Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library


Judith S. Gediman and Linda P. Brown

This book was one of the first to detail the experiences of mothers who lost children to adoption. It documents their unresolved grief at the loss of their children and describes a variety of reactions to reunion with adult children. While it can be hard to find in bookstores anymore, it may be in libraries, including university libraries, and is well worth borrowing when it can be found.

The book begins with three stories--one giving how the book came to be (Linda Brown’s story) and the other two representative stories of mothers who were in reunion with their adult children. This introduction sets the tone for the book--looking at things from the point of view and in the words of mothers who have lost their children to adoption. There is a sensitive discussion of the choice of language in describing natural and adoptive relationships, and the reason for using the term ‘birthmother’ in this book is explained.

Where the introduction sets the scene for the strength of the narrative voice in the book, Chapter 1 sets the scene for the other strength of the book: its explanatory power. The authors have listened closely to the mothers they interviewed, and drawn on many sources to explain the themes in their voices. Chapter 1 explains the background and context in which reunions occur and from which the children were lost to adoption so many years ago. The second chapter of the book goes on to give the ‘facts and figures’ of adoption, demystifying the institution of adoption for those who might not understand how it works.

The third chapter of this book describes, from both the mothers’ and the adoptees’ viewpoints, why reunion is sought. For mothers, their grief is unresolved while they do not know their children, and their pain and loss grows with time; it does not diminish. Reunion builds a bridge between their past and their future, and allows them to mourn what is lost and cannot be returned to them. For adoptees, the need to know their origins may be paramount in bringing them to search for their parents: it is better to know than not to know.

The chapter on Post-Reunion Basics, like the others, is interspersed with stories of reunion relationships that illustrate the themes discussed. Three factors are described as affecting reunions: readiness and mutuality; geography, and time. When mothers and adoptees want similar things from the reunion, those reunions tended to be stronger and happier. It helps when there are complementary needs, and a temperamental match between the mother and her adult child. When there’s a geographical distance between mother and adoptee, the reunion relationship is often built more slowly, with time to assimilate the emotional upheaval, but also a sense of wanting more. Close proximity allows a more casual, less ‘vacation’ atmosphere, but also can lead to one or another in the relationship becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the other or the emotional pace of a rapidly developing reunion. Time together advances and lack of time together retards the developing reunion relationship. It likely takes at least about three years to see the shape of the reunion, and can take more than six years to develop the reunion to comfort. This timeline is very variable, as having little time together can delay it considerably while some reunion pairs are comfortable very quickly.

Chapter 5 explores some common patterns of reunion. “There is a formidable body of professional opinion stressing that resolving identity issues is even more difficult for adopted adolescents than for non-adopted.” Hence, reunions with teenagers can bring the first mother into a parenting relationship with her child again, and can be turbulent. Reunions with older adoptees can be smoother, but are also more complex in that often relationships also have to be forged with spouses and grandchildren as well as with the adoptee. Reunion with sons or with daughters discusses some theories about how mothers come to understand their relationships with a child of each gender. There is also a frank discussion of genetic sexual attraction that arises very frequently between family members separated by adoption, and gives some hints about setting boundaries that keep it from damaging the developing relationship.

Adoptees’ subsequent familial identification ranges from full identification with either the natural or the adoptive families or, more commonly, to some measure of identification with both. Reunion usually brings an adoptee more comfort with the place of the adoptive family in their lives and often improves the relationship they have with their adoptive parents, unless those parents are hostile to their reunion with their first families. People take the person they are into reunion, and so for many pairs, the reunion is easy and happy. These are most likely the reunions where mother and adoptee are stable and well adjusted, and the adoptees have been given ‘a happy life.’ For the largest group of mothers, there is a mixture of pleasure and pain. The pleasure stems from the reconnection and relationship that’s built with the adoptee, and the pain may come from

· disappointment with the quality of the adoptive home,
· the pain that surfaces from the loss of the child years earlier, or
· the re-evaluation of their current relationships in the light of the decisions they made under the influence of the grief of losing their child.

For a few mothers, the disappointment of finding an adoptee who is very damaged by adoption or unsympathetic to them, or who has very different needs/wants from the reunion, leaves them feeling the only ‘somewhat satisfied’ with their reunion.

A short chapter discusses the extremely emotional first meeting in a reunion and how difficult it is for mother and child to say goodbye at the end of it, whether that end is after an hour or a week. The next chapter describes what comes after that meeting-‘falling in love,’ much as with a newborn. Mothers typically want their baby back, and some face difficulty from the fact that the adoptee is now grown and not a baby. Frequent, intense contact is common, and adoptees may have the need to have their mother be available to them constantly, just as an infant would. They may call late at night or come by at inopportune times, for example. Both reunion partners may have difficulty ending a phone call or feel bereft at the end of a visit. This first, honeymoon, period is full of excitement and adrenalin. Both mother and adoptee may spend inordinate amounts of time getting to know one another and exchanging information. This can cause difficulty in their other relationships, as husbands, children or siblings can feel left out of the dynamics of reunion. Mothers most often feel that they’re ‘walking on eggs,’ and must be incredibly attuned to their child to maintain their relationship with their child. They may still feel they have very few ‘rights’ in the child’s life. The work to be done in reunion includes:

· filling up the informational vacuum-finding out the stories each has lead since separation,
· resolving the psychological issues present and coming to peace with the past (having lost a child or a parent),
· catching up present relationships-telling everyone,
· growing a shared history, accumulating joint experiences, and
· negotiating, even inventing, a mutually acceptable relationship.

Four themes emerge in talking with mothers about their reunion relationships:

· the power of genetics,
· their history becoming public information,
· labelling each other, and
· issues of money.

It is now known that adopted children more closely match their first, biological families rather than their adoptive families in many character traits and in intelligence, as well as physically, of course. The physical resemblances indicate connection to mothers, but are also profound for adoptees, allowing them to feel they ‘fit’ in a family. Even more significant is that adoptees often find they have a temperamental match, a similar emotional style with members of their natural families. This provides much comfort for them, particularly where there was a poor temperamental match with the adoptive family. Some difficulties can also arise from this -- one mother and son were both very stubborn, for example, and this hampered the development of their reunion.

It’s easier in reunion for mothers who find their child has had a fortunate home and who believe that their child better off than they would have been had they tried to raise their child themselves. In the sample of mothers interviewed for this book, “ there were more instances of birthmothers encountering unpleasant truths than of adoptees’ encountering such material.” For mothers who discover that their child has not had ‘the better life’ that was the promise of adoption, it can be bitter to fill the information gap, and they often labour under increased guilt as a result.

Reunion pairs have to negotiate what the mother will be called. Some adoptees want to refer to their first mother by some variation of ‘mom,’ while others want to use their first name. The ambiguity of naming reflects the ambiguity of the relationship itself. Most mothers certainly feel parental to their children, but the difficulty of resuming a relationship with an adult rather than an infant is complex. Some mothers are able to tease out exactly which elements of other relationships apply, and to bring a new conception of mother to bear.

Money seldom turned out to be a large issue with reunion pairs. Where the adoptee was financially comfortable, mothers felt little financial obligation to them. Where the adoptees were in needier circumstances, financial assistance came from the impetus to help, rather than from a sense of obligation. Each mother worked out how she would deal with inheritance issues based on the situations of her children and her own values. A variety of patterns is described in the book.

There is a chapter describing the range and complexities for each of first fathers and of siblings in reunions. Another chapter describes the other relatives and friends who can be part of the support network for the mother in reunion. These include her husband, who may or may not be the father of the adoptee, her parents (the adoptee’s grandparents), the extended family and friends and colleagues.

Chapter 12 discusses issues with the adoptive family with respect to reunion. It examines the effects of the adoptive parents’ infertility on their feelings at the time of reunion. Adoptive parents who have denied or repressed their infertility have more difficulty with adoptees’ reunions than those who have mourned and resolved their losses. Upon reunion, mothers are able to judge the adoptive family’s rearing of their children. It is painful for mothers to find that their child did not grow up in the circumstances society or an adoption worker implicitly or explicitly promised them. Many mothers find that the promises made to them were not kept: children’s religions were changed, or the names they had given them were changed despite promises not to, or the adoptive parents divorced or were abusive. In reunion, mothers most often develop a civil but distant relationship with the adoptive mother, because it’s easier for the adoptee. However, a close relationship between the two women is rare.

The concluding chapter of this book talks of the value of reunion for both mothers and adoptees, and discusses public policy implications brought about by increased openness and the information revealed through reunions. The chief implication is, of course, that open records are preferable to the secrecy and lies that closed adoption has fostered.

This book is engaging to read, and useful to everyone touched by adoption if they truly wish to hear the voices of those most affected by adoption practice -- mothers and the children who are separated from them in the interests of adoption.

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace

Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press, 1991.
Hardcover ISBN: 0-88282-052-4
Softcover ISBN: 088282-072-9


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