This is a contributed post of a December 21, 2000 article featured in the Houston Press by Jennifer Mathieu.
The straightest path from Houston to Lake Jackson is 288 South. The road cuts into the flat, open fields like a piece of black ribbon, racing along for miles. When Kristi Weaver drives that road in her white Plymouth Horizon — the one with no radio and the driver’s-side door that sticks — she passes the time by talking to herself. There’s certainly not much to look at, she says. But there is probably a lot to think about. Because Kristi Weaver takes this trip every few months to visit her son, Ryan, who lives in Lake Jackson with his adoptive parents, Jill and Bill.
Kristi has known the soft swell of pregnancy and the sharp pain of childbirth. But she did not get up for middle-of-the-night feedings. She does not jump and turn to look when someone says “Mommy” in the supermarket or the library. Those are things that belong to Jill and Bill. But unlike birth mothers of the past, Kristi is not shut out from two-and-a-half-year-old Ryan’s life. Instead, she is welcomed into it. She attended his baptism and is invited on trips to visit Santa Claus. Jill and Bill want her there at Ryan’s high school graduation. So whenever she can, 25-year-old Kristi Weaver gets into her car and begins the long, quiet drive to Lake Jackson.
This is the story of a family who took a journey together down a road that was neither straight nor boring. At the beginning of that road there were obstacles and sacrifice. And at the end of it there was love.
Kristi says she always falls for the way men from Texas say “darlin’,” and when it rains, she always prays that homeless people will find a bridge to crawl under. She adores Harry Potter books and keeps a journal, and goes to Saturday-evening Catholic Mass and a Sunday-morning Baptist service, just to be sure. Her voice still grows half-dreamy when she talks about Troy, Ryan’s birth father, with whom she lived for three and a half years and who recently left Houston for California to pursue dreams of becoming a race-car mechanic. She is getting used to living on her own for the first time in her whole life, and she lives just a short walk from her job as a receptionist at Nassau Bay City Hall. The outgoing message on her answering machine ends with the chipper reminder, “Have an outstanding day!”
If you had asked her a few years ago what adoption meant, Kristi would have guessed it meant being shuttled away to a convent and having your baby taken from you by a bunch of nuns the second after it was born. And when she got pregnant at the age of 22, the concept of open adoption was foreign to her. But she knew one thing: She didn’t think it would be fair to keep this baby.
Troy was working as a technician at Compaq, and she was a cashier at an H-E-B grocery store. Her endometriosis and her habit of forgetting to take her birth control pills on time meant her periods were never normal. So when she was late, she wasn’t too worried. But then one night she dreamed that two clear voices were talking to her, “a huge voice and a little bitty voice.” Kristi woke up, rolled over, rode a wave of nausea and knew.
“In the dream the voices told me to take care of myself because I was pregnant,” says Kristi. She thinks the big booming voice in her dream was God’s, and the tiny voice she heard was Ryan’s.
She took a home pregnancy test and it was positive. She went to the doctor for a urine test and it was positive. She hoped hard and demanded a blood test. And of course, it was positive. When she told Troy, he suggested an abortion. So did her mother. But Kristi didn’t even consider it. She had had one years earlier, with a different boyfriend, and it had left her feeling numb and strange. She had prayed to God for forgiveness, she says. Getting pregnant a second time, getting sick and having that dream — it made her realize she couldn’t handle doing something like that again.
“Physically I could not do that; it would kill me,” says Kristi. “And I wanted to live.”
She thought about keeping the baby, but didn’t know how she would do it. Troy wasn’t ready to parent, and she was working at a grocery store making maybe $8 an hour. She didn’t want food stamps and WIC (women, infants and children) assistance, she says, because she just knew she would be the type of person to get dependent on them. And parenting alone would mean day care — something she really knew she didn’t want.
“I hate day cares,” she says. “They spend eight hours a day there, and who’s teaching who what? Are they changing their diapers on time? What’s the ratio? I was freaking.”
She spent a lot of time in day care as a child. And some in foster care too. Kristi’s childhood was tumultuous. Her mother had Kristi at 19. Kristi has never met her birth father, and even though she knows his name, she won’t call him. “Rejection,” she says. That’s what she’s afraid of.
There are so many sweet things from her growing-up years that she says she values, like the way her mother could tell stories or pretend to be the “Tickle Monster,” and would take her to see her grandfather on his farm in Dayton. There, Kristi would get to ride on his four-wheeler through the woods. But she had the stinging memories, too. Her mother was always taking her to live with relatives and family friends, always moving to different parts of the city. Kristi thinks she must have attended at least ten different elementary schools. At one point her mother lost custody, and she and her sister were sent to live with a stepfather — the man whose last name she still carries. There, she was beaten. Three days shy of her eighth birthday, her stepfather dumped her in a tub of scalding water. Her ankles and feet still show the scars of her third-degree burns. When Kristi talks about this, her voice is even and calm and shocking in its forgiveness. Her stepfather was not a well man, she admits. He didn’t know what he was doing. She says a thank-you prayer out loud that it was she and not her sister who was hurt.
“He’ll meet his maker on his own terms, and he’s set those terms, and I just hope he’s asked for forgiveness,” she says.
So Kristi had survived. But she was 22 and pregnant, and she wanted only the best for that baby. She went to Barnes & Noble and bought everything from baby name books to books on single parenting to books on adoption. When an aunt who had been adopted suggested the Homes of St. Mark, one of the oldest adoption agencies in Houston, Kristi contacted Pam Lucas, the Homes’ director of adoption. After talking to Pam, she began to understand a different kind of adoption. One that was legally binding, like the ones she had imagined. But one that would allow her to know her baby, see his pictures as he grew up and even visit him from time to time. The Homes selected adoptive parents who were counseled, went to meetings, learned about openness and wanted it too, Pam told her. If Kristi wanted to place her child, she would have counseling, one-on-one attention and support. It was the first option that made any sense to Kristi.
Pam came out to meet her, and the day after that first meeting she sent Kristi a Homes of St. Mark “résumé book” complete with pictures and letters from families hungry to adopt a child. Pam told Kristi to look it over and see what she thought.
Kristi started reading. At first she tried to get Troy to read, but he wouldn’t. He only wanted to sit on the couch and watch football. Every time Kristi would try to make him look at the pictures he would tell her he really didn’t want to. Maybe tomorrow, he would say. But not today.
“Okay,” Kristi finally told him, “if you don’t read this now, you don’t have a choice, and I don’t care.”
Finally, Troy agreed to look. After sifting through 30 résumés — all complete with smiling photos and heartbreaking letters — Kristi and Troy found Jill and Bill Clark. Troy, who had taken classes at the University of Texas at Austin, wasn’t thrilled with the fact that Bill was an Aggie. But Troy and Kristi, both Catholic, liked that Bill and Jill were Catholic. Bill had a great job as an engineer, and Jill wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. The couple had been married for 19 years and had spent 13 of those trying to get pregnant and another three waiting for a child to adopt. They had gone through round after round of infertility treatments and Jill had lost two pregnancies. They had nieces and nephews who loved them, and Jill and Bill loved them back. But they wanted a baby of their own, too.
“Aunt Jill and Uncle Bill are really nice people,” wrote the Clarks’ eight-year-old nephew, in a recommendation Jill and Bill had included in their letter. “They serve really good food and they talk to me. I want to know when they are going to get a baby.”
Kristi can’t quite explain it, even today. But it wasn’t any one thing about the couple. It was more like magic. Just like she had known she was pregnant, she knew Jill and Bill were the ones for her. Right before Thanksgiving Kristi called Pam Lucas. She wanted to make sure Pam called the Clarks before Thanksgiving Day, so they’d really have something to be thankful for.
“Oh, I was just floating around that day. “We’ve been chosen, we’ve been chosen,’ ” says Jill.
Soon after, the two couples met at the Homes of St. Mark, with Pam facilitating. Those meetings are almost like first dates, Pam says. Everyone wants everybody to like everybody else. Kristi, a self-proclaimed chatterbox, filled the empty spaces with stories of her grandfather’s farm and things she liked to do when she was little. She wasn’t nervous, she says, but excited. After the meeting, as they were getting ready to go, the baby moved for the first time.
“You know that feeling when you’re falling in love and you get butterflies in your stomach and you’re just as light as air? It’s just like that,” Kristi explains. “The baby kicking is like falling in love.”
Jill and Bill quickly became part of their lives. They would meet and talk about how things were going. Kristi called Jill all the time just to talk about the pregnancy. They went shopping for baby clothes, and Jill gave Kristi a medal of St. Thomas, the patron saint of mothers and children, to wear during the pregnancy. They went to doctor’s visits, they helped pick out names. At first, Jill and Bill wanted to name the baby Troy if it was a boy, but Kristi and Troy rejected the idea. No, they said, you’re going to be the parents. So they picked Ryan instead.
Not all was perfect, however. Troy couldn’t bring himself to talk much about the adoption. He still can’t. Kristi thinks it was hard for him to bring a baby into the world and then admit he couldn’t care for it as he wanted to. And even though Troy’s family supported the decision, Kristi’s relatives insisted she had made a choice that would lead only to regret. They thought she should keep her baby. They accused Troy of making her give up the child, something Kristi furiously denies.
“Every time I talked to them it was a big argument: “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.’ And I just couldn’t talk to them anymore,” she says. “They still don’t ever see Ryan, which breaks my heart. But I can’t force them to.”
Plus, Kristi had about ten miles of what-ifs on her mind. What if she could never get pregnant again? What if Jill and Bill were just pretending? What if they didn’t like her as much as they seemed to? What if the openness didn’t work?
Jill and Bill were nervous too. And vulnerable. They knew no matter how much they had gotten to know Kristi, no matter how much she seemed to like and trust them — they knew that at the last minute Kristi could change her mind. They knew it even when they showed up at the hospital on the day Kristi was induced. All of Kristi’s and Troy’s relatives showed up at Memorial Hospital in The Woodlands, but Jill and Bill were the first to arrive. In the waiting room, Jill told Kristi’s mom that even if Kristi changed her mind, they would not regret meeting her, because they liked her so much. And Kristi’s mom said Kristi would never do that, because she would rather break her own heart than the hearts of Jill and Bill. Kristi appreciated that, she says, but she doesn’t understand how even after the birth her mother still tried to get her to change her mind.
But Kristi didn’t. In a small ceremony at the hospital, two days after he was born, Kristi placed her son with Jill and Bill. Two days later she would officially sign the papers.
It was a bittersweet day, and there were tears, of course. Nobody’s dream is to grow up and be a single mom or go through an adoption, says Kristi. The dream is to grow up and find Mr. Perfect and get the little house with the picket fence and the babies. So it was hard to admit she could not face the responsibility of motherhood.
“It’s like taking those big horse pills,” she says. “They don’t go down easy.”
But in the end, Kristi insists she was so sure of her choice that when she got into the car to go home from the hospital she felt mostly at peace. A few weeks later she went out to visit the Clarks, and Jill and Bill went out to dinner and left her alone with Ryan. Kristi was shocked.
“Oh, I was so ready for them to come back,” she says. “With a newborn I could just imagine everything that could go wrong. They’ve always commended me on my bravery. And I always tell them I had the easy part.”
Jill and Bill did come back, of course. And so did Kristi. For the christening, for the birthdays, for the visits to Santa Claus. And bit by bit, before everyone’s eyes, the open adoption was working.
This is not the way it was always done. But in every way that open adoption is revolutionary, it is also a throwback to the past, explains Bruce Rappaport, executive director of the 18-year-old Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, and one of the founders of the ten-year-old National Federation for Open Adoption Education. The center and federation were trailblazers in both practicing open adoption and educating other agencies about its benefits and challenges. Agencies like the Homes of St. Mark regularly attend federation-sponsored conferences that hold workshops such as “Post Adoption Issues in Open Adoption” and “Opening Closed or Semi-Open Adoptions.” Social workers also can be certified through the federation as open adoption practitioners by arriving early to the conference and attending specific classes.
“People think open adoption is this radical idea,” says Rappaport. “But it’s more about going back and creating extended families.”
At the turn of the 20th century, most adoptions in America were open, says Rappaport, and often took place between family members or members of the same church congregation or small town. If a young woman had a child she could not care for, the child often was sent to live with a relative or family friend who could. Oftentimes everyone knew the identity of the birth mother — even the child — and everyone involved continued to have some contact with one another.
“People who say, “I was raised by my aunt’ or “I was raised by my grandmother,’ in a sense, that was open adoption,” says Rappaport.
But in the ’40s and ’50s, as extended families began to live in different parts of the country and the suburbs began to sprawl, adoption became a legal transaction handled by agencies. And it quickly became shrouded in taboo and silence, Rappaport says. Agencies openly referred to infertile adoptive parents as “barren” and birth mothers as “promiscuous,” often because they were young and unwed. It was not uncommon for adopted children to remain ignorant of the circumstances surrounding their birth. Even if they learned of it, they were often told to keep it a secret from others. Their medical histories and ethnic heritage were lost to them. As recently as 15 to 20 years ago, hospitals assigned birth mothers a sort of scarlet letter; their hospital doors were labeled with the acronym DNS-DNP, meaning do not show, do not publish. Nurses were ordered to prevent the mother from seeing the child, and the baby often was taken away immediately after delivery. In some extreme cases, the mother’s head was forcibly held down during the birth so she could not catch even a glimpse of the infant before it was handed to a social worker. The mother’s name was never placed on the hospital door, and if someone telephoned for her, hospital employees were instructed to tell the caller there was no patient by that name. It was literally as if she did not exist.
In some cases, the birth mother was allowed to hold the baby for a short while. But inevitably a social worker would arrive to take the child. And as the social worker walked out the door, the young woman was faced with the surreal fact that she most likely would never see that child again. She would never even know her baby’s first name.
“I knew one social worker who said she felt like she was being sent by the devil,” says Rappaport. “She would have to go into these young girls’ rooms and say, “Give me your baby.’ She used to go home and throw up.”
These difficult procedures, along with the legalization of abortion and the increased societal acceptance of single motherhood, drove adoption rates down to single digits. The center estimates that a little over 30 years ago, 60 percent of unwed mothers placed their children for adoption. By the ’80s the number was down to 3 percent and shrinking.
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