I am the innocent child that some are determined to protect. I know what it feels like to be born into this world unwanted and unprepared for. I am the child of a woman who never had other children because of the shame and guilt she felt at having surrendered a child for adoption. A woman who died too young because her secret destroyed her.
I am a woman who chose to have an abortion. I am a woman who brought two very wanted children into this world.
And I have some thoughts about how we talk about adoption and abortion.
I was usually responsible about my contraception, save for one night in 1991, when I forgot to put in my diaphragm. My then boyfriend -the son of a diplomat with diplomatic immunity- demanded we get married when I told him I was pregnant. He hit me when I said no. I was not ready for motherhood, my life at the time was not one any child deserved, and I could not have lived with myself if I put a child up for adoption.
My birthmother died on January 11th, 1995, exactly one day before January 12th, 1995. Exactly one day before my twenty-seventh birthday. She never met me, she never had other children, and she kept my birth a secret for her entire life. She could not live through one more January 12th. I am the secret that killed her.
Every woman has a story. I tell ours because no woman should drown in a bath of shame, and no child should live a life wading through it.
My adoptive parents openly shared with me the story of my birth the adoption agency told them: I was surrendered for adoption by a woman who had moved to New York City to hide her pregnancy from her family. Her brother was the only person who knew of my birth, and she kept me for three months before deciding she could not manage motherhood on her own. This was 1968, and times were different. Who could blame her?
I loved that story. It was romantic and noble and hopeful. I fantasized she had named me Caroline, and that we looked exactly alike. I believed that story because for thirty one years, it was all I had.
It wasn’t true.
What was true, was that on January 12th, 1968, Gloria Gerwin was rushed to the emergency room of New York Hospital suffering from severe stomach pain. Hours later, she delivered a baby. She did not know she was pregnant, nor did anyone in her life. Later, her brother Tom -the only person who knew of my birth- would tell Gloria’s best friend that Gloria had undergone emergency surgery to clear an intestinal blockage.
Within hours of my birth -never named, known only as Baby Girl Gerwin- I was surrendered for adoption. Within days, Gloria was whisked back to her wealthy parents in Memphis. And within a week, I was put into foster care where I remained for three months until I was adopted.
I found Gloria in 1999, when my daughter was eleven months old and my need to know where I came from became insatiable. Because I was born during the era of sealed adoption records, the search for my truth was one of duplicity and moxie and courage.
I am grateful to Gloria’s late mother, her husband and her many friends who forgave my initial lies and spoke with me. *I once said I was a genealogical researcher from UCLA, I once set up a classmates.com page as Gloria herself, I often said I was only searching for health records.*
They generously shared whatever information they had, and each recounted stories of Gloria that vividly brought her to life. With every detail, with every similarity, with every photograph, it wasn’t Gloria I was finding, it was myself. I was just like her, and being and looking like someone healed wounds I didn’t know I had.
I am especially thankful to her husband, who despite learning about me from a letter I sent, mailed me the very first picture I ever saw of Gloria. My resemblance to her was breathtaking. My then three year old daughter thought it was a picture of me and said, “You look so pretty mommy, where are you going?”
His letter -and the photograph- arrived on September 11th, 2001. Amidst the death and destruction of that day, I found renewal and rebirth.
Gloria’s brother Tom died in 1990 at 42, her father Daniel died in 1999 at 90, and her mother Dorothy -who spoke with me only once- died in 2013 at 100.
I am what remains of this family.
Gloria Gerwin was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a home maker. Her older brother Tom was her best friend and confidante. Gloria’s life was one of wealth, expectation, and dreams of something bigger. *Just like mine.*
When she arrived at North Carolina’s Greensboro Women’s College, Gloria was already different. It was the 1960’s and it was a women’s college in the south. Unlike the other girls who wore white cotton panties from Pennie’s, Gloria wore black lace lingerie and Jean Nate perfume. She spent weekends at her father’s Manhattan apartment in the Carlisle: visiting her brother at Columbia, shopping at Bergdorf’s, drinking martinis.
By the time she set sail for her junior year in France *I did my junior year in France* she was already sophisticated and worldly. By the time she returned, she was ready for more.
I know little of Gloria’s life from when she returned from France to when she arrived in New York. But I do know in the spring of 1967, at 23, she unknowingly became pregnant. *When I was 23, I unknowingly became pregnant.*
After giving birth to me, Gloria was the first woman ever accepted into the Chase Manhattan Bank bankers training program. It was there she met the man who became her husband. She set off on a glamorous life filled with travel and adventure.
And she kept a secret that killed her.
Gloria died in London, England from colon cancer at 50. She told none of her friends that she was sick until she was going to die. And she did not tell anyone about me. Not her husband of 23 years nor her life long best friend, the same friend who made her go to the hospital for stomach pain on January 12, 1968.
Finding Gloria allowed me to work though a lifetime of feeling inadequate and insecure, of feeling unmoored and other; it liberated me from the unconscious belief that something must be wrong with me for me to have been given up. It released me from the prison of shame that so many adoptees live within.
My deepest regret is that I did not find her in time so I could do the same for her.
Signing away your child to a stranger, regardless your reasons, is a devastating loss. We cannot talk about adoption as an alternative to abortion if we are not talking about that.
I have never regretted my choice to have an abortion. When I look into the mirror and like what I see, or into the eyes of my husband and children, I am well aware that our life -my life- would not exist had I surrendered a child for adoption. The pain of that loss would have been too great for me to bear. I would have killed myself if abortion was not an option.
The mythology of adoption as a noble rescue mission is dismissive and demeaning to those of us who live it. It diminishes the realities for each member of the triad: child, birth parent and adoptive parent. Along with its grace and goodness, its love and devotion, there is pain and suffering and loss and guilt and shame.
All children should come into this world wanted and prepared for, and all women should be free to make the choice that is right for them. That should be our goal; impossible to achieve but worthy of its effort.
So when we talk about abortion and adoption, let’s actually talk. Not romanticize, or demonize, or criminalize, or shroud in secrecy and shame. Let’s talk honestly and courageously about the impact of each choice on women and their children, and then, let’s get out of the way.