Monday, June 30, 2014


I've had a lot of feelings lately and I'm going to address most of them in my next post, but today I want to talk about one set of feelings in particular.

I haven't been happy for a while now. It began with what my father used to describe as "general malaise." Then my discontent started creeping into other areas of my life, slowly and a little at a time, the way that hot cheese will escape the end of a Hot Pocket when you cook it too long. 

I was talking to a friend about feeling unhappy and she asked what changes would need to happen in my life for me to feel happy instead. I thought that a good start in answering was to list the things that I felt were contributing to my unhappiness, and I had an epiphany of sorts about the way that I've been seeing myself. In order to get you there, let's go back a few years.

Five years ago, June 30th was a Tuesday.

I wish I could say that I know this because I have the savant-like ability to name the day of the week that any given date fell on, like the girl with autism in that one Baby-Sitter's Club book that handled the issue of autism badly, even for a children's book from the 80s.

Alas, that is not the case. And parenthetically, precious few of the books I loved as a child have held up well over time from a literary standpoint.

I remember that June 30th, 2009 was a Tuesday, because it was my due date. Roo's due date. I knew that she wouldn't be born on her due date, because pretty much no one delivers on their due date. But the date still felt significant, because it was the date I'd had in my mind for nine months, and reaching it felt like a great accomplishment. So even though I knew she wouldn't be born that day, I felt like something should happen to mark the occasion of my due date.

Nothing did. It was a perfectly average Tuesday in every way, except for the fact that I was really super-duper pregnant and Roo kept kicking me in the kidneys (they must be pleasantly squishy or something, because she always kicked them). She stayed snug and warm in my belly for another week, and absolutely nothing happened on my due date. Despite my expectations, my hopes, and my timeline, all I got was a backache.

To quote my friend Rob, isn't that just like life?

I got to thinking about that the other day - about expectations and plans and mental due dates. How many times in my life have various due dates come and gone with nothing to show for them? Dozens, at least, if not a hundred or more. But despite a dearth of any savant-like skill with dates, I do tend to remember them, and more often than not I use them as a way of measuring my progress, or more specifically my lack thereof.

Three years ago I realized that it had been a decade since my high school graduation (May 24, 2001) and I quite naturally took inventory of my life in that space of time. It was an eventful decade, but I still felt like a failure, because I was single and fat and working part-time for $8 an hour. I always thought I'd have a college degree and a husband and children and a Volkswagen by the time my ten-year reunion rolled around. I had nothing to show for the decade that had elapsed since high school. It's been thirteen years now and I've still got nothing to show.

Even the revised life plans that I made when I placed Roo didn't come to fruition. I knew where I wanted to be when Roo was 1 year old, and 2 years old and so forth, and I am not in any of those places or stages of life. But, I told myself, that's okay. I just need to adjust my timeline. Change my when-Roo-is-four goals to my when-Roo-is-eight-or-nine goals.

I'd been feeling better about things last August, but then I took an online survey. I don't typically do that but at that time every single Target receipt I got had an invitation on it, and I needed to kill time while my cupcakes were in the oven. Nothing cuts to the heart of your insecurities quite like answering demographic questions. I already knew all of these things about myself, but it wasn't until Target asked me on one page that I thought, I am in my late twenties, I am single, I have never been married, I have no children, and I make less than $30,000 a year. That cheered me right up, let me tell you. I was glad to have cupcakes to look forward to; I needed them.

And then last fall I hit another due date, another deadline I set for myself. I turned 30. It wasn't as scary as I thought it might be. I actually had several days of birthday, culminating in a party where my fantastic friends surprised me with this cake:

(How you doin', Tom Selleck?)

I should mention that the very first thing I did in my thirties was put my contact lenses in, and then put my glasses back on. Isn't memory loss supposed to start in your forties? Anyway. After my week of birthday, I thought, well, shoot. I'm 30 now, and all I have to show for it is half of Tom Selleck's torso.*

All of those demographics that Target reminded me of (and more) kept coming to my mind. No husband - not even a boyfriend (not since the Bush administration, how's that for a frame of reference?), not much income, no children, thighs like a t-rex. It's a depressing way to look at your life, and the other day, when I thought about changing things, I wondered - at what point do I stop defining myself by the things that I lack?

Because that's what I've been doing since my birthday and probably my entire adult life. When I look at these due dates, at these deadlines, I feel that I've fallen short because of what I don't have. (And before you suggest counting my blessings, know that I actually have a list of my blessings. I am a compulsive list-maker; if you ever want to know what my faults are I have a Google doc I can show you.) I didn't used to do that. When did I start? When did I stop seeing myself as a whole person with innate value and start seeing myself as a collection of empty spaces?

My only consolation, if you can call it that, is that I know I'm not alone in this. I think it's a societal disease, this idea that who we are is what we're missing. I know plenty of other women who are put into boxes marked Single and Childless. How messed up is that? I've written before about how labeling birth mothers dehumanizes them. It's true for everyone, and especially when that label implies that they've come up short, that something is missing.

I want to get married. I want to be a mother. But I want to be happy even if neither of those things ever happens for me. I want to feel whole just the way that I am now. I want to see myself as the sum of what I do have, good and bad, and not as a list of unfulfilled dreams. I want to be enough. I want the woman that I am right now, right this second, to be enough for me to be happy.

When I was a child I was focused on what I could do, what I did well, and what I wanted to do. I didn't ever feel like I wasn't enough as I was. What changed in the past twenty years? I mean, obviously plenty of things have changed, but who I am fundamentally, as a human being, as a child of God - what's really changed? Nothing has changed. If I was enough then, I'm enough now.

I don't mean to imply that there's no room for improvement. I want to end each day as a better person than I was when I began it (how's that for an unattainable goal?). But I'm tired of feeling inadequate because of the things I don't have. Here's the thing - I'm never going to run out of due dates. I'm never going to stop having occasion to mark my progress and reevaluate my life. I don't have a lot of control over that. What I do have control over is how I let these due dates affect me.

Roo will be five in a little over a week. Another milestone - another deadline. I am light-years away from where I wanted to be when she turns five. I may never get to where I wanted to be at this point in my life. That doesn't have to matter. I can still be happy with where I am.

I know I'm not going to get there right away. It takes time to change the habit of being dissatisfied. But I want to start now. I want to learn to be happy with myself and my life, no matter what. It's time. I'm due.

*The left half. Well, my left, his right.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Parenting and Being an Adult

Roo's birthday is coming up in a few weeks. I'm not sure where the last five years went but she's starting kindergarten in the fall and she has already started reading chapter books and is generally much smarter than any five-year-old has any right to be. She is my favorite.

That Roo has the parents she does feels like a gift to me. The more I get to know people the more I realize that P an M aren't just excellent parents. They are exceptional human beings. The world could use more people like them. I look up to them in so many ways and I hope that if I ever grow up, I end up being their kind of person. The only downside I can see to Roo being their daughter is that children so rarely appreciate their parents. I hope that Roo is the exception and that as she gets older she realizes how amazing her parents are and how blessed she is to be their daughter. I hope that as she gets older she knows that I wouldn't have placed her with just anyone, and that in fact I couldn't possibly have placed her with anyone on earth but P and M - not for a second.

I have never worried even once about whether Roo is happy and healthy and loved. She has such a good life and such a good family. I used to wonder if, as Roo got older, I would wish I had parented her but the opposite is true. The older she gets, the more I love my choice and the less I care what anyone else thinks of it. Things people might say that used to offend me just make me laugh now. I wish that I were this certain of every decision I've ever made in my life!

But even though I don't regret my choice, I do still wonder sometimes what life would be like for me and Roo if I had parented her. I don't consider things too deeply because I can't wrap my mind around custody arrangements and child support and I honestly don't know where I would be living or working right now. But I do think, if I had parented, I would have an almost-five-year-old now. I would have registered her for kindergarten. How scary is that? I don't have a clue how any of that works. How do you know you've found a good school? A good teacher? How do you prepare a child to go from preschool to kindergarten?

I'll confess to ignorance in pretty much the entire realm of childcare at this point. I have no idea how much a child is supposed to eat or how much sleep they should get every night. I don't know when naps stop. I don't know what you're supposed to teach them and when. How much TV is too much? Do kids still get chicken pox? So many questions.

I know that most people don't know any of these things when they have a baby. They just figure it out as they go along, which is kind of a terrifying thought, isn't it? All these people who haven't a clue what they're doing are raising children, and those children are going to be adults someday whether they're raised right or not. It sounds like a terrible idea. Who came up with this? Somehow it works and enough of us make it to adulthood (relatively unscathed) to keep the world going. I'll never understand it.

P and M seem to have the whole parenting thing figured out. They're not perfect but I think they do a better job of it than anyone else I know (although I will admit to a slight bias in their favor). I think it's because they were ready for parenthood when their firstborn was placed with them. They were absolutely ready to be parents. They were prepared. They stay calm. They make rational decisions. They are adults.

This is, I think, my problem with the idea of me registering a child for kindergarten. I don't feel like enough of a responsible adult to be trusted with that kind of decision. I know myself. I do stupid things more often than I remember to eat and I make bad decisions almost exclusively. I had to have help picking a health insurance plan and I don't actually understand any of it. I once ate half a can of chocolate frosting in a single sitting. My mother could make a list entitled Ridiculous Reasons My Daughter Has Phoned Me and the Equally Ridiculous Questions That Followed. (I once left her a voicemail that went something like, "Hi Mom, this is Jill, your youngest child. I think I poisoned myself. Will you call me back when you get a minute? No rush.") I will make it through an entire day off work without remembering that I'm supposed to eat regularly. Last year I bought a t-shirt with a pattern of unicorns on it and I wear it to work (also, ask me about my whale shirt).

The idea that I am a both a registered voter and a government employee should terrify you. I am thirty years old but make no mistake, I am not an adult.

I used to bristle at the idea that as a birth mom, I chose adoption because I wasn't ready to be a parent. "I was ready!" was my battle cry. I thought that I proved it by parenting Roo for nine weeks. I think I even blogged about the not-ready-for-parenting school of thought, because I remember writing the phrase "I was absolutely ready to be a mother."

But what I've come to realize in the past little while is that, no, I absolutely was not. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted it desperately. But that doesn't mean I was ready. Looking back I can see that. And what's more, I still don't think I'm ready.

I want to repeat that because when I realized it, it hit me with great force. I am not ready to have a child. I'm 30. When I'm in a quiet room I can't hear my heartbeat because my biological clock is ticking too loudly. I am jealous of pregnant women I see. My insides feel all squishy when I see babies. My mind is blank of every thought but one: I want one of those! Babies are awesome and at my age, when I see one I am biochemically predisposed to want one of my own.

But that's not enough. What on earth would I do with one? For the most part I'm no better off than I was five years ago. I make a lot of the same stupid choices and I have some of the same bad habits and I am an absolute child about things for the most part. The biggest difference between the Jill who placed Roo and the Jill who is typing this is that the latter is five years older and needs a haircut.

I don't want to discount any personal growth I might have done. I am a slightly better person right now. But I don't think I'm any better prepared to be a mother.

I already know I'm going to get comments from mothers telling me, "Nobody is ever really prepared for parenthood. Nobody is ever really ready." People are going to tell me that you figure it out as you go along, that you get ready as you parent. People are going to point out that plenty of people who aren't ready to be parents still have kids and make a decent go of it. And I believe all of that.

But believe me when I say that if I met an amazing man tomorrow and we fell in love and got married, I would think long and hard before having a child right away. I have more issues than Newsweek. I know I'm not ready to be anyone's mother. And isn't this the perfect time to figure that out, now, while I'm not anyone's mother?

I wasn't ready for Roo and I'm still not. I am so, so grateful that her parents were ready, and still are. I couldn't have placed Roo with just anyone. I love her too much for that. I could only have placed her with them and I'm so glad I did!

I think there will come a time, maybe a few years from now, when I stop panicking every time a bill comes in the mail, when I do my taxes before April 15th, when I give up napping under my desk at work, when my therapist no longer calls because he's worried about me ... there will come a time when I unironically describe myself as an adult, when I will see babies and think not only of how much I want one but of how much I have to offer to one as a mother. It's going to be a good day.

I'm just not there yet.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Let it go

Last night I attended Roo's last dance recital. Dance is boring, she says, so she's going to try something new in the fall. She danced pretty well for a four-year-old. It looked to me like she knew the choreography better than any of the other little duck-costumed preschoolers on the stage. Her face really sold it for me, too. This girl was serious about her duck dance. M and I sat next to each other and we both took video of Roo dancing. It was one of those moments that could have been photographed for a PSA about open adoption.

After the recital M found Roo among the lines of tiny dancers filing out of the auditorium, and my heart felt full to burst. To someone who doesn't understand the beauty possible in adoption this will sound weird or even awful, but it makes me so, so happy that M is Roo's mom. They belong with each other. I see the two of them together and I think, that's what I want, if I ever have the chance to be a mother again.

I don't feel a smidge of sadness about the almost-five-year-old who danced so enthusiastically in a sparkly duck costume last night. She's got as good a life as any little girl could ever hope to have. She's pure sunshine - goodness and sweetness in human form. She makes me happy. It's impossible for me to feel any pain where she's concerned. In that sense, as far as placing a child for adoption goes, I am way beyond “over it.”

But this afternoon I got a reminder that there are some things I might never get over. It's a reminder I've gotten several times before but I keep managing to push it out of my mind. And, just like so many of life's disappointments, this one is because of laundry.

I was a mother for nine weeks before I placed Roo for adoption. When you've got a baby, you've usually got this entire collection of things for the small human in your care. It's quite amazing how many things accumulate for such a tiny person. I had a crib and a car seat and a stroller and a Pack and Play and crib bedding and blankets and burp cloths and dozens of teensy little outfits and socks. There were pacifiers and miniature fingernail clippers and bottles and stacks and stacks of other things that modern society says are required for the well-being of a ten-pound person. I spent every penny I had on accouterments for my baby. And I was happy to do it. I loved every last accessory.

Then one day I didn't have a baby anymore.

But I still had all this stuff. Scads of it. Boxes and boxes worth of baby things. Most of them I was able to put aside without an overabundance of pain. Clothes were a different story. The last load of little laundry I did, the one after placement, just about killed me. I folded up clean Onesies and sleepers and knew that I wasn't going to put them on my baby ever again. I didn't have a baby to put them on.

Eventually all of Roo's things were packed into Rubbermaid storage boxes, which were labeled and tucked away into a back corner of the garage. The crib was taken apart and bubble-wrapped and nestled with the mattress on top of the boxes. The car seat and stroller were mummified in plastic and hidden with the rest of the proof that I used to be somebody's mother.

My mother consoled me with the idea that in a few years I would likely be unwrapping and unboxing everything with my husband, getting things ready for the child we were expecting together. I clung desperately to the idea of this storage being a temporary thing. I thought, I will be a mother again before this pink-patterned car seat expires.

But I wasn't. Roo turned two and her baby things remained untouched. I considered selling them but I panicked when I tried. I wasn't ready to let them go. If I ever thought of the boxes after that I decided to worry about selling their contents when Roo was three. I would be ready then. But I didn't think about the boxes very often. I wasn't at my mom's house very often and I certainly wasn't spending time in her garage. Roo's third birthday came and went and her baby things never came to my mind.

I found some way to block from my mind the existence of those boxes and that shrink-wrapped furniture. I would see baby clothes at Target and have vague memories of how, in my early twenties, I used to collect little outfits here and there for some future child but my mind never jumped from that collection to the storage boxes. I managed to forget about the sad reminders of my interrupted maternity until last month.

My sister-in-law is pregnant and due in August. This pregnancy is something of a miracle and, with more than four years having passed without a new niece or nephew, I am almost desperately happy at the thought of holding a Barber baby again. My sweet nephew Elliot died two years ago, before he was born, so every day Becky is pregnant with this little girl is an answer to prayer.

My brother and his family were in town for Easter. They're getting ready to move to Texas this summer and somehow or other it came up that they were going to have to buy a new crib and mattress for Baby Girl. My mouth knew what to say before my brain did.

“I've got a crib and mattress in the garage. It's yours if you want it.”

They said that they did, and I loved the thought of their miracle baby sleeping in Roo's old crib. I felt ready to let those things go. I was proud of myself. I was finally ready! They reassured me that I could have both items back when I needed them but I said I didn't think that day would come and they were welcome to keep what I gave them. And then the conversation moved on, and again I forgot about the things in my mom's garage.

Today my sister-in-law sent me a text message asking if my offer of the crib and mattress was still good. I said that it was. She asked if I still had the bedding and I said I had everything. When I used the word “everything” I was thinking of bumpers and blankets and I was ready to part with it all but then Becky asked what I meant by “everything” and I suddenly remembered the box of baby Roo's Onesies and sleepers and I lost it. I went full-on Kim Kardashian with my ugly crying.

I want my sister-in-law to have the crib and mattress. I want her to take the box of bedding. I'm ready for that. But those tiny clothes … will I ever be ready to let them go? Roo starts school in the fall. How am I still haunted by her gingerbread jammies? How is it that five years later the thought of her pink polka-dot Onesie reduces me to tears?

I have a box full of baby clothes that I'm not using, that I may never use. I want to let it go. I want to want Becky to take them. I don't want tiny striped socks to have this kind of hold on me. What's it going to take for me to be ready? How long will it be before the ghost of the baby who was mine stops casting a shadow over a box of clean laundry?

I don't know. I know plenty of birth mothers, including several who parented before placing, but none who placed before I did. I don't have anyone to look to as an example of what trajectory my grief hoarding might follow.

I've passed the point where I'm hanging on to little laundry for some future baby. I wasted a lot of time with motherhood as my only life's goal. It would be fine if I were married or expected to marry but I have to think differently as a single woman in my stage of life. I have to plan for a future where I'm the only one who's going to take care of me because there are no guarantees. I know that I wouldn't marry me right now. I've got too much baggage and I probably always will. I expect to unpack it on my own.

The memory of the newborn I placed is strong enough to keep that box of baby clothes in my mom's garage. I just wish that the thought of the five-year-old that baby became was strong enough for me to let the box go. I'll get there someday. Someday I will be able to open that box, to save a pair of jammies or two as a reminder, and let the rest of it go.

Maybe that day will be sooner than I think. The crib and mattress will be loaded into a Texas-bound van in July. And a few days before that, Becky and I will open the boxes that I haven't touched in five years. We'll pick out sheets and blankets for her tiny miracle. Becky is one of the strongest women I know. Maybe her strength will make me brave and we'll open the box that hurts me the most.

I've cried alone over these things for so long. Maybe crying over them with someone else will give me the courage I need to finally let them go.