Birth Mother's Day
By George R. Graham
When we were preparing to adopt, I could have never imagined what it would be like to sit with our daughter’s birthmother at a ceremony honoring birthmothers. And yet that is the journey we have made the past several years.
Five years ago, our daughter, Ellen, joined our family. She is four years younger than our son, Robert, who also joined our family by adoption. Ellen’s adoption has been open from the start. Her birthmom, Denise, met us before Ellen was born and invited us to be present for her birth—one of the most profound experiences of our lives. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch with Denise and plan visits every several months with her and Ellen’s two birth sisters.
Although maintaining openness adds another layer of complexity to our lives--already busy with two kids, two jobs, and a household to run--we are committed to it because we feel it is the best thing for Ellen. And after Denise invited us to be present for Ellen’s birth, maintaining contact with Denise seems like the least we can do in return for her openness to us experiencing the miracle of Ellen’s birth.
Several months after Ellen’s arrival, I began working for Adoption Network Cleveland, an organization that offers support to anyone touched by adoption, including not just adoptive parents and the children they adopt, but also birthparents and adult adoptees. We had received training from the organization as we prepared for the adoption of our son. They had helped us think through what it would mean for us—a gay white couple—to adopt transracially. They also helped us through the adoption process and provided support afterwards, encouraging us to maintain openness and assisting us in dealing with adoption-related issues as they have arisen.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the organization is that it supports anyone touched by adoption, and encourages people to learn from each other’s perspectives. As we were preparing to adopt, we heard adults speak about their experience growing up as adoptees. We have listened to birthparents talk about what it was like to place a child for adoption. Their words made us determined to make sure our children know their stories and to maintain as much contact as possible with their birthfamilies.
Two year after Ellen joined our family, we decided to attend a Birthmother’s Day Ceremony, which Adoption Network Cleveland has sponsored annually for nearly 20 years. The ceremony is held the day before Mother’s Day in order to honor and recognize birthmothers. Modeled after a ceremony that was started by a group of birthmothers in Seattle, it is planned and led by birthmothers and gives voice to a perspective that is too rarely heard.
Although we knew about the ceremony and I worked for Adoption Network Cleveland, we typically had plans with our son’s godmother that day, and I also knew that it could be a pretty emotional experience. At the encouragement of a colleague at Adoption Network Cleveland who works with birthparents and who coordinates the ceremony, we decided to attend and to invite Denise.
I sent Denise an invitation to the ceremony with a note, not really knowing how she would respond. I was pleasantly surprised when she immediately said yes.
When we arrived at the ceremony, Denise was given a corsage, along with all of the other two dozen or so birthmothers who attended. She sat with the other birthmothers in the front row of chairs arranged in a circle. We sat directly behind Denise in the second row, like other family members, friends, and supporters attending the event. The ceremony consisted of readings and songs selected by birthmothers that spoke to their experiences. Besides birthmothers, adoptive parents and adult adoptees also took part in the ceremony.
The climax of the service was the candle-lighting ceremony. The birthmothers stood and went one at a time to a table at the front of the room where they took a pinch of gold glitter and sprinkled it over a large bowl of water, making a wish for her child or children who had been placed for adoption. Then each lit a candle and returned to her seat, where she lit the candles of those friends, family members, or others seating behind them. The lights were low, the mood was solemn, and the tears flowed.
As Denise returned to her seat, she lit our candles. Tears welled up in our eyes. Although we saw Denise every several months, there was so much of her journey as a birthparent that we did not know. We recognized we would be forever connected to her through Ellen, and we knew the joy that Ellen’s young life brought to our family. Yet for the time between visits we were not there for the loss and grief she must have felt. The ceremony gave us new appreciation for her choosing us and entrusting us with her daughter.
The birthmothers who gathered for the ceremony were an amazingly diverse group of women in terms of age, race, and walk of life. They shared the experience of being a birthmother, but there was also a shift from those women who had relinquished children in the 1950s and 1960s—many of whom had no other real option and who had no contact with their children for decades, if ever—to those who had placed children for adoption more recently, with more voice about the family their child would be placed with and more opportunity for openness. There had been a generational shift toward more openness, and we felt glad that our family could be the beneficiary of that shift.
As the ceremony took place, Ellen played with her two birth sisters in another room, thanks to some volunteers who provided child care. While we were sitting with Denise during the ceremony, Ellen was forming relationships with her birth sisters. Indeed, the time Ellen spent with her birth sisters during the ceremony was the most time she had spent with them without our direct supervision. I think it’s important that she get to know them in this way and hope that occasions like this will lead to her forming independent relationships with her birth sisters as she grows up.
The kids joined us afterwards for a reception. While parts of the ceremony were emotionally intense, reminding us of the loss that is also part of the experience of adoption, Denise said that she was glad that she came and that she wanted to come again. We have invited her every year since. The ceremony helps us recognize the role that Denise has played in forming our family, while also allowing Ellen to maintain a connection with her birth family.
Author’s Bio: George R. Graham is Director of Development and External Relations for Adoption Network Cleveland. He and his partner are parents of two children by adoption.