Sangha of the First Mother

It was January 2008 and a bitter cold had settled in to Cache Valley. I had just sent a letter to my relinquished daughter’s adoptive parents, the first one in several years. I was fearful a response would never arrive in my mailbox, a familiar but dreadful experience. I was fearful one would arrive in my mailbox, a less familiar but still anxiety provoking experience. I was afraid of what the imagined letter might say or what it might not say. In short, my life was lived from a very fearful place during that time, one in which I would wake up at night drenched in a cold sweat, shivering in the grasp of a fear so immense I still can’t name it. The frozen landscape of Cache valley in January mirrored my frozen, fearful heart.

There was no one reach out to in the middle of the night to calm my quaking, to help quell the fears that were ready to swallow me whole. My husband was on the far side of the  globe and I felt I was left wholly alone to my own devices.  I had been seeing a therapist at the university counseling center, but on this particular night, it was 2:19 a.m. with a fierce wind was howling down the canyon, and I didn’t think he would appreciate a phone call from me.

I reached over and pulled the laptop into bed with me and turned it on. Into the Google search bar, I typed “birth mother support groups online.” I eventually found Claudia of Musings of the Lame and read every. single. post. Here was someone who felt as I did! Someone who felt things had turned out just as the adoption professionals said they would, but still had a broken and aching heart! Here was a birth mother who went on to have a good life, but never “got over” the loss of her son! All I knew from the LDS experience were the Ensign-sanctioned versions of birth mothers who were SO HAPPY they gave their baby to The Right Family, and so I felt ashamed of my grieving and hid it from the world for nearly fifteen years. Eventually, Claudia’s blog led me to Jane and Lorraine of First Mother Forum and from there, I entered into what I have come to call the Sangha of the First Mother.

The sangha (དགེ་འདུན་) is the community of fellow travelers on the dharma – or the way of truth and enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition.  Sangha is a place were we can find communion and rest with those who know our fears on an intimate level because they have lived with them, too. More importantly, they have survived the sharp edges. These awakened travelers can sustain and nourish our hearts when we lean into our own fears.  When we take refuge in the sangha, it reminds us that we are not alone – we are in good company.

The Sangha of the First Mother is inhabited by many courageous, compassionate, and most importantly awakened mothers. These awakened mothers are moved by love to action – action to protect other families, action to help secure the rights of adopted adults, action to help fathers find their voice, to find lost children, and reunite families. These same awakened mothers provide refuge when my own heart begins to quake, when the fears of loss, of unworthiness, of not-being-good-enough come growling in the night.

This community of awakened first mothers “gets me” on a level no one else possibly can. I can talk to them on the phone and there is no need to explain the sigh, the hesitation to answer the question, “How are you really doing?” They know the steps of adoption grief because they have danced that mournful dance in their sleep, just as I have. They understand the trance of adoption because they were once under its spell, too. With this group of women I have found refuge and community. I have found models for healing and hope. I have found a way forward.

Somehow, I feel different inside when I hold in my heart all of the other mothers who have lost a child to adoption and are, at this very moment, aching for them in the deepest recesses of their soul. While my own fears still exist and at times I still wake up in the clutches of an icy sweat, there is a feeling of shared grief, and with this feeling of grief comes the gift of compassion. Compassion for myself, for my fellow mothers who have awakened from the trance of adoption, for those who are just beginning to awaken, as well as those who are still deep in the trance of adoption mythology. Compassion for our lost children and yes, even compassion for their adoptive parents.

Together, we of the Sangha of First Mothers face the unreckonable loss of our beloved children to adoption. By taking refuge in the compassion and understanding I find in this community of first mothers, I awaken further from the trance of adoption, the edges of my own loss soften, and I am able to more fully embrace this experience here, now, in the present.

I know there is a sangha of Lost Daughters, too. Perhaps my own daughter has found her way there already. Perhaps she have found refuge with other daughters who lost their first mother, too, and perhaps – together with them – she can learn she is not alone. She is in good company.

Blessings –

M.

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Edited to add: For those of you who asked (or are wondering), yes, I have read “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha” by Tara Brach. While it might not be for everyone and I don’t subscribe to everything Brach wrote, the book contains principles instrumental in healing what was once an every-increasing rift between myself and God.

I’m All In.

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

I just posted this over on Facebook in response to the comments some of my LDS friends have left on my posting about the open letter to potential adoptive parents. It marks the first time I have publicly come out of the closet in such an overt manner. It is the first time I have ever told my LDS friends at large what adoption has done to me and my family.  I don’t know what will come of it but I do know it is going to make the ward Christmas party tomorrow night very interesting.

Much love,

M.

You know the hymn that says, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see”? Well, that’s me. I have a universe of sorrow I have kept hidden from the vast majority of my church friends because I have feared the exact reaction that has just occurred.

Look, I am just going to lay it all out on the line.

I am a mother who lost her oldest daughter to adoption.  After parenting her for nearly nine months, I was finally worn down by the dominant cultural rhetoric in the LDS church that told me I was being “selfish” by parenting her and that “good mothers” make “adoption plans” and “place” their children for adoption.  My bishop at the time also told me the only way I could take the sacrament again was to “prove” my repentance by relinquishing my daughter – the daughter I had nursed and loved and mothered all those months. He believed that adoption was a redemptive act on my part and would not let me partake in that sacred ordinance until I gave her away.

I now know how wrong he was in his treatment of me and my daughter.  I now know that I was forgiven of my sins INDEPENDENT of relinquishing her for adoption.  I now know the Atonement didn’t stop short of my front door simply because I was a single mother. I now know that I was relying on the arm of the flesh instead of my own personal revelation when I made the decision to relinquish my daughter. I know these things now, but I didn’t know it then.  I trusted him. He was my bishop. As a woman who loved God and wanted to please Him, what else should I have done?

However, I didn’t know the potential affect adoption can have on my daughter even if she grew up in a fabulous, amazing, incredible adoptive family. It still hurts. And it can hurt badly. If I had known the truth about the toll adoption could extract from some people, I would have never made the decision I made. My daughter would have remained with her people, the people that GOD sent her to. But I wasn’t told the WHOLE truth because NO ONE was willing to tell me the whole truth about adoption, about disenfranchised grief and the continual marginalization of “ birth” mothers and adoptees alike, about the primal wound and the adopted psyche, about sealed birth records and falsified birth certificates, about what the loss of my daughter’s Polynesian heritage would mean to her and her Samoan grandmother and aunties.

Consequently, my daughter paid the ultimate price for my mistake. And yes – it WAS a mistake for me to relinquish her for adoption. God and angels did NOT rejoice that day – I believe they wept for two of His precious children, needlessly separated by cultural practices.  The ONLY “crime” I had committed was being single. That’s it. I wasn’t abusive, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I was actually in school and had a job, much like many other LDS mothers that were my age. I went to church every Sunday. I did my visiting teaching. I held Family Home Evening with her. But none of that mattered. My single-ness was enough to bring down the wrath of my culture upon me and my daughter.

Yes, she was adopted by a good family and has had a good life for all intents and purposes, but God sent her to me. He trusted ME to be her mother. *I* am the one who didn’t trust God enough, I am the one who trusted in the arm of the flesh instead of trusting God’s grace and mercy for me.  In the end, I have to live every day with the fact that I chose my bishop’s approval and the LDS culture over my own daughter. This shame and sorrow is something I will carry with me until I die, perhaps longer. I have to live with the attitudes of well meaning people who believe that adoption is a “miracle and blessing” to my family and me into the eternities.  I have to live with people telling me that angels rejoiced when I lost my daughter and that the destruction of her first family is something to be celebrated.

However, nineteen years in to the eternal sentence of being a “birth” mother, I have yet to see one single moment when adoption has been a miracle or a blessing to my family or me. I challenge ANY of you who think it is to look into Luke’s eyes and tell him that NOT knowing his sister is a blessing to him, to tell him that angels rejoiced when he lost his sister. I challenge them to look into Matthew’s eyes and tell him his life has been blessed by adoption, a social practice that has rendered his older sister a complete stranger to him. I challenge them to convince him what a “miracle” it is that his sister wouldn’t recognize him from Adam if they were to ever meet. I challenge any of them to take my sweet Penelope into their arms and tell her that her life is blessed because her mother gave her only sister away to strangers.  There are no more chances for me—I can’t have any more children. She will never have a sister because of what I did—what adoption did—to our family. Remind me again—how is this a blessing and a miracle?

I challenge them to look in to the eyes of my husband—a man who would have adopted my daughter as his own, a man who stands witness to nearly two decades of the marginalization and poor treatment of his wife by members of the LDS church, who has held me for countless hours as I have wept for what adoption has done to all of my children, who has cried with me—I challenge them to tell him that adoption has blessed me and will continue to bless me into the eternities. I challenge them to tell any one of my sisters, who lost their oldest niece and long for her nearly as much as I, that adoption is a blessing. I challenge them to look into my mother’s eyes, the woman who sat next to me as I labored my daughter into this world, who held my hand and was the first to hold my daughter after she was born– I challenge them to tell my mother that angels rejoiced over her losing her first granddaughter.

How is that God’s plan?  Does the God of your Universe and His angels look at the sorrow stitched into my family’s hearts, woven into our very existence and rejoice over it? If so, then I want no part of your God. The God I believe in is full of mercy and grace. He is full of long-suffering and love unfeigned. He believes it is wrong to pluck the fatherless from the breast of their mother and he believes that TRUE religion is to care for the fatherless in their need. The apostles of my God quote prophets when they say, “You devoted sisters who are single parents for whatever reason, our hearts reach out to you with appreciation. Prophets have made it clear ‘that many hands stand ready to help you. The Lord is not unmindful of you. Neither is His Church.’ (Quinten L. Cook, “LDS Women are Incredible, Ensign, May 2011; Gordon B. Hinckley, “Women of the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 1996).”  It shouldn’t have mattered why I was single. Me and my daughter were just as deserving of the love and compassion of the church community as any other mother and daughter.

My heart was shattered into a million tiny shards the day I finally caved in and “placed” my daughter with her adoptive family. I became a dead woman walking from that moment on. It has only been through extensive counseling and the unending love and patience of my husband that I have been able to carry on in any semblance of normalcy. Most of you would agree I have done a damn fine job of acting “as if” I was just fine. But the drive to excel at everything I do is firmly rooted in the reality that the LDS culture convinced me I was not good enough and would never be enough.  I struggle each and every day with my self worth and my belief that I am worthy and capable as a mother because I allowed myself to believe I was such a horrible mother that my daughter deserved to be raised by other people.  I struggle each and every day to believe I am worthy and capable of parenting the three children I have with me because honestly, I am the same mother to them as I was to my daughter and if I wasn’t good enough for her, then why am I good enough for them? My faith in God and in the Atonement have been shaken to their very core by the wreckage adoption has left behind in my life, in my parented children’s lives, and in my relationships with my sisters and mother.

In my life, adoption was a permanent solution to very temporary problems. It has not turned out to the great panacea that I was promised it would be. It has not been a win-win-win. I did not “move on,” I did not “forget.” I had other children but they will never, in all of the eternities, replace the one I lost to adoption. I know that sometimes, in the case of abuse, neglect, or drug use, adoption is a necessary thing. I accept that fact. But none of those were present in my life 19 ½ years ago and have never been in the intervening years.  Adoption was an unneeded and unnecessary social practice that I allowed to enter in to my family system. It has robbed my parented children of their sister and it has robbed my daughter of her true heritage.

In the past five or so years, I have had the distinct “pleasure” of discovering that adoption may not have been all it is cracked up to be for my daughter either.  I started reading accounts of adopted women and books written by and for the adopted person—not by and for adoptive parents, not by and for first families, but by and for adopted people. I discovered that regardless of my intentions or purest motivations, I inflicted a wound on my daughter which my culture tells her (a) to be grateful for and (b) doesn’t exist in the first place.  And this is even in the *best* of circumstances—the ideal outcome. I have come to witness firsthand how those who have the MOST to teach us about what it feels like to be adopted are the ones who are told to shut up and move the back of the bus, over and over and over and over again. I have witnessed first hand the rampant discrimination against adoptees, the ONLY class of U.S. citizens who are denied access to the full and factual accounting of their birth simply because the ADULTS in their life made choices that preclude them from having that access, even if they are now 65 years old themselves.

I have stood mutely by until now.  But I can’t any more.  My intent of sharing that link to the letter written by an adoptee was simply to give them voice, to allow the ONLY ONE in the adoption transaction that had NO CHOICE in the matter the ability to speak to us about adoption, to teach us what it means to be adopted from her perspective.

I know I am going to lose friends over this post, but it is what it is. I am tired of hiding this hurt, of pretending that I am OK with a culture that rejoices over the destruction of families under the guise of the “miracle and blessing” of adoption. And yes, my daughter and me were a family.  A family that the Lord was mindful of regardless of the reason I was single, a family that church members should have stood by with hands “ready to help.”

Instead, my culture used my cellular deep maternal instinct to protect my daughter from harm as a battering ram to convince me that I was not good enough to raise my daughter and that she deserved “more.”  My love for her was used as a tool to pry her from my arms.  The idea that my culture—that sisters in the gospel—rejoice and celebrate this loss? Well…it sent me to bed weeping afresh last night and kept me up into the small hours of the morning. It follows me around the house this morning, no longer the little dog yapping at my heels that it usually is, but a full-grown wolf, ravenous and dangerous, shadowing me as I move through the necessary daily routines of motherhood.

A Letter I Wish I’d Gotten

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

I came across this letter this morning, written by Coco over at “Grown in My Heart.” It comes too late for us, but maybe it will reach some mother who might be considering making an adoption plan irrevocable mistake because she has been convinced by her culture and religious leaders that she will never be a good enough mother to her child.

http://www.growninmyheart.com/a-letter-i-wish-id-gotten

Much love,

M.

http://www.growninmyheart.com/a-letter-i-wish-id-gotten

“Some people rob you with a six-gun…”

“…and some with a fountain pen.” (Woody Guthry)

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

I got word early this morning that my friend’s adoption has now been slammed shut by the adoptive couple because she has the temerity to speak out about her pain of losing [her little son]. There is no legal recourse for her…and what is worse, she has to live with the knowledge for the rest of her life that she chose these people to parent her son. On the upside, the adoptive parents told [my friend] that if she can “be happy” about the adoption and “learn to handle her pain” then they might allow some form of contact. Might.

I am sure [my friend] is much like me (at least prior to this latest stunt that [this little boy’s] adoptive parents have pulled). I am sure that her problems with adoption are NOT with the adoptive parents. Our chief complaint is with the institution of womb-fresh, still wet with their mother’s amniotic fluid infant adoption and with the culture that supports and condones this type of treatment of women who would make exceptional mothers.

Lest anyone think that the cultural attitudes and norms of the Baby Scoop Era are a relic of the past, they are not. They are alive and well in Utah and the LDS adoption scene.

I keep wondering what is going through that woman’s mind right now, the woman who is now holding [this little boy] hostage, using him as a bargaining tool to force [my friend’s] compliance with the culturally mandated norm of  a  “good LDS bee-mommy.” You know the kind I am talking about, the birth mothers who go around “advocating for adoption” because it is such a “miracle and a blessing” in their lives and they feel so “privileged” and “lucky” to give their babies to complete strangers. It makes me wonder how many of those women are just going through the motions, regurgitating the party-line so they are not cut off from their child’s life forever by their adopters.

A person doesn’t always have to have a gun pointed at their head, locked and loaded, in order to be forced into complicity.

And then I get to thinking of how this could be handled differently. Since we know that [his] adoptive parents have now claimed total and utter ownership of him, of course they are well within their “rights” to do whatever they please. We also know they would never in a million years consider giving [him] back to his mother because he was bought and paid for, signed, sealed and delivered and is now theirs forever and ever amen.

But what if, instead of acting like a petulant 5-year old little girl who is angry at someone because they dared play with her dolly, what if this woman were to suck it up and be the mature person she claims to be? What if she were to call [my friend] and say, “I know you are hurting. I know this isn’t what any of us thought it would be. It is what it is so we have to find a way through this. What can we do together to make this the best for all of us?” We all know the best possible thing for [him] is to have his mother in his life. If this adoption was REALLY about [this little boy] and his needs and NOT about his adoptive mother and HER NEEDS, then she would say a prayer, suck it up, and do what is needed to ensure that [he] has his mother in his life. Period. That includes setting aside her prideful need to exert ownership over this precious child.

And then I get to thinking about [this little boy] and how this will affect him. He is being raised by people who detest his mother enough to intentionally cut her out of his life. This is no longer the era of closed adoption. They cannot claim ignorance or innocence about their behavior. They will be fully responsible for the fallout of this in [his] life. They will have NO ONE to blame but themselves for what happens when he discovers how poorly they have treated his mother. And make no mistake about it – he will find out.

There are many other things I have been thinking but for now, I need to get back to my writing for my dissertation. I have 22 more days before I need to have it in the hands of my committee and I am starting to get a wee bit anxious.

Much love,

M.

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P.S. I had to edit this post and the comments tonight to remove identifying information of my friend and  her son. Things have gone from bad to impossible and I don’t want provide the adoptive mother any more ammunition to use against my friend. Any changes to the post or comments are [bracketed]. I *hate* having to do this, but I don’t know any other way to protect her yet tell her story at the same time. My apologies to those whose comments had to be redacted.   03/10/9:37 p.m.

Potential adoptive parents: Wondering what to get “your” bm?

Dear Ms. Feverfew,

Over on Facebook (oh you evilness of evilness, you waster of precious time, you Facebook!!!) there’s a group just for “birthmom buds.” Some potential adoptive mother posted this question on the wall:

I have a question for birthmoms out there. I want to get a “birth day” gift for our bm when she delivers. We thought of putting together a gift basket of some things but wanted something sentimental too. Any ideas? ~ Gabrielle

Ooo! I have an idea. How about not calling her a “bm” for starters?  Nothing makes a mother feel like a big fat pile of poop more than being called one!!! And what does a “bm” deliver, after all? Now I know an expectant mother delivers a baby but I am still confus-ed as to what a “bm” delivers. A smaller pile of poop?

Another thing – you might want to possibly give your “bm” the gift of not claiming ownership, as in calling her “our bm.” How about “the mother of the child we are hoping to adopt” or something like that. Something more humanizing and more humane than “our bm.”

Even better, how about a basket full of parenting books and resources, some new fluffy receiving blankets, a check for oh, say, half the funds you have just shelled out to adopt her baby, and a huge hug as you whisper in her ear, you can do this – you are and can continue to be a good mother. Now that would be the greatest gift of all for “your bm” on her “birth day.”

Just a few thoughts on this lovely gray Friday in February.

Much love,

M.