How Often Do Adoptees Think About Their Birth Parents?
I have yet to meet an adoptee who can honestly claim to have never thought about his or her birth mother, especially on birthdays. In fact, a survey of more than 100 adoptees from the All-Adoptee Online group (firstname.lastname@example.org) confirm that many think of their birth mothers daily.
It’s no wonder. Just think about how intimately we were united with the woman who gave us birth! What a connection we had for at least nine months. An inseparable bond. As inseparable as tea from hot water. As inseparable as a bud from the stem of a flower. As inseparable as the ocean from the sand.
Renowned author John Bowlby says that the mother is the hub of life.1
Author and physician Peter Nathananielz says that much of the way our bodies work is molded and solidified during our time in the womb and that there are critical periods during prenatal development when our cells and organs decide how they will behave for the rest of our lives.2 Just think…at the very moment of conception, our entire genetic code was established that determined our sex and the color of our hair and eyes. At three weeks we had a beating heart, and at forty days detectable brain waves.
Perhaps even more fascinating is a phenomenon that goes on between a mother and her unborn child that absolutely boggled my mind when I learned about it.
Our First Conversations with Her
Who do you think was the first person with whom you had a conversation?
Would you believe it was your birth mother?
And where and when do you think it might have happened?
This is the mind-boggling part —in the womb!
Dr. Thomas Verny says that during the last three months of pregnancy, and especially the last two, we are mature enough physically and intellectually to send and receive fairly sophisticated messages to and from our mothers. Our mothers set the pace, provide the cues, and actually mold our responses.3
What messages did we get from our birth mothers? I believe it all depended on her attitude toward us. If we heard, “I love you and am so glad you’re a part of me. I will do all that I can to help you develop into the person you were created to be. I can’t wait to see you. I will welcome you into the world in a way more wonderful than you can possibly imagine,” our response was certainly positive. We would have thrived on it. “Oh, Mommy,” our little pre-verbal minds might have “said,” “I love you so much and I can’t wait to be born so that I can suckle at your breasts and be held in your arms.”
On the other hand, what if we heard, “I don’t want you. I don’t even like you. In fact, I think of you as an ‘it,’ and frankly, I can’t wait to get rid of you. I wish I could”?
Our little minds may have responded like this: “All alone. All alone. Hurts so bad. No one will ever take care of me. I must ‘buck up’ and be strong so I can survive. Be strong. Be strong. Tense up. Be on guard so I won’t be tortured like this again.”
This kind of message to us would be unimaginably painful. Author Judith Viorst likens it to being doused with oil and set on fire.4 But it’s a subconscious pain. Dr. Arthur Janov says that this kind of pain is “not like a pinch where we yell ‘ouch,’ shake our fingers, and in a few minutes get over it. Instead, it’s like being pinched so hard you cannot feel it, so that the pain goes on forever because it is continually being processed below the level of conscious awareness. It doesn’t mean it is not there doing its damage — it just means that it is too much to feel.”5
Some of us can identify with those negative conversations, and many of them are still playing in our heads even though they were communicated so many years ago. Some of us feel at a primal level that we need her love and welcoming attitude in order to survive.
I know for a fact that I didn’t have my birth mother’s love from day one, yet by grace, I am a survivor. As my husband always says, “From some people you learn what to do and from others you learn what not to do.” Out of the rejection communicated to me from my mother when I was yet unborn eventually came the awareness that I was forever wanted by someone. Marvelous and miraculous things occurred while I was in the womb, being knit together cell by cell, bone by bone, and tissue by tissue.
Whatever the case, whether conversations with our birth mothers were positive or painful, prenatal experiences are encoded in our bodies, souls, and spirits, resulting in questions and thoughts that pop into our minds, often unexpectedly, throughout our lives.
Our First Thoughts About Her
Folks who aren’t adopted are often amazed at how early some of us think about our birth mothers, especially when I tell the story about the adopted girl who asked her mom prior to her third birthday party if her “lady” was coming. The mother asked what lady she was talking about. Her daughter answered, “The lady I grew inside. It’s my birthday, isn’t it?”7
Cheri Freeman thought about her origins at an early age also. She told herself stories at age three or four about how her birth parents missed her and how happy they would be to finally meet her.
Joe Soll, C.S.W., psychotherapist and author of Adoption Healing: A Path to Recovery, says that from the moment he knew he was adopted at age four, there has never been a day that he hasn’t thought about his birth mom.
Frieda Moore found comfort when hurting by imagining her birth mother coming to find and rescue her, taking her home to live with her forever.
Pam Hasegawa, a fifty-nine-year-old adoptee advocate, says that when she had the lead in a play, she remembers thinking, “If she could only see me now! Would she be proud of me?”
Where did those positive attitudes come from? Could they have begun in the womb?
And what about those of us who have negative attitudes?
Laurie, even as a young child, worried that her birth mother must be struggling and depressed. Others of us didn’t begin to think about our birth mothers until we hit puberty and shot up to six feet tall even though both our adoptive parents were short.
Shirley Reynolds says that when she became a teen, she realized that she looked much different than her adoptive family. This propelled her into a fantasy world where her mother would be dark-haired and petite, like Shirley. And of course, she would be beautiful!
Some adoptees claim to never think about their birth mothers.
Sally says that she feels guilty because she doesn’t think about hers, knowing that so many other adoptees do.
Sally is not alone.
Many don’t think about their birth mothers for various reasons, but the predominant reason is usually shame. Shame is that awful feeling, not that we have done something wrong, but that something is inherently wrong with us as a person.
How about hearing your adoptive mother talk derogatively about the twenty-one-year-old down the street who was unmarried and pregnant, raving about how much shame she brought to her family? Connie Dawson heard this message at the tender age of ten as her mother delivered a veiled message that Connie herself was shameful and shouldn’t be “bad,” like her birth mother was.
Or how about Sue who struggles with a haunting belief that something dreadful must lurk within her, which if found out by her adoptive parents, would cause them to bolt from her?
Her Lifelong Impact
Whether positive or negative, and whether we like it or not, our birth mothers are a forever part of us. How we choose to respond to that reality will deeply influence the course of our lives.
Author Louise Kaplan says that in the death of a parent (which I believe can be likened to adoption separation), the dialogue between parent and child continues within the child and that the child remains attached in profound ways to that dialogue throughout life.8
When my dad died, one of his friends said to me, “You never lose your parents. They are always a part of you.” In my grief, I was rather skeptical, but since that time I have found it to be true. For instance, after every meal, Dad, in a mischievous way, picked up the unused silverware saying, “This one’s clean!” We’d all laugh and say, “Yeah, Dad!” Over the years it became an endearing behavior, and in the years since his death, whenever I pick up clean silverware after a meal, I think of him and smile.
What About Our Birth Fathers?
We have examined a very important part of our existence —our birth mothers. But what about our birth fathers? Did they have no influence?
Last time I checked the books on reproduction, it takes two to make a baby.
Thoughts About Our Birth Parents Are Innate
When I was almost finished with the final draft of this book I talked with a reunited birth father who adored his daughter but who had been rejected by her. His heart was breaking as he wept while telling me that he would do anything to have a meaningful father-daughter relationship.
Do many birth fathers feel the same way? Would they want a relationship with us if they had an opportunity? Do they feel the loss of us to the same degree that birth mothers usually do? As we do?
As I’ve said, I believe that adoption can be likened to a big door. Over the top of the door is written “Birth Mother,” for our thoughts about her usually come first. It is often after we have gone through the adoption door that we find the words “Birth Father” written on the other side.
Ron Hilliard, of Palm Beach Heights, Florida, focused mainly on his birth mother and blocked out thoughts of his birth father because his father didn’t want to marry his mother and also urged her to have an abortion. Ron’s search for his birth mother ended in a cemetery and he is now looking at the back of the adoption door and wondering who his father is—and who he is as a result. This curiosity is being fueled by the fact that Ron has a fraternal twin brother who resembles his birth mother’s photos, while Ron doesn’t. This makes him wonder who he does resemble.
Some of us see the words “birth father” first on the adoption door.
Richard Curtis says that the loss of his birth father was the first loss of a male figure in his life, followed by the loss of his adoptive father when he was only five years old. As a result, Richard had no male role models and was left with what he terms a “father hunger” that he believes many adoptees experience. Like Ron, Richard’s search for his birth father ended at a tombstone. However, after finding people who knew his father prior to his death, Richard can see that many of the choices and behaviors he has made in life closely parallel his birth father’s.
Crystal speaks of father hunger by calling it a “void” that colors her relationships with men and keeps her longing for a daddy even though she is forty years old. A friend recently asked her what she would do if she ever found him. To Crystal the answer was simple —“I’d quit my job, move in with him, and have him take care of me.” She then added, “I am joking… but not really.”
When our curiosity is aroused, our speculations about him increase. What kind of a person was/is he? Did he refuse any responsibility and abandon our birth mother, as in the case of Laurie? Out of deep hurt, she says she prejudged him as a jerk because he chose not to marry her mom or encourage her to keep her baby. She is actually happy that she doesn’t have to know him.
To Issie, her birth father is a non-issue. A few years ago she thought briefly about trying to locate him, but her fear of rejection was too strong. In addition, she has no proof, short of DNA, of who her father is.
Then there’s the nasty subject of incest. Sheila says that her birth father is her mother’s stepdad. She’s glad he died before she met her birth family because she doesn’t know how she would react to him. She’s accepted that he’s a part of her, yet she can’t comprehend his deplorable actions.
Dawn Saphir, twenty-seven, born in Seoul, Korea, and adopted at six months of age by a Caucasian family, says that based on what she’s learned of Korean culture at the time of her birth, she doesn’t have a lot of positive feelings about who her birth father may have been.
Some of our birth fathers may be completely ignorant of the fact that we even exist.
How might our lives have been different had they been informed?
Karen says that she feels a great tenderness for the father who never knew about her. “He never had the chance to ‘give me up,’” she explains. “He never had the chance to know he was a father.”
Renee says that she had the amazing experience of finding her birth father recently and that the hardest part was discovering that he never even knew her birth mother was pregnant.
As I finish this section, I am reminded of my own birth father. Even as I write, he doesn’t seem real, for I have never met him, nor do I have any hope of meeting him because my birth mother refuses to reveal his identity. I know, however, that he is a forever part of me because I am always searching for him, even on an unconscious level. For me, this searching didn’t really begin until after I met my birth mother.
The only things my birth mother has told me about my father are that he was “a very nice man” and that he was tall and had red hair. I never knew where my oldest daughter, Lisa, got her beautiful red hair, but now I do. When I look at her, I often wonder about him.
Not long ago I sat next to an attractive elderly gentleman on a plane. Guess what my first thought was? I wonder if he could be my dad.
I had a dad in the growing-up years that loved me dearly and whom I dearly loved. But I also have another dad out there somewhere who may not even know I exist. I long to know him. I long to look into his eyes and have him wrap his arms around me.
Our Dual Identity
If we were created from the very fiber of our birth parents’ physical and emotional beings, don’t you think our need to think about them would be innate? If we had primal conversations with our mother in the womb, wouldn’t you say it is natural for us to think about her as we are growing up and growing old? And if our birth father’s DNA helped determine the color of our hair and eyes, wouldn’t you say that he is just as much a part of us as our mother and it is normal to want a relationship with him?
Wherever we are in the spectrum of perceptions about our birth parents, we must rest assured that our thoughts are normal. They are part of the fiber of our being. Part of the package of being adopted. It’s all about our identity… our dual identity. Most of all, it’s about establishing an unshakeable identity by integrating all the parts of who we are.
So what must we do for ourselves? What healthy choice must we make to move closer toward who we were created toward an unshakeable identity?
To give ourselves permission to think about and discuss openly our birth parents, especially to our adoptive parents.
Giving ourselves permission to let natural thoughts surface reminds me of when I am getting sick. I feel nausea and the urge to toss my cookies. I hate that more than anything, so I concentrate on something else so that I won’t. But when I finally let myself think about the possibility, up comes my lunch, followed by an incredible feeling of relief. A similar sensation often results when we allow ourselves to freely think about our birth parents. The urge to do so is really unstoppable.
Copyright. This is a chapter from 20 LIFE-TRANSFORMING CHOICES ADOPTEES NEED TO MAKE book. Order here: https://www.amazon.com/Life-Transforming-Choices-Adoptees-Need-Second/dp/1849057745/ref=as_sl_pc_tf_til?tag=httpwwwsherri-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=VIS57OKN6TFQ5FOO&creativeASIN=1849057745