Everybody in the United States is terribly aware the second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day — the floral and greeting card industries won’t let you forget it. Mother’s Day is big business. (Whether people buy into it out of guilt, because they “feel like they should” even though they have lousy relationships with their mothers, or because they genuinely want to honor their mothers is an investigation for another time.)
But the Saturday before Mother’s Day is also Mother’s Day. It’s just the one nobody wants to admit a need for.
Birth Mothers Day began in Seattle in 1990 to recognize the women everyone else forgets, those who chose to give their children both life and a stable future by relinquishing them for adoption. It’s usually a pretty quiet affair, at least in terms of media coverage. And I’ve yet to see a greeting card for it.
There are organizations – church groups, counseling centers and the like – that host annual get-togethers for birthmoms on the day before the Mothers Day most recognize. The one and only I’ve been able to get to so far helped me achieve a tremendous amount of healing in a single afternoon. When it was over and we were saying our goodbyes, I hugged one of the organizers and said, “I think you’re the only person who cried more than I did.” She replied, “That’s why I told them to be sure to have two big boxes of Kleenex on every table!”
Yep, I’m a birthmom. For years and years it was a source of shame and grief and guilt. Some of that was self-imposed; much of it wasn’t. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies have been viewed poorly for decades, if not centuries. Often birthmoms are afraid to let themselves be known because of that. The damage silence causes is lasting.
Various and sundry rotten things have happened to me in my life. That’s just part of the deal for all human beings. My particular biggies: Assorted types of abuse, job struggles (currently on my third layoff in 15 years), financial trouble because of underemployment and outrageous medical bills for both acute and chronic physical issues.
In spite of all that, I consider the relinquishment of my son almost 21 years ago the source of most of my myriad psychological difficulties. (My diagnosis list is long as your arm; I won’t divulge them all.) The post-traumatic stress disorder came along as soon as I left the hospital empty-armed after giving birth. It took a long, long time to abate, and it only did so because my son’s adoptive mom did some sleuthing and found me a few years ago. Now that I know where he is, and how well he’s doing, and that he’s happy and healthy and cute and talented and smart and altogether wonderful, well, it’s made a huge difference. But I dealt with overwhelming grief for nearly 16 years before we made contact. Time lessens all wounds, but it certainly doesn’t heal them.
Things have changed since 1988. Mine was a closed adoption, meaning no identifying information was allowed. The more recent trend has been toward open adoptions, where a potential birthmom can meet and choose beforehand the couple she feels will be best for her child. Often there’s an agreement that the birthmom will be allowed to be part of the child’s life in some fashion, or at least have an occasional visit.
I would think that’d have to help. Moms worry; it’s what we do. I worried outrageously for 16 years about my son and how he was faring and if he’d hate me for my decision. (As it turns out: No. In fact, he told me he couldn’t imagine the selflessness it took and thanked me for it. Did I mention he’s a great kid?) Every time I heard about an adopted kid being abused to the point of death or near it, I worried. Every time I heard about a new mom who tossed her baby in a dumpster – or, in one case I vividly remember from several years ago, in a plastic grocery bag stashed in a portable toilet – I worried. It turned out to be baseless, but since I didn’t have any information, and no way of obtaining any, who knew?
There’s not as much literature as there should be on the effects of adoption on birthmoms. I can tell you from my own experience, though, that even your own family often doesn’t get it. Friends frequently say stupid, if well-intentioned things; sometimes, mental health professionals say even worse ones. I once had a psychiatrist tell me I “wasn’t really a parent.” (Male, of course. And I’m not man-bashing, simply stating the obvious, that men aren’t going to get it because they can’t experience it. I assure you, nine months of co-existence with another being inhabiting your body, then enduring unendurable pain for hour after hour to help the mini-human out into the world, qualifies you as a parent.)
Another medical professional examining me a few months after the birth said, when I told her about it, “Oh, you’re young, you can have more.” I was 23, and technically that was correct. There was nothing wrong with the plumbing. But you can’t just swap out one child for another. I didn’t have more partly because I was convinced I would be a terrible parent, but largely because I knew that even if I had 12 more, they would never fill the hole in my heart and I would never be able to give all of myself to them.
I love my son to the moon and the stars and back – always have, always will. Love prompted the decision I made for him, as it did for most women in the same situation. Some had their children taken by the courts, some were teens and forced into the decision by their parents, but none of us ever stopped loving our kids. Maybe someday people will think enough of us that there’ll only be a need for one Mother’s Day.
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with one of the women interviewed for this book.)
Candy Czernicki is managing editor of Psych Central.