Secret Shame 

Women who gave up children for adoption reach out to offer birth mothers support.

Vicki Richardson says her former husband tried to destroy all memories of the daughter she surrendered for adoption. “He made me go to work the day she was placed, as if she never existed,” Vicki says. She returned home to find an empty nursery. “Everything was gone. I didn’t have her first spoon, her crib blanket, or any of her clothes. He got rid of all her things and didn’t allow her name to be mentioned after that.”

Vicki says she wasn’t permitted to grieve the loss, but inside, the hole in her heart was permanent. She clung to the only mementos she had left—a handful of photos her husband didn’t find.

Despite her loss, Vicki knows that she spent more time with her baby than most birth mothers. She wasn’t a single, unwed mother, but rather was married to an abusive man. She eventually relinquished her daughter, who was the child of a prior relationship, to safeguard the infant from harm. Her husband was too unpredictable, hitting Vicki if the house wasn’t clean enough or if she cooked spaghetti too many times in a month.

On one occasion, Vicki says she left the house to use a payphone and returned to find the word “Gerber” imprinted across Brandi’s stomach, where her stepfather had hit her with a glass baby bottle. “He said he couldn’t handle her constant crying. I had to get her out of there before he killed her.” Richardson reasoned that if she couldn’t get out of the dangerous relationship herself, at least she could get her daughter out. It was years before she felt she could safely leave her husband. In their last fight, she lost consciousness after he hit her over the head with a wooden shoe.

Jill Ekstrom was a divorced mother whose two children were 1 and 2 years old when she was raped 13 years ago. Afterward, a pregnancy test was performed, but the results were negative. Yet four months later, Ekstrom began to hemorrhage. Her doctor asked why she didn’t tell him she was pregnant. “I felt shock and surprise,” Jill recalls. She also felt an incredibly peaceful feeling that God wanted her to place this baby for adoption. “Being adopted myself, I never dreamed that I would also place a baby.”

Jill says doctors wanted to abort the child, because her life was in danger. “They even had me talk to an LDS official to know that it was OK with my faith.” She still refused. Two days later, she called LDS Social Services to arrange for the adoption. When Jill’s child was born, she named the baby girl Casey. She changed her diaper, held her, and sang her a song, “Easy Horses” by Restless Heart. “The song says that there are no easy horses, and you will experience pain and losses in life that make you who you are.”

Jill felt tremendous sorrow. “There is nothing harder than kissing a baby goodbye and knowing that you might never see her again.” She felt that signing the paper to relinquish her child was her hardest moment. “I told myself that I wasn’t losing, because I was starting a new life for her—a beginning with two parents, stability and everything she was supposed to have.”

Sharlene Lightfoot was a senior in high school the day she told her mother she was going to visit the BYU campus to consider attending the school. In reality, she went to a hospital to give birth to a baby she had kept secret for nine months. Because full skirts were in style in 1959, she was able to conceal the pregnancy from everyone. After the birth, Sharlene stood at the hospital nursery window, not knowing which baby was the daughter she wanted to name Lisa. Sharlene whispered through the window, hoping her baby would somehow hear. “If you ever want to know me, I’m here for you. I hope you’ll find me.”

Sharlene was engaged to her baby’s father, who left to enter the Navy. “We wrote and talked about getting married, but it didn’t happen. I was totally alone, and I chose adoption.” She kept her secret for years, and her first husband never knew about the child she gave up. In the ’50s, birth mothers hid their grief at the bottom of their hearts. They were told to have the child, give it up, and never talk of it again. “So you tuck it away, have other kids, and while it’s not in the front of your mind anymore—doggone it, it’s always there.”

After relinquishing her baby, Sharlene went on to marry and have two sons. She says that like most birth mothers, each day she thought of the child she gave up. “Most adoptees were adopted through an act of secrecy. When birth parents went through this process, they were told to go on with their lives and forget about this event. Very few can do that.” Though she told no one about her baby, Sharlene surreptitiously looked in every baby stroller she saw at the mall to see if a baby there looked like her or her former boyfriend.

To help other birth mothers cope with their current loss and possible future reunion, Vicki Richardson, Jill Ekstrom and Sharlene Lightfoot each have founded support groups for members of the adoption triad—birth mothers and fathers, adoptees and adoptive parents.

For 14 years, Sharlene had overseen the only adoption support group in Salt Lake City. As founder of Adoption Connection of Utah, she’s helped thousands of adoptees and birth parents reunite, and holds monthly support group meetings in the Salt Lake County government center. She says that 90 percent of adoptees are placed in caring, happy homes, and an equivalent number of reunions are favorable in that adoptees find answers and truth. “Reunions may not go anywhere, or they may develop into a wonderful friendship.”

Friendship is how Sharlene describes her own relationship today with her daughter, Lisa. Lisa’s birth father initially looked for her. When Sharlene sensed Lisa was about to be found, she finally confided her “birth mother” status to her best friend. Sharlene first met Lisa and her husband for a sandwich at the Little America coffee shop. “I told her how pretty she was. A huge burden lifted off my shoulders to see that she was alive, healthy and married with children of her own,” Sharlene recalls. “Growing up, she had a very good family who loved her and she loved them.”

Every birth mother has a hope or wish to meet her child again someday, says Jill Ekstrom—to step back into the child’s life not as a mother, but instead to put closure to the event and see that the child is healthy and happy. “Most birth moms don’t obsess over finding their children,” Jill explains. Instead, most birth mothers hope for a day when they will get a phone call or a letter in the mail. Today, that is far more likely to occur than ever before. It is estimated that 2 to 4 percent of American families have adopted children. Every year, a growing number search for and find their birth parents.

Jill agrees that birth parent feelings are important. As the founder of UtahFinders, she conducts adoption searches and reunions, is a court mediator for adoption file openings, and offers seminars regarding the pros and cons of adoption reunions. She is currently putting together a support group that will meet in Salt Lake City and Ogden. “I help birth mothers know how to enter their child’s life again and begin a relationship. Every birth mother I’ve spoken to has never quit loving or missing her child.” Both birth mothers and adoptees fear they may disappoint each other in reunion, Jill explains. “They worry that they haven’t excelled enough, or aren’t rich or pretty enough.”

While Jill helps other birth mothers find their children, she has decided not to search for her own daughter, both because of the way the pregnancy was conceived and to give Casey the choice to reunite or not. Meanwhile, she keeps a diary of her thoughts and feelings about Casey. Each year, she writes a special birthday letter. “Someday, if she so desires, it will be hers, and she’ll see that my love for her never stopped.”

She’s realistic about the possibility that they’ll meet someday. “If she decides to find me, I will be her biological mother, but not ‘mommy.’ I will simply be Jill.” She says that every adopted child wants her birth mother to give her the whole story. “I don’t have a birth father to give her. I don’t have his name. I can only give her my side of the story.”

Jill knows from experience how it feels to discover an incomplete story. Her own birth mother died before she could find her, yet she did experience the joy of reunion when she found her birth brother, Curtis Heise, and his wife, Pat, in Arizona last year. “He was handsome. He was perfect. I couldn’t quit hugging him and didn’t want to let go.” Today, Jill and Curtis are searching for two other birth siblings.

Vicki Richardson’s recently formed group is called Shining Stars. She says her own experience, along with an understanding that counseling is often not affordable to many, led her to establish the group. “I felt so many issues I didn’t expect to feel. I knew I had loved my daughter all her life—yet I didn’t know who she was, how she was raised or what she would think of my family.”

Vicki perceived that other birth mothers share similar feelings, along with coping with guilt, shame and doubt. “In the past, birth mothers felt they did the unforgivable by becoming pregnant.” While unplanned pregnancy is more acceptable today, birth mothers still need an avenue to share feelings. She also plans to seek legislative support for a policy requiring birth parents to be informed if a child they placed for adoption has died. “As birth parents, we have the right to know that our child is gone. Why should we search for 30 years if there is no child to find?”

Vicki found comfort from her second husband, Dwane, from the beginning of their relationship. “He knew about Brandi from day one. We both sensed that when I found her, it would be a happy time.” Their thoughts remained with Brandi over the years. On her 16th birthday, Vicki asked herself, “Is she going on her first date tonight? Is she wearing a pretty dress?” When a news broadcast described a 16-year-old girl named Brandi who was killed in a boating accident, Vicki’s heart sank with worry that it might be her daughter. Once she caught sight of a teenage girl in a craft store with a nametag that said “Brandi.”

“I was dying to ask if she was adopted. I thought about her more and more as time passed,” Vicki said.

For years, Vicki thought meeting her daughter would be an automatic process. She held the belief that if both had registered to contact each other, the adoption agency would facilitate their reunion when Brandi came of age. Returning to the agency on Brandi’s 18th birthday, Vicki was told that agency records are sealed. She was devastated to discover the misunderstanding. “My husband nearly had to carry me out of that office. I’d waited all these years. Now the agency popped my bubble in a matter of seconds.”

Determined to find Brandi, Vicki, along with her husband and son, scoured the Internet. “We spent hours and hours each week, signing up on any registry we could.”

Eighty miles away, Brandi O’Neal was looking, too. She consulted a national adoption registry, BigHugs.com. She’d spent several months looking for her birth mother, and was feeling discouraged. But as she read the BigHugs.com registry list on May 5, an entry caught her eye. “My gosh, that’s me, “ she thought as she read Vicki’s description of her birth daughter. Brandi contacted Susan Friel-Williams, a BigHugs.com investigator—but Vicki couldn’t be reached.

“I’d just changed jobs and long distance carriers. The registry had my old information,” Vicki says. But at least her e-mail address was accurate. She returned home from work to find an anxious e-mail from BigHugs.com. “We have a match, if you’ll just call me,” Friel-Williams wrote.

Vicki and her son Jared burst into tears as they read the e-mail message. When Dwane got home, Vicki met him in the driveway for a long hug. “I fell into his arms with an incredible, uncontrollable sob. It was all he could do to just hold me up. I cried harder than I’ve ever cried,” Vicki says. “It was like all the years of waiting gathered into one.” Hours later, she talked to Brandi for the first time. “I only ask one thing,” Vicki breathed. “Let me meet you and hug you one time, and then I’ll let you go.”

Days later, she caught sight of her daughter at a local college landmark where they agreed to meet. “I knew instantly she was mine. She has the same haircut, pointed chin and round nose.” Brandi was reserved at first until Vicki flipped open a photo album. “It landed on one of the few precious baby pictures that my first husband didn’t find and destroy.” There was a long pause before Brandi said, “I have that picture.” The women compared the two photos—down to the ribbons on the bassinet—and found they were identical. “Then it was like she knew I was really her birth mom,” says Vicki. The two talked for hours.

Vicki and Brandi now share a close relationship and talk or e-mail every day. They’ve spent a weekend and another whole week together, and really can’t imagine ever being apart again. “She visits and styles my daughters’ hair for me and does other sisterly things,” Vicki says. Together, they drove past the apartment where Vicki first learned she was pregnant. Vicki has thanked Brandi’s adoptive parents, and Brandi now plans to meet Vicki’s father, who cried at the news she had been found. “We spent a lot of years apart—now we hope to spend many years together,” Vicki says.

Today, Vicki Richardson, Jill Ekstrom and Sharlene Lightfoot all consider their choice to place their children for adoption one of the most difficult and courageous decisions they’ve ever made. Yet none of them would turn back. Jill recalls receiving a letter from her daughter’s adoptive parents telling her that they thought of her on Casey’s birthday, at Christmas and on Mother’s Day. “It felt wonderful to know that I hadn’t been forgotten, and they didn’t discount what it was like for me to give her to them. To be a birth mother, you have to have unselfish love and enormous faith to put your child’s future in the hands of strangers. You trust God and people you’ve never met to love your child and give her more than you could ever give her. It’s an incredible feeling.” u

Editor’s note: Carolyn Campbell met her birth mother five years ago. She is the author of the book, Together Again: True Stories of Birth Parents and Adopted Children Reunited.

Contact Information for Birth Mother Support Groups

Adoption Connection of Utah

801-278-4858

Shining Stars

baluf@mailcity.com

UtahFinders www.homestead.com/ adoptee/INDEX.html

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