Shame is Sticky

As regular readers may recall, I’ve been on a birth family discovery the past two years, ever since Washington State opened their sealed birth records and I got my original birth certificate in the mail.

My birth mother does not want to meet me. And she has asked me not to contact her children, my half brother and half sister. I’ve respected her wishes so far and haven’t reached out to my siblings. I haven’t used her name or pictures of her on this blog.

My birth mother did give me the name of my birth father. He died 20 years ago, but his daughter, my “extra sister” (as she calls herself when we talk on the phone) and her family have welcomed me into the McCourt family. I’m eternally grateful.

I’ve done some genealogical work on my birth family, which has led to some great discoveries.

The truth is, I want to know more than names and dates. I want to know the stories of my birth family. I want to see photos. I want to claim my roots, my story.

And that’s a bit tricky when my birth mother is choosing not to be in contact with me and has asked me not to be in contact with her other kids.

I completely support her decision in 1968 to place me for adoption. I am, quite literally, the woman I am today because of that decision, and I am so grateful she gave me life and gave me up.

This is a bit of speculation on my part, because she didn’t tell me this in the 10 minute phone conversation I had with her 2 years ago, but I am quite certain that shame is at the root of why she won’t meet me now and why she doesn’t want me to track down her other children.

If you haven’t read Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, start with this TED Talk.

When we take on shame, either because we have violated societal or personal expectations for our behavior, we make judgments about our very selves, not just our behavior.When we take on shame, we take on silence. For my birth mother, shame appears to have silenced her and is keeping her from speaking to me and to speaking to her family about me.

As I’m navigating the discovery of my own story, I’m learning how “sticky” that shame is in my life. I do not feel shame about being adopted. It’s a gift in my life. I do not feel shame for having been born.

Yet as I navigate the places her shame requests my silence, I feel her shame trying to cloud over my life too, making me feel I can’t claim my story, trying to keep me from asking questions, meeting my family, etc.

Earlier this summer, I reached out to a woman through Facebook who has the same last name as my birth mother’s mother. I recognized there was a risk  that my mother’s story would be exposed, because I didn’t know this woman and I couldn’t tell exactly how closely we were related. But my need to know my own story is stronger than my concern about my birth mother’s secret keeping.

my maternal grandmother is on the left

I did not tell her who my mother was, only that I was related to my grandmother. She responded and welcomed me into the family. Her grandfather was my grandmother’s brother, which means her father is my birth mother’s first cousin. I will get to meet this branch of the family this weekend when I go to Spokane to celebrate my parents’ (my actual parents, my adopted parents) 60th wedding anniversary.  (Here’s an article about my parents’ double wedding that was written 10 years ago for their 50th).

Turns out, these cousins figured out whose daughter I was by looking at my photo.   One of them has suggested I reach out to my birth mother’s sisters, because one of them has done a lot of genealogical work and has all of the information I’m seeking.

I’m mulling that over.

If I reach out to my mother’s sisters, it would surely get back to my mother.

At the same time, they are my aunts.

I don’t know if they know I exist. I don’t know if they would want to know I exist. I do not know how I would be received. 

At this point, though, my mother’s shame is driving my story, and I’m tired of the secrecy. As long as I’m enabling the silence of her shame, I won’t discover what my aunts may or may not think of having me in the family. My aunts won’t discover it either.

There is power in storytelling. There is gift in claiming and knowing one’s own story. And by agreeing to live my birth mother’s story of silence, I feel like I’m wearing someone else’s clothing. It doesn’t fit. It chafes. It is uncomfortable. It is not my style.

I recognize the cloud of shame follows me when I make requests of these new cousins to keep secrets, when I don’t contact my siblings, when I don’t share her picture on this blog. The stickiness of shame follows me even as I’m trying to be respectful toward my birth mother and her request.

I also recognize shame offers a weird kind  of control. If everyone is silent, the secret will be safe, and all will be well, and I can control how people think of me, etc….

The stickiness of shame reminds me control is an illusion. We can’t control what other people do or say. We can’t control what they think of us. We can’t control whether or not they will judge us or welcome us for past behaviors. We can’t even control whether or not they think past behavior is worth shame in the first place.

And, speaking to my own illusions of control, I cannot control (or remove) the shame my birth mother feels and has carried around with her the past 47 years.

That’s the heartbreak for me. I wish I could take away the shame my mother feels, that has silenced her from claiming her whole story, and is even now trying to silence me. And I can’t take it from her. My counselor asked me yesterday if I could be okay with the fact that I can’t do anything about it. I told her, “not yet. Can I at least get points for acknowledging I can’t do anything about it, even if I am still not at peace with it?” She gave me points.

I will let you know how it goes this weekend when I get to meet my new cousins and hear some more of my story. Thanks for sticking through to the end of a rather long post.



32 thoughts on “Shame is Sticky

  1. Whew. Heavy. Keep working your internal, emotional, spiritual program! Peace to you.


    On Tue, Aug 30, 2016 at 2:17 PM, Glass Overflowing wrote:

    > marciglass posted: “As regular readers may recall, I’ve been on a birth > family discovery the past two years, ever since Washington State opened > their sealed birth records and I got my original birth certificate in the > mail. My birth mother does not want to meet me. And she ” >


  2. As an adoption professional and as a licensed therapist who works with birthmothers, I think you have every right to gently let your birthmother know that while you respect her choice to not be “in relationship” with you, you can no longer honor her request to not exercise your right to pursue contact with your adult birthsiblings. She can certainly choose to tell her relatives about you first, if she wishes, and it would almost certainly be better if she did. She can also choose to “own” her secrecy and to wallow in (or hide behind) her shame, but she cannot choose for you to carry those burdens also. I wish your birthmother could read this advice, from another birthmother who recognizes the pain that comes with the burden of secrecy and shame:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. Yes, when meeting with my counselor yesterday, we talked about how/if I might reach out to my birth mother before/if I decided to contact her siblings. On one hand, she’s had 47 years to tell the story, and maybe she already has told them. Who knows–maybe one of them was with her when I was born. And at the least, she’s had 2 years since I’ve made contact. It’s all very complicated. Thanks for that article too.


  3. Marci,

    Your honesty and vulnerability in sharing your journey through your blog has been both deeply moving and therapeutic. Thank you for taking the risk to publish this. it is a gift to your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marci, you’ve more than…well, “earned” doesn’t sound quite right, but: gained the right to know and be known by your birth siblings. If they don’t already know that you exist, they will learn from someone who is thoughtful in every sense of the word; if they do know, they must at the very least be curious about who you have become. And above all, you can tell them–as you have us–that your birth mother’s giving you up for adoption was a profound gift to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. And yet, I feel for your birth mother. I can’t begin to put myself in her place, can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to make the difficult decision to give a child up for adoption, and then to have that grown child make contact many years later. You are assigning the emotion of shame to her but what about pain? Grief? Sorrow? Shock? Surely some, if not all, of these emotions have surfaced for her. I can understand your need to learn about your birth family, but please also have some respect and compassion for this woman who gave you life in more ways than one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is an interesting example of how people read things differently, and perhaps bring their own frames to their understanding of a point. See, Marci seems to be taking deep respect and compassion for her birth mother every step of the way. That’s clear by the way she’s been nuanced this entire process, and has (heretofor) tried to respect what is, as others suggest, an opaque (at best) obligation not to contact adult siblings.

      So I don’t get the point here. Should Marci cease her own sense of self-understanding because of her birth mother’s what, shame, grief, sorrow, shock? No, she shouldn’t. She’s clearly taken them into account, and has tried to deal with them pastorally, sensitively, yes, even compassionately. But, sorry, this isn’t about her birth mother. She can choose to not engage, and Marci seems to be respectful, in spades, of that request. But beyond that, Marci’s additional efforts are not bound by anything other than an attempt to understand and extend sensitivity and care when possible.

      Or, at least, that’s my take.

      Thanks, Marci. God bless you and yours as you continue to sort this out.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. What a challenge and blessing rolled up in one this weekend will be for you. There are so many untold family stories in my life as well. Ones with heroes who were really villains, nasty incidents with silver linings, dreams that became nightmares. But full part of the story. All doors that can only be understood when opened. Prayers and crossed fingers from me to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh my. Thank you Dan Saperstein for posting this on Facebook. Marci thank you for honestly sharing your journey. Shame is so powerful! I remember my mom telling me in tears how she really couldn’t read well and was always in the “dummy class” in school. I was in my late twenties. Of course I had known all along. She couldn’t help us with homework. She was pulled from school by my grandmother who wouldn’t tolerate how she was treated in school. She tried and failed a correspondence course and endured verbal abuse from my father calling her “dummy” and “stupid”. I hugged her and told here we all knew and that it didn’t matter to us. She then said that her biggest fear was that one of us would be a “dummy” too. I said no, that while we might all be “dummies” sometimes, she had raised four successful children. She went on after being crippled by illness to help me raise my three children, to be active in her community and in her church. I’ve lost track of the number of people who loved and were inspired by her. For a “dummy” she was one smart cookie. The gist of this is that secrets are really never secret and that shame is is a darkness that destroys until the light of love is shined upon it. I cannot tell you how light my mom became after she “confessed her shameful secret”. May your birth mother know the light of love.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Marci: I think you will be reunited with your birth mother, I really do. My reaction right now is to say slow it down a bit and consider this:

    What if someone wanted to expose your shame for you thinking it would be best for all involved including you?

    That is what I am hearing in your blog today. We can expose our shames and trauma, not someone else’s.

    Slow down. Just breathe for a couple days and see where Spirit takes you.

    Deb Ford

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Whether or not I’m reunited with my birth mother is not in my hands.

      And I’ve been processing this for two years, so this is not a rash realization. And I’ve not anywhere close to deciding what to do.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


  9. This really is the most intriguing development, and it’s not a surprise that others (cousins, aunts) might be more willing to reach out. After all, after 47 years and it not being their personal secret, they would certainly have a less fraught perspective, to my way of thinking. At least, there’s maybe more room for natural curiosity and genuine compassion to know their niece, their cousin. Whatever your birth mother has at stake, they don’t share it, obviously.
    That being said, there’s no way to know what your birth mother has at stake or what she perceives is at stake. One thing I know: This is delicate and you are equipped to navigate through this.
    I’ll be praying for you and your family this weekend.
    Grace and Peace,

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your mother’s sisters must have known she was pregnant with you. They might have wondered about you during this 47 years. They have the same right as your mother to not be interested but I can’t help to think you will put a name and face in the blank spot on the family tree. Please know you should have no shame but that God placed you on this earth to be the wonderful, compassionate person you are. Love you, Nancy and Glen

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a wonderful, truthful, moving post. What a privilege to more of your story, right up to where you are today. Wow. Thank you, Marci. As an adoptive dad, I find your reflections from the “other side” of the equation to be very poignant and powerful. So, too, your reflections on the potency of shame. I am so grateful to be a colleague of yours. You are one of my best teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Openness and vulnerability | Waiting for my stork

  13. Pingback: Secret Keeping | Glass Overflowing

  14. Fear holds us back from opening doors even if beyond that door is the biggest blessing of all. The secrets and shame create fear of being found out…..many people have lived in this mindset for generations. “Secret babies” were given up for adoption whether the mother wanted to give it up or not. Imperfect children were hidden in attic spaces or sent to an institution…..human inhumanity to others.

    The fear your birth mother has lived with has held her in bondage to her “sin”. She’s living in her own little prison of fear with all of the doors shut tightly. This fear is holding the door shut to knowing you and receiving the biggest blessing in the world….YOU. You are such a blessing to all who know you personally or by reading your blogs. She’s missing the blessing. That’s a shame! Her shame is holding her back from opening the door to you.

    If she only knew what she was missing out on by living in fear.

    Many generations of children have lived life without the knowledge of their full story because of the secrecy of adoption Doors were shut to them when they wanted to know their history. Extended family and siblings missed out on knowing these precious children of God. They were kept apart because of the secrecy.

    You are the voice for many people who haven’t been able to be heard. So many adoptee’s living in frustration and rejection will benefit by hearing your story of this journey because they’re also living with the knowledge that they’re someone’s secret.

    I’m so glad in this day and age the shame has been removed…..the “sin” has been removed… more secrets, no more shame. Thank you for sharing this journey with others.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: Branches of the Birth Family Tree | Glass Overflowing

  16. I think there may be much more to this first mother’s story. Grief, sadness and pain. Some call it birthmother trauma syndrome. It’s a form of PTSD. This disorder can happen soon after relinquishment. However, much denial is necessary in order to give up a child. Denial is a psychological defense mechanism. In many cases PTSD is a response, that is, reaction to the trauma occurs years and decades later. I believe some women develop a psychological armor, as a way of never being hurt again. I think there may be more to this story than shame. As one who seems to be in an ideal open adoption (not that common), it may be difficult for you to truly put yourself in your first mother’s shoes. I know you try. I believe some women are in shock, when they are the found person. For two decades, I did not know it was possible to search for a child. No internet at the time and did not watch daytime TV. I happened to see a teeny, tiny ad in a large city newspaper for , a support group. A couple years went by; feeling defeated, I hired a professional searcher. During that time, I tried to work through my emotions, giving me a start on attempting to heal.
    I see you have a post today about liking different opinions; you like discussion, even of the opinions don’t agree with yours. Hence, this post


    • Yes. I’m not trying to tell my birth mother’s story. I’m telling mine.
      There is a lot more that I know about her story (and her motives) than I am publishing on my blog. Don’t confuse my discretion with an inability to put myself in her shoes.


      • I feel much sadness for your first mother. Change is difficult for many elderly people. And many people in their eighties, especially their late eighties, have mental changes. I know you understand that she is not able to give any more than she has.

        Liked by 1 person

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