Ask an expert: 'I feel hurt by his search for his birth mum'
Adult and specialist adolescent psychotherapist Belinda Kelly answers your queries.
We adopted our Irish son when he was a baby. I wasn’t able to have children so we were overjoyed when we became parents.
He is our only child. He is 24 and lives with us as he’s still completing his education. I am not proud of this, but I found forms in his bedroom showing that he has started to search for his birth mother. This has completely thrown me.
I feel really hurt and I can’t stop crying. I thought that after all this time, he might see me as his mother and not need to go looking for her. He has always told us that he sees us as his family and that he’s never had a need to search for his biological parents.
I don’t understand why he feels he has to hide this from us. We have always been so open with him and reassured him that we would help him with any questions he may have. I have heard stories about birth parents rejecting their adult child or overwhelming them by wanting to suck them into their lives completely. I am so worried that he’s going to end up broken by this experience.
Answer: Can we sit back and gain some perspective on what might really be going on here. I’ll start with your son. At 24, he has decided that he needs to know who he is and where he has come from. Now that he is an adult, he may feel able to embark on this odyssey. This journey might help him fill in the pieces of his identity puzzle. We all have a birthright to this knowledge. In order to know who we are, we sometimes need to know where we have come from.
The days when children were denied access to their birth mothers are almost over. Wouldn’t you want to know all you could about your own heritage? Wouldn’t you want to meet the person who gave you life?
Research has shown that adoptees often experience a distinct loneliness because of this existential gap. The psychotherapist John Searson, who specialises in adoption issues, writes: “By the very nature of adoption, adopted people have suffered at least one major relational disruption with their primary attachment figures during a crucial period of primary bond formation in infancy. This disruption is internalised and can manifest later in life as a sense of ‘otherness’ and a longing for answers: Who am I? Where did I come from?
A person’s choice to search for their birth mother is not always a need to re-form those disrupted relationships, but often a desire to know more about their own history, to know more about themselves. For some adopted people, there is a sense that a piece of the jigsaw that compromises their own story and history is missing. Tracing their birth mother, as fraught as that process can often be in Ireland, is one way to try to fill in the missing information”.
Many people who have found their birth parent say that despite all the obstacles, they would do it again. Finding their birth mother brought closure, and even if they didn’t maintain contact, it gave them a sense of belonging and deep connection.
You say you don’t understand why your son has to hide this from you. I want you to try and imagine how conflicted he must be feeling. By having to constantly offer reassurance to his adopted family, he may be experiencing feelings of guilt, shame and betrayal. At present, he is torn between his attachment to both his mothers. I imagine this is creating a lot of internal anxiety and confusion in him. The last thing your son needs now is to be concerned about your feelings. If he senses your panic, this will only ensure more self-blame, guilt and confusion.
If you are still struggling with his decision, then go and talk to someone who can support you during this process. This way, you will be more emotionally available to him if he wants to talk to you about it. If he does begin to talk to you, let him know that you are absolutely fine and that you will do whatever it takes to support him.
You need to leave all your fears aside and be a safe harbour when there’s so much chaos inside and around him. Become part of his journey and help him find even the slightest scrap of information. Advise him to proceed slowly and to have one conversation at a time. Take it step by step. Make sure he tries to pace himself so that he doesn’t become overwhelmed by rushing in too early. So much anxiety goes into that first meeting, so it’s important he feels prepared and grounded.
I would suggest he see a therapist for support leading up to and during his search. If he does find his birth mother and they arrange to meet, make sure it’s on neutral ground.
Your reaction sounds like you are experiencing intense emotions, such as shock and grief. You are doubting your role as his mother and it’s as if your world has been thrown upside down. You are really frightened and are creating a catastrophic series of events.
What is your greatest fear? Is it that he will abandon you? How could that even be possible given that you have cared for your son all his life?
You are his mother and you are at the centre of his world. You worry that he may become ‘broken’ by this experience. But can I gently suggest that you are the one who may be afraid of breaking?
Find lots of support for yourself. Treat yourself kindly by making time to cherish your fragility during this experience. Barnardos offers a post-adoption support service for adopted people and their families at barnardos.ie or visit saorpsychotherapy.com to find a therapist.