' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Which Pain Is Greater? And it matters because?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Which Pain Is Greater? And it matters because?

I do not understand this need to denigrate how another person feels about giving up a child for adoption, which is what some of the posts have done. Which is what I expect from people who are all for sealed records--throw away the key, never, non, nyet do you deserve to heal this sore inside.

For me, giving up my baby daughter was like a death inside, though I went on living.

For me, now knowing her for fifteen years was an emotional hell the likes of which I have nothing in my life to compare.

For me, her death, by her own hand, was a further personal disaster that I can not relate on a scale of one to ten anything else that has happened.

For me, the Christmas after her death was not as harrowing, as agonizing, as torturous as the years when I did not know if she were dead or alive. If she had been returned like used goods. If she were institutionalized. If she languished at boarding school because her adoptive mother had died and the new wife didn't want her around. If she were abused like Lisa Steinberg.

The holocaust was indeed one of the worst tragedies of life in the last century, but those who suffered did it because of a madman; they did not bring it on themselves. They did not sign papers. The Jews do not apologize for being in Auschwitz, because they have nothing to apologize for. In some circumstances they sent away their children to save their lives. The Jews were, and are, blameless. And therein lies the great difference between enduring the Holocaust and giving up a child.

In relinquishing our children--which we did, no matter what we signed the damn surrender papers, so we have no one to blame but ourselves, even if we felt overwhelming pressures to do so. The source of our deep grieving is that we knowingly participated in an unnatural act. And that is the reason our tears, our pain, our prostrations of grief often fail to induce sympathy in others.

If not for that, we would be able to argue that we too should have the right to find out what happened to our children. Yet lobby for open records for an hour and you understand why we arouse little to no sympathy in those who are the gatekeepers of the records. Because we signed the papers. We did it. No matter how we try to invoke "circumstances" of the day, we ultimately caved in and did the deed. Willingly or not, we gave up our children. The public knows it. My acquaintance Aston, my friend Yvonne knows it. We know it.

But to quibble over whether my feelings--and those of others who have endured the loss of our children twice--are valid or if we deserve to be dismissed and denigrated strikes me as, well--you fill in whatever word you think is appropriate.


  1. Most firstmothers I know agree that relinquishing our children to adoption was the most difficult thing we've ever done, and for most of us, it was and continues to be the worst thing that has happened to us. I felt like damaged goods then, and have moments when I still feel unworthy. I consider myself lucky that I never succumbed to substance abuse, numbing my heartache with drugs or alcohol or bad relationships or worse; I know a few women who weren’t as fortunate.

    I chose not to have other children for many unselfish reasons. Certainly many of us went on to raise families, but I just couldn't justify giving up one child and raising others; what would they think of me? How would my daughter feel? My parents were such bad role models that I feared my parenting skills would be much like theirs; when I was 10 or 11 I asked God not to give me children, and she listened. I met my first face-to-face birthmother at an adoption support group meeting in New York decades ago; she admitted that her adoption experience affected her parenting skills with her post-adoption children.

    Regardless of the roads each of us has traveled, the result's the same. We're childless mothers who deal with our grief/pain/guilt/shame in our own ways that are as unique as snowflakes, i.e, no two survival methods are exactly alike, but that certainly doesn't make either of them "right" or "wrong."

    In her December 23 post Lorraine wrote, “I always said that death would have been easier than giving her up for adoption. Now I know the feelings of both, and I was right.” I reluctantly confess that when I learned--via a third party--that my daughter was diagnosed with cervical cancer, the first thought in my head after “That’s a shame” was “Good. Now neither of us (her adoptive mother or I) can have her.” It was bizarre and terribly out of character for me. I certainly don’t wish my daughter harm and thankfully her condition is treatable.

    We’ve all walked in one another’s shoes. God knows we all continue to fight the hard fight—against the system that separated us from our children, adoptive parents and others who aren’t happy that some of us have reunited with our adult children, laws that don’t allow adoptees the right to their own legal records. Let’s not add to that fight by haggling over semantics, i.e., which is the greater pain. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. We still hurt.

  2. I wasn't quibbling. I was describing my deep emotional horror at the thought of losing any of my children to death. My comments were not about you but about my feelings on hearing that some mothers feel less devastated by death than surrender. That is not your problem, it is mine.

    Since any of my kids were born I have feared them dying, a real phobia or morbid obsession I have to constantly fight. That includes the one I surrendered.

    I also cannot bear and have the same emotional reaction to hearing about cruelty to animals, especially cats. It freaks me out on a level I realize is extreme and not normal. But that is me and how I feel. Or are the writers of the blog the only ones allowed to express their own feelings here? Again, this was not "quibling" on my part and I am hurt by your comments.

  3. I disagree that this is merely a matter of semantics. IMO it goes beyond semantics into areas of differing values and beliefs.

    *Of course* people will feel as they must feel.
    But when they choose to express their feelings publicly and they know that those feeling are likely to be *significantly* opposed to the feelings of others, they have to be aware that their words constitute a challenge. It would be irresponsible to think otherwise.

    I personally cannot comprehend anticipating the death of any one of my children, relinquished or otherwise, as an antidote to my own suffering, and I find it shocking that anyone would.
    Which isn't to say others don't have the right to feel that way.
    But I claim the right to feel differently.
    And to be able say so, without being reproached for it.

    The fact that I signed the relinquishment papers and am consequently not blameless is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. I can't see what it has to do with anything. I also don't accept that there was no-one to blame but ourselves. There is more than enough blame to go around, and I think it is important to recognize that fact, even though it is we who must carry the greater load.

  4. Thanks Kippa,

    That clarifies things further. I also do not see the guilt or lack of it having anything to do with the sense of grief felt after surrender or after a death.

    Cold, cold comfort to those who lost their whole families in the Holocaust, or mothers whose children died of disease or accident that it was "not their fault."

    I feel bad that I signed the surrender, that I gave up my son, that my parents or boyfriend did not step in and rescue us. I feel bad, and guilty, that it was partially my fault. But nothing I feel comes close to the horror of even thinking about any of my kids dying. I remember when John Kennedy Jr. died thinking what a blessing that Jackie went first and did not have to suffer that loss after so many others.

    I would much rather be a mother who surrendered, even with no sympathy from anyone, than a mother whose child has died and she is surrounded by sympathy and validation of her grief. I pray that I will die first and never have to know how that feels.

    My son is alive. That to me is the greatest blessing that could be, whether he wants anything to do with me or not. I could never wish any ill on any of my children. Not even in anger, or dissapointment, or after being rejected. I would rather suffer than have my kids suffer in any way, if i had any choice about it. Isn't that what mothers do?

  5. Pain held is doubled, pain shared is halfed; unless one's sharing is critiqued.

    I am certainly always ready for spirited conversation, and am glad that no one "holds back" on what they feel. It is part of healing and support of one another. It can be a real opportunity for growth, seeing other's beliefs in writing.

    Although it is not necessary to agree on everything, this is especially true of what mothers "do or don't do".Natural, Unnatural and even Mother Superiors have been known to hurt those in their care. For that matter, speaking only for myself, I neither have the market cornered nor understand my own emotions all that often. It is why I need this and other support and work groups. I am no longer alone in here.

    Continuing to become pregnant, sometimes successfully, I was refused further medical treatment unlesss I "got fixed". My choices only. No one else need answer for that.

    In other rooms of recovery, I have been told to share my own experience, strength and hope, and never demean or comment directly on any one else's expression of feelings. Feelings are not necessarily fact, except in that person's eyes. We all need to feel safe here.

    You can disagree with me, but it is inappropriate to call me wrong. I feel what I feel. However, I do not take any real offense if someone needs to attack me. Maybe it will give "the usual suspects" a break, and can only make me stronger.

    I have given up my rights and responsibilities to speak my mind for the very last time. Hear me roar.

  6. " Yet lobby for open records for an hour and you understand why we arouse little to no sympathy in those who are the gatekeepers of the records."

    I wish that weren't so true on a practical level, because I advocate open records. On a deeper level, who wants sympathy of that kind? What good is it? I want to find the people who have the empathy...the imaginative and persistent attention...to feel something that can only be felt today, in this world. These are the people of the future I long for.

    Those others are lazy and expect to be fed what they already know.

  7. "On a deeper level, who wants sympathy of that kind? What good is it? I want to find the people who have the empathy...the imaginative and persistent attention...to feel something that can only be felt today, in this world.'

    I agree, Mark. People with a sense of justice, who understand that the right of access to one's own documents and information about one's origins is a universal human right - indeed, one that should be enshrined as a civil right in any country that presumes to call itself civilized.
    I believe that achieving that goal would work to the advantage of dispossessed mothers too, as well as go a long way in helping to combat corruption in adoption practices .

  8. Lorraine, I agree: NOTHING COMPARES to the loss of a child. I'm speaking about loss through adoption here. I don't have the experience of losing a child through death. But I'd like to add that reuniting with the grown surrendered child and finding them not OK is pretty high up there on the first mother's pain chart.

    Pain is pain is pain. It doesn't matter.

  9. Thanks Denise...pain is pain is pain.

    As for lobbying, what I learned early on is to never never bring up my own pain as to not knowing. This is only dismissed out of hand by those we are trying to convince to open records for adopted people.

    Yet, oddly enough, in the early 1980s, the federal government wrote legislation that would have given, ahem, natural mothers the right to find out what happened to their children. That went down in flames, along with open records for adoptees. I doubt I will ever see the day when mothers can pull up the shade and find their children legally. We are all subjects in a failed experiment.

    BTW, Daily Bastardette has an interesting take on the inappropriate use of "birth mother" in USA Today.

  10. The original comparison was implicit in these words, "I always said that death would have been easier than giving her up for adoption. Now I know the feelings of both, *and I was right*."
    That seems to me to be something of a generalization.
    What a person anticipates as being 'easier' is indicative of mindset and consequently is likely to be confirmed when what is anticipated comes to pass.

  11. In some African cultures, infanticide by the mother shortly after the birth is not treated as harshly as other murders. I'm not saying that's right or wrong. It just is.

    Maybe I should not have written "I always said"...but I always suspected. That doesn't change your supposition but it softens the meaning. After knowing Jane for a quarter of a century, I sure as hell didn't want her to leave this world. But after the tears dried, at least I knew she was at peace. And I could find mine. While she was unknown, there was no peace.

  12. Exactly, Kippa.

    It was not me who introduced the subject of which pain was greater, despite what some commenters here seem to have assumed. That was the quote that got to me as well.

    Certainly to say that death is easier than giving up a child introduces the concept of a hierarchy of pain. I was merely reacting with my own feelings to this concept, not denigrating or dismissing anyone else's pain or personal feelings.

    Yes, pain is pain. Many things are painful and pain is subjective.But once you state one thing is more painful than another, you invite those who feel differently or believe or experience differently to react with their own experience and feelings.

    I refuse to take on the assigned role of unsympathetic meanie on this one.

  13. In my humble opinion, one's beliefs or indeed perceived hierarchial pain, ought not be subjected to others' critiques or overly emotional opposing views. I am not without opinions, and would like to be able to make observations without fear of "reaction".

    I can hit the streets to be demeaned, made fun of, or be called a chump. PTSD is not unheard of, especially Natural Mothers. No more duck and cover for me, ok?

    To respond rather than react would seem kinder. All of us need alot of kindness from caring sisters/brothers and friends of our plight.

    Again, IMHO, one giving their opinion does NOT "invite" others to "react". To support and commend, or identify ways we think similarly might promote less fear of sharing; I might go so far to say that many of us have deep seeded terror of rejection.

    To have a forum meant to help to take on an advesarial format seems such a waste of talent. The folks who need the most help will stop saying how they really feel-then the tough ol' birds who will likely never change and do not have the same loss, will keep tallking anyway.

    When we shout, no one can hear what we say; only how we say it. And we have very important and worthy things to say; to educate the world and in support of ourselves and others.

    Let's stop defending and return to constructive conversation. Please.

  14. A further problem for me, Holly, was that Lorraine consolidated that statement by following it up with these words, "Adoption stays with a mother in her present. The only past tense in the mother's heart refers to the days of birth and surrender."

    That's generalizing, and while I think everyone has the right to speak for themselves, they don't have the right to do so for me.
    So I don't think that to say one feels differently about something (especially when that something makes the case that certain feelings are are common to all mothers who've relinquished) is adversarial. It's simply a matter of making things clear.

    When we stop speaking for others, that's when we can return to constructive conversation.

  15. I am neither a "tough old bird" nor am I "shouting." I will defend when I am attacked, just as others do here. I suffered a loss too, 40 years ago, and it has negatively impacted much of my life. I have as much right to express how I feel as those you happen to agree with, Holly.

    If you have read all my posts you know I can be supportive, sympathetic, empathetic as well as critical at times. So can we all. But I cannot pretend to understand what I do not understand or keep silent when I am distressed. Oh, but as a "tough old bird" nothing should bother me, eh?

  16. I have been reading these comments and the blog and what I see more than anything else is guilt. I don't feel guilt over losing my son to adoption. I didn't sign the papers, to the best of my recollection, as he was whisked away when his father came to take us away. After they arrested his father for trespassing and sedated me, they took my son away without my signature. That deficiency was never rectified.

    I just don't understand why there would be so much guilt over something which you had so very little control over. The hardest thing for me to get my mind around has always been the absolute powerlessness I had over my circumstances as soon as the news of my pregnancy reached my father's ears. I feel no guilt.

    I didn't choose adoption for my son. It was chosen for me. Choice indicates certain options, and when I weighed the options available to an 18 year old with an infant in 1967 with no parental support or husband I realize how very powerless I was.

    Further, I have to disagree with your statement that the Jews signed nothing. They did, indeed, sign papers, and lots of them. They signed away their goods, they signed themselves into ghettos, they signed that they were Jewish. There were numerous papers that the Jews signed, even to signing themselves into the camps. I read recently in an excerpt from "The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them" by Eugen Kogon, that to not sign the papers was tantamount to suicide. However, as you say, no one holds them responsible for their own deaths, and yet they, like you, signed the papers. I don't see that signing the papers made a whole lot of difference, as I, like the rest of us, lost my son.

    I don't think it is productive to compare the pain intensity in death vs. adoption any more than the bogus comparison of pain from different time periods of loss. However, there are differences that cannot be denied. I had other children after losing my son. I love all my children. I love them all equally, but not the same. It is different for each child just as each child is different. No more, no less, just different.

    Sandy Young

  17. Ah, perhaps you did not understand: it is not only your right but your responsibility to speak, as this is the place to do so to heal. Btw, my firstson is 38.

    I am a bit of a tough ol' bird by age and demeanor, and in some things, I shall not change. Like saying, everyone has a right to speak without fear of being critiqued by others. My feelings are mine; why cannot my feelings have equal worth and weight to others'?

    It is not up to me to agree or disagree with anyone else, and as an old friend often says, it is also "none of my business what other people think of me". Seeing my name in the midst of a angry discourse seemed a bit much, though. Personal attacks are not very supportive.

  18. Sandy wrote, ". . . what I see more than anything else is guilt."
    Thank you, Sandy, for that sweeping generalization. Coming from you, it means a lot.
    Suffice to say that yours was an especially sensitive post, with something for everybody.

  19. As an adopted person and first mother, remarking on the issues of 'who has more pain and whether death of a child is easier than surrender', I am reminded of the comment that my own mother - the real one - has made regarding my surrender to people she knew, people she kept in touch with, people she visited.

    My real mother said that for her, it would have been better to not know where I was all those years because it was so difficult - for her - to see me, know about me but not have any control over how I was being brought up.

    When it came to the surrender of my son, my real mother put me in a maternity home and engineered (along with the maternity home) his completely anonymous surrender to strangers, perhaps to 'correct' the mistake she felt she made with me. By the way, my real mother wrote years ago in a letter to me that 'did you (meaning me) think you made the decision to give him up for adoption' that she 'made that difficult decision for me'. She seemed quite proud that she decided for me and thought that she saved me much of the grief she experienced with my surrender.

    I can also speak about the loss of my son, first to adoption, then to death some 8 years after I found him. He was a quadriplegic when I found him and, despite our close relationship, death meant an end to constant worry about him. Worries over his health, money, depression, all the problems that so affected his life. We had talked about dying and, whether I liked it or not, I knew that I would probably outlive him. He died, not by suicide although he had tried once, but from lack of money for proper care, being alone when something went terribly wrong and, I believe, just being tired of being so dependent.

    My real mother who thought it would be better not to know where I was never had to live with that scenario. I lived for 24 years not knowing where my son was, not knowing that he'd nearly died in an accident at 16, not knowing that he was quadriplegic, not knowing, not knowing anything. Then when I found him, I learned it all and it was overwhelming to realize that while I 'went on with my life' my son had barely clung to his; while I was working,rasing children and leading an ordinary life, my son had a mother who was brain damaged and often unable to care for him, that his family had little money and lots of problems, that my son had spent 2 years in hospitals and rehabs trying to prepare for life in a wheelchair while the rest of the world walks, runs, drives cars and thinks nothing about it.

    I often wonder what I would have done, what I would have felt had I known where he was all those years but not had any input or control over his life which was filled with problems not of my making. It certainly would not have been easy and I wonder if I would have agreed with my own mother. I will never know.

    For me, I know my son's pain was different from my pain. His related mostly to quadriplegia not adoption; mine to his loss and the loss of my own real mother. If given the choice of his situation and pain or my circumstances and pain, I can't imagine choosing his. I like to walk, drive a car and breathe on my own and can't imagine choosing to give that up. It would be like making a deal with devil and I already think the devil has had a hand in many turns my life has taken. I don't know if my son's pain was worse than mine but it was never an issue between us. And now that he's gone from my life with no possibility that I will ever see him or talk to him again, I concentrate mostly on the 8 good years we had together. Until the day I die, I will miss him.

  20. Lynn, thanks for posting that incredible story. My daughter had epilepsy, and that was perhaps the greater tragedy of her life; though adoption certainly didn't make matters easier on her emotionally even though we both realized how difficult it would have been for me, as a single parent, to deal with her rather severe malady.

  21. As a kid I used to question why people would willingly walk into gas chambers. It’s an argument still haunting jews.

    I was told that the victims never saw their deaths coming – they assumed something/someone would come and rescue them.
    Their moment of realization was thankfully brief.

    Firstmothers have the “luxury” of time to reflect.
    A lifetime, in many cases.

    I have a new and profound respect for the strength necessary to deal with such a lingering ache.

    And I'll not assume that I can truly feel what a Firstmother endures. I may empathize with the woman, but have no yardstick to plump the depths of that hurt.

  22. Most of us did sign surrender papers. We had varing degrees of choice, from none to actually feeling adoption was the best choice, and every shade in between.
    I hated what I did, but was too weak at the time to do otherwise.

    There is a difference between taking responsibility for one's actions, and feeling guilt. I take responsibility for my part in surrendering my son. Other people involved, my parents, my boyfriend, priests, nuns, social workers, doctors, all bear their own responsibility for pushing me towards a choice I really did not want. But in the end I gave in to pressure I could have resisted, I was silent when I should have spoken up. I signed. I gave up. That is my responsibility for what happened to my son.

    I am not eaten up by guilt, as guilt is a destructive emotion that helps nobody. I accept my role in my surrender, and am at peace with that now as it a past I cannot change. I have moved beyond obsessing about whose fault any of it was.

    I could not move forward to the future and healing until I accepted my own responsibility and stopped trying to blame everyone else.

    That's me, "your mileage may vary"!

  23. Ernie wrote, "they assumed something/someone would come and rescue them."

    I can completely relate to that feeling.

  24. The thing is...with both Adoption and death is that we never get to say goodbye....



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