Learning to Ride the Waves: Birthmother Grief

Back to “normal” life, but nothing would ever be the same normal again.

That was always the bit of irony about adoption. You went through this experience, this incredible perceived “sacrifice” and certainly a heartache for the ultimate plan to not have your life changed, but no one tells you how unavoidable that is.

You can’t have a baby and place it for adoption with the experience changing your very being.

Yet, that is how it is sold. Adoption is suppose to remove the actuality of being a mother and having a child, but you DO have a child and you DO become a mother, but no one knows, and you can’t act like it, and you get treated all the same, but you’re not. I wasn’t the same. I couldn’t be.

For one, my body was now the body of a mother. I had stretch marks galore on my now deflated belly. Granted I could get back into the coveted jeans and wear a belt again, but for anyone with any intelligence could glance at the roadmap of my life experience riddled on my midriff and know that I had produced a life. At nineteen, I would never have the perky breasts of a teenager again. Engorged with milk and left to dry on their own, they were never the same either. I had barely learned to be comfortable within my own body and appreciate my assets before I had a whole new body to learn about.

And there was this wound I carried; this open sore in my soul.

As I try to find words to explain the feelings post relinquishment so the true depth of the experience can be understood to the degree it’s magnitude demands, yet try not to have to feel it again, I am struck with the visual of a bleeding post birth womb.

So messy is a birth, so forceful; both always take me by surprise.

After your child rushes forth with a gush and relief from between your legs, you wait for the doctor to deliver the afterbirth. It takes a bit for your body to recover enough from the trauma of birth to contract again. The doctor waits, you wait, for the last contractions to kick in, and then he gently pulls on what is left of the umbilical cord hanging out of your body. It’s a rather odd experience, but after a real live person that you made comes out of you (and I mean that in the way that it is what your brain is thinking, that’s what it says. Like you knew that you were pregnant and you understood that a baby would happen, but OMG, it happened and it’s done and you did it and it’s a whole person!) anyway, the whole afterbirth cord thing is anti climatic.

Anyway, where the placenta was, adhered to you insides for nine months, growing and feeding the child within you, nourishing him where you were combined, joined as one; that area is an open wound in your uterus and it bleeds. At first it bleeds a lot, but then it slows down, but it’s a pain for quite some time. It’s a nasty period for four, five, six long weeks. Torn asunder, normally you go home with a newborn baby and a pants full of grandma pads. Usually you have had a nurse explain to you how you give yourself a sitz bath and watch to keep your stitches down below clean. This rather unpleasant aspect of child birth is overshadowed by the joy of a new baby, unless adoption was involved; then you get the grandma pads, the sitz bath and the gaping wound. Like a healing post birth womb, the adoption wound is huge and raw and open. It’s inside you, so it is protected. It just quietly bleeds all the time, it seeps and weeps and it bleeds.

And it deflates you. It makes you tired. You feel tender, but no one can openly see why. People should be gentle with you, you need them to be, you’re still healing, but they don’t know they should be, so they don’t treat you any different and sometimes that hurts and you want to scream so they can see your insides out. To the naked eye, you are one of them; you wear long sleeves on your soul so no one can see the hurt, so no one knows. There’s a weight you carry a sadness in your eyes that only some people will ever stop to truly see. And that will often remain with you for life.

For the pain from adoption was mine and I had to own it.

Often, the pain was all I had. It was MY pain. It was my connection to my child. It was the only thing I had that I could feel. It isn’t like I wallowed in it, because once engulfed in the throes of birthmother grief, it’s hard to return to the land of normal. It was not pleasant. But I learned when it swelled up inside me, a wave of deep child loss grief, I could not fight it, it was mine to embrace.

The best I can explain was that the grief comes over you like a sharp wave at sea.

Imagine being on a beach, standing at the waves and feeling a storm coming in. You have only two choice; stand on the beach and battle the storm of go out into the sea. The beach sounds like a better plan at first.. after all it is solid ground. So at first, as the storm comes in, it rushes over you and you try to stand still. You think that if you stand strong and hold your ground, then it cannot knock you down. But it’s a force much bigger than you could ever imagine and it’s hits all over, so strongly, and it takes all your strength to fight it. No matter how long you stand against the tide, it keeps coming in, and finally it knocks you down, unexpectedly, takes your breath away and you almost drown in the grief as the sea floods your lungs.

So you go out to sea, riding the huge waves of grief as they come in. You don’t fight them; you know you can’t, so you just try to stay above the water. Keep your head up and bob. You know that eventually you’ll get to the other side even if it takes so long that you feel as if you might just give up and give in, but what choice now do you have…you have to keep breathing. As long as you keep swimming above the waves, you’ll get to the other side. It was the only thing to do.

I could not avoid the waves of grief. I do not believe any birthmother can.

We all have an ocean to swim across in some way, what I fear is that there is never another side, just an endless sea.

I could not go around it.

I could not go over it.

I could not get out from under it.

I had to go through it, wave after wave, calm waters and storms.

You can’t not change with a wound that big nor can you really ignore it . You can’t fight it. It’s way bigger than you. It’s way bigger than you could have ever imagined.

There are times, and I have heard the same pitch of fear in many another new moms’ voice after relinquishment, when you have to admit that if you had known that it would be like this, then you would not have gone through with it. If you had only known, that it would be this bad, you might have rethought this whole adoption thing.

In fact, sometimes, when you have been riding an endless wave for hours and no end was in sight you really though that anything world have been better than this and really, this has to stop because you just can’t handle it! There are times when giving in and drowning seem rather more appealing by far.

Yes, I can say with a great deal of confidence, that most moms I know have experienced that feeling of emotional toll of adoption and relinquishment when they really felt that they just could not continue living with the level and intensity of pain anymore.

“I can’t do this much longer. It hurts too much. When is it going to stop?”

But I didn’t know this then. I somehow knew to ride the waves and keep it all at a manageable level.

I was right to do that and I was right about something else; it was the hardest most life altering experience that I have ever had to live through. What I was not correct about was that I thought it was something to get through…once… and then it would be over and done with. Eventually you get through the grief, you process it and life becomes normal again… but that was wishful thinking.

It still gets me to this day how truly changing the experience was. Which is ironic really.. because one of the selling points in the adoption agency is that you get to follow your life’s plan.. you get to finish school., or be a normal teenager, or have other children “when you are ready”.. like you can use the magic eraser and with the stroke of the magic pen that you sign away your motherhood.. you’re not a mother… really. Like you can cheat life. Like you can alter reality.

But no matter what, it is just a piece of paper no matter how logically the plan seems.. a piece of paper cannot change your heart and soul. A piece of paper cannot turn off your insides. A piece of paper does not turn off the milk at your breasts. A piece of paper cannot remove your hormones. A piece of paper cannot take away the memories. A piece of paper cannot remove the motherhood inside you.. it can just keep you from knowing your child’s face, from knowing their name, from seeing their smile or hearing their voice.. inside you still bleed. Inside you are still a mother. Inside you still have scars. Inside your womb is still deflated and empty.

Still, I did not know this then.. so I kept swimming. Like Dory the happy foolish fish I was.. trying to forget, trying to be optimistic.. thinking that if I just kept swimming the storm would wash out to sea and I would be safe.

And at times, the waves of grief do calm down. The sea quiets. Maybe you find a raft to rest on. Maybe you find an island that looks like you could call it home. But we all know that the weather can change on a moment’s notice, that the sea is never truly quiet. The same is said for grief of a birthmother. It rises up when we least expect it. It can turn form a quiet summer night to a rough squall in seconds. And before you know it you are stuck either as a puddle of goo dying on the kitchen floor or choking for air riding the waves. I thought the endless sea was just a rough river to cross.. then I thought perhaps it was a lake where I could find peace on the other side.

So at first, the waves of grief were all I had left of my son and I rode them with pride. I deserved the pain. It was mine. I owned it and I was strong, so I could beat it , right?

I laugh at my foolishness now. My trusting younger self. Relinquishment cannot really be mitigated. All I can do is prepare my boat with the bet provisions I have. I carry strong paddles with me now at all times. I am prepared to gulp the air right before I am forced under, for indeed, the waves of grief shall hit me again.

I know now that the scars will never trully heal. I know now that it is an endless ocean that lies out before me and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

And I know I must just keep on swimming.

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About the Author

Claudia Corrigan DArcy
Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy has been online and involved in the adoption community since early in 2001. Blogging since 2005, her website Musings of the Lame has become a much needed road map for many mothers who relinquished, adoptees who long to be heard, and adoptive parents who seek understanding. She is also an activist and avid supporter of Adoptee Rights and fights for nationwide birth certificate access for all adoptees with the Adoptee Rights Coalition. Besides here on Musings of the Lame, her writings on adoption issue have been published in The New York Times, BlogHer, Divine Caroline, Adoption Today Magazine, Adoption Constellation Magazine, Adopt-a-tude.com, Lost Mothers, Grown in my Heart, Adoption Voice Magazine, and many others. She has been interviewed by Dan Rather, Montel Williams and appeared on Huffington Post regarding adoption as well as presented at various adoption conferences, other radio and print interviews over the years. She resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, Rye, children, and various pets.

18 Comments on "Learning to Ride the Waves: Birthmother Grief"

  1. Anonymous | June 26, 2009 at 4:39 pm |


    The only words I have are “I know” and I would give everything and more to NOT have those words.

    Oh to turn back the hands of time, and snatch that one moment that would have changed everything.

    Be kind to yourself,

  2. What an eye opening description of your feelings and point of view…but then you have always been good at descriptions…

  3. Anonymous | June 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm |

    You are so eloquent. It is like your written words are the words of my heart. I also was like Dory the fish, trying to be optimistic, trying to forget. But then one day on the horizon I saw an island – the island of Reunion. Getting to that island forced all the feelings to the surface, I was back in the stong waves that threatened to knock me down. I am standing strongly on Reunion now, it is a wonderful place. The arrival would have been so much brighter if I had not had to work through things that I had been allowed to bury for 30 years. Thank goodness that all the rough seas of my emotional awakening did not scare my first born son away!
    Susie G

  4. I remember learning how to bob as part of my first swimming lesson. Go down to the bottom and push off. Grab some air and let myself sink back down again. I wish that kind of lesson had been shared about how to deal with the grief. I wasted a lot of time trying to fight it.

  5. Wonderfully written, and applicable to many kinds of grief

  6. This is a stunning, painfully true description of the birthparent experience and we thank you for your candor and courage in reliving it through these words and sharing it… we are so sorry for your lifelong loss. Have you thought of submitting this to “Adoptive Families” magazine for publication? We can’t help but think that this country is filled with prospective adopters (and parents who’ve already adopted) who need to better understand the depths of a birthmother’s sorrow; this cannot help but impact them, too and any child/ren they adopt. We’ll be making this required reading for all birthparents and adoptive families in our program from now on. Bless you! Here’s wishing you healing, reconnection and the peace that passes understanding.

  7. this is such an excellent description of grief. while I can’t possibly know the depth of your grief, this says so much about the birthmother experience, and how relinquishment is not merely a one time event.

    I believe grief is something we never truly get over. we can only go through it, and it is a lifelong process.

    thank you for sharing this. I agree it should be considered for broader publication too.

  8. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. For putting in to words this mess inside of me. 18 years later, and still the storm rages on..

  9. Anonymous | July 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm |

    I just placed my 7 day old son yesterday. I am under the waves and I want him back. Just one more moment with him, to smell him, to nurse him, to look into his eyes and know I’ll never be the same. My heart cannot comprehend what my mind can. Yes, I will see him again hopefully in 6 months. The adoptive parents are open and love me and my baby. But tell my heart that this is best…because my heart screams and makes my whole physical body shriek and literally, I gasp for air. This will be the last child I ever give birth to and I wanted to keep him. I sleep with his blanket and unwashed drawstring gown, smelling his life and love and goodness and feeling, all the while that I may never come up for air. The six days I had with him, I will treasure forever. And even though the memories make me shake with pain and confusion, I’ll never regret bringing him home, nursing him and giving him time with me, his MOTHER. I love you, Tristan Nathaniel. I love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living MY baby you’ll be.

  10. Like a comment made earlier, I also know…. I wish I didn’t. I rode the waves for 22 years until I reunited with my daughter. I “met” her 8 years ago and although it’s wonderful there will always be a sadness for the 22 years lost. Those waves are still out there. People close to us don’t understand, they say “it’s in the past, let it go”. You can only do that to a degree because it’s not just in the past, it’s in the heart, right here and now. It’s always there. I know what it is to enjoy the present and feel the crushing weight of the water at the same time. Thanks for your post, it helps to know there’s others out there who get it.

  11. Wow. If I knew then, what I know now. It’s never cut and dry. It is a lifelong process. Life long. Thank you for writing this.

  12. You’ve spoken what I’ve been afraid to put into words: that unbearable scream and riptide I’ve been experiencing for years now. Grief, even in open adoption, continues in its own pattern. For me, it’s an unraveling. Every time, no matter what I do, no matter the counseling, no matter the art, it continues unweaving my soul. The only thread that doesn’t break is my memory of how searing it all was/is. I live in those moments: the motions in my womb, the birth, the newborn smell, the terrible fall when I left the hospital with empty arms, the pain of my leaking breasts, the agony of the paperwork. They are the most real for me, the suffering that won’t heal. I’d like to say it gets better, that I find balance in nature, in transitions…but those times get drowned out. I don’t know how to “let it go.” Though everyone around me who loves me is desperate for my grief to end.

    *still swimming and weaving* though it tangles and steals my breath.

    Hope and love are all I have to cling to, I have to believe they can weave when it feels like I cannot.

    I wish you kindness and peace. Thank you for posting this and giving me a place to voice some of this. Tomorrow is my child’s birthday. I imagine you’ll understand.

  13. This post was so heartfelt and thought provoking. I am in the early stages of my search for my 31 year old daughter. I want the grief to end, but I think it will take a long while for that to happen. I am working on forgiveness. Therapy will be a long process. I do know that she has searched for me on two occasions. I hope she still wants this now, as I could not fathom this 7 years ago, this is when I found she was looking for me.

    Thank you for this, it has brought more tears that need to come out, no more burying this, it needs to come out.


  14. Claudia,
    This writing so reflects many of the feelings, sensations I have had around giving away my daughter to adoption.It has profoundly affected my life. Thank you

  15. I relinquished my son in October. Reading this post was the first time I have cried since long before he was born.

    I don’t even know what to say. On one hand I am so glad to have read this and on the other it terrifies me that this is my ‘new life’. Wow. My heart hurts right now, oh so much.

  16. Anonymous | April 3, 2011 at 3:20 am |

    This is 100% spot on.

    In 2006 I was raped and became pregnant. I thought I’d just carry and place my daughter for adoption and be fine, after all how could I have feelings for a child of such an awful act?

    I was completely wrong, and I made the completely wrong choice. I regret placing my daughter every day. I am plagued with grief, and your post exactly sums up the extent of the damage I have sustained. I was also 19– and my body is completely ruined. I have severe stretch marks on my abdomen and my body will never be the same.

    I am now in the middle of being sued by the hospital, despite the fact that the adoption contract states the adoptive parents are responsible for the bills. It has been almost 4 years.

    4 years ago I made the wrong decision. I have been so damaged by this process and I can’t be happy because of it. I can’t believe I let everyone convince me that what I did was “selfless” and “brave”. Is 20 minutes of paperwork, selflessness, and bravery really worth the never ending grief worth this torture? No. If I could go back in time and change one thing about the whole situation, I’d tear up the contract and walk out with my daughter in tow.

    I feel broken. Thank you for your post and description. It is comforting to know that I’m not alone, but painful to know that there are others also riding out the storm. I wouldn’t wish this grief on even the most evil of person.

  17. I am not ready to tell the whole story, but I am a birth grandmother who had daughters very young (17 and 19) Somehow I struggled thru as a (mostly) single parent and raised them. My life was interrupted by their births as I was so young and foolish and so not ready to be a mother. It turns out though, that they are the greatest gift life has ever given me, my teachers, my everything.
    But when I became a grandma at age 34 when one of my daughters (then 15) had a baby, I could not imagine once again interrupting my life (I was now finally in college getting my teaching degree after a life of poverty) to yet again raise children when I thought I was almost done! So I chose not to raise my grandson…he ended up being adopted in an open family adoption…a few years later two brothers followed and my daughter’s drug addiction took her down and, once again, I chose not to raise them. They were adopted by family friends.
    Guess what? I’m the GRAND mother and my grief is just as described above. I too thought adoption sounded like such a wonderful solution.
    Wrong! The boys seem to be thriving and if I could believe they weren’t as profoundly effected, it would make all my and my daughter’s grief worth it.
    There is no righting this terrible wrong, is there?

  18. I am isolated in a carefully woven web of repression and denial. It’s just now after 40 years that I am feeling the pain and loss of what I did so many years ago. Waves of unbearable anguish rush over me in waves like the contractions that brought them to me.

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