When Mary Ann Romano walks into the room, you notice her. Her vibrant green eyes, her infectious smile, and the whirlwind of energy that is distinctly her own instantly demand attention. When she’s there, the room feels thick with positivity and warmth. She talks with her hands, listens intently, and engages immediately. She is utterly confident and comfortable in her skin.
But when Mary Ann, now 50, talks about giving up her son for adoption 32 years ago, her body language changes, tears well in her eyes, and her shoulders slump. It’s like she’s recalling the details, not from memory like the rest of her life experiences, but directly from her heart, reliving the pain and the shame of getting pregnant out of wedlock and facing a gut-wrenching decision. She doesn’t talk this way about the breast cancer she fought and beat 9 years ago or the divorce she’s going through, even though they both carry palpable, persistent pain as well.
But she’s also had her fair share of happiness, too. In fact, her story’s pendulum swings the other way with a surge of virulent joy that came from being unexpectedly reunited with the son she gave away. And all you can do when she tells it is just grab a box of tissues and hang on for the ride.
An Impossible Choice
Mary Ann grew up in a tight-knit Catholic family in Wantage, N.J. Her mom (a nurse) and her father (a high school teacher) created a loving home for Mary Ann and her two brothers that was squarely focused on traditional values. While Mary Ann remembers a happy childhood with a strong Catholic upbringing, she also distinctly recalls sitting at the dinner table listening to stories about girls who “got into trouble.” And then, in 1983, immediately after graduating high school, Mary Ann found herself pregnant by her first serious boyfriend, and in a relationship she knew wouldn’t stand the test of time.
By the time Mary Ann was willing to admit to herself that she was pregnant, she was 4 months along, and she had to decide if she was going to raise the baby without a partner or give him up for adoption. “My first reaction was the shame I would bring to my family and myself. I was entering my freshman year in college at Montclair State University, with my best friend since kindergarten as my roommate. It should have been the time of my life,” she says. “I knew my family would help me raise this child and do whatever they had to. I always had their incredible love and support. But I wasn’t ready to raise a child alone. So I decided on adoption, even though back then it was easier to find an abortion clinic than a lawyer who would handle a private adoption.”
Her parents began a search to find a lawyer who would help them while Mary Ann lived her life at college, acting as if everything was fine. She was tall and in great shape, so she was able to hide her pregnancy fairly well under the guise of the freshman 15, and she gave birth during spring break of her freshman year, seemingly without missing a beat. “Only seven people outside of the doctors knew about my secret.
It just wasn’t something you brought up casually or wanted to explain back then,” she says. “In my world at that time, good girls didn’t let things like this happen to them.”
To Mary Ann’s relief, her ob/gyn introduced the family to a couple that was desperately trying to have a baby and unsuccessfully undergoing a variety of fertility treatments. In the doctor and his wife, Mary Ann felt sure she found the answer to her prayers. “Finding that couple was a true gift and an opportunity for me to resolve something I did not feel confident handling,” she recalls.
With that small piece of comfort, she concentrated on her studies, earning good grades and keeping up the pretense of normalcy. But no matter how well she was able to hide the pregnancy and keep her secret under wraps, the pain of giving up her son left a permanent scar on her heart. She remembers being wheeled out of the hospital with the swaddled baby boy tucked in her arms. “The private-duty nurse approached me and lifted him from my arms and disappeared with the baby into a limo where the adopting couple waited. I could only imagine the overwhelming, instant joy they felt having their dream come true,” Mary Ann remembers. “As I got into my mom’s station wagon, we watched the limo pull away. We were both overcome with uncontrollable tears and emotions. We just cried; the kind that wells from so deep down it makes your stomach and throat hurt. I knew I had just given a piece of myself away.”
For a long time—almost 19 years—the dark secret swallowed Mary Ann, leaving her feeling isolated and ashamed. As hard as she tried, her baby boy was never far from her mind, and as the years went by she found the emptiness began to overwhelm her. Even though just a handful of close family and friends knew what had happened, the sense that “people looked at me as though I had done this monstrous thing” presented persistent torment. While she felt the chosen adoptive family was the best choice for her son, she fought depression and self-destructive thoughts.
Although she regularly saw a therapist, the true turning point came when she met the man who would become the first person outside of her immediate circle with whom she shared her secret. When things began to get serious between them, she knew she had to tell him about the baby, so one night she steeled herself and divulged the secret, leaving her bag packed in the car for fear he would bolt. But to her surprise, he heard her story and responded with compassion, calling her sacrifice beautiful, selfless, and courageous. They married and had a son, Justin, now 14, in 2000.
A Fresh Start
On March 30, 2003, Mary Ann was home alone, drinking a glass of wine and mindlessly checking email when one popped into her inbox that immediately sent her into a panic. “I saw his name, Zachary Peters, and I immediately knew it was the son I had given up for adoption. My heart started racing, I broke out in a cold sweat, and I could hardly breathe,” Mary Ann recalls.
“The first line of the email said, ‘Are you Mary Ann Abraczinskas from High Point Regional High School?’ My first reaction was, ‘He wants to know about me!’ Then it flashed to, ‘Does he hate me for what I did? Will he be angry with me?’”
They emailed back and forth with regularity and ended up talking on the phone for the first time on the night before Zak’s 19th birthday. She told him he had a 3-year-old brother. “He said, ‘That is the best birthday present ever.’” So the family of three drove to see Zak at the University of West Virginia, where he was a student. And from the moment she opened the hotel room door to Zak, she was filled with joy and relief as she watched the two brothers meeting for the first time. “I couldn’t believe it was him.”
That was more than a decade ago, and Zak has become a permanent fixture in their lives. Zak, now 31, and Justin are inseparable brothers. While nothing could make her happier, Mary Ann knows it’s Zak’s complete acceptance of her choices that has helped her heal and grow immeasurably, giving her the confidence to co-start a business, Simple Creations, LLC, which facilitates corporate team building and events. It also gave her the strength to fight breast cancer and get through a difficult divorce.
She looks back at the nearly 20 years she spent mired in shame, self-judgment, and fear with sadness and wishes she could tell her younger self that it’s OK to be human and warn her not to let society tell her what choices are best for her. “I would tell her to listen to her inner voice, not the random opinions of others,” she says. “I would tell her to forgive herself.”
While she hates to think of the scared broken woman she was, she knows that coming through that ordeal made her who she is today. “Dealing with the adoption, breast cancer, starting my own business, and my marriage failing all contributed to make me a stronger person. They prepared me, changed me, and allowed me to forge new paths and journeys. I realize now that my life is better because of them,” she says.
“I have become the best version of myself. But I’m still a work in progress… and it’s only getting better.”