American Adoption Congress: Educating, Empowering, Evolving Donate

Grief Portuesi Article

Silent Voices Heard Impact of the Birth Mother Experience:
Then and Now

by Donna Portuesi, MSW

To live an experience is to know it. For the birth mother, however, living the experience and understanding the totality of the experience may be a lifetime journey. The relinquishment of a child for adoption permeates all aspects of a birth mother’s life. Only a couple of decades ago, many unwed mothers, no matter how capable, were scorned and labeled "loose," "bad," "unfit" and "undeserving." The social manipulation of the past created an environment in which most birth mothers felt that they had few choices. This shamed mother-to-be often had to "hide" as a way to safeguard her secret from friends and family.

Much has been written about the adopted person’s struggle with identity, and rightfully so. However, little has been published about the impact of pregnancy and relinquishment on the birth mother’s identity. Eric Erikson, a development theorist, describes the identity-forming years around adolescence as a time when an individual strives to achieve "a sense of uniqueness as a person [and] a meaningful role and place in society," and attempts to define both self and goals. These are difficult tasks under the best of circumstances. For many young women, becoming pregnant and relinquishing a child during the crucial "identity forming" years only compounds an already complicated situation.

Is it any wonder, then, that an unwed mother, whose womanhood was shamed, disdained and stigmatized by society, and who was deemed unworthy by her family and friends, would have a host of issues around her identity—then and now? Often the birth mother believes that she is undeserving and a bad mother. In addition, she may feel punished for years because of her permissiveness. Over a decade of clinical practice at Adoption Search and Counseling Consultants (ASCC) has demonstrated that issues of self-esteem, relationship difficulties, "numbing" behaviors, depression, over- or under-achieving, compulsive-obsessive and panic disorders are often the residue of the relinquishment experience. In addition, after the loss of a child, it is common for birth mothers to experience secondary infertility for reasons not yet understood. Birth mothers who have other children are often overprotective as a means of preventing future loss. More research in this area is vitally needed.

If the birth mother is in her teens at the time of relinquishment, it is reasonable to assume that this experience created numerous emotional scars, in additional to the physical loss of her child, due to the mother’s age. Denial becomes survival for most birth mothers. Frequently the ability to love or trust again is arrested. The psychological trauma may also cause amnesia around certain aspects of the experience, such as date of birth, hospital and birthing details, and events, places, and significant people at that time. It is not uncommon for the birth mother to become developmentally fixated at the age of the trauma.

In exchange for their tears, many birth mothers were promised that they would "forget." Indeed, few birth mothers ever forgot. Thus, the necessary grief work and healing at the time of loss, and years after the loss, became nearly nonexistent. In grief therapy, it is believed that when the feelings around loss are arrested, so are other feelings like anger, joy, and happiness, as well as the ability to feel and fully grieve other past and future losses. Life becomes muted.

The following list of "birth mother losses" was compiled by the participants of a two-day workshop and retreat that I facilitate for birth mothers:

Birth Mother Losses

infant/baby continuity baby image
innocence acceptance "self" and self-worth
confidence spontaneity ability to grieve
memory feelings feeling loved
courage education "good girl" status
virginity control right to motherhood
religion pride choices
excitement surrounding pregnancy and birth
childhood, humor and happiness

Clearly, the losses associated with the birth mother experience are numerous and far-reaching, and undoubtedly impact the birth mother in some way today. The pregnant young woman of yesterday becomes today’s unacknowledged mother.

Healing is difficult because of the complicated and delayed grief reaction. It is particularly difficult to grieve the loss of a child as though dead when that child is still alive. The hope for a reunion also arrests the grieving process. Healing is important, especially as connected to the reunion. The issues and losses compromise the birth mother’s sense of self and are carried to the reunion with her child. The birth mother who reunites may, at some point, confront the same intensity of pain as when her younger self suffered the loss of her child. It is the younger self, with all her pain and vulnerability, that will be present at the reunion.

Just as the adopted person brings both the infant and adult self to reunion, the adult birth mother and the younger, traumatized mother are also there. Thus, the reunion of mother and child is very complex, because there really are four people present at all times. It has been stated that the adopted person has two mothers and two fathers, but only one set of parents, the adoptive parents (if a couple). I believe that the birth mother, too, becomes a parent to her child by helping the adopted person understand the impact of the relinquishment and adoption experience. To do so, it is essential that the birth mother get to know herself and the ramifications of her experience so she can be present, available, and open to meeting her child with his or her special needs. Then, as a mother and a parent, she can help, teach, guide and support the adopted person through the delicate reunion and post-reunion stages.

Some of the many constructive ways a birth mother can work on healing are listed below.

  • Educate. Perhaps the most important tool is education. Education provides knowledge, and knowledge offers insight. This insight and the understanding of one’s experience is what facilitates healing and provides the opportunity for personal growth and empowerment.
  • Search. Search activity may represent an attempt to resolve this significant loss. While search cannot achieve restitution of the surrendered child, it is an important step towards connecting with the lost part of yourself.
  • Reunite. The journey of self and reunification with one’s child can be a profound and intense experience. Think about how you would like to look back on the memorable day a reunion finally occurs. Planning a reunion, in some respects, can be like planning a wedding day. It is a poignant beginning. Preparation is critical. Unlike a wedding, however, you may want to delay the involvement of family and friends, at least initially, to permit a relationship to develop that will promote healing. If the reunion is not all you fantasized it would be, you can still know that a great deal of healing will occur.
  • Reach out. The journey a birth mother embarks on when searching for—and, if successful, finding— a child relinquished for adoption can become all-consuming. Although search and reunion can be fulfilling and rewarding, they also dig up feelings and issues from the past. Friends and family rarely understand the depth of this personal journey. Therefore, it is vital to reach out to those who have had a similar experience. Support groups are very beneficial, and provide a way of connecting with others in your situation—especially those in search and reunion. Consider attending local and national conferences and workshops.
  • Read. A number of good books discuss the birth mother experience, search, reunion, and the adopted person’s journey. Suggested reading is listed at the end of this article, or you can contact ASCC or your local support group for a book list. The AAC Web site also contains lists of suggested reading.
  • Find specialized counseling. Therapy with other birth mothers or triad members can be empowering. Individual counseling can be a means to address the past, to incorporate the past into the present, and to move into the future with a sense of clarity and purpose. Search and reunion counseling or consultation by a knowledgeable specialist is undoubtedly beneficial as a way to prepare for an upcoming contact or reunion, and to avoid common pitfalls.
  • Believe. Know and believe that you are a mother to this child.
  • Forgive yourself. Above all, forgive that younger part of yourself. Know that you did the very best you could, given your age, knowledge, support, choices (or lack thereof), and societal expectations at the time you relinquished.
  • Forgive others. Parents, birth fathers, significant others and society are all a part of the past and parcel of your experience. Consider letting go of the blame you may feel. And, if the forgiveness doesn’t come right away, that is okay; in time it may.
  • Accept. Forgiveness is often hard to achieve as a birth mother. That is okay. Work towards acceptance of "what is, is." It’s not possible to change this piece of history, but it is okay to accept that you did the best you could in a traumatic situation. No one told you what possible consequences there might be down the road. After all, you were supposed to "forget."
  • Remember. Remember it is not so much the experience in and of itself, but rather, how the experience is interpreted individually, that is important. Thus, it is beneficial for birth mothers to understand their own interpretations of their experience. Only then can the birth mother begin to recognize and appreciate the strengths and gains that were developed to survive the experience. These same strengths are used today.
    Birth mothers’ voices deserve to be heard. Their losses deserve to be recognized. As parents, birth mothers deserve to know how their children have fared. They deserve to be acknowledged as mothers—because they are.

Reading suggestions for birth mothers:
Carol Schaefer, The Other Mother (Soho Press 1991)
Heather Carlini, Birthmother Trauma (Morning Side Press 1997)
Merry Bloch Jones, Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Children for Adoption Tell Their Stories (Chicago Review Press 1993)

©1995 and 2000, Donna Portuesi

Donna Portuesi, MSW, is a reunited birthmother. She is a psychotherapist and co-founder of Adoption Search and Counseling Consultants. She was selected to be in Who’s Who of American Women and Who’s Who in the World, 1999/2000 editions.

Reprints of this article, in part or in its entirety, must be cleared through ASCC at 206-284-8538 (phone); 206-364-7883 (fax); PMB #210, 6201 15th Ave. N.W., Seattle, WA 98107;; or the ASCC Web site at