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What Does It Mean to Be a Mother?

NOTE: I was asked to speak at a conference in Desenzano, Italy, whose sole focus was "The Search of Origin in the Evolutive Construction of Idenity." The topic was applied to adoptees, adoptive parents and surrendaring mothers. I was grateful to be asked to respond to the probing questions below, because I had never thought of our situation from the point of view of how I identify myself as a mother. (The photo above was from the balcony of my room.)


At its essence, becoming a mother means to be linked with all of Creation. Of course, I only came to this realization much later in my mothering years. Naturally, our first ideas about what it means to be a mother come from how we were mothered, how our friends’ mothers behaved, and how literature and other media portrayed mothers. In the fifties and sixties, when I was growing up, mothers were portrayed as self sacrificing, devoted to supporting their husbands and the family – perfect women with no life of their own. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine living such a boring life, where the greatest concern would be what’s for dinner and how to decorate the home. For the most part, it seemed that the mothers I knew played the role of mother, taking it on as their sole identity, without revealing much about their own individuality and vulnerability.

On top of that, I was raised Catholic and so was offered only two role models for what it meant to be a woman and a mother some day: the Virgin Mother, who became a mother without having sex, and Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a prostitute and childless. The Virgin Mary to me seemed fathomless, impenetrable. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, was fascinating, alive. I was searching for some new way, but with no other options presented, had no idea what I was seeking.

I became pregnant the end of my freshman year in college. The father of my child was my boyfriend of two years and we always planned to marry when we finished college. But he took his parents’ advice, that to start a marriage under such circumstances - a baby on the way and no money - would spell disaster. So, to protect my family from the stigma of my unwed motherhood, I was sent away, now a pariah, to a home for unwed mothers a state away.

Before I became pregnant, it was already understood that to have a child out of wedlock was a disgrace. Such programming immediately wiped out the instinctive joy I first felt when I learned I was carrying a child – that I was to become a mother - and replaced the wonderment with panic and shame. It wasn’t until I entered the home that I could allow myself to feel what it meant to be carrying a child. Before then, my days were spent hiding the fact with girdles and lies and with a huge fear of my great transgression against society being discovered.

But that is also when a split happened within me between my inner reality of love for this coming child and the joy of motherhood and the reality imposed on me by the system. In the home, we were not considered mothers. We were sinners, there to atone for the mortal sin of sex before marriage. In fact, we were told that we would be selfish to even consider keeping our baby. A perfect couple was waiting for him and could give him so much more than I ever could. Besides, how could I bring such dishonor to my family who loved me so much. Worse yet, how could I impose on my child the lifelong stigma of illigitimacy. Their voices were so strong – the nuns, the priests, the nurses, I no longer could trust my own growing motherly instincts about what was right for my baby.

Once a woman brings life into this world, everything changes. Joseph Campbell spoke of giving birth as a right of passage, an initiation. “Once a woman brings life into this world, she’s never not a mother again,” he said. Scientist have proven over and over how right Joseph Campbell was - how chemicals are released to facilitate the bonding process and both mother and child are from then on forever connected. The deepest part of me knew that, but I had been too brainwashed and shamed to believe in my own truth anymore. To be a mother is to be like a mother bear, protecting and guiding her children, but I had surrendered my instincts to those who made me believe they knew better what was right for my child. I left him to an unknown fate, unprotected, violating the basic impulses of Creation – to nurture new life coming into this world.


Being a mother and identifying myself as a mother are two different things to me. Becoming a mother changed who I was, not just how I described myself to myself or others.

As I prepared to leave the hospital and my baby to an unknown fate, I still held out hope I could find a way to keep him – change my parents’ minds or maybe my boyfriend would ride a white horse to the hospital, scoop us both up and marry me.

One of the daily litanies at the home was the promise that we would go on with our lives as if nothing had happened, get married and have children of our own some day.

But, as I dressed in clothes I’d brought from my former life, I realized it was all a lie. I could no longer identify as a college coed, go back to dating and talking about superficial things. I didn’t even want to. I’d been through too much and I was now a mother. No one had prepared me for these feelings, so I didn’t know what to do with them, what to expect in the future. I walked out of the hospital split in two. Half of me, at least, remained with my baby.

Perhaps if I’d been able to keep my baby, I would think part of my identity was being a mother. But, with no social recognition of my motherhood, I was able to see clearly for myself that I had become a mother, not simply taken on a role. I graduated from college, worked in advertising, got married – aspects of my identity, not who I was, and people approved. I was fortunate to have two more sons – fortunate because 40 to 60% of birth mothers never did have other children. My second son wasn’t planned, or I might well have been one of those. My loyalty to my first child made it impossible to imagine having any others.

Now I was a legitimate mother – a very different feeling from being a secret one. I suspect that losing my first son made me appreciate motherhood in a more profound way than I would have without such a loss. However, the love I felt for the sons I was raising only served to deepen my grief over losing my first. Sometimes what I was dealing with was beyond comprehension.


One can only feel loss when an essential part of themselves is gone. Grieving the death of a child, the greatest tragedy of all, is not the same as losing a child to adoption and knowing that child is out there somewhere, hopefully alive and well but not knowing for certain. There were no rituals to help with the grieving process, no one there to support us. The grief we bore alone and perhaps is why it runs so deep and insidiously impacted so many areas of our lives.

And, for birth parents, much more than their child is lost. The effort it takes to suppress our deep pain naturally mutes all other feelings as well. For me and most others I’ve met over the years, to feel love, to feel anger or sorrow for other life events meant that we would tap into feelings from the original loss – a frightening proposition. So our lives become half lived. Being so betrayed and vilified by parents and society also created a loss of self worth, a lack of trust in oneself and others, a loss of innocence and hope in the goodness of the world, and the belief that one is loveable. From these losses, others are spawned, like the belief that one has the right to motherhood, confidence and courage is shaken, pride is gone. A whole life – one’s education, job plans, ability to have a good marriage or relationships, even health often is derailed by the shattering experience of losing one’s child.

And then, tragically, at the time of reunion the grief can intensify when it’s realized all those lost years will never come back, that the relationship will never be what it should be or what would be hoped for, that maybe even grandchildren are lost if the adoptive parents are threatened and the adult child is protective of them. No one should be put on such a terrible life journey.



Essentially, we became utterly powerless to effect our lives. So healing comes from reclaiming our power and the truth of our motherhood. I was fortunate to keep some of my power from the beginning by vowing to search for my son when he turned 18 – not just for myself but for him, feeling there were things he would need to know about himself, our story, his original family.

Healing came from unexpected places: When I went to the first support group and found out I wasn’t alone. When I questioned my right to search for my son and my therapist told me, “Of course you must, you’re his mother.” – the first time I was ever acknowledged as his mother. When the same therapist told me, when I grew impatient with the search, that I could send him love and he would receive it. (When I tried, I hoped he wasn’t driving!)

Trauma wipes out memory to protect the soul. But an essential aspect of healing is reclaiming our stories – remembering. I did therapy, art therapy, went to healers, went to a shaman, facilitated support groups where hearing other women’s stories helped me remember my own, and began writing The Other Mother. I learned the body holds onto emotional memory, sometimes to the point where our stories play like a tape over and over and we become stuck in the overwhelming emotions. Talk therapy isn’t enough. To move on, the body needs to release the stuck memories. Massage, long baths and especially being in nature are essential to healing. Helping others and being with women who understood was essential, as was meeting my son and his adoptive mother’s acceptance of me being in his life.

In the process of reclaiming my truth and my motherhood, I learned we are all connected, that I’d always been connected to my son, and that true power is really Love. We’d always lived near each other - from North Carolina, Virginia (where his father lived), New York and finally 40 minutes away from each other in California. I had tuned into times that were difficult for him, not understanding where the strange feelings were coming from. His adoptive mother had said the exact same words of a prayer that I used to pray. The bond had never been severed.

Who knows who I would have been had I not gone through all this trauma. I do know that healing trauma has the power to transform us, to view life from a much more profound perspective, to appreciate the deeper meaning of relationships. I’m not completely healed and probably never will be, but I’ve learned not to be afraid to confront the terrible feelings because there’s light and wisdom to be discovered there.

What have I learned about identity? If we derive who we think we are from what society would like us to be, instead of from our own inner truth, we won’t believe we should claim our right to know our children and reclaim our interrupted motherhood. We will remain imprisoned by the need to appear to be living a correct life.

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