I was confident using my voice as a little girl.
I started singing in a giant church around 6 or 7 and I was often awarded solos. The annual Christmas event took place at the San Diego Convention Center and I was fearless in front of thousands of people. I sang in church and school choirs for years. As a high-schooler I sang Whitney Houston by request of my friends, who liked hearing me sing while we traveled to speech and debate competitions. My sophomore year of high school I tried out for Grease by belting out The Greatest Love of All and was given the part of Rizzo. I was the only vocalist in the play who could be heard at the back of the theater without a mic. I owned my loud and powerful voice. I felt comfortable taking up space as a teen.
While I was socially introverted and quiet, I had no issue being vocal in class or being openly creative. I was smart and I knew it. I was ambitious and trusted what I was capable of. I did math-olympics and the county spelling bee and won medals and ribbons. I was in the classes for “gifted” kids and I was part of the class leadership team. I also competed in speech tournaments.
By sophomore year I took up space visually. I was one of the only punk-goth kids in our rural school and even by that context my style was eclectic. I may have been quietly lurking the halls, but everyone knew who I was because of my wild outfits. I wore biker boots and my step dad’s camo pants one day and long skirts with scarves tied in layers around my waist the next. I scoured the stores in San Diego for unique pieces I could take back to our rural coastal town that carried last year’s fashions in its stores.
It all changed when I got pregnant at 16 by a mixed race older bad boy on his way to the first Desert Storm because the military was the only chance he had to make a life after years in and out of foster care due of a dad who beat the shit out of him. Later I learned through court papers that he is disabled and diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD. I never saw him again.
During the course of my pregnancy: my high school tried to force me out because they believed I was a bad influence on other students by merely existing; I lost most of my friends because our worlds changed so drastically; the father told me he believed I got pregnant on purpose to trap him though he was the one that claimed the condom was too tight; and the German foreign exchange student I loved the year prior came back to town and shamed me for having sex with someone else even though he told me we should do so while we were apart. When I had my son at the beginning of senior year I left behind honors classes and school dances for the alternative school the outcasts attended because on-site childcare was available. Fortunately it turned out to be a fabulous year with a teacher who honored my intelligence and curiosity.
When I returned to singing in the church choir after my son was born I discovered I couldn’t sing a solo in front of others anymore. I was so scared that my voice came out all wrong. This was the first time I lost my voice because of my identity as a marginalized mother (teen, single, and on welfare). It would be a few years before I found my voice again by doing poetry readings in college and singing Karaoke with friends.
Fast forward almost 20 years during which I claimed my space as a writer, artist, professional, and community leader.
Four years ago I lost my voice again because I chose adoption for my third child. I was ashamed for getting pregnant when I should have known to use protection every single time. I am ashamed for not wanting to raise him, and for not making the same choice that I did for my other children. I put my babies above all else knowing despite my youth and naivety that they needed a healthy relationship with me more than anything else. But I also believed I would have freedom the second half of my life. I clung to that dream of freedom with ferocity. If I raised this child I wouldn’t have known adulthood without full time parenting until I was 60. I chose myself and my freedom over my son. Deep down I believe this was incredibly selfish and even question using the term freedom because it sounds like children are chains when really they are commitments. I chose to commit to myself and allow another woman to commit to my son.
Not only am I struggling with shame, I also felt significantly more birth mother grief than I imagined I would since I was able to have an intimate relationship with my son as an Amma. No one tells you how intense the grief is, or that it manifests in your body for months, as if your body is reaching for a baby that isn’t there. That giant grief was coupled with the grief of simultaneously transitioning to an empty nester. My daughter moved out the year after my second son was born. There is a great emptiness in me now that I am not on a mission to be a good mother.
Birth mothers, also known as first mothers, are taboo. I can tell when it makes people uncomfortable that I talk about it. Everyone knows how to celebrate the adoptive parents that finally have the child they dreamed of. But I’ve learned no one knows how to be with the first family that lost a child.
And – I am not a young single woman who can say my child will grow up in better circumstances. I’m a 43 year old woman who now knows how to mother well, in a happy marriage and with more income than I’ve ever had before. In a culture with tiger moms and soccer moms and desperate women trying to become moms, I know many consider me a terrible mother for giving up custody of my child, let alone to a lesbian and a trans man.
And – we failed in our experiment with radically open adoption that was based on trust rather than legal documents. We failed at becoming the intentional community we imagined, sharing our son and a home. And so I feel more shame than ever, because my grief kept me from being present to others. I didn’t just center myself in choosing adoption, I centered myself within my grief experience and shut everyone else out. While I tried to give voice to my experience, I didn’t share the truth of the darkness I was wrapped in for four years. Now I see the light of day, every day, and I am ashamed of my own aftermath.
And – there are other pieces to this puzzle involving speaking my truth and being fired or bullied or rejected for it. To say it’s easier to hide away in my quiet little life is an understatement. So I struggle with using my voice. I am being offered opportunities to be paid for my writing and I am being validated by people the times that I do write publicly. And yet I choose silence far more often than I do being visible. It’s like I’ve hit a wall and I don’t know yet how to get over, under, around, or through it. I don’t know how to claim my voice this time.