6 Things You Should Say to A Birthmother

Last week, I wrote about things you should not say to a birthmother. Of course, I forsee that post growing exponentially in the coming years. No matter how advanced we become as a culture, people still fling around stupidity like it’s a hobby.

However, several people, here in the blogosphere and in real life, noted that it was nice to know what NOT to say, but it would be even nicer to know what they should do or say. I thought the answer was pretty obvious- do the opposite of the things I posted? Yet, as I pondered, I realized it wasn’t quite that simple. Being a mother who surrendered is complicated, my grief has never been black and white. So it’s really not as easy as do this, do that.

Either way, I put this together, and it rings true for me personally. If you have experiences that you’d like to share that were helpful, do so in the comments.

6 Things You Should Say to A Birthmother.

1. Accept the Loss as a Loss

There is this passage in The Girls Who Went Away where a mother describes losing her daughter at 16, and how very similar it felt to the loss of her infant; except no one ever acknowledged the loss of her newborn baby. It was still the same debilitating pain, but this time, everyone was there offering support and condolences.

Our society pushes this idea that those mother’s who relinquish should be happy and pleased because they did something selfless. Our society encourages the act of diminishing our pain because acknowledging our sorrow in a realistic fashion would open a can of worms. Our society pushes the idea that adoption is easy, and not at all a traumatic experience. Our society diminishes the real loss that lies behind the curtains of adoption.

In essence, a loss from the perspective of a relinquishing mother is nothing. We should be grateful, glad, happy, and pleased that we were selfless.

For instance, I get this a lot:

“Oh that is so sad for you, but think of all the happiness you gave that deserving couple”.

This statement completely diminishes my grief. It’s basically saying, “Yeah, that is sad, but buck up, and think of the happy family you made. Being sad would make it awkward for them.”

The word BUT is a dangerous word when offering sympathy. It will always get you in trouble. If you are writing or talking, and you feel the word BUT coming up? Stop talking. End the sentence. Just smile, or offer a hug. The insertion of the word BUT generally negates everything you said prior to it. Oh you are sad, BUT someone else isn’t so stop being sad and think of them.

Most times, in my own experience, the statement up until the word BUT was fine. Then it goes to hell in a handbasket.

Here’s a perfect example of what you could say:

“Oh Jill, this must be terribly difficult for you. I can’t even imagine.”

2. Offer Help

I heard this story once about a friend who was dealing with a sudden medical emergency in her family. She spoke about how she was just overwhelmed with all the questions she had to answer, all the things she needed to organize, mixed with the suddenness of the event. When a good friend asked what she needed, she couldn’t even answer her friend; she had no idea.

Her friend, instead of retreating, sat down and said,

“Okay, when you know, tell me. I’ll ask again in a little bit”.

The woman continued to ask, and continued to sit as she was met with stony silence, or a quick no. Eventually the friend burst out,

“I have no idea! I have no idea what I want! I just need a tea!”

Her friend quietly slipped out of the room, and returned later with some tea.

It’s a simple story, but any time we are dealing with a tragedy or trauma, present or past, it’s sometimes hard to articulate what we want or even need in those moments. What we need and want can change so quickly when we’re in the thick of it, that sometimes we just can’t focus long enough to figure out what it is that we actually need. Sometimes it can be that we haven’t even thought of ourselves yet, it can be that we don’t know what we want because it keeps changing every second, or it can be that we are afraid of asking for help in case someone rejects us.

This month I told my closest friends and The Hubby to ask me every day how I was. Several people had asked me in the days running up to May what I would need. I struggled to tell them because I had no idea. So I asked them to reach out to me in this way every day, in some form. I knew I would need someone to pull me out of the shadows, even if I didn’t respond. I explained that it wouldn’t always be met with a quick response or a pleasant answer. I told them if they didn’t really want to know or didn’t have the time to watch me fall apart, that they should just leave me be. A couple nights, The Hubby retreated to the couch to give me space, and I would wander out, only to cry into his sleeping stomach. Some days the texts would come and I would refuse to answer out of sheer determination to not allow my terrible mood seep into my lovely friends lives. Sometimes, I just didn’t know how to say, “I’m falling apart right now, but I am just here”. Despite my stubbornness, and how I internalize everything, including this stuff, it meant the world, and more to know I had these people standing by. I knew they truly wanted to know how I was, and if I needed anything, because they had been genuine in giving me my space and following through with my request.

If you want to help and truly mean it, then you’d say some variation of this:

“Oh Jill, this must be terribly difficult for you. I can’t even imagine. I am here for you, whatever you need. Let me know!

Even better would be going a step further and asking if you bring dinner, or a bottle of wine, a cake. What you say on this level depends on how close you are to the individual but don’t be offended if the offer is refused originally. Leave the offer on the table, and tell them that it’s there, if they want it. Sometimes, it’s not a refusal, it’s the reality that sometimes, it’s hard to know what will be appropriate on that specific day.

My girlfriends saved my life by taking me up on late, last minute coffee dates this month. The Hubby began to learn the art of listening, rather then trying to fix, fix fix. When I called on my support system, they were there. We didn’t always talk about what was going on in my head, but the safety of knowing who I can rely on? Amazing.

3. Don’t Pretend to Understand

I know, I know, this is another don’t, but hear me out. Think of a time in your life when you were dealing with something that was unique to you, and someone came along, tritely smiling that they understood when you bother knew theey didn’t even remotely understand. How did you feel?

I usually feel like punching that person in the face.

If you don’t understand, say that. Admitting that you are completely clueless in this loss doesn’t make you look weak and has no bearing on how you are viewed intellectually. It won’t make me judge you, at all.

“Jill, I have no idea what this is like for you. I can tell it’s hurting you deeply, so I can only imagine how you are feeling.”

What this does is open a respectful door, a door where your friend may feel comfortable describing what it’s like. When there is an obvious respect for my loss, where the person is honestly admitting to not “getting it”, I feel at ease. There is no pressure to smile, and nod. There is no awkward silence as you internally roll your eyes, and wonder how they could possibly understand. Even if you have dealt with a similar loss, your loss is unique to yours. You can relate to their loss, but no one ever fully understands and grasps your experience the way you do.

4. Acknowledgement

For years, I’ve suffered in silence, alone. Last night, I was telling my good friends how hard this month was because I’m finally opening up instead of being a reclusive, repressive zombie. While this month has left me raw, I have let go of things that I would have otherwise repressed and buried. I’ve opened up the ability to have those who care about me, to care about me openly, and I have allowed them to give me the gift of acknowledging how real this loss is for me.

Another instance this month, was a kind friend who wrote on my Facebook wall that she was thinking of me, and that she was proud/in awe of the courageous year I had been living. It was literally one sentence, but it was tactful, it was graceful and she acknowledged the work I was doing personally. Her acknowledgment of the month, the day, whatever made me feel validated. It made me feel a little less alone. I felt supported, and encouraged.

5. Listen, and REALLY listen.

I’ve had instances where people are offended that I don’t share my story of adoption with them. There is a damn good reason why I am pretty closed off; I’ve had my share off ignorance flung at me through the years. It’s easier to just have people know the basic of basics, and leave it alone. However, there are occasions where I feel comfortable enough in my own skin, to allow the rawest part of who I am come out for a little sharing time.

Then I realize that when I start talking about the more honest parts- you know, like the things I share on this here blog- people back away, they close down. They don’t want to talk about a story that ends with lifelong trauma and heartache. They don’t want to hear how my parents treated me so terribly, or that I didn’t really have much of a choice in the entire process. They want me to dress it up in lace, and add some costume jewelry so they can go on believing that adoption is a gift and a miracle, you know all those entirely patronizing stereotypes that live in the minds of the general public.

Which leads me of course, to feel dismissed, unnecessary, and even more isolated then I was before I opened up. In the future, it causes me to question what people really want to know, if they want to know so they can be there for me, or if they want to hear a feel good story that will make them tear up in the right places.

If you want to help a mother who relinquished, listen to her story. All of us have incredibly unique, heartbreaking, and sometimes bittersweet stories. If we are offering to share this part of our heart with you, please don’t take it lightly. Make us a cup of tea or coffee, and sit down and actually listen.

Most of us weren’t listened to while we were pregnant with our babies, and when we surrendered them, we lost even more of our voice. Please listen to our voices, it’s important that you hear us when we do decide to speak now.

6. If All Else Fails….

If you really are stuck, say nothing. I’ve had two different instances this week where silences from these respective individuals would have been preferred over the comments they threw at me. Both were certain they were nice, comforting statements, but they were cringe worthy- because there was a lot of ignorance attached to them. Not to mention a general feeling that saying the comments made them feel better about the respective scenarios. It made them feel better, not me. Sometimes, some situations just aren’t about you, and if you can’t think of something to say for the person, then don’t say anything.

With the internet, filtering is a much easier concept. Think before you post, delete if in doubt. Walk away from the computer, and give it an hour to percolate. In the real world, if you lack a filter, like I do occasionally, apologize if it comes out wrong. Admit that you struggle to know what to say, and want to comfort but you are unsure. Be honest.

If you want to ask a question but think it might come out awkwardly, rethink the question or ask the question with that preface.

* * * * * * * * * *

Words can hurt, which I am sure most of us know. Those words hurt even when they are attached to well-intended statements, even if they are dripping in ignorance. In this land of adoption, birthmothers are either villians or heroes. Most of the time, there is no inbetween. Both roles make us out to be something we’re not, like we’re above the insults, or worthy of them. Like our experiences don’t count to some people. Cliche statements fit the bill, despite the realization that they are generally a slap in the face.

My last piece of advice? Treat her the same way you would treat anyone who has dealt with a debilitating loss. Don’t negate her experience, don’t try to make her grief pretty. Just let her guide you, if she wishes. She’ll know better what she needs.

In the end, support is the best thing you can offer anyone who has dealt with adoption loss.

12 thoughts on “6 Things You Should Say to A Birthmother

  1. This was good, thanks. I’ve lost a husband through death and a child through adoption and I honestly cannot distinguish the two losses. If you were to ask me which was more painful, a police officer telling me that my husband died or watching my daughter drive away in someone else’s car from the driveway of a hospital, I can say there was absolutely no difference. Once the world will be willing to acknowledge the Birthmother’s loss for exactly what it is, we’ll be to make some headway hopefully. I hope you’re starting to feel better.

  2. Maybe the best comment I ever got from someone was “I have no idea what to say to you, I have no idea how to talk to you about this”. It was so much better than trying to say the right thing, and allowed me to explain there wasn’t a right thing to say but that was okay because it was genuine and someone who cared enough to admit they just didn’t know what to say.

  3. Thank you. As someone who is trying to adopt, I struggle to know what to say. I know what not to say, I understand that it has to be incredibly hard although I don’t actually know what it feels like. I’m thankful for blogs like yours that share with me so that I can be more sensitive, aware and caring as I move through this process.

    And most importantly, I’ll be thinking of you as you deal with your loss. I hope that you can feel caring arms hugging you whenever you need to. I want to say more, but there isn’t more that I know to say.

    1. I’m an adoptive mother as well as a birth mother (four children altogether). After 46 years of living with this experience, I must tell you to think long and hard about adopting. Read about the problems with international adoption. If you’re adopting a newborn, make sure there is ABSOLUTELY no way the mother can keep her child. If you’re getting an older child out of foster care for compelling reasons, you’re golden. If not, get a dog. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but being an adoptive parent is not always the picnic you imagine it will be–for you or for the child.

  4. The bmom you mentioned from the book, The Girls Who Went Away,” who also lost a 16 year old is me, Susan lll. I’d like to thank you for your kind words and understanding.

      1. Yes, I’m serious! Imagine my shock as I read your blog. “Hey, that’s me she’s talking about!” I’m happy my story was able to touch you in such a way.

  5. I read your blog because Susan posted a link to it on her Facebook. I am touched by your writing too. I’ll be following you from now on. I placed my son 24 years ago. On September 2, 2011 I met him and we’ve been getting to know one another ever since. Many of the feelings I’ve felt over the years have not changed just because I found him, I just add happy to the list. I hope this for you someday too!

  6. What a wonderful article. Your ideas of Waht to Say to a Birthmother is excellent. Losing a child to adoption is a pain that never goes away. Although I have been reunited with my son for 11 years, it hasn’t gone well, the heartache is still there. His birthdays are the worse for me because that is the day I lost him allmost 50 years ago. I agree that people don’t know what to say when I tell them my story. Lately, I do not tell many people. I am tired of listening to words that do not bring comfort. Some people have actually said judgmental things, even in this day and age.

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