On Meeting Birth Mom: Beginning of a Reconciliation

In June of 1999, after returning to Michigan from a stay in Rwanda, my husband and I adopted three African-American siblings from the foster care system, aged five, three, and one. One child had Sickle Cell Anemia, one was thought to be autistic and/or deaf, and one carried the burdens of the world on her tiny shoulders. They were wards of the state of Michigan. Some of the trauma they experienced before entering our home is recorded in court records, but this is not my story to tell. My story to tell is the one in my heart, the story of how God worked in me over years to draw me to a place where I could begin to reconcile with, and yes, even embrace a woman I started out hating.

Hatred was hard to admit to but it was there, eating away at the edges of my heart and worming its way into my life. Birth Mom was the Other, the evil, the bad. She was supposed to love them and protect them. She was supposed to lay down her life for her children. Didn’t she understand that part of the deal? I walked the floor at night holding tiny bodies that were filled with grief they didn’t understand, crying for a birth mother whose scent they couldn’t remember, a face that was formless. Oh, how the neighbors worried as the children cried and rejected us. Did we do the right thing? Why did we want to get involved? Couldn’t we have children of our own? Why should the children trust us? Everyone had let them down. Were we any different?

My husband was more open to contacting the birth mother than I was for several years. He understood the deep need for reconciliation and relationship long before I did. It took me more time to acknowledge her as anything other than the problem. Though I was always careful to guard my speech and did not speak ill of her, I nurtured a loathing in my heart. Was I justifying myself as ‘good’ by making her ‘bad’? Was I insecure in my role as mother? If she was not all bad, then maybe I wasn’t needed. Hard to say …I was sleep deprived and not given to reflection on why I hated her. I tried to conceal my hatred from those around me. Having been raised in the church, I clearly understood that hatred is sinful, equal to murder. I did not want to go that far.

I am not sure when the Other became human. Was it trying to think of nice things to say about her when the children inquired? I suspect it came gradually as I fell more and more in love with my children. Or perhaps it was on one of those weepy nights as I nursed the daughter I had recently birthed. I contemplated the injustice of one child being born into a life of affluence, safety, and love while my other children were born into poverty, abuse, and abandonment.

It took me a while to recognize that just as Emma had been born into affluence and privilege, so had I. Birth Mother had not. How could a mother survive the loss of her children? The ‘what-ifs’ assailed me as I rocked and wept softly. What if she was worried? What if she was searching? What if she cared? It is hard to harden your heart once you have seen the other person’s humanity. But I still had a heart of stone and not yet a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). I was not ready to reach out. Feeding on my righteous indignation, I stepped back and refused my husband’s prodding to search for her. I was a mother bear protecting her cubs, claiming them as mine. If ‘love can conquer all,’ did they need her now that they had me?

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I’m watching a movie–Stuart Little–holding a sobbing daughter. Grief, loss, questions. Clearly, this is a child with unresolved issues regarding her birth mother. What to do? I am in control, but what might happen if we start searching? What am I afraid of? Change? Rejection? Losing my place as Mother? We send a letter to the agency, addressed to Birth Mother. No identifying information; just the facts. The children are together. They are well. We adopted them. They will go to school. They are loved by us…We wait, but no response. Another letter is sent, with a few pictures. In case she cares. Would she write back? Where is she? The agency says this is highly unusual. Who ever heard of adoptive families searching for birth mothers when the children were not willingly placed for adoption?

She is found. There are other children. Letters are forwarded. Silence.

Silence tears the heart. The children rush to get the mail. Then: reality, grief, rejection, anger. We decided to reach out again. I can make her care. Try again. Maybe if the kids wrote to her she would respond. Are we doing the right thing? What if she never writes back?

The children ask questions. What to say, with honesty and integrity? Your mother must be very beautiful. I bet she has the same pure singing voice as you do. Your birth father must be able to run very fast. Wow, your birth Mom must be great at math. I wish she would write back. Please care. The children are growing. They are writing letters now. They are honest. “Who are you? Who am I? What do you look like?”

A letter arrives. It is a start–very brief and formal. No insight. How many times do I read the letter before I see between the lines? It must be hard to write to children you do not know. Who is the judge now? Will you be found guilty again? A letter, but no promises. No pictures.

Now, a gift. Several large boxes of expensive brand name clothing and electronic devices, a camera for a young child, a drum set and an electronic dog. An attempt to buy affection? No …an olive branch. “You matter,” it says to the children. “I thought of you. I am reaching out in the only way I know how. Accept me.”

Smiling children, proudly wearing clothing the wrong size because it is from her– Birth Mother. Oh Lord, give me strength. People cannot believe we are doing this. Some think we are making a big mistake. They claim we are confusing our children. What if she finds us? Is it safe? What are the rules? What if they love her? Oh Lord, teach me and guide me.

Letters go back and forth, back and forth. One arrives addressed to me–“Dear Amanda”– from her, thanking me for loving them, for being Mother to them, for caring. Oh Lord, this is hard. This is so hard. I don’t know if I can bear it. I don’t know if I want to move forward. Insecurity, fear, faith.

A meeting is arranged at a neutral location. For the sake of the children, we say. No social worker. Will she bring her other children? I am not sure, Lord. I feel ill. I am going to throw up. What does the Other look like now? Do I want her to


It must be hard to write to children you do not know. Who is the judge now? Will you be found guilty again?


have a face? There she is, getting out of the truck. She looks as scared as I do. I meet her alone first, to set the ground rules–to mark the territory. But, she is crying. What am I feeling? Compassion? Forgiveness? (What does forgiveness feel like?) Do I have the right to forgive her?

It is a good day: playing with bubbles, making music, sharing laughter. The children look into a face that resembles theirs. There are raisins and graham crackers, tears and questions. “Was I in your belly?” The children need love. Can they have too much?

What do I get in forgiving her? I am able to love more completely. My heart doesn’t have room for hatred anymore. What does the future hold? I am not in control. My gaze has been lifted and my load lightened. I am closer to my children. I am no longer threatened by the Other. I am at greater peace. Did I do it for her? Maybe. Did I do it for the children? I think so. Did I do it for me?

Justice is not mine, but healing can be.

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What does the future hold? It is too soon to tell. She is on the run again. There has been silence since the meeting. Have we done enough? Maybe. Would I be willing to have her sit next to me as the children graduate from high school and college? Yes. How about their weddings? Would I share the pew reserved for the mother of the bride? Yes, but that is harder. Would I have her over for Sunday dinner, in my home, sharing a meal that I had cooked? Would I let her sit next to the children and converse with them and enter into our world? Not yet, but maybe someday. God is still working on me.

Amanda Barton is a family nurse practitioner and assistant professor of nursing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.