02 Sep Leslie Pate Mackinnon: 3 decades of advocacy for the adoption community and still going
Leslie Pate Mackinnon, LCSW is a seasoned and well-respected therapist in both the adoption community, third party reproduction, and MPE (misattributed parentage event) communities. She is a nationally known trainer who travels across the country training therapists, agencies and child welfare workers about the psychological issues inherent in adoption and third-party reproduction.
I’ve had the privilege of being a part of her consultation group on and off for over four years. First, in her office in Atlanta where her sweet dogs would join us. Now, we meet on Zoom. The experience is still an effective blend of case consultation and education. All delivered with Leslie’s trademark warmth, humor, and energy.
My work with Leslie has certainly informed my practice in the work I do with the adoption constellation. I met Leslie when a colleague and I were researching how to start an adoptee support group. Leslie had run a monthly group in Atlanta for 20 years. She was so generous with her time and support of our plans.
I was shocked to find that Leslie, a birth mother in reunion herself, had her story included in the Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler. Incidentally, when I first searched for my own birth mother, the confidential intermediary I worked with had me read the very same book.
It was my first introduction to the loss experienced by women who relinquished children during the Baby Scoop Era (end of WWII to aprox. 1970). Therefore, my meeting with Leslie that day has always felt like fate. I realized that it was high time that I share some of her insights.
Chat with Leslie Pate Mackinnon
How long has your specialty been working with members of the adoption constellation? Did this correspond with your coming out of the fog?
I’ve been doing this work for about 30 years and yes, it did correspond with coming out of the fog.
In fact, I fell out of the fog when some challenging relationship issues came up with my own mother. We had a big falling out on Mother’s Day and I found myself standing in a local independent book store. I was searching for a book on mother daughter relationships.
Well, I found a book about relationships that turned out to be about birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees. It was shocking to learn that there were others! I read about a whole community of birth mothers that was out there. The experience was so shocking.
What did you do with this discovery?
I found the organization Concerned United Birthparents (CUB). I reached out to them and discovered that they were holding an annual retreat. I called the organization and very quietly explained to the woman who answered the phone that I had relinquished 2 children. Without missing a beat the woman on the phone replied, “Oh don’t worry, there are workshops for multiple relinquishments.”
*As Leslie tells this story her voice is still filled with the wonder I imagine she felt all those years ago.
Again, you discovered that you were not alone.
Yes. So I went to the retreat. And let me tell you, I introduced myself to everyone I met by saying, “I’m Leslie and I relinquished two babies.” I just knew I had to get used to saying it and this was a place to do it. The experience was both frightening and liberating.
To this day, I remember my husband telling me after the retreat, “I put one woman on the plane and picked up another.”
Wow. What kind of support did you get after that experience?
After that retreat, I looked for support groups in the area. My husband eventually found the one I ended up running for almost 20 years.
When the leader of the group at the time found out that I was a social worker and psychotherapist, she wanted me to take over leading the group. She had been doing it for over a decade at the time.
I told her I wasn’t ready. I knew group dynamics of course, but I still had my own work to do. I wasn’t ready to hang out my shingle as an adoption specialist. I attended the support group for about three or four years and then took it over. During this time, I also read everything I could get my hands on about adoption.
What did you notice about the adoption community at that time?
When I came into the adoption advocacy community, I found that it was very splintered. It was very noticeable to me right away. I knew that we (adoptive parents and birth parents) needed to start working together. To understand each other. I believed that the parents, adoptive and birth, had to be able to work together if they were ever going to help the adoptee. This was where my desire to build alliances in the adoptive community began.
How did you begin to build connections in the adoption community?
I started making myself known to agencies and was asked to join the Catholic Social Services Board of Directors. In this capacity, I was able to start changing things that really made a difference. However, I would sit in these meetings and hear ideas that continually tapped my trauma.
Trained psychoanalytically at Tulane, it was expected that you were supposed to be a blank slate with clients. It took many years before I was able to self-disclose to clients that I was a birth mother. To use my own experience therapeutically to help others.
I began by telling adopted children that I was a birth mommy and could share what I know about birth mommies. I would say, “I don’t know exactly what your birth mommy was thinking, but I could tell you what I was thinking.”
As you began talking about your experience more and more in a professional space, what shifted for you?
Eventually, I found that adoption work is a little like recovery work in the field of addiction. In the recovery community, the most helpful thing is hearing other people’s stories with similar experiences.
I became more comfortable with my own story which allowed me to be vulnerable and more effective as a therapist. Truth be told, this model fit better for me than a formal psychoanalytic model anyways!
During this time I also became acquainted with adoption agencies and adoption lawyers who then sent women who were pregnant and making an adoption plan to me for pre-adoptive counseling. It was tight rope for me because the agency and lawyers were paying for the counseling services.
It was important to me that these pregnant women got all the facts. That they knew their options and rights. So I had a form that explained that I would be telling women about all of their options. The form needed to be signed by whomever was contracting me for counseling services.
However, most women still did not change their mind. Largely, I believe this was because society has so programmed women to believe that adoption is a wonderful option for all and that 2-parent homes are the best way to raise a child.
How, if at all, have you seen the stigma around young, unwed mothers change over time?
There is still a stigma especially about single parenthood. Parents, especially in two income households with high expectations, are still shamed by the prospect of their child having an unplanned pregnancy. We have not come very far.
Listen, people have been having sex outside of marriage since the beginning of time and babies happen. In days of old, the leading cause of marriage was pregnancy.
So it was happening, but now we don’t counsel this because getting married in a crisis doesn’t bode well for the marriage. However, in a few years, a marriage may work out after things have calmed down. This is a point that many parents and young, pregnant, single women overlook.
You searched and found both of your sons, when did that happen?
When my twins were 18 months, I turned to my husband and said, “I have to find my sons.” He asked me to wait until our kids were in kindergarten. That was fine. I’d waited all of those years, what was a few more?
It also gave me time to mentally prepare myself. For three years I soaked up all the knowledge I could about reunion which helped prepare me. Finding them was the best thing I ever did.
You had small children at home at the time of the search. How was it for you when they told people about their other brothers as little kids will do?
There was lots of “coming out” so to speak with clients, friends, and neighbors. My kids told everyone in their kindergarten class. The teachers and school administration were so excited and warm which felt validating.
There was lots of pain, but it was all my own self-judgment. No one was unkind to me. I learned that you will never get any other reaction than your own self-loathing if you don’t tell anyone else your secrets.
You talk openly about the shame you felt due to your experience. What is the impact on the mental health of birth mothers over time?
The statistics of birth mothers with depression and addiction are significantly larger than the average populations. The depression is the outcome of complicated grief. Grief that was unacknowledged or minimized. I get so angry when I hear, “You were so courageous!”
Shouldering the shame of the family is a pretty big task. After the birth of my first two sons, my humor disappeared until I was about 23 years old.
I was unaware of the grief, but I was very flat, very depressed. In my late twenties, I realized that I had forgotten the date of one of my son’s births. I had to call my mother in the fall to ask. My mother noticed that I got depressed every year around the time of their birth. Our brains have a unique ability to protect us from pain, to block out trauma.
In your experience, do adoptees or birth parents search most often?
Adoptees. Birth parents are a little slower to “wake up.” They often put their interest on ice. Adopted people tend to be more aware of their pain.
When I searched, my sons were also searching. It was a perfect match. I had survivor’s guilt when I heard about other birth mothers who’s children didn’t want to meet them.
*In 2014, Leslie appeared with her son on Katie Couric’s show as the “American Philomena” to share what it was like to be separated from her first born son. At that time, the two had been in reunion for 14 years.
On the show, Leslie’s son shared the following when asked if he had always thought about reconnecting, “Always. You always do. You tread lightly because you don’t want to upset your adoptive family, you don’t want to make them think you’re unhappy, but there’s just something there. . .”
What advice do you have for birth mothers or fathers who are experiencing a challenging reunion?
Listen, you may have been a 17-year-old parent, but now you are a bigger person and you have to go the distance because you placed the child for adoption, at the end of the day, no matter how much pressure or coercion. This has caused this person great pain and harm. You have got to own it.
It is so hurtful, but owning your part actually helps. Letting yourself have a true understanding about the impact of adoption will help you forgive yourself. Forgiving myself helped me not take my stuff out on the child, or in my case, adult that I reunited with. I needed to heal my wounds somewhere else.
This approach takes pressure off of the adopted person. You may not expect the meanness or anger that gets directed at you by your relinquished child, but you shouldn’t be surprised by it.
If communication is cut off, keep sending the cards, be consistent. If you can, send things that have personal meaning to potentially build connection. Don’t leave.
It is also normal to feel a degree of relief about the cut-off if connection has been complicated or painful.
You’ve had the opportunity to be involved with many interesting programs. I used to binge watch Long Lost Family. A television series hosted by two adoptees that follows the stories of people who have, for one reason or another, experienced long term separation from members of their family mostly through adoption. You worked as a consultant for this show, what was the experience like for you?
I had a couple of reactions. There had been a few search and reunion shows that I thought were so unethically done. Getting involved with this show, I was initially afraid that I would be seen as a traitor to the adoption community.
When I met with the team, I was impressed with the care they were taking in making the show. When I met with the team, I was impressed with the care they were taking in making the show. My role was to talk to the people after the dramatic reunion, providing counseling and resources.
Oh I am going to cry just thinking about it. It was a gift from God to be a part of the process to help these people. Really, to help the clients I work with in general.
It was my idea to show reunions from the season before. They showed about four episodes of what had happened after the emotional first meeting. I felt it was important to show that some reunions fell apart because that is reality.
In the end, being reunited is always much better than being amputated from a part of your family.
And what’s next for you?
It is so meaningful to know that I have made a difference. The early work with CUB saved my life because it opened up the opportunity for me to be able to deal with it.
Becoming a social worker came naturally to me from the start. I thought, “Well hell, I’ve already been through hell and back so I can probably sit with others while they process their trauma.”
My mother always said, “God has a plan.” I would answer back, “Well, this is a hell of a plan.” Now, I know there really was a plan and I was meant to do this work.
All the work I have done has just lightened my load. I’ve learned that you fix it along the way – not a final fix – it’s a continual journey.
I’ve recently become involved with Right to Know, a group committed to helping the MPE community. To see them jump in and want to connect with the adoption community has been inspiring. From the start, bringing organizations together has been my driving vision.
Following four decades of successful practice in Atlanta, Leslie and her husband relocated to Asheville, NC. She is seeing less clients, but she is certainly not slowing down.
Hear more from Leslie:
- October 2021 CUB retreat in Marina del Rey, CA with Lesli Johnson and Tracy Carliss presenting Loss Throughout the Lifespan: Healing Complicated Grief
- Welcome to the House of Mirrors: The Importance of Preparing for Reunion featuring Leslie Pate Mackinnon
- The cost of shame: Therapist Leslie Pate Mackinnon discusses her experiences as a birthmother/first mother and the ongoing stigma of women’s sexuality.
Kate Murphy, LCSW
Kate Murphy, a therapist in Chamblee, GA, specializes in helping you decrease stress and anxiety. You can live a more balanced, connected, and meaningful life. Kate works with individuals and couples over the age of 18 to support healing, communicating, and experiencing joy more often.