Several studies have documented the persistent, negative effects birthmothers have experienced after placing a child for adoption. Grief may manifest itself in physiological changes, emotions of sorrow, distress or guilt, socially through family and other interpersonal relationships, and maladaptive coping strategies such as substance use and self harm.
For some birth mothers, integrating their decision and processing the associated loss and grief is best done by writing, particularly in online communities. Birth mothers acknowledge that it is necessary to express their feelings so that healing can begin and many acknowledge that writing a blog, poem or Facebook entry helps them work through their feelings. Some write to give support and some write to receive support. This connection meets a birth mother’s need to express her grief in a nonjudgmental supportive environment to move towards healing and resolution.
Expressing feelings, from painful to bittersweet
Expressing their painful feelings in relation to having relinquished a child was a predominant theme in online writing by birth mothers. Some spoke of how hard the initial days and months were after the baby was born and relinquished. Some described it as the hardest thing they had ever done, or ever will do. Included in their feelings surrounding the loss of the child is the surprise and challenge found in the depth and breadth of difficult feelings.
One birth mother wrote: “Somewhere in the back of my mind I keep telling myself that I should be over it. That it shouldn’t hurt anymore. Or more importantly, that it should not have EVER hurt. And its not getting better. Something inside snapped. Something big. Something that took away all my sense of reasoning.”
While discussing the challenging emotions involved in child relinquishment, the feeling ‘bittersweet’ is extremely common, acknowledging the difficulties and the ‘blessings’ involved in adoption.
"Bittersweet is actually defined as 'something that is sweet but tainted with pain at the same time’. Sounds like it accurately describes being a birth mom in an open adoption to me!”
The feeling of regret was voiced by many. Some did not describe what the regret was in relation to, while others described specific regrets such as not holding the baby, not naming the baby, not having seen a counselor, not making an openness agreement.
A few birth parents wrote that they felt happy, blessed, lucky and fantastic. They expressed great satisfaction in how the open adoption has developed and confidence in knowing their child's well being
“Don’t be sad, don’t be scared… BE HAPPY – this is an amazing gift to ourselves, to the forever families and most of all, to our babies. There was never ANY room for me to be sad or grieve an experience that was SO RIGHT and so full of peace and so ultimately divinely planned and perfect.”
Interestingly, no online writings by birth mothers, that were studied, express regrets in choosing adoption for their child. One birth mother summarized that she would have regrets whether she chose adoption or parenting.
“I’ll have regrets either direction I go with this. I’m picking the route that will give my son no regrets.”
Adoption is complex and highly personal
Grief is a "normal process, reflecting both the strengths and values of human attachments and the capacity to adapt to loss and adversity”. However, the breadth, depth and uniqueness of the grieving process is poorly understood, and even less acknowledged and legitimized.
Some birth parents wrote about their role in adoption, and their altered identity in life:
"I realized that it was impossible to return to my old life. I decided to give this concept of “new normal” a try. If I was thinking about (my child) I told people that. I brought pictures places and showed them off to my friends. I came to see that this is how my life will be. The new normal was not something to be afraid of.”
They made attempts to define what the birthmother role is, and the ensuing commitment they make in an open adoption to being available to the child and adoptive family throughout life. One birthparent wrote that she had concentrated too deeply on her birthmother status and found that it could no longer be her main focus.
A number of the birth mothers are explicit in describing why they write about their child relinquishment online. One birth mother began writing to help herself start healing from the loss and grief that came as a surprise.
Other reasons women have for posting online were to add something fresh to the adoption community, to connect to other birth parents, to help others, to give back, to feel solidarity and to realize further truths about one’s self.
Many birth mothers commented that the only people who can understand the experience of child relinquishment is another birth mother. It is generally agreed that hearing other birth mother’s stories makes a birth mother feel “better inside”.
Birth mothers also used the online forum to encourage, support and commend each other, referring to each other as strong, brave, survivors, loving, selfless and caring.
Lisa Cowie has been a social worker since 1996, first with MCFD and now with Sunrise as an International Program Manager, and Birth Parent Support Group Coordinator and Counselor. This article formed a part of her Masters Degree in Social Work. Her personal experience with adoption is through cousins, friends, a sister-in-law and her over-the-top cute one-year old niece who were all adopted.