' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Secrets in adoption: Dealing with betrayal of lies by omission

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Secrets in adoption: Dealing with betrayal of lies by omission

Lorraine, not quite incognito
Sunday's New York Times had an essay called "Great Betrayals," about the victims of long held lies in their families. The psychiatrist who wrote the essay, Anna Fels, tells of a friend whose husband had hid a huge credit card debt, and even after divulging the secret, he continued to lie about the amount and refuse to divulge how the money was spent. The wife was left to puzzle it out for herself. "The disclosure wreaked financial and emotional havoc on their family," writes Fels.

She then discusses how clients of hers dealing with the revelation of "new, pivotal information" were often left to deal with the emotional jolt on their own. Society is likely to forgive the miscreant who kept the secret, but the victim gets little support. Writers have the option of making sense of the secret they were not in on through writing, but others don't. As Fels notes:

"But for the people who have been lied to, something more pervasive and disturbing occurs. They castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on. The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been na├»ve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.

"Insidiously, the new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect: what was really going on that day? Why did the spouse suddenly buy a second phone 'for work' several years ago? Did a friend know the truth even as they vacationed together? Compulsively going over past events in light of their recently acquired (and unwelcome) knowledge, such patients struggle to integrate the new version of reality. For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new 'true' version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous."
Late discovery adoptees (LDAs) leapt to mind right away, because their confusion and anger over finding out they were adopted does all the things that Fels mentions: undermines the truth of their personal history. Makes them question this or that comment by a family member, a comment that always struck them as a little odd. Why did Aunt Gloria wonder who was getting the family jewelry, when I am the only daughter? Is that what Grandma meant when she said something to Mom about "one of her own"? What else have I been lied to about?

Children born of "donor" sperm or donor eggs (neither are not donated, but purchased instead) are also likely to grow up with the truth of their origins shrouded from them. While telling them may be difficult, knowing the reality of their biological origins can only help them understand themselves, their lives, and why they may not copy or mimic their parents in psychological traits and physical characteristics that would seem natural. Adolescence is hard enough without the extra burden of a sense that "something isn't right" about one's parents. "The effects of family secrets on parent-to parent and parent-to-child relationship are destructive," write Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor write in Lethal Secrets. "Nowhere in the psychological literature is there any evidence to justify secrets, nor are there any studies that indicate the value of secrets. There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary." That is quite the understatement.

First mothers who keep the secret of an earlier child from their spouses, and later, their children, perpetrate a similar situation. I'm venturing that along with the shame that these mothers incorporated into their persona over the years, an innate awareness of how this revelation will affect others is obviously the reason that so many birth mothers and fathers have a near impossible time fessing up when the phone rings, the letter arrives, and it's time to fess up. They can't face the reaction their secret will incur. They can't face admitting to the secret child, not only because of the fact of the child, but because they have kept up this lie of omission for so long. I clearly remember the exact scene when I told my mother about my daughter, a secret I'd kept for eight years--the upscale restaurant I'd taken her to for lunch, how she sat on the banquette side of the table, what we ordered, how I waited until the drinks arrived, how suddenly she couldn't eat when the sauteed filet of sole appeared. I also had to admit that the time I insisted I had mononucleosis I was actually out of work waiting out my pregnancy. The restaurant is long gone, but I still think about that moment when I'm back in Dearborn and drive past its location. It wasn't easy fessing up; it never is.

Fels notes that the victims of such lies are counseled to move on, to put it behind them, to focus on the future. Mercifully, my mother absorbed the news and she heartily backed my decision to go public and face the gossip sure to occur in her apartment building. However, my mother's sense of being out of the truth loop is not really on the same plane as that of a spouse who doesn't know about a first child, or an adoptee who doesn't know his true status. Fels cautions: "[I]t’s not so easy to move on when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on. Perhaps this is why many patients conclude in their therapy that it’s not the actions or betrayal that they most resent, it’s the lies."

Still a classic
So many of us from the era of closed adoptions are still dealing with the secret, with the shame, as events and circumstances have moved into an era of greater openness. But the longer we keep these secrets locked in, the harder it will be to reveal them, the more difficult it will be for the people who have been lied to. When the lost child does return--and more and more are--the secret will make having a relationship more chancy, particularly if he or she is then expected to stay unknown to other family members, people to whom they are related by blood. Despite the personal difficulties some first mothers will face when revealing a secret child, despite what we may have been told in the dark ages of adoption decades ago, I firmly believe we have a responsibility to those children lost to adoption. Just by being born, we owe our lost-and-now-found children acknowledgment, at least one meeting, a truth-telling that reveals the son or daughter's whole story. The best of all possible worlds is to then have the openness and courage to allow them to know their sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents too, for these people are their family too. It is the only humane course of action.

Likewise, adoptive parents who have kept the truth of their child's origins from them owe them that reality--as soon as possible--however hard it might be to actually say the words. I remember consoling a woman in her thirties who found out she was adopted when she was divorcing. In an argument with her husband, she mentioned her "mother," and he shouted back: "She's not even your mother--YOU'RE ADOPTED!" Inexplicably, her family had told him she was adopted, and still kept the secret from her. Maybe they hoped he would tell her one day, and exonerate them from the responsibility; but this awful scene is how their passing the buck played out. All I could do was sympathize and give her a glass of wine. I have no idea if she was able to reconcile with her adoptive parents.


It's been noted that those kept children of first mothers who have the hardest time incorporating the lost- child-now-reunited into the family scheme are those who grew up thinking they were the eldest, or "first" child of their mothers, when they were not. Being first instills its own veneer of pride and responsibility, of specialness, and when suddenly they learn they are not the eldest, they feel somehow scammed. Their position in the family scheme has been downgraded to not firstborn, but second. They are not quite so special. Letting go of the secret earlier is always better than later, for then a son or daughter can be the first raised, and not feel usurped when a lost "first" child returns.

My hope is that more people find the courage to let go of their secrets and tell the person or people it will most affect. If any adoptive parents have children of any age they have not told about being adopted, don't wait another day. If any birth mothers and fathers are still hiding their secret, tell your spouse, tell your children, tell the relatives. If not now, when? The longer you wait, the harder it's going to be. --lorraine

Speaking Out Makes A Difference!!!

Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience Therapist and adopted herself, Betty Jean Lifton looked at adoption from all sides of the triangle: adoptee, birth mother, adoptive parents. Anyone involved closely in adoption will gain insight and understanding of the complex and confusing issues that adopted people confront. This book will be an enduring classic in the field for many years to come.
Order by clicking on title or jacket.

Lethal Secrets In the world of alternative means of conception, donor insemination is the most available and successful, but the child must always know the truth of his or her origins. Not only with such primal information help the individual understand himself, he needs to be provided with updated medical information every step of the way. There is no other moral way to bring such a child into the world, for without complete information, a parent--either the sperm or egg donor--creates an individual with a known deficit, starting with the lack of a medical history and moving to those missing psychological pieces which are the building blocks of an integrated personality.

The late Annette Baran and Rueben Pannor were both social workers were pioneers in the adoption reform movement, and with Arthur D. Sorosky, M.D., wrote The Adoption Triangle, the seminal study about the corrosive effect of sealed records.


  1. Another big secret I see often lamented in adoptoland: first mothers withholding the name of the father from their relinquished child.

    Even if it hurts to tell, we all have fathers. Please don't keep this secret. Everyone has a right to know the identity of both of their parents.

  2. I think in many of those cases, the mother does not really know who the father is, and has to admit that there is more than one candidate for paternity. If that is what you are facing, I would bring up the possibility myself, gently, without accusation, and see if that opens the floodgate of truth.

    Be gentle!

  3. That was not the issue in my situation. There was out-and-out lying and obstruction. The case was solved on my end eventually, but when I figured out that she did know all along, it left a sour taste in my mouth. I was very gentle indeed, but the favor was not returned. If a mother doesn't know, that's one thing. But lying about the situation isn't very kind. It hurt when I found out that my mother had lied to me, once I discovered who my father was.

    I am not the only adoptee I know, not by a long shot, who has been told by her mother that the identity of our father is unknown when it *is* known. It can be a matter of a mother self-protecting to the detriment of her child's health and other well being, in the same way that the adoptee's very existence is kept hidden from the mother's family sometimes.

    You may disagree.

  4. Sure, of course, there are women who truly are uncertain of or flat out do not know the identity of the father of their children.

    But, in my experience, far more mothers know the name and choose to withhold it.

    I'm one of the lucky ones. My mother gave me my father's name. She's a very private woman, so in retrospect I am surprised that she gave me the name. However, I made it clear that learning his name was imperative. Maybe she thought I wouldn't go away without it.

    But, I do believe that most mothers who do not give the father's name do know it and just choose, for whatever reason, not to reveal it.

    I can only imagine the frustration of having your own mother deny you access to half your DNA.

  5. Well thought out and oh-so-relevant post, Lorraine. Anon @ 8:03 pm, I am not adhering strictly to the adoption world here, but I want to add how important it is for EVERYONE to know the truth about their roots, which includes both parents. And, the earlier the better because the fewer the number of years that you feel you have been living a lie.

    I have a friend whose mother died in an accident when she was 2. Her father remarried and she grew up believing her step-mother was her mother. The day before her wedding, she confronted her parents (Dad and step-mom) after discovering some telling photos (including one of her mother, of whom she is the spitting image) - and finally learned the truth. Much of her trauma, especially during her teen years when she felt something was "off" about her relative to her brother and sister (half-siblings who she thought were full siblings) might have been avoided or at least reduced if she had known the truth earlier. Much fresh sorrow on her wedding day too, with the brand new discovery that her mother was dead.

  6. Annette (Baran) and Reuben (Pannor) wrote an excellent book on the topic entitled: Lethal Secrets.

    Just think: adopters used to be ENCOURAGED to keep it a secret so the child didn't feel "different."

  7. I think another reason for withholding the father's name is the ongoing anger we have towards the father. Many of us feel we were abandoned by him in our time of greatest need so keeping him away upon reunion is payback.

    I'm not advocating for this type of behavior, I just suspect it can be an unconscious (or conscious) rationalization for withholding his name.

  8. Lying about anything to an adoptee totally sucks! And I am completely baffled why a woman would keep or continue to "protect" a father in this case. I am baffled by this behavior, but since I've heard about it before, and now here again of course it goes on.

    Why? I wish some first mother would offer a reason.

  9. Lethal Secrets is mostly about donor insemination. I think I will add that to the post--thanks
    Mirah. \

    Jay: Yikes, what a stupid thing--to lie to anyone growing up about the reality of her life. And what trauma to learn all this the day before she marries herself.

    Yes, knowing that she had a different mother--which the chicken-shit father must have confronted all the time since she looked like her mother--would have made her life easier. As I have written before, my older brother is my half-brother and not knowing that would have left a lot of questions in my mind--about why he was so NOT LIKE my father, and so different in many ways than my younger brother and me. His natural father I am sorry to say was a total jerk who made absolutely no effort to see him after my mother left him when he became abusive. Forget child support--as my parents did--there was not a single visit from him ever, and so it was very easy to keep the truth from me, who came along eight years after he was born. I found out when I was seven and learned about my mother's first marriage--and my brother's biological father. It was traumatic--because of the Catholic rules--but it made sense to me. Truth will out, and it's always better earlier rather than later.

  10. To Maybe,

    I think you're right.

    And, it is completely the wrong thing for mothers to do. Sure, they may hurt the fathers. But, they will hurt their children even more.

    Poor Veronica was caught up in a similarly ridiculous power play. It seems to me the mother just didn't want the father to have Veronica if the mother couldn't have her.

    I know that our mothers, for whatever reason, couldn't be there for us when we were children. Many of them cannot be there for us now. But, we deserve to know who our people are on both sides of the family.

    To know and not tell is one of the most selfish things a mother can do to her child. It's selfish because it denies us our full genetic identities. But, it goes beyond that. This selfishness can also be lethal. Lacking that important information puts the adoptee's health at risk.

    I'm guessing that there are mothers who read this blog who are on the fence about entering into reunion and disclosing information. If you don't want an ongoing relationship with your child, that's your right. But, please tell your child his/her father's name.

  11. Added to the post today:

    Children born of "donor" sperm or donor eggs (neither are not donated, but purchased instead) are also likely to grow up with the truth of their origins shrouded from them. While telling them may be difficult, knowing the reality of their biological origins can only help them understand themselves, their lives, and why they may not copy or mimic their parents in psychological traits and physical characteristics that would seem natural. Adolescence is hard enough without the extra burden of a sense that "something isn't right" about one's parents. "The effects of family secrets on parent-to parent and parent-to-child relationship are destructive," write Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor write in Lethal Secrets. "Nowhere in the psychological literature is there any evidence to justify secrets, nor are there any studies that indicate the value of secrets. There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary." That is quite the understatement.

  12. Wow, Lorraine, your story is so similar to my friend's. Being somewhat new here, I didn't know.

    I think I understand what Anon @ 9:24 pm means by the mother "self-protecting." My former foster daughter Nina's father is "unknown" but I have reason to believe her mother knows more than she is admitting. In Nina's case, I suspect her mother is "self-protecting" because she almost lost her daughter once (to the state, when Nina ended up in foster care due to neglect) and she is afraid of losing her again. Not reason enough to keep the information from Nina, but just saying I think this is why.

  13. I want to add that I have commented previously about a single woman acquaintance of mine who should be having her baby, conceived through artificial insemination, any day now. The baby will know his/her father's identity from the earliest he/she is able to understand. The baby will also be in contact with half-siblings who share the same father. The father has asked that none of the children contact him before they turn 18 - I am assuming to avoid paying child support.

  14. Jay: Not similar to my story: My older brother always knew he had a different father; no one told me until I asked about why my mother didn't take Communion at Sunday Mass, as I was preparing for my First Communion. Seven wasn't a terrible time to learn this, and it was about my brother, not about me.

  15. Jay Iyer,

    That's interesting.... I don't know the child support laws in other states. But, from a cursory reading of the laws in Florida, I understand that 18 is not a magic number. The non-custodial parent doesn't magically become absolved from having to pay child support (for ages 1 to 18)to the custodial parent solely because the child has reached adulthood. The parent who raised the child can seek child support for all the years of non-support, even after the child is legally an adult. From what I've read, there is no time limit.

  16. Ah, Lorraine, I missed from your narrative that your older brother knew he had a different father. Wish my friend had been told from the start although now, many years later, she is at peace with her parents (step-mom was always good to her and she regards her as her mother).

    Back then (1960s), as you know in regards to adoption, they truly believed that what the child doesn't know can't hurt them and it is OK to pretend they are completely and totally someone else's child. That is what my friend's father believed - that as a 2 year old, she does not need to know about a parent who isn't around anyway. Wrong, obviously.

  17. Lorraine - please forgive my ignorance of Catholicism - but was your mother not allowed to take communion because she was divorced? Is that how it works?

  18. I was in an "unwed mothers" home in the 70's and of about 20 girls I can't think of one who didn't know who the father was(I'm sure there are a few) although they told the social workers they didn't know. Sometimes the social worker would write "ubknown" so they didn't have to contact the father,fill out more paperwork,stir things up even more, whatever. In most instances it was the girl's boyfriend.

  19. HDW wrote:"This selfishness can also be lethal. Lacking that important information puts the adoptee's health at risk."

    That's exactly what almost happened to me only a few months ago. I was having a health issue that I assumed was minor and decided to put off going to the doctor right away. But what happened to my natural father kept coming into my mind (as if my subconscious was trying to warn me), so I decided to go to the doctor anyway, just in case. Well, it's a good thing I did. The doctor said if I had waited 24 hours I would have ended up in the hospital. And if I waited any longer than that, I probably would have ended up in the morgue. There is no question that knowing my father saved my health and, very possibly, my life.

  20. H2o girl: Yes, Communion in the Catholic Church (unless this has changed) requires that the individual taking Communion (a sacrament) be in a "state of grace" to receive the Lord in Communion, and since Catholics recognize no divorce (other than an annulment, very difficult to get, esp. if there are children), anyone who is divorced and remarried is automatically not in a state of grace. Getting ready for First Communion you are taught the rules quite completely, and learning of my mother's first marriage--in the Church--just about broke my seven-year-old heart, for it meant my Mama would have to have Confession and denounce her marriage to my father before she could take Communion, or even, get into Heaven. It was very scary for me. I wept. So did my mother as she told me. But I am always glad that she simply told the truth when I asked: Why don't you go to Communion (when we go to Mass on Sunday)? She could have legally divorced, but it was the remarriage that was the coup de grac.

    The Church may have relaxed some of these rules, but this, and the absolute ban on abortion, are a big reason that The Catholic church is having trouble keeping the faithful--faithful--and filling the pews on Sunday.

  21. Anon @ 1:13 pm, good point about the child support issue. I don't know much about how contracts are set up with artificial insemination, but I am assuming the woman getting inseminated absolves the sperm donor of all responsibility in exchange for complete legal and physical custody (i.e., the donor disclaims all parental rights?) But it's interesting that you could contractually decline child support on behalf of your child before he/she has a chance to even know the father.

  22. "Children born of "donor" sperm or donor eggs (neither are not donated, but purchased instead) are also likely to grow up with the truth of their origins shrouded from them."

    That claim about being purchased, is not universally true. Selling your gametes is illegal in the Netherlands, for instance. It is a bit of an upgrade if the donor has really been a donor, I suppose.

  23. "But, in my experience, far more mothers know the name and choose to withhold it."

    Because in many cases she never told the boy/man that he was going to be a father. He never even knew the child existed, and the mother knows this. She's afraid of what may happen when he finds out, so she keeps his name a secret from his son or daughter.

    Sorry if this was mentioned before. I didn't have time to read through all of the comments when this idea came to me.

  24. My son didn't want to know about his father. Period. I went to a lot of trouble to find the father and get some pictures since the idiot took all my pictures mega years ago when I split.

    Son was furious. It took me quite some time to "get it". How was I to know?

  25. Robin, agree with you 100% My foster daughter Nina's dad does not know she exists. Nina's mom and I had a conversation about it a few years ago, and she expressed her fears to me about losing Nina. At the time, she had just reunified with Nina so I can see how it was a very vulnerable time for her. But to this day, she has chosen to remain silent about it - to both Nina and her dad (whoever that may be)

  26. The comment that I just addressed to Robin registered as "Anonymous" but it is me, Jay Iyer

  27. Sara C:

    I am sorry that your son was angry when you tried to give him information about his father. I am sure that was upsetting to you. Some adoptees may never want to know about their fathers. It's more about having the information when we ask for it, maybe.

    I would have been overjoyed to have my mother give a name and photographs.

    Lorraine, thank you for saying that lying to adoptees about anything is upsetting. I know some first mothers who keep their relinquished children secret from their families as a whole when they are supposedly in "open" adoptions. That troubles me. How open can an adoption be, if a son or daughter is not known to the extended family? What happens when the adoptee asks to meet grandma and grandpa one day? Will the mother close the adoption? Act like a deer in the headlights and pass along feelings of judgment? Choose her parents, as she did before?

    I don't understand. I simply cannot buy into the idea of an "open" adoption that isn't truly open. I am sure that there are mitigating circumstances, but in some of these cases, the mothers have simply admitted that they're cowards, and continue the lies. I hope they will find courage before their young children are put in a place of taking on the burden. What's worse is that some of these cases involve children of mixed race (the mothers are white). What might repeated denial do to these children's self-esteem? The problem of racism is always there; what are the children internalizing?

  28. Sara C: I couldn't agree with you more. And adoption that is supposed to be open and isn't fully O P E N is damaging.

  29. Jay,

    His reasons were never fully explained to me. He said that all of his adoptee friends were adopted because the fathers failed the mothers. That was true in my case and he was disgusted that I married the father later.

    The primary reason I think was he was very close to his father and the only son.

  30. Interesting story: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/03/242403608/open-secret-when-everyone-knows-who-your-real-mom-is-except-you

  31. Hello, I am particularly interested in reading more about the first-kept child's experiences on learning of their older sibling. I've been the "first born" for 43 years only to find out I am actually not and I'm experiencing the most colossal feelings of loss and that my universe is imploding.

    There is so much out there for everyone else in the adoption fallout zone but this forum post is the only thing I can find that relates to my situation.
    Thank you.

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