Relishing in the Bittersweet: Heartache in Adoption

Relishing in the Bittersweet: Heartache in Adoption
mom and zay

La Jolie Vie Photography

by Rachel Garlinghouse

While I was waiting to adopt my first child, I spent a lot of time imagining what I thought would be the high points:  the day we would get THE call stating we had been chosen, meeting our baby for the first time, our first family photo session, the child’s first birthday…

Each of these moments would be monumental if not divine.   Cloud 9, the “Halleluiah” chorus, slow motion movements.    Smiles, laughter, hugs.  Perfect.  Straight out of a Nicholas Sparks’ novel.

We waited fourteen torturous months for our first child.    On a sunny November weekend, we were painting our kitchen when my husband’s cell phone rang.   Chosen.   Baby girl.  Already here.   Come.

What I felt at times, while rocking my daughter in her softly-lit nursery, were waves of guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache. This wasn’t how adoption looked on the front of the agency brochures or in the Hallmark movies.

Guilt.   My joy was stemming from another mother’s loss and pain.   How could I have willingly participated in such a severance?

Sympathy.   I couldn’t imagine my life without my child.   Yet someone was living her life without her child.

Confusion.   Why must someone else’s loss be my gain?  How can I be happy when I know my child’s first mother is broken?

Heartache.  Why did my child have to lose her biological mother through adoption?   Would my daughter grow to resent me?

Most days were as a lovely as I had imagined.   My daughter’s mocha skin, coffee-colored eyes surrounded by an abundance of dark lashes, and her perfect, rounded afro accessorized by tiny bows were the center of attention from family, friends, and strangers.  My husband and I marveled at her every yawn, smile, and sneeze.   She had enough outfits to go without doing laundry for three weeks.   She was loved, no, adored.

But without warning, the feelings of guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache would snake into my soul.   It was crushing, knowing that I had “won” at the expense of someone else.


Jill Heupel

The first time it happened was about a week after my daughter was born.  My husband and I were standing in the waiting area of the courthouse, just a few minutes before our appointed court time where a judge would award us custody.    Standing right next to us was our daughter’s biological mother, whom we were meeting for the first time.    Strangers, yet soon to be forever united by a child, we listened carefully to the biological mother’s hopes for the child.   With each sentence, I felt myself wanting to scream, “Are you sure you wish to give her to us?  Are you sure you can’t parent her?  She’s yours.   She looks like you.  She needs you.  You are all she has ever known.”    Our conversation was cut short when the biological mother’s lawyer alerted her that it was her turn to meet with the judge.   And just like that, she was swallowed up by two heavy brown doors.   When she emerged minutes later, she hugged us, told us to take care of the baby, and was gone.    And immediately, we were ushered into the court room for our turn.   With my heart in my throat, I listened to the judged, answered questions from the lawyer, and promised to take care of the little girl as if she were born to us.

About six months later, my first Mother’s Day dawned sunny and warm.   I smiled for the camera while holding my daughter close, breathing in her milky scent, her sticky fingers on my cheek.   I accepted cards and gifts, meanwhile hoping that the card I had sent my child’s first mother had arrived on time and was well-received.    I hadn’t forgotten her.     With each card I picked up at the store, I felt more and more heaviness in my heart.    No card was appropriate for the occasion.   There were no cards to express the bittersweet reality.
On the day my daughter turned ten months old, it hit me that she had been with me the same amount of time she had been with her biological mother.   40 weeks.  280 days.  I loved my daughter with such depth.  To lose her would devastate me.  Break me.    She was my world.    The thought of not having her in my life, which I could barely approach, took my breath away.  I remember holding my sleeping infant against my chest and quietly singing to her the alphabet, while praying for the woman who gave her life and praying I could be the mother my daughter needed.

A few weeks later, my daughter looked at me and uttered the words every mother longs to hear:  “Mama.”   When we clapped and cheered and jumped around, she repeated it over and over and over.  The word is sacred.   Reserved for the woman who wipes runny noses, prepares food, cuddles and caresses, bathes, and plays pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo dozens of times in a day.    But sometimes the word felt like it should belong to someone else, or at minimum, should be shared.

On the day my little girl turned one, I was busy and blissfully happy.  We threw her a pumpkin-themed birthday party with many guests who snacked on s’mores and hot chocolate and cupcakes.  There were mountains of gifts.   Cameras flashed left and right.   My daughter waddled around in her multicolored tutu, soaking up the attention.   As we drove home from the party, our car full of streamers and gifts and food, my daughter napping in her car seat, I thought about the significance of this day one year ago.   The day she was born, the day her first mother called the agency, the day she chose a family from amongst the profile books, the day we got the call, the day our new life began.

Meanwhile, throughout the first days and months of my new role as mom, people (some I knew, some I didn’t) would “affirm” our choice to adopt with exclamations of “Oh, there are so many kids who need good homes!” and “God bless you!” and “She’s one lucky little girl!”   And then there were the questions:  “How could someone give her away?” and “How old was her mom?”     It was all so overwhelming to process:  my own emotions, the questions and assumptions from others, and, most of all, my tiny daughter’s huge brown, imploring eyes, reminding us that she was the innocent party, hopelessly reliant on adults to make the right choices for her.
Agencies and attorneys and even the general public tell us that birth parents often place and “more on with their lives” or “get over” or “move past” the placement.     Do they say these things to help us feel better about adopting?  Do they say these things to grant themselves false peace about the complexities of adoption?    Or is that most of us don’t want to stop and think about how heartbreaking it must be to carry a child and give him or her away, forever?

When I am faced, as I still am five years later, with guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache, I stop, I breathe, and I embrace these.    These feelings are not to be feared or ignored.    They are part of the journey.   This bittersweet adoption path has conditioned me to see with clarity, respond with love, and simmer in possibility.

Rachel Garlinghouse Author Photo

Jill Heupel

Rachel Garlinghouse is the author of Come Rain or Come Shine:  A White Parent’s Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children.   She’s mothering three brown babies, baking without ceasing, and in her “spare” time, writing and talking about transracial adoption.   She’s been on MSNB’s Melissa-Harris Perry, The Daily Drum national radio show, and her family has been featured in Essence magazine.  Her articles have been published by, Madame Noire, and Adoptive Families.  Keep up with Rachel on her blog at

Tags assigned to this article:
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  1. Shayla 16 August, 2013, 21:42

    There’s so much I want to say to this post. I’ve written and re-written a reply several times. You see, I’m both a birthmother and a parent – so I’m fairly invested in the BM/Adoptive parent relationship. Right after I placed, on my really hard days, I would focus on how happy my daughter’s parents were now (it was an open adoption, so I kept in fairly regular contact). I would look at the pictures of her (enormous) extended family all doting on her and think “that’s what I wanted for her. Yes my heart is breaking, but she’s loved. that’s all that matters”. Seeing joy in her parents faces is what gave me joy and peace. I knew they loved her just as much as I did.

    Guilt? PLEASE don’t feel guilty. Sympathy? Yes. By all means remember what she went through. When your daughter gets old enough to ask questions, she will love that you cared about her 1st mother. But don’t feel guilty about the situation. Your daughters’ BM had to make a hard decision. But now she can move on BECAUSE you love your daughter so much, because you wanted to take care of a child that wasn’t your blood and call her your own. She can rest in the comfort that her daughter has parents that would rather die than see any harm come to her. Can you imagine if nobody adopted children from parents who couldn’t take care of them? THAT is scary.

    Confusion? I can’t help you there. My own emotions still confuse me. I’m happy I placed my daughter with another family? Seriously?

    Heartache. Yes. Absolutely. The good news is it has a happy ending more often than not – no matter what Hallmark tries to tell us. I remember having a conversation with my daughter’s aunts whom I hadn’t seen in many years. The last picture of me they had in there heads was when we had an adoption ceremony at the hospital a couple days after I gave birth. As you can imagine I wasn’t at my best. She actually said “I’m so happy to see you happy!” I hated that they had spent the last 13 years picturing me heartbroken. I was (am) living a great life because I was able to focus on growing up instead of figuring out how to parent. Unless you know for sure your birthmother is really struggling w/the adoption, it’s probably more accurate to picture her happy with contemplative/sad moments, rather than always heartbroken and sad.

    You are absolutely right about these feelings being part of the journey – and I wished they were talked about more often. I just wanted you (and any other adoptive parent readers) to know that as a birthmom, I would hate for my daughter’s parents to focus on the heartache when they think of me. I’d much rather them picture me going on safari in Kenya or climbing a volcano in Hawaii. Both things I never could have done if it were not for them. By loving my daughter, they were as instrumental to my well-being as they were to my daughter’s. And I could never thank them enough for that.

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    • kym 27 August, 2013, 21:06

      I am also a birthmother in a really wonderful adoption, and I wholeheartedly second everything Shayla has SO perfectly put into words. everything!
      it is bittersweet in every way, but I also, as the birthmother, found immense joy in knowing that this wonderful couple who could not have their own children were going to give my birthdaughter a beautiful life full of love and celebration—this settled my heart and made me content.
      thank you for your sweet emotions and care.

      Reply this comment
  2. Erica 17 August, 2013, 16:59

    I am a writer as well, but you wrote something I have been unable to express. Thank you

    Reply this comment
    • Sarah 18 August, 2013, 20:23

      Thank you, Shayla! Just an adoptive mama of a 2-year old here, nodding my head and saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to your feedback. Thanks for your perspective!

      Reply this comment
  3. crystal 19 August, 2013, 15:09

    Thank you so much for articulating my feelings and letting me know I am not alone in this.

    Reply this comment
  4. Lori Lavender Luz 28 August, 2013, 21:39

    Beautifully said, Rachel. I especially like the part about “Mama” being a sacred word, one that should be shared, and how you bring up so many complex emotions that I recognize.

    Reply this comment
  5. Marcia 29 August, 2013, 05:10

    I am a black birthmother and I placed my boy with a white family so this just post really hits home. I have to tell you, you are right to question if birthparents ore ok…they’re not. My self-esteem took a major hit and though I am “moving on” and realizing my dreams, you can’t repair it. Not fully anyway. I know this is true of other birhmoms, even the ones that are sucessful and have married and started families of their own. I tell people all the time that this never gets easier, it just gets less hard. We are in an open adoption situation that has been a blessing, but it was still hard. I wrote this blog post on his tenth birthday old you would like some perspective.

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    • Erika 5 September, 2013, 08:12

      Marcia, thank you for sharing your blog… My husband and I adopted a little girl who was given up by birth mom under the “Safe haven Law”. Unfortunately, we will never know the mom’s whereabouts as we have no name or other information about her. I feel sad for our daughter because she will never know who her birth mother is or where she came from. I dread the day that our daughter asks about her birth mother, because our answer will always be “I don’t know”. All we can tell her is that her birth mother loved her so much that she wanted her baby girl to have opportunities in life that birth mom could not provide for her.

      Reply this comment
    • S.L. Payne 23 March, 2014, 09:26

      I loved your blog; thank you so much for sharing! I’m a foster mom and though we haven’t adopted yet, we hope to one day. I’ve always ached for the birth parents since they and you have gone through so much so this article hit home for me. I have so much respect for you, Rachel and Marcia! This is exactly the reason that if one of our foster kids goes up for adoption and we get to keep them, I want an open adoption. It makes me furious how some people get judgmental about birth parents; I wrote a post about that on my blog, if you were interested at , but it is written from a foster care perspective than strictly adoptive one though it still applies. People are starting to learn that they don’t say negative stuff about my foster daughter’s parents around me! You are a hero, Marcia, and I think you should keep sharing your story! Rachel, thanks so much for this post; you are doing such a good job!

      Reply this comment
  6. SusanMatson 5 September, 2013, 09:49

    Shayla’s comments are so articulate there isn’t much more I can add: nevertheless I felt moved to write, as both a biological mom, coerced at age 19 into relinquished my out of wedlock baby, and also, a quarter century later, an adoptive mom of two.

    You are the kind of mom any child would and should cherish. You are sensitive, empathetic, and aware. Your child is fortunate, and blessed. You will do everything you can to help her have a happy life, and that is what you should focus on; to do otherwise may diminish the relationship that you are now working so hard to build with your daughter. Her biological mom may have regrets, and may have learned from any mistakes. But that is her journey, and not yours. You can only wish her the best, pray for her if that is your desire, and raise your child to respect both her mom and her mom’s decision, when questions arise.

    Pain happens in life. Sometimes pain is inexoriably associated with our personal choices, as was the case for your daughter’s BM. You aren’t responsible for that, and taking on any sense of her unhappiness cannot change what happened to her or make her life any better. BUT–that pain has now been transformed into something beautiful, your life with your child, and it is now your opportunity to make the most of it. Hug the BM every day in your heart, but put all your energies now into hugging your child here and now. (-:

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  7. amy 20 September, 2013, 22:13

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a birthmother. My daughter is 11 and the heartbreak does not go away. Adoption is the epitome of the word bittersweet. Bitter because of the pain and suffering, and sweet because I know my child is healthy, happy, and loved. I pray everyday for my daughter and her family.

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  8. amanda 26 October, 2013, 18:48

    Love this post. I am so glad im not alone with those thoughts. Adopting out of foster care I spent many nights crying for the mama whose baby was taken away from her. Even if it was in baby’s best interest she was still her mama.

    Reply this comment
  9. Nzappleangel 22 November, 2013, 12:06

    Your children will love you absolutely unconditionally, even once you tell them that they were adopted. I was adopted at birth and do not know who my birth parents are. I have such a large and diverse adoptive family that the only “loss” I feel is the lack of medical history.

    Reply this comment
  10. ML Bishop 5 December, 2013, 21:45

    It’s hard to respond to this from my vantage point–I saw this link on pinterest and was totally enveloped. I was adopted. Do I hate my parents for giving me up? Yes. Do I hate my adopted parents for being proxy parents? Yes. Does that go away? No. Am I a product of genetics or environment? Both, with an emphasis on genetics. The truth is, the best thing you can do is love your child, support your child, and offer a loving upbringing. You can only do so much, but never, ever, ever underestimate the love and life you are bringing to that sweet child. Why do you parent? In the hope that your child will grow to live and love and build an amazing life. You have to feed that goal every day.

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  11. Stolenevan 29 March, 2014, 09:48

    Shayla said what would happen if people weren’t willing to adopt the babies whose parents can’t care for them? Your question should be what would happen if we gave every parent the resources needed to keep their child? I always like to ask what would Jesus do? If I found myself in a room with a woman lacking certain resources to parent her child? What would Jesus say? I always feel he would say give her everything you have so the two can stay together, they need each other.

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