J. Kelly M.A.
"One has only to listen to these [birthmother] stories to
realize that the system of adoption failed birthmothers.
Somewhere along the road, we forgot the most primal of human
instincts: a mother's natural inclination to protect and
nurture her child. Without that instinct our species would
not exist. Should it really be such a surprise that birthmothers
have had a difficult time surviving this unnatural termination?"
(Strauss, 1994, p. 236)
study began with trepidation as I emerged from the shadows
of birthmotherhood -- to bring witness to the silent suffering
of those traumatized by the loss of their infants to adoption.
Divulging the topic of my thesis to students, faculty and
co-workers was in itself anxiety provoking. However, once
out of the shadows, a personally transformative process began
-- during which time I was reunited with my lost child and
was able to reclaim both my voice and my identity.
written and unwritten laws of society change, the issues addressed
in this study will change also. Fifty years hence, these issues
may be of mere historical interest - and eventually buried
within the coffins of countless birthmothers who in life were
entombed by the weight of the secrets, lies, and anonymity.
Today, however, we have an opportunity and an imperative
to bring visibility to their suffering and to create a space
for their healing.
literature review, I described and chronicled the historical,
socio-cultural, political, biological, and psychological factors
that are intrinsically linked to the birthmother's experience
of relinquishment. I examined mother-child bonding theory,
the social construction of motherhood, adoption and relinquishment,
and trauma theory as it relates to relinquishment. Throughout
this study, I have attempted to investigate the impact of
relinquishment from a biopsychosocial perspective. By involving
birthmothers in the analysis of the data, I hoped to provide
a depth of meaning to the quantitative survey results - in
a sense, to permit the numbers to speak through the birthmothers.
What emerged was a story of women sentenced by society to
hide silently behind a sheath of secrecy and shame.
this study, I had formulated the following questions: Did
a birthmother stress syndrome exist? How was the birthmother
experience socially constructed? What were the underlying
assumptions that defined this experience? How have birthmothers
been affected by their marginalized status? What were the
larger societal concerns? What was the relationship between
the psychological effects of relinquishment and the social
consequences? Were there opportunities for social action?
And how might the counseling community better serve this population?
This study contributes a mere grain of sand to the acquisition
of knowledge in these areas. However, it is my hope that it
will inspire others to continue to build knowledge so as to
meet the counseling needs of this emerging group of women.
Stress Syndrome. It is in this area that I feel the study
was most lacking in its design. Although I attempted to capture
items that measured symptoms identified by others as part
of a birthmother syndrome, I was unable to perform any statistical
analysis of this data as a result of the sampling techniques
and questionnaire design employed. Nor was this area of study
addressed in the post-survey small group discussion. However,
as mentioned previously, the data suggests that a syndrome
may exist and warrants further research.
Social Construction of the Birthmother Experience. In
my opinion, there are few other experiences that are as wholly
socially constructed as relinquishment. The review of the
literature, together with the statements made by the discussion
group in support of the survey data, present a portrait of
the social construction of relinquishment -- one painted by
a patriarchal society aimed to serve the needs of the dominant
culture. This is aptly illustrated by the excerpt from the
1960 Child Welfare League's Standards for Services to Unmarried
Parents, previously sited, wherein parenthood without marriage
was deemed to be a "form of social dysfunctioning" and the
legal family was touted as "the approved social institution
to ensure sound rearing and development of children" (Solinger,
1992, p. 166). Society's determination to preserve not only
the "legal family" but also the perceived "virtue" and future
marriageability of pregnant unmarried women was tenacious.
The lengths to which individuals, families and institutions
went to conceal the out-of-wedlock pregnancy is quite extraordinary.
Gediman and Brown (1991) refer to the burden of secrecy as
"socially sanctioned denial" and note that it instills in
the birthmother the belief that what they have done is "unspeakable."
The influence of society on relinquishment and the birthmothers'
internalization of the society's expectations and assumptions
was quite poignantly expressed by the group discussion members
in their descriptions of encounters with family, social workers,
counselors, and health care providers. However, in shielding
the unwed mother from the social effects of the out-of-wedlock
pregnancy, society failed to provide the necessary support
structure to buffer the birthmother from the resultant trauma
of relinquishment. Feelings of abandonment by society and
family were strongly voiced by each of the group discussion
members. As a marginalized group, birthmothers were oppressively
and punitively denied access to information and resources.
Anecdotes of the denial of rights, the receipt of misinformation,
and the omission of information were repeatedly storied throughout
the group discussion. Since the relinquishment, birthmothers
in the study had experienced a wide range of psychological
and behavioral patterns: unresolved grief, intrusive thoughts,
avoidance, guilt, remorse, depression, low self-esteem, self-destructive
behaviors, etc.; and, within the discussion group members,
the effects were manifested in their relationships at all
levels: with children, siblings, parents, friends, and society-at-large.
the survey responses and the group discussion pointed to the
relinquishment of a child as a traumatic life event associated
with enduring effects on the birthmother. While it is unclear
what percentage of birthmothers are traumatized by relinquishment,
we know that for many the magnitude and extent of the psychological
effects of relinquishment are far-reaching. The discussion
group alluded to damage to the core self. Dissociation and
the splitting off of "self" and "shell" were identified as
effects of relinquishment. One group participant described
the trauma of relinquishment in this way: "It's a total shift
of reality. Everything you thought was, no longer is." The
resolution of the trauma appears to be seriously impeded by
the imposition of secrecy and the lack of support systems.
Further, misinformation held by social workers, psychologists,
and counselors concerning the effects of relinquishment may
contribute to the pathologization of the birthmother, inadequate
services, and inappropriate treatment plans. While sexual
mores have become increasingly relaxed over the last 30 years,
as pointed out in the group discussion, many service providers
are still the product of the society that promulgated the
ostracizing and stigmatizing of unwed mothers in previous
decades. One research study suggests that birthmothers may
still be subjected to critical attitudes held by therapists,
and particularly by women without children (Caldwell, 1993).
references to the imposition of secrecy during the group discussion
raises a topic for research consideration that, although alluded
to, has not been specifically addressed in previous research.
To what extent did the imposition of secrecy inhibit resolution
of or exacerbate the trauma? And what would be the effects
of dismantling the sheath of secrecy for this cohort group?
Currently, only three states have open adoption records permitting
members of the adoption triad to access the original birth
certificate: Alaska, Kansas, and Tennessee. Oregon's Measure
58, which permits adoptees to access their original birth
certificates, was passed in 1998; but the legislation was
immediately challenged by opponents of the bill. (Note: Since
the writing of this article, the state of Oregon has opened
its birth records to adoptees.) A primary argument against
open records has been the safeguarding of birthmother confidentiality.
However, lifting the veil of secrecy may have inherent therapeutic
value for the birthmother. Gediman and Brown (1991) write
that "keeping a secret can make us feel guilty, duplicitous,
or unauthentic; and that, over a long period of time, it can
have a powerful influence on character and personality" (p.
posttraumatic stress disorder was not assessed through this
survey, the incidence of traumatic stress symptoms reported
suggests that some birthmothers may suffer from posttraumatic
stress disorder as proposed by other researchers (Wells, 1993,
cited in Arthur & Jacobs, 1999). However, even in the
absence of a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder, birthmothers
may suffer from a chronic stress syndrome associated with
the relinquishment. As research continues in the area of the
mind-body connection, psychoneuroimmunology, and somatic cellular
memories, the impact of stress and/or trauma on health is
of prominent interest. A high incidence of hysterectomies
had been previously observed and reported to me by an adoption
triad counselor. A startling finding in this study was that
41% of the survey participants had received hysterectomies.
Estimates of the percentage of women in the general population
who have had hysterectomies vary widely. Simkin (1996) predicts
that "if present trends persist, one in five (maybe one in
four) women, is likely to have a hysterectomy by the time
she is 60" (p. 8). However, The Diagram Group (1998) reports
that as many as 35% of women under the age of 60 received
hysterectomies in the mid-eighties. Geographical factors may
account for these discrepancies. In spite of these differences,
the 41% incidence of hysterectomies among the birthmothers
in this study is higher than either of these estimates. Further
research in this area is warranted. Were hysterectomies utilized
as measures of birth control for this population? Was the
birth/relinquishment trauma implicated in the development
of disease? Was prejudicial health treatment given to birthmothers?
results supported other research findings (Jones, 1993; Carlini,
1992) that birthmothers experience difficulties with unresolved
grief, traumatic stress symptoms, self-punishment, low self-esteem,
arrested emotional development, living at extremes, difficulty
forgiving oneself/others, being out of touch with feelings,
difficulty giving/receiving love, relationship problems, self-hatred
and dysfunctional sexual problems. Unresolved grief, self-punishment,
and low self-esteem ranked highest among the difficulties
identified as extreme, often or severe. In a separate letter,
one respondent stated that "One of the more striking events
of reunion was the realization of how relinquishment had effected
my entire life since then. I hadn't realized that all of the
symptoms of dysfunction; inner and outer; were primarily attributable
to that one event, 30 years prior." During the intake interview,
counselors would be well advised to identify whether a woman
has relinquished a child and to evaluate its impact.
finding of the study concerns the birthmothers' evaluation
of counseling provided at the time of the relinquishment.
Ninety-four percent of the respondents reported that they
did not receive adequate counseling. One survey respondent
wrote separately: "One thread in your questionaire concerned
counseling; yes, I was forced into it. BUT not all counseling
is benign, nor helpful. This experience is the only issue
over which I carry anger today." The discussion group explained
that if any counseling was given it was given "with an agenda."
The consensus of the group was that the agenda of the psychologist,
counselor or social worker was "to make you give up your child."
For this reason, birthmothers may enter the therapeutic relationship
with a significant lack of trust and with the expectation
of betrayal -- if they seek counseling at all. According to
the survey results, more than half (58%) of the respondents
have not received psychotherapy because of the relinquishment.
(It must be noted, however, that the survey did not identify
whether psychotherapy was sought for other reasons.)
of cultural support systems to buffer birthmothers from the
trauma of relinquishment is apparent. To what extent can this
cohort group of birthmothers be "demarginalized" and "detraumatized"
within today's culture? Clearly, counselors must be sensitive
to the depth of the trauma and the shame that birthmothers
may have been subjected to. Understanding the implications
and assumptions imbedded within the "language of adoption
and relinquishment" may also facilitate the therapeutic relationship
between counselor and birthmother. As members of a marginalized
group, birthmothers would have, at least, had access to other
members of the group for support if they had not been bound
by secrecy. Instead, birthmothers remained in isolation from
each other and from the mainstream. Birthmother support groups,
therefore, provide an excellent opportunity for birthmothers
to share their stories with other birthmothers and thereby
validate their experiences. The Internet support groups and
chat rooms provide an element of anonymity which is often
important to the newly emergent birthmother.
significance to the discussion group was the perception of
not having had "rights" at the time of the relinquishment.
This led to a sense of violation and to anger. The feeling
of "not having rights" or of nonentitlement may linger still
today. As one survey respondent recalls, "I was 18 in a world
when 21 was the legal age. From the time my parents learned
of my pregnancy, adoption was the only option. My parents,
physicians and the social worker at Catholic Charities treated
me as a remotely involved party. Never once was I asked what
I wanted, how I felt about the choice or counseled about alternatives."
Some birthmothers are re-establishing their rights in the
form of social action. Recently, hundreds of birthmothers
signed their names to a full- page ad in the Oregonian newspaper
in support of Measure 58 for open records. Likewise, unprecedented
numbers of birthmothers are joining reunion registries and
hiring searchers in an effort to locate their relinquished
children. Reunion may or may not facilitate healing of the
trauma (De Simone, 1996). As one birthmother noted, "I have
reunited with my daughter and things are going as well as
can be expected but nothing will give us back those lost years.
There has been a great deal of healing with the reunion but
there will always be this incredible sense of loss that will
never really go away." However, the birthmother's exercising
of her rights within the social system may indeed lead to
FOR SOCIAL ACTION
are currently two social action movements that lend themselves
to the empowerment of birthmothers: the search and support
movement and the adoption rights movement. Each of these provide
mechanisms for birthmothers to take action and reclaim some
measure of control over their lives in this area. Searching
for the relinquished child offers the birthmother the opportunity
to attain closure. Support groups facilitate the healing process
-- giving the birthmother permission to share her story, validate
her experience, and process her grief. Participation in the
lobbying for adoption legislation reform and open records
can also empower birthmothers and assist them to reclaim lost
rights. In a separate correspondence, one survey respondent
. . I have become politically active in the hopes that
mothers and their children will never again be separated
for what is basically a temporary financial problem. I
feel all efforts to keep families together should be made
and that there should be no financial reward to any agency
for facilitating the relinquishment of natural children.
If these agencies weren't in the business of baby selling
they wouldn't be fighting the open records effort. They
also wouldn't coerce young women into relinquishment in
the first place and they would perhaps offer them more
and van der Kolk advise that "Trauma may act as a catalyst
for social change: By giving voice to their own misery, many
social critics, political leaders, and artists have been able
to transform their trauma into a way of helping other people"
(1996, p. 33).
FOR CLINICAL COUNSELING
is a growing need for counselors to be trained in the special
needs of the adoption triad. In addition to the concerns previously
mentioned, counselors must examine their own assumptions and
belief systems concerning relinquishment. In the group discussion,
psychologists and counselors were accused of having inflicted
further damage on the birthmothers. HEALER DO NO HARM.
It is essential that birthmothers be permitted to tell their
stories in a nonjudgmental setting in order to lift the curtain
of silence. Davidson (1994) offers a three-part treatment
plan for birthmother healing that includes: individual counseling,
an experiential group workshop, and a three-phase support
group system. Psychoeducation, somatic therapy, and feminist
approaches may also be particularly well suited to treating
relinquishment trauma. According to one birthmother's experience,
"With the presence of my son, the support of an on-line birthmother
mailing list and a wonderful therapist, the healing began.
Now 20 months later, I'm still discovering facets of my life
touched by relinquishment, trying to nurture that frightened
young woman that I was and help her understand and accept
that she wasn't the only one who made a mistake."
FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
study has identified several research inquiries for future
study of maternal caregiving and mother-infant retrieval
as shared dyadic behavioral systems (as suggested by
of the incidence of hysterectomies among birthmothers;
effects of secrecy on the experience of relinquishment
implementation of a controlled study to test for the
presence of a birthmother stress syndrome;
into the relationship between psychoneuroimmunology,
cellular memory and intrauterine communication between
mother and child.
researchers, as well as birthmothers, have noted the "dearth"
of research that exists on birthmothers. As the frequency
of reunions increases, I expect that the need for informed
counseling will also increase - counseling informed by a
knowledge base of research on birthmothers and their counseling
conducting this research, my stated objectives were to:
(1) contribute to the presently scant body of knowledge
concerning the birthmother experience, (2) inform the counseling
community of the issues relevant to the counseling of birthmothers,
(3) identify areas for future research, and (4) relate the
findings to matters of social relevance. I believe that
these objectives have been reached. So many of the participants
thanked me for engaging in this research and many expressed
gratitude for being able to partake in the study. One birthmother
wrote: "Perhaps your thesis will help to educate others
of the pain involved and the process one goes through when
surrendering a child for adoption." In the spirit of narrative
theory, Harry Goolishian says: "Our prevailing narratives
provide the vocabulary that sets our realities. Our destinies
are opened or closed in terms of the stories that we construct
to understand our experiences" (as quoted in Freedman &
Combs, 1996, p. 77). In the retelling of birthmother experiences,
alternative stories emerge. The narratives are infused with
new meaning, viewed from alternative perspectives, and a
new experience is generated. It is hoped that the circulation
of these stories among the counseling community will help
to "demarginalize" the lived experiences of birthmothers
and provide the opportunity for counselors to perhaps view
the relinquishment experience through a new and different
deeply indebted to all the birthmothers in this study for
their courageous participation. In describing the research
method known as experience research, Kirby and McKenna write:
"We do not want to contribute further to the public silencing
of voices from the margins. Instead, we want to do research
in a way that creates opportunities to reclaim and re-name
that experience" (1989, p. 64).
me, relinquishment was an amputation of the soul -
reunion, I became whole.
on July 31, 1998)
Copyright © 1999-2005 Judy
Kelly, M.A., C.P.A.C.,
All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author
Note: The words "birthmother" or "birthparent"
are derogatory terms utilized by adoption "counselors"
and "facilitators" in order to diminish a mother
into playing a solely reproductive role in her child's life.
The terms "birthmother" and "birthparents"
are used on this site as a consession to search-engine requirements
for a North American audience. The terms "mother",
"single mother", "natural mother," and
"exiled mother" are acknowledged to be accurate,
respectful, and nonderogatory terms. See " by Diane Turski for more
J. Kelly Birthmother Research Project:
Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter II: Literature Review
Chapter III: Methodology
Chapter IV: Results
Chapter V: Discussion
Summarized Survey Results
Is your unmarried daughter pregnant?
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