Shame


Shame… It's amazing how strong a hold it can have.

I remember being 16, pregnant, and ashamed. Also scared--especially scared. Even now, it's easier to write this story knowing my parents will never read it.

My son's father supported me during my pregnancy, but staying together to raise our child didn't happen, and so there I was, 16, unmarried, without paying work, and therefore unable to raise my son. I lost him to adoption--a common story for the times.

Fast-forward 26 years, and there was the message: I was found. There was my son, now named Tony. It was that moment when I realized that now I needed control, some control over this situation. Why control? Because I had lived all those 26 years in denial. I had thrown myself into my career, and worked hard enough to not think about the son I had lost at 16. If you don't think about it, it doesn't hurt you. And now, faced with a 6 foot, 1 inch reality, I could no longer not think.

I knew my life would change completely, and I needed time to think, so I waited two weeks to return his call, and it took another two and a half weeks to make contact with my son. It was shame that made me need control. In talking with him that time later, I was amazed at the intensity of my desire to know, even to hold, my beautiful son.

Meeting Tony two weeks later, I was concerned that people in my small town not know that I had this grown son. Shame still gripped me from all those years ago. I was a matron really--a person with some professional position, an old 'married lady,' known to have only one daughter, Lexi… How could I admit that all those years ago, I had been one of those loose girls, pregnant at 16? What would people think of me? Would I be able to get that promotion I wanted? Would people shun me? Would they talk to me? What would they think of my daughter? All these thoughts were still there from decades ago, waiting to trap me, and colour the relationship with my son.

I was luckier than some--my stretch marks were clear enough that I'd told my husband years ago, so my son's arrival was no surprise to him. My daughter accepted rather well the news that the brother she's always wanted existed, but was older rather than younger. Few, very few and only very close friends had known about him, though. I couldn't tell anyone he'd found me. For almost three months my son and I visited back and forth, with me introducing him only by name, and never by relationship. It was a sweet secret to me; I knew him to be my son when I introduced him to friends and acquaintances. They knew only that I was walking or visiting with Tony.

One day, Tony confessed that he didn't like being the skeleton in someone's closet. He didn't like being the object of shame. With this, I was faced by a choice: I could, in essence, lose my son a second time to shame and society's approbation, or I could choose differently this time, claiming my son and his place in my life. I knew that I might not get that promotion, might not be viewed the same way by the people, the friends I knew. I feared that, it's true. Shame gave me pause. I had to look deep inside myself, and decide for myself what was more important to me now, as the woman I had become.

In the balance hung my relationship with my son, and I could not face losing him again. I knew that for me, and for his sake, no job, no friend, no position in society was worth losing my child again. Avoiding the shame hadn't really been worth losing him the first time, when I thought it through. The years of denial and pain, the constant hole in my life that was his absence, wasn't really worth repeating.

I am a decisive person, and so when I had decided to tell, I told the town's gossip first, sure in the knowledge that everyone would soon know. As it turned out, I found out the lines of friendship and gossip in this town very reliably. I discovered who told, and who, out of respect perhaps, kept my 'secret' so that I could choose whom to tell. I learned that I had chosen well in my friends, and I learned where people were more, well, shallow.

In the end, only two people have shunned me. One co-worker left the staff room whenever I was talking about my son. Her disapproval was clear and initially supercilious. Interestingly, no one else supported her, and so she isolated herself through this. There is another person who I know would rather I never talk about 'my' son. He is an adoptive father who's discouraged 'his' son from searching for his natural family. He wants to pretend that natural families don't exist, or at least don't rejoice in the joy of knowing and loving their lost children. I find that professional men of a certain age, shall we say, are confused that I would admit 'my shame' out loud. They are not impolite, just confused. It's not even that they disapprove; they just don't know what the protocol for reaction is, that's all.

Most people, though, have been simply happy for me at one extreme, or shared fully my exuberant joy at the other extreme. They ask about Tony and want to know how it's going. They love to hear that our relationship is complex, evolving and deepening. A group of women friends threw me a 'baby' shower, that first Christmas. Knowing I was going to see my son just after Christmas, they gifted me with a pewter picture frame, to keep a memory, and enough money to take Tony to a live musical, the first he'd ever experienced. I brought pictures of 'my baby,' and they oohed and aahed, and exclaimed how much he looked like me. A year later, I hosted a brunch where they were invited to meet my baby in person. It was great fun. In the end, I got one promotion, and not the next one after that. Did my son have something to do with that? Perhaps, and perhaps it wasn't to be anyway. I am not sorry--Tony means more to me than the job.

It takes some courage to face how life will change when you bring your lost child back into it. For us older mothers, the burden of years, even decades, of shame is not lightly set aside. Few of us were allowed by parents or circumstances the choice of raising our children. Yet we were stereotyped as those very few mothers who might not have wanted their children, and who abandoned them. Nowadays, because most children available for adoption are those removed from their own parents for reasons of neglect or abuse, we are identified with those parents who are not capable of raising anyone's children, even their own. And so new shame is piled on old, and we worry how people will judge us. Those who give up newborns today are hailed as unselfish until they sign the papers, and then they too experience their shaming as mothers who 'don't care enough to keep their children.'

Reunion is harder yet for those mothers who didn't tell their husbands about their earlier children. They may wonder how to explain 'keeping that secret' from someone so close to them. They may think, "What will my children think of me?" Since no one knows how ingrained the shame of 'unwed' motherhood was, how can others understand how little choice we really had? Yet I found that when my young daughter was told about her lost brother, it was easy for her to accept the situation. Some mothers with older children have found them as supportive. Some have found them also wishing they'd known sooner.

Tony's presence in my life has brought many, many changes. There are changes in how I think about myself: where I was the mother of a daughter only, now I am also the mother of a son. Between 40 and 60% of mothers who lose a child to adoption never have another child. These mothers must suddenly adjust to thinking of themselves as actual mothers. These are big changes. I think you have to be ready for the fact that your life will change with your now-adult child in it. Just understanding emotionally that Tony was an adult, with whom I had to build a relationship, rather than an infant who depended on my love, was a big thing to learn. You have to decide for yourself where your boundaries and expectations are. Because you're meeting an adult, you cannot decide what that relationship will be--it must be negotiated between the two of you.

When we were losing our children, we were told we would forget and could go on with our lives. Even today, young mothers are told that their pain will diminish over time. This fond lie turns out not to be true. Research and my personal experience show that the pain increases with time, rather than diminishing. Reunion brings the potential to heal, although it first brings us to recognizing the enormity of what we've lost. As we face our shame, we have the opportunity to reclaim our potential as women and as mothers.

Adoptive parents were also lied to--they were told that someone else's child could be 'as if their own.' This can't be true of course; these children will always have connections with their natural families. However, the lie means that adoptive parents often feel threatened by the presence of the natural family. Thus the adoptive parents' presence will always colour the relationship of the adoptee with his or her natural family. It's much like stepfamilies-there's always something to be negotiated.

Would I rather I had denied my son when he wanted to know me? Despite all the changes in my life, I would do again what I did almost a decade ago--I would accept him and all the changes into my life again. Knowing what I now know, I would rather I had searched or registered with a passive registry so that we could have been matched sooner. Hard as it has been to set aside the shame, I am a freer and better person without it. It didn't all change at once; I have been able to integrate the changes step by step, and at each step I have had some say. I have been able to integrate the girl I denied with the woman I have become. I can't know if that's the best decision for another mother, of course. I can only say that each step has been worth taking for me.

I am long past the need to share my story, to tell my story, in order to understand it for myself. Left to myself, I would as soon just go back to living my life. Now though, I tell my story as a political act. It was wrong to shame mothers in order to separate them from their children. I am sorry for the pain of infertility that causes some people to look to others' children as their own, but it does not give them the right to have our children, just as needing a kidney does not give another the right to one of mine.

As more of us who lost our children talk about our lifelong pain, it will be easier for all of us to set aside the bonds of shame. It will become easier to let go the trauma and anguish. It will take longer for our circle to set aside grief unresolved through all the years our children are lost to us, longer than those who don't experience it can understand. Our feelings have been disrespected and underestimated for decades. It may be that the enormity of the loss can never be resolved, only embraced as a part of our identity. As we find our way to healing, as we let go of the pain and reclaim lives unshadowed by shame, we can welcome our children with joy and lighter hearts.

The first steps any of us take in this depend on who we are as people. For some, it may be registering with ISSR or another registry in hopes of being found. This can happen quickly, or not for years, or even never. However, if you decide to register or to search, that can be the time to tell husband, children, parents and friends. That will alert them to the possibility of a son or daughter's return. It will begin the process in a gentle way.

Other mothers may want to join an anonymous on-line support group. The best ones are those run by mothers who've lost children to adoption for themselves. I find that groups that include adoptive parents tend to focus on issues of adoptive parents and are seldom willing to sit with those of us who have lost our children to truly understand the pain and the results of separating mothers and children. I would absolutely counsel against contacting those run by adoption agencies because, however well-meaning, they have a conflict of interest-they separate mothers and children. The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers runs a supportive email list for mothers and those outside Canada can join it. There are also many American email lists run by mothers who've lost their children, such as Lifemothers.

In seeking counselling, mothers who've lost children to adoption must be careful to ascertain that their counsellor understands adoption issues. Too often I have talked with mothers who've had counselling which denies the damage done by losing their child, or attempts to have them focus on the adoptive parents' joy in receiving their child. This is not helpful to resolving mothers' issues. In many places, support groups of mothers have grown up as self-help groups to process their emotions and help them understand reunion dynamics. These groups are advertised in various ways. Again, it's important to be careful of those run by social workers or others with vested interests in supporting the adoption industry.

Ultimately there's also the option of reading about reunions and mothers' issues. The best book I have found on this topic, now I believe out of print, is BirthBond by Gediman and Brown. It can be obtained often through public or university libraries. The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers has library of book reviews, including a review of this book. You can also find articles and information about joining their support list at that site. There are many sites on the Internet run by mothers describing their stories of loss and reunion. That's a very safe way to begin to think about what you might want to do. It allows you to reflect on what you want to do by seeing how other mothers have handled similar issues and situations.

Sandra Falconer Pace
Director, Canadian Council of Natural Mothers


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