I’ve been open about birthmotherhood lately. I told a few people just in the last week. One person, a woman my age, turned out to be adopted and we had a long conversation about it.
This is what she asked: what did it feel like?
I couldn’t formulate thoughts on it. I copped out, and said I didn’t remember much. This is true, I don’t remember much. But I didn’t answer her question.
At first it didn’t feel like anything. I left the hospital, got into the car, went to the shore (it was January, but unusually balmy), slept for 15 hours straight, put together photo albums to bring when we went to their house to sign the papers.
I was in high spirits. I felt awesome about what I did.
It’s taken me some time to come to terms with how euphoric I felt. There wasn’t any doubt, not yet. I was sure I had turned the sourest lemons into the most splendid lemonade. And I was proud of myself. I sat on the beach and told my mom that I’d never have low self-esteem again.
De-mothered. No one’s mother. Hit the reset button, reboot and start again. Motherhood erased. That’s how it was supposed to be.
My body had other plans. From the months immediately following placement I have fragmentary memories of panic and ache, imaginary injuries (I thought the epidural had caused a tumor to grow on my spine, for expample), nightmares, paranoia, minor visual disturbances that had me convinced I was schizophrenic. Bear in mind, I was a high-functioning crazy person: I got A’s that semester in school, the semester that started six days after E’s birth.
My consciousness frantically erected a hall of mirrors around the source of my body’s acute distress. Survival made this necessary. The success of my plan to retake my life hinged on there being that maternal reset button. To think of myself as postpartum, to think of myself as a mother and entitled to the grief of losing one’s child, this would have been an admission that could have brought down the whole illusion.
Thinking about the baby is something I did not do much. My diary doesn’t reflect more than a passing thought of her. Dissociation was complete.
As time went on, the manifestations of this indirect grief evolved. Hypochondria was a favorite device, as was the single-minded hunger to have another baby, an insistent urge to replace what was lost, to complete the motherhood interrupted.
This where I found common ground haunting the message boards populated by other mothers of loss: mothers of stillborn babies, mothers with recurrent miscarriages, these women expressed the same sense of missing a piece of themselves, of primal longing for completed motherhood. The difference, in my mind, was that they came by their grief and the resultant longing honestly, and there was something illicit and inappropriate about my sense of frustrated maternity.
It set my mind to wondering: if E had died instead of being placed, would I be considered a real mother, or still just a birthmother? The world of message boards was perfectly clear: birthmothers are NOT mothers. They don’t stay up late with sick children, they don’t kiss boo boos or wipe tears. But what about mothers whose babies had died? Are they unmothered too, or do they get to hold on to maternal status even in childlessness?
I was caught in the unexpected riptide of bodily grief. When I think of her, the first image that surfaces is of amputation, a visceral limb-chopping.
Almost four years after placement, getting into a car after a visit, torrents of bodily grief poured forth from the cells that created her, the part of me that knew nothing of adoption or the social conditions that unmother a woman. The part of me that recognized her as Daughter screamed in torment while my socially conditioned mind reeled in surprise. The anesthetic had worn off, and I was raw, naked, freshly separated. My body unleashed the primal force of loss so that I could not speak, I could not make a sound. I could not sob. I could not think. The hall of mirrors collapsed in shards stained with the blood of my psyche. Within a month I was suicidal.
My motherhood was undeniable in that moment. I had committed a crime against nature, and I was paying dearly for my sins. As carefully as I had thought about my future, E's future, and J and C's dreams, I did not factor in the price of loss through relinquishment to be paid by my body, my soul. The steep cost would nearly be my ultimate downfall.