A View of Gladney from an Adult Adoptee
FORT WORTH, Texas – My hands were shaking badly. Nerves begin to run circles in my stomach. Even before opening the front door, tears were forming behind my eyes.
"Welcome to the Gladney Center of Adoption, can I help you?" the chipper woman behind the desk at the visitor's center asked me, catching me off guard at 9:30 a.m.
I was there to meet with the community outreach coordinator, Karin Matula, for a brief tour of the center. The receptionist told me it was going to be a few minutes and to make myself comfortable.
The visitor's center was dimly lit; the sunlight coming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. In the middle of the room, several pillars each painted a different picture of the history of the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth.
The pillars facing the door showed the faces of women, some smiling and some seemingly forlorn, but all telling the same story: their story. Under each of their images were emotional accounts of placing their child up for adoption.
As I began to make my way around the center, the sound of heels on hard wood floors broke my daydreaming. Turning around, I saw a cheerful blonde, Matula, walking toward me, smiling in a warm and welcoming way.
After a brief introduction, we started to walk around the whole campus.
Our first stop was a peek into the tiny non-denominational church. Surrounded by etched glass, the plain altar and solid wood pews captured an innocent spiritual glow as the sun beamed in. Matula told me of the many families that had sat and waited in this room, families like mine.
The next room was simple, but something about it felt surreal. Matula told me this was the room where adoptive parents are placed with their new child. The room consisted of a couch, a couple a chairs and a beautiful carved wooden cradle that had been in the Gladney family for more than 20 years. Matula explained that this very cradle held hundreds of babies throughout the years, babies like me.
It was becoming real.
I slowly walked toward the cradle, concentrating on the small yellow pillow and sheets that seemed to hold the shape of a newborn in its folds. Looking at this simple set up, I started to feel weak. As if my hands were not shaking badly enough just walking into the building, they started to take on a mind of their own. My head was filled with a thousand thoughts at once, making it hard to remember to breathe.
"So, well, wow," was about all I could gasp. "Incredible," I managed to whisper.
Matula just smiled, put her hand gently on my back, and guided me into the next stop down memory lane. She continued to tell me stories and the history of the center, turning to me every now and again maybe to make sure I had not passed out or wandered away or just to watch my reactions to the whirlwind of experiences.
The tour continued into another room, and by the look on Matula's face, one that was really going to test me.
We walked into what looked like a normal living room. A long table and a few large couches sat in front of a big screen television. The room looked out over a stunning wooded area that cast reflections in the pool on the outside deck – a view people would pay good money for.
However, the 27 women living in the Gladney dorms do not have to pay a dime. Everything is paid for, and they are given the opportunity to earn money by performing extra chores around the center. The birth mothers are required to attend a few different meetings and group sessions throughout the week, all in an attempt to help them understand the process they are about to go through, not just the legal process, but the emotional one as well. The whole process is centered on the well-being of the birth mothers while in their stay at Gladney and after when they must assimilate into "normal" life.
Matula began to lead me out of the room when I saw her.
A birth mother was getting eggs out of the refrigerator to make her breakfast. I could see her glow from across the room, even though I could not see her face.
We walked toward her, silently. Her head remained downcast until we were almost directly next to her. My heart was beating out of my chest as her eyes met mine. She smiled. I smiled. And in that moment, I felt as if I was looking into the eyes of my own mother. I felt as if I were seeing the same happiness, fear and uncertainty that my mother had felt in her stay at Gladney.
I was glancing into the world that my mother called home for nine months. Looking around, I could see everything that she did for me, just for me. The guilt became overwhelming, however, I knew the hardest challenge was yet to come.
Matula led me into April Harris' office, a Gladney staff member in the outreach department, who has worked many years as a birth mother caseworker. She is a birth mother, having placed her son for adoption 20 years ago, almost to the day.
Harris walked with a tired smile on her face and a million stories behind her eyes. As she introduced herself, she stuck her hand out to grab mine, and suddenly, I felt a surge of emotion rush through my body.
She looked so young to have such an emotional history. The features on her face held feelings all their own. It was easy for me to see the heartache because I saw it in my own reflection. I believe I could see her love and her loss as she looked at me. I could see how hard it must be for her to work in a place where every day she is reminded of the selfless sacrifice she made 20 years ago.
As we sat down, my mind began to race with everything I wanted to ask her, everything I wanted to know. In this moment, I remember standing awkwardly in the room holding a camera that I probably should have learned to use before walking in. Stumbling around the room, my unease and anxiety showed.
Afraid to look at her, at first, I just started rambling about nothing of importance. When I finally glanced over at her, the smile that captivated me was still there. She got it…she knew what I was going through.
"So, you have been here seven years," I asked, trying to climb out of the hole I had dug.
Harris took over. It seemed as if she had done this before, told her story a few times over. She told me of her children, 5 and 9, how she took a year off when her first was born to take care of him but remained involved with Gladney.
The questions I had brought to ask were journalistic and would get good quotes, but this interview was not about quotes and facts. This was a heartbreak with a happy ending, there was no way else to put it. I started to ask what I wanted to know.
"Was it hard coming back to Gladney after going through the placement process?" I asked. "You know, it so wasn't," Harris said. "I think that I was in a healthy place…I
think if anything it has been real, real good for me.
"I talk with the girls a lot. They worry about little things like how am I going to talk to a guy about this down the road, how am I going to introduce this into a relationship, the future mother-in-law, how do I explain this. They worry about things like that."
She spoke so cavalier about the birth mother's concerns, as if it was going to be the least of their worries, and she knew firsthand this was a fact.
"From my experience, it just so becomes part of you, that it's just part of your story."
And it does. I told her about the way I viewed being adopted. I cannot remember the moment my parents sat me down and told me I came from a different place and a different mother. It is my story - it is who I am. I am adopted.
I caught a look in her eye that I will never forget. We were not sitting on the couch doing some run-of-the-mill interview; we were, in our own way, talking to the people that we only had memories of. She was speaking to her son as I was questioning my birth mother. I felt overcome with emotion, a smile spread across my face. I had been waiting for 21 years for this single moment.
I needed to know why, even if it was not my mother, I had to know why she decided to go through the process.
"I was a good kid. I was a good girl, a good student, never had a serious boyfriend," Harris said as she appeared to get uneasy, shifting positions and speaking with her hands.
"I came from a family where you had at least your college degree, maybe master's, definitely a husband and hopefully some savings, then you had a baby," she said.
"So, I met this boy, very worldly, just really awesome. He just needed love, and I was going to fix him," she said, speaking in the tone of a woman reminiscent of herself as a naive teenager.
I was beginning to see so much of myself in her, maybe because I wanted to or because we shared something unlike I have experienced with anyone else.
Harris told me about the moment she found out she was pregnant and the age of 16. As she sat in the doctor's office, listening to the confirmation of the test results, she knew right away that she could not be a good parent at her stage in life.
Having grown up in the Fort Worth area, Harris knew about Gladney and made her decision right there in the doctor's office. However, she knows the decision may not come as easy for other birth mothers.
"I think lots people make lots of decisions along the way," Harris said. "I really encourage [the birth mothers] to look at every single option. Don't settle on this one and not be sure because this is one of the rare places in life where we don't get a do over. Once you sign these papers, it's done."
I felt as if someone had knocked me in the chest. My mother had to sit down and make a decision to give her baby girl away to complete strangers. My mother had to sign the papers with the thought that this was her final decision.
Harris explained to me that although she did have a choice in the matter, she knew the decision she had to make. Her mother was strict and forward, explaining to her up front that she would still love her if she chose to have the baby, but she was not going to help her raise the child. Her support and guidance through the process remained steadfast and true, something she was going to need desperately as the months passed.
This left her with the options of adoption or raising the child with her boyfriend at the time.
"I don't think that made [the decision] harder for me. It made it more clear for me, that I didn't know what it would take to be a real good mom, but I know I didn't have it. I was just mature enough to know that I wasn't mature enough to do it."
"I dodged a bullet," Harris said, her mood suddenly shifting. "Even to this day, the thought of a little boy and me in that environment just makes me sick."
She told me that her story is not always the case.
The older women who go through the adoption process know the reality of living on their own and supporting themselves, which can make the decision easier. However, often, these women feel as if they should be able to raise a child, they should be at a place in their life where they can support themselves and a baby.
Then there are the women who already have children.
"I hurt for them a little more because they already know the joys of being a mom," Harris said. "But, at the same time, they are the ones who really know the reality of it."
Harris told me she believes all of the changes in attitude of the communities have made the decision of adoption harder to make. Young women are surrounded by changing environments that make it seemingly OK to have a child in school. Some high schools have daycares so students can go to school pregnant and go to school with a baby. The stigma Harris faced has faded.
"Now what [birth mothers] are facing is 'you don't want your baby?' or 'is your mom not going to help you?' as though there is no thought or no plan. There is no direction, and this is very much a directed act that they are doing," Harris said.
"They give up a lot just to come here."
As she listed the freedoms that the women living in Gladney must give up, I felt incredibly guilty. I could not believe that I had the audacity for even a moment in my life to harbor any ill feelings toward my mother. She gave up her whole life to ensure that I had the best one possible, the life she wanted to give me but knew she was unable to.
However, it is hard to understand such a complex situation like adoption and placing a child up for adoption if a person does not know anything about the process.
"I will still have people say to me, adults say to me, when they hear what I do, not knowing I am a birth mom, will say to me 'so, the girls who don't want their babies, do the babies have to wait long to go to a home?" Harris said, almost in disbelief.
"I have just gotten to where my answer to things like that is 'I don't have any girls who don't want their babies."
Her frustration was evident. This was something she was used to dealing with. Harris teaches lessons like these in the group counseling she performs with the birth mothers.
"[They] have to learn to forgive the world for not getting it because why would they. [The birth mothers] just have to figure out how [they] are going to respond to things like that," Harris said.
The interview switched from a question and answer session to a comfortable conversation. Harris was not just listening to me talk about being adopted, she was listening to me search for answers. She made me feel safe, as if everything was going to be OK.
Harris began telling me about her stay at the former Gladney campus on Hemphill Street. Her face began to light up as she spoke of the dorm, the typing and sewing classes she took, the safety and security she felt behind the fences surrounding the city block the campus was on, and the fake last names the birth mothers were given.
Her story was one of happiness, friendships made and pranks played, not one of rejection and isolation. She told me of her "home," her Saturday trips to the mall and the moment she went into labor.
When a birth mother went into labor, the other women would ask around if someone "went over," or walked down the path to the tiny hospital where there were no sonograms, no epidurals and no anesthesiologists: just the mother, the baby and a nurse. Her own mother was not allowed in the delivery room; she had to remain in another room through the 17 hours of labor wanting nothing more than to be there for her daughter when she needed her most.
At 1:32 a.m. April 16, 1988, Harris' son came into this world.
"A friend of mine had told me, one of the girls had delivered before me said, 'it's so strange, you're in this room, the door is closed, there is five people in there and then all of a sudden there's six. It's magical,'" Harris said, a pained smile on her face. "And it was. It was amazing. It was huge."
She started telling me of the hardest moment in the whole process, the day she made her way into the courthouse to sign the papers giving up her parental rights, the relinquishment of her newborn boy.
"Relinquishment…is the hardest day," Harris said. "It's just laid out 'I do not plan to care for this child…I acknowledge that I am not fit to parent this child,' just really painful. And it's not how you feel, but you understand that this is how it has to be done.
"You know it's going to be hard, and you know it's going to be awful. You know you're going to be sad, but that doesn't take it away," Harris said, her voice shaky as her eyes welled up with tears.
My heart shattered. At this very moment, everything became real. My mother did this for me. She suffered for the sole purpose of giving me a chance at the life she wanted for me. One she knew she could not give me.
Harris had one hour to be alone with her son to say everything she wanted to say before placement.
"I recognized very much that death row kind of sensation, just always looking at the clock," Harris said. "And that was it. You didn't choose the family. You didn't find anything about the family until six weeks later after [the baby's] check up. There wasn't a profile or anything to look at, [the nurses] would just describe them and you would write it down furiously."
To this day, Harris has never seen the family who adopted her son, David. They have sent updates and photos of him, but they have never spoken. As she talked about David, her eyes cleared and hope filled them.
"If he never needs to meet me, it is kind of mission accomplished," Harris said. "He's got his own family. All of his needs have been met. He doesn't have a hole that I need to fill. That was my hope…I would be at peace with that."
I was no longer the 21-year-old woman sitting in front of Harris. She was speaking to her son. As I began to attempt to speak about my position, my thoughts on never meeting my mother, all the emotions of the day finally broke through the tough exterior I had held up for the past 21 years of my life.
I cried, talking of the role my mother played. She brought me into this world to place me with my family. She was and always will be the reason I am in this world. Had it not been for her selfless act of courage, I never would have been given all of the opportunities that I have been blessed with to this day.
Adopted children are examples of what many see as a "social accident," an unplanned baby. The mothers at Gladney take the label away from us. They give us the chance to make a difference and to show others that even though we may have started with odds stacked against us, we defied all of them.
I looked at Harris, my eyes full of tears, and thanked her. I didn't know what else to say. A weight lifted from me. I felt as if I was helping her understand how beautiful her decision was. There was no reason to think anything differently. As I looked at her before saying goodbye, I couldn't help but feel we had just "fixed" each other, at least I knew she had fixed me.
There is no better or greater gift in this world than the gift of life, and the women at the Gladney Center for Adoption give this and expect only the best for the child they are giving, nothing more and definitely nothing less.