I am secure, enveloped inside my mother. I am her egg and my father’s sperm each with cell memories of generations of my family. We share DNA, but more than that we share an ancestral life line dating back to the beginning of time. In my cocoon of familiar ground, day and night are marked by my mother’s routine activities and rest. Days are divided by meals when the regular rhythmic sounds of her heart are accompanied by digestive noises. I am surrounded by fluid that is infused with her tastes in food, and I hear the accents of her language and the sounds of those with whom she keeps company. My rapidly developing brain is being wired for bonding to the woman with whom I am already very familiar.
Then comes the day when I am expelled into the world. I experience the horror, agony and suffering of a baby’s journey in a medical birth. I struggle for breathe as I am forced to begin a life separated from my mother’s umbilical cord. There are moments of trauma in the miracle of birth; the body begins to inflate and air fires up the flames in the blood which will energise the muscles and organs to support new life. Landing on another planet could not be stranger than arriving in this world.
But then I am placed on my mother’s tummy and I hear those familiar sounds. I feel the movements in her body as it contracts to close the wound left by my birth and the afterbirth. And as I suckle, I remember the tastes of the amniotic fluid which once cushioned my life. The milk is infused with the same tastes. Every cell in my body resonates with the memory of my mother’s body. Her voice is familiar and I relax into the comfort of home. The trauma of birth resolves. That is the end of the physical separation. Given many more months with her I might make a psychic separation from my mother and begin to see myself as a separate person.
But that is not my birth story. That is a story I can tell my children about their births. No one ever told me a birth story. Birth stories are normal rites of passage between mothers and daughters that my adoptive mother could not share with me. My birth certificate is a document the government has falsified. They want me to believe my birth story is that I was born to my adoptive parents and accept my life prior to adoption is stamped ‘superseded’. I do not try to write another birth story with my adoptive mother in the centre. I prefer to say ‘I have no birth story. I was adopted.’
My psychiatrist calls it developmental trauma. He explains to me, that like other adopted people he has known, my anxiety is probably related to the anxiety of my mother before birth, and the stress hormones circulating in her body and therefore in mine. She knew we would not be together again after birth; she knew the shame she had brought on herself and her family by this unplanned pregnancy and an absent father for her child. She knew she could not provide for herself while caring for a child.
The trauma of separation at birth and subsequent loss for both of us cannot be resolved. We are locked into life driven by stress hormones. And I will never know familiar ground.
Familiar ground – what is that? I imagine being grounded to the earth by roots through ancestral lines of a family tree. I think of my grandchild and his mother. His mother says Ben has my family nose. I didn’t know we had one. She says we have a line on our nose, the baby, his father, his uncle and his aunty – my three children and me. She says if I ever find my father we will know where that nose came from. Familiar ground! And I have spent my life searching for familiar ground – for the roots of ‘home’ and the feeling of ‘belonging’. I learn to live with this dis-ease.
Then a strange thing happens. I am re-traumatised at a post adoption support meeting last night. The adoptee group facilitator regularly shows us videos of distressing stories of birth mothers. How do they expect this to be part of a healing journey for the adult adoptee; the baby that birth mother is talking about? The baby that was whisked away from its mother at the moment of birth, never to know the woman it has been prepared to meet on this day; never to know the connection that would resolve the separation trauma for the mother and for the child. They are letting the mothers’ voices be heard. They are leaving in silence the voice of the child who is still screaming. So often adoptees leave this group to go home and want to slit their wrists, or self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. I hear the stories from people who left and never came back. But this is how I experience this particular night.
The mother has told her story many times. She does it in graphic detail. She is being interviewed by a man who is adopted. His story is not part of the mother’s story. At the end of the video, I say to the group; ‘I wonder how that man felt. He couldn’t leave the interview to deal with his own emotions’. Leave to be violently sick – is what I’m thinking, because that is what I’m feeling.
Through this night I have all the signs of another recurrence of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). How often has this happened after these groups? And why do I keep going back? Yet I can’t bear to think of my life without this connection. Trauma does that to you – it makes you hang on to the experiences that re-traumatise, and keeps you in a place of familiarity dancing with adrenaline; it is all you know. Long ago I gave up going out on the day that followed these night groups. I think how the experience in that group compares to another group I attend, where the focus is on healing the disconnection from self. It is about connection not separation by adoption, and it works wonderfully for me. I am starting to get a sense of ‘belonging’ which has been missing for so long. And as I begin to feel safe in the healing group, I experience trauma in the adoption group and a new truth about my trauma is revealed to me.
I remember when Post Traumatic Stress was first diagnosed in me some twenty years ago. After an incident at work, I was sent to many psychologists and psychiatrists, who all wrote reports for the insurer. One psychologist decided it would be helpful to do an ‘inner child visualisation’. It did not go as she expected, and I could hear the panic in her voice as she tried to find some comfort for me in the visualisation. I reported back to my doctor; ‘It was as if she had done a Caesarean on me, removed the child and left the mother to bleed to death on the operating table’. I was the mother and the child. It was quite a graphic image, which shocked my doctor as it still shocks me. I regressed to a place I did not want to return from.
I talked to my doctor about the things I had seen as a medical student in the 1960’s when women made up only about 16 percent of the classes. In particular I was upset about the way single women were treated if they needed gynaecological or obstetric procedures, experiments being done on stillborn or aborted foetuses and early experiments of in-vitro fertilisation. They were treated as ideal training grounds for young medical students and biochemical research students before anyone ever talked about ‘informed consent’, and before abortions were legalised. My doctor said she was glad she had been able to train at a ‘women’s medical school’. I said I left medicine because I was told; ‘if you are interested in ethics you should be studying philosophy; we just develop the technology and other people work out how to use it’. I talked about these things because I thought they may have influenced my experience with the psychologist doing the ‘inner-child’ visualisation. I did not think about separation at birth or adoption.
It is the original trauma for a child removed from its mother at the moment of birth. The baby does not connect with the mother who has been its world for the last nine months. The haemorrhage of blood and de-connection does not stop flowing throughout our lives. It is the haemorrhage of blood that I had when I gave birth to my daughter; the connection to her, however, remains intact. Mothers tell birth stories. Stolen babies cannot tell birth stories; their birth stories are turned into adoption stories, their birth certificates are falsified, and society wants us to believe our birth certificates that say adoptive parents gave ‘birth’ to us.
Some twenty years later that graphic image has returned to me after the support group meeting. I understand now, that the mother abandoned to bleed to death in the delivery room when her baby has been whisked away was my birth story. Nobody had recognised it; because no one was looking at the traumatic effects of the separation and loss of adoption on me. I didn’t recognise it; because I had never heard any adoptee birth stories. But when I saw the video yesterday I wanted to be sick, I wanted to run outside, I could not understand how the interviewer could sit without any show of emotion and listen to the birth mother tell her story, because I could not.
In the 20 years since I was in that psychologist’s office I’ve had treatment for PTS, and the first ten years included investigations for dissociative identity disorder. The cause was suspected to be either the inner child visualisation, and or the effects of being on and off Prozac in a short space of time. One well-read psychologist suggested the hormonal changes around menopause created a chemical environment in the brain similar to that which existed at puberty, and this changed chemical environment could result in the surfacing of old memories which were previously repressed. I didn’t care, I just wanted to heal what I called ‘shattered brain syndrome’, and escape all these people who needed to affix labels they had in diagnostic manuals then wanted to prescribe drugs that made me suicidal. I didn’t know then that I just needed to call it ‘separation and adoption issues’.
And now at the age of 65, I ask you: ‘could the underlying cause be the removal from my mother on the birthing table in the hospital where I was delivered to be handed over to strangers, never again to experience the comfort of familiarity I had known for the first nine months of my life before birth?’ ‘Experts’ may argue; they make good money by doing so – I know because I have paid so much – but I believe I have at last found, from my subconscious mind the long hidden birth story that explains the extensive periods of my life lost to intensive grief. I will no longer look to them for validation, because now I have my story. The story no one talks about; the story about the lives changed forever in the delivery room, when a child is born and separated from its mother for adoption.
My birth left my mother to bleed to death metaphorically, but for me her death is real. She remains a ghost who has been with me all my life. She is the ghost who lived with us in my adoptive family. She and her genetics were suspected of being behind many of my misdemeanours, mental illnesses, and other physical ailments. I wonder if my adoptive family would have been so eager to adopt a child if they had known about the exorbitant costs involved in trying to keep alive, a child who continually grieves a primal loss; and the emotional cost of having a child who could not make a primary connection because every cell in her body rejected the foreign bodies around her.
No one has the ‘right’ to have a baby. The baby must have the right to be nurtured by its own family with all the supports society can muster for the family. Yet I wonder if society will always impose on innocent young children the burden of trying to create a happy family for people threatened by their infertility and who cannot feel ‘complete’ without children. It is a heavy burden for some of us to bear, and we are often destined to fail in unrealistic expectations. We are not born with a magic wand that will make a marriage work, or fix feelings of grief associated with infertility, and incompleteness.
‘Does it matter where your child comes from?’ some ask. Consider this: if someone broke into a hospital nursery where your newborn baby was housed, and swapped around all the names and charts and cribs, would it matter where your child came from? You could take home the child in the crib where yours had been, or the one with your name label, or the one with your doctor’s charts; one of them might be the one you gave birth to, but would it be yours? Does it matter? Could you recognise your child? This we now know – Your child will know You. Do you think it matters where your child came from? If you think you could love any of them equally, consider the fact that the baby will only be longing to connect to someone with whom it is already very familiar; no other bond will be as strong or equal to that one. No other bond will release the trauma of separation at birth.