Grieving With My Daughter Over The Son I Couldn't Keep

by Danielle Barnsley
Originally Published: 
Denys Kurbatov / Shutterstock

“Mama, are you going to give me away too?”

The world stopped. My world.

My vision went blurry as tears began to fill them. My heart attempted to jump out of my chest and heave itself onto the road we were driving on. Bile rose in my throat, and my eyes began to water. I couldn’t breathe.

Her voice, it’s just so tiny, so sweet. The weight of this question, the only question I’d feared hearing from my children since I told them I was a birthmother, felt as though it was an anvil, too heavy for her to carry. It was the one question I thought I would expertly avoid by being open about my adoption. I’ve fielded all manner of questions from both my kids about their half-brother, but my daughter, in all of her perceptiveness, managed to put together what adoption meant for babies and their biological mothers.

“No. No, I won’t,” I managed a little more shortly than I wanted to respond. I wanted to say more. I wanted to slam on the brakes, reach around to her, and grab her fiercely so I could tell her, “Never. Never. Don’t you ever think that. Don’t you ever.”

In my head, I recalled how valiant and noble I felt in telling my kids the truth about my own adoption experience. I was being honest; they had a half-brother. One that I relinquished years ago, long before them, to another family. I wanted to make this unfamiliar territory somewhat normal for them. I wanted them to know that all of our family wasn’t under our roof, to know that families often look very different from the generic stereotype we’re taught. I wanted to demonstrate how imperfect I am.

Yet, it was mostly the terror of knowing that this secret would come out—these things always do—that propelled me into sitting them down and having that very big, very hard conversation.

It was easier when they were younger. When my word was solid gold to them, when relationships and their dynamics were out of reach. When the idea of a half-brother was like having an imaginary friend. Their focus was on playing, on being loved, and whether they could have apple juice or chocolate milk with their lunch.

It was also easier when no one knew that I was a birthmother—especially when my children didn’t know.

“But, Mama, what if someone says you have to? That’s why Sean’s not here with us. You weren’t allowed to keep him.”

I’m gritted my teeth, tears spilling freely down my face.

“It’s not…It was…I just…,” I stumbled as I gripped the steering wheel tightly. I had no words that I knew would satiate her curiosity. All she knows is that he’s not here, and that like me, she wishes he was with us. She’s drawn him pictures to send in the letters I write and cried in my arms when I explained to her that she could not invite him to her birthday party.

This wasn’t what I imagined honesty would look like.

How do you explain to your child that their place in your life isn’t erasable when the first child you had says otherwise? How do you explain the complexity of an adoption that you still struggle to understand?

The biggest trouble, though, is that her fear, while unnecessary, has roots and logic.

I pulled the car into our driveway and slowly pulled the keys out of the ignition, my cheeks still damp, though anger had overpowered the initial shock of the question—not at her, but at all the people who told me adoption was the best answer, the only answer, and free of all these complicated roads. She bounded out of her car seat into the front seat as I began to respond.

“It was different then, love. But, you aren’t going to go anywhere. I promise.”

She pursed her lips, “How do you know?”

“Because I won’t let it happen.”

The air hung between us for a moment, her eyes searching mine, looking to find something that I imagined was trust in those words, when the actions of my past said something very different.

“It hurts your heart that he’s not here, doesn’t it?”

I nodded and smiled, tearfully.

“Do you know why I know it hurts your heart Mama?”

I shook my head.

“Because I know you have too much love for me and my brother. You loves us a million billion, and when someone you love is gone away and you love them that much, it hurts. When you go away, I miss you so much, but you always come back. But you couldn’t come back for Sean, and your heart hurts for that.”

I scooped her up in my arms so she couldn’t see how her words completely shattered my heart, how she summed up, in her tiny 5-year-old words what it feels like for a birthmother to grieve the loss of a child she had and then didn’t.

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