' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: What's the Use of Regret?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What's the Use of Regret?

                                                                                        Photo by Ken Robbins
Regret is a concept, a feeling, that we first mothers deal with one way or another once we give up our babies to the unknown--or sometimes to the known--parents. We mourn, but unless we end up mad we eventually find a way to get on with our lives. My life after relinquishment included the career I always wanted, but I recognize that it came at a great cost that was unexpected and in fact, changed the course of my life. The cost was not only to my damaged psyche and altered prospects, but to my daughter's also. She would be born already fragile, subject to seizures, and so she was handed the double-barreled whammy of epilepsy as well as the sense of abandonment that being given up instills.


So regret. Of course I regret. I regret that I did not find a way to keep her, but I also know looking back that I felt was in an impossible situation. My financial resources were nil, my parents were in no position to help me, and I did not feel I could burden them now with a child. My father died when my daughter was two, and never knew of her existence. I found my daughter when she was 15 but that did not assuage the sense of regret--mine and hers--even though she was with ostensibly a good family and had a pleasant middle-class life.

Who I did not marry....that led to my daughter's birth
But as regular readers know, she really didn't have a pleasant life. The conflict that adoption breeds never left her. But life is a series of unfolding decisions, one after another, and so I examine what happened before that led to her birth at a time when I was not strong enough to find a path to raise her. If one even existed.

While I have been mulling over these thoughts two things crossed my path. An essay in the Sunday in The New York Times a few weeks ago titled the same as this blog post, "What's the Use of Regret?," and while the author Gordon Marino never came to any huge conclusion to this conundrum, the piece did contain this nugget that stuck with me:
"Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse."
Perhaps that is why I began writing about adoption. Because I felt that if I had this tragedy in my life, and with the knowledge that I was not alone in this tragedy, I could find solace in helping others recognize that we are not alone in our grief, a grief shared worldwide with other mothers everywhere. 

At the same time these thoughts were filling my mind, one of our frequent commentators, Kaisa Gwendolyn, wrote about a holiday in Brazil that gives everyone a day to commiserate what they have lost and long for in the lives. Kaisa wrote: "Saudades is a day to mourn what never was. My husband and I tried to get pregnant in earnest for 9 years, and finally after the final failure one November we hit a deep depression that holiday season...."
Daughter and mother reunited, 1982

Several people commented about the concept of Saudades because the idea struck home in so many of us: a day to actually mourn our losses, of what never was, of what never will be. It's not a way to a quick fix, or some psychological wall paper to cover over our sorrows, but a day to accept and understand our grief. It is a day to mourn. 

Mothers who relinquish their children generally are not given licence to have that time in their own families at the very moment the child is lost, when every fiber of our being is urging us to keep our child close, to love and protect and nourish. Some of the saddest comments are from the women who were told by their parents to stop their sniveling and "put on their big girl panties" and shut up. We're not supposed to wear black, cry in public, carry on at family gatherings, or raise a glass in a toast that we miss them years later. In some families, we are not even supposed to acknowledge their very existence. Ever. 

A quick Google search for the holiday itself didn't turn up anything about the holiday, but instead about a place, Saudades do Iguacu in Brazil, and limited hotel accommodations, as well as steak houses of named Saudades. I did find these further definitions of the word that Kaisa described so well: 
"Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is saudade, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy."--alt.Latino
I'm not sure about the "enjoy" part for myself, but letting myself think back to the marriage that was not that preceded my relationship (above photo of Tom) with my daughter's father is melancholy and I understand the "enjoyment" about both the sweet remembrances of our times together, and the loss of what did not happen, in my mind's wanderings. We met on Thanksgiving Day at my cousin's wedding, and thoughts of that usually come fleeting through my mind at some point on the day.

And from a blog called Expat Since Birth: 
“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”
Perhaps we mothers and adoptees too ought to observe this kind of thinking, for it would allow us to recognize and accept the sadness that enfolded our lives. It might be a way to find a new way of thinking about our fate. We have had a hard cross to accept in our lives but others have had different crosses and just as difficult to bear: the loss of a parent at an early age, the bombing that is destroying lives in the Middle East, the ravages of war that return broken bodies, broken minds. We can't go about crying Me Me Me, My pain is worse that yours, but we can acknowledge to ourselves, and perhaps to those closest to us, that we suffer still. And that we do go on.--lorraine
What's the Use of Regret?
Is "saudade" really untranslatable? 
Saudade: An Untranslatable, Undeniably Potent Word

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How giving up a child affects you in the long-term

Edited by Gerald Marino
An Affair with My Mother: A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love
By Caitrionia Palmer
on July 18, 2016
Such an amazing piece of writing. Having been in her shoes as well, facing the sadness of being someone's 
secret is often unbearable. She told her story without judgment and with great love for a difficult situation. This
book is a stepping stone for those facing the same experience. Beautifully written memoir. A must read for anyone
 with two families, or those who know someone who has two families and to better understand their feeling.


  1. great post Lorraine, thank you and i'm glad that the concept delivered for you. :) When I was reading what you said about your love that got away, the father of your alternate universe daughter, it reminded me of what i had read as to the believed origins of Saudades between the portuguese and the brazilians. Many Portuguese men were sailors, and would leave for long periods of time, and so there was the concept of missing the husband, the father of the kids, already, but once the men started going to Brazil and leaving the wives and kids in Portugal, many letters going back and forth show the expressions of saudades between the two parents for the family that they didn't have, due to distance. I read this i think it was in a Stanford paper on the subject, if i can find a link to it i will post it. I'm no academic so you're getting my muddled retelling.

    What was missing from my explanation of Saudades, because i'm not certain it would apply to everyone and not certain that it is necessary in all cases of saudades, but i read that it does occur and have experienced it myself, is the feeling that fate has a role, and there is an acceptance of that role, and in some ways, that acceptance leads to a certain sour joy. not because of the pain, but in knowing that we all feel it for something, we all have loss, loss is part of life. And without the losses we would not have felt the other gains that we are so happy for, and that irony is bittersweet. And so I agree with your conclusions and with Kierkegaard's.

    I can only speak of my own experience, and that is to say, that yes, as an adoptee, i wish things "would have been" different, that things would have gone differently for my mother, father, and their families, and myself. and yet, if they had, i wouldn't be here, the me that i am now, and i'm glad for that me. and so while i wish that they would have been different, i do not wish that they were different, i'm unwilling to sacrifice who i am now.

    i also read i think in the same paper but maybe it was another, about saudades, is that there are always the components of time and space at play - the person feeling saudades wishes to go back or forwards in time or to traverse the physical distance. for this reason i guess i find a lot of solace in the area of sci-fi and speculative fiction hahaha which i know is not everyone's cup of tea but reading the heroic and imaginative ways in which characters deal with their situations when those two components are in play can be therapeutic and transformative, in a very positive and optimistic, forward-looking way, if ever i'm having trouble doing that.

    and yet, it is precisely the distances in time and space that allow for the creation of this safe space, this wonderful blog, where we share, recognize each others' pains, and support each other, and move on, like you say, Lorraine :) thanks to you and Jane for that, and thanks to your commenters, it has been a wonderful gift to get to know communicate with everybody here :)

    1. Fate! Kaisa, Jennifer (AUDaughter) and I have often talked about the fate that prevented her father and I from marrying, and yet, how we were led to one another. If you read H♥le you know the full story of what happened and how ... fate played this huge role in our lives, that began even before we were born.

      I recognize that I was meant somehow to move to the East Coast and marry my husband, who was introduced to me by my closet friend from college, the only person I stayed in close contact with and the only other person from The Daily Collegian (sophomore year we were shared the job of "feature editor" and an office at the paper, both of us wondering at first why am I not the ONLY feature editor? But instead of staying competitive, we became friends. She is the only one from the paper who also came to New York to work. We weren't in close contact for years, she found me after Birthmark came out and we renewed our friendship here. So think of the fate that was involved in my staying at her apartment and taking me to a Sunday brunch where she made sure I met Tony. And this year we celebrated our 35 anniversary.

      Yes, Fate.

      And while I can feel the pull of Saudades, I can't imagine my life ... any other way. It was as if this damn adoption job was meant for me all along, with every damn tear and emotion that it demanded of me.

    2. Lorraine you have done many good and great things to be proud of, and i'm proud of you, too. For the career that you have led, and for having the courage to do it. All of it.

      I'm not overly religious or otherwise in tune with other notions of fate; fate for me means that something beyond my control has intervened, and for the most part, whatever the intervention was is not personal, or directional, although it can feel that way. It's in this way i think fate is relative. For instance, it can feel like fate to a person if they do or don't get a particular job that they applied for; it can seem just like another decision for the person doing the hiring.

      So it's hard for me to accept many details of my "fate" that prevent me from doing what i want or from having what i want - it seems no matter your definition or perception of fate, Lorraine, you have managed to overcome and make some peace with elements of your fate that have prevented you from having what you wanted or doing what you wanted - and it takes real courage to go that route and embrace it. I am not sure i will be able to do that !

    3. I am of 2 minds about talk of fate. It's true, we create our own fate. Yet most of our fate is due to what others have done to us, or neglected to do for us, no matter if their connection is close or distant. In that sense, there is no fate - Even drowning in the Titanic disaster comes down to several failures on the part of the owners of the ship, not a great hand that decides they will all perish.

      Please don't accept as "fate" the position that others have put you in. "Fate" is not responsible, it is people and society that have contributed to the the situation we all find ourselves in.

    4. I want to blame fate on my piss poor choices too.

    5. new and old, i know you to generally have very good reasons for what you say, so, i have questions. what is the problem with accepting things that i cannot control as fate? as in, what can be done about it now? to me it seems a healthy choice, to accept what i cannot control and not take it personally. i don't believe that a higher power is responsible for the choices that others have made that have affected my life (although perhaps their belief in a higher power had some influence !) - i do believe simply in other powers - the powers of people and things other than myself to influence my life. and i sum it up by calling it fate, and try to accept in en masse.

      i'm not getting reparations or apologies for any of it, and it is unlikely that i will get understanding from any of the decision makers either, so it seems to me accepting the decisions as the cold and impersonal choices that they were towards me is the best route i can think of, and move on from there. if you have some better insight, please share.

      Yose mite - with one sentence i'm not sure if you are adding a new idea, or commenting on what i wrote. if it's the latter, well, i don't blame fate for any of the piss poor choices that i've made.

    6. Kaisa, I think you are doing the right thing, and it sounds reasonable, in accepting what cannot be changed. You have been very generous with your mother in the framework of post-reunion. Any suggestion - anywhere, by anybody - of "fate" or "meant to be" does bother me very much though, as it borders on superstition in my view.

      I don't think Yose mite's comment was directed at you, I think the piss poor choices she refers to are those of a birth mother. Worthy of another thread, another discussion.

    7. thanks for the clarification, new and old. i'm not a fan of superstition, either, or luck for that matter. i do believe in scientific 'phenomena' such as chaos and entropy... but you're right, belief in fate is largely interpreted as a superstitious belief. i guess for me personally 'fate' isn't so much a superstition so much as it is a term i use for lack of knowing a better word to describe my psychological philosophy towards the situation. i hope it results in 1) giving me a similar emotional strength that may be afforded by belief superstitious fate by some, or as alluded to in YoseMite's post, 2) giving me a power to somewhat dismiss responsibility, so that i can move on an focus on what's positive now and going forward. thanks for understanding. :)

    8. Regarding the topic of "saudade"---after reading the comments and several articles about that topic, I have realized that I have felt that way most of my life. When I was a child, I would pass a house or area (for instance, while on vacation with family) and suddenly feel a familiar and longing feeling, as though I remembered a different life somewhere else and missed it very much. I don't know if anyone can relate to that (and I am not adopted either, so this place could not have existed in my lifetime).
      Of course, now I feel that way all the time due to losing husbands, children, and past places of residence. Just a thought.

    9. "as though I remembered a different life somewhere else and missed it very much. I don't know if anyone can relate to that"
      Yes! I have felt that way my whole life, especially in the northeast, where my family is intertwined with so many different families, including Native Americans. But also other parts of the country, as well....where I also have family connections, even ones I never knew about.
      Of course, we are all made of recycled elements, and , after all, parts of us are the dust that has been swirling around for millenia. So, who knows where we have "been before" and maybe we are remembering? Also, we may have some ancestral memories/connections to places that live within us, through our ancestors. Scientists have researched the possible influence on changes in DNA due to environment. What happens to our ancestors is "passed down" to us. We don't really know how far that actually goes.

      I first read about this in a science magazine and it convinced me all the more why separating people from their families of origin, and especially children and parents was not a good idea.

  2. I think americans are deeply unsettled by mourning, sadness, regret...and usually not too strong on nuance, ambivalence, and complexity either.
    I can say my selfish inner child wished my first parents had been devestated with loss and regret and searched the ends of the earth for their long lost child. It's hard to see the reality that people under pressure will do all kinds of things, especially if authorities tell them it's necessary. Even more disturbing was the thought that what feels like a sacred transcendent bond with my own child is really also conditional, that really nothing is sacred.
    I have a more peaceful and mature feeling about it all now, but I am disappointed that my first parents never thought to question the rightness or morality of adoption as an institution (and it did effect them very much, but not in a way that translated into being about me in any way, about them being bad and tainted etc ). I feel like shaking my f mother and saying can't you see how this is about women's rights and power not some frickin magic spell that transformed me into someone else's child.
    Interestingly I always thought the rumpelstiltskin fairy tale ended with him making her sign a magical document and taking the child in exchange for saving her from her father and the king, later her husband. Actually she looks far and wide and finds his secret name, pronounces it, and he breaKS himself into pieces.

    1. @Adopted,
      I may be totally wrong about this, but I have noticed that a person's fundamental values about life seem to have a lot to do with how they react to "crimes" and " living violations." In other words, your first parents' lack of questioning of the validity of the adoption may have a lot to do with their own family values and beliefs...not so much with any "brainwashing" or with the lack of choice that they actually faced, even though those factors were certainly there.
      This does not mean that they were not coerced. But, I have met quite a few who simply accepted that they"broke the rules and paid the price." some even said that the "punishment" of adoption was "just." They still were steadfast after 50, 60 or more years...no changing them. (reminds me of my parents, who never changed in their values, even though others of their own elderly generation in our family did change)

      I never felt that way myself. EVER. But, I was always kind of a "nature girl" who was most at home riding horses through the woods or birdwatching, and I couldn't understand how I could be the "wrong mother" for my own child. To me, biology was sacred..not some shame-based social/religious program based on the terrorization of mothers....and, for some, the fathers, too.

  3. Yes, you are right. They are both very conventional and the logic of adoption fits with other ideas about what the right way to act and the right way to have a family should be. I got the sense my b father even blamed my bmother for being too 'easy' and putting him in that situation. It still shakes me to the core that these ideas were more powerful than their ties to their child. I find that depressing I guess, how easy it is to make people do things so deeply violating to themselves and others.



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