When Your Birth Mother Says “No”

One of the most painful possibilities for any adoptee who is searching or considering a search for their birth mother is that she will say “no” to contact.  The fear of this is what keeps many adoptees who wish to search in a state of paralysis for months or sometimes years.  Even for those of us who chose not to search, the specter of this “second rejection” (as it is often referred to in adoption circles), hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads.

Research shows that the likelihood of a birth mother rejecting contact is extremely small (1%-5%).  Even so, this means that a small percentage of adult adoptees will face this experience if they search.

I know about some of these situations first hand, usually because I see the adoptee who has experienced this “second rejection” in my private practice.  (Although I also see birth mothers, it is almost never the ones who have rejected contact, but rather those who are dealing with issues related either to searching for their offspring or who are already in reunion.)

First off, what does “no” look like?  Well, there isn’t a uniform “no”. Sometimes a birth mother says “no” by silence or denial. She refuses to answer the phone call (whether from an intermediary or the adoptee.).  The letter sent in the mail goes unanswered. Or perhaps she denies that she is the birth mother. “You’ve got the wrong person.”

Sometimes “no” is taken another step. “No” is said out loud to the intermediary or the adoptee, with no further explanation.  Or there is a limited explanation. “I just can’t face the pain.” “I never told my family”.

Sometimes there is an initial “no”:  a knee jerk reaction of fear or avoidance.  But the next day, the next week, the next year, or the next time (for those adoptees can who bring themselves to ask again) brings a different, more receptive answer.  (For an amazingly heart-wrenching and heart-warming description of this kind of situation, read Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, MD.  The book is mainly about his near death experience, but he is also an adoptee and his story interweaves these two aspects of his life in a truly miraculous and healing way.)

Then there is the partial “no”, which I guess could be called a partial “yes”.  “I won’t talk with you, but we can exchange pictures.”  “I’ll talk to you on the phone, but I can’t meet you in person.”  “I’ll meet you but I can’t introduce you to my family”.

For the adoptee, anything short of a full and complete “yes” is likely to be experienced as a second rejection.  And underneath the second rejection, of course, is the first rejection.  The first time she rejected you by giving you away.

Saying your birth mother “gave you away” is not politically correct in professional adoption circles.  More correct language is that she “made a plan of adoption”, “relinquished” or “surrendered”.

But I am more interested in helping my clients find words that truly reflect the reality of their experience than in being politically correct.  And for many adoptees, the most accurate description of their experience is that they were given away.  That they were rejected.  This is particularly so in what we might call their younger, child mind.

More than twenty years ago I was chatting with one of my birth sisters about how I sometimes struggled to explain to people why my birth parents had given me away.  I had searched for and found them when I was nineteen, and discovered that they had been married when I was born.  My sister, who to this day has the wit of Talulah Bankhead, quipped, “Just tell them you were bad!”, and howled with laughter.

In that instant I felt myself split in two.  One part of me howled right along with her.  It was so obviously ridiculous that anyone would believe that an infant was bad.  Another part contracted in pain, as if a thousand knives were stabbing my heart.  That part, the younger, child mind, the vulnerable place inside of me, believed it was the truth.

Children, in their natural and developmentally age-appropriate narcissism, believe what happens in the world is about them.  And why would my mother give me away, unless I was bad?

For an adoptee, healing any sense of being “bad”, of being rejectable, is paramount.  The fear of a “second rejection” is, in many ways, a fear of the inner demon of the first rejection rearing its ugly head.  To the child mind (and frankly to the adult mind often, as well) the second rejection just confirms the reality of the first rejection.

People who weren’t adopted sometimes can’t seem to understand this. They see the (often) rational and even caring reasons a birth mother was unable to parent a child, and don’t get why the adoptee would feel hurt.  I ask them to recall a time when sometime broke up with them.  As your boyfriend/girlfriend/lover/spouse was saying to you, “I love you but I just can’t be with you” – even if you knew it was true for some objective reason, didn’t it still hurt?  And imagine being a child, without the power of an objective adult mind, friends to console you, therapists to turn to, etc.  The one person in the world who was supposed to love you gave you away.  Honestly, what kind of reassurance would make up for that?

Well, I have the answer.  The ultimate reassurance must be grown, like a well-cultivated plant, inside your own heart.  You must grow inside you the mother/parent who affirms your ultimate lovability, worthiness and value.  You must work to hold that inner infant, that inner child, in your mind’s eye and heart now, and feel how you will never, ever, give her away.  Once that feeling is solid inside of you, no one can ever take it away.

Does it help if your birth mother doesn’t reject you a second time?  Yes, I believe it does. Because cultivating that kind of inner self-love and self-loyalty is helped by receiving the love and acceptance of anyone, including one’s birth mother.  Is it a necessary requisite for healing yourself?  Again, in my experience the answer is no.  I was well-received by my birth mother (and father) but it took many years of practicing the art of self-acceptance and self-love to fully feel in my infant-heart and mind that I was not rejectable.  As Hillary Clinton so eloquently wrote, “It takes a village”.

So to my fellow adoptees, I offer a final quote from Master Po of the old Kung Fu TV series: “Courage, grasshoppers”.  No matter what happens – whether or not you search and no matter who or what you find – you are worthy of love.

Photo credit:  kh1234567890 via Flickr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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2 Responses to When Your Birth Mother Says “No”

  1. Deniece Cummings says:

    After many years of study and “living life,” you have definitely found your true vocation; therapist. This is indeed a beautiful and poetic piece. How could you ever do anything other than helping others with your skills and giving spirit.

  2. Vince Calio says:

    I was born in Korea in 1972, was thrown out of the house when I was three, and somehow got adopted by loving parents in New York, where I was raised and educated. I have a good life now with my wife and son, and have a good career. I stay in touch with my adoptive parents, who are my real parents. Now, I have an opportunity to write to my birth mother. The thing is, I remember in my nightmares the day she threw me out of her home in Busan, Korea in 1975. I cried and went back in, and she threw me out again. The one thing I remember in my nightmare was that she had this twisted expression of pure hate and evil on her face when she threw me out of the house.

    As a Christian, I am told that I need to forgive. Forgiveness, however, is not in my heart, and it is a bit troubling. I want to start off my letter to her by saying, “You failed to kill me when I was three years old, much like – I am guessing – you have failed most things in your life.”

    Instead of wishing her well, I want tot tell her that I hope she burns in hell, and that I beat her in life because I have in my heart what she does not, and that is love for my family.

    The bottom line is, I am troubled because I don’t even begin to know how to sincerely forgive her.

    Thank you for reading.

    Blessings,
    VJC in NYC

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