The What If Of It All

Michele Dawson Haber

Today, I was first attracted to a blog by this woman, Michele Dawson Haber, in which she shares imaging her father talking to her while making coffee. “What’s this? Why so many steps? Do you know the coffee we drank in the old days was just botz (mud) at the bottom of our cups? A life like yours, with such complicated coffee—Michal*, it makes me happy that you’re not struggling as I did.” *Michal (מיכל) is her Hebrew name.

I come from a long line of coffee drinkers. The pot was always prepared for the timer to begin the brewing before any inhabitants of the house woke and wanted a cup. After my mom died, I spent several quiet treasured morning drinking coffee with my dad out on their deck as we watched the dawn turn into sunrise. When I returned to my parents’ house following my dad’s death, as I walked through their kitchen, I heard him clearly say in my mind, “You miss your old dad, don’t you ?” Exactly as he would have said it in life. I admitted that I did miss him already. With my mom’s passing, . . . oh, I heard her a lot say “You’re doing really well.” many times while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom where she died in her jacuzzi tub. So much that I finally had to let her know – “enough, I don’t need to hear this any more” – and it stopped.

Yet, what really touched my heart was Michele’s piece in May 2021 in Salon about her mother’s letters – “It’s my mom’s fault I stole her letters.” I found letters like that among my parents things as I cleared out their residence after their deaths only 4 months apart. I wish I had read Michele’s piece before getting rid of my parents’ love letters to each other that my mom treasured enough to keep for over 50 years. Just before I began that work, I had read a piece by a woman who’s mother had destroyed her love letters from her father. The mother had said these were private between your father and I – and for that reason only, I let the letters go after having coincidentally read only one but a very relevant one – as though my mom reached out from beyond the grave to make certain I at least saw that one.

Michele writes in her personal essay for Salon – “I felt guilt wash over me. The debates with my two sisters over whether it was ethical to steal her letters replayed in my mind. In the end, we decided that the information in those letters belonged not only to our mother, but also to me and my older sister.” But I had not and so chose a different course based upon someone else’s story. Michele goes on to say, “the question of privacy continued to gnaw at me. I knew that if I had asked my mother 20 or even 10 years ago for permission to read the letters she would have said, ‘Are you kidding? No way. What’s in those letters is none of your business.’ And so I did what I always do when faced with a conundrum: I researched. In her book The Secret Life of Families (subtitled How Secrets Shape Our Relationships and When and How to Tell the Truth), Dr. Evan Imber-Black distinguished secrecy from privacy. A secret, she wrote, is information withheld that “impacts another’s life choices, decision-making capacity and well-being.” Conversely, if a piece of information is truly private, then knowing it has no impact on another’s physical or emotional health. 

Michele goes on to share, “In my fantasy argument with my mother, I would say that her secrecy about my biological father did impact my well-being, that depriving me of my genetic heritage handicapped my ability to shape a strong identity.” I agree with her reasoning on this one.

I had read one note (not even a letter) from my mom to a friend, stressing about how my father might react to learning she was pregnant. She had conceived me out of wedlock as a 16 yr old Junior in high school. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces and it appears they wrote each other almost every day, though mostly these were the letters she received from my dad, except the note I read. I remember when I figured out that I had been conceived out of wedlock and how in my heart (though only for a few months) I turned against my mom because of that. I didn’t want her to touch me, such as take my hand. Hopefully, she thought only that I was asserting some independence because I was growing up. It was just all those “nice girls don’t do that” lectures she had given me. As a grown woman now, I know that she didn’t want me to make the same mistake. I hastened to get married with a month yet to graduating from high school even though I was not pregnant. My parents supported me and we had the fully formal church wedding and reception in my parents’ back yard. I suspect my parents were afraid I might turn up pregnant like my mom did and so did not discourage me from a marriage that lasted long enough to conceive a child 4 months after I married and then ended in divorce when she was only 3 years old.

Finding that letter further softened my feelings about my conception because I could clearly feel my mom’s emotions and concerns before my dad knew he would become a father. Anyway, this long story shorter. I didn’t keep the letters but sent them to the local landfill along with other items my mom had kept from their many journeys – souvenir booklets and the like. Reading Michele’s story makes me regret that all over again, and I have felt that regret before.

After my dad died, I learned from my cousin, who’s father was my mom’s adoptive brother, that it was possible to get the adoption file that the state of Tennessee had denied my mom in the early 1990s. It is a pity they didn’t let her have that because it would have brought her so much peace. My own journey to rediscover my original grandparents (both of my parents were adopted) only took me about year after my dad’s death; and then, I knew who ALL 4 of them were and something about my ancestors. What I didn’t expect was gaining cousins and an aunt. Even though I am very happy to now have family that I am biologically and genetically related to – I will also admit how difficult it is to create relationships with people who have decades of history lived that I was not any part of. Thankfully, they have all been kind in acknowledging me (and sometimes the DNA makes it difficult for them not to).

Do read the links above to Michele’s stories. I’ve made this blog long enough that I am not going to include any more excerpts beyond the coffee bit and some of her thoughts about personal letters.

Why It Happens

Birthmom here – I am looking for a little encouragement from anyone who has experienced open adoption and that had a good experience. I unfortunately did not join any groups like this one where adoptee voices are prioritized while pregnant and did move forward with the adoption, and I grieve every single day.

I had a small handful of friends encourage me to keep my baby with me, but the majority of friends and family told me that they thought adoption was the right thing to do and that I was making a good choice. It sounded nice, but it was so hurtful to feel like I wasn’t good enough for my baby. And I love him so much, I didn’t want to make a “selfish” choice and keep him with me when there was another family that would be better for him.

Now that I read all of these posts from mature adoptees and I’m heartbroken that I didn’t believe in myself and that I gave him away. When I was pregnant and in financial hardship, feeling alone and emotional – I only wanted to do the right thing. And I felt so little confidence in myself, and hearing those other voices saying that “adoption is love” and “adoption is selfless”, made me feel like I’d be selfish for wanting to keep my baby because I’d put him into a life of struggle and financial insecurity.

So I broke my own heart and put myself last. I live with a deep pain and a regret that will last the rest of my days. I love my mom, and I’ve told her how hurtful it was when I was pregnant to hear her tell me that she thought I did the right thing by choosing adoption. She says she would have supported me either way – but I know that if I kept my baby with me, it would have been with minimal support to prove her point – that I am not enough and to punish me for getting pregnant when I couldn’t support myself and my 17 year old son.

My 17 year old (who was 15 during the time I was pregnant) encouraged me to go through with adoption because he said that life was hard with it being just the 2 of us. And that the baby deserved more and deserved to have both a mom and a dad. Having my son tell me these things was also hurtful because I feel like I’m a great mom to him, but if he thinks these things, then he added on to those feelings like I wasn’t good enough.

My baby is now 10 months old and we have an open adoption. I’m hoping that he grows up feeling loved and secure. I have a great relationship with his adoptive parents and I really love who and how they are, but I do miss him everyday. I can’t change the past or the decision I made, though I wish I could. My true wish is that he was still with me. I wish I stumbled across a group like this one before I made that permanent decision. But I didn’t. The only thing I can do now is move forward with life as it is and hope that everything will turn out ok.

Placating Adoptive Mother Emotions

It is just a difficult path to trod. Today’s story –

My son’s birthday is coming up soon. The last time I posted publicly about my kids was the anniversary of the final visit, and their adoptive mother got upset that I said anything. She enlisted my younger child for her defense. They asked me to not post anything ever again, because the adoptive mother doesn’t want to see it. Yet she continues to stalk me to see what I’m posting. I suspect that if I let a birthday slide by without saying anything, she’d use it as evidence that I’d completely forgotten about my kids. I’m not sure what the adoptive mother wants me to feel – am I supposed to regret having kids at all? Am I supposed to blame myself for surviving abuse? I know that, of course, I wish I’d taken the kids and gotten away from him before Child Protective Services got involved. Acknowledging that at this point is not going to make the adoptive mother any happier. I suspect that she wants from me is to admit that I’m just a horrible person and be grateful to her for saving my kids from me. I want to do what’s right for my kids long-term, and if the adoptive mother needs to control what I feel and say about the adoption, how much freedom is she giving them? Is there anything I could post that might get the adoptive mother to react like a reasonable human and not like some an obsessed control freak? PS it’s the older child’s 19th birthday. The younger one who is 16 has basically taken responsibility for handling the adoptive mother’s emotional state, because the adoptive mother throws temper tantrums to get her way and must be appeased.

The first responder said – I would acknowledge his birthday. He’s 18 – so old enough to tell you himself if he doesn’t want you to post anything. He’s also old enough to no longer be her property. Just as a side note have you tried reaching out to him to see if he would like contact directly with you now that he’s old enough?

I can relate to the difficulties. My daughter went to live with her dad when she was 3 years old. He remarried, so there was a step-mother, a step-sister and a half-sister in her family. I gave her a calling card, so that when it was safe (meaning it wouldn’t cause an upset) for her to call me, she could choose when. Sometimes, I had to wait a long time for those calls but at least she knew I wanted to hear from her. In an adoption situation, I don’t know if something like that would be possible but there is always reversing charges. What I cared about the most, was my daughter’s comfort and quality of life – not my own.

Social media didn’t exist when my daughter was young. I can easily understand the next responder’s comment – This is one reason why I keep my profile completely locked down with no public posts. Nobody gets to tell me how to feel about MY kids.

Someone else noted this obvious truth – you did give birth to your children and have every right to acknowledge their birthday. A birthday not only celebrates the day a child became an independent person but also the mother who gestated that child to birth. Many times, when I am celebrating one of my children’s birthdays on my Facebook page, friends will also acknowledge it is my celebration of an event as well.

Sadly, this perspective contains a frequent truth – some adoptive parents are control freaks. They would like to erase the fact that the adopted children are not biologically related to them, the children are possessed like property that the adoptive parents bought to furnish their life. The natural mother should post whatever she wants… one day her children may see it and realize they were loved all along! It will mean so much to them to know that. I know that understanding would have meant a lot to my own adoptee parents (both were).

And when all else fails – There are features that allow you to block specific people from posts. It’s strategic avoidance of the real problem, but sometimes that’s the best you can do. Anyway, as long is the posts aren’t abusive or causing damage to anyone, then she really should have zero say about what you post to your wall. Her discomfort is her own. You don’t need to carry that for her.

And the perspective from an adoptive parent – I’m so sorry that not only did she express unhappiness with you saying something, but that she enlisted the children into her unhappiness with you. That’s just, WRONG. It sounds like she is very insecure in her position as parent, and wanting you to remove yourself from yours to give her more room. You don’t have to do that. I believe that what is right for your children long term, is for them to KNOW that they were always on your mind and in your heart. I personally think that it is fine for you to make a post in regards to your children’s birthdays. Growing and birthing a human being is a MAJOR thing that happens to us as the person doing it, not just to the baby. I’m guessing that there are other people who follow you on Facebook who know about your children, maybe were even a part of their lives… Just because someone else is legally their parent now, does not change the fact that there were people in the children’s lives BEFORE. People who’s hearts and memories and emotions did not just disappear because of a court order. If possible, tighten up your security. If you’re friends with her on Facebook, exclude her from your posts if you feel the need. But please feel free to acknowledge your children, your love, and your loss however you feel you need to.

Not Of My Blood

This topic comes up repeatedly in my all things adoption group. It seems that the incidence of varying degrees of abuse is more prevalent on the part of adoptive parents. Adoptees often wonder and theorize why.

It started with this insight – So many adopted people I know have stories of child abuse by both of their adoptive parents. What is the mentality behind this, what is the psychological mechanism that results in so many adoptive parents getting a child just to abuse them? I don’t think every single case is where adults actively seek out children so they can have someone to abuse, but it’s way too common to just be a case of easy hunting grounds. Is there something that happens inside of the brains of adoptive parents that turns so many of them into child abusers?

Although, anything conceivable probably exists, I do not believe most couples go into adoption with the intent of mistreating their adopted child. There is something else going on.

One thought was this – Humans developed over millennia to raise their own biological/genetic offspring. Our biology knows whether the child is our own or not. Adoptive parents are preconditioned by social workers and adoption agencies to have expectations that “nurture” will adjust the child to be the same “as if” they had given birth to the child but it does not work that way.

Until very recently, and to some extent this remains true, adoption in the modern western version is predicated on treating adoptive parents like they are the original natural parents. Birth certificates are falsified to support that perspective. Often, in the past, adoptive parents lied to the child about their origins. Thanks to more accessible, inexpensive DNA testing and well reported adoptee reunions with their biological families, this fantasy can no longer hold dominance in adoptionland.

Raising kids is hard! They test and exhaust us. This is especially true when there isn’t shared blood and genetics. The frustration isn’t tempered by biology and deep parental bonds. My oldest son was very challenging at the age of 6, when his younger brother had had the lion’s share of my attention throughout infancy and his first 2 years. I actually would say to him, it is lucky for you that I love you. If you challenge other people the way you have challenged me, you could end up hurt very badly or dead. It was my maternal bond with him that stayed me from actually hurting him, though my anger could surprise me.

One adoptee shares – I can only speak for my adoptive parents but I was property to them. I was meant to fulfill a role and anything out of line with that expectation was punished. I recognize that they knew what the social worker looked for and how the system worked, therefore they were very good at hiding it. No one would ever believe me. It was clearly easier for them to take their emotions out on me (an adopted child) than on their own biological children.

Another adoptee shares – When I started calling my narcissistic adoptive mother out on her shit, it caused a huge fight with my whole family against me. And one of my aunts basically said it didn’t matter how they treated me, I just had to suck it up, take it, and thank them, because they “took me in” out of the “goodness” of their hearts when they didn’t have to. This implied they received a free pass regarding how they treated me. Which is obviously wrong. I think that is the mentality that a lot people have, when it comes to adoption, especially among the older generations. Like you could have/would have had it worse if they hadn’t come along, so you should feel “lucky.” It doesn’t feel “lucky.”

What happens when adoptive parents finally achieve the birth of a biological, genetic child ? One adoptee shares – we were all adopted and it was a loving safe environment until I turned 8. Then they had their only biological child and the rest of us had to scramble and grab for pieces of affection. I don’t know if it was regret for adopting, the satisfaction of finally having what they wanted, something else or a mix of it all but whatever the case, we went from cherished to easily replaceable.

Another woman adds – I think can be twofold. Either one, or a combination of, the psychological effects of infertility grief and the impact on an adopted child of emotional neglect as a result of the adoptive parent being unable to meet the needs of a traumatized, adopted child. (Note all adopted children suffer adoption related trauma, ie a belief they were rejected by their natural parents.) Chronic emotional neglect (causes more trauma) and has profound effects on an adopted child. It is worse when the caregiver doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that they don’t feel the love and acceptance for their adopted child that they expected to feel. It’s all too common then to blame the child for not meeting the adoptive parents needs, rather than looking at the emotional content in the adoptive parent. Throw in a societal saviorism belief related to adoption and there are the frustrated feelings of believing they are entitled to a child they didn’t receive.

Another adoptee shares – My adoptive parents were very physically abusive. I don’t know any science behind it but my honest thought was always that because I wasn’t flesh and blood, they couldn’t love me the same. There was no genetic connection… I don’t really know …. but that is how it has felt. I don’t think they adopted me with the intention of being abusive, but they couldn’t control themselves. It’s like if my daughter has a play date and that child is being awful, I’m like their parent needs to do something before I do…I just don’t have a motherly connection to anyone else but my own children…and it might sound super messed up but its literally how I rationalized all the physical and mental abuse I suffered … They didn’t even care if they hurt my feelings. Just like I wouldn’t care if I hurt someone else’s kid’s feelings, if they were little assholes. Of course, I know there are people who abuse their biological children…but I always think that’s generational and based on some mental health issues. The reason anyone abuses a child is complicated.

Someone else shares their perspective – I believe most adoptive parents adopt as a solution to their infertility and to “save a poor baby in need”. They are fed rainbows and unicorn stories that convince them that they are wonderful people doing a wonderful thing and that the adopted child it will be just the same as their own baby. So they treat a traumatized child just the same as they would their own. Except it’s not the same. If they don’t allow the child to have feelings, go to therapy, etc as soon as the child acts out, they won’t understand why the child is behaving that way. Most adoptive parents signed up for the “cute baby and matching sweater” they see on Instagram. Instead they get a screaming demon !! The more frustrated the parents become, the more they refuse to acknowledge their adopted child has trauma. That inability to empathize becomes more triggering for the adopted child. The parents eventually snap under the pressure and enter a cycle of abuse because “we tried love and it didn’t work”. When all they actually tried was to force the child to bond with them and pretend the child is the same as a their own biological child. It messes with the brains on both sides and often leads to the point of violence.

And finally, this perspective – every adopted child has a job. It might be to fix infertility or it might be to take the place of a dead child. Whatever it is, as adoptees we are given a job with no description and unfortunately, we don’t know when we miss the mark until we trip over it. That accounts for a lot of disappointed adoptive parents. Just as the adopted child does not recognize any genetic markers in regard to physical appearance and personality – neither do the adoptive parents. So on top of the heartbreak of infertility comes the heartbreak, disappointment and anger in having to continue living with why you adopted the child in the first place.

Preferences

Birthmother – heroic, damned and judged. Believe me, these women have ALL of my sympathetic compassion. They are too often exploited. My preference would be that no mother who birthed a baby would ever be separated from them. That these women and their babies would be supported – if necessary in comfortable surroundings with no other demand upon them than the baby makes. Sadly, that is not the society we live in. Dominated by the search for profits – babies are taken from their birthmother and given to whoever can pay the price. This is just plain wrong.

What does it mean to attempt to move forward in a life after a woman relinquishes her baby to adoption ? For myself, though my daughter was not relinquished to adoption, she was surrendered to her father to raise, in effect – it isn’t much different. Diminished. Somehow a failure. Less than. Some kind of monster person. I’ve lived with all of those feelings.

Often in this blog, I do choose to spend a lot of my time and energy pointing out the more negative aspects of adoption as I have come to understand the institution. I feel entitled to do this because both of my parents were adopted and both of my sisters gave up a baby to adoption. At this point, it is fair to label me as “anti-adoption” because honestly, for the most part, I am. I would like to explain what the words, anti-adoption, mean in my perspective.

I believe that it is wrong that there is profit being made in the adoption industry. The transferring of parental rights to a child, that we call adoption, is a $13 Billion dollar annual industry. Every day we hear more and more about corruption in adoption and many adoption experts agree that we need to get the profit motive out of it. There is just too much income motivation and not in the best interest of the child – most often in the interest of hopeful adoptive parents. Money matters – not the child’s welfare. In addition, the high cost of adopting makes it completely out of reach for many prospective adoptive parents. These people, in desperation, take out second mortgages or hold adoption fundraisers. I do not think of this acknowledgement regarding the influence of money as “anti-adoption.” I see this acknowledgement as looking for efforts that are pro-child welfare and not focused on turning babies into commodities.

Birthparents face a lack of follow-up services. Whoever has the prize (the baby) has won the battle. The one who gave birth no longer matters. If there are any mental health professionals involved, they are often uneducated about the long term effects of relinquishment on the birth parents. I see this as being a strong advocate for the continued support of the people directly affected by adoption, including the adoptee who never had a say in what was being done to them.

I believe that the marketing and promotional aspects of adoption need to be seriously overhauled. I do think there is something wrong with an adoption agency spending thousands of dollars in advertising or using crisis pregnancy centers to recruit mothers, simply to ask them to consider adoption as the outcome for their babies. Adoption websites must discuss both the positives and the negatives, the risks and possibilities, when providing adoption information to all of the parties involved. People should not be told what they want to hear in order to seal a deal, pay a fee, or relinquish a child. I see this perspective as demanding “truth” from the industry and honoring that spirit by demanding honest information be conveyed.

We must change adoption practices so that the expectant parents considering adoption have enough information to make an informed choice.  An agency cannot tell potential birth mothers that they are strong and courageous, promise them relationships with their children and expect them to find peace and heal.  Adoption professionals must present, however scant, the known research about the consequences of long-term grief, the true statistics regarding of adoptee outcomes, secondary infertility rates, and the legal truth about open adoption agreements (they are un-enforceable).  Adoption counseling should be from a true unbiased source and must ensure that mothers considering adoption have other real options – plans for parenting their baby and realistic bail-out, change of mind/heart time frames available.  It is wrong to ask mothers to “choose” adoption unless they do so with truthful knowledge, of their own free will and knowing the realities they will face the rest of their life related to their choice. I can not count how many birthmothers QUICKLY regret that decision to surrender their precious baby to adoption. “Informed” must be truly informed and not based on some pretty descriptive version of adoption fantasyland.

Pro-ethical accountability. I want to see children’s needs come first.  I want fathers’ rights upheld. I want legal accountability from all parties involved.  I want more than a patchwork of state laws that allow people to cross state lines, get a new license, and work around regulations.  We must restore to adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.  Currently adult adoptees are the only classification of US citizens that are denied the right to access their original birth certificates based on the fact they were adopted.  This issue touches on their right to know their true identity. If the adoptee desires, it is normal to want know the story of their own birth. Adults should have access to their actual genetic history and genealogy, as well as their detailed medical information. Sometimes even the ability to get a passport, a driver’s license, vote or to have health insurance is dependent on true identity information (and not some made-up identity, as in adoption). The state governments are still stuck in a past created on a perception of shame, defending secrecy regarding adoption details and supporting the lies necessary to accomplish this. My perspective is anti-discrimination and in support of adoptee civil rights.

Joni Mitchell’s Daughter

Joni Mitchell reunion in 1997
with Kilauren Gibb

Adoptee reunions with their birth parents happen almost daily it seems to me in the adoption related groups that I am a member of. My adoptee mom wanted such a reunion but sadly hers never happened (when she tried to get her adoption file from the state of Tennessee, while denying her that information which would have brought her so much peace, they told her that her mother had died several years earlier).

This morning I’ve been tracking down the story of the daughter that Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption because she wrote song lyrics about that experience in Little Green a song on her album Blue which is 50 years old today.

~ lyrics

Born with the moon in cancer
Choose her a name she will answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
Call her green for the children who’ve made her

Little green, be a gypsy dancer
He went to California
Hearing that everything’s warmer there
So you write him a letter and say, “her eyes are blue.”
He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you
Little green, he’s a non-conformer

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green

Like the nights when the northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed

Little green, have a happy ending
Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow

Just a little green
Like the nights when the northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

Both mother and daughter were searching for each other when a series of coincidences finally brought the two of them together. It would be a very typical adoptee search and reunion with her birth mother if her mother had not been so famous. Most adoptees do not have to deal with that kind of media frenzy. It would be a typical adoptee reunion with her birth mother leads to a reunion with her birth father but for all of the fame involved. And it would be a typical adoptive parent anxiety about losing the child they raised if not for all the media frenzy that followed. On Joni Mitchell’s own website you can read the details in Joni’s Secret: Mother And Child Reunion and fully appreciate the complications.

My all things adoption group seeks to encourage young, unwed mothers like Joni Mitchell was to keep and raise their children. This is because, like Joni, adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Joni’s problems were poverty and the baby’s father being unready to parent and so abandoning them. Within 3 years, Mitchell had a recording contract, a house and a car, and could have raised her child but it was too late by then. The adoption was closed and so when the daughter began her search, she was only given non-identifying information, which is typical as well.

Things actually went surprisingly well considering it was way back in 1997 when the reunion occurred. Like my good luck in uncovering my own original grandparents, something of their stories and connecting with biological/genetic cousins and an aunt, it was as though one door opens and the pieces begin falling into place. And as like attracts like and as intentions seek to fully fulfill the desire that gave birth to them, sometimes in the adoption world we get lucky.

It is somewhat interesting and all too typical that the adopted person also has their own struggles that somewhat mirror their birth parent. Kilauren claims that she did not find out she was adopted until she was 27. “She knew when she was a teenager,” her adoptive mother, Ida Gibb says. “Her friends told her. But maybe the full significance didn’t sink in.” Kilauren’s adoptive father, David Gibb says, “The mistake we made was in trying to say she’s not adopted, that she’s one of us and let’s forget the whole thing and put it away somewhere, because we wanted her to be part of the family.” Then he adds: “People are born. They are a life. They belong to nobody.”

Kilauren’s biological parents, Joni Mitchell and Brad MacMath, were both art students in Calgary when she was conceived. They moved to Toronto during the pregnancy and discussed settling down but as he says, “We were not communicating.” and he moved from Canada to California. Mitchell says her main concern at the time was to conceal her pregnancy from her parents. And what would her parents have done ? Mitchell’s mother, Myrtle Anderson says, “If we had known she was expecting a baby, we would have helped. I’m sure we would have encouraged her to keep the baby, but we didn’t know anything about it until several years later when she and Chuck (Mitchell) separated and she was home and told us about it.”

Like many birth mothers, Joni Mitchell regretted losing her child for 30 years before the reunion finally occurred. Like many birth mothers, she might see a couple with a daughter about the age hers would have been at that time. Toronto music manager Bernie Fiedler who was a friend of Mitchell’s remembers being with her at the Mariposa Folk Festival about four years after Kilauren’s birth. “There was a couple with a little girl wanting to speak to Joni. We went over and talked to the girl, who must have been 4 or 5, and afterwards Joni turned to me and said: ‘That could be my daughter.’ I will never forget that. She was obviously suffering tremendously.” Kilauren (at the age of 32) ended up separated from the father of the son she is raising. Broken relationships seem more common with adoptees, and often with their biological parents as well, than within the overall population in general.

The thing about adoption is that it changes trajectories. Joni Mitchell may not have become as famous as she did had she kept and raised her daughter. Her daughter’s life would have been different had she not been raised in the well to do home that she was. Both mother and daughter suffered and that is always the case (whether acknowledged or unconscious) when that separation takes place. It is always the case as well, that no matter how loving the adoptive parents are or how good of a childhood that adopted child has, a yearning to be made whole again is universal. Not all reunions go well and this one has been bumpy like many of these are.

Typically, the adoptive parents feared this as well. Losing Kilauren to her birth mother “was our greatest fear,” her adoptive mother Ida Gibb said. “It was a nightmare that this would happen to us when she was little and when she was a teenager. Now, it is easier to take. But it’s still hard.”

A Lifetime Of Regret

The Maiden of Sorrow painting by Tyler Robbins

In a discussion about a same-sex couple (two females) who wanted a family and were seeking perspectives on donor conceived vs adoption, a woman who gave up her baby at birth was strongly defending her choice as best for the child. This kind of denial is not uncommon. Truth is that many women who surrender their child at birth spend the rest of their lifetime in sorrow. Not even getting into the trauma that EVERY baby suffers at a preverbal, subconscious level due to that separation. Today’s story is from a woman who surrendered her child.

I’m a Birth mother. When I placed my daughter for adoption I lost the only good thing in my life. She was my joy. My reason for living.

I spent the next decade deeply suicidal and one of the things I heard a lot from people was that “suicide is selfish because it takes one person’s pain and passes it on to ten others.” These days I can’t help but think how much this statement applies to adoption too.

When I hear hopeful adoptive parents talk about the anguish infertility caused them and how they’re pursuing adoption now because they NEED to be a mother, I wonder if they realize they’re doing exactly this. They are trying to take away their pain of not having a baby by passing that pain onto the birth mother, father, child, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins instead.

I have spent years in agony over the loss of my daughter, crying and begging god to change what happened. I’ve watched others get pregnant and wondered why they were worthy of motherhood and I wasn’t. I’ve felt the need to be a mother because I was a mother. But I am a mother without a child now.

The future which hopeful adoptive parents were unwilling to live (a life without children) has become my reality instead. Do hopeful adoptive parents or those who have already adopted realize – they are transferring their pain onto others, when they accept somebody else’s baby to fulfill their dreams ? What makes the pain spread through suicide so obviously selfish but the pain spread through adoption so widely acceptable ?

The first response was empathetic – you’re making perfect sense. Except the pain that leads people to suicide and the pain of having a child and losing it are both astronomically greater than any pain felt by never having children. So that makes adoption exceptionally selfish. I’m sorry for the pain you have been through. You did not deserve any of it. Saying a prayer for you.

It is frequently said in my all things adoption group that adoption is a permanent decision to a temporary solution. Society really needs to wake up to the harm of commercializing babies for profit and support struggling mothers and/or families better so children do not need to be taken from the family they were born into.

There are some adoptive mothers who finally realize that their infertility was at least psychologically caused by feeling their own mothers didn’t love them, even though there may have also been a physical component. If a woman is not whole in mind and emotions, any child brought into this life will have flawed parenting. There is also often a religious component to adoption. Some feel that God is punishing them with infertility and though some kind of twisted logic believe that adopting a child will get them back God’s good graces. So many don’t want to heal, they refuse to even admit they need to. And it’s their children and their children’s true mothers who carry the burden of their lack of awareness regarding their true issues.

Regarding a relinquishment of one’s babies and suicide came this comment –

I am an adoptee. My Mom died by suicide because her pain was too much to bear from losing two children to adoption.

I have been saying much of the same thing in regards to suicide. It’s not selfish or cowardly or a crime. I have also been saying that hopeful adoptive parents or those who have already adopted are transferring their pain. Most do not heal before adopting. Adoptive parents are wrongly revered by our society. Nobody thinks to question them or ask them anything. Sadly, adoption is usually option B and adoptive parents do not heal nor research the topic before getting their wallets out.

Fact is – adoption is big business. A for profit business. So if there were no adoptive parents, the money to be made selling babies would decrease. Sadly, adoption is socially acceptable, romanticized, sensationalized and is thought by many to be beautiful, rainbows etc. Adoptive parents are viewed as heroes and altruistic.

Suicide is stigmatized and people are afraid to discuss it and truly do not understand it. Our society has a hard time sitting in discomfort and looking at other people’s pain. That is why suicide is quickly labeled as selfish. In reality, society is selfish for not asking why the pain was so heavy. Even the words used around suicide make it seem like a crime or a choice. (committed suicide, killed oneself, took their own life). We are the selfish ones. We need to be talking about this. Not to mention the high suicide attempt rates and suicides among adoptees, as well as their original moms. Nobody is going to physically die because they can’t have a baby but many adoptees and moms are dying from the grief, trauma and loss that is the truth of adoption and family separation.

Every day, my effort here is to change the narrative about who adoptees are, about their stories, about the importance of keeping families together. Mine is one small voice but those who share my perspectives are legion. So the effort at reform begins with changing the narrative – adoption is NOT a “selfless” act but a “selfish” act. There is so much pain in adoption. I wish more people were aware of (and cared about!!!) the devastating consequences.

The Uncertainty Inherent

Today’s story is about a birth mother who’s daughter, put up for adoption, has rejected contact with her 25 years later thanks to the Dear Therapist article in The Atlantic.

My daughter gave a child up for adoption about 25 years ago. She already had one child, and although I offered to help her raise both children, she felt it wouldn’t be fair to us or to the baby, so she gave her up to a very nice couple, whom we both interviewed and liked. The couple has kept in touch with us both over the years, sending pictures and updates on their daughter.

My daughter always felt that in time the child would want to get in touch with her, and in fact, her adoptive parents have encouraged this, but the girl has always said she didn’t want to. This is very painful for my daughter. Can you give us an idea as to why the young woman might not want to meet her birth mother, or offer any explanation that would make my daughter feel less rejected? She has even tried contacting her on Facebook, and the response was that Facebook was not an appropriate place to discuss this relationship. But no reciprocal contact has ever been made.

Blog Author’s note – It’s tough being a vulnerable, under supported, financially struggling birth mother. I get it. In my own family, the two children put up for adoption have since reconnected with this but that does not un-do all the years of living lives separated into other families. Even for my own self, I’ve re-connected with my actually genetic, biological relatives but it doesn’t make up for not knowing each other for decades. It is better to know who they are, it’s just tough building a relationship after so much time has gone by. So I am interested in this response.

Answer from the therapist –

I’m glad you’re curious about why the woman your daughter put up for adoption 25 years ago might not want to meet her birth mother. I say this because you write about your daughter’s pain and feeling of rejection, but I’m not sure that your daughter has a good sense of how her adopted child might feel—not only about this meeting, but about the circumstances that led to the adoption and her life since then.

Something to consider: Adopted children don’t get to choose whether or not they are adopted, or what family they’ll end up in. Adults make these choices for them. Given their lack of choice in what happened, making their own decisions about how to handle their experiences later on matters greatly.

Of course, different adoptees will make different decisions, for all kinds of reasons. But too often, adults try to dictate how they should feel and what they should do with regard to their birth parents. Sometimes it goes something like “You shouldn’t try to find your birth parents; after all, your mom and dad will be so hurt.” Other times it might be “Don’t search for your birth parents, because it might disrupt their lives or that of their families. They chose a closed adoption for a reason.” Or: “You should definitely search for them, because you’ll regret it later if you don’t.” Or: “How can you refuse to meet your birth parents? Don’t you realize how lucky you are that they’ve reached out and you have the opportunity to know them?” None of this, of course, respects the feelings of the person who was adopted.

Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much regard for your daughter’s biological child’s wants or needs—your perspective seems to be all about your daughter’s desire for this relationship. In fact, there’s so little regard for this young woman’s feelings that your daughter, despite knowing that her biological child has consistently said she’s not interested in meeting, reached out to her on Facebook.

As for why someone who was adopted may not want to meet her birth mother, the reasons are as varied as the individuals involved. Some adopted children feel angry or abandoned by the birth parents, especially if there are other siblings who stayed with one or both biological parents, as is the case here. (This may feel like being the “unwanted child.”) Some adoptees don’t have those feelings—they are living a perfectly happy life—but there’s fear of the emotional turmoil such a meeting might bring. It could raise new questions of what might have been; it could reveal information that the adoptee would rather not have known; it could start a relationship that doesn’t work out, resulting in a loss that could be quite painful on top of whatever feelings of loss the adoptee already has.

I’ve also heard from some adoptees who have met their biological parents that they found the experience disappointing. Despite imagining that they’d have a lot in common with their biological parents, upon meeting they felt as though these people were aliens with different interests, worldviews, personalities, and values—leaving them with a sense of emptiness. Some have told me that they would have preferred to maintain whatever fantasy they had of their biological parents rather than be faced with the much starker reality.

All of this is to say: A lot can go wrong, so it makes sense that some adoptees would choose not to be in contact with their biological parents. But whatever this young woman’s reasons, she doesn’t owe your daughter an explanation. It’s not her job to meet your daughter’s emotional needs.

Instead, gaining a better understanding of what those emotional needs are might help your daughter feel less pain about not meeting her biological daughter. I imagine that she has a lot of complicated feelings about the adoption that perhaps she doesn’t fully understand, and talking to a therapist about them might not only lessen the intensity of the longing but also help her consider what she’s asking of her biological daughter and why.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that your daughter’s biological child may feel differently about reaching out at another juncture in her life. She may have some questions about the family’s medical history one day, or decide that she wants the experience of seeing her biological mother face-to-face. If that time does come, it will be important to focus on her needs. There’s a difference between a phone conversation and a meeting, and between a meeting and embarking on a relationship. The less this woman worries that her biological family might want more from her than she’s willing to give—which is likely how she feels now—the more open she might become one day to making contact. But even if she doesn’t, the most loving thing you can do for her is to honor her choice.

A Change Of Heart

Mother and Daughter

Even under the best intentions, when choosing a semi-closed adoption plan, even after years of contact – emotions can change. So it was, when the relinquished daughter turned 18 and enrolled in college, that a problem set in. It was a blind-sided moment for the birth mother. At her blog site, Her View From Home, under the subcategory, Motherhood – Adrian Collins tells the entire story of occasional in-person contacts, until the hammer came down.

Suddenly, the adoptive parents were no longer supportive of her daughter’s relationship with her birth parents. She’d been instructed to choose between her birth family and her adoptive family. There was no in-between or chance of negotiation. Of course, after so many years, on the cusp of maturity, this baffled Collins. She immediately got on the phone, pleading with them to consider all of them a vital part of their daughter’s life. They wouldn’t budge. Instead, they hurled insults at her.

They accused her of conniving to steal their daughter. They questioned her motives and tore at her character. They jabbed at her most vulnerable spots as a birth mom. And as she sat flabbergasted, all she could think was – “What have I done to deserve this?”  Then, of all things, the adoptive mother even belittled her adopted daughter. Collins admits, “my voice escalated into shouts of, Why can’t you just love her?!” 

The vindictiveness amazes me. Days later, her adoptive parents removed all financial support from their daughter and said they regretted the adoption. They turned their backs on her and disowned her. Collins felt betrayed. She had entrusted her daughter to them, and now they’d abandoned her. The pain of watching her daughter endure this loss was almost as unbearable as the day Collins had left the hospital without her. 

It was her husband (and also the girl’s original birth father) who brought up the idea of re-adoption. “We can take care of you,” he told her.  Since she was already 18, she only needed to give her consent for an adult adoption to take place. In essence, her own birth parents became their daughter’s legal parents once again. Adult adoption is somewhat common between some kinds of parents and foster or stepchildren. It is rare when this occurs between birth parents and their biological/genetic child. They didn’t pressure their daughter in the least and only assured her that their only motive for an adult adoption was to extend even more love to her.

In spite of Collins own doubts about building a strong relationship with the daughter she did not raise, she says – when she looked at her daughter just before the adoption hearing in court – she realized her heart had been fastened to her daughter’s ever since she had carried her in her womb. She had promised to give her daughter the best life possible and she was always willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. True, she wasn’t able to provide that for her daughter at birth. Now, she was happy at a chance to take care of her daughter as an adult. When their names were called to enter the courtroom, she turned to her daughter and smiled. Her daughter smiled back.

She admits – I’ve spent time in reflection about my decision to make an adoption plan. Did everything turn out as planned? Absolutely not. Would things have fared better if I’d kept my daughter in the first place? I can’t say. Sometimes we have to take steps of faith without seeing the whole picture. We can only do what we think is best at a particular time in life.

If we do the best we can, we really can’t get it wrong. That is my own belief. The All That Is uses everything that humans do to make it right – maybe it takes a long time for the right to come out – and even if I don’t live long enough to see that – I do believe it does turn out in the long run. My own “adoption reunion journey” proved as much to me. The whole situation of both of my parents being adopted wasn’t perfect from my own perspective but I would not be alive if it had not happened. I have said before, and I say it again now – it was imperfectly perfect. Sometimes, that is as good as it gets.

The Damage Done

I came of age in the early 1970s. I will admit that I have way too much life history with drug use. In fact, addiction was the primary cause of my first marriage’s failure. So many children are removed from their parents due to addiction issues. The money that should be feeding and housing and providing all the basics for their family goes into drugs. I understand. I remember food and housing insecurity because of that in my first marriage. Today’s blog was triggered by this story of a foster care child.

My 11 year old foster daughter is (understandably) having an incredibly hard time coping with feelings of abandonment by her mother. While I don’t agree with it and have advocated otherwise, she is not allowed to talk to or see her mom until she takes a drug test. Mom has refused and my foster daughter is feeling unloved and abandoned. I’m at a loss for how to help her cope. She often asks me to validate her feelings by saying things such as “If she loved me, she would just go do the drug test, right?” or “She must be on drugs. She loves them more than me, doesn’t she?”. She wants me to answer her yes or no. I don’t know how to answer to help her. I don’t want to speak negative about her parents by agreeing with her but I don’t want to make her feel like her feelings aren’t valid by saying something like “She loves you but drugs are powerful and affecting her choices.” I have reached out to mom and tried to get her to take the drug test so they can have contact and let her know what is going on with her daughter. She always says she is going to but hasn’t yet. It has been over a year now.

She ends with this request for advice – Those who have been through similar situations, how would you recommend I help this child?

The first answers are good ones. Is she in therapy? She needs somewhere to process feelings and learn about addiction. Does she have a therapist? If not, that would be very helpful. Someone who is trauma informed, addiction experience, and foster care and adoption competent would be a good thing for her. Sounds like you and her therapist need to have a discussion about addiction with her.

I didn’t know about this person but it sounds like reasonable advice – I highly recommended listening to and reading Gabor Mate and as an addiction expert and particularly his compassionate, scientifically based approach to addiction. It will help you (and your subsequently foster daughter) understand with compassion rather that judgement, anger, exasperation or frustration.

Personally, I saw this perspective immediately and am glad this was said – Her mom probably can’t pass a test and doesn’t want to make things worse. I would start by explaining that. We wouldn’t make an illiterate person pass a reading test for a basic human right…sad. Being a child of an addict there is a lot of pain and hard days for sure but she should be able to see her mom. All the therapy suggestions are on point and hopefully the therapist can also advocate.

I had not heard of this concept (except from link below) but it also seems right to my own heart – I would advocate for safe use with the social worker on the case about safe use, and creating a safety plan. Passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal safety and not passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal unsafe. I don’t think “she loves you but drugs are powerful….” would invalidate her feelings. That statement and her feelings can both be valid at the same time.

Traditionally, the substance use field has focused simply on substance use and ways to measure, prevent and treat negative consequences. This has led to a continuum of laws, policies and services that runs from restricting supply to reducing demand and, for some, continuing on to harm reduction.

Various versions of this simple continuum have been used over time, all of them beginning with a focus on a disease or harm that must be avoided. While this may seem completely sensible at first glance, it makes less sense when considering that many people use psychoactive substances to promote physical, mental, emotional, social and/or spiritual well-being. In other words, people use substances to promote health, yet substance use services focus on how drug use detracts from health.

Health promotion begins from a fundamentally different focus. Rather than primarily seeking to protect people from disease or harm, it seeks to enable people to increase control over their health whether they are using substances or not.

Since many people use drugs often or in part to promote health and well-being, health promotion along these lines involves helping people manage their substance use in a way that maximizes benefit and minimizes harm. (Indeed, this is how we address other risky behaviors in our everyday lives, including driving and participating in sports.) It means giving attention to the full picture—the substances, the environments in which they are used and in which people live, and the individuals who use those substances and shape the environments.

Someone else shares their personal experience – My kids (adoptees) parents have issues they go through and are not always on the up and up but we make time together happen. It’s always (right now) supervised etc. However soon my daughter will be 16 and she will likely want to drop by their house when she’s driving etc and I have helped her understand enough on ways to stay safe emotionally and legally by going to see her family and having open discussion with her on addiction. Some may not agree but they eventually grow up. I prefer to help her work through it now than stumble more later. She has a therapist who is mainly focused on addictions as well.

One more from personal experience – I would probably say screw the social worker’s orders and let them have a visit. My adopted daughters’ mom had the same type of demand and I followed the rules. Their mom died, and it had been so long since they’d seen her in person. I frequently regret not breaking the rules. Life’s too fucking short and unpredictable. Using drugs doesn’t automatically equate to being unsafe. It’s going to be way harder for this mom to get clean and sober if she’s not allowed to see her child.

Addiction is a VERY complex issue. My heart breaks for the young girl.