Works by Michele Kriegman |
When the Unborn Give Birth: Special
Childbirth Issues for Adult Adoptees and Brave New Babies
1996, 12/4: 37-39.
International Journal of Childbirth Education; 09/1994; V.12 N.4; p.42-3
Sometimes when Im with nonadopted friends, I will spring
the question, "Did you ever think you werent born?"
I get quizzical looks as to my seriousness or sanity, but always
the reply, "Of course I was born." For without knowing
it, while they were growing up, they heard random fragments about
how they kicked in the womb, how Mama almost didnt make
it to the hospital, and without understanding it, they were receiving
direct confirmations about their entrance into the universe and
their place in the flow of the generations. But the Adoptee says:
"Im not sure I was ever born." Because the womb
is a forbidden, lost place, the condition of having been born
becomes lost to him, too
(1) Betty Jean Lifton, Lost & Found/The
Adoption Experience, 1988.
But "unborn" adoptees do go on to give birth themselves,
and in a few years, so will the first generation of Brave New
Babies who were conceived with a donated egg, sired by an anonymous
sperm sample, or carried by a surrogate mother.
Childbearing brings unique issues for all of them, as well as
for the parents who raised them and caregivers who will attend
In discussing childbirth with other adoptees/mothers and adoptive
mothers (and in the birth of my own three babies), certain themes
seemed common. The themes were loss of genealogical connection;
possible stress in the relationship with infertile grandparents-to-be;
fears of abandonment; and
lack of control and autonomy in the face of institutional power.
They re-emerged throughout each of the phases of childbearing,
from puberty through pregnancy, childbirth, post-partum, and breastfeeding.
Most midwives and natural childbirth educators would agree that
a womans attitude toward pregnancy and her ability to birth
are influenced by the self-concept of body image. But for adoptees
this self-concept may be incomplete.
Noting the disproportionately large number of adoptees under his
care, the British psychiatrist, E. Wellisch, compared knowledge
of ones genealogy to possession of a shadow or mirror image.
Although one usually takes them for granted, just as non-adoptees
do their genealogy, a shadow or mirror image are psychologically
significant as extensions of ones body image (2)Betty Jean
Lifton, 1988. An adoptee who sees neither her shadow cast back
through the generations, nor her reflection in the bodies and
faces of her kin, may have a distorted or insecure body image.
Another issue comes up during prenatal exams. They remind adoptees
that they have no records of family medical or genetic history,
nor records of their own birth. Similarly, adoptees are unprepared
if a child has a genetically transmitted disease because they
have no information about any biological extended family.
Little wonder that adoption therapists list pregnancy and the
birth of a child as common catalysts for the adoptee to begin
searching for their origins (3)Brodzinsky, Schecter & Henig,
Relational Stress With Infertile Grandparents
One particularly generous and warm woman in my support group,
who is the mother of two grown adoptees, confessed to me that
she still feels anger when she sees a pregnant woman. "Even
today I still feel a twinge, too, when I get a Christmas card
where the children and grandchildren look alike." I felt
relieved when she admitted this because I had sensed these same
emotions of envy and grief, unspoken, in my mother (4)Steinberg,
An adult adoptees pregnancy reawakens that loss for her
parents because they lose one major coping strategy: denying the
beauty of birth and pregnancy. When my sister and I were growing
up, our mother used to compensate by saying adoptive families
were more "special" than other families because the
children had been "chosen" (although in reality we were
assigned by social workers). "After all, even dogs and cats
give birth," she used to say.
Another adult adoptee said her mother developed some time-consuming
project that was the focus of her attention for those nine months.
The project evaporated once the grandchild was born.
An adoptees pregnancy may also revive memories in the grandparents-to-be
of feeling on trial by the system. Adopters had to pass home inspections,
psychological evaluations by social workers, and invasive fertility
testing and/or treatment that made the requirements for biological
parenthood seem unfairly easy.
Finally, when an adoptee/mother chooses to breastfeed, it reminds
her parents of an option unavailable to them at the time.
Because labor is such a non-rational, high-energy experience,
it can bring subconscious fears of abandonment to the fore (5)Gaskin,
1990. I experienced this when I found myself alone and in transition
with my second labor. Intellectually, I knew no one could have
predicted my transition would happen so suddenly. Only a few minutes
before, I was just six centimeters. So the midwives went to check
on a mother who had given birth that morning and my husband went
to get coffee. The adult-me could forgive them, but, deep down,
the abandoned child-me felt like my trust had been betrayed and
they had all let me fall off the edge of an abyss.
Interestingly, non-adoptees with whom I spoke also had this experience
in labor if they lost a parent during childhood to death or divorce.
Adoptees who suffer symptoms of postpartum depression could find
it triggers an even deeper psychological depressionas with
anyone who has suffered an unmourned loss. They have re-opened
what Nancy Verrier calls a "primal wound," in her book
by the same name. No matter how much they are loved, an adoptees
first life experience is separation and loss of their birthmother(6)
Nancy Verrier, 1993.
Loss of Control and Autonomy
The worlds of high-tech obstetrics and closed, sealed-record adoptions
parallel each other in several ways.
The pregnant adoptee finds that basic information about herself
and her body is controlled by both institutions. This leaves her
"grateful" to (or angered by) experts, rather than empowered.
In an adoptees childhood, birth is shrouded by secrecy and
sealed records. During labor it may be shrouded again, this time
by drugs, distraction techniques, and more secrecy.
Many hospitals ritualize the breaking/separating of the mother-child
couple in order to claim control. The first separation by adoption
is permanent while the second is a temporary re-enactment.
In both sealed-record adoption and obstetric childbirth the adult
adoptee/mother is the person most impacted by events, yet her
interests are often overshadowed. First, the needs of patriarchal
society, the adoption agency, and insecure adoptive parents may
take precedence over the adoptees. Then, the needs of obstetric
wards, doctors and nurses may be put before those of the laboring
birth as an adoptee is a little like being Eve, the first woman in
history to give birth. You inherit no labor hang-ups: you are
bequeathed no bone-chilling childbirth stories. You are truly
free. (Unless, of course, you were told the antiquated adoption
tale that "your mother died in childbirth.")
When we see our newborn, we have the joy of seeing our first biological
relative sharing some of our physical traits. I remember thinking,
"Im finally a regular member of the human race."
At the time, I could not explain the reason for that thought because
I had denied the influence of adoption to a great extent. But
at some level I was acknowledging that I had finally cast a shadow
into another generation and seen my reflection in my daughters
Relational Stress With Infertile Grandparents
Rather than withdrawing, adoptive grandmothers can use a daughters
first pregnancy to share family birth stories in lieu of their
own. For example, by my second pregnancy my mother was comfortable
enough to tell me about my uncles birth and how my grandmother
planned to have him in a rural resort so she could avoid a hospital
stay and have him at home. I felt connected with my grandmother
and closer to my mother.
If grandparents let the adoptee enjoy fertility, pregnancy, childbirth,
and nursing, guilt-free, it can be a time of drawing closer. Especially
during the first intense months of parenting, I gained a special
appreciation of my parents as I learned that mothering is much
more than maternity.
It was only the profound healing I enjoyed with the birth of my
son that let me know I was "wounded" in the first place.
Two things helped. First was the great trust I established in
my labor companion and the midwives before the birth. Second,
I had continuous companionship during the later stages of labor.
Themes of Control and Autonomy
An autonomous birth is a very appropriate time for the birthing
adoptee to undo past patterns and regain control. That will happen
if caregivers reveal, not conceal, information, realizing that
the adoptee has a right to know about her body and herself. It
will happen if the adoptee finds the strength and support to face
childbirth truthfully, with all its potential for pain and joy.
She should not be separated from her child immediately after birth.
The adoptees/mothers autonomy should have higher priority
than the convenience, ego and feelings of others.
In this environment, not only can the "unborn" give
birth, they can be reborn by it.
Betty Jean Lifton, Lost & Found/The Adoption Experience (New
York: Harper & Row, 1988). p. 20.
Ibid. pp. 48-48.
David M. Brodzinsky, Marshall D. Schecter & Robin Marantz Henig,
Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self (New York: Doubleday,
1992). p. .
Gail Steinberg, “When You Don’t Fall in Love Right Away/How
Adoption Affects Bonding & Attachment with Your Child,” OURS (Vol.
27, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1994) discusses post-adoption grieving from the
Ina May Gaskin, Spiritual Midwifery (Summertown, TN:
The Book Publishing Company, 1990) pp. 344-349. This talks about
birthing energy, transition and fear.
Nancy Verrier, “Projective Identification: The Adoptee’s Defense
Mechanism Which Drives Parents Crazy,” AdoptNet (Fall 1993): 24. Also
see self-published Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier.