Impact of the Birthmother's Experience, Then and Now
(Donna Portuesi, MSW, and Reunited Birthmother)

Living an experience is to know it.  For the birthmother, however, living the experience and understanding the totality of the experience may take a lifetime journey.  The relinquishment of a child for adoption permeates all aspects of a birthmother's life.  Only a couple of decades ago, many unwed mothers, no matter how capable, were scorned and labeled "loose", "bad", "unfit", and "undeserving".  The social manipulation of the past created an environment in which most birthmothers felt that they had few choices.  This shamed mother-to-be often had to "hide" as a way to safeguard her secret from friends and family.

Much has been written about the adopted persons struggle with identity, and rightfully so.  However, little has been published about the impact of pregnancy and relinquishment on the birthmother'' identity.  Eric Erikson, a developmental theorist, describes the identity forming years around adolescence as a time when an individual strives to achieve "a sense of uniqueness as a person, a meaningful role and place in society, and attempts to define self and goals."  Undoubtedly these are difficult tasks under the best of circumstances.  For this young woman, becoming pregnant and relinquishing a child during their crucial "identity forming" years only compounds an already compromised situation.

Is it any wonder then, that an unwed mother, whose womanhood was shamed, disdained and stigmatized by society, and who was deemed unworthy by her family and friends, would have a host of issues around her identity - then and now?  Often at the core of the birthmother are the beliefs that she is undeserving and a bad mother.  In addition, she may feel punished for years because of her permissiveness.  Issues of self-esteem, relationship difficulties, "numbing" behaviors, depression, over/under achieving, compulsive-obsessive and panic disorders can be some of the residue from the experience.  In addition, the role of mother after the loss of a child changes.  It is common for many birthmothers to have secondary infertility for reasons not yet understood.  More research in this area is vitally needed.  Birthmothers who have other children are often over-protective as a means of preventing future child loss.

Because of the birthmother's tender age, it is reasonable to assume that this experience has created numerous emotional scars in addition to the physical loss of her child.  Denial becomes survival for most birthmothers.  Frequently much was arrested along with the pain, such as the ability to love or trust again.  Due to the psychological trauma, amnesia may also develop around certain aspects of the experience i.e., date of birth, hospital and birthing details, events, places and people at that time.  It is not uncommon to the birthmother to become developmentally fixated at the age of the trauma.

"You will forget," many birthmothers were promised in exchange for their tears.  Indeed, few birthmothers ever forgot.  Thus, the necessary grief work that is so important and healing at the time of loss, and years after, becomes nearly nonexistent.  In grief therapy, it is believed that when the feelings around loss are arrested so are other feelings like anger, joy and happiness, as well as, the inability to feel and fully grieve other past and future losses.  Life becomes muted.

The following list of "birthmother losses" was compiled by the participants of a two-day workshop and retreat that I facilitate for birthmothers.

infant/baby            lost years w/child & parenting           loss of own childhood
innocence              relationship with birthfather              humor and happiness
confidence             loss of "self"                                   education
memory                self-worth                                      loss of control
baby image           acceptance (lack of due to shame)        pride
loss of courage       loss of being understood                   continuity
loss of virginity     decreased spontaneity                        loss of feeling loved
loss of religion       feelings/shut down emotionally          loss of "good girl" status
loss of sexuality     loss of ability to grieve                     loss in choices
loss of clarity        loss of excitement surrounding            invalidation of motherhood
                           pregnancy and birth

Clearly the losses associated with the birthmother experience are numerous, far reaching and undoubtedly impact the birthmother in some way today.  The pregnant young woman of yesterday becomes today's unacknowledged mother.

Healing is difficult because of the complicated and delayed grief reaction.  It is particularly difficult to grieve the loss of a child as though to death – when that child is still alive.  The hope for reunion also arrests the grieving process.  Healing is important especially as connected to reunion.  These issues and losses compromise the birthmother's sense of self and are carried to the reunion with her child.  The birthmother who reunites, at some point, confronts the same intensity of pain as when her younger self suffered the loss of her child.  It is the younger self with all her pain and vulnerability, that will be present at the reunion.

The adopted person presents at reunion the infant and adult self; likewise, the adult birthmother and the young traumatized mother are also there.  Thus, the reunion of mother and child is very complex, because there really are four people present at all times.  It has been stated that the adopted person has two mothers and two fathers, but only one set of parents, the adoptive parents (if a couple).  I believe that the birthmother, too, becomes a parent to her reunited child by helping them understand the impact of their relinquishment/adoption experience.  To do so, it is essential that the birthmother get to know herself and the ramifications of her experience so she can be present, available and open to meet her child with his or her special needs.  Then, as a mother and a parent she can help, teach, guide and support  her child through the delicate reunion and post reunion stages.

Ways for the birthmother to work on healing:

Educate yourself.  Perhaps the most important tool is education.  Education provides knowledge and knowledge offers insight.  This insight and the understanding of one's experience is what facilitates healing and provides the opportunity for personal growth and empowerment.

Search for your child.  Know that the search activity may represent an attempt to resolve this significant loss.  Not so much by achieving restitution of the surrendered child, rather by recognizing the hope to connect with the lost part of herself.

Reunite.  Recognize that this journey of self and reunification with one's child is a profound and intense experience.  Think about when you are 80 years old, how would you like to look back on this memorable day?  For example, planning the reunion day is like planning a wedding day.  It is a poignant beginning.  Planning and preparation is critical.  Unlike the wedding day, delay family and friends from the initial reunion in order to permit the togetherness of mother and child needed for healing.  If the reunion is not all that you fantasized, know that a great deal of healing will still occur.

Reach out.  The journey of the birthmother in finding her self and child, or if found, becomes all consuming.  Although search and reunion can be fulfilling and rewarding, it also digs up archaic feelings and issues from the past.  Friends and family rarely understand the depth of this personal journey.  Therefore, it is vital to reach out to those who have had a similar experience.

Read.  There are several good books on the birthmother's experience, search, reunion and the adopted person's journey.  Contact ASCC or your local support group regarding a book list.

Attend support groups.  Support groups are very beneficial as a means to connect with others in a similar situation - especially in search and reunion.  Consider attending local and national conferences and workshops.

Find specialized counseling.  Therapy groups with other birthmothers and/or triad members can be very empowering as a way to more deeply understand and heal from the experience.  Individual counseling can be a means to address the past, and to incorporate the past into the present and move into the future with a sense of clarity and purpose.  Search and reunion counseling or consulting by a knowledgeable resource is undoubtedly beneficial as a way to prepare for an upcoming contact and reunion so that some common pitfalls and be avoided.

Believe.  Know and believe that you are a mother to this child.

Forgive yourself.  Above all, forgive that younger part of yourself.  Know that you did the very best you could at that age, with the knowledge, support and choices (or lack of) and with the societal expectations at that time.

Forgive others.  Parents, birthfathers, significant others and society are all a part of the past and parcel of your experience.  Consider letting go of the blame.  And, if the forgiveness doesn't come right away, that is okay, in time it may.

Acceptance. Forgiveness is often hard to achieve as a birthmother. That is okay, work toward acceptance of "what is, is."  It's not possible to change this piece of history, but it is okay to accept that you did the best you could in a traumatic situation in those times.  No one told you what possible consequences there might be down the road.  After all, you were suppose "to forget "

Remember.  Remember it is not so much the experience in and of itself; rather, how individually the experience is interpreted.  Thus, it is beneficial to understand your own interpretation.  Only then can the birthmother begin to recognize and appreciate the strengths and gains that were developed to survive the experience.  These same strengths are used today.

In conclusion, the birthmother's voice deserves to be heard today.  The losses deserve to be recognized.  As mothers, they deserve to know how their children have fared.  They deserve to be acknowledged as mothers - because they are.

Nothing speaks
so loudly or
is heard so plainly
as the silent voice
of a
Mother's love

…Emily Tipton

Copyright 1995, Donna R. Portuesi, MSW
Donna Portuesi, M.S.W. is a reunited birthmother.  She is a psychotherapist and co- founder of Adoption Search and Counseling Consultants (ASCC) and is currently at work on her first book encapsulating over a decade of reunion experience to be available in 1998.   She specializes in creative and economic long distance counseling services for preparation in search, contact, reunion and post-reunion issues as well as the lifelong impact on triad members and their families.  Donna also conducts workshops for triad members and families and clinical training for therapists.  She was selected to be in "Who's Who in the West" 1998 and has been accepted into "Who's Who of American Women", 1999 edition.
For a list of workshops and services (local and national) please call (206) 284-8538, fax (206) 364-7883, or write to 6201 15th Avenue, N.W., P210, Seattle, WA 98107 or E-mail; or visit our web site at


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