Mother to Mother

Years of trauma and abuse—and God’s healing—prepared Jennie Hundley to work with Three Strands, a ministry that supports birth moms of adopted children.

It takes love and courage to place a child for adoption, and Three Strands, Inc. was founded to support women who make that tough decision. Jennie Hundley, a volunteer with the nonprofit and until recently its executive director, is one such birth mom. People who hear her life story now find it hard to picture her as the one who lived it. In fact, Hundley herself can barely believe it’s her story—that once, long ago, her life had disintegrated into such a dangerous jumble of abuse and heartache.

***

Hundley grew up in California in a strong Christian family and describes her early years as normal. But changing from a public middle school to private traumatized the shy adolescent. She had some friends but found it so daunting to approach their table that she’d often eat lunch alone in the bathroom. “All my friends were shorter and tan and cute; I was tall and pasty white.” Hundley recalls. She now realizes the other girls probably had similar insecurities but says, “For whatever reason, I felt I didn’t fit in.”

People who hear her life story now find it hard to picture her as the one who lived it.

After switching back to public school in 10th grade, Hundley started hanging around with people she remembers calling “the stoners and hippie people.” Finding acceptance there, she followed her new friends’ lead and began ignoring her studies and running away from home. As an adult, she realizes how heartbreaking those choices must have been for her parents. But that was the ’90s, when there was a trend of tough love among some parents in handling their teens. So her mom and dad projected an attitude of nonchalance—“You’re leaving home? Well, OK, off you go. The door will be locked”—to the point that the family once vacationed in Hawaii without her.

After graduating, she moved to an apartment, enrolled in community college, and found work at a little pie shop. Tensions with her parents had eased somewhat, and wanting to help their daughter take positive steps toward her future, they subsidized tuition, a car, and the apartment she shared with several other girls. So Hundley went to class—at least some of the time—but then met the guy next door.

***

Rich was 10 years older than Hundley, and he lived with his middle-aged mother and two adult sisters, all of whom were addicted to methamphetamines. The attention he paid the teen was flattering, and she found his “bad boy side” intriguing.

Three months later she was pregnant. Hundley didn’t tell her parents, though—not even when Rich announced rather suddenly he was taking her from the West Coast to Akron, Ohio, ostensibly to find work through a friend there. Her mother tried to intervene, but Hundley wouldn’t be dissuaded, saying, “I just have to find myself, figure myself out.” Needing cash, she sold all her belongings—except the credenza her parents would pick up later. On it, she placed a goodbye note for them to find after her departure.

She placed a goodbye note for her parents to find after her departure.

The night before the move, Hundley remembers losing composure as it hit her: “All my stuff is gone; we’re leaving; I’m lying on the floor because my bed was sold.”

Rich’s response was to dump a quart of beer on her head—the first in a series of physical attacks. Despite several red flags, she went with him and soon discovered the real reason for leaving: The police had a warrant out for his arrest. But even that wasn’t enough to deter her.

On reaching Ohio, Hundley called her mother and was surprised to be confronted with, “Is there something you want to tell me?” She answered, “What do you mean?” and then, through tears, “How did you know?” Apparently Rich had found the note on the credenza, and after crossing out “Dear Mom and Dad,” had written “Grandma and Grandpa.”

In Akron, more disappointments awaited. Rich’s friend was selling drugs, and the “line of work” once again was meth production—the lab was in the attic of the home where he temporarily let the couple stay. They eventually left for a run-down district dotted with crack houses and moved into a hovel that had no heat.

Looking back, Hundley doesn’t fully understand why she stayed with Rich, but several factors added to her inertia. For one, she wanted a father in her baby’s life, even if he wasn’t the ideal role model. Low self-esteem also played a part: “I followed the first guy who showed me attention,” she says, “and did whatever he told me to do.” Her mom and dad often urged her to come home. “But I was too stubborn to go back to my parents and say I did wrong. I was still rebellious and didn’t want to be under their rules.”

***

That January Hundley gave birth to a baby boy she named Brian. When they were discharged from the hospital, the nurses wouldn’t let them get into Rich’s car, because he was drunk. So Hundley had to call an acquaintance for a ride. Things didn’t get easier at the apartment—that winter was brutally cold, and though she had covered cracks in the walls with plastic, it was still too frigid for a newborn. So she left the oven on all night with its door open and slept with the baby on the kitchen floor.

As for her relationship with Rich, the next two years were a series of worsening déjà-vus. He drank continually, and the beatings became so frequent that Hundley regularly sought shelter, alternating between a neighbor’s home and a battered women’s shelter.

When Brian was a toddler, Hundley realized she was pregnant again. This time she called to tell her parents. Though unaware of the physical abuse, they knew her situation was unhealthy and gently broached the idea of placing the infant for adoption. “You know,” her mother said, “this baby deserves more than you’re doing for yourself, for Brian. You can’t bring another baby into what you’re living in right now.” Angry, Hundley ignored the suggestion for several months.

Then, late one night Rich got into a brawl at the bar next to where they lived. Using a screwdriver, he stabbed a man and then ran home, announcing they had to pack up immediately to evade police.

They headed to Utah, where Rich knew someone else they could stay with. For some reason, he insisted that Hundley drive, despite her protests—not only was she far along in the pregnancy, but she also didn’t know how to operate a stick shift. “When I ground the gears,” she recalls, “Rich must have hit me. The next thing I remember is being on the side of the road, in the passenger’s seat, and kind of coming to. I don’t remember the event happening, but I remember seeing myself in the rearview mirror—my face was giant. I kept saying, ‘What happened? Where am I? Where’s my mom?’ Brian was in the back seat, freaking out; I turned around, saw him, and said, ‘Who’s that? Where are we going?’ It was terrible.”

Following a hospital  road sign, Rich pulled off the highway. “You can go to the ER if you want,” he said, “but I’m taking Brian with me.” Though still dazed, Hundley knew that didn’t sound like a good idea, so she continued with him to Utah.

“The next thing I remember is being on the side of the road, in the passenger’s seat, and kind of coming to.”

Rich’s contact there was staying with a sister in the Air Force, who generously took them all in. Pulling the pregnant mother aside one day, she asked, “Jennie, why are you settling for this?” Hundley appreciated such concern from an unbiased stranger, but she still couldn’t bring herself to break away.

***

Rich proved a troublesome houseguest and was evicted. Though invited to remain there with Brian, Hundley declined. She wanted the family intact, especially with the baby due in just six weeks. Their new plan took them back to California; by then Hundley’s parents had relocated to Georgia, so the only option was to move in with Rich’s mother.

When they arrived, Hundley had a high fever, which triggered contractions. She knew she had to go to the hospital, but instead of driving her there, Rich took off for a bar. His mom didn’t own a car, but worse, she was under the influence of drugs and in no condition to watch Brian. So Hundley pushed the stroller to a pay phone and called her mother’s work number.

Crying, she said, “Mom, I’m in California, and something’s wrong. I’m really sick, and no one will take me to the hospital.” From across the country, a rescue was arranged for the woman finally broken enough to accept it. Grandparents Hundley hadn’t seen in years lived about 90 minutes away, and they dropped everything to answer the SOS.

“Mom, I’m in California, and something’s wrong. I’m really sick, and no one will take me to the hospital.

A while later, Grandpa picked them up in his truck, which Hundley recalls even had a car seat borrowed from someone at church, and drove to the apartment. Instructing Hundley to stay in the vehicle, he went inside, demanded his granddaughter’s things, and announced she wasn’t coming back. Then he took her to the hospital, where she spent a week recovering from a severe kidney infection.

Meanwhile 2½-year-old Brian was cared for by great-grandparents he’d never met. Upon discharge, Hundley also moved into their one-bedroom apartment, which, though crowded, was a haven. Somebody from church donated an air mattress, which she saw as a blessing, even with the physical discomforts of late pregnancy. She was also grateful for the stabilizing influence of her grandparents and their congregation.

Finally ready to consider her mother’s suggestion, Hundley hadn’t a clue where to begin. She knew of no families with adoption experience, other than two distant childhood acquaintances. But one thing she did know: Her baby deserved a better life than she was able to provide.

Through the church, Hundley was put in touch with the Adoption Center of San Diego. Meeting its director, Sarah Jensen, at a nearby Denny’s, she was amazed to learn about open adoption and the range of input and involvement a birth mom can have in her child’s life. “I found out you can pick the family,” she says, “and even have contact to varying levels.”

At the agency, Hundley studied a mountain of little scrapbooks compiled by prospective families to help with the decision. “It’s kind of crazy in a way,” Hundley says. “You’re literally picking your child’s future based on what [the family] looks like. The people I picked had a cat—I grew up with cats.”

One thing she did know: Her baby deserved a better life than she was able to provide.

She found it both surprising and wonderful to visit the house where her little boy would grow up, and to meet Todd and Anna, the people who’d raise him there. They showed Hundley many kindnesses, including Burger King outings with Brian during her counseling sessions. Then, after she gave birth to the child Todd and Anna named Liam, they helped her enroll in school and got her an apartment.

For the year she lived there, Hundley attended a church that also extended kindness, in the form of transportation, Sunday and midweek dinners, and a food pantry that provided staples. They also became protective after Rich showed up and attacked her one last time, leaving her with a broken nose and head bruises. When she got out of the hospital, the pastor brought her a taser gun, with the instructions, “Leave it on top of the bureau, just in case.”

That was the last time Hundley saw Rich. (She later learned he’d been imprisoned more than once and eventually died from drug-related causes.) But that final episode of violence was her line in the sand: She made the decision to leave her old life—and California—behind. Though she’d occasionally party and skip class, she was heading in the right direction. But without changing her scenery, Hundley feared she might again crave attention and wander down familiar unhealthy paths to find it. So, desiring stability for herself and Brian, she went to live near her parents.

In Georgia, Hundley found work in a preschool and became a regular attender at North Point Community Church. After meeting Kevin Hundley—a coworker’s cousin—and talking with him awhile, she marveled, He’s actually listening to what I’m saying! Through Kevin—who is now her husband, Brian’s adoptive dad, and father of their two younger sons—she finally began to understand what healthy attention looked like.

***

She made the decision to leave her old life—and California—behind.

Liam is 18 now. Hundley has sent him birthday and Christmas gifts every year. “He always sends a thank-you note, and I’ve saved every single one,” she says. When he was younger, they had some conversations by phone, and she saw him once when his family had a layover in Atlanta. And about five years ago, when Hundley’s parents took their grandsons on vacation to San Diego, brothers Liam and Brian got to spend a day together.

So life has moved on. But Hundley never forgot the darkness she’d been through and continually asked God to reveal its purpose. She wondered, Should I volunteer with battered women? Teen pregnancy? Drug addicts? The North Point community group she and Kevin attended prayed along with them.

Five years ago Linda Eggers—Hundley’s mother—listened as her coworker described the agony of a failed adoption and his wife Stacy’s ensuing desire: to support birth moms in their underappreciated, heroic choice. Linda started crying and said, “My Jennie is a birth mom. She’s got to talk to Stacy.”

The two met a day later and shared stories. When Hundley said she “gave Liam up for adoption,” Stacy asked, “Do you love Liam? Think about him?”

Hundley said, “Absolutely. I love him and think about him every day.”

 “You did not give him up,” Stacy said. “You give up a bad habit; you give away old clothes. You placed Liam out of love into the arms of another woman to raise as her own.”

For Hundley, that little bit of wording changed everything.

“You placed Liam out of love into the arms of another woman to raise as her own.”

The next day Stacy brought Hundley along to a fact-finding meeting she’d scheduled at Gwinnett Medical Center. The hospital’s social worker confirmed there was tremendous need for ministering to birth moms, and the way details flew into place seemed a clear indication of God’s involvement. A neighbor with a law degree offered to set them up as a nonprofit. And knowing the mission was to offer support through a three-strand community (adoptive moms, adult adoptees, and birth moms), both Stacy’s mother and Jennie’s mother independently suggested basing the name on Ecclesiastes 4:12.

Because there’s power in telling one’s story, Three Strands offers a private Facebook page for that purpose. “Until you talk about it,” Hundley says, “you never realize who else is involved in adoption. It could be someone in your small group at church; it could be your neighbor; it could be your mom.”

Stories can even address unspoken questions. Once, after giving a presentation, Hundley was approached by a woman who’d adopted a son. “We don’t know his birth mom,” the adoptive mother said, “but he got to hear you talk about how much you love Liam, so maybe that lets him know she’s probably thinking about him.”

Because there’s also power in listening without judgment, Hundley always prays, Do not let me forget who I was and where I was. She cites the saying “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” and adds, “If we really knew their story, we’d be hugging them instead of feeling annoyed with them.”

 

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