BY ALICE TENUTO
When we’re married about a year John asks me, “Are you ready yet?”
“No!” I exclaim. We get Sam, a cat.
Six months later, the same question. We get Herman, a dog. But I can only put my husband off for so long. He’s 33, I’m 25, and he wants a baby. Now.
How can I tell him I’m scared? Not the ordinary kind of scared that engulfs most first-time parents. I am terrified. I am not a first-time mom. I am a sinner. I committed the most heinous crime: I gave up my child for adoption. It has been eight years since I gave up my son. I am absolutely sure I will be punished with the wrath of God.
I’m sure that as soon as his sperm meets my egg, lightning will strike my uterus; my whole body will go up in smoke. The baby will have the most hideous deformities this world has ever seen — all because of what I did at 17.
• • •
It’s August 8th, 1964. Joe is twenty-five. I still have fairytale notions of finding a prince who’ll treat me like a princess.
If I had been a whole girl, one with boundaries, solid with self-esteem, I would have refused his ride. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
I’d romantically envisioned Joe showing up for our first date in some kind of chariot; he shows up drunk, in an old car with a hole in the floor and one door tied shut with a wire. I willingly get in, rain peppering me through the window that won’t close.
As the evening progresses, Joe gets drunker. At the drive-in, he pushes me down. “NO!” I shout. He doesn’t seem to hear me. I have never had sex before and am not sure what happened. I stumble to the ladies room and yes, I am broken.
My cycle had always reliably been 28 to 30 days. When it gets to be 35 days and nothing is happening, I start to panic. When Joe calls to arrange a date, I tell him I’m late. He says we’ll talk about it at 7:30 that night, when we are to meet. He never shows up.
My girlfriends say to buy Humphrey 11 pills. They’re supposed to bring on your period. Then I hear quinine pills will do the trick. I walk alone to the drug store to buy them. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. They don’t work. I talk with my girlfriends about abortion, but none of us know how to get one. We hear you can go to Puerto Rico, but you have to pay $600. I keep playing hooky from school because I can’t concentrate.
When I finally tell my parents, my father says, “Don’t you know that a woman can run faster with her skirt up than a man can with his pants down?” I quit school. I visit the priest, who tells me, “Adoption is the only option.” I arrange to go to St. Martha’s Residence in Newark. At home, we pretend that my belly isn’t growing bigger. This is not really happening.
I can’t understand how my mother won’t talk to me about this when she went through the same thing! In 1938, when she was twenty-two and unmarried, she got pregnant and had to run away from home. She told no one. All by herself, she had my sister, Lois, and gave her up for adoption. Twenty-five years later, she watches me go through the same nightmare, but says nothing. How is that possible?
At St. Martha’s, I am with other women who share the same shame and find strength in each other’s company. Each night we sit around sharing stories of our pasts and our hopes for the future. We don’t discuss the pain that is to come, or what to expect with labor and delivery. We’ve heard horror stories from the girls who went before us about the mean nurses at the hospital. No joy will be found in this birth.
When the baby is born, I spend two days with him, counting ten baby toes and ten baby fingers on his perfect baby body. I tell him how much I love him. I keep his first baby picture. I feed him and name him Paul Joseph. On the third day, I say goodbye to the sweet baby boy. Mom and Dad finally come to take me to sign the papers. On the way home, we stop for drinks.
• • •
Eight years later, when I am 25, my husband and I have no trouble conceiving. Every occurrence around this pregnancy and birth stands in vivid contrast to the dark experience of my first one. John reassures me that this time I will not be alone and I’m not — we go to classes together to learn about every step of delivery and birth. At 17, when my water breaks, I don’t even know what just happened — no one ever told me that was going to happen. The nuns don’t explain a thing — they just call a cab to take me to the hospital — alone. At 25, I choose my doctor carefully, making sure he’s well versed in natural childbirth and will allow me to nurse my new baby on the delivery table. At 17, I have to use the doctors that Catholic Charities picks. Natural childbirth is not an option, and before I know it, I am heavily drugged for the delivery. At 25, John coaches me in Lamaze and never leaves my side. At 17, each contraction, experienced alone magnifies the pain and sorrow.
My new in-laws and everyone I know gathers to shower me and my new baby with gifts. Even people I don’t know well send presents to celebrate this new life. The other one is given nothing by the people who love me most, not even acknowledgment. In my second pregnancy, I join La Leche League to learn how to breastfeed and welcome this new baby into our family; as a teen, I have to figure out how to give up my baby, with no guidance, not even from my mother who went through it before me.
On the day of delivery, John drives me to the hospital. We talk to each other and connect before we experience this ancient rite of birth together.
After seven hours of labor, she arrives. No devil child comes that day. She’s a perfectly beautiful sweet girl. She comes bounding into the world smiling. We call her Eva.
• • •
Alice wrote and performed her story as part of TMI Project’s 2013 production, What to Expect When You’re NOT Expecting: True Stories of Slips, Surprises, and Happy Accidents, a collection of true stories centered on the ways people exercise freedom of choice when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.