' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Why not choose adoption? The longterm effects of relinquishing on first mothers

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why not choose adoption? The longterm effects of relinquishing on first mothers

In the last post,* we dealt with the corrosive effect of secrecy in adoption, and some wrote about the secrecy that many first mothers cling to even years later. Some are so far in the closet they cannot tell their families about a reunited son or daughter, thus denying them knowing their siblings, grandparents, the family to which they were born. Unquestionably, that is sad and continues the trauma of the initial separation from the natural mother. Today I write about the trauma that makes birth mothers who have been in the closet so long stay there.
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Adoption is trumpeted today as a universal good thing. For infertile couples who wish to have a family, it is a solution. For religious organizations and fellow-travelers, agencies that use the mantle of religion, it is a business. For liberals who want to do good and keep the sense of family about them, it is a way to keep population growth down. Celebrities adopt and get on the cover of magazines, thus
encouraging ever more people to raise other people’s children. A liberal think-tank, the Center for American Progress, in a white paper called The Adoption Option [1] encourages women to surrender their babies in order for the mothers to have a better life. What is rarely talked about is the long-term mental and physical effect of surrendering a baby to others for adoption. One expects short-term grief in the aftermath of signing away one’s rights to a child one has borne, but what of the long-term lasting impact, four, five—twenty—years later?

We are not doing so well. While there are millions of us out there, we are hard to study and pin down—we do go on and have lives and get swallowed up by a code of silence that many families and friends adopt. But the toxic aftermath of the decision to relinquish shows up in all the research that does exist:

A British study of 93 birth mothers[2] found that while only an insignificant proportion of these women had been diagnosed with a mental health problem before adoption  (3 percent), in the time between the parting and contact, 24 percent had a psychiatric diagnosis mainly for depression, with half of them having had inpatient treatment. Not surprisingly, mothers who felt compelled to search for their children were those who fared the worst.

An Australian study of over two hundred first mothers[3]found that more than a quarter of them (28 percent) reported below-average adjustment at the time they were questioned, many up to twenty years later, and half reported an increasing sense of loss since placing their children. A comparison group of women who had not given up children were found to be in sounder mental health than the women who had. Authors of the study identified three risk factors that exacerbated the difficulty of “adjustment,” for want of a better word: lack of opportunities to talk about their feelings related to surrender; no social support; and ongoing sense of loss. Yes, support groups and friends who allow first mothers to talk about their sorrow may help, but they do not alleviate the overall sadness that permeates their lives.

A survey of the available dozen studies of the aftermath of relinquishing a child found a grief reaction “unique” to the mother  that left her “at risk for long-term physical, psychologic, [as is] and social repercussions.”[4] The authors concluded that while the mothers’ reactions were similar to normal grief, in birth mothers these reactions persist and “often lead to chronic, unresolved grief.” The authors eliminated any study which included adolescents. “Although interventions have been proposed,” they wrote, “little is known about their effectiveness in preventing or alleviating these repercussions.”

A survey of more than 300 birth parents, most of them members of Concerned United Birthparents ( a group formed of mostly mothers who have relinquished children), found that surrendering a child was perceived by them as having a profound negative effect on their later lives, particularly in the area of marriage, fertility and parenting.[5] Critics might argue that they were self-selected to be skewed towards pathology, as they were largely members of an organization devoted to the issues surrounding surrender and its impact on the surrendering parent, but nonetheless, the results mirror the studies done by impartial and uninvolved researchers.

In one of the earliest books to investigate the effect of adoption on birth mothers, The Adoption Triangle,[6] the authors (a psychiatrist and two social workers) found that in numerous letters from first mothers collected years after surrender, “there was still the intensity of feeling and the need to describe the pain, still carried within…. Even if the birth parents had become comfortable with the decision [to relinquish] because there were no viable alternatives, they nevertheless felt loss, pain, mourning and a continuing sense of caring for that long vanished child.”

Another study available on line, the Birthmother Research Project,[7] found that on average women who surrender children are more likely to have hysterectomies than women who do not. Researcher J. Kelly, M.A. writes: "The survey results supported other research findings…that birthmothers experience difficulties with unresolved grief, traumatic stress symptoms, self-punishment, low self-esteem, arrested emotional development, living at extremes, difficulty forgiving oneself/others, being out of touch with feelings, difficulty giving/receiving love, relationship problems, self-hatred and dysfunctional sexual problems. Unresolved grief, self-punishment, and low self-esteem ranked highest among the difficulties identified as extreme, often or severe."

One often quoted study[8] that is used to promote adoption suggests that women who give up their babies are better off than similarly situated women who kept their babies. However, read farther into the study and you learn that a full third of the women who had relinquished were not at peace with their decision. Furthermore the results were highly skewed because a full third of the original participants—nearly 600—could not be located to complete the survey four years after relinquishment. What this suggests at the very least is that a large percentage of first mothers as they recover from the loss of their child, uproot themselves and disappear into different lives. From personal knowledge, I propose that they do so because for a great many of them, their old lives are no longer tenable, no matter the underpinnings that might make them seem so to an outsider. The loss of self-esteem is too great to endure once back in their earlier circumstances. I, for one, could never have gone back to The Democrat & Chronicle, the Rochester, New York newspaper where I was working when I became pregnant. I was ready to move to Puerto Rico or Canada. I eventually found a job in Albany and moved there, across the state.

Many of the women in this study were 21 and under and residents of a home for pregnant teens. Ten
percent of the women who surrendered their babies reported a great deal of regret, while 90 percent of the women who kept their babies reported no regret. Now it is true that mothers are not likely to say they regret keeping their children, but still, the findings show a marked negative impact on the mothers who surrendered.

Yet this study has been used to show that giving up a child can have a positive effect on the birth mothers because they are more likely to finish their education and less likely to be receiving public assistance, which is self-evident; to receive public assistance they would have to have a child! Furthermore, the mothers in this study were surveyed four years after relinquishment, and for many surrendering mothers the full extent of their grief is not realized until years later, when it comes out in a heated rush. They write of the emotional devastation that the surrender of their children has wrought throughout their lives in memoirs and various social networks, and comments left at numerous adoptee and first mother blogs.

This supposedly  “pro-adoption” study was done in the Nineties when open adoptions began to be more available, and two-thirds of the participants did help choose the adoptive parents. More than half of the respondents received follow up pictures and letters. But four years later, a mere twelve percent said they had phoned or visited since the child had been placed with a new family. Fully open adoptions were not typical. The one positive note is that those who helped choose the parents, and were not coerced into surrender, reported less grief and worry, and more relief and peace, than mothers who did not have this opportunity. Those who had the least regret and sadness had continuing contact with the adoptive family and their shared child. How great or small this number actually is remains unknown. According the Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption think-tank, mothers who enter into adoptions believing they will be open but find them later closed are, not surprisingly, the most stricken.

I did not have the security of knowing that I might know her one day. No one had broken any promises to me. Eventually, I did reunite with my daughter, and we had a sometimes calm and wonderful, sometimes rocky and turbulent, relationship for more than a quarter of a century. She committed suicide in 2007. My life today is full and good, but I will always be a woman about whom a well-known psychiatrist once said to his girlfriend (a friend of mine) during a pregnancy scare: You don't want to end up like Lorraine. I understood exactly what he meant, and I knew he understood everything.--lorraine 

(May not be copied or reprinted in any medium. Copyright, Lorraine Dusky, 2013)

[1] The Adoption Option: Adoption Won’t Reduce Abortion but It Will Expand Women’s Choices (October, 2010). For a fuller response from us is available at a permanent page that may be clicked to in the listing under the title of the blog.
[2] *The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of adoption, search and reunion experiences by John Triseliotis, Julia Feast and Fiona Kyle, 2005; The British Association for Adoption & Fostering.
[3] Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process, Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2006, revised 2007, pps. 46-50. The Australian study is one of several included in the Donaldson report.
[4] Askren, H. A. and Bloom, K. C. (1999), Postadoptive Reactions of the Relinquishing Mother: A Review. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 28: 395–400. doi: 10.1111/j.1552-6909.1999.tb02008.x
[5] Eva Y. Deykin, Dr. P .H., Lee Campbell, M.Ed., Patricia Patti, B.S.N., The Post Adoption Experience of Surrendering Parents, American Orthopsychiatric Association, 1984, pps. 271-280.
[6] Arthur D. Sorosky, Annette Baran, Ruben Pannor The Adoption Triangle: Sealed or Opened Records: How They Affect Adoptees, Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents (Garden City, 1989), Doubleday, Anchor Press, p. 72.
[7] J. Kelly, M.A., Birthmother Research Project
[8] Pearila Brickner Namerow, Debra Kalmus, and Linda Cushman,“The Consequences of Placing versus Parenting Among Unmarried Women, Families and Adoption (The Haworth Press) Vol.25, No. 3/5, 1997, pps. 175-197.

Waiting to Forget: A Motherhood Lost and Found by Margaret Moorman. A mother's story of coming to terms with the child she gave up for adoption over thirty years ago. In 1965 Margaret Moorman was unmarried, pregnant, and still in high school. Forced by societal pressures to give her baby up, she suffered emotional trauma both before and for years after the birth. At forty, she gave birth to a daughter and found herself terrified by the possibility of losing her younger child, a fear she can now trace back to her uncertain decision to give up her son. This is a wonderful read, enlightening, illuminating, evocative. If you haven't read it, you should.  

Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories This is an older book (1993) written by someone who is not part of the triad, making it especially poignant to read for Merry Bloch Jones really "got it." and tells the first mother story through intimate and stirring accounts of more than seventy women who surrendered babies. It follows their lives long-term, from discovery of their pregnancies through the present, and identifies the Birthmother Syndrome a pattern of behavior and emotions resulting from surrender. With heartwarming candor, it reveals the stories of the invisible side of the adoption triangle, and touches everyone involved in adoption, as well as anyone interested in motherhood, family and women in our society. In many ways, I prefer this book to The Girls Who Went Away.

The Adoption Triangle "A classic and the first to deal with how sealed and open records affect adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents. Originally published in 1978 and revised in 2008," ... it is as true and open as the changes advocated ... comprehensive, factual, forward looking, totally honest, readable and thoughtful..." Los Angeles Times

Order books by clicking on links or book jackets.


  1. You talk about mothers uprooting themselves into different lives. I'm a Southerner, but I live in Ohio now, and have for most of the past eleven years.

    I was in Louisiana, staying with my dad, when I signed the relinquishment for my son. Then I moved back to Memphis because of the "job market." (Dad would have let me stay with him, regardless.) I stayed there for about a year and then I moved north--first to Indiana, which didn't work out, and then here to Ohio, where I've been ever since, except for about five and a half months in Louisiana again.

    And if it hadn't been for Facebook I would be in touch with pretty much nobody from my old life. I had no idea this was A Thing we did, but I *did* have sort of a mental health collapse after I settled in here. I remember weeping as I talked with my then-new boyfriend about my son, and later going through several anxiety-depression cycles over a number of years that alienated me from pretty much all my local friends.

    And that was the obvious stuff. I had issues before then, from the time my ex-MIL picked up my son for a "temporary stay", onward. Easy irritability, greater impulsiveness, and so on. I got to the point that I would quit my job on a whim, no notice at all. As you can guess, all that past behavior seriously affects my life now.

    It wasn't til another first mother (Claudia) found me on the Internet that I began seriously entertaining the notion that all these issues might be grief-related.

  2. I wonder, has anyone collected stories/personal accounts from mothers and/or their reunited children? I was reunited with my mom at age 23, and she was thrilled to be found...as was my full sister, 15 months younger than me. My sister was kept - my mother actually went back to the adoption agency for counseling (one huge reason why I was able to find her so easily 30 years ago, before internet, etc.) and told them of her pregnancy, but said that she would NEVER go through giving up a baby again. She never got over giving me up. She suffered depression, alcoholism, moved across the country after having my sister, never had another child after my sister, never married again. (she was married to my birth father briefly, until she found out that his previous marriage was final one month BEFORE I was born...he could have married her just before or after my birth...and she could have kept me then.) Her parents forced her to surrender...along with the coercion by the agency, no help from anyone, (she BEGGED her sister to get an apartment with her, bought baby clothes, tried everything - refused to sign until I was 3 weeks old...visited me in the agency nursery once - unheard of in 1960) and abusive treatment at the hospital by the medical staff - she was a wreck. Horrible grief. Her parents sent her to California to her sister's for a few weeks to "recover". She came back and got back together with my father, who now said he was divorced and free to be together. (when in truth, he was "free" the month before I was born.) She was able to keep my sister because her father, who vehemently opposed her bringing "that bastard baby" home and refused to help her with me, had died during her pregnancy with my sister, and so then her mother helped her raise my sister. Now she is 78, has had depression for years, chronic pain, has isolated herself from others for years, and is now in the early stages of Alzheimers. I have no doubt that her having to surrender me directly impacted her mental and physical health. She did a very good job raising my sister - private parochial school, braces, flute lessons - but small apartment and no car - but I know it was hard, and my sister said she always had anger...and they were not well off, but still, she was a good mom. I'm sure that if she had been supported to keep me, she would have had a totally different outcome in her life. It makes me so angry, and so sad for her. I know the reunion has improved things for her somewhat - thank God for that - but still, the underlying illness and grief are there. Not a good outcome at all, for her. For me...Normal Rockwell childhood in a small midwestern town, not rich, not poor, just very nice, great adoptive parents and family whom I love dearly....but, always something missing, the wondering, the buried trauma and grief...not until I learned about the BSE just in the last YEAR has all my anger and grief come to the surface. But I'm most concerned for her. It isn't fair what happened to her. It totally sucks.

  3. Jane:
    Oh your story is so sad and it has probably been repeated more times than anyone knows.

    As for other stories, I am working on my memoir to be called Hole in my He♥rt, that covers the 26 years that my daughter and I knew each other. As I have said, it was tumultuous at times, great at others. It was our "normal," but of course it was not what the world knows as normal. I am sure you understand.

  4. While I believe it is vitally important that further studies of this nature are undertaken it always surprises me that it needs to be proved that separation causes harm.

    HELLO! A mother and child have been permanently separated. The idea that either party escapes unscathed is patently absurd

  5. Celebrity adopting again: Sandra Bullock getting a sibling for her first adoptee.

  6. Jane,
    Origins-USA collects the stories of first mothers. You read the stories of others by going to Origins-USA's web site and clicking on "Parents' stories." Origins-USA.

    There are many books telling the stories of first mothers and/or their reunited children including Lorraine's memoir "Birthmark." For a list of books, go to the Origins-USA website.

    Hope this helps.

  7. I managed the whole "give away your baby" thing for years by intellectualizing EVERYTHING to death. Someone once told me I was totally defended and until I killed my alligators, intimacy was hopeless.

    I went back to school with a vengeance 4 months later. I married the father a year and a half after the birth and moved with him to another state. As a military brat, I was an expert in moving on. He wanted me to get a full time job but I told him if I had to choose, he was the last consideration on my list. He had used his all up. We went off to grad school. He couldn't hack it. End of marriage.

    No one except my parents and he knew. It stayed that way until news and magazine articles started appearing. I did some research and shared my story with a male friend. I was told males rarely searched and the outcome might be bad.

    I let it go until alt.adoption in the mid 90s. My god ... so many of us; so much anguish; such horrible stories. And the angry adoptees!!! I had no idea. I had avoided adoptees.

    So I searched. It wasn't hard. But that brought a world of hurt and anger and depression and confusion. I tried therapy. That was fun when a year later I found out she worked with agencies. Trust was never one of my biggies. I had a deep depression, was misdiagnosed and over medicated. None of this was helpful to a reunion.

    Then I left my husband whose understanding ran to comparing me to a useless mother in-law. Says a lot about him.

    I didn't kill my alligators. They died of old age in their moat. I am at peace with myself. My melt down cost me a reunion, although I never involved him in it. I was angry, but not any more.

    I am 70 years old and this has been going on since I was 20. The secret led to losing touch with people then and after never making close friends again. I had always planned a career in politics but couldn't. I can't say it destroyed my life. I'm still here and healthy. Now I just try to understand and quietly cheer from the sidelines.

  8. Like you Lorraine, I was one of those mothers who felt compelled to search and couldn't imagine not searching. In my case, the drive may have been due to the fact that I felt forced to surrender as I had no other options. As of this writing, I can still hear the social worker's voice telling me repeatedly that "letting go" would be the loving choice. As things turned out, it was the choice from hell. Ironically, when I found, I was criticized in a numbers of circles for having even searched! Can you believe that! In my mind, I don't understand how a mother could NOT search for her child.

  9. I searched, and found my mother and entire family. My mother lashed out at me with a ferocity that took my breath away. I am now her worst enemy, because I bring back the pain she felt 50 years ago. There is no way I can ever be loved by my mother in this lifetime.

    I was compelled to search, and I wish I never had. I'm not the same person I was. I have no contact with my parents. They prefer the fog.

    The first rejection was anonymous, I was a newborn with no personality. Now it's personal. My mother and father know me and they do not like me, and what I have to say about being adopted. All their suffering and great sacrifice was for nothing.

    I love my mother dearly, and her treatment of me has caused me the worst pain in my life. I've sought therapy and tried medication, but nothing really helps. Meeting my family, and seeing how they've carried on their lives without me was a cruel blow. Both parents have other beloved children. They moved on, but I never could.

    I know my mother suffered deeply when she lost me. I know she is damaged. I know it's her, not me, but being treated like a monster by your own mother does something to a person. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

  10. @foundling,

    I wish your comment was in bronze on every courthouse in the nation. Although, even that probably wouldn't be enough. The fact that adoption damages both the mother and the child has been known at least since Florence Clothier in the 1940s. And there has been a lot more information released in the 60 plus years since then.

    What the family preservationist bloggers are writing, and what the commenters are saying is known. It is not falling on deaf ears. But there are powerful people, industries and influences that must divert it. The utterly sickening outcome in the Veronica Brown case is the clearest example I can think that shows how are message is still being stomped on.

  11. A comment was just deleted by mistake. It was about the Capobiancos and Dusten Brown. I am not sure which blog it was directed to.

    It was about focusing attention on another story, and since I can't read the entire comment until it is posted, I don't know the whole skinny. Could that individual please send me the comment at forumfirstmother@gmail.com, which is the best way to communicate with us. Thankx.

  12. Here's the comment that was inadvertently deleted:

    Carolyn K. has left a new comment on your post "Why not choose adoption? The longterm effects of r...":


    Could you post this article that came out today by ICTMN by the Charleston NAACP president? It would great to see peoples' comments!

    Baby Veronica & Baby Deseray: Don't Let Them Sell Our Babies!
    Dot Scott

    The recent cases of Baby Veronica and Baby Desaray make me fear for young adoptive children, especially those of color. The similarities of these two cases, including the same adoption agency attorney in both, demand a closer look into these children’s civil rights.

    As an African-American mother, it disturbs me to read of all the cheering and celebration of Veronica’s return to her adoptive parents. Where have we come as a country when we all allow ourselves to go back to the days when the purchase of humans, especially minorities, is accepted and even applauded?

    The reported stories around the relationships between the biological fathers and mothers suggest that these mothers are giving birth to minority children with the express intent of giving them up for adoption. The biological mothers are even generously compensated for doing so. The implication becomes that the fathers were used as sperm donors, which is surely cheaper than in vitro fertilization.

    Any sympathy for the adoptive parents continues to diminish as it becomes increasingly clear that something very sinister is going on here, and the birth mothers may be part of it. In fact, the Charleston Post and Courier took a close look at this disturbing issue in its September 21 article, "The Price of Adoption." The reporter quotes Shannon Jones, the Charleston attorney who represents the biological fathers of both Veronica and Desaray as saying: “Once these agencies and lawyers get the birth mother on the hook ... they tell these birth moms not to answer any calls from the dads. Of course, then they argue the dad is a deadbeat.”

    If it’s true that the mothers set out to deceive or mislead the biological fathers, that is the saddest of all elements surrounding these adoptions.

    Our children are not chattels to be conveniently sold to adoptive parents who care more about what they want than what is best for the child. What gives them the right to take a minority child when a loving and adoring father wants to raise her? While contributing eggs and sperm doesn’t necessarily make a good mother or father, neither does fighting a prolonged court battle to win custody and securing a public relations to accuse the birth father of being a deadbeat dad.

    Real mothers and fathers will always do what’s best for the child, and if that child is happy with her biological parent, no one should attempt to sever that bond.

    From all accounts of both the Baby Veronica and Baby Desaray cases, I believe that there should be a thorough investigation of the birth mothers, the adoptive parents, and the attorney for the adoption agency to ensure that the civil rights of these children and their biological fathers have not been violated.

    We as a nation must protect the civil rights of children of all races. Above all, we must remember that the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King remind us that our children too are “created equal."

    Dot Scott is the president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

    Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/10/13/baby-veronica-baby-deseray-dont-let-them-sell-our-babies

  13. I'm sorry that this comment is not absolutely related to the post, although it is close. I looked for a more general commenting spot but couldn't find one.

    Do you have any information or know where to get information about how many and how women are pressured into "choosing" adoption, specifically with financial conditions to receiving prenatal and delivery care? We talk about adoption being a "choice," but is it a choice when pregnancy-related health care is only provided if women give up their child? Could you give me an idea where to look? I think if more people knew about this side of the adoption industry, they would be a little slower to proclaim adoption as a universal good.

    Thank you so much!

  14. Tchiaki:

    Read this post and there are others in the lineup. I suggest you put in search words in the function above left and do your best. but perhaps we have not covered this as thoroughly as we should. What state are you in? Is there any state aid you can receive? When I was pregnant, my doctor was provided as part of a state program, though the agency, I admit, set it up. But I cannot blame that part of my relinquishment on the agency, to be it seemed I had no choice anyway.

    How adoption agencies 'turn' vulnerable women into spokespeople for relinquishing



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