' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: A second child doesn't replace the one lost to adoption

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A second child doesn't replace the one lost to adoption

“You can go on to have other children.” As a young woman, I had heard these words in countless soap operas, read them in teen magazines and advice columns, as social workers urged young women into giving up their children for adoption. After I placed my first daughter Rebecca for adoption in 1966, I did go on to have three more daughters that I raised. The oldest of these Anne, was born five years after Rebecca and turned 40 last month. As our family celebrated Anne’s birthday, I reflected on the circumstances of her birth, so different than that of my first daughter.

Rebecca was conceived in Fairbanks, Alaska.  Several months before her birth I went to San Francisco where she was born and surrendered.  I knew no one there. My family was in Illinois and Southern California and I did not tell
them about my baby.  With the exception of a few people in Alaska, no one knew about my pregnancy, and I intended to keep it that way. I did tell my husband about first child to my shortly before we were married, but we did not talk about her again.

When I was expecting Anne, the first question people asked upon learning of my pregnancy was whether this was my first baby. “Yes, I answered. “It is my husband’s and my first baby” the equivocation apparently went unnoticed. First babies are special not only to the parents-to-be but to relatives, friends, co-workers, even casual acquaintances. Mothers gave me advice on how to keep from gaining too much weight, and how to avoid stretch marks. They offered tips on cribs, diapers, all manner of baby paraphernalia. They cautioned me about spoiling the baby if I picked her up every time she cried. My sister sent me a book on baby care; my mother-in-law made me a baby blanket. Friends held a party and showered me with all the sleepers, gowns, and shirts my baby would need for the next three months.  

I did my best to display the exuberance expected of a first time mother. Underneath, I felt I was a fraud, passing off my second pregnancy as my first. I did not, as many first mothers do, talk about my changing body, excitedly about every kick, complaining about heartburn and weight gain.

During my pregnancy, I continued to work at the law office where I was the junior attorney, partly because the money came in handy, partly because I didn’t want to be stigmatized as one of those women who abandons her career when a baby comes along, and partly because work helped me to ignore my changing body, as I had done when I was pregnant with Rebecca. 

I told my obstetrician about having a first child only because I believed the information necessary for my care. I did not mention the adoption. My husband and I took Red Cross classes on baby care. One evening our class visited the maternity section of a local hospital. The instructor provided details on labor and delivery; I pretended to my classmates this was all new and valuable information. 

It snowed the week before Anne was born, and then turned cold, leaving the sidewalks and streets slippery. The evening I went into labor, my husband, worried that I might slip and harm myself and the baby, held my hand and guided me down the stairs leading from our porch to the street. He drove carefully to the hospital, provided the information to the admitting clerk, and sat with me in the labor room until I was taken into the delivery room.

Anne was born about three am. I was allowed to see her for a minute and then she was whisked off to the nursery, as was common then. As I was wheeled out of the delivery room, my husband gave me a quick kiss, and he was off to see his new daughter through the nursery room window. The next day my in-laws came by with a onesie for her. My friends followed with flowers in a vase shaped like a diaper. I called my mother to tell her about her new granddaughter, and she called my sisters and brother with the news. Within a few weeks, I sent out a baby announcement. More gifts arrived.

How different when Rebecca was born. A neighbor drove me to the hospital and left when I was taken to the maternity ward. I saw my baby briefly during my hospital stay. Her birth went unheralded. No congratulations, no flowers, no help.

Betty Jean Lifton
When Anne was born, I thought to myself how this time everything was right: This was how it was supposed to be. A caring husband, a delighted father, happy families celebrating a new addition. I had played by the rules--she was born under the auspices of marriage--and I could take this baby home.

As I cared for Anne, I was often consumed with guilt; I had not fed Rebecca, nor bathed her, nor rocked her to sleep. I stared at Anne, looking for Rebecca in her face. As Anne progressed through the stages of childhood, I imagined Rebecca at those stages. Sometimes the two children morphed into one; Anne was both herself and Rebecca.

The late Betty Jean Lifton wrote that for some birth mothers the lost child becomes a "golden child," superior to the children the birth mother raises. I've read the same thing about replacement children who are conceived to substitute for a dead child. The living child can never measure up to the idealized, deceased child. Some adoptees endure this fate as well, always wanting when compared to the never-was biological child. It has been suggested that playwright and adoptee Edward Albee, suffered from being compared unfavorably to his adoptive parents' phantom child, and this theme permeates his plays.

Edward Albee
I did not intentionally have Anne and her two sisters that followed to replace Rebecca, and they did not replace her. Yet she remained a presence, a sort of shadow, a cloud, sometimes close, sometimes almost unnoticed. Contrary to the implication of the social workers’ refrain that having other children would  erase or at least the diminish the pain of losing your first, I continued to suffer from my loss.

I do not believe that I compared my raised daughters unfavorably to my vanished daughter. However, I did feel that Rebecca had been a sacrifice of sorts for my raised daughters and I felt incredibility guilty. I pressured (or at least strongly encouraged) my raised daughters to do well in school, in sports, in life in general, perhaps so that their lives could justify excising their sister and so that they would not follow in my path. Yet I sometimes thought I surely must have it backwards--if Rebecca was indeed better off than she would have been with me, then shouldn't I have relinquished Anne, and her sisters, as well?

Now that my children are grown and I have reunited with Rebecca, I do not dwell on these questions. I am incredibly proud of all four of them, fortunate to be their mother.


  1. I like this post. I been reunited with my daughter lost to adoption and I often feel guilty because I really feel like I do put her up on a pedestal. I want to give her gifts when I can't afford them. It's not that I don't splurge on my raised sons but I do feel like it's a stronger urge in me to send gifts to surprise my daughter.

  2. It's odd... I never had another child and did not want one. Whether it was a psychological response to my fear that the social worker and my stepmother were right and that I was a horrible person.... or because I simply was afraid that someone would take away any baby I had, I don't know. But I know that nothing and no one could or can replace my daughter.

  3. Stay tuned, Lori, that is my situation--and we have a lot of company. I will be following up this post with my story as someone who never had another child after relinquishing the first.

  4. I knew as soon as my second child was born that he did not replace the first. I felt incredibly lucky to have him and be able to keep him. but I still missed my oldest child. No child ever replaces another, no matter how many one has. I know mothers who surrendered who had many more children, but that never makes up for the loss of the first.

    I had a lot of fears that something would happen to my other children when they were small, and that I did not deserve to have them. I did keep this to myself though, so as not to over-protect and stifle them. They have all grown up to be brave and adventurous and I am proud of them all, and grateful to know them as adults, including my firstborn. I do not take any of my kids for granted, and am fortunate to have them all in my life.

  5. February 13, 2012

    I'm glad I never had a second child, 'cause I about saw this happening to me. If I'd had a second child I'm sure I would not have been the best mother. There simply was too much resentment and bitterness from being bullied into signing over my first child to David McConkie, Colleen Burnham and their agency Children's Aid Society of Utah. Now that I'm in my fifties and survived that storm, despite being abandoned by all my relatives and friends, I'm glad I never had any other children. It was too much to bear coping with the loss of my son, so I know it would have been greatly too much to bear if I'd had another.
    Kathy Caudle
    First Mother

  6. My nmother had stillborn twins 8 years after I was born - she never did have another living child - she was pregnant one more time (miscarriage?)and more or less ran out of time after that (died a few years later).

    I just wish for her sake that she had had the opportunity to raise a child. She was very close to her young niece and nephew which is a blessing.

  7. I, too, never had another child after my bdaughter was born in 1969... Didn't get married until 1976 and THAT was a disaster! Left 11 months later after being thrown across the kitchen floor!! And then in 1980 had to have a hystercomy (sp?).
    But no regrets!

  8. And from the other side of the fence, adopted children do not replace a deceased biological child. Nor can they replace phantom bio-kids who never were.

    My first mother never had another child either. She told me that her biggest dream as a child was to grow up and have her own daughter. Well, she did. But because she didn't have one in the socially sanctioned way, society forced her into the 20th century equivalent of "off with her head". Adoption.

  9. My relinquished son was born in March of 2002. My partner and I had our daughter in August 2010. I was not prepared for the onslaught on grief that I felt for my son during her birth and her first few months.

    My daughter has healed me in someways-by helping to alleviate some of the idealism I carried for Gavin-but she was not intended as a replacement. I wanted to show everyone "See? I CAN be a mom and I COULD have done it with Gavin.".

    I had devastating post partum with Vivi. I really think I was borderline post partum psychosis.
    My OB and midwife were clueless to second/first baby syndrome. When they heard the words "post-partum" they instantly became suspicious that I would harm my daughter. What I couldn't vocalize and articulate to them was that I was AFRAID I would hurt her on accident. That I would make a careless mistake and my cover would be blown. I was a sham. I didn't deserve her because I deserted my first child.

    Nobody understood the catalyst of emotions I was feeling. Panic would set in when Vivi cried. Was I doing something wrong? Was I not good enough?

    It wasn't until months later that I realized how afraid I was of someone taking her away too. It took me far too long to truly bond with her. I didn't trust any of my maternal instincts as I had been force to shut them off in order to survive after Gavin.

    I too remember the pain of feeling how different it is when you have a "real" baby.
    It's a catch 22... I had just started a new job when Vivi was about 6 months old. Mother's Day in this office is very celebrated. I was given a special lunch for my "first Mother's Day". Imagine the betrayel my co-workers felt when they eventually learned I had a baby before.

    I was angry at my mother (who was actually "supportive" of the adoption-hindsight not so much) because of how much she helped and supported me as a new mom to Vivi! In my heart I wanted to tell everyone in my family and all of my friends that they didn't deserve to revel in the joy of my daughter because they didn't suffer the trauma and destruction of losing Gavin.

    Then I realized that they lost him too. As a mother I look at my daughter and cannot imagine watching her suffer through my trials of relinquishment. That pain is too strong and I know that it will break her, just like it broke me for years.

    I have been through therapy etc. and feel like I am in good place regarding being a first mother. The scab gets torn off unexpectedly from time to time, but for the most part life is sweet.

    I have contact with Gavin and I was so afraid that he would feel second rejection because I kept her and not him. I was wrong...he is excited that he can see himself in Vivi's face. They have the same hands and feet too.

    I will never really know what I lost when I let him go, but I know how much I gained by holding on.



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