The Open Wounds of an Open Adoption

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader has a heart-wrenching story:

I was struck by the title of your reader note “Better Off Without Birthparents,” as it exaggerated the pain I already feel about my own daughter’s related sentiments.

I am a birthmother. I chose open adoption for my daughter 20 years ago, when open adoption wasn’t very common or studied. I was young, scared, with an unplanned pregnancy, and I was too poor to care for my daughter on my own. The process of making a decision like adoption when you are young, single, and pregnant and fears are high—not to mention hormones raging through the uncharted territory of pregnancy in your own body—is absolutely torturous. There is an immediate lifelong emotional connection being made with the child inside of you, but logic is trying to prevail.

I thought I was doing the right thing by her when I chose open adoption. She ended up in a family across the country from me, and I viewed it as granting someone else permission and the gift of raising her. But with open adoption, since I would still be in her life, I still viewed myself very much as her mother. I just saw it as her having two mothers. Equal but different.

What I didn’t realize when I made that choice was that I was rejecting myself.

I rejected my own ability to care for her. I rejected that I could be enough. I rejected my strength to get on my feet and survive. To persevere. I made the horrifying decision that some other woman, whom I didn’t even know, would be better suited for my own child than me, her biological mother.

Because I was young, I believed that where I was in life at that point would last forever. And that place was not ideal for a baby. When time and experience taught me that circumstances change and life is always moving forward, it was too late to go back. The papers were already signed. She was someone else’s now. Forever.

We did end up staying in each other’s lives. We visited at least once a year. We talked on the phone and sent letters, photos, texts, and the like. As the years progressed, I found it more and more difficult to watch someone else raise my child, not to mention watch my child call someone else “mom.” I had no voice in the choices they made for her. I was forced to sit back and observe, while my child grew without me in a home that was entirely foreign to my own.

It has been the ultimate form of psychological and emotional torture. The worst hit me when my daughter considered suicide and ended up in a hospital, and I wasn’t allowed to contact her because I wasn't a direct relative. Or was it years earlier when she wanted to run away and considered living with me, but her parents wouldn’t grant me legal guardianship to take her to the doctors in case of illness or emergency, so it didn’t happen.

Sitting back and watching your child hurt without the ability to do anything but scream in silence is indescribable. I brought my daughter into this world and made a self-sacrificing decision to do what I thought was best for her, and because of ink laid out on two square inches of paper when she was only days old, I had no right to care for her ever again.

And then, this past year, when she entered college and I expressed my joy that I could somehow be more free to be a mother to her, she became angry and insulted that I would suggest such a thing. She clarified that I am not her mother—that I gave up that right a long time ago and I don’t ever get to have it back.

Children have the ultimate power to destroy their parents, and in my mind I have never not been her mother. But she has destroyed me with the reality of where her heart lies.

In her mind, perhaps she is better off without her birthparent. In my mind, I am not her birthmother. I am her mother. She is not my “birth daughter.” She is my daughter. And to think that your own child is better off without you is excruciating. It’s only echoing the fears and insecurities I had in my own head when I made the decision of adoption: “maybe she’s better off without me.”

But nothing in my heart believes it. And it’s painful to be a part of the silenced side of adoption: a birthparent. There is a lot of focus on adopted kids and adoptive parents. But for every one of those, there is a mother out there who gave birth to that child and might be hurting so deeply on the inside for the remainder of her life.