' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When a Birth/First Mother Refuses Contact

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When a Birth/First Mother Refuses Contact

What happens when adoptive parents find the child's first mother and the woman does not want contact?

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:

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?’”

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.

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.

*“Repress Yourself,” Lauren Slater, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 23, 2003.


  1. I'm one of those rejected by Natural Mother adoptees. If you are rejected on either side of the adoption forum, what could I say that you don't already know. Some people really see a baby, even their own, and even a grown one as something that is a huge threat to their own, happily constructed, self-centered world. You won't find one of these hard-hearted characters on this website, because such couldn't care less to educate themselves. Thus, they don't grow, and aren't able to handle a reunion past the point it isn't validating for them. Sometimes rejections come as face-saving attempts to make it look like the other person has done something wrong (Called after 8pm, or twice in one week), whatever excuse in the world...expect this approach from an emotionally immature person who may totally manipulate things but remain somehow both blameless and the victim because society gives victims a free pass and attention. This type of manipulation may sound familiar to both sides of the adoption rejection forum. BtW I found another website on why birthmothers reject that was helpful to me when I was really having a hard time at: www.rejection-network.co.uk. Its a bit off subject, but my own salve for rejection has been to have DNA testing done which links me to my ethnicity and a history of past relatives who although they are gone from the earth I'm sure would have welcomed me, and secondly, in confronting the rage or meanness of my Natural Mom's response...Instead of embodying that there is something deeply wrong with me, I instead consider myself a "do over" of her because I was in fact born with the capacity for understanding and compassion, and I learned in a round-about way that I did and do want a type of family connection that I can't get from her. I took my power back from the mess adoption made of things by selecting a new last name for myself and having my name legally changed because I am now the first generation of my own new family.

  2. When adoptive parents find the child's first mother and the woman doesn't want contact. Thats it, the end. Hopefully, no one would have been silly enough to tell the child this was being attempted, so they don't have to feel like sh-- the rest of their lives. It is no one's job to show the Birthmom not to be that way. If she ever changes it will be from within -and nothing would keep her away from contact if she wanted it.

  3. Are you sure contact is what she was referring to?

  4. "Thats it, the end."

    Physically, yes. Emotionally?

    Not necessarily.

  5. Tragically, birthmothers who refuse contact often don't realize how that affects their surrendered child. I know because I was there. My daughter tried to contact me through a relative who gave me vague information about someone trying to contact me. I was not absolutely sure this was my daughter and I brushed it off. It was not until years later when my daughter and I did connect and I began reading memoirs by adoptees that I came to some understanding of why adoptees search.

    I commend adoptees for talking openly about the hurt of rejection. Until birthmothers hear this, many will continue to believe that the pain is theirs alone and the best way to deal with it is to repress it.

  6. I can't get over how completely frickin' cute Jane was.

  7. I know it happens, yet it is unfathomable to me that a mother would reject the child she gave up, without even a conversation or a meeting.

    There are those who would say "I gave him/her life and that's all I owe." IMHO, the mother (and fathers too) are compelled to provide the information (explanation, family history, medical info, etc.) to the grown child they created. No excuses. Even if they you don't want an ongoing relationship. I am saddened when an adoptee doesn't want to meet or include their b-parents in their life. But I feel that they have a right to that option while b-parents do not.

    I am a mother who longed to meet her son. Thirteen years into our reunion, we are estranged. So maybe I'm not the best example. That was due to what happened after we met, not my rejection of him. Regardless of my wants, I would never ever have denied him the opportunity to learn the circumstances of his birth and his family history.

    I hate that women who kept the secret and refuse to come out are used by the adoption industry to keep records closed.

    Arggggh, this topic makes me crazy...

  8. And the surreal thing is that this "ghost" constituency of closeted mothers generates more concern and consideration among the NCFAers and their dupes than the myriad real out-there honest-to-goodness mothers who've relinquished and who would welcome openness, for their children, their families and themselves.

  9. Denise, I understand your feelings but disagree whole heartedly. Reunion is in fact a two way street. Neither party has the right to decide for the other. But to say mothers do not have that right, I have to say, excuse me?

    I know a lot about dealing with a mentally ill, or emotionally unstable persons, namely my daughter. I love her, but I don't have to reject or pull back. Every time she gets close to me, she not only pulls away, but spends hours doing all kinds of things. Things that, if we lived in the same town would or could land her in jail. Things like calling my family or telling people all kinds of weird stuff that is, and I have told her this publically, BS. There are so many things, it scares me that one day, if she doesn't get help, she will want to actually live close together.

    The way things are now, I can be there, without having to worry about her showing up at my house at 2 a.m. and trashing my car or house when she is mad at me for whatever imagined wrong I have done. She has done this to two of her ex-husbands, up to and including claiming that one was a cross-dresser with syphillis and the other had Herpes. None of which is true.

    So, to say that I do not have the right to put a distance between us, I beg to differ. Loving her is not an issue, but living 1900 miles away was my choice, I am the one that moved. She was angry for a year, then we had six months of phone calls that lasted for an entire day, almost daily.

    So, please, before you judge, remember, not all people are nice, even our children and trust me, it is often better to keep it cordial, at least until you are either able to cope with the issues, or the child has gotten help.

  10. To jstlucky and others that have been rejected - my heart breaks for you when I hear your stories.

    I can't imagine turning my son away, no matter what the circumstances of his conception are.

    I have been incredibly lucky that my reunion with my son is going extremely well. I wish that others could realise such good reunions. It is so sad when these things don't happen.

    I believe that we should always be there for our children regardless of the reasons for separation. It is obvious to me that when our sons and daughters look for us, they need us and we should put aside all our fears for their welfare.

    For me, nothing is more important than my sons and my daughter.

  11. Lorraine,
    The part of your blog, in which you found 2 pictures of your daughter's child, taped to the typewriter, made my heart sink. Yes, she never forgot. But what a shame that things had to be the way they were.

    I too am an adoptee that searched for and found my mother, but have yet to meet her. It has been several years and only a handful of communications. I have to wonder, for those mothers that "come around," what is the motivating factor? Are there some women that eventually tell their family members the "secret?" What helps a mother "come out of the closet," once the choice has been made to remain there even after having been found by their surrendered child?

    I will add one last thought. What is hard to read in some posts are the conditional ways in which members of the triad accept each other upon reunion. In my mind, my mother is my mother - and I love her. If she were ever open to contact I could not imagine putting conditions on my love for her - we are family, I am of her. I do not believe that adoption and reunion should allow us to pick and choose what we like - and abandon all the rest, even at the cost of a relationship.

  12. Anonymous asks what motivates a rejecting mother to come around. Some thoughts:

    --Beginning to think of her child as a real person, not some kind of phantom that's going to pop up out of nowhere.

    --Understanding why adoptees search

    --Coming to a place in her life where she has control over her time and resources.

    Assuming you have sent letters and pictures, you might be able to jump start the process by suggesting some books and locating a support group in her area. You also need to reassure her that you won't contact her without her permission.

  13. I always knew there were some mothers who rejected or refused meeting their children, but I cannot imagine it. And when I read the posts and email some of the people who have encountered such a rejection, my heart just breaks. Yes, the words are a cliche, but they describe the feeling right.

    I know it must be difficult for women who have been so shamed into keeping their first child a secret from others close to them, but if any of you are reading, please put aside your fears and think of what you can give your child who only wants to know you: answers that will haunt them to the grave. If there are any women reading this and would like to communicate privately, simply leave a comment. One of us will read it--and not post it--and I will get back to you.

    When I came across the pictures of my daughter's first born, Lisa, I was with her other daughter, and the great gift was that she already knew about the girl. Even though her mother never talked about her, I know that Jane loved Lisa Marie and did not forget her, and I hope someday to be able to tell her that.

  14. I have only read enough to see that this very well might be a good place to ask my question.

    I am a 44 year old adoptee, and I just found the information on who and where my birth mom is.

    Is there a source that anybody knows of that I can read that will recommend the best way to make first contact? Does anybody know of a well considered script that would help me plan my thoughts before I made that first call?

  15. Mike,

    We commend you for searching and getting ready to take the big step.

    I don't know of any proven scripts but here are some suggestions from my experience, that of other birthmothers I know, and from my readings.

    Firsr read about the birthmother experience. A good place to start is Lorraine's book "Birthmark" and Ann Fessler's "The Girls Who Went Away."

    Call your mother at her home number. If you reach her ask her if the date (your date of birth means anything to her). If she says "yes," identify yourself. Ask her if it is a good time to talk; if not arrange a time. Tell her you would like to know her but give her time to compose herself.

    If she is not home when you call, don't leave a message. Very important -- don't try to use someone else such as a relative of your birthmother as a go-between. My daughter did this based on bad advice and it turned out very badly.

    Take things slowly, be supportive, and understand that you and your birthmother are likely at different places. You want information and she may think her baby has returned. Or you may want a relationship and she is afraid of revealing her "secret."

    After you and your birthmother have connected, post a comment and let us know how it's going.

  16. I have to wonder motivating factor, for those mothers that "come around,"...

  17. have any of you read about reunions that go badly? either the birth mother is a nut or the adoptee is a nut who holds some kind of grudge about being adopted? if either side is not agreeable to contact, then leave it alone. but of course, a nut wouldn't be able to think about anyone else's rights/feelings.



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