Dear Birth Mother: I Wish I Knew

Dear Birth Mother, 

It was on an early September morning when we first met on the third floor of a children’s agency nestled in a quaint neighborhood far away from the house you called home at the time. I knew the area well; our cozy 1920’s bungalow was just a few short blocks away, where the children’s cribs stood adorned with matching animal sheets. 

My husband and I had already attended training classes within the walls of the former orphanage. Following our expeditious placement, we bonded instantly with the Assistant Director, and we had a good relationship with the rest of the staff sharing the room that day. In the moments leading up to your arrival, I was quite content. I had a job to do as a therapeutic foster parent: uphold your relationship as your children’s birth mother, provide a safe and nurturing environment for your children, and consistently advocate for their needs. At the same time, I was leaving my boundaries wide-open. It was around these first few weeks that our daughter’s night terrors were at their worst. We weren’t sleeping much, and screams of “Mommy” were heard down the hallway through our old, tired walls for hours at a time. Physical pain always accompanied the hysteria and sleeplessness on these long nights I would later identify as the hours of heartbreak. I learned much later that our sweet girl self-soothed at the absence of a parent on most nights. 

Six of us crowded around a cafe table meant for two while we dialed in your caseworker for a conference call. The room was overdue for renovations, and the carpet gave a clue to the era of the last improvement project. My focus on the aged interior revealed my attempts to avoid eye contact with you for longer than a few seconds at a time during our meeting. I had so many questions, some of which were immediate. What sweet song puts them to sleep? A favorite snack for the road? Others were far too deep for our first encounter. What led you to this moment? 

I recall your question about how long our meeting would take because the person who had given you a ride was reluctantly waiting downstairs. The bitterness in your voice would often replay in my head every time someone would say, “I’d walk 100 miles to see my child,” in response to your missed visits. While it’s true I would walk 100 miles or more to see my children today, I know how much support I would have to conquer the first thousand. I was happy you had a ride that day. I learned how much it might have cost you. 

I was in my element in many ways that morning, yet worlds away from the reality of meeting you face-to-face for what would be the first of only a handful of times. The nurse reviewed our daughter’s medical history and listed out the upcoming medical appointments. I choked back tears as we examined notes from the two emergency hospital visits my daughter experienced before age two. We discussed an urgent referral and potential surgery for our son. It took over an hour for the caseworkers to review plans, develop goals, and agree on monthly and quarterly regroups. It took me days afterward to process the growing list of needs. Was I ready for this? Would I remember every appointment and every supplemental piece of paperwork? 

Without hesitation, you accepted each date and time in the fierce way only a dedicated mother would. You said, “Of course, I’ll be there. I am their mother.” 

I believed you. 

The next visit scheduled for the activity center never took place. We all waited in the car, the children peacefully unaware of the wait and begging for more veggie sticks while glued to PBS Kids. The preparation—mental, emotional, physical—began to weigh on all of us with the end pattern always being the same: you were a no-show. 

Veggie sticks would become their most adored snack for the next 12 months. 

One dentist appointment stands out in a sea of missed appointments. It was at this routine checkup that I had a fleeting glimpse of the unconventional and happy family we could have been. It was a good day for you, and you had arrived early for the appointment. The children were delighted to see you. You were fully engaged, your eyes and ears wide open. We shared laughter as the children took turns tasting the toothpaste. We talked about our son’s love for anything chocolate and our daughter’s need to control the room. We rejoiced in the health of their teeth, and then we said goodbye. This court-ordered medical appointment was the last time my children saw you. 

For two mothers who had a great deal of contact with one another, we are merely strangers surrounded by a complex series of tangled events. The courtroom where the law stripped you of your visitation rights was the last time we made eye contact. I sat behind you in that room, my husband and I the only attendees who weren’t working on the case. When our foster care journey began, so many experienced foster parents passed the advice torch: attend every court date, big or small. Behind those doors is where we could hear details otherwise left off monthly reports, see you where applicable, and ask questions in the hallway following adjournment. I arrived in the courtroom that day as an advocate for our children and a worried mother uncertain of the future of my children and their birth mother. 

In a fantasy world, I would have been there to issue a hug when the judge ordered you to refrain from visits with the children. My motherly wisdom would have washed over you, and you finally would have peeled back those layers to begin healing. We would have joined hearts and raised our beautiful children openly and unconditionally. 

I try to block out the harsh words you delivered from across the hall because I know I cannot imagine the panic and despair following the order to cease visitation rights. My heart breaks for you daily, knowing what beautiful moments you are missing as each day passes. Not present for growth spurts, first goals, lost teeth, and snuggles for no other reason than a mother’s touch. My son laughs, and in one fleeting moment, I ask myself if it is your laugh. A simple touch on my daughter’s freckled forehead can fend off any dark and hopeless day. While I feel overwhelmed with love for my children and couldn’t imagine not being their mother, I incredulously swallow a deep sadness for your significant loss. 

I wish I knew what it would take to get you the help you need. In the two years before the court terminated your rights, I saw caseworkers, family members, and even strangers reach out to assist you in getting back on your feet. Showing up was half the battle to a spectator, but I know it was so much deeper than that. Your war began years earlier, and no storybooks at bedtime inspired your courage or self-love. Your early years were tough and the years closer to the birth of our children were torturous. I knew the reality, and so I held my breath as I cheered you on, knowing your newfound success and happiness would possibly lead to our stable family becoming separated. 

To an outsider, our daughter’s daring acts may seem adventurous or even frivolous. Her unwillingness to accept the limit of wearing a helmet when skateboarding or her persistence in going just a few feet deeper into the ocean without a lifejacket define a risk-taking mindset absent of thoughts about the outcome for herself or others. She’s walked this planet for less than a decade, yet she wrestles with monsters. In comparison, her bravery in times of adversity inspires even the most cynical people. 

I wish I had the strength to overcome the resentment I feel due to what our children endured in their early and formable years of life. Trauma-informed training and education have made me a better parent, but it’s also lengthened my path to forgiveness. Echoes of your traumatic childhood were audible through every doorway we ever shared, and I listened carefully for any break in your pain. It never made an appearance. 

The shortest yet most angst-ridden court date of all was your Termination of Parental Rights. I arrived prepared with a red accordion folder stuffed full of the last 2 ½ years. Included were medical records, case plans, copious notes from a diligent new mother, and an emotional letter to each child written from two hopeful foster parents.  

I was thoroughly prepared to be called to the stand to proudly share my children’s progress over the last 2 ½ years. My job as an advocate would be to recall their early suffering and the long-term effects of repeated unsafe and unhealthy behavior. The continued obstacles placed in their way towards developmental goals would prove to be no match for our love and commitment to their growth and well-being. Official reports and lengthy case plans aside, I knew deep down as their mother that our bond was inseparable and the only permanent place was at home with their family. 

I was so consumed by what the courtroom expected of me on this early spring morning that it took waiting until the judge took her seat to realize you weren’t going to be there. So in a courtroom full of only a few interested parties, the judge terminated your parental rights with the following words: 

The Respondent mother, for reasons other than poverty alone, has continuously or repeatedly failed to provide or is incapable of providing essential food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or education reasonably necessary and available for the child’s well being and there is no reasonable expectation of significant improvement in the parent’s conduct in the immediately foreseeable future, considering the child’s age. Now, therefore, it is ordered and adjudged that the parental rights of the Respondent mother…are hereby terminated.

The Order of Judgement was raw, unimaginable, and completely necessary for our children’s health and safety. Still, my heart broke as I once again faced your tribulations head-on and digested the unfair and painful loss my children will continue to absorb throughout their life.

A goodbye visit should have followed afterward; your attendance at the hearing was the only requirement. With no visitation restrictions in place, it would have been a free pass to hug and kiss your children one last time. Provided one hour, you could have run your fingers through their hair, held your hand up to theirs, or whispered your eternal love in their tiny ears. Most pitifully, I wish you would have shown up that day. 

Instead, the day turned out to be just a typical day for our family. They woke up with Mommy and Daddy, ate breakfast while they giggled between bites of oatmeal, ran rampant with friends at school, and arrived safely at the only home they’d known in the last 2 ½ years. They nestled into their fuzzy chairs, ready for their favorite snack (which had now been updated to cheese and cashews), unaware of the small courtroom where a memorable occasion full of great joy and tragedy took place.  

I wish I knew what the future held for us both and my children. Will they want to know more once they know their placement story? Will it be too hurtful to explore at a young age? What about their birth stories, their temperaments as infants, or their family history? It’s an understatement to say I long to fill in the gaps for them. I wonder if it will aid in their healing or support their search for identity. The truth is that to me, none of that compares to the deep love and connection we share. We’ve wrestled the monsters together. 

I’ve written this letter a hundred times on the way to pick them up from school or at a first recital. Pen to paper, the beginning is never an issue for me. I thrive in acknowledging the life you gave them in the face of hardship. I sink, at a loss for words, into the quagmire of the life you left behind. 

Today, I implore you: I wish I knew if my children will ever have the answers to some of the questions about your suffering and theirs.

With great appreciation, 

Adoptive Mother