It was a winter afternoon during Christmas break that I discovered I was pregnant. Mom and I had been Christmas shopping together but immediately when we split to do our own thing, I dashed to buy a pregnancy test.

Although I was fairly confident that I was pregnant, the positive pregnancy test staring at me in the JC Penney bathroom that afternoon took me by surprise. I was 22 years old and a sophomore in college when I got pregnant with my son. He was born on August 29th, 1991 at 5:10 p.m., and I placed my son into the arms of a loving family two days later.

I dated Danny, my son’s father for a year but our relationship had come to an end shortly before I discovered that I was pregnant. He was already dating another girl and chose to stay with her. I dropped out of school, moved to California, and found support among friends there. And although I had their support, those remaining months were excruciatingly lonely and very painful for me. I longed to hear from my son’s father. I yearned to have him experience this pregnancy with me. And although my mom had come to stay with me during my last month of pregnancy and be there for the delivery, my heart ached for Danny.

I chose to have my mom and my caseworker with me when I had my baby and spent two days in the hospital with him before his new family arrived to take him home. To be honest, I remember very little about my time there. It was as if I was having an out-of-body experience, living someone else’s life. I was in shock and just going through the motions. A few weeks before I delivered, my caseworker and I had come up with a hospital plan. We had decided that my son’s new family would come to my room, we would take pictures and exchange gifts, and then they would leave. And that is exactly what happened. It was a beautiful time together and then it was over. For a moment, I stood motionless. When the tears began to well up in my eyes I panicked, fearful that if I started to cry, I would never be able to stop crying. I stopped the flow of tears that day and didn’t cry again for years.

Although my family was supportive of me and my decision to relinquish, I never felt comfortable expressing my true feelings of heartache, isolation, confusion, emptiness, etc. to them or anyone else for that matter. Maybe because I was confused about what I was feeling and didn’t know how to express myself. In my head, I knew that I had made the right decision for my son, but my heart ached for him.

For the rest of my life, I would be a mother, but would never hear that word spoken to me. I was grateful that I had chosen an open adoption, but that dynamic added to the confusion and grief. I spent sixteen years running from my pain and confusion – in and out of unhealthy relationships with men, causing enough guilt and shame to distract me from grieving the loss of my baby. I also spent years investing in the lives of inner-city youth, caring for their needs, all the while avoiding my own needs.

I’m now 44, have never been married and have never had any more children (of course there’s still hope!). Some with good intentions have said that although I have never had more children of my own, I was blessed with so many children through my inner-city work. I would love to agree with them and I do love the kids that I worked with, but a birth mother will never forget the child that she relinquished, no matter how many others she has or cares for. I don’t regret my adoption decision. I chose adoption to ensure that my son had the best life possible – and he has had an amazing life that I never could have given him.

I have read that some birth mothers have a more difficult time on special occasions that would have ordinarily included the child that they placed. That’s not the case for me. I think of my son every day of my life and every hour of each day. He is very much present in my heart and in my thoughts even though he is not with me. He is just as much part of my life today as he was when I relinquished him 21 years ago. I am just now learning how to cope with my loss and grieve in a healthy way. To be honest, I think that this is the case for many birthmothers. We run from the pain until we can’t run anymore. Then we are forced to deal with it. That’s where I am right now.

Someone said to me recently that they didn’t understand why I was so upset over losing my son when I had made the choice to place him. My response was that not all good decisions feel good. Adoption is not a first choice for most people but it is often the best choice.

I am currently in graduate school researching effective birthmother coping strategies for long-term, residual grief and speaking at as many workshops and conferences, as I can, to share my story and educate others about adoption. Maybe someday my son will join me and share his story to help other adopted children struggling with identity, abandonment issues, etc. I am hoping that sometime in the future, I will be able to help churches, social service agencies, adoptive families, and others involved with adoption learn how to best support birthmothers as they begin their new lives post pregnancy, post relinquishment.

And to other birthmothers who are on their journey, hug yourself for me and recognize the amazing heroism of the sacrificial choice that you made for your child. I acknowledge you, am proud of you and continue with you on this lifelong journey of grief and loss.