She thought it would be more painful. But seeing her now-5-month-old son Aidan, whom she placed in an open adoption on a controversial episode of MTV's 16 and Pregnant
, Lori Wickelhaus is surprised to admit that the primary emotion she feels is excitement. "I love seeing him, seeing how much he's grown and how he's doing," says the 18-year-old high school senior. "Every time I have to leave, I know I'll see him again. That keeps my spirits up."
Her peace of mind may come as a surprise to viewers who watched her heart-wrenching decision to give up her baby on a March episode of the cult-hit documentary series. Shown arguing with her parents, Curt and Mary Jo, both 52, over her desire to raise Aidan at their spacious Fort Thomas, Ky., home, Lori and her ex-boyfriend Cory Haskett, 21, reluctantly agreed to an adoption, with Lori declaring on-air, "I am being forced into this!" Now she recognizes that her parents had her best interests in mind, but at the time, "I felt like I was being cornered. I wanted to raise him myself. But I felt like I didn't have an option."
Living with her decision has been easier than she anticipated. While frequent visits are not the norm for an open adoption, Aidan's adoptive parents (who declined to be named) "will randomly text and call me-they're so open; I've seen him probably 10 times already," says Lori. In a statement to PEOPLE, the couple said, "We are beyond grateful. We could not have asked for a better birth mother for Aidan."
Lori feared being cut off from her son. An adoptee herself, she longed to stay close to "the only blood-related family I have." Her plan seemed simple enough. "I assumed I would raise Aidan on my own, living at my house," says Lori, who learned she was pregnant during her junior year. With a part-time job at a daycare facility, "I was planning on sending him there so I could go back to school, and I thought my parents would help out a bit."
Curt, an anesthetist, and Mary Jo, a nurse, were devastated by Lori's plan. "I knew my daughter was not ready to be a parent," says Mary Jo. "We were willing to help as grandparents would, but we made it clear that we would not be the primary caregiver. We said we'd support her either way, but if she chose parenting, she and Cory would have to figure out a way to do that on their own." But once Lori and Cory, who had dated for a year, split (soon after she found out she was pregnant), "I realized I had been living in a fantasy world," she says. "I would be on my own and wouldn't be able to give him everything he deserved."
She turned to open adoption, and Cory reluctantly went along. "I started feeling more comfortable with it, that it was all for Aidan's sake," says Lori. But when he was born on Dec. 16, she was again filled with doubt. "I found myself crying, not wanting to let him go," says Lori. "I tried to think, 'This is for him. Put your feelings aside.'" By the time she and Aidan's new parents performed an adoption ceremony to mark the occasion two days later, "I felt at peace," she says. "I felt an unbreakable bond. Leaving him wasn't hard, because I knew it wouldn't be forever." (Adds Cory: "It's hard knowing someone else is raising my son. But I know the family who adopted him are great people.")
As she prepares to attend Cincinnati State in the fall, "Lori is happy now," says Mary Jo. "She knows she made the right decision." Adds Lori, who hopes to start a family-on her terms-after college: "I feel like I have a fresh start. I've got my life back."