Adoption colors lives of two women

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

Who was she then? Who is she now?

For a moment, the question gives her pause, as though that small silence divides her in two. The gap between past and present stretches ever wider and then she answers.

Now, she is a wife and mother, living in Sioux Falls. One of her children picks up the other phone, says something unintelligible.

Her child is obviously very young, as is she. Most of her life is still ahead of her.

Then, even more of her life was ahead of her. Then, she was invincible. Then, 10 years ago, she was pregnant.

College students don’t talk about these things very often. If things like unwanted pregnancies are talked of at all, it is late at night, hushed whispers passed around a dorm room between friends.

College students are young and invincible, and God will keep them that way.

But Jean* knows better. Ten years ago, Jean found herself sitting alone and shocked at a routine physical where a doctor told her that she was pregnant.

“I just sat there numb with tears going down my face,” she said. “I was in denial. I figured that God wouldn’t let that happen to me because I was a Christian.”

Sometimes, somehow, even the young and invincible find themselves changed.

Jean’s personal convictions ruled out abortion and she did not think she could care for a baby on her own. Faced with a difficult decision, she chose to give her baby to people she had never met and hope for the best.

Whether this story has a happy ending is ultimately up to you. What it does have is sadness, faith and a lot of love.

Too often, we forget that the stories we hear of women who have to make agonizing choices about their pregnancies involve real people. It becomes too easy to get caught up in the politics of pregnancy and forget the women who find themselves at the center of the maelstrom.

Jean is one of those women. The choice she made was one few people could have made. She gave birth, then gave the baby up.

Remove yourself from the politics. Remove yourself from the debate and the flyers and the noise.

She gave birth, then gave the baby up.

How did she do that?

Could you?


Janet Mullen, director of health and counseling services at SDSU, works in a world where pregnant women are treated on a case-by-case basis with understanding and empathy.

At the end of the day, though, she and her staff have to leave the fears and the sadnesses of these women at the office, lest they go home every night utterly demoralized.

Mullen said that the world has gotten a little better for expectant women since Jean was pregnant. She thinks that pregnant women are not as likely to be ostracized, as society becomes more and more educated about unwanted pregnancies and the options available to the woman who is expecting.

Still, the decisions can be agonizing.

“They’re usually very individual and personal. It’s a very challenging decision for a lot of women,” Mullen said.

The best Mullen and her staff can do is help counsel the women until they reach a place where they make a decision. If that decision is adoption, the women are referred to an adoption agency, such as Lutheran Social Services or Bethany Christian Services.

Increasingly, Mullen said, women are discovering they are pregnant from home pregnancy tests and not seeking medical counsel. If that happens, Mullen said, she hopes they will talk to someone.

“I think if at all possible, they should talk to their partner and to people they trust who are close to them,” Mullen said.


Colleen Zweig sits on the opposite side of this story from Jean. She was the baby, the surprise, the unexpected.

She was not Jean’s baby, of course, but she was the baby of another girl who found herself pregnant and afraid.

Colleen knows a little bit about her biological mother. Colleen knows her biological mother was 15. She knows bits of her biological mother’s name.

Beyond that, she doesn’t know a whole lot.

Colleen is quick to say “biological mother” instead of “mother.” It’s a foible of the adopted, the need to constantly qualify that their adopted parents are their parents. The word “parents” should need no qualifiers, but Colleen has found that some imagine her life to be a constant quest for identity. Some think she has been handed a tremendous burden.

“I don’t think of it as a burden at all. Two people made a baby and they weren’t able to take care of it and they gave that baby to somebody that could (take care of her) who had waited for years to have a child,” Colleen said. “If I ever did meet my biological parents, the first thing I would say to them is ‘Thank you.'”

It’s this thankfulness which colors Colleen’s relationship with her biological parents. She does not know them and will probably never know them, but she remains grateful for their love and selflessness.

How much love does it take to give up something like that?

How much?


Planned Parenthood is not the first name that pops into the mind when discussing adoption. Despite this fact, Planned Parenthood of South Dakota and Minnesota (stationed in Sioux Falls) offers to help those who wish to have their baby adopted find the people who will help them do that. Kate Looby, the state director of Planned Parenthood, says it’s all part of the job.

“When somebody comes to us for a pregnancy test and it’s positive, we are an organization that feels it’s important to give women all of their options,” Looby said.

It’s “all of their options” which has caused so much controversy in the past, but the group knows that adoption is just as viable of an option as any.

“It’s a really positive experience for a lot of young women to give birth and if they know that they cannot care for the child in the best possible way in their life, to give another family the opportunity to be parents,” Looby said. “It really is a wonderful thing for a woman to be able to do.”

Still, Looby said, adoption is not always an option. If a married woman with children conceived a child she and her husband could not care for, for whatever reason, adoption is rarely considered. Looby said she did not know of a single case like this where the woman had the baby adopted. For others, it may just be too hard.

“I think a lot of women when we talk about adoption with them, their first response is ‘Oh, I could never do that,” Looby said. “To go through a pregnancy and a delivery and then give that child to somebody else can be very painful and very hard.”


And so we come back to Jean, who went through the pain and made it through the hardship. She had an open adoption, which meant that she left SDSU (where she was attending school) and left her job and went to live with the family that would adopt her baby. Getting to know them helped her make peace with herself, as did getting a cat, but still, giving birth and giving the baby up were both hard.

Fourteen days after her son was born, Jean held him for the last time.

“I was overwhelmed with a lot of different emotions, but I was ready to go forward. I was ready to move on, let this child have his life, let me have a fresh start,” she said.

She occasionally sees pictures of her son and she sometimes sends him letters. In the end, however, she decided to stay out of his life. She took comfort in how much she liked the family that had adopted him. She felt blessed by God for having made a wise decision, despite the fact that some called her selfish.

For the most part, Jean has made peace with her decision, but she still wonders, especially when her own children celebrate their birthdays. It would be hard not to picture another boy celebrating that birthday, wearing a little hat, blowing out the candles.

“I wonder if he did this for his birthday. I wonder if he liked this when he was this age,” she said.

To know he is there, to know where he is, to know his family, and yet know so little.

How could anyone call that selfish?


At Lutheran Social Services, the adoption agency which handled Jean’s adoption process, taking care of mother and baby is the most important thing. LSS believes it is important for mothers to know just how much being a mother will affect them.

“A lot of them don’t know what the expenses are going to cost so sometimes they’ll have them go to a store and just price what it costs for diapers and formula so they’ll have an idea of what it’s going to cost to be a parent,” said Rhonda Egge, adoption secretary with LSS.

One of the primary roles of LSS is to help young women get through the legal issues surrounding adoption. The organization makes sure the father signs off on the adoption, helps the birth mother decide between open and closed adoptions (in an open adoption, the birth mother knows almost everything about the family her baby is going to; a closed adoption means she knows next to nothing) and helps fill out paperwork.

Egge feels that this is beneficial to the often scared young women. She also feels that the recently started practice of open adoptions can be immensely beneficial.

“(The birth parents) go through a grieving process and it helps if they can still have visits with the child and know how that child is doing,” Egge said.


Colleen’s adoption was not open, but if her biological parents could see her, they would see that she is doing just fine. She is a friendly, outgoing girl, a senior at SDSU with a major in English and minors in Spanish and economics.

The future is bright for her.

It is easy to wonder if her future would have been so bright had she not been put up for adoption. Would she have had as many chances? Would she have known this much love or simply more frustration?

Our world is structured in such a way that the cards are stacked against you if you’re a single mother, especially if you’re 15 like Colleen’s mother was.

However, things balance each other out. Those who cannot handle children can give their babies to those who will never have a baby on their own. In this way, things keep moving, changing.

Colleen will likely never find her birth parents. They did not wish to be found and to find them, she would have to hire a private investigator. Besides, the pressures of school and work are enough without having to worry about tracing a lineage.

She has known since she was two that she was adopted. Her parents never wanted to be dishonest with her. For all of her life, this has been enough and it is enough right now.

It is enough to know that she has been loved by two different sets of parents. One set loved her enough to give her up and the other set loved her enough to take her in.

She wonders sometimes about if she had been aborted. She is grateful that she lives and exists, but she is not wholly opposed to abortion. She thinks it is usually not a good idea, but she also thinks that different situations call for different answers.

Still, she sees the regret in the eyes of friends who have had abortions. It is a different kind of regret from the friends who have kept their children or had their children adopted.

“(In my experience), I think that abortion is a much harder choice to live with. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a wrong choice, I just think that in the long run … the people that have given their kids up for adoption have a healthier outlook on life than the people that have had abortions,” she said.

But still, how do you make that choice? How do you come to the brink of that decision and look over its edge, knowing that whatever you decide will change your whole life?

How can you be so young and yet so old?

And yet so young?


Jean knows.

She cannot express it exactly to you, but she knows. She knows the emotions and the thought processes and the turmoils.

Above all, she has advice for women who find themselves in this situation.

Above all, she says, a woman considering adoption must know she can be at peace with herself for making that decision.

“I would say that she needs to make sure that she wants to do it, that she’s not being pressured into it. She doesn’t want to bring a lot of pain to the adoptive family of her child by going back and forth,” Jean said.

Jean also advised that mothers be honest with adoption agencies about who the father of their baby is, since the father can appear at any time and take the baby away from the adoptive family, in some cases.

Above all, though, Jean said a woman must ignore society and listen to herself.

“Society or yourself can make you feel like you’re doing something really selfish, but it is actually the opposite,” Jean said. “I had people think that I was crazy to carry the baby and give it up for adoption rather than go have an abortion.”

Jean, however, has never regretted that choice. In her heart, she did the right thing.

Could you make that choice?



A child’s birthday party.

In the corner sits a young boy, opening presents, laughing and shouting to his friends.

Outside, dusk crawls across the yard, enveloping the world in dark.

Inside, lights come on, the children leave.

The young boy says farewell to them, runs to play with his new toys.

If you could look at him for long enough, you would see that he has her eyes and her nose.

*Jean is not her real name. Her name has been changed to protect her identity and for legal reasons.