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 birth mothers — 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 birth mothers 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 birth mother when telling her adoption story, describing the reasons that might lead a birth mother 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 birth mother issues were at the core of her struggle. Alexis wanted to know why her birth mother 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 birth mother. I began to visualize her birth mother, 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 birth mother 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 birth parents 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 birth mother, 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 birth parents. 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 birth mother, 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 birth mother, then collect stories that may reflect her birth mother’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 birth mother. Secrets and Lies, appropriate for children 15 and older, shows the first meeting and growing affection between a birth mother and her adult child.
Many families come up with their own ways to celebrate their child’s birth mothers, 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 birth mothers knew how much we are loved.” I only wish their birth mothers could know that they too are loved.