Over all the many years of being involved in adoption issues, since searching for my son in 1984, and with the thousands of stories I’ve been privileged to hear, I’ve made an observation about reunions. They mirror the time of relinquishment. The very issues that created the surrender of our child will painfully resurface at the time of reunion. But because the painful memories have been repressed for so long, we can misplace the reason for the sudden feelings and blame the reunion for them
The unnatural separation of mother and infant, even when the mother believed she was doing the right thing, is now universally recognized as deeply traumatic. Much has been documented about the Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) that results. But there were other, what we might call accompanying traumas, experienced as well that often aren’t recognized because the main trauma was so overwhelming, but which still have a huge impact on our lives and can negatively impact reunion. What we need to understand is that the purpose of the painful mirror in reunion is to finally heal the past.
Since no one acknowledged all we had been through and expected us to go on with our lives, the pain of our primary and attendant traumas went underground into our subconscious minds, no longer recognized by us and not understood by others even in the healing professions. Soon, we can’t explain to ourselves why we avoid certain situations, why we unnecessarily tense up or panic, become angry or cry for “no reason,” use excessive control or feel detached in our lives. Relationships fall apart, and our health may begin to suffer with no explanation.
The trauma of losing our child naturally becomes the focus, but the other traumas that intertwine the main one can easily be missed, and it can take a long time to recognize how they continue to control our behavior and may be undermining our budding relationships by bringing up issues from the past and believing they’re true in the present.
For example, nearly all of us were shunned and shamed by society for being unwed mothers and such a rejection was traumatic. Even if our families didn’t outright reject us, they actually did in the most profound way by going so far as to ask us to give away our own flesh and blood and a member of the family. Essentially, we were abandoned. So, at the time of reunion, fears of telling anyone about our child can be debilitating. “I can’t tell my husband.” “What would my children think of me?” “My family must never know.” “What would my friends think of me, if they found out?” And, we end up rejecting our child the same way we were rejected. We abandon ourselves in the same way both we, and our children, were abandoned.
Such fears stem from past trauma and might be but most likely aren’t at all true of the present. But our traumatized self doesn’t know that, and so we unconsciously perpetuate our own trauma, instead of seizing the opportunity to trust again – trust that we are loved, understood and supported now, or not and then do something about that.
For me, a huge trauma to work through was the issue of authority, another trauma many of us share. For many of us the church played a huge role, preaching that premarital sex was a mortal sin and giving our children to a worthy couple was our absolution. I was always a rebellious Catholic, like taking my reading list from the banned books list in the church foyer. But, the years of Catholic teachings had gotten under my skin, and in the end I felt too unworthy to fight for my son, as much as I wanted to. For most of us, no one who was considered an authority: doctors, nurses, social workers, even parents showed us another way. In our vulnerability, we absorbed the message that we weren’t worthy mothers for our children.
So, when I was advised to tell my young sons about their brother, I literally envisioned a line up of social workers around the block waiting to take them from me. Only a tiny part of me was left to realize, “This is crazy thinking!” I didn’t yet know that it was a trauma I was facing. Thank God for that tiny part. Without it, I would have fallen into despair and never told them. Instead, my sons offered me the most compassion I’d received since losing Jack.
For many of us, the adoptive mother can subconsciously embody all the authority figures that had so much power over us. She had all the qualities we were told we lacked to be a mother to our children. We were told over and over like a litany how this perfect woman we didn’t even know was so much more able to give to our children all we couldn’t provide – a father for our children, a house with a white picket fence, financial stability, and on and on.
For several years after meeting Jack and forging a pleasant relationship with his adoptive mother, my blood would still drain to my toes and I would become icy cold in her presence. After all, she could turn Jack against me if I did or said the wrong thing. Not only was she the better mother for my child now, she was the nuns who wielded all authority in the home for unwed mothers, constantly reminding all of us we were lucky to be there and controlling our lives with strict rules. I hated feeling that way with Jack’s mom but I was helpless to do anything about it, until the day I risked everything and, in front of her, said “I love you!” to my grandchildren in the car when they were dropping me off at the airport. No one died, and the traumas no longer controlled me.
If at the time of reunion a mother has an extreme reaction, say excessive anger, toward the adoptive mother, the possibility that projection of past trauma is misplaced should be examined. Their perceived power mirrors the depth of our own powerlessness at the time of relinquishment. Her mistakes as a mother can become magnified against the fairy tale told to us that she was perfect. Our unconscious anger can then undermine our relationship with our children by not acknowledging the life they had without us.
Any extreme reaction should be examined for possible hidden trauma. Some of us retained a fear of doctors or hospitals, which may inexplicably resurface at the time of reunion or afterwards. Issues with our parents or siblings that were never dealt with could manifest as resistance to allowing our children to meet or have a relationship with them. Anger toward the father of our child can keep us from sharing information about them to our children, or worse when they remind of us the father we choose not to have a relationship, even though this is our own flesh and blood child, too.
If we find ourselves no longer able to cope with our newly found child or have patience with the time it takes for them to integrate all they are learning about themselves, in effect we are rejecting the past painful feelings that “out of the blue” have emerged and are now misplaced. For many of us, how we were treated was nothing short of abuse, even if that wasn’t the intention. To protect ourselves we may interpret our child’s actions toward us as abusive, because they trigger feelings of past powerlessness when we weren’t protected, instead of being able to deal maturely with our returning child’s own wounds. Ironically, we can be mirrors for our children’s traumas of abandonment, rejection, and feeling socially unacceptable. As we heal, so do our children.
Running from our pain only weakens us. Resenting the fact that we do have a healing journey ahead of us keeps us the victims we were at the time of losing our children. Avoiding any triggers, anything that instantly throws us back into similar emotional memories of the original trauma, sends ourselves the message we’re not strong enough to heal – when we are. In fact, we should embrace triggers as they reveal the issues that still have control over our physical, emotional and mental health. Whether or not we want to face our past painful traumas, they have been a part of us all along. By not facing the past they continue undermining us from being able to enjoy our present life fully present in it.
So what can we do to heal? Unique to our traumas is the fact that they were never acknowledged, so first we need validation that the pain we experienced was real and justified. Denial plays a huge role in protecting us from trauma but it doesn’t serve us forever, so we need to examine our resistance to the truth of our experience. When tears come, let their flow take us to our deepest truth, where we will find freedom and the part of ourselves that can transcend our painful memories, so that we can feel safe as we explore our stories.
For those of us who can’t find or afford a therapist who “gets it,” there are many wonderful books that will not only help us to not feel alone with our feelings and can validate our returning memories but also offer ways of healing. Support groups can be an enormous help as long as the intention is to move through our stories, rather than staying stuck by feeding each others' anger, grief or victimhood. Avoid for a while anyone who doesn’t understand what you are going through. When we begin to understand ourselves, it will matter less and less that others don’t. Remember that emotional memories are also held in the body and, if not released physically, can keep us stuck in a tape that keeps replaying. So consciously releasing already processed emotions while walking, bathing, doing yoga or having a massage, for example, is essential to healing.
For me, it was enormously helpful to look at the past painful traumas as a sacred wound, one that would, when healed (not that we ever completely do), teach me more about myself and about life than if I were never wounded in the first place. As we sink deeper into our wounds with compassion, instead of resisting the pain, we discover gifts and talents we never knew we had that were covered up. We no longer try to control our lives and those around us, but instead stand powerfully within our lives and become transformed.
The journey is nothing to fear. In fact it can become magical as we begin to see our lives in a different light, when the filters of past traumatic memories fall away and new ways of seeing ourselves, and our lives, are revealed.
(Might have to copy and paste links into browser. Can't figure out how to make links work. Sorry!)
Link to FB page Adoption Books. Over 130 books listed.
Link to The Other Mother on Amazon, for those who need to remember their own stories.
Link to Searching … For Healing After Reunion, sequel to The Other Mother covers all the complex issues faced when creating relationships after reunion.
Photo credit: Carmen Ward Villota