' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When a first mother decides to search

Sunday, January 4, 2015

When a first mother decides to search

First weekend Lorraine and daughter met
To search or not to search--that is the question. Some first mothers were told they have to forget and get on with their lives as if there is no child out there. Some were told they would never forget, but that they "cannot ever find" their child. In one's head runs society's admonitions: Searching would be unfair to the child. To the adoptive parents. You can practically twist this around to tell yourself that only a bad, selfish person would search for the child she gave up. Malarkey to that.

Adoptees fear searching because they were schooled in the thought that their birth mothers (who are mothers for all of their lives, not just at "birth") have put the child they gave up "behind them" and made those "new lives" for themselves they were urged to make. They might have been told by their adoptive parents or friends or relatives that contact by their child would just open old wounds.

The adoptee hears: Maybe they have never mentioned the lost child again to their brothers or friends. Maybe the family out of deep shame is united in their silence and secrecy and they have never brought up the child who lingers in the dark family closet. Maybe they deserve their "privacy" if that is their wish. (Bollocks to that, by the way, but that's another issue.) So the adoptee is left thinking: Maybe maybe maybe I shouldn't search--even she desperately wants to.

And what if you do search--and find that the person doesn't want to bring you into her or his life?

Against all those odds, deciding to take the first step and begin a search is fraught with anxiety and emotion. Expect it to be.  I don't know the exact moment I made the decision to search, because I always knew that I would, even as I was signing the consent papers that day in the spring of 1966. I certainly did not share my thoughts with my social worker, because she insisted that I had to get the idea that I would ever know my daughter out of my mind. My social worker, Helen Mura at Rochester's Hillside Terrace (not of whiff of what the place really was in its name), knew how ambivalent I was, how troubled I was over relinquishing my baby. I was a mess.

So while Mrs. Mura is repeating this adoption-is-forever-and-you-are-gone-forever line to me, in my head I'm seeing myself in a movie looking at a child, a girl child naturally, in the school yard through a chain link fence. Did I know then and there I would find her? I was too afraid to think that. Too afraid that it wouldn't come true. Life is way too iffy for anything other than a qualified maybe.

Time passed. By the time my daughter was eleven or twelve, I began writing to the agency asking did they know anything, can they tell me anything and by the way, I haven't forgotten or "gotten on with my life" without her in it, did she need me? In fact, she did, as her doctor at the same time wrote to the agency trying to find out more about me because my daughter was having frequent and serious life-altering seizures. I would later learn the doctor's letter was never even answered; I got answers, in time, to all three letters I wrote to the agency, each time from a different person. As far as the agency was concerned, the girl in question was "fine and happy" with her new family.

She wasn't fine at all. Happy? Not on your life.

A few years later, 1983
I hadn't yet made a move to actually search. She was young; I have to wait, I told myself. Wait ran through my head, wait until she is 18.

But the idea of searching was a fire that never went out. I read about Florence Fisher, and soon met her. I joined the organization she started, the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, or ALMA. Once Florence decided I was not a nut job intent on somehow getting my daughter back (whatever that meant), she quietly suggested I write the state and ask for my daughter's birth certificate. Maybe, just maybe, someone would not be paying attention and mail me my daughter's new and amended birth certificate that would contain her new parents' names. It had happened, and in fact, did happen to another mother I met at ALMA. However, I got a letter telling me that that person I was searching for did not exist.

Yet through acquaintances at ALMA I heard of a searcher who, for a fee, could possibly find my daughter. It was all hush-hush because Florence's official rule was that natural/birth mothers should not search until the child was of age, that is 18; and adoptees under 18 also got no help from ALMA, though I saw no young adoptees at the Saturday morning monthly meetings.

But I knew by this time that I would search. It was all a matter of when. Yet I was afraid: what if she rejected me? What if...her parents called the police? What if....When you are dickering with the fearful unknown you can come up with a lot of what ifs....

I wrote Birthmark and put in enough of the actual data about my daughter's birth so that if her parents read the book, they would figure out their daughter was also my daughter and they would call and we would all live happily ever after. I was on national television and did a book tour across the country with a lot of media appearances, and every time I tried to say the relevant facts that would mean something to anyone who knew an adoptee born April 5, 1966 in upstate New York.

But none of this yielded up my daughter. So two years later, I set the wheels in motion and I got her name and address, and learned that in fact, the searcher had already located her using the clues in Birthmark. I phoned, spoke to both of her parents, and then her, and I was in their home less than a week later.

I wish I could write "and we lived happily ever after" but adoptee/birth mother reunions often don't run that course. My daughter and I could not go back and erase the trauma that her adoption meant to both of us. As the mother, that is what we want--that we will meet our children and they will be glad to meet us, and the relationship will begin anew with mutual understanding and possibly, even the kinds of unconscious connection that blood kin often feel. But the relationship between birth mother and adoptee after reunion is so much more complicated.

Do not doubt it, coming face to face with your child all these years later will open a gusher of emotion. Feelings of sorrow and unresolved grief that have been buried under layers of time and acceptance come roaring out. Once you are confronted with your child--whatever the age--you are likely to be  emotionally thrown back to the time of birth and relinquishment. Expect a whirlwind of raw emotion, even as you are thrilled and happy you have reconnected. Even if you do not consciously dwell on the days of birth and relinquishment (I did not), your unconscious has a way of sneaking back there and zapping you.

I didn't realize this was happening to me--I was mostly euphoric that I had found my daughter and she had not rejected me out of hand. Yet my husband noticed that I was coming undone, and would later tell me that after she left our house after one of her extended visits over the next couple of years I was an emotional basket case. As she was growing up in Wisconsin, and we lived on Long Island in New York, our visits were not casual events. Once we saw each other, we both knew it would be months, or a year, before there was another meeting.

But while my daughter had prepared her parents with the knowledge that she wanted to find me--and so the way for me was paved--no one considering searching can know what kind of reception they will find. If an adoptee is still living at home, or under age, you may find they are not receptive, and in fact, fearful and resentful of your intrusion. They are likely to be telling you what they are hearing from their adoptive parents. They may have been so schooled in the idea that even expressing a desire to know one's biological kin is a betrayal to their adoptive parents that they cannot accept you coming back. They may think that being receptive to a first mother's entreaties is being disloyal to the parents who raised them. Those motives for rejection may not even be conscious, and they may simply say: Not interested. Send me your health history, goodbye. They may have incorporated the idea that they will never ever know who they came from into their very being, and may simply reject any change in that.

As a first mother, the main thing to understand is that just as you will be opened up emotionally, so will the found son or daughter. I don't know which party has it harder, but from what I've read and heard, adoptees can become so undone that while they agree to an initial first meeting and that seems to go well, the feelings opened up may cause them to recoil and go away. Conscious feelings of what if she had raised me burble up to the surface. The question of Who Am I? and Who would I be today? can cause a huge conflict, and the overall effect is to make the found adoptee recoil.

While the questions of what if are just as real for the first mothers, they are different. Would I have the life I have today if I had kept her? Probably not. How is the rest of the family who knew about her when she was born going to react? What about the parents--grandparents to the adoptee--who were instrumental in insisting that the child be given up? How will my other (kept) children react? If a woman hasn't told them, or even her husband, facing them and admitting that she is not exactly the person they thought she was (she has been lying by omission, in fact) is a hard reality to swallow--and act upon. And all of this is cloaked in a heavy layer of guilt for not having kept the child close and protected, especially if the adoptee has a story of woe and travail and a less than ideal childhood.

Consequently, just as adoptees recoil and retreat, so do some first mothers. They meet their relinquished child, and everything seems fine, and then they too can't handle the rush of emotions--or telling those who do not know--and retreat back into the comfort zone of silence.

Once you--first mother or relinquished child--decide to search, you must be prepared to be rejected. I have no magic bullet to tell you how do that. I'm telling you this, but of course everyone searches with the  hope that it will all turn out well. As a mother, if there is a pressing medical need to pass on heath history, that may compel you to search.

One last point: if the idea of searching is nagging at you and won't go away, take the plunge and do it. At the end of your life, what would you rather have: the knowledge that you tried, or the reality that fear kept you from acting on the impulse to search?  No matter that my relationship with my daughter had its numerous highs and lows--as did my relationship with my own mother--never for a second did I doubt that I had made the right decision in finding her. And, I think, neither did she ever think otherwise, and certainly not near the end of her life.--lorraine

Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion for Adoptees, Birthparents,and Adoptive...by Jean Strauss
"An adoptee offers compassionate and comprehensive guidance to locating "adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents." Strauss proceeds from the view that seeking reunion with relatives estranged by adoption is a good thing, and she marshals impressive reasoning and evidence to support her case. She discusses the laws that make adoption records confidential in the introduction and thereby sets the stage for the search strategies that follow. As Strauss points out, the history of adoption is neither simple nor consistent, and the nature of adoption today is very different from what it was when present adoption laws were enacted. The more a searcher understands the nature of adoption practices and laws, she says, the more likely his or her search is to succeed."--Booklist


  1. If my first mother had shown up when I was 18, or even 21, there was no way I would have agreed to see her. This was the girl who was supposed to sign the papers and get lost.....except she got lost BEFORE she signed the final papers, and caused my AP's such terrible anguish. This is all I heard about this girl. Believe me, not a good or sympathetic word was ever spoken, if they spoke about her at all. Had she shown up at that time, my AP's would have gone berserk, my A-grandfather, who had funded the whole thing, would have also gone berserk, and I was so brainwashed I would have wanted to run away.

    Fast forward to the present day. I would love to know about her. I would love to know why things happened the way they did. I hope she was able to cope and piece together some kind of life for herself. Could I actually have a relationship with her? Probably not.

    I am still surrounded by people who think adoptees should leave well enough alone. My AP's are still here, as we all well know. My own husband is of the opinion that adopted people have no right to search for their first families, because it destroys the adoptive family. I had to borrow a friend's credit card to do DNA, because he is simply not on board with this. I have searched the internet in silence. No one knows that I am looking for information, and no one knows what I have already found. I have no support system in place for something like this.

    So, could I go meet my first mother, get flooded with emotions, and have to keep that a secret as well? I am not strong enough. If I did so, both of us would probably want to meet a few more times. I would have to tell someone, but I have no one to tell. At least no one in my own family who understands.

    I would have to keep any relationship to letters or email. That is something I can do privately without having to answer to anyone.That is all I would be able to do. The whole thing is so miserable and painful, it's surreal.

    This is all so wrong that I can't believe it myself. But that is what it is. Too much time has passed. Too many things have happened in both of our lives. Too many other people are involved. This is what adoption did to us.

    But it doesn't matter anyway, because I am pretty sure she is deceased.

    1. Julia E: the last of support from your family and loved ones (excluding your adoptive parents) continues to baffle me! My sister in law said the same thing once--adoptees ought to leave well enough alone--and I was startled. She has known from the beginning of my relationship with her that I found my daughter and that she lived with us for months at a time. But some people are just like that--don't rock the boat is their motto. I admire you for understanding your feelings and following your heart despite the lack of compassion and empathy from those close to you. We are here to support you. But I am sorry that you have do to this alone--IRL.

    2. Julia Emily, the lack of support from your husband baffles and saddens me. I'm so sorry. I hope that the support you find here is somewhat helpful, although I know nothing can be the same as having the IRL support network. Many hugs.

    3. Hi Tiffany, and thanks! At least there is online support these days. Without this forum, I would have no support at all. It baffles me, too. Adoption is the only subject that I know of in which all the people NOT affected by it profess to know all about it. My husband included. None of these people could handle the complexities of adoption if it did involve them, and I really resent being told what I should and should not do, and how I should and should not feel.

      This is why I really miss my fellow-adoptee cousin. At least we were able to talk openly to one another. As great a pretender as she was (everyone thought she was well adjusted and happy) she couldn't cope and took her life. That's what adoption did to her. This miserable institution should be abolished all together.

  2. Please let your readers know they do not have to hire expensive "professional search" firms any longer, as you did. There are hundreds of search and support groups on the Internet with Search Angels who do their work for no fee. http://tinyurl.com/lcz5ml3

  3. One of the worst, perhaps the worst, aspects of closed adoption, especially from the BSE but even after, is the terrible straight jacket of secrecy that encloses the natural mother and the adoptee. When the most essential facts of your being--who you are, who your parents are--are causes for shame, how is it ever possible to feel like a whole person? The only reason for secrecy is, in fact, shame. Natural mothers are shamed into silence, and that means lying by omission to everyone they know, including their nearest and dearest, and that is morally degrading. But the adoptee has it even worse; his very existence is a cause for shame, and no matter now much the adoptive parents love him or reassure him, the fact remains: his birth was so shameful that nothing about it can ever be known.

    I like Lorraine's dismissal of objections to reunion as "bollocks" and "malarky." It is appalling that complete strangers, with the backing of the law, can dictate what adoptees can and cannot know. This "Father knows best" approach is no longer tolerated in other areas of life, such as medicine. In the past it was not uncommon for a cancer patient to be lied to about his condition. It was considered a kindness for a doctor to withhold accurate information and for the family to collude in the charade. If a doctor did this today, he's be sued and kicked out of the profession. It is equally injurious to withhold crucial information from adoptees and natural mothers. It should be illegal to seal adoption records or release only select information. If this isn't an abrogation of civil rights, I don't know what is.

    Julie Emily, I am so sorry your family is unsupportive. It's especially difficult that your husband is not behind you. Such a difference of opinion has to take a toll on your marriage. It's important that we change the laws that hide the truth from those most intimately connected with it, but it's even more crucial that we educate families and spouses about what natural mothers need and deserve. When I think about how attitudes toward other things have changed--smoking, premarital sex, homosexuality--it seems what drove the change was the entertainment industry. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was a controversial film in its day, and it caught the public's attention and brought "well-bred" racism into the light. "The L-Shaped Room" brought home the devastation caused when an unwed mother is rejected because of her pregnancy. "Will and Grace" made being gay seem normal. We no longer expect to see the leads in movies smoking. When Hathaway smokes on "Inspector Lewis," we see it as a gesture of social rebellion, as we do not when Humphrey Bogart lights up in a 1940's flick. The public internalizes what it sees in movies and on television; rational argument can't hold a candle to popular entertainments. My young grandsons would no more ride in a car without a seatbelt on than request liver for dinner. They simply take it for granted that riding in a car means wearing a seatbelt. We need to get to a place where keeping your baby, no matter what your circumstances, is the norm, where, indeed, anything else is unthinkable. Once we reach that place, people like your husband and mothers like Lorraine's and mine, will be ashamed to be anything other than supportive.

    Attitudes can change. Adlai Stevenson was dismissed as a presidential contender because he was divorced; Ronald Reagan became the grand old man of his party. Bill Clinton had to lie about inhaling; Pres. Obama is shown smoking pot in old photographs. Times change, attitudes change, but for those of us who are still caught up in the changing gears of progress, the way forward is steep.

  4. Pam: you are 100% correct about how attitudes change. There is one difference with adoption, and that's the adoption "cheerleaders", for want of a better word. The non adopted public is fed that adoption is beautiful. Celebs do it! Same sex couples do it! It's the alternative to abortion, don't you know? Everyone loves warm, fuzzy, cuddly adoption, and they do not want to hear otherwise. That's one of the things that frustrates me to no end. That, the sealed records, and the lack of support within my own family. Adoption is hugely misunderstood, but the problem is that nobody wants to understand.

    1. Julia E: You are so right about the "adoption is wonderful" attitude that permeates much of society. But the other day I overheard a few women talking about someone who had dropped the idea of adoption, and there was a lot of "you don't know who you are getting," interjected into the conversation. People really do say what they are thinking when they think no outsider is listening.

  5. I have been searching for my daughter since she was 18 and her mother threatened me to stay away from her read all her letters told her they told I was a horrible person and I would like to send her a letter because she is 48 and I am 71 and I found my grandsons Colin and Jordan and he was txing me and he told me that my daughter went yo Newfoundland they told her that o was not her mother and hr said hr was gonna help me and he blocked me on fb I was do happy but o think her mother told her to hate me she should be thankful because if I didn't give her up she would not have s daughter and I see other adoptive parents. Help their daughters so pl someone help. Me I also am talking to Jordan as a friend doesn't know that I am his grandma and I love my daughter do much and my grandsons

    1. I'm so sorry Joyce. Don't give up. Maryanne who comments on FMF waited for many years for her son to respond to her overtures but now they have a most rewarding relationship.

      It sounds like your daughter's adoptive parents, like many others, live in a split world. On one hand they believe mothers didn't care about their children and purposefully abandoned them; on the other hand they fear mothers will come and take away their children, even if the children are adults.The irony is that many adoptees say reunion improves their relationship with their adoptive family because they can be open about their feelings.

    2. My situation was somewhat unique, in that my son cut himself off from his adoptive mother and sister in his early 20s after his father, whom he was closer to, died. But he did not gravitate towards me of anyone in his birth family until years later. The problem was not the adoptive parents turning him against me, but the fear of having to deal with another crazy mother. He did not know me, of course, and my early letters and contacts to him were too over-emotional and gave a bad impression of another needy mother-monster. He did not need that. The adoptive mother whom I did have contact with claimed to be on my side, but since I later learned from my son she was a compulsive liar among other things, who knows?

      If I had it to do over, I would not have contacted him as teen still living at home, but would have waited at least until his 20s. Perhaps he would have searched for me, perhaps not. As it is, it took a very long time for him to realize I was ok. As Jane said we now have a good relationship with a lot of respect and common sense on both sides. I am very thankful that he gave me another chance.

      I would advise anyone searching to think long and hard about possible outcomes, then discard all expectations and be ready to accept and deal with the unexpected.

    3. Joyce: If you are conversing with one of your grandsons as a "friend" and not his grandmother, you may run into a ton of trouble when you reveal who you are. He is most likely going to feel duped. Secrecy is not rewarded with love and acceptance.

    4. I agree with Lorraine, Joyce. Your grandson is going to feel betrayed. Lies and secrets simply do not work.

    5. Joyce, please do it, immediately, but do it carefully, more in a way to discover/confirm together than to merely tell, explain why you think . More "I have good reason to assume we share the same mitochondrial DNA, because a)..b) c)..." than "I am your grandmother." Of course age of your grandson might matter a bit to the way you do it.

  6. Even though my reunion is in ruins, no one could have talked me out of searching for my daughter. I can’t imagine what could have stopped the forward motion I established so long ago. I’ve never been so driven and determined to see a promise through. The promise to her when she was 3 days old, as I put her in the arms of a stranger - I wasn’t saying goodbye, because I knew I would see her later.

    I spent 19 years thinking about the day I would find my daughter. I spent 19 years telling myself to hang on another [insert number of years]. Even though people have said she was too young (and is still too young at 26) to have the ability to navigate this complex situation, I didn’t want to wait another day. I’ll call it selfish, but in the grand scheme, it was the only selfish thing I did as it concerns her. I didn’t want her thinking one more day that she was discarded. I wanted her to know I loved her.

    If I could talk to my 19 year-old pregnant self as my 46 year-old self – I would have pounded into my pea brain to LET GO. Let go of ANY expectations - compartmentalize and move on. Because I gave myself a goal, I unwittingly established a finish line. This allowed me to have a pretty healthy state of mind for the 19 years we were apart. It has been the 7 years that followed that have emotionally pummeled me. Yes, giving her up was brutal and permanently damaging, but I was able to apply a thick salve of good intentions to help heal. I did not have other children because: a) I was afraid to relive the experience of being pregnant/giving birth and (remarkably) because I didn’t want her to feel ‘less than’ because she was given away and others were kept. I really felt as if she was going to be part of my life again. Talk about poor decision making.

    I was naïve and gave the system and a couple of strangers WAY too much credit. I had no counseling or family support. I was forced to smile and nod to my caseworker because if I showed the slightest stress cracks the agency threatened to place my daughter in foster care for 6 months until my parental rights were revoked. I was 100% ill prepared. I created this coping mechanism that worked for a long time, but I was fully unprepared for the reality of rejection.

    1. hilary - i understand some of your reasoning; i waited 16 years before i became a mother (again)...as if my life had ended when i lost ruth and i had to live/start another life of 16 years to attempt life as a mother again! weird? irrational? delusional and or pathologically bereaved? so traumatised it took me nearly 40 years to feel entitled to even look for her, suspecting she might be dead (or worse? what could have been worse than thinking one's child was alive, somewhere, when all the time they had been dead and one had no way of knowing), wondering why she'd never looked for me...

      and, like you, reunion has not been fabulous for me (or her, i suspect, although she does not communicate at present so i can't ask ) - but the feeling that enveloped me when i heard, over the 'phone "we've found her" was an ephiphany of wonder - that we were both alive and in the same world. and so i must hope that this was the beginning of

    2. Hilary,
      I'm taking from you post that you did contact your daughter and was rejected? Normally I would not be sympathetic to your plight (being a step mother who dealt with a birth mother who came and went and decided that drinking was more important than her son) but reading your post moved me. I'm curious, did you share with her what you shared on here ? If not, you should.

  7. don't put off your search a minute longer - don't be afraid

  8. Lorraine you are so right! I have heard many miserable comments about adoption and many comments about me when no one thought I could hear them. I only wish I had written them all down because some of the things I heard were unreal!

  9. looking for julie ormerod from blackburn lancashire

  10. I've been reading this blog, and many others, plus books, scholarly journals and news articles for about six months now. I'm an adoptee, I've known since I was about eight when my parents told me. Eight months ago, a "search angel" tracked me down and asked me to meet my birth mother who was looking for me. I told her I had to think about it and hung up. I talked to my (adoptive) mother, who is in support of me getting in contact with her, if only to find out medical information. Then she found me on Facebook. I truly think Facebook is the worst invention...ever....in this context! I hadn't made up my mind about meeting her, or talking to her or even exchanging letters, and now she was sending me messages about how much she always missed me and holding me would heal some wounded part of her. That's when I started to research on reunions and such and I'm still torn. I never felt like anything was missing, I never had anything more than a vague wonder about my birth parents (though when I was ten I was convinced I was a kidnapped princess haha). Finally I consented to a Facebook chat. She was nice enough to give me medical information (found out Parkinsons runs in her family....good to know!). Then she started to tell me that my life had a big hole in it because she wasn't there and I owed her a meeting, a weekend, she started to talk about a big "family" party, I addressed her by her first name and she wrote (in capital letters with exclamation points) I AM YOUR MOM.

    I know she considers herself my mother. I am grateful she brought me to term and I was born healthy. Considering all the things that could have gone wrong (and do even under the most planned, watched pregnancies) that is no small accomplishment. But she is not my mother. She is the woman that gave birth to me, she's a stranger to me, and we have nothing in common. I look vaguely like her....but I also look vaguely like my (adoptive) father. I am overwhelmed by her requests, instant messages, even pokes on Facebook. She has made me feel responsible for her feelings and her well being and maybe even her own mental health. This is a blog for mothers who gave their children up for adoption, and many of you have had successful reunions, and some have had less than successful reunions. I am confused as to what I should do. I know my friends tell me that I am the important one (as they should, they know me and not her, lol), and stop contact since I'm uncomfortable and leery. Do I owe her a meeting, a weekend, a family party? Have I fulfilled what she might consider a "debt" I had to repay (in that I was not miserable, pining after her growing up)?

  11. yes she is your mother: and yes she is a stranger to you (and her grandchildren?) - this is sad for all of you...but it is a wrong you can try and right, if you want to. you can get advice and help, support from those who have experience in child/mother reunions - it will be to your benefit and that of those who love you.



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