Sunday, March 14, 2010

Confessions of an Ambivalent Birth Daughter

Driving my then 13 year old daughter Maddy and 4 of her friends to play in a basketball game, I was laughing to myself as they answered questions from a book of ice breaker type of questions.  Coke or Pepsi?  Favorite season and why?  What is your biggest regret?  To this one, they answered by telling of boys they wish they never liked and outfits that should have been left unworn. One of the girls said, "What about you Mrs. Noyce, what is your biggest regret?"  I was trying to think of a response when Maddy piped in, "I know Mom, meeting your birth parents, right?"

I was floored by her response.  For one, I had never said this to her, and for another, it wasn't true.  I did not regret meeting my birth parents.  Well, maybe I did regret it a little.  No, I didn't, knowing is better than not knowing.  Or maybe it isn't.  I really couldn't say for sure.

The roles of my life have alway been well defined, daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend. If any of these roles confused me I had the example of those who went before me or were right there with me. Reunited birth daughter (as it is now known, at the time, 1983, if it had a name, I didn't know it) was a new role for me and I had no idea how to be one.  It is a role I would never truly be comfortable in or successful at.

My adoption, was typical of adoptions in 1963, completely closed, all records sealed,  information and biological history unavailable.  I wanted to know the circumstances of my birth and adoption, I wanted to know who I looked like and where I was born.  I wanted to know who my birth parents were and what they were like. I think all adoptees have a right to know these things, I think it is normal and definitely not a reflection on the adoptive family.

My ambivalence is also  in no way a reflection on my birth mother, who is a lovely and kind woman. ( I will however, admit that meeting my birth father did make me see the upside  of closed records.)  My enemy is probably my own personality.  I am hugely loyal, I married my first serious boyfriend, I keep the same tight group of friends, when I find shoes I like, I am sad when they wear out and need to be replaced and I wouldn't consider buying laundry detergent that wasn't Tide.

I loved finding the answers to the questions that plagued me growing up. When I met my birth mother and her children I loved them.  What I didn't love, was feeling as though I should be part of a family other than my own.  When someone wants more from you than you can give, you can feel it, even if it is never spoken.   I would never grow used to being referred to as 'daughter' by anyone other than my mom and dad. I would care about my new half siblings but would never be able to think of them in  the same way I think of the brother and sister I was raised with. Looking through the eyes of my birth family, I completely understand how frustrating my reluctance has been to them over the years. As a birth daughter, I am no picnic.

The hardest thing in adoption reunion for me, is something I couldn't have anticipated.  It changed how people saw me and the family I was raised in.  When I spoke to my closest friends about my birth parents, I referred to them by their first names.  I spoke of my difficulty and disappointment in meeting my birth father.  I shared my feelings and confusion as I tried to navigate a relationship with my birth mother. I have been crystal clear, that they are not my parents and that I didn't think of them as my parents.  Yet they didn't get it.

I remember telling a story that involved my mom.  One of my dearest friends stopped me mid-sentence and asked me which mom I meant.  I couldn't believe it.  I realized that in spite of my clear explanation, that was how people saw it.  That my mother suddenly shared equal billing in her role in my life was really painful for me.

I had similar experiences talking about my birth father.  After an out of the blue phone call from my birth father, I found out he was living in the town over from me after being released from prison.  I was concerned and managed to get a copy of his police records, since I felt I needed to know more about him.  (I didn't feel in danger, he had always been nice to me, but had young children and didn't want to be naive).  The whole experience was upsetting. That night at a Bible study I shared it with the women in my group.  I started by telling them that I had a dad, he died when I was a teenager, but he was the only person that was truly my dad.  I referred to my biological father by his first name and said "Please don't call him my dad or father, refer to him only by his first name."  Pretty clear I thought.  The following Sunday at church, one of the woman hugged me and told me how much she had been thinking about the situation with my dad.  I am not kidding.

Before 'reunion' I really had no idea how easily people would disregard two of the most important relationships of my life.  The woman who had always been simply my mother, suddenly became my adoptive mother and my dad, who had died, had his role in my life given to someone else, at least in name.  I probably seem overly sensitive about it, but it was very hurtful to me.

Over a quarter of a century has passed since the beginning of my role as 'birth daughter' and  you might think I have made some headway into figuring  it out.  I haven't.  If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't.  Well, maybe I would.......



  1. I have no idea how you feel, except that I know what it's like to have people want more from you than you can give. I don't know if you will ever figure it out, or how you will feel about it when you do... but I can offer you a hug, and hope that no matter what happens, you remain the positive, happy, wonderful person that you are.


  2. Alison, You have such a way of putting feelings into words. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. First...I had that haircut :P

    Second - about a year or two after my husband and I got together, I tracked down his birth father. His mother had remarried, and her second husband adopted him. His birth father had tried to find him at one point, but had been unable to - it wasn't a closed adoption or anything - but a situation of divorce and 'what they thought was best' for the boy.
    They have a distant friendship now - and the similarities between them are amazing - but physical distance (half a continent?) between them keeps things from going much further. It has settled a lot of questions for both of them and changed my husband's relationship with his mother - because of what he learned.
    It can be a mixed blessing, I suppose - and just one more thing that people have to work with.

  4. I agree with you totally, as I went through the same situation. Only I was the birth mom.
    If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't. Well, maybe I would.......

  5. Dear Alison,

    Thanks for your honesty in this blog entry. I find your blog very interesting. I am an adoptive Mom and I have a child by birth too. My boys are six and three years old. I feel no difference in love about them. My six year old who is adopted does not seem to have a huge issue with it, but I worry about the future with him because of my sister. She is a birthmother and is reunited with her daughter for the past eight years. I have seen the positives and negatives with their relationship. Her adoptive parents are struggling with why she needed to do this. I will be honest in saying if my son does wish to search it will be difficult on me. I don't want to be replaced as his Mom. However if it is important to him, I will not stand in his way and I will be supportive. I love him so much and would want him to be at peace.

    Thanks for listening and keep writing!

  6. I honestly believe that your son will never lose sight of who his mom is. You are not replaceable.

    Thank you for sharing.


  7. I reunited with my birthdaughter after signing over parental rights to her mother's husband 32 years ago when she was 5 years old. Suffice to say, her Mother did not want a relationship with me, let alone marry me. After recovering emotionally from that experience, if that's possible, I went on to marry my wife and have two other children, now young adults also. I never forgot about my b-daughter who never knew me. Last year she reached out to me via Facebook. Since then we have visited and communicated fairly frequently. This is something I sincerely prayed for. The reunion (hate that term) has been generally positive for my family, my daughter, her husband and their little children (my grandchildren). We worked hard to make it so. Sadly, only my daughter's parents have been outraged by her connecting with me, particularly the Mom. My daughter is happy to have found the people she most looks and acts like, but I must admit that it seems that she is somewhat standoff-ish with me, almost uncomfortable despite having me in her home on multiple occasions. It's been bothering me. It seems to be more like a relationship with a trusted co-worker, than a family relationship between her and me. I say that even taking into account the newness of it all. Now I'm not sure if my daughter is reluctant or ambivalent about reaching out to me. If she’s privately realized that she doesn't have the energy and desire to develop our relationship, in fairness and honesty to herself and everyone, I would hope she'd tell me that it's time we moved on. Do I want that? Absolutely not. I will be disappointed for the rest of my life, but I don't want her to pretend the relationship matters if it doesn't to her. It's difficult because she's a 32 year old and I don't have a role in her life. At best, I'm a well-intentioned sperm donor wanting to be more of a father. I love my daughter implicitly and unconditionally, but I'd rather see her life flourish without stress than have to negotiate a way to keep me and her half-sibs at a cordial but comfortable distance. What would be the point of that kind of relationship? This is why I respect Alison's honesty in regards to her feelings about her b-parents.

  8. As a prospective adoptive mom, I've found your comments really interesting. We are hoping for an open adoption, in some way, so that our child's birthparents will never be a big mystery, but I do still have that tiny worry that I will be seen as "the adoptive mom" instead of just "mom". That's not how I feel, but I do know that there are others out there who feel that biology is paramount over actually doing all the things that, to me, constitute being a mom and dad. That being said, a lot of adopted adults I've talked to say they don't feel that way, so it's nice to see your viewpoint as both someone who was adopted and someone who has adopted herself!


  9. Hi Anonymous, I just wanted to come back to you as a birthdaughter who is about to meet her birthfather. You mentioned:

    "My daughter is happy to have found the people she most looks and acts like, but I must admit that it seems that she is somewhat standoff-ish with me, almost uncomfortable despite having me in her home on multiple occasions. It's been bothering me. It seems to be more like a relationship with a trusted co-worker, than a family relationship between her and me."

    I really hear your need to get closer to her, and have her treat you more as a father. I just wanted to say please spare a thought for her. To be adopted into a family, and grow up in that is a very difficult process as you are always aware you are not "real" because you are genetically different. You've been given everything by essentially two strangers, and you (hopefully) have a strong love, respect and loyalty to them. If you do seek out your birthfamily, which I think is based on a very human desire to know one's origins (which most people take for granted) you are presented with a real conflict as RARELY do adoptive parents not feel threatened by the birthfamily. Adoptive parents often have their own insecurities too, and so the adoptee can feel a terrible sense of guilt if their adoptive parents cannot cope with their reconnection with genetic family. Your daughter sounds very caught in the middle of expectations her adoptive family have of her, and the expectations you have of her. No one is wrong here.. its a challenging situation for everyone. So I just urge some compassion & space for her as she navigates all this stuff - including her own and other's feelings. My guess is that she is very interested in connection with you but feels deeply disloyal/guilty about her amom who is not handling the situation well. I don't believe she is deliberately trying to reject you - its not about you at the end of day, its about how she can connect with you and not cause grief to the family who raised her. My suggestion, imho, is to just be there when she wants connection with you and be supportive and loving, but take care not to emotionally demand her love/ a greater relationship, as if forced to choose she may not choose you (and this does not mean you are not a wonderful person or loving father). Good luck to all of you, I wish you the best.

  10. Thanks for posting this. My daughter is also ambivilent and it's taken me years to accept I will never have a meaningful relationship with her. I wish she had tried to put how she felt into words years ago even now it's only her lack of action that tells me she's not interested.

  11. Thank you so much for this comment. I feel for you, it is hard to figure out where to go in a relationship if you don't know how the other person is feeling. I don't know if this helps but my feelings were so confused, I often found I just avoided the relationship with my birth mother all together. Sometimes it's hard to put it in to words. Looking back, I wish I figured it out sooner and was a better communicator.


  12. Hi Alison - as I read your blog I couldn't believe the similarities to my experience in reunion except you were able to fully articulate what I felt. I know you have been in reunion for a long time (mine has been relatively short in years) but your blog really hit the nail on the head for me with the issues. thank you very much for your insightful writing and it helped me tremendously and best of luck in your future!

    1. Hello!
      Thank you for taking the time to write to me. Of all of the blog posts I have written, this one was the hardest. When hear from others in reunion, who can relate to some of the complicated emotions and realities that go along with reunion, it means a lot to me.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. I'm an adoptive mom of two young boys, and your story really shows how unique everyone's situation and feelings are. I'm going to try to suspend expectations regarding what my sons will want/feel regarding contact with birth families, as they grow older, and just meet them where they are. Sounds so easy, the way I just put that, and I'm sure it's not! Anyway, thank you!