' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Natural mothers live dual lives

Friday, October 9, 2015

Natural mothers live dual lives

My surrendered daughter wrote something to the effect that "maybe everything is about adoption for my birth mother." I bristled at the remark.

I have a large life outside of adoption--with my husband to whom I've been married for almost 47 years, the wonderful daughters I raised and the two incredible grandchildren the oldest brought forth. I have volunteered with a program to introduce school children to the courts and I currently serve on a committee at my condominium.  I play duplicate bridge once or twice a week. I read a lot, mostly non-fiction. I go to concerts, plays (spent Thursday afternoon watching a local production of "Our Town"), movies, festivals, political fund raisers, and fun things going on in Portland, Oregon where I live. I have traveled on six continents. Lorraine and the other natural mothers I know also have full lives outside of adoption.

Yet the truth is, all of us who lost a child to adoption also have a separate life inside adoption. For many of us it was for years a secret life, existing only in our memories and imagination. Eventually the secret became impatient to be free and we reunited with our lost child and introduced her to our families.

Still, though, our two lives never fully merged. My adoption life consists of my relationship with my daughter, her four incredible children, my adoption-connected friends, and adoption organizations. I talk about adoption mostly to other natural mothers and adoptees that I meet through adoption organizations and the like. While I work on adoption reform, my activism does not spill into my non-adoption life. I've occasionally mentioned I'm working on adoption reform or going to an adoption conference or write on a blog about adoption to those outside of adoptionland, and I am met with glassy eyes. These issues are of little interest to those outside our circle. I am reminded of combat veterans who say the only people who can understand the experience of war are those who lived it. Non-veterans simply don't want to hear about it.

Now while our non-adoption lives are  separate, hey are acutely influenced by our adoption experience. Adoption weighs in, sometime unconsciously, on basic life decisions. Mothers tell us that they married the first guy they met after giving up their child, no matter that they didn't love him and he was abusive because they felt they didn't deserve something better. Some natural mothers refuse to have more children, believing that to do so would dishonor the one they gave away. Others have many children, trying to replace the lost child.  Some choose to move far away from where they lived while pregnant to escape sad memories and prying neighbors. For some adoption loss leads to drug and alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors.

We tread on two paths, crossing from one to the other, switching our personas to fit the path we're on. We cope as best we can. For me, writing this blog and working to change laws to prevent unnecessary adoptions is part of what I do. That does not mean, however, that my entire life is circumscribed by adoption--jane

Lorraine:  Yes! to everything Jane is saying here. Because I've been so public about my own (AWFUL) adoption experience since I published Birthmark in 1979, I know that some acquaintances think I'm "obsessed." It always comes as a shock, but now instead of feeling angry, I just roll my eyes and figure, Well, you obviously don't know me very well and move on. But of course there is still a tinge of a feeling that wants to tell them about the rest of me--community involvement, my journalism and magazine career, the dinner parties we go to and give, the other books I've written, my granddaughter, reviewing theater for The Southampton Press.

But what's the point? They are going to keep their opinion and probably nothing I can do will change their mind. But sometimes I also think: Was Susan B. Anthony similarly obsessed with a single issue? Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Frederick Douglass, Caesar Chavez?

In a friendly interview regarding Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoptionI was asked if the book was a rant. I wasn't prepared for the question, but the life and work of Frederick Douglass popped into my mind, and I said: Well, would you say that about Frederick Douglass? 

Fair enough, the interviewer answered.

Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Following Tambourine Man: A Birthmother's Memoir 
by Janet Ellerby
"This was just a wonderful book that went from being heart-breaking to heart-warming, thank goodness. It's hard to understand the sexual ignorance of the 1950s and early 1960s, but it's all too true, and I know this because I was there. Looking back, I can barely believe how we girls were so naive and how the boys of that generation didn't understand our ignorance and so proceeded to act on their urges! It sounds very primitive, and I guess it was.

In almost the same year, my college roommate, also from San Marino, California as is Ellerby, also became pregnant by her boyfriend, but they were just a few years older and so made their own decision to keep the baby and get married. It was not an easy decision to make in those days, but she was spared the years of terrible psychic pain that plagued Ellerby."--reviewer at Amazon



  1. I agree. I went on after I lost my son, finished my education, raised subsequent children and pursued my professional career long before he and I reunited. Even though I shared my reunion experience with my family and close friends, it's remains a separate strand of who I am. I consider my son part of my family and invite him to family gatherings. He has relationships with his half siblings. I still feel, though, that we will always be "getting to know" each other.I share a past with my raised children that I will never share with him. It makes me sad.

  2. ....and this is why I like you both, Jane and Lorraine. You are the first "first mothers" whose voices reached out to me and made me listen, who helped me understand what life can be like when you have surrendered a child to adoption. I believe this is because I don't see either of you as "ranters." It is clear from your blog that you have full lives outside of adoption-related causes, that you are not seeking to pressure, that you want to educate. Even "Hole in my Heart," which clearly focused on the complexities of adoption, made me think, "Wow, Lorraine sure has led a fun and interesting life!" I believe you both show first mothers and, for that matter, the rest of us folks, how to promote a cause without letting it consume you to the point that you cannot enjoy anything else in life. Your lives have exemplified for me how to move forward and carry on even as I feel constant sadness and worry about my foster daughter Nina, who is homeless and absent from my life.

  3. I truly wish my daughter could understand that simple truth! OMG - I have a very full life and adoption and the adoption community is a very small, tiny, in fact, part of it. I am a student (two degrees in the works); a teacher; a active member of my church; a single woman with a busy single woman's life! I am always astounded that people really think that I live, eat and breath adoption!

  4. Yes our lives go on, but there's a huge, never-ending shadow of sadness. Something is wrong, something is missing - something is taking away the joy of life. What could it be? We all know what it is - the child (or children) we once had, who we no longer have.

    Reunion, if possible, is the only thing that can make any difference, the only thing that really matters. I would hardly say anyone is obsessed with adoption - The mother and child relationship is like no other. And the right of a person to know about their birth parents, and background, whether genetic or cultural - that seems like it should be unalienable, yes?

    I also have had an interesting and accomplished life. But largely - mostly - without true happiness and peace of mind. Lorraine, the title of your book defines the feeling well.

    Our children will always have our hearts, whether they were adopted, or whatever the circumstances were, or are today. That's the bottom line for any woman who gives birth, I think. The interruption of this mother-child connection turns everything upside-down. What can we do about it? Be the best person we can be, if we enter into a reunion. Be the best that we know how.

  5. Jane, Your blog is a heartfelt expression of a very active and creative life. You defend it perfectly. But I feel sad that you have to defend however you chose to spend your time and your energy. Adoption issues need our attention! Even if all your time was spent on natural mothers, adoptees, adoptive parents and OBCs ... Hoorah For You! and Thanks! I hope your surrendered daughter will have a better understanding now.

  6. Thanks, Bonbon,

    You're right. We should not have to apologize for working for something we believe in. Change will only come when we stand up for our values.

  7. Passionate intellectual critique of any social injustice leaves most people cold anyway. The best American manners are BE POSITIVE and Everything Happens for a Reason and 'anger is toxic'. I teach sociology and anthropology to college students, and let me tell you, critical thinking has to be trained, and even then does not come easily to most people. Critical thinking shakes up all the ideologies its built on, not just the topic itself.

    I often wonder what it is that is so especially ideologically loaded about adoption though that makes it so hard to criticize. Some ideas:

    A. Newborns, babies, foster kids -- they are all like meat. They just appear at the store and you get busy thinking about how to cook them. Nobody sits there wondering how they were produced. As one Christian I know just shrugged 'the poor are always with us', social structures that create destitute mothers are just a background like nature, and her job is to work on the raw material, on Jesus right there before her. Even if you are squeamish about factory farming, when the bacon is already on the griddle its hard to resist. I mean, that particular pig (adoptee identity) is definitely dead NOW.

    B. Adoption is a free choice among free individuals, you know, like in Juno where she pedals her bike away from the hospital. Women freely and rationally relinquish to what is clearly a superior life for their children. Because that is how the world works. Its all about CHOICES. If that was not true and poor women were being used as breeders for the market in newborns it would look like human trafficking, suggesting a world of vile inequality and suffering, and that is not reality at all.

    B. Poor people really shouldn't have children anyway. All social problems come from bad parents.

    C. Nature is a bitch. To be dominated and controlled. No, angelically transcended. What is more transcendent than making an adoptee a new person? Saying blood matters is like being a racist, or rather a bloodist. Its like you are limiting the adoptees American potential to be ANYONE THEY WANT if you say blood matters, really its an insult to the adoptee's freedom.

    D. LOVE MAKES A FAMILY (you adoption hating bastard!!! ) Above it all is the middle class married nuclear family as the ultimate Utopian zone of American social engineering fantasies. Within its fences, the purest values and joys abound, outside its fences, its like Mad Max out there. Criticizing adoption is like criticizing FAMILY!!!!!

    SO those are my thoughts on no one except US wants to hear any of this. There must be more.

  8. One of several reasons I do not want to have a Facebook page is to keep friends and family and adoption reform people separate. Everyone who knows me well, and some who only know me casually, know what I do and of course know about my oldest son, but I would not be comfortable with some of the more extreme adoption people having a connection to my personal friends and family. I have seen way too much craziness out there and am protective of those I love, which includes the sons I raised, the one I gave up, and their families, as well as close friends.

    On the other hand, I am generally open with people about having given up a son and now reunited with him, about being active in adoption reform, and I do not get bad reactions or any more boredom than anyone else bragging about their kids and grandkids and their exploits. Also I do tell people about adoption abuses and they are generally sympathetic and appalled at what goes on. But then, these are my friends, they are not going to be rude about a subject they know I care deeply about. I was never much in the closet so did not really have a secret other life, but it was painful to speak about my son in the years he was not speaking to me, so I low-keyed it a lot more then.

  9. Adoption is fine ,but it does cause pain for children, and birth mothers I am a mother, and had 2daughters that were put up for adoption..I also had other children later... I recently met one of daughters that were adopted after 30plus years ,and I talk to other one on the phone..We have not met yet ,or shall I say had that first personal reunion... I want a relationship with them both..I would like to get birthday gifts for both, but I want the gifts to have special meaning to them... Any suggestions?I saw some pendants with birthstone..a family tree like pendant with healing stones also..I liked that idea, but I really want the gift to be perfect and as I said meaningful..Please reply and leave emails if you can help or wish to correspond through emails, or just reply any suggestions... Thanks so much

  10. Ann my advice on what type of gift to give if you want to give a gift with 'special' significance, is to get something for each daughter that shows that you recognize and take an interest in something that they do or are interested in on their own. for instance, if one of your daughter knits, maybe you would get her a subscription to Interweave magazine and/or a gift certificate to Jimmy Beans yarn store... if another daughter has and loves a border collie maybe get her a border collie dog calendar... these may seem to be not all that special as opposed to a meaningful birthstone but it shows a real effort and interest on your part to know who you daughter is and to participate in her life in an active way... as an adoptee i can tell you that for me that feeling is priceless. anyway, each case is different of course but if you are wanting advice to consider, that is my recommendation.

  11. Dear Anne:
    I'm so happy to hear that you have started in reunion with your daughters. I am a birth mother who placed two boys for adoption, when they were very small. I have been in reunion with one of them for a year (after 35 years), the other one does not want anything to do with me, and it may never happen. I think it's a very happy thing that you are talking or corresponding to both of your daughters, and I wish you all the best.

    I think Keisa's advice is excellent and I second her suggestion. I discovered it's needless to wonder what the "perfect" gift would be. Nothing can undo what has been done to separate our children from us, or bring back the lost years. What is important is your relationship with your children as adults today.

    I say you should keep it light - something tailored to their interests, and inexpensive, maybe with a little humor or silliness is OK! This will tell them that their mother listens to them, and is thoughtful in response.

    My younger son he does not draw or paint, but he seems to like art, in a sense - He is in one of the construction businesses and what he describes that he does for a living, amounts to industrial design. So for his birthday I bought a book for him about a French industrial design movement, with many photos of furnishings, for home and office, from that time period. I wasn't sure how it might go over, but so happy when I traveled to his house for his birthday, to see quite a few items similar to what you might see in this book! In other words, it was to his taste. There were many candidates for gifts that I looked at online, they moved from high on the list to low on the list, and eventually this one was the winner. We don't have much communication, and although we have corresponded, we don't know each other at all, I have to say. But what he seems to love the most is his wife, child and house, so on any occasion, I will send a small thing thing "for the house" that he or his family might like.

    I wouldn't go with anything symbolic this early in your reunion. What may seem to you as a symbol of unity, may seem to your daughters as a painful reminder of what all 3 of you have lost. Their perspective is so different than their birth mother's perspective; it can't be helped. When you get to know each other better, which will happen with time, you can give more meaningful gifts, if you feel the need. But the most important thing is the conversations you are having with your adult daughters, and they can tell by your words and attitude that you care about what happened, and care about what they think and what their interests are. That's the only thing that is meaningful. Same as with any other relative - just being a person who they feel they would be comfortable knowing, and who would add something positive to their lives.

    I hope to hear some updates, if you feel like posting!



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