Sharon, Lynn, and Miranda each made the decision to place their babies for adoption. Here, they discuss the consequences of that decision, and what it has meant for the rest of their lives.
Content warning: this piece contains mentions of mental illness and self-harm.
Disclaimer: some names have been changed.
Adoption begins with a woman.
Every year, about 1,200 Canadian children are adopted. There are numerous resources available to adoptive parents: support groups, self-help books, national councils, and a seemingly endless body of research. Adoption is the answer to so many prayers. It could be the reason a childless couple gets to raise the family they’ve always wanted. Often, it’s the path to opportunity and security for a child. The story, though, starts before that child is placed with their adoptive family.
To understand adoption, we must understand the women who make it possible. One must try to see the experience from their perspective.
Sharon, Lynn, and Miranda are three women who share a common experience. When they were teenagers, they each placed a baby for adoption. They’ve carried that experience with them, often silently, with few who understand what they’ve lived through.
Sharon was 15 years old when she gave birth to her son. She has been searching for him since he turned 18 in 2003.
Sharon dropped her son off at daycare for the last time when he was nine months old. That evening, her dad picked him up and surrendered him to Child and Family Services (CFS). Instead of going with her dad, Sharon went home and packed her belongings. That was the day she moved out.
Nine months before, on July 4, 1985, she gave birth to her son, Matthew. She was 15 years old.
“CFS did not believe that I would be a good parent,” Sharon explains. “They wanted to apprehend at birth, and after a heated argument with my parents, I kind of won that battle.”
Sharon was allowed to bring her son home. She spent most of that year trying to care for him. Her age and turbulent home life convinced her she couldn’t give her son the life he deserved.
She called her social worker and said she was giving Matthew up for adoption. She was given a date to drop him off at the office.
“I had run away from home a few times with him,” Sharon remembers. “It’s hard to find a place to stay when you’ve got a baby.”
Sharon recalls her parents being given all the vital information from CFS. “They were told about my rights,” she says. “I didn’t hear about my rights until two years later.”
She says if she’d known about her right to appeal the adoption, she would have tried. She remembers fighting with herself the day she dropped Matthew off at daycare for the last time because she wanted to change her mind.
“I’m adopted as well,” Sharon says. “My relationship with my adoptive family wasn’t the greatest, and when Matthew was born…he was my blood. I finally had my family, at least a piece of it.”
Sharon worries about Matthew’s experience with his adoptive family because hers was so negative. When Sharon was adopted in the 1970s, she lost her Indigenous culture and language. Though she has reconnected with some of her birth family, she struggles to communicate with them.
When Matthew was gone, Sharon spiralled. She drank, partied, and lived mostly on the streets. Her life was consumed by addiction. When she was 21, she gave birth to her daughter. Her son was born seven years later. Sharon’s struggle with addiction continued as she raised them, and CFS apprehended both her children on the same night — her daughter when she was eight years old, and her son when he was one.
“I woke up one morning in the Main Street Project, not knowing whether I’m in the drunk tank or in jail, because I’d completely blacked out,” Sharon recalls. “Losing my kids smartened me up.”
Immediately after losing her children, Sharon began trying to change her circumstances. She went back to school and started working towards a degree in social work. She fought and won the battle to bring her children home. Her successes didn’t make the memory of Matthew’s adoption any less painful.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Matthew,” she says. “Every birthday, it’s just those thoughts again. Is he alive? If he is alive, is he living a good life or is he completely the opposite?”
These questions drove Sharon to start searching for her son. When he turned 18, she registered with the Manitoba government to be notified if Matthew tried to make contact. She’s learned non-identifying details about him. She knows he grew up outside Winnipeg and has an older adopted sister. She’s followed a few leads, but they’ve been dead ends so far.
“They found him,” Sharon explains. “CFS knows where my son is, but because Matthew did not return that information, the government sees it like he has vetoed.” Because of this, Sharon will have to find her son on her own.
She tries to stay positive about the search, but she has her fears. Her biggest worry is that she’ll find him, and he’ll reject her.
“I’d really like to reassure him that he wasn’t a mistake,” Sharon tearfully explains. “I didn’t give him up because I didn’t love him. I would have rather given him up voluntarily than to have anyone take him from me.”
Though she tries to hold on to the memories she has of Matthew, decades have passed since she was that 16-year-old girl. She recalls how tiny he was — only five pounds at birth. He had blonde hair and blue eyes. She remembers hoping he would keep the blue eyes.
“The sight of those memories really isn’t there,” Sharon says. “I know the emotions. Happy, proud, you know, just overjoyed and shocked that this perfect little guy came out of me. And it was my blood.”
Sharon isn’t sure she’s happy with the choice she made. Her need to know if Matthew has had a good life is what keeps her searching. She isn’t discouraged by the possibility she may never find him.
“If I think that way, I’m giving up on him,” she says, “and I’m never going to give up on my son.”
A study by the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation that aimed to understand the experiences of birth mothers who chose adoption found 39 per cent of women in their sample developed depression after the adoption, which was “…rooted in feelings of guilt, anger, sadness and grief…” Parting with one’s biological child significantly increased the risk of depressive or psychosomatic illnesses.
Women cope with the loss of a child in many ways. Maybe they develop addictions, or harm themselves, or perhaps the pain presents itself in more subtle ways. Developing harmful behaviours isn’t uncommon after placing a child for adoption. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “Even those women who described satisfying lives and did not define themselves as having mental health problems reported a process of struggle which lasted for many years.”
Today, there are records, registries, and online forums to help women find their birth children. The Mental Health Foundation says women who successfully reconnect with their children have an easier time resolving feelings of grief and loss. Guilt, however, is the most powerful factor that drives them to search.
Lynn began searching for her son 36 years after he was born.
Lynn orders a slice of banana cream pie after she settles into the booth. It’s 6 p.m. on a Saturday, and the diner is empty except for two other tables.
Lynn is 55 years old, and of Indigenous heritage. She has shiny black hair and a timid smile she flashes nervously as she begins her story.
She changed her mind about bringing her son’s photo with her. It was too precious to risk losing.
The photo was taken on July 8, 1979, the day he was born. His eyes are closed. He has pink cheeks, a small button nose, and a head of downy brown hair. He was born in Winnipeg when Lynn was 14 years old. She named him Richard.
As a child, Lynn lived with her family in Selkirk, but after learning she was pregnant, they sent her to an unwed mother’s home run by Catholic nuns called Villa Rosa. During her stay, she remembers not being allowed to go out in public. She says her pregnancy was treated like a dirty secret, one much of her family still doesn’t know about. She stayed at Villa Rosa until she went into labour, and walked to the hospital with a friend.
She was admitted, and promptly given a drafty, open-backed hospital gown. She recalls an overwhelming sense of fear.
She phoned her mother, who made the drive to Winnipeg from their Selkirk home.
“She was there, outside the room,” Lynn says. “I was in the labour and delivery room by myself. It was scary…14 years old, you have no idea. Everybody’s got masks on, everything’s just…sterile.”
Lynn’s mother entered the room when the baby was born. It was 1:20 a.m.. Her mother stood beside the bed and simply said, “That’s a big baby.” After that, she left.
Lynn held her son on her belly. His eyes were wide open. She counted each of his tiny fingers, and then each of his toes. She was in awe of him.
“It was the one true time that I think you can say love at first sight, because that’s exactly what I felt,” she says, her eyes welling at the memory. “He was beautiful. He was perfect.”
Lynn’s time with her son would be short-lived. Putting her baby up for adoption was always her family’s intention. She remembers a nurse coldly reminding her not to get too attached to her son during the three days she kept him in her room.
“I was very good at avoidance,” Lynn says. “I avoided what was coming, and that was me walking out of the hospital without my baby. I did not want to give him back.”
After the adoption, Lynn self-destructed. She was consumed by the trauma of giving up her child, though nobody else seemed to consider it a trauma. Her family was embarrassed by the pregnancy, and unwilling to discuss it.
“They didn’t see that as a young girl, I was seeking love,” Lynn says.
She acted out for a long time. Drinking, drug use, and self-harm numbed her grief, at least briefly.
“Physical pain released the pain I felt inside my soul,” Lynn recalls. “I just wanted to be a mom. Other birth mothers I know did the same.”
The process of placing Richard for adoption was over in one appointment. Lynn remembers having to sign a single piece of paper she didn’t get to read. She wasn’t told her rights. Someone explained that signing her name meant she’d never see her son again.
“I blamed my parents for forcing me to give up my child,” she says. “Little bits of me still feel that way.”
In 2015, 36 years after the adoption, Lynn began trying to find her son. She posted his baby photo on Facebook, and was surprised to see it shared 22,000 times by people all over the world. Some insisted she had no right to disrupt his life. Others gave her support, resources, and shared their own stories.
“I just don’t want him to think that I threw him away,” she explains. “I have always thought of him, every Mother’s Day, every birthday, Christmas, family gatherings. He’s always been there.”
More than anything, she wants her son to know he is Indigenous. He was listed as Welsh on his birth certificate, but she wants him to be proud of his true ancestry. She says her biggest fear is that he grew up to be racist. She worries he’ll meet her and be ashamed of her.
“I don’t expect to be part of his day-to-day life,” she says. “I would like to be a thought in his mind.”
Lynn pauses to collect herself. She says her memories from that time are fading. She wishes cell phones had existed back then so she could have captured each moment.
One week after his birth, Lynn snuck back into the hospital to see her son one more time. He was still in the nursery, separated from the other babies, and he was crying. Lynn calls it the first time her heart truly broke.
“The story is sad and ugly,” she explains. “But if I hadn’t gone through that, I still wouldn’t be who I am today.”
“I just hope he turned into a really good person. I hope he had good parents.”
Sharon and Lynn have not found their children. The process they went through in placing their babies was largely out of their control. Sometimes, though, birth mothers have a large degree of involvement in the adoption.
Adoption Options Manitoba Inc. is an adoption agency in Winnipeg. They are one example of an agency that encourages a relationship between birth parents and adoptive parents. They give birth mothers the opportunity to meet and sometimes choose who gets to adopt their children.
The Marriage & Family Review, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on familial interaction, discovered that “…moderately open features in both the adoption process and arrangement are associated with positive, long-term social psychological outcomes for birth mothers.” An article they published, “Openness in Adoption: Experiences and Social Psychological Outcomes Among Birth Mothers,” discusses how meeting adoptive parents lets birth mothers decide if the adoptive parents are loving. Having some sense that their child is alright can be a great comfort to birth mothers.
Miranda chose open adoption, which gave her the chance to pick her daughter’s adoptive parents.
It was a Tuesday in 1996 when 17-year-old Miranda placed her daughter (me) with her adoptive family. She arrived at a suburban bungalow in Winnipeg alongside her parents, ready to greet the nervous couple who’d waited nearly a decade for a baby.
It was a private adoption — a decision made only days before, when Miranda was still in the hospital. When CFS came to complete paperwork, Miranda said she wanted to know where her daughter, Kaitlyn, would be, and who would be taking care of her. She remembers CFS telling her they didn’t know of anything like that. A nurse overheard and insisted they tell Miranda about all her options. That’s how she chose Adoption Options Manitoba Inc.
“Because I was underage, they informed me that I was going to have to physically place my baby into her new parents’ arms,” Miranda says. “You think about movies, and you placing the baby in someone’s arms, and they have to pull you away and all that…and it wasn’t like that at all.”
Before handing Kaitlyn over to her parents, Miranda spent time with her alone in the adoptive family’s basement. She said her goodbyes privately while everyone waited upstairs. She recalls the moment she realized it was time to place her baby with her new family. She told Kaitlyn’s adoptive mother, “Okay, it’s time.”
“We were both crying. I placed Kaitlyn in her arms, and then we were just hugging so hard. She was saying thank you…and I was saying thank you…and then I left.”
Miranda remembers hurrying from the house without her shoes on.
“At that time, I just had to do it and get out of there, or I wouldn’t be able to do it. I just wanted to go home,” she says.
She and her family missed their flight home to Flin Flon that day. They booked a room at the Radisson Hotel, where Miranda has refused to stay ever since. She remembers the uncomfortable sense of not knowing what to do.
“We did the only thing that people who live in a small community know to do when they’re in a city. I think because my parents were in a real state of shock, we went to the movies,” she says.
They bought tickets to DragonHeart, but Miranda only saw the title sequence. She spent the entirety of the movie sobbing in the lobby.
“Some poor kid that worked there just held me,” she says. “He just had his arms around my shoulder, and brushed my hair with his hands and said it would be okay, whatever it was.”
Miranda says the weeks after the adoption were a blur. She returned to Flin Flon, where her friends rallied to support her. Despite their good intentions, she felt isolated from them. They couldn’t relate to what she’d gone through.
“I mean, they’re teenage girls,” she says. “They’re living their own lives, and they’re worried about getting licenses and things like that.”
She ended up leaving Flin Flon a few weeks after Kaitlyn’s birth to live with her aunt and uncle in Spiritwood. She jumped at the chance to start over somewhere new, but the pain left behind by the adoption followed her.
Drinking became Miranda’s coping mechanism. She didn’t think about it as problematic at the time, but looking back, she realizes she drank when she was angry. She made excuses to drink. She thought it was typical teenage behaviour.
She cried every day about the adoption. This continued until Kaitlyn was over two years old.
“I remember the day that I didn’t cry, that I forgot to cry, and I felt so badly that I didn’t cry, and so guilty…like, how dare I have one day where she’s not my every thought,” Miranda says. She spent most of that day drinking.
She developed a recurring fantasy about saving her daughter from a kidnapper. She imagined chasing the assailant down and heroically returning Kaitlyn to her adoptive family.
“I know it’s juvenile,” Miranda explains, “but those are the thoughts of a 17-year-old girl, that I would get to be important to her again.”
Miranda remained in touch with Kaitlyn while she was young. Her adoptive parents sent pictures and updates. Sometimes they talked on the phone. Even so, they lost touch when Kaitlyn was about eight years old.
Miranda says Kaitlyn’s birth led her to become incredibly focused. She went from a 17 per cent average in school to one of the top three in her class. She didn’t want Kaitlyn to think she’d accomplished nothing with her life.
“Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have by not having her, I focused on the chance that I had been given to make something of myself, to earn a relationship with her,” Miranda says. “I never saw being a parent as a right — I saw it as something you endeavour to deserve. At that time in my life I just didn’t deserve her.”
She gave up drinking and became an elementary school teacher. She married when Kaitlyn was a teenager, and a few years later she had a son.
When Kaitlyn was 20, she sent Miranda an email congratulating her on the birth of her son. At this point they hadn’t spoken for 11 years. The email led to their meeting for sushi when Miranda was visiting Winnipeg.
“I hugged her, and I remember thinking her hair was just as soft as it was 20 years ago,” Miranda recalls. “I don’t remember anything we talked about. I remember her mannerisms. I remember how she ate — how she held her chopsticks.”
Miranda still worries she’ll lose contact with Kaitlyn again, though they’ve become close over the last three years. Since meeting for sushi, Kaitlyn has become a regular presence in her life.
Miranda says even if Kaitlyn had never wanted to see her again, she was still lucky.
“Anything she wanted. I would be happy with anything she wanted,” Miranda recalls. “I was just so happy that I got the chance to see her.”
“It is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
There’s no clear-cut way to generalize the experiences of birth mothers. Each story is complex. Sharon, Lynn, and Miranda did the best they could with their circumstances. They can only hope the decision they made was the right one.
As someone who likes to sum things up neatly, it’s difficult to admit I can’t do that here. Adoption is complicated. There’s pure, unselfish love, but there’s also pain. There are more stories than any of us will ever have time to tell.
I wrote a dozen drafts of the first email I sent Miranda. I agonized over words. Hey or hello? From Kaitlyn, or love Kaitlyn? Details I hadn’t considered important before consumed me. I didn’t know what the rules were. What was I allowed to say? How much was I allowed to ask for?
Having dinner with Miranda was a blur for me, too. She stood up from her chair with a shell-shocked look on her face and we both debated whether we should hug. Like her, I don’t recall a thing we talked about. I remember her red shirt, her curled hair, and how strange it was sitting across from this person who looked like me.
It turns out she’d taken almost as much space in my mind as I’d taken in hers.