When my husband and I first set out to adopt, I assumed that babies placed for adoption were unwanted by their biological families. I gave little thought to what happened post-adoption, other than to imagine that the formerly unwanted kids were whisked into a happier life. Ten years later, I look back on my ignorance about everything related to adoption, and a deep shame burns my cheeks.
During my first pregnancy, our baby Matthew passed away from nephrosis, a silent and deadly disease that snaked its way through our baby’s kidney cells. After the autopsy showed that Matthew’s condition was autosomal recessive, meaning any future baby of ours would have a 25-percent risk of dying from the same disease, my husband and I agreed we wanted to pursue adoption.
The first time I ever heard the term “birthmother grief” was from our adoption counselor, Maggie. “Don’t fixate on your own loss while talking to a birthmother,” she advised. “Adoption is just as much about her loss and her grief.”
Suddenly, all my preconceived ideas about why kids were placed for adoption began to melt away. And where had those ideas originated? From TV shows and movies, all peddling the same three-part story line about how birthmothers were usually teenagers or young women who: 1) made a mistake by getting pregnant, 2) decided to give the baby up for adoption, and 3) moved on peacefully after a brief period of sadness.
Yet here was Maggie, telling me that birthmothers — many of whom are not teenagers but already single parents of one or more kids — agonize over their situation, loathe to part with their much-wanted babies. I felt great compassion for our future birthmother, understanding that her grief for her baby would be as awful as my grief for Matthew.
Andrew and I ended up adopting a baby girl out of foster care in another state. Faced with multiple social issues, the birthmother, M, wanted to find a permanent, loving home for the baby and work on regaining custody of her older children. We met with M many times, building a relationship with her as we waited for baby K to become available for adoption. After carefully researching adoption outcomes for both birthmothers and adoptees, we made the decision to participate in an open adoption because it is psychologically healthier. Not every adoption is able to be open, but we were committed to trying.
Dealing with the red tape of the courts and the continuances and hearings was as anxiety-inducing as it was exhausting. During those months of uncertainty, my family and friends cautioned me to minimize my attachment to baby K: “Don’t visit every weekend, just in case it doesn’t work out.” “Don’t take so many pictures with K, just in case she never comes home to you.” I ignored them.
I threw myself headlong into loving baby K; it was the only way I knew. She was my center, my focus, and I would not give up on her. I had promised M that I would be K’s mom. The funny thing is, I didn’t think of M as K’s mom, too. But she was. I mean, she is. That realization would come later, much later.
And then finally, the judge granted the transfer of custody.
Thank God!, I thought joyfully. It’s over!
I suppose it would indeed be over if — like the made-for-TV movies — our adoption story ended there.
But it didn’t.
Shortly before K’s first birthday, Andrew and I took her to see her birth family and M for the first time since she was discharged from the hospital. We spent a weekend together, and the night we arrived back home, M called, wailing: “When she cries, she reaches for you, not me. She’s my baby.” I listened and listened. My stomach twisted into a knot of anxiety for me and a ball of sadness for M. There was little to say, so I just said, “It’s so hard,” and tried to make comforting comments while still acknowledging her grief.
I also understood her grief; I still have my own moments when I am the one experiencing the insecurities. Every time I hear, “Where’s her real mom?” I respond, “I am real, and I am her mom.” But the truth is, I am not her only real mom.
In the beginning, we regularly sent M photos and chatted on the phone, and when K was 22 months old, we took her back for another visit. Shortly before our third annual visit, however, M called to say she couldn’t go through with it. “It’s too painful to see her. The truth is, now that I have my other kids back and my life is stable, I keep trying to think of ways to get K back. I think it’s best for me to take a break for a while.” Her words were more sad than alarming to me. I knew that she couldn’t take K back; that’s not how it worked. But I ached for her distress, and I agreed that we would stop our visits until she was ready.
Four years passed. I gave birth to a baby girl who did not have the kidney disease. K knew she was adopted, as we discussed it openly. She dutifully announced that whereas her sister A grew in my tummy, she grew in M’s tummy. But it was an abstract concept to a child so young.
And then M called to say she wanted to see K. A tiny part of me was scared, but I knew that a good open adoption must be built on trust. “Of course,” we responded, and made plans to visit that summer. Shortly after we told K that we would be visiting M, our sunny little girl became unrecognizable. She acted out; her moods were erratic; she would hit herself and yell things such as, “Just throw me in the garbage!” We took her to see a child psychologist, who explained to us that K was feeling tremendous anxiety about meeting her birth family and that she was afraid it meant we were giving her back.
The awful moods lasted right up until the visit. And then all of K’s fears dissipated. Her behavior returned to normal once she saw that there was room for her to love and attach to M while still being our daughter. The next year, K once again deteriorated shortly before the visit, and her grief after the visit was painful to witness. Before, K hadn’t grieved when the visit ended, because she was just getting to know M. This time, it was different, because M was more than just a concept. But time and love comforted our girl, and by the next year, she sailed through the before-and-after periods of our visit. She wasn’t frightened anymore.
It has been three years since that big first reunion, and I take K every summer to visit M for a weekend. In between visits, K often asks to see pictures of M. Sometimes she writes letters to M or asks for my phone to send her texts. I don’t read them; I do not feel threatened by her love for M. It’s strange, because there was a time when I would always correct people who referred to M as K’s mother. “M is her birthmother,” I would explain, “and I am K’s mother.”
Now, when people call M my daughter’s mother, I nod. “Yes, K has two mothers who love her.”
More than anything, I don’t want K to experience torn loyalties, and the best way to stay connected with my daughter as she processes being an adoptee is to show my respect and appreciation for her birthmother. This prevents K from feeling guilty for loving M. Whatever else K may do at age eighteen, she won’t be sneaking behind my back trying to find her birthmom.
I will hand her the phone and say: “Here. Call her. She would love to hear from you.”