A Basket in the Bulrushes: “Real Mothers” Affiliation and Reproductive Justice

I recently heard a story where a self-identified Aboriginal woman in Australia learned that she was adopted when she was a teenager. “I always wondered why my mom was so mean to me, treated me differently from the other kids. I did look different from the rest of the family but discovered it was because I wasn’t really ‘hers’.” 

A client of mine had the experience of being completely and utterly rejected by her father, who insisted she was not “his.” He brutalized her and her mother too about her being another man’s child. Seeing pictures of them together, she was the spitting image of him, and indeed she felt similarly “spat upon.” Although he eventually appeared to relent in his bitter hostility toward her, it was far too late, and she was profoundly traumatized by the rejection and the abuse. 

I have worked with couples who struggled to conceive, and one partner was categorically opposed to adoption while the other was desperate to have a family. What does it mean to raise a family where maybe the genetic material is not (or not all) shared? All this got me thinking further about adoption.

Loss and rejection are threats to survival for species that rely on the pack for not only nourishment but also protection. What is the impact of having those essential needs fulfilled by a “substitute?” And in turn, what is the impact of this loss to the recently pregnant mother?

I remember from second grade Sunday School the picturesque story about Moses, who led the Jews to the Promised Land after their 40 years of wandering in the desert. As the story goes, the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered that all male Hebrew babies be drowned at birth in an effort to keep Jews from becoming too powerful. Jochebed, having recently given birth to Baby Moses, was grief-stricken and kept her baby hidden as long as she could. When she could no longer ensure his safety and her own, she tucked him into a basket and placed it in the reeds on the edge of the Nile. As it happened, Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket while bathing in the river. She took the baby home and raised him: an idyllic adoption story. 

What, in fact, is the impact of adoption? Is it an attachment trauma? What if the baby is adopted at birth? What is the impact on the birth mother? All of these and many more questions began to swirl around my mind. Loss and rejection are threats to survival for species that rely on the pack for not only nourishment but also protection. What is the impact of having those essential needs fulfilled by a “substitute?” And in turn, what is the impact of this loss to the recently pregnant mother?

I had a client once who grew up in a fiercely religious community in the American deep south. She partnered with an African American man before intermarriage became legal in 1967, but even before that, she got pregnant as a teenager and was secretly whisked away to an “unwed mother’s home.” Nobody knew where she had gone. Her baby was as quickly and silently whisked away virtually at birth. To my client, it felt like having part of herself ripped away as if her body was ravaged by amputation. I saw her at least 30 years after the fact. She was still torn apart by grief, guilt and shame, both desperate and terrified to find and meet the child that, interestingly, she had named Faith. Every kind of regret was unbearable. She had much other trauma, which we worked with for some years. 

Long after she left therapy with me, she finally met Faith. Although they did not appear to establish an ongoing relationship, she was comforted and achieved some sort of closure, if nothing else, than to make the story real for herself and also express her deep remorse and love to her daughter.

I read all the hefty biographies of Steve Jobs, another adoptee. I am a great admirer of his extraordinary genius (admittedly, I have a fascination with very smart, narcissistic and sometimes mean men, probably in the image of my father). Jobs fit that description. His unmarried teen parents gave him up for adoption at birth. A loving couple adopted him, and he described himself as quite harmonious and close with them. Some years later, Jobs’ birth parents had married each other and had a daughter, Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, whom he met some years later.

When Jobs was roughly his parents’ age when they gave birth to him, and similarly unmarried, he also fathered a child. Initially, Jobs vehemently denied paternity, even after formal paternity testing confirmed that he was indeed the father. He balked and paid the absolute minimum of child support required by law, even after his early company had begun earning well. Only after many years did he develop a relationship with this daughter (of course, I read her memoir as well.) To me, it seemed like some sort of trauma re-enactment, which would suggest that, at least in his case, being given up for adoption was traumatic. 

I have had some adopted clients who seemed terribly dysregulated from being raised by the “wrong” mother. I have seen other veritable “love stories” of adoption. There is research that says indeed it is an attachment trauma. In the words of one researcher:


When working with adoptees, we must consider the possibility that this disrupted attachment may be a cause of at least some of their difficulties.


Belonging and being part of a group are sources of not only identity but safety and equilibrium. Knowing where I am from and where I belong creates a kind of orientation and balance in the world, as well as a place to retreat to under threat or in trying times. Although I am not a practicing or religious Jew, I am very much identified with the “tribe”. I love baking challah and bagels and always insist that my homemade bagels and homemade cream cheese are the “real Jewish Penicillin.” I consider the Holocaust and my parents’ Holocaust trauma very much a part of my identity and have a profound reaction to genocide, racism and segregation which are undeniably wound in with my own ancestral story. 

I tend to unwittingly notice Jewish sounding names or other characteristics and feel, even unconsciously, rather kindred. I hope I do not suffer from some sort of racism in that regard. I feel strongly that when a child or adult is removed from their clan, group and often country of origin, the loss is visceral. The world of diaspora that we now live in is rife with such homelessness, which is growing alarmingly worse given the most recent world events. It frightens me, even when countries of refuge are relatively welcoming. It is no wonder that ethnic and country of origin food pop-ups are such a popular source of solace to many immigrants and refugees, at least in the food worshipping Bay Area.

Reproductive Justice

While briefly dipping into the wide subject of adoption, I am reminded of another issue I feel strongly about; reproductive justice. 

For same-sex couples, adoption is one of a number of options for having a family, perhaps the least expensive, although adoption also may run into significant outlays. The other avenues to pregnancy can run into many thousands and even tens of thousands, which amounts to discrimination of sorts. Who gets to procreate, and with what support? It would seem to me that the next step after legalizing same-sex marriage would be making same-sex family planning affordable, safe, and accessible. 

To close on a happy note, I heard a heart-warming story the other night on one of my favorite wee-hours BBC programs. A young man, adopted at birth, who had a seemingly smooth childhood and upbringing, searched out and met his birth parents in his early thirties. He learned that, like Steve Jobs, his two biological parents had married each other and had several more children who were his full siblings. 

He met his younger sister, who was herself several times a mother, and when our young man and his wife were unable to get pregnant, this sister proposed that she might serve as a surrogate and carry their child. They gratefully accepted, and their fertilized egg and sperm were placed inside her. As it turned out, they expected twin girls. 

The crowded delivery room included three sets of grandparents: the young mother’s two parents, the young father’s adoptive parents, and his birth parents. It was a wild, unconventional and joyous welcome and family for those two little girls! 

Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is It Ain’t Me Babe by Bob Dylan.

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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