An International Falls woman was reunited with her son last summer after more than 50 years, thanks to social media.
It was a tearful reunion between Elaine (Millard) Johnson and her son, Michael O'Shaughnessy, who she put up for adoption in 1968. Video footage didn't appear to be two strangers meeting, instead it was the re-connection of a severed bond between a mother and son. Johnson can be seen breaking away from a tight embrace to take her son's face in her hands before hugging him again.
“There was this instant connection,” Johnson said. “It was very comfortable.”
It had been 51 years since Johnson had seen the face of the baby boy she gave birth to when she was 17 years old. Recalling the events of being pregnant brought back the fear, loneliness and feeling like she'd never experience joy again.
“Back then, it was the biggest shame,” she said of teen pregnancy. “That's just the way it was... I was terrified to tell my mother.”
It was the fall of Johnson's senior year in high school when she found out she was pregnant. The teenager was a good student on the school's drama team and came from a loving, Catholic family. Johnson's father had died five years earlier leaving behind his wife and five children.
“That was obviously very traumatic for our family,” Johnson said.
The baby's father was a year old than Johnson, and was attending college in Minneapolis. After learning of the pregnancy, the two became engaged.
“That was what was expected of us - we would get married and have the baby,” she said.
And although Johnson recalls being very weak-kneed, she knew the engagement wasn't right. She knew it wasn't the kind of love that would last forever.
“So I broke it off,” she said. “I don't know how I had the strength to do that.”
While Johnson recalls feeling relieved to have ended the engagement, she knew she needed to make a decision about the baby.
“Abortion was not an option for me... I don't even really think I knew what an abortion was,” she said. “My mom expected we would keep the baby, and right away, I was determined this baby was not going to bear the consequences of something I did.”
Without second guessing what she knew in her heart to be right for her situation, Johnson made the decision to put the baby up for adoption.
“I wanted the baby to have a chance for everything he deserved,” she said, adding her decision came with a clear vision of what the baby's life would be like. “I wanted him to have a Catholic family in a good neighborhood with a park at the end of the block.”
Johnson's son was born April 7, 1968, at La Verendrye Hospital in Fort Frances, Ontario. Johnson was alone when she delivered the baby – her mother had dropped her off when she went into labor.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” she said of labor and delivery. “I laid there alone, not knowing what to expect. Thinking back about the experience, I was completely numb at the time.”
Throughout her five days in the hospital, Johnson was unable to bring herself to look at the baby. She was set on her decision and admits she was fearful she'd change her mind about giving him away.
Once she was discharged, the baby went one way with a social worker and Johnson returned home to the Falls, feeling empty and convinced happiness could never return to her life.
“I went up to my room and cried until I couldn't cry anymore,” she said.
The baby was adopted when he was four months old to a Catholic family who had two other adopted children. Before going to his new home in Virginia, Minn., Johnson agreed to see and hold her son.
“That was the best thing I did,” she said. “I fed him a bottle, changed his diaper and brought him a rattle... I told him I loved him and I was doing this because I loved him. It was very healing for me. It was very hard, but it was so important.”
The interaction brought a sense of closure for Johnson, and she knew she had made the right decision.
The next fall, Johnson enrolled in classes at Rainy River Community College. Still in a fog, she set her focus on redemption.
“I was in every activity and got straight A's,” she said. “I wanted to prove to everybody – I don't know who – that I was a good person. But it was tough.”
Eventually, Johnson married her longtime friend, Alan, and the couple had three children.
“I have had a really good life,” she said. “A life I thought was ruined was redeemed.”
Though she often thought of her first-born child, knowing information about her son did not consume Johnson's life. She decided she wouldn't make an attempt to find him for the same reasons she decided to put him up for adoption.
“I didn't want to interrupt his life,” she said. “Whenever I did picture him, I pictured him having a good life.”
When trying to get a U.S. passport without information about his birth parents, O'Shaughnessy's citizenship was questioned and became an immigration issue. The Canadian government provided O'Shaughnessy with a copy of his original birth certificate listing Elaine Millard as his possible birth mother. After a 20-minute Facebook search, he sent Johnson a personal message.
"I started shaking right away," she said of reading the message from a man in Delaware. "I knew it was him, it was my son."
After providing a brief summary of his life, O'Shaughnessy wrote that he understood if Johnson didn't want contact with him, but left his phone number just in case.
Without hesitation, Johnson dialed the number immediately.
“The first thing I said was, 'I'm your mother,'” she said. “I told him he was wanted and he was loved. I told him I gave him away so he could get the life he deserved.”
O'Shaughnessy told Johnson he had a wife and four children and grew up living a wonderful life. After so many years, Johnson's feeling of peace was true.
The first conversation was brief, but emotional. The two exchanged information and pledged to speak again soon. They finally met for the first time in June.
Johnson said she was welcomed by O'Shaughnessy's family – including his parents – with open arms. She was flooded with photos and stories of her son who grew up having everything she had pictured for him – including a park down the street from where he grew up.
“Adoption was the best for both of us,” she said. “And now we are part of each other's families... My family and his biological father's family always knew about him. Now Mike has about 60 new people in his life who know and love him.”
Johnson will share her story and shed light on options pregnant women have Jan. 25 at the Northern Options for Women annual gala.
The event themed “Life is a Long Song,” is a fundraiser for the local, nonprofit organization that serves as a free pregnancy resource center. The event begins at 5 p.m. at the AmericInn in International Falls.
“Making the decision to choose adoption was not easy for me and I know everyone's situation is different,” Johnson said. “It was really hard, but it was the right thing to do. Sometimes when something is hard, it doesn't mean it's not right... Meeting him and knowing him is validation that I made the right choice.”
Tickets for the event must be reserved before Wednesday. The cost is $40 each, two for $75 or a table of eight runs $300. Tickets can be reserved by calling Northern Options for Women at 285-7673, texting 283-8599 or at the organization's website, northeroptions.org.