Robert Hafetz has graciously allowed me to reprint this essay, formerly published in the US, Canada and Australia. It provides powerful insights and answers for those who question the importance of birth mother (and other) connections – even for those who may not have “known” or “remembered” those connections. Thank you, Robert. This was too important to leave as simply a blog comment. – Kim Stevens
One of the most difficult outcomes of searching for our bonded first mother is the discovery of a grave at the end of the search. Guided by the desire to bring our memories into balance, resolve the past, and end the pain, our emotions intensify as the search moves forward. Anticipating closure, and a chance to escape from our past, we find the silence and isolation of death. The adoptee may feel that providence has cheated us once again, as fate moves beyond our control. We have completed the journey, overcome the impossible, embraced our inner pain looking for relief, and there is more of what we seek to escape from waiting for us. It is a second death for us, with the first being the memory of her loss. Now confronted with death at the end of our search, both losses combine and the grief can be unimaginably difficult to bear. How can this be? Unresolved, disenfranchised, grief does not weaken as the years pass by. Time has no meaning for powerful emotions and the loss we experienced as infants thrives decades later as if it has just happened. The bond that joins a mother and her child extends through the decades, across any distance, and endures even beyond death. So then, how can we cry when we didn’t know her? The truth is that we did know her, and we remember.
Even today the common belief in society is that infants can’t experience loss, or create memories. While it’s true that infants are pre cognitive, it is not true that they are unaware. Infants do not think but they do relate to and process emotions. As a result, infant memories are stored not as words or pictures, but embedded in the mind as feelings. Let us consider that emotion can be a virtual language, with affects like joy, fear, and grief, as words. The first mother’s familiar touch, expressed by intimate contact is the only voice the infant comprehends. The process of this interaction is facial expression, posture, tone of voice, and physiological movements (Bowlby, J. 1969). Through this language of emotion, mother and infant create a unique, dialogue through which complex concepts are exchanged.
Through this language of emotion, the infant learns the nature of the world. Hope, trust, love, and security are experienced by the infant’s emotional interaction with the bonded first mother. The infant recognizes its mothers scent, heartbeat, and touch. When the infant needs to eat, is frightened, needs to feel secure, or is in distress of any kind, the familiar mother embraces the infant and is recognized. The infant learns to anticipate and expect that the same mother will always be there. Our brains hardwire those expectations, emotions, and experiences into memories and beliefs that will become the foundation of our ability to trust and love as adults. Then suddenly, the mother is gone never to return causing the infant to react with shock, anger and repression. A primal memory will be created. A memory that later in life will not be recognized but only experienced as an emotion, not remembered and never forgotten.
The Great Disconnect
As adopted adults these memories can haunt us emerging when we least expect them and with a power that threatens to overwhelm us. It is just our infant mind trying to make itself known to our adult mind, which doesn’t easily understand the origin of these powerful feelings. As infants grow and develop into childhood their memory systems mature and record events explicitly, as words and images. Research involving infant memory indicates that events occurring early in life are stored and recalled in the same way as the infant grows into adulthood. “From a clinical perspective, we would predict that fears, phobias, and anxiety in adults that are due to early trauma may be expressed in a manner that is more similar to the way in which young organisms express their fear “(Richardson, R. & Hayne, 2007). Simply put, as adopted adults we carry with us the same experience of anger, and grief that we experienced as an infant when we originally lost our bonded first mother, but as we mature, we don’t translate those feelings into conscious thoughts and words. We feel without the words to express those feelings or the understanding of where they come from. This separation of what we think and what we feel as adoptees is the great disconnect of the adopted. It prevents us from finding the right words with which to explain what we feel. It inhibits our ability to comprehend, clearly, what happened to us making it difficult to resolve our thoughts and feelings. Some adoptees, will throughout their lives try and build a bridge of understanding joining thoughts and memories while others will keep them hidden. All during our lives, whether we consciously realize it or not, we are reaching out to you, our mothers of origin, for the balance, security, and feelings of hope you first gave to us. Be secure in your thoughts that we have never forgotten you, we just don’t know how to say it.
The Search as a path to understanding
When we embark on the search we must keep in mind that the journey is as important as the destination. Each has its pitfalls and rewards. The search itself is our attempt to build a bridge connecting what we know with memories we can only feel. As we search those emotions intensify and come to the forefront of our minds. As I stated previously, the words to describe them don’t come easily. We say things like; I feel lost, isolated, and alone. We are seen as none of these when viewed from the perspective of friends and family members. We feel disconnected, even in the presence of our adopted families who do feel connected to us. They can’t understand that we may be experiencing deep, everlasting emotions and memories from a time before we could think. Reassurances spoken to us, fail to reach the part of our mind that feels. We know what we know, but we still feel what we feel. We feel lost because we need to be found, isolated because we have been separated from our maternal other self, disconnected because no one believes us and society doesn’t understand. We feel grief because we have never completed the process to resolve our grief. It makes matters worse when the government seals our records treating us like perpetual children with no right to know our own natural families. The search is one way, to bring thoughts and feelings into a state of accord. It’s as if, we the adopted, walk two paths all of our lives and at the end of the search they merge into one.
Death is not the conclusion
When we encounter death at the end of our journey we feel like we are left empty handed. I was aware that I could find death waiting for me and I prepared myself for that possibility. I suspected it even before I was sure when I learned that my mother didn’t attend the funeral of her father. In the face of this I held a still held a glimmer of hope that she was alive. When I found a cousin and made the call to her asking if she knew where to find my mother she told me that she died many years ago. Nothing in my life prepared me for the shock of that moment. I felt cold, and more alone than ever. For the first time in my life I felt hopelessness. It was the end of my search but not the conclusion of my journey. There was one more task to accomplish, one more place to go. I had to stand by her grave.
“It was my desire to find my mother alive that drove me never to surrender to hopelessness. However, as fate would have it, this was a destiny not meant for me. My search began nine months before and ended beside a grave in Bellaire, Texas. There were no headstones in this place. It appeared as a gentle meadow, not a place of the departed. There were trees with red blossoms casting shadows on the grass as if watching lovingly over the souls with whom they shared their world. The graves were all marked by small plaques lying on the grass. As I knelt beside hers, the words Arlene Hope Glasser gazed up at me. I remember thinking Hope, her name is Hope. We are together again, the circle is closed.” (Hafetz, R. 2005).
Making sense of it all
So then, after all the obstacles have been overcome and we stand at the end of the search confronted by death what have we accomplished? Ask yourself who you were before and who you are now. The search alone transforms us. Can you feel completeness and a sense of authenticity? Yes we still feel grief, but isn’t it passing through the stages of resolution now? You know your name at birth, your family history, and the reasons you were separated. Can you not say that while you still feel pain you can now own that pain, and it no longer owns you? You are no longer lost you are found. You feel alone but now you know you never were alone. You have built the bridge connecting thoughts and emotions, and your two paths have become one path. The search for our first mothers is also a search for our true self. The journey always ends where it begins, within us.
I write this essay to reach out to all adoptees who faced death at the end of their searches. It is the most difficult essay I have ever written. I have tried to balance knowledge, opinion, empathy, and compassion. Every adoptee is a sibling of circumstance, a family created by our shared experience. So when they ask; how can you cry when you didn’t know her? Tell them you did know her, and you are a part of her, and she of you. I remember and I don’t ever want to forget because that emotional memory is all I have left. Somewhere along this journey we can reach a milestone. We discover that we can be in possession of the emotions that have always possessed us. That is the moment when the two paths have become one. In death there is anger and frustration, I know this, but also truth, strength, and peace.
One final thought
When ever I write or speak about the difficulties of being separated and growing up adopted it is my only desire to bring to light the truths about this process. In doing so I may cause mothers to feel worse about the relinquishment of their cherished children or that adoptees will feel damaged in some way. Mothers create life and do their best to make sure it has the best chance to thrive through their self sacrifice and everlasting devotion. That is no less true in the case of adoption. The adoption system is responsible for the hardships we both must overcome, and for continuing to stand between us even into adulthood. Adoptees are not damaged we are challenged by a society that has no idea about what our lives are like and doesn’t care to know the truth. We must grow up a little faster, stronger and wiser than other children. For some of us it is a great burden to bear and we need understanding to relieve us of its weight. There is a personal risk for us both because we must experience, again, the grief, anger, and shame that lives within.
It is my belief that a unification of what we understand with what we feel can resolve the unbearable memories that can come with adoption. When I wrote my book I never imagined that my adoption story would embrace so many first mothers. It brings a great comfort to me. For this I cannot thank you all enough.
Robert Allan Hafetz
Author of Not Remembered Never Forgotten
Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment: New York Basic Basic Books
Hafetz, R. (2008) Not Remembered Never Forgotten. Book Surge, Charleston, S.C.
Richardson, R. & Hayne H. (2007). You Can’t Take It With You: The Translation of Memory across Development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 223-227.
Joey is the seventh child born to birth parents who loved their children but had trouble knowing how to nurture and protect them. He came to the attention of the local Child Welfare agency when he was five months old and he was placed in foster care at that time.
Joey became legally free for adoption just after his first birthday. He was placed with adoptive parents in May 2009. The family lives in a rural setting in a beautiful wooded area with lots of space to run and play. Joey and his mom and dad, Kim and Stan, enjoy being outside and take several walks together each day.
Kim and Stan were together for several years before their dream of being parents came true with the adoption of Joey. Kim is a stay-at-home mom and Stan is taking parental leave from his job so that they could enjoy the first months of their time together as a family. Joey is still learning to trust and progress is being made toward establishing secure attachments.
Joey still needs lots of reassurance, especially at bedtime, and he has enjoyed cuddling in the quilt that was so generously donated. Kim and Stan are patient and loving and look forward to the many more joys and challenges that parenting brings.
Community Champions Network partners in Ontario will be working to ensure that Joey and his family have the supports they will need as he grows and thrives in his community.
Find it at: http://www.fosteringconnections.org/
On the one year anniversary of the most sweeping child welfare legislation in a generation, a coalition of nine foundation leaders launched a new national resource center to assist states in the implementation of Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (P.L. 110-351).
Signed by President Bush on October 7, 2008, Fostering Connections addresses many of the gaps within child welfare by allowing states the option to access federal supports for kinship guardianship care, supports for former foster youth up to age 21, provides tribal nations their first access to federal foster care and adoption supports, and seeks to enhance the education and health oversight and coordination of those in foster care.
The new Fostering Connections Resource Center will provide nonpartisan, timely, and reliable information to support decision makers in their implementation efforts. The Resource Center will also provide access to national networks of state-based and local stakeholders organized according to the six major topic areas of the law – adoption, kinship, older youth, tribal child welfare, health, and education.
Through its Web site and network partners, the Resource Center will disseminate materials and provide ongoing expertise to state policymakers and administrators. Voices for America’s Children is proud to serve as an organizational collaborator in this effort.
The Resource Center was made possible by the generous contributions of the Annie E Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, Dave Thomas Foundation on Adoption, Duke Endowment, Eckerd Family Foundation, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, Sierra Health Foundation, Stuart Foundation and Walter S. Johnson Foundation.
An Adoption Story from Northern Ontario
Giving Love, Giving Back, by Darlene Goch
I supervised an adoption placement of a couple who adopted two siblings, a boy and girl, ages 7 and 5. The children were from another northeast region C.A.S. When they were placed into their adoptive home, they each brought a quilt with them (which they either received from their previous foster parents, or their birth parents, not sure). Their adoptive mom said the quilt was a great source of comfort to the kids, as they were adjusting to their new family, home, community, etc.
The adoptive mom is a high school teacher. Her sewing class usually makes something that is donated to a charity. Because their quilts comforted her children, she suggested that the class make a quilt and donate it to a child who is moving onto adoption. Once it was completed, the adoptive mom contacted me and asked me to give it to such a child…. gives me goose bumps to think about what a beautiful idea this was.
Darlene Goch with the quilt.
First order of business – let’s increase our numbers!
As of today we have 1,276 members on the CCN list serve. That’s almost double what it was a year ago. Let’s get the number to 2,000 by January 1, 2010.
We can make change on a national level only through our collective voice. Do you want to:
- create a national mandate supporting post adoption services?
- require states and provinces to invest and reinvest $$ into supporting effective permanency work on behalf of kids in care?
- engage other systems and departments (education, health and mental health, juvenile justice, etc.) in the mandate child welfare tries to fulfill alone?
Then ask your friends and colleagues to join the Network. Subscribe to the list serve (send request to email@example.com), join the blog, and – above all – speak out on behalf of children and support foster and adoptive families in your community.
Be well – Kim
Welcome to the Community Champions Network blog! If you are here, I’m guessing you have some interest in or connection to adoption – that’s what we’re all about.
Community Champions Network (CCN) was started in 2006 to help families and youth across North America create and sustain the supports they need to keep adopted children safe, stable and thriving in their adopted families. The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) is the home of CCN, and Jockey International – the underwear and more company – provides the funding for us to do our work. Check out the “About” page for more information on CCN if you aren’t already familiar.
So, why the blog? Well, over the last 3+ years lots of folks in lots of locations have been contributing to the work and success of CCN; providing help, support, templates, resources and more to our growing community. Through newsletters, a link on http://www.nacac.org (http://www.nacac.org/postadopt/ccn.html) and a list serve (to join send request to firstname.lastname@example.org), information has been shared and connections have been made. But our network is constantly growing and there is so much more we can be doing. A blog will allow for real-time sharing of successes, challenges, inspiration and more.
Please use it freely, check in often for updates and recommend that other like-minded people join us. Together we can make a world of difference for one another. Our kids are depending on us.
Be well – Kim