I’m Mad as Hell, but I’m Going to Keep Taking More (or, Navigating Birth Family Dynamics)

Like most moms, I’m very protective of my kids. But with adopted kids, that circle of protection can be exceedingly challenging when it comes to birth families. I know I’m not unique, but certainly in the minority, when it comes to my beliefs about connecting with my kids’ families of origin. I see my role as very complicated. I’m both their primary day-to-day mom, but I share the moniker of “mom” with another woman – the woman who gave birth to them. Our family is their family, but they have another family who very much matters to them, too. I cannot say that this is always easy for me. I envy moms of bio kids for whom they are the one and only mom. There’s no shadow mom who is adored just for existing, not for actually doing anything positive for them. That there are occasional pangs of grief, I will not deny. But by and large, I accept that this is my chosen path. Adoption was the only way to form a family that I ever seriously considered. There are enough people in this world. I do not need to make new ones, even if that means that I will never be the be-all, end-all mom that my vanity wishes for.

That being said, the sadness over my own status is rare and fleeting. What is almost omnipresent, though, is a near constant nagging that I wish my kids’ families were more present in their lives. I am the kind of person who sees all sides. I rarely judge and am empathetic that the families have been through a lot with losing their kids and their own challenges. I’m understanding that for them, interacting with their kids is painful. It dredges up, most likely, feelings of defeat and failure.

Nevertheless, I sometimes feel deep anger at them for having so little contact with the kids. My 9 year old just celebrated his birthday and there was crickets from anyone in his birth family, including his adult brother who shares a birthday with him. I have worked hard to cultivate relationships between the kids and their bio relatives, particularly the moms. They are free to call, text, Facetime, write or visit practically any time. Usually, it is me who contacts them. I send them pictures, call them, write them and arrange visits. Sometimes the moms show up, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t. It’s very much hit or miss. Thankfully, most of the time the kids aren’t aware of these contacts I make. They usually are only aware when it’s successful and they get the chance to talk or see them. But occasionally they are aware and it hurts. They also long for much more contact, but I am powerless to make that happen. It takes two to tango, as they say.

Many rightly question why I would have a relationship with the birth families in the first place. And my answer is simple, this is their lives, not mine. Their bio families are theirs and whether or not we have a relationship, my kids know that they exist. They love them, think about them, and have hopes and questions that go beyond me. People often mistakenly think that not talking about such things makes it go away. Recently I’ve been connecting with a lot of adult adoptees, and I will assure you, even if they never uttered the word “adoption” in their households, the kids were all-too-aware of it. Kids who are denied information and contact can grow up to be very angry and resentful at their adopted families. They can grow up with fantasies about who and what their bio families are that painfully do not live up to their imaginings. As such, those adoptees are left to navigate these hurtful situations on their own, because adopted parents prioritized their own feelings over that of their kids. Even worse in some ways, if their birth families turn out to be great people, adoptees can be even more hurt because they were denied a positive relationship with someone so important. I want my kids to know the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows of their original families while I’m at their side to celebrate or grieve. I’m their safe place to experience it all and incorporate it into their lives throughout their lives. Not turn it all on like some light being switched when they’re 18 and already are dealing with enough challenges of navigating adulthood. This is why we have contact.

But this contact can be so painful and I wish it were so much more than it is. My two youngest boys’ mom struggles with addiction, but I know loves them very much. Her addiction colors her capacity to have a meaningful relationship with them. My boys will be in a dance show soon. They want her there. I bought her tickets. I’ve called and texted. She said she’d come but I haven’t heard from her in over a month. I doubt she will show. My 9 year old said to me today, “She’s probably not coming.” And I had to hug him and agree. He needs to be prepared. But I’ve done everything that I can do to make it happen. And yet it completely breaks my heart for him. I reassure him that he is loved. I explain, for the umteenth time that her addiciton is so serious that it has taken over. But I can’t help feeling anger, too. I want to see his face light up as he hugs her and feels her love by having her show up for him. I wish I could vanquish her addiction and bring her back to them; and I’m so pissed at heroin that I can’t breathe. I cannot show my kids my own feelings of sadness and anger. I have to be their rock.

Years ago, when my oldest son was struggling so much, I begged their birth mom to write him a brief letter telling him that she loved him. She never returned my messages. Now that her life is so much more stable, I also asked if my daughter – HER daughter – could stay with her for a little while to reconnect and hopefully help her feel more grounded, again, no response. My youngest daughter wrote her a text a few years back, “I love you mom” – no reply. My rage is barely containable sometimes when I feel like she is so cold. But I tell myself and tell them, that it’s not that she doesn’t love them, it’s that she doesn’t know how to truly love. She was a victim of horrific child abuse and she was not able to break that cycle with her, and my, oldest 3 kids.

My kids will have to work through these realities of their families of origin. There is no way that I can shield them from this through their lives. Eventually, almost all adoptees want answers. And that is their right. What I can do is help them find the answers now so that nothing comes as a shock. Just as anyone growing up with dysfunctional parents learns to incorporate this reality throughout their lives, so too should adoptees be given this opportunity. Of course, there are bio family members who may be too unsafe to have contact with. But even then, kids can know their names and whatever good and bad you know about them, unfolding in age appropriate ways. Adoptive parents who deny their kids this basic right should be prepared to lose their children as adults because of the resentment that can build by being left in the dark. As much as I wish I could wave my wand and the kids’ families become all-loving, all-embracing, that will not happen. But this does not mean that there is no love and no embracing. It’s just not what we all wish it could be, including, I suspect for their bio families. Adoption leaves so much pain and mistrust in its wake. Opening up family contact can include heartbreak, but also helps scab over the deep and profound wounds that adoptees feel. Adoptive parents, hold strong and bring in the birth families as much as you can. You can handle it. It will make your kids stronger and much more well-adjusted in the long run.   

Happy update: after writing this yesterday and feeling so frustrated, my son‘s birth mom called and told me that she had lost her phone. She had not forgotten about him and wished him a happy birthday. And then their brother wrote and asked what he could get them for Christmas. These connections are so important. They help the kids feel loved. It makes them feel much less like they’ve been forgotten and abandoned by those who should be sticking by them.

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