It is our hope that this page grows to include the poetry, experiences and articles of and for all members of the triad. To submit work, please contact Brenda
One carried and cared for you beneath her beating heart
She became your Birthmother.
The other carried the hope of you within her.
She became your Mom.
As the days passed, and you grew bigger and stronger,
Your Birthmother knew that she could not give you all you needed after your birth.
Meanwhile, your Mom was ready and waiting for you.
One day your Birthmom and your Mom found each other.
They looked into each other’s eyes and saw a friend.
Your Birthmom saw the life your Mom could give you.
Your Mom saw how much your Birthmom loved and cared for you.
They decided that what you needed was both kinds of love in your life.
So now you have two families,
One by birth, the other by adoption.
And you have a home where you can get:
your questions answered,
your boo boos bandaged,
your heartaches soothed,
And much needed hugs.
And a place where you can find:
answers to your questions,
your image in the mirror,
a part of yourself,
And much needed hugs.
Two different kinds of families
Two different kinds of love
Both a part of you.
I bought it surreptitiously,
already hearing voices.
They reminded me about myself.
“You said you never wanted to be a mother.
We made note of it, back in 1992.”
I tried to sing and not to hear.
I looked at our bright toy.
But all the forces of the world seemed to conspire
to leave us no hook on which to hang it.
The loudest voice said I wasn’t enough,
that me plus a bio-father fled to El Salvador
did not equal a child’s happiness.
(I was always bad at math.)
I said well what if I paint the corner
of my room
Almost a nursery?
What if I give this baby a name
(I’ve picked two, you know, thanks for asking).
What if I allow myself to feel love?
I have this yellow snuggly, see…
I got it without knowing why.
These tiny pajamas with feet.
Surely that proves something.
The very universe had a laugh.
The answer it gave me was no.
“This baby can’t live on books
and ideas won’t pay for daycare.
This baby wants a Mom who smiles with her heart
and does not see in grays.”
From there it was accomplished
but they watched me just in case.
“We caught you reading Dr. Suess that night
Just who do you think you are?
We made you that sick so you’d detach…
and you dare read rhymes?”
(You should know that I only did that once. Five months and I began to see their point.)They were there at the hospital too.
To make sure I delivered.
“We should have known you’d try to sneak
your breast into his mouth.
A close call, that.”
But exasperation turned to relief at my surrender.
An adoption, just in time.
In white fire
It is spun and molded
Transformed from silky sand
Into crystalline brilliance
Sprung from it’s protected shell
Pearls of luminescence
Born from a grain of sand
And dark irritation
Molten metal fashioned into words
Worked from silver tears
Given form and voice
Connecting our hearts
Light as laughter
Strong as steel
In our laughter and our silence
In our words and in our worry
Through time and space
We are a legion
We are finding…..
Strength in love
Birth Mother’s Day 1995
She holds him
And she remembers…
She remembers the magic
She remembers the delight
And saying, “So there you are!”
She remembers the sadness
And the incredible pain
She will always remember
Today we remember her
For the love she will always have
Mother’s Day 1997
Being a birthmother
are slightly smudged
Being a birthmother
Being a birthmother
Through the tears
Being a birthmother
On Mother’s Day
Being a birthmother
On Mother’s Day
with many other babies
Finally, the next day while she was lying on the couch, she started crying and saying that some people think that birthmothers sell their babies. Apparently at the party on the previous day, many of the children had shared stories about the day they were born. When Jessica shared her birth and adoption story, someone asked what a “birth mother” was. Another classmate declared that birthmothers were women who sold their babies. Clearly, Jessica was deeply hurt by this remark. I asked her if she thought that the comment was true. She said, “NO . . . but it still makes me cry.”
I was tempted to grab our photo albums and videotapes and review once again the story of how Jessica came to be entrusted to our family . . . but my husband held up his hand and stated that enough had been said. So, instead of embarking on a very long talk, we walked into the next room, picked up the phone and called our daughter’s birthmother, Angie. We told her briefly about Jessica’s experience and her need for reassurance. Angie didn’t panic. She didn’t criticize Jessica’s classmate nor did she question the value of adoption. Angie simply thanked us for the call and got busy making phone calls to rally other members of Jessica’s birthfamily. Within a short time, there was a plan for Jessica to visit her birthmother’s home. In fact, we all decided that this was the perfect opportunity for Jessica to have her first “sleep over.” As expected, this emergency “overnighter” was a great experience for everyone and Jessica came home looking tired, but talkative and happy.
A short time later, my husband and I were attending a parent/teacher conference at Jessica’s school. When the teacher had completed her thorough report of Jessica’s progress, she told us that she wanted to share a story with us. The teacher said that one afternoon she was surprised to see Jessica stand up and announce to the class that she had visited her birthmother’s house. Jessica went on to say that she wanted them all to know that she and her birthmother had made cookies together. Furthermore, Jessica emphasized that the cookies they made were heart-shaped cookies. Then Jessica sat back down. The teacher knew she had witnessed something significant but didn’t understand what was going on in Jessica’s head. My husband and I smiled. The teacher had seen a five-year-old’s way of telling her classmates that her birthmother did not sell her. In fact, her birthmother was someone who made cookies with her. Indeed, birthmothers make heart- shaped cookies . . . cookies about LOVE.
The fog is blocking my view of the ocean. The scene is quite different from the mountains I gazed at a year ago from my hospital room.
Perhaps God feels my pain today as well.
At this moment a year ago, my daughter’s parents had just arrived to share in the birth of the baby they had waited for so anxiously. Her dad left to sleep in the waiting room while her mom stood by speechless knowing there was nothing she could do to ease my pain.
Back home, it was the first day of school. I knew my students would wonder where I was. They had watched my belly grow all summer and shared all the joys of pregnancy with me. We would laugh together as they caught me rubbing my belly once again. I wasn’t rubbing my belly anymore. Today it is still rounded enough to remind me of the thrill of feeling my baby kick.
This year I’m in a new school and the year began more than a week ago. To my students it will be just another day. As I great them this morning, none will know what this day is for me. I will put on my smile despite the rain and dark sky and rejoice in each of their lives. They are somebody’s children and I know that no matter their circumstances, there is a woman out there who can still feel the pangs of giving birth to them. I will have to stop myself from hugging each and every one of them.
A year ago, I walked around a labor room in New Hampshire wondering if it was safe to tell anyone where I was. I could barely focus through the pain. At this moment a year ago, I had no idea when my daughter would arrive. All I knew was that I longed to hold her. The midwives offered me incredible support. A doula held my hand and wiped my brow with a cool cloth.
It was beautiful that day. There was still the trace of summer in the air. I felt God had blessed me with the weather and by leading me and my unborn child safely to New Hampshire. It had been a long drive, but I felt Him take over as soon as I walked through the hospital doors. I wore blue sweatpants and a cartoon T-shirt stretched over my perfect round belly. I looked all of sixteen though I was almost ten years older.
God is blessing me today as well. A sunny day would be a cruel contrast to my feelings. The fog is appropriate. I will need it to get through my day.
At 10:08 this morning, I will be teaching seventh graders about angles. Somewhere in the room will be a man who has come to observe me as I teach. He will not notice that minute pass. He will not know that the entire class he observes will mark my first moments with my daughter. He will not see me holding her in my mind, marvelling again that this perfect being came forth from my own body. He will not hear her first cries or see me trying to wrap her blanket tighter to keep her warm in her new environment. He will not see my delight in her head of thick black hair. It looked coarse in her first moments of life.
Somewhere in New York perhaps her mother will examine her. She may notice the changes in her skin- from the dryness at her birth to the sweet smoothness reserved for babies. She may notice how much bigger her hands and feet are. She will make my daughter laugh and shower her with kisses to celebrate her first year of life. Perhaps my daughter’s father will examine her belly button and recall the moment he cut the cord that tied my daughter to me. His face will beam with the same pride of a year ago. Maybe he will recall the flowers he left by my bedside as I slept off labor.
In stolen moments, I will imagine I am there. I will send kisses through the sky. I will hold her in my heart all day today. She is blessed. She is perfect. I will celebrate her.
She is daughter of two parents, and loved by a gaggle of step-family. She is the friend to many, and the lover of no one at the present time. She’s a granddaughter, a niece, a student. She’s also a mommy. So many roles to squeeze into at a given time. Today, I’ll tell you about her birthmom role.
She learned the greatest lesson in pain and redemption when she placed her baby girl for adoption. She was twenty-one years old, and able to vote, and able to drink beer legally and all of that, but wasn’t ready to be a momma. No, wasn’t ready. Looking back, who is ever really ready to be a momma?
That cool November morning, she dressed that baby of hers in a cozy white set of pj’s. They felt good when rubbed against her cheeks, so she imagined her baby thought they felt good too. Actually, the pj’s were a hand me down. She hated the fact that she couldn’t afford anything brand new for her baby to wear on this day of all days. The day of goodbye. She whispered, she cried. She sobbed, she wept. From one emotion to the next, she felt them all; all but happy. Oh, and joyful. Nope, no joy.
Even though she knew she was making another family complete, she didn’t feel joyful. Somehow, making someone else complete while leaving her only broken felt strange …odd. Maybe the new mother could be happy enough for the both of them.
Years pass on by, and that baby grows up. The girl still knows about pain, but she is still learning about redemption nearly five years later, but she has high hopes for the eventual understanding. For now, she continues to pick up the pieces.
Pieces you ask? Yes, pieces of her. You see, some believe when a girl gives her baby to another, the only one lost is the child – but that isn’t so. This girl learned that she lost a part of herself too. And in the fourth year of her birth-motherhood, she dangerously decides she wants “her” back. But she’s gotta be careful, sometimes if you pick up a broken piece too quickly, you might get cut by a sharp edge. Like glass, the heart shatters upon impact into a million tiny shards. December 3, 1998, she hit hard, and the impact was quite damaging. Fair warning, watch where you walk when you are around the girl, or you may just get a splinter stuck in your foot.
The others who have walked the road called birth-motherhood for a few years longer than she may chuckle a bit. Is it possible they may ask themselves? Once it’s gone, it’s gone! They sadly shake their heads. “Good luck, girl!” .. “Yeah, tell us if you find anything!” They call out with doubt dripping from their voices like honey from a warm spoon. Their words ooze all over her causing some sticking around the joints. Sometimes the words of her sisters give her more of a mess to clean up.
This girl won’t let that stop her. So, she goes on a journey. A “journey to me” she calls it with a smile stuck on her face like an old sticker that just won’t rub off. First stop on her journey: Angerville. Followed by: Sadtown, Ache Drive, and even a brief whiz around Visitation Square. She always loves going there, but that drive always goes too fast for her liking. Maybe one day she can put the top down and feel the wind chase through her hair, maybe one day.
Let’s talk about Angerville for a moment. She’s angry. Wouldn’t you be? The adoption agency told her the laws and legalities, as to cover their behinds. They grazed on some of the emotions post-adoption. (You’ll be sad, they said, well duh!) They gave her a book on grief too. But ….
They didn’t tell her that she would never want to go to another baby shower again. They didn’t tell her breasts would leak at the sound of another baby crying. They didn’t tell her that she’d feel broken, and therefore afraid to parent another baby. They didn’t tell her the fear she’d feel at the fear of being “outed” about her birth-motherhood, or fear that look people get on their faces when she does tell them about being a birthmom. They didn’t tell her that the agency would close up shop and leave town with her wondering what to do next. They didn’t tell her she’d want to have another baby so soon after placing the first. They didn’t tell her that this one choice would affect every choice from that day forth. They didn’t tell her that …(fill in the blank with whatever they didn’t tell you).
They didn’t tell her that when she relinquished her child, she’d relinquished a part of herself. As she became a birthmother, she un-became something else.
Girl’s Diary entry:
I heard my daughter started preschool this past Monday. And it hurt. I wished I would have known before Monday came. Sure, I couldn’t have been there that crisp Monday morning, but I could have been there in my heart. My mind drifts to kindergarten next year, and I wonder if it is too much to ask to be there for that. Then I remember, I gave that day to someone else. Along with a thousand other days. They’re not mine to have. I hear an echo of the mother I could have been to her. That mother whispers to me in the stillness and quiet. Sometimes she shouts. Why didn’t anyone tell me it would feel like this years later? Why can I not just get back to me? I feel like I possess a stranger’s transplanted heart. Although, it must be my own heart, her name is still there. Etched. Untouched.
If you are reading this now, you may be hoping for the answers in the end of this piece (admit it!), but sadly, I don’t have the answers. I only hold the questions, maybe the same questions you hold. Will I ever be the same again? What am I to do with all of this? How will this affect the rest of my life? Maybe you are on your own “journey to me”. If so, let’s be journey partners. Let’s not fight or war. Let’s just be. Tell me about you …tell me about your discoveries of you, whether tears lace your face or laughter rocks your body ..tell me. I’ll listen. All I ask is for you to hear me too. No, not the kind of listening where you are trying to think of how to respond back as I’m still talking; deliciously listen to each word as if it were your own. And I’ll do the same for you.
Maybe you’re not like me– you haven’t had the promises for openness kept. Maybe you were shattered into pieces when you heard from the adoptive parent’s attorney that they wished to close the adoption. Maybe you break a bit each day as you walk to the mailbox holding your breath–just praying their is a letter waiting. Possibly you were torn into pieces the day your parents made you chose between living at home, and your baby, or maybe the father of the child said, “The baby or me”. You didn’t want to be alone, but now, he’s gone and so is your baby. Maybe you know adoption was the best choice, but you hate yourself for getting into such a position in the first place. I’ve heard a few stories of babies literally pried from their young mother’s hands; hands that held on for dear life, but were forced into releasing their precious babies. I can only imagine the brokenness, the pieces, and the fragments. I hurt for you. I can’t heal you, but I can listen. Maybe in hearing my voice (not just my voice, of course, but the voices of other lifemothers), and possibly in hearing your own voice speak …you will find some healing, and you will find the parts of you that you used to know. Just maybe.
Adoption. It’s more than a choice – it’s a life altering, earth shaking, immense decision. Even if you don’t regret your choice, it’s okay to regret the process, the lack of knowledge, and even having to make such a choice in the first place. Adoption. It’s more than a choice for a new life for your child, it’s also a choice for a new life for you too. At the dotted line, you release your baby, and also a part of you. But, hold on like hell to what you’ve got left.
The light at the end of the tunnel : While I will always grieve the loss of the girl I once was, I celebrate the findings and discoveries of the woman I am now. Maybe I’ll never find all the pieces, but sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination. I’ll keep on looking. Even my tears hold the secrets of who I am, so I am sure to catch each one. With open palms, I face the world, and little by little, day by day ….fragments of myself come together to piece the new me, yes, birthmom and all.
Fragments of me
Fragments of she
Pieces of all I used to be
Shards of self
Torn and tattered
Lost my voice
In the choice
To someone else
Fragments of me
Fragments of she
Fragments of all I hope to be
Sharon and Lois are making two points here. One, that entrustment ceremonies signify the transfer of parental roles. Two, and equally important, that they signify the creation of new family units. New relationships…..BLENDED families.
There is no doubt in my mind that the loss of the birthparents parental role needs to be recognized in a formal way. It is a huge loss. It is also important to recognize that parental roles are transferred. To acknowledge that this is a turning point for the adoptive parents as well. But when it stops there, as entrustment ceremonies often do, they take on a sacrificial quality that I find disturbing. The birthparent GIVING the Child. It rings of emptiness for the birthfamily…..empty arms, a void. As if their job is over, as if they no longer have a role in the child’s life.
That birthparents lose their role as parents, is indisputable. At the same time, however, they take on their new role as birthparents…..and important role that requires commitment. In the same vein, adoptive parents, not only take on the awesome responsibility of daily parenting, but they are also committing themselves to nurture their relationship with their child’s birthparents.
I go back again and again to Sharon and Lois’s analogy, they state: “In practice, the relationship in open adoption is comparable to that between in-laws. Very often people do not meet their in-laws until after they have decided to get married. They meet with the understanding that they will be entering into a long term relationship primarily because they both love and are concerned for the well-being of the same person.”
This being the case, it makes sense to make our commitments to each other in a formal, public manner. No where have i seen a better written piece that does this than Jim Gritter’s Our Understanding of Open adoption. This beautiful document captures the covenantal nature of open adoption relationships, and was specifically written for use in entrustment ceremonies.
It is also important in entrustment ceremonies to acknowledge the significant others in the relationship. This especially true if the adoptive parents or birthparents have other children. A beautiful example of this is an entrustment ceremony that my friend, Patience, had. She was placing her fourth son with his adoptive parents and their son, Travis. At what she thought to be the end of the entrustment ceremony, the adoptive father brought all the boys together and did a sort of ceremony called The Blood Brothers of The Sacred Canoe. First, he gave each boy an arrowhead necklace to symbolize their commitment to each other. Taking a red, felt tip pen, he placed a red line on the palm of each boys hand. Laying their hands one on top of the other he told them they were blood brothers of the sacred canoe and that when one of the brothers are in need they would come together and do what is best for the group.
Entrustment ceremonies, in order to be complete, need to have this element of people committing to each other on behalf of the child. Who ever is involved.
WE stand committed to our ideals. We believe that children have innate dignity. We are convinced that children ought never be viewed as possessions to be hoarded, but rather are best understood as gifts from God to be selflessly loved. We believe children need security and stability, and we recognize that they innocently depend on the adults in their lives for these comforts. We believe relationships thrive in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect. We recognize that if any one of us is diminished, we all are.
THEREFORE we pledge to:
1. Center on the child and elevate his or her interest above our own.
2. Be honest in all our interactions.
3. Take the time to consider situations from the perspective of others.
4. Protect the honor and reputation of the others in this relationship.
5. Consult each other before introducing new people to the arrangement.
6. Stay flexible and open to new possibilities.
7. Convey newly discovered medical information.
8. Be direct in the expression of feelings.
9. Consider mediation in the event of major misunderstanding or disagreement.
10. Consider sharing our experience for the benefit of others.
WE make this pledge as an expression of love, integrity and good will. We ask God’s blessing on our covenant.
Look in any dictionary and you will find at least two definitions for many words. Add to this the emotions, past experiences and associations that one individual has with a particular word, and it is often hard to discern what a person’s definition of the word is. Too often we assume that our definition of a word is the same as everyone else’s.
Just as there has been an evolution in adoption practice, so too has the language of adoption evolved. Take, for instance, the word “illegitimate”. It is a word rarely used in adoption today, but as the following excerpt from The Willows, a commercial maternity home in Kansas City, MO, illustrates it was used freely in 1926.
“Here again you may have some scruples about illegitimacy because certain facts are unknown to you. To begin with, here in our home, we have only illegitimate children for adoption, the offspring of young women of good families who thru lack of proper supervision or misplaced confidence, have erred against society,” and “And remember since high grade married people are not giving up their children for adoption, your baby will be of illegitimate birth.” The Willows Magazine, 1926.
Let’s take a look at more recent developments. In 1979 Marrietta Spencer, a Minneapolis social worker, wrote an article entitled “The Terminology of Adoption” for the Child Welfare League of America. It laid the groundwork for her work on “Constructive Adoption Terminology”, that would later evolve into Pat Johnson’s work on “Positive Adoption Language” (PAL) and Speaking Positively: Using Respective Adoptive Language (RAL). All of these works were developed to help adopted people, birthparents, adoptive parents and adoption professionals find the right words to convey the reality of their adoption experience.
Finding simple terms that apply to everyone’s experience is obviously a challenge, and I would say an impossibility. In the first place, not everyone has the same experience with adoption, and, as mentioned previously, words often hold different meanings based on an individual’s experience with it. Another difficulty is that terms that elevate one person’s experience, often diminishes someone else’s. Speaking thoughtfully is not only about relating our own experience accurately, but taking other’s experiences into account as well.
Another factor to take into consideration is that some words, even if used with the best intentions, have an effect on how people view themselves, others and their actions. A primary example of this is the use of the word birthmother to describe a pregnant woman considering adoption for her baby. Using the term birthmother in this way is inappropriate, as in adoption circles a birthmother is someone who has relinquished her rights to parent her child. Many birthmothers have stated that being given the title birthmother before their decision was final acted as a form of subtle coercion in that they began to see themselves as birthmothers prior to making a final decision. Additionally, prospective adoptive parents who are “matched” with these expectant mothers, may also have a harder time accepting the mother’s decision to parent her child if they have already believe her to be a birthmother. In fact I have heard a number of pre-adoptive parents refer to a pregnant mother as the birthmother of their child, or simply our birthmother.
Other words are simply loaded. Take, for instance, the use of the word family. In adoption language it is a word that is often preceded by another word…adoptive family, birth family, and foster family immediately come to mind. For those who in these families, these descriptions of their family can seem diminishing. They see themselves as family, pure and simple.
Part of the problem is that many hold dear in their hearts a “Leave it to Beaver” image of what family is. The general public, while enamored of the nuclear family, need only look at their own families to see that the definition of family is changing. One child’s familial connections may include parents, step-parents, grandparents, god-parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles, step-brothers and sisters, and in the case of adoption, birthfamily.
It is important in adoption to define exactly what an adoptive family is. For years, adoptive parents were told that they should “take the baby home and act as if they were born to you.” The theory was that by severing all ties with the birthfamily, adoptive parents would be able to create a family “all their own.” Babies were seen as “clean slates” and genetic influences were considered minimal at best. The only importance birthparents held during those years were if the adopted child started acting out as a teen-ager. The adopted child then turned from “one of their own” into “a bad seed”.
Legally, the language was, and continues to be, language that insulates the adopted person and his or her adoptive parents from the birthfamily. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sealed records laws that most states still hold near and dear to their hearts.
In more recent writing, Pat Johnson, in her article Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language states: “The reality is that adoption is a method of joining a family, just as in birth.” While she goes on to say that “the impact of adoption must be acknowledged” nowhere does she discuss the connections in adoption. The fact is a child comes into their adoptive family bringing with them a whole set of family members that they are connected to by birth. This is true whether or not the child’s birthfamily is known or unknown. The child will always carry these connections in their cells, in their shape of their jaw, the way they laugh, in their temperament and talents. It is, therefore, important to use language that honors and acknowledges all the connections in an adopted person’s life.
Adoption language that is inclusive acknowledges that, unlike birth, building a family by adoption extends the family beyond the child him or herself. In both international and domestic transracial adoption for example, the whole family becomes a transracial family. Or, in the words of Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg, the authors of Inside Transracial Adoption , “When a family adopts members of different races, each person receives the opportunity to understand and experience life from a new point of view never before imagined. The family as a whole has the chance to move forward to develop its own new form.” I would say that their philosophy of transracial adoption is a good starting point for those in all types of adoption to embrace. Adoption should expand our view of family, not restrict it to what we believed family to be. In that way everyone who is a part of the one adopted is embraced and everything that it is a part of the one adopted, whether it be culture or country, talent or temperament is honored.
Unlike most articles on adoption language this one will not end with a little chart that diagrams old and new terms. Instead, I will offer you a few questions to hopefully help you think about the meaning of the words you use in adoption.
1) Do you or others use the word with a silent, but intended, only in front of it? [As in "She is (only) his birthmother." Or "They are (only) his adoptive family."]
2) Does your language honor the connections that exist? [For example, calling an expectant mother, or an adoptive mother, "mom".]
3) Do you use qualifying language inappropriately to diminish others? [As in "She's not one of their own, she's adopted." or "He's not her real father."]
4) Do you use terms in a derogatory manner as a way of diminishing another’s role? [Such as calling a birthmother a "host mother", calling a birthfather a "sperm donor", or calling adoptive parents "the adopters".]
5) Does your language reflect the reality of the situation, both legally and practically? [For example, Pat Johnson, using RAL, refers to the term reunion this way. "While children adopted at an older age may indeed experience a reunion, most adoptees join their families as infants, and as such they have no common store of memories or experience such as are traditionally shared in a reunion." Personally I find this description diminishing of the connections between an adopted person and his or her birthfamily. We often go to "family reunions" where the connections between people are based on extended family ties and not on a previous extended relationship.]
6) Do you use words that have other, more common associations? [On the internet one of the acronyms used for birthmother is BM. Prospective adoptive parents are sometimes referred to as PAP's. Need I say more?]
7) Have you asked others involved how they would like to be addressed or referred to? [Many adopted persons I know prefer that term to adoptee According to Dr. G. William Troxler , "The term "adoptee" is a linguistic diminutive intended to keep adopted people servile. That is to say an adoptee is in a position of subservience just as an employee is to an employer or as a lessee is to a lessor." Other see no problem with referring to themselves as adoptees.]
8) Do you continue to use language that others find offensive? [If you know, for example, that your daughter's birthmother really dislikes the term "our birthmother" when she is being referred to, than to continue using the word would be insensitive..]
Adoption language that is honorable, respectful and thoughtful honors all the connections inherent in adoption. Whether those connections exist through law, blood or love.
“The birthmother may invite the birth grandparents, other family members and friends to witness the baby being given to the adoptive parents. This ceremony can offer the birthmother a chance to say a special message or read a and support for the birthmother at this time.” Birthmother.com
“After all, she has given us a gift for a lifetime.” IAC Adoptive parents
“I routinely continue to pray that every night when she lays her head down to sleep somewhere in the Guatemalan countryside, hundreds of miles from our home, and cultures apart, that she finds comfort in knowing that we are forever connected to her through her giving us, truly, our life’s greatest gift, a son.” from Betsy Buckley excerpted from her book “The Greatest Gift: Reflections on International and Domestic Adoption”
“Enter a loving and stable but childless couple looking for a child to call their own. Through some miracle, they connect with the young woman. She likes them; they like her. And the couple adopts the newborn baby. A gift unlike any other.” From What Is a Non agency Adoption? By Rebecca M. Thomas
On web sites, in books, from the mouths of adoption professionals, adoptive parents and birthparents, the adopted child is often referred to as the gift in adoption. For some it is merely semantics. When people talk about their children as gifts, they are most often talking about the gifts that children bring us merely by having them in our lives. It is a gift to give birth to a child. It is a gift to parent. It is a gift to have the love and trust of a child.
There are, however, many that really do see the child, him or herself as a gift to the adoptive parents. In her essay, Freely Given, Judith S Modell makes the argument that open adoption is supportable because it transforms the child from commodity to a gift that birthparents bestow on adoptive parents. I believe, however, that when the child becomes the gift in open adoption we are, in fact, turning the child into an object that can be bought or given. Can one person, even a parent, own another? While most child welfare laws in the western world, including adoption laws, are set up on the basis of ownership, I do not believe that we own our children. In fact, child welfare policy focuses more on what parents are to provide their children, than on the rights of ownership. Parents of all stripes are mandated to provide for the needs of their children, not the other way around.
The primary problem with designating the child as the gift in adoption is that it is not centered on the needs of the child. Genevieve Vaughan, in her essay Mothering, Co-muni-cation and the Gifts of Language, states that in selfless gift-giving, most often associated with motherhood, “the giver recognizes the existence and needs of the other, then fashions or provides something specific to satisfy those needs.” If we are to apply this to “the child as the gift” in adoption, the child becomes the gift the birthmother creates to satisfy the needs of the adoptive parents. In this scenario, the adoptive parents have their desired child, the birthparents are not longer necessary and the adopted child’s needs are limited to what the adoptive parents can, or decide, to provide for. In truth, this is what the closed system of adoption is based on, that the child should have no need for connection or contact with his family of origin.
Birthparents are also made to feel that contact with their child is a gift to them. They are told how wonderful it is that the adoptive parents are sending them letters and pictures, and how wonderful it is that they are allowed to visit. There is little mention of how contact between birthparents and the child benefits the child involved. Instead they are made to feel as the recipients. Here again the child becomes an object, or gift.
So how does the concept of selfless gift giving translate in open adoption? We need to begin, and keep bringing it back to, the true recipient in adoption, the child. The choice to explore adoption comes when expectant parents are concerned that they may not be able to give the child all they need. Their first thought is “How will I provide for my child?” not “I want to give my child to someone who needs one.” They look, not only for adoptive parents who they feel will best parent their child, but also for someone they feel they can trust to honor their role as a birthparent and their connection to the child. In ultimately placing their child in an open adoption, they are making their final parental decision. The decision to provide for their child needs through open adoption. The true gift of open adoption, then, is not only the gift of the adoptive family, but the relationship that the adoptive parents and birthparents create to benefit the child. A relationship where all roles are honored and where the child’s needs come first.
Too often comfort of the adults involved overshadows this gift of open adoption to the child. Adoption professionals and others tell adoptive parents and birthparents they only need to do “what they are comfortable with”? I believe that people find the philosophy of comfort for the adults involved so acceptable because they see the child as a gift to themselves. If “the purpose of the gift is the satisfaction of the need and well-being of the receiver” as Genevieve Vaughan states, than the adults involved are free to make decisions based on their needs. Consider for a moment the adoptive mom who is “not comfortable having her daughter’s mother in her home.” Or the birthparent who feels like she would rather not deal with the grief that can sometimes come after a visit. Both are making decisions based on their needs and not the needs of the child. The true gift of open adoption gets lost because the focus is not on the true recipient.
If adoption is truly about providing families for children and not about providing children for families, than the “child as a gift” is a concept that we in the adoption community need to rid ourselves of. If we are truly focused on the needs of the child, than we will work through our fear, discomfort and grief to get to the place where all of the child’s family, both birth and adoptive, can be honored and respected. In return we will find ourselves deluged with unexpected gifts from our children. Gifts given not out of guilty gratitude or obligation, rather given freely, based on the knowledge that they are fully loved and accepted for who they are.
One of the most compelling arguments for open adoption is that no child can ever have too many people that love him. If we look at our own lives, most of us have, tucked in our hearts, a special aunt or uncle who knows us well, or a grandparent that loves us and believes in us no matter what we do.
There is no doubt that the love we get from the special family members in our lives supports us and sustains us. They are some of life’s most precious connections.
For our children placed in open adoptions, our extended family often has the opportunity to provide that special connection. With the love of two families, what can go wrong? The answer is… many things. Fortunately, with some emotional work by those involved, all of them are resolvable.
First of all is our perception of what our extended family’s role should be. The first few years of Matthew’s life, I was afraid that my parents would jeopardize my relationship with his adoptive parents by being too doting. I would often try to curb their behavior…giving them limits, telling them what I thought to be acceptable. Finally Cathy, Matt’s mom, laid my fears to rest by telling me that she could handle my parents and not to worry so much. As I became less concerned about my parents doing something wrong to mess things up for me, I was able to see all the things they were doing right for him. I was also able to see how much they mean to him.
Your Family’s Perception
Most birthparents do not include their families in the counseling and education they receive during the placement process. As a result, most family members are perceiving the situation through uneducated eyes.
There are a couple of factors that need to be considered here. One is what your family’s beliefs are surrounding adoption. For those uneducated about open adoption, they may feel the loss as a complete severing of their connection with the child. Conversely, there may be family members who are misinformed about open adoption and believe that there is no loss attached to it.
Either way, family members need to be educated about what open adoption means for them. Even in the best-case scenarios, there is loss. Take, for instance, Julia’s experience. She states:
“When my daughter was in the hospital after my grandson’s birth, I mainly concentrated on her feelings. I pretty much buried everything I was feeling for a few months. It hurt me to see my daughter in so much pain. It finally hit me when my grandson was being baptized and I heard his adopted grandmom being called grandma. I had a granddaughter already and felt that your child having a child is one of the greatest things in life. The feelings for my grandchildren are very deep. So when I was referred to as just Julia it pretty much tore my heart out. I pretty much cried a lot in the beginning and tried not to get in the way of the adoptive family as much as possible. After a while I adjusted, even though every time I see him I just cannot keep my eyes off him.”
A birthgrandparent’s loss is also affected by the fact that the birthparents are not the ones parenting the child. As one birthgrandmother said to me recently, “Even though he calls me grandma, the relationship I have with my grandchild is different because of who his Mom is now. I feel more inhibited because my daughter is not the one parenting.”
For others, it is the loss of how they dreamed it would be. One birthgrandma explains: “When she told me (she was pregnant)…I grieved lots of things: the loss of being able to celebrate the pregnancy and birth of my first grandchild, the loss of my daughter’s free happiness, the loss of my family’s peacefulness. It is hard to describe these losses, but let me begin by explaining that although none of these things were completely lost, they just weren’t happening in the way I had dreamed they would. In that way, they are lost.”
Birthgrandparents are also not immune to feeling worried that the adoptive parents may not want to continue the relationship.
Helping the birthfamily define their loss will also help them define their role in your child’s life. It may also help both of you to understand that to a certain extent, you share a common ground.
Extended Family Relationships
Another complicating factor is our relationship with our extended family. For many birthparents, their family’s lack of support was one of the factors that compelled them to place their child for adoption. Some of these birthparents feel that if their parents wanted to be a part of the child’s life, they should have made it possible for them to parent the child. Angela, the birthmom of an eight year old, recently wrote to me,
“My parents were not supportive of my raising my daughter. In fact they (particularly my mother) did everything they could to prevent my raising her, including denying me the crib that they had stored for their first grandchild, writing me letters convincing me I would be a horrible mother, not letting me come home from the dorms during vacations, and convincing everyone around me who they talked to that my raising the child would be horrible. The one positive thing they did do, however, was that somehow, from somewhere, they had heard about open adoptions and asked a social worker to mention it to me. So that is how I knew it existed and which agency in my area did open adoptions. Other than that, they had no part in the adoption plan.”
“My parents have a regular “grandparent/granddaughter’ relationship. They are treated by the adoptive family as extended family members. My daughter loves them. I have to admit there are times when I am jealous. More often it is a feeling of, She disowned me when I was pregnant, said that this child would not be her grandchild if I kept it, and NOW she gets to be a wonderful grandma like none of that ever happened, whereas I who always loved and wanted this child am never going to be mom to her. It’s not fair. I lost so much and she lost nothing. Those are difficult feelings to handle. But the most important person is my daughter, Hannah. Her amom’s parents are dead, leaving only one set of adoptive grandparents. I also grew up with only one set of grandparents, and know how hard that can be. Also, there are many good things about my parents, and it is good that Hannah can be exposed to those good things. I try to remind myself that unless they are actually harming her in some way, it is not my place to interfere in their relationship with her, and that to do so would be cutting her off from her birth roots, for they are also her family.”
Sometimes shame is also a large part of this scenario. Birthparents who were told that a child born outside of marriage or that a biracial child would not be accepted into the family often will want to protect their child from their family’s attitudes and prejudices. Some birthgrandparents in these circumstances will choose not to have contact based on the child’s race alone. One adoptive mom told me:
“The birthmom’s mom has no desire to have contact. It is her choice, and a sad one, I think. Everyone who knows Faith thinks she is a wonderful kid. She is. It has been made pretty clear that the lack of contact is due to Faith being biracial. The birthmom was married on her mom’s back porch, and we were there. Faith was never acknowledged until we were on our way to the car, then it was, “Bye Faith.” Those were the only words the birthgrandma spoke to her.”
Many birthgrandparents also grapple with feeling that they somehow let their child down. In this case, their shame and loss are connected with the desire every parent has to protect their child from pain and hurt. Many birthgrandparents feel that they should have been able to do something…from preventing the pregnancy to raising the child themselves, even if those decisions were not in their hands.
One birthgrandmother states:
“I’ve lost my illusion of control, of my ability to protect my child from pain. I feel that I’ve lost my ability to trust anyone. I don’t trust myself because I feel like I failed my daughter by not giving her better skills to prevent getting involved with sex too young and getting pregnant. I don’t trust ‘the system’ because while the law has taken away my power to have any control over my daughter’s medical and reproductive business, they haven’t done enough to replace that support system. I don’t trust the adoption agency because they didn’t deliver the support and counseling they promised. I don’t trust the aparents because I feel they ‘sold’ themselves to my daughter, then didn’t fulfill a lot of their promises. I don’t trust the other birthgram because she told me she “knew they (my daughter and her son) were doing something but she couldn’t tell them not to because it would do any good”—regardless of whether she’s right or not, I feel betrayed because no one bothered to tell me and I was the last one to know. And I was the one besides my daughter who had the greatest responsibility and loss.”
Family dynamics are another area that can create difficulties. This is especially true for those birthparents who have parents or siblings who try to control the situation. Allison depends on her mother and sister for transportation to and from her child’s house. For the first few months of her child’s life, Allison only rarely got the chance to hold her baby because her mother and sister often took the honor. Luckily her child’s adoptive mother quickly became aware of the family dynamics and started arranging for Allison to have visits without her family involved. In this case, extended birthfamily involvement was interfering in the relationship the birthmother was trying to establish with her child.
The Adoptive Parents’ Perception
The determining factor in if or how extended birthfamily are included in the child’s life is, of course, dependent on the child’s adoptive parents. How welcoming adoptive parents are to the extended family varies. Many adoptive parents feel that their first priority is to the birthparents, and will often give your feelings the utmost consideration. Other adoptive parents find themselves walking a tightrope, wanting extended family to be involved but not wanting to hurt their child’s birthparents.
Additional complications can arise when the adoptive parents’ family is not supportive of contact. Because the roles of extended adoptive family and extended birthfamily are not all that different in the child’s eyes, many extended adoptive family members may feel threatened.
“The first Christmas I was told that my presents, although much smaller than the “grandparents’,” were too much. I was hurt and explained that I loved the girls and was doing for them as I would my own granddaughters (interesting how I had to say that). I believe this was said because of pressure from the aparents’ extended family not accepting or understanding our involvement with the children. Over the years their acceptance has grown and everyone seems more comfortable. However, it’s still not perfect. I still at times feel like there is a wall there I cannot cross over.”
“The last time I visited, the amom told me that of course if she did not have to “share her children, if she could have them herself, she would choose that, but that is not the reality of her life.” She feels that what we have provided for Natalie and Emily has been wonderful…we are family (at least in some way). She said she would never shut us out but that she won’t ask us in either. She will provide what we need (I took this to mean she has no need for the relationship at this time) and she also said that when Natalie is older she will abide by Natalie’s choices.”
Some adoptive parents are not welcoming at all, feeling that their only obligation for contact is to the birthparents. This happens most often in cases where the open adoption is viewed as an arrangement, not a relationship. Adoptive parents with this mindset are failing to see their child as part of an extended birthfamily clan.
There are also cases where contact does not occur because the birthparents have not told their families about the child. One adoptive mom writes: “It has been the birthmom’s choice not to tell her parents that she placed a child in another family. She feels her parents are not in good health and that ‘this would kill them.’ She does not have a good relationship with her parents, lives 3,000 miles away from them, sees them less than once a year, and they have shown zero interest in her three younger children (didn’t see them until they were at least three or four years old). I have told the birthmom several times that if she wants to tell her parents about our daughter it’s OK with me. In fact, at this point, I think I might enjoy having them in the picture. I know their names and address, but will not make any effort to contact them on my own. I feel this is the birthmom’s right to handle as she wishes. She is a mature woman and knows them much better than I do.”
Besides the extra love and support available to children, there are a number of other benefits that an adopted child can derive from contact with extended birthfamily. For one,t hey can get a more complete picture of who we are. Our families are a treasure trove of memories. Whether relation your most embarrassing moment or a childhood talent that you don’t remember having, our children can have a better understanding of who we are through the eyes of someone we have shared our life with.
As they get older, they will also come away with a deeper knowledge of the circumstances surrounding their birth. As they learn about the complexities of adoption, many will have questions about the extended family’s role in their placement. Being able to get it from “the horse’s mouth,” so to speak, will certainly increase their understanding.
Most importantly, with a broader view of their family tree, they will come to a better understanding of who they are. For many adopted persons, the issue of who their ancestors are is complicated. While many feel a psychological and spiritual connection to their relatives by adoption, they also feel connected to the descendants found in our family tree.
Our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles, our grandparents all have stories to tell and pictures to share. It is an incredible gift for a child to know the extraordinary people from whom they’re genetically descended. Not only do they learn who they look like, but a world of possibilities opens up through the accomplishments of those that came before them. There are also lessons to be learned from family members who may have led difficult and tragic lives. Certainly they may also learn from other’s mistakes.
There will also be situations when birthparents live far from the adoptive family or are reluctant to have contact. In cases like these, extended birthfamily may be the only available source of information and support.
Some birthgrandparents, especially in the first few years, rely on their parents to act as a go-between with the adoptive parents. This is especially true of birthparents who are grieving deeply and are having trouble communicating. It can also be true when birthparents are very young.
Supporting Your Family’s Involvement
Getting to the point where you feel comfortable and willing to “share” the contact you have with your child can take a bit of work. Many birthparents see the time they spend with their child as too precious to share with family members. They enjoy the intimacy of the one-on-one contact they have. Many are also fearful, as I was, that their family’s involvement will be “too much” for the adoptive family and that it will somehow jeopardize the relationship they have with them.
For other birthparents, the real key to opening the door to contact is forgiveness. As mentioned previously, when a child was placed in part because of our family’s pressure or lack of support, welcoming these same family members into our child’s life can seem like a major hurdle. It is, however, an important part of the healing process. Whether it was the first time that your family let you down, or just another in a long line of disappointments, forgiving them is the first step in accepting them as the human beings they are.
If there has been no contact up to this point, it may be a good idea to talk to the adoptive parents about what their expectations are. Again, as parents, it is really up to them to decide the nature of the relationships.
What names and titles are to be used is often a big issue. One child I know in an open adoption has all eight of his grandparents involved, plus one great-grandmother, the grandmother of the birthmom, Jennifer. To avoid confusion, he calls his birthmom’s parents Grandma and Grandpa Jennifer, his adoptive mom’s parents Grandma and Grandpa Mom and so on. In this way he has been able to keep everybody straight, though Grandpa Jennifer did say it took some time to get used to his new name.
Educating Family Members
While it is not up to you to control the relationships between your family and your child’s adoptive family, ther are a few things you can do to educate them:
Teach them what you have learned about the adoptive family.
Whether it is important holidays that the adoptive family celebrates, or their style of gift-giving, passing on known information will make contact easier on everybody. Knowing, for example, that the adoptive parents do not allow toy guns in the house will prevent the possibility of an awkward situation. Letting them know the communication style of the adoptive parents and your child will also give them an idea of what contact may be like. If, for example, it takes a long time for your child to warm up to strangers, family members will know not to expect the child to run to them with open arms.
Let them know that all children are created equal. This is especially important if there are other children in the adoptive family. The best way to do this is to remind them that they are accepting the entire adoptive family into their lives, not just your child.
Prepare them for possible emotional fallout. All of us remember what those first visits were like. Just as you have had to learn to deal with the bittersweet quality of open adoption, so will your family members. Many of our parents especially may find that visits bring a new dimension to their loss.
It is important for birthparents to realize that our children’s definition of birthfamily extends beyond ourselves. In order for our children to have a complete picture of their roots, we need to find a way for them to get to know their extended family. Through direct contact or through the stories we tell, our children’s lives will be better for knowing all of their family tree.
When visits are rare, they are often seen as “special events” and treated accordingly. Both birthparents and adoptive parents tend to fill the calendar with activities, such as sightseeing trips, leaving little free time. While over-planning lessens the anxiety of “what we’re going to do,” it does not provide a relaxed atmosphere that encourages conversation and lets friendships thrive. Too much activity is also not good for babies and toddlers, and when baby’s not happy, nobody’s happy.
Also, take care not to use the long distances between you and the adoptive family as an excuse not to visit.
Miles definitely limit your ability to visit, but as your child gets older, he or she may feel real disappointment that you could not be there for important events, such as dance recitals or school plays. In times of joy and sorrow, the most important thing a person can do is be there.
What can you do to build the friendship and show your love and support when visits are rare? One thing you can do is send lots of cards and letters. Another thing you can do is call. Ask the adoptive parents what times are best to call and be aware that as your child grows that schedules are going to change. If you or the adoptive parents don’t like to talk on the phone, keep it short and sweet. This also helps cut long distance bills.
Before calling, write down any questions you have or things you want to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten things and needed to call Matt’s parents back. Talk about embarrassing! This will also help you if you start getting nervous and are looking for things to say.
If your visits must be short, try to make them meaningful. Here are a few tips:
- Plan your visit around one special activity. If possible, try to schedule it for an important event in the child’s life. I’ve been able to arrange short visits to coincide with a pre-school open house and a violin recital. These visits were short, but meaningful.
- Look at pictures together. You can learn a lot about the adoptive family’s extended family and friends by looking at pictures and listening to stories.
- Play games. Games help break the ice and get people laughing. Older kids will welcome being able to play a game with a birthparent, and adoptive parents will welcome getting a break from playing yet another round of “Chutes and Ladders.”
- Be a good guest. If you are staying with the adoptive parents, bring something with you (bake something, bring some fruit, etc.) Remember the other children in the home, and offer to help out with the cooking and cleaning. Respect the adoptive family’s schedule as much as possible.
Remember: the idea is not to pack your visits with things to do. Rather, the goal should be to make the visits as meaningful as possible.
I was not aware of how much of this information Zoë was truly comprehending until our Christmas visit. It had been a wonderful and loving family day, and as I was preparing to leave, Zoë’s mother, Chris, pointed to me and said, “Who is that, Zoë?” Zoë promptly replied, “You’re Dawn.” Chris followed with the David-inspired “Yes, that is Dawn, but who is she?” Zoë’s reply will forever be etched in my mind as yet one more positive affirmation that my decision to place her for adoption was the best possible decision for everyone involved, most importantly, Zoë.
She gazed up at me with her crystal blue eyes and said, “You’re my birthmother.” After a slight pause she added, “but you’re my friend, too,” and sealed the moment with a hug and a kiss.
Dawn McLelland is birthmom to Zoë. She lives in Minnesota.
Be open to answering your child’s questions, but be aware that not all children will be distressed about the new addition. Some children may be so secure in your relationship with them that they may only be overjoyed at a new addition.
Or they may have concerns that surprise you. Younger children especially may wonder if your becoming a parent means that you are now ready to parent them and they will be coming to live with you. Still others may worry about the baby replacing them with other birthfamily members. Matthew was particularly concerned about how my father would react to my other children. For others, your pregnancy may bring up questions about what it was like for you while you were pregnant with them. If there are any questions that you find really difficult, tell them that it is something you need to think about. Talk to their parents about the best way to answer those really difficult questions and then get back to the child as soon as possible.
However your child reacts to the news, they will need to be reassured of your love and commitment towards them. This is especially true if they are reacting in an angry or fearful manner. It is easy to want to take their words personally and feel hurt or guilty. What they will need from you the most is a clear understanding of the special place they have in your life. There are many ways to reassure your child of your love and commitment towards them. Here are just a few ways of helping them welcome the baby.
-Let your child know that a new sibling is on the way. This is one time where surprises are not welcome. Letting them in on the news early in the pregnancy will give them time to emotionally prepare for the new baby. Some may want to wait until the fourth month to make sure that the possibility of miscarriage is past. How you handle this situation will certainly depend on the age of your child. Since Matt was already eight years old, I told him and his family right away. When two of my pregnancies ended in miscarriage they were able to share my family’s grief as well as feel the loss of the child themselves. If in any doubt, discuss it first with your child’s parents.
-Include the other children in your child’s adoptive family. If you are like extended family with the adoptive family it will be important to also include other children. When my daughter, Katarina, was born, Matt’s sister, Nicole, told me that if Katarina was Matt’s half-sister than she must be her half-sister too. It was a reminder to me that family is not always about genetic connections.
-Keep them updated. Tape the first time you hear the heartbeat, send ultra sound pictures, let them know the first time the baby moves. Sharing the wonder with your child as the new baby grows inside you will also give you a chance to talk about your pregnancy with them. Comparing food cravings and activity levels is something all children find interesting, especially if your favorite foods come in really strange combinations.
-Ask the child to create a work of art for the nursery. Send some good paper, markers or paints and a frame and ask your child to create a picture to hang in the nursery. While it may not totally match the layette, it will certainly be the most remembered piece in the room. If there are other children in the family ask them to contribute as well.
-Ask for wallet sized pictures to put in a set of teething ring frames. One of the most enjoyable activities for babies is looking at faces. Who better to look at then the faces of those you love? Put in Grandma and Grandpa and other family members as well. These teething rings are available at most toy stores. They also have soft “photo albums” for babies now.
-If possible, make the child a part of the naming process. When my daughter, Katarina, was born there was no question as to what her name would be… we had decided to name her after my husband’s beloved grandmother. However, when an ultrasound determined that I was going to have a boy the third time around, we were not settled on any particular name. My husband and I decided to make Matthew and Katarina a part of choosing a name. Much to my dismay Matthew claimed Noah was a “nerdy” name. My second choice, Gabriel, fared a little better, but I was finally out voted and Daniel was so named three against one.
-Call the child and their family first after the baby is born. My son, Matthew, was the first person I called when both my children were born. Being the “first to hear the news” is an honor most children feel very good about.
-Have a “birthday” party for the new baby. Invite your child and his/her adoptive family. Have a cake, hats and a few simple decorations. If you will be doing this at the hospital, be sure to ask the staff before lighting any candles!
-Give the child a card with the baby’s foot prints. This is a special treasure, especially if you live a long way from them and they will not see the baby for awhile.
-If you are having a blessing, christening, naming, bris or other ceremony that welcomes the baby into your family or other community, consider making your child a part of it somehow. At Daniel’s blessing I had Katarina, Matthew and Nicole be “light bearers” for the candle lighting ceremony. While it was only a small part, it was significant in having them do something together to welcome their new sibling.
The fact is is that many people use gift giving as a gauge. When they get gifts that are uniquely them, they feel known. That’s because gift-giving is an art that requires us to listen to the other person, to think about their needs or desires, and to act accordingly. It is also about giving a bit of ourselves. In her book Gifts From The Heart, Cynthia Whitney Ward writes: “Over time, I have come to admire those who can imbue a gift with a bit of themselves, so that it is the giving, rather than the gift, becomes the true treasure.”
We’ve all experienced that joy of a gift given in love. My most precious gift came from my daughter when she was just four years old. Shortly before Christmas we were talking about Christmas presents and she asked me what my favorite present was when I was a child. I told her about my Thumbelina doll, a doll I loved with my whole heart from the moment I saw her. Unfortunately, I told her, my doll was lost. I had no idea what had happened to her. Later that evening she took my husband aside and told him that she wanted to get me a doll like the one that I had lost. On Christmas morning I unwrapped a doll that looked nothing like the doll I lost, but one that is infinitely more dear to me because of the spirit in which it was given.
In open adoption, gift giving has all the joys and pitfalls as in our other relationships, but there are a few areas that are especially tricky because we enter into a fairly emotionally loaded relationship without the knowing that comes from time together and shared experiences. To avoid misunderstandings I think it is important that birthfamilies and adoptive families talk a little about what role they want gift giving to play. As awkward as this sounds, it is certainly not as awkward a situation as going to a party and coming with more gifts than all the other guests combined.
For many birthparents, and often their extended family, this tendency toward what I call The Santa syndrome can be avoided if reasonable rules are discussed right up front. These rules do not have to be painful or limiting, in fact they can call out a creative part of ourselves. As a new birthmother, I wanted to avoid the Santa Syndrome at all costs. It was decided, I can’t remember by who, that a nice idea would be to get Matthew an ornament every year for a Christmas gift. This certainly put a cap on how much I could spend, a blessing to me at that time as I did not have a lot to spend. It also made the selection of the gift something I put a lot of thought into….. and still do. I choose his ornament carefully, often getting him something that reflects something special we did that year. A memory in a box. When his sister joined the family, I continued this with her. This simple gift has now expanded into a tradition I cherish. For the past few years we now get together before Christmas and decorate the tree together. Between Matthew and his sister, we have a lot of stories to tell, and memories that we share, brought to life by a simple Christmas ornament.
Adoptive parents are also in a bind. The fact that many adoptive couples are more financially well off than the birthparents creates a double bind. On one hand they can afford expensive gifts, on the other hand they worry about creating a feeling of obligation in the birthparents to reciprocate.
Limits allow us the freedom from this kind of worry. There are many birthparents who have started similar collections like the ornament idea. Many adoptive parents have learned that gifts the kids make are more than welcomed by birthparents, in fact they are some of our most precious possessions. Many of us regard our children’s hand print as a minor miracle. While it is a bit impractical for adoptive parents to send us their dirty walls, it is important to remember that poster paint works just as well. There are also keepsake plaster handprint kits. Some open adoption families have a dollar limit they adhere to. Others, the more creative ones I might add, keep the gifts among the adults homemade as a way of keeping things under control.
It is important that we all remember that some of our most important gifts are those we can not wrap up in paper. As trite as it sounds, a child is going to remember his birthparents by the little piece of their hearts that he knows is his. By the way they talk to him, in the time they spend with him, in the way they laugh at his silly jokes…even if it is the fiftieth time they’ve heard it. He is going to remember the gift his adoptive parents gave him in welcoming his birthfamily into his life. In seeing them treat his birthparents with respect, in caring about them because he is a part of them too. In the words of my mother,” Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is just showing up.” And I would add “and getting along”.
Here are a few more suggestions:
Birthparent’s Jewelry – For a very special occasion. Giving the birthparent a ring, necklace or earrings with the child’s birthstone is a beautiful way for adoptive parents to let them know they are special in the life of the child.
Baby Books – Many birthparents give the adoptive parents baby books. There is something very special about getting a baby book from birthparents. It conveys the message to adoptive parents that they are the child’s parents now.
Photo Albums – No matter who does the giving of this one, giving a photo album is giving a piece of your heart. It also brings with it the promise to stay in touch and share more pictures.
Anything the child makes. – Go to the craft store and browse. There are tons of “kits” a child as young as three can make.
Birth Mother’s Day was created in 1990 by a group of Seattle Washington birth mothers who met each other at a birth parent support group. It grew out of the shared recognition that Mother’s Day is one of the most painful days of the year- second only to the birthday of our missing children. Yet birth mothers have been shut out of the traditional celebration and remembrances of the holiday. Most birth mothers are neither named nor recognized among the mothers in our midst. For most birth mothers there are no cards or flowers. Society treats the motherhood of the birth mother as a momentary event that fades quickly from the collective memory. It often seems we are even forgotten by those who received the gift and the privilege of parenthood through the birth mother’s loss. This invisibility and silence gives adopted children and adults the message they are forgotten by their birth mothers and that, they too, have no place for expressing their feelings, thoughts or questions about the woman who gave the gift of life.
Most people are simply unaware that for the rest of their lives, many birth mothers feel sorrow, and love, for the children they have lost through adoption. This is partly because there has never been place or a way for birth mothers to tell their stories. Our pain has been made invisible by a society that tells us we can forget. Without permission to grieve by those around us, we have lived in isolation and silence with a great wound upon our hearts and souls. We have lived with the unspeakable sorrow of a mother’s loss, a mother who lives separated from her child.
Despite this invisibility, and denial, birth mothers are mothers. We are not egg donors, or baby making machines. We have names and faces, hearts and stories. The process of pregnancy and the act of birth are profound life-changing experiences. The birth experience impacts a woman for the rest of her life. Connections of heart, spirit, and biology are forged. Eternal connections are made that cannot be dissolved by ink and paper. When birth is followed by the abrupt loss/separation from one’s child, a mother is plunged into the most difficult of human experiences- grief, loss, despair, shame, and failure. This is the traumatic aftermath of an adoption decision for a birth mother. It is with her the rest of her life. Some birth mothers ultimately find peace with the adoption decision, but even more live with it as an open wound. It is a wound for which little understanding or help has come from those who advocate, facilitate and profit from adoption
Mother’s Day brings a birth mother’s feelings and memories rushing forward like the tide. Most of us have endured this annual event in isolation, invisibility, silence and secret grief, acknowledging our motherhood and our absent child only to ourselves. Birth Mother’s Day was created to help birth mothers move through this torrent of memory and feeling. It is a way to take back our rightful name of Mother and to celebrate ourselves as birth givers- the ones who give life. It is a way to expand the celebration of Mother’s Day to make it inclusive of all the mothers in our communities. It is a day to remember and to celebrate the birth of our children- an experience many of us were denied. In doing this we affirm our connection and feeling for our children. We create a space to tell our stories and become fully human again- with names, faces, voices and compassion for ourselves and our experiences.
Birth Mother’s Day is held on the day before Mother’s Day. There are several reasons for this. The first of these recognizes our motherhood is one of loss and abrupt separation, as well as love and connection. Many of us were denied as mothers, treated like criminals, abandoned by our families, our communities and our children’s fathers. These are not the traditional experiences or sentiments associated with the Mother’s Day observances, yet these remembrances are summoned forth each year at this time. A separate day allows all of the feelings to be acknowledged, especially those that are painful and rooted in grief. Birth mothers who have had other children expressed feeling torn between the Mother’s Day celebrations of the children they are raising and the memory of the child who is absent. A separate day allows for observance and expression of both circumstances.
Secondly our motherhood comes first and makes possible the motherhood of another woman- the adoptive mother. If we had not given birth, there would be no child for the adoptive mother (and father) to parent. Observing Birth Mother’s Day on the Saturday prior to Mother’s day symbolically represents this reality. Adopted children have two mothers. Our shared child links us one to one another. The intention is not to detract from those who are parenting our children, but to make this annual observance inclusive of all the mothers in the lives of our children and our communities. Observing Birth Mother’s Day could also create a time for families of adopted children to talk openly about birth families and the ways we are all connected to one another through our children.
Mother’s Day was originally founded by Julia Ward Howe, as a day for peace, in which the mothers of the world would commit themselves to peace by not allowing their children to kill another mother’s child in war. This commitment was based on the shared understanding of a mother’s love and the terrible grief of losing a child. In recognizing the love and the sorrow of birth mothers, Birth Mother’s Day can be seen as an act of peace-making and healing. It stands in contrast to an adoption system that has been built upon the destruction of the birth family relationship, destruction with consequences for the adoptive family as well. Truth cannot be whole without all its parts. People cannot be whole without all the people who love them. In our events in Seattle, birth mothers have attended with the adoptive mothers of their shared children, and adoptive mothers and fathers have attended on behalf of their adopted children as well. By honoring the humanity of the birth mother and acknowledging the relationships between all of us, Birth Mother’s day is a radical affirmation of the meaning of family and the way of peace making for our communities.
Mary Jean Marsh is the author of A Birth Mother’s Day Planner and one of the founders of Birth Mother’s Day. She lives in Washington State with her second daughter and her husband. She has been reunited with her first daughter.