Birthmother’s Day: Grief Takes A Holiday
Birthmother’s Day, on this day, the Saturday before Mother’s Day, is one of few occasions that recognize women who have surrendered their children for adoption. Presented with good intentions, Birthmother’s Day segregates us as the “other” mothers, continuing a tradition of shame and stigma attached to adoption - for birth mothers and adoptees. It legitimizes it. Our society cannot seem to idealize mothers without disparaging birthmothers.
Adoptees, under the guise of protection, suffer this bias through their mothers. It's 2014 and adoptees still can’t get a copy of their original birth certificates in most states. (Imagine knowing there’s someone who looks like you - someone you’ll never meet.) Birth mothers in “open” adoptions are rarely welcomed as family members.
After all, when I learned my birth child was about to be married, I wasn’t invited to the wedding. I didn’t flinch - I joked about creating the wedding party.
Birthmother’s Day is one thing but the message resounded - my very being could erode the parent-child bond. Scorpions and spiders have the decency to die after giving birth - we human birth mothers go on to live long lives.
It’s nothing personal - birthmothers are expected to know their place. More often than not, we are vilified. Birthmother’s Day is one of few honors bestowed upon our anonymous wombs. But I am not grateful. I will not “like” Birthmother’s Day Facebook page.
For years, I rarely "admitted" being a birth mother. Over decades, I saw people's eyes shift when I shared this truth - that I am a birth mother. Not a bank robber. Not a career criminal on parole. A birth mother. I didn't kick baby to the curb.
"Oh!! I didn't know that!", as if I revealed a dark and peculiar habit, some respond. Decades later, I am weary of the dark and think birth mothers need to support each other.
The entertainment industry has been kinder to birthmothers than the rest of society - it gave us Juno, Philomena and Mama Mia. Philomena followed an elderly birthmother’s search for her son and exposed institutional deceit in Ireland in the 1950s, deception that hid her son’s whereabouts. It didn’t stop long ago and far away, though. A couple decades later, here in America, I surrendered my child for adoption and the gut-wrenching process left me among the walking wounded. Surrender was a living loss and the grief thrived.
The surrender “ceremony” was misleading but it wasn’t the worst moment. Muffled in religious garb, lies sound like prayers or penance.
The day I signed the papers, I could hear my baby’s cried in the next room but wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. And I wasn’t told I could change my mind about the surrender. When I found out, it was six months too late.
Still, becoming a birth mother didn’t make me ready to raise a child alone. (Twenty years later, I can’t speak to pregnancy as a parenting tool, can you?)When I did become a parent again, I was a responsible adult and our "real" child has two parents. I still can’t keep up with self-editing “parent” or “birth parent”, "real" or "surrendered" very well. "
Surrendered" still sounds like something I do with license plates.
My birth-baby was raised by loving parents - nurtured to have a good life. But baby was lost to me for three decades- the details of adoption were hidden from all birth mothers in the 1970s. (The secrecy continues today for many. It’s state, not federal laws that open “reunions” or block them.) And there is the mythology: that birth mothers don’t want to be found - even though statistically it’s less than 1%. Many never meet again. It's what birth mothers and adoptees endure, unnecessarily.
I wasn’t without choices. Birth mothers are individuals. Abortion was a legal option within weeks of my pregnancy. Having my baby was a choice I made on a table in an abortion clinic - a really swanky one on Park Avenue. The entrance was plush, but the waiting room was harsh and brown.
I couldn’t connect with anyone who seemed resolved about their choice - girls who planned to go shopping or catch a show and “put it behind them”, their mothers trilled. There was a young mom with two kids and a husband who told her not to come home pregnant. I don’t know how this would have gone if I could have related to anyone that day. I was not persuaded to stay home by experts on either side, neither prayers nor graphic photos of aborted fetus got me where I landed.
I was still an aspiring (or retiring) hippie in the 70s and think my decision was informed by Abbie Hoffman more than peace and love. I couldn’t decide and didn’t want to be told because the law made it expedient.
So at the clinic, when it was my turn, I disrobed and listened - blah, blah, blah - about how the vacuum procedure was quick and done. Then I got off the table when the doctor left the room. I asked for my deposit and walked out - still pregnant. I knew I’d be ostracized by some and wouldn’t get any support from most people in my life. But I think it was one of the best times of my life - exile. It was good until it was over for us, baby and me.
Shame was still intact in the early 1970s, though, and it was expected that good people would shun people like me - unwed mothers and their bastard children. I'd gone to high school with young girls who vanished into married life for that reason. "Unwed" carried other meanings and it was hard to feel I was hurting those who might have preferred I made a different choice. Not hard enough to change my mind. I lacked Juno’s emotional balance and Philomena’s reserve. I stubbornly wanted to have a choice about baby, my choice.
Unlike Philomena Lee, I did not suffer external penalties of servitude when I surrendered baby. So I apparently internalized it and meted out justice - on myself- through painful relationships, re-inventing despair and exile. I was dismembered inside. I had a secret, after all. A bad secret.
My belief that I was somehow lacking, ill-suited to be a mother persisted for years. It persisted even though I had chosen to become an “unwed mother” - and morphed into a birthmother. That’s how it felt to become a birthmother. I was lacking.
And for the next 15 years, I kept trying to forget. Deliberately and unconsciously, I didn’t see it happening, how I punished myself for being a bad mother. I was, after all, not “good enough”. Still,I did not "forget" my child or, in the colloquialism of the day, "put it behind me."
Would I forget? I went back to school and gathered accomplishments like progeny - at last, I was good enough at something! What was wrong with me that I couldn’t forget that baby?
I wasn’t really sure why I gave baby up, that may be one reason I could not forget. I had kept my baby, after all - and still gave up. Four months later, I couldn’t give my baby the life all babies deserve - a good start in life. I often ponder how society and lack of money and want of youth and dreams that fuel the twenties did us no - baby and me. I wasn’t grown up myself and knew it. I had a new boyfriend, a job, day care, a carriage and a crib that baby never grew big enough to enjoy.
I stopped being a mother the morning I woke up and screamed at baby to “SHUT UP!” I was already taking baby from a “better life” - with adoptive parents - and couldn’t bear my shrieks that day. It was overwhelming and I found a reason I could live with. I called the adoption agency and gave baby back.(We had gone round a couple times.)
Instant Birthmother Day.
No one - not an adoptee seeking an original birth certificate nor a pregnant woman in the throes of such a major decision - should feel disloyal for wanting to meet their birth parents nor coerced in any way to give up their children.
It didn’t stop in the 70s or 80s or last week.
Prosecuted in the press, substance-abusing women suffer stigma and pressure to give utheir kids before they get a chance at recovery. Forced adoption is happening now under the label of terminating parental rights. Instead of helping addicted women with children get drug treatment, some states are taking their children away. It is not always the best solution. Young women - ordinary young girls - who aren't ready for parenting should be able to surrender their babies without going underground for the rest of their lives, in a sense,as so many of us did.
As a birthmother, I have endured adoption folklore ad nauseum. Adoptive mothers may be wonderful but should not be idealized any more than birth mothers should be demonized. I had confided about baby to an acquaintance only a couple years ago - and told that the adoptive mother was the “real” mother, the “mother of the heart.”
And we birth mothers are mothers of the uterus? Our hearts beat just as hard at the sound of our babies’ voices.
I can still love baby without threatening the deep bond baby shares with the adoptive parents. It is different, not less. I am not a time traveler poised to recapture my baby's childhood. I don't even want to - that time has passed and baby's adoptive parents and family are what shaped baby.
I cannot retrieve the memories of the first day of school, special pets, first friends or measles because they are not my memories I wasn’t there. I missed it.
I have met baby - we found each other through an adoption registry. We were looking for different reasons. After tearfully facing so many of baby's birthdays, meeting was joyful and unique to the bond we share. And we were both relieved to find out neither one of us is a career criminal or a drug addict.
I can daydream we may spend time together one day. But the moment I will never forget was five minutes after our first phone call. I cried and cried out - “I missed it all.”
That's the worst of it.
My “real” child, now grown, who is most definitely my child differently than baby of four months - I was there for the first day of school, the first day of everything, the bullies on the playground, the smiles and bad colds. I distinguish that role from my brief time as baby’s mother.
But to take “mother” away from me or any birth mother because I wanted baby to have a better life is is a sad part of our culture. Giving up one’s baby is enough. Enough. Many of us lived with shame and stigma long enough.
We are all mothers,birth mothers and adoptive, absent or not. Assigning a clinical term does not elevate the adoptive mother and it makes birthmothers sound like sperm donors. I was nobody’s surrogate.
The remnants of stigma are durable but I didn't stop loving baby. I am joyful as I would be as a "real" mom, knowing she is happy, and respect our boundaries.
But being birth mother’s took a new path with the birth of baby’s child - not my grandchild. I was not prepared.
It is impossibly painful to see this beautiful child - and so I ignore her. I buy toys on her birthdays and Christmas that I stopped sending. I cannot connect with another biological child as a stranger. It would end me. And I have my "real" child and family who need me whole.
Bio-grandbabe - how's that? She has four doting grandparents - her “real” grandparents.I am here for DNA and tissue samples!
When relinquishing a baby to adoption, who thinks about giving up their grandchild?
Yet there's the invisible ink on the surrender forms. It does not fades. Adoption never ends.
I will never forget.