Relationships are complex. Even the best of relationships has its issues. The people who we may feel closest to can also be the ones with whom we have the most delicate interactions at times. For most of us, the relationship we have with our mother can be one of the closest relationships we ever experience as well as the most intricate and challenging.
Adoptees have two mothers, a birth or biological mother and an adoptive mother. As a result, some adoptees have described Mother’s Day as a holiday that brings up a great deal of complex and confusing emotions. Mother’s Day can be the day that many adoptees get triggered by old wounds around their adoption. A frequent theme that I have noticed around this holiday is a resurgence of emotions around how it feels to be adopted. The adoptee often re-experiences the core issues associated with adoption such as loss, rejection, guilt, shame and identity.
For adoptees who have not been reunited with their birth families or have no birth family information, Mother’s Day can become a time of mourning around this loss. Since these adoptees do not have information regarding their early years, they describe to me a sense of “missing a piece of identity,” as if they opened a book and the entire first chapter had been torn out. With no details about their history or heritage prior to being adopted, they feel deprived of an identifiable beginning.
Helena, an adoptee from India, describes it as “a dark void that is part of my early identity… A dark hole remains inside of my body when the rest of the non-adopted world has colorful threads and connections.” Helena adds, “The relationship that I will most likely never have is with the one person who I feel most connected to. Mother’s Day brings up the reminder that the most important person to me, my birth mother, the woman who carried me for 9 months and held me after the delivery, will never have a relationship with me. What others take for granted, I most probably will never get to experience. It is an emptiness that I cannot fill. I cannot fix this. Mother’s Day is a painful reminder of this void.”
For the adoptee who has been in reunion, it can be challenging balancing different relationships with two mothers. Nancy, an adoptee born in the South and adopted and raised on the West Coast of the United States, has been in reunion with her birth mother for the past three years. Nancy states, “My birth mother and I are still trying to get to know each other. We are mother-daughter, yet at times we are strangers. Some days I feel I have to work hard at getting to know my birth mother as well as to reassure my adoptive mother that I love her and that she will not be replaced. It can be exhausting. There are not many people with whom I can talk to about this and who can understand what I am going through. I could not manage this all without therapy.”
Paul, an adoptee from the Northeast, reports always remembering being depressed the weekend of Mother’s Day. Paul shares that he has carried a profound sadness during this holiday since he was a young boy. Paul found out that his birth mother and birth father had married in the years following his adoption. He talks about his recent relationship with them: “I was so happy to finally meet my biological mother and father. I have two full brothers and two sisters. For the first few months it was wonderful. We had so many gatherings and good times together. I then became depressed and sad. I constantly thought about missing out on growing up in a large family with my siblings. I was raised as an only child by my mother as my parents divorced when I was six and my father moved to another state. I rarely saw him; we did not have much of a relationship. I felt very alone growing up. After meeting my biological family, I had to grieve not having the childhood that I had always fantasized about. It was a really hard time for me for a while; I was consumed with thinking about it. I felt cheated and I was not only sad, but angry, too.”
It has been my experience that many adoption issues do not entirely heal or go away completely. The adoptee who faces the challenges of adoption soon finds out that many of the issues of loss, grief, shame, rejection, abandonment and identity wax and wane. I often see this throughout the life cycle of the adoptee.
These issues do not disappear; they can be present for a lifetime at varying degrees of intensity. However, when one adoptee meets with other adoptees, seeks adoption competent therapy, and accepts support from those who care, the challenges can seem less intense and can be examined in a different light. Addressing these issues opens a door to moving forward and cultivating better relationships. Speaking as an adoptee who has sought therapeutic support for myself, I can attest that we can lead healthier and ultimately happier lives. Understanding and owning our adoption challenges can have a positive effect on our lives. A favorite quote I have heard often is, “What is sharable is bearable.” It reminds us that we do not have to walk our path alone.
Kelsey, adopted as an infant from Korea when she was almost two years old, spoke of feeling overwhelmed and sad when she gave birth to her first child: “For the first time I felt that I knew what my birth mother must have felt having to give me away after giving birth to me. I could not imagine how difficult it was for her. Having my daughter was the most joyous time of my life and yet the most painful time for me. I could not imagine how my birth mother was able to move forward after giving me up. Mother’s Day for me is about a year’s worth of stuffing down emotions and feelings surrounding my adoption. They rise up on that day. I feel so blessed having my daughter and celebrating my being a mother, but the grief and sadness of growing up without knowing my birth mother hurts. It all swirls together. It is hard to describe all the weighty feelings that are mixed together.”
Shari, an adoptive mother of 16-year-old Sarah, talks about her daughter’s need to find her birth mother. “Mother’s Day is hard for me. I feel joy and guilt and sadness on that day.” Since Sarah was young she has always wanted to find her birth mother. “I had no idea that she would ever feel this way. I really had no clue when we were in the process of adopting how complicated it could be. Sometimes it is really hard for our family to deal with. I want to be a good mother and help her with this. But I know that it is going to be a difficult path and I worry deep down inside about losing her. I worry about her birth mother rejecting her. I worry about so many things around this.”
Rick, an adoptee who was adopted from foster care at age five and still remembers living with his birth mother states, “I love my adoptive mother. She is my mother, she will always be my mother, but I still need to find my birth mother. I have never stopped thinking about her, and I won’t until I see her again. I need to know the story, what happened. Why couldn’t she take care of me? Did she love me? I have thought about this all of my life. I feel lucky that I have my mother and that we are close, but I will not stop searching for my birth mother. I need to do this for me. I need to figure this out for me.”
Regina, a birth mother who was recently reunited with her son Alex after 35 years, reveals, “I was thrilled beyond imagination when Alex contacted me. It was the happiest day of my life. I never went a day without thinking about him. I never had children after Alex and now I don’t know what to do. I know it sounds silly but I don’t want to mess it up and at times I am frozen on what to do or say next. I think my worst fear is that I may say something to jeopardize our relationship and I will lose him forever. Our connection means the world to me and I am trying so hard to figure it out. Mother’s Day is such a mixed blessing for me as I feel so grateful to have Alex back in my life; however, it brings up all the years I have missed with him and trying to make up for it.”
Adoption is complex: our lives are complex, our relationships are complex. Mother’s Day can remind us of this complexity in our lives. Often, adoptees strive to have “perfect” relationships or ones that they have built up and fantasized about in their minds. In reality, these fantasies will never take place. Fantasy relationships do not exist. When we fail to let go of the fantasy, we set ourselves up for disappointment and continual hurt.
Mother’s Day is a holiday full of meaning and complexities for the adoptee. It is helpful to be aware of this as all members of the adoption triad navigate this day. It is important to view our relationships with ourselves and our loved ones as works in progress and accept them and ourselves exactly as we are at this moment. This in turn allows us to move forward. When we are brave enough to face our adoption challenges and deal with them, we heal. With healing, we can then make sense of our adoption story. Once we have accepted ourselves and our story, we can find some level of peace within ourselves and ultimately within all of our relationships.
Written by Jennifer Eckert, LICSW
Boston Post Adoption Resources