Learning To Surrender

04.25.136:08 PM ET

Shonda Rhimes: How Adoption Changed Me

The creator of ‘Grey's Anatomy’ and ‘Private Practice’ on how adopting two babies taught her to let go and just love.

I am sitting in a parking garage inside a rental car in Detroit, Michigan. The car is not moving, but my hands are gripping the wheel like I’m in a high-speed chase. Mary J. Blige is singing “No More Drama” on the radio, and from now on, whenever anyone mentions Detroit, this song will pop into my head. It is June 2002. At this moment, four floors away, inside an operating room, my daughter is being born.

I am sitting in my car in Los Angeles, California. My mind is racing, the car sits running but still stuck in rush-hour traffic. Frank Sinatra is singing on the radio, but I don’t notice because I am too busy shouting questions into my cellphone. It is February 2012. At this moment, two states away, my daughter is being born.

I’ve never been in a delivery room. I’ve never pushed. My water has never broken—hell, I’ve never had any water to break. My friends talk about the horrors of pregnancy—hemorrhoids and episiotomies and that awful moment when, in the midst of pushing, they poop on the table. They tell me about their special organic pregnancy diets and how they avoid coffee and alcohol and people who smoke as they grow life inside them. I listen to them, intrigued in a detached way. I’m happy for them, but I feel no pangs of “I wish that were me.” I feel no jealousy.

I’ve never wanted to be pregnant, never suffered through the infertility that devastates some of my friends. Since I was 9 years old, I’ve been telling people that when I have children I will adopt. It’s always been a fact for me. I don’t know why. I think when I was younger the idea seemed bold to me and slightly defiant—why it is just lazy to make people when there were so many people out there who need mothers! Like I said, I was young. As I got older, the idea matured too. It took shape and form and became real. Adoption was how I was going to become a mother. Adoption would build my family.

Looking at the process of adoption, it makes sense how comfortable I was with it. I’m a former straight-A student. I am driven and I like goals. I am a list maker and nothing makes my mind hum at a better frequency than huge quantities of research to complete. When you are planning to adopt, you spend months researching—domestic, international, agency, private, foster, open, closed, older child, newborn, special needs. You become well versed in a new lingo—interstate compact, service provider, decrees. There are mountains of paperwork—financial statements, personal essays, biographies, medical reports. You get fingerprinted and photographed and interviewed and examined ... and then a birth mother picks you. You get picked. Your hard work pays off. Let me tell you, the annoying teenage girl who likes to raise her hand first in class still lives inside me and she was euphoric.

I didn’t count on what happens after that. After all that paperwork, all that control, I didn’t count on the need to face what it means to surrender.

I was chosen. The first time in 2002, I was chosen by a birth mother to raise her child. I was shown beautiful fuzzy ultrasound photos. I flew to Detroit and met a woman who was pregnant, alone, and in crisis. Back at home, I spoke to my daughter’s birth mother on the phone every single evening. We discussed our favorite television shows and trashy mystery novels. She told me stories from her childhood, stories that made my skin crawl because it horrified me that life should be that difficult for a child. She told me things that made me love her resilience. And she had a wild sense of humor—we made ourselves sick with laughter over the silliest things. We became friends. We never talked about the baby growing in her belly.



Not once.

I had questions. I had type-A hand-raised-in-class intense questions. Did she eat vegetables? Why hadn’t she had any early medical care? Could she feel the baby moving? Did she read to the baby? Had she REALLY stopped drinking once she knew she was pregnant?

I did not ask. I kept my questions to myself. It was driving me insane, but I knew to leave her be. I knew I had no control. I had read all the books and I had talked to other parents who’d adopted. Surrender, they told me. You have to just let go and accept that you have no control and surrender to the process, one friend said as she buckled her daughter into her car seat. She’d adopted three times from two different countries. Surrender, Shonda. Surrender.

In 2012 it was the adoption agency that chose me. The birth mother was a woman I never had the honor to meet. She didn’t want to know me. I imagined her wrapped in a tight blanket of pain, unable to deal with the reality of another mother. My heart broke for her on a daily basis. But I spent her pregnancy acting like a dog locked out of the house and constantly searching for a way in.

“Does she want pictures of me?” No.

“Can I have pictures of her?” No.

“Should I write her a letter?” No.

“Does she want to write a letter to the baby?” Maybe.

“Can I send her anything?” No.

“Does anyone know what her favorite color is?” No.

“Her hobbies?” She’s athletic.

“Oh, does she play soccer or volleyball or basketball or swim or dance or ... ?” She is just athletic.

“What does that mean!?”

My hand was raised and no one was calling on me. Once again I had no control. I never learned what athletic meant. I never learned her favorite color. I never met her. By her own choice, she was a mystery. Surrender, Shonda. Just ... surrender.

One birth mother I knew and one I didn’t. One was middle class, one was poor. One was in her 30s and one was barely in her 20s. But the situations were, oddly, exactly the same. There were babies growing in bellies and it didn’t have a thing to do with me. They weren’t my babies yet. I loved them and I loved their birth mothers and I decorated nurseries and bought baby clothes and came up with names, and all the while, running through my mind in a continuous loop, was the reminder that anything could happen. That I needed to surrender to the process. That birth mothers change their minds. And honestly, I support the idea of birth mothers changing their minds. I support the idea of a birth mother keeping her child if she can. I do. But I was still climbing the imaginary walls of my mind. I had no control. Surrender to the process, surrender to the process, surrender to the process ...

So there I am in 2002. Sitting in the parking garage in Michigan while my daughter is being born. It’s an emergency C-section and the birth mom was given a choice of who she wanted to go to the operating room with. I stood there, all hopeful and excited and ready to gown up. But she chose her sister-in-law. I’d choose my family member too instead of the intense, tightly wound ball of nerves that was me. Anyone would. But after the nurses and orderlies rolled her out to head to the operating room, I stood alone in that room and I knew I was going to cry. I’m not a crier. I don’t like to cry in public. I don’t like to cry in private. I like to think that I inherited my mother’s Southern black woman stoicism. But that stoicism was in danger. Which is how I ended up in the parking garage listening to Mary J. Blige, my hands gripping the steering wheel so hard that I’d have marks on my palms for several days.

It was in that car that I finally understood the surrender. That I finally fully accepted that this wasn’t my process. That something in me broke open. Because I realized that I wasn’t sitting in that car thinking about me. I was sitting in that car thinking about the scared girl heading for an operating room having a baby she would ultimately hand over. To me. This wasn’t my surrender. It was hers.

I cried more in that car than I have in a long time.

Ten years later, the whole process is like a long unused muscle for me. But I exercise it as best as I can. I try to stop asking questions. I try to stop lying awake at night worrying. I look at the ultrasound photo 5,000 times a day and I breathe and I try to refrain from raising my hand at all. I let go of any sense of control and I tell people that anything can happen. That maybe I have a baby. But mostly I think of the birth mother who doesn’t want to meet me. How scared she must be. How alone she must feel. What a leap of faith she is taking. She is preparing to send her tiny daughter out into the world with the hope that all will be well. I filled out papers and wrote letters and got a home study and I hoped and I dreamed, but she is doing all the work. She is surrendering a piece of her soul to the universe and hoping for the best. I don’t have to meet her to know that.

I’ve never been in a delivery room. I’ve never pushed. I’ve never had any water to break. I can’t discuss hemorrhoids or episiotomies or pooping on the table. But I am a mother. In 2012 my daughter’s birth mother stayed in the hospital after delivery just long enough to make sure that I had arrived. Then she did the hardest thing imaginable. She got dressed and she left the hospital without her baby. I was told that, before she left, she asked if I was there. Yes, they told her. I was told she asked if I loved the baby.

Yes. Yes, I did.

Yes, I do.

Shonda Rhimes is the creator of the television shows Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. She lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Excerpted from Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption; Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents by Dr. Jane Aronson with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright Jane Aronson 2013.