I think about my 10-year-old son’s birth mother almost every day. According to many people who love me, I should erase her from my memory because ours was a tumultuous relationship at best. Without the birth mother, there would be no JC. I would never know this handsome 10-year-old who brings me such joy if it had not been for her. She carried him for seven months and birthed him through a cesarean section.
People mean well; they saw me experience eight years of trauma on my journey to motherhood and they just want me to let go of the past and move on. Without processing the past, we are destined to repeat it.
I found myself and my purpose through knowing her and opening my heart and mind at the deepest level possible to love our son.
The birth mother and I have not talked in several years now, but I still think about her. I wonder how she is doing, how she is living, and if she is healing from her childhood ordeals. My feelings about the birth mother range from one end of the spectrum to the other. On the one hand, I would not be a mother if it were not for her. On the other hand, we had a tumultuous relationship at best. I learned so much about myself and what was really important to me through our turbulent relationship. I was humbled to the core by his birth mother and her life, and I learned what life may look like without a strong foundation of love and support.
For context, I met my son when he was ten days old. He was child number 11. I was his foster mother. We were foster mom and son for six months until the court awarded custody to his birth mother. I let my foster license expire, as a requirement of the county government, in order to co-parent with the birth parents as a private citizen for the next six years.
My son was a kindergartener when a series of events demonstrated that his life with his birth parents was unsafe and I gained emergency custody. My son was eight when the adoption was finalized. This encounter was my biggest life lesson. I learned firsthand about the impact of childhood and intergenerational trauma. His birth parents suffered from the impacts of intergenerational trauma, including such things as mental health challenges, drug abuse, and domestic violence. If only we could eradicate trauma. Bringing our journey and the impacts of trauma into the light will hopefully encourage anyone we touch to lead with compassion. I was one of those well-intentioned people who volunteered and helped out wherever I could. Through this adoption journey, I was submerged in trauma. I lived my life in hypervigilance mode for six years. I was trying to keep my son safe and support his birth parents at the same time. I was out of my league and area of expertise. I got schooled.
I learned that becoming trauma-informed was life-changing and would enable me to better parent my son and help others. Trauma-informed means that we start with understanding where a person is coming from, what they have experienced, and lead by seeking to understand rather than judge. I could not parent my child like I was parented. His life was different and his needs were, too.
The foundation of everything I share is gratefulness. I am thankful for this child, that he was born—even under the toughest of circumstances—and that he survived. He is now thriving. One day, we may find it a healthy next step to connect with his birth mother. It will be his decision when he grows up. For now, I want to share my sincere thoughts with her in this open letter.
Dear Birth Mother,
The last time we sat together was one of the hardest moments of my life and I am sure yours, too. We were at behavioral health while our kindergartner was in-patient under observation because of two suicide attempts. He was six years old. I know that, based on your life, your biggest fear was that he would be taken away by the system. My biggest fear was more long-term. I was concerned about his survival. I feared he would end up in the penal system because of the trauma he had experienced over the past several years. Without some intervention and help, he was destined to repeat the cycle.
There are so many things I took for granted back then. I assumed I knew what all parents wanted for their children. I was wrong. You showed me in an up-close-and-personal way that you did not have that loving foundation or the chance to even think about what your children wanted; you were focused on what you needed to live.
I remember that day I went to the hospital to pick him up almost a decade ago. He was ten days old and two months premature. I did not see you; I only knew a little bit about you. But what I did know was that this miracle child was here in this world and in my life because of you.
I remember us having a disagreement about the concept of the village. I learned over time how different we were. I did not even think about whether you had a village of support growing up like me, but you did not. Your experience was that the village was full of nosey people who wanted to control a child. My experience was that the village was there to provide support, love, and guidance. It took me a long while to stop assuming and understand (to a small extent) what living life in survival mode really feels like. You showed me that many adults were children who grew up trying to survive as people frozen in time by trauma. You grew up in and out of foster care. You lost all of your living children to the foster care system. These events made it close to impossible for you to trust me, especially when I came into your life as a part of that very system.
Do you recall us applying for the local Pre-K program? You asked me if it was all right to say you wanted better for JC in response to one of the questions on the application. I was thrilled; I felt like we had made tons of progress. I did not realize that your history of hurt would soon halt our progress. Once JC started showing that fight response to trauma, fear set in. You revisited old fears and focused on keeping him out of the system, even sacrificing his education to do so. I hope you understand that I had to take action to keep him safe. He was not going to live in a toxic stress environment any longer; it was surely sealing his future and it was not good.
The other day, JC said that he would never stop searching for his birth mother. To be honest, for a second I felt a sting of jealousy. I am a mommy and always have been, but I am not you—Maw Maw. I am not the woman who gave birth to him. No matter what he experienced in your care, no matter how scared he was, he loves you always and unconditionally. My mature adult self understands why he loves you and I do love you for having him. The twang of jealousy is real, yet fleeting. I allow myself to experience it. Sometimes it lingers because I will never be you and I do not want to be you. I have been there through the tough times, and I have spent months picking up the pieces of the broken child who felt abandoned by his birth mother and birth father. In reality, you did not abandon him and he knows it. It was my job to keep him safe and it took a long time for me to accept that he was not safe with you and his birth father.
It pains me sometimes to think of you because I could not help you. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the money I gave you went to drugs and that gift cards for food supported bad coping mechanisms. I did not help you—I enabled you to stay sick. For that I am sorry. How dare I think I was capable of healing you? I know the importance of seeking help from experts. I did try, but I let the fear of losing him or hurting him cloud my judgment and I just did whatever you said to stay connected. I’ve learned my lesson.
You should know that I help him keep memories of his birth family alive. I put together a photo album of memories for our son that would remind him of the good times he had with you and his birth father. I included photos of the three of you singing gospel songs together. He remembers those times. He may not remember the fights that happened afterward, and I do not bring them up. Holding on to good times helps him cope with the loss of his birth parents—the loss of you. JC asked for an album that included all of his family; he wanted pictures of us all together. I hope you know that I am always honest with him about you, his birth father, and our experiences.
I know you did not want our relationship to end the way it did. I hope you know that I did not either. I used to tell you that we would sit together as co-parents when JC graduates from college many years from now. It was my dream for our blended family. I made a commitment to you that I would always put JC’s safety first. When his mental, emotional, and physical health were impacted, I had to make sure he was safe.
Let me tell you about JC. He is a tall, handsome boy who is generous and kind. At 5 feet, 1 inch tall, he towers over his classmates. He never met a stranger. He cares so much about people. Every season he insists that we make packets for the homeless. We sit on the floor and pack them up. He makes sure that we put enough in each packet. Each includes: teeth cleaning supplies, bath wipes, snacks, water, and rain ponchos.
He has a few difficult mental health diagnoses likely brought on from the trauma he experienced early on in life. His diagnoses include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD), and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have included a brief explanation of each diagnosis.
PTSD in children is difficult. Even finding the right therapist and psychiatrist that understand how to treat and care for a child with PTSD was a struggle. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shared that children who experience toxic stress, like from violence in the home, will be affected long-term. JC relived his past trauma over and over again. He had nightmares a lot. His trauma responses are fight and flight. This gentle giant of a child became a fighter in kindergarten as I know you remember. That was so tough. I am happy to say that the nightmares are infrequent now and his separation anxiety has lessened, too, because he feels safe. He eventually attended a day treatment program at Alexander Youth Network where he received Trauma Focused—Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and started learning how to process his pain and begin managing his behavior. This process was so hard. We had sessions together. The program ended with him sharing his trauma stories with me. He acted them out in a sandbox since he was too young to write out his stories. He was such a brave boy! He shared his traumas and released them.
DMDD is a childhood condition of severe irritability and anger. Children with DMDD have frequent and intense outbursts. JC is not a moody child; he has a brain disorder that cannot be resolved with therapy alone. Medication is necessary to help regulate JC’s mood. DMDD is a new diagnosis. It appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013.
Do you remember saying you thought JC should get on medication for ADHD when he was three years old and I was dead set against it? He loses focus, is impulsive, and is hyperactive. I researched ADHD after JC was admitted into behavioral health. The Mayo Clinic suggests children are diagnosed by the age of seven. JC was six when he first received diagnoses of ADHD, DMDD, and PTSD. I have had to learn how to parent him. I assure you I have left no stone unturned to get support for JC. He is growing, healing, and is well into puberty at age ten.
JC loves football. He has no idea how skilled he is, but JC continues to grow his athleticism and skillset. He wants to be a doctor so he can help heal people—well, after he finishes up his career in the NFL.
Just like in preschool and kindergarten, he looks out for the little kids. There is a little boy in his learning pod who thinks JC is the coolest kid around. JC is teaching the little boy how to read and how to behave. Those are such proud moments for me.
He loves to cuddle and is very affectionate with our miniature pinscher puppy, Spike. He takes Spike to bed with him every evening and has not quite figured out how Spike escapes from a room with a closed door every night (that would be because I let him out).
I will always keep my promise to you to put JC’s best interest, health, and well-being first. The goal is for him to realize his potential as the shining star that he already is.
One day, we will see him doing amazing things in the community.
I thank you for bringing this loving child into the world and understanding that I always put his best interest first.