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.
Letters from Birth Mothers
A letter from a birth mother—even someone else’s birth mother—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 birth mother, 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 birth mother, 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 birth mother in an open adoption, U.S.A.**Courtesy of Spence-Chapin Services. All rights reserved.