' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Can mothers who lose their children to adoption be thankful?

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Can mothers who lose their children to adoption be thankful?

Jane in 1968
Thanksgiving has always been intertwined with the birth of my surrendered daughter Rebecca* and our reunion. She was born exactly a week before Thanksgiving in San Francisco 1966 and we re-united a few days before Thanksgiving 31 years later. As we tend to do with five-year anniversary dates, I am looking back and reflecting. What has my life been for the past 20 years? What have I learned?

When I left the hospital on that bleak November day, I began living two lives, one life in real time, law school, marriage, three more daughters, a career; the second life in my imagination. What was Rebecca was doing at each of life's landmarks? Did she graduate from high school, go to college, marry? I tried to mentally add her to family pictures. Still, if asked how many children I had, I redacted her, answering disingenuously "my husband and I have three daughters."

Over the years, I thought about looking for Rebecca but the time never seemed right. I knew finding her would not restore her as my daughter and it could derail my life, damaging my relationship with my raised daughters, upsetting my career. On November 18, 1997 a relative, an aunt by marriage, called telling me that Rebecca had called her and sent a letter. I was stunned, frightened.

Would this girl come knocking at my door, barging into my home and my life? Blackmailing me? I feigned calmness. I told my aunt "send me the letter and I will take care of it." I thought of nothing else until the letter arrived on November 24, the Monday before Thanksgiving. I was euphoric at times, then panicky, I thought of jumping off a bridge. I knew my life would change but I had no idea how. I dreaded the thought of telling my daughters, other family members, exposing myself to the world. I thought about having one meeting, and then closing off contact, like Lady Dedlock, the Dickens character in Bleak House.

The letter came, simple and short. Rebecca was married, had three children, lived in Illinois, and had thought of me often. I called Rebecca, thinking it would be a short conversation. The call went on for almost two hours, neither of us wanting to let go even when we ran out of questions. For reasons I can't explain as I talked to her, I conjured up an image of a slender woman, with dark hair and blue eyes, which proved to be accurate.

As my life had been divided into the time before Rebecca and the time after, there was now a third segment, post reunion. My real post-surrender life went on as before, my oldest raised daughter's wedding to a wonderful man in December a month later, my daughters' college graduations, becoming a grandmother to two awesome children, retiring, traveling in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America.

Meanwhile my fantasy post-surrender life became a reality. At first my interactions with Rebecca were intense, followed by periods of distance, lots of anxiety, and anger. Yes, I was angry. I felt used, a source of information, nothing more. At other times I was euphoric, sad, nostalgic, I busied myself with learning about adoption through attending American Adoption Congress and Concerned United Birthparents conferences, participating in a local group, Oregon Adoption Rights. I read many memoirs by first parents and adoptees. I made new friends.

Although I was disappointed to learn that Rebecca had been placed with a Mormon family against my express wishes, I have learned to accept that that is her faith. I've had wonderful experiences with Rebecca and her family. I was a guest at the weddings of two of her children in small Utah towns. (No liquor but lots of chocolate at the receptions.) In 2013 I went to Peru with Rebecca's oldest daughter to visit friends she made on her mission.

I learned that first mothers had the same feelings of longing, regret, sadness that I had. For years I had tried to suppress these feelings; they weren't normal I'd tell myself; I am supposed to forget. Now I know these feelings are natural, inevitable. I learned patience and, in time, my emotions evened out. I cannot emphasis enough the value of support groups and reading the memoirs of first parents.

I channeled my energy and legal education into reforming adoption practices. While I had feared coming out to my family, I now came out to the world, appearing in a full page advertisement in the Oregonian, Oregon's largest newspaper for a 1998 ballot measure allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. The measure passed and Oregon joined two other states granting unrestricted access. Later I worked on legislation to open court records to first parents. I continue to work on reform: changing laws to give mothers more time and information to decide on whether to give up their babies or nurture them and laws to make open adoption agreements enforceable. In 2009, I was fortunate to be asked by Lorraine to write on this blog which allows me to share my ideas.

Although I was raised in a mainline Protestant church, I'm not religious; I won't give thanks to a deity whose existence I doubt. I can be thankful though; I have two great families and one of my daughters is is recovering from a serious illness. I am also thankful for my good friends, for having the opportunity to have a great education, a good retirement, the chance to travel, and much, much more.

I am one of the lucky mothers. We hear from grieving mothers at FMF, telling of a rocky relationship with their reunited child or receiving a "please don't contact me again" letter. I wish I could change their circumstances. All I can do, though, is tell them that knowing your child is better than not knowing and that there are still good people out there and reasons to be thankful.
*Rebecca is the name I gave her, not her adoptive name.

FROM FMF (Jane):
A First Mother reminiscences about Thanksgivings past
Forty-five years later, I still regret giving up my daughter
Natural and Adoptive Families: Let's Gather Together

FROM FMF: (Lorraine)
Thanksgiving: Finding something to be thankful for when we're feeling low
Surviving Thanksgiving as a first mother
On Thanksgiving: Accepting reality
Be thankful for the people with you

Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
on April 4, 2017
One of the most well written, moving stories I Have ever read! Hole in my heart tells a story of adoption from a perspective we 
do not often hear. The story continued to unfold in ways I was not expecting nor couId have. It touched my heart and captivated 
me. So well written, I felt as though I was reading a novel not a memoir. The courage it took to share this story is astounding. 
Everyone should read this book!!! You will be the better for it....


  1. Thank you, Jane, for posting this. It stirs emotions in me. I surrendered my son Christopher in 1970 when I was trapped in a terrible marriage. I was 23. I found him in 2009 with the services of an investigative genealogist. We have created a relationship that I am grateful to have though it seems odd to me quite often. I believe that he was harmed by the early trauma of his life and by living it as an adoptee. He seems to be missing something emotionally that would permit him to have a relationship with a special someone. He is guarded and doesn't let anyone get too close. And he is intellectually capable of explaining his behavior away to himself and others and come out sounding very smart. But to me he seems afraid. I have always felt that, unless I am being hurt, I am bound to let him set the pace. So far it is working. I'm also grateful that I had many years of therapy before I began my search and that I had a support system in place. I had trained as an addictions counselor in my 40s. The combination of these things gave me a practical understanding of healthy boundaries, empathy, meditation, acceptance, etc. The kind of things that help both Christopher and I move forward on the path.

    1. Earthmom63,
      I can barely write this comment since I am practically falling off my chair. Your description of your son's emotional limitations is hitting close to home for me these days. I have forged a new awareness recently and am seriously grappling with these issues. Although grappling is probably not the best word, ending up heartbroken is more accurate as a result of being too emotionally guarded in my own life. So thank you for this (albeit painful) validation.

  2. I'm not grateful for what happened to me; I was just 11 when I was impregnated and robbed of my one and only child. But, speaking as a now 64 year old childless woman, I am grateful that I got a college education, at night, but an education nonetheless, in spite of being told I was pitiful, and no good and feeble minded. And, I am really grateful that I finally mentioned my child and my child's name in some post-Thanksgiving dinner "ain't it awful" discussions. I am no longer going to just smile for posterity. And, I am grateful that, having grown up amid much religiously instilled shame and alcohol overuse, I have lived a physically active, education oriented and alcohol free life for the last three decades of my adult life. I hope for reunion, but I seek to cultivate my own garden until that happens.

  3. Very interesting and thought-provoking, Jane.

    For me, there is no doubt that losing my child was THE most pivitol - llfe altering - point in my life. But I have four trauma-filled sections of my life: childhood, adoption loss, reunion, death.

    BJ LIfton called it a ghost or shadow life that adoptees live. The fantasy of might have been - what could have been. But we mothers do the same.

    Like most mothers in the 60s I was told to keep my "indiscretion" a secret and not to tell anyone, even the man i married. In 1971 when I met the man who I was to wed (again) and the father of my three raised children, he was hanging around with a single mom and her toddler!! That might have been what attracted to me, now that i think about it because I immediately thought: "They were wrong! He would have totally accepted me WITH my child!" And I have often thought what my life would have like had I fought harder, had i had any support and kept my daughter. Would i have had the three subsequent children I adore?

    More importantly, however, I think what Alicia's life might have bene like had I seen my way to clear to keep her as I had tried so hard to do - not signing until she was six months old! Perhaps she's still be alive. That is the hardest "what if" in the world because I am fairly certain I know the answer is yes. Had I kept her she never would have been wrenched at a year of age form a loving foster family who wanted to adopt her. Had I kept her she would have been with a loving mother throughout her entire life and not raised in a family with 3 “bio” sons! So chances are very good she’d be alive and well as are the 3 I raised. That’s an hard “what if” pill to swallow.

    And yet I meet each day with gratitude and thanks for the blessings of the children I did get to raise (what a GIFT!), my two daughter-in-laws who gave me 3 GRAND children, my wonderful son-in-law, and for all my freinds, most especially those who have walked in very similar shoes, and those who did not but are extremely compassionate and non-judgemental.

    Life is a bumpy road with many bumps and dangerous pitfalls. But we stumble through...

    1. Mirah, this is so profound and heartbreaking. Although my son turned out stable and strong despite his lousy upbringing, I have finally realized that the trauma of surrendering him has permanently affected my life in so many ways, and will never go away. Despite a good relationship now, so much was lost, the "what ifs" that haunt me too. I am thankful for the children I did get to raise, and for my grandchildren, and for the relationship I now have with Michael, so life goes on, but there will always be a scar.

      May Alicia rest in peace and be remembered with love by her real mother.

  4. Thank you, Jane, for sharing the thread of your life as interwoven through Thanksgivings. Your ability and good fortune to find happiness and gratitude after a permanently painful surrender is inspiring. I am happy for the family that surrounds you, and am happy that this family includes Rebecca and her children. Last but not least, I am grateful for people like you and Lorraine who have been instrumental players in my education about adoption. Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!

  5. I guess the adoption agencies did not take the instructions our mother's gave them very seriously. Your daughter was given to Mormons, against your instructions, and I was given to a Polish Catholic woman, even though my mother swore she told the agency specifically not to give me to that nationality, and religion.

    My adoptive mother said the agency told her I was not to be raised as a catholic. So she raised me with no religion at all.

    Mom was abused by a polish catholic family that she was boarded with from age 5-11, and she grew a hatred to that group of people.

    I guess the agencies just yessed our mothers, than did as they saw fit.

    1. As someone raised Catholic, and Polish by origin, let me just say that Polish Catholics are not all terrible people!

    2. As a Pole I must say that most of my compatriots are proud pseudoCatholics.

    3. Ha! Kira, I fall right into that category.

    4. Not meaning to disrespect poles or Catholics! Just showing how agencies did not take our mother's concerns very seriously back then.

    5. Another Polish Catholic here, I get it! Your issue, like Jane's is that the agency did not respect your wishes, whatever they were, and lied to you about caring what you wanted. The only thing the agency asked me was what religion I preferred. I was raised Catholic but was angry at the Church at that time for not helping me keep my baby so I said "none". But they gave my son to a Catholic family anyhow. I also assumed these people had more money than my family, were at least equally educated, had a nicer house and were older but not too old, with no mental health issues. That was the whole point of the surrender, a better life for my child and saving him from inadequate me as mother.

      As it turned out, none of that was true. The "raised Catholic" thing turned out ok though, as my surrendered son is now agnostic like the other three sons I raised Catholic, but all are outstandingly honest, moral and ethical people. I am still pissed at the agency lying to me and giving my son to sub-standard parents.

    6. Maryleesdream - you are right. Many of us were yessed.

      I repeatedly told my social worker that my son's father had type 1 diabetes, and that a member of his family had died from it.

      In the forms I had to fill in about myself and his father, I reiterated this.

      When my son and I reunited, he had no knowledge of this important piece of health information.

  6. As an adopted child, I am always grateful to read about the feelings that first mothers have. Although I have found my first mother, she doesn’t share her feelings from the past with me. I have learned to accept our post reunion relationship as that of a lovely older friend whose company I greatly enjoy when we have time to be together. She remains very protective of her relationships with her raised children and try to allow her tha distance and feel no jealously or just sadness as they spend time together (especially this time of year). Still I agree that knowing is better than not knowing. I am married with my own family and I keep my eyes on the future now, more than the past. (Mostly) (sometimes)

    1. Liz--I am sorry to read comments like yours from people in the same or similar boat, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I'm sorry that I am unable to spend more time with my granddaughter Britt, and that certainly has to do with the adoption of her mother, and everything that followed. But I am grateful we do have a relationship, and I hope to spend time with her this summer. As for the other granddaughter, she and I will never be right.

    2. And just a PS here... Not answering personal questions about other relationships here.

  7. Liz, I'm glad that your mother and you have a relationship, and I hope that with time, she may be more comfortable about sharing her feelings from the past. It is possible that she may feel it might not help you to hear whatever it is, or is not ready to view that time period without a lot of pain and even rage (not having anything to do with you, of course). I can tell you that for a first mother, there are many feelings of regret, guilt and shame, along with some other feelings that are difficult or impossible to understand - along with some true joy. Hopefully for her, this will change with time, and she will be less distant. But if she is friendly, that's very good!

    It is true, knowing is better than not, and we must be happy with whatever we can get, from the reunion process. I've been in reunion 3 years with my younger son, and there is not much at all going on. He wants to spend time in person together, but has no interest in phone calls, emails or texts. There is no replacement for the passing of time, on either side, unfortunately. I often wonder is there is anything I can do to help him or advise, as a mother, and the answer seems to be no, there is no interest, really. But he and his wife would like for their son to have a grandmother and I can certainly be that.

    At Thanksgiving, I sent an email to my son saying that I am thankful for him and his brother (I placed both of them for adoption), and had to leave it at that. Any sort of praise does not fly well, and any sort of "I love you" from me seems to be too much for him. I have found it better to weigh carefully what I will say, before trying to say I am proud of him and love him. It is always just do-the-best-you-can, and I wish for the best for you and your mother.

  8. I wish my birth mother would open her world to me. We spoke on the phone 20 minutes and that is all. I have met her sister, my Aunt, another Aunt by marriage and 3 1st cousins.....My mother was the middle child of 5.......everyone seems to have known about me (not my mother's husband or children though, he may even be my father) and no one ever talked about me. The Aunt I met found a note to the man my mother is married to telling him about having me. She questioned their older sister about who was married with kids and gone and she confirmed my mother was pregnant with me. No one ever said anything about me.......ever.....until I introduced myself to my biological family living in close proximity to me. My mother has asked her sister not to speak of me to anyone else so I am unable to meet her sons and grandchildren but next month is my Aunt's birthday and I am taking her to lunch. I wish my mother would relieve herself of the shame from 5 decades ago.....

  9. To both of the above...I try to understand all sides of the situation in adoption, but there are some things that are just plain wrong...and not fully embracing a child back into one's life is really hard for me to contemplate. Yet...there was my friend Yvonne who nearly took her secret to the grave and only at the end did she allow that her oldest son and supposedly first born was not...I happened not to be there and at that point she was already on morphine on the way to the end. She died about a week later.

    Anon--enjoy your Aunt and wait and see. Maybe she can open the door for you to your mother.

    New and Old--Yes...we always have to be careful with what we say. It's good that you are remembering that. The _I love you" maybe too hard for him to accept, as he feels that you abandoned him. That's why the "your mother loved you enough to let you go" is such a load of crap.

  10. We can be very thankful...when they find their way home.



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