Just before I left for college, my mother and I had the biggest fight we’ve ever had. At the time, I didn’t understand it. It was about nothing and each time I countered with whatever she complained about she switched it up on me and brought up something else I’d done wrong in the last four years. High school was a terrible time for me, and she was still mad about something I did.
I got pregnant at 14 and gave birth to a girl that I eventually raised as a single mother. By the time I got pregnant again the following year, she was furious with me. “Stupid mistake” and “stupid girl” and “irresponsible” were oft-repeated phrases she hurled at me, and sometime around my 17th birthday she nearly stopped speaking to me in complete sentences at all. I had embarrassed her and ruined her reputation in our small community, even though I had made a tough decision to place that second baby, another girl, up for adoption.
It was too late, though. She was angry with me and began to agree with everyone who suggested I would amount to nothing. Even some teachers at school would say things, right in front of me, about taking the wrong path and ending up as a leech on welfare. Nothing could shake that from my consciousness, not even the laser-like focus I gained in the years following that enormous argument the night before I left to move to an even smaller college town with a three-year-old in tow. The damage was done, and the censorship began.
My mother told me never to tell anyone what I’d done in having a second baby because I’d already be caring for one and that I’d never meet a guy who would be willing to take all that baggage. It was best to start covering my tracks. From that point on, we didn’t discuss Caitlin, the daughter I placed for adoption. By the time I married and had two other children, the censorship I placed on myself seemed to take on a life of its own.
I censored my words and didn’t share with anyone the silent pain of missing a child.
An interesting thing happens when someone pressures you to change your own life story: You begin to believe in its truth, and whatever narrative you go with ends up becoming an actual truth. If I met a new person and we began learning details about one another’s lives, the question would invariably come up: How many kids do you have? My mouth would say “three” but my heart said “four.” I became obsessed with people who had four children. “How do you do it all? Four must be hard. Three is enough for me.”
It was the fighting I did with myself in my early 20s and 30s that did the most damage. That fight with my mother and the feeling that I was steering off the course everyone else said had been laid out for me seemed to keep driving me to censorship. My mother must have been right because I met a guy and got married and started ticking things off that imaginary to-do list to have The Perfect Life. I bought a house, started a career and was generally happy with that life. But I was lying to myself. I censored my words and didn’t share with anyone the silent pain of missing a child. If I was sad, I would lie about that, too. I didn’t want this huge secret to be known.
Years of counseling, lots of girlfriend therapy and a few bottles of red wine have helped me along. The first time I spilled my secret to a friend, it was because she shared that she had been adopted by her parents after they had given birth to her older sibling. That fascinated me because it was my same story, only told from another perspective. I’d go on to meet more women who became great friends and heard the un-censoring of my secret and, guess what? They didn’t judge me for it. They accepted it as a part of my story and helped the healing begin.
In one of my many therapy sessions, I looked back at that argument with my mother. I finally began to understand that I was changing my story, but my mother hadn’t expected me to do so. She believed, like others, that I wouldn’t ever amount to anything. But here I was, with the audacity to change my story and my life. I packed up and never looked back.
When I tell my story now, all my shame is gone. I state everything very matter-of-factly when I proudly tell people that I made a difficult choice that ended up working out well in the end for all parties. What I have had to reconcile with myself is that I’m included in that. Would I have finished two degrees and gotten a job if I’d done things different? Could I unequivocally state that my life turned out differently because I chose to place my daughter up for adoption — that it left me open to achieve what I have? Those aren’t easy questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but they’re questions that I keep as open as I did the adoption. What I realized is that it’s my story and that it benefits no one, least of all me, to tell only part of it. If I am open to my own truth and am able to tell it sans censorship, then I am also open to healing and finally being okay with my decisions. No one can narrate my life better than I can, so telling the truth is the only option.
I have also found that when I tell my story to others, something magical happens: it affords them the same bravery. When I meet confident people, especially women, I find myself drawn into their truths as they tell them and I realize that I’m no longer fighting with a mom whose low expectations will cause a rift that may never be repaired. More importantly, I’m not fighting with myself. I can look that woman in the mirror directly in the eyes and know that censorship was a poison I will no longer swallow. That is the only way forward.