We do know that some mothers refuse contact--how many is the conundrum of the times as these women who wish to remain anonymous are the ones that legislators hold over our heads.
But recently we were asked what should an adoptive parent do who has found a relatively young child's mother who refuses contact. Fellow blogger Jane wrote the information passed on may have been compromised or just plain wrong before it got to the woman, which is what sometimes happens in this country when intermediaries act as go-betweens between adopted person and the mother. My belief is that the wildly divergent numbers we have gathered of birth mothers who refuse contact is a direct result of how that first contact is made. Women may have buried all feelings about their first child, their surrendered child, and never told the people in their lives. To do so now is admitting to having kept a huge secret from one's family, and the same of that may be what keeps women from being more forthcoming. (We've written about this before and you can like to it here and here. )
We suggest that the child, if they are aware that a search was done, be told her first mother may have been found, and then ask the child to write her a letter, have it translated into that of the woman, and attach a photograph of the child. If there is no response in a reasonable time--say a couple of months for it may take time to reach her, the child could write again. I know you may think this is hard on the child for each letter will result in a sense of "maybe this one," but we cannot think of another way to reach the mother.
And if there is still no response, we suggest telling the child that the letter may not have reached her, which may be true, or that the mother may have huge problems in her life that prevent her from responding. Add that things may change--a "no" one day may turn into a "yes" later.
But we know mothers who bury the lost child so deeply that they have a difficult time finding her in their hearts, and the blogosphere is full of such stories. My own daughter had a child she relinquished for adoption, and it seemed as if she were not interested in finding her ever.
Here is a section of Hole in My Heart (copyright, 2009) that I wrote about my daughter Jane, and her reaction to her first born and surrendered daughter, Lisa:
After Jane died, I was in her office and pulled out the shelf in her old desk that was originally designed for a typewriter. Taped to it where two photographs of Lisa. I was not surprised. She may have repressed, but she had not forgotten her first born.
Through the years, we rarely spoke of Lisa. One day, some years later, when we were in our bedroom, going through my closet to find clothes she could take, we were somehow speaking of Lisa, and she said offhandedly, I’m not going to do what you did. She turned to look at me, I met her eyes, but spoke no words.
Her comment sounded casual, but there was steel in her eyes. She waited for me to object. I did not. I was reluctant to ask her exactly what she meant. Not search? Okay. Not welcome her, if the girl searched? Not okay. Please don’t do that to her, I was thinking. Please. Please don't be like those birth mothers I have heard about. Please don't be like Brian, don't be like your father. She looked away, topic closed, Brian’s child, I told myself, she can’t deal with anything emotional. He never met Jane and now is she telling me that she won’t meet Lisa? Or—and this was a very real possibility—she simply wanted to hurt me. I wouldn’t care if the horse bit you. If Lisa comes back I won’t be like you.
Years would go by and I would not mention Lisa, but then, as Jane’s birthday was approaching, I could not help but think of her daughter, my granddaughter, born two—or was it three—days, before Jane’s birthday on the 5th. April 2nd or April 3rd, and imagine that she might have the same feelings as I had when her birthday rolled around each April when the forsythia was in bloom in Rochester. One time I called Jane on Lisa’s birthday, and got her answering machine. I said, simply enough, that I was thinking about her…and Lisa, and figured she felt blue. Jane did not call back that time, nor did she mention it when we spoke two days later. One time I elliptically mentioned Lisa during my call on her birthday, only to be met by silence that shouted, DO NOT BRING HER UP. If I persisted, I knew I would jeopardize our relationship, and I would not risk that.
After 9/11, the New York Times Magazine carried a piece called “Repress Yourself.” Its topic was that possibly talking about trauma after it occurs actually made the ordeal more imbedded in the mind, and thus, even more traumatic. The subject was the theory—not terribly popular in America—that people who repressed a bad experience, rather than illuminating it in therapy, might actually be healthier. “If you're stuck and scared, perhaps you should not remember but forget. Avoid. That's right. Tamp it down. Up you go….Is it possible that folks who employ these techniques cope better than the rest of us ramblers?”*
Maybe, in fact, Jane was doing what was best. Maybe she was better off than me who held onto the grief. Maybe she had it right. She’d had enough trauma and pain in her life that holding the grief of giving up her daughter was just one more sore she could not bear. Better to focus on life, rather than what could not be fixed.
A community psychologist and trauma researcher quoted in the story, Richard Gist, commented on what happens after a disaster involving many people: “Basically all these therapists run down to the scene, and there's a lot of grunting and groaning and encouraging people to review what they saw, and then the survivors get worse. I've been saying for years, ‘Is it any surprise that if you keep leading people to the edge of a cliff they eventually fall over?’”
Nor do any of us.
PS: Off to Boston tomorrow (9/11/09) to the Heart to Heart retreat. I'm sure I'll come back with plenty of thoughtful ideas. That is a childhood photo of my daughter, Jane, taken at least a decade before I knew her.