Losing My Son Twice: A Birth Mom's Story of Loss and Healing Transcript


Episode 4 Podcast > Full Transcript


Lori Holden, Greeting:
Thinking back or feeling back, really, to the days when I first started on the adoption path, I remember how difficult it was to get my head around what an expectant mother would be going through in order for me to become a mother. At a time when I was experiencing fertility famine, it was so tough for me to imagine another woman's fertility abundance. I just really struggled to even go there.

But that was part of the work that I had to do in order to prepare my own heart to be a mother, face my own grief around infertility, and imagine the space an expectant mother would be entering into if she chose adoption and if she chose to place her baby with me.

These two things would help me do two more things; one, clear away grief so that my future baby would not come into a shrouded heart and a shrouded home. And, two, help me empathize and connect with the woman I would owe my motherhood to.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Today's interview will help you do those two things as well. My guest is Candace Cahill, a mother who has a tale to tell about how placing her son and losing him twice led her to better understand mothering in surprising ways. I think it will do the same for you.

Candace Cahill placed her son Michael as an infant in 1990 in Minnesota. Their semi-open adoption closed when he was eight, but contact was re-established at 18. Then, after navigating the complexities of reunion for five years and only one single face-to-face meeting, Michael died in his sleep of natural causes.

Shocked and devastated at losing him a second time, Candace attended the funeral where she encountered unexpected compassion from Michael's family. They proudly introduced her as Michael's birth mother, which contradicted years of self-sabotaging internal messages that Candace had carried. Their acceptance, along with her husband's encouragement, launched Candace on her path to healing.

Candace has written a memoir about this experience, and I've had the absolute pleasure of reading an advance copy. It reveals how child lost, no matter how suffered, is a universal pain. While she believes that there can be beauty in adoption, we must first acknowledge that it begins with the trauma of severing a child from their mother. Candace is an artist, a silversmith musician, storyteller and writer living in Denali, Alaska.

Lori:
Candace, welcome. It's such a pleasure to have you here.

Candace:
Thank you. It's so good to be here talking with you.

Lori:
I'm so excited to dig into your story. You became an expectant mom and then a birth mom in 1990. And I want to talk real quick about the difference that until relinquishment papers are signed, a woman is an expectant mom or just a plain old mom. It's the signing of the papers that turns her into a birth mom. And to call her a birth mom prematurely is considered coercive.

So, just get that other way. You are an expectant mom and a birth mom. Tell us about entering into that experience.

Candace:
And first of all, I very much appreciate that you reflect on the terminology and how important it is, because I totally agree that it is coercive. And like it was used with me in the counseling that I ended up happening.

When I got pregnant, though, I just figured that I was going to be a mom like all the other young women in my life; my sister, cousins, friends. Even if they didn't have a boyfriend or a husband, it was just that's what happened where I grew up in Central Minnesota.

But then the baby's father, who I'd really only known for a few months, he convinced me to go to counseling with him. And I thought it was like to help become parents together, but in fact, it was adoption counseling. So, I was a little blindsided.

We broke up shortly after that, but I ended up continuing to go to counseling with that same counselor. She ended up filling a mother role for me; I had a very difficult relationship with my mother at the time.

But the counseling that they did used the decision making packet; it was like a workbook. And the workbook helped me go through budgeting and stressors of having a baby, etc. But a big part of it was going into a deep dive of family history and how that impacts who you are and how you could be a parent. Well, I had a long history of sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism. And in the end, the counseling just ended up pointing out to me that I was ill equipped, unprepared and not parent material.

Lori:
And how old were you at this time?

Candace:
I was twenty. I just turned twenty. And then once I kind of figured that out, and it was actually a very devastating place to be where you don't feel like you can do what you're supposed to do, which is be a mom.

But kind of two things happened around the same time. I got a phone call from the father; my ex-boyfriend, the father, the baby, from his mother, who basically said she would fight me for custody if I tried to keep the baby. And she put it in such a way – They were wealthy. They were professional people. And she just was really clear. She's like, “Yeah, we will totally win.”

Now, I don't know if that would be the case, but back then, I believed her. I absolutely believed her. And it was the same time that I found out, because I started asking questions about adoption, that I could pick the parents; I could pick the adoptive parents. Because it was an early version of open adoption. And it made all the difference, just having a semblance of control in an uncontrollable situation. Yeah.

Lori:
Wow.

Tell us about what the handover was like. He was born and what happened from there? The moment you became a birth mother, what was that like?

Candace:
So, I made the decision to place when I was about eight months along, but couldn't do the placement. I had had him in the hospital. I had ended up having a C-section, which was beneficial in some ways because I had some extra time in the hospital with him. We'd spent time together and I reexamined all of the same reasons, while I was in the hospital and continued to come to the same conclusion that I was not equipped and well prepared.

So, he went into a foster home for 21 days; that was the limit back then. You needed to wait 21 days after birth before you could sign over your parental rights. So, he went into foster care and then he was placed at 21 days old.

Lori:
Let me revisit the father situation real quick, because you said that the father's mother wanted to get custody. But if I'm understanding correctly, it wasn't because he wanted to raise the child, nor did his parents. They just didn't want you to raise the child.

Candace:
That was correct.

Lori:
So, that was their lever to get you to go with the adoption route rather than the parenting route.

Candace:
Yes.

Lori:
Okay.

You did not meet the parents because that happened later.

Candace:
The adoptive parents.

Lori:
Right.

Candace:
I did. I got to meet them. It was supposed to happen after the adoption was final. So, that would have been like three months later in July. But the counselor that I had been working with knew that I was really struggling to find closure. And she requested from them that we bump up that meeting.

So, we met when Michael was about two months old. He did not come to the meeting, but his older brother, John, who was also adopted, did come to the meeting. And that was really influential for me because I could see how they interacted; the three of them as a family. And that gave me a really clear indication of what their life at home would probably be like.

Lori:
And what were some of your impressions about that; about Michael's parents?

Candace:
Well, so it's interesting and in hindsight, looking at it. What I remember mostly is David, the adoptive father, whose letter is – I really connected with his letter when I was choosing. He was really the kind of the impetus behind selecting them as parents. But during the meeting, I was really focused on him.

And I think it's (again, in hindsight) I think it's because I had a really hard time trying to recognize the “other mother”. (I'm using air quotes) And I don't think she really wanted to recognize me either. So, it ended up being John and David being the focus, for my attention.

And I got to see how – Well, David, first of all, was very demonstrative. He had no problem crying. He had no problem showing his emotion. And that was important to me because I grew up in a very patriarchal, misogynistic family.

And what happened was throughout the meeting, David would weep and we would cry together and the little things we were talking about. And all of a sudden, John, who's four years old, he's coloring on the floor and he looks up and he goes, “Oh, my dad cries all the time. Those are tears of joy.” And it was like I just felt my heart lift, just feeling like this was the place that my son should be.

Lori:
You were on the early side of the new vanguard thing called open adoption, as you said, and yours was set up a semi-open. So, what was that like from the time of placing your son until the time he was 18? What were those 18 years like in a semi-open adoption?

Candace:
So, that; what they had planned was for there to be an update once a year on his birthday. And it was supposed to be like pictures and a letter, until he turned 18. And I looked forward to them so much. And, yeah, it was like I, in some ways, felt like a little kid on Christmas morning when I would get the envelope in the mail.

But they showed up for about the first four years on time, basically right within a week of his birthday. And then they started getting a little later and a little later. And then when he turned six, nothing showed up. And I waited a little; like right around a month and I then I called the adoption agency. And I said, “Can you ask them to send the update; the promised update?” And they did. It came about, I think, three weeks later. And then the next two years, the same thing happened. No update showed up.

I finally went in physically to the adoption agency and was like, “Is there something we can do to rectify the situation?” And the woman that I had worked with was now gone. So, it was somebody new who didn't know me, didn't know our situation. She's like, “Well, there's nothing you can do. You signed away your rights a long time ago and they have no obligation to send you the updates.”

And I had always felt like (and I believe they may have done it purposefully, maybe not) that they were obligated; that they were obligated to send me those updates. That was part of our agreement. But in fact, that is not the case.

So, after that, I basically decided that – I sent them a letter. I decided to send them a letter and tell them that they didn't need to send updates unless they wanted to. I wanted them, but I didn't want them to feel like it was this burden that they had to do. Because I couldn't set myself up to be hurt every year.

It's interesting when I look back on it now, it's like I chose to place my son for adoption. so, it's my “fault” that I lost him. And the same thing is true about the updates; it was my fault that they stopped because perhaps they would have kept going had I not sent that letter. I don't know.

I don't know if that makes sense, but I'm trying to protect myself from being hurt again. That’s why I was {indistinct 12:58}.

Lori:
There's actually an infertility equivalent to that. And that is when you finally decide to stop trying; you get on birth control pills anyway because you don't want to go through that. You want no chance of hope. So, I do understand that. Yeah.

So, not too long after placement, you reconnected with a high school friend who was not Michael's father, and you and your husband moved to Alaska and settled there. Years pass and finally, you and Michael did reconnect. What was it like with him on the phone that first time and then later to see him that first time? Tell us about those things.

Candace:
So, I got the first letter I'd gotten in 10 years. It was two days; actually two days before his 18th birthday. So, I was thrilled. And inside was the phone number for David.

So, I called and I talked to David first and gave it some time before I was like, “Is Michael there? I want to talk to him.” And when he came to the phone, I was terrified. I was thrilled. I was so filled with emotion. I hate to use a cliché, but when his voice came on the phone, it literally was like music. It was just amazing. And we didn't talk for very long because neither one of us really knew what to say or how to say it or any of those things.

Lori:
Intimate strangers.

Candace:
Yes. Yes. But it was just this incredible jumble of emotions. And it really was a beautiful, beautiful thing to just hear his voice.

And then when we met. So, it took a couple of years before he was interested and willing and wanting to meet me. And again, there was simultaneous feelings of terror. I was terrified and I was exhilarated beyond measure.

I was terrified because I was really fearful that he would reject me; that he would blame me for giving him away, for abandoning him. Because that's how I felt. I felt that I had abandoned him. So, of course, he will feel the same way that I do.

When in fact, that wasn't the case. And I remember so clearly walking up to the door. So, we went to their house. And my husband came with me and Michael and David were standing outside their door. And we walked up and it was such an amazing thing because they stood next to each other, but Michael was a great, big, boyish version of me, while also looking a lot like his adopted dad. And it was just uncanny.

But we spent almost five hours together that day and I remember leaving with just the fullness in my heart that not only was he okay, he was thriving, he was happy, he was a boisterous young man, ready to face the world. He had had amazing support system and, yeah, just feeling really grateful.

Lori:
So, by this time, Michael's mom was no longer in the picture. And just a short trigger warning. You found out that she had been lost to suicide when Michael was ten. So, those early days of connecting with David, he didn't feel threatened by you and he didn't seem possessive of Michael. What was his demeanor about you, as Michael's birth mom, at that meeting; before and after?

Candace:
So, I have got the sense from David right away on that very first phone call that first of all, he was and would remain the gatekeeper. I guess sometimes people I think some people think of gatekeeper as being a bad thing. It can be both bad and good. And I think in this sense, he was being the gatekeeper in the sense of protecting Michael to make sure that – or do his best that he wouldn't be hurt in all of this.

And I think that David, I think he always felt secure in his fatherhood with Michael and I think John, too. And that I don't think there was anything that I could really do that would make him feel like I was taking away anything.

I also believe that Jane's suicide; I think Jane's suicide prevented him from wanting to reach out to me. I don't know for sure because we haven't talked about it. I don't know how to talk about it. That's one area that's kind of sacred, I guess. But I think it may have prevented him from reaching out. And at the same time, with Jane being gone, he knew that once Michael wanted to connect with me, that I could fill that mother role again in a way that was being missed. And he knew that that could be super beneficial to Michael. Does that make sense?

Lori:
Yeah. And of course, you can't fill in the gaps or the blanks of why the semi-open adoption kind of went away. But this does inform maybe why contact got sketchier and ceased. There were other things going on that had nothing to do with you. I was wondering if that was a comfort to you.

Candace:
Yeah, I think in a way, it was that. Because I do agree, I think there was probably a lot going on. And I certainly was, as a younger woman, I am trying to work on it now in my adult life, but very self-centered and everything revolved around me. So, the fact that they weren't writing me letters was about me. It wasn't about them. And I've tried to learn that. And I do think that perhaps she was just struggling at the time.

Lori:
Yeah.

And of course, you would think that. But in part of your healing, figuring out that backstory might have helped you change those tapes that you had going on in your head.

Now, you mentioned something about gatekeeper I want to go back to. And you mentioned the kind of gatekeeper which is protective and a little cautious. What is the other kind of gatekeeper?

Candace:
So, the other kind of gatekeeper is the one that can, at least when it comes to adoption, the adoptive parents gatekeeper, they can shut it down at a whim, because there aren't legal precautions or legal systems in place that protect the contact for the birth mother or birth father. So, yeah.

So, basically, we had signed a contract when I place him for adoption. And on that contract, they agreed to send updates, but it wasn't a legally binding contract. So, an adoptive parent can choose to pull that contact any time they want, because they –

Lori:
For any reason.

Candace:
Right, any reason. I believe, for myself, I would certainly want him to be very, very careful that I did not do anything to prevent the communication from continuing, once we had maintained it again when he turned 18.

Lori:
And I do want to say, I think there's such a responsibility for adoptive parents to be that former kind of gatekeeper you were talking about, rather than the latter. And I'm going to refer back to an episode that where Rebecca Vahle was my guest, because her final parting advice was, “Do your work, people.” And when you are doing your inner work, you are making sure that your gatekeeping motives are clear. So, I just wanted to say that.

Now, you and your husband together decided not to have children after Michael. How did Michael factor into that decision?

Candace:
Yeah.

It was a major a significant factor for me. I think early on, after the adoption, there was part of me that thought someday I might have a child after placement; shortly after placement. But as the years went on, I came to a place where although there were lots of other reasons to not have children. My husband and I talked about it. Once we got married, we talked about it pretty much every year, whether or not we wanted to have kids. And there were a lot of various reasons.

But for me, the ultimate reason was I always held out hope that I would get to meet Michael; always held out hope. I didn't really fan those flames, but it was always that little ember that kind of sat in my heart. And I just knew there was no way that I could ever look him in the face and try to explain why one child was good enough to keep and he wasn't. Yeah.

Lori:
I find that such a Sophie's Choice, such a difficult position to be in. And the love that you have for Michael was so apparent in that sentiment. Not that everyone who loves their son would make that choice; I'm not saying that. But that Michael factored into your choices and you made them so mindfully.

Tragically, Michael died of natural causes before you were able to see him a second time. What happened with the extended family dynamics then and how has it been ever since with Michael's family, even in the absence of Michael?

Candace:
Yes.

So, Michael died in 2013. And we got word from David three days later. So, we didn't get notified right away. At that point, I never not once felt angry that David didn't contact me right away. That was just not something that registered. I guess I was just – I mean, certainly I was dealing with my own grief, but I was just so horrified for his loss. I was so focused on that.

And when we said we wanted to come to the funeral, he never hesitated; there was never hesitation or anything like that. He's like, “Of course, you're going to come”, which is hard to do from Alaska, just to get out.

But when we arrived, we were so embraced by the entire family. I mean, not just David, but the entire family embraced both me and my husband. Every person we met, whether it was a friend or acquaintance of family, anybody, David or whoever the family was near to us, always introduced me as Michael's mom. Just never a single hesitation. And it was really the first time I felt like I was his mom. And it's bittersweet because it was also too late.

But in the months that followed, I was really lost. I just felt really lost. My husband is super supportive, all the way through all of this. But I just didn't know how to deal with it.

So, I tried to find support among parents who had lost a child and support system groups online, all of those things. And after the initial questions with these groups, they always wanted to know more about Michael. And I didn't know anything else. So, it just brought up more grief because of the fact that I didn't know anything.

So, then I went to birthmothers and I found some pretty good support there, but it still wasn't quite what I needed. So, I don’t know; it was probably less than a couple of months after the funeral that I was like, “You know, there's one person that knows exactly how I feel and that's David.”

And I reached out to him and it was such an organic relationship. We started building the relationship right away, sending emails back and forth, totally connecting on that really personal parent level. And by that fall, he had invited Tom and I to come spend a weekend with them to go through some of Michael's things. And it just snowballed into something that’s just a very close, intimate relationship.

And I think part of it was for me, David and that the whole family held everything that was left of my son; they were my connection to him. And for David, every time I came by or we talked on Skype or whatever, he could see Michael in me. So, we were the best connection to Michael through each other.

Since then the whole family came up to Alaska on vacation. They were on a cruise ship, they came in, and we spent the whole day together. And it was it was like having Michael sitting next to me, finally; here and with me. And it was just really, really a beautiful thing.

Lori:
In your story, when I mentioned the surprising parts about motherhood that actually came from David. And I was like, he could have treated you as a person without status, regarding Michael, because legally, it was true you had no status. But he chose otherwise. And that seems super expansive to me as a person, as a father, as a parent, and even with that mother energy of just bringing you into the fold. And I just really love that.

Do you have any other clues why he did that other than you two were the two people who really grasped that on that biological level; on a gut level?

Candace:
Yeah, I think that, first of all, David, part of why I chose him was his – at least from what little I knew about him, he just seemed very capable and willing to feel; to really deeply feel. And I really connected to that.

I think when Michael died, we also connected because we had both had two very significant losses; mine just happen to both be Michael. His happened to be Michael and Jane. And there's something about our ability to be compassionate after we've gone through some of these experiences that, I think, allow us to reach out and connect at a deeper level,

Lori:
You know, vulnerability like that with wisdom is often rewarded in such rich ways. So, you can look back and say you chose well; if you were going to choose adoption, you chose a parent.

Candace:
Yeah.

Lori:
Yeah.

Candace:
And I really so strongly believe that and feel that. I was very lucky to have found David. Yeah.

Lori:
Our time always goes so fast. I'm going to wrap up with our last question that I'm asking for all guests this season. And that is having lived through adoption as a birth mother, what do you think people need to know to adopt well into adoptive-parents well?

Candace:
I think adoptive parents have to acknowledge and accept that adoptions begin with trauma. A child who learns that her parents are abusive or drug addicts will still feel abandoned and left behind. An adoptee who had a picture perfect life will still wonder what things would have been like or could have been like had they been kept. And even a willing birth mother who's been educated and counseled on the long term effects of relinquishment and feels that placing her child for adoption is the absolute right choice, she is still going to grieve the loss of that child.

It doesn't mean that adoptive parents, they don't need to ignore the joys of adoption. Welcoming a child into their life, it's got to be such an amazing experience. But they need to be willing to accept that their happiness was built on another person's pain and be willing to admit and talk about it. The previous guest who said, “Do your own work”, this is a part of that. Yeah.

Lori:
Yeah.

And it's a simple model to think that either adoption is awesome or adoption is terrible. But the truth probably lies in all the complexities in between and they happen at the same time. So, that acknowledgement of there is loss and grief at the root of adoption doesn't mean that we can't still go on and find peace and be happy and joyous and have good lives.

Candace:
Yes.

Lori:
But we probably can't do those things if we don't acknowledge it. Because there's something there. Anything that's unacknowledged comes out sideways one way or another, if you wait long enough.

Candace, is there anything else that you would like to share with us? Anything that I may have not asked.

Candace:
I think we've covered a lot. It's so hard to try to share such a big story in a short amount of time. Yeah.

Lori:
I really, really appreciate your sharing your story. And being vulnerable with us and inviting us into that vulnerability, I think that that is a real key for adoptive parents to have the kind of relationship they want to with their child and possibly with their child's birth parents.

So, thank you very much for being here today. I've really enjoyed our time.

Candace:
Thank you so much. I love listening to all the people that you bring on. I feel like I learn new things every single podcast you put out. And so, thank you for your work that you're doing.

Lori:
I do have a talent for bringing on fantastic, wise, insightful guests. So, thank you for being one of them.

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