When Birthmoms Get the Blues
It may take some time for your child’s birthmother to work through her grief. But there are ways you can help.
By Joni S. Mantell
Even birthmothers who feel certain about their adoption plans are sometimes surprised by the intensity—and complexity—of their feelings after their baby is born. They may feel a surge of connection to him, as well as pride, sadness, and grief. As Holly Holleran, a 22-year-old birthmother, says: "The months after my son was born were a roller coaster. I was in such denial before the birth. But as soon as I saw my child, I realized he was a real, beautiful boy—and it became a lot more emotional for me."
Learning to Move On
Parents in open adoptions sometimes find themselves in a whirlwind of emotions, too. As their baby is placed in their arms, they may feel joyful—and overwhelmed—at the prospect of becoming parents. But they may wonder how to relate sensitively to the birthmother’s needs, while adjusting to their new role and responsibilities.
All birthmothers need to grieve the loss of their baby. Adoptive parents who experienced the grief of infertility may use that experience to empathize with their baby’s birthmother. One mother told her child’s birthmother at the delivery, "I am sorry you are going through so much pain. I wish I could go through labor for you."
Shortly after the birth, a birthparent may go through a period of numbness before the intensity of grief kicks in. At some point—often when a baby is between six months and two years old—she may withdraw from the adoptive parents because of her grief, or because she is not sure whether she is still welcome.
While your focus will, understandably, be on the baby, it’s important to send your child’s birthmother a "thinking of you" note, baby pictures, or a report of the baby’s milestones during this time. This can help her feel cared about and can reassure her that the baby is doing well. Many birthparents say that such gestures helped them through the grieving process. As one birthmother says, "I feel so good when I see what a beautiful life I gave him."
Following a period of emotional chaos and grief, most birthmothers reach a level of acceptance in their lives. As your child’s birthmother becomes more at peace with her decision, she may gain renewed energy for her current life, and more clarity about her role as a birthparent and her relationship to you.
During the first two years, birthmothers appreciate your letters, pictures, and visits. While each contact may reawaken some of her feelings of loss, most birthmothers report that these contacts help them to move on from the sadness and be more productive in their lives.
Psychotherapist Joni S. Mantell is director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, in New Jersey and New York.
To help your child’s birthmother move through the difficult period after birth:
Ask her how she feels. Be aware of the stages of grief—shock and denial; sorrow and depression; anger; guilt; and acceptance—and realize that her feelings are complex.
Offer counseling. A counselor who specializes in adoption or bereavement—or a birthparent support group—can help a birthmother work through her pain after placement.
Stay in touch. Even if you never hear from your child’s birthmother, keep sending pictures and letters. She may be in an emotional state where she can’t respond, but she will appreciate your efforts.
Don’t give up. Sometimes, birthmothers don’t want to overstep their boundaries, so they don’t call or write, even if they’re thinking of you. If you have gone weeks or months with no contact, go ahead and break the ice. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, ask a third party (your lawyer, agency, or a counselor) to tell your child’s birthmother that you’re thinking of her.
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