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when real interferes with intimacy

“I Want My Real Mom!” — says Sara Easterly

Ever on the lookout, I love finding adoptee voices that help me better understand the mosaic that is the adoptee experience. So many generous adoptees over the years have made an inestimable difference in the way I connect with my children. My entire family benefits when I listen to understand.

Enter Sara Easterly. Sara is new on my radar, but already an accomplished author and writer. I met Sara last month at the Tattered Cover for an author event around her new memoir, Searching for Mom. In this guest post, Sara explores a word that can roll off the tongue just as easily as it can pierce a heart, with or without that intention.

Sometimes, as Sara tells us, that word can be a sacred invitation to abide with someone in their grief.

when real interferes with intimacy in adoptive parenting

Note: I have bolded some passages that really spoke to me.

“Real” Talk in Adoption, by Sara Easterly

“I’m going to find my real mom!”

Sara Easterly, author
Credit: Mary Balmacera

I shouted this at my adoptive mother when I was teenager. I’d learned that this hurt my adoptive mom’s feelings, and these words, I came to understand, had power.

But I didn’t always use these words as a weapon, and deep down, I didn’t intend for them to be. The “real mom” tumbled out of me without conscious thought, coming from an unspoken place of longing, since infancy, for my birth mother and pain over the very real feelings of relinquishment.

A time or two I shared with her more vulnerably that I wondered about my “real mom.” In neither case was the “real mom” making a statement about my adoptive mom as being lesser or being unreal. In both cases, “real mom” was really about my grief.

Mom was a Real Mom, a Good Mom

Like many adoptive mothers, mine took issue with the word “real.” She took her job as my mother seriously and felt offended by the suggestion that she wasn’t real. She cried. She tried to educate the word out of me. She’d remind me of all the ways she was my “real” mother: packing my school lunches every day, showing up at all of my gymnastics meets, engaging with my teachers, volunteering in my classrooms, standing by me through struggles with friends or boyfriends.

She was a very good mom, no question—in fact, an exceptional mom in most ways. But I wish my mother had paused to realize the inherent compliment I was giving her when I mentioned finding my “real mom.” I felt safe enough with her to lash out in anger. But more importantly, secure enough in her love to reveal my inner, deep, usually very private feelings. The person closest to me was my adoptive mom, after all, and I relished sharing myself with her. My deepest yearning was for my adoptive mother to know and love me—ALL of me.

It is only natural for adolescent adoptees, as we develop and grow, to change and transform when it comes to our understanding of adoption. Relinquishment affects us differently during adolescence—already a time of great sadness and pining over the lost innocence of childhood. Feeling an additional loss of our first family and our origins, can be even more overwhelming—so much so that our protective brains try to numb it.

When Fragility Leads to a Shut Down

So when my mom tried to talk me out of my grief and steer me away from the “real” mom who was a part of me, I shut down. I did what any Good Adoptee would do: I gave her what she wanted, and in doing so I refrained from being honest. I kept myself hidden. I’d already lost my first “real” mother. I couldn’t afford to lose my next mother—my equally “real” adoptive mother. I learned to toe the party line in my family, morphing myself into the daughter my mom needed me to be and hiding any parts that might disappoint her or threaten her love.

This sort of worked for my mom. But it didn’t work for me. Over the years, I became unhealthy emotionally. I learned to censor myself with my family. I had to lie to my mom, as well as to myself, about who I was and who I wondered about. Psychologically I had to pretend I wasn’t adopted and that relinquishment didn’t shape my identity in significant ways. I was forced to live “in the fog” of denial and numbness.

My mom had no idea that I kept her at an emotional distance. Everyone, including my mom, thought we were a bonded mother/daughter duo. And we were indeed close in many ways. But my mom did not succeed at winning my heart—which had been tucked safely away in a thick, protective case—particularly closed off to her. Mothers go away, my pre-verbal brain had long ago noted. It felt dangerous to get too close to my adoptive mother. How could I believe her love was “real” if I’d never been allowed to show her my “real” self?

My Wish for Adoptive Parents & Adoptees

So … was it really working for my mom? It wasn’t until she was dying and I was in my forties that our relationship finally had its moment of truth.

My new book is a spiritual memoir about our complete mother-daughter journey. I published Searching for Mom in hopes that by sharing my real and raw perspective, I can help others understand the often-misunderstood hearts of adoptees … and ultimately find hope. I share the story specifically for adoptive parents—and for adoptees. I hate that it took my mom’s death for our relationship to deepen. My wish is for adoptive parents to win their adoptees’ hearts well before that, and for adoptees to know what it’s like to bask in the feeling of being fully known and loved—for ALL that they are.

The Happy and the Hard

Sadly, the more adoptees are silenced, the more we stay secretive … and the more we stay secretive, the more we enable the false narrative about adoption that our culture has been fed: that adoption is purely a saccharine-sweet fairy tale—a happily-ever-after story that starts and ends when a family gets the child they’ve longed for. Yes, it can be happy. It was that for me. AND … it was also very hard.

Adoption is much more complex and nuanced than we have been led to believe by viral YouTube videos and messaging from adoption agencies or the Church. What an adoptive family gains is a direct result of what an adoptee has lost. Scientifically, there is a bond created between mother and child—pregnancy and childbirth were designed to facilitate that. No matter the noble, tender, loving circumstances, when that bond is disrupted, there will be some level of fallout.

Let’s continue to share the happy adoption stories. We all need those in this day and age, for sure. But let’s balance it with equal discussion and honesty about adoption’s heartaches and complications—the mother-longing that adoptees carry inside, whether consciously or unconsciously, that leads to a terminology battle between “real” mothers. Acceptance of the inner conflict is the only path toward equipping adoptive parents to understand the adoptee’s psychology. That’s the only way we can truly bring about closer, more authentic relationships for everyone. The truth is, that’s the only “real” that matters when it comes to adoption.

Sara Easterly is the author of Searching for Mom: A Memoir, a gold medal winner of the Illumination Book Awards. Her essays and articles have been published by Dear Adoption, Psychology Today, Feminine Collective, Her View From Home, Godspace, Neufeld Institute, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).

Sara is mom to two tenacious daughters and daughter of two amazing moms—both her adoptive mom and her birth mother. She enjoys supporting mothers in their journeys and has a passion for helping the non-adopted better understand the hearts of adopted children. Find her online at

Post Script

Sara’s thoughts were prompted by an article on PsychCentral in which an adoptive mom missed an opportunity for intimacy. She took a spanking for the miss (that’s never fun), but her response to comments indicate she was open to listening. Open is good!

Check out my interview with Sara for the podcast Adoption: The Long View on the topic of “Real Mom.” Its release kicks off National Adoption Awareness Month, which centers on marginalized voices — adoptees and birth parents.. Make sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts (here’s where I do).

Sara’s episode is sooooooooo good and juicy — all of the episodes are!

Along These Lines

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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6 Responses

  1. It takes courage to reveal this honest portrayal of the push/pull of adoption. Thanks to Sara for being willing to help adoptive parents understand their children’s needs better. Everyone benefits when relationships are genuine and not role-playing versions of idealized fantasies.

  2. What a great post. I paused when I read this sentence “Scientifically, there is a bond created between mother and child—pregnancy and childbirth were designed to facilitate that. No matter the noble, tender, loving circumstances, when that bond is disrupted, there will be some level of fallout.” Now days lots of people are searching for their mothers who did not give birth yet their yearning for their mother is no less visceral than that of any person whose mother gave birth to them. They were adopted black market off record out of court by the women that gave birth to them and those women believed that another woman’s offspring would have that bonding to them that other adopted people have to their “birth mothers”. These are women who thought giving birth would insert themselves so early into the adopted person’s subconscious memory that they’d never have to listen to the person they adopted talk about the ‘primal wound’ of being separated from their mothers. These women define motherhood in two misguided ways, either as a birth giver or as a care taker rather than as the person who is the source of their very existence. If our mother never existed we would not exist, that’s pretty powerful stuff. In a world where the task of pregnancy can be outsourced to anyone with a womb and it can be a multitude of people who think that it was ‘their idea’ or ‘their intention’ to be someone’s parent, a person cannot exist unless their parents existed and reproduced. Influence and care giving just is not even remotely the same as creation and does not carry even remotely the same level of obligation and duty to a child as having created them does. It’s no surprise as an outsider and onlooker that it turns out not to be the act of pregnancy that makes a person want their mother to care about them, nobody remembers being gestated. It’s who she is in relation to them that makes her important, she caused their existence and under normal circumstances would be expected to be taking care of them – so what went wrong and is whatever went wrong over so that she can be able to care for them now, as she’s supposed to? People search for their fathers with just as much intensity and they don’t give birth so its who they are in relation to their children that matters, its what they should be doing that makes them worth searching for. What they have not done so far, is largely irrellevant and is many times willing to be forgiven by the son or daughter who hopes that their future with their parents will be better than the past and thinks their family is worth finding and fighting for.

  3. Thank you for putting this out there! Great writing that we all need to see more of: The “real” truth!!
    Kim P
    Adopted (DI) ’67.

  4. Thank you for this.

    One day many (!) years ago when my daughter was a baby, I was on the phone with her firstmother who had recently found some of her own biological family. I remember chafing a bit when she said something about her “real dad” + simultaneously understanding that I absolutely should stay in my own lane + not tell her what words to use in describing her own situation. It was such a small interaction that I imagine she doesn’t even remember, but it was an invaluable part of my own education.

    I’ve instinctively resisted any impulse to “educate” my children about the “correct” words to use in talking about adoption. I use the words that are comfortable to me and they can use whatever words are comfortable to them. They haven’t yet pulled out the “real mother” words—they “hate me” + I am The Worst Mother Ever on the regular these days as they approach adolescence, but I wonder if open adoption takes the bite out of those particular words. I hope if/when I’m faced with those I can take what you’ve written as inspiration to navigate my feelings about it without making it their problem. x

    1. Yeah. That part and the link are in the post itself (above). Sara brought me her perspective, thinking it deserved a wider audience than that comments section. I agreed with her.

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