Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Why Reunions Go Awry: What Memoirs of Adopted Daughters Tell Birthmothers
Denise Roessle’s “What Do We Owe Our Children” demonstrated once again that the course of a reunion never does run smooth. Some adoptees react like Denise’s son, hurling barbs at his birth mother; others retreat to a safe place. The memoirs of women who were adopted as infants helps us first mothers understand adoption and reunion from an adoptee’s point of view.
In November, 1997, I received the call I had been hoping for -- and dreading -- since that dark day 31 years earlier when I left the hospital in San Francisco without my newborn daughter. She wanted to know me! We began emailing daily and arranged to meet in January. Our meeting went well, I thought, but afterwards she began to pull away. I was devastated. What had I done wrong?
To find answers, I poured over the memoirs of women who had been adopted -- Betty Jean Lifton, Amy Dean, Jean Strauss, A. M. Homes, Zara Phillips, Sarah Saffian, and Katie Hern.
Although the adoptees’ backgrounds and life experiences were vastly different, their thoughts and feelings were remarkably similar. Before reunion, the daughters imagined a loving natural mother whose one mistake in the words of Annie was “giving up me.” Amy Dean described this fantasy mother in Letters to My Birthmother:
“I’ve always dreamed of having—
...a kindly woman with a sweet, smiling face who gently washes away the dirt from my scraped knees and elbows and who chases away my tears;
...a tireless woman who provides me with soft, clean clothing that smells a little like her and a little like the fresh outdoors;
...a caring woman who does many things with me, who talks with me and shows an interest in my life;
...a nurturing woman who makes the house smell as scrumptious as a home-baked cookie and who never lets me know what hunger feels like;
...an angelic woman who makes me feel safe as she takes me in her arms, places my head gently upon her soft, full bosom and rocks me to sleep each night.”
Zara Phillips wrote in Chasing Away the Shadows “I was always waiting for the day that my birthmother would show up on my doorstep, apologizing and telling me there had been a terrible mistake.”
Four of the daughters searched for their birthmothers: Betty Jean Lifton, Amy Dean, Jean Strauss, and Zara Phillips. Two were found by their mothers: Sarah Saffian and A. M. Homes. Katie Hern and her mother connected through a mutual consent registry.
Regardless of whether they searched or were sought, the daughters had the same needs. In Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion, Jean Strauss, explained:
“Why did I feel I had to search? If I was so comfortable with my parents and my childhood, why would I pursue such a quest? The reality for me was that I was never looking for parents. I was looking for answers. There was an empty chamber in my mind full of question marks.”
Upon learning that her birthmother was searching for her, A. M. Homes wrote in The Mistress’s Daughter that she wanted “information: where she grew up, how educated she is, what she does for a living, what the family medical history is, and what the circumstances of my adoption were.”
Mothers’ Regrets and Reactions
Like me, all the mothers regretted losing their daughters. And like me, the mothers were overwhelmed when they met them years later. They became the vulnerable young women again. They were supplicants, seeking forgiveness, trying to appease their child, hoping their daughter would not leave them.
The daughters were unprepared for their mothers’ responses. Dean wrote about her mother Ruth, “I’ve been so worried about how you [her mother] might reject me if/when I find you. But I’ve never even considered how I’d feel if you welcomed me with open arms.” My daughter too believed that “I had gotten on with my life” and rarely, if ever, thought of her.
Anxiety and Guilt, Not Joy
The mothers were not the women the daughters imagined -- the “goddess – the queen of queens…. Movie-star beautiful, extraordinarily competent, she can take care of anyone and anything” as Homes described her fantasy mother.
Betty Jean Lifton was adopted in the 1920’s. Her book, Twice Born: Memories of an Adopted Daughter (1975) is the earliest memoir and an inspiration for the others. After a lengthy search, Lifton found her mother, Rae. “She was not the big, strong, all-powerful mother ready to take the frightened child in her arms and dispel the demons. She, too, was riddled with demons.”
Strauss found a demand for intimacy that she did not expect nor want. When her mother Lee told Strauss that she loved her, Strauss felt “a knee-jerk reaction inside me, like a baby kicking. She loved me? She doesn’t even know me. This emotion I am feeling – is this what rage feels like?” Lee sent Strauss’s son a Valentine, signing it “’With love from Grandma Lenore.’” Strauss threw it in the trash.
Phillips too was enraged when Pat signed a birthday card to Phillip’s child “’Grandma.’ I think, What right does she have to that title? She lost that privilege!”
Sarah Saffian’s parents, Hannah and Adam Leyder, married after surrendering her and found Saffian shortly before her 24th birthday. In Ithaka she describes the anxiety that followed: “As the weeks wore on, I became increasingly paranoid about the Leyders. Despite their promises to lay low, I would look around every time I left my building for someone who resembled me lurking on the corner or across the street, afraid of being ambushed.”
The adoptees sought out faults in their mothers, perhaps to assure themselves that their surrender had been “for the best.” In writing about their first meeting in Ruth’s home, Dean noted the “cluttered counters and dishes piled in the sink.”
Homes was vicious in describing her mother, Helene. “Her lack of sophistication leaves me unsure whether she’s of limited intelligence or simply shockingly naïve.”
Not surprisingly, the daughters disavowed similarities between themselves and their mothers. “I am horrified at the way I see myself in her.” (Homes) “I refuse to acknowledge any similarity between us.” (Strauss)
Only Katie Hern wrote positively about her mother Ellen in A Year in Letters Between a Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldn’t Keep: ”It’s especially great to replace those distorted visions with well-balanced and funny you. It’s a massive relief to dispel those lurking anxieties.” Unlike the other adoptees and their mothers, Hern and Ellen committed themselves from the outset to work on establishing a positive relationship.
Betrayal of the Adoptive Family
My daughter’s adoptive mother discouraged her search: “You’ll just open old wounds.” Upon learning my daughter continued our relationship after our initial meeting, she was hurt and angry. I am sure her adoptive mother’s opposition affected our relationship.
Lifton never told her adoptive mother of her reunion: “By destroying her myth I would destroy what was most meaningful in her life.”
Strauss remained loyal to her adoptive parents even though they were dead. “I retrieve Mom’s wedding ring from my jewelry box, and slip it on my ring finger beside my own wedding ring. It will tell everyone: I am married to her. No one will ever replace my mother in my life.”
Phillips waited years before telling her adoptive family about her reunion. She did not invite her birthmother to her wedding because “it would have been too hard for my parents.”
Hern felt “like a traitor to my parents, to my adoptive mom in particular. … I’ve made several trips to Chelmsford [Massachusetts where her adoptive parents and birthmother lived] without even telling my parents I was in the state.”
What Do They Want?
“I am not your long-lost daughter. I have a father, mother, brother and sister, … they are my family. I don’t need another one” wrote Saffian to her parents. My daughter also told me that she “did not want a new mother.” She just needed to “know.” I fretted over whether now that she knew, was our relationship over?
Struggling with Lee’s demands, Strauss sought counseling. At her psychologist’s suggestion, she focused on her goals for her reunion.
“What did I want to have happen? ...It was so simple. She [Lee] would have to acknowledge that Betty was my mom. That was it! If she could do that and mean it, then that would mean she accepted me and my adoptive family and the reality of who I am.”
Who Might I Have Been?
Lifton describes adoptees as “the changeling, the imposter, the double.” In reunion, the daughters confronted not only where they came from but who they might have been; knowledge that was terrifying.
Strauss: “Since the third grade, I have believed if I could just meet my birth family, everything would become clear. But on this first day with my original family, I am more confused than ever. Who am I? Am I supposed to be someone different?”
“Along with the feeling that I was being disloyal to my [adoptive] parents by contacting you [her mother] was the feeling that Katie Hern, the person I’d spent twenty-six years becoming, was suddenly in jeopardy. ...
“The feeling was most triggered by learning my original name. The name represented for me a whole other life I almost led, and a whole other person I might have become, a possibility that terrified me.”
My daughter, like other children in closed adoptions, was brought up to believe that the adoption decree obliterated her first family. Hern wrote:
“The goal in Catholic Charities’s closed-adoption system was to replace one set of parents with another and erase all traces of the first set. And for me, it worked. … I don’t think I really understood that I had another set of parents. There was no way to conceptualize two sets—two mothers, two fathers. It was an either/or thing.”
Homes was forced to confront the reality that she had two mothers when Helene came to a public signing for Homes’ recently-published book:
“In the distance, another shadow emerges. My [adoptive] mother and a friend of hers are coming toward me. I imagine the two mothers meeting, colliding. This is something that can’t happen. It is entirely against the rules. No one person can have two mothers in the same room at the same time.”
Strauss struggled to come to terms with having two mothers.
“Denial was a strong emotion I experienced in the early stages of my reunion: denial of the profound relationship that in reality does exist. I spent over three decades ignoring my birthmother’s role in my life. To acknowledge it was as threatening as anything I’ve ever faced. The concept of having two mothers seemed as sacrilegious to me as there being two Gods.”
Confronting Their Loss
The adoptees were pained at being outsiders in their natural family. Hern wrote to Ellen:
“Until maybe four months ago, I believed my own story: ‘I’m adopted. Big deal.... But that story was actually a fallout shelter I had sealed myself into. It protected me from what I couldn’t acknowledge: that my mother gave me away.”… “As my feelings started surfacing, one of the first to arise was grief that I am a stranger to the people I now consider family.”
“I was the one who was always telling others that we do not belong to one another in this life by legality or blood, but rather by a bond of the heart, by mutual caring and compassion, by ‘elective affinities,’ by a spiritual tie that was formed somewhere out in the stars in a time we no longer remember.
“Yes, I could console myself in innumerable ways, but it was just that: a consolation prize.”
Integrating their Mothers into their Lives
Strauss, Hern, and Saffian eventually integrate their mothers into their lives. The turning point for Strauss was helping Lee who had also been adopted find her mother, Mary, which Strauss describes in her second book Beneath a Tall Tree:
“This reunion is so different than mine with Lee. It doesn’t seem sacrilegious to have another grandmother. It feels perfect and natural. … My grandmother forces me to see how I have held my adoptive family in one hand, like a ball of blue clay, and my birth family in another, like a ball of red, interpreting them as unrelated parts of myself. But they are not separate. They are the same. … Grandma … helps me make purple.”
“One of the things that has become clear to me ... is how I dealt with being adopted growing up. ... “On the rare occasions when I ... [thought about my other set of parents], the phrase was ‘biological parents’: impersonal, scientific, mechanical. And I would become furious when people would use emotional words like ‘roots’ or ‘original,’ ‘family’ or ‘mother’ to describe the ‘biological’ side. I hated the significance these words gave to what I was so intent on shutting out.”
“[After visiting with her birthfamily], I’ve let myself acknowledge my connection to you and the rest of the family, let myself think of you as my mother and Gus and Jack as my brothers.”
“Thus the odyssey is an all-encompassing continuum, reunion a form of re-adoption – of that original child, family, self, which had previously existed in shadow. …
In transit on the road between the Leyders and the Saffians, I thought that perhaps just as one can have many children, one can, in varying degrees, also have many parents, many families – and even many selves, or discrete but complementary parts that make up the whole.”
Phillips took tentative steps towards developing a mature relationship with her mother. Sadly, for Homes, Dean and Lifton, it was too late. Homes’ and Lifton’s mothers died and Dean’s mother refused to have anything to do with her after Dean pushed her away.
Lessons for Mothers
There have been times when I have been angry. I opened my life and my heart to my daughter, disrupted the lives of my other children, and was cast aside. “I’m glad I was adopted,” my daughter often said. “You made the right decision.” These words crushed me.
I have come to accept that my daughter has two families. I cannot change that fact but I can change the way I think about it. I no longer fantasize that the adoptive family will disappear nor do I fear that my daughter will disappear from my life. This is true even though we had a major disagreement about a year ago and have not communicated since August, 2008.
Mothers newly in reunion or whose daughters have refused to have a relationship, often examine themselves endlessly . “Should I have said this instead of that?” “Should I send her a birthday present, a card, or perhaps nothing?“ I reassure them that they are always a part of their daughter’s life although their daughter may pull away or cut off refuse contact. Mothers should not blame themselves. Their daughter is coping with intense emotional conflicts: pain from being rejected at birth; guilt from betraying her adoptive parents; confusion over having two families; anxiety about who she would have been.
What can mothers do? I put this question to Delores Teller, past president of the American Adoption Congress. Teller is a Portland psychotherapist and clinical social worker who surrendered a son in 1968. She gave this advice:
• Seek professional help through support groups and individual therapy.
• Understand your daughter has reunited with you to meet her needs, not to hear about your pain.
• Reclaim your parental role in small but significant ways by stating your preferences and not approaching the relationship with ‘your hat in your hand.’ -You may get rejected but it establishes with your daughter that you care and are there to stay.
• Remember that you are both reclaiming lost parts of yourselves and an old relationship but that you can’t do the work for each other. Give it the time and respect that it needs to be restored.
• Don’t pressure your daughter to assume the role of daughter or to accept you as her mother or her children’s grandmother.
• Exercise choice in other areas of your life when you feel you lack control in this one; it will help you be more patient.
• Increase your self care: massage, good sleep -- yoga, exercise, vitamins, eating well -- to boost your body health.
• Channel your anger/frustration into action to make changes for other women who are considering adoption or who have surrendered a child so you can move from victim to warrior.
• Be the person you are, the competent, caring, attractive woman your daughter respects.