Q: It’s been difficult to watch our daughter’s birth mother grieve. We’re thrilled to be parents, so why do we feel so guilty?
A: In open adoption, parents experience a mix of emotions. There is the joy you feel in your new capacity as Mom and Dad. However, you also know firsthand the birth parents’ sorrow. As a result, you feel two extremes at once — happiness for yourself and sadness for the birth mother.
Many parents feel guilty because their joy is the direct result of a difficult decision by the birth mother — someone you may have grown to care about. No matter how strong the desire to build a family, who would ever take a baby from a woman who didn’t want to place her child for adoption? So when a new adoptive mother sees the birth mother in intense pain, she asks herself, “Was adoption really the right thing to do?” However, birth mother grief doesn’t mean she has changed her mind about adoption; rather, it’s a natural response to her loss.
It’s normal for you to empathize with the birth mother’s grief. This demonstrates your caring for and connection with her. Your empathy will aid you in helping your child understand her adoption as she ages. When your daughter asks why she was placed for adoption, you will be equipped to respond, because you saw the love and heartache that went into making her adoption plan.
Taking care of you
In the meantime, how do you work through your mixed emotions? First, keep in mind that there are stages — including anger, depression, and acceptance — that everyone goes through in dealing with loss. These stages are part of the healing process, and you’ll need to experience them to reach the point of resolution. (The same holds true for the birth mother.) Talking about your feelings helps. I encourage you to talk with your spouse, friends, relatives, therapist, or social worker. You might also find it helpful to read about the grief experience.
If your feelings of depression and/or guilt interfere with bonding with your baby, keep in mind that the birth mother wants you to parent your baby. By selecting you and your spouse, and by placing the baby in your arms at the hospital, she has, in effect, given you permission to parent. So don’t hold back from loving your baby — it’s what she wants you to do, despite the distress that she is experiencing. Sharing your joy can also help the birth mom work through her feelings of grief more quickly and easily, so keep sending those letters and pictures.
One mother I know, Kristine, remembers that guilt kept her from bonding; she often felt like a babysitter to her daughter, Haley. Finally, when the birth mom reassured her, “You’re doing great; thank you for being such a wonderful mom to Haley,” Kristine was able to fully bond with her baby — she felt she’d been given permission to do so.
Another mom, Jennifer, told her agency’s social worker that she loved her baby, Caleb, but she felt that he wasn’t hers. The social worker felt that Jennifer’s empathy with the birth mom and her own sorrow were hampering the bonding process. Time helped Jennifer bond with Caleb and feel entitled to parent him, as did talking through her feelings.
Remember, there is no quick fix — it may take several months, or more, to get past the raw emotions. Eventually, you and your spouse will move on from the sadness to enjoy a happy, satisfied life with your child. The birth mother will be able to move on, as well, knowing that your child is loved.