' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Reunion gives birth mothers a 'second chance'

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reunion gives birth mothers a 'second chance'


Denise Roessle is euphoric when she learns that her son, whom she had lost to adoption twenty-six years earlier, has been matched to her through the International Soundex Reunion Registry. As the adult man replaces the fantasy child, though, anxiety replaces euphoria.

Denise was nineteen and living in Hawaii in 1969 when she became pregnant by a handsome Marine. After he reneged on his promise to marry her, her parents sent to a home in Los Angeles and arranged with a lawyer who specialized in placing children with Jewish families in New York to handle the adoption of Denise’s son. Erick Alan Janson became Joshua Goldberg, the son of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.

Once they are matched, Denise is eager for a relationship, “The prospect of having a chance to right my wrongs and make a difference in my son’s life made me forget the hole in my [heart]." Denise, who never had other children, now has a second chance at motherhood, thus the title of her recently-published memoir, Second-Chance Mother. Josh’s desire to be Denise’s son, to rejoin the family he had lost, is at least as strong as her desire to mother him.

The book is well written, moving along smoothly as Denise tells not only the story of her reunion but of discovering her mother's family. Denise's mother, who had been so insistent on the adoption that Denise feared telling her parents of the reunion, claimed to be an only child. Denise learns that her mother was actually one of nine children, farmed out along with her siblings when her father died. Denise’s mother is strict, straight-laced, and Denise becomes painfully aware of the similarities between her mother and herself. Eventually Denise's parents learn of Denise's reunion with Josh. Once these family secrets are out, Denise and her parents develop a positive relationship.

Within a few months into their reunion, Denise has second thoughts about keeping Josh in her life. He angers easily, cannot maintain relationships, is untruthful, and wastes money on baubles, leaving him chronically short of funds for necessities. He refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. As a teenager, he had gone through a succession of treatment programs, dropped out of school, used drugs, and lived on the streets. He married young and had two sons whom he and his wife put up for adoption. He divorced his first wife and married a seventeen year old girl who is now pregnant. Over the next decade, Josh divorces and remarries several more times.

Denise and Josh have an up and down relationship. He misbehaves; she cuts him off; he begs or demands to be in her life, he tries to guilt trip her for abandoning him; she lets him back in; he misbehaves. Denise questions herself: Is she too strict? Too much like her mother? Should she be more giving and forgiving? The book ends with little hope that Denise and Josh will ever have a healthy relationship or that he will get control of his life

Josh’s problems, although they may have been related to his adoption, are not unique to adopted children. Parents throughout history have struggled with how to help their troubled child, treading the line between enabling and abandoning.

Where do birth mothers fit into the mix? Before my surrendered daughter Rebecca and I reunited, I worried about finding her in a drug house, a waif, a street child. I envisioned myself as a heroine, saving her from a life of degradation. As the curtain falls, she embraces me as her true mother.

At other times, I envisioned her as a famous movie actress and I worried she would reject me.  As the scene fades, however, she embraces me as her true mother. My daughter is not a drug addict; neither is she a movie star. She is, however, an altogether woman, with a successful career, a long marriage, and four wonderful children.

I don’t know what I would have done if she had been chronically irresponsible like Josh or schizophrenic like the son Patti Hawn wrote about in Good Girls Don’t.

When we birth mothers signed the papers, we not only lost all legal rights to our children but we were freed from all legal obligations to them. As a practical matter, however, many mothers cannot walk away from their children just as mothers could not forget them no matter how much they believed the social worker’s maxim, “you’ll forget and get on with your life.”

We have an obligation to our adult lost children, not borne from guilt at giving them up, but born from nature.

Second-Chance Mother


  1. Jane, that story is a total reflection of my daughter.... the boy anyway. The only difference, she knows that it is her issue and not mine. I guess I just don't have the patience of Ms. Roessle, I won't be guilted and I won't let her run my world. And while I get sad when I realize, consciously, that she will never really be part of my life, I also know that she hasn't been a part of my life for most of my life.

    It is never a fix, reunion that is, it is merely a new band aid on an old wound.

  2. It's interesting Jane, I never had a fantasy child. I don't think I allowed that baby to grow up in my mind. I think it made it easier when we met. I had no expectations. She had different beliefs than I and I have come to accept her just the way she is.
    I am her mother but really only in the biological, natural sense. She makes it very clear that while she loves me I am to be at arms length. Early in reunion I just assumed that we would have years to bring that mother daughter bond back to life. After a few years I can tell that is not in the cards. I keep knocking and she opens the door a bit every time. I'm lucky in how well adjusted and happy she is. When we get together we are well suited and have lots of fun. But she never knocks on my door. Never an invitation or a call or a text initiated on her part. Never is too strong of a word as she has sent gifts at the holidays and cards at mothers day, and even a card or two in response to my letters. I don't blame her for not knocking. If I was left at a hospital to fend for myself in the world I wouldn't be knocking either. Yes reunion isn't a fix. But I hope my continued knocking lets her know that I love her. I have always loved her. I just listened to really bad advice on how love looks when I was a young unmarried woman.

  3. All anyone gets in adoption is sold a bill of goods. First mothers that they would forget about their child and that s/he would have a better life. Adoptive parents that the child will be the same as if born to and adoptees that being adopted is exactly the same as being a bio-child.

    And as for reunion some of us have been sold another bill of goods that we can come back together and be a family again. In most cases that ain't gonna happen.

  4. We wonder if our children are rich or living on the street, our children wonder if we are celebrities or bag ladies.
    Adoption doesn't have to be like this.

    But it is.

    Did the book leave you wondering if the author Denise should have done more for her son?

  5. Re: Did the book leave you wondering if the author Denise should have done more for her son?

    Abagail, did it leave you wondering that? I'd really like to know. I fee; as if I went beyond what I should have, in retrospect, that I should have set boundaries earlier even though I will always have doubts. Isn't adoption and reunion all about doubts and regrets?

    It's hard to judge another person's action in a particular situation. Since every mother's and grown child's circumstances are different — who's to say?

  6. Reunion is such a personal matter involving two people. Mother and usually adult son or daughter. Only they can determine and set their limits.
    My reunion with my son had all the normal players in reunion starting with his adopter who tried her best to manipulate him. He made his decision that he was going to get to know me. He was 26 years old at the time.
    We had to set limits with others in family and even out of the family the ex who still to this day tries to manipulate my son. She has been divorced from him for 20 plus years but used their child in her manipulations. Now granddaughter is trying to manipulate too. Learned behaviors sadly. Even this past holiday manipulations were used with hysterical crying and threats of adopters eminent death. She is alive.

  7. Reunion relationships are extraordinarily complex even in the best of circumstances. When the abusive factor plays a role, the relationship becomes emotionally unhealthy and external resources are scant. For a long time, I tolerated a level of abuse/punishment from my reunited adult child that I would never have tolerated from my raised child or, for that matter, anyone else.

  8. You are all right of course. We open our hearts and give what we can--often materially--and then find the door slammed shut. After 3 years it just happened to me in an email that just makes me angry. I think my husband (not her father) is as annoyed as I am. I'm hurt, but annoyed as well. When or if she ever wants a relationship I sure am going to be wary.

  9. I find that most of the time, in all honesty, I feel trapped. Like no matter what I do I am going to be beat up on. If it isn't my daughter, it is other adoptees, my family, her adopters, society..... and there doesn't seem to be a way out that will do anything. I set boundaries, she told me to F* Off and that I didn't have the right. She set boundaries that included me being nothing more than a gift giver and a wallet... no calls were allowed, minimal emails and a whole lot of anger.

    Would I do it again - NO.

  10. Abagail, yes, wary, we have to be once we are mistreated or a door slammed shut.

    Trina: I tolerated a level of abuse/punishment from my reunited adult child that I would never have tolerated from my raised child or, for that matter, anyone else.

    Indeed, we would likely have cut off a friend or family member who treated us as badly. There's something about our relinquished children... the sadness and guilt... that makes us unnecessarily tolerant and accepting of bad behavior. Trying to make it up to them? I'm still figuring this out. But I do feel right about sticking up for myself, not taking more abuse.

    We did what we thought was best, based on what we were told, and lived with the aftermath. I think that is enough punishment.

  11. Since most of us agree that we had no "choice" , reunion is really our first chance at having a relationship with our children. We are going to make mistakes.

    I think we have to stop asking for forgiveness. We need to grieve being cheated out of knowing our children as they grew and try to move ahead. Those of us who had other children know how much we missed.
    I don't think we can make up for the past. We will never have the relationship that nature intended. But can and should give as much as we can to having a relationship after reunion. That in no way needs to include abuse from either side.

  12. @Lori – I just wanted to let you know that you’re not alone and that other firstmothers, myself included, feel as you do. Some of the cyber attacks aimed at firstmothers have been especially vile. I suspect that some of us who have been abused/punished/rejected by our found children may find this a difficult subject matter to give voice to or even to admit to privately. I admire Denise for having the courage to write about her experience so that others might benefit and I am looking forward to reading her memoir.

  13. Could Denise have done more for her son? Only she and he know for sure. To question or suggest that she could have and intentionally did not is to put her right back where she started, she was not good enough for her son, he deserved better, more, he deserved adoption, he is better off, she is a bad little birthmother. And the vicious cycle continues.

    I would hope readers would judge the story as a story of one possible outcome of adoption - not a story of Denise as mother lost or failed - first or second time around.

  14. Lady you either commit yourself totally to your son or get out of his life. He has a ton of rage built up, as do I. And reading your account (thanks for sharing all his details in your book, I'm sure that'll help him recover sooner...yeah right) of your not knowing what the hell you have on your hands now and the women on here agreeing with you and being so clueless as to it all. You have no clue as to how to deal with a broken man (your bio son), that was damaged from the start. You are in way over your head.

    Yeah screw the kid, right? He made his choices so he has to live with them. Plus he's making your husband mad. Hey, at least things are better now with you and your parents. Wouldn't want to interrupt your happy little life you've made for yourself there, would ya now?

    God forbid that happens. Guess what lady? You did that to your son. I can relate to your son's rage and bad choices and not giving a damn about his life. If you gave a damn about your son, you wouldn't have put him up for adoption. You would have fought like holy hell to keep him. So now you have to deal with the fall out of YOUR decision.

    He's gonna take from you, because you took EVERYTHING from him. You ladies don't get it, do you?

    This is the legacy that you all have had a huge part in creating. Deal with it. Or get the hell out of his life. Like you did from the start.

  15. Anonymous, be reasonable. Your rage is justified, but do take into consideration that the system was and is a strong one.

    Only the strong, smart and lucky ones could emerge victorious, complete failure was the only option for those who would have to do it all alone.

  16. Is reunion a second chance? It is for some but not for all. There is no cookie cutter formula that fits all reunions. Each of us has to deal with the unique person and situation we find.

    There are many reunions like Denise's where the adoptee is very damaged for whatever reason, is abusive, and no, the mother can't really fix him. Boundaries have to be set. At some point as a mother you have done it all and there is no more you can do.

    There are other reunions like my friend Kim's which has gone on for many years now where the two families mix and mesh and the adoptee does become an integral part of the original family while retaining a good relationship with the adoptive parents as well. She was there for the birth of her grandchild and very involved in her son's life. It does happen.

    Then there are other reunions somewhere in the middle, not all you had hoped but much more than you feared. These can be seen as "glass half-empty or half full", depending on how you feel that day, and how you try to see things.
    In this situation you may feel you got some of what you lost back, but it will never be as if the adoption did not happen. It is important to accept that going into reunion.

  17. So, anon 12/18 10:28

    Your anger and Denises sons anger is justified.
    But if you think that Denise is to be held accountable for making a "bad choice" why is it you think her son shouldn't be held accountable for his own bad choices?

  18. Janet,

    if your mother has abandoned you, (true, not in a way directly posing a threat to your life, but still abandoned you), has denied you, has allowed that you were bought as if you were a pet slave, and the buyers aren't good parents, how can you be expected to even know what is good? Let alone how to treat others? How can you ever learn to trust, to be trustworthy?

    I'm not saying that Josh did not make bad choices, but I would say that Denise has failed to do everything to ensure that he was able to make the right ones.

  19. He is being held accountable by the laws of nature. Look at his life. It's a wide swath of destruction left in his wake. He's busy self-destructing.

    What gives you the right to come back into his life? And to judge him now after what you yourself did? That's infuriating to me. I read this blog a lot, but to hear that and all the support on here for you? Too much.

    (And to Jane...your obligation is because of "nature"? What? Whatever happened to your obligation being because that is your blood! That SHOULD be your heart...your LOVE. THAT is your obligation. If you meant it like that, then disregard this.)

    Why do you call for his accountability, but there is none for his mother and father? Oh well he reneged on his promise to marry you. Well, damn that sucks. You reneged on being a mother to your son. And it goes on and on.

    Did you leave the hospital with him? It's game on from that moment. Blame your son all you want. It changes nothing.

    I know you're hurting. I know you're all hurting. I hurt to my core. I used to bang my head so hard against the wall when I was a young child that I had to get stitches. I was too young to remember. That hurt is so deep and ingrained in many of us that it will take an act of God to heal it.

    Please, either commit your heart to your son or leave him be. That's it.

  20. By "nature" I read that Jane means "mother love."

    I've read the book--Denise doesn't "judge" her son in the way you say, but does find that she cannot deal with his wild fluctuations as a daily fact of her life--anymore than any sane person can constantly deal with the insane and destructive behavior of any child, including biological. A review like this one at FMF gives a snapshot of the book, but not the whole story. In the end Denise does "leave him be," because she cannot really help him, as he was diagnosed with a serious psychological disorder, and Denise became a focal point of his neurotic behavior. Denise made the choice that she cannot help him because it is beyond her ability and means.

    Anonymous, I am so sorry that your life is one of so much hurt and anger. And I know you are not along among our readers and the adoptee population. It sounds as if a great deal of healing would have to occur to give you peace. Sometimes I wonder if there is time enough in a lifetime for that.

    A great many therapists discount the "adoption" as a signal; I just looked at the comments under the tepid review of Blue Nights at Salon, and one of the commenters is complaining that the fact that Quintana was an "adopted child," hardly matters-- and so why even mention it? I don't think they read the book, or have a grip on reality.

    Blue Nights


  21. @Anon 10:28,
    I understand your anger. Hell, it would hardly take a rocket scientist to figure out that my natural parents were going to have a baby and give it up for adoption. Did my parents make a huge mistake that negatively affected my life? Absolutely.

    But I can find it in my heart to have compassion for my mother who was caught in a social system not of her making. Last time I checked, we were all human. And humans are imperfect. We make big mistakes that affect other people.

    I don't think that holding on to the kind of anger you have is constructive. In the long run it will only hurt you. I am one of those people who had a very hard time with adoption. It totally sucked and I wasn't allowed to express my negative feelings about it. But for my own peace of mind and mental health I had to let a lot of that go.

  22. Okay I hadn't planned on opening up, but I will.

    Robin, I was thrown to the wolves in my adoption. My parents divorced when I was four and to this day (I'm 35), I'm still deathly afraid of my adoptive dad. I had to leave when I was almost 16. What my dad didn't take out of me physically, my mom took out of me emotionally. Meanwhile, my older adopted sister was treated like a princess and my younger (their) natural brother was treated with kid gloves. I was the fault of everything and everyone. It continues to this day.

    I found my real Mother last fall. She was the only thing that kept me going my whole life. I don't think it's normal to think of suicide at age 10, but I learned that I could end it all at that age. For whatever reason, I'm still here.

    Our "reunion" was brief. It lasted a whole month and I felt like I wanted way more than she could possibly give me. I could talk to her for 4 hours, when I couldn't talk to my ad. mom for 4 seconds without a fight.

    She has two daughters and one is getting a PhD. I'm smart too. Just jacked up inside. And self-destructive, just in my own ways that leave me nothing to show for my life.

    It was too much for my Mother to take and she judged me harshly over the phone. She hit on everything. I have no doubt that I am a loser after that conversation. And that is the last I have heard of her. Get the hell away from me, in no uncertain terms.

    I have compassion. I can forgive. But the rage and anger is also what fuels me. I try to channel it into productive ways. Still, I cannot deny that the anger is there. So far it's bigger than me. Whenever I think I've dealt with it, something will trigger it. It may take years.

    Anyway...good thing life is temporary. That's the only thing that will heal me. I'm not suicidal, I just realize that there's only so much that can be done. Some of us come out of our adoption experience well, and others of us get rolled by it.

  23. Anon,
    I see where you are coming from. This endless myth of the "better family" has damaged so many of us, adoptees and mothers alike.

  24. Hi Everyone,
    Pretty hot thread. Thank you for sharing Anonymous. I think sharing is better than holding onto anger, but hurting people won't take away your pain. My daughter is hurting too, but instead of being able to share any of her anger, she lies about having any - when she clearly does, then pushes me away.

    Robin, thank you for your comments. They give me hope. Yes, we all are human and imperfect. That might not seem like much consolation when we're really angry or hurting or probably both.

    Thank you again anonymous for giving me an adoptee's perspective and more to think about. When I relinquished my daughter, I was only 17, and NO ONE told me about my legal rights, NO ONE. Otherwise, things may have ended very differently.

    All that pain can be so very hard to let go of for everyone. If I could wave a magic wand, I would to help ease all of our pain. Thank you everyone who is brave enough to share here.

  25. Healthy relationships cannot be created in the presence of a constant flow of anger, rage, and disrespect. Those who have those feelings need to get help before attempting to forge a relationship with someone else. Adoption reunions evolve into relationship building situations and negative emotions and language will have an adverse impact.

  26. Angela,

    I don't know if I helped much at all in giving an adoptee's perspective.

    Honestly, being adopted was always there, but it seemed like some far away story I was told. And my ad. mother did her best to convince me that she would always be my mother...that there could possibly be no other, no matter what. So in essence, it was like they could treat me how they wanted and I couldn't do anything about it. I was so busy fighting my family and extended family off of me, that I had little time to think about being adopted.

    It wasn't until I was rejected by my real Mom did I feel that primal anger and rage at being adopted and rejected.

    So being thrown into this situation and then being rejected for having to go through it and how it made/changed me, literally destroyed me. And reading this post brought a lot of those feelings back.

    To Denise and all the other Mothers, I apologize.

  27. No need to apologize for your post, Anonymous, without a couple of testimonies of victims of adoption, now and then, this blog would not be half as effective.

    I mean, it's not hard to understand why Denise triggered you...

    There is no justice in adoption so we could try compassion.

  28. Anon,

    I was not judging you or Denises son. I understand all too well the pain we are all trying to bear. I was trying to make the point that we Mothers have and always will be judged and held accountable for an uninformed decision that most of made in our teens or early twenties.

    If I could I would take away your pain in an instant.

  29. Wow. A pretty hot thread indeed. It's been several days since I last visited to read the comments...

    Anon, no apologies necessary. I understand your anger, as I do my son's. He also didn't get a "happily ever after" adoptive home. I have no way of knowing, nor would I place blame, how he came to be so troubled. Although, yes, I believe that having been separated from me — his mother — and relinquished to strangers has much to do with it. I own that piece of it. Which is why I fully support family preservation and will do everything in my power to encourage women to keep their children and not cave to the pressures of society and/or the adoption industry.

    As Lorraine said, Jane's post is an overview, for discussion purposes, not the whole story. I did not reject my son. We spent 11 of our 15 reunited years in close contact, up and down, but continually trying to make our relationship work. (BTW, the book ends at year 7, but there is an epilogue). Eventually, when the abuse and threats became too much for me, I ceased our communications while clearly stating what changes I would need to see if we were to come back together. None of that has happened, except that he has finally allowed me to see my granddaughter.

    I don't mean to defend myself. I wish I hadn't relinquished my son, but that can't be changed now. Certainly I made mistakes in our reunion. As another commenter wrote, reunion is highly personal and unpredictable, and can go all kinds of ways.

    Bottom line: adoption causes so much pain for almost everyone involved.

  30. Sometimes adoption makes me so angry I could scream.

    I think some of us survive by living our personal relationship with adoption and at the same time trying to be the voice of the real experience of adoption.

    Lots of people wish we would shut up but they need to hear us and that includes you Anon. Thanks for your honesty.

  31. Is there anyone else out there in a fairly decent reunion who no longer thinks of their adoptee as "lost"? My son does not feel "lost" to me any more, since I hear from him regularly, and I always know where he is or where he has been from the pictures he sends me. Even though my reality is "virtual", it seems very real to me:-)

    Yes, I lost many years with him; first his childhood and then the many years after finding him that he did not communicate with me. He felt very lost during that long bleak time and I know how terrible rejection feels. But like the song says, "he once was lost but now is found". Amazing Grace, yes!! Since I hear from him, he is not lost any more in the emotional sense, as well as literally. He shows concern for me, and I for him.

    Maybe it is that the sons I raised have been or are far away, and as adults I do not see them that often but we keep in touch. I was delighted to hear from all my sons this Christmas,and also from my surrendered son's wife. He is the only one married. The relationship I have with my surrendered son feels normal to me, and I try to focus on what I have regained, not that which is forever lost. It does not seem right to think of my son as "lost" now, almost insulting to the person he is today.

    Yeah. I would like to see all my kids more, but I am immensely proud that they are their own men and living good, adventurous, happy lives out in the world and doing what they need to do. I am very fortunate.

  32. Maryanne wrote:"but I am immensely proud that they are their own men and living good, adventurous, happy lives out in the world and doing what they need to do. I am very fortunate."

    Two thumbs up!

  33. Anon, I hope you will accept the heartfelt hug I am sending you in my mind.

    And be sure, there is nothing about you that is a loser. I hear the fullness of your heart loud and clear and having a heart that feels is the only success that really matters.

    Love yourself if you can. Find ways.

    As for me, I relinquished my son when I was a teenager and will always regret the effect of that decision on him.

    Your soul is so good because, despite your rage, you heard our pain. What a beautiful soul you have, to still be able to hear the pain of others beyond your own immense pain. What an amazing person that makes you.

    Take care x



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