' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When death reveals a secret child

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

When death reveals a secret child

Full moon.
Thursday and Friday I helped clean out the home of a neighbor and friend who died in December.

With the emptying of the house, my husband and I are also losing a family that became a stand-in for my own distant family, and for Tony's too. And the neighbor--the grande dame of her family--was my friend, but a friend who I discovered shortly before she died, was a mother like me. A mother who gave up a child.

I've written about Yvonne several times before, for we had legendary arguments about whether someone who is relinquished and adopted should find their biological family. We wrote
emails, then printed out letters that went back and forth between our houses, three doors apart, continuing to argue our points. She was relentless in her condemnation of what I stood for in my work and my life. One could ask, how could I be friends with someone like that?

None of this disagreement was evident for the first couple of years of our relationship that goes back about 15 years, and we formed a strong bond. Yvonne was 12 years older than me, and while our backgrounds were quite different--she was from old money and a distinguished family, me a third-generation immigrant--yet somehow the two of us clicked. We went to the movies together, traded our Elizabeth George mysteries, had many meals together. Once she devoured Birthmark over night, and the next evening we went to dinner and she talked about how "she couldn't put it down" until she finished it, asked questions, et cetera. I suspected nothing. Since she lived nearby, I sometimes just went up the street for a chat and a drink at the end of the day. After working at home, getting out of the house and seeing others is a welcome respite from being alone, and I knew she welcomed the company. Tony often came up too. Her two sisters, one older, one younger, predeceased her, and she called me her "youngest sister."

My daughter Jane was married then, but somehow when she visited, she and Yvonne did not meet. On the other hand, granddaughter Britt was here for extended visits for several summers, and when my house was full of relatives, including my nieces who are Britt's age, they sometimes stayed together at Yvonne's house, three doors up the street. Tony and I got to know her children, and their children. We opened our home to them when her house was overflowing. Yvonne was my sounding board on many issues, and I hers. Her strong--livid--opposition to my finding Jane was not evident.

Nasturtiums on Yvonne's back deck yesterday. 
Then one day--maybe it was when I began writing Hole In My Heart--no, it was before--she said something about how she thought adoptees ought to not bother their biological families, that leaving well enough alone was the only way, that she knew people who were adopted and they were all happy and not curious, and on and on. I mean, ON and ON. When she once yelled at me that birth mothers were "no more than reproductive agents," I stormed out of her house. Thus began a written war of words. One of her sons emailed me this short message: Welcome to the family. I would eventually learn that she carried on about this issue--insisting that the adopted should not be seek out the original family--when I wasn't around to such a degree that he eventually surmised his mother had a child no one knew about. He freely shared his supposition with me and Tony, and eventually his siblings. In her life, a time when this would have been easily possible was noted--when she was in France after boarding school, staying with her mother, a fixture of the art and literary world there. We even made an educated guess over who the father was. Oddly enough, before this came out, I had walked into her house to say hello just after she'd gotten off the phone hearing of his death in France. I held her while she wept.

If she'd had a secret child in France she had relinquished, then everything made sense--every argument, every passionate exchange, even the way she spoke of the man who was thought to be the father, her unshakable insistence on the rightness of sealed records. She was hiding the existence of her first child. She'd hid it for more than 60 years.

Her death was seemingly slow in coming. Pneumonia led to the hospital, led to a rehab center, led to another infection.... She was in her late 80s now, had been through pneumonia a couple of times, had fallen, could barely walk, and after several months of this, she wanted to come home to die, and that is what happened over the last four months of her life.

Close the end, she told her eldest child that he was "not her first." She said it more than once, and to others in the family. I was not there, and she never said it to me. When I saw her the last few times, she was really slipping away in a morphine haze, and I could not bring it up.

Yvonne died in December, and among her papers with the letters from her children, the children found a letter written familiarly but from someone they did not know. Was this the missing sibling? Or someone who knew where the child was, what his or her name was? No one knows.

It's August now, and I've had months to process this, but it's all going down with a rather bittersweet taste. I had once such great affection for her. Even when we had our two major blowups over this issue, each lasting several weeks, I missed her companionship.

But knowing that she carried on these epic battles while she presented herself to be not personally involved made me feel so different about her at the end. I was both sad and angry and also, feeling somewhat duped. She argued with me and lived a lie. She once pressed a pro-adoption book into my hands--written by the son of friends of hers--and said I needed to consider the other side. That ended up backfiring because when the writer said he and his wife went overseas to get children so his wife wouldn't have to save a seat at the dance recital for the birth mother, I steamed. And wrote about it here.

Now maybe I can understand how husbands and children who have never been told about the missing child in the family feel deceived when that child, now grown up, shows up. It's not anger over the existence of the child; it's the feeling of one's world view--as say, the eldest--shifts. Now one is not the first born, with all the status and responsibility that implies. One is just the next one, the second. Or maybe it is simply the lie by omission that is so infuriating and hurtful. You kept this from me; you are not who you present yourself to be. For me, now Yvonne's bitter intransigence on the issue of adoption caused a huge shift in how I felt about her dying. It was more "good riddance" than "good bye, I miss you."

I am sorry that she felt so shamed that she had to keep the child secret. Her relationships with her known five children were messy, a combination of love and anger suffused with detachment. At her funeral, nice words were said about her personality and grit, and there was a faint hint of their complicated relationships. The partner of one said that her secret child certainly affected the anger that she inflicted on them when they were growing up. Probably true.

Now her lovely house has been sold, the closing is in a few days. It was a house full of history, history that came with stuff: art, books, letters, old silver, childhood memorabilia, Ferragamo shoes and purses made for her mother in Paris, her name embroidered inside. Crumbling paperbacks stuck between first editions. Linens with hand embroidery, her mother's family symbol. More linens. A kitchen that a chef would enjoy. China up the wazoo. It's all been scattered in several directions. My memories of holidays spent with her family, of meals on her back deck, or at her long dining table, our take-out lunches on our laps while we caught up with Homeland are all intact and tied up in that house.

Last week with one of the children--he's 60--and his girl friend and partner, I helped pack up the books, and drove around with him getting rid of other stuff to thrift shops, the nearby animal-rescue kennel, books to the library for sale. It was a way of saying goodbye. When the beds went, they stayed with us. When I walked through the empty house, I burst into a few quick tears. Yes, I will miss her in my life, despite our huge disagreement. Tony and I will miss the whole family's frequent presence, as we ended up such good friends with some of them. Yvonne and I were close, but we could have been so much more to each other. She felt she had to hide her true self from her family, and even me, someone with whom she shared such an intense experience. If relinquishment and adoption were so damn wonderful, Yvonne wouldn't have had to hide her reality.--lorraine 
Reproductive Agents!!! Not Mothers. Of any sort.

Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
"Lorraine did a fantastic job of sharing her experience and will resonate with so many other natural moms that lost their baby to adoption. She was able to make you laugh, cry, reminisce of how it was back in the 60's and 70's. In particular how young moms were coerced into believing the propaganda that they were not good enough to raise their own child, or didn't make enough money, or wasn't married, etc. All part of the coercion game. Whatever made society think strangers would be better raising someone else kids than their real mother is flabbergasting. Thank you, Lorraine, for telling your story so eloquently and mirroring so many others that had to go through that trauma."--Kathleen Molter on Amazon


  1. Secrecy steals so much.

    Too bad her shame kept you two from connecting in a more authentic (for her) way. I wonder if she envied your ability and willingness to be so out about your own experience, while she simply could not Go There.

    There are so many "if onlys" in this story.

  2. So sorry for the loss of your friend. Silence, forced silence, was demanded of first mothers by adoption's social structure for decades. Didn't the survival of those picture-perfect adoptive families depend on the forever silence of relinquishing mothers? Many of us were conditioned to never ever again speak of our shameful, traumatic experience. That's what our families, adoptive parents, and society expected of us.

    After a while, the silence becomes our new reality. I forget who it was who said "I could never go back to yesterday because I was a different person". Society made and imposed those deadly, destructive secrecy rules. First mothers were conditioned and warned to never tell anyone or we could never find a (decent) husband.

    Secrecy was part of the first mother punishment and reinforced by society's refusal to acknowledge our motherhood. We were warned to never speak of again or ever try to search for our lost child. I was warned I would be arrested if I ever tried to look for my child. The secrecy was partnered with lies and threats. Is it any wonder first mothers morphed into "somebody else"?

    Perhaps the loss of her child was too painful for your friend to talk about. Perhaps your friend was too far down in the deep hole of secrecy to ever safely emerge. Perhaps she couldn't endure the accompanying shame, sorrow, sadness, and pain by coming out of that place. Perhaps she was too damaged. May she now rest in eternal peace.

  3. I feel angry just reading Lorraine's article. Most of my life, I didn't know I'd been pregnant in grammar school. I was shamed and told that I had a "kidney infection bad girls get" and I was spirited off to e Roman Catholic penitential facility after being hidden at my Grandma's for a while. Since I remembered this and have come out pretty publically about this, I find myself often confronted by people who feel the need to tell me that adopted members of their cousins families, etc, have NO DESIRE to meet their mothers. I don't know if they're intent on making me feel the loss more acutely or reassuring me that I probably won't be contacted so not to worry. I find that now that I remember and understand why I have been like I've been all my life - I am now 62 and remembered the pregnancy at 11 when I was 58 - I feel like a liar when I tell strangers who ask if I have children "no" as I just did an hour or so ago on the golf course. I followed up with "things didn't work out for me in that regard." The lies people want us to tell and the secrets people want us to keep damage us, damage truth itself, and damage all women, femininity, feminism and our shared cultural concept of motherhood. I own and embrace the fact that I was and am a mother and that I was abused and robbed. I hate fighting with people like Lorraine's neighbor Yvonne, but I will continue to speak up. It just hurts so much.

    1. I hear that line--I know XYZ and they are not in the least interested. I heard it yesterday. I never know what to say so I just kinda brush it off. Depending on the circumstances I sometimes say: People changes their minds all the time, and we hear from them. Or, if you have been told all your life you cannot find out, you put it away in the "cannot go there" file in your mind.

      But I hear that all the time, and it's discouraging. Adoptees who are afraid to say so...make it harder for everyone, but I totally understand why they don't speak up.

    2. DM my heart goes out to you. You're no liar. And your life is no-one's business but your own. When anyone (including you) shares a very personal truth with another, that recipient should receive it as a gift, and not judge. It is an opportunity for them to become closer to you and support you, and if they fail, that's on them, not you.

    3. How well I remember the haughty adoptive mother of twin girls who told me quite emphatically that they had no interest whatsoever in their original families. I couldn't tell her that one of her twin daughters had already contacted me for search help. And I had to bite my tongue! Oh, how I wanted to let her have it!

    4. I've met several adoptees and read memoirs by several more who say they told people they were not interested in searching. Then one day, they knew they had to search.

    5. DM, I'm an adoptee and I truly feel that most adoptees who say they have no desire to find their family say it out of fear. Fear of rejection. I found rejection when I found my mother, but I will never regret searching for her. I now know where I come from. I'm so sorry for the loss of your child and I truly hope that one day you are reunited.

  4. I know you've been disappointed and Yvonne's behavior was/is hard to understand. It just seems perhaps her guilt and shame were overpowering, and here you were, a living reminder of someone who tries to at least face the reality that is there. It is so sad that she died with this on her conscience; as they say, the truth will set you free. But it's possible to become so scared and hate yourself so much, to be hardened and impenetrable. She could not forget her first baby, yet was paralyzed in not being able to - literally - speak of him at all, to anyone (it was a boy, yes?). Her children were all pretty old already in her later years, I'm not sure why she felt the need to take this secret to her grave - I suppose it's like falling on your sword - thought in times gone by to be the honorable thing to do.

  5. It breaks my heart that magnitude of your friend's shame was so great that she took her secret to the grave. I can only imagine the shame and guilt that were imparted on her to make her give up her child that she couldn't bring herself to share her story even with you. So very sad.

  6. I agree! At first I was horrified by her behavior....but thinking further on it, and my own experience, I have no doubt the woman sustained some major psychological damage. So sorry to hear of this!

  7. Yvonne was always the girl who was in hiding. She must have felt the only thing worse was everyone knowing. In reality it was no one knowing. So sad.

  8. Thank you for writing this. It gave me a window into the soul of my mother.

  9. I've only recently discovered your site and I have a question that I posted the other day, but not sure if I put it in the right place? I am reposting it here, in hopes that I might get some feedback: Hi Lorraine, I stumbled upon your site today while searching for help to write a letter to my biological father, who does not know I exist. I am adopted and had the good fortune of being reunited with my birth mother 20 years ago. Both the information she gave me and the non-identifying information from my adoption papers, have lead me to find my biological father (with help from Ancestry). But.... I'm at a loss as to how to approach a man who never knew about me 50 years later? My mother dated him for several months and went to college with him. She broke up with him and moved cross country and discovered that she was pregnant with me after she moved. And she never told him. Now I have his address and quite a lot of family information that all lines up, but I need some guidance. Unfortunately, my birth mom died several years back ... I would love to hear from you. (Michael)

    1. Dear Michael: However you posted your comment the first time, it did not reach us. I haven't checked the email for a day or two, so you may have sent us a private message. But I can answer here for you and others--Check the pages on the side of the blog and read the one: Letter to Birth Mother or Sibling
      We should probably write about how to write a father but it in reality is not much different than reaching out to a mother. No one can predict how he will respond. The scenario you describe above happened to a male friend of mine, who was contacted by the mother in his case, some twenty years later, and told he had a son who now wanted to meet him. My friend met him and called me after, thrilled to see how much like him (the father) the son was. Son had gone to the same college as the father, had majored in the same subject, and smoked the same brand of cigarettes, which were fast fading from popularity--Kools. The father was thrilled but unfortunately, his wife did not want to tell their children--a son and daughter--about this first son at the time. I don't know what happened after that. but I do know of one father who was contacted by a daughter he never knew about and welcomed her immediately into his family.

      To write or to call, the choice is up to you. Be prepared for him of course to be shocked that you exist.

      Here's hoping for the best--

      Good luck!

    2. Lorraine, thanks so much for your reply and encouragement. Having gone through the process once (I searched for my birth mother and met her after writing a letter 20 years ago), I'm glad I know a *little* of what to expect with my emotions. Contacting a father who doesn't know I am on the planet, feels odd. But the idea of not reaching out is even more odd to me. So many potential questions and answers await! I've drafted a letter to him and plan to send it soon. As soon as I gather my courage. Thank you. (Michael)

  10. As an adoptee, I drank the social kool-aid that said that adoption had no effect on me, and that I didnt need to search 't over 50 years. I brushed off the questions about searching saying blithely that adoption was all that I knew and that by creating my own family I didn't need to know about the people I came from.

    Boy was I wrong.

    I have searched and found and become whole. I have been able to view all of my relationships more clearly. I found an excellent adoption competent therapist who guided me. It was still very very hard. My entire world view shifted as the scales fell from my eyes.

    Looking back, I had tried searching when I was 15 - my adoptive mother took me to the agency Children's Home Society because I was really suffering. When I was alone with the case worker I told her that I though my mother was probably like me and that she was curious about me as I was about her. The case worker said "She's probably not as interested in you as you are in her". What a blow. It shut me down for 40 years. I was completely dis-empowered in adoption land. I had no voice, and no choice. So I papered over the wounds, sealed them in concrete and built myself as best I could.

    And I lived a successful life that was still plagued by hyper vigilance, self-doubt, and a degree of self-reliance that didn't let people in. God I'm glad to be past that. And it wouldn't have happened without taking on my search and finding my original family. I felt that I owed it to my kids, to give them their true history.

    I agree that adoptees who say they don't need to know where they came from are locked into the powerlessness of their own stories - I've met birthmothers who say the same thing - but the liberation and authenticity that comes from facing the truth is worth the effort.

    1. I'm appalled but not surprised at the Social Worker at CHS telling you that your mother was probably not as interested in you as you were in her. The adoption industry downplayed the desire of adoptees and first mothers to find each other for years. I suspect some still do.

  11. May Yvonne's memory endure as a blessing, Lorraine, and may you be comforted among all the mourners [of Zion and Jerusalem].

    That's my first response, reflexive, though fully meant. But if I may add, may Yvonne's life serve as a lesson to the toxicity of repressed secrets. I have read probably everything that Lorraine had posted about this complex woman, as many-chambered as the proverbial nautilus. What she cached in one or more of her chambers damaged the otherwise wide and intimate friendship she shared with Lorraine. I can only imagine the impact these carefully guarded secrets had on her children, kept and relinquished. And Yvonne seems to have reinforced the me-me-me behavior of the APs she knew who "don't want to save a seat at the dance recital," another negative legacy.

    Thanks for helping out, Lo. And thanks for reaching out the hand of sisterhood, even when rebuffed, to someone who hated to admit had walked in your shoes.

  12. That is just so very, very intense that she felt compelled to keep that secret and to so determinedly try to convince herself that what had happened was right and that she MUST keep that secret. That is what adoption did MOST women in the Baby Scoop Era (she would have been early BSE).

    I brought Ann Fessler to my campus for a screening of her film, "A GIrl Like Her. During the marketing phase of bringing her, I received an email from someone on campus whose mother had relinquished a child during the BSE. Ann's visit was the first time that she'd ever seen the topic discussed publicly. It was a gift to her to receive reflections that finally substantiated her suppressed feelings.

    The psychic tension in your friend's being must have been absolutely incredible for her to not even reveal herself to you, of all people. It's just so, so, so very sad :(

  13. Oh Lorraine, I am so sorry for the loss of your friend, but I am grateful that you have written about it. It gives me insight into why my first mother just can't tell her sisters and children about me. Your post gives me some patience and maturity to let her do what is best for her. Thanks again, Leslie.

  14. She believed it was fine to keep people dirty secrets because they are adoptees and rejected contact if found. She can burn in hell.



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