The Lifelong Emotional Trauma Of Surrendering A Child To Adoption
If you are unintentionally pregnant and are thinking (or being pressured) into surrendering your baby for adoption you will need to understand the lifelong grief and trauma you will experience once you have your child taken from you.
I want to share my story with you because you deserve to know what the emotional outcome of giving up a child can be and the negative consequences that could happen as a result.
There are four important areas to the grief and trauma attached to surrender that I’d like to share with you from my own firsthand experience and that of other women having been through the same harrowing journey. These are Dissociation, Secrecy, Anger, Yearning & Family. Much of the information I share with you is from my own extensive research into why I felt so dissociated through most of my life.
As young women, I do not think any of us had any real understanding of what would happen to us once we gave up our child, or the impact it would have on not only us but on our own family and the families we would have later in our lives. I have been writing this story for years but was prompted to turn it into a post after watching a TV programme last night.
Sunday 14th July 2013
I watched ‘Midwives’ on TV last night and in this particular episode there were two young single mothers having babies. Both the father’s of the unborn babies were not around although both turned up at the hospital for the births.
During the programme I found myself crying with empathy for these young girls, for the lives they were trying to make for themselves and their babies and that they looked so afraid and alone. But in my eyes they were extremely courageous and had made the choice to keep their baby however hard it might be.
Their predicament took me back to 1965 when at seventeen I became pregnant after one particularly unspectacular sexual encounter in a car with a much older man I had known (and believed I loved) for some time.
After this brief encounter, I never saw him again but a few weeks later realised I had missed my periods and was probably pregnant. A visit to the doctor confirmed this. Back then there was no such thing as terminations (unless illegal) or drinking a bottle or two of gin and having scalding hot baths – neither choice appealed to me . The only real choices a young, unmarried, pregnant girl had back then was to keep the child or have it adopted
I was living at home in a three room apartment with my parents and two sisters and there was no room for a baby, so I was persuaded by my doctor, social workers and my father to give the baby up for adoption. My first response to thinking about having my baby adopted was ‘shock’. “Give my baby away! No way”, Never!”
Yet whilst in this state of ‘shock’ I was expected to make what was the most important ‘decision’ I would ever have to make in my life. And because often young girls are usually pressured into to make this ‘decision’ quickly, I do not believe I was able to make a logical or informed decision. Of course I didn’t want to, of course I argued and protested and cried myself to sleep night after night. But it was no use. The wheels had been set in motions, new parents were found who were eagerly waiting the birth. There was no turning back. I had made my bed, I would have to lie in it – for the rest of my life.
Had I known then that when the day came to give up my beautiful daughter, or about the terrible emotional implications, not only on me, but also on all the relationships I would have in my life, the dissociation, the deep sense of guilt and shame and the ever present sadness that would impact me for most of my life, I would never have given her up. Had I known then that this would create a wound that would never heal, I would never have agreed to surrender her. Nobody told me that I would be severely emotionally impacted by this decision for the rest of my life.
Nobody warned me, nobody warned me against it. I was a child forced to give up a child!
During pregnancy the primary physiological task is for a mother to bond with her baby. To think about separating from her child, as the mother is encouraged to do when she considers adoption, at the same time that a bond is developing with her unborn child, triggers emotions that do not go well together. This makes it extremely unlikely that an expectant mother who has surrendered her baby will really understand ‘what it will feel like to separate and live apart from her baby after birth’.
In fact, she may ‘shut down’ emotionally in order to defend herself against all of the stress she is experiencing. In my case I started experiencing ‘dissociation’ from about the time I finally agreed to give my daughter up at around five months pregnant.
Dissociation is the aspect of the birth-mother’s experience that explains why often she does not understand what has happened for some time after it has happened. Perhaps she will never completely understand. I remember thinking often that I would ‘kill myself’ once the adoption was complete because I couldn’t contemplate ‘going on without my baby’.
But even after an extremely long and difficult birth, even after taking care of my beautiful baby girl for ten days in the hospital, even as I watched the Social Worker push my daughter away from me in a big grey pram, even though inside my head a voice was screaming “NO, STOP, you can’t take my baby!” the ‘dissociated me’ just stood there helplessly, hopelessly, at the bus stop with my mother, and when it eventually came, we got on and went home as if nothing had happened.
Here is the entry from my ‘Dissociation Journal’ about this awful time.
“To go home on the bus with my mother who was too distraught herself to talk to me, in too much pain of her own to comfort me (because unbeknownst to me then she had lived this exact same nightmare before). To go into the bedroom I shared with my two sisters and silently sob into my pillow, the tears of one who is broken into a million pieces.
To never be able to shed those tears in front of anybody, to ‘keep them to myself’, to ‘not make a fuss’. And then the next day to get up and pretend that everything was normal, that nothing of any import had happened, to pretend that she did not exist. To never speak of her, to never discuss it or talk about it again. To have to forget it and get on with my life as if this had never happened. Never speak of her, to anybody, never to share this pain and this heartbreak. To never deal with the pain, to never grieve for my baby, or for what we both had lost. It was pushed aside, swept under the mat. Another family skeleton pushed to the back of the closet.
I remember vaguely some weeks later having to go to the Adoption Agency and sign the final papers that said I could never have my baby. Did I go on my own? Were my parents with me? I don’t remember anything. Never thinking I had a choice or any chance of keeping her, again convinced it was better for everybody if I gave her up. But it was not better and never has been better for me!
Did I further dissociate then, was this travesty of justice another warning to me that the world was a dangerous and bad place, where I could trust nothing and no-one. Did my brain just shut down a little further to protect me from going mad, or killing myself? Because I did think these things every day”.
This dissociation, which we use to ward off the feelings of trauma, pain, anguish, loss of control and deep depression, takes a great deal of energy to sustain and leads to a deep, pervasive sadness of which, even we, might not be aware. This can last for many years, or in some cases even a lifetime.
In my case I never realised the toxic extent of my unfelt grief until at the age 52 I became seriously ill. Only then, when I was in agonising physical pain, did I start putting the pieces together and realised the buried grief, anger and guilt of surrendering my child had bought me totally emotionally and physically undone.
This was one of the blackest and bleakest periods of my life when had I lost everything that meant anything to me, and then had to find a way to heal both the emotional and physical pain. This has taken many years to achieve and is still a work in progress, for how can one totally heal when the thing that caused the illness is still unknown?
Many years later I was to ask myself what does dissociation really mean? If we are dissociated why can we still through all the pretence of happiness, OKness, the numbness, the emptiness, still feel this vast well of sorrow and grief that threatens to overwhelm us if we don’t keep a tight rein on it? Why can’t we just feel nothing? Why do we still feel hopeless and useless and want to kill ourselves?
Why is it that we seem to function well on the surface, making it appear to ourselves and others that we are fine and yet inside we are as unstable as dynamite. Ready to explode at any time. And then I realised that dissociation is VITAL to our survival, even when we don’t want to survive, because without it I would not be here writing this. The brain is an extraordinary vehicle for compartmentalising our life into sections so separate from each other they could be existing in several different people’s bodies.
This profound dissociation contributes to the SECRECY which permeates the life of us surrendering birth-mothers, compounding and complicating our pain. Over the years this secrecy can interfere with the development of closeness in all our relationships and cause us to suffer silently and alone.
If we later marry we might not tell our husband or any subsequent children. Even if the family does know, the surrender is usually treated as a taboo subject, not to be discussed, although it might be discussed by other family members as happened to me only a while ago.
Although I had told both my children when they were quite young they had an older sister, when my 9 year old granddaughter said to me a while ago “You sold your first baby didn’t you Nana”, I was so severely shocked at first didn’t know how to respond. I told her I did not ‘sell my baby’ but had to give her up because I was too young and didn’t have my own house or any money to keep her. Later I scolded my son for discussing my private business with such a young child as she had completely misinterpreted what her dad had told her. I felt somehow betrayed and cheapened. Chinese Whispers!
I rarely told any of the men I was to have relationships with along the road of my life. I was married briefly to my children’s father, but was unable to sustain a lasting relationship, or be in one that I felt I didn’t deserve, I felt too guilty for that. I didn’t want their sympathy because I believed I didn’t deserve it. After all it was me that made the decision to have my daughter adopted and never being able to get close to anyone was the price I had to pay.
Surrendering mothers go through stages of ANGER. First there is the rage which is the natural response to the frustration of the maternal longing. Anger is a key expression of the hurt – she is furious over being deprived of the one being so most desperately needs – her baby. Unable to speak about the ‘Secret’, much of this anger is suppressed and in many cases becomes a life-long depression covered up by dissociation.
When I realised that the pain I lived with could have been prevented by the very people I trusted to help me, I experienced deep feelings of impotence, helplessness and rage. As my father was the closest one to me, I hated him with a vengeance.
These feelings add to the trauma of the separation from our child, underlining the intensity of our anger and shifts ‘adoption grief’ far beyond typical bereavement, because we rarely know what has happened to our child.
All my life I felt incredibly angry at myself for having allowed the adoption. For not standing up to these people. I blamed myself entirely for what happened and directed that anger inwards, feeling ashamed, hopeless, guilty and depressed. I used to imagine myself running down the road outside the hospital taking Nicola out of the pram and taking her home with me. Then I would feel so ashamed that I hadn’t done that. And hated myself for it.
So we try to fill the void or suppress the anger, anesthetise the self-hatred with alcohol, food, drugs or sex or self-abuse, anything but feel that sense of outrage and vulnerability. In my case I slept with who would become my husband for one weekend and fell pregnant again with my second daughter.
Yearning, Longing, Searching!
The loss of a child produces a high state of physical and emotional alarm. Mothers who lose children to adoption often describe feelings of panic, irritability, tenseness and other signs of restless anxiety about losing their subsequent children.
When I had my second daughter just fifteen months later (a typical psychological reaction for girls giving up a first child to adoption) I had such a difficult labour that I was sure I had ‘lost’ her when she stopped breathing and I was given an emergency episiotomy and she was rushed to emergency to get her to breath. After a couple of days she was fine, but for a long time I used to wake up in the night and hold a mirror over her mouth to make sure she was still alive and breathing.
Women who lose pregnancies and babies say “I want my baby back”. Even if her ‘baby’ is an 18 year old. The birth-mother is ‘frozen in time’. Another way in which these women experience the yearning is in dreams. Pregnancy loss in general has been compared to the loss of a limb or the loss of ‘self’. The ongoing nature of the birth-parent loss has been compared to the experience of relatives of MIA’s (Missing in action).
Unfortunately for me, three years later I also lost a child through miscarriage at five months pregnant, having to go through a full eight hours labour in order to give birth to my fourth child that I never even saw. This miscarriage was also placed in the SECRET/TOO HARD box and never talked about, discussed or looked at until the grief about my first child broke through.
I had spent my whole life searching and yearning for a love that would fill up the hole inside and the emptiness I always felt. A love that would forgive me and allow me to forgive myself for my failure to stand up for myself and let others control me and my life. Yet ultimately this love and forgiveness could only come from me, and from allowing myself to grieve and let go of the self-loathing and anger I felt at myself.
As we discuss the birth-mother’s experience and how this affects all her relationships, as well as how the women’s siblings, spouses, grandparents, other children and other family members are directly affected by the loss of the child to adoption and we add the birth-father (if he is known or interested) and his family, it is obvious that many people are affected by this loss.
And what about the child we surrendered. These are the questions I have asked myself many time over the past forty-seven years. Did I do the right thing? Is she happy? Has she had a good life? Did I make the right choice? Does she hate me for abandoning her? Will she ever find me? Will she be able to love me after what I did to her? Is she still alive? Did her adoptive parents love her as I would have done? It is a terrible litany of unanswered questions one person should never have to keep asking herself.
I love my siblings but I have always longed for a closer relationship with them. I have always felt that there is a something ‘different’ and ‘separate’ about me. That they don’t really understand what I have been through. How could they? But when I see how close they are to each other, I often feel that I am not part of ‘their’ family. This is not their fault of course, nobody who has not experienced giving up a child would be able to understand the feeling of separateness and fear of closeness we experience.
And lastly I want to speak to the siblings of the child who is surrendered. Studies have shown that the siblings of surrendered children might suffer certain aspects of their mother’s grief, much as one might find with the loss of a sibling to death.
Is our buried grief and ‘dissociation’ symbiotically picked up by later siblings. Do they intuit that their mother is not wholly ‘there’ for them? The emotional impact of both the loss of a brother or sister and questions about the affect of their mother’s having ‘given away’ a sibling are difficult to assess, but nonetheless I have thought about this often.
Perhaps this is why my second daughter has abandoned me as she believes I ‘abandoned’ my first daughter, and that “I was not there for her”, except her act is a deliberate one and mine was enforced. Is there a unconscious part of her that wants her to ‘pay me back’ somehow for ‘giving away’ her sister. Does she believe I gave her sister up willingly? Is she grieving for the sister she never knew? It is a terrible double loss for me. And for the millions of other young birth-mother’s and their families who have been left emotionally bereft and lost from surrendering a child.
And what about the families of the adoptive parents? What has happened to them? A couple of friends in the same situation as me, when meeting their daughters discovered that all was not as one would have dreamed. Happy ever after – no way! Many of these couples had their own children after they had adopted one. How is it possible to treat an adopted child the way you would treat your own?
What about inherited traits, looks, hair colour and temperament? How does an adopted child feel when looking at her siblings knowing she looks and behaves totally different from them. Does she feel like an intruder, the odd-one out, an outcast, different. What will she believe about her birth mother?
I have worked with adults who were adopted, their sense of abandonment comes from a place so deep inside them they feel it somehow in their cells, even before they know they were adopted.
I have secretly and silently mourned for my daughter for forty-seven years, I think about her every day, is she is OK? Is she is alive? Some years, in the early years, I tried not to think about her at all, because I could not allow myself to do that. Because I had two other children to love and care for, because I hoped she had loving parents and was happy, and to save myself.
I am now sixty-five and still suffering from the after-effects of surrendering my child. I have spent many years working on myself to break free from my dissociation and to become a whole person. It has been a difficult and lifelong journey. One that I would counsel anyone considering giving up a child to adoption regardless of age; “DO NOT DO IT”.
For those of you currently considering adoption, for your families and friends I want you to understand about the great significance of childbearing loss in women’s lives and how it will never heal. If you can keep your child, no matter how difficult, though today there are many avenues of help for single mothers of which there were none when I went through this terrible experience. Do not allow anyone to pressure you into doing something you do not want to do. You must go and speak to a doctor or counselor if you feel you cannot make the right decision by yourself.
Belief systems aside, the only time I would recommend adoption is if the child’s life is in danger in any way. Whether it is because the environment the mother lives in is in a war or drug zone or if the family situation is dangerous to the mother and the child.
If you cannot keep your baby, then you must take action immediately to terminate the pregnancy if you live in a country where it is available. Though termination is difficult and takes a while to deal with, most women eventually get over the guilt and move on with their lives. Please do not take this as an assumption that I agree with termination, I would prefer that no woman get pregnant unless she wants to, so obviously protection is the best way to ensure you never have to go through this trauma but it is the best solution for many girls stuck with unintentional pregnancy.
It is not worth the lifetime of pain for both mother and child to go down the adoption route. You will always be asking the question “Did I do the right thing? Ultimately the answer is NO, for both you and your child’s emotional well-being.
If you or your family has a story to share or you’d like to leave a comment about Adoption that might help someone else, I would be honoured to have you share them with us, as the worst thing about this tragedy is that we feel we are all alone in it. Please leave your comments below.
©Annie Moyes – July 2013