Birthmothers – Victims or Victors?
My friend Therese Skelly, therapist turned business coach, once said something that has always stayed with me. “We live in a culture that celebrates brokenness.” It’s very true. We love victims: being victims, watching victims on TV, making victims into celebrities, commiserating with victims, blaming everyone but ourselves for the people and circumstances that show up in our lives. This is no less true in the world of adoption. For this post, I’m focused on birthmothers – and the different approaches and outcomes to a shared experience.
I recently met a woman named Kelly at a conference who was from a small town when she got pregnant before getting married. Though it was scandalous – and her father was furious – she chose to carry, keep, and parent her child. Her best friend was less fortunate, though. She got pregnant while in high school, and her parents gave her no choice: over her vocal and robust protestations, the baby was placed for adoption. Kelly told me her friend was never the same. Her personality changed, as did her physical demeanor, after losing her child.
Two women in similar circumstances – completely different outcomes. Sometimes birthmothers thrive – but sometimes the wound is so great it is nearly impossible to overcome. Does that make those birthmoms victims?
Another birthmother I know who has had a joyous reunion with her now 32-year-old son still gets anxious and depressed each year as his birthday and the anniversary of his placement come around. I think sometimes we hold on to our wounds because they become so familiar that we know no other way to be. Without them, we’d have to change our identity – become someone new. And we fear the pain of change more than the haunting pain we’ve grown accustomed to.
Occasionally, though, the wounds hold onto us. A birthmom friend of mine knew a woman who had placed her child for adoption at birth – and within months of the placement, she began to develop debilitating arthritis, so much so that eventually the entire right side of her body became crippled and nonfunctioning. Many years later, she and her daughter were reunited, and following the reunion, her body began to recover and the arthritis corrected itself.
It was late 1995, and my son was less than a year old. Although I was attending Spence-Chapin’s birthmom support group, I was still looking for other moms to relate to. So I went digging around online – wayyyyy prior to Google and search engines – and came across a birthmom chatroom. Without meaning to, I pissed off a lot of women in that group. They were all just so negative. Angry, sad, blaming, accusing, and more than anything, focusing all their attention on their victimization. Some, like Kelly’s friend, had been forced by their parents to choose adoption. Some had been in maternity homes. Others had boyfriends who’d promised marriage and then skipped out on them. Each had a reason for their intense emotions, but it didn’t seem like any of them had any desire to move past these emotions; they were hanging onto these negative feelings with every shred of energy they could muster. They had created their group to help feed and celebrate each others’ victim status. Instead of being supportive, the group was demoralizing and completely unhelpful.
So one day, I wrote a post in the chatroom that went something like this: “The sooner you can take ownership over your part in the adoption – even if it is only owning the fact that you had sex – the sooner you will be able to move past the anger, blame, and victimhood to feel the grief. And once you feel the grief, you might be able to forgive yourself and start healing.”
You would have thought I was Satan incarnate. Good golly – I have never seen such a rabid pack of angry jackals, screaming for my ouster from the chatroom. What right did I have to judge? How dare I suggest they move on from their very justified negative emotions?! One woman told me, “Your son is only 6 months old right now. Just you wait. Come back when he’s 5 and tell me how well-adjusted you are then. It only gets worse from here!” As it turns out, the older my son has gotten, the more emotionally resolved I’ve become about being his birthmom, and the stronger my relationship with him and his family has grown. And that was after starting from a pretty stable place. But in my experience, people who want to stay in victim mode tend to try to avoid those who prefer to move on with their lives.
Historically, some heinous crimes were committed against women who never intended to be birthmothers – babies stolen from poor mothers and given to “more worthy” families, the crimes sanctioned by police and local governments, social workers, and others in places of authority. If you saw or read Philomena, you’re familiar with the abysmal treatment some birthmoms received in maternity homes, particularly in Ireland.
Generally speaking, however, modern American birthmothers are not victims – any more than couples who get divorced or teens who don’t get into the college of their choice are victims. Of course, this is my blog and these are my opinions. Are there intense emotions surrounding each of these scenarios? No doubt! But it’s up to each individual to choose which emotions they want to focus on and how they want to handle their disappointments.
There’s no question that the feelings are real: grief, shame, abandonment, loneliness, regret, guilt. If we allow them to, such emotions can swallow us whole. If, however, we intend to live through the pain and come out on the other side, we’ve got to find a way to navigate those emotional waters and focus on something positive. Sometimes that means finding someone to listen who won’t indulge our victim language, thinking, and behavior. More to the point, it means developing a will to release fear and embrace change that is larger than our desire to hold onto our old familiar friend, pain.