I was one person sitting in a crowd of hundreds, secure in my anonymity. Then a seemingly harmless string of words shook me to the core:
“Will all mothers please stand?”
Sudden panic enveloped me, causing me to sink down into my seat. All I could do in those agonizing moments was to watch as one by one these women stood. I wanted so much to stand with them. But I knew if I did, I would be inundated with questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. However, by not standing, was I denying who I was? Was I denying my own motherhood? Was I denying the very existence of my son, the baby boy I placed in a closed adoption so many years ago?
May 8th is Mother’s Day, a day that usually signifies a break; being served breakfast in bed or a special meal, receiving handmade cards or crafts, or even having the luxury of a day all to yourself. Maybe you are one of those women who anticipates the day and the new memories that will unfold. After all, Mother’s Day is supposed to be a joyous occasion, where a woman is surrounded by her children, her spouse, and other family members.
Lost in the background are the forgotten mothers, those who placed (or lost) children in the thousands of closed adoptions that took place from the 1960s to the Eighties.
Unseen in church pews or coffee shops are the women who were forced or pressured to keep their secrets, some even to this day. To many of these women, Mother’s Day is a poignant reminder of children lost, secrets unrevealed, and pain yet to be grieved.
I am one of these mothers. This is my story:
When I discovered I was pregnant at 18, I left my family and small town to live among strangers in a maternity home. Several lonely months later, I was rushed to hospital in a taxi cab. I gave birth, relinquished my son, still unnamed, and departed alone, hoping to begin a new life. Instead, I found myself derailed by emotions I could not face, and by losses that continued to accumulate.
My baby was born in 1981, a time when unwed mothers still had few options. Separated from their babies shortly after birth and severing the physical and emotional connections with their children, these mothers were expected to forget their “mistakes” and move on. Instead, silent and alone, they carried a tremendous burden of unresolved grief and longing for their children.
My own healing started with the reality of that same burden. Even though my grief journey took me through anger, guilt, sadness, unhealthy behaviours (or coping mechanisms), forgiveness, a search for my son, and the uncertain possibility of a reunion, one issue continues to affect me to this day: Mother’s Day.
I have not seen my son since he was placed for adoption. He is almost 32 years old. I always promised myself that, next time, I would do it right. Next time, it would be a happy occasion. But I have never had a next time: I didn’t have another child.
Mother’s Day is not just about the son I lost. It is a sorrow-filled, “in your face” kind of reminder that I will never hear the word “Mom” spoken to me. I have been forced to grieve the loss of any other children in my life.
So imagine how uncomfortable I am when someone asks me, “Are you a mom?” How do I respond? “Yes…sort of.” Or do I freeze, just like in the story shared at the beginning of this article? When women and mothers are singled out, what is a birth mother or a silent mom like me supposed to do?
One year, my husband encouraged me to stand. I said, “No. Because then I’d have to answer all of their questions.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m not ashamed of who I am. But an uncomfortable situation can arise with strangers when they start asking questions that I don’t necessarily want to answer.
Instead, I have chosen positive and constructive ways to honour myself as a mother, even if in secret.Each year, I go shopping. Now, it’s not what you think: it’s not just another reason to go shopping. I buy something that is particular to that year or that means something special to me. I shop for me–I seek out a special Mother’s Day gift (a framed picture, memento, or flowers).
Many women may feel that they cannot celebrate Mother’s Day, or even acknowledge their experience on this occasion. Perhaps the word “celebrate” is too positive to even use in this context. If this is the case, what about just “recognizing” or “acknowledging” yourself as a mother? I encourage you to do just that–to find ways to acknowledge who you are even if no one else does. This is something that you need to do just for you.
Over the years, I have met women who still struggle with the unfinished business in their lives (with respect to their adoptions). I have since found my purpose: to help other birth mothers—the “Silent Moms”—heal from their grief and from the shame inflicted by the system that stole their voices. My hope is that these women will find healing, to reach a place in their lives that is no longer painful and full of anger or regret.
Even if you don’t stand during a Mother’s Day service, you are still a mother. Even if you don’t receive the flowers, candy, or gifts on Mother’s Day, you are still a mother.
You are like me. And you are not forgotten.
**Theresa Gonzalez is the author of Silent Moms: the Secret Grief of Birth Mothers and is currently pursuing a reunion with her son. You can visit her website: www.silentmoms.ca