Brookanne, 15, the darling of a Texas family that includes three older brothers, was just beginning to enjoy her sophomore year in high school when she learned her life was about to change. She was pregnant. "I actually knew the moment it happened. The next day I was nervous thinking about, oh, how am I going to tell my mom?" Brookanne said. "It was a big shock for me."
Many miles away, 18-year-old Erin had just received a financial scholarship for college and was happily anticipating this next milestone when she too discovered she was pregnant. All her plans for her future were dashed.
"I denied it for a little while," said Erin, "And then when I kind of got up the guts, I told mom, 'You might want to sit down.' And I told her [I was pregnant] and she said 'Oh, God.' She was floored."
Decades ago, a hidden population of pregnant girls carried a secret so shameful that their families sent them into exile, far from the whispered suspicions at home. Generations of parents, fearful of the social taboo of illegitimacy, concealed their unwed daughters' pregnancies and sent them to maternity houses across the country to give birth among strangers.
Most of these new mothers would never know anything about what happened to their babies, who raised them, or how. But times have changed. Today most adoptions within the United States today are what are termed "open adoptions." That is, some information is shared between birth mother and the adoptive parents.
It is in this new world that Brookanne and Erin, who asked that their last names be kept private, each found their way to a unique dorm, run by a not-for-profit agency called the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, Texas. There, within a close-knit community of other pregnant women, Brooke and Erin would prepare themselves for the life changing events to come: choosing parents to adopt their child, giving birth and then just a few days later, placing their newborns for adoption.
"This will be the hardest thing I've ever done," said Brookanne.
Brookanne recognized early on the difficulties being such a young mother would pose, knowing she would be a child herself bringing a child into the world. "Me and my mother and my father, we all decided trying to raise a baby at fifteen is hard. I'm not ready to be a mother."
Brookanne's mother, Barbara, said her daughter's decision was made with what seemed to be a firm resolve. "Her mind was made up when she told us she wanted to give the baby up for adoption. This was such a big, life-changing decision that it wasn't ours to make. It was ours to support."
For Erin, the discovery of her pregnancy just before starting her first semester at college was further complicated by her family's financial hardships. Erin's parents, Ron and Marie, were bankrupt and had to sell their home. There was no health insurance to help buffer the costs of doctor's visits. But despite this, Marie told her daughter she shouldn't let money troubles stand in the way if she really wanted to keep the baby.
"We would still love you, we would be supportive of you 110 percent," said Marie. After considering her options, Erin decided to place her baby for adoption.
When asked if she considered raising the baby, Erin said "I did a little bit at first, but then the father decided he wasn't going to be a part of it." She said doing it all on her own would have been "almost impossible."
"We were struggling and I've always heard the saying, I'f you can't afford to feed yourself, you can't afford to feed a baby,'" she said. "So that was the main factor. I just really wanted her to have a stress-free life."
Both girls seemed committed to placing their babies for adoption and moved to the Gladney Center. But it was still early in their pregnancies, and they were dealing with complicated emotions, as well as physical and hormonal changes.
Two out of every five girls who go to Gladney change their minds and decide to keep their babies. During one counseling session, Erin became unnerved when another girl she had become close to ran out of the room in tears unable to talk about her adoption plan.
"It made me realize how strong some people can seem and then, it's just like, 'Oh man, if she can't do it I don't know if I can," she said.
Choosing Prospective Parents
One of the steadying influences during this turbulent time is the Gladney Center. It provides the girls with counseling, room and board, and medical care for free.
Most important, though, according to the women living there, is that Gladney, like most adoption agencies today, gives women control by encouraging them to hand-pick the adoptive parents to raise their babies. Erin's counselor at Gladney, Paula St. John, showed Erin profile books made by couples who pay the agency an average of $25,000 dollars. The fee helps covers the womens' services and pay for background checks and processing costs.
"I wanted my child to be raised with Christian beliefs," said Erin, adding, "I wanted her to be an only child, kind of like me."
One of St. John's roles is to manage the expectations of both Erin and the prospective parents of her baby. "We try to make the match with the adoptive parent and the birth parent appropriate so that they want the same level of contact afterwards, so that there's not problems after," said St. John.
Erin would be the ultimate judge. After looking through about a dozen profile books, she chose Mike and Wendy, a couple who had struggled with infertility and had been on Gladney's waiting list for nearly a year.
"I hate to say, but it's almost like a sales approach you're selling the mom on yourself," said Mike. "But you want to come across as genuine as you can. And that's what we tried to do, is just show everything that we could to offer."
'Nervous and Scared'
"When a birth mother meets her adoptive parents for the first time, she's got the control at that point," said St. John. "She's still carrying that child and the adoptive parents don't know whether that's gonna end up being their child in their home or not."
There was a lot at stake when Erin met Mike and Wendy for the first time, a meeting arranged by Gladney. Mike and Wendy seemed far more nervous than Erin. "We've been so nervous and scared. You are so beautiful. I'm so glad we met!" said Wendy.
Nationally, for every infant placed for adoption, there are dozens of couples hoping to adopt. Approximately 22,000 infants are adopted by non-relatives each year. And the adoption isn't final until Erin signs the adoption papers after the baby is born.
Brookanne, meanwhile, had also picked what she thought was the perfect couple to adopt her baby. Their names were John and Dana and they had already adopted two baby girls from Gladney.
Unlike Erin, who wanted a couple with no other children, Brookanne loved the fact that her daughter would have sisters. Unusually eager to have John and Dana participate in the process, she even asked them to come with her to a doctor's appointment.
"We were so excited because even though this is our third adoption, we've never been able to go to a sonogram before," said Dana.
Labor and Delivery
About a month before her due date Brookanne, who had experienced gestational diabetes, went into labor. "I'm more worried about them having to do a C-section than anything," she said. Brookanne was in labor for 16 long hours before her doctors did decide to do a C-section.
"I wasn't scared until they told me I'd be having a C-section," Brookanne said. "I tried to act brave and then I just started crying 'cause I was so afraid that something would happen
Some birth mothers chose not to see their babies after they're born, fearing it will be too hard to let them go, but not Brookanne. When her baby was born it was love at first sight.
"Words can't describe how I feel about her. I mean it's beyond love. It's breaking my heart to know I have to leave her," she said. Brookanne was having serious doubts about if she could follow through with her adoption plan, and privately Brookanne's parents thought "she [would] change her mind."
"I try to help them focus back on what they have evaluated, what they've been planning when they weren't so emotional," said St. John. "And, so that they can make decisions based on who can provide best for the child.
and sometimes you just need to give them some time to grieve."
Brookanne could still change her mind. About a third of all birth mothers don't follow through with their adoption plan.
When Erin went into labor, her mother Marie was there to support her, coaching her daughter through the delivery of what would be her first grandchild.
A few days after giving birth, after signing the formal adoption papers, Erin walked into what Gladney calls the "placement room." It's the first time Wendy and Mike saw Erin's biological daughter, the child they were going to adopt. Wendy could hardly believe it. "She's beautiful," she said, as Erin showed her the baby.
Erin wrote a letter to her daughter which she read aloud in the placement room. "I am overwhelmed with love for you, little girl. I have decided to place you for adoption because I know you deserve more than what I can physically provide for you at this part in my life."
It was a bittersweet moment for both the birth mother and the adopting couple. "We have prayed and prayed to start a family," said Wendy. "You are incredibly just a wonderful person." Both Wendy and Erin were in tears.
Erin left that day with empty arms. Wendy and Mike left with a new baby girl and a new beginning as a family.