I must have seen at least one expectant mother by the time I was eight, but made no clear connection to a baby, and I didn’t recall the word “pregnancy” mentioned at home. Mom used P.G. for short with a smirk, maybe how she distanced herself from the condition she’d never experienced. I was rarely around Mom’s big family of cousins, and don’t remember seeing their infants. I hadn’t put together questions about my three-month-old baby sister’s origin. I was with my parents to pick her up from the nun at the maternity home in Shreveport, but it was all so mysterious. I didn’t ask for details about my first story, the one where they picked me up from the infant home in South Carolina. There was nothing much to say about my beginnings, I guessed.
I couldn’t imagine that I was born from a woman. I assumed babies came on the scene by some kind of intentional or forced removal from their chubby mothers. My parents gave me “The Visible Woman” plastic model for Christmas, but Mom didn’t look at it with me. I was expected to figure it out for myself, like the amateur chemistry set I got that year. It was up to me to grasp the how’s, how-to’s, and the why’s. A curled up plastic baby was included in the female anatomy kit, but apart from thinking it sweet, I didn’t pay much attention to its placement in or exit from its clear, cold mother.
So, what did I understand about a nine-month gestation? My parents (actually, my dad) told me when I was six that I had a mother who was taken away in some accident, but I couldn’t imagine a connection to her. Neither did I have much of a physical bond with my adoptive parents. Nana let me snuggle with her on her bed to watch T.V. when we visited her. Mom was not a hugger. Dad planted a kiss on my lips when he returned from long trips, but when he was home he just said, “Good night, God bless you, and take care of you.” And sometimes, “Children should be seen and not heard.”
One evening, I sauntered into the living room with a blown-up balloon under my shirt. I was being comical. Bad move. Dad lunged from his chair, outraged. “Don’t ever do that again!” He swatted his newspaper at me like a bad puppy. I let my playful pregnancy drop from its place against my body, and bursting into tears, I ran to my room and hid, embarrassed and confused. What had I done wrong?
I know now that Dad saw his duty to protect both of his adopted daughters. He probably believed—likely knew—we were born of “wayward ” mothers. He would have to control me, or else I could turn out like my birth mother. Might not my parents have decided that since they had to rely on other women’s foibles to form their family, to simply “love these girls enough to overlook that they are not ours genetically; embrace them with all the love we might have given a child of our own?” Couldn’t they have relaxed and assumed that their adoptive girls would turn out fine if they only listened to their needs and loved them?
Prancing in front of him with my make-believe replete womb triggered my dad. He couldn’t ignore or chuckle it off, because that would give my behavior tacit approval. He had to shame me. Make a statement about illegitimacy. In the history of the adoption industry, the term, “disturbed” was used for unwed mothers. In my adoptive father’s puritanical, patriarchal view–how he was raised—they were undeserving of their babies, especially compared to a devout Catholic couple. So came about the rescue institution of adoption, to protect us all from the shame of our origins. How sad and archaic is the system!
Mary Ellen was adopted in the State of SC in 1952, and has no legal access to her original birth certificate, although she has been in reunion since 1993, and can trace her ancestry by DNA. She, like so many adoptees, is marginalized for being relinquished at birth. Her personal essays have been published in many literary publications, and her adoption memoir is in progress.