My Mother's Choice

The author as a young boy with his parents, Frank and Paula, who adopted him as an infant. (Courtesy)
The author as a young boy with his parents, Frank and Paula, who adopted him as an infant. (Courtesy)

I haven’t told this story before but given what’s happened in state legislatures in Georgia, Alabama and Missouri recently, perhaps now is the time.

I was adopted as an infant in 1956, a fact my parents told me early in life, as soon as I could reason. It’s a part of my story I was always rather proud of — I’d been chosen. I was raised with one fiction, however: the idea that I was the offspring of a nice young married couple who just couldn’t afford to raise a baby.

I learned the real story when I met my birth mother in early 2009. (I’ll call her Marilyn because not everybody in her circle knows the story.) She was 19 when she got pregnant and, yes, it was a mistake, although there were marital intentions. Then fate and outside pressure intervened, and the marriage was not to be.

The birth, however, was.

Abortion, of course, was illegal then, but Marilyn came from a comfortable background and politically connected family, so it was, realistically, a viable option — an option her strong-willed father wished upon her. But she resisted her father’s wishes and carried me to term. It could not have been an easy time. There was the unmarried mother stigma, of course. Societal pressure. Her relationship with my biological father had broken down. What was a 20-year-old single career woman to do with a baby?

But she resisted her father’s wishes [for her to have an illegal abortion] and carried me to term.

She told me I was not the easiest baby to birth, nor to give up. In those days there was no such thing as an “open adoption” — after birth, she wasn’t allowed to even touch me or know anything about my fate.

I had no problem with my parents’ fictionalized account. I think I was a teenager when I figured out that my conception was a mistake and those responsible were probably not a young married couple. That was fine: I figured most of us are accidents of birth.

For 53 years, I had no access to my original birth certificate, and, honestly, locating my birth parents was not a priority. I was curious about what my biological health history might be and wondered some about nurture versus nature, as we all do. But I was fine with the mystery and I respected the decision made long ago.

Then the law changed, and in 2009, I suddenly sat up. My wife encouraged me. If not now, when? I met Marilyn because I initiated a search with a group on the North Shore of Boston that specializes in this sort of thing. They found her within two weeks. I wrote a letter at her winter residence, down south, not asking for much more than biological information. She responded with eight beautifully hand-written pages, emotion bleeding onto the paper. We kept the written correspondence up for a bit, establishing mutual trust.

Then we met. It turned out Marilyn and her husband lived not far away. We embraced, tears welling up in both of us. But our reunion was — perhaps startlingly — smooth and easy. We found we had a similar sense of humor and had a laugh about whether she would be Mother 1.0 or Mother 2.0 — a case could be made for either. Oh, and I said (truthfully) that I had no animosity at all about being given away. Some do, I know.

Marilyn told me that over the years, she privately celebrated my birthday every year and hoped that I’d been placed in good hands. I assured her that I was. 

I told her about my mother, Paula. She wanted all the details about my childhood and upbringing. After I sent her a Valentine’s Day card the next year she emailed:

I love your Valentine and your warm and tender thoughts. Are you pulling my heart strings?  Yep. Thank you for doing just that. I enjoyed your last e-mail and was happy you could share your feelings about your mum with me. It made me feel closer to you and your mum.

We had a strong and loving relationship until her death nearly two years ago. I grieve for both Marilyn and Paula, who left us 10 years ago.

If you’re wondering as an adoptee — someone who certainly could have been aborted as a fetus — am I thus “pro-life”?  I am not. I am pro-choice and always have been, even after learning about Marilyn. She had a choice, and that choice was right for her. But I don’t believe that my potential for life eclipsed hers — or anyone’s — when I was an embryo.

Also, as a man, I don’t think I get a vote, not being able to get pregnant and all. It’s really quite simple: Your body, your choice.

I am pro-choice and always have been ... I don’t believe that my potential for life eclipsed hers — or anyone’s — when I was an embryo

The “pro-life” movement has always seemed to me, at its core, anti-sex and self-righteous, acting upon divine inspiration from a God that may or may not exist, that may or may not have particular views on abortion.

And that, at some level, the “pro-life” movement’s aim is to punish the mother (not the father, of course) for her indiscretion, assuming — as we often do — that most abortions are the result of sex outside of marriage. To control her, to shame her and saddle her with the 40 weeks of pregnancy and then the agony of giving up a child or the burden of having to raise an unwanted child, possibly lacking the means and emotional support to do so.

Too often it seems it’s conception-to-birth is the prize, and after that you’re on your own, lady.

Is adoption always the right counter to abortion? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Randie Bencanann, a health educator, social worker and former co-director of an adoption agency writes in Rewire News:

It was very difficult to watch these women go through the adoption process: undergoing nine months of pregnancy, withstanding inquiries from family or acquaintances about their plans for a baby, allowing near-strangers or people they had only come to know in the last few months to love and nurture their child, and then trusting those people to follow through on post-placement contact agreements.

Am I glad I was born? Sure. It's been a good ride. I’m glad Marilyn made that choice. But — and here’s where it gets all existential — had she made a different choice, and I had not been born, I wouldn’t be here to question her decision. There would be no “me.” Nothing for anyone to mourn or miss. That would have been OK, too.

It was her call. As it should have been and, ultimately, was. For other women, I hope it will continue to be.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.


Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live