“I have come to believe….it is unnatural for members of the human species to grow up separated from and without knowledge of their natural clan, that such a lack has a negative influence on a child’s psychic reality and relationship with the adoptive parents…”. Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton
It is common in discussions of adopted children today to say they have two mothers, a biological mother and an adoptive mother. Adoptee author Betty Jean Lifton, for example, a prime mover in what we are now calling open adoption, wrote that she felt pulled this way and that by her two competing mothers, biological and adoptive, as follows:
“For deep inside every adoptee (Lifton often presented her own views as the views of all adoptees) there is a chalk circle where he or she is pulled this way and that by two competing mothers.” Lifton concluded that she was disappointed in both of her mothers and had ended up with no mother at all.
I am the oldest of four children adopted into a single family at the same time after spending 26 months in a county orphanage, an earlier form of foster care. I was five when we were abandoned to the orphanage and had memories of my biological relatives. My younger siblings, Mark, Michael, and Janey did not.
When the four of us were in our late 20s ,our biological mother sent a letter to our adoptive parents asking if they were the couple that had adopted her children. She requested that we be given her address in case we should wish to meet with her. Dad opened the letter first and came to Mom in tears, saying, “The letter I have anticipated for 21 years came today.” Mom sent the letter on to the four of us who were scattered around the US. Without consulting each other all of us declined the invitation to meet with our biological mother. We simply were not interested.
Our adoptive mother responded to our biological mother as follows:
“Over the years our hearts have ached for you. You gave birth to four beautiful, talented, wonderful children. We know. They have lived with us….” Then she described our lives and achievements to that point.
Twenty-six years later Janey and Michael met our biological mother at a luncheon in the home of Michael’s mother-in-law, who vigorously promoted the reunion. As she put it, “How do you know who you are until you have met your birth mother?” I was overseas at that time and Janey later described the event for me. “She was all Me, Me, Me and very defensive. She psychologically drove us out of the room.” Michael left the luncheon abruptly. “I wanted to get out of that room,” he said. “I was so depressed! I wanted her to be interesting and there was no way I could make her interesting.”
As for me, I was not pulled between two competing mothers, as Lifton would have it. That was not my experience at all. Once I felt secure and happy in my new family, I would not have welcomed the resumption of ties with biological relatives who had seriously wounded us when we were very young. I would have found that confusing, even threatening. The issue for me, since I felt betrayed by my “natural clan,” was not two competing mothers but whether to have a mother at all, one I could trust and come to love and be a son to.
When the Luchs adopted me at the age of eight I was an angry child. I was angry because we had been abandoned to a crowded, understaffed and poorly resourced county orphanage where our beds were stained with urine, where we never had enough to eat, and where we were constantly bullied by older boys. I had come to believe we were abandoned to the orphanage because we were throw-away children not worth loving. To protect myself I denied to myself that I needed love. I pushed adults away. My adoptive mother told me later that she worked with me for one year before I would accept her hugs without resistance. Among her friends she called me “my little ramrod.” Two years passed before I would spontaneously express my love by hugging her.
Eventually she won me over. I had the good fortune through adoption to spend most of my youth with a woman who was among the best and most loving of mothers. Here is how I describe that experience near the end of my memoir, Children of the Manse.
“I have but one mother, Evelyn Luchs, my real mother in the only sense I can make of the word mother. Evelyn Luchs became my mother because she raised me and truly loved me. It is as simple as that. She nursed me when I was sick, counseled me when I was confused or upset, and was always there for me when I most needed her. She loved me when I was being unlovable. She made it possible for me to begin to trust and love and laugh again. She helped dampen down the fiery core of rage within me created by serious neglect and abandonment. She never gave up on me. My true and forever mother encouraged my love of the beauty in life and filled me with a hopeful sense of my own life’s possibilities. She helped me to believe I could make good use of the life I had been given to contribute to my own happiness and to that of others. Mom modified but could not erase entirely the cold-eyed realism I had learned from my early bitter experiences. At times I thought she was being naïve, but I came to agree with her that it is better to live trusting and occasionally be disappointed, than to go through life suspicious of the motives of others. She let me know by her actions as well as her words that I was worthy, loved, and valued.”
It may be true, as Betty Jean Lifton believed, that it is unnatural for some adoptees to grow up entirely separated from their clan. But I believe many of us adopted from foster care have to be freed from our biological relatives to develop into flourishing and psychologically healthy human beings. Separation from my natural clan had an entirely positive influence in my life and in my relationship with my adoptive parents.
If only all the children in foster care today who have been wounded through neglect and abuse by their biological parents could have such a mother as I did! Or father. Some of them do. But if only all of them could have such a mother! Or father.
Written By Lewis R Luchs