I love my son, but I wish he was my choice

This first-person piece is by Danielle Barnsley who lives in Leduc, Alberta. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

Would I have chosen differently if I knew then what I know now? If I knew abortion was a reasonable option, or that I could have raised my son, or that I didn’t have to relegate myself to carrying him for nine months to give him as a sacrifice or paid penance for my supposed sins?

I do not know. My life would invariably be different, and the thought of having to erase one of my children now seems like a sick game to play.

All I know is this: I was never given an option.

Coming from a devout Mormon family in Alberta fresh out of high school with a bright future, I found myself pregnant at 17. My future would be forever altered by what was to follow.

They told me many things.

They told me abortion was murder and worse than getting pregnant out of wedlock. That God was testing my faith.

They told me that the pregnancy was an act of God, for the sole purpose of giving this child to an infertile couple. They told me that if I chose to keep the baby, I would be selfish, inflicting a lifetime of pain and hardship.

“They” would be my parents, their religious leaders and the adoption agency.

All the things they told me, I found out years later, were half-truths, or sometimes, just outright lies. However, the biggest lie they told me?

That I would get over it.

They told me I would be sad for a little while and then forget, because after all I was doing the “right” thing. That I would revel in knowing that I had given a “gift”, doing the divine thing that was expected.

And, I tried. Oh, how I tried. After the adoption, I clung to anything that could help me feel better about carrying my son for nine months and then giving him away. The weight of grief I felt didn’t dissipate either. I just learned to deal with it. It wasn’t long before he settled deep into my bones, hiding from everyone how much it hurt.

At the end of 2007, five years after giving up my parental rights to my son, I was happily in a committed relationship and we had our first child together.

That’s when it all – all the lies I’d been told, all the ways I’d bottled up my feelings – started to surface. On the way home from the hospital, I sobbed. When my husband asked me why I was crying, I managed to say, “I can take him home this time. I still remember the pained look on my ex-husband’s face as he understood my words.

What was originally diagnosed as postpartum depression was re-evaluated and diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. My therapist said that the adoption and the way I was treated during it was abusive, exploitative and ultimately traumatic.

I initially fought the diagnosis, saying I was okay with the adoption and had done the right thing. But talking to other women and other birth mothers like me changed my perspective. I was not alone. We’ve all carried that lead ball, which never got lighter.

Danielle Barnsley’s two youngest children walk down a street. They know their older brother who is adopted. (Submitted by Danielle Barnsley)

So I started talking about it some more. I started writing about it. Even though they were young, I told my children about their brother. At first, I explained that he lived with another family. As I got older, I added more context. I had been told that I had no right to raise him, that my own parents were threatening to disown me if I made any choice other than an adoption plan. I told my children that I never had a choice.

It was heartbreaking when my children wondered if I could give them away as I had my firstborn. I held my youngest while they cried when I had to tell them they couldn’t invite their brother over for birthdays or holidays. How do I explain to a child the impossible situation I was in? I still do not understand. To this day, they still don’t understand why my parents would have done all of this, but talking to my two kids about what happened to me and their brother, they are strong advocates for choice.

Now pictures of my son hang in my house. A picture of my three children and I features prominently in our living room. We often talk about him. We have a limited relationship with him because his open adoption wasn’t as open as I was led to believe.

I may have carried my son for nine months, but I carried the trauma of this lack of choice for 19 years. He will never leave me.

I still can’t tell you what I would have done if abortion had been offered to me as an option. Really, it’s even impossible to contemplate, when so much would be changed in the present.

Someone told me recently that the version we are in the present is the person we needed when we were younger, and I know that’s true. This 17-year-old girl who had her bodily autonomy taken away, who was forced to pursue an unplanned pregnancy, deserved to be told: Let’s talk about all your options so you can make the best decision for you- same. Ignore everyone. You deserve to have a choice.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can provide understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here is more information on how to introduce ourselves.