Obedience to Authority: Milgram and Birthmother Coercion

If a person in a position of authority told you to deliver three 450-volt electric shocks to a person who had been in distress but was now non-responsive, would you do it?

Most of us would answer: No. Without any hesitation or equivocating, we would answer NO. We would not deliver three 450-volt shocks to a person once crying out for help who has now fallen silent.

How about if a person in a position of authority told a perfectly capable and competent mother (who happens to be single for whatever reason) to hand over her perfectly healthy (and darling) baby girl to complete strangers, would she do it?

While most of us would say NO, yet again. However, Stanley Milgram’s controversial yet ground breaking experiments in the 1960’s about obedience to authority figures indicate otherwise. His research shows, in fact, the vast majority of us would comply with the demands of authority figures, even when we voiced our concerns and protestations. His studies asked the question, “How far will people go to appease those they believe to be an authority figure?” His findings show the majority of us will go pretty far even when we believe it to be harmful and even when it is against our own moral and ethical code.

Many are already familiar with Stanley Milgram’s social psychology experiment about obedience, but as a refresher, here’s a brief video in which Milgram explains the purpose and design of the study:

Milgram’s study has gone on to be replicated thousands of time, across many cultures, age groups, ethnicity, and genders by numerous researchers. Here are some of the main conclusions drawn from the Milgram obedience to authority studies.

    • Compliance to demands are dramatically increased with the authority figure is physically present.
    • Many participants believed the experiment to be safe because it was sponsored by an authoritative institution, and therefore willingly participated.
    • Participants assumed the authority figure/experimenter had a certain level of competence and expertise from. Due to this belief, they continued delivering the shocks.
    • The shocks given to the learner were said to be painful, but not dangerous.

During the debriefing portion of the study, many participants reported they were in a state of extreme conflict. However, they continued to be compliant to the authority figure even though they were highly stressed, agitated, hesitant, and confused as to what they should do.  The mere presence of an authority figure giving directions on what they “must do” was enough to make them do something completely contrary to their own moral code.

One of the fundamental lessons of Milgram’s study is that,  “…relatively few people have the resources to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.”  (Stanley Milgram, 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, p. 6).

These study findings can be applied to coercion within the process of a single expectant mother making an adoption plan. How many social workers, adoption counselors, and ecclesiastical leaders tell single expectant mothers it is “essential” or “part of God’s plan” to give her baby to more qualified people? How many times is a single expectant mother told there is “no other choice” if she ***truly*** loved her child, because adoption is all about love, right? How often are single expectant mothers told adoption *might* be somewhat painful, but it isn’t dangerous to them or their baby? How often do adoption agencies and religious groups assert their authority by using their credentials as evidence they know what is best for a mother and her baby? Most importantly, how often – especially in these days of open adoptions – are potential adoptive parents physically present in the delivery room or at the hospital (with the social worker) within hours of delivery, asserting their position of perceived authority and reinforcing the compliance of the newly delivered mother, simply by being physically present – even if they never say a word?

All of those things have been shown to increase compliance to the demands of an authority figure. In my estimation, all of these practices are coercive regardless of the motivation or intent of the authority figure. It is the outcome of the practice that defines it as coercion, not the motivation of the authority figure.

Just as the participants in the Milgram study did not have a gun held to their head to assure their compliance, no one has to hold a gun to the head of a birth mother to get her to sign the papers to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. Sometimes, all it takes is the social worker to show up at the hospital to shove the papers into her hands while she is still hooked up to an IV. Sometimes, all it takes is a bishop assuring a mother she is doing the “right thing.” Sometimes, all it takes is sitting across the desk from a judge, having him tell a mother what a wonderful gift she is giving the adoptive couple. The mother might be highly conflicted and hesitant about signing the papers and find herself in a state of high stress and agitation. However, she still signs them, even though it goes against every moral code she possesses and the fibers and sinews in her body scream at her not sign the papers

So why does she sign them? Because, according to Milgram, there is a person of authority from a venerated social institution, urging her on, tell her that adoption is “essential” to her daughter’s well-being and success in life, and assuring her though it might hurt for a while, adoption will do no long-term damage done to her or her child.

And so she picks up the pen, leans forward and signs the papers that forever sever her legal relationship with her beloved and precious daughter. Then in a daze, numb to all around her, she carefully lets herself out of the judge’s chambers and collapses in the courthouse elevator.

41 thoughts on “Obedience to Authority: Milgram and Birthmother Coercion

    • So many of us…

      My heart breaks wide open when I think of our collective suffering at the moment we sign the papers. Oddly, it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to even remember one shred of detail about that moment in time. It has always been such a painful memory to me, as I am sure it is for most mothers.

      • I have very little recollection of anything from the time I left the hospital until a complete meltdown when I left the lawyer’s office. Self preservation I’m sure. It was 42 years ago today as a matter of fact. I was supposed to be over it by now.

      • Oh, how my heart hurts for you, handmadebyjo. I can’t believe they ever told women we would “get over” our children.

        As if.

        Sending you love and compassion tonight as you mark this anniversary.

      • Melynda,

        I am an LDS mother who relinquished my son. I too, just recently, have started to remember the details of that horrible day of relinquishment. I am very angry at the policy that lead me to that decision. Angry at my parents, angry at the authority that said and encouraged relinquishment because it was in my son’s “best interest and right to have two parents to raise him.” Angry that his AP’s tell me that they are sealed to him and not I. So, what kind of hope and faith do I have left, especially if my loss extends into eternity…..I am just a way for my son to get a body. In my mind it’s an attack on motherhood.

        I am loosing my religion.

      • beobedient –

        We walk the same path, you and I. I would love to chat with you privately, if you are willing. Let me know – M.

      • Melynda,

        Yes, please contact me privately. I am not sure if you have access to my email. Let me know if you don’t.

      • Nope, looks like I don’t, but if you can email me at valencyspeaks at geemail dot com, that would be awesome!


    • The more I study and work my way through this complicated knot, the more I come to understand very few of us – if any – stood any chance at resisting such powerful influences of authority in our lives.

      • Yes, I now know this to be the truth for the vast majority of us. But we are still told we were responsible, we had free will, we are now shirking responsibility, playing a victim role, and that we need to get over it. There is no room for compassion, for heart, for truth in this world we live in. It is a world comprised of lies, insanity, commodity and greed.

      • And that is the crux of my “angst” over my “choice” – the older I get, the more I understand it was *not* a choice borne of free will. The more experience I gain in other areas of my life, the more I see how the small and subtle things all added up to push me over the birth mother cliff.

        I just wrote this to an adoptee today in an email:

        “What if there had been more compassion, mercy, and understanding extended to your natural parents and less black & white thinking? All of your lives would have turned out so differently.

        But what is, is. We can only move forward from this place where we now exist and seek for ways to extend that same compassion and mercy to others that wasn’t provided to us.”

        I think the same applies for all of us.

    • Thank you for sharing this with others. I can’t seem to find any scholarly articles using the Milgram experiments to help frame the first/birth mother experience. If you, or anyone else, can track one down, I would be interested in reading it.

    • Thank you, Claudia.

      What is most stunning to me is I cannot seem to find any scholarly writings linking the Milgram studies with compliance in birth mothers. These studies have been around for so long, someone else must have surely made the connection already. As I asked another commenter, if you ever come across a study or writing linking the Milgram experiments with birth mother coercion, please let me know. The findings of his research answer the question as to *why* we did what we did, even though no one was holding that proverbial gun to our heads.

  1. Pingback: Obedience to Authority: Milgram and Birthmother Coercion @Letters to Ms. Feverfew - Musings of the Lame

  2. I don’t really agree that it is about “appeasing authority”, it is more about “trusting authority”. I’m sure that many of the participants would have believed that no-one was getting really getting hurt in those experiments because they would have believed that it was surely illegal to be able to do them and in the end, the truth was no-onewas being hurt – the person being “electrocuted was acting. So in the end, one can’t really draw too much from the experiment re obedience.

    At the same time, it did raise questions about trust and thus I think one can still learn from those experiments in regards to adoption. Everyone trusts the adoptive professionals and they don’t believe that the the professional would tell them to do something that is not in the best interest of their child. It is made even more difficult when the professionals themselves believe that – because that is the truth, the professionals truly do believe that the APs are what is best. The adoptive professionals often really don’t believe that their behaviour is coercive and that is what makes them so easy to trust – because they believe in what they are doing.

    There is more to it of course. Because most counselling seems to have been created by adoptive parents, then the mantras they believe become the mantras that the eparent *must* end up believing, eg “Biology means nothing” – “Children need parents who have planned for them” etc etc. The emother is then ends up making her decision as if she is no longer of importance in that decision. By taking her own feelings out, by being “selfless”, the paradox is that it means there is none of “herself” in the decision. Then the child can end up feeling that they weren’t wanted – because the bmother was expected to make her choice WITHOUT her own wants being taken into account. A child often equates love=want, want=love, so when they hear things like “Your mother loved you so much she gave you a better life”, they *hear* “Your mother wanted you so much she gave you a better life” – which doesn’t make sense at all.

    To be able to get through to an eparent that other options are OK, one needs to be able to get them to see that is OK for them to be “psychologically present” in the decision. One needs also to be able to get to see that those they trust (i.e. the professionals, the PAPs) are not without bias, i.e. that the professional are seeing things from their own point of view and are thus compromised by that view.

    Eparents are told not to read or beleve anything online adoptees/bparents say. So, I would play the professionals at their own game. I would ge the eparents to read some of the so-called POSITIVE adoptee/bparent/aparent stories and ask them to read what is ACTUALLY being said. Point out the rationalisation by the adoptees and bparents in those stories. Read the blogs by PAPs and point out how little is really about the child but about themselves and their own issues. Point out that, in the end, domestic infant adoption isn’t really about the child or the expectant parent , it never has been and it never wll be.

    Sorry for rambling. It is just that I think you are doing yourself a disservice by saying you relinquished to appease authority. You trusted in people to help you do what was in your child’s best interest. Those whom you trusted may also genuinely believed they were doing what’s right or, at the very least, rationalised and justified to themselves that it was right, and, in a way, that makes it even worse. Once the rationalisations and justifcations start and they are enabled by authority, people start to believe things must be OK and that’s when society starts down the slippery slope.

    • You are right. I didn’t do it to make the authority figures in my life “happy” or to appease them in any way (other than perhaps God, as the authority figures in my life at the time were assuring me adoption is what God wanted).

      I did it because I trusted them. They told me I would “get over” my daughter, that I would “move on.” They told me she would have a better life, that she wouldn’t miss me. Perhaps she did have a better life, perhaps she doesn’t miss me, I really don’t know one way or the other. What I **do** know is I trusted those in authority when they told me adoption would bless both my daughter AND me, both in this life and in the eternities.

      As an aside, I know the psychological world is deeply divided about the Migram studies, but I still believe the findings hold some value it explaining the behaviors of mothers under duress.

      • Mothers in general place a lot of trust in others to help them make the right decision for one’s child. When medical professionals in authority say something is bad or good for a child – mothers everywhere will stop or start doing that “something”. Imagine the outcry if it was discovered that an esteemed medical professional said something was bad or good, not because it was truly bad or good but because he/she would benefit from saying so. Apparently though, that’s OK in adoption.

  3. “not because it was truly bad or good”
    Btw I just wanted to point out that the outcome is irrelevant – even if something turns out OK in the end, it doesn’t justify an amoral process. So whether your daughter has had a good life or not, it doesn’t justify the way you were treated.

  4. For some reason reading this my mind went to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Throughout Chinese history loyalty and obedience to authority was considered one of the highest virtues. Mao Zedong was able to exploit this “virtue” to lead the Chinese people to thought-deprivation and loss of conscience. The masses were able to justify acts that should have been seen as “heinous sin”.

    I guess that it what I struggle with. I think if you ask any person on the street “How do you feel about separating a mother and baby from each other?” the answer would be “Nothing is worse than separating a mother and child.” (How many movies are based on the drama of mother/child separation and who doesn’t love a good reunion story?) Yet if you asked the same person on the street “How do you feel about adoption?” the answer would be “Oh, adoption is a beautiful!”

    Authority has told the general public what to think about adoption. The masses are thought-deprived on the subject of adoption. They never think of the trauma to child and mother just of the happiness of the adoptive parents.

    Another great post M!

    • Giant Petunia –

      Wow…I hadn’t ever thought about posing the question that way. I would *love* to do a study doing exactly that – asking people who they feel about separating a mother from her baby and then follow up with the question about how they feel about adoption. The juxtaposition of the answers would be startling, to be sure!

      Your comment about the Chinese and authority set me to thinking about Solomon’s Asch’s experiments about conformity. Might his findings explain, at least in part, why some people simply cannot see adoption for what it is? More stuff to think about….

  5. Melynda, you KNOW I love you, but I gotta quibble with your comparison about the Milgram study (which is the same quibble I had when I learned about it in a sociology class).

    I’ve always hated this study because of this simple truth: the participants’ faith in the authority was not misplaced. In fact, it was appropriate—the authorities were telling the truth when they said nobody was being hurt. Nobody was being hurt! The participants were, in this case, correct to trust and believe what the authority was telling them, even as they listened to anguished cries of the actors (although it is interesting that the participation level went down as the person who was getting shocked got closer—it’s much easier to shock a person behind a wall then have to place the actor’s hand on a hot plate). What they heard and saw was fake–the only true voice was the authority, which proved to be trustworthy in the end. As a study about proving that people shouldn’t trust authority, it’s kinda flawed.

    But I understand what you’re saying that few people have the strength to NOT do what they are told. If you read “Left to Tell” about the Rwandan Holocaust, the same issues are brought up. The author, a survivor of the holocaust, says that one reason the people of Rwanda could so easily and quickly be persuaded to kill their neighbors, friends, teachers, people they had lived with for years and done business with, built a community with, is because somebody in authority told them to do it, and Rwandans were brought up to be an obedient society. That, to me, is much more chilling than an experiment that accidentally proves authorities should be trusted.

    • “the participants’ faith in the authority was not misplaced. In fact, it was appropriate”

      So was my faith in my bishop, my mother, the case workers from LDSFS, and the First Presidency misplaced and inappropriate? Should I have *not* trusted them, especially when they were all telling me this was “God’s plan” and “God’s will”?

      What else could I have done other than to trust them as a young 20-year old woman in a church and religion steeped in the ultimate authority of God, the Priesthood, and perfect obedience to God’s representatives? Was my trust in my bishop’s counsel misplaced and inappropriate? So what was the “true voice” is this situation? Aren’t we taught all of lives as members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that the prophet is trustworthy and the only true voice? And so when the prophet says if I get pregnant but don’t marry the father then I need to give my baby to strangers, should I have NOT trusted that counsel as being appropriate?

      I am pretty damn certain of the key players in my situation would have given me the advice they did if they knew how absolutely destructive this has been to my soul. I know this for a fact in the case of my mother – she believed what was being sold, just as much as I did, and had she known how catastrophic the loss of my daughter would be, she would have never advised me to do it. And if the authority figures DID know what effect adoption loss would have on my spirituality and my sense of worth to God and advised me to do it anyway….then how do I continue to participate in an organized religion that treats mothers in such a way?

      I know, I know. I know because I had it explained to me by some well meaning soul that, “It is better that one man perish than a nation dwindle and perish in unbelief,” essentially saying that it is “better” I relinquish my daughter than my daughter be raised in a single parent home; it is “better” I suffer the pains of a birth mother than my daughter be raised by me. My religious culture was willing to throw me under the bus to “save” my daughter from growing up in a single parent home, because somehow a two parent home is the cure to unbelief and would prevent her from “perishing” in unbelief (i.e., choosing to live outside the standards of the LDS church). Oh, the cruel irony of how things turned out for both me and her. Here I remain a faithful member and she….well, you’ll have to ask her how she feels about this church and it’s teachings.

      Within the LDS church, we are taught absolute and complete obedience to our leaders, especially the prophet. From the time we are toddlers we sing, “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don’t go astray./Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way!” Our apostles admonish us, “No true Latter-day Saint will ever take a stand that is in opposition to what the Lord has revealed to those who direct the affairs of his earthly kingdom.” (Bruce R. McConkie, General Conference, October 1984), that “When the Prophet speaks the debate is over,” (N. Eldon Tanner, August Ensign 1979, pages 2-3), and “There is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, or the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the lord’.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, General Priesthood Session, April 1972). Further, we are to extend this same level of obedience to local priesthood authority figures, too. “Follow your leaders who have been duly ordained and have been publicly sustained, and you will not be led astray.” (Boyd K. Packer, General Conference, Oct. 1992). So I ask again, was my faith in my bishop and the 1st Presidency and my obedience to their requests to give my daughter to strangers ONLY because I was single misplaced and inappropriate?

      • So I ask again, was my faith in my bishop and the 1st Presidency and my obedience to their requests to give my daughter to strangers ONLY because I was single misplaced and inappropriate?

        I imagine this question tortures you, and I don’t know the answer. I also think a lot of our obedience issues has to do with being women in a patriarchy. I had a conversation with my husband about this—a difficult run-in with our bishop left me spinning for days, almost weeks, and the relationship still isn’t where it was before. My husband asked me, “Why do you CARE about what the bishop thinks about you or our family?” And I realized that my husband didn’t care. I mean, he’s not a sociopath or anything, he has feelings and would be upset if our family was actively attacked, but seeking approval from a priesthood holder was something he couldn’t wrap his brain around, because it wasn’t, ISN’T part of his emotional paradigm. When I learned this, I had to chew on it for quite a while.

        When our old bishop gave us bad advice about when to get married, I was in tears because I didn’t want to follow it. My husband simply said, “That’s stupid, we’re not going to do that,” and that was the end of it. I was shocked. Like, holy cow, you can call a bishop’s advice BAD? Who knew.

        In some ways, this slavish obedience isn’t good for the bishops either. Our bishop would be the first to tell you that he makes lots of mistakes (and our run-in that caused so much strife–well, not to sound like a kid, but he started it! It took several conversations and intervention by my good husband for him to admit it was a mistake), and the reality is, they are just men who are trying to do their best. I know you’ve connected with the bishop who orchestrated the adoption, and I know he stubbornly refuses to admit that persuading you to relinquish your daughter was a mistake. That’s sad, but not surprising–after all, he was just following orders, too, in a way. But admitting that something he pushed so hard for and believed was a good thing had such devastating consequences, especially when he was, in some says, just being obedient (I’m sure the handbook told him exactly what to tell an unwed mother)? Well, you know how it has hurt you to face the truth, and you’re stronger than most.

        Back to your original question—I think it would have taken almost a herculean emotional effort for you to go against the pressures of your community at the time. (The irony is, of course, if you hadn’t gotten active again, the pressures wouldn’t have existed, and I am still haunted by one idea you wrote where you said that your great love for your daughter was used against you—if you had loved her less, you would have kept her, but because you loved her more than life, you did what you were told loving mothers do.) I think you also felt even more vulnerable because, as you said in your podcast, your day care had fallen through, your relationship with that other man had ended, your difficult situation and your (temporary) weaknesses as a provider were particularly exposed. If even one of these things had been different, you might have found a step to stand on. As it was, it seems you had nothing but a need to do the right thing, and somebody you trusted telling you what that was. The fact that nobody knew, at the time, what was REALLY right is the hard part about the whole thing.

        Love you bunches.

      • PS This has given me a lot to think about – I’ll come back to it a bit later this pm after I have had time to digest.

    • (And yes, I know you love me and I love you, too, which is why I felt safe enough to ask all those hard questions in my response. I know you to be a well-thought, reasonable, and compassionate woman who has the ability to know I am not attacking you, just asking some difficult and thorny questions. As such, I also know you will tell it to me straight and for that, I am so very grateful. Seriously, I am sitting here crying [good tears!] this morning because I feel so blessed to have women like you in my life.)

      • Ask the hard questions, I don’t mind. I don’t feel attacked at all, I know you are just trying to pull this apart and unpack it.

      • Some days (okay, MOST days), I kind of wish I could have had an easier “test” than this and my questions were more like, “Q: How can we tell God loves us? A: Because of the pretty flowers.” It seems I signed up for the graduate level comprehensive exam instead of the Grade 1 end-of-course life test.

  6. Also, in thinking about experimenting with the question of separating mothers from their children and adoption, most people who are not a part of the adoption triad (like me) would say that adoption is not the same as separating a mother and her child, because the child is placed with a new mother, so for that child, there is no difference, that mothers are interchangeable if there is enough love given to the child. I’m not saying that this is right—indeed, Melynda, you’ve taught me to question a lot of these assumptions, and I thank you for that. I’m just saying that is probably why most outsiders (for lack of a better word) would consider adoption beautiful and not as a separation of a child and his mother.

    • “most people who are not a part of the adoption triad (like me) would say that adoption is not the same as separating a mother and her child, because the child is placed with a new mother, so for that child, there is no difference, that mothers are interchangeable if there is enough love given to the child.”

      And that’s the crux of the problem. Mothers are NOT interchangeable, any more than children are interchangeable, even if there is “enough” love to give. I have no idea how to go about changing this misconception of the general public.

      • I don’t know that you can change it. Adoptive mothers feel like mothers. They ARE mothers. I look at the myriad of people in my life and family who have been touched by adoption, and at no point would I say to my sister or my SIL or my cousin or my good friend, “You are not that child’s mother.” I even asked my BIL once if he would ever talk to my nephew about his parents, and my BIL just said, “Of course not. I’M his father.” To make a complete unit and welcome a non-biological baby into the family, this is the kid of rhetoric that needs to happen, both for the baby and the parents (I imagine. I know I’m speaking as an outsider here).

        But I loved what some adoptee wrote somewhere (like my very scientific citations?) where she said that she doesn’t understand why parents can love and be expected to love more than one child (indeed, it’s hardly surprising that parents say with honesty that they love all their children) but children can’t be expected to love two parents? A child’s love for his biological mother wouldn’t negate or cancel out his love for his adoptive parents, because love doesn’t work like that.

        So I think to the extent that you have a cause to rally forth and change the world, or whatever, I wonder if it would be more successful to say, “Hey, LOOK, kids can love two parents and it’s okay to have different relationships, so let’s all be there for our children!” rather than to tell an adoptive mother, “Your child doesn’t belong to you, he belongs to me because I’m his mother.”

        But I dunno, I don’t have a dog in this fight.

      • I agree with you 100%, even about the approach to how to “educate” the masses about this issue. Perhaps it is because I have watched my own Matthew grow up loving both his dad and step-dad and both me (his mom) and his step-mom. He doesn’t differentiate between the varieties. Together, all four of us are his parents. He has two dads, he has two moms. He doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. 🙂

      • According to attachment theory developed by psychologist John Bowlby, the affectional bond that develops between mother and child comes with a certain set of criteria. These are the two I felt most significant to this discussion:

        An affectional bond involves a particular person who is not interchangeable with anyone else.

        The individual feels sadness or distress at involuntary separation from the person.

        Infant adoption imposes an involuntary separation on the infant from his/her mother. Infants cannot articulate their grief, but many scientists who have studied it have confirmed that infants grieve when separated from their biological mothers. They intimately know the sound of her voice and heartbeat and show signs of grief when these things are gone. Although they may bond and attach to their adoptive mothers/parents, the adoptive mother and biological mother are not interchangeable. People outside of the adoption triad might think that mothers are interchangeable to the adopted child, but they are not. Even if the child loves both women, they are not the same person.

        (This said as a former adoption caseworker with LDSFS for 6+ years)

      • Risa – You rock. I’ve come to value and respect your input so much. Someday, we’re going to meet IRL and it will be awesome.

  7. I think the myth of interchangeable mothers in adoption is the falsehood that baffles me the most. BECAUSE as an adoptee I believed it. When I think about how ridiculous that assertion is I feel really naive. I never challenged my thinking until I found my natural mother 6 months ago.

    I had the perfect pretext for searching for my family of origin because I have a chronic and possibly genetic disease. “I’m searching for my medical history” was the only acceptable story I could tell myself and others because I had the most incredible parents. I love them and they love me. I could be the MormonAd for a LDS adoptions. Most people (even my faithful LDS natural mother) assumed that only unhappy adoptees searched for their biological families. If we can’t even allow happy LDS adoptees to search for their natural families then how could would believe that their adoptive mother wasn’t a replacement for their natural mother?

    My views changed quickly during my search and reunion. I had very little information to start searching for my mother. Most of it came from stories I could remember from childhood. I took a stab and the dark and started looking at yearbooks in the area I thought my mother was from. I didn’t have a name but when I saw my mother’s picture I KNEW that she was my mother. I don’t know very many things with certainty in life or “without a shadow of doubt” but I recognized a complete stranger as my mother and my soul knew her.

    Within hours I nervously contacted the woman through Facebook. She confirmed a few hours later that she was my mother and had been hoping that I would find her for 42 years. As we talked on the phone I felt so much love for her – this woman who “gave me away”. I instantly felt like I was talking to my mother. If I were to bear testimony of at church it would be considered blasphemy even though I know I was guided by the Spirit to find my mother.

    At first I felt guilty for feeling like she was my mother. After all, my adoptive mother worked so hard to raise me and I loved her as my mother. It took weeks of thinking, writing, studying and praying to come to a place of acceptance.

    I came to some of the conclusions mentioned above about comparing it to parents being able to love more than one child. This is how I described my feelings to my natural mother’s active LDS sister who wanted me to be more loyal to my adoptive mother than my natural mother:

    “I also really appreciate that you understand that my mom could never no matter what she did take away the pain of losing my mother. Conversely, I could never take the pain my parents felt for the daughter who was stillborn or the one that died at 36 days old no matter how hard I tried to be a good, happy daughter for them.

    I look at it this way, if my natural mother told me that she didn’t really miss raising me and she was glad she gave me away because she had her daughter Heidi and Heidi is a much better daughter than I ever could be, I would be really hurt by that. Why would my mom want to hear that I really didn’t miss her because I had a really great mom? We both take comfort as we mourn our loss by knowing that I had a terrific mom that raised me and that she was able to raise four beautiful daughters.”

    I’ve also had similar conversations with my brother on my dad’s side reminds me that I’ve been sealed to my adoptive family and that they are my “real” family (even though we had an instant connection and are very much alike) I find it peculiar that my whole life people asked me if I wanted to find my “real” mother referring to my biological mother but now that I’ve found her everyone (strangers, adoptive family and even some in my biological family) seems very quick to remind me that my “real” family is my adoptive family.

    I realize that what I’ve just presented is anecdotal evidence that mothers are not interchangeable but recently there was a story on NPR about scientific research done with Romanian orphans. The whole story is interesting but here a section that I found supported my feelings.

    “When typical children are shown pictures of their mothers, the response in the amygdala, a brain region that plays an important role in emotional reactions, is much greater than when they see a stranger, according to Nim Tottenham. She’s an an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
    Her team repeated the experiment with children who had been adopted after spending time in an orphanage or some other institution. This time, the children saw pictures of either an unfamiliar woman or their adoptive mother. And “the amygdala signal was not discriminating Mom from strangers,” Tottenham says.”

    As I’ve tried to make sense of why people feel that mothers are interchangeable, I’ve compared my situation with that of my close friend’s daughters situation. About 10 years ago my dear friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Four days after the tumor was discovered she went into surgery to have it removed. She died the next day. She left her husband with a 3 month old and a 22 month old daughters. He remarried about a year later to a sweet, beautiful woman. Everyone loves the new mother and she loves those girls with all her heart but no one in the family feel as if she replaced the original mother – it would seem barbaric if we thought she did. We still mourn with these girls and remind them how they look or act like their mother. They cherish the pictures they have of their mother and love to hear stories about her.

    It is only socially acceptable to pretend a lost mother has been replaced is if we slap an adoption tag on the story.

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