Last Friday I posted, Ringing in His Ears on ‘This is Us’ about a teen adoptee’s desire to connect with his birth parents on the impressively insightful show ‘This is Us.’ He compares this need to ringing in his ears that grows louder and softer but is always present.
A long-time reader sent an interesting comment worth exploring, so rather than responding in the comments, I’ll respond here. [Note: I’ve edited her comment for length; you can read her full comment with the original post.]
I was recently inquiring to another seasoned foster/adoptive mom about how much connection to give my son with his birth parents. Her suggestion was much different. She gave the example of a marriage. If you are married to a safe and loving person, is it appropriate to continue a friendship with an abusive ex-boyfriend or girlfriend? No.
I’m truly trying to do the right thing by my child. Can you expand more on what you mean by saying that our children need us to connect them with their first families in order to be whole?
I appreciate this question because if one person asks it, I will guess there are others who have similar thoughts.
The Mother/Child Relationship
I would argue that we simply can’t compare the bond between a mother and child to a marriage relationship or any other relationship. We are made up of the DNA of our parents and we grow in the womb of our mother; our earliest memories are formed while we are literally connected to her.
Before we are born, we know her voice, we are rocked by her body. We live because she lives. Yes, some mothers expose their babies in utero to trauma: toxic drugs, malnourishment, a traumatic environment that releases stress chemicals into the mom’s body impacting the baby, and more.
Each adoption story is different, so I can’t speak to every possibility, but I believe nearly all mothers love their children. A mother may have mental illness, addictions, be incarcerated, or simply be unable to make good decisions for her children. Sadly, sometimes it’s simply that she is young, or very poor, as is the case in many international adoptions.
Could addiction or mental illness cause a mother to make terrible decisions that harm her child. Yes.
Is it possible she may one day be clean/sober or mentally more stable? Is it possible that beneath the symptoms and addiction behaviors she still loves her child? Yes.
And what of the child’s love for her mother?
While it may not make sense to our adult brains, especially those of us who have not suffered the trauma of being separated from our first parents, children love their mothers. Even children who have been physically hurt and neglected long for connection, approval, and love from their mothers.
This yearning may ebb and flow over the years, but for most adoptees, it doesn’t seem to go away. They may not talk to their adoptive parents about it because they fear our response. They worry we’ll be angry or hurt.
Adoptive parents may think, “I’ve done all the hard work, why should she get to be part of his life now!” And if our child refers to her as “mom,” all kinds of emotions may be unleashed.
Our children are growing up in a world where many kids have multiple parents and siblings, where families are blended and unique. This is not as complicated for them as it is for the adults.
As I said in my original post, we may need to set boundaries, even very high boundaries of protection around these relationships. Safety may require only letters be exchanged, or perhaps phone calls made on speaker phone with you monitoring the conversation.
While we may be able to forgive people who harmed our children, we do not trust them until they have earned our trust. But I would argue that for the sake of our children, we should hope for healing and believe it is possible. One day they may become people we trust enough to be a healthy influence in our children’s lives.
Our children did not attach to us first; for some adoptive parents, that is painful to recognize. They attached to their first mothers beginning prenatally. If they were parented by their first mothers, they continued to form either secure or insecure attachment to her.
Attachment does not simply dissolve because the child is separated from her mother. I believe that even after adoption, even after forming attachment to us, there is an invisible connection that will not be broken with their first mom.
This is the primary reason we can’t compare ending an unhealthy adult relationship with permanently separating a mother and child. Marriage is an intimate, trust-filled relationship entered into willingly by two adults. If one of the adults becomes abusive, the other has the freedom to leave.
There may be a bond and deep connection, but it is not like mother/child attachment. We may share memories and even children together, but we do not share DNA, family history, and a sense of belonging in the world.
This first attachment may be hard for us to process, especially if the first mom hurt the child we love with all our heart. This is magnified if our child suffers every day from the effects of her choices, and we suffer right along with him. Challenging behaviors from FASD and PTSD come to mind.
Some mama-bear hearts want justice. We may think, “She hurt my child and I will protect him forever from her. I don’t care if she says she has changed, she doesn’t deserve him.”
Open Hearted Adoption
I think we’re called to something better and higher. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When I want to hurt someone who has harmed someone I love, those words trip me up. How would I want to be treated?
Let’s open our hearts to the stories of our children’s mothers. Let’s imagine ourselves growing up with their lives, being pregnant in their circumstances, and parenting in just their same situation. Would we want to be judged and cut off from our child for the rest of our lives due to the poor decisions we made and actions we took?
I would argue we support our children in seeking relationships with their birth/first families and we allow as much openness as is reasonable and healthy for our child.
There is a lovely quote in the children’s book The Invisible String,
People who love each other are always connected by a very special String, made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love.
When I saw my son again after so many years, I looked at his face, hugged him close, and felt for the first time that something was complete in my heart. I could breathe more deeply again. We had many conversations and he felt the same. We both felt a sense of relief that the waiting, looking, and longing were over.
I’m not saying reunion was easy – it wasn’t. We had many complicating factors in our relationship, but we both needed to know the other was okay. He needed me to answer his questions, to tell him his story, to introduce him to his extended family and his heritage. He needed to know his siblings.
Adoptive parents reading this, I want to assure you, this did not change his love for his parents or sister. He loved them very much and was deeply connected to them. He lived on the other side of the country from me in the same town as his parents. He was fiercely proud of his sister’s accomplishments.
While my son cannot add his thoughts, we would do well to listen to adult adoptees as they talk about their losses. Read their blogs and join Facebook groups that include the entire triad.
And bringing this all the way back to the beginning, what does this have to do with This is Us? On the show, the teen Randall becomes an adult who searches for and finds his birth father. His father, William, was once an addict who left newborn Randall at a fire station, but was so high he could never remember what happened.
Over the years, William became a clean, healthy, quite wonderful man. They met again 36 years later and his father became a gift in Randall’s life. It’s a beautiful storyline; if you aren’t watching the show, please forgive the spoilers and start watching.
I have barely scratched the surface of this topic and done absolutely no justice to discussing Attachment Theory. Keep reading and learning – it’s for the good of our kids, which ultimately is good for us.
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Humbly and with an open heart,