VOICES HEARD: Impact of the First Mother's Experience, Then and
Now - by Donna Portuesi, MSW, and Reunited natural mother
with permission from the Adoption Crossroads.org
an experience is to know it. For
the first mother, however, living the experience and understanding
the totality of the experience may take a lifetime journey.
The relinquishment of a child for adoption permeates all aspects
of a first mother's life. Only a couple of decades ago,
many unwed mothers, no matter how capable, were scorned and labeled
"loose", "bad", "unfit", and "undeserving". The social manipulation
of the past created an environment in which most first mothers
felt that they had few choices. This shamed mother-to-be
often had to "hide" as a way to safeguard her secret from friends
has been written about the adopted persons struggle with identity,
and rightfully so. However, little has been published about
the impact of pregnancy and relinquishment on the first mother''
identity. Eric Erikson, a developmental theorist, describes
the identity forming years around adolescence as a time when an
individual strives to achieve "a sense of uniqueness as a person,
a meaningful role and place in society, and attempts to define
self and goals." Undoubtedly these are difficult tasks under
the best of circumstances. For this young woman, becoming
pregnant and relinquishing a child during their crucial "identity
forming" years only compounds an already compromised situation.
it any wonder then, that an unwed mother, whose womanhood was
shamed, disdained and stigmatized by society, and who was deemed
unworthy by her family and friends, would have a host of issues
around her identity - then and now? Often at the core of
the first mother are the beliefs that she is undeserving and a
bad mother. In addition, she may feel punished for years
because of her permissiveness. Issues of self-esteem, relationship
difficulties, "numbing" behaviors, depression, over/under achieving,
compulsive-obsessive and panic disorders can be some of the residue
from the experience. In addition, the role of mother after
the loss of a child changes. It is common for many first
mothers to have secondary infertility for reasons not yet understood.
More research in this area is vitally needed. First mothers
who have other children are often over-protective as a means of
preventing future child loss.
of the first mother's tender age, it is reasonable to assume that
this experience has created numerous emotional scars in addition
to the physical loss of her child. Denial becomes survival
for most first mothers. Frequently much was arrested along
with the pain, such as the ability to love or trust again.
Due to the psychological trauma, amnesia may also develop around
certain aspects of the experience i.e., date of birth, hospital
and birthing details, events, places and people at that time.
It is not uncommon to the first mother to become developmentally
fixated at the age of the trauma.
will forget," many first mothers were promised in exchange for
their tears. Indeed, few first mothers ever forgot.
Thus, the necessary grief work that is so important and healing
at the time of loss, and years after, becomes nearly nonexistent.
In grief therapy, it is believed that when the feelings around
loss are arrested so are other feelings like anger, joy and happiness,
as well as, the inability to feel and fully grieve other past
and future losses. Life becomes muted.
following list of "first mother losses" was compiled by the participants
of a two-day workshop and retreat that I facilitate for birth
years w/child & parenting
of own childhood
(lack of due to shame)
of being understood
of feeling loved
of "good girl" status
of ability to grieve
of excitement surrounding pregnancy and birth
the losses associated with the first mother experience are numerous,
far reaching and undoubtedly impact the first mother in some way
today. The pregnant young woman of yesterday becomes today's
difficult because of the complicated and delayed grief reaction.
It is particularly difficult to grieve the loss of a child as
though to death – when that child is still alive. The hope
for reunion also arrests the grieving process. Healing is
important especially as connected to reunion. These issues
and losses compromise the first mother's sense of self and are
carried to the reunion with her child. The first mother
who reunites, at some point, confronts the same intensity of pain
as when her younger self suffered the loss of her child.
It is the younger self with all her pain and vulnerability, that
will be present at the reunion.
person presents at reunion the infant and adult self; likewise,
the adult first mother and the young traumatized mother are also
there. Thus, the reunion of mother and child is very complex,
because there really are four people present at all times.
It has been stated that the adopted person has two mothers and
two fathers, but only one set of parents, the adoptive parents
(if a couple). I believe that the first mother, too, becomes
a parent to her reunited child by helping them understand the
impact of their relinquishment/adoption experience. To do
so, it is essential that the first mother get to know herself
and the ramifications of her experience so she can be present,
available and open to meet her child with his or her special needs.
Then, as a mother and a parent she can help, teach, guide and
support her child through the delicate reunion and post
the first mother to work on healing:
yourself. Perhaps the most important tool is education.
Education provides knowledge and knowledge offers insight.
This insight and the understanding of one's experience is what
facilitates healing and provides the opportunity for personal
growth and empowerment
for your child. Know that the search activity may
represent an attempt to resolve this significant loss.
Not so much by achieving restitution of the surrendered child,
rather by recognizing the hope to connect with the lost part
Recognize that this journey of self and reunification with one's
child is a profound and intense experience. Think about
when you are 80 years old, how would you like to look back on
this memorable day? For example, planning the reunion
day is like planning a wedding day. It is a poignant beginning.
Planning and preparation is critical. Unlike the wedding
day, delay family and friends from the initial reunion in order
to permit the togetherness of mother and child needed for healing.
If the reunion is not all that you fantasized, know that a great
deal of healing will still occur.
out. The journey of the first mother in finding her
self and child, or if found, becomes all consuming. Although
search and reunion can be fulfilling and rewarding, it also
digs up archaic feelings and issues from the past. Friends
and family rarely understand the depth of this personal journey.
Therefore, it is vital to reach out to those who have had a
There are several good books on the first mother's experience,
search, reunion and the adopted person's journey. Contact
ASCC or your local support group regarding a book list.
support groups. Support groups are very beneficial
as a means to connect with others in a similar situation - especially
in search and reunion. Consider attending local and national
conferences and workshops.
specialized counseling. Therapy groups with other
first mothers and/or triad members can be very empowering as
a way to more deeply understand and heal from the experience.
Individual counseling can be a means to address the past, and
to incorporate the past into the present and move into the future
with a sense of clarity and purpose. Search and reunion
counseling or consulting by a knowledgeable resource is undoubtedly
beneficial as a way to prepare for an upcoming contact and reunion
so that some common pitfalls and be avoided.
Know and believe that you are a mother to this child.
yourself. Above all, forgive that younger part of
yourself. Know that you did the very best you could at
that age, with the knowledge, support and choices (or lack of)
and with the societal expectations at that time.
others. Parents, birthfathers, significant others
and society are all a part of the past and parcel of your experience.
Consider letting go of the blame. And, if the forgiveness
doesn't come right away, that is okay, in time it may.
Forgiveness is often hard to achieve as a first mother. That
is okay, work toward acceptance of "what is, is." It's
not possible to change this piece of history, but it is okay
to accept that you did the best you could in a traumatic situation
in those times. No one told you what possible consequences
there might be down the road. After all, you were suppose
"to forget "
Remember it is not so much the experience in and of itself;
rather, how individually the experience is interpreted.
Thus, it is beneficial to understand your own interpretation.
Only then can the first mother begin to recognize and appreciate
the strengths and gains that were developed to survive the experience.
These same strengths are used today.
the first mother's voice deserves to be heard today. The
losses deserve to be recognized. As mothers, they deserve
to know how their children have fared. They deserve to be
acknowledged as mothers - because they are.
so loudly or
is heard so plainly
as the silent voice
1995, Donna R. Portuesi, MSW
M.S.W. is a reunited first mother. She is a psychotherapist
and co- founder of Adoption Search and Counseling Consultants
(ASCC) and is currently at work on her first book encapsulating
over a decade of reunion experience to be available in 1998.
She specializes in creative and economic long distance counseling
services for preparation in search, contact, reunion and post-reunion
issues as well as the lifelong impact on triad members and their
families. Donna also conducts workshops for triad members
and families and clinical training for therapists. She was
selected to be in "Who's Who in the West" 1998 and has been accepted
into "Who's Who of American Women", 1999 edition.
list of workshops and services (local and national) please call
(206) 284-8538, fax (206) 364-7883, or write to 6201 15th Avenue,
N.W., P210, Seattle, WA 98107 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or
visit our web site at www.reunionagency.org.
"respectful" adoption language:
"unwed" mother, "birthmother", "birthmom", "birthmoms", "dear birthparent",
"birthparent", "birthparents", "birthfather"
"biological" make a parent appear to be less than the mother or
father they are. These terms dehumanize and limit the parent's role
to that of an incubator. Using the honest terms "mother",
"single mother" or "natural mother" help the
public to understand why real family members must not be separated
to obtain babies for adoption.