Joshua Noah Holcomb was born at 8:19 a.m. on March 31, 2003, weighing 7 pounds and 3 ounces.
The next day, wrapped in a soft pink, blue and white blanket, a full head of thick blond hair sticking out of his swaddle, his mother, Rebecca Holcomb, then 22, handed the newborn to his adoptive mother, Starlet, in the parking lot of the John C. Lincoln birthing center in Phoenix.
There was hugging, a lot of tears and a brief impulse not to let go, but Holcomb, who lives in Scottsdale, says she never regretted her decision to place Joshua with an adoptive family.
“To me, it’s the most unselfish love you can ever have,” she says. “I wanted him to have a family. To have secure finances, emotional and spiritual stability. I couldn’t give him that.”
As mothers are honored with breakfasts in bed and bouquets of spring flowers today, there is a group of women, thousands strong, that quietly remember their roles as birth mothers. The Saturday before Mother’s Day has been set aside for them, to remember their decisions and to reflect on their feelings of guilt, anger, regret, relief, joy and peace that go along with being a birth mom.
When Holcomb wants to reflect on her decision to place her son in a semi-open adoption, she opens the overflowing leather-bound scrapbook that she carries with her just about everywhere. It chronicles the life of Joshua, his footprints, a copy of his birth certificate, photos from his first vacation to Hawaii (“He beat me there,” she says) and his first time seeing a pony, his blond hair covered by an oversized cowboy hat.
“He has my nose,” she says, as she observes the details of his life through these precious keepsakes.
She looks through the book often and adds to it twice a year, when she receives her latest stack of pictures and letters from the adoptive family — part of their agreement from three years ago, when she decided to place her baby with them in Washington state.
“Around the time of year that I expect the letter, I run to the mailbox every day,” she says. “I’m like a schoolgirl, I get so excited.”
The first set of photographs was the hardest, received during that first year as she was still grieving her loss. She saw his bright eyes and baby grin staring at her from the picture, and missed Joshua with the fierceness only a mother could. Now, the pictures bring her joy because they convey news that Joshua is happy and healthy.
Unlike the made-for-TV version of birth moms, Holcomb has no intention of ever showing up at Joshua’s door shouting her identity and demanding for them to have a relationship.
“I made one decision for Joshua, and that was to place him with a family with a mom and a dad. It will be his decision to get in touch with me — if he ever wants to,” she says. She hopes he will. She hopes the adoptive family is honoring their end of the agreement and tells Joshua that he is adopted and that his mother loves him. She hopes that the poem she wrote him during those first days of separation explaining all of this remains on his bedroom wall until he is old enough to understand it.
Holcomb read that poem to other birth mothers during the second The Birthmother You Know event last Thursday, a reading of poems, letters and stories written by area birth moms, at Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix. The event was organized by birth mother Laura Orsini of Phoenix as a time for these women to speak about feelings they may have kept to themselves for years.
“A lot of women, they stuff it in and never talk about it,” says Orsini. “Writing about it, talking about it, it’s cathartic.”
She should know. She’s been talking about it for 10 years.
MAKING THE DECISION
Orsini was 27, had a college degree, the promise of a career as a writer, and was in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend when she found out she was pregnant.
“Everyone assumed I would keep my son,” she says. “But I didn’t want to be a single mom.”
A lifelong Catholic, she never considered abortion, but she knew she could not raise the child alone. She began investigating adoption and found a system that was sometimes cold, and that often favored the child and adoptive family over the birth mother. She worked to make small changes in that system to make mothers more real, more present in the process. She considers herself pretty lucky to have what is called an open adoption, where the adoptive family knows her and she knows them, where she receives pictures of her son and news of his life on a regular basis. But Orsini’s situation is the exception to the adoption rule in the United States.
“Everyone knows someone who is touched by adoption and yet no one talks about it,” she says. “There’s still a stigma attached to birth mothers.” The stigma has carried over from the days when unwed pregnant girls were shipped off to “summer camp” or “aunt Betty’s” to have their children in secret.
Adoptions have changed a lot since then, but many people still want to adopt a baby and move on with their lives as a new family, leaving the mother in the past. But birth mothers never forget their role in the triad, says Orsini, and that is why she has become an advocate for them.
Orsini wants people to know birth mothers aren’t loose women, irresponsible or necessarily uneducated. Most of them don’t use the adoption system as a form of birth control. Few of them take their decision lightly. She wants people to stop cringing when she talks about her son, acting as if she gave up the right to refer to him at all when she chose adoption.
“Birth mothers love their children,” she says. “They’re not selfish. Most of them could have aborted and chose not to.”
AN EMOTIONAL PROCESS
Holcomb opted for adoption the moment she found out Joshua was growing inside her. At the time, that was all she knew about the next nine months of her life.
She was young and single, living in Scottsdale, thousands of miles from her family in Michigan, and making a living in sales when she met the man who would be Joshua’s father. He was a traveling salesman, in town for a home and garden show, and she took him out with her friends one night to show him the Phoenix night life. After a few too many drinks, they ended up back at his hotel.
They kept in touch by phone for about two weeks after their one-night fling, but three days after she stopped hearing from him, she found out she was pregnant.
Nothing about the adoption was an afterthought. She scrutinized family profiles, sat for hours with her pastor discussing it and cried with her mother, looking for validation.
At one point, well into her sixth month of pregnancy, she believed she had chosen the family. She even went to Oklahoma to see their home and meet their relatives. But the night before flying home, after having an intimate talk with the family about spiritual beliefs, Holcomb changed her mind.
“I was devastated,” she says. “I felt that they said one thing about their beliefs on paper, but in reality they believed something else.”
Then seven months pregnant, exhausted and disappointed, she came back to Phoenix to start her search again.
Her church finally helped her find a family who would raise her son the way she wanted him to be raised — Christian, educated, welltraveled and, most importantly, showered with the love of a big family.
SEARCHING FOR A DAUGHTER
Debbi Brown of Tempe knows what it is like to hope a child will cherish the memory of her and not harbor feelings of anger and rejection over a decision made out of love.
In 1978, Brown, then 17, fell in love with an older man and moved to New Mexico with him and a group of his friends. When she found out she was pregnant, she said she was thrilled, because she was happy and in love.
But one morning she woke up and found the guy had split without a trace. Four months pregnant at the time, she moved back to rural Illinois to break the news to her traditional Irish-Catholic family.
The decision was made to place the baby in adoptive care.
Brown had a closed adoption. She didn’t know who adopted her baby. She never received updates on her health and development.
Brown used to lie on her bed and imagine holding her baby, thinking about what she would smell like and how she would feel in her arms.
“I always knew I had to find her,” she says. “People think you can just get on with your life. But there’s a deep huge pain that doesn’t go away. The bond is so strong. I felt it all the time. Birth is so primal.”
After the adoption, Brown battled alcoholism, trying to fill the void where her baby should have been. She eventually found her way to the Unitarian Church. She became a minister and a healing touch therapist, working through her pain by helping others. But the void was always there.
In 2001, she placed an ad on the Internet, describing where she had placed her daughter for adoption and what she had named the baby. She also found a searcher who, for $250, would track down the name and phone number of her daughter. Then she prayed.
An e-mail message came the next day.
“I was born Anna on 4/18/ 78 in Evanston, IL. I weighed six pounds and nine ounces and was adopted through Catholic Charities. My birth mom, Debbi, was 18 at the time. She made me a pair of moccasins and wrote me a letter on green stationary. Does this sound like a match!?! While I had a great childhood, I have always wanted to find my birth mom. Please respond! Love, Catherine.”
The e-mail was the first in a long exchange before Brown met Catherine for the first time in June 2001 in Boston, where her then 23-year-old daughter was completing her master’s degree. Now the two are in touch all the time and have built their own relationship. Catherine calls her Debbi-mom, or de-mom, for short.
“I’ll never try to take the place of the mom that raised her,” says Brown. “I am so grateful to them. I think there is intense love and blessing on both sides. I gave them the greatest gift I ever had to give — my child — and they love her and did a great job raising her.”
Brown cherishes her happy ending with her daughter and, by sharing her story, desires to give hope to women who are at the beginning or in the middle of their adoption process.
“You won’t always feel this way,” she tells women still pained by their decision. “And there can be a wonderful, happy ending.”