I wanted to be a mother before I wanted anything else. An only child, adopted as a baby, I always knew I would have a litter of my own children. My tunnel vision persisted even as I went to college, travelled, and got a job: I was on this planet to have kids, my own biological kids.
My first pregnancy was a wakeup call, though. I spent the first trimester throwing up repeatedly, the second and third trimesters barely able to walk from escalating, undiagnosed symphysis pubis dysfunction. Stepping up, turning over in bed, even reaching for a glass in the cupboard led to sharp, knifing pain through my groin. Sleep was rare and anxiety set in quickly and established itself as my new normal.
Despite taking both Bradley Method and Hypnobirthing classes, I ended up stalled after 32 hours of labour. The unexpected caesarean section led to more vomiting, this time in response to the morphine. I called the nurse every five minutes, sobbing, begging for my son, who was still in the nursery because of a lowered body temperature.
Skin to skin
I lay in my empty room, still unable to walk, frantic for my baby.
Eventually, the nurse yelled at me. Eventually, she stopped answering the call button. Eventually, the hospital paediatrician called back at 6am, irritation raising the volume of his voice, as he informed me that my child was fine and that I needed to rest and give everyone a break.
At 7:30 that morning they brought my baby to me, bundled tight, eyes squeezed shut. I had not slept in two days, through 37 hours of labour and then surgery. Shadows darted through my peripheral vision, hallucinations from the exhaustion, and I refused to look at the new nurse on duty as she cleaned me up. Her bright smile meant nothing to me. Her warm praise of my son felt false and sinister.
I watched closely as she took his temperature and listened to his heart. She might take my baby at any time. No, I did not want to use the bathroom. No, I did not need her help. All I needed was my son, skin to skin against my chest.
She didn’t know, couldn’t understand, I thought. She had never given birth to me, after all.
That night I slept with him in my hospital bed, furtively cocooning him in between my arm and side. A light sleep, ready to wake and assure whoever came in that no, no I was not breaking the hospital rules by co-sleeping. No need to take him to the nursery. My husband, overwhelmed by his new role and stranger-to-him wife, visited for just a few hours at a time. We argued about my possessive behaviour when friends and family stopped by.
I spent those hospital days frantically trying to get my jaundiced newborn to nurse so the doctors would let us go home together. I panicked every time he unlatched, the anxiety from my pregnancy now hyper-focused on my son’s yellow skin, his flushed cheeks as he cried. I put him down only to change his diaper, then quickly pulled him back up into my arms. I let my mother hold him for 30 seconds and then snatched him back, angry at the hurt expression on her face. She did not know, could not understand, I thought. She had never given birth to me, after all. She had held me for the first time when I was four months old and I had never needed her like this.
Fast forward eight years and my son was no longer a baby, yet still needed me so much. I rarely strayed from his side as he struggled with a profound mood disorder and a variety of comorbid diagnoses. He had inherited my anxiety, along with a confusing list of words and hints I had seen listed on the papers from my adoption agency, descriptions of my biological mother and her medical histories. No actual diagnoses, but clues, phrases like “angry young woman” and “drug use to compensate for parental abuse”.
I had met my biological father only a year earlier, and we had spent the last 12 months tiptoeing around each other, gently exploring the potential of a relationship. I had not been able to locate my birth mother, but what would it mean to have a connection to my biological father, a “real” family member, I wondered? Would it feel the way my children felt to me?
He told me about his own enduring anxiety about giving me up for adoption, about how his heart could unclench now that he had met me and realised that his choice had been the right one.
We discussed him introducing me to his son, my half-brother, and to his own brothers and sisters. He met my three children and my husband, invited us to meals and brought gifts. His kindness and gratitude put me at ease. He told me about his own enduring anxiety about giving me up for adoption, about how his heart could unclench now that he had met me and realised that his choice had been the right one.
He also told me horror stories about my biological mother. About mental illness that consumed her and left her barely able to live a functional life. About the damage she did to him and everyone around her with her behaviour, from verbal and physical abuse to sending Hell’s Angels to extort money from him.
He told me he wanted to do better, to help us to support my son as we navigated this new path of psychiatric visits and outpatient therapies. He offered his time and even his money, described his own family’s mental health struggles, putting our own into perspective. I thought I had another ally in this increasingly isolated world, and that began to heal something inside me I had not really understood was a wound.
Then, one day, out of the blue, he called to meet up for lunch at a cafe. He handed me a letter from my biological mother. She had written to him, made outrageous demands and accusations about me. She wanted my personal information and wanted to meet me.
“If you decide to do this, please don’t tell her anything about me,” he said.
“Okay, I understand,” I replied and we hugged goodbye.
That was the last time we spoke. He stopped asking to meet, stopped emailing, did not return my calls.
Rage and grief
But we were in crisis, soon to be facing a hospital stay for suicidality. I was terrified of losing my eight-year-old, separated from friends and family who did not understand the severity of our situation, who could not comprehend such a young child in such a desperate state. Or what that meant to me and my husband, as his parents.
I did not have the bandwidth to process getting dumped by my father right then.
Then he just ran, discarding me again, and I was supposed to accept that, to absolve him of any responsibility?
But that year, as we pushed through and survived the pain of multiple hospitalisations, scary medication trials, the inability to go to school – that disconnected feeling slowly transformed into anger. How dare he reject me a second time? He was the one who wanted to connect, to become a part of my family, to invite me into his own. Then he just ran, discarding me again, and I was supposed to accept that, to absolve him of any responsibility?
The anger snowballed to rage. It consumed me at first, then finally hardened, and eventually crumbled into grief. With no path towards resolution or closure, I faced this new, unfair pain head-on in all its complexity.
A lingering ache
I knew that my biological parents were teenagers when they had me. Neither had the tools, maturity, or family support needed to parent a newborn. Their decision to give me up for adoption was, indeed, a good one. And my adopted parents were in their mid-twenties, both employed, both longing for a baby but unable to conceive.
But that fairy-tale scenario had never given me the peace it should have.
I continued to face many of the challenges that most adopted children face, despite the loving home I grew up in. Alison Gardner, a clinical psychologist in McLean, Virginia, describes one of the most profound difficulties that many adoptees experience.
“The research is pretty clear that the attachment process begins in utero and thus, when adoption happens, there is a real and experienced loss of one’s first attachment figure,” Gardner says. “How that loss is experienced, processed and coped with is very individualized and complicated.”
I always felt that loss both as a child and adult, a sadness and sense of isolation that made no sense to me. Was I not loved? Did I not have family and friends who gave seemingly limitless affection and support?
I found myself anxious and depressed, choosing romantic partners whom I chased after for affection, begging for their time while they manipulated me and withheld warmth. When I did date people who treated me kindly, I responded argumentatively and manipulatively myself, sabotaging the relationships. Not realising what I was doing, I suffered greatly when my partners left me and the toxic back-and-forth behind. I repeated that pattern over and over until I met my husband, a person who had struggled in relationships, as well.
Nancy Verrier writes about something called “the primal wound” in her book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Her work is controversial, with mental health professionals, adoptees, and adopted parents quickly jumping in to say that each person’s experience is unique and cannot be generalised by large-scale theories. But her description of loss and abandonment, of the lingering ache and long-term effect of being separated from one’s mother at birth, rings true for me.
Do adults who have been adopted feel differently about their children than non-adopted parents?
When I held my son in the hospital, I experienced a near-obsessive attachment to him immediately. Many mothers feel a strong bond like this, and it makes sense for survival. But do adults who have been adopted feel differently about their children than non-adopted parents? It is difficult to say definitively, though many professionals agree that there is a deep sense of gratitude and connection that occurs when adoptees have children. I, however, felt a profound distrust of the people around me, including my own husband – the father of this child I had given birth to. I had simply never known such a thing before, never trusted another person to love me and need me the way this tiny baby did.
That feeling never left, never lessened. Years later, as my son hit rock bottom, I found myself caring for him as if he was still a newborn, sacrificing myself beyond what was healthy, losing perspective, losing myself within the caregiving. I was nothing except a mother, providing for all three of my children, their needs trumping mine at every turn, even as I collapsed under the unrealistic expectations and burden that I, alone, imposed on myself.
Identity is an area that almost all adoptees grapple with at some point. In The Psychology of Adoption, David Brodzinsky writes about the research behind identity development in adoptees. He talks about issues that arise, such as a lack of belief in permanence, the insecurity that comes from not knowing your own genealogical history, and the difficulty of an entrenched “family romance”, where an adoptee has romanticised ideas about their biological family. He also discusses the grief involved when an adoptee searches for their biological family and is either blocked from contact or rejected after meeting.
Once I emerged from survival mode with my son’s mental health crisis, once we were home and moving forward with treatment, I had the time and space to think about what had transpired with my biological father. With that came the anger, and then grief. The sense of loss, even stronger than before I had met him, almost sunk me.
What kept me from sinking was my real family: My husband, my adopted parents, the family and friends around me who showed up and offered love over and over again, even when I was at my most unlovable. My adopted parents have always been extremely involved as grandparents, but they stepped up even further when my son went into crisis. Even as they stumbled themselves, in pain as they watched their daughter and grandson hurting, they kept communication open. They put themselves out there for us, asked questions, apologised for missteps. My husband learned and grew with me through therapy and parenting behavioural work. Friends and unexpected family members, cousins, a sister-in-law, continued to connect as I withdrew in exhaustion and fear, bringing me back into the fold, forcing me to believe in the village rather than playing the role of supermom at my own expense.
My distrust and self-sabotaging behaviours had no place in the demanding world of parenting a high-need child. As I learned to accept help and to trust others, I also learned that I was worthy of help, trust, and love myself. I was worth fighting for, just as I fought for my son. These feelings of abandonment and loss were real – but acknowledging them allowed me to rise up out of that space and move forward.
Moving forward allowed me to exist as a person outside of motherhood, too.
The loss of my biological father for a second time opened a door towards understanding and healing in me. I could finally embrace and trust my adopted parents, my real parents. I could see my husband as a friend and equal, rather than an elevated romantic partner who soothed and validated me. I became a more balanced mother, regaining perspective as I learned to recognise my own identity outside of simply that of “parent”. All of the relationships in my life changed as I internalised this new understanding of who I was and where I came from. I became a whole person for the first time.