(Note: This article was previously published in the Huffington Post.)
When I began the search in 1984 for the son I’d surrendered to adoption, I was so naïve. Never would I have imagined his adoptive mother wouldn’t want to know me. After all, we shared the same child, though in different ways. What more meaningful relationship could there be?
Then I began hearing heartbreaking stories of birth/first mothers receiving threatening letters through lawyers, of phone numbers being changed, of their children’s loyalty being either bought or demanded.
One of the children’s books I would obsessively read, and with only a faint understanding of why at the time, to the two sons I raised was Horton Hatches the Egg. Maysie the lazy bird flew from the nest for Palm Beach, leaving Horton to sit on her egg through “the winter, the snow, and the sleet. And icicles hung from his trunk and his feet,” not to mention three hunters with rifles ready to shoot him and being sold to a world traveling circus. Through it all, Horton was faithful 100%. And then Maysie returned, right as the egg was hatching, to reclaim it. Out popped an “elephant-bird.”
As I tried to comprehend why we could be subject to such rejection, I had to believe we were all seen as Maysies, that the adoptive parents had done all the work – changed a million diapers, packed a thousand lunches, wiped the noses of our children countless times. Who were we to come back into their lives?
As many mothers will attest, we can become time travelers when we begin a search or when we are found. We can be reeled back into the past with a word, a song, a rejection, as repressed traumatic memories resurface without warning. Now, instead of approaching my search with confidence in what I would be able to offer my son – the knowledge he’d always been loved, his story, and medical and ancestral history - I was nineteen and a pariah again.
Of course, not all adoptive parents were rejecting, but most were I was learning. The reason given back then was denial of their infertility issues. Our coming into their lives reminded them of their inability to have a child, a pain they didn’t want to face. When I finally made the call, I ended up speaking with my son’s adoptive mother for three and a half hours. She said her openness to me, though still ambivalent, was from the fact she too had given birth and couldn’t imagine what I must have gone through. Still, when we met, she considered it a one shot deal. Her curiosity was satisfied and she never imagined I would be seeking a relationship, let alone being dragged through a book publicity tour and a movie about us. What got her through was putting Jack’s desire for a continued relationship first before her own wishes, which were clearly that I disappear and let them be a normal family again.
When I unexpectedly began hearing from adoptive mothers who’d read The Other Mother, telling of their shock at learning our side of the story, I realized empathy was a key to their letting us into our children’s lives. It became obvious, too, that they had been lied to – told that if they loved their adopted children enough they would have no questions and it would be as if they’d been born into the family. So, already feeling at least unconsciously inferior from being infertile, the fact that the child they raised wanted a relationship with their original family was a double blow to an already wounded sense of self. Some, too, may have felt they’d offended God in some way and were being punished with the inability to have “their own” child. In addition, the entrenched myth of good girl versus bad girl for some made it easy to justify that they were saving a child from a terrible fate. We’d never grown up in their minds.
The mystery for me is why so many adoptive mothers resist healing from the wounds that keep their hearts closed to us. Over the decades since the adoption reform movement first began, there have been hundreds of books and research papers on the psychological effects of being adopted and being a mother forced to surrender her child for adoption, mostly written by those with the experience since no one else understood or seemed to care. There was recognized the need to heal, to face with courage our wounds, and that doing so was liberating.
Try finding a book on Amazon, or Google “healing the adoptive mother wounds” and the only thing that comes up is books and articles on how to help your adopted child. It’s as if adoptive mothers are immune from the need to heal anything.
When we don’t heal others suffer. For instance, if an adoptive mother doesn’t deal with her own infertility, her adopted daughter will feel guilty if she has any children of her own or may choose, consciously or unconsciously, not to have any at all. Such loyalty entangles the daughter in her mother’s unhealed emotional wounds. If the adoption happened because of previous miscarriages or the birth of a stillborn child, without grieving that loss the adoptive mother will think of the child she adopted as a replacement, creating an enormous and irreconcilable burden on the adoptee. When she can’t acknowledge that the child has a different family of origin and assumes the child will be like the adoptive family, she intervenes in her child’s own unique destiny.
Without grieving their losses, adoptive families are unable to see the truth that their child is a part of two families. Loyalty often is the replacement for the natural visceral bonds of families connected by blood. Where innate is the sense that wherever you go in life, you are still connected to your family of origin, whether or not you like them, for adoptive families their connection can feel fragile. Some level of control is then felt to be necessary to keep the family together. Love can be enough but it’s not trusted. So records remain sealed in most states to protect the “sanctity” of the adoptive family.
Birth mothers must do their own healing in order not to project onto the adoptive mother their issues, or else the adoptive mother can become the authority figures – her mother, nuns, social workers, etc. – that prevented her from keeping her child. It is also often hard to reconcile, though necessary, the fact that the child was raised quite differently and, worse, had been abused. We must come to terms with our own painful loss in order to honor who our children have become without us in their lives, who they are now as a blending of two families.
There are many traditional and non-traditional ways to heal. One I find fascinating is called Family Constellation Work, which believes we are born into an ever-unfolding family narrative and involves role-playing to discover our place within the living story. I was drawn to it because its founder, Bert Hellinger, believed that when a child who is lost to a family, either through death, miscarriage, abortion or adoption is not acknowledged someone in the family will have to assume that child’s role in some way and lose their own identity in the process.
When I was speaking at a conference in Italy a year ago, I got to participate in a Family Constellation workshop. The group was split between adoptees and adoptive parents, who were there solely to help their adopted children. The adoptees were brave as the adoptive mothers sat silently in their self-protection. (I was the only birth mother at the conference. The birth mothers in Italy were too ashamed to be seen there.) At one point, I asked the facilitator if adoptive mothers can suffer secondary infertility like so many birth/first mothers have, meaning there’s no real overt physical cause for the infertility. One of the adoptive mothers, who experienced secondary infertility, finally volunteered to role-play.
The work can seem miraculous in how quickly blocked truths come to light. The woman was shaken to the core when she realized that all her life her mother had belittled her, to the point that the woman believed that if she bore a child of her own that child would be defective like her. “Do you realize,” the facilitator asked her, “that you’ve asked your adopted child to be a sacrifice to your mother?” How many adoptive mothers could say that was also true for them? For sure many birth mothers can say that to some degree their children, too, were sacrificed for their mothers and for society by giving them away.
Unhealed emotional wounds block the flow of love and compassion. The two mothers may not become best friends, but their children will greatly benefit if the mothers face their own painful feelings so that they can hold each other in deep respect and appreciation for the contribution each has made. After all, they are both a part of who their children have become. Their child then will be free to live out his or her own unique destiny.