Birthmother Research Project
J. Kelly M.A.
Chapter II. Literature Review
"All of our loss experiences hark back to Original Loss, the loss of that ultimate mother-child
connection. For before we begin to encounter the inevitable separations of everyday life, we live in a
state of oneness with our mother. This ideal state, this state of boundarylessness, this I-am-you-are-me-
is-she-is-we, this 'harmonious interpenetrating mix-up," this floating "I'm in the milk and the milk's in
me,' this chillproof insulation from aloneness and intimations of mortality: This is a condition known to
lovers, saints, psychotics, druggies and infants. It is called bliss." (Viorst, 1998, p. 34)
THE MOTHER-CHILD BOND
Against the backdrop of our complex, fast-changing, technological society, evolutionary theory
provides a counterpoint of simplicity. Primal -- bound by natural laws -- with changes occurring ever
so slowly over millennia, the evolutionary process remains in sharp contrast to our environmental
As described by Bowlby,
". . . [I]t is usually fairly safe to assume that the habitat occupied by a species today is either the same
as or close to its environment of evolutionary adaptedness. For man this is not so. . . . [We can ] be
fairly sure that none of the environments in which civilised, or even half-civilised, man lives today
conforms to the environment in which man's environmentally stable behavioural systems were evolved
and to which they are intrinsically adapted." (Bowlby, 1982, pp. 58-59)
Our evolutionary system holds within it countless life cycles of procreation - the maternal body -
collective heartbeats maintaining the life of the species. We are only beginning to grasp the intrauterine
and neonatal physiological and behavioral systems that have evolved to ensure the survival of the
infant, i.e., mother-child bonding. In order to understand the impact of relinquishment, it is necessary to
explore both the intrauterine and extrauterine dynamics of the mother-child relationship. According to
Verny and Kelly, there exists ". . . a human intrauterine bonding system at least as complex, graded and
subtle as the bonding that occurs after birth. Indeed, they are part of the same vital continuum: What
happens after birth is an elaboration of, and depends on, what happened prior to it" (1981, p. 75).
Most of the research on mother-child bonding has focused on attachment theory. Differentiating
between the formation of attachments and bonding, Verrier (1993) describes attachment as "a kind of
emotional dependence"; while bonding "implies a profound connection which is experienced at all
levels of human awareness" (p. 19). Bowlby (1982) defines attachment behaviour ". . . as seeking and
maintaining proximity to another individual" (p. 194). Bowlby examined attachment behavior in terms
of its "evolutionary adaptedness" (p. 58). Hence, maintaining proximity to the mother protected infants
from predation in primeval environments. Attachment behavior, such as an infant's clinging to its
mother, can be seen in many non-human primates as early as at birth. However, a human infant is not
strong enough at birth to cling and requires support by its mother (Bowlby, 1982). Bowlby proposed
that attachment behavior begins at approximately six months of age; consequently, in human beings,
attachment theory is by definition limited to the older infant. Bowlby's conception of attachment theory
is predicated on the existence of biologically-based behavioral systems that mediate attachment and
proximity to the primary caretaker, e.g., the distress signal emitted by a baby's cry (Crain, 1992).
According to Bowlby, these primitive neonatal systems predispose the infant to develop attachment
Mahler (1994) describes a state of undifferentiation in the first few extrauterine weeks of life during
which the infant is unable to differentiate between inner and outer reality. Mahler proposes that this
phase is followed by a state of symbiosis between mother and infant, during the second through fifth
month, and a separation-individuation phase beyond the fifth month. Mahler asserts that "the biological
birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual are not coincident in time. The
former is a dramatic and readily observable, well-circumscribed event; the latter, a slowly unfolding
intrapsychic process" (Mahler, 1994, p. 120). Mahler's separation-individuation phase appears to
coincide with Bowlby's timetable for the manifestation of attachment behavior.
Bowlby (1982) writes that attachment behavior is one-half of a "shared dyadic programme" (e.g.,
attachment behavior/mother-retrieval behavior) and that the mother child relationship is comprised of
multiple "shared dyadic programmes" (p. 377). Bowlby points out that "the study of caregiving as a
behavioural system . . . is an enterprise calling for attention" (p. 377-378). While much theory-building
and research has been formulated around the developmental stages of attachment behaviors and the
impact of maternal separation on the child, the vast majority of it is oriented toward the developmental
impact on the child. Very little attention has been placed on the "mother-child bonding" behavioral
systems of the mother and the impact of separation on the mother. Where research has been conducted
(such as, Ainsworth's maternal attunement), the emphasis is nearly always on it's impact on the child.
Winnicott (1995) has attempted to differentiate between the mother's identification with the infant and
the infant's identification with the mother. Winnicott has identified a "primary maternal preoccupation"
which occurs during the pregnancy and enables the mother to "identify" with the infant (1995, p. 15).
After birth, Winnicott proposes that a "weaning" process occurs enabling the mother to recover "her
self-interest. . . at the rate at which her infant can allow her to do so" (1995, p. 15). According to
Winnicott, there exists "a mother-infant partnership in which the mother by one kind of identification
meets the infant's original state of undifferentiation" (1995, p. 15). During this stage, the infant's self is
described by Winnicott as only "potential" and is actually merged with the mother's self. Winnicott
describes two types of maternal disorder affecting primary maternal preoccupation: (1) in the first case,
the mother's own self-interests are compulsive and unable to be shifted to the infant, and (2) in the
second case, the mother becomes pathologically preoccupied with the infant and unable to recover her
own self-interest. Although Winnicott does not address the situation of relinquishment and loss of the
infant, it seems plausible that the birthmother who relinquishes might also suffer from a "primary
maternal preoccupation" disorder affecting the recovery of her self-interest. In this case, the process of
recovering her own self-interest is no longer guided by the ongoing interaction with her infant. Rather,
the infant has been abruptly separated from the mother while the mother's ego is "attuned" to
supporting the needs of the infant. As posited by Judith Viorst,
"Yet the yearning to restore the bliss of mother-child oneness - that ultimate connection - is never
relinquished. All of us live, at some unconscious level, as if we had been rendered incomplete. Though
the rupture of primary unity is a necessary loss, it remains 'an incurable wound which afflicts the
destiny of the whole human race.'" (1998, p. 42)
Referring to Winnicott's theory of individual development, Verrier states that ". . . at the beginning of
life there is no such thing as a baby. There is instead a mother/baby - an emotional, psychological,
spiritual unit, whose knowing comes from intuition. The baby and the mother, although separated
physiologically, are still psychologically one" (1993, p. 17). If we do indeed yearn to restore the
primary unity of "mother-child oneness," does the expectant mother temporarily do so via "primary
maternal preoccupation?" And to carry this thought one step further, what might be the effects of
severing the connection outside of the rhythm of nature's progression? Stiffler (1992) reports that
"evidence of an archetypal longing of mothers and children for each other is exhibited in all mammals
and is pathetically demonstrated on those occasions when behavioral scientists attempt to separate
them" (p. 94).
According to Verny and Kelly (1981) , the optimum timeframe for intrauterine bonding is in the last
trimester of pregnancy during which time the fetus is capable of sending sophisticated messages to the
mother. Verny and Kelly identify the first hours and days following birth as optimum for extrauterine
bonding. Verny and Kelly propose that a highly involved sympathetic communication system exists
between mother and child - one which supports the theory of extrasensory communication. Ehrenwald
(1977, cited in Stiffler, 1992) postulates that communication between the mother and child during the
symbiotic phase may be intrapsychic and telepathic - "that there is no psychological gap between them,
due to a continued fusion of the neonatal with the maternal ego" (p. 105). While the telepathic link is
believed to diminish over time, it has been observed to spontaneously appear in later years --
particularly in time of crisis or when other communication channels are unavailable (Stiffler, 1992).
Most of the literature concerning mother-child bonding has focused on extrauterine bonding - with little
emphasis on intrauterine bonding. The discovery of a "bodywide communication system," which
communicates across cellular barriers, informs our understanding of mother-child communication in
utero. Recent research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology lends support to the ease with which
both sympathetic and physiological communication is facilitated between mother and fetus. Quoting
from her original journal article, Candace Pert writes: "Neuropeptides and their receptors thus join the
brain, glands, and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body, probably
representing the biochemical substrate of emotion" (1997, p. 179). Additionally,
psychoneuroimmunology explains how memories may be stored "in a psychosomatic network
extending into the body, particularly in the ubiquitous receptors between nerves and bundles of cell
bodies called ganglia, which are distributed not just in and near the spinal cord, but all the way out
along pathways to internal organs and the very surface of our skin" (Pert, 1997, p. 143). Are the
memories and emotions of the mother-infant union indelibly-imprinted, somatically upon the cells of
both mother and child? Are state-dependent memories and behaviors reflective of the mother-child
symbiotic relationship encoded in our neural networks?
This section has explored various mother-child bonding theories - emanating from the disciplines of
ethology, biology and psychology. The meaning of the mother-child relationship lies in its social
construction. Pertinent to this study is the social construction of motherhood, adoption and
THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF MOTHERHOOD, ADOPTION, AND RELINQUISHMENT
"What makes a mother? Is it the child birth? Is it the bearing and nourishing and sustaining him for the
first nine months of his life? Is it the raising of him, spending his growing years with him? When do
women become mothers? Does some thing [sic] magical happen during or after childbirth? Is this the
forging, the test by fire, or do mothers become themselves under the gentle pedagogy of the tiny
teachers who make them feel too much too soon? Are we the mothers when we begin to care, to
wonder, when we realise we are moved by a child we can't even see? When does motherhood begin,
when does it end - or does it have beginning and end? Is it time bound?" (Connolly, 1987, as quoted in
Arthur & Jacobs, 1999, p. 21)
Several definitions are presented here in order to lay the groundwork for this topic, namely:
postmodernism, deconstructionism, and social constructionism. Postmodernism has been described as:
"A philosophical movement across a variety of disciplines that has sought to dismantle many of the
assumptions that underlie the established truths of the modern era. It is marked by acceptance of
plurality and the challenging of norms. In particular, postmodernism tends to reject the view that
science and technology necessarily provide hope for human progress." (Monk, Winslade, Crocket &
Epston, 1997, p. 304)
Imbedded in postmodernism is the ideology of deconstructionism. Referring to this worldview,
Woodhouse (1996, p. 22) writes:
"The assumption is that an objective evaluation of competing points of view is impossible since all
points of view are to some extent biased by race, gender, and culture. All that's left to do is to describe
different perspectives, including those formerly considered inconsequential, and attempt to balance past
biases--which might entail leaving Plato and Shakespeare out of the curriculum altogether."
Similarly, social constructionism is defined as:
"The movement in the social sciences that stresses the role played by language in the production of
meaning. A central tenet is that people produce through discourse the social conditions by which their
thoughts, feelings, and actions are determined. In this way, meaning is made in social contexts rather
than given." (Monk et al., 1997, p. 305)
Freedman and Combs (1996, p. 22) present the following ideas as fundamental to the "postmodern
view of reality": "1. Realities are socially constructed. 2. Realities are constituted through language. 3.
Realities are organized and maintained through narrative. 4. There are no essential truths." Within this
context, the reality of motherhood, adoption, and relinquishment is socially defined, manipulated by
language, reproduced by stories, and subject to transmutation and redefinition. By challenging the
assumptions of reality, normality, and prevailing beliefs, infinite alternative realities become possible.
In my attempt to deconstruct the meaning of motherhood, I challenge myself and the reader to unearth
the cultural, social, economic, and political assumptions by which motherhood is constructed. In
ancient cultures, the Great Goddess was worshiped and revered as the embodiment of the life cycle
continuum: birth, death, and regeneration (Kahn, 1995). In her book Motherhood: The Second Oldest
Profession, Erma Bombeck writes: "'Mother' has always been a generic term synonymous with love,
devotion, and sacrifice. . . . Immediately following birth, every new mother drags from her bed and
awkwardly pulls herself up on the pedestal provided for her" (1983, pp. 2-3).
Chodorow (1978) provides an informative description of the historical changes affecting motherhood
that have taken place in the preceding two centuries.
Two centuries ago, marriage, especially for women, was essentially synonymous with child-
rearing. . . . Parenting lasted from the inception of a marriage to the death of the marriage partners. . . .
In this earlier period, the household was the major productive unit of society. Husband and wife, with
their own and/or other children, were a cooperative producing unit. . . . Women carried out productive
and reproductive responsibilities, as they have in most societies and throughout history. . . . [Over the
last two centuries,] production outside the home became identified with work as such; the home was no
longer viewed as a workplace. Home and workplace, once the same, are now separate. This change in
the organization of production went along with and produced a complex of far-reaching changes in the
family and in women's lives. . . . Women's family role became centered on child care and taking care of
men. This role involved more than physical labor. It was relational and personal and, in the case of both
children and men, maternal. . . ." (pp. 4-5).
Perhaps the social construction of motherhood is most clearly visible when examined under the lens of
patriarchy. Chodorow (1978) ascribes women's mothering to be "a central and defining feature of the
social organization of gender and is implicated in the construction and reproduction of male dominance
itself" (p. 9). Traditionally, economic systems have depended upon the continued reproduction of
"labor power" within the family by women's reproduction and mothering (Chodorow, 1978).
Historically, both prior to and during the years of this study, income inequalities based on gender
fostered a sexual division of labor -- with mothers serving as primary caretakers and fathers, primary
wage-earners (Chodorow, 1978). Chodorow asserts that the "social organization of gender. . . is
socially constructed, subject to historical change and development, and organized in such a way that it
is systematically reproduced" (1978, p. 8).
In The American Heritage College Dictionary (3rd Ed.), the term mother is defined as "a woman who
conceives, gives birth to, or raises and nurtures a child" (1993, p. 890). However, in Western society,
the satisfaction of all four conditions are often implicitly assumed. As Chodorow (1978) points out, a
man can "mother" a child, but a woman can not "father" a child. Chodorow asserts that "being a
mother, then, is not only bearing a child - it is being a person who socializes and nurtures. It is being a
primary parent or caretaker" (p. 11). Hence, in the "lived" definition, an otherwise childless woman
who miscarries, aborts, delivers a stillborn, relinquishes, or adopts may not be viewed as a mother in its
fullest sense. Adoptive mothers Betsy Smith, Janet Surrey, and Mary Watkins report having been asked
the following questions by strangers: "Are you her 'mother'?" "Is she yours?" "Does she call you
'Mom'?" "She can't be your baby. Where does she come from?" (1998, p. 194) For members of the
adoption triad, the term "real" mother is emotionally loaded. Smith, Surrey, and Watkins (1998) claim
that adoptive mothers may fear that without the opportunity for mother-infant bonding at birth, their
relationship may be less "real." They argue that, in spite of the evidence supporting the prenatal
development of an infant's familiarity with its biological mother and the potential effects of severing
that relationship, adoptive mothers are able to develop attachment relationships with the child. Smith et
al. (1998) assert that ". . . in a culture that values blood relations over others, the parents considered
'real' are the birth parents, despite any acts they have committed that are antithetical to 'parenting'" (p.
206). In this context, Smith et al. have used the term "to parent" in the sense of "To act as a parent to;
raise and nurture" as specified in The American Heritage College Dictionary (3rd Ed.) (1993, p. 992).
An alternate use of the term "to parent" is "To cause to come into existence; originate." Once more, we
are presented with the dilemma of defining terms in the exceptional case of adoption and
relinquishment. Smith et al. have demonstrated their bias and "lived experience" by choosing the term
"parenting" to represent "raising and nurturing," They advocate for the "continued development and
reinforcement of nonblaming, nonjudgmental language to describe members of the adoption triangle. . .
for example, birth mother, biological mother; instead of 'real' mother, 'natural' mother, or 'abandoning'
mother. . ." (p. 212). Others, however, argue that there is no judgment intended in the term "natural"
mother and that biologically the woman who gave birth to the child is in fact his/her natural mother.
Birthmothers often claim that they relinquished their "parenting" rights to raise and nurture the child,
but they did not relinquish their "motherhood." Relinquishment instruments often used terminology
such as the "relinquishment of parental rights." This is evidenced in the language expressed in
Washington D.C.'s relinquishment document (circa 1956-1960):
"Relinquishment of Parental Rights - Mother I, (insert BM name here), legal mother of (insert Bname
of adoptee), born at (insert city/state of birth) on (insert DOB) hereby surrender and relinquish all
parental rights in the said child and do permanently relinquish and transfer the same to the
Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and their designated agents, under provisions of Section 6
of the Act of April 22, 1944, (58 Stat. 194) as amended by Section 5 (b) of the Act of June 8, 1954 (68
Stat. 248), with full power and authority to the said Commissioners or their designated agents to
consent to the adoption of the said child." (cited in email@example.com, 1997)
Terms such as birthmother, first mother, other mother, biological mother, and natural mother have been
coined in order to describe a woman who conceived and gave birth to a child but did not raise and
nurture the child. Motherhood is also in some cases endowed with attributes of ownership - my son, my
daughter. This too can be magnified in the atypical case of relinquishment and adoption and may create
an underlying competition between birthmothers and adoptive mothers. As emphasized by one
"What we have to realize, all of us, is that children are not possessions. They don't belong to any of us.
Children are their own beings, adopted or not. At best, we can guide them. The birthparents have
guided them into the world, the adoptive ones guide them through childhood. But we do not own them.
We are not in competition for deeds or titles. We are united in love." (Jones, 1993, p. 283).
Smith et al. (1998) refer to the "multiplicity of mothering" as those situations where more than one
mother parents a child, as seen in lesbian families or extended families. In other cultures, language
exists to describe such relationships, e.g., African American "blood mothers" and "other mothers" and
Latino "madres de sangre (blood mothers) and madres de crianza (childrearing mothers)". Having
multiple siblings, we are able to refer to all as brothers and sisters. We have no need to differentiate
other than by name, or sometimes birth order, when necessary. However, in the case of relinquishment
and adoption, there appears to be a need to distinguish between the two mothering roles, as evidenced
by distinctions found in language. Discussing the "confusion about status" in the post-reunion
relationship, Gediman and Brown (1991) assert:
"The problem of what to call whom also reflects the anomaly of the post-reunion relationship, which is
often described as both a yes and no at the same time. 'I'm his mother but not his mother,' one says. 'My
daughter who's not my daughter,' another puts it. 'I won't be her Mom but she is forever my daughter,'
according to someone else. Strictly speaking, such sentences don't make any sense, but somehow
because of the circumstances, they do." (p. 154)
Additional insights into motherhood may be found in identifying some of the psychological and social
reasons for wanting children. Hoffman and Hoffman found the following reasons why people wanted
"Becoming a parent marks the official passage into adulthood. A child is seen as an extension of the
self, and having a child is a way to give birth to the unborn self. A child is seen as an heir apparent,
someone to carry on the family line and traditions, and to insure social status. A child can realize the
parents' dreams, and also can have a childhood full of the opportunities and love that the parents feel
they have been deprived of during their own childhoods. Women especially may look upon having a
child as a way of showing up their own mothers in the job of mothering: 'I'm sure not going to raise my
children the way my mother raised me.' Having children is the morally and socially correct thing to do,
and pressure from friends, family and the larger culture cause parents to feel they must procreate to be
accepted. Becoming parents may provide people with the illusion of having control over their own
lives. They may feel powerful in comparison to the helpless child who is so dependent upon them. Or
they may believe that the child will save their faltering marital relationship. Economic utility: Children
can help out with the family business, and also can be counted on to take care of the parents in old age.
Having a child is seen as a way for the parents to celebrate their love, and raising children is seen as
one of life's major challenges. Child rearing is yet another area in which success-oriented parents can
excel and prove their worth." (Sanford & Donovan, 1984, pp. 32-33)
Each of these reasons may become threads in the fabric of motherhood and add additional layers of
meaning. Our understanding of motherhood is further enlightened by exploring what it means to be
childless. Sanford and Donovan (1984) describe the social stigma that may accompany childlessness.
Childless women may be characterized as "deficient, aberrant and even pathetic" and pitiable (p. 148).
They may be seen as "immature, selfish, unable to give to others" (p. 149). Women who desire to
become pregnant and are infertile may suffer greater social stigma (Sanford & Donovan, 1984).
Sanford and Donovan further state that "a woman who does not have children must prove herself
exceptional in achievement in order to compensate for her failure to be a 'real' woman" (p. 149).
Cultural, social, economic, and political changes within the last fifty years have dramatically influenced
the role of mothering. Surrogate parenting, whereby a surrogate mother can be artificially inseminated
for the purpose of carrying and relinquishing the child to a childless couple, further challenges our
cognitive schemata that shapes, makes sense of, and gives meaning to "motherhood." Multiple
mothering and single parenting likewise challenge our staid assumptions. The recent rise in reunions of
birthmothers and adoptees (and its media coverage) has implicitly made apparent the disparities in the
meaning of motherhood as it applies to adoptive mothers and birthmothers. The next section addresses
the historical underpinnings of adoption as a social institution.
"The tensions inherent in keeping secrets affect all aspects of the adoptive process. Everyone involved
in adoption must confront at one time or another questions about secrecy and disclosure. Should a
child's birth certificate indicate that he or she has been adopted? How many details about a child's birth
should social workers disclose to the adoptive parents? When and how should adoptive parents tell
their children they were adopted? Should adoptive parents impart to their child all the information that
social workers have given to them? When adult adoptees return to an adoption agency, should social
workers give them all the facts in the file, including the names of their biological parents? When birth
mothers return, should they learn how to contact the children they relinquished? Disclosure is also
fraught with anxiety. Adoptive parents worry that they will lose their children when the children seek
and find their biological family. Some adult adoptees worry that they will hurt their adopted parents if
they make deeper inquiries into their past or want to meet biological family members. Unwed mothers
who have married and started new families worry that the child they relinquished for adoption, now
grown, will appear unexpectedly on their doorstep. Others worry the opposite: they will never again see
the child they gave up for adoption. "It was not always this way." (Carp, 1998, pp. 2-3)
Adoption is a social organization. As such, it is shaped by society, culture, religion, politics,
economics, etc. An examination of its history portrays a multidimensional portrait of its social
construction. Although adoption most likely pre-dates recorded history, it is the adoption practices of
the last few hundred years that are most pertinent to this study. Adoption practices have taken many
forms over the centuries and across cultures. Carp (1998) contrasts how adoption is currently practiced
in the South Pacific, Africa, Asia, and in Western societies:
"Whereas in Western societies modern adoption is infrequent, private, formal, and involves a complete
transfer of parental rights, on some South Pacific islands adoption is common, public, casual, and
characterized by partial transfer of the adopted child to the new family and dual parental rights and
obligations. In contrast to Western societies, where parental ties are always broken, in Africa and Asia,
adoption is a method of enriching and strengthening ties between two family groups. Similarly, in the
South Pacific, it is common for adopted children to maintain a relationship with their biological
parents." (p. 4)
In Western societies, adoption has undergone a number of cyclic transformations. According to Carp
(1998), by the seventeenth century, adoption was perceived as "unchristian" and "unnatural" and had
practically disappeared in most European countries due to several salient factors. Prevalent factors
included: (1) the Church's disapproval of the use of adoption as a mechanism for inheritance, (2) the
denouncement of adoption by religious leaders and reformers who held that sex and procreation should
only be practiced within the confines of marriage and intended to discourage the practice of biological
fathers bringing their illegitimate sons into the family through adoption, (3) fears of inadvertent
incestuous unions, (4) the public stigma of infertility, and (5) a belief that adoption was contrary to the
"natural order" (Carp, 1998).
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, adoption was unregulated by law. In fact, adoption was not even
recognized by English Common Law. Carp (1998) attributes this to the primacy of kinship and the
protection of inheritance property rights for blood relatives, the prevailing moral repulsiveness toward
illegitimacy, and the existence of "quasi-adoptive" practices of apprenticeship and voluntary
placements. Departing from the European adoption practices and attitudes, colonial Americans
"showed little preference for the primacy of biological kinship, practiced adoption on a limited scale,
and frequently placed children in what we would call foster care" (Carp, 1998, p. 5). Indenture and
apprenticeship were widely practiced - in both voluntary and compulsory forms. These practices
provided mechanisms to reduce vagrancy and to assist the poor. Carp (1998) notes that "church and
town authorities involuntarily 'bound out' orphans, bastards, abandoned children, and impoverished,
neglected, or abused children to families to labor and be educated" (p. 5). Contrary to indentured
servitude (where the child performed labor in exchange for support until attaining adulthood), informal
adoptions offered "some hope or expectation that children placed in informal adoptive settings would
receive care, support, and perhaps education from their new home" (TxCARE, 1994, p. 1). Informal
adoptions occurred without legal proceedings. Informal adoptions often served economic purposes by
supplying an inexpensive source of child labor. Another practice, known as testamentary adoption,
enabled children placed with families to be provided for in their wills.
Carp notes that:
"Under the impact of large-scale immigration, urbanization, and the advent of the factory system and
wage labor, the compact, stable, agricultural communities of colonial American were giving way to
crowded, sprawling, coastal cities. One of the effects of these wrenching economic and social
transformations was that both urban and rural poverty became major problems" (1998, p. 7).
This led to the development of almshouses and private orphanages to provide relief for the poor.
Failure of these institutions to provide adequate care of the children prompted a shift away from
institutional solutions to an emphasis on "the ability of a family environment to shape and reform
dependent children" (Carp, 1998, p. 8). Carp writes:
"By 1900, breaking up families had become practically taboo, at least in theory, and family
preservation had become a fundamental principle among all child-savers. . . . While they continued to
extol the family as superior to the institution, the 'family' they now meant was the child's natural
parents, the family of origin" (1998, p. 16).
Poverty was no longer viewed as a sufficient reason to break up a family. State laws were enacted to
facilitate keeping the child with the mother, e.g. pensions for widowed mothers. The prevailing attitude
concerning adoption is evidenced in this 1927 report by the Children's Bureau concerning ten child-
placement agencies: "[They] were unanimous in their opinion that no child, whether of legitimate or
illegitimate birth, should be placed for adoption if there were decent, self-respecting parents or other
family connections who might later, if not at the moment, provide a home for him" (Carp, 1998, p. 17).
For some time, in the early part of the twentieth century, eugenics played a part in discouraging the
adoptability of illegitimate children. A connection between inherited feeblemindedness and unwed
mothers was being espoused. Adoptions during the first quarter of the century were reportedly low due
to cultural, medical, and social stigma associated with adoption (Carp, 1998).
State legislation of adoption began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century. Massachusetts passed the
first adoption statute in 1851 wherein "adoption pursuant to the Massachusetts statute required judicial
approval, consent of the child's parent or guardian, and a finding that the prospective adoptive family
was of sufficient ability to raise the child" (TxCARE, 1994, p. 2). According to Carp, the
Massachusetts Adoption Act "codified earlier state court decisions that had transformed the law of
custody to reflect Americans' new conceptions of childhood and parenthood, which emphasized the
needs of children and the contractual and egalitarian nature of spouses' rights of guardianship" (1998, p.
11). However, the implementation of the newly enacted statutes were not strictly enforced. The statutes
did not address issues of confidentiality; practically speaking, these were open adoptions. Due to
changing "attitudes, mores, and myths of the times," the practice of sealing adoption records began in
the 1930's (TxCARE, 1994).
The inclusion of confidentiality clauses in state legislation was originally intended to prevent the public
from viewing adoption records for the protection of the adoption triad. In New York, the legislation,
known as the "Nosey Neighbor Law," was designed "to shield the details of an adoption from the
public. The NNL did NOT seal the records from any of the parties concerned - birth and adoptive
parents OR the adoptee" (Sparky@netaxs.com, 1997). However, during the 1930s, some states had
changed the wording to exclude the natural parents from accessing court adoption records. In 1939, a
U. S. Children's Bureau spokesperson reported that: "We have about concluded that the only persons
who should have access to adoption records without specific approval of the court are the adoptive
parents, the child when he becomes of age, and representatives of the State Department responsible for
investigation of the adoption" (Carp, 1998, p. 42). By the end of 1941, confidentiality safeguards to
secure all or part of adoption court records from public inspection had been enacted in 24 states (Carp,
1998). It was not long before confidentiality safeguards were expanded to restrict all members of the
adoption triad from access to adoption court records. Additionally, adoption agencies extended
confidentiality to agency records.
The following reasons were influential in the move toward full confidentiality:
"The birth parents were protected from the stigma of pregnancy without the benefit of marriage. The
adoptee was protected from the stigma of illegitimacy and the concerns of 'bad blood' which was
loosely connected to what we know about genetics today, but carried with it overtones of the 'sins of
the father.' Secrecy would also prevent the confusion of having two different sets of parents and the
conflict that might arise should contact occur. The adoptive parents, often an infertile couple, were
protected from the stigma of raising an 'illegitimate' child. They were protected from dealing with their
infertility and from facing the differences between being a parent through adoption vs. being a parent
by birth. Closed records also precluded the possibility of birth relatives seeking out the child, an event
associated with potential kidnapping." (TxCARE, 1994, p. 3)
Additional reasons noted are:
protection from intrusion into the privacy of all parties;
protection from blackmail;
protecting the adoptee from disturbing acts surrounding their birth - incest, rape, etc.
enhancing the adoptee's feeling of permanency;
enhancing the family's stability and preserving the nuclear family;
encouraging the use of adoption instead of abortion, black market placement, child abuse, or neglect."
(TxCARE, 1994, p. 4)
Adoption practices and ideology underwent significant changes following World War II. According to
"The baby boom was both the cause and the effect of a profound change in the national political culture
that tied the security of the nation and personal happiness to an ideology of domesticity and the nuclear
family. Parenthood during the Cold War became a patriotic necessity. The media romanticized babies,
glorified motherhood, and identified fatherhood with masculinity and good citizenship. The
consequences of this celebratory pronatalist mood, as the historian Elaine Tyler May has written,
'marginalized the childless in unprecedented ways.'
Uncomfortable with being childless and the subject of public opprobrium, many of these childless
couples sought adoption in record numbers as one solution to their shame of infertility. Contributing to
the unprecedented numbers of childless couples applying for children to adopt were new medical
treatments - semen examination, tests for tubal patency, and endrometrial [sic] biopsies-permitting
physicians to diagnose physical sterility more easily and accurately early in marriage." (pp. 28-29)
It is estimated that in the mid-1950s one million childless couples were attempting to adopt an available
75,000 children (Carp, 1998). In this context, "white, pregnant, unmarried women and their babies
became market commodities" (Solinger, 1992, p. 154). Prior to World War II, motherhood was
considered immutable. As Solinger notes, " . . . for most unwed mothers, black and white, through the
1930s, illegitimacy was a shame that carried with it shamed motherhood" (1992, p. 152). Since the
child was believed to be both the offspring of a mentally deficient, morally weak mother and a "child of
sin," the adoptability of the child was largely diminished. Likewise, the mother was viewed as
deserving of punishment for her sinful actions and not capable of rehabilitation, nor was her
marriageability or community standing likely to be restored (Solinger, 1992). As a result, initiatives
were taken to prevent the abandonment of these infants. For example, regulations were instituted either
by the state or by maternity homes requiring mothers in maternity homes to breast-feed for at least
three months in order to establish mother-infant bonding (Solinger, 1992). In contrast, in the post-war
era, the ideology of illegitimacy underwent major change. Psychological explanations replaced the
biological interpretations of unwed mothers - transforming her into a "maladjusted female" rather than
"genetically tainted" (Solinger, 1992). Motherhood was no longer considered immutable. Within this
context, the infant was perceived as adoptable; and the mother was capable of rehabilitation and future
marriage. Solinger points out:
"In postwar America, social conditions of motherhood along with notions about the psychological
status of the unwed mother became more important in defining white motherhood than biology.
Specifically, for the first time, it took more than a baby to make a white girl or woman into a mother.
Without marriage first, a white female was not considered to have achieved motherhood." (1992, p.
However, this was achievable only through relinquishment. Through relinquishment and adoption, the
mistake was undone (Solinger, 1992). In the 1960 Child Welfare League's Standards for Services to
Unmarried Parents, it was stated that:
"In our society, parenthood without marriage is a deviation from the accepted cultural pattern of
bearing and raising children. It represents a specific form of social dysfunctioning which is a problem
in itself and which in turn creates social and emotional problems for parent and child. . . . It is generally
accepted in our society that children should be reared in families created through marriage. The legal
family is the approved social institution to ensure sound rearing and development of children."
(Solinger, 1992, p. 166)
Solinger (1992) asserts that unmarried mothers were "defined by the state out of their motherhood" de
facto as unsuitable for parenting (p. 166). Adoption was clearly mandated as the recommended action.
The social construction of adoption has over the ages been built upon the terrain of gender, race and
class prejudices and inequalities. According to Solinger (1992), unmarried black and white women of
childbearing age were disempowered by the prevailing public policies and practices. Solinger (1992)
"Among single women, unwed mothers were most vulnerable to this strain of public opinion partly
because they had violated multiple rules concerning femininity and sexuality, marriage and maternity,
and were thus a powerful testament to the wages of uncontained female sexuality, dangerous as a threat
to the integrity of the family" (p. 22).
In some states, women who bore more than one illegitimate child faced imprisonment or sterilization
(Solinger, 1992). Those who kept their illegitimate children faced community ostracism. One unwed
mother describes her experience as follows:
"I am an unwed mother who kept her child. And I fear no hell after death, for I've had mine here on
earth. Let no man or girl deceive herself-hell hath no punishment like the treatment people give a
'fallen woman.' The heartache, tortured thoughts, recriminations, fear, loneliness could not be put on
paper. Neither can the scorn, insult and actual hate of self-righteous and ignorant people." (as quoted in
Solinger, 1992, p. 33)
In the 1950s and 1960s, the prevailing belief held by the professionals was that the unmarried woman's
decision to keep her illegitimate child was in itself evidence of immaturity and unsuitability for
motherhood (Solinger, 1992). Although the unwed mother and her child were socially stigmatized, the
father generally escaped social punishment. Culpability was placed upon the woman who "got herself
pregnant." As Solinger (1992) comments: "The traditional expression 'he ruined her,' archaic by
midcentury, had been meaningfully replaced by 'she got herself in trouble'" (p. 35). Society exacted its
price for gender insubordination and uncontrolled female sexuality.
An analysis of the racial determinants of adoption is complex. The institution of adoption during this
era was indeed race-specific. Solinger writes:
"Race, in the end, was the most accurate predictor of an unwed mother's parents' response to her
pregnancy; of society's reaction to her plight; of where and how she would spend the months of her
pregnancy; and most important, the most accurate predictor of what she would do with the 'fatherless'
child she bore, and of how being mother to such a child would affect the rest of her life." (1992, p. 18)
While pregnancy among black single women was defined "as the product of uncontrolled, sexual
indulgence" to be constrained by "punitive, legal sanctions," white single mothers were deemed to be
"socially productive breeders whose babies, unfortunately conceived out of wedlock, could offer
infertile couples their only chance to construct proper families" (Solinger, 1992, p. 24). The institution
of adoption primarily served white females. In 1960, it is estimated that 70% of white babies born to
single women were adopted; compared to only 5% of black babies born outside of marriage (Solinger,
1992). Maternity homes often refused to accept black residents. Although the civil rights movement
made inroads into desegregation and the provision of services to black communities, adoption agencies
often refused to accept black babies for placement (Solinger, 1992). Cultural and community support
for black unwed mothers and their children was significantly stronger than in the white community.
However, Solinger (1992) notes that black unwed mothers did not escape stigmatization within the
black community. The relationship of class to adoption is racially driven. Although adoption is not
class-based per se, the level of services provided is. For unmarried white women, race was the
overriding factor (i.e., the availability of a white baby). For unmarried black women, however, socio-
economic class was often racially influenced and an implicit factor in adoption (Solinger, 1992).
The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an era of liberation movements, among them, the women's liberation
movement, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the adoption rights movement.
Solinger (1992) and Carp (1998) both refer to 1965 and onward as turning points in the stigmatization
of unmarried pregnant women and their offspring. The 1960s attributed white unwed pregnancy to
"social-structural breakdown, a phenomenon that could be traced to the disintegration of values
previously guiding the family, youth, and the media," rather than to individual genetic or psychological
pathology (Solinger, 1992, p. 218). Gediman and Brown (1991) write that ". . . during the 1950s and
1960s, there was no greater disgrace than to become pregnant before marriage. The very term 'unwed
mother' hissed with social disapproval and the label stuck fast until the permissive 1970s, when the less
accusatory 'single mother' worked its way into our vocabulary" (p. 9).
Prior to the 1970s, as many as 80 percent of infants born to unwed mothers were placed for adoption.
However, only 12 percent were placed for adoption in the 1970s, and only 4 percent by 1981 (Carp,
1998). The emergence and greater acceptability of single parenting, coupled with the legalization of
abortion in 1973, has greatly reduced the availability of adoptable children. Current statistics are not
available; however, the trend toward unwed mothers keeping their infants has continued. In fact, today,
many women are electing to become single parents through planned pregnancy. Since the 1960s, the
institution of adoption has witnessed: (1) the advancement of open adoption whereby varying degrees
of information are exchanged between the adoption triad members; (2) the growth of the adoption
reform movement and lobbying for open records; and (3) the creation of voluntary adoption registries
for search and reunion (Carp, 1998). As adoption continues to evolve, as laws change, as boundaries
become more fluid, the social organization of adoption is injected with new meaning.
Relinquishment and the Marginalization of Birthmothers
"For language is a social medium that gives an account of the human world over time while
constructing and reconstructing it in the process of these accounts" (Kahn, 1995, p. 58).
The social construction of relinquishment is tightly coupled with the previous sections on motherhood
and adoption. However, in the literature, relinquishment and adoption are often treated as one. In fact,
adoption is generally the research domain - with relinquishment being one attribute of adoption.
Therefore, the effects of relinquishment on the adoptee has received research attention; while
consideration of the effects on the birthmother has been much neglected. In the closed adoption system,
the birthmother is excluded from all aspects of the adoption. Relinquishment holds an interesting
relationship to adoption - for it is in the act of relinquishing that adoption becomes possible. The child
is relinquished for adoption. It is what links the birthmother to the adoption triad inasmuch as
birthmothers are not actual parties to the adoption. As a "shadow" mother, the birthmother is affected
by the social construct of motherhood, as well as adoption. Therefore, many of the issues concerning
relinquishment have already been introduced in the previous sections. This section will focus on the
marginalization of women who relinquish and is drawn from published birthmother interviews,
birthmother research, and/or narratives written by birthmothers.
Kirby and McKenna (1989) describe "the margins" as follows:
"The margin is the context in which those who suffer injustice, inequality and exploitation live their
lives. People find themselves on the margins not only in terms of the inequality in the distribution of
material resources, but also knowledge production is organized so that the views of a small group of
people are presented as objective, as 'The Truth.' The majority of people are excluded from
participating as either producers or subjects of knowledge.
One of the characteristics of living in the margins is the frequent necessity to perform a kind of
doublethink/doublespeak in order to translate our experience into acceptable and understandable terms
for the status quo." (p. 33)
Kirby and McKenna's description of "the margins" is deconstructed below as it applies to birthmothers
1. The margin is the context in which those who suffer injustice, inequality and exploitation live their
lives. An unwed, pregnant woman in the 1960s was subjected to injustice, inequality, and exploitation
levied upon them by the dominant culture.
"Women are the group most victimized by sexist oppression. As with other forms of group oppression,
sexism is perpetuated by institutional and social structures; by the individuals who dominate, exploit, or
oppress; and by the victims themselves who are socialized to behave in ways that make them act in
complicity with the status quo" (Hooks, 1984, p. 43).
Within society, social status and power are often defined by such factors as gender, age, and
economics. Young women without wealth or education are disempowered within our society. Societal
rules govern how one's role is defined and entered into. Jones (1993) writes that since the survival of
society depends on women becoming mothers, rules are defined to assist women in this process, i.e.,
mating and reproduction. For instance, Jones identifies adulthood, marriage, and independent financial
resources as prerequisites for motherhood. Lacking these requirements places a pregnant woman
"outside the norms and, therefore, outside the margins of 'acceptable' society" (Jones, 1993, p. 13).
Jones asserts that in order to reenter 'normal' society, a young, single woman's only option was often to
conceal her unplanned pregnancies and relinquish her children. Of 79 birthmothers interviewed, Jones
reports that "most of the birthmothers interviewed relinquished not because they wanted to, but because
their pregnancies broke the rules, opposed social standards, and threatened to leave them forever
isolated from respectable society" (1993, p. 13).
Another birthmother writes:
"I was willing to do anything in order to keep my child and live by my own standards. . . I was not
ashamed of myself or of being pregnant. But I needed to think about the child. I had to give him his
best opportunity, and that meant protecting him from the judgmental hordes. But I've never gotten over
it, never forgiven society for forcing me to make that choice. I've alienated myself. I've become forever
an outsider. . . ." (Jones, 1993, p. 36).
Shawyer (1979, as quoted in Logan, 1996) writes,
"Adoption is a violent act, a political act of aggression towards a woman who has supposedly offended
the sexual mores by committing the unforgivable act of not suppressing her sexuality, and therefore not
keeping it for trading purposes through traditional marriage. . . the crime is a grave one, for she
threatens the very fabric of our society. The penalty is severe. She is stripped of her child by a variety
of subtle and not so subtle manoeuvres and then brutally abandoned. . . ." (p. 609).
2. People find themselves on the margins not only in terms of the inequality in the distribution of
material resources, but also knowledge production is organized so that the views of a small group of
people are presented as objective, as 'The Truth.'
In previous decades, birthmothers were advised that relinquishment was the best course of action for
the baby. However, in a recent survey of 264 birthmothers, "the results strongly suggest[ed] that a
number of the respondents believed the act of relinquishing their child was not the right thing to do, not
in their best interest and not in the best interest of their child" (De Simone, 1996, p. 65).
According to Lauderdale and Boyle (1994), birthmothers in their study felt 'like pariahs,' and were
prevented from feeling "like normal mothers after the birth because all believed society expected them
to behave 'as if nothing ever happened'" (p. 216).
3. The majority of people are excluded from participating as either producers or subjects of knowledge.
According to one birthmother,
"Everyone automatically assumed that babies born out of marriage in the 60s and the early seventies
should be adopted; Our parents assumed it, the medical profession and the adoption workers not only
assumed it but strongly advocated it. It was as if we did not exist. Many of us were offered no support,
no counselling, no information." (Wells, 1990, as quoted in Arthur & Jacobs, 1999, p. 21)
Lauderdale and Boyle (1994) report that birthmothers in closed adoptions "described their fear and lack
of information about their rights as patients and mothers. Fearfulness and being unknowing increased
their sense of isolation and feelings of powerlessness" (p. 215).
Logan (1996) describes the marginalization of birthmothers, as follows:
"Historically, birth parents have been the most neglected party in the adoption triangle; both in the
literature and in practice they have been afforded little attention compared with adopted people and
adoptive parents. Furthermore, the proposed changes in legislation offer them little hope for the future.
The proposals in the White Paper (Department of Health, 1993) indicating greater emphasis on
openness and contact have been welcomed and would suggest a recognition of the importance of birth
parents. However, the failure to follow the recommendations of the Adoption Law Review and allow
an independent worker to be appointed to assist birth parents again suggests the marginalization of their
needs" (p. 610).
4. One of the characteristics of living in the margins is the frequent necessity to perform a kind of
doublethink/doublespeak in order to translate our experience into acceptable and understandable terms
for the status quo.
"What 'decision?'" one birthmother demands. "There was no decision. The word decision doesn't apply
to relinquishing a child. In fact, the word reflects the prejudice of society toward birthmothers. We are
supposed to be unfeeling, inhuman trash, who decide to give up our children because life would be
more fun, less expensive, and easier without them. That's hogwash. No mother in the world, human or
animal, would decide to give up her baby. It isn't normal or natural. It wouldn't happen if mothers had
the power to decide. It only happens when they don't." (Jones, 1993, pp. 11-12)
Jones (1993) reports that use of the term decision may be misleading with regard to relinquishment
because of the implication that there was active participation in the decision-making process or that
other options were available for consideration. The birthmother may not have played a role in the
decision-making process and may not have had an alternative option to choose. Lauderdale and Boyle
(1994) found that birthmothers whose children were adopted through closed adoption "recalled having
little control or input into the adoption" (p. 214) and "reported that the decision to give up their babies
was made by family members, particularly the women's mothers, who often enlisted the support of
clergymen" (p. 215). While Lauderdale and Boyle repeatedly discuss the "powerlessness" over
decision-making experienced by these birthmothers, they twice referred to this group as "the women
who chose closed adoption" (pp. 214-215). Usage of the term "chose" appears unrepresentative of the
findings and exemplifies the difficulties in translating experience for the status quo in light of the
following: (1) the birthmothers reported a lack of input into the decision-making process, and (2) the
availability of open adoptions is fairly recent and was probably not even an option for all interviewees.
As asserted by bell hooks (1984), women "are socialized to behave in ways that make them act in
complicity with the status quo" (p. 43). During the years 1965-1972, a common reason why women
relinquished was to provide the politically and culturally-sanctioned nuclear family for their child.
However, it was only shortly thereafter that the divorce rate in America began to soar and never-
married mothers could easily merge with divorced mothers - and be categorized as "single parents"
Language, once again, can be seen as a primary producer of meaning. In the margins, birthmothers
have been using "doublethink/doublespeak" in their social intercourse with non-birthmothers. On the
Internet support groups, the language utilized by birthmothers in communicating with each other differs
from that used by society-at-large. In the language of birthmothers, they did not relinquish or surrender
their children to adoption - they lost their children to adoption. As long as their experiences are
misrepresented by language, their marginalization continues.
The preceding sections have attempted to merge theory, research, literature, and birthmother stories in
order to deconstruct motherhood, adoption and relinquishment. This study explores the trauma of
relinquishment utilizing a biopsychosocial model. What follows is a brief review of trauma literature
and theory as it relates to relinquishment.
"Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality: 'It is indeed the truth
of the traumatic experience that forms the center of its psychopathology; it is not a pathology of
falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself" (Caruth, 1995, p. 5). However, the critical
element that makes an event traumatic is the subjective assessment by victims of how threatened and
helpless they feel. So, although the reality of extraordinary events is at the core of PTSD, the meaning
that victims attach to these events is as fundamental as the trauma itself. People's interpretations of the
meaning of the trauma continue to evolve well after the trauma itself has ceased" (van der Kolk &
McFarlane, 1996, p. 6).
Of the many varying definitions of trauma, for the purpose of this paper, I have selected the following
from The American Heritage College Dictionary (3rd Ed.): "1. Medic. A serious injury or shock to the
body, as from violence or an accident. 2. Psychiat. An emotional wound or shock that creates
substantial lasting damage to the psychological development of a person" (1993, p. 1439). Trauma may
be in the form of natural and technological disasters, war, or individual trauma (Aldwin, 1994).
Emotional trauma occurs when "the psychological pain of a traumatic event involves damage or threat
of damage to an individual's psychic integrity or sense of self" (Carlson, 1997, p. 29). Various stress-
related disorders may result from the trauma experience, e.g. PTSD, depression, phobia, attention-
deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, somatization disorder, attachment disorders, conduct
disorder, dissociative reactions, eating disturbances, and substance abuse (Pynoos, Steinberg &
Goenjian, 1996). Trauma effects may also be evidenced as: "multiple personalities, paranoia, anger,
and sleep problems; tendencies towards suicidality, irritability, mood swings, and odd rituals; difficulty
trusting people and difficult relationships; and general despair, aimlessness, and hopelessness" (Root,
1992, p. 229).
Mind-body research has opened up many new vistas in the study of trauma - among which are
psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and the concept of cellular memory. Relative to trauma research, PNI
and cellular memory help to explain the somatization of trauma. Pert (1997) writes that
"memories are stored not only in the brain, but in a psychosomatic network extending into the body,
particularly in the ubiquitous receptors between nerves and bundles of cell bodies called ganglia, which
are distributed not just in and near the spinal cord, but all the way out along pathways to internal organs
and the very surface of our skin" (p. 143).
Conger asserts that traumatic events are recorded in "contracted musculature and energetically
withdrawn tissue" (1994, p. xvi). Eckberg (1998) describes traumatic events as being "laid down as
perceptual, somatosensory experience, or as implicit memory" (p. 23). Through somatic therapy, the
traumatic experience can be reorganized neurophysiologically, emotionally, and cognitively.
Aldwin (1994) writes: "Stress refers to that quality of experience, produced through a person-
environment transaction, that, through either overarousal or underarousal, results in psychological or
physiological distress" (p. 22). Root (1992) expresses the qualitative difference between stress and
"Negative stressors leave an individual feeling 'put out,' inconvenienced, and distressed. These
experiences are eventually relieved with the resolution of the stressor. In contrast, traumas represent
destruction of basic organizing principles by which we come to know self, others, and the environment;
traumas wound deeply in a way that challenges the meaning of life. Healing from the wounds of such
an experience requires a restitution of order and meaning in one's life" (p. 229).
The role that culture plays in the provision and/or withholding of support from an individual is
described by deVries:
"Culture may in many ways be viewed as a protective and supportive system of values, lifestyles, and
knowledge, the disruption of which will have a deleterious effect on its members. . . . [Cultures] are
powerfully resilient to the stresses of the environment and resistant to change. Culture thereby buffers
its members from the potentially profound impact of stressful experiences. . . by means of furnishing
social support, providing identities in terms of norms and values, and supplying a shared vision of the
future. . . . Provided that the individual does not interfere with the group's capacity to reproduce or
remain viable in its niche, cultural social roles, shared values, and historical continuity will act as key
stress managers. If the individual does not fit, social extrusion and stigmatization may result as a
cultural defense reaction to the unwanted information or behavior" (1996, pp. 400-401).
Root (1992) posits that "the interpersonal and political context in which a trauma is experienced further
determines how blame is attributed, the support one receives, and how the survivor is able to
reconstruct his or her life following trauma" (p. 244). According to Root, the revolutions of the 1960s
and 1970s may be viewed as a "generational posttraumatic stress response" emanating from the
"experience of profound betrayal by authority figures (the 'establishment') of a generation of young
people crossing the threshold of adulthood" (p. 231).
Root (1992) provides a construction of trauma theory from a feminist perspective, emphasizing its
sociopolitical, phenomenological, and psychosocial components. Root argues that the development of
trauma theory has been largely based on the experiences of white males and does not represent those of
women and minorities. Likewise, Root asserts that the APA's classification and diagnostic criteria for
posttraumatic stress disorder describes a single syndrome representative of specific male experiences.
Recently, however, the study of trauma has expanded to include a more diverse group of trauma
experiences and syndromes, such as: the battered woman syndrome, the rape-trauma syndrome, the
postsexual abuse syndrome, and the battered child syndrome (Root, 1992). Root suggests that what is
labeled as a single trauma may actually reflect a constellation of multiple traumas. Root reframes and
redefines trauma. Rather than categorizing trauma according to natural and technological disasters,
war, or individual trauma, Root classifies trauma as direct, indirect or insidious. In this scheme, direct
trauma includes "certain forms of maliciously perpetrated violence, war experiences, industrial
accidents, and natural disasters" (1992, p. 239). In contrast, indirect trauma is experienced vicariously
(such as the witnessing of direct trauma), and insidious trauma is associated with the devaluation of an
individual resulting from an intrinsic identity characteristic that differs from that which the dominant
culture values (e.g., color, sexual orientation). By opening up the definition of trauma, Root argues that
traumas that would have remained unrecognized are made visible.
The feminist perspective attempts to "depathologize normal behavior" (Root, 1992, p. 248). In this
light, Root identifies the following processes as trauma survival patterns, rather than pathological
behaviors: self-referencing behavior, egocentrism, perseveration, anger, withdrawal and shutting down,
and splitting. Root proposes that we construct our world in terms of "dimensions of security" (physical,
emotional-psychological, and spiritual) and that the destruction of a single dimension constitutes a
trauma. The dimensions are categorized as follows: Physical (stimulus deprivation, pain, injury,
permanent injury, starvation), Psychological (confrontation with mortality, loss of significant others(s),
perceived malicious intent, isolation, helplessness/loss of control, witness/participant to death or
destruction, crushing of spirit, dislocation), and Interpersonal (betrayal, abuse of power, violation of
personal space, rejection, invisibility, loss of significant other(s)) (Root, 1992). The effects of trauma
are profound. Root writes that:
"Trauma permanently changes a person. In contrast to a stressful experience, which challenges an
individual's capacity to cope, trauma destroys multiple dimensions of security and exceeds the limits of
human capacity to process and integrate horrible experiences into a coherent perception of self and
self-in-relationship to others and the world. The disorganization created by this upheaval motivates the
individual to attempt to find meaning in the experience so that she or he can reorganize the experience
and integrate it into her or his perceptions of self, and self in relationship to others and the world. The
greater the number of dimensions of security that are shattered, the bigger the task of reorganization"
(1992, p. 260).
"The age at which trauma occurs, the social context, and the support and resources available will all
influence the outcome" (deVries, 1996, p. 409).
That relinquishing a child is a traumatic experience is alluded to over and over again throughout the
literature (Barton, 1996; Carlini, 1992; Jones, 1993; Lauderdale & Boyle, 1994; Lifton, 1994; Verrier,
1997). Unresolved grief, guilt, and shame are signatory of many birthmothers (Gediman & Brown,
1991; Lauderdale & Boyle, 1994; Logan, 1996; Stiffler cited in Davidson, 1994). There has been
surprisingly little research conducted in the area of birthmother trauma. However, the number of books
written by birthmothers about relinquishment continues to grow. Logan (1996) questions whether the
omission of literature on birthmothers may be "due to a misconception that the 'voluntary' nature of
relinquishment, considered by some to occur before a mother has bonded to her child, means that
adverse consequences for the birth mother are unlikely" -- or are birthmothers perceived as having
"sinned" and deserving punishment? (p. 610)
Unresolved grief has been cited as a major component of the relinquishment experience. De Simone
(1996) conducted a survey of 264 birthmothers whose mean age was 45 years old. In this study, the
following social and psychological factors were identified as contributing to unresolved grief among
"a) absence of social recognition regarding the loss; b) perceived absence of social support from family
and friends; c) lack of opportunity to express feelings about the relinquishment; d) uncertainty over the
loss due to the continued existence of the child; e) feelings of guilt and shame regarding the decision to
relinquish; f) perception of coercion by family, friends, or professionals to relinquish the child; and
involvement in search behavior" (De Simone, 1996, p. 66).
A significant positive correlation was also identified between the birthmothers' involvement in search
behavior and unresolved grief. De Simone suggests that "search behavior by the birth mother, unless it
ends in reunion, often does not result in the realization of the finality of the loss due to the continued
existence of her child. Instead she may be driven to continue to search until information or reunion
brings some degree of closure to her grief experience" (1996, p. 72). The study also indicated that in
some cases reunion was conducive to the resolution of grief; while in others, reunion may have
triggered unexperienced grief feelings and initially intensified the grief process. Some of the limitations
of this study included potential recall bias due to the elapsed time since the relinquishment, the inability
to obtain a random sample among the overall population of birthmothers, and the possible impact of
repression and denial.
Lauderdale and Boyle (1994) interviewed 12 women who had relinquished their infants within the
previous 4 months to 24 years. Their analysis indicated that the type of adoption (open vs. closed) was
a critical factor in how relinquishment was experienced. For the seven women who were involved in
closed adoptions, the following themes emerged: (1) nonattachment to the pregnancy, (2)
powerlessness in decision making, (3) passive participation in the adoption, and (4) anger and
nonacceptance of the loss. For both groups, feelings of shame, detachment from the fetus, loss,
identification of relinquishment as a moral decision, marginalization, and shadow grief were described.
Weinreb and Konstam (1996) found the occurrence of depression to be significantly greater among
birthmothers than in the general population of women. In their study, 49.9% reported depression
(compared to 10% among all women). In a study by Logan (1996), intermittent depression, guilt, anger,
sadness, and grief were characteristic of all participants. 89% of the participants described their
depression as significant. This study, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, examined the
experiences of a sample of birthparents seeking post-adoption assistance. Lack of support, suppression
of feelings, significant life events, the impact of searching, and the impact of contact were identified as
contributing factors impeding the resolution of guilt, loss, and unresolved grief. It was also found that a
greater percentage of the birthmothers suffering from depression were referred to specialist psychiatric
services by their GPs than is found in the general population. This prompted questions concerning
whether there is a higher incidence of mental illness among birthmothers or whether birthmothers are
being "inappropriately pathologized and constructed as mentally ill, victims of a patriarchal society
which pathologizes women who fail to conform to society's expectations?" (Logan, 1996, p. 622)
According to Weinreb and Konstam, "the dearth of existing literature suggests that the act of
surrendering a baby for adoption has profound psychological effects on the birthmother, including
longstanding feelings of loss, grief and psychological pain" (1996, p. 60). In a survey by Wells (1993,
cited in Arthur & Jacobs, 1999) of 300 birthmothers, it was suggested that relinquishment constitutes a
trauma - the duration of which may be lifelong. In this study of posttraumatic stress in birthmothers,
nearly 50% reported that relinquishment affected their physical health, and nearly 100% reported a
mental health impact - the effects of which rippled down to their interpersonal relationships and
parenting. Wells reported that the following psychological and behavioral pathologies associated with
PTSD are found among birthmothers: splitting themselves from the trauma, avoidance, drug and
alcohol abuse, precocious sexual activity, psychogenic amnesia, pain and "intense psychological
distress" emanating from anniversaries or events associated with the trauma, psychic numbing,
difficulties forgiving parents for their perceived role in the relinquishment and impaired family
relationships, and recurrent dreams and nightmares (cited in Arthur & Jacobs, 1999).
Note: The words "birthmother" or "birthparent" are derogatory terms utilized by adoption
"counselors" and "facilitators" in order to diminish a mother into playing a solely reproductive role in
her child's life. The terms "birthmother" and "birthparents" are used on this site as a consession to
search-engine requirements for a North American audience. The terms "mother", "single mother",
"natural mother," and "exiled mother" are acknowledged to be accurate, respectful, and
nonderogatory terms. See "Why Birthmother Means Breeder" by Diane Turski for more information.