“The birth mother lost her father in early childhood and was raised in difficult financial circumstances by her widowed mother. She dropped out in elementary school…She met the birth father who is her neighbor by chance and had a brief intimate relation and parted. The mother delivered this baby alone…”
Seventeen-year-old Lydia Doublestein read the paragraph slowly. Although this wasn’t the first time her eyes scanned this paragraph—she had read them once before at the age of 10—a greater maturity seven years later allowed the words to absorb deeper, weigh more, sink slower.
These words didn’t just describe fictional characters in a made up story. The woman—who became fatherless at a young age, struggled through financial hardships growing up, and eventually dropped out of school as a child—this woman was Lydia’s birth mother. Whom Lydia had never met.
While the loss of that last fact had yet to impact her the way it would a few years later, Lydia could not help but focus on a seemingly small detail. The mother delivered this baby alone. As a 17-year-old soon-to-be high school senior who had no idea what type of career she wanted to pursue, that last detail of Lydia’s adoption papers struck her. Not long after that evening, she opened her Internet browser to search for possible careers, as many teenagers do. One of the many websites she perused happened to be the Peace Corps. She scanned through numerous blurbs of volunteers’ experiences abroad. But one testimonial of a volunteer assisting a midwife in a rural clinic caught her attention. Lydia’s curiosity piqued.
She started with Google. “What is a midwife?” she typed. The basic definition is a person trained to assist women in childbirth. Click. Scroll. Click. Lydia searched further, “How do you become a midwife?” More clicking, more scrolling.
more scrolling. As Lydia dove headfirst into the black hole of Google results, she started to understand midwifery a little more and, perhaps most importantly, she found herself nodding in agreement with this type of medical care. Coming alongside a mother, collaborating, giving her a voice.
“Then, I was reading on the American College of Nurse Midwives' site—the national college for midwives in the U.S.—and their motto is: with women for a lifetime,” recounts Lydia. “And the word ‘midwife’ means ‘with women.’ When I read that, what came in the back of my brain was, [my birth mother] gave birth alone. I realized that was a piece of my birth mom’s story, so consequently, it’s a piece of my story.”
Lydia immediately noticed how the language in her search results emphasized partnership between midwives and women and the importance of building up this relationship. And she kept returning to the same place in her own story: the mother gave birth alone.
“As I read birth stories, there were women who said they felt isolated, they felt alone, they felt like they were silenced, like they weren’t being heard,” Lydia says. “It just fueled that desire to be a midwife. No woman should be made to feel that way…she shouldn’t feel isolated, she shouldn't feel abandoned, specifically at a time where you’re bringing new life into the world.”
Lydia attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, pursuing an undergraduate degree in public health. During her junior year of college, she decided to initiate a search for her birth mother. She had contemplated the idea for years, but it had seemed too daunting. To put herself out there. And then what? To be rejected? Perhaps disappointed? What if she never heard back? Or what if she did? In the years prior, those questions would usually halt whatever search she began.
search she began.
But for whatever reason, in January 2013, Lydia decided to go for it.
On a seemingly uneventful weeknight, Lydia takes a short break from her homework. She types in the web address of her adoption organization. As she scrolls through the website, Lydia begins bookmarking different email addresses, writing down the names of people whom she needs to email about initiating a search for her birth family. Then, she composes an email. When Lydia hits “send,” she shoos away the nervous flutters in her stomach that are rising to her chest. She’ll wait to hear back before letting herself get excited.
After Lydia submitted the email and application, the organization asked her to write a letter of introduction about herself. While the reality of this search began to hit her, all Lydia could do was wait.
“I thought a lot about, OK, why am I searching? And what am I hoping to get out of this? And what do I think if nothing comes through on this?” Lydia explains. “What I mostly came away with is I just want to know she’s OK because she doesn’t have an education, she grew up in a lower-income home, she grew up in a single-parent home. Is she safe? Does she have rice on the table? Does she know she’s not alone? So many questions and wondering. So maybe if I search, I could get some answers.”
About three months later, Lydia received an email. The search agency had contacted the birth mother twice through writing and once via a phone call. She had denied ever giving a child up for adoption and told them never to call back again.
“That was the only information or response I could get back,” Lydia remembers. “Because they couldn’t even confirm that it was really her, I couldn’t get any identifying information from her, and they couldn’t give any of my identifying information to her. And I think at that point, I felt the hardest thing was that she would never read that letter I wrote. And I would never really get to know who she is.”
That day blurred by. Lydia worked in the morning, then went to class the rest of the day. When she returned to her apartment in the evening, she began making dinner for herself and her roommates when one of her roommates came home and asked innocently, “How was your day?” Lydia turned around, hugged her, and began to weep. It was the first time she cried since reading the email. She told just a few people after that day; most of her processing occurred internally in the form of journaling and written poetry. “Tuesday Morning” Blue halls White halls This is where I came that first Tuesday morning. Nothing but the squeak of shoes and the tumult of my own thoughts. I walked as one in a trance Dreaming Lost Seeing nothing And everything. Using my body to distract my mind. No… Go on, She doesn’t want to see you. You are not mine; You belong to another.
They say how can a woman forget the child of her womb The one at her breast… But she can. That morning… My alarm went off. One new e-mail. I opened it, So simple… Just one touch of the screen. …”…”… Refused…don’t ever call again… Maybe try again in a few years Or wait.. That was it. That was my answer. Blue halls White halls That is where I went that first Tuesday morning. The rest of the day was a blur… Then I was home Quiet Alone. A gentle voice, “How was your day?” Arms “You fit.” Tears finally came. Caught between wanting to give
Yet unable to give.
I have to let you go now…
With my love left unreturned
Without even knowing your name
Look, mom, no hands
No hands holding me back,
Grasping for what cannot be attained.
Letting me go
Letting me fly
You can forget about me
But I will always love you.
Rather than feelings of rejection or abandonment, Lydia hurt mostly from the immediate sense of loss. Now more than ever, Lydia became starkly aware that her birth mother was lost to her and she to her birth mother.
“There’s so much in Korean culture that stigmatizes single moms,” Lydia explains. “So even for a woman to have a past adoption out in the open, it could jeopardize her marriage, it could jeopardize her job. So there’s a lot of birth mothers who don’t feel safe to open up and acknowledge past adoptions.”
In South Korea, the idea of nontraditional families has yet to be accepted. Single moms are widely ostracized by family members and discriminated against at work. It is still common today for unwed pregnant women to hide their pregnancies before being encouraged to give up their children. In the 1980s, at the height of international adoptions from Korea, at least eight out of 10 children sent abroad were born to unwed mothers.
of 10 children sent abroad were born to unwed mothers.
“So...I respect the distance if that’s what’s safe for her,” Lydia says. “I would love to meet her someday. But that someday is perhaps maybe someday but perhaps never.”
Lydia grew up with a deep faith in God. Her parents raised her in a Christian home and encouraged her to pursue a relationship with Jesus. She describes that relationship as “always being close.” But in this particular circumstance, Lydia saw this as her personal struggle to deal with and get over. Later, however, she realized the necessity to reconcile this very situation with God.
“The longing to have that relationship with [my birth mother] just spoke volumes about the character of God and the longing He has to have a relationship and a connection with us,” Lydia says. “And even though I’m prevented from connecting with her, God isn’t. He has the ability to know who she is, know where she is, know if she’s safe tonight. So when I was able to recognize that, more and more I’ve been able to just trust Him with her story. And within that, trust Him with my story.”
After Lydia graduated from Calvin College in 2014, she moved to Brooklyn, New York to attend the midwifery program at The State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate. At the beginning of 2015, Lydia started working as a birthing assistant at the Brooklyn Birthing Center.
In one of the rooms of the birthing center, which resembles a bedroom more than a hospital room, Lydia remains on high alert, paying acute attention to the birthing mother’s body language as well as the midwife’s needs. The experience of a laboring mother resembles a surfer catching a wave. She builds momentum and speed as the swell approaches, the way a mother mentally, emotionally, and physically prepares for the beginnings of another contraction. She moves into position to catch the wave as it barrels towards her. At its height, she looks down the face of the wave and braces for impact—the peak of the contraction—then relaxes her body, surrendering to its power and rides with it, like a surfer rides towards the shore. She goes back out, catching another wave, riding another contraction. In the ebb and flow of labor, there are deep moans, high-pitched screams, protests, begging, cries. An untrained ear would assume someone’s dying. But, in fact, the opposite: a new life emerges. In the most alien and miraculous of ways, an entirely new human being materializes from a woman’s body, and everyone in that room becomes witnesses to a sacred moment.
One evening, as Lydia returns home after a birth, she assumes she would ride on the serotonin rush associated with just witnessing a woman bring new life into the world. As she steps into the shower, preparing to rest after a long day at work, she sees tears freely falling from her eyes, blending in with the waterfall from the shower head. She’s heaving now, crying deeply, from a place yet tapped. What is this? Where is this coming from? The same thing happens at a birth the following week. And a couple more births after that.
“It took a couple more births after that, and I realized that at these moments, I am present and I am seeing this new life come into the world,” Lydia shares. “And this is the part of life that I have lost. There are no memories that I have. And there’s nobody within my family who’s able to remember. My birth mom would be the only one who remembers, and she’s not able to connect. So I’ve lost this entire period of time that I find so powerful and so beautiful.”
With each moment of realization, another depth of loss engulfed her.
Lydia not only lost the connection with her birth mom, but she also lost this experience—the birth story—that she not only finds important but that her professional role protects.
Lydia mourned. She confronted the pain of peeling back yet another layer of loss to her own story. The pain felt too unbearable at times. The wound never stopped feeling raw and exposed. She would attend a friend’s baby shower, then unexpectedly have to step out, sideswiped by the overwhelming realization that her birth was never celebrated in such a way. Lydia would observe new parents embracing their new baby, counting the baby’s fingers and toes, touching the delicate nose, eyebrows, lips, and she’d have to step out of the room to catch her breath, understanding that that moment never happened at her own birth.
Yet, even in those moments, Lydia distinctly remembers God saying in the quiet pauses of her cries, “But I saw. And I remembered. And I was there. Even if no one else remembers, or if no one else saw, I saw. And I cared. It didn’t get forgotten or thrown to the wayside.”
As the year went on and as new layers peeled back to expose more wounds, it became evident to Lydia that this would not be a “one and done” thing. Rather, it would be something she’d have to encounter over and over again. In fact, the very career she pursued constantly immersed herself into what she wished had been.
“When you say, ‘I think birth matters,’ there’s a whole bunch of people who get on board with that,” Lydia says. “But then you say, ‘And birth matters for adoptees,’ it’s like, ‘Well, not in that situation.’ It’s almost like adoptees are the ones who never had a birth because it doesn’t matter in their story. What matters in their story is that they were adopted, so their adoption matters.
But for me, it was stage by stage throughout the year, focusing on very specific aspects through pregnancy, I realized there’s so much here and that’s what my birth mother was to me.”
Lydia cried out. God, this hurts. Why would You allow me to hurt like this? And it’s continuous. Why won’t You make it stop? I don’t want to keep hurting. In fact, why did You even create me or allow me to be conceived?
Lydia questioned whether this was the career for her or not. Journal entry after journal entry revealed exhaustion, being mentally spent, emotionally tired. And while midwifery training wasn’t the source of her exhaustion, the triggering and subsequent processing that it required of Lydia drained her.
In the end, however, two factors kept her from actually quitting. First, her own pride and stubbornness prevented her from ever voicing her temptation to quit. Second, she believed that God had directed her very specifically to midwifery.
In fact, Jesus took Lydia’s source of pain, loss, and abandonment, and flipped it right on its head. In talking with other colleagues and classmates, Lydia realized her road to midwifery proved unique. Many women became passionate about midwifery after having their own children. Others identified shortcomings in the medical field and committed to this form of care for mothers. Lydia, however, pursued this career because of what she and her birth mother lacked.
“God, for whatever reason, just wanted to create, knowing the story that I would have,” Lydia says. “Not necessarily because He wanted that scenario but [because He was] knowledgeable of it. I just let that sit for a bit. Because He wanted to. [I thought], ‘Well, I wouldn’t have done that if I were you, God.’ But God is God. And I’m not.”
Lydia started there and worked backward. Not just in theory and concept did birth matter, but her birth mattered. In accepting that God created her, she also had to accept that she was created in His image. Therefore, she has dignity. She has grace. She has beauty. She has purpose.
“Jesus said, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’” Lydia explains. “And if anything, that was what kept me still throwing around the idea of God. Because if Jesus, the one who is inextricably connected to God, gave that same cry, [knowing] the depth of that abandonment, He’s been there, too.”
Because of these realizations, she holds an unparalleled appreciation for the births she witnessed.
One of Lydia’s mentors in grad school encouraged her to write down all the things she learned at these births. Because if she kept pursuing midwifery, kept attending these births, kept learning, Lydia would eventually learn to “flip the wound.” In other words, because of her own hurt and pain, she’d be able to identify the hurt and the pain in someone else. Because of her own wounds, she’d be able to recognize the gravity of the situation, knowing that what she observed was precious. Because of her own story, she’d never take the experience for granted and instead grasp the value of that experience because she’s known the loss of it.
Lydia grieves, acknowledging her own hurt and pain. But then, she begins to see the things that are so precious.
“In prenatal visits, this woman is being seen,” Lydia says. “Maybe she thinks she just has a great care provider; for me, I care that I’m that great care provider or the person that I’m working with is providing her great care. She’s being seen. She’s being supported. She’s being asked if she’s eating and sleeping well.
sleeping well. She’s being asked if she feels safe at home. And I can walk away from this pregnant woman, knowing that she is doing well. I can come into the birth and after I leave, reflect on how she really was respected, she really was acknowledged, she was given the most positive experience that we could’ve given her for her situation. That has value because there are women who are not supported, who are disregarded. I don’t know for sure what happened in the room when my birth mother gave birth, but chances are, it wasn’t tremendously 110% supportive. So even though I don’t concretely know, it’s something I value.”
Lydia reads her adoption papers today and, still, tears may fall. Some days can be hard. Many are easy. She still has her own questions. But today, Lydia owns her story. And she knows that every sentence, every ellipsis, every punctuation, and every pause of her narrative has been intentionally crafted by the One who created her.
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