She's Adopted

They just didn't tell her

Grown Adoptees and Birth Mothers Building A Relationship

on June 8, 2013

This was in in response to a question that appeared on HubPages “Questions” section:

“I found my birth mother on Facebook and i want to know how to have a better relationship with her?

The Response to the Above Question by Lisa HW:

Based on your choice of words, your question suggests that it may be hard for you because things didn’t go the way they (ideally) should when a child is adopted. It’s not clear whether your birth mother placed you for adoption as an infant or not, so I’ll assume, for now, that that’s the case.

I think you need to start by beginning at the beginning, in your own mind:

I think one thing you need to keep in mind is that, in so many cases, birth mothers believe (either in their own hearts or because “the world” has convinced them) that the only way their child stands a chance of having a whole, happy, childhood is to place them for adoption. They may believed that the adoption screening process guarantees great parents (or they may know there’s a chance the adoptive parents won’t be ideal but hope the odds of that aren’t great; and feel as if they have no choice but take that chance). The point is birth mothers generally feel they have little or no choice but to place their child for adoption, and the more they care about what kind of mother their child has, the more likely they may be to believe adoption is the only way to do what’s right for their child.

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Birth mothers are often young, and it isn’t, by any means, a rare situation for a young girl to be influenced by others, who tell her there’s no way possible she can ever offer her child what a child needs. Sometimes it may, in fact, be true. Sometimes it may not be.

The point is, most birth mothers have gone through the awful process of placing their babies for adoption because they believed it was the right the to do.

One problem is that none of us can ever guarantee our child the kind of childhood we hope she’ll have. A child born to “the greatest parents in the world” and to “the best home-life in the world” can lose a parent to illness or accident. I had “the best (biological) parents in the world”, but when I was six my mother was hospitalized for months because of Tuberculosis. I recall sitting with my father in my mother’s doctor’s office, as the doctor told my father how someone would help him arrange to place me, my older sister, and my toddler brother in foster care. I recall my father saying little at first but then saying he’d work something out. My father had to work full-time. Someone had to watch us. Fortunately, my mother’s sister was able/willing to quit her job and take care of us during the days. Fortunately, my father was willing/able to hand over most of his pay to make up for what my aunt would lose by leaving her own job to take care of us. The point is, even when we’re fortunate enough to spend our childhoods with two, loving, birth-parents; there aren’t always any guarantees; and all any parent can do is her best.

Whether our child is one we have and raise, have and place for adoption, or adopted as our own, parents just can’t guarantee that all will be as they hope, or as they believe it will be, for their children.

I’m an adoptive mother of a son in his early thirties. He’s among the many people who were not voluntarily placed for adoption. He was adopted in infancy, but it was after he had sustained injuries at the hands of birth parents. Even with that, though, the truth is that his birth mother, herself, had been raised in a severely disadvantaged situation and has been said to be “of limited mental capacity”, so I’ve always tried to point out to my son that sometimes women can’t be “the right kind of mother a child needs” through no fault of their own. I never wanted him to think she didn’t want him or was “evil”. I always hoped he’d understand that she, herself, just had too much going against her as she was growing up.

I had my two younger children myself, and I cannot imagine ever having to go through the process of placing either them or their older brother, with whom I’d bonded since his infancy, for adoption. My point is that, for one reason or another, birth mothers have gone through one wrenching thing or another. Few who haven’t placed their babies for adoption could ever imagine what birth mothers go through (not just when they place their babies for adoption, but often for the rest of their lives in a lot of ways).

My sister and I were recently pondering what was harder – losing our mother or losing our father. We went back and forth about the ways it was a little easier in one way with one parent, and a little easier in another way with the other. After simultaneously coming to the realization that it’s generally pretty rotten to lose a beloved parent under any circumstances, we kind of laughed as we said, “Face it. Death is never easy.”

I think that’s kind of how it is with an adopted child’s birth story. There are all kinds of reasons and circumstances a birth mother feels the only thing she can do is place her child for adoption; but regardless of what they are, the birth story always had some difficult and sad element to it.

Comparing a birth story to losing someone through death is, however, not a very good comparison; because the birth of child (often a very wanted child, even when circumstances make keeping her impossible) brings the same kind of joys to all mothers, whether or not they will be able to keep their child. So often, children who will eventually be adopted bring extra joy with them, as their adoptive parents eagerly await their arrival. It’s just that amidst so much joy, there is always that element of sadness when a child is placed for adoption that isn’t there when she isn’t.

My point is that I think you have to start by keeping in mind that what followed after your birth wasn’t how your birth mother would have chosen it. If she could have kept you and offered you what she believed a child needs, she would have. If she had to place you for adoption, you can bet she believed you would be placed with wonderful parents.

Once you begin at the beginning, maybe spending a little time considering the middle might help too:

If your parents (adoptive parents) were horrible, evil, and abusive people; the people you should be angry at are them and anyone involved in missing their questionable “issues” when they were being screened – not your birth mother.

Any time anyone is “pure evil” and just abusive to a child (whether that’s a birth mother who loses custody or an adoptive one), there’s no excuse. I think all anyone can do is “write them off” and be glad to be done with them.

A good part of the time, though, most parents who mess up in some ways aren’t really unfit (and truly aren’t evil). So often, parents and kids run into difficulties (whether or not the child is adopted). It can be easy to point to adoption as the reason for the problems, but sometimes it’s more a matter of adoption’s complicating problems that would have otherwise existed anyway.

Sometimes, too, well meaning adoptive parents just don’t know exactly how to handle some issues their child may have. In fact, what’s the best thing to do with one child may not be the best thing to do with another one. So, as even “the best parents in the world” who are raising their birth children often do, adoptive parents can do one thing or another isn’t the best for one particular child.

What I’m getting at here is consider the overall childhood with the adoptive parents and ask if those parents were “just horrible people” (in which case, they and the adoption agency should be blamed and, ideally, held accountable), or were they generally good, loving, people with whom their child ran into family disagreements and difficulties? If that’s the case, that kind of thing can happen in all families. A whole lot of kids with their birth parents end up in foster care, not because the parents are abusive or negligent, but because kids start to rebel and parents don’t know what to do but seek help outside.

Stepping back and considering that it may have been more of a family problem than an adoption problem may help make the unfortunate circumstance of being in foster care seem a little more understandable (and a little less reason for anger in some cases).

Why even bothering “looking at the middle”? Because sometimes it’s easier to move past the past if we understand how things happened a little better. Sometimes it’s easier to forgive and see something things as “unfortunate but not really anyone’s fault or intention” than to think, “I was the victim of people who were nothing but horrible”.

Before thinking about moving on to the future with the relationship with a birth mother:

I think you have to also keep in mind that a lot of time and growth has passed between that birth story, that “middle” (childhood), and the present. While some adoptees will report “clicking” with their birth mother almost immediately, many don’t. In fact, many can’t relate to their birth mother at all.

My son was glad to have some “blanks” in his birth story and birth family filled in when he met his birth mother, but he certainly didn’t “click” with her. He said she expected more from him than he was able to offer in terms of a relationship. He was glad to have some of those “blanks” filled in by his birth mother’s sister, but his birth mother was a disappointment to him. She had been a troubled person when he was born, and she remained a troubled person. For lack of a nicer way to describe them, her family was “a can of worms” when it came to “issues”. My son didn’t quite know how to process a lot of it. After about a year of all the “newness of it all”, things gradually soured, and my son “phased out” first the birth mother and later the siblings, as well.

Maybe it was good that he saw how troubled she was, because I think it was clear to him that she wasn’t really “mother material”. Her other children had issues with her as well. That one aunt was the one among the whole group who gave my son the answers he needed and whose answers seemed most to him to match (and complete) the information I’d given him when he was younger.

In my son’s case, it was the birth mother who wasn’t able to keep in mind how much time had passed, or how different he would be after 21 years with the family he felt closest to. In some situations, though, it can be the adoptee who expects a little too much once reuniting, especially, perhaps, if there have been problems between the adoptee and her adoptive family. It’s natural to believe that finding one’s “real” mother might fill any emotional voids. Sometimes some voids are, in fact, filled. Sometimes none are.

Either way, I think it’s important for adoptees to realize that while they can certainly expect their birth mother to fill in all those blanks that need to be filled in when it comes to their birth story (and their birth mother’s story), it is often unrealistic to assume that it’s possible to immediately have some of those emotional voids filled in by being reunited.

On the one hand, there will always be that unique connection between a birth mother and the adoptee. On the other, much of the time there wasn’t that bonding that takes place after a mother brings her baby home and over the months that follow, as she cares for her baby and grows to love her more and more. So, in spite of that undeniable and permanent connect that will always exist as a result of a birth mother’s being the one to have given birth to the child, there’s a kind of break “in the order of things” when it comes to the adult adoptee and the birth mother.

I think (and this is only my own opinion, although I’ve read about this issue and am not offering an opinion based on nothing but my own experience) there can be a “damned-if-you-do/damned-if-don’t” thing when it comes to an adoptee’s feelings toward the birth mother in adulthood, as it applies to how “warmly” the adoptee can feel (at least immediately) toward the birth mother. Why? Because if the adoptee has had all the things that non-adoptees have between the child and the parents, that relationship would lead the adoptee to have fewer, if any, voids that needed to be filled. Such a person wouldn’t be very open, emotionally, to the birth mother in a lot of ways, simply because she wouldn’t feel that kind of need.

At the same time, if an adoptee had a far-from-perfect adoption in which her relationship with her parents left little else but one kind of void or another, she might be looking to her birth mother to fill voids that cannot be filled once a person is an adult. I’m not implying that all is hopeless when it comes to building a new relationship with a birth mother, but I’m saying I think it’s important to keep in mind that it may have start out slowly and build naturally, and on different terms than the adoptee may be hoping for. One easy example might be the adoptee who had an adoptive mother who never showed up for school events. She may have been left feeling short-changed in this (and other) ways and may kind of hope her birth mother would, in some way, make her feel less short-changed.

Having a second chance at a “new and better” mother may seem to hold a lot of promise (and may, especially in the case of a bad adoption) contribute to making the adoptee feel more whole. What I think adoptees need to be careful about, though, is that there is no returning to those years when a child waited for his mother to show up at school events, only to have her not show. The birth mother can’t give that time back and make it better next time. So, there will always be things (some less significant than others) that a birth mother may not be able to offer.

I think, too, this is another example of why it’s important to understand the birth mother’s circumstances when she placed her child for adoption; because I think it’s important an adoptee keep in mind that the birth mother can’t be blamed for the fact that the adoptive mother didn’t show up at those school events.

My point is that these kinds of issues are all the kinds of things I think an adoptee needs to sort out before moving too far into a new relationship with the birth mother. I don’t intend to make it seem as if any challenges to the relationship are challenges that can’t be overcome or even that will be all that big. The reality is, though, that once a child is part of that “triangle” associated with adoption (the birth mother/parents, the adoptive mother/parents, and the child) there are those extra issues that need to be understood, sorted out, and resolved by the adoptee.

I think it’s also important for adoptees to keep in mind that while some reunions lead to great relationships with the birth mother, many don’t. Based not only on my own son, but on other adoptees I’ve known, as well; there are times when adoptees (especially those not entirely “thrilled” with their adoptive parents) may discover they feel as if they fit more (even if only in some ways) with their adoptive parents than with their birth parents. Whether the adoptee once believed she was completely alienated from adoptive parents, or instead once believed she couldn’t possibly feel she belonged with a birth mother who is a “stranger”, there can be surprises (both pleasant and unpleasant).

It’s important, I think, for adoptees to be prepared for some surprises and to be open to the idea that building a relationship with the birth mother will be a process of further growth, as a human being (one way or another). Just as no one can guarantee that a newborn child will have a perfectly wonderful childhood, no one can guarantee that the road to a relationship with a birth mother will be a smooth one (or even that it will lead anywhere farther than some initial meetings that eventually answer what questions the adoptee needs answered before the adoptee and birth mother start to notice they have less in common than they believed they would).

So how does an adoptee build a relationship with a birth mother?

There’s not a simple and easy answer to that question. I suppose one simple answer would be, “Don’t expect too much too soon, and let the relationship start out slowly and build from there (the way any new relationship needs to).” I think it’s important to keep in mind that although an adoptee’s history with her birth mother dates all the way back to the day she was born, the interruption in the relationship means that, in so many ways, reuniting and building a new relationship will very much be just that – building a new relationship. I also means, I think, defining that new relationship in a way that helps the adoptee see that her life (and identity and self) has remained one, continuous, life that began at birth, continued through her childhood, and continues to build, grow, and change with time. In other words, adoptees need to see their life as a play, starring them. (In fact, the birth mother needs to see their life the same way.) In a play, the set changes and/or the scenes change. Actors come and go on the stage. The name of the play remains the unchanged, and the one aspect of it that doesn’t change is the actor who has that starring role. I think seeing that continuity is important for adoptees and birth parents (even though one actor has been missing from most of the play until now). Somehow it seems to me that reconciling that short period between birth and adoption, the longer period between adoption and the present, and the “new” period when the adoptee and birth mother meet again is one way from allowing what is sometimes a fragile and shaky new relationship to crumble under the weight of too much expectation too soon.

The “Star of My Own Show”

I’d like to begin winding down this discussion with a story about my son and me. My son was about seventeen, and he and I had gone through a time when we were arguing pretty much most of the time. It didn’t help that my mother (and his beloved grandmother) had recently died and made us both pretty much on edge and not in the best of moods, to say the least. Both of us had gone through some awful, awful, things while my mother had been bedridden; and as his mother, I was absolutely heartsick to know what he had to endure in terms of sorrow. Still, he was a frazzled and sometimes rebelling teen at the time, and there were times he could be pretty unreasonable.

One night he was (as they say) mouthing off at me. I was angry that he was “giving me a hard time” after all I’d been through. As I said, I was heart-sick to know what he’d been through, but I thought it wouldn’t have killed him to think of me too. In any case, he got me angry and I spoke to him in an uncharacteristically loud and firm voice, in my attempt to get him to realize that he wasn’t the only one who had gone through so much. Not generally being someone to assert my own “importance”, I angrily said to my son, “I’M THE STAR OF THIS SHOW!!” My son was taken aback at my uncharacteristic behavior but immediately replied in his own angry tone (but also in an uncharacteristic assertion of his own “importance”), “WELL – I’M THE STAR OF MY OWN SHOW!!!”

When he came back with that I suddenly realized that I, too, had been wrapped up in my own sorrow and loss (and worry about him) and that, in fact, he was the “star of his own show”, just as I was the “star” of mine.

The thing is, birth mother or adoptive mother, child or adult, biological child or adoptee; each of us is the star of own show; and everyone else in “our show” is, at least from the perspective of “self”, supporting cast (even if extremely important “supporting cast”). Sometimes, when it comes to emotional events or circumstances, it can be pretty easy to forget that the other person is also the star of his own show.

My personal belief is that in the adoption triangle, it is always the child’s needs that should come first. That’s not how it always is, but, ideally, that’s how it should be. A good part of the time mothers (birth or adoptive) will make the child the “star” of their show if at all possible. Sometimes, for one reason or another, they can’t (or won’t). As adoptees (or non-adoptees, for that matter) grow up, a shift has to occur that involves the grown child’s sometimes realizing that her mother is also the star of her own show, complete with all the pressure, expectations, and demands that come with being the star of any show.

When a reunion between an adoptee and birth mother takes place it’s pretty much a matter of joining someone else’s “show”, already in progress, as not only a new cast member but a new character. To add to the challenges, there isn’t just one “show”. There’s at least two (that of the adoptee and the birth mother). Sometimes (usually, perhaps) a whole bunch of different people’s “shows” suddenly have new characters and cast members in them. It can be a complicated time that isn’t easy for anyone involved.

That’s why, I think, people need to take things a little slowly at first, be willing to learn, be willing to try, and be careful about expecting too much of any new characters and/or cast members.

None of this is intended to imply that a great relationship cannot be built between a birth mother and an adoptee. The world is full of adoptees who have gone on to have wonderful relationships with their birth mother. There are also those times, though, when the relationship can never be quite what the adoptee hoped it could be (or even when it turns out there can be no relationship at all). While no adoptee deserves to be disappointed, it’s especially important that those who have had a less than ideal relationship with their adoptive parents not set themselves up for yet further disappointment and emotional trauma. Being prepared, taking things slowly, and keeping expectations within reason can, I think, help build a more solid foundation on which to build whatever relationship will be built.

As for my own son, his world was pretty much rocked (and not for the better) because he went into the reunion with a little too much haste, after initially being reluctant to even meet his birth mother. The warm welcome he received from her and her family made him feel like the long-lost child he was to them. There was, however, an “all-that-glitters-is-not-gold” aspect to the warm, initial, reunion and months that followed it; and my not quite-mature-enough, 21-year-old son was eventually disappointed, a little at a time, as was his birth mother.

As an adoptive mother, I’ve so often heard or read things about how adoptive mothers are cautious or reluctant when it comes to their child’s meeting the birth mother. I’ve also read or heard adoptees say they worry about even raising the issue of a reunion with their (adoptive) mother because they don’t want to hurt her. In my case (and I think this is true with a lot of adoptive mothers), the idea that my son would most likely one day want to meet his birth mother/family was something I’d always just taken for granted as part of the “adoption factor” and wasn’t something I was either insecure or emotionally fragile about that he would have needed to worry about “hurting me”.

Back then, when my son was 21 and contacted by an agency who invited him to meet his birth mother, I did believe he wasn’t quite emotionally mature enough to handle it. When he said he wasn’t going to follow up I was the one who said, “At least let her know you’re OK. She deserves that much.” That’s what began the reunion process, and the fact that he wasn’t quite as mature as would have been ideal is what made him dive a little too quickly into waters that would turn out to be far too deep for him. Had my son had just another two or three years to mature, I think his reunion with his birth mother may have turned out more successful than it did.

Another factor that I don’t think helped was that none of the birth family seemed to realize it may not have been helpful in his relationship with the birth mother for them to “swoop in as a group” (well intended as they may have been), overwhelmed him, made him feel (for lack of a better words) like a “Big Cheese”, and then proceed to tell him all about all the mistakes and flaws of his birth mother. His birth mother is an individual who has had many disadvantages and who was said to have challenges aside from some of those external disadvantages. My son is an accepting person and a person who is fairly good at understanding that people can “have issues” or make unintended mistakes. I think if he and his birth mother had had some time to get to know one another better before quite such an onslaught of “welcoming” by the rest of her family began he may possibly have developed a better relationship with her. Since my son relating to the extended family members was easier for my son than relating to the birth mother was, it was, I guess, natural for the family members to step in, make my son feel more welcome, and – in the end, and without intending to – discourage his forming a better relationship with his birth mother.

Whether or not his birth mother is someone with whom he ever could have formed a real relationship is something I don’t know. For all I know, it may have been good that the extended family stepped up and played the role they did. I do know, though, that with their good intentions and haste at making my son feel “like one of them”, they did put down some roadblocks when it came to any potential relationship with his birth mother,

This is why I’ll end this discussion by suggesting that adoptees, themselves, limit (at least to some degree) intensity and time when it comes to meeting and spending time with other birth family members. . It’s one thing to meet them, and I’m not suggesting adoptees not do that. It’s another thing, however, to have a large extended family start having one get-together after another, involving different combinations of people or time spent with individual family members alone. I’m just suggesting taking it slow and limiting numbers when it comes to birth family members.

It may seem natural to welcome back a “long lost” child to a whole family, and it, of course, seems like a nice thing to do to have a big get-together in order to do it. Celebrating meeting an adopted child in this way is celebrating the happiness with which that child is received. I do think, however, that it lays a foundation for a set of dynamics that may not necessarily be conducive to stronger relationships (especially with the birth mother, given that she is the “star” of her particular “show”) in the long run.

To me, it just seems like common sense to realize that when a baby is placed for adoption in early infancy the mother cannot form the same kind of bond that mothers form with babies after they bring them home, care for them, and become increasingly attached to them over the the first few years of the child’s life. I had children, as well as having adopted one. The connection I had with them at the time of their birth was “nothing” compared to the fierce and intense bond that would grow once I brought each one home and began to nurture him or her. When a baby is separated from his birth mother in early infancy there’s never the chance for this kind of bond to develop, so the birth mother’s bond with the child is very limited. Even though she may have her own love for, and thoughts of, the child over the years; it cannot be a “relationship” when the two are not in one another’s lives.

This is why it seems to me that when a reunion is to take place it may be more important than people generally realize that the birth mother and adoptee have a good, solid, chance to begin to build on whatever connection they have; rather than allow extended family members to play too big a role in the early stages of the reunion. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this matter, and I don’t even know if I’m correct in my beliefs. What I do know, however, is what did create fractures in whatever potential there was for my son to form a relationship (even if not a perfect one) with his birth mother.

If nothing else, these are things I think people who are planning a reunion, or who are in the early stages of the reunion process, should consider.


One response to “Grown Adoptees and Birth Mothers Building A Relationship

  1. All very interesting points. You touch on parenting and what comes with that but it is key to understand that birth parents did no parenting. In that sense, they cannot be a threat to those that did parent. What they are (and what adoptive parents are not) are ancestors. That is the thing that adoptive parents can not impinge on.

    One potentially rewarding approach is to explore his as a way to build a relationship. I’m not talking about medical issues and so on but rather about the emotional and intellectual similarities. My son look like his mother (it is scary really) but he and I think and feel alike. It is not that we agree, but that we process feelings and thoughts the same (and we move the same as well).

    In an early letter (before we met) he said that he was a ‘self made’ and highly individual person and he is, indeed, determined and goal oriented. The truth, however, it closer to the fact that he had just not ever met anyone quite like himself.

    Well, we are now 10yrs+ into our reunion and it has been great for us both. I would wish the same for anyone else.

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