A Mother’s Love: A Love Letter To The Woman Who Gave Me Away

I was 12 years old when I found my adoption papers tucked in a metal box under my parents’ bed. Too young to process alone the gravity of finding out my mother and father were not, in a biological sense, my mother and father, and way too scared to ask questions.  My mother went to her grave not knowing that I knew and that I had kept her secret for more than 20 years. My dad came clean about it the day we buried the woman we both loved more than air.  The details about how my parents came to adopt me are, to this day, scarce: My parents, having had two foster children both boys in their care, wanted a girl. And so they went to an orphanage in downtown Manhattan in search of a chocolate dewdrop of a baby and there I was, in a crib in a dark corner of the basement, chubby and curly-haired and giggly, arms outstretched toward the man who, with his wife, would love me and nurture me and care for me and pray for me for the rest of our days.

I don’t talk about this much with my father; it’s still an uneasy conversation to have. For him. For me. I don’t want him to think for a second that I have some kind of grand scheme to go searching for my birth parents. Because really, I don’t. I’ve known for what seems like forever that I have no interest in such folly; Bettye Millner is my mother and James Millner is my father and it is what it is and that’s that. The Heavens made this so.  I see absolutely no reason to change the order of this thing.

Still, I always pause when I read stories like this, about a 14-year-old facing manslaughter charges for neonaticide after police found a newborn, lifeless, in a plastic bag in the girl’s room earlier this week. Police were dispatched to the teen’s house after her parents rushed her to the emergency room, bleeding from complications after having given birth. The girl’s parents were clueless about the pregnancy, the birth, and the fact that their grandchild laid dead in their daughter’s room either having died at birth or having been murdered.

I know that but for the grace of God, this could have been my fate. The woman who carried me in her belly for nine months easily could have been a teenager, frightened by the prospects of having to tell her parents that she was sexually active and with child—a child that she could not reasonably raise on her own. She could have been a young mother, hands already too full with the duty of raising a grip of kids she could barely feed and clothe and house back in the late 60s, when meaningful work and decent pay never seemed to come easy to women, especially black ones. She could have been raped and impregnated by a stranger—or maybe someone she knew. Someone she thought she loved and who was supposed to love her. She could have gotten pregnant in a lustful tryst with a man who was not her significant other—her belly full of the evidence of her infidelity. She could have been many things. Or none of these at all.

In my mind, though, I like to think of my birth mother as selfless. After all, she could have easily given birth to me in secret, ashamed and scared and in deep denial—a pain so searing that she saw no other way out but to take my life. Or she could have found herself on a table in the backroom of an illegal abortion clinic, desperate for a way to end my life to save her own.

Instead, though, this woman gave me life by giving me away. She, or someone she knew, left me on a stoop, I’m told, somewhere down on Canal Street. As far as I know, there was no note—no details, no explanations, no promises. Just the expectation that the people who ran the orphanage would find a decent home for the chocolate dewdrop of a baby with the chubby cheeks and the curly hair, with arms outstretched, looking for a mom and dad to love me and nurture me and care for me and pray for me for the rest of my days.

It could be that my vision of what led me to that stoop on that day at that particular time—just four days before my parents came looking for me—is more romantic than the truth. Or maybe it’s spot on. Whatever it is, I know this much is true: I am forever grateful to her, this woman who gave me life, for letting me live and loving me enough not only to want for me what she knew she couldn’t provide but having the strength to find someone who could. It was a decision that led me to this specific place at this specific time—to a life filled with love and joy and peace and beauty.

What I’m sure she wanted for her baby girl.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

18 Comments

  1. Oh Denene, this brought tears to my eyes. I love children and have a heart to adopt as well. Bless you for sharing your story.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      It’s not an easy story to share, but I think it’s important—no matter how uncomfortable. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Are you thinking about adopting?

  2. This was a very personal story…thanks for sharing a part of your life with us.

  3. I’m an adoptive mom who loves her daughter “more than air.” Thank you for sharing.

  4. I can’t imagine the moment you discovered that box. What a deep and rich story, made even more so by the picture. It is so powerful to be reminded that for many the “search” would seem like you said, “folly”, and for others like my son who knows his first family reasonably well in a long distance context he’ll have no such choice to make-unless he chooses to not know them in adulthood (doubt that). For others it is something they are actively seeking, or planning on. I just love being reminded how each story is the teller’s alone, and how each so incredibly layered and unique.

  5. Denene@MyBrownBaby

    This: “I just love being reminded how each story is the teller’s alone, and how each is so incredibly layered and unique.”

    YES! That’s exactly it. People make a lot of assumptions about how I should feel about all of this and wonder why I’ve not gone on some exhaustive search for my “mother.” My answer is always, “I know exactly where my mother is, and my dad, too.” Anything else is a non-issue to me. But I recognize that’s not every adoptee’s feeling on the subject. It IS deeply personal and layered and unique. Thanks for recognizing and honoring that!

  6. What a beautiful, sad and important story about adoption, your life and how it is all connected. I am an adoptive mother of an amazingly gorgeous, super smart chocolate baby boy. I could never have made a baby more perfect for my husband and I, even if he came to us biologically. Everyday I think about his beautiful birthmother when I look into his big brown eyes and I am grateful for her selfless act of love. He will always know he is adopted. We were not fortunate enough to have been born dipped in chocolate and so it’s obvious but more importantly he will know his story. Thank you so much for sharing. Adoption is not a secret to be kept but a story to be celebrated.

    • Angelica,

      As a ‘pink’ adoptive parent of a brown baby, I love this line:

      “I could never have made a baby more perfect for my husband and I, even if he came to us biologically”

  7. How you can compare and contrast your own birth story and positive adoption outcome with the tragedy of this 14 year old and her baby shows incredible heart. I can’t imagine the world this young girl lived in where she felt she had no one to confide in and had to keep her pregnancy a secret. We need to create the space for teens, especially our girls, to have open dialogue. Otherwise, innocents will suffer the consequences of the fallout.

  8. Thank you for this post. It is important for all adopted person’s perspectives and unique feelings to be respected and taken at face value, even when they are positive. I just finished reading a long list of supposed adoption myths of which many contradict my feelings and experience so your post was timely in providing some online balance.

  9. What a beautifully written, important story. Made me teary eyed!

  10. Denene, as an adoptive mom of a 7 year-old, I appreciate your sharing this with us. We were advised to make adoption a regular part of our discussion so our daughter would never recall the thud in her heart when she heard ‘the news.’. So we’ve done that. After 7 years of sending an occasional letter to the biological mother, we recently heard from her. She shared her shame in making a decision to ‘place’ and also her thanks to my husband and I. I became instantly protective because she appeared to be on my turf. A couple of girls talked me down from the ledge and I see this as a blessing to share some details about the woman who blessed us with this completely wonderful life. A life I can’t imagine living without.

    I just wanted to offer this perspective. Tha is for sharing your story with us.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story. I cannot imagine the pain of the secret your parents had to carry all those years. I am a birth mother, and I hope one day my daughter comes and finds me. I count down the days until she is 18 so I can start looking for her again. I have more information about her (adoptive) mother than I would have if it were a closed adoption, and honestly my situation is much different than most (I’m told), but I think all children deserve to meet their birth mothers. I guess for closure maybe, or maybe I am just being selfish and hoping that adopted children feel that way – that my adopted child will feel that way.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. I hope that you and your birth mom are able to connect some day. It doesn’t make your real parents any less real.. any less your parents. It just finishes the circle. :)

  12. I was not reading Brown Baby when this was written. Your biological mother had great courage. Your parents obviously did an outstanding job raising you. I have adopted many biracial and one black child. I love them all and do my best, but I wish more black couples would consider adoption.

  13. Denene, this is beautiful. I’m not a crier, but I have tears in my eyes. The fact that you are so totally at peace with who you are, with who your parents are – is also amazing.

  14. I just found your website and was looking around and stumbled upon this. We adopted our daughter at birth and she is almost 10 months old now. THIS is EXACTLY how I hope she feels about her life and about her birth mother when she is an adult. She will know more details about how she came to have this life, but I hope she finds the same conclusion…that her birth mother was loving and brave and that she feels in her heart that the Heavens brought us together. Beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you for sharing!

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