Adoptees call and write us asking for suggestions on how best to reach their mothers, especially when the mothers are not responding to a letter or email--when other first mothers are praying and waiting and hoping for that phone call--and so I've done a fair amount of thinking about why do some mothers reject when others rejoice. There are multiple causes:
So many of us were told to bury the thoughts of our child when we gave them up. Many families made it clear that the child was never to be brought up again; natural mothers were not even allowed a grace period to grieve, but were supposed to carry on as if nothing had happened, as if their baby had never been born, did not exist. This was especially true in families where the parents insisted upon the adoption, which was more often than not the case for teenage birth mothers who gave up their child until, say, until the Nineties. And even that is not a definitive cut off date, because families and situations are different. Even today one family could be supportive of a teen keeping a child, while the family across the street could have the exact opposite reaction. A teenager without family support can almost never find a way to keep a child. And while this is a horrifying statistic, we know that pregnant teens who are adopted themselves are much more likely than the general population to have a child and in turn, give them up for adoption as they were themselves. It is an appalling cycle.
So the young mother "forgets" in public, buries any mention of the lost son or daughter, never mentions it to friends, never lets friends she made after the birth even know she had a child, never tells boyfriends, never tell coworkers, never tells anyone. Now thirty, forty, fifty years later, a child comes knocking, hoping for reunion--or at least asking for medical information--and the woman who has been living in her own dark closet of secrecy finds it impossible to walk out into the light. She can't imagine telling her husband, or their grown children, or her best friend; she is living in a locked-up world and feels that she has moved on and is managing quite well. She hopes--she imagines--that her child has had a good life with good parents, and tells herself it is best if everyone leaves well enough alone. She doesn't want her life upended, and she feels that meeting her child will do that. She avoids being humiliated the way she thinks she will be if she admits to a child no one knows about--a child she gave up for adoption.
She fears the rush of emotions that coming face to face with her child--of any age--will unleash. One will relive the feelings of the pregnancy, birth and relinquishment when coming face to face with the lost child, now grown, and some know, some decide, they cannot handle it, or do not wish to go there. They imagine that everyone will look at them differently. The truth is, they will. True friends and good people will be sympathetic and understanding; there might be gossip--in fact, there probably will be. So the scared woman hides. Refuses contact. Doesn't answer phone messages or letters. Just hides, hoping the child will heed the refusal to respond and go away.
Despite how public I am and have been for years, I still meet people who don't know this salient fact about me, and as I've written. explaining it always turns down the music in the room. No one hears my admission and says, That's great, let me tell you about...my trip to the Napa Valley or this fab little bistro in Paris. It's still a shocker to admit I gave a daughter up for adoption, found her, had a lengthy relationship, and then she died. How did she die, you ask? Ahh...where do I start?
Last week I avoided telling someone at a cocktail party what my book was about (You're a writer? What do you write about?) because I just didn't want a long discourse on the nightmare of giving up a child. I knew this man would be sympathetic--he's turned compassion for the downtrodden into his life's work--but I wanted upbeat cocktail-party conversation, not to inject a downer. If I told my story, I knew he would have questions; I knew the conversation would involve me peeling away and exposing the most damaging, hurtful, awful part of my life all over again. Of course it drives people crazy when I won't divulge the subject of my life's work to a stranger, as I did not and as he had been, but so it goes.
Yet I know that adoptees are not asking that their mother reveal them to everyone they know, or to strangers in passing conversations at a cocktail party--but these rejecting mothers imagine that everyone will know, or might find out. And they they have to be a different person to their families, to their friends, to the world. They have to be one of "those women." A woman who elicits gossip and sympathy, or perhaps pity. Who would choose that?
A TERRIBLE REALITY
The story of a child's conception may be less than pretty, and the mother find it horrifying to have to relive the story, which is likely to happen if she meets the child. Through Facebook I've encountered women who were gang raped; women who were sexually assaulted by near strangers, or someone they dated; and women who don't know who the father is. That may make an amusing story for the plot of Mama Mia! but in real life, it's not that charming to relate, and stand-ins for Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth of the movie are not likely to be the possible candidates for fatherhood in real life. The story of conception may be so incredibly painful that the woman who has the opportunity to say No to reunion will simply do so.
There may be other permutations of these two reasons for rejecting reunion, but most of them will come down to one or the other. Embarrassment is actually too small a word to encompass what some mothers feel they will face; utter and deep humiliation is what they imagine. The shame they imbued at the time of birth and separation comes back in their minds as an encompassing fog that they can not revisit, even for their child.
THE COUPLE WHO MARRIED LATER
This one was a real surprise for me because I had assumed that couple who stayed together after their child was given up would be thrilled to be reunited. But in fact confidential intermediaries say that the opposite is more often the case than not. When they seek to make the connection at the behest of the adoptee, they dread hearing that the birth parents are married and are still together. I can only hazard a likely cause: Both of the couple share a deep grief and guilt over the lost child, and if there are other full siblings, telling them that they could not find a way to keep their first child is a mountain they cannot climb. In day to day living, they are a constant reminder to each other of what they had lost. Parents who interfere in close and loving relationships and tell they couple they "can always have another" do not realize the grievous harm they are doing, and that the son and daughter will never get over the loss.
The stories that women like Jane and myself--neither of us had a partner to marry us--have to tell our lost children seem much more reasonable and excusable than admitting we just didn't have the strength to keep a child. Saying "we were too young," or "we listened to our parents who were against us," or "we were in college" or whatever pales in comparison to the awfulness of giving up the child when the couple clearly were in love and stayed together. The guilt must be overwhelming. I've only met one such couple--with their reunited daughter--when lobbying for unsealed records in Albany. They told me that they never talked about their lost daughter, and when adoption stories were on television, they changed the channel. However, they responded with grace when contacted, and there they were, lobbying with their reunited daughter. I salute them.
This last point however brings up the third issue: intermediaries. Legislators love then, adoptees sometimes find them comforting buffers out of fear of rejection, but mostly we find them intrusive and the wrong way for anyone to go. The difference between turning down a reunion to a stranger who makes a phone call, and someone on the phone who is actually one's own flesh and blood is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
However, none of these reasons are morally adequate to reject a meeting with a child returning and seeking reunion. Notice I am using the word child here to hammer home the reality that the person on the other end of the phone line or who has written a letter is not just any adoptee, but someone's child, someone born of one's body, who carries one's DNA, who represents the next generation in the cycle of life. Some intermediaries are cold and efficient, some intermediaries are sympathetic to the person reaching out, but whatever their bent, adoptees are always more likely to get a No to reunion than if they make the call themselves. Saying No to a stranger is a lot easier than saying No to your own child. An intermediary should only be used when there is no other choice.
There are many other permutations and issues involved when mothers turn down children who wish to reunite, and I'll address them in a later post. This post is the result of counseling someone whose attempts (registered letter, messages left on answering device) to reach his 74-year-old mother in a distant state have been met with zero response. Knocking on her door may be his only recourse. He says that even if she slams the door in his face, that at least may be an answer. I doubt the woman reads blogs like this, and he doesn't know if the woman is mentally alert enough to understand who he is, or even if she actually has gotten his messages.
Her lack of any response--a void about which I've heard from others, including from the children of celebrities--is enough to drive anyone to the woman's door. I understand that completely. I surely would have done it if my phone call to my daughter's parents left me no option when I reached out to them. For those new to First Mother Forum, my daughter was 15 at at the time, and so I felt honor bound to contact her adoptive parents first and tell them who I was, a mother longing for reunion. Fortunately they were hoping to contact me. My daughter needed me.
Despite any reason to reject reunion, the adoptees hold the moral ace here. Most first mothers, save those adopted themselves, know their history. Adoptees from the closed-adoption era do not. Everyone deserves their own reality, their own ancestry, their own story that began long before birth. The question of our own birth is a question as old as time, as constant and definite and true as the movement of the earth around the sun. No matter the circumstances of the birth, no matter how messy the story, no matter any excuse at all, everyone deserves their own story, the hole in their existence filled, their own true reality. To foist a falsehood on anyone--and insist they accept it for all their lives--is the greatest sin of all. The social engineering of closed adoption is a wrong that has harmed untold millions of mothers and children.--lorraine
Damn, I hate SEO (Search Engine Optimization). More people will search for "birth mother rejection" than "first mother rejection" by a ratio of at least fifty to one. "First mother" isn't what newbies to search think of.
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"Dusky disproved the myth of the natural mother in the closet in 1979 with Birthmark; now she exposes the hard realities at the core of adoption before--and after--reunion in her haunting memoir. Hole In My Heart will change the way people think about adoption."--Florence Fisher, founder of ALMA (Adoptees Liberty Movement Association) and author, The Search for Anna Fisher
By Betty Jean Lifton
"Looks at adoption from all sides of the triangle: adoptee, birth mother, adoptive parents.... A provocative, comprehensive inquiry." - Kirkus Reviews "Important and powerful.... [the author] is concerned not just with adoptees but with the experience of adoptive parents and birth parents." - Psychology Today "An articulate and convincing account of people Lifton has interviewed, men and women who feel crippled by not knowing who their parents were. Included are reports on dealers in black-market babies and equally disturbing information on supposedly reputable adoption agencies." - Publishers Weekly"
Waiting to Forget: A Motherhood Lost and Found
By Margaret Moorman