Thirteen Years Later, a Teen Mom Finds Motherhood

When Sierra Dressing got pregnant at 15, she chose to carry the baby to term. Now, at 29, she’s pregnant again, but this time it’s on her own terms.

By Saira Khan

On a recent Tuesday morning, Sierra Dressing, 29, posted a gif on Facebook, offering bystanders a glimpse into a joyful moment. In it, her parents, husband, and in-laws are seated on a couch as she emerges wearing a grey t-shirt. “It’s not a food baby,” it read. In the few short seconds that she allows virtual bystanders in, her mother and mother-in-law jump up from their seats, to give her a hug that we do not see. Her sister-in-law bursts into tears, her father and husband grin. Sierra’s baby is due in October. It will be the first baby she raises, but it will not be the first one she gives birth to. She had her first child in 2004 when she was 15.  

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In full disclosure: Sierra and I are friends, which is why her post appeared at the very top of my Facebook feed. We met in college and I was instantly drawn to her warm personality. She is generous, the kind of woman who will buy all of her friends shots just because. She wears her emotions on her face. She has a porcelain white complexion and light brown hair. She laughs often, even when she is talking about something that makes her uncomfortable.

Sierra grew up in southern Maryland. She describes her childhood as uneventful and says that when she entered her teens she was “the type of girl whose friends wore all black.” She started high school with excitement and apprehension, and quickly found her place in a social circle.

When Sierra was 14, she met a boy. His name was Colin*, he was 16, and she thought he was “incredible, amazing.” And then it got even better: he liked her back. “I did this thing where I fell down on my knees in the snow, and did these air punches with a huge smile on my face when I found out.” 

“He was my first everything,” Sierra said. They had sex for the first time about six months into the relationship and “it was magical.” But as their relationship continued, things started to change. They’d smoke marijuana and often skipped school together. “I was making all kinds of really rash and ridiculous decisions. But I really loved him,” she said. “So, I was just like, ‘This is what you do when you’re with someone. You just go and be with that person.’”

After several months of being sexually active, Sierra missed a period. She was 15 by then. “I wasn’t ready to accept that [pregnancy] was a possibility. I kind of kept pushing it back in my brain.” She took a test, months later, after confiding in a friend. It came back positive. “I remember feeling totally incapable of thought or speech, or just feeling totally deflated,” she said.  

Most of her friends had opinions: some told her to keep the baby, others told her to get an abortion. “I didn’t know what to do, adoption didn’t even cross my mind, but I knew I couldn’t be a mother,” Sierra said. “I could barely manage my own life, how was I supposed to take care of someone else?”

Sierra decided to see a doctor at a nearby clinic before she told Colin about the pregnancy. It was there that she discovered she was further along than she had thought. She was in her second trimester, which meant she would have to undergo a surgical abortion that would cost hundreds of dollars and would need her parents’ permission. Colin wasn’t thrilled by this information either. When she told him about the pregnancy he said if she kept the baby he didn’t want to be involved. “I was absolutely crushed and heartbroken and pissed off,” she said.

“I remember feeling totally incapable of thought or speech, or just feeling totally deflated.”

At this point, Sierra hadn’t told her parents yet. “I knew I had to tell them but I was not exactly the nicest person in my house. I was in my teenage rebellion stage,” she said. “So I thought ‘Oh great, I’ve just been this massive shithead to my parents for the past like two years basically. And now I’m going to have to, you know, come to them with this crazy world-changing information.’”

Sierra’s father was away on business at the time, so she spoke to her mother. They were on the front porch when she broached the subject. “Mom looked at me and my eyes were already full of tears. I’m about to start bawling and she’s like ‘You’re pregnant?’” Sierra started sobbing uncontrollably. Her mother hugged her and told her it was going to be O.K. A sense of relief flooded over Sierra, who, in that moment, realized how alone she had felt. “She was the first person to do that. She was the first person to say that,” she said.

It was an incredible moment because “you spend your whole life hearing that your parents love you and then when it was put to the test, they really  come through for you in a major way,” she said. Her father’s reaction was less graceful. “He said ‘oh shit’ a few times but then he calmed down.”

The next day, after her father came home, they talked options. Sierra made it clear to her parents that she was not ready to be a mom, but when the conversation came to abortion, her mother asked her to consider adoption. I didn’t necessarily want to have this procedure either,” Sierra told me. “All of the options seemded equally shitty in my head.” After some consideration, they decided on an open adoption. “I wanted the ability for the child to be able to ask me any questions they may have or, you know, come hang out with me if they ever wanted to,” she said. “I wanted to be around if the kiddo ever wanted to talk to me.”

When Sierra told Colin about her decision, he broke up with her. “At the time I was like ‘fuck you dude,’ but now, I do really understand. He was 17 years old. It’s a lot.” But still, “I was heartbroken. I was really, really sad about it,” she adds. And she didn’t just lose her boyfriend. Her group of friends also started thinning out. Some people told her she was “shitty” for “having a baby and then just giving it away,” while others told her she should have gotten the abortion.

Sierra’s extended family also tried to get involved. A few people tried to convince her to leave the baby in someone else’s care until she was ready to a be mother. When she stood by her decision, one of her relatives sought counsel to see if they had any legal claim over the baby. “I was actually very upset with them for quite a bit. But I guess we all have slightly crazy family members.”

Sierra started the adoption process shortly after talking with her parents, which involved reading packets of letters from prospective families and their character witnesses. One of those packets“it was quite hefty”came from Gibby and John, a couple who lived in California. “They sounded so warm and open… they actually sounded a lot  like my family,” she said, which is why she decided to meet them.

A few weeks later, in June, Gibby and John met with Sierra at a restaurant in Georgetown. “I had pretty much already made up my mind before I saw them, because I hadn’t come across anybody else whose letters were so warm!” In person, they were everything she hoped they be. There was something about them that Sierra found reassuring; she had found a family for her baby.

By the time the legal work was done, Sierra had completed her junior year of high school, received the highest GPA she’d ever received (“It’s really helpful when you don’t have a social life.”), and had gotten back together with Colin. He had told her that he regretted the decision he made and that he loved herand she was still in love with him.

On the morning of August 6, 2004, Sierra’s water broke. On the way to the hospital, she had specific instructions for her father: “Bring me a pizza for when I’m done.” Sierra had thought that she’d have a natural birth. “My mom and I had watched birthing videos, which by the way is a terrible idea if you’re pregnant, don’t do it. Anyway, I didn’t want an epidural.” But there were some complications during labor because of her age and, four hours into it, she changed her mind. “It made me feel really strange and drunk and drowsy. It literally made me see stars,” she said.  

The baby, a girl named Catie, was born as at 4:00 a.m the next day. She weighed 7 and a half pounds. Gibby and John had flown in for the birth. Colin came to visit as well. “I have a distinct memory of knowing that everything was going to be alright. At which point I was like, O.K., where is my pizza?” Sierra said, laughing.

There was a moment, though, when she was holding Catie at the hospital and Colin gave them both a hug when she thought “Wow, this could this could be my little family, but I’m deciding not to do this.” She started crying. “That was a weird feeling,” she said. But ultimately, she knew she had made the right decision. “I didn’t feel regret, it was just a thought that, if things had been different this could have been it for me. But things weren’t different.”

“If things had been different this could have been it for me. But things weren’t different.”

Sierra was discharged from the hospital a few days shy of her 16th birthday, and then Catie left for California with Gibby and John. “I was happy to go back to being a kid…doing stupid crap like going to dances..doing the stuff that I was supposed to be focusing on in the first place,” she said.  

A few months later, when Sierra started her senior year, things had changed, and so had she. The experience in the past year had made her realize what was important to her and that she didn’t want to be the “reckless and irresponsible” person she had been. She broke up with Colin and focused on keeping her grades up, applying to college, and ignoring all the gossip about her. “I was the girl who had had a baby, and that ended up following me for a while.” She attended a college in Maryland where there were students from her high school. “The news spread pretty quickly,” she said. “I didn’t mind talking about it if someone asked me, but I didn’t like people gossiping about it behind my back.” In fact, when Sierra told her now-husband, Ben, who she met in college, about Catie, he told her he already knew. (“He didn’t blink an eye!” Sierra said.)

When Catie was 3, Gibby and John moved to Virginia, bringing them much closer to Sierra and her family. They’ve been open with Catie about everything since the beginning. “She’s always understood the relationship between us, she even has a picture of me in her room!” Sierra said. Being closer in proximity made it easier for her and Catie to see one another every few months. 

When Sierra and Ben got married, in 2015, Catie, who was 11 at the time, served as an honorary bridesmaid. They see one another at family dinners, holidays, and birthdays. “We don’t see one another as often as I’d like, but I’m around for the important things. I went to a horse show of hers this past weekend. It was nice to see her nerding out over something she’s passionate about,” she said.

***

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Sierra at her wedding, in 2015.

It’s been nearly 13 years since Sierra had Catie, and now she’s pregnant again. This time, it was planned. She and Ben have been together for nine years. “When things were getting serious, I told him if he planned on sticking around he should get used to the idea of a house full of babies and animals. He didn’t go running. So, really, it was a match made in heaven,” she said.

Sierra went off her birth control in December and got pregnant shortly after. “It’s been really interesting this time around. You know, being an adult and being pregnant,” she said. “I’m still definitely intimidated. It’s a huge undertaking to take care of another person and have them 100 percent dependent on you. But it’s also an awesome feeling.”

When I asked her how she felt about having a baby again, she laughed. “I’m excited. A little nervous. But excited. Very, very excited. I’m ready for it.”

*Name has been changed. 

 

 

The Bonds of Motherhood

An adopted woman’s journey into adulthood, and whether she wants to meet her birth mom.

By Sara Afzal

 

It was taco night at the Angulo family’s home, and my best friend Tessa, 14, and her mother, Teresa, were gathered around the kitchen island. They had the same soft features that fell easily into glowing smiles and laughter. The two of them looked so much alike. I was shocked when I first found out Tessa was adopted. “We get that all the time. No one ever believed me when I would say I was adopted,” Tessa Gardner, née Angulo, said.

One night during one of our many sleepovers, Tessa showed me a stuffed teddy bear. She pressed a button on its stomach, and the jovial sing-song voices of two small girls rang out “Happy Birthday Tessa!” She told me they were her two half sisters from her birth mother, Cindy, who had remarried and started a new family. Although Tessa received gifts and letters from Cindy, she has never met her.

Over the years, their correspondence was sporadic, and Tessa’s mom tended to correspond directly with Cindy more often than Tessa did. After a lapse in communication, Cindy wrote a letter to Teresa in 2009 implying the possibility of a meeting. “As Tessa neared 18; I was nervous that she would be interested in meeting me and on the other hand nervous she wouldn’t. I didn’t want to be torn on your side or hers if I kept in contact. If anything should have transpired; I wanted it to be a decision she made,” Cindy wrote.

Tessa chose not to pursue a meeting at that time.

“Growing up I always wondered what it would be like to meet her. I kind of went back and forth with it, but I just wasn’t ready. It’s a big thing… to meet your biological mom. You never know what could happen,” Tessa said later.

Tessa’s parents, Teresa and Tim, pursued adopting children after it became apparent that Teresa couldn’t become pregnant easily. “They didn’t really have a diagnosis,” she said after going through fertility testing. In her early 30s, she considered trying the in vitro process, but she decided against it. Teresa turned her focus on going back to school and furthering her career as a nurse, but realized at age 36 that she had to be a mother. “It wasn’t so important that I have a birth child. I just wanted to raise a child, so that’s when we started looking at adoption.”

Tessa was their first child. She was born premature after 16-year-old Cindy unexpectedly went into labor six weeks early. Tessa had a breathing tube when she was first born, and only weighed about four pounds. She spent 10 days in the hospital before going home. As a nurse, Teresa persuaded the hospital to let her take the baby home, where she fed her every two hours. “For me, from the moment I saw and held Tess, I was in love with her. My bond to her was instant and complete and I still feel that bond,” Teresa said.

Teresa and Tim decided from the beginning to have an open adoption with full communication and identifying information from the birth mother. Although Tessa decided not to initiate a meeting with Cindy, letters went back and forth throughout her life. About 55 percent of families initiate open adoptions and 40 percent are semi-open adoptions with mediators, according to a Donaldson Adoption Institute survey of 100 adoption agencies. The survey also found that 95 percent of agencies offer open adoptions. 

Tessa’s adopted sister Tori decided to meet her own biological mom, who had Tori at 17. Tori came out of the experience realizing how different her childhood would have been with her birth family, and grateful for her current circumstances. Tessa said Tori came home, gave their mom a big hug, and immediately thanked their adopted parents for the life they had given her.

According to psychology professor Abbie Goldberg, whose research focuses on adopted families, “Adopted individuals are not confused by contact with their birth parents. They benefit from the increased understanding that their birth parents gave them life but their ‘forever families’ take care of and nurture them.”

The Angulo family maintained open communication with their children’s biological parents, but also allowed Tessa and Tori to make their own decision with meeting them. “I wanted our kids to know their birth parents. What a huge hole in your life if you had no information. I know Tessa has never met her birth parents, but she got all of their information, she’s gotten letters from them, she knows of them, where they are, what they do, what they look like…I think that’s important,” Teresa said.

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Tessa and Teresa

Teresa said she would constantly tell Tessa about her birth mother as a baby, and read her bedtime stories about adopted families. Tessa remembers knowing from a very early age that she was adopted, but despite the open communication throughout her life with her birth mother–she didn’t feel ready to meet her.

“I really didn’t think about being adopted too often unless it came up in conversation or I got a letter from my birth mother. I felt so comfortable with my family. They just never made me question anything. My mom and dad were super supportive,” Tessa said. “I see a lot of people not having a close relationship with their parents and it’s really sad to me. My mom and I have always been really really close. She’s my go to person and always has been,” Tessa said.

At 29, Tessa is now married and a mother to a two-year-old daughter named Ava. They live in Santa Barbara near her parents, who are active in their granddaughter’s life. To Ava, Teresa is known as Nan (short for Nana), the one that takes her to the library for story time, picks flowers with her, or helps her feed the koi fish in their small front pond. “I love being part of Ava’s life. I’m thankful Tessa is here. You connect with your child when they have a child of their own,” Teresa said.

Tessa says she is fascinated by discovering her own biological traits in her daughter. Whether making the same “hangry face” or getting a spell of the giggles. “Her mannerisms are similar. Certain faces she makes my mom says she looks just like me,” Tessa said.

Recently, Tessa discovered that her birth mom, Cindy, named one of her daughters Ava as well, a coincidence that immediately gave Tessa goosebumps. Cindy was just 16 years old when she had Tessa. A high school cheerleader, was dating a football player, Ernie, when she became pregnant. According to Teresa, he was never involved in the pregnancy or adoption process.

“I honestly can’t believe what my birth mother went through. When you are pregnant you have this bond with your baby and go through this whole pregnancy journey,” Tessa said.

“I think now that I’m older, I would totally would love to meet her. I think my mindset is different, and I can handle the situation better,” Tessa said. “I feel like I owe her. She did such a selfless thing. I would like to just hug her and tell her thank you.”