Motherhood Unexpected

Stephanie Roth

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have a family. I am the youngest daughter of four children. I was raised with the value that family is important. There are no other relationships like those shared with the people you live with. My family is far from totally sane all the time, but I consider myself one of the lucky ones to know what it is to rely on people who love you. I am not the most patient person in the world, but I always felt like I would be able to share with small people what I know about life.

I had made becoming a mother the focus of my energy for all of my twenties. Mother’s Day was a weird holiday for me over the years, as it continues to be. That greeting card holiday only emphasized what I lacked. I relished being a very cool auntie. My nieces and nephews liked coming to Auntie Steph’s house, or Mimi, as I became known to everyone in our clan. Taking care of other parents’ children was less than what I wanted for myself though. The unfulfilled desire of my heart, year after year, was to be a mom.

Adoption was an avenue to family planning that was constantly in the back of my mind. My paternal grandfather had been adopted as an infant when his mother succumbed to illness after his birth and died. One of my friends in the neighborhood I grew up in was adopted. My parents had done a fine job of teaching me that a family is a family, no matter how it forms. After years of “trying,” my husband, Seth, and I decided to seriously explore the idea of adoption. I set about looking into adoption agencies. I printed out the stack of documents that made up the application for an agency specializing in interracial and older child adoptions. We decided to build a house shortly after I started filling them out, so the papers sat on my desk, untouched beyond the first page.

One night, I was busy refolding colorful tiny clothes in the children’s clothing store I worked at as an assistant manager when Seth called me right before closing time. “I have something to run by you,” he said. “There is someone we may need to meet. She is seventeen, 2 ½ months pregnant, and already has a 2-year-old. She is planning on going to an agency in Idaho tomorrow, unless we want to meet her.” My breath caught, and my heart stopped. A million questions raced through my mind.

The first time I saw the woman carrying my babies, there was magic in the air between us. It was Christmas Day. Seth and I had spent the afternoon with his second set of parents, like we had done each year of our marriage. We both tingled with excitement as we explained our need to leave early so we could meet our possible future at 5:00 pm. As we made our way to the small house in Murray where his friend from work lived, Seth could not drive fast enough for me through the decorated and snowy neighborhoods. My nerves were sparked and my senses were heightened when I opened the door that led from the driveway to the kitchen, where a beautiful young woman with medium brown hair, tan skin, and a small bump for a belly stood. She was speaking to a gorgeous, dark-haired, little boy. She looked up and smiled a grin that I now see every day of my life. “Hi,” she said, shyly. “I’m Elisa.” She crossed the space between us and threw her arms around me to give me a hug. I had only just seen her thirty seconds before that. I am fully aware of the Grace that oversaw my first meeting with my sons’ natural mother. Elisa saw me in that moment the way I had wanted to be seen for most of my life. Elisa saw me as a mother.

I spent the next five months driving Elisa to appointments. On Valentine’s Day, Elisa heard a tiny baby’s heart beat within her for the first time in her pregnancy. She was ecstatic to tell me about it over the phone. “Nothing to worry about. Only one baby. Do you wanna go with me to the first ultrasound the day after tomorrow?” she asked. I couldn’t believe Elisa would be so willing to share that moment with me.

I picked her up in my blue Dodge Intrepid, and we made our way into the city. Elisa was nervous as the technician squirted the clear jelly over her belly and pressed the wand into her abdomen. The tech paused and said, “Hang on. I’m gonna go get someone else. I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later, the other technician asked us both to look at the computer monitor. “Do you see those two black circles?” Elisa and I nodded. “Well, there are two babies. Those are two heads. You are pregnant with twins.” Elisa looked at me, with tears in her eyes. She searched my face for my reaction; a flash of worry crossed her beautiful brown eyes. I grinned. Twins. A few minutes later, as measurements were taken, we learned that the babies were growing and well-developing little boys. At Elisa’s request, the technicians printed out two sets of black and white images that clearly showed two tiny fetal forms. One set for Elisa, and one set for me.

I prepared as much as I could for how my life would drastically change in the months to come. I set about buying two sets of onesies, sleepers, and cases of diapers from Amazon. I registered at baby stores for all the things I thought we’d need. I talked to other parents of multiples. I read books about twins and their development. Seth and I met with a family law attorney, and we scheduled our home study to be conducted in our new home of a week and a half. I enjoyed speaking with the social worker about my expectations of the kind of mother I wanted to be. We discussed how truth in the adoption process felt like the best choice for us. I wanted these children to understand how loved and wanted they were from the start, by Elisa, by us; that they were never a secret. These boys’ lives and how they entered this world will never be something to hide from. I explained that I was proud of the journey my path to motherhood had become. I had spent years carrying around a heavy heart. I was ready for some peace. I was ready to have the years of longing and feelings of inadequacy count for something. I knew that honesty was the best way to accomplish harmony in our adoptive process. The social worker agreed that acknowledging everyone’s roles in this adoption would be the healthiest way to move forward. He only reaffirmed what I already felt, that Elisa was, is, and always will be a huge part of my family’s lives.

I watched with interest as Elisa’s belly swelled. Those babies were getting bigger! She was not a very big person. Eventually, her stomach couldn’t grow forward anymore, so her sides started to push out also! Elisa, her son, and the two babies she held within her filled a space within me, I had no idea was even there until they were there. I was hesitant, though. Elisa was labeled by some in her circle as troubled and hard to deal with. I saw that she had a tough exterior, but she only ever brought her sweetness when we were together. I think I made her feel safe and accepted. As much as I wanted to realize my dream of being a mother, I wanted this young woman to be ok, no matter what her decision ended up being in the end. And I had no illusions: I was fully aware that once Elisa held those small babies and looked at them for the first time, she may not be able to let me be their mom. As we waited to see the doctor on an afternoon in June, I let Elisa know that I would support her no matter what. She assured me she wouldn’t change her mind. I had voiced my willingness to stay in contact with her after the birth. She gave it some thought and decided if she couldn’t be the twins’ mom, she’d like to be their friend. I assured her she would always be more than that.  

My phone rang at around 4:30 am. I looked at my caller ID to see it was Elisa’s mom. I jolted awake. “Steph, Elisa has lost her mucus plug, and her contractions have started. Her water hasn’t broken though, so there is time. We are at the hospital. Get some more sleep, since I’m sure it will still be awhile. But she wants you to come up whenever you are ready.” I was not about to sleep.

The streetlights changed from green to yellow to red as I watched them out my car window. There was a quiet stillness to the city, as Seth and I drove through downtown Salt Lake in the early hours of Friday July 6. The two of us didn’t say much as we made the half-hour drive from Kaysville to the east side of the valley where the University of Utah Medical Center is nestled in the foothills of the mountains. I was nervous. I was worried. I had no idea what the day was going to bring. I just wanted my sweet girl to be safe. When Seth and I walked into Elisa’s room, I was met with the smile I had grown so fond of in the last six months. Elisa was happy to see me. She pointed out the small white grease board used by her nurses to make notes. In blue writing, I saw the words “Baby A: Emerson” and “Baby B: Gavin.” I was touched as Seth and I were introduced to the medical team as The Adoptive Parents.

It had been a long day. After fourteen or fifteen hours of labor, Elisa started to feel the physical pressure associated with imminent birth. As a precautionary measure, multiples are not generally born in a standard delivery room. I waited out in the hallway while the medical team prepared to take Elisa into an operating room. One of Elisa’s nurses came out to put a wristband on me. My mind was scattered as she explained this was the “father’s” wristband that would allow me access to the nursery. As Elisa discussed her birth plan with her nurses, she had expressed how once she left the hospital, I would need to be wherever the babies would be. I could not make sense of what the nurse was saying. In that moment I started to cry for the first time. My concern was only on Elisa. As I bent down to hug her before I left the room, with tears streaming down her face my sweet girl told me she was scared. I held onto her tightly and whispered, “Everything is going to be ok. You are strong. You can do this. I will be here, waiting for you. Think of those little faces! You are finally going to see them! This is a very good day!” Seth had been standing next to me in the hall. He understood the nurse’s instructions, so he explained what she said to me. The nurse hugged me. As her arms enfolded me, she told me to be brave, that this was the moment I had been waiting for. I was about to become a mom. I didn’t know what everything meant, or what Elisa must have said to her to make her say those things to me. I hollowly squeaked out, “Thank you.” The next moment, I watched helplessly as Elisa was wheeled out of her room and down the hall.

Seth and I spent Saturday afternoon being ushered around the maternity floor so we could spend time with the tiny, day-old boys. I had not given birth, so I didn’t have a room for us to kick around in. Once Elisa left her room, it was given to someone else. We ended up in the small room in the center of the nursery where circumcisions are performed. Seth and I took turns holding each baby, feeding them, watching them. My thoughts drifted to Elisa’s patience as she sat on her hospital bed, wrapped up in a fuzzy, pink robe. She had caringly shown me how to swaddle each bitty boy into a bundle that made them feel secure. I was grateful we were able to spend time with Elisa and the babies together. It had been so hard to watch her leave.

Emerson Kenneth had been a sleepy boy in the day after he made the way for his little brother of seven minutes to enter the world after him. Being born is tough work. Gavin Montgomery had been much more alert the whole day. Seth and I wanted to take advantage of the care the babies were being given by the nurses, so we decided to leave for the night. As I turned to walk away, I noticed Emerson wiggle. His eyes opened. I stepped closer to see if he was actually awake. He was, so I picked him up and held him in my arms so I could see his dark eyes. “Well, hello, Emerson. It’s nice to see you wake up.” I smiled. Emerson’s eyes blinked. In a breath, I felt a quick flash of recognition that I am his mom.

It was late September, and a perfect day for a three-hour drive. Six-year-olds, Emerson and Gavin, and I piled into my brown Trailblazer to make our way up to Idaho. We had plans to meet Elisa and her kids at her best friend’s house for lunch. Seeing Elisa over the years had never been a source of anxiety for my little family. This year was different. I felt nervous and excited to see Elisa. It had been about ten months since our last visit. I had a lot to tell her, and I hoped I would be able to find the right words. I always enjoy taking treats and little gifts for the kids. I explained to Elisa that I wanted to give her things that have meaning. I presented her with two little light blue boxes, each one containing Emerson and Gavin’s first lost tooth. Tears touched her smile as she hugged me. I mentioned I wanted to talk to her. We could do it sooner or later, but before I headed home, we needed a few minutes. The children were encouraged to go outside, where Elisa’s friend supervised them on the trampoline.

“So, what is Seth doing today?” Elisa asked.

“He had to work, actually. Saturday over-time should never be passed up. But that is sort of what I want to talk to you about.” Elisa’s expression grew serious. She sensed something was going on. I felt brave sitting next to Elisa, so I continued, “Seth moved out last weekend. We have decided to separate.” My announcement hung in the air between us, but not for very long.

Elisa’s eyes teared up, and she touched my hand. “How are you doing? Are you ok?” I was not surprised by her concern, and it made me feel better. Of all the people I needed to tell about the end of my marriage, I felt Elisa was the most important person next to my parents, and also the most difficult. I felt like a failure, having to admit the relationship Elisa had trusted to provide security for Emerson and Gavin had crumbled under the stress of life.

“Yes. I’m ok. Thank you, my dear. There was no betrayal or abuse or anything like that. We have just decided we are no longer happy being married any more. And we are both good people, who deserve happiness. But I want you to know we are committed to what’s best for Em and Gav, always. We will get along for their sakes. Not that it should be a surprise that he and I are being nice to each other through all of this, but we both agree that the best thing for Em and Gav is for us to figure out what’s next together.” The tears fell out of Elisa’s eyes as she nodded her head during my explanation of why Seth and I chose to split up.

“I just hate this. I hate divorce so much. It can be so ugly and horrible.” Elisa’s parents had divorced when she was very young, and she had watched some of her close friends grow up as children of divorce.

“I know. I know. Please believe that Seth and I didn’t choose this lightly. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it was the best thing for all of us. We haven’t told very many people yet, mainly just my parents and my sister. I wanted to make sure I was the one to tell you, and I wanted to do it face-to-face. “ I tried to offer what reassurance I could.

“Do you think you will work things out? Do you still love him?” Elisa said, hopeful.

“Yes. I will always love Seth. We were married sixteen years, and that doesn’t just go away. He is a great dad, as you know. But no, Sweetie. We won’t get back together. I’m so sorry.” Now hot tears came out of my eyes. “I am so sorry…”

We continued to speak for a few more minutes, before we joined the kids outside. We spent the afternoon laughing and catching up while the children ran around in the yard and played in the sunshine. I felt relieved as I drove home with Emerson and Gavin in the back seat. My relief was solidified the next morning, when I received the following message from Elisa on Facebook:

Steph, so I laid in bed last night thinking about our amazing visit. I just want you to know that my thoughts and feelings about you and Seth will never change. I don’t want you to be sorry! You are right. I did choose you guys cuz I trust that no matter what situation or path you guys went on Emerson and Gavin would be loved by many and very well taken care of. Nothing between us will change. We are family ! ! hugs n loves.

Becoming a parent was the stuff my dreams were made of for a very long time. I had no idea that the reality would be so vastly different than what I had imagined for myself. As a young woman, I thought that I would fall in love, get married, have babies, and live happily ever after. I would be the best I could be in all of those things. Life doesn’t always work out with a neat arrangement though. My struggle to become a mother brought me to my knees on many occasions, for many reasons. Watching my marriage turn into a casualty of the decade long process, that often seemed effortless for many people, could have broken me all together. It turns out I am proud of Seth and I for recognizing that our family deserved something different, something better than just existing. I am grateful for the pattern I was given by a courageous young woman who showed me what it is to love someone enough to choose something different and unexpected for them. I think of My Elisa (yes, she is definitely mine), and I see her on her own, living her life, caring for her children, and I think of the tremendous amount of honesty she had to muster in order to view her circumstances and entrust her babies to me and to Seth. Elisa looked within herself to see that she wanted to choose something else for Em and Gav. Not better. Make no mistake that I am no better parent to Emerson and Gavin than she is, nor is Seth. At the time of their birth, we had life experiences that placed Seth and I in the position to provide care for Emerson and Gavin. And actually, I wouldn’t change a thing. My babies are feisty, and we can go the rounds, but I could not imagine motherhood in any other way that how it has played out for me. This is my journey. My path. MY family.

I am fond of letting others know how many people love my boys! Emerson and Gavin are adopted children of divorce. That is true. But the larger point, the bigger picture, is that they are loved by parents who want the very best for them, always. Life throws a whole lot of nonsense at you sometimes, and I do not want my children to be defined by the stuff they are not able to control. I want Em and Gav to make choices that may seem unconventional to some, and to find character in the comfort of the many hands at their backs, the strongest of which are the hands belonging to each of their mothers.