Twenty-two years ago, New York Times bestselling author, Patti Callahan Henry’s sister Barbi placed a baby girl for adoption. Then in April 2010, a Facebook request put an end to all the waiting and wondering. It’s time to hear the true stories that inspired Henry’s fictional novel And Then I Found You. Enjoy our series of Q&A’s with Barbi and Patti.
You were 23 years old. One word to describe the moment you discovered you were pregnant.
Why did you choose adoption?
Actually, I chose adoption very late in the pregnancy. By the time it was finalized, I was within three weeks of my due date. The decision was a process that started when I was about seven months pregnant. I was working with a counselor and looking at my options, which helped me realize that I wasn’t in an ideal situation. I didn’t want to continue making the selfish choices that led up to the pregnancy and I didn’t want my baby to start her life without a ‘full’ family, since I wasn’t planning on getting married to the birth father. Her future would always have her caught between his future life and marriage, as well as mine.
I was walking on the beach - working through the pros/cons of what to do and how to do it. It was literally just a God moment. “Of course this is what I have to do,” I spoke out loud. I went back and immediately set the wheels in motion, calling my counselor and setting up interviews. It was a turning page and I knew that [adoption] was the right thing to do. No choice was easy…I felt that it was the best thing for my baby, for her future.
What was that decision-making process like?
At first, I shut people out because I had so many different opinions bombarding my mind. Even when I was in the hospital talking with a social worker, she said, “Well you’re 23, you have a job. You’re old enough to do this kind of thing.” I remember the guilt and doubt, asking myself, “Wow, is this not the right thing to do?” My parents had suggested adoption early in the pregnancy, and I was completely against the idea - hostile towards the idea might describe my reaction to them. So it was definitely a long process. However, once I made the decision, things moved quickly. I had that ‘peace that passes understanding’ - which isn’t something I can explain with words; it has to be experienced.
There was a lot of God and me time, and learning how to get quiet - shutting out those other voices. I still wanted to consider other people’s opinions, but I was so tired of trying to do what others wanted. I had lived my life being a people pleaser, so this was my first step towards personal decision-making. Regretfully, I did leave the birth father out of most of that process, which I knew was selfish, but I felt it was necessary because time was short and precious. I just kind of threw it at him, “This is what we’re doing.” Looking back it was definitely unfair. Yeah, I was kind of a hard-ass, and carried years of regret for handling it that way. There are other not-so-nice words to describe my attitude in those days, but it’s true.
Was there anyone in particular who influenced your decision to place?
Working with my counselor really opened my eyes to all the long-term realities. I also had support from my parents, sisters and best friend - which definitely made the process easier.
Why do you think women today DON’T choose adoption?
I would guess that most women who have an unplanned pregnancy feel the same sense of fear - a sudden change in direction that wasn’t expected. There are very clear-cut options, and no one is easier than the others; they all have repercussions that go on forever. I would say women don't choose [adoption] because we, as fast paced humans, generally tend to think much more short-term. It is the immediate gratification that may make us say, “What’s the easiest thing to do right now?” But, I can only speak from my own perspective at that time in my life, as I know every mother has her own reasons.
So you got pregnant, what were those 9 months like?
I didn’t show for about five months, so I continued working and kept my growing belly hidden from everyone except close friends and family. So, denial was my first defense. When my flight attendant uniform began to hug my bulge, I headed for my parent’s beach condominium, which was about a three-hour drive north. They used it as a rental, so I became their tenant for the remainder of the pregnancy. That was when I had plenty of alone time. I needed that! I was coming out of an emotional year when I got pregnant (including a broken engagement) and needed to figure out my relationship with the birth father - trying to wade the waters of confusion, love and heartache. There were many other things going on in my life and I was trying to answer the big questions: “Who am I? What do I want? Why do I do the things I do? Why did my previous relationship fail? Do I want to marry the birth father?” Just way too much. I believe some of them are typical questions for a young woman who is fresh out of college and starting a new job. I was a gymnast at University of North Carolina and had a strong support system and close friends. After graduation, I moved back to Florida and was on my own. No fiancé. No teammates. No sense of belonging. I had started a new job that involved traveling, going, doing, and meeting - things that were out of my comfort zone. I was just lost. Yes, those 9 months were definitely a time of “All right. Grow up, move forward and leave behind what used to be.” It was very hard and very confusing, as I fluctuated between being emotionally stable and a basket case. I was fortunate to have the solitude of a quiet house and sandy beach during the last half of my pregnancy.
You signed the relinquishment papers and terminated your rights to parent. Describe that experience.
I journal regularly and had written profusely during the pregnancy. So, I was able to go back and read what I don’t remember feeling. Memory is funny that way - it changes based on our present viewpoint. When I said goodbye and later signed the papers, heartbreaking was the only word I found to describe my feelings that day. It just hurt – the kind of hurt you don’t forget, yet can’t describe. But I also read about the calmness - I wouldn’t say peace – but just a sense of knowing I was doing the right thing.
How did you decide closed versus open?
I hadn’t done much research on what kinds of adoptions were available, but I knew that I couldn’t emotionally handle knowing the family intimately. That would have been to tempting, too hard for me to let go and not be overly involved. Everybody has different opinions in terms of opened/closed, and it honestly comes down to the birth parents and adoptive parents; What’s good for them? So, I am not an advocate of one over the other. I believe it needs to be clearly expressed between the parties involved as to which one they’re comfortable with and keep it that. With us, the option was that the birth father and I would register; because it wasn’t that we wanted to hide or never meet her one day. We wanted to be available for her to find us when - and if - the time came. When she was 18, we both registered with the Florida Adoption Registry, though she didn’t find us using that avenue.
What’s been the hardest part of being a birth mother?
The hardest part was the early years - it was still so fresh, so present. My life wasn’t all roses, so that exaggerated the pain and loss. Birthday celebrations were more difficult in the beginning, also. I celebrated privately and quietly, re-reading the adoptive mother’s letter to me and looking through birth pictures. Like most things, as time goes by, the acceptance becomes easier. Honestly, I can’t say that I struggled with guilt about choosing adoption, only guilt for the hurt I caused other people and other relationships. I did wonder if she would ever resent me for the decision, or not feel completely loved, but I felt I had done everything in my power to express that I loved her dearly. I wrote them a letter immediately following her birth, and they did the same for me. They agreed to tell her from a young age about her adoption story and always express our love for her.
When she turned 4 years old, my attorney agreed to forward a letter to the adoptive parents, asking for a quick update and picture if possible. I just needed to know if she was happy and healthy. I needed some reassurance. Fortunately, he complied and I received a return letter about eight months later from her adoptive father. He included two pictures and wrote about her personality, her travels, her interests, and her growing family. It was a very loving letter, but it was also very clear that they didn’t desire any further correspondence until she was old enough to decide for herself and to please honor that request. I totally got that, because we had chosen a closed adoption and the Baby Jessica story was all over the news during that time. I knew there would be some fear in the purpose of my inquiry, so I was overjoyed to hear back from them. I needed a little person picture, not just an image of my newborn. I was blessed to get a picture of a mini-me, with smiles and bows.
Did you think you’d ever reconnect with Catherine?
Yes, I always hoped it would happen and I believed it would be around her 21st birthday. She wasn’t lost and confused, like I was during that stage of life, but she was curious. My initial thoughts were, “Is she sick? Getting married? Mad? What huge thing is going on in her life right now that would make her look for me? It wasn’t any of that at all! The birth father and I spoke every year after her fifth birthday, and talked about the logistics of meeting again. As our own families grew, our conversations included questions about how and when we’d tell our children and incorporate our daughter into our new lives. I think we just knew it would eventually happen - at least we both hoped for that.
One word to describe the moment you learned your daughter found you.
Awe. What was I supposed to do with the ‘knowing’? Amazed. Grateful. Find a word that wraps all of those together. Overwhelming happiness at the same time. I just hit my knees in awe of the fact that this was happening.
One word to describe the moment you met your daughter.
Love. Happiness. I was so consumed with love. Completeness. Healing. I’m not good with one-word descriptions; there were too many emotions to be described with one word.
So let’s talk about the book and how it came to be.
From the moment Catherine found us, I began writing about our experience in my typical journaling form, not necessarily in a narrative story structure. I also copied all of our emails into one document and printed it out. I often review that packet of correspondences because the first week was a hazy blur of emotions. The written words shared between all of us describe the truth of our thoughts and serve as a constant reminder of God’s grace in our story. However (and that’s a big however), Patti’s novel, And Then I Found You, is not our story. It is a fictional tale about an adoption reunion between a 13-year-old girl and her birthparents. The theme was inspired by our personal experience, but not based on it – there is a difference. It was unsettling for all of us at first, because each of us carries our own perception of the actual events, so reading a fictional version was difficult. Patti constructed a beautiful, heart-wrenching and heartwarming story that will evoke emotional and soul-searching thoughts for the reader.
The true written events about the actual Facebook finding day are told in the e-book prequel, Friend Request. Patti and I shared the facts alongside our personal feelings, which we each wrote separately before she combined them into story form. That reunion day miracle is the only intimate revelation that has been written and shared, and it was extremely healing for me to go back and visit that incredible day!
There are many players in my pregnancy/adoption/reunion journey. There is a complicated background story, both joyful and painful, that wasn’t examined in either of the publications. That is what I am in the process of unfolding with pen and paper, using my past journals as credible documents to share one birthmother’s broken road.
Right now, I am excited about the opportunity to raise adoption awareness through Patti’s book, and I’m grateful for the platform that she has given us. It is an honor to share through advocates like BraveLove, because you give us the ability to speak from experience, both the good and bad. It is a scary, wonderful, painful, exhilarating ride to be open and vulnerable for a specific purpose. But, in my opinion, the amazing synchronicities we have experienced can only be attributed to a loving, forgiving, sovereign God. For example, my first name (Barbi) is her last name (Barbee). Her nickname growing up was Cakky, which is also one of her birth father’s nicknames. She’s grew up ten minutes away from the town where I was raised. My younger sister’s occupation is a direct result of her involvement in the birth. On that day, she wrote a letter to Jesus stating “I don’t know what good will come of this, but for my profession, I definitely want to work with children.” She was 14 at the time. She later received her Master’s in Social Work and worked for Bethany Adoption Services and the National Council for Adoption under President Bush. It became her life passion, and God has used it in a mighty way.
I realize that many reunions uncover some uncanny similarities, but I can only believe that the Spirit’s continual presence in our long journey is the ultimate highlight. For me, its just God’s way of saying I am faithful. I have promised you that I have a purpose and a plan. I have one for you and I have one for her… Ever since we’ve been reunited, I have been so amazed - whether it’s a date, time, name, or situation - it’s like God just opens my eyes and says See look, I did it here, I prepared you there. This is what I did for her. It’s like a beautiful puzzle or a scarf woven together that nobody can say is a coincidence.
People say put the past behind you. I don't think that's always a good thing unless you’re holding onto it in a negative way. I think we can heal through our past. It’s not bad to look back and say, “That was ugly, this is pretty,” and see how it all works together.
Adoption is an awesome choice. Not all cases turn out perfectly and not all reunions are positive. But it is still a choice to give life, and that is always good.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known then that you know today?
Well, I wish I had been wiser and more mature in the first place. But, during the years apart, I wasn’t living with anxiety or angst about her well-being. It was a wondering – more like, “I wish I knew more about her, but it’s okay.”
After the reunion, we dove in head-first, no putting our toes in to test the waters. We were baptized in the new ‘togetherness.’ Catherine’s I-want-to-see-what-she looks-like turned into You’re-going-to-meet-the-whole-Callahan-clan, which is a huge Irish crazy family… it’s a lot! I wish I would have known how emotionally overwhelming it was going to be. We’re learning as we go, but the honesty has given us the ability to work through the tough stuff.
What’s been the greatest reward of being a birth mother?
Since the reunion, having their whole family as a part of my life. I feel very blessed that they were so willing and open to embrace all of us. Catherine’s mom, Colleen, had faith to say, "Yes, you can come into my life." To me, that’s more selfless than what I did 23 years ago. They didn’t have to go that far. Colleen shared her fear as well as her faith, and trusted that “Our awesome God has a future for all of us in this.” I don't know if I could have done that. I don’t know if I could have let someone else come into my daughter’s life like that. Not only did they open their hearts to us then, but they continue to do so with visits, emails, phone calls… To me, the greatest reward is that they allowed my family into Catherine’s life, and we can all look back and see God’s hand. Hopefully that affects Catherine and my sons as they move forward in their lives and with their faith. I have evidence that shows how God is true to His promises, even when it doesn’t always look like it to us. To be able to use this in such a real way, that’s a huge reward.
What do you want our society to know about adoption?
Life is a gift. We can be responsible for choosing life, and we have a right to speak out for that choice. It doesn’t matter if the closet skeletons sneer at that stance, because a good thing begs to be proclaimed. Whether an adoption turns out to be an overwhelmingly, wonderful thing, or the adoption is less than grand, life isn’t perfect whether you’re adopted or not. Things happen; we live in a fallen world. But the stigma, the shame, the secret of adoption needs to be replaced with exactly what you are promoting through BraveLove – courage, kindness, acceptance. Educating the public about the many different options and talking openly, and often, about the choice to give life will benefit everyone in the future.
What’s your greatest hope for birth mothers today?
Birthmothers need to know that they’re not alone in their feelings and emotions. They need to completely embrace the fact that a life was given, whether conceived out of love or pain – they were selfless enough to carry a baby from conception to birth. They made a choice that gave a child an opportunity, while also fulfilling somebody else’s wish. That’s a pretty good gift.
Note: Big thanks to Barbi for being so open to tell her story. Also, we appreciate Catherine and Colleen allowing their perspectives to be shared within Barbi's interview. This interview was recorded by BraveLove; therefore, the words on this page were transcribed from the interviews with Barbi. Words have not been altered by BraveLove.