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December 2, 2009

I Tackled a Powerful Family Legacy

Four generations of mothers in my family had given up their daughters, leaving me to wonder if motherhood was simply not in my DNA.

Read about more reversals of fortune:
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rebecca carroll

Photo Credit: Margo Silver

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I come from a long line of mothers who have given up their daughters.

My mother put me up for adoption when she was 16, three weeks after I was born; my grandmother abandoned her children outright when she became mentally ill; my great-grandmother put her daughter up for adoption; my great-great-grandmother disowned her daughter for becoming pregnant at 14. One generation after the next, each misbegotten mother said good-bye to her girl.

I learned of this lineage when I was 11. My birth mother, Jan, had written a letter to my parents asking about me, and they decided to let me meet her. Not right away, but soon enough, Jan told me about the women before us, prompting a nagging worry in me that I would never know how to be a mother who kept her child—or that I would never meet a man who would be sympathetic to my particular anxiety.

In the years that followed, I dated an assortment of men—a poet, a restaurateur, a hoops-playing jazz lover—and carelessly got pregnant three times before I turned 25. I terminated each pregnancy, believing I was adhering to my maternal fate.

Along the way, the drama and distraction of these relationships became addictive—I cherished the mini whirlwinds created by my would-be babies. There was the reckless sex (10 days in a cramped room in Paris with a love-at-first-sight guy); the weeks of wondering; the pee-stick tests (several, always, to make sure, even though I was always sure); the breaking of the news to the guy; his reaction (denial, machismo); the immediate ramifications (will we stay together?); the scheduling of the abortion; and the choosing of the girlfriend who would come along to feed me saltines and orange juice and drive me home. Then there was the recovery period, when I would get to be mothered.

Finally, by my third abortion, which my birth mother had recommended with chilly dispassion over the phone ("Close this chapter, Rebecca. Move on"), I realized I didn't want to be like her, or like any of the women who had come before me. They could keep their legacy of leaving. I wanted out.

I spent the next decade detoxing—distancing myself from all the chaotic relationships and their flesh-and-blood fallout, from the subsequent uncertainty and guilt. It wasn't easy, wondering if I'd inherited the abandonment gene or, worse, the crazy gene.

Then I met Chris. He walked up to me on a subway platform in Brooklyn and started ribbing me about a gum wrapper I'd accidentally dropped. His eyes were clear and soft, and there was a thrilling familiarity about him—a serene, sane vibe. Not long after, on our first date, I blurted out that I'd decided I wanted to have a baby, sooner rather than later. If he couldn't handle it, I said, then he'd need to let me know. "Let's start with dinner," he replied, generous and disarming.

As the weeks passed, his gentle confidence calmed me. Within 10 months, we were engaged; we married the following year.

Soon after, I got pregnant.

It was at the eight-week mark that I had a painful reminder of my three previous pregnancies: Each had been aborted at this stage. But this time I felt different. Thanks to Chris, my body was loved and whole and sure, a warm haven in which a life could grow—so much so, my baby didn't want to leave. I had to go through induced labor 11 days past my due date. When my doctor performed a high-risk, emergency C-section, I wondered (when I wasn't projectile-vomiting) if this was how the legacy would end. Would I die in childbirth? Would my child die?

When Chris finally placed our son, Kofi, in my arms, and I felt the weight of his body against my skin, I knew the legacy had been broken. My bond with my child came instantly.

Of course, I still have moments of doubt; a thought will flicker through my mind about falling under siege of some sort of genealogical force. Sometimes, I wonder if that mere flicker affects how I mother my child. But then I remember that while my history is complicated, my feelings about my child are not. When Kofi sits in my lap and I put my nose close to the warm curls on his head, I breathe in deep and feel connected. I watch his sweet brown fingers point at trucks, wave to friends, trace their way along my arm and plop happily into the palm of my hand. We do not wonder or worry about a time when we won't belong to each other.


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