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.

Tricky Situations

I get it.  Sometimes family isn’t really safe.  What’s a foster parent to do, in order to keep lines of communication with original family open ?  And do it safely ?

First of all it may take time to build trust and allow the original family members an opportunity to get to know you as a real and caring human being.  When the original family can see clearly that you are caring for their children in a manner a loving parent would want their child cared for that can go a long way towards developing that trust.  It is about having rapport with one another in common cause.

As a foster parent you may have to put aside your thoughts of worry and/or fears.  Begin by just engaging with these kids’ parent(s) from a perspective of one human being to another human being.  In other words, common courtesy and good manners. Don’t bring up conditions like – “you need to be safe for contact to begin or continue.”  Wow, is that ever a sure way to get anyone’s heckles up. Of course, if something dangerous actually happens, then as the responsible party you will have to make the appropriate call, but don’t anticipate it.

No finger pointing, looking down your nose at the original parent or assuming the worst about them.  Try to put yourself in their shoes.  Think about how hurt you’d feel if some stranger put conditions on seeing your baby.  If this parent does get violent, well of course, you are going have to end that visit.  Logic would dictate that you don’t need to tell a parent in this situation.  In child protective situations, they already know the issues.  As the foster parent that will just need to be the move you make IF the time comes.

Don’t  listen only to or form an opinion solely based on other people’s opinions.  Depend first on your own personal knowledge of the original parent(s).  Your direct experience.  Give this parent who has already suffered the worst possible loss a chance to redeem themselves.  People change.  People learn from mistakes.  It is terrible to be stuck into a permanent box over temporary behavior that was so very wrong – admittedly.  This is not to be in denial of danger or to reject out of hand what you’ve been told but balance that with what you experience for yourself.  Forewarned but NOT pre-judgmental.

Get away from the governmental system as much as possible.  Try navigating the first family relationships organically and as naturally as possible.  If possible, make contact with other extended first family members.  Extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – can be absolute gold in a foster child’s life.

Realize that child protective services and social workers may not be motivated to assist you.  You may have to find the extended family yourself.  You can try searching on Facebook and reaching out to them privately and directly.  It would be a rare case that someone in the child’s genetic extended family didn’t want anything to do with these kids.  There would likely be someone who would love to be in their life and has been prevented with obstacles put in the way.

I want to be clear that I have never been a foster child or adopted, I have never been a foster parent or an adoptive parent and I have never been a biological/genetic parent who had my rights terminated.  I have been intensely educating my own self for 2-1/2 years (even since I began to learn the stories behind all of the adoptions in my own biological/genetic family).  I work very hard to gain an accurate understanding by considering and listening to ALL of the related voices and perspectives.  My desire is to be as balanced as possible, when I write blogs here.

In Memoriam

I am now reading a book titled – Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace.  I read an essay yesterday by Susan Perry and felt such a connection with her that I was seeking to reach out to her and discovered sadly that she had died some years ago.

She is quoted as saying –

“Sealed record laws afford more rights to the dead than they do to the
living and they bind the adopted person to a lifetime restraining order.”
~ Susan Perry

Just like my paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, she was the product of a married man and a woman not his wife.  They were both of Danish ancestry, just as my paternal grandfather was.  An immigrant, not yet a citizen, married to a woman 20+ years his senior.

Susan’s adoptive mother had no idea how often her interior thoughts had turned to her ancestors. Who were they, and what was her story ?  My own mom had similar questions.

Mrs Perry did know that her adoptive parents truly loved her, and that love
and support helped to make her the person she was in life.  I believe I can say the same about all of the adoptive parents in my own family’s lives.

Yet, our genes are some part of what makes us the person we each are as well.

It is only natural that any adoptee that reaches adulthood (if not sooner) will want to know who passed those genes down to them.

I have bumped up against sealed records in three states – Virginia, Arizona and California.  I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have uncovered ALL of my original grandparents.  I have the DNA tests that no one saw the inexpensive cost and prevalence of even 20 years ago as well as the matching sites Ancestry.com and 23 and Me to thank for most of my own success.

So many adoptees are never that fortunate.  Sealed records are unjust and damaging to so many people.  They encourage unhealthy thinking, repression, and denial as the means for coping with life.

I wonder if, because of adoption, my own mom did not feel empowered to take charge of her own story, just as Susan wrote in her essay.

Even so, every adopted person’s journey is unique.

It is difficult for me, as the child of two adoptees, to understand why as a culture we continue to shackle adopted people to an institution that is governed by such archaic and repressive laws, when the data clearly shows that most original mothers are open to contact. Those who are not, can simply say “no”.

Once an adoptee becomes an adult – they do not need outside agents supervising their own, very personal business.

Repressive laws set the tone – either/or thinking.  There is a belief that adoptees who search are expressing disloyalty to their adoptive parents, or that the adoptee should just “be grateful” and move on.  Attitudes of this kind are hurtful and dismissive.

Here’s the TRUTH, adoptees have two sets of parents – and a unique mix of DNA and upbringing.  It is belittling and unfair to tell adoptees that they are not entitled by law to access their own original birth certificates. Every other American citizen has no such restriction.

This is institutional discrimination and there is no really good reason it exists.  Adoptee rights bills have accumulated plenty of evidence that they are beneficial for the majority of persons for whom adoption is some part of their personal story.

Finding Out About One’s Self

My mom’s search for her natural mother could be explained this way – it had something to do with finding out about herself, and it had something to do with trying to explain to herself what had happened to her.  I’m certain at some deep level she just wanted to know why.

My mother believed she had been inappropriately adopted. She made a need for her medical history the excuse for her search and certainly she had some chronic health issues, including one very mysterious and unexplained issue.  It is also possible another mysterious unexplained reason was why she had been separated from her mother. Only her mother could tell her the truth about that.  It was not to be.  Her mother had already died when the state of Tennessee denied her attempt to be given her adoption records.

Fast forward almost 30 years, my mom has died but now I am able to receive those records that had been denied her.  Through reading between the lines of all the considerable amount of information the state of Tennessee released to me – my mother was not wrong.

She had been inappropriately adopted, just not in the manner she had tried to explain it all to her own self (that her supposed illiterate parents signed papers without knowing what they actually were – surrender papers – at the hospital in Virginia).  The actual truth that became abundantly clear was that my grandmother had become trapped and then exploited by Georgia Tann – the notorious baby seller.

My grandmother never had another child.  I believe she was devastated to have lost the child that might have kept her marriage to my mom’s father intact.  I believe my grandmother died of a broken heart.

Unconscious Grief

I have felt guilty about the unhealed wound I carry,
but the emptiness is real.
The sense that I am alone,
that death is inevitable,
that I feel insecure in my mothering,
that I still search for her
in so many ways and faces –
these tell me the loss is real.

I have reflected on the loss of my mother
and tried to distance myself somewhat from the grief
by trying to gauge its effect on my life
as objectively as possible.
This is effective when I am in my conscious self,
but like most of us, I spend a good deal of my time
in unconscious thought and choice,
and there the grieving child reigns.

~ Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman

I think my mom knew she had a good life.  Yet, deep inside her there was this grief.  This feeling that she wasn’t where she should be, that she really wasn’t like these people who she inhabited a house with.

And she tried to reach her mom but by that time, her mother had already died.  This was devastating for her.

I don’t know how conscious her grieving actually was but it came up between us more than once, as her oldest daughter I guess she felt I was the best one to share such unacceptable feelings with.

She tried to justify them to me more than once –

“As a mother, I would just want to know what happened to my child” or “I needed an explanation for this mystifying problem I was having with my health” (that later one is often what adoptees indicate as a reason for their search).

It is interesting that she was less moved to search for the aunts and uncles on her mother’s side, or half-siblings on her father’s side.

I guess having been shut down and shut out in her initial attempt, she just gave up and accepted that the grief could not be relieved in her lifetime.

I do believe she did reunite with her mother after death and that everything was known between them at that point.