What I have learned about adoption, family and myself since the death of my birth mother

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Kirsten Hansen
Photo by Luigi Amasia Photos, used under Creative Commons license.
I am adopted. For me, it's just normal. It's not something I'm ashamed of or anything I have ever had a problem with. I've always known I was adopted and had quite a few peers and friends who are also adopted so there was no stigma. It was a closed adoption and at the time the identity of the woman who placed me for adoption was not disclosed.

That woman has recently passed away which has led me to look back and consider what it has meant to me to be adopted and look at the relationship we have had.

Being adopted, I learned early that the definition of words like "parent," "mom," and "dad" are not necessarily the same for everyone. When you're adopted, you always have to deal with the issue of your "real parents." What does that mean? Who does that term belong to? In my family, my real parents were always my adoptive parents. For me, my family has always been the people who raised me, the ones around me. So when I talk about my parents, that's who I mean.

There were times when I had to explain this to other people. Our society still has this fascination and strong mythology around the ties of blood and genetics. I had to explain sometimes that no, my "real" parents were not the ones whose genetics I shared and my "real mom" was not the woman who carried me in her womb. To people who aren't adopted, sometimes wrapping their brains around that idea is hard. Donating genetic material did not make someone my "real" parent. Parenting did.

Still, I always wondered if that mythical and mystical connection between mother and child, the one that comes with growing in someone's body, sharing everything with them, was something I was missing out on. My mom never made me feel that way but it's hard not to wonder when the predominant images of mother-child relationship are all centered around that. Would I feel like that about my birth mother? Would we have an instant bond just because of that?

When I was 17 I was ready to start asking about looking for my birth mother. My parents shared more information with me about the file that they had been given and I got to read the letter my birth mother had written to me and find out that my birth father was not included at all. At 18 I applied for an active search during which social services would look in their files and try to contact my birth mother to let her know that I wanted to meet her. It would be up to her whether or not she was willing to make contact with me, though. And yes, my birth mother did want to get in contact. We exchanged letters and pictures through the social worker and spoke on the phone for the first time that day.

Shortly thereafter, we met.

I look nothing like my birth mother. Or at least very, very little. She eventually told me that I look very much like my birth father. We shared a love of crafts, though, and discovered that we used words like "babbling" and both loved to talk.

In the process of getting to know her I had confirmed for myself that I already had a mom and a dad. We agreed that I had parents and that that was not a role that she should or could take on. Unfortunately she had not been able to have other children, but that meant meeting me was extra important to her. But she knew that my mom would be my mom and I did not want to be mothered by a woman I met when I was 20.

I also learned that there is no mystical connection created by the umbilical cord. It isn't magic and it doesn't just exist out of time and space – at least not for me. I learned that to me, the bond of child and mother is built upon all the things I remember. It is built on every day since my mom (and dad) brought me home.

I struggled as the newness wore off and I saw my birth mother as an individual. We had a connection and I felt an obligation but I also had to decide how I felt about her as a person. We were very, very different people and I had to admit to myself that it was unlikely that we would have been friends if she had not been my birth parent. I was incredibly glad that she had placed me for adoption and that I have the family I do. My life would have been very different otherwise.

We became more distant. I know that she would probably have liked having a continuation of a closer relationship but for me it was not something I felt comfortable with. While we had agreed that she would not mother me, she occasionally tried. She also had a habit of introducing me as her daughter or herself as my mom. While I was glad that she was pleased with who I had become, it caused me some awkward moments as occasionally I had to explain that my mom who I spoke of as my mom was not the woman now saying she was my mom. In some situations, that just isn't appropriate and I felt frustrated by having to explain that I was adopted.

Negotiating a relationship like this is hard. It is complicated. I sometimes found myself lodged between my own wishes, my parents' encouragement and expectations and my birth mother's wants. This woman who gave birth to me wanted to call me her daughter and share her pride in me. My parents wanted to be supportive and inclusive. I frequently just wanted space.

Then my birth mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just over two years ago. I found it hard – again, I was faced with expectations that I could not necessarily meet. I visited her in the hospital but not the way I visited either of my parents when they were hospitalized. I was not the one to drive her around, get groceries for her, check in every day, etc. Thankfully someone else was willing to take on that role. I didn't act like a daughter because I didn't feel like one.

The next summer she attended my wedding. That was my day with my husband. I did not make a big deal of my relationship with my birth mother. I asked her to be a ceremony reader to acknowledge that she had a place but I did not print out in the programs that she was my birth mother. I honoured my parents and celebrated with friends and family. I let her explain because I was certain that she would but I didn't feel like my wedding had to be about introducing her to everyone as my birth mother.

As time went on, I saw and spoke to her less, but I visited her the night before she died. I sat by her hospital bed and spoke to her. I helped her sit up and got her water. I explained why she could not come down to the front doors of the hospital to see me off. I told her I loved her and I told her thank you. And I told her that it was okay to just go to sleep.

That was hard. It felt awkward for me to know that such intimacy was expected of me.

I learned a lot of things about myself and how I view the world from meeting this woman.

I confirmed for myself that family is about the people with whom you surround yourself, the ones who love and support you and who you love and support. Blood and legalities only mean so much. I do not feel a connection with history or genetics. I feel no need to make a family tree. I will tell my children about the people I know because, for me, those are the ones who are family. The ones who choose to step up and take on a place in your life, who choose to love and nurture you, listen to you, know you. They aren't always around forever. I have met the woman who gave birth to me and I have said goodbye to her.

As I look at the future, including having children, I know for me that it will be important to actively build bonds with family. Just being there isn't enough. I will not just assume that a relationship exists because someone tells me it does or that it should. If I don't work at it then it doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. For me it's the effort that shows who is family. And so I will build my family, nurture and grow it. And accept that maybe family isn't always forever but they will always leave a mark.

  1. Thank you for this very eloquent post. I completely identify with family you create as being your "real" family, and the family of origin or birth just being a starting place, which may or may not get included in the created family in the end. And families grow, and change, sometimes people leave them, but you're very right in that they always leave their mark.

  2. Beautiful post. As a birth mother who's role has changed recently (adoptive mom wants me involved but doesn't want him to know I'm his birth mom until he's older) I'm trying to understand the consequences for all of us. This is a great piece detailing what it's like for the child, and how the "biological bond" is real, but not some huge mystical thing.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. My birthmother passed away before I got the chance to meet her. I always wondered about her, especially being raised by a Borderline mother who I had very little in common with. A few years ago, I got in touch with my biological siblings. The part of this piece that really resonated with me is the awkwardness of finding a place for the birth family in your life. I still have a grandmother I haven't met, but she has learned to text message (she lives across the country and has hearing difficulties, so calls are hard) so we can communicate. I can never decide what frequency is right with her or my sisters and have a lot of guilt about it. It's nice to read about someone who seems to have struck an appropriate balance.

    • I'll be honest, "appropriate balance" always depends on who you talk to. If you'd asked my birth mom, no, not nearly frequent enough. For me it was more than enough. I learned that for me, I had to be honest with myself about what I could handle, whether or not anyone else agreed. But yeah, it's totally a guilt trigger and it's hard to figure it out.

      • I thank you for your honesty here. I have been struggling with "appropriate balance" since finding my biological father a few years ago. I've also had that experience of him wanting it to be more, but me feeling like it's more than enough. It's really hard to figure out. It really means a lot to me to know I'm not the only person that has felt like that.

  4. This was very beautiful. I've never desired to find my birth parents and in some ways, your post has reaffirmed why I don't feel that pull. I love my parents. They are my mom and my dad. They complicate my life enough already without having to locate another person to add to the mix. 🙂 Beautifully written.

  5. Yes. This. A thousand time. I totally relate to this post. As an adopted kid, much of what you touched on is exactly how I feel, especially the part about "real parents" vs "adoptive parents". I also feel very strongly about educating others about the differences in families.
    Case in point: When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher was teaching a unit on families. She stood up in front of the entire class and told us that adopted kids weren't as good as regular kids, because if you were ugly/stupid/"made wrong", that was the reason your "real" parents left you at the hospital, and your "adoptive parents" were just there because they felt sorry for you.
    I have since been blessed to meet both of my birth parents, and while they are both still living, I wonder about how our relationship will change as we get older, and how that will define me as I mature.
    Thank you for this. It was beautiful.

    • I am so sorry to hear that you had to deal with that. I was lucky, I've never run into that what with a bunch of adopted kids in my grade. Glad to hear you are negotiating your own relationships!

    • Yeah, when I was in fifth grade, a boy made a presentation about how adopted kids were really "damaged" and troubled, while the teacher nodded along. It was horrifying.

  6. Thank you for sharing this perspective. For most people, it's hard to be instantly close to someone you've just met. If you watch any number of TV shows where someone is reunited with a birth family member though, what you'll normally see is a gushing outpouring of emotion. Gleeful giggling and rounds of 'oh you have my eyes' and 'you like chocolate biscuits too?!?!' and 'It's like the piece I've been missing my whole life'.

    Most of those shows present a picture of your 'real' parent being the one whose DNA you're copied from, and the reunion being a blissfully happy moment where you find yourself back in the bosom of your own kin. The adoptive parents are normally either swept to the side or if the placement wasn't successful (and plenty of people don't speak to their non-adopted parents as adults) the fact that the adoptee had a hard childhood is mentioned over and over.

    And for some people, it probably is like that. Stories where birth mum is just a nice lady who has your hair colour but you don't really need her for any mothering duties and feels a bit more like a distant auntie don't make good TV. We need stories like this out there, so that people not specifically involved in adoption know that there isn't just one way to feel about it.

  7. As a birth mom I've had to correct many people when they say my daughter's adoptive parents aren't her "real parents" or "natural parents." They are as very real as I am. And who says its unnatural to love and care for a child whether or not they share your blood?

    And you are very much right about the "mystic bond" though I do believe there will always be some bond as I will always yearn to hold her. It just really depends on both sides of how strong that bond is. For you (most adopted kids), you never had her to nurture that bond even as a distant relative who you would only hear of on birthdays and Christmas with cards. While on her side (for the most part) she always thought of you, the child she gave life too and then for whatever reason decided it was best for you to be raised by someone else; the bond is stronger with her.

    who knows maybe it would have been different if it was an open adoption, but the thing is you know who you are, who your parents are and all those who have loved you at some point in your life. I am glad to read this perspective.

    • I really appreciate your perspective. That bond is there but it is different for everyone. I know I frequently had questions and wondered about my birth mom before I met her. And you're right, it would likely have been very different if it had been an open adoption.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story! I'm filing it away to share with my 2 children for when they are older. As the mother of two children who were adopted at birth it's reaffirming and resonates with how I think I would feel about my birthparents although I recognize they each may have a totally different experience. It's impossible to know I guess. You've got me started collecting stories of others experiences to help them realize, whatever their reactions may be, that they are not alone, and that I'll do my best to be supportive of their feelings.
    I am so grateful to the birthparents who created my children and am so appreciate that all members of the blessed triad are in on this particular conversation.

    • That is fantastic! I am lucky that I have others in my circle I can talk with who are also adopted and it means a lot to have it reaffirmed that however you feel, however it works out, that is okay. And being open with your kids is really big. Just giving them the options and not pushing in any direction. 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for writing this. I find that I often have to explain that my "biological" donor is not my mother. My 13-year old daughter was looking at pictures in my parents' home and asked if they were my "real parents." I assured her that the people in the pictures (great grandparents) were indeed my "real" relatives. I too have met my "donor" and over time have severed the connection to her because she wanted to mother me and insisted that my daughter call her "grandma" when she was born. I felt that would add a level of confusion and didn't explain any of this to my daughter until she could understand some of it…obviously, there are still gaps.

    Thank you so much for this piece.

    • It can definitely be a difficult relationship to negotiate for everyone. I'm glad you figured out your own path and what you needed both for yourself and your daughter. I have a feeling that things would have been extra complicated for me also if I had had a child before my birth mom's death.

  10. Thank you for sharing your story! I posted a comment on a previous story saying it would be nice to hear some adoption stories from the adoptees' perspective. I <3 offbeatfamilies!

  11. Thank you for writing this thoughtful and eloquent personal piece, and for sharing these complicated experiences.

    I'm an anonymous IVF egg donor (not for profit) and my partner and I are using donated sperm to start our family. As you point out, there are an awful lot of assumptions floating out there in the culture about family ties of birth and genetics being, in all circumstances, more transcendentally "real" than those created by adoption, step-families and egg and sperm donation. It was really valuable to me to see an adopted person's perspective from this end of the process, and affirmative to see your perspective on the "realness" of a lifetime of love and parenting from your mom and dad.

  12. What a story – so glad you shared it. Even though you didn't have some movie-perfect relationship with your bio mother, it's good that you've been given sort of a "warning" to be proactive about breast cancer screenings, since you now know you're more at risk.

  13. I appreciate what's been said so far. It's important to remember that adult adoptees from the Baby Scoop Era of close adoption do experience their families differently. For me, I love my (adoptive) mom, and she loves me. Just because I pursue a relationship with my first mom does in no way change or negate the love I have for my mom. I think it's lovely that your first mother wanted to call you her daughter. I think that just shows how much she respected you, your parents, and the life you had growing up. Unfortunatly, she was unable to parent a child, and that may have been one of the biggest regrets of her life. She was likely told by the adoption agency you'd be "better off" with two parents, and it turns out that if she'd had more support and resources, she likely could have figured out how to parent you herself. But that's water under the bridge. This is not something you need to feel guilty about, please, I'm not suggesting that at all. It just, it's clear from your post that she loved you very very much.

    You know, my entire understanding of first mothers changed completely when I had my own biological children. When I held my daughter for the first time, I was so happy. At the same time, I was absolutely devastated to think: How hard it must have been for my first mother to hold me and then to give me away! And, she was/is my mother, just not the mother who raised me.

    It's also possible that you would feel more connected to your first father, since you never experienced genetic mirroring growing up, it's hard to know what you missed out on. This is something else that, for me, was brought home by being a (biological) mother. I look at my two kids, and I see our family resemblance. I made them. I'm connected to them. It's real, it's biological, and I love seeing those similarities they have with me and my husband.

    One more note from an adoptee rights advocacy standpoing: The fact that you have access to your medical history is huge. Even though you felt little connection to your first mother's biology, you were still able to have access to the medical history. Adoptees in many states still don't even have this.

    Laura

  14. I personally felt a great sense of sadness when I read this piece. My heart aches for your birth mother…who was also a very real person and a mother.

  15. My daughter sent me this article. As I am adopted, she knew I'd be interested. I was adopted in 1950 when girls were expected to give up their babies, then go back to their lives as if nothing had happened. Often they were sent away to give birth. They had no choices, no support, and no one to talk to about their experiences. It must have been terrifying for them.

    I have also felt, as voiced by others here, that my adopted parents were my real parents, and I felt no need to go huntng for any others. There is, however, one reason that I might have wanted to contact my birth mother. I would have liked to say thank you for the life she gave me and for the chances in life she gave me by giving me up for adoption. I realize now that she probably didn't have much choice about that and I am sorry for the pain and grief she must have felt.

    I never tried to find my birth mother for some of the same reasons given by others. It might have been complicated, or disappointing, or hurtful to my "real" parents, though they would never have said so. It might have complicated the life of my birth mother as those were the days of closed adoptions and the girls were promised that no one would ever know about the pregnancy. But the main reason was that I had wondeful parents and felt no need to search out others. I would have liked to tell my 16 year-old birth mother that I have been fine. That she did a good thing. That I have had a good life with wonderful parents. That she has nothing to feel bad or guilty about. She did good and I thank her.

  16. I am a birth mother.
    This was so so painful for me to read, realizing that some day the baby I gave up for adoption will be an adult. A real adult with possibly no desire to let me get to know her.

    The adoption has been my biggest regret. There is nothing in my life that I can compare to the adoption process other than grief and suffering. Every single day I wish how I hadn't done it. And although I put her up for adoption, I have thought about her every day of my life since the day she was born, wondering what she looks like, what her hobbies are, if she's happy, if she's well-taken care of. To me, there WAS a magical connection in the umbilicus.. because even if she can never love me in return, I will always have deep feelings for her.

    • To the last poster, I am sorry you are in such pain. I
      am an adoptive Mum, I really hope you do meet your daughter and in my opinion you will always be her mother. I am not religious but I am really willing you on . Your story moves me. My children definitely miss their first mums and love them. Whatever the outcome for you, you love like a mother, a good mother.

  17. Adoption can be so painful for women who lose their children. Such a terrible horrific experience and leaves a trauma that often can not heal increasing physical and mental illness. Often adoptees are taught they deserve their biological mother to suffer this way on their behalf. It's kind of a sick system- the mother is used for her creation of a child and then discarded. Now you are free, the burden of caring about the woman who created you has been relieved. I hope one day we don't take the children of women who need more resources to parent adequately. Encouraging single and low income women to place because they need more social and emotional support, more community support, and more resources to provide for their children is a horrific thing to do women. I am tired of adoptees choosing to hide within the comfort of the privaledge their mothers self destructive sacrafice gave them and watching their mothers suffering with out any mercy or understanding. I've been an adoptee all my life and the social expectation among adoptees and adoptive parent communities that adoptees and adoptive parents have an innate right to apathy and disinterest about the experience of biological parents is incredibly boring and uninteresting to me.

    I do hope more adoptees who think their biological mothers are irrelevant and inferior to their adoptive families will share their voices loud and strong. Share your voice at adoption agencies, share your voice with expectant mothers deciding whether to place so they will know the adoption agency advertising about how appreciative and loving adoptees will someday feel about the biological parents meaningful sacrafice is all lies. Most adoptees don't care all that much about all that hell theirbiolgical mother suffered on their behalf. It's something mothers considering placing should know.

  18. To the comments policy- it's interesting because when biological mothers speak out against their worth being demeaned and discarded by adoptees, adoptive parents, and their entire communities- they are often silenced to "not be judgy"

    This is not me being judgy. This is me speaking out against someone else judging the worth of a birthmother as meaningless. Discussing privileged and societal injustice is unpleasant but that doesn't always mean it needs to be silenced because it makes the privileged uncomfortable. But this community can decide how much it supports and celebrates harmful speech against birthmothers. If harmful speech is ok so long as it involves "sharing honest feelings" this is simply me sharing mine as both an adoptee and a biological mother who has read so many creeds by adoptees about how how worthless the woman who created them is to them and how communities tend to celebrate these forms of expression why suppress the voices of women who have placed children who are injured by them. But if this is the sort of community that silences reproductive justice conversations it will be helpful for me to know that in advance.

  19. Thank you for sharing. I have been struggling with what I want since I contacted the adoption agency for more medical history. I never felt a need to find my biological parents – but I did have a weird desire to give my own children up for adoption based in part on some adoption fantasies my mother concocted for me. I always have known I was adopted but the circumstances surrounding my adoption were a bit falsified by her. My mother is def bipolar and we are estranged currently but I don't feel like there is a replacement mom out there for me. I do get emotional at times over the fact that my biological mother did not leave any letters/photos for me with the agency and has not agreed to contact me about further medical information. I definitely have half siblings out there since she was impregnated by a married man with kids – I have often wondered if there would be some magical connection with them that I don't seem to have with my brother. My husband reminds me he isn't close with his sister and that's just the way it is sometimes – but I figure he isn't adopted how would he know 🙂
    I guess I just want to say that reading this meant a lot to me.

  20. I took my time to type to comment not to long ago,but for some reason it was deleted.As an adopted person,I think that if kids are adopted into good families,they should not feel the need to go looking for their birth families.When I was a teenager,I too thought about looking for my birth parents',but I didn't because I was afraid of what I might find.My closest friends don't know that I'm adopted,and I'm glad that almost all of my family member's don't bring it up.

    I think it is great that you found your birth mom and that you were there for her partially when she got cancer.As for me,I am content with not knowing my birth parents' because I read that many birth parent's have moved on and don't want to be found.Some have been or have gotten on drugs too.And,even in the event that you find your birth parent's and they are doing well,it still might not be a good thing for you,because then you start to think,well if they have been doing so good in life and have money and great job and everything,why didn't they use their own money to find me.Or why did they give me up,but decide to keep their other kids.

    I think that a lot of people think that their lives will be better if they find their birth parents',or they think that they will be complete,when really people finding their birth parents can make their lives a living hell.Once you open that door,it can be very hard to close it,should you feel the need.If my birth mom ever comes looking for me,then I will talk with her,and thank her for giving me up to a great family that I love.If she actually made the effort to find me then and only then will I know that she actually cares about me.

  21. Friends

    Over 20 years ago I met my birth mother. I never needed a relationship but I got one and with siblings, nieces & nephews. I just wanted to be able to meet her and tell her how much I loved her selflessness and the love she showed for me by giving me to my parents. I never had a need or want growing up and I’m grateful to her & my parents for that. Over the past years I learned to love all of them for many different reasons but mostly because they also became my family. Today my birth mom passed away. Even though I wasn’t raised as her daughter, she always treated me like one. Even though I wasn’t raised with siblings, they have always treated me like one. God blessed me with two mothers. I hope they meet each other in heaven.

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