Fifteen years after placing her son for adoption, Gina Ledesma got in contact with Holt earlier this year. When we asked her if she was open to sharing her story, her response was an enthusiastic “yes.” While the environment and circumstances are different from country to country and individual to individual, Gina’s domestic U.S. adoption story is one that may resonate with any birth mother. And understanding stories like hers is important for everyone who is touched by adoption.
Gina will never forget the three hard, precious days she had with her son.
“I just counted all the toes and fingers,” she says, remembering those days in a hospital bed in Eugene, Oregon. “I looked at every little piece and part — and said my goodbyes.”
Twenty-nine years ago, Gina chose adoption for her son.
At Holt, we share adoption stories of all kinds. Stories about the children who wait, and about families working through the adoption process. Stories about the moment a child and family come together for the first time, and about the beautiful and complex transformation that occurs throughout the lives of adoptees and adoptive families. Whenever possible, we also strive to share a third, critical voice in the adoption story: the voice of the birth parents. Whether due to issues of confidentiality or lack of information about who the birth parents are — as is often the case in international adoption — birth parents’ stories are often unknown, and seldom heard.
But their voices deserve to be heard.
While Holt is most known for our pioneering legacy in international adoption, Holt has through the years also championed domestic adoption — both in countries overseas, and in the U.S. Today in the U.S., Holt has a foster adoption program in Oregon and an infant adoption program in Illinois. And for over two decades, from 1978 to 2001, Holt had a domestic infant adoption program in Oregon.
In 1990 in Oregon, Gina placed her baby for adoption through Holt.
Nineteen years old and a mother to a 4-month-old son, Adryan, Gina was living in California when she found out she was pregnant for a second time. She and her child’s father had just broken up, she worked a minimum wage-paying job, and she lived in an apartment with her son. She didn’t know what to do. She wanted to remain independent and provide for her children — but this seemed impossible.
“I knew I wasn’t capable and didn’t have the tools,” Gina says. “And really, I just didn’t want that [difficult life] for either of my kids or myself. I knew that I couldn’t do it. So I kept talking about adoption.”
In 2018, women experiencing unplanned pregnancy can face many of the same hardships that Gina did nearly 30 years ago. They desire to raise their child, but don’t have the resources to do so.
Today, in 14 countries around the world, Holt partners with sponsors and donors to help families achieve stability and self-reliance— empowering them to stay together. Last year, Holt’s Illinois branch — Holt-Sunny Ridge — began doing the same work for families in the U.S. Through the Empowering Women, Strengthening Families program, experienced social workers come alongside women in Illinois who wish to parent, but feel they have no other option but to place their child for adoption. These women receive support to find stable housing, complete an education, acquire medical care and driver’s licenses, find permanent work or overcome other obstacles in their lives. Ultimately, this program empowers women in Chicago to grow self-reliant, and equipped to independently raise and provide for their children.
But in 1988, there were few services like these for women considering adoption. And sometimes, even if they have these resources, women still choose adoption as the best option for themselves and their child.
“I didn’t want to be a statistic,” Gina says. She was young and had no job skills, but didn’t want to become reliant on “the system.” So she moved to Oregon with her son, began living with her mom, and got in contact with Holt to begin the adoption process.
“We provided counseling and spent a lot of time looking at their options, at whether they could be a successful parent,” says Sunday Silver, Holt’s director of post adoption services and the former director of Holt’s Oregon infant adoption program. While not the social worker who counseled Gina about her options, Sunday has through the years walked many women through the same process.
“We tried to empower them to make an informed decision,” she says.
Through options counseling with her Holt social worker, Gina decided she wanted an open adoption. This meant she would choose her child’s adoptive family and receive regular updates about them throughout their lives. As the fist step, Gina began reading through a stack of letters, each written by a different family who was waiting to adopt.
“I really didn’t have an idea of what I was looking for,” Gina says, recalling this most-difficult process of deciding who the parents of her child — who she now knew was a son — would be. “I just felt I would know when I saw, or read [their letter].” And she did.
“It was just a comforting letter,” Gina recalls. In it, the couple introduced themselves and shared about the life they hoped to give a child. They also took the pressure off — saying it was OK if, in the end, Gina decided to parent instead.
This is who Gina chose — an older couple, steady, responsible, both of them teachers who even had college accounts set up for the two children they hoped to adopt. What impressed Gina most was their compassion and kindness. So she decided to meet them. Today, as Gina sits in the Holt office sharing this part of her story, she begins to cry.
“I was going down the hall and I had my son with me, and I had a big belly. I had all these fears and was nervous,” Gina says, saying she remembers this moment like it was yesterday. “I opened the door and this woman gets up and she had this smile… She just lit up the room. She got up and embraced me, scooped my son up. I just felt her energy and love. Right there, it just clicked.”
A few short months later, Gina was in the hospital. She had just given birth to her son and was waiting the required 72 hours until she could sign the legal relinquishment documents. While sure of her decision, in that moment, she grieved.
“It’s tough,” Gina says. “It’s not something I’d want to experience again. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. It’s final. And you have to be prepared to live like that.”
Gina’s decision became all the more difficult once she held Alex in her arms.
“You carry this child. You feel the growth. You feel the movement. You give birth. And I had an automatic connection,” she says. “You bond. And that’s hard to get over — not ‘get over’ — but to kind of put that in one box and say, ‘OK. Now I’ve got to let go.’”
But she knew adoption was her choice, and the choice she felt she needed to make.
“It was hard not to be selfish because I wanted to keep him,” Gina says. “But I know [choosing adoption] was better. It was better for him, better for me, better for the son that I already had.”
At the end of those three days, she left the hospital after lovingly placing her son, Alex, into the arms of his adoptive parents. But since that day, he hasn’t left her mind or her heart.
“It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever witnessed,” Sunday says of the difficult, loving choice that birth mothers make. “It can be a healthy process, [but] very unnatural. The best you can do is try to make it as smooth as possible. And the more open, the healthier it is — for the adoptee, adoptive parents and birth mom.”
In the years that followed, Gina received updates about Alex. The most difficult part, she said, was trust. When she decided to place Alex for adoption, she knew she was also giving up her right to make decisions concerning him or his future. She had to learn trust — to trust Alex’s adoptive parents and how they would raise him and care for him, and to trust herself and the decision she had made. She only dreamed that someday, maybe, they would be reunited.
In their semi-open adoption arrangement, Alex’s adoptive family maintained some confidentiality. While she had some guesses, Gina didn’t know exactly where Alex lived in Oregon, and she and his adoptive parents didn’t have each other’s direct contact information. To communicate, they utilized Holt as a metaphorical mailbox, where each would send letters and updates, which would then be passed onto them by the Holt social worker. In order for them to meet in person, Alex would have to reach out on his own. As she dreamed of this day, she thought that maybe in his late 20s or when he was 30 he would reach out — when he began to have children of his own and would perhaps be curious about his birth family.
But this moment Gina dreamed of came sooner, and differently, than she ever imagined.
Sixteen years after she placed her son for adoption, Gina was again living in California. She had an 11-year-old daughter and her oldest son, Adryan, was 17 and living in Oregon with his father and step-mother.
“I got a phone call,” she says. “It was my son, [Adryan], and he was like, ‘Mom, I’ve got someone who wants to talk with you.’”
“Hello?” … It was as if Adryan had put down the phone and picked it back up again. But it was Alex.
Both living near Salem, Oregon at the time, Adryan and Alex met for the first time on the high school football field. The moment they looked at each other, they knew. They knew they were brothers. Adryan and Alex grabbed each other in a hug and cried. The next thing they did was call Gina.
This unexpected reconnection — the phone call Gina received — began what is today a close relationship between Alex and Gina. Alex lost his adoptive father at age 3, and his adoptive mother passed away just several years after he reconnected with Gina and Adryan. Through this loss and hardship, he found unexpected support from his birth family. Gina and Alex talk and text regularly, spend holidays together with extended family and are an active part of each other’s lives.
It’s a relationship that Gina never could have dreamed of. But one that is still confusing and complex at times.
“I do my best to try and respect the history that he has with his mother. And in my mind, she is his mother,” Gina says. “She’s the one who was there when he was sick and nurtured him, and all of that. I do my best to stay in my lane.”
But there are still moments, she says, when she needs to remind herself to be at peace with her role not as the mother who raised him, but as his birth mother. “But it’s still good,” she says. “It’s really good. I’m grateful for the time we get to spend [together]. It’s a good relationship.”
Reunions like Gina and Alex’s are rare in the world of adoption. While becoming more common in domestic adoptions, many searches concerning international adoptions reach a dead end. Other times, adoptees find their adoptive parents, but the parents do not wish to meet or have a relationship with the child they placed years ago — often due to stigma or shame. Or the adoptee, once located, is not interested in knowing the parent who placed them for adoption.
But when birth parents like Gina are willing to share their story, they help complete the story. So that adoptees and adoptive parents better understand what many birth parents go through, and why birth parents — whether known or unknown — deserve respect and compassion. We also share Gina’s story so that fellow birth parents know there are others who empathize with the complexities of choosing adoption.
“I love being able to share [my story],” Gina says. “I hope it will maybe give someone comfort, to let someone know that they’re not alone.
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer