Is Adoptive Mom Guilt A Thing?

Why do I linger in markets and aggressively-lit drugstores, deepening my time away from my child? Is it because my greatest happiness comes at the expense of another's greatest loss?
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Judith Carman

Almost every morning, some inner alarm wakes me up 30 minutes before anyone else. Determined to not wake the gently snoring Canada, equal parts impossibly hairy and handsome, and two dogs hogging much queen size real estate, I hold my breath, wondering if the dream is real, and run down a mental checklist of what didn’t get done yesterday and might not get done today.

As soon as worry sets in that my joy is just a dream, a tiny little voice hollers: MAMA!

Exhale. Relief. This actually happened. Even typing this sentence feels like I’m making it up. After years of trying and struggling and failing at fertility, foster system and adoption, I am a mother.

Thanks to age and Momnesia, I’m astonished by what I forget and even more astonished by what I remember.

At Momnesia’s worst, I lost my wallet four times in four months. That’s a lot of canceling and replacing brand new credit cards and driver licenses. Despite several Good Samaritans who nobly found and returned my wallet (only after all pertinent contents were already replaced), getting my wandering wallet back grew more annoying than restoring of my faith in humanity. Topping that, forgotten boiling baby bottles narrowly avoided sterilizing the whole house with melted nipple smoke.

None of this is to be construed as a complaint. The only reason I’m lucky enough to suffer Momnesia is because of one incredibly brave mother’s selfless sacrifice. Despite boundless gratitude for Grace’s birth and her birth mother, I remain steeped in guilt.

Which begs the question: Is Adoptive Mom Guilt is an actual thing?

Now, as a full-blooded Irish Catholic German Jew/Catholic School survivor, guilt is my daily vitamin, toothpaste, imaginary friend and stalker. But Adoptive Mom Guilt even exceeds my daily dose of normal resting guilt.

My Adoptive Mom Guilt is even more pervasive than This Old Mom guilt. How can we not feel guilty for saddling a sweet, fierce, perfect kid with parents who’ll be nearing 70 when it’s time to move her into a dorm room? Offsetting that reality, we practice yoga, do brain exercises (when we remember), avoid gluten and dairy while ingesting more kombucha and chia seeds than anyone really should ever have to. Despite our determination to have her life not be defined or confined by people who insist on parenting while aging, guilt persists.

Do other Adoptive Parents swim in deepwater guilt at getting to raise the child of a woman who loved her baby so profoundly she gave her baby up?

My dutiful penance for Adoptive Mom Guilt is The Bad Dream.

When Baby Grace was a month old, Canada’s parents took Baby Grace out for a long walk, ordering me to take my first alone-time nap. Calling that nap sleep is like calling heroin a gateway drug. I slept like I was getting paid to.

Never a good sleeper, most likely due to being a chronic bedwetter until age 9, I still never sleep deeply, most likely due to the anxiety that deep sleep might lead to a soaked Canada.

During this new-mom nap, in the paralysis of sleep, I dreamt that Baby Grace on a stroller walk with Canada’s parents, so I could nap. And while Baby G was with her grandparents, someone kidnapped her. Our month old baby, our child, and our future was gone.

The shock and loss was profound. Grief was Callas-like in it’s operatic wildness. In the evil way nightmares drop you into the deepest well of an emotion and leave you there, Canada and I wept and keened and wailed and howled; our hearts were shredded by vivid, purple-rich reservoirs of sorrow, which just kept refilling and never ran dry.

We never got Baby Grace back. The crime became a wound, which became a scar. Somehow we kept living while grieving and searching for her. Yet all of this occurred in one tiny but rough neighborhood in my brain, while the rest of me slept, unable to defend myself. To call The Bad Dream a nightmare is an insult to what a nightmare it actually was. Yet I didn’t thrash myself awake. Emotionally and physically exhausted by the stress of adoption and caring for a newborn, I remained deeply asleep and deeply in pain.

Then, in that cinematic way that dreams toy with time, decades passed. Suddenly we were someplace fancy, a beautiful old New York City mansion turned museum, like The Frick, where everyone was dressed nicely and on best behavior. And our long lost Baby Grace was there, all grown up. With one quick glance and without knowing precisely why, I knew immediately who she was.

Grace was now 22, tall, elegant and astonishingly beautiful. Her name was different. She didn’t know who we were but I found a reason to speak with her. She was polite and gentle and spoke French fluently. Our stolen child had been clearly raised with the love, care and diligence we had desperately been looking forward to.

Dazzled by her loveliness I was grief-stricken by her polite distance. It wasn’t her fault. She simply treated me the way any well- mannered young woman might interact with a stranger. Watching her walk away, the well of dream grief was the deepest I’ve ever experienced. Dream-sobbing endlessly, all I could say over and over was, “I just wanted to watch her grow up.”

Blessedly, Canada’s parents returned and woke me. They were thrilled at their time with Baby Grace, I was thrilled to be snatched from my nightmare and even more thrilled to still get to be Grace’s mother. Yet the Bad Dream lingered like a memory of a life changing incident, like narrowly surviving a horrible accident. It’s taken over a year to write it down.

Then it dawned on me that I dreamed what Baby Grace’s birth mother must have experienced in surrendering her baby.

In one heaping helping of deep unconsciousness, I visited the full force of my hero’s loss.

And it was awful and awe-ful, in that it left me awestruck at the powerful emotional undertows resting just beneath the gentle surface of motherhood.

Adoptive Mom Guilt is the price I willingly pay for the happiness of being Grace’s mother. The Bad Dream will last the rest of my life because I want it to. I will remember it and honor it as the Red Badge of Courage for the woman who bore her and handed her to me. My guilt keeps me grateful. It’s the least I can do.

Dear Readers:

In an attempt to bring new readers up to speed on how I became This Old Mom, I’m retroactively blogging about our attempts at fertility, the foster system and then adoption. This event took place in 2012. You may visit to read more... if you dare.

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