' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: After the Birthmother/Adoptee Reunion: Navigating the Turbulent Waters

Thursday, May 21, 2009

After the Birthmother/Adoptee Reunion: Navigating the Turbulent Waters

Photo by Ken Robbins

The analysis of several memoirs written by adopted women we posted recently has generated a lot of commentary, at our own, as well as other blogs. Some adopted women read the analysis by First Mother Jane as highly negative of them and their role in adoptee-birth mother reunions that go awry. Some have accused Jane, and thus all of us, of "blaming the victim," i.e., the adopted person.

This is a complete misreading of both what the essays contained, and our intent in publishing it. In fact, Jane's analysis largely consists of quoted material from the memoirs themselves, with scant commentary, as the words spoke for themselves. All three of us who contribute to First Mother Forum have read many adoptee memoirs over the years trying to understand why our own daughters ran so hot and cold with us, why we found ourselves rejected for reasons that seemed irrational, and found some of the answers in the writings. The words may not have been comforting, but they perhaps provided some solace in that we were not alone in trying to figure our way out of the emotional morass we were mired in.

As Jane once so aptly said, natural mothers feel that once we are reunited we welcome them with open arms--Here is the your family, come be one of us--but the adoptee says, Wait a minute, I've got a family already and I don't feel that same way. I don't know these people and besides...I'm not sure I want to even like you. By examining what the memoir writers had to say, we hoped we could provide first mothers with information on how they might best proceed upon meeting their relinquished child, or how navigate the tremulous waters of a reunion.

As for our own stories, first-time readers should know that both Jane and Linda were sought out by their adult daughters, initially had a good relationship with them, but as of today, neither of them have contact with them as we write; Lorraine found her daughter when she was fifteen, and had a mostly on/but sometimes off relationship with her daughter until she killed herself at 41. (Adoption was only one issue in her life; others were physical problems related to epilepsy and severe PMS.)

We thought it might be interesting for the birth mothers who read us, as well as others, to be privy to a back and forth discussion we had about this topic.

LINDA: (After reading a blog criticizing us for publishing the piece about adoptee memoirs): I actually found enlightening what the adoptee who called us on the carpet had to say; it gave me a window into what my daughter might be thinking/feeling.

And the "it's all about them" (that is, birthmothers) statement resonated with me. My daughter told my sister a long time ago that adoption didn't happen just to me, it happened to her too...but she swears she's a shiny happy adoptee (who has cut me out of her life completely, but not the rest of my family) so what the hell am I supposed to think/say/do?

You know I've given up. I've sent cards, emails, tried to call her, sent presents for my grandchildren. But have been rebuffed for four years now, while she maintains contact with my sister and niece and god-knows-who-else in the family. I can't do it anymore.

LORRAINE: Though we had a long relationship--26 years--there would be times when my daughter would decide she was not talking to me for months--even a year--at a time. Lots of tears on my part, lots of second guessing, If only I had said this instead of that. It felt as if she was never going to stop punishing me, no matter what I did or said. The conventional wisdom is that you have to "forgive yourself." Well, that's pretty damn hard when the object of your "sin" is not able to. You keep being reminded that you are not worthy of "forgiveness."

JANE: In only one of the seven memoir-reunions I analyzed did the mother and daughter start with a commitment to be absolutely honest with each other and try to work through any difficulties. That was the Katie Hern/ Ellen McGarry Carlson reunion presented in the book written by both of them, book "A Year in Letters Between A Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldn't Keep." This book should get a lot more attention.

In the other six memoirs, the parties started off with clearly different expectations and understandings. The daughters were interested only in meeting their own needs (as were the mothers except Sarah Saffian's mother). The daughters did not anticipate a continuing relationship and didn't commit themselves early on to correcting any misunderstandings.

I made incorrect assumptions in my own reunion which has resulted in a lot of pain for me, and perhaps for my daughter, Megan. If we had a made an early commitment to work out our differences, things would have gone differently. I don't know, however, if Megan considered a relationship important enough to make such a commitment. I offered to pay for Megan to attend an American Adoption Congress convention and sent her one of B.J. Lifton's books because I thought it would help her with adoption issues and improve our relationship. She refused to go to AAC. I think she was afraid that she might read or hear something critical of adoption which she would take as criticism of herself and her adoptive family.

LINDA: I agree with you, Jane, I had a lot of unresolved pain and guilt that definitely impacted my relationship with my daughter. But my daughter was never one for sharing her feelings, particularly with strangers, so a mediator/counseling was out of the question for us. And as I've said before, my daughter just dove right into the deep end of the pool without any thought...her father had Fed Exed her personal records (she was 23, it was time apparently), she read the file, saw the letter that said I was receptive to contact, and phoned the agency. All in a matter of a day or two. She was living in a strange city and was alone; I filled a void. I've often said I felt used. Clearly we had different needs...and I can't turn the clock back.

LORRAINE: My situation was quite different because when I found my daughter at fifteen she had a low self-image, due to both being relinquished and having epilepsy, and her adoptive parents were actually somewhat relieved I came on the scene. They and their doctor had tried to find out more about me because her epilepsy was severe, but the agency was non responsive. The killer is that because I had taken birth control pills after I had conceived but did not know, I wrote the Rochester (NY) agency and told them the adoptive parents ought to be so informed, and by the way, could I find out if my daughter was all right? Their doctor's letter was never answered. Mine said that she was happy with her new family. This is how NY's sealed-birth records law works in reality.

Given all that, my daughter's adoptive mother was both welcoming and leery of me. The fact that I was not a Midwestern housewife but a writer (who had written a book about relinquishing my/their daughter, Birthmark) living on the East Coast complicated matters --it made her more anxious and critical of such a "career gal." However, her parents were what could only be called amazing for the times (1981). I met our daughter in Madison, Wisconsin right after Thanksgiving, and her parents let her come to Detroit during Christmas break a few weeks later to meet my mother (her biological grandmother) and the rest of my immediate family; and in the spring she spent twelve days with me and my husband on Long Island. We mostly got along swell, even though there were signs of her issues that we talked about. But overall, the visit went well, so I thought, Hey, this is great, this is how it will be! She and I will be whatever, but we will be.

Not so fast.

My daughter, also named Jane, later admitted that she thought she would find out what she needed and then just walk away. By the time I had heard that, fifteen years had passed, and we had been through several periods when I had been on the Do Not Call Ever Again list for months. There were times it wasn't even anything I said; I'd later find out it was related to something her adoptive mother said, and Jane would feel she needed to prove to her that she was worthy of her love, you know, a good daughter. A good adopted daughter.

Understand, my daughter Jane had a lot of issues and emotional damage, many of them unacknowledged and many related to the effects of her epilepsy, which was severe. Since she could at any minute decide to walk away,
I think I was always somewhat unhinged around her, waiting for her to walk away...again. I also think after I came on the scene her adoptive mother (with an older adopted son, and two natural sons who came after Jane) sometimes gave the vibe of, well, you take over now. Actually, she more or less said that once in a letter.

I'm reminded of what Betty Friedan once said to me and others within earshot: adoptive parents are fine with everything about their child until something big goes wrong. Then it's, Oh, he's adopted, he's not blood, he didn't get that from us. Then they blame the birth parents. Maybe that's off the mark in terms of what we're talking about--difficulties in relationships after the reunion--but it did seem to be true in my daughter's case. And of course that impacted my daughter's relationship with me. I'm getting off the track here.

But for all first/birth mothers who have had a reunion but then felt rejected for reasons they do not understand, we will end on an upnote. About fifteen years ago, maybe longer, I heard from a distraught birth mother whose daughter had sent her a letter saying: Please do not contact me ever again. Every birthday is an occasion of fear that I might be receiving a card from you. Please leave me alone. It took me a long time to answer the birth mother because I did not know how to comfort her. The copy of the daughter's seemingly cruel letter fell out of a book about a month ago--I always kept it as a reminder of...how bad things could be--and I wondered what happened to both of the women, mother and daughter, as I no longer had the accompanying letter from the birth mother and did not remember her name.

Through Facebook, the birth mother contacted me again last week with an amazing story: Her daughter, after decades of no contact, called her. Her parents had been adamantly opposed to any contact and were afraid that she might be somehow snatched. No wonder she didn't want contact with her birth mother. But now mother and daughter have met and the birth mother is being very careful. But so far, that's one story of found/rejection/reunion that has to date a ...well, let's call it a "good" ending. I'll wait for "happy."


  1. I understand the thoughts and feelings of other adoptees and their reunions.

    My problem is that I would love to have a reunion or just anything. I have survived my situation because of both my adoptive family and the pure love that I have received over the years with the many first mothers across this country.

  2. I thank you all so, so much for the insight your blog has given me. I'm an adoptee trying to figure my Natural Mom out. Its like every sort of feeling is intensified so much, and there is understandably baggage and expectations from all sides. I honestly believe the reason reunions don't work out is probably seldom because of lack of love. My gosh this stuff can be mind-bending, and who's got the skills (esp. adoptees younger than say 50). In my own experience the more I really liked my nat. Mom the more guilt, and then I'd create distance to avoid opening what I knew was deep, but didn't understand. It is human nature for everyone to be a bit selfish and self-preserving, and sometimes what is at stake for an adoptee is their own self-image. Pre knowing my nat. mom- not knowing who I was was a souce of personal strength, and even bad-assness. I liked that I wasn't the product of my adopted parents, I was this unique individual that no-one could make a claim on. Finding her (nat. Mom) was kind of like falling in love, just wonderful, but then everything I was had to change. Meetin was like seeing for the first time, great- but now just who am I? secondly, me being selfish, as face it, most everyone is a bit, especially anyone in a child role- I took just about all of her love for granted. It takes alot of growing up to realize that.

  3. I think adoptees (being the children) sort of expect the adults in the picture to know what to do to make things work at reunions. Again, who could know these things. Anyway, I just wanted to say even when I pushed my nat Mom away, I knew that someone out there always had my back, and that felt good for me. Too bad I was a jerkus. I've never felt a deeper pain than a 24 hour period when she said she didn't want to see me, "she just couldn't do it anymore." Thank God we found a way to communicate and make up. I had not seen all along the personal emotional sacrifices she had made. And she couldn't understand why I wanted to bond with just her, and not necessarily her entire family. It was a cointoss whether we would have made up that time...and I mourn all the casualties of reunions, and hope I always can find a way to figure things ongoing as needed. All the normal stuff that drives wedges between mortals is still there to grapple with but at a heightened emotional level : I am Democrat, she Republican, I am rural South, she is big city, I am educated but not rich, she is wealthy but HS only, I am gay, well she is accepting of that because she knows darn well it was biological, but still validating a lifestyle not so Ozzie and Harriet took formal acceptance, rather than heartfelt acceptance. Life happens, I'm amazed anyone can negotiate their differences amid feelings of confusion and trust issues. Anyway, obvously the love is there on both sides, the skills can be a different story. As an adult I would not blame her for the reunion not working out...but again I didn't become an adult until this last year at 42. One more observation...I honestly never thought she should feel guilty for giving me up, but she still does and nothing I can do can fix that for her. I have issue with anyone blaming a natural mom for choices made under very real circumstances, including the moms blaming themselves. Many female adoptees know what it is to suspect they may be pregnant, and oh,boy what to do... Male adoptees often lack this insight and maybe they get caught up thinking blame is ok, or that a woman's only role in life is to raise her baby. Anyway, I think my nat mom has greater strengh of character than I do, and a bigger heart...I know I would have had the abortion...She didn't, and put up with all the B.S. of the times. She remains my super-hero, and would even if the day comes we "just can't" anymore.

  4. Anon,

    With the superhero nat. mom.

    your words that she shouldn't feel guilty and you can't fix that for her. No, you can't fix that and I
    am sure she doesn't EXPECT you to.

    My son is 43 and my mom took me to adoption agency. There was no help from worker, no help, like welfare in those days especially to minors.
    The workers openly lied about things that I should have known, in order to keep my baby. In those days making a "choice" really wasn't there. I was almost 17 and dependent on parents, my longtime boyfriend wasn't affected, I don't think he was even contacted as a father should be.

    Choices, weren't there for young
    pregnant women, abortions weren't there at the time or very expensive and back alley.

    My son made a choice when he got his girl pg in high school. They aborted so that is a choice. For me there was no choice, no lawyer, no help to keep, just another person's rights to my baby.

    This was the days of maternity homes, although I wasn't in one. I was in my own home, surrounded by my family with no help from them. Bizarre, as that sounds.

    Guilt is there for mom's plus the fact of living without their baby for all their lives, it is painful, although some think we deserve whatever WE get as we "gave" them up. That just wasn't the truth but something that was fabricated, like when they sealed records to protect mom's but they really were doing this to protect those who adopt.

    Taking away someone's rights forever is WRONG, cruel and inhumane in my book. But its ok in adoption.

  5. I love the picture of the child and the waves, the "turbulent waters", maybe because I love swimming in the ocean and don't mind if it is a little rough. I also see it as a good metaphor for reunion. Mine is "come closer, back away" kind, and it is easy to picture myself and my son in the waves, floating sometimes nearer, sometimes farther away, taken by waves and currents stronger than ourselves.

    The best way to get yourself torn up in rough waters is to try and resist, to try to stay at all times in control and on top. You fight the wave, you lose. The way to survive, and even have fun, is to go with the current, go limp when a big wave crashes over you, don't panic, roll with it, then get up to face the next one.

    Don't exhaust yourself fighting a rip tide, swim with it along the shore until it subsides, then swim in. Don't swim alone, always respect the power of the sea, and try not to put yourself in dangerous situation over your head.
    See the challenge and the beauty as well as the danger around you, and rest when you are tired.

    With a little imagination this can apply to reunion, especially for the person who searched, but those found can take something from it as well. Sometimes we try to hard, blame ourselves or the other person too much, when there is so much else going on that neither can really control.

  6. Thanks, Mary Anne,this is wonderful imagery.

    And thanks to the other folks who commented. The more we share, the more we learn.

  7. Ditto. I loved your comment Maryanne.

    The pix was shot by a friend of mine who is a commercial photographer. He's done many books. You can check out his website at:


  8. Amyadoptee, I'm with you. I wish I could just have anything other than this absolute complete denial of my existence.

    Lorraine, Jane, Linda, thank you for posting your thoughts on this. I wish we as reunited relatives could find better ways to communicate. I really respect those who are able to tread those waves (great analogy, maryanne!) and come to mutual understandings.

    Too bad the real culprits, the adoption "professionals" who orchestrated all of this, get off scot-free while the rest of us have to deal with the consequences.

  9. Hi,

    I am an adoptive parent, and my adopted daughter is 18, she was just contacted through myspace by her birthmom, the birth mom asked is this so and so? and my daughter said yes? How should I proceed with this? any suggestions would be helpful. She has a 14 year old sister. Our daughter came from the foster care system at the age of 2 1/2. She was taken from the mother when after the birth because the mother had taken drugs in-utero. Looking at her myspace page, it appears the mother is married (do not know to whom) and I saw a photo of the daughter (the mother was pregnant when parental rights were terminated). What should we do? What should I tell my daughter.


  10. I'm trying to go with the flow and not push my FirstMother too quickly for her, but sometimes like when I see her, I could just stare at her face for hours (no, I don't actually do it) I feel like there never was a gap. Is this dumb, and I'm pretty sure I shouldn't let her know I regress to being a little kid in my heart. She tells me I'm still her daughter, so is that statement an open invitation for me to show how I feel, or could she just be saying it to be nice??? Uncharted waters could always get turbulent....In other words what usually freaks the average firstMother out if found children want to get closer after a long time of knowing each other??? Closer meaning being like primary family to each other from here on out. Could FirstMoms love their found kids but still not really want that? Thanks, I really need the swimming lessons on this.

  11. I am an adoptee. I found my bmom through the Children's Aid society and was in the process of making contact through a mediating social worker. At first my bmom was all exciting and I was told to gather pictures together and write a letter. I sent it off to the Children's Aid only to have it come back in the mail - REJECTED. That was the deepest and most profound pain I've ever felt in my life. It would have been better for me had I been turned down from the start with a reasonable explanation. Painful still - yes, but not as far to fall. I later found my bdad. A bit off topic but if you will bear with me.. I was very wary of him and did a lot of the "pushing/pulling" I've heard described. I believe it was a constant testing - just waiting for the "inevitable" rejection to come. In the end it did actually fall apart because he felt he needed to parent me and as an adult, I just wanted a friend. The whole experience left me very bitter and heartsick. I really appreciate your postings because it helps me to understand a perspective that I would otherwise not be privy to. It has helped me to step back from it a little and see my bparents as human beings with the same hurts, confusions and pain that I have. Thank you.

  12. Thanks Jane and Lorraine, glad you liked my comments, and for the info about the photographer. I love anything to do with the ocean and that picture really grabbed me.

    To Amy and Triona and others, so sorry your mothers are being so hard-hearted. I really don't understand that. I always feel bad for adoptees who get rejected. Like so much of life, it isn't fair.

  13. Some thoughts for Mark and jerseytocalli.

    Mark, the reunion for the most part will initially be between your daughter and her birthmother. Be supportive. Your daughter probably has a lot of questions that only her birthmother can answer.

    Keep in mind that the information you got from the State Children's Services people may not be accurate or may be skewed and her birthmother may have changed in the past 18 years. The fact that she contacted your daugher is positive -- shows she still cares and that should mean a lot to your daughter.

    Read some books on adoption and reunions; those by adoptee Betty Jean Lifton are particularly good.

    I'd also suggest you try to find a local support group. The American Adoption Congress has a list of adoption-related organizations on its website, http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/

    You might also consider attending an AAC convention.

    In a nutshell, the best way to help your daughter is to learn as much as you can and help her learn. Keep in mind that information you received in the past about adoption and her birthmother may be seriously flawed.


    When my daughter first contacted me, I did not even consider her becoming part of my family. I had trained myself not to think of her as my daughter. She said rather defiantly in one of our initial conversations, "I don't want new parents" and I thought "So! I don't want a new daughter." After we got to know each, I very much wanted her to be part of my family and brought her and her husband and children to several family reunions. I never met her adoptive parents because they didn't want to hear about me much less meet me. I would have been very happy if my daughter had wanted to become closer. She distanced herself, however. I'm not sure why but I think it was because of opposition from her adoptive parents and her religious beliefs.

    From my reading and meeting many birthmothers, I can tell you, many dream about having a daughter like you who wants to become part of the family. So, yes, I think your birthmother is sincere when she says you are still her daughter. She may not show a lot of emotion because she is unsure where she fits into your life and is guarding herself against losing you a second time. As I recommended to Mark, read as much as you can about adoption and reunion and attend support groups.

  14. Thanks Jane for your comments. It helps..


  15. Yes, thank you Jane for your words and for the Betty Jean Lifton books suggestions. Probably not too hard to imagine but even though I'm a Librarian, I've never done a bit of research on this for myself.
    My heart to those adoptees whose attempts at contact weren't accepted. I've got to believe that a huge number of Original Moms from the past era, never even told the men they later married about the whole thing. Records were supposed to be sealed forever, things were way, way different for women, and advice on how to handle things about 1000% different... so its easy to imagine an original mother keeping a secret, then if a child contacts her later, she is kind of boxed in and simply can't accept a meeting without practically getting a divorce and having any subsequent kids just freak out. Doesn't make the loss any easier, but I'll bet any amount this is the #1 real reason adoptees get the cold wall.
    Reading this blog has made a big difference for me. Thanks again everyone.

  16. I am a birth mother who gave up my first and only child at birth in 1968. We found each other 30 years later and it has taken an additional 11 years to become acquainted - my first visit to his home was fall of 2009. I can't think of anything that influenced my life more and brought me more pain than giving up my child. I can't think of anything that has given me more joy than finding him, alive, well, and being such a wonderful person. I thank the powers that be that gave him a loving family to rear him when I couldn't. The path has been scary and essential. My heart goes out to you all.

  17. I am a birthmother and recently was contacted by my child. Her adoptive mother passed away. I have openly invited her to be a part of my family. She said out of respect for her adoptive parents she would have never contacted me. However her adoptive mother prior to passing indicated she probably should contact me. I am just praying this has a happy ending. I know I can never replace the mother she knew and I feel this huge responsibility to make things perfect. I have 5 other childred and a spouse that were aware of the adoption. They are very supportive and are very open to having her be part of the family. I just want so much for this to work out between us. In conversations she has indicated being adopted has been very hard on her. I am just happy she is ok and had a great relationship with her adopted mother. But I am scare of being rejected. I lost her once and don't want to lose her again.



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