Open adoption is often presented to birth parents as a way to lessen the grief of losing a child to adoption. Being able to see your child and eventually develop a relationship with him or her do not, however, change the fact that you are no longer the child’s parent. In fact, the loss of being Mom or Dad is often painfully obvious to us with each visit. Losing a child to adoption is one of the most significant losses that birth parents will ever have to face. For most of us it is also our first experience with grief. The grief we feel for our children includes not only missing the times we had with them as their mother or father, but mourning for the times we will not have with them as their parents.
Shock and Denial
Shock is usually the first reaction to loss. The shock is often compounded by the miracle of birth. For many birth fathers, and some birth mothers, it may be the first time the baby is real for them. The feelings of pride and joy associated with giving birth are mixed with the sadness that comes from the decision to let go.
As the shock wears off, you may begin to feel intense sadness and pain. Many birth parents enter a period of denial to try to minimize their loss. These birth parents console themselves with the idea that the loss in an open adoption is really quite small. After all, they will be able to maintain contact and eventually have a relationship with their child.
Some think about the adoption in positive terms only, denying that there has been any loss at all. One birth mother I talked to said that she would “not allow any negative feelings” to interfere with her son’s adoption. This woman told me she had “never shed a tear” and that thinking about her one-year-old son “only brought smiles” to her face.
Shock and denial are normal coping mechanisms. Denial that goes on for too long, however, can be a form of emotional repression and may cause phobias, anxiety, irritability, and psychosomatic illnesses. There is no easy way around the grieving process. While the pain and sadness associated with healthy grieving may be difficult, denying these emotions indefinitely will not make them go away.
Sorrow and Depression
As the shock wears off and you begin to comprehend the extent of your loss, you may begin to feel sorrow and depression. Everything seems to be a reminder of the child that is no longer with you. It seems that everywhere you turn there is a pregnant woman or a new baby. You may spend hours looking at the baby’s pictures or reading the letters from the adoptive parents.
Some of the emotional aspects of depression can be debilitating. You may be unable to concentrate, feel apathetic or despairing. You may feel isolated and alone in your grief, vulnerable and even worthless. You may wonder why you “just can’t get it together.” These feelings are often complicated by the expectations that either you or others may have of your grieving process. It is important to remember that depression is also a normal part of the grieving process and must be experienced like everything else.
Anger is a natural part of the grieving experience, but it often takes you by surprise. You may become angry at God, your parents, the birth father, the adoptive parents, or even strangers. Most of my ranting and raving was directed at God, who “allowed” me to get pregnant. It didn’t seem fair that I should be the one to have an unplanned pregnancy when so many of my friends were also sexually active. I also found myself looking in anger at happy families with new babies.
Repressed anger only festers. Unfortunately, few of us have been taught to deal with anger in a healthy way. For some, the biggest step is acknowledging that we are angry and then finding a way to express the anger in a way that is not harmful to ourselves or to others.
As you begin to heal and learn how to live again, you may feel pangs of guilt. “If onlys” then become a part of the grieving experience. Some birth parents experience guilt in the form of regretting their decision to choose adoption. Second-guessing your decision at this point is perfectly normal. You may wonder why you made the decisions you did and you may experience some regret in having made them. If the decision was made in haste or under pressure, you may question your judgment. Unfortunately, society often reinforces the negative views that birth parents have about themselves. It took me a while to realize that, while I relinquished my role as his mother, there was still a lot I had to offer my son.
Acceptance is being able to integrate the loss of your child into your life. You have a clear definition of what it means to be a birth mother or birth father and you feel comfortable with your place in your child’s life. For some, it means accepting a situation that is less than perfect or different from what they expected.
Acceptance does not mean that the pain of loss is gone; it means that you have found a way to make it part of your life. For birth parents in open adoptions, this means fully letting go of the parental role and defining for ourselves what it means to be a birth parent to our child. It also means you have made some decisions as to with whom you feel comfortable talking about your child’s adoption.
The first step towards resolving any loss is to acknowledge the loss and come to an understanding of what it means to you. For birth parents in open adoptions the loss can most purely be defined as losing the parental role. Like many birth parents, I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact of no longer being my son’s “Mom,” despite all the information I received before I relinquished.
Resolving grief is not only about understanding and accepting what we have lost and feeling the pain, it’s also about integrating that loss into our lives. This means redefining our relationship with our child from caregiver to birth parent. It may seem, in the midst of our pain, that we have lost everything. Even seeing our children may initially be more painful than the joyous experience we hoped it would be. Contact may seem only to serve to remind us of our loss. It is important to remember that, though dramatically altered, a relationship still exists between us and our children as their birth parents. In determining your role, do not underestimate what a birth parent’s involvement can mean to your child. You are a source of information, surely, but your involvement, even when the child is an infant, also communicates that they are loved and accepted by you, despite the fact that you are not parenting them.
While I certainly feel as though I am a close friend of my son’s adoptive family, my relationship to him alone can only be described as being his birth mother. In being a part of his creation, in nurturing him during the months before his birth and in the days after, I am to him what no other can be.
If the relationships with your child and his or her adoptive parents are stable, you will find a certain comfort in being your child’s birth parent. You will be able to talk about them with some degree of ease, and you will feel secure about your place in their lives. Over time, you will find that you have developed traditions and routines that come naturally to all of you.
Not all open adoption matches are made in heaven. There may be situations where the adoptive parents are not cooperative or where there are personality clashes. If the relationships are less than what you expected them to be, or strained in some way, resolution will mean accepting the realities of the situation and developing strategies for handling it. This includes finding a way to have a meaningful relationship with your child in spite of the circumstances, and dealing in a healthy way with the anger you may feel over being in an undesirable position.
In brief, your relationships with your child and his adoptive family will become a familiar part of your life. That does not mean you will always be completely at ease with it, but it will no longer be your main focus as you live from day to day.
Successfully resolving the loss of a child to adoption is not an easy process. It requires us to let go of our role as our child’s parents and define what being a birth parent means. It is further complicated by the fact that, while we must allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation, we are seeking to forge new relationships with our child and his or her adoptive parents. With resolution, however, you can find some degree of peace and understanding. You will also find that, in developing a relationship with your child as his/her birth parent, all has not been completely lost. While there still may be times of grieving, there will also be joy in what you are able to share together.
This article is excerpted from a pamphlet on birth parents and grief in open adoption originally published by R-Squared Press, 721 Hawthorne Avenue, Royal Oak, MI 48067. The author, Brenda Romanchik, is a speaker, writer and publisher of open adoption resources, and a co-founder of R-Squared Press.