Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

The Stranger Who Bore Me:
Adoptee-Birth Mother Relationships

Karen March


This book is based on the author's dissertation study of 60 Canadian adoptees who have reunited with the mothers they lost when they were adopted.

Chapter 1 is an excellent summary of the literature to 1995, describing adoptees' need for reunion and the studies which have examined the issue to that point.

Chapter 2 provides explanation of the research methodology used to select the adoptees and to interview them in depth about their experiences. These chapters are sprinkled with anecdotes about the process which make them interesting reading even for the general reader.

Chapter 3 describes the growth of adoptees' sense of self, their personal and social identities. When there is secrecy, as in closed adoption, there is a discontinuity between their supposed identity and their actual identity. This can give rise to the type of social stigma found in adoption: "adoptees who were interviewed for this study outlined this discrimination process in their accounts of adoption, search and reunion." Adoptees are often not seen as being as much a part of a family by extended family members as are biological children, for example. Adoptees give many little examples of social interactions that remind them they are unaware of their origins, such as not knowing when they were born exactly, and so being unable, like other people, to have a horoscope drawn for them, since you need a birth time to have this done.

In the third chapter, the reasons for looking for one's first family are examined, including the need to situate oneself in a family context, where 'you looked like others' and your heritage was in fact your own. Some adoptees describe the "fear, concern, and apprehension" that causes them to delay their search for their first mothers, despite wanting to find them. The myths about mothers who lose their children cause many adoptees to fear what they will find in finding their mothers. Of course, the strongest deterrent to searching is 'fear of hurting the adoptive parents.' Loyalty is well inculcated in most adoptive families, even to the detriment of the children in whose best interests, supposedly, the family was 'built.' Life events that trigger searches are described for both male and female adoptees.

Chapter 4 deals with the search process. Thirty-four of the sixty adults asked their aparents for their adoption order. Only six of these adults obtained their aparents' positive support for this request. The other 26 adoptees searched without their aparents' knowledge, either because they waited until their aparents died, or because they searched in some other way without letting them know. This chapter has many fascinating aspects, such as the reaction of adoptees to learning their birth names, for example. Few of these adoptees realized they had been named before their aparents obtained them. Adoptees' reactions are described to each of six search stages:

1. contact with a search agency
2. gaining access to the first mother's name
3. confronting a birth identity
4. getting non-identifying background information
5. obsession with the search
6. identification of the first mother

Three-quarters of the adoptees contacted their first mother within 24 hours of learning her current address. The many ways in which that contact was made, and the reasons for them are described. While many adoptees say, "I need face-to-face contact," they have internalized the myth of 'birthmother confidentiality,' and are concerned that their appearance will be a shock to their mothers. As a result, many adoptees use intermediaries to contact their mothers to cushion the potential shock of a second rejection. Of course, the people most concerned about reunions are not the adoptees' first mothers. It is the adoptive parents who are most threatened.

I found that one of the particularly useful aspects of this book, both for mothers who want to be found and for adoptees searching, is the proportion of mothers and adoptees who welcome reunion and who are more cautious about it. Because the 60 adoptees are a randomly selected (not a self-selected) group of adoptees in search, the proportions of outcomes are more likely to be representative of a larger population of adoptees. It helps to see where in the range you might fit, if you are searching. It also helps to see that many other adoptees and mothers have experienced the same range of emotions that you're feeling.

8 adoptees ( 13%) experienced rejection by their mothers when they contact them. They largely understood how this was a product of their mother's trauma and the times in which she had lost her child.

9 adoptees (15%) experienced gradual disengagement from their mothers. In these cases also, the adoptees protected themselves through understanding their mother's trauma and through asserting the primacy of their adoptive families.

5 adoptees (8%) found their mothers deceased.

7 adoptees (12%) rejected contact with their mothers, usually because the person they found was erratic or very damaged. In some cases, they maintained contact with other relatives in their first families.

A majority of adoptees maintained contact with their mothers when they found them. Of these, seven (12%) found mothers who had not told their second families about their children and wanted to maintain that secrecy. Twenty-four adoptees (40%), however, had unrestricted contact with their mothers.

Chapter 6 describes the negotiation of roles that goes into building long-term relationships with the mother and other family members. There is a brief description of contact with first fathers. Mothers who show concern for their lost offspring and who are interested in continued contact more often have it. For example, one mother gave the adoptee a music box from her mother as a memento. Another saved her son's hospital identity bracelet. Some adoptees in this sample ceased contact with mothers who are self-centred in meeting their lost offspring or cruel in their wording of what had happened, such as one mother who refused information about the first father.

Three types of post-reunion relationships are described:

Duty Contact (25%), where the adoptee feels a duty to maintain some limited contact with the mother they have found. More contact is avoided either because the lifestyles of the mothers are very different from those of the adoptee, or because the mother insists on a mothering role that the adoptees do not wish to accept.

Friendship Contact (50%), where adoptees and mothers are able to bridge the gap of missing time and social experience together. This is built on open awareness, common interests, and negotiation-shared work in building the relationship.

Parent-Child Contact (25%), where adoptees, although they had not expected or desired it, experienced an immediate feeling of intimacy with the mother at their first contact. There was open awareness in their interactions with their mothers, including acknowledging his or her adoptive experiences and parents. Often these relationships evolved from 'friendship relationships.'

75% of the adoptees described themselves as having a more positive view of themselves after finding their mothers.

86% describe themselves as having a successful reunion. "As far as adoptees are concerned, even traumatic or negative background information findings of the search offer a measure of satisfaction to them. Thus it is not the type of background information discovered that is significant for adoptees. Rather it is the meaning that this information holds in a society that assesses personal identity and social status on biological kinship ties" (p. 122).

5% described themselves as 'angry and bitter' over the outcome of their search. For three of these, it was because their parent was deceased. The other two were rejected by their mothers.

Reunion brings with it a re-evaluation of the role of adoptive parents in the lives of adoptees. For many adoptees, relationships with adoptive parents improve, because the adoptee can see their place and characteristics as coming from both families. The recognition, in reunion, of the missing time between mother and child, highlights the continuity of experience between adoptees and adoptive families. For many adoptees, reunion confirms the primacy of the adoptive family in their lives. Reunion, and the information which it gives to adoptees, can and does for many resolve their biographical discontinuity, making them more comfortable with themselves.

This book is extremely valuable to all interested in adoption because it gives solid information on the outcomes of reunion. Because it is largely representative of adoptees who search in Canada, we can see the proportions of different outcomes. The depth of the discussions of adoptees' reactions to different aspects of reunion is fascinating also. This is a necessary resource for all who speak publicly on adoption reunion because it reviews many other studies of adoption reunion and because it gives clear tables of results that can be quoted.

(1995) Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press
ISBN: 0-8020-7235-6 (paper)
ISBN: 0-8020-0447-4 (cloth)

This book is now out of print, and might best be found in libraries. Contact

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace


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