The parent of a child who dies receives sympathy and understanding.
A mother who loses a child to war in some country on the other side of the world is acknowledged and honored.
In the natural order of life when our parents predecease us, or a sibling dies, we are allowed to grieve in public.
Airlines offer lower fares to those flying to funerals. Printed cards can be found for the above. Friends and family send condolences, flowers, perhaps even a casserole. If one openly cries in public, no one will tell her that she has to "get it together" and stop her bawling, for it's all right to be sad. In fact, it is appropriate and even expected. Sympathy for the loss abounds.
Yet not for us. Not for birth mothers, first mothers, biological mothers who give up their children.
Today when adoption is not a dirty little secret, women may find empathy and love and the freedom to talk openly of their loss, but for women of my generation--Jane and I both gave up our daughters in 1966--and for decades forward, that was not to be for mothers of loss. We were told--society basically insisted--that we "sinners" stop up our heartache and move forward as if nothing happened. And yet, everything happened. We lost a child when in the natural order of life, we shouldn't have.
Other than the actual deed itself the hardest part comes after when the freedom to openly acknowledge that we are suffering deep, pervasive, life-changing grief is closed off, the way one turns off a spigot when it is gushing water. The havoc this blockage plays in our bodies is undoubtedly enormous. The loneliness of unacknowledged grief is a horror unlike no other.
Jane and I both had our children secretly and went on with our lives. My parents did not know, nor did her mother. I moved to another city, found another job, and was supposed to date, as if I were normal, when I was anything but. After keeping my body slim so I wouldn't show--and possibly damaging my daughter's health--within months after she was born I began eating voraciously at night and put on twenty pounds, which I didn't lose for two years--after I met someone I could marry to make my life feel better. To feel less like the horrible awful person I felt inside. To get over wallowing in grief. To have, yes, to have Mrs. in front of my name, for that somehow made me more acceptable to myself--since no one else knew. (I told my husband-to-be when he asked me to marry him.) I knew pretty much from the beginning that our marriage was not one for all time, but it showed someone loved me, and I think for him, it certainly got him out from under his father's overbearing, smothering shell.
But from what I have learned since, my lonely path was preferable to being a woman whose parents pushed the adoption, when what she wanted was support to be able to keep her baby. The correspondence from women in this position talk of never having healed their relationship with their mothers and fathers to any sense of normalcy. Familial feeling was replaced with cold civility from daughter to mother, or father, who then would never ever talk about the lost child, as if the the pregnancy, birth and loss had never occurred.
I am writing this blog not only to acknowledge that pain that we know, but in the hope that those who surround the lives of first mothers might find this blog and think for a moment of what it would be to walk in our shoes.
Don't tell a young woman who lost a child to adoption that she will surely have another. For so many of us never will--approximately a third. The trauma of the loss kills the desire to endure pregnancy and childbirth again. It is just too much to handle.
Don't tell us that we will "forget" this child and go on to have a good life without her. We might have a good life, but it is always with an asterisk that mentally reminds: lost child to adoption.
Don't tell us we are wrong to search, that it is best to let the child have his or her own life without interference; no one knows what the life of that child might be, how much they might need or want us, how they may be waiting and hoping to be "found" and acknowledged.
If we do have other children, don't point out that we have other children with the implication that we should "forget" the one we gave up, and be glad for the children we have. Don't tell us we are "brave" and "did the right thing." We don't feel brave, we feel sad and bereft; we love the children we have, but continually mourn the one we do not. Until we find that child we won't know if we "did the right thing." They may be in trouble, they may have terrible parents who beat them, they may have a mother or a father who didn't want to adopt and who never really loved them. They may have been the replacement child for one lost, or for a pregnancy that did not come...and then surprise! did. They may have always grown up too acutely aware of the difference between "natural" and "adopted."
Do say, I am sorry for your loss--plain and simple, the way you would with any death in the family--and let us grieve. Openly, fully, for as long as we need. Let us talk about the missing part of our being--the child--without being embarrassed or think that talking makes it worse. Let us vent our sorrow. If the first mother wishes, let that child be acknowledged as part of the family history; let him be mentioned when appropriate.
To the children, now grown, who search and wish to reunite, remember that many of us have been in hiding so long we can't imagine life on the other side; our other children (if we have them) or even husbands may not know about you. That does not mean you have to stay in the closet yourself from your siblings if that is not your wish; you have rights to your heritage, whether or not your mother or father wishes that. You can take control here in a way that you could not before. You can pick up that phone and say, I am your daughter who was born on XYZ, I am your sister, I am your brother. But do tread gingerly and gently on a heart that has been so trampled on in all the years up to the moment she responds.
Yet as I write, I know that some birth mothers lack the courage to respond in kind. I am so sorry. I am so very sorry. I don't fully understand these women, but I understand how it happened. And there are found children--and to us mothers, our children are always our "children," no matter their age--who don't want a relationship or any recognition. Again, I am so sorry. For some, reunion will come with the passage of time; for others, this broken relationship will never be fixed. I have a granddaughter that my daughter also gave up for adoption. After my daughter died and I found her, we had a relationship with a couple of years. It ended. Her choice. I was sad for a while.
For all of us, I can only offer this truism: The people who want to be in your life will be; you don't have to go chasing after them.--lorraine dusky
Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
"Dusky's courageous, honest book puts a human face on the emotional minefield of adoption while navigating an often-hidden truth--that at the heart of every adoption, there are issues of loss, guilt, emptiness, abandonment and an incomplete sense of identity. Much more than a good read, Hole In My Heart integrates many important research findings that support the universality and truth of Dusky's personal experience."--