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At 17, I Gave My Baby Up. I Never Expected The 2-Word Message My Child Would One Day Send Me.

Mar 12, 2024, 08:06 AM EDT


"What do you say to your child that isn’t legally your child when he reaches out to you in need of something you aren’t sure you’re allowed to give him?"




The author, age 17, holding Sarah one last time before she was taken by her adoptive parents and renamed Hanna.

COURTESY OF JOANNA GOOD


It was after dinner and I was on standby in case my daughters needed help with their homework. As I waited, I scrolled social media. I rarely pay any mind to my local online moms group now that my kids are teenagers, but an anonymous post stopped my finger mid-swipe.


A mother was asking for advice. She had just found out she was pregnant, and because she and her husband already had several children, he didn’t want any more. Though he was sure of his decision, she wasn’t, and wanted help figuring out what to do.


The post was flooded with hundreds of responses, most of which amounted to “You will never regret keeping your baby!” Then there were at least two dozen comments with the single word, “Adoption,” followed by varying amounts of exclamation points, and one with a question mark. I imagined the mothers writing those comments and pictured them throwing magical confetti at the computer as if they were helping — as if just typing that one word was a simple solution that would work for everyone.


Do I respond to this mother in crisis? I wondered. I started to type. I deleted my comment. Do I respond to these flippant proposers of adoption? I started typing, then deleted the text once again. I turned my phone off and leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I was feeling so many emotions at once that I wasn’t sure I could even identify them all, but I definitely felt frustration, anger, and yearning swirling through my body.


People who have never been touched by adoption always seem to think of it as easy, but as a mother who placed her child for adoption, struggled through the chaotic emotional aftermath of the separation, and then reconnected with my child later on, I know the truth. Even though it was the right choice for me at the time, adoption is anything but easy.


I grew up in a small conservative town where sex ed classes weren’t part of our curriculum and there was hardly anything to keep us occupied when we weren’t in school. So, due to a lack of instruction, little self-control and a lot of boredom, I got pregnant at 16. A combination of Christian parents, no money or access to an abortion clinic (the closest one was four hours away), and no means to take care of the child I would soon give birth to meant adoption was the only option for me.


I was 17 years old when I had my baby, a girl I named Sarah, after my favorite book as a child, “Sarah, Plain and Tall.”


A day later after Sarah was born, I handed her over to her adoptive parents. They were a young couple I handpicked from the adoption agency’s big binder, and now their dream of starting a family was finally coming true.


They revealed that they were renaming her Hanna, and although I logically understood them wanting give Sarah their own name, at the time, it hurt. It felt like an insult — a ripping away of our connection. I was sure that I needed to find a new home for my daughter — that it was best for both her and me — but I still felt pangs of regret. I had hope for Sarah/Hanna and the wonderful life she could now have — a life that I couldn’t give her — and concentrating on that got me through the most difficult moments.


Six months later, I was surprised to find myself holding Hanna in my lap. The adoption agreement I had made with her adoptive parents was supposed to only include them sending me letters and photos, so I never thought I’d see her in person again. But, for some reason unknown to me, her adoptive parents invited me to visit with her.


Hanna had hazel eyes flecked with gold, just like me. I watched her study the room intently and when her gaze landed on her adoptive mother, she wailed for her. Ouch. But I reminded myself this was not my Sarah, this was Hanna, and I was not her mother.



The author holding Hanna during their first in-person visit after giving birth to her.

COURTESY OF JOANNA GOOD


Three years later, when I turned 20, I moved cross-country, a thousand miles away from my friends and family — and Hanna. Leaving my hometown was another part of my letting go of my daughter, a process I began the day that I put her in the arms of her new parents. Seeing 6-month-old Hanna reach for her adoptive mother had helped to convince me that everything was as it should be — as it was supposed to be. Our connection had been severed. It was time for me to move on. We were now both free to live the rest of our lives.


I made my new home in Southern California, and within a month of moving there, I met my future husband at a punk concert when he protected me in the mosh pit. Two years later, we were planning our wedding when we were surprised to find I was pregnant.


This time I felt I was ready for a baby, but I also felt an unthinkable amount of guilt about having a baby less than six years after giving my first one up for adoption.


I had never stopped thinking about Hanna — never. But the adoption had forced me to grow up quickly, and I did. I had come out stronger. Sturdier. Wiser. I continued to feel so many emotions, but now I was able to handle most of them. The guilt was a different story.


It was difficult to explain to the people in my life, including my husband and my mother, exactly what I was feeling. Everyone was supportive, but I couldn’t expect them to understand the enormity or complexity of how having another baby made me feel.


At one point, I reached out to Hanna’s birth father. We were best friends at first, and then dated until that fateful visit with 6-month-old Hanna. It had been difficult for both of us, but that day had hit him harder than I realized. He couldn’t separate Hanna from me and, wanting a clean slate, he broke up with me right after we saw her.


I was destroyed, but I finally realized he had done the right thing. Still, occasionally, on a hard day, I’d leave my husband home with our brand new baby, go get a coffee, and then sit outside and dial my ex’s number. I hoped he might be able to tell me what I needed to hear — even if it was just that he understood what I was feeling — but we would only speak for a couple of minutes before he said he had to go, and eventually he stopped answering my calls all together.


The only other person who I thought might have some understanding of the specific and inexplicable ache I felt was Hanna herself, and she was in elementary school hundreds of miles away. Later, I would learn that she had sought support by befriending the only other adoptee in her school.


“I would think of her when I put my other daughter to bed at night, almost like I was tucking them both in with a kiss.”

Unsure of what to do with my emotions — the guilt, the yearning, these things I wasn’t supposed to feel — I just kept the image of baby Hanna sitting on my lap in my mind. I would think of her when I put my other daughter to bed at night, almost like I was tucking them both in with a kiss.


No one really talks about what follows you through life after adoption. There is no such thing as a clean break. I knew my little girl might never know me, yet I saw her face everywhere — in the photographs her adoptive parents continued to send me, but also in other children’s faces at the grocery store, at library story time, and even in my own daughter as I fed her smashed avocados. I often wondered if Hanna ever thought she saw my face in a crowd.


Those photos and letters from Hanna’s adoptive parents had arrived every month or two when she was a baby, but by the time she was a toddler, I received an update only once or twice a year. I would open each envelope hastily and read the letter twice, my eyes lingering over every word. I smiled as I thumbed through the photos and loved that she looked so much like I did when I was her age.


I had proof that Hanna was living an amazing life. Her parents took her to a petting zoo and built her a tree house. They threw big birthday parties and her family, which now included a brother who had also been adopted, went to church every week. Who would I be to even try to compare to that? I thought. So I carried on and did my best with my own daughter, but I never stopped thinking about the little girl I had given up.


When Hanna turned 6, my husband, daughter, and I flew back to my home state to see my family for Christmas. Hanna’s family lived an hour away from mine, and they invited me to visit them. We made arrangements for this meetup through the mail, instead of using the adoption agency, as we had done when I met 6-month-old Hanna. I was thrilled to get to see her, but also cautious. It felt risky, as this kind of visit had not been part of our contract. I was anxious and I ran through a long list of questions in my head. Would she recognize me? Would she approve of my husband and daughter? Would she look like me? Would she hate me?


I worried until our first moment alone, on the front steps of her home, when she poked me in the stomach and said, “Mommy said God put me in your belly because she couldn’t have me in hers.” I was caught off-guard by how sweetly she said it, with her eyes so much like mine focused on my face. I felt the air rush out of me.


It also stung. How could I have ever let this child go? It would take years for me to fully understand how that single little belly poke changed me — to digest all the emotions conjured by that one jab with her tiny finger — I know now that was the moment when the connection I had tried so hard to sever was restored.



The author with Hanna, age 6. "This was just moments after the profound belly poke on the stairs," she writes.

COURTESY OF JOANNA GOOD


I continued to see Hanna whenever I was able to fly back to see my family. Her adoptive parents embraced me and my family and even sent Hanna with my parents to come visit me at my home. I welcomed her with open arms, and when she was with us, I felt like my world was finally whole. I loved watching her interact with my young daughters, who Hanna immediately and fully accepted as her little sisters.


When Hanna was 13, I got a message from her that hit me like a train going full speed. We had begun chatting almost daily via Facebook messenger — something I always looked forward to — but I never expected to see these two words pop up on my screen.


“I’m trans.”


Maybe there had been signs that I had missed because I had been too lost in my own feelings of longing or uncertainty. Maybe Hanna had been careful to hide the truth because she didn’t feel she could share it before then. Either way, I was honored to learn I was the first person he came out to. Still, in that moment, I panicked. What do you say to your child that isn’t legally your child when he reaches out to you in need of something you aren’t sure you’re allowed to give him?


Hanna’s adoptive parents offered no support and referred to his brave coming out as “a phase.” They refused to use any other name but the one they bestowed upon him and would not allow him to seek counseling or see a doctor for potential hormone blockers. Instead they looked to religion and prayed this phase would end.


There was no doubt in my mind that he needed me, even if I wasn’t his legal guardian. So, I decided to become the solution. I would be there for my birth son no matter what and I promised to be the parent I couldn’t be at 17. I steadied myself. I became resolved. I did all the research I could do. I shared all the love I had. I was there every step of the way as Hanna slowly transitioned to Aarron.


My daughters welcomed their “big brother” immediately — just as they never questioned that he was their blood, now they didn’t question his shorter hair or deeper voice. Eventually his adoptive father came around and accepted him, which offered me a little more hope. It had been a rough few years, and as I helped Aarron in whatever ways I could to grow and succeed in his new life, he helped me become the mother I never knew I could be in ways I never expected.


My youngest daughter snapped me out of my haze by asking if I knew anything about ratios. I opened my eyes and responded, “You know I don’t!” Laughing, I leaned over to look at her homework. I tried to make sense of the questions on the page in the same way I had been trying to make sense of the question that anonymous mother had asked in our online parenting forum — and all the questions I had faced over the last two decades of my life.


After I finished helping my daughter with her math, I found myself thinking about what Aarron had asked me last year as we walked along the beach after getting matching tattoos.


“Is there anything you would change? Do you regret placing me up for adoption?”


He had just turned 21, and I knew I’d get this question sooner or later. My answer came easily.



The author and Aarron. "Aarron was visiting me in Los Angeles to celebrate his 21st birthday," she writes.

COURTESY OF JOANNA GOOD


I told him I didn’t regret my choice. I’m grateful I’m now able to be a part of his life in ways I never imagined I would be. But I know, had I held my tiny baby girl Sarah and decided to parent her, I would never have left my small conservative town. I wouldn’t have moved to a place where I was able to learn more about the world and how big it is and all of the possibilities that it holds. I wouldn’t have learned to celebrate differences and accept people for who they are. The parent I am able to be to him now — the parent he needed — was made possible because of my choice.


Adoption. It might seem easy — the perfect solution for an unexpected child and an unprepared mom. But too often we don’t talk about the messiness. The trauma. The endless questioning. Or that there really is no such thing as a truly severed connection.


I turned my phone back on and stared at that post in my mom group. I wondered what I could say to this pregnant woman in need of support. What response could I possibly offer her when there is no one true answer?


Then I realized the one thing I most needed to hear when I was in her place all of those years ago. I typed, Hey, I understand. I’m here if you need to talk, and hit post.


Joanna Good was born and raised in North Dakota and now resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. After a decade of being a stay-at-home mom, she decided to follow her childhood dream of being a writer and is working on her memoir that touches on themes of adoption, LGBTQ+ issues, religion, and motherhood. You can follow her on Instagram @joannagoodwrites.


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