' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The Hard Realities of an Adoptee/Birth Mother Reunion

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Hard Realities of an Adoptee/Birth Mother Reunion

Lorraine and Jane, spring of 1982, soon after reunion in NYC
Reunions are at first ecstatic, then blissful, but then you may feel as if you are swimming in a witches’ brew of eye of newt and toe of frog.

From a short visit of a few days, our times together expanded to be whole summers. I imagined glorious walks on the beach, sunset horseback riding—you know, the really terrific stuff about being a mother. What a wonderful time we would have! Getting to know each other, enjoying each other’s company! What could go wrong?

Plenty, is the short answer. Just as mothers and daughters who are not separated have “issues,”
we have Issues Plus. We have the residue of the past clinging to our walls like a layer of soot, impossible to wash away.

Like the time we go horseback riding. Since she’d never been riding before, I spring for a couple of lessons for her, thinking after that we can share a trail ride—in the outdoors, in the sunshine, surely it will be salubrious. The lessons are pricy, but the budget must be stretched, right? She is enthusiastic, I’m watching her and the instructor from the fence, all is going well—we have not asked the horse of course, and she’s probably irritated with a novice on her back. At the end of the hour, I’m on the ground, Jane is still mounted, and I reach up to scratch the horse’s neck, who quickly turns her neck and tries to nip my fingers. I pull back my hand before she treats it as if it were a carrot. “I wouldn’t care if she bit you,” Jane tosses out like a ball at batting practice. I recoil and walked away. Will she ever forgive me? Not today, anyway. It was near the beginning of a long summer visit, and I wondered if I had made a mistake—not just with the lesson, but having her stay with us for such an extended time. She had been eager when I asked, her parents had agreed, telling me they think it would be good for her self-esteem.

Little kids say a lot of things to their parents when they are mad, including I hate you! Although Jane was eighteen, her emotional age had not yet caught up to her chronological, and though I knew this intellectually, I’d lose sight of that when we were together. What I did not yet fathom was that in regards to me, Jane was a lost little kid, someone very mad at her mommy for abandoning her. But what did I know? There was no handbook on how to navigate a successful reunion between mother and child. We were making it up as we went along. Just when I thought everything was going great, she would unleash another arrow from her quiver and pierce that notion with the shock of a sniper. Later that day, we talked for quite a while. She did not really mean that. She did not want to go home. Okay, let’s move forward. Yet that kind of surprise attack—her blurting out what amounted to I am so mad at you for giving me up!—would occur again, and again.  

Today, all one need do is troll through the adoptee blogs and you come upon ample evidence of this kind of  behavior.  As one blogger explained:
"…at this stage of reunion, the adult me is not always in charge. Reunion can cause psychological regression. Though on one level I am still a (moderately) reasonable middle-aged woman—a wife, a mother, an employee –that's not all I am these days. There's another part of me that feels more like a toddler in the midst of a major daddy's-little-girl phase. For this inner-child me, no amount of contact is enough. How much would it take to fill the hole left by a 46-year absence?
“I'm aware that this is where many reunions get into trouble, and I'm trying not to fall into the trap of expectations that can never be met. I'm trying to acknowledge the child-me and let her have her say without allowing her to be the one in charge. She can sit around wailing "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" all day long, but when it's time to write an e-mail or pick up the phone, she needs to let the grown-up handle the job.” –Rebecca Hawkes at Lost Daughters blog, 10/10/12.
As for me, I didn’t know up from down those early years. I was consumed with guilt over giving her up I thought I could intellectualize away. I had my reasons, right? But while I hoped for healing—for both of us--spending time with her was a constant reminder of how I had failed her at the moment I should have kept her. And if she was a child emotionally, I regressed back to that sad and confused heap of raw emotion lying alone in a hospital bed waiting for Patrick [her biological father] to rescue us, to say we would be together, we could keep our daughter, a time when What the World Needs Now Is Love, More Love filled the airwaves. The feelings unleashed in me were as fresh as wet grass in the spring dawn. Yet I wasn’t really aware this was happening. I was supposed to be overjoyed I had found her, right? That she and her other family had accepted me, right? And she was here, in my home, everything was great, right? In fact, everything inside was roiling.

Was I guilty about having given her up? Was I guilty about the birth control pills—could they have been a factor in her epilepsy? Did I feel that I could never do enough to make up for the past, no matter how upright and caring her nuclear family had been? Was I aware of how much had been missed, how much was gone, what we could never get back? Did her spending time here with us exhaust me emotionally? Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh yes. I was trying to keep myself together, but I was teary, I was always on edge, I was a mess.

Despite her growing up in what seemed like a good, stable family, despite wondering how I could have handled the epilepsy on my own, I could never think, Yes, I did the right thing, Yes, it was good that she was adopted. Or at least, all right. The justifications might repeat in my brain—it was the times, it was the shame of it all, I was alone without a place I felt I could turn—but none of was enough to reach the core of me, that damned hole in my heart. If everything had been so fucking great, she wouldn’t be so defiantly angry, she wouldn’t unexpectedly lash out at me the way she did. I was defendant, judge and jury and the verdict was: guilty. --lorraine

PS: Jane ended up loving horseback riding, and it was something we did as often as possible, in New York, and in Wisconsin. 
The above may not be copied or republished with permission. Copyright, Lorraine Dusky, 2013.

Lost Daughters: My Overtime Mind: Who's in Charge of this Reunion?

Birthmark  "Sadly, every bit as relevant today as it was when it was written nearly thirty years ago - Birthmark poignantly spans [Dusky's] life from the time of her relationship that led to her pregnancy, through the birth of her daughter, and her inability to forget and get on with her life and despite having the career she thought giving up 'the child' would allow. It will be most relevant for those who thought they could give away a child and pick up the pieces of their educations and careers...and for all those who told us we could or should." --Mirah Riben at Amazon.

Please excuse my including my own book in this post. The passage above is from a memoir in progress. I'm writing as fast as I can. Birthmark is out of print but available from used book sellers.


  1. I really wish I could have experienced the blissful part of a reunion. But, I knew that my mother had buried her emotions far too deeply for me to reach her. The few emails I received from her were kind but emotionally distant.

    To the people who unequivocally love adoption, please tell me again why I am supposed to feel grateful. Through adoption, I permanently lost my mother. Yeah, I'm one lucky person, aren't I?

  2. I think you are way to hard on Jane. It makes me sick.

  3. Lorraine,

    I too struggle with the reasons why I gave my daughter away. Upon meeting her and hearing my voice searching for the words to tell her why I made that decision I realized that my reasoning as an eigtheen year old had not held up with the passing of 36 years. They had been reduced to lame excuses.

    I will be thinking about you and your daughter as we move on into this dreaded month of April when my teenage self keeps coming to the surface. How can I be so blessed to have her back and still so haunted? Adoption and its baggage never goes away.

  4. @anonymous 8:50 am

    What? She is speaking the truth about her reunion experience and all you can do is bash her?

    Did she not say she is and was "consumed by guilt" and how she felt she "failed her"? Nothing is ever, ever good enough. Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

    You make me sick, anonymous, literally.

  5. I had a similar experience to you Lorraine, only it was my first mother who doled out the snide remarks. Our time together would be going smoothly and then suddenly, ZING! she would say something vicious.
    It was mind boggling.
    Afterwards, I always wondered what prompted the attacks. Even she couldn't explain it. There seemed to be some kind of buried rage that she didn't know what to do with, so she tried to take it out on me.
    Unfortunately, all it did was push me away.
    Even now, years later, I still feel sad when I think about what could have been. And what will never be.
    Such a waste.

  6. I think, in my logical mind, that a lot of the negative that happens in reunion is a combination of anger - from both - and guilt, again from both. We say and do things that make no sense, things that are hurtful. I know that my blog is often a bone of contention with my daughter. But we talked about it... and it is, truly, simply me growing and the journey that I am on.... I will, however, attempt to be more sensitive to her and her feelings.

    But because we live on opposite sides of the issues, well, that may be difficult.

    As for Anonymous - Shut up. You obviously did not read the entire thing and are coming from an angry place of your own. Please refrain from abusing others because of this. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for sharing this; I know it could not have been easy and I respect you for remembering it with clarity and not allowing time to errode these moments and etch them into something else.

    Like Anon. 11:15 I am on the opposite end, in reunion with my First Mother but finding it difficult to bridge the gap. I have been on the receiving end of cruel remarks and one liners.

    I have been searching here for a rationale for her behaviors and this helps offer insight.

    I too harbored guilt because I was not the adoptee that craved reuinion or felt incomplete without it. I thought maybe it was my fault; that she couldn't forgive my perceived indifference and lack of initial searching? I'm not indifferent, but it may have seemed that way to her?

    I suspect now that it is her guilt overriding much of our shared experiences coloring them in a negative light.

    Maybe in time that can change. I can wait.

    Beth AA

  8. Sorry to hear that Beth and
    Anonymous, that your mother was the supplier of the hurtful zingers. Since Jane and I talked about her comment when we got back to the house, it really helped a lot. I told her I wasn't mad, just hurt.

    I think neither side means to hurt the other person, perhaps, but is so damanged by the situation that it comes out like that: hurtful.

  9. Anonymous 11:15 wrote: "I had a similar experience to you Lorraine, only it was my first mother who doled out the snide remarks. Our time together would be going smoothly and then suddenly, ZING! she would say something vicious.
    It was mind boggling.
    Afterwards, I always wondered what prompted the attacks. Even she couldn't explain it. There seemed to be some kind of buried rage that she didn't know what to do with, so she tried to take it out on me.
    Unfortunately, all it did was push me away."

    Same here. Her explanation: "I cannot help it."

    It's heartbreaking.


  10. My mother had passed but the hardest part for me is that any close famial relationship should equal shared memories - the fact that it doesn't, creates a disconnect that can lead to anger or pull back etc. So what I am trying to say is that so many things collide that teasing apart exactly *what* causes the *problems* is hard. I honestly don't think a lot of it is personal, rather the aftermath of the separation and our understanding of how that relationship was supposed to work out but didn't, and it catches you unaware and hard to overcome in the heat of the moment.

  11. Unfortunately, my first mother's comments were biting, cruel and intensely personal, often directed at my husband and my children who were very young at the time and had done nothing but love their grandmother unconditionally. The comments became so toxic, there was no way a healthy relationship could continue. Like I said before, it was unfortunate.

  12. How I wish there was an element of anger underlying reunion with my adult child. At least I'd know I did something wrong. Twenty hours of talk time isn't a whole lot to base things on, and I purposely made sure I only responded accordingly, that I was respectful of his parents and didn't bring up his adoption unless he asked. It's been over a year and a half into a silent reunion, so I just figured I'm not good enough for him now, same as they said over twenty-two years ago. I'm a very literal-minded person and would welcome a feck-off from him. At least I'd know for sure.

  13. I love when you post previously unposted pics of you & Jane, love it!

  14. Thanks Daisy! There is another one I am particularly looking for. It was on my bulletin board for years but was taken down in a purge of said bulletin board a couple of years ago. I said, now I know I will want this again...well, now I do and I can't find it. But I know it is in my office somewhere and will emerge.

    I love posting the pictures of the two of us also.

  15. Lorraine - I *love* this picture of you and Jane!

    You said, "The justifications might repeat in my brain—it was the times, it was the shame of it all, I was alone without a place I felt I could turn—but none of was enough to reach the core of me... I was defendant, judge and jury and the verdict was: guilty."

    I totally get this, boy, do I *totally* get this.

    Thanks again for that wonderful photo of you and your daughter.


  16. Wow...I think it's appalling that she gave up Jane due to epilepsy....but then, I guess it's better she DID give her up if she couldn't handle it to someone who could. My husband found his birth mother at 48 yrs old, and it went well until they had an issue over her conversion to Judaism. She refused contact after that....my husband was hurt and shocked that she would "abandon" him again....but fortunately, his ties with his adoptive family are strong and I think he is grateful that she gave him life, and that he got to find out his roots. It's a hard road for both birth mother and adopted child, but I give these birth mothers so much credit for having these children to begin with and giving them a chance at life.

  17. I was at Disney with my relinquished daughter and granddaughter and my two raised kids. What could be more perfect, right? But no, instead on the last night I couldn't sleep and stayed up all night crying. In the morning as my daughter and granddaughter were getting packed I decided they were planning on having breakfast by themselves. They were not. It was my mind doing tricks. I have no idea if I said rude things. I am a lovely person (if I do say so myself) but I was frankly out of my mind grieving the loss of my daughter.
    That trip was two years ago and we have weathered that storm. But she is just like me and we never talk about the unpleasant things that arise. It's hard to get real close when you don't talk about the scary stuff. But we're only three years in so who knows where we'll go in time. I don't want to push, just be there loving her all the time.

  18. Barbara, I wish I could say it got easy. Up, down, Up down, it went all through the years, and the good years very very good.

    She told me things right before she died that I will always cherish, though. All you can do is hang in there.

  19. Lorraine and Barbara,

    Sharing what you have shared is most helpful for me as I try to understand the behavior of my mother even after over 22 years in reunion.

    The first few years were awesome. I was pregnant with my first child when we met for the first time. After several years...things started going less favorable and currently we are pretty estranged.

    The example you wrote Barbara where you stated you thought your daughter and granddaughter had planned to have breakfast "on their own" reminded me of some of the things my mother has "thought" too. An example is my mother coming to watch my daughter in a college sports competition. Before my daughter's race (she's a cross-country runner)she was characteristically focused on mental preparation and "didn't seem to want her grandma even there" as stated by my mother. That was not the case at all but she had it in her head that she was not welcome at the competition. She was visibly angry about something the entire time but wouldn't say anything about her feelings until several days later on the telephone to me. (btw,since my daughter is an adult, I do think she should have talked with her about her feelings but, I digress)I tried to point out to my mother that she wasn't paying attention to us either before the race and that she was always very focused on preparation before her races but my mother would hardly listen. It was like there was no changing her mind that she was NOT welcome there. She hasn't been to another race since :(

    Over the years MANY similar types of scenarios have played out and to be honest...I am plumb exhausted from it all. It seems maybe she's decided it's more trouble than it's worth as she completely ignored my children's birthdays this year without so much as a phone call to wish them a "Happy Birthday."

    I am at a complete loss as how to move our relationship forward. I understand the damage that adoption had done to BOTH of us but I am the only one that's done any work (reading, therapy, conferences, etc) to try to understand both perspectives. I'm feeling like the finality of our relationship is "written on the wall" so to speak. Any thoughts/suggestions?

  20. Thanks for this post, Lorraine. I have often commented that reunion is a minefield. I see both parties as loaded guns, loaded with bullets of the past and things we can't change and often, can't explain to the satisfaction of the other. I love the quote from the daughter's blog. I really wish there were a good "pre-reunion" handbook and then wonder if it would do any good when emotions are so intense. In the end, when I talk about it to anyone seeking reunion is that, when you reunite, Go Gently. I did learn something about myself that helped me. I was, once again, counting on reunion to make me better, to be OK. And that is something you still have to go inward to accomplish. Go Gently.



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