My relationship to the mothers of our daughters

By Fee (German adoptive mother)

A great deal has been written about the relationship that adopted children have towards their parents, both those who gave birth to them and those by whom they were adopted. Much less has been written about the relationship that we adoptive mothers have to our children’s birth mothers. I'd like to talk about that here, for it is a very personal story, and I hope that it might be a good and healing experience for everyone involved if I can find both words and emotions for the woman who gave birth to my – and also our – child. Those of us who have adopted children through Cathwel are in the happy position that the organisation and its teams do everything they can both to find out and then tell us about the family system of the children we adopt. I know that other adoption agencies place less importance on information about the family of origin.

But what happens in us, the mothers who take these children on? Let me tell my story.
In the winter of 2010, I got to know the mother of our first child. I was very grateful to the birth mother for having chosen us as parents. At the time I didn't have any children of my own. I could only imagine the pain that must come with being separated forever from a child. I consoled myself with the thought that the daughter who then became ours had already been given up by the birth mother to another carer family. When we met for the first time, I found our daughter’s birth mother to be a very sympathetic person, but somehow also strange. All my loving energy was directed towards our “new” daughter, who came to us in the summer of 2011.

During those first few years, I wrote yearly reports for Cathwel and for our daughter's birth parents, seeking out pretty photographs so that the birth mother could also see that her daughter was doing well with us, that she could feel reassured and that together we would love our “shared” daughter .

Our daughter grew, and we travelled almost every year to Taiwan to keep her in touch with her culture and her roots. And so, from the age of 10 or so, our daughter's desire grew to see her birth mother. The last time they had seen each other lay now eight years in the past, before our daughter came with us to Germany, and even then, it had been a very short encounter. Our daughter had not actually lived with her Tummy Mummy since she was two.  We called – and still call – her birth mother “Tummy Mummy”. Some people might feel that this sounds too warm and soft, perhaps a little too gooey. Indeed, I can see the case for finding a different name. But my husband and I felt it this fitted well for the mother of our daughter. And as our daughter grew with us, I could often feel how much she longed for this very Tummy Mummy. I remember well how she and I once played with the idea that she might have been in my tummy. We even played at giving birth, as I held a blanket over me, and she crawled out. I felt a kind of grudging envy towards Tummy Mummy. I begrudged in a sense that she was the one to have carried our daughter under her heart, where I would have done that so gladly. Some people call this white envy as opposed to black, where one does not wish to allow another to enjoy that which one cannot have oneself.

From 2015 I tried several times to arrange a meeting with Tummy Mummy. But she didn't want to come, and didn't reply to messages from the team at Cathwel. We were however grateful that we could at least meet our daughter's father, her grandmother, her aunt and her brother. Even though we had only met our daughter’s mother twice, and briefly, I sensed that she simply didn’t have the courage to agree to our request for a meeting. Friends suggested that I try to put myself in her position, and from there to answer our daughter’s questions, as it were on her behalf. However, even though I'm pretty good putting myself into other people's shoes, I felt I was groping in the dark. My daughter's feelings were rage and disappointment. Mine were helplessness and incomprehension.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2019, four years after we adopted for a second time, when our younger daughter’s birth mother agreed immediately to our request to meet in person. I knew that our older daughter, now 14 years old, would find it almost intolerable if her little sister were the only one able to meet her birth mother. But I could see that that was what was going to happen. Our second daughter's mother was much more courageous and determined in how she approached things. In that sense she was a bit more like me, something I'd noticed at the outset in court when she had encouraged the young judge to speed up the adoption proceedings. That's what I too would have done, but as the social workers told us, there aren't many Taiwanese mothers who would be so bold before a court.

But how could I get closer to my elder daughter’s shy mother? How could I build a relationship to someone who was at the same time so distant and so close to me, someone I could neither understand nor reach. Our situation reminded me of other difficult loverelated relationships in my life, so I found myself dealing with it in ways I'd learnt in the past. I wrote my thoughts and feelings down in the form of letters. I wrote these letters to the birth mother by hand into a notebook, and gave both my daughter and my husband permission to read them.  My daughter told me she found my handwriting impossible to read, so I made sure that further entries were as legible as I could make them. But my daughter didn't want to read them, and maybe that was right. After all, they were about my relationship to her birth mother, not hers. Nor in fact was my husband particularly interested to read the letters. I believe that we adoptive mothers need a very special relationship to the woman who enabled us to be a mother.

In these letters to Tummy Mummy, reaching out beyond country, culture and language, I tried to explain that I felt love for her because she had gifted life to our daughter, surrendering her with such courage and integrity, and therefore making it possible for her daughter to grow up in our family.  I tried to convince her in my letters that she should give her birth daughter the further gift, as we say in German, of jumping over her own shadow, and agreeing to meet the daughter we share. Of course, she never got these letters, and yet they did make a difference. What they brought about in me was that I could approach more closely a relationship redolent with so much ambivalence, and become clearer in myself what this woman - so distant and at the same time so close - meant to me, and what infinitely deep and in my case also tender and grateful feelings I had for her.

In our case, the story did eventually have a happy ending, though this shouldn't discourage those adoptive mothers whose children's birth mothers are either dead or disappeared, and who cannot hope for the same resolution.

Against all expectations, our elder daughter's mother did in fact find herself able, with support from her mother and her siblings, to come to meet us at Cathwel. We were glad and grateful, and for the first time in her life, our daughter wept tears of joy. Her birth mother gave me a letter she had written by hand in Chinese, which was like an answer to all the questions I had asked in those letters I’d never sent. I think I could describe this is the most spiritually powerful encounter of my life