lieu of holding our children, we hold our guilt. Because, after all, there has to be a reason and some has to be to blame.
Most readers know that I'm adopted and dont have a wealth of medical history (any???) at my fingertips. Much of what I do know is based on recollections of people who knew my birth mother, but so much is fill in the blank.
I grew up as an abandoned, 7 week old baby. My parents took care of me for the most part, but legal custody was actually left to my paternal grandmother (adoptive dad's mom), since I was left at her home. However, she was older and my parents were my primary caregivers. At that time, the laws that currently govern foster children (or wards of the state, as I was called in paperwork) were much different than they are today. Judges wouldnt terminate the rights of birth parents within 18m as is currently the law. In fact, my parents went to court every single year from 1-17 to ask for custody and to petition for an adoption. "Temporary Legal Custody" was granted; adoption never was. We ended up doing the legal adoption when I was 19 and already married, just to do it. Just to have that "legal" bond that was already there in every other way.
Growing up, my grandmother never expressed any lost love for my birth mother, although as I look back as an adult, I know that she couldnt move beyond her hurt. She had taken care of my birth mother when her own parents had kicked her out. And what did she get in return? An infant on her doorstep. I truly believe that the cancer that killed her 10 years later had already started to erode what made her her. She died of breast cancer that had spread to her bones, spine, and brain and every organ in between. That doesnt happen overnight. Her illness combined with the grief of losing her husband (the year before I was born) and her hurt that my birth mother, W, had left, were, in my opinion, enough to break her.
The stories that she told of W were anger filled. Of a girl (and I do mean girl... While I no longer have my original birth certificate because it was superceded by the adoption one, the age listed when I was born was 14) who was "wild", who stayed out late at night and sang in "jukejoints" and smoked and drank and was a bad girl all around. She hung out with bad people. And perhaps the worst part of the story (especially when you considered I was 10 when Nana died and these are stories I remember hearing my entire childhood) was that W had tried to abort me unsuccessfully and, even after she was told to go on bedrest to save a pregnancy she didnt want, she didnt listen, hence my arrival into this world premature, at 7 months gestation.
When my mom overheard these stories, she would try to balance them. You see, my mom knew W. They went to high school together (my mom is slightly older). She would tell me of a young girl with a pretty smile and star struck eyes... Of a girl who didnt know what to do with a baby when she was just a child herself and who begged my mom and dad to get married early (my mom was 18 on her wedding day, when I was 18m old), so that they could adopt me. Mom told me that she didnt know why things happened the way that they did but that, regardless, I was loved and that leaving me behind was the best decision W could have made.
This made it easier to swallow at times... This image of a woman who just didnt know what to do. Who was young and scared. But the thoughts always came back to one thing: she tried to kill me. She had an abortion that failed. I shouldnt even be alive. These are thoughts I never even said outloud until I met Peter; they were too hard to shoulder and even harder to pass onto someone else.
My grandmother died and my parents took care of me completely, and there was no more talk of abortions or abandonment or of W being bad. Whenever she came up, which wasnt often because, truly, my parents ARE my parents and always have been, they remembered her fondly. Yes, she had problems, they said, but we all do. Leaving you behind was for the best. She left you so that we could be your parents. You are wanted. You always have been. By us.
But, you cant wipe away a decade of built in prejudice against someone you've never met. In spite of their best attempts, inside, I always had this feeling "against" her... When I was 14, I made an attempt to find her. Somehow, she found out about it and wrote me a letter, which basically said (and it's been a long time, so I dont remember it completely) to love my parents because those are the people who mattered. That she didnt want to step into my life at all... Ever. To please not look for her. It was 2 pages. I read it twice and cried. It was true. She didnt want me. She wished I were dead. My mother took the letter and put it away, somewhere where mother's put the things that crush their children. They had read it first and gave it to me. They never hid things. Not once. I am grateful for that. She held me while I cried. Told me it was okay. That she was my mother. That W gave her a gift because she couldnt have birthed me from her womb but she was able to birth me from her heart. That she loved me. That she was and always would be my mother. That I was wanted from the beginning she knew I existed. That it was okay to cry...
That year was a turning point for me. I was in high school and, as everyone who has gone through those great teenage years can attest, it's usually a fun time. Or not. I decided to hate W from that moment on. I hated her because she didnt sign over adoption papers. I hated her because I had a different last name- her name- than my parents. I hated her because I had no biological information, no history. I hated her because my birth father was listed as "unknown" (I mean, was she screwing so many people she couldnt give one name???). I just hated her and I swore that, no matter how long it took, I was going to find a way to get revenge. I didnt know how, but I knew that I would.
Time moved on and I met Peter, graduated from high school, got married, moved away and went to college. We lived in our first apartment and life was pretty good. We were happy. One evening, we received a call from Peter's cousin's wife, who lived in Florida. His cousin was in the Navy and the wife had taken the kids to the hospital for a checkup. In the hall, she had passed a row of photographs. She decided to call because the woman looked like me. Knowing I was adopted, she thought she'd pass the tidbit on. I was 19 at the time, and the feelings from my early teenage period came back. I decided that I would contact the Navy and see if I could find out any information about this nurse. The name was different but names could be changed. Several weeks of letter writing went back and forth, to no avail. They would confirm that the nurse worked at the hospital but nothing more. A dead end...
The cousin called back, as she was back at the hospital for another reason, and had seen the nurse walking around. She asked if I'd done anything and I shared what I had. She offered to call the nurse and ask her, point blank, if she had formely been known as W, and, if she had abandoned a child in Nashville. She would do a 3-way call, so that I could be on the other end without the woman knowing and I quickly agreed. After all- how else could I get my revenge if I couldnt get her current name? (Dont ask what revenge... I dont even know what my teenage mind thought it could draw up...)
That night, as I stood in the kitchen, she rang the nurse at the hospital. I'm actually surprised that, given the tone she was approached in, she didnt hang up. After asking who was calling (without a response) and asking why "you are doing this to me- are you trying to get me kicked out of the Navy?", she finally, in frustration, admitted that yes, she was W and that whatever witch hunt we were on was going to cost her her career and her family. She eventually did hang up and I was left, speechless on the other end of the phone.
I shed a lot of tears that night. I dont really know why. Perhaps it had something to do with revenge being a dish best served cold. Even though I thought I hated her and thought I wanted to ruin her life, I didnt know her. I didnt have a reason to do it at all. And the idea that she could lose her job and possibly her family (wait, she has a family???) hurt. Almost as much as it hurt to be rejected as an adult. Some part of me, the part that watched and cried over the Unsolved Mysteries reunions, thought that, as an adult, whatever issues had been there would be gone, and we could be friends. She could be, say, an aunt. She could tell me a medical history and where I came from and then, we could go our seperate ways. I cried for that. The next day, I called my mom and told her what I'd done and cried some more. And, as she'd always done, she tried to smooth the hurt, fix the rough edges, tell me that nurture was so much more important than nature... That it was okay to cry and that we'd get through this.
This was around when the first vestiges of infertility started to come around. We'd been together for over a year and nothing... Finally, an elusive, light pink second line appeared and we were overjoyed. "P" was our sweet, first pregnancy, who ended in a missed miscarriage, and I still miss him and add up how old he would be had he lived with us. I always felt that spark of him when I was pregnant with Nicholas and Sophia... I smile to think that perhaps he just made a brief appearance to say "I'm coming back with my sister one day, Mommy!" and was a whisper in the wind in a time when we needed to feel him most... After that one faint line, nothing...
I went to GYN after GYN. I didnt menstruate regularly (maybe once a year?). "What's your maternal medical history?" "I dont have one... I'm adopted." "Oh... Well, you are young; just keep trying" or "You must not have any eggs left" or "I'd wait a few years and, if you still havent gotten pregnant by the time you are 30, look into help." One doctor, who knew I was from the south, even mentioned possible DES exposure, since doctors prescribed it after the FDA pulled it, to pregnant women. No ultrasounds. No blood work. I was "too young" I guess to be infertile. And really, at 22, who the hell thinks they are infertile? I remember wearing that label like the scarlet letter. I was infertile. Broken. We never had Peter tested because, come on, I didnt even have a period! It was obviously my fault. (And, honestly, in those early years of marriage, we either didnt have insurance or we had crappy insurance. And we were poor. We wanted a large family, but looking back, I know we were barely feeding ourselves. But we were young and believed we'd live on love and make it work.... And we would have, but that wasnt in our cards...)
After that phone call, my anger with W went away. I felt sad that I had wasted so much on being so angry for so long. I finally believed my mom. It didnt matter and it wasn't really important. I had 2 parents who loved me; that was what mattered. Somehow, after that phone call, the healing of that hurt started and I felt like I was finally moving on. Without the hurt and without the anger. I stopped thinking about wherever I "might" have come from, and started acknowledging my parents' heritages as my own. I forgot my old last name. I forgot my old birth certificate. And I moved on.
When my parents divorced and there were legal issues that came up, my dad actually had a phone call with W. (It's a long story...) As they were hanging up, he asked the question that he knew plagued me more than anything else... The unknown on the birth certificate. But he got more than he bargained for. When he asked who my biological father was, he said that W's voice choked and she said "I dont know." When she was silent for a bit, he asked if there were possibilities, and she said finally that she was raped. That she really, truly didnt know who the father was. That she couldnt handle even remembering.
Dr Lee seemed unfazed by my lack of medical history when we went to see her. She did her bloodwork and her ultrasound and her consult, diagnosed me with PCOS, and said she'd do her best to help us conceive. And she did. In spades. That first cycle, that BFP, that joy... It was as if the decade of struggling to get pregnant didnt matter. We met Dr Bailey and every ultrasound was perfect. Our babies were growing. Life was good. Great. And then... The unthinkable... Shattered... Lost... Empty...
As every orphaned parent does, we asked "why". We looked for whatever reasons we could find. Surely, there had to be something... I'm a survivor of sexual assault- perhaps that "did" something. Perhaps it was carrying a bag of groceries. Perhaps it was because I'd done "something" bad. Perhaps it was that botched abortion attempt by W that screwed something up... Ah... That familiar anger... Hurt... But knowing she was raped, that she had no control over the pregnancy, that made it a little easier and it was still easier to blame myself. It was carrying the grocery bag, I reasoned, that put me into labor with Nicholas. After all, I carried Sophia 2 more weeks and it was an infection that started her labor, so it was the groceries...
We discussed having an incompetent cervix with Dr B, who said that he felt that was the most likely cause, even though my cervix looked fine. And so, we fell pregnant with Alexander and we monitored and my cervix was great... and it opened prematurely again. And our son died. And once again, we were looking for answers. It must have been the stress of work... Or, yes, it was that cervix. That evil cervix. Incompetent. Mine. It was my fault.
And, even accepting the blame that it was my cervix that caused my babies to be born early and die, I still looked for a reason why and the best two reasons were that I was either exposed to DES and that had caused a problem -OR- the W trying to abort me- OR- it was due to my prematurity, and my cervix had never finished development. And we all know where that points back. W. And while I didnt hate her, I was angry. Remembering my grandmother had said that she'd been told by a doctor to take it easy and that she hadnt, which is OBVIOUSLY why I was a preemie, I remember thinking "Why???" Even if she didnt want me, why couldnt she have just listened???
And, with this pregnancy, we had the cerclage, and all has gone well. Well, mostly well. And bedrest gives you a lot of time to think. And to blame yourself.
Peter and I have been discussing my IC a lot in recent days, and when I mentioned the DES as a possible reason, he asked about it (scientist that he is). Honestly, I've never really looked into it because A) I am younger by a few years of the last accepted group of "DES Daughters", B) It was prescribed primarily to pregnant women to save their pregnancies (because they were at risk of miscarriage or had severe morning sickness) and since we all know W wouldnt be trying to save something she didnt want, that didnt apply, and C) Because, honestly, I just didnt want to know. I couldnt confirm she took it anyway, so why look more into it. But my husband is a biologist and, when it comes to matters of science, he doesnt often leave a stone unturned. And his research began yesterday morning.
He read the familiar litany of why DES was prescribed and, once again, I remember thinking "see, this is why this is such a long shot as a reason..." and then he got to a section that I'd never seen (because I'd never bothered to look) and a completely new story began to emerge. One that I've wept over these last 2 days because it shakes me to my very core and has left me crumbled... Filled with sorrow. For me. But, also, for W.
DES was stopped as a miscarriage/morning sickness remedy in the mid 70s and was considered contraindicated for women (the drug was produced until 1997 for other reasons). However, it was given until the early 80s as emergency contraception- to rape victims. It wasnt an abortificiant, rather, it was high dose estrogen therapy to prevent ovulation that was given over 5 days. Current research shows linkage between DES Daughters and IC. In some cases, the cervix was misformed, but in others it looks fine and suffers from weakness that cant be repaired. When this became apparent, cerclages were given to DES Daughters as a precaution. (My infertility, however, is related to PCOS and most likely has nothing to do with DES exposure.) As everyone knows, DES Daughters have a much higher risk of problems with the reproductive system, including a variety of cancers. And DES Mothers are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
And now, instead of the story of a stupid teenage girl who tried to abort a baby she didnt want and continued living her high-risk lifestyle, a new picture has emerged.
Perhaps W was out partying and got assulted... Fearful of a pregnancy, she went to the hospital the next day or so and was given DES as emergency contraception. She took the pills, was told her period might be late by a bit, and to wait it out... Not knowing she'd already ovulated and conceived. That first trimester would have slipped by unnoticed. Perhaps she tried to block out the memory of her attack by smoking, drinking, having a "good" time. Perhaps she thought she deserved it. Perhaps... I dont know... When that fourth month of not menstruating came around and she though, hmmm, maybe my pants are tighter... she perhaps took that dreaded pee test... And, to her surprise, found it to be positive... Maybe, she went to the doctor, who confirmed her pregnancy and told her to take it easy. And, just maybe, she did. Maybe she lounged around the house more in stollen shirts to hide her growing belly. Maybe she tried to eat better. Maybe she stopped her bad behavior because she realized that a baby was still growing. And just maybe, when it wasnt enough, and she went into preterm labor and had to tell my grandmother that she was pregnant and ask my parents to take her to the hospital, maybe, just maybe, she was scared that I was going to die. After I was born, perhaps she confessed taking pills to stop from getting pregnant and this is the abortion attempt that my grandmother told me like bitter medicine. That she remembered her first trimester partying and told me that W didnt try to save the pregnancy after her "failed abortion". Maybe just maybe...
And maybe, when you are 14 and only a child yourself, and when the shame of seeing the face of a baby conceived by rape and the guilt of having a premature baby and the wondering of what those 5 pills might have done became too much... Maybe that is when she decided that it would be best to leave.
And maybe, because that shame and guilt havent faded for her... Maybe these last 30 years have been an exercise in self preservation... Of just trying to get through the day when so much of what made you "you" was taken away, and you have to become someone new. And that, my friends, that I can understand 100%.
And so, I weep. For her. For me. Because this is now the probable scenario. And because it wasnt her fault. And it wasnt mine.