This Mother

What do we take? What do we leave? What do we publish and invite the world to disparage? Before I was a mother I was a writer for 20 years. And then I met my most challenging topic, motherhood and transracial adoption. 

With my husband I raised three children, who are now grown. Two of our kids were adopted from Korea, a one-year old, and an older child adopted at age 10. We waded into uncharted territory, as not only were two of our children adopted transracially (I'm mixed blood American Indian and my husband is white), but we adopted an older child changing the birth order within our family. We had a birth daughter who became our 'middle child.' And shortly after we adopted our oldest daughter, our old son, then age 7 (and also adopted from Korea) was diagnosed with a brain tumor—an event that changed all of our lives and taught me to let go of expectations and to forge a new identity.

When I began assembling a collection of my previously published essyays to include here, I found that each one begged for revision. A number of my feature articles were too magazine-y in tone and needed to be reshaped into memoir. Others, when further examined with my poet’s eye, had become too pretentious after being culled by careful editors and gave off the full-bodied notion that as a mother I had things all figured out, which of course I don’t.

Next I contemplated my gloomy stories. Although
 my memoir Pushing up the Sky, A Mother's Story and a number of my feature articles are best known and remembered for the difficulties I've faced, there has also been great joy within my journey through motherhood.

Today as a mother and grandmother my life in no way resembles what I had hoped for, or expected it to be, and yet I am deeply thankful for where this journey has led me. I enjoy seeing how my perspective has evolved and changed over the past four decades.

My special thanks to the editors where these essays originally appeared.

Southwest Moonlight and Making Babies

Fall, 1972. “I want to cancel my appointment,” I told the woman at the front desk. “Instead of birth control counseling I need a pregnancy test.” The doctor at the Clinic rubbed his beard. “If you are pregnant and don’t have any money you’ll have to apply for welfare.” He scribbled an address and phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.

The next morning at the social welfare office, under bad fluorescent lighting, I filled out the forms. The clerk took my paperwork and motioned for me to sit down.

“Number thirty-two,” the social worker called out. I was number fifty-six. My shorts were soaked with sweat, and my bare legs stuck to the orange plastic chair. The room was filled with women and crying babies. I thought of my mother at age fifteen, pregnant with me. Finally my number was called. I was led into a windowless office. The social worker lit a cigarette, and smoke poured from her nose like a dragon.

“Are you giving the baby up for adoption?” She asked. The question unnerved me. She eyeballed me up and down and hissed, “You’ve written down that you’re Indian—if it was going to be a white baby it would be easier to find a family to adopt it.”

I clenched my jaw to stay calm. Brown haired and green eyed, most strangers didn’t place me as Indian. I'm a mixed blood and the baby I hadn’t meant to create was more Indian than white; the father of my child-to-be was a full blood. This was my first glimpse at the way race and culture collided in adoption. For the first time I realized I'd been passing as white whenever it suited me, and that my baby was not white, and that I'd never be white again.

The social worker looked at my stunned face and shook her head. I was a nineteen-year-old, unmarried college student, and pregnancy caught me unprepared to become someone’s mother.

Though we spoke occasionally on the telephone, my relationship with R. was over. It had ended weeks before on a windy night in Arizona under a climbing moon. The next day I headed home to California. Underneath my embarrassment about repeating the family cycle of unplanned teenage pregnancy, especially when I’d been so determined not to, there were moments when I smiled as the baby swelled within me. But I was certain I was not ready to be a mother. Or was I? Before I made a decision, however, I miscarried. At least I did not have to surrender my child to another. Or so I’ve always proclaimed to protect myself. But what I know for sure is that there is no way I would have attempted to keep the baby. If that baby had been born to me, then I would have made an adoption plan in an effort to offer my child a better life than the one I was born into as the result of an unplanned teenage pregnancy.

Afterward, I went back to school and tried to pretend my pregnancy never happened. Instead, I switched my major to early childhood education, and did an internship at a preschool. This was during “Operation Babylift” and I grew close to an adoptive family whose child was airlifted out of Vietnam.

Twelve winters later, in 1984, I sat in the lobby of Holt International Adoption Services. The room was decorated in pastel wallpaper, with a nubby textured sofa. This time I was married and on the receiving end of adoption. Within the next twenty-four hours my husband and I were due to become the parents of a one-year-old Korean boy. As our son grew up I knew he would wonder about his Korean mother. I might never get the chance to meet her, yet I know she must be generous, patient, joyful, and loving because our son turned out to be all those things. I like to think his mother is a lot like me, but was forced to make a decision that I did not have to make.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Initially, after my poor judgment, which ended in unplanned pregnancy I decided not to have children, and I vowed never to get pregnant again. How could I keep my second child when I wanted to give away my first? While I didn’t go out of my way to remember, I also didn’t keep the fact that I had been pregnant a secret. I also did my best not to fall in love with anyone. Instead three years later I met the man I would eventually marry and my resolve melted away. A year before we married I told him I didn’t want to have children. He said that having kids was not a big deal to him. We agreed to lead professional lives, travel and raise dogs.

But shortly before turning thirty I changed my mind; I wanted a chance to be a mother. Just one child, and either by birth or adoption, I was open to the possibility of a child coming into my life in whatever way providence chose. When I shared this with my husband to my surprise and relief he was delighted. He too had changed his mind and wanted a chance to be a father. Once we began talking about a baby, somehow the conversation moved right over to adoption, but within a month I was once again instantly pregnant, resulting in the birth of our daughter. Three and a half years later we adopted our son as a one-year-old with special medical needs, adopted from Korea.

Having a family was so wonderful that we decided to adopt for a second time and added a third child to our family. In 1987, when our daughter was six, and our son four, we adopted a ten-year-old girl, and that is a whole other story.

Since my mother was now an adoptive grandmother, and deeply in love with my kids, I dared ask the question— I asked her if back when she was fifteen and pregnant with me if she had considered letting me be adopted. She blinked in surprise and avoiding my eyes said, yes, but her parents forbid it. “Don’t feel guilty," I said. “It would have been OK if you had.”

Jump cut to 2005, when I attended an adoption conference and found myself surrounded with birth/first mothers and adoptees. Their discussions, their generosity and willingness to include me allowed me to view my life as a whole and explore parts of myself that aren’t usually encouraged to surface within the adoption parenting community. But the flip side is that my mother did keep me, and the child I would have surrendered for adoption was never born. Truth is I don’t know what it is like to be an adoptee, or a birthmother and to call to life the lost past that is so wanted. That’s when the sky crashes open for me and I feel the yin and yang of what it means to have become an adoptive parent.

This piece contains excerpts from Pushing up the Sky, a memoir by Terra Trevor, and portions of this essay was first published in Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education, The University of Arizona Press.

© 2008 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

  • Copyright © 2013 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.