A straightforward question such as, “How many kids do you have?” should be answered with a simple, measurable response. For Mark and me, we cannot answer that question by giving a simple sum. We quantify the number of children we have in the form of an equation: we have “two plus one children.” I am aware that “2+1=3” mathematically but “2+1” best describes the number of children we are currently raising. The “two” in the calculation represents our nine-year-old daughter, Maggie, and our six-year-old son, Bishop. The “plus one” is for Sara, the daughter I put up for adoption nineteen years ago who recently moved in with us.
When I had Sara, I was an unwed college student working on classes for my third (and not final) major. The first time Sara’s birth father knew about her was when Social Services notified him of her birth. Needless to say, my handling of the situation was less than conventional or rational. I never regretted the choice to give Sara up for adoption, with my thoughts over the last two decades drifting only to the occasional “what if” moments as if my life, was a “Choose Your Own Child-Reading Adventure” book. I always knew that if I didn’t possess the maturity to tell her father that she existed, how would I have the strength to raise her by myself?
I met my husband Mark when Sara was about three years old. From the beginning, he knew about Sara. Our relationship gestated faster than most couples, and I wanted to air my dirty diapers early to see if Mark could manage such a big part of my past. He could handle it. And he stayed. And he married me. Sara became a constant ghost of possibility to us, with the hopes of her haunting us in the future. We celebrated her birthday every year with a cupcake. We wondered what her favorite subjects in school were every fall. We even wondered how she would feel about her siblings. All the while, we didn’t even know her name.
Sara’s parents, however, had more information about me. I signed only my first name on a letter of gratitude to her parents, not realizing that a mistake made by hospital staff had revealed my last name as well. When she was fourteen, Sara’s mom found me on Facebook and our relationship started from there. I wanted to foster a connection with Sara, but I also remained cautious as to not to overstep my bounds with the parents who chose to raise her. It was a Wallenda-style tightrope walk. By the time Sara and I met, I had children of my own, and I knew what it meant to be a parent. And I was not hers.
Mark, the kids, and I visited Sara in Las Vegas, and she would stay with us up near San Francisco, and she often communicated her desire to eventually live in the Bay Area. I wanted to be supportive and encouraging, knowing she would have more options for college in California and more opportunities to pursue her desired technology-based career. I received a call in March from Sara, who informed me that she had quit her job to move here. This exchange was my first major introduction into having a teenager. Apparently, major life decisions are best determined when they are surprises to those people most affected. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose.
This put Mark and me in a challenging position. As much as we wanted to support Sara in achieving her dreams, this decision to allow her to move to California gave us very little time to plan or to discuss. Thankfully, it also gave us very little time to panic. We knew there was a huge price difference between Las Vegas and San Francisco, and those were costs that Sara wouldn’t be able to cover immediately. So we welcomed Sara into our lives and our cozy home.
Sara has been quite a shock to some people, as not everyone in my life knew about her. From her birthdate to now, when I informed people that I gave a child up for adoption, I would get sympathy and comments such as, “That was incredibly brave of you.” I didn’t feel it was brave at the time— and I still don’t. Bravery is in raising a child. Possessing the fortitude to struggle through crazy toddler years, and sick days, and comforting your children’s fears, and teaching those lessons of failure and celebrating the triumphs, that is being brave. That is being a parent. I wasn’t brave by giving Sara up because it was terror and not courage that impacted that decision. But if someone is to tell me that I am brave to welcome her back into our lives in such a large way, with that I agree.
We now have a teenager in a house that has yet to see a preteen. We didn’t raise Sara, but now we get to be the parents of someone who needs some supervision because she is young and in a new place, and some distance, because she is young and in a new place. It’s tightrope walking of a different sort now. We are not her parents, but we are two people who want to give her guidance and structure. We want our lives to be an example of how honest living, hard work, and gratitude make one’s life so much better. We also want her to clean up her room.
Luckily, Sara is a good kid. She isn’t into drugs or drinking. Her independence has grown over the last few months as she learned to get around on her own in a new part of the country. Sara enrolled at a community college and is working part-time. I know it will all come together in time, and I remind myself that Sara is only a couple of years younger than I was when I had her. And against all the odds, I managed to develop into an adult.
My world changed twice — once when I gave Sara away to another family and again when we welcomed her into ours. This folding of Sara into the mix of our family has been exciting, while we as a group learn what it means to support those we love, even when they make decisions without having a clear plan. We hope to look back in ten years after we helped Sara through college and encouraged her navigation into her first real career and know we did the right thing by adding her one to our two.
About the Author
Stacy Ryan is a stay-at-home mom and writer based out of the San Francisco area. On her blog, AdultChildWithKids.com, Stacy details her struggles of being a mom while staying true to her pre-parenthood self. She has just completed her first novel, an endeavor she’d compare to childbirth only in that writing the book and having her babies are both activities she prefers to do outside of the home. Follow her on Twitter: @StacyRyanWrites