On Loving Your Child’s Birthmother
Two moms who took different paths to adoption open their hearts to their children’s birthmothers.
Someone I Will Never Know
By Susan Tompkins
A decade ago, family therapists were fond of telling fathers that the best thing they could do for their children was to love their child's mother. I would take it one step further and say that one of the best things we can do for our children is to love their birthmothers—and let our children know it.
Families in open adoptions have many opportunities to show that love. But for those of us who know neither our children's birthmothers nor the specific circumstances behind placing them for adoption, it's more difficult. Still, there are ways in which we can welcome these women into our hearts, and in so doing, build our children's sense of self.
When my eldest daughter, Alexis, was young, we mentioned her birthmother when telling her adoption story, describing the reasons that might lead a birthmother to place a child for adoption. But as Alexis grew older, her specific adoption story was seldom told. My daughter’s silence led me to believe that the story didn't need repeating.
At 13, Alexis had a crisis of confidence. During her counseling, I was surprised to learn that birthmother issues were at the core of her struggle. Alexis wanted to know why her birthmother had given her up, whether she was still alive, whether she had loved her daughter, and if so, why she had let her go.
It was then that Alexis and I really began talking about her birthmother. I began to visualize her birthmother, she became a real person to me, and I came to love her—a woman I will never know. We talked about how beautiful and smart her birthmother must be, how sad her life might be, and the incredible gift she gave us. Through these talks, Alexis and I felt very connected. I’ve since come to carry all my children's birthparents in my heart.
Once we watched The Joy Luck Club without knowing the story in advance. Alexis sobbed uncontrollably. As I held her, sobbing myself, I said, “You're thinking of your birthmother, aren't you?” She nodded. Later we discussed how the mothers in the movie had few choices but to abandon their children. We talked about their pain.
I recommend not waiting for children to bring up the subject of their birthparents. They may not, for fear of hurting us, or because they feel conflicted about parents who “gave them away.” And children may be ready to talk at different ages. When I began talking to my son at age five about his birthmother, he smiled broadly and asked her name. At age seven, however, when I brought her up again, he was thinking more critically. “She left me in that horrible hospital where there were mean people,” he said. I acknowledged that he was left in a bad place but went on to talk about positive qualities that may have come from her, and our family's gratitude to her. Next year I'll add more cultural details, to help him grasp reasons children are abandoned in his birth country.
If your child can't know the full story about her birthmother, then collect stories that may reflect her birthmother's situation. For older children, movies like The Joy Luck Club can be an excellent way to open discussion. In Welcome Home Roxie Carmichael (for children 12 and older), the child fantasizes about her birthmother. Secrets and Lies, appropriate for children 15 and older, shows the first meeting and growing affection between a birthmother and her adult child.
Many families come up with their own ways to celebrate their child's birthmothers, such as prayers and ceremonies. Birthdays, Mother's Day, and other special occasions are natural times to recognize her importance in our lives.
Years ago our family was at the airport to greet our newest member, a baby girl who had just arrived from abroad. As we returned to our car, Alexis began to cry. She said to me, “If only our birthmothers knew how much we are loved.” I only wish their birthmothers could know that they too are loved.
Susan Tompkins lives with her family in Oregon.
Someone Who Shares My Joy
by Janine M.
My husband and I adopted our third child from birthparents who were not ready to be together and wanted for her what all parents want: the most loving home imaginable. And by their standards that meant a house with a yard, where their child could swing and splash and learn to play ball.
My daughter’s birthparents know that their little girl has these things, because we have an open adoption. They’ve seen pictures of her peeking out of her cardboard fort, her face covered with chocolate from her first brownie. They know she eats strawberries right out of the garden and rinses them down with water straight from the garden hose, because I send them letters that tell them these things. That unsettles some people. They’re afraid that the birthmother will come reclaim her child, or that my daughter will be confused by too many parents. But I know better.
I know that Anne and Denny, my daughter’s birthparents, have moved on in their lives. They live in peace, each with a shoebox of pictures and letters as reassurance that the girl they created is growing and thriving.
My husband and I know that they’re good people. We have a photo of us together, four beaming parents and a beautiful baby in the tiny pink and white dress they had bought especially for this day. Someday, we’ll share it with her, along with all of the letters we have exchanged.
One of those letters is from Anne. In it, she thanks us for giving our daughter a future that she could only dream of providing. She continues, "I feel like I have been given a second chance at my own life."
There are people who say they would shun the birthparents. "They signed the papers," they say, " they don’t have any rights." But Anne and Denny didn’t do anything wrong. They made a mistake that led to a pregnancy, but their mistake became our lifelong gift. Our gift in return is an open relationship that allows them to feel good about their decision.
I was afraid at first that I might be threatened by the existence of my daughter’s "real" mother, or that my husband would feel like he was sharing his Daddy role. My fears were unfounded. My beautiful baby calls me "Mama." She jumps up and down for "DaDaDaDaDa." She took her first steps, hurtling from me to him, and clapped along with us as we celebrated. She buries herself in my chest when she’s shy or startled, and screams for Daddy when she hears his car. We know that her toenails grow funny, that she plays a mean kazoo, and that she will only go to sleep holding her favorite stuffed elephant. We are her real parents.
I like marking her milestones for Anne and Denny. Like me, they think she is the most beautiful baby in the whole world, and since I have yet to write anything in her baby book, it’s these letters to her birthparents that will chronicle her first tooth, her first wagon ride and the first time she mashed cooked carrots into her hair. They’ll also tell her over and over again how much her parents love her.
My daughter will know we adopted her. She’ll know that her birthparents are good people. She’ll probably meet them some day, if that’s what she wants. As Anne said, "When she needs to meet me, I’ll make myself available." And we both laughed as she said, "The day she says, ‘My real mother would let me watch an R-rated movie,’ you have her give me a call."
At the courthouse on the day our adoption was finalized, Anne held our baby in her arms and told her, "Now, you listen to your parents." And then she walked away.
I will never forget the generosity of this woman, who gave up so much with such grace and wisdom.
Janine M. and her family live in Missouri.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine.
Letters from Birthmothers
A letter from a birthmother—even someone else’s birthmother—can offer a child the comfort of knowing that out of sight does not have to mean out of mind. These letters can be valuable tools for parents trying to explain to their children the complex circumstances leading to adoption. These excerpts from actual letters confirm that though these women could not raise the children they brought into the world, they hold them in their hearts and minds always.
In our countryside the thought that man is more important than woman is very popular. I myself don’t have the strength to say something against it and overthrow it. But I believe that on this big world there must be some kind uncles or aunties who can rescue my little daughter. I would do anything for him or her in my next life if I have another life.”
- An anonymous birthmother, Wuhan, Hubei, China
"This baby girl was born on April 28, 1992 at 5:30 a.m. and is now 100 days old. She was born in a large hospital. She’s in good health and has never suffered any illnesses. Owing to the current political situation and heavy pressures too difficult to explain, we who were her parents for these first days cannot continue taking care of her. We can only hope that a good-hearted person will take care of her. Thank you.
- An anonymous birthmother, Hunan, China
"I have always known I could not keep you with me. I believe you were destined to go with your adoptive parents. I am not yet ready for motherhood, but they have been waiting and ready for you to be a part of their family for many, many years. From your adoptive parents, whom I have met, you will gain wisdom, guidance and a special nurturing and loving environment that I am not ready to give. This is hard for me to admit because I know you are a girl, and I have wanted a daughter all my life. But I know that they have wanted one too. So all together we move forward with our lives, all of us wanting the very best for you, all of us loving you very, very much.”
-A birthmother in an open adoption, U.S.A.*
*Courtesy of Spence-Chapin Services. All rights reserved.
Back To Home Page