Katie’s birth mother, M, and her two siblings are coming to visit us for the first time this summer. They have never traveled out of their home state before. They have never been on an airplane or taken a long train ride, and they certainly never have seen the likes of downtown Chicago before.
When Katie was nearly a year old, we took her to visit her birth family in their tiny Missouri hometown. We returned again the next year and planned to make the weekend visits an annual event.
Leading up to the third visit, M was having a hard time managing her grief about placing Katie for adoption, and she thought it would be unhealthy for her to see Katie. I remember the alarm I felt when M told me that she spent time thinking of ways to try to get Katie back. We all agreed to suspend our visits, and M proceeded to see a counselor to work on her feelings.
During that summer, Andrew and I wanted to expand our family, and we considered adopting again. But I did not feel capable of handling another birth family relationship given what was happening with M, and we decided instead to roll the dice with another high-risk pregnancy. Fortunately for us, this pregnancy resulted in our second daughter, Annie Rose.
Four years passed, and then M asked us to resume our visits. This was last summer, when Katie was almost six years old. We asked Katie if she wanted to go see her birth family, and she was enthusiastic about the idea. Although she had seen pictures of herself with them from earlier visits, she did not really remember them.
Katie expressed great interest and excitement about the reunion, and she began counting down the weeks. However, within a few days of learning about the visit, Katie began to behave very poorly.
She lashed out at us, refused to comply with our requests, and threw screaming fits. After each tantrum, she collapsed into a self-loathing heap, wailing that we should just throw her in the garbage and leave her there. It made me cry to see how much distress she was feeling.
We found a child psychologist who specialized in adoption, and Katie entered therapy. The therapist explained to us that Katie was having extreme anxiety about the upcoming visit with her birth family. Katie worried that we would give her back or that her birth family would reject her.
We wondered whether we should cancel the trip, but the therapist pointed out that Katie really wanted to see her birthmother, despite her anxiety. If we canceled the trip, the fears of the unknown would remain unresolved.
The disturbed behavior continued throughout the summer, until the visit
finally occurred. To our great relief, the visit went very smoothly.
M was terrific with Katie and Annie Rose, as were Katie’s older sister
and brother. We all talked easily, as if the four years were just a
blink of an eye, and Katie loved playing with the older kids.
Following the visit, there was an immediate change in Katie. The
tantrums stopped; the self-loathing comments disappeared, and Katie
returned to her former self. I was thrilled to see my self-confident,
cheerful daughter again. We continued to take her to see the therapist
for several more months, and then we all agreed it was no longer
M asked us to come visit again this summer, and we were noncommittal.
We wanted to see how Katie handled the transition to kindergarten and
play everything by ear. Then I became pregnant, with the baby due in
the summer, and that made it highly unlikely that we could travel to
M proposed that they come visit us in Chicago instead. Katie jumped at
the opportunity to show them our hometown, and we reserved the last
weekend of July on the calendar.
The visit is growing nearer, and Katie has become a bit fixated on it.
She constantly asks when M is coming, and she checks the calendar daily
to see how much longer she must wait. She talks frequently of M and
tells us how much she misses her. Throughout the school year, Katie
rarely mentioned M, but now she talks about her multiple times a day.
In the past few weeks, Katie has looked at pictures of M and said,
“There’s my mommy!” Andrew and I reply, “Yes, there is your birth
mother.” We do not say anything more to correct her, and we do not
discourage her from talking about M.
But I am taking pains to observe what is happening at the exact times
Katie asks for M, so I can see if there is a pattern. We have noticed
that she tends to mention M when she is tired or worn out, as if the
idea of M represents an additional comfort when she is most
Katie’s sudden longing for her birth mother has also coincided
perfectly with the birth of our new baby. Whereas our middle daughter,
Annie Rose, is acting out in all the expected ways to having a new
sibling, Katie has shown little signs of jealousy or stress since Cleo
Perhaps Katie’s newfound neediness for M is the manifestation of her
own feelings of displacement, and we are responding by giving her
increased individual attention. We are doing the same with Annie Rose,
who is more straightforward about her claims on our attention.
In the meantime, I am managing my own discomfort about hearing Katie
refer to M as “mommy.” There is no doubt that M holds a place with
Katie that I can never have, and Katie is very sensitive to the biology
of birth right now, having watched me grow Cleo in my stomach for the
past nine months.
I am wholeheartedly committed to our open adoption. I do believe it is
what’s best for Katie and for M, and I know they both need to feel
their attachment to each other. I would be lying if I said it was not
hard for me to hear Katie call M her mommy, but I also know that it
isn’t about me and it doesn’t really reflect on my own relationship
In the meantime, I am relieved that Katie is not exhibiting any of the
anxiety or distress that she felt leading up to last summer’s visit.
If she were, I would probably conclude that these visits are too hard
on her, and we would not continue to do them. But in truth, Katie has
been cheerful and cooperative, and it doesn’t seem that abnormal for
her to show an unusual amount of interest in M as the big visit
Loss is a reality of adoption, and Katie will always be dealing with
the loss of M. As her mother, my number one job is to be available to
help Katie process all of her feelings, even the ones that tug at my
Ultimately, I prefer that Katie is comfortable enough to tell me the
truth about how she feels, instead of trying to hide her emotions to
spare my own feelings. If I can achieve that, I am truly her mother.