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Sian Cullen and her daughter Aine. Cullen was a teenager in Dublin, Ireland when Aine was born. They now live in Seattle.The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines.To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at or 206.616.2035.

The Grief I Chose: Placing My Baby For Adoption

Baby Benjamin before he was placed in his adoptive mother's arms.
Courtesy of Beth Roberts
Baby Benjamin before he was placed in his adoptive mother's arms.

Ten years ago, Nathan and I placed our firstborn son for adoption. 

I was barely 23 when I got pregnant with Benjamin. I had just graduated from Northwest University, a Christian college on the Eastside, and was preparing to spend two years in Jakarta, Indonesia, as an associate missionary. I got my acceptance letter to the program the same week I took a pregnancy test. 

Suddenly there stretched a chasm between my efforts and plans and where I found myself, faced with one of the biggest decisions of my life. A decision with a ticking, eight-month clock.  

Nathan, Benjamin’s father, walked through the entire adoption process with me. Our adoption counselor said it was the first time they’d had a birth father in their office.

Together we went to doctor appointments and chose a family for our child. And then, on Aug. 30, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina raged in the Gulf and on our hospital TV, Ben came into the world.  

I have always wanted to be a mother. I have a fabulous example. My mom stayed at home with the three of us, pouring countless hours into me and my brothers, feeding and cleaning and teaching and protecting. I don't remember ever deciding I would have kids. I just knew that I would. The desire, the inclination, was embedded so deep in who I am that it was assumed. My unplanned pregnancy at 23 did away with that assumption.  

One of the biggest reasons I placed Benjamin for adoption was that I didn’t see Nathan as a viable partner. He was a friend, and I was headed overseas. I knew I couldn’t give Benjamin the life I would want with a child. I couldn’t wrap my mind around what that would look like.

Writing now, a decade later, is an exercise in healing for me. It is the outpouring of the surreal realization, with pain and vivid nostalgia, that I am the mother of a 10-year-old. I have grieved the reality of not parenting Benjamin very deeply. I am sure I will continue to grieve that loss, at various points in my life and his, in innumerable ways. 

In June I took a road trip, and somewhere in Wyoming, I was so awash in fresh memories of him and his birth that I was unable to breathe.  

Sometimes grief is a sniper. You are struck with a memory, a smell, a comparison or an image when you are simply going about your day, and you are pierced to your core. I am amazed at how the pain can be so very near the surface after all these years.

There are the moments so etched in my memory that I can see and feel them if I just close my eyes and put out the barest of efforts.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "The author Beth Roberts outside her home in Seattle.", "fid": "121129", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201510/IMG_7223.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]I will never forget the pain I sensed from Benjamin's mother and father the first time we met. They told us their story with a practiced and partial vulnerability in the coffee shop at Third Place Books in Shoreline. It was a neutral place calculated to neutralize the gravity of the meeting, where we nibbled on scones for show and talked about giving them our baby. 

On Sept. 1, 2005, I placed my baby, my son, the warm, wriggling embodiment of a desire so deep I assumed it, into the arms of another woman. 

I will never forget the walk down the hallway in the hospital after his family had come to pick him up. They stayed behind in the postpartum suite with our adoption counselor.  

Nathan and I, faces swollen and streaked with two days of tears, shuffled toward the elevator. We carried flowers and hospital bags but no car seat. No diaper bag. The walls were pale green and lit with that fluorescent light that is the stuff of the worst scenes in movies. The tile on the floor was bland white and cream checkered. Each step was a leaden fight, a refusal to do what all my instincts told me to do: throw myself on the floor and allow the primal wail to escape from the pit of my stomach. Run back and burst through the door and say I was sorry, but I couldn't do it.  

When we made it to the elevator, I stood clinging to Nathan's hand like a life ring as our tiny steel compartment full of strangers sank toward the parking garage. They all stared and shifted uncomfortably and looked away. I'm sure they thought we had lost someone. And we had.  

I will never forget being two days out, lying in recovery and shock in bed, with bags of frozen corn laid across my chest to help the milk that had filled my breasts subside. I breastfed for the two days we were in the hospital, giving my son the parting gift of colostrum I knew was so full of antibodies and nutrients, instead of starting him right away on formula.  

The skin on my chest was so taut and burning hot it felt like it would explode. I was struck in the moment with the thought that even if the knowledge and the emotion of what had just happened disappeared, even for a second of reprieve, the physical pain would remain. My body ached and throbbed with one constant, desperate, accusatory question: "Where is he?"

Beth on getting pregnant again 10 months later:

I think it was the year Benjamin turned five, as Nathan and I walked away from our annual meeting with him and his family, that we realized the weight had shifted. It had taken five years, but finally the joy of what we had done for him and for his family outweighed the pain that we felt in losing him.

All this said, I would change none of it. It is the decision in my life that I am proud of, if I need to point to just one. I believed the best way I could be a mother to Benjamin was to decide, with all of the herculean meaning behind that decision, to place him with a family that could give him what I could not. The certainty of a home, of parents who were prepared, of parents whose longing fit his timing.

I am writing now because I want to live the fullest life I can, and for me that means sharing grief as well as joy. I want to be open about my own grief and to be intentional about processing it alone and with others. And sometimes in public.  

I want to be a person who can meet others in their grief – with empathy, at the right times and without fear.

I hope also to lend complexity to the conversation around sex, pregnancy and parenthood. Often it is talked about only in black and white terms: pro-life and pro-choice, abstinence-only, right and wrong.

Now, as a white middle-class single mother who spent several years on food stamps, and who has wrestled with faith and shame around her pregnancies, I want to urge this: Whenever we encounter people whose lives don't match our picture, questions are far more important than assumptions.  

We want children but cannot have them. We long for the child we no longer have. We struggle with the distance between who we are as parents and who we want to be. We want people to stop asking us why we don't have kids. We want people to stop asking us why we don't want them.  

The weight is so often carried alone because it can be so hard to talk about, or to ask about. It can stretch out unmarked by an actual date. It is the kind of pain that is too easily misunderstood, ignored, or dismissed. But it is so much lighter when shared.

Beth Roberts is an attorney at Landesa, a nonprofit. This essay appeared originally at her blog, Time to go Bald. She lives in Seattle.

The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at or 206-616-2035.