Minutes after our son was born, 25 years ago, my husband and I stood, outfitted in quickly donned surgical scrubs, at the head of the operating table, unsure what to do. His birth mother, Michelle, was being sewn up after her emergency C-section.
"Go!" she repeated, insisting that we follow the nurse who had just whisked the baby off to the nursery.
This had been our plan all along—but, in the moment, I had to consciously make myself turn away from her and turn toward my newborn son. Over the course of the past five months, my son's birth mother had become my best friend. But when he was born, I had to let her go.
A year earlier, my husband and I decided to abandon our frustrating attempts to conceive. Adoption was our answer, but we hesitated because I worried that the baby wouldn't feel like mine. Not long after that, though, one single event made me ready. I met my newborn niece. Looking at the tiny, wrinkled new person, with her spiky tufts of black hair and the little "o" she made with perfect miniature bow-shaped lips, I realized I could love any baby. Whether or not the baby came from my body was irrelevant.
Private adoption was faster than working with an agency so we decided to find our birth mother on our own. Before we placed expensive newspaper ads, as was common then, we began our search by telling everyone we knew that we wanted to adopt. Several months later, I got the call.
It was Michelle, a young woman who I had worked with at a previous job. "I know someone," Michelle said. "She ... doesn't want an abortion. She wants to find good parents for an adoption."
I felt a full-body shiver of anticipation in one of those rare, surreal moments in life when we realize our wildest hopes and dreams are about to come true. She answered my many questions, until I finally asked, "Who is it? When can I meet her?"
"Lisa," she said, "it's me."
Two days later, we met for lunch. Michelle was beautiful, with friendly brown eyes and full, lightly freckled cheeks. When she walked into the restaurant, I got an immediate sense that she was family and realized that she looked a lot like my own mother. Her thick brown hair was piled up in a casual twist with a tumble of soft curls at the crown and she wore a fun pink-and-orange Pucci-like patterned shift. But what drew my eye more than anything else was the unmistakable roundness of her belly.
Lunch was great. Even though we hadn't known each other well at the salon where we both worked, Michelle and I found we were kindred spirits and had an instant rapport. I don't remember what we ate, but I do remember holding hands with her across the table at the end of several hours of talking and planning. Michelle and the father had broken up three months before she knew she was pregnant. She was in no position to raise a child alone. She thought about going to an adoption agency but preferred to choose and get to know her baby's adoptive family.
Michelle and I spent many days together while we waited for the baby. We met at her studio apartment or at a nearby coffee shop, where we'd split a blueberry muffin. I'd have espresso and she'd have water. I went with her to all of her doctor appointments. Afterward, we'd have lunch and talk for hours about our pasts, our futures, what her pregnancy felt like, my ideas about parenting. We shared family pictures. After spending the whole day together, we'd still call each other when we got home to talk some more. I hadn't had a best friend like that since high school.
I felt what fathers must feel. It wasn't my body that was pregnant, but it was my child. Michelle often grabbed my hand to put it on her belly; I felt the little flutter of the baby's kicks. At our first sonogram, the technicians assumed we were a lesbian couple—we just laughed. The baby was a boy but my husband wanted the gender to be a surprise, so Michelle and I kept it a secret. When all three of us were together, on the weekends and at our private birthing classes, she and I threw out contradictory hints to fake him out.
Being with Michelle brought out a fierce protectiveness in me. One day, she fell down the subway steps. She was OK, but I had her meet me at the hospital to make sure. I had never before felt such a strong need to take care of another person. Already, I was becoming a mom.
When the due date came and went, Michelle and I spent 10 long and anxious days together, often going to the movies. We sat in the dark theaters, side by side, blissfully distracted from thinking about the unknowns: for her, the birth process and what she would do with the rest of her life, and for me, the newness of having a baby.
Finally, five months after we first met and 17 hours after her labor was induced, she gave birth by cesarean section. The baby was beautiful and perfect, a strong 10 on the Apgar score. They plopped a little gauzy cap on him. My son's eyes met mine and we recognized each other.
Early on, we'd collectively decided it would be best if Michelle wasn't in our lives after the baby was born. My husband and I read a lot about open adoption and felt an active relationship with her would be confusing to our son. Michelle agreed. She wanted to move forward. Still, now that the moment was upon us, it was difficult.
When they took him away, I tore myself from Michelle and flew to the nursery, my husband following. During the wipedown, vitamin K shot and eye drops, I spoke a few words and my new little son quickly turned his head toward me. "He knows your voice!" the nurse was astonished. I was thrilled. "That's because I've been with him the whole time."
Forty-eight hours later, my husband and I brought him home. As with all new parents, our lives became consumed by bottles, diapers and sleepless nights. We were exhausted and elated.
Michelle called me a few times those first weeks. We shared what was going on as best friends would. I had a new baby, she had aching breasts, was recovering from an infected incision and, on top of that, had suffered the cruel insensitivity of the hospital when they sent her a pair of congratulatory baby booties. Eventually, our calls tapered off.
I think of Michelle every year on my son's birthday, on hers and, of course, on Mother's Day. When I call her every several years, our conversation slides into the easy intimacy of old friends. I'm in my early 60s now; my son is a man and ready to meet his birth mother sometime soon.
Now in her 50s, Michelle has a good life with a wonderful husband. No kids, though. We both wonder if the post-cesarean infection is at fault. I know firsthand how heartbreaking it is when you can't get pregnant, but Michelle says her disappointment is balanced by her pride at what a good thing she did for our son and for us.