Understanding Shame and Guilt for Adults Affected by Adoption
Highlighted in the Government’s Human Rights Committee report
Violation of Family Life 1949-1976
The painful emotions of shame and guilt especially seem to affect mothers who have given babies up for adoption (but also fathers and the children themselves). We are mindful of modern adoptions too where children might have been removed from the care of a parent through a court process. Many mothers come to us feeling dreadful about separation from their babies and struggling with emotions of guilt and shame. Babies were often removed during the years 1949-1976 because mothers were unmarried or very young during an era where this was deemed unacceptable. Mothers felt forced into having babies adopted, even, the report suggests, bullied, and harassed and treated unkindly at times. They received no support from families, churches or social institutions and were often treated as if they were ‘bad’ people. It’s not surprising then that many young mothers came to believe this of themselves, blamed themselves for giving up their babies, and a lot of the mothers we meet have lived with guilt and shame and not been able to share this secret with anyone. In our organization we have always recognised that to treat young women in this way was shocking, wrong, and very harmful. We meet many of these young women in their senior years and recognise very quickly that this has caused them a lifetime of shame. The young women themselves were subject to sexism, racism, and class issues (more commonly referred to as intersectionality i.e., several issues conspiring against them). They were demeaned, demonised, and rejected in a way that would not currently be acceptable. All these women needed was some support. Even if young women felt that they made good decisions to go ahead with adoption, they still have lived with guilt and shame. Let’s make no mistake…you were not wrong….the system was wrong, and this latest report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights now recognises this fact.
But the women we work with are still subject to the powerful emotions of fear, shame, and guilt. We also have many fathers who struggle with losing contact with their children, and adopted children who get to feel some kind of shame because they feel different having been adopted. We think too of parents who adopt, because they will live with the underlying sense of something having happened in their child’s life that was traumatic and painful. Whilst adopting parents can feel proud to have been parenting children into their home, they may well pick up on the sense of broken relationships that will pervade their adopted child’s life for ever. Nobody really escapes the fact that something gets broken here.
In this advice leaflet we want to talk about the effect of these emotions and how to manage them. But we also want to state clearly, that in this organisation we are not judging you for having to give your child up under any circumstances. You were not to blame, and it was not your fault. Following that, we need to help you not to judge yourself so that you can move forward. Our team meet people every day who are struggling with upset at the loss of children through forced adoption, and we spend time on reflecting how to help. So, you can pick up the phone to us knowing that we will understand your feelings from the outset.
We particularly welcome in July 2022 the release of the Government’s enquiry into women who were enforced to have their babies removed from them at birth, on the basis that they were unmarried or young, particularly during the years 1949 to 1976. We have put this report up on our website. (Joint Committee on Human Rights released 15th July 2022). During these years authorities assumed control over young mothers, and adoption removal of the babies was enforced by professionals who in some cases seemed to have a licence to be unkind. At the government enquiry mothers affected by this enforced removal have been able to express the extreme distress that this violation of their rights has caused, asking for a formal apology. We want you to know that we support the view that an apology should be issued, and this is the start of a healing process for you.
You may have been alone for a long time with your shame, and you may have had to keep this secret to yourself. It can feel very unsettling and make you feel afraid that if you share this hidden part of your life story with anyone, they will judge you. Many of the women we work with have told themselves for a long time that they are ‘bad’ and have ‘done something wrong’ and that they will be rejected. Mothers we meet even think that their families will reject them and their subsequent children. We should point out that we have never found this to be the case, but we can’t deny that it does happen on occasion. Therefore, it is best to be careful about manging the right people to speak with.
What is Shame?
Shame is a very intense personal emotion that besets us if we tell ourselves that we have done something wrong. It can become a traumatic emotion making us afraid to get close to others, causing low self-esteem, continuous worry, stress, and anxiety about life. It makes us hide our face, it makes us turn away from people, it makes us feel awful, gives us stomach-ache.
Sometimes shame can be so intense that people wish to run away from the feelings, triggering dreadful anxiety. If we are a child and we are ashamed we want someone to come and comfort us and tell us that we did nothing wrong or at least we were only learning about life and made a mistake. In the case of mother’s forced into adoption, they were told they were wrong from all directions and often no one was there for comfort. Many of our clients have lived with that shame all their lives.
What to do?
You don’t have to do anything. You need to start to recognise gradually that you have done nothing wrong. You lived in an age when people were quick to judge, when there were double standards, and where women took the blame for getting pregnant. Now we are in a more enlightened age we know that pregnancy is a complex story about life and relationships with responsibility for pregnancy shared by a couple and a lot more options about moving forward. If it feels right for you, it may be time to share your story with a trusted friend or counsellor, or even a doctor or health professional. Slowly and gradually, you need to retell the story of your life, and the baby born to you, so that you see were part of a complex story where you had no power and control. It is hard to tell this story to yourself – you are likely to need others to talk with. Writing your thoughts down can be very therapeutic and this might be a good start to re-telling your story. Try to make a better ending to the story if you can. We do advise anyone struggling with their mental health over this issue to check in with their doctor.
What not to do:
Don’t isolate yourself with your thoughts.
But don’t talk with people who are judgemental and without empathy.
Don’t necessarily ‘go public’ unless this seems right – better to start this new journey with trustworthy, kind people who are mature in their thinking. i.e. don’t put this online.
Don’t expect this story to change overnight. You need to take small steps forward.
Don’t assume that the child you might be searching for will judge you. We rarely find this to be the case. Most adopted children simply want to know the true story.
What to do if we are working with you:
Let us know about a buddy who can help you.
Let us talk to you about this. All the team understand these issues, but we can arrange counselling with our qualified professionals.
Ask us to send you the Government’s report on forced adoption. Reading this will help you realise that you are not alone. There were at least 180,000 women during these years who were forced to give up their babies for adoption. There are a lot of people just like you with many of the same feelings.
Join us in our monthly ‘Adults Affected by Adoption’ group, where our clients discuss their experiences and decrease their sense of isolation by realising that others have the same experiences. You can sign up for this group here. We will send you a zoom link for the meeting which is the last Wednesday of every month at 11.00 a.m.
Finally, if you find yourself in a mental health emergency, please follow our mental health emergency advice.
If you need emergency help, please call the following:
If you need information on your mental health right now you can contact
- NHS 111 in England
- NHS 111 or NHS Direct (0845 46 47) In Wales
You can call Mind Infoline service 0300 123 3393
Or go to a Mind Website for the A-Z of mental health and information to find a mind service near you.
If you are in danger due to mental health emergency, then dial 999 and give details of your whereabouts.
You can also ring your G.P. surgery and ask for an urgent appointment.
With very best wishes from The Team.