By: HELEN MITTERNIGHT
“It’s not my story, it’s her story. I’d never want to keep it from her.” Still, the story—not a bedtime story by any means—will keep for a few years. The baby yawns, turns to her mother’s voice with a particularly intent stare for one just recently born. This is Isabella Grace. And, less than a month ago, the womb she was in belonged to a different woman than the one meeting her gaze with a teary smile.
Julie Todaro didn’t expect to become a mother so suddenly, if at all. She dedicates her days to Charleston Heart for Freedom fighting human trafficking as their executive director. Now, she sits at a table in a local coffee shop, one chair full of the endless amounts of supplies necessary for getting out of the house with a newborn. She appears a little shell-shocked but her smile when she looks down at Isabella Grace is radiant.
Charleston Heart for Freedom focuses mostly on sex and labor trafficking, although human trafficking also includes the sale of humans for organ harvesting in addition to sex trade and cheap or free labor.
Several months ago, a young woman who had been rescued discovered she was pregnant. She and Julie became friendly and, in February, the young woman called Julie. “I think this is supposed to be your baby,” she told her.
Many women, while touched by the offer, would likely have responded with a hard pass. For Julie, it was a moment of divine intervention. A former victim herself, Julie has few close family ties and had given up hoping for a child.
“I had been praying for a child and a family. I don’t have those ties and I have so much left to give,” she says.
Divine or not, there was still much to do to prepare for this speeded-up adoption. Although she has few family connections, a tribe of friends has stepped in to help her prepare for sudden motherhood, both before the birth and now, as Julie eases back into work. She moved from her tiny one-bedroom apartment, found an adoption lawyer who would reduce her fees, and began the home study program in which the state determines whether she is a suitable parent. And she picked the name Isabella, which means “God is perfection,” in tribute to that divine intervention. The single mother also started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the staggering expenses that are part of the adoption and child-raising process, such as baby supplies and the attorney, in spite of the reduced fees.
Julie had just moved into her new apartment when the social worker knocked on the door.
“I had just gotten my living room furniture and I opened the door in a baseball cap and sweats. Thank goodness the furniture was delivered, or she would have thought I didn’t have any furniture!”
On June 18, Isabella was born and Julie was the first one to hold her.
“I was surprised by how full your heart is,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone so much. It’s weird, it’s only been the last ten years that I even could love, and now this.”
Despite little prenatal care, Julie says Isabella was perfect. Even if she hadn’t been, Julie was prepared to love her regardless.
“I just really feel this is the baby God gave me, and if something is wrong, I’m equipped to handle it,” she says.
She and the young woman agreed to a semi-open adoption which means Julie will give her progress reports on how Isabella is doing and may send photos. Julie says that, in South Carolina, a young woman can not reverse her adoption decision unless she can prove that she was forced to sign her child away or if she can prove that the adopted parent(s) are unfit.
Motherhood has proven surprising, especially the weight of emotions flooding Julie.
“I cry at everything,” she says, her eyes filling as though to prove it. “I start thinking of the what-ifs and I cry. I look at her and I cry. I cry for no reason. I wasn’t even pregnant, and it’s like I’ve got the hormones!”
Maternity has made her fiercely protective toward her baby.
“I want to teach her so much more about self-worth and value than I was ever taught,” she says. “I want to tell her, ‘You are a princess and no one has the right to do something disrespectful.’ So many kids need to hear that. There’s so much talking about something after it happens and not enough building confidence and love.”
She is prepared that her daughter will ask questions, maybe about where her father is or how she was born.
“I will tell her her story in an age-appropriate way,” Julie says. “She will know about the adoption before she knows about any kind of victimization, but she may ask one day just because of the work I do.”
Another yawn, and Isabella Grace snuggles against Julie’s chest, one tiny fist clenched around the neckline of her mother’s blouse. Neither one of them is letting go.