The summer following my eighth-grade graduation, I discovered a stone wall across from the intersection of Forest Row and Franklin Road in Great Neck. Despite having lived just down the road, I knew nothing about life on the other side of this partition. On one of those carefree summer nights, a neighborhood kid casually mentioned that Emily Chetwood lived beyond the barrier, on Gutheil Lane.
Emily Chetwood. Never met her. But that name . . .
I knew no other Emilys, but something about the name spoke to me. It captivated me in the way things appeal to people for no discernible reason. Our favorite color, song, or who we find attractive is equally inscrutable. The name intrigued me and struck me in such a way that I saw myself naming my future child Emily.
My fondness for the name emerged again while I was in graduate school. I came across the character Emelye in “The Knight’s Tale” and was entranced by the unusual spelling. Having been saddled myself with a confusing, double name, I hesitated to consider an unusual spelling of a common name. Although motherhood was not yet on the horizon, I was engaged and found myself practicing Emily/Emely.
I saw an Emily in my future. When the time came to bring that dream to fruition, naivety failed to prepare me for the herculean efforts that would be required to have my Emily. No one expects to experience infertility, but one in eight couples does. We were one of them.
Much has been written about the infertility journey by women more eloquent than I. Suffice it to say, it is an ongoing physical and emotional assault that few understand because it is invisible. Infertile women and men appear fine, but rather than grieving something tangible that was lost, they grieve that which they never had.
Like many infertile couples, the grief and anger gave way to my husband Michael and me realizing that parenthood was more important than pregnancy and that family is much more than DNA. We knew a child-free life was not an option for us, and when we believed that second choice was not second best, we moved on to Plan B: adoption. There would be an Emily.
Thirty years ago, open adoption was newly coming into favor, but in its infancy, it bore little resemblance to the level of openness that is commonly seen in private adoptions today. It often meant meeting and engaging with the expectant mother throughout her pregnancy but having minimal or no contact following the birth. This was the type of adoption we sought.
Through print advertising, we met an expectant mother, Shannon*, who was developing an adoption plan for her unborn child. We agreed to maintain a semi-open relationship with Shannon for the remainder of her pregnancy and to adopt her baby. We had no idea.
The months leading up to our daughter’s birth were physically and emotionally exhausting, with perpetual efforts to be perfect on what felt like a never-ending audition. We complied with requests, concerns, critiques. From making frequent eight-hour road trips to attend doctor’s appointments, driving in an ice storm to awkwardly stay overnight in her home, to eating pepperoni pizza—we did it. Hardcore vegetarian that I was, I feared Shannon would think I was a tree-hugging hippie, so I ate pepperoni. The least of my concessions. Anything to get through this. Anything to have our Emily.
“He does look like a German Shepherd, but he’s not vicious; he’s as gentle as a lamb,” I assured Shannon after she expressed concern over what she considered my dog’s menacing appearance. “Of course Michael is affectionate, he’s from an Italian family!” I promised when my husband’s physical displays of affection were called into question. Every Sunday evening I called Shannon, petrified that some unexpected question might throw me off my game. Still, we did whatever was needed because we knew we were meant to be Emily’s parents.
Finally, on a Sunday evening in spring, my daughter was born. Although we saw her take her first breath, held and swaddled her, we were acutely aware of our total lack of control. A birthmother has the right to change her mind in the hospital, eliciting a chronic state of panic in the hopeful adoptive parents. Michael and I stood at an awkward distance as my daughter’s birth family cried over her. In the depths of unchartered emotional territory, we flew down the stairs to payphones to call our attorney and our families for advice and support.
At long last, papers were signed and the discharge was underway. When we buckled this tiny miracle into her car seat, all we wanted to do was be a normal family. My life’s goal—normalcy. We sped away from the hospital and didn’t so much as glance back, the final act of desperation and self-interest that still weighs on me.
I could write a tome on the challenges of independent adoption. I could write a thesis on being adopted and raising adopted kids in the era of social media. But this is about how daunting the road to parenthood is for some people. If infertility is a hellscape, the adoption process can be purgatory.
Finally, at our friend’s house where we had been staying, we beheld our daughter with amazement and made our calls. My therapist, the soother of my emotions throughout the infertility and adoption process, said, “You got your Emily.”
Almost 30 years later, how do you thank the people who made you a mother? Thank you, Emily, you made me a mom. Thank you, Shannon, your courage and selflessness gave us the gift for which there are no words. Thank you, God, for giving me the child I was always meant to have. And thank you, Emily Chetwood, whoever you are.
*The name has been changed to protect anonymity.