This year we debuted our Create! Birthparents Arts Grant, opening up an opportunity for birthparents to tap into their creativity by encouraging projects that use the arts to allow for healing, growth, and advocacy in response to their adoption. 2021’s $500 Create! Birthparent Arts Grant was awarded to Carissa Losey, who is currently working on her memoir, The Lies They Told: A Birthmother's Journey Out of the Fog. A second grant of $250 was awarded to our first runner-up, Candace Cahill, who recently completed a birthmother memoir and is currently in the process of having it published.
We had the opportunity to sit down with both writers to talk all things books and writing. Last week, we talked with Carissa, who is in the research and outline stage of writing, and this week, we sat down with Candace to talk about her life, her story, and her completed birthmother memoir.
Tell us about your connection to adoption?
I got pregnant at 20, but most of the women in my family had gotten pregnant younger than that and kept their children, so initially, I just figured I'd do the same thing. But my boyfriend at the time urged me to go into counseling with him at about five months along. I figured that if he thought it would help us be better parents together, why not?
But it turned out I’d been set up. The agency was Catholic Charities, an adoption agency, and by the end of the first session, it was clear that he wanted to choose adoption. But I agreed to continue seeing the counselor because she convinced me the decision-making packet, a series of worksheets on things like budgeting, would help me learn how to be a parent.
Unfortunately, all the counseling really did was expose all my faults and point out how ill equipped I was, compounding my already low self-esteem. They focused on my family background of abuse and neglect and stressed how another family would be perfect and beautiful. When I think about it now, I can see the subtle coercion. In the end, I chose adoption.
My memoir shows how easy it was for me to fall prey to their coercive tactics. How I came to believe that it was my fault I lost him, while believing I should be happy that he’d have a better family. You know, the whole rainbows and unicorns trope: so I denied my grief thinking he had gained an amazing, beautiful life. It set me up to fail to deal with the aftermath of placement.
There are elements in your story that really resonate for a lot of birthmoms. What got you to a place of writing a book about it?
Well, there’s a lot to the story, which is partly why I wrote it down, but essentially, the impetus for writing my memoir came after the tragic death of my son. He passed away of natural causes at the age of 23. We’d reunited when he turned 18 and met in person just once. When he died, the grief of his relinquishment resurfaced, and I realized how child loss through adoption mirrors that of death. I don’t think people understand the intensity of the sorrow a mother goes through relinquishing her child. They just don't realize how incredibly profound it is for a mother to lose her child whether it was her ‘choice,’ or not. I wrote my memoir because I can speak to that commonality of grief.
How long did it take you to write it?
I started writing in the spring of 2019, and I completed the manuscript at the very end of 2020. That's fast, but I think there were two main reasons: I have a blog that I started after my son died which gave me a jump start, and COVID. I live in Alaska and work seasonally, and my normal summer season job fell through because there was no tourism. And so, my husband said, write your book. He’s been so supportive.
Your husband sounds like your biggest cheerleader!
I’ve known Tom since well before I was pregnant. In fact, he's the only person, other than a few family members, who felt my tummy when I was pregnant. We didn't get together as a couple until six years after the birth of my son. Tom’s part of the story provides a through-line of a supportive, compassionate, nonjudgmental person in my life. When we got together as a couple, he helped me begin to look at my role as a birth mother in a new way.
The first birthday of my son’s that we were together, I let Tom know a couple weeks ahead of time that it was gonna be tough. But he asked what we should do to celebrate, and I thought, what?! We don’t celebrate his birthday. This is tragic. It's hard. But he was adamant that I was a mom and that we should celebrate my son’s birthday. I’d never had anybody do something like that. Tom’s always been someone capable of seeing all sides of a situation. In this case, he advocated embracing the beauty of motherhood while still allowing the sadness.
It sounds very therapeutic, the way you describe writing this book.
Absolutely therapeutic, and I have learned so much about myself. I have learned so much about the grieving process, and about adoption as a whole, because I've opened myself up to more people within the adoption triad, especially adoptees.
How can we encourage women to feel more comfortable in their own story, and not feel like they have to hide it?
I wish I knew. I didn’t open up about my son until it was too late, and he was already gone. I’d like to keep others from making the same mistake. I think the more honest we can be with ourselves the easier it will become to share it with others. I'm thinking about offering a workshop, maybe online or in person, to help birth moms write their stories. Perhaps develop a workbook to go with my memoir as a guide. Whether they plan to share it or not, doesn’t matter, it’s more about being able to own their story to begin with, because once that happens it’s easier to accept and share the truth of one’s reality.
What advice would you give to women who want to start sharing their story?
I would say, start journaling. You don’t have to journal for hours at a time or necessarily every day. Just be willing to jot things down when they come up. I'm a big fan of little pocket notebooks to capture a couple of words or sentences, because it helps me write later. So yes, I think journaling is a really important part of being able to tell your story. Part of it is—and I don't think I'm unique in this—in trying to tell someone my story aloud, it all gets caught in my throat, and then I can't breathe, and you can't talk if you can't breathe! All that emotion just stops right there and it's like syrup, right? But when I’m writing, there's nothing to stop me, I just let it flow. And if you can do it in such a way where you're not worrying about spelling or punctuation or anything else, it's just going to flow on the page, and it's a release, like tears are a release. Then, afterwards, you can go back and reread what you wrote, because that's the other thing: when you are speaking, once you said something it's gone into the ether, but when you write it down, it remains. I am endlessly amazed when I reread entries in which I’ve let the words flow. I continue to learn more about myself, and in some ways, writing it down makes it more real.
We cannot wait to read this book, and are looking forward to a follow-up interview once it is published. To follow Candace's journey, you visit her website, or find her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear more of her story on Birthmoms Real Talk and The Triad Podcast.
Be sure to come back next week, when we talk to our second Create! Birthparents Art Grant recipient, Candace Cahill, about her completed memoir.