More than fifty years after surrendering her son for adoption, Judy Wirth will remember him on May 11.

When her son was born out of wedlock in 1960, Wirth was told to forget about his birth and get on with her life. But like most birth mothers, especially in the era of closed adoptions, she was haunted by the experience, constantly wondering where her firstborn was, worrying about how he was doing, and dreading having her secret exposed.

The day before Mother’s Day, Wirth plans to attend, for the eleventh straight year, the local commemoration of Birth Mother’s Day, hosted by Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County. “I heard about it through a support group that I was going to,” she says. “It just appealed to me that they would do that, that they would honor birth mothers. I came from a generation that didn’t honor birth mothers.”

The first Birth Mother’s Day was observed in Seattle in 1990. Southfield trauma therapist and birth mother Brenda Romanchik introduced the concept to Michigan a few years later, and CSS has hosted the event since 1998. Last year, about seventy-five people showed up, including birth mothers and their families, adoptees and their families, and three birth fathers. The program included poems, readings, music, and testimonials, as well as refreshments, socializing, and hardly any dry eyes.

Wirth knows where the son she gave up lives and has supplied him with medical information, but he’s chosen not to meet her. Younger birth mothers are more likely to have arranged “open adoptions,” where they chose the adoptive parents and negotiated a mutually comfortable level of contact with them and their child. But even open adoption “has both joy and grief,” says Julie Payne, the CSS pregnancy counselor who organizes Birth Mother’s Day locally. “They don’t have all the questions and the wondering [about their children’s lives], but they do have an experience that is not recognized by society.”

Adoptee Lindsay Darling came for the first time last year with her birth mother, Joyce Basham. “I’m trying to figure out the relationship I have with my birth mom at this point, so I thought that might be a nice way to break the ice a little bit,” Darling says, “to let her know I do appreciate and think about what she did for me.”

While it’s still a serious occasion, the tone has lightened in recent years. Birth mothers “talked about recognizing the grief but also wanting it to be a celebration,” Payne says. “They feel like the plan that they made was the best thing they could do for the child at the time and want to celebrate the relationship they have with the child now and the child’s life and the fact that they gave the child life.”

Romanchik finds this trend dismaying. “It’s become more and more celebratory over the years, whereas for me that’s not what the day is about,” she says. “Even in really good programs, the bottom line is that for birth moms there is a lot of trauma involved, there is a lot of loss involved. I guess to only have a celebration kind of diminishes that, not only for the birth mother but for the adoptee as well.”

That view hasn’t gained much traction at CSS. “I know one birth mother wouldn’t come because she found it too depressing,” says adoption counselor Elly Falit. “But when Julie told her she could read her own poem or sing her own song, she began to attend. The birth mothers who come don’t need to mourn again in a public forum. They need to be assured that they’ve done what was best for their child and to celebrate that.

“I truly believe my participation has helped me face the past,” says Judy Wirth. “Being with others who have been through the same ordeal has helped me to have the strength to ultimately face family and friends.

“Besides,” she says, “I like to celebrate.”