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I love my son, but I wish having him had been my choice

This First Person piece is by Danielle Barnsley who lives in Leduc, Alta. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Would I have chosen differently if I knew then what I know now? If I knew that abortion was a reasonable option, or that I could have parented my son, or that I didn’t have to relegate myself to carrying him for nine months only to give him away like a sacrifice or penance paid for my supposed sins?

I don’t know. My life would look invariably different, and the idea of having to erase any of my children now feels like a sick game to play. 

All I know is this: I was never given an option. 

A daughter in a devout Mormon family in Alberta newly out of high school with a bright future, I found myself pregnant at 17. My future would be forever altered by what came next. 

They told me a lot of things. 

They told me that abortion was murder and worse than becoming pregnant outside of wedlock. That God was testing my faith. 

They told me the pregnancy was an act of God, for the sole purpose of giving that child to a couple who was infertile. They told me that if I chose to keep the baby, I would be selfish, inflicting a lifetime of harm and hardship on him. 

“They” would be my parents, their religious leaders, and the adoption agency. 

All of the things they told me, I’d find out years later, were half truths, or sometimes, just bold lies. However, the biggest lie they told me? 

That I would get over it. 

They told me I would be sad for a little while, then I would forget it, because, after all, I was doing the “right” thing. That I’d bask in the knowledge of knowing that I had given a “gift,” doing the godly thing that was expected.

And, I tried. Oh, how I tried. After the adoption, I latched onto anything that would help me feel better about the fact I carried my son for nine months and then gave him away. The weight of the grief I felt didn’t dissipate either. I just learned how to cope with it. It didn’t take long before it had settled deep into my bones, hiding how deeply it hurt from everyone. 

In late 2007, five years after I had relinquished my parental rights to my son, I was happily in a committed relationship and we had our first child together. 

That’s when all of it — all the lies I’d been told, all the ways I’d repressed my feelings  — began to surface. On the drive home from the hospital, I sobbed. When my husband asked why I was crying, I managed to say, “I get to take him home this time.” I still remember the pained look on my now ex-husband’s face as he took in my words. 

What was originally diagnosed as postpartum depression was reassessed and diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. My therapist said the adoption and the way I was treated during it was abusive, exploitative and ultimately traumatic. 

I fought the diagnosis at first, claiming that I was OK with the adoption and that I had done the right thing. But talking to other women and other birth mothers like me changed my perspective. I wasn’t alone. We all carried this lead balloon, which never got lighter.

i love my son but i wish having him had been my choice
Danielle Barnsley’s two youngest children walk down a street. They know of their older brother who is adopted. (Submitted by Danielle Barnsley)

So I started talking about it even more. I began writing about it. Though they were young, I told my kids about their brother. At first, I explained that he lived with another family. As they got older, I added more context. I had been told I wasn’t allowed to raise him, that my own parents threatened to disown me if I made any other choice than an adoption plan. I told my kids that I was never given a choice. 

It was gut-wrenching when my kids wondered if I might give them away as I had my firstborn. I held my youngest as they cried when I had to tell them that they couldn’t invite their brother over for birthdays or holidays. How do you explain to a child the impossible situation I was in? I still don’t understand it. To this day, they still cannot comprehend why my parents would have done any of this, but in talking to my two kids about what happened to me and their brother, they are firm pro-choice advocates. 

Now, pictures of my son hang in my house. A photo of all three of my children and me features prominently in our living room. We talk about him often. We have a limited relationship with him because his open adoption was not as open as I was led to believe it would be. 

I might have carried my son for nine months but I have carried the trauma of that lack of choice for 19 years. It will never leave me.

I still cannot tell you what I would have done if abortion was offered to me as an option. Truly, it’s impossible to even consider, when so many things would be changed in the present. 

Someone told me recently that the version we are in the present is the person we would have needed when we were younger, and I know that to be true. That 17-year-old girl who had her bodily autonomy stripped away, who was forced continue an unplanned pregnancy, deserved to be told: Let’s talk about all your options so you can make the best decision for yourself. Ignore everyone else. You deserve to have a choice. 

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