The Other Half

April 6, 1966.

For many people, it was just a day. Nothing special. A spring day much like today. Outside, the trees were probably showing off their newest green. Tulips were extending their heavy heads and the cool mornings were giving way to warm afternoons. The promise of summer was teasing many across the country. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong, and we were still embroiled in Vietnam.

It’s also the day my mother gave birth to a baby boy and gave him up for adoption.

Family secrets are weird little creatures. They are furtively whispered about, behind backs, used as ammunition, and held tightly against our chests. For the lucky few, the family secret is never found out. It’s kept in a box and dies with the secret-keeper. But for others, it’s like trying to keep water in a cracked glass. At first, there are drips. And then, before you know it, the drips are a puddle, and suddenly the contents of the glass are no longer contained outside. The secret is fully exposed, staining everyone and everything around it. And there’s no way to get it back into the glass.

When I was in ninth grade, my cousin told me our secret. We were discussing our relatives and how this adult aunt wasn’t talking to that adult uncle and, as teenagers, we were OH SO MUCH MORE ADULT than those who had the years and mileage, but clearly not the maturity. We were trying to piece together the puzzle of our strained family relationships, and it slipped out.

“Heather, I heard your mom had a child out of wedlock. A boy.”

That one sentence had me reeling. For YEARS. I was the glass and that water was poured into me. But I was cracked by years of family strife, a mother who was damaged, and a father who was the focus of that damage. I would at times forget that tidbit of information and then remember it all over again. When it would knock on the door of my consciousness to remind me it was there, I had SO many questions.

Did Dad know?
My parent, who has told me never to have sex until I’m married, had sex before she was married.
Who is the father?
Do we know him?
Is my brother alive? Dead?
What did he look like?

And so many more questions swirled through my head. I had always wanted an older brother. I would watch reruns of The Big Valley as a child and the adventures of the Barkley family of Stockton, California, always captivated me. My grandparents didn’t have cable, but their antenna picked up a local TV station in Bluefield, West Virginia, and in the evenings, they showed old episodes of that 1960s western starring Barbara Stanwyck as matriarch Victoria Barkley, mother of three sons, Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, and one daughter, Audra. I loved that show. And I loved how protective Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, were of their sister. And I, as an only child, wanted that. I wanted that house full of loud, boisterous, male laughter, ready to lend me a hand, get me out of scrapes, fuss at me and how I was dressed, grill every boy I even glanced at. Instead, I had a quiet home, just me and my parents. While I sequestered myself in my room with my books, ignoring the invisible tension between my mom and dad, my parents mostly ignored one another until mom would lash out at dad for a perceived slight. I always thought it was a lonely only-childhood and watching The Big Valley that made me long for an older brother and what I thought the perfect family should be.

Now, though, I wonder if it was something genetic, a memory from the womb, a bone-deep knowledge that I wasn’t the first, and was supposed to have someone there waiting for me when I emerged. Someone who would have been five years old.

The secret I kept for many years finally spilled out of the cracks during my college years. I confessed the secret to my father, who took it to my mother, who finally admitted to both of us that she had had a child before either of us ever entered her life. She told us his birthday and that she had named him Sean–or Shawn–when he was born. But, she didn’t volunteer any other information.

It’s only been in the last few years, since reconnecting with my mother’s family, that I’ve gleaned even more details of that time in my mother’s life.

I always knew my mother had worked at the West Virginia Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964 and 1965. I remember seeing black and white pictures of that time in her life. I could tell that she had fun, enjoyed her freedom as a young 20-something, out in the big city, away from her parents. What I didn’t know is that while she was there, she became pregnant. Was it consensual? Was it rape? Was the father American? Was he from another country and also working at the Fair? I have no idea. All I do know is that my biological grandmother–who I never knew–drove northward to retrieve my mother and told New Jersey cousins during a stop, “No daughter of mine is giving birth to a black baby.”

My mother was promptly sent off to a “home for unwed mothers” where she gave birth to her unwanted child. She returned home a short time later and eventually was the nurse for the woman who made her give away her baby. My biological grandmother died 19 months later from complications related to bladder cancer. Another 15 months after that, my mother married my father.

Every year, on April 6th, I wonder where my brother is. Is he alive? Dead? If he’s alive, is he happy? Does he know he was adopted? Has he looked for us? If he’s dead, what happened? Did he have a happy life? Sad? Does he have children? Grandchildren?

If he’s alive, today is his 54th birthday. Does he have a spouse with whom he can celebrate? A child? And does my mother even remember today’s significance? Or has she blocked this day from her memory?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. What I can answer is that each time my 23andme app tells me I have new relatives, I get a catch in my throat. And when I open the app to see that said new relatives are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, I get disappointed. I have several accounts with different adoption web sites… that have lead to nowhere.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find him. And maybe, when I do find him, he won’t want to be found. Or he’s not living in a town but rather a cemetery. I may never make that “big brother connection” I’ve always craved. That life-long need for a sibling will probably never happen. But, I will still look. And still try. And still wonder every April 6th if he maybe always wanted a little sister.

Like me.

Postscript: Since this post is receiving a lot of traffic, here’s what I know:

My brother was born on or about April 6, 1966. I’m assuming he was born in West Virginia. I know the most popular “home for unwed mothers” at the time was in Wheeling, West Virginia. But, honestly, he could have been born in any of the surrounding states (Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania). He is most certainly of biracial ancestry (white mother, African or African-American father). The birth mother’s surname is Berkley and the birth father’s surname is, for me, unknown.

If you or someone you know matches this description, please feel free to reach out to me at the following email address heather@afutureghost.com. Thank you!

Back Off My Breast Friends

There's a dairy food theme here, isn't there?

There’s a dairy food theme here, isn’t there?

I remember the day well. It was March 18, 2006. For six months, I had made a vow to myself, and that vow was, If I can breastfeed these kids, day in and day out, for six months, I will declare victory in the Milk Wars and wean these little hoodlums. Six months, I decided, was my hard limit. I was done being the Dairy Queen. In real time, I had done this gig for six months. In twin years, that’s one whole year. (Note: This is called “Twin Math.” In “Twin Math,” you double everything. Two kids on two breasts for six months is equivalent to one kid on one breast for one whole year. And even if it isn’t logical, shut up. You did not push two babies out of your body on the same day. The only thing that trumps “Twin Math” is “Triplet Math.” Those women are goddesses and can say and do whatever they damn well please.) I was done. I started weaning the twins the month before, cutting off a feeding here, two feedings there, and replacing said feedings with bottles of formula until, on March 16th, on their six-month birthday, they were on straight formula. Two days later, a Saturday, I left the house around 7AM, waved to Tyler and my mother as they held the twins, and spent the entire day shopping with my sorority sister.

I. Was. Ecstatic.

More dairy references, you say?

More dairy references, you say?

For me, breastfeeding wasn’t a bonding experience. It was a chore. I was absolutely determined to breastfeed because I was convinced that if I didn’t pass on my immunities to my preemie twins, they would become gravely ill. And if I fed the first two that way, then the third needed it as well. It was a chore I did, without complaint, for one whole actual year. (I lasted six months with Jarrod. That’s an actual six months. No freaky singleton math going on there. But, technically, with Twin Math in place, I like to think I lactated for a whole 18 months. Don’t judge me. It was hard, ya’ll!) I don’t want to go into too many details, but let’s just say that my mammary glands aren’t the most… functional in the lactation department, and without help (read: nipple shields) I was in a lot of pain. A lot.

But, here’s the thing. I did it. It is possible to breastfeed even if you don’t want to or aren’t really built properly for the job. And even though I did it, I didn’t have to. I mean, I was raised on formula and I turned out just fine. I have a pretty bitchin’ IQ, no behavioral problems, and my weight is OK. Tyler was raised on formula and has, to my knowledge, never gone off the bend. My mother breastfed me for six weeks before the same dysfunctional mammary gland design that plagued me stopped her cold in her tracks. Shit happens, people. And it happens a lot when you’re trying to feed those feisty little ones.

But here’s the other thing. If I had put my foot down and said, “NO! I will NOT be breastfeeding my children!” should I have been made to feel guilty? As this mother was made to feel? Absolutely not.

I hate that we, as women, feel it necessary to judge other women on how they are feeding/clothing/bathing/teaching/disciplining/raising their children. Get off the Judgy Train, headed for Fort Judgerson, with a stop at Judgjunction. You take care of your kids as you see fit and I’ll take care of mine as I see fit and stop thinking that your way is better for everyone. Your way is just better for you and yours. And that’s just fine and dandy as long as you don’t shove your way in my face. Then, we might have a problem.

Now, here’s where I’m going to make… a suggestion. Any time I see a pregnant lady, I just want to hug her and ask, “First time?” and if she says, “Yes!” then this is pretty much the soapbox from which I want to stand and share my incredible wisdom of moderation, ease, and frequent breaks.

Just one more. I can't help myself.

Just one more. I can’t help myself.

There are lots of people out there who talk about “nipple confusion” and “breast is best” and “formula will make your kids fat and stupid” and blah, blah, blah. But, here was my reality. I had premature twins who NEEDED the calories that formula could provide. They spent their first 20 days in the NICU and since I couldn’t be there all the time, I pumped my breast milk and carted it over there every day. Since my babies needed to gain weight, the nurses and doctors at Northside Hospital supplemented my breast milk with preemie formula and bottle fed them. And they had pacifiers. When they came home, I continued with the one-bottle-a-day routine so that I could get extra sleep, they could get extra calories, and Tyler, Nana, Grandmama, et. al. could get extra baby cuddles. It was a win-win. I continued the tradition with Jarrod. Tyler got the late evening, “Let’s bond over Enfamil and Magnum, P.I!” feeding. So, this is my Easy-Peasy-Lemon-Squeezy You Are Gonna Kiss Me When This Is All Over Feeding Guide For New Mothers. Use it or not, it’s up to you. But, it seems to me a common-sense approach to feeding your babies and keeping your sanity.

  1. You have absolutely decided that you don’t want to breastfeed. It turns you off, the thought of it makes you sick to your stomach, and you’re done before the baby is even born. That’s fine! You stick to your guns, give that precious baby some formula, and don’t let those Lactation Nazis make you feel guilty for your choice. And if they harass you, kick them out of your hospital room.
  2. You decide to try breastfeeding and it doesn’t work out. No worries! As long as baby isn’t starving, you’re good. Get out the Enfamil and have a party! And tell those Lactation Nazis to take a long walk off a short pier.
  3. If you are successfully able to breastfeed your baby, give your baby one bottle of formula a day. Wait… hear me out.
  4. One bottle of formula a day gives you a break and allows you extra sleep and allows your significant other/relatives to also bond with the baby.
  5. Having that bottle of formula allows the baby to get used to the taste of formula so that if something happens and you have to unexpectedly wean them, it’s not a battle getting them used to formula. (I can tell you that after watching a friend try to force her baby through an emergency weaning onto formula, it’s not pretty. Your precious wee one will reject that bottle and put you through a couple of days of heck. Trust me on this one.)
  6. Also, having a bottle of formula a day gives you a chance to get out of the house. Guess what? It means you could actually have a date night/night out in those first six/eight/whatever months! You’re not so tied down that you can’t leave your child! Go out and have a great time! And realize that your baby is fine because they’re used to a bottle nipple and acclimated to the taste of formula and you are your own person and can take a break if necessary.
  7. And finally, give your child a pacifier. There is nothing wrong with pacifiers. They soothe your baby and, again, get them used to sucking on something other than you. It gives you a break and a rest. You can start to wean them from the pacifier any time you like, but definitely keep it around for the first year. Trust me, it’s a life saver. If your breast is the only thing soothing them, then you’re probably going to have a lot of sleepless nights.

I guess mainly what I’m trying to impart here is don’t be so hard on yourself. Pictures and media and ads make breastfeeding look very easy. I mean, it should come naturally, right? Not really. It’s a learning process for both you and the baby and if neither of you is enjoying it, you don’t need the stress. Do what’s best for both of you while at the same time giving yourself some elbow-room. Trust me when I say you’re going to need it.

Stepping down off my soapbox. Tune in next time for “Pampers versus Huggies versus Luvs: Is it really all about the diaper or is it more about penis position?” where we discuss leakage and little boys. Or not. Cheerio!