When Mama Can’t Kiss It Better: Interview with Author Lori Gertz
As moms, we can be exceptionally harsh with our self-criticism when we don’t like the consequences of our mistakes and imperfections. But we’re all imperfect and make mistakes, and that’s true of our kids, too. How do we forgive ourselves and accept our limitations? Love is the most powerful force in the world, but for whatever reason, some things can’t be fixed and we have to accept situations, and our children, as they are. When I first met Lori Gertz, a mom who had to give up her adopted daughter to another family when she realized she could not be the mother Emily needed, her emotions were raw. We talked about sensory issues and therapies, and how moms can get overwhelmed by all that we feel we have to do. We talked about how that cultural message of perfectionism can really make it difficult for women to be the best moms they can be. We all have dark days, and failures. And sometimes, no matter what you do, there comes a time when mama can’t “kiss it better.”
Lori had to come to terms with her decision to give her daughter, adopted at birth and first held by her moments after she was born, to another couple to raise. Lori knew intellectually that she’d exhausted every resource she had, and her other children were deeply stressed by living with their mentally ill, troubled sibling. Yet because she loved her seven-year-old daughter Emily unconditionally, letting go and accepting that “her” little girl belonged with another family was traumatizing. Emily is doing well now, and has bonded with her new family, which is what Lori wanted for her. With a lot of hard work, Lori has come to peace with what happened, and has written a book to inspire other moms of kids with special needs to love themselves and their kids unconditionally. I found her book deeply moving and promised her I would spread the word when it was published. Here’s a Q and A with Lori I did.
Q: You adopted your daughter Emily at birth, not knowing that her birth mother had misled the adoption team and had taken drugs and alcohol while pregnant, causing brain damage to Emily in utero. How did you come to learn the truth, and how did you feel when you found out?
A: From the moment I held her the whole mommy experience was different from what it was with my firstborn (my son). At first, I attributed it to her being a girl. I’m afraid I fell into that percentage of new parents whose own mother had once shaken a finger at her wishing upon her “a daughter just like you” someday, so for many months I just internalized that this was a kind of “revenge” for my own spirited nature as a child. Emily didn’t cuddle and she was impossible to soothe. She cried constantly and it only seemed to be exacerbated by whatever I tried to do to help her. Additionally, over those first few months there were a generous amount of medical issues and as they cropped up, so did the number of visits to medical professionals. In fact, I took her to 38 of them before anyone had anything to say other than I was either imagining things or that I was the worst choice of adoptive mother for her. It took receiving a letter from our birthmother’s brother (who helped orchestrate the adoption) when Emily was about 32 months old to tip us off to the fact that the birth story we’d been told was complete fiction. The 39th doctor was a specialist in assessing children for exposure in utero and he diagnosed Emily with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorder in under five minutes. Why 38 other medical professionals didn’t recognize the physical markings of FASD still stuns me.
Emily was diagnosed with full FASD. It is a spectrum disorder so kids can fall anywhere along the spectrum of having an IQ lower than 85 to just having it affect their memory and look like ADHD. Emily fell on the mid-to low end of the spectrum. Even with her high IQ she had so many other comorbidities (other mental illnesses) that her issues became increasingly difficult to manage. At age 5 she was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and at six, bipolar disorder. All wrapped up in it was depression, ADHD, you name it. At one point they had me giving her so many medications for all the diagnosis, I needed an Excel sheet to keep track of them all.
Q: I know this is a hard question to answer given that you haven’t had contact with Emily for a long time, and you had to give her up for her own sake as well as for the sake of your other children, but what is your fondest memory about Emily? What made her special?
A: When Emily laughed, my heart sang. She had a lot of little Emily-isms –funny little things she’d say like, “statue of liverty” and “pasgetti” and a funny little dance she’d do when she wanted something. She had an extraordinary smile and a gorgeous laugh. I hear it in my memory now and my eyes swell with tears in the missing. I find myself pouring over old photo albums wondering how things could have been so completely out of control when we have such beautiful photos of our time together. I idealized perfection in those photos. It seems as soon as they were shot, there’d be something that vaporized the moment. Regardless, the memories of those moments have a sweetness to them because I have so much love for her in my heart. That will never wane. I will love my daughter forever.
Q: What were the keys to coming to terms with the harsh truth that when it came to Emily’s issues, including her inability to bond with you and your family, Mama couldn’t kiss it better?
A: I had what I call an unrequited love for my daughter, but to understand my own grief and work through it, I was forced to look honestly at what happened. The fact was, she did not bond to me in the hours and days after she was handed to me like my other children. She never found any comfort in my touch, my voice, or any of my attempts to soothe her. I loved all my children the same, but the other two responded to what I gave them, my mother love, and engaged in a trusting relationship with me. She did not. She never reciprocated. So, I kept giving her love and living haunted by the ghosts of my own childhood telling me it was all I deserved. And in that commitment to our one-sided love affair, I kept her alive for 7 tumultuous years and hadn’t ever really been honest with myself that I never actually had a relationship with her.
I sacrificed much, but I have no regrets. The lessons I learned are unprecedented. And it consoles me to know that now, she is safe in a home and part of a family where she feels loved, expresses love, and is functioning well despite her disabilities. With much commitment from her newly adopted family, she was able to bond in a way she never did with us. That fills me with hope for her future and unparalleled gratitude for her new family.
Lori Gertz’s memoir is about coming to peace with her limitations as a mother.
Q: What advice do you have for special needs parents who are struggling to provide the help their kids need and feeling that they’re just not doing a good enough job?
A: I guess the most important thing to recognize is that we are all imperfect. I mean that in the kindest way. If we or our children were perfect, we wouldn’t be human. It wasn’t until I realized that Emily’s journey was her own and I was there to walk alongside her and provide whatever I could to support her that I was able to accept my limitations as her parent. As for our children, we need to advocate for them in the highest sense. We need to listen to them and understand what is behind their behavior and then we need to do our very best at communicating that to the schools, therapists, medical doctors and anyone who is in a position to help them be successful, at all costs!
When I was going through this with Emily, I felt like an island. I had the child who was blowing apart everywhere and as the playdates dwindled and the eyes of others found their way to the ground whenever we approached, I felt completely isolated. To combat my feelings of desperation and self-recrimination I hired so many therapists that there wasn’t a day of the week we weren’t sitting in someone’s waiting room waiting to be analyzed. It was too much and it’s only in looking back now that I understand why I did it. I wanted a fix. I wanted a cure. I needed to be guided towards a magic pill that could help my daughter—and make me not a failure. It’s hard not to want to fix things to reflect what you thought your life and idealized family would look like. But that’s not real life. In real life there are stressors, emotions, challenges, and lessons all of which are part of the journey as a spiritual being expressing as a human in a body. It’s simple and it may feel like a spiritual bypass when I say this, but love yourself. Love your kids. Love your life, no matter what it looks like. I believe nothing is an accident. Life is always trying to show us something new and grow who we are – as people AND spiritual beings.
Despite my acceptance and self-compassion, some days are still hard. It’s on those days I don my helmet and take a lengthy ride along the coast on my bike, losing myself to the beauty that’s before me and coming to peace knowing everything is as it should be with my beautiful wounded daughter.
There is no doubt in my mind that our mental health care system has to be restructured. Our politicians need to realize that there are virtually no support resources for families raising children with mental illness and other mental disabilities, invisible or otherwise. My vision for the book is that it will wake politicians up. Our story is not rare or isolated, but sadly, it took going public for me to find that out. I am filled with gratitude for my journey with my daughter as I believe it will help me help others who are walking the same path.
To every mom stressed out over her situation, know this: You ARE good enough. What isn’t good enough are the support services for families struggling and that must and willchange.
The greatest lesson I learned is when you can’t kiss it better, and you don’t get the outcome you idealized, you have to focus on the positives because there’s a gift in every crisis. For Emily, that gift is an opportunity to be an integral part of a family where she does feel bonded and safe. For me, it’s self-forgiveness and counting my blessings every day for a loving family that reciprocates and views our experience of unrequited love with Emily with the deepest of compassion.
Q: Thank you, Lori.