While adoption is quickly celebrated, the voices of birth parents and adoptees often get pushed to the sidelines in favor of listening to adoptive parents. And while all voices are important in the adoption community, adoptive parents easily gain a massive platform the moment they decide to adopt.
Unfortunately due to the power structure in the adoption industry, there can be an unfair advantage for agencies, social workers, and prospective adoptive parents that have the resources to push policies and laws that can benefit them. Birth parents tend to be in vulnerable circumstances that often influence their decision to give up their child for adoption in the first place. They can experience pressure from others to relinquish their child and then face a lack of resources to support them after placement. November is National Adoption Month, and as an adoptee myself, I felt it was important to elevate birth mothers’ voices. I contacted a few birth moms I knew and asked what they wished adoptive parents knew. They had a lot to share.
1. What do you wish adoptive parents would know before adopting?
“The main things I wish adoptive parents knew were about the history of adoption, specifically including the long history of coercion and the trauma involved for both adoptees and birthparents. I wish they were required to take full college courses on these subjects and learn about them in great detail. Far too many people don’t event know about [the American child-trafficker] Georgia Tann or the Baby Scoop Era [after World War II], and those that do think such practices could never happen in modern times even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.” said an anonymous birth mother.
“Child trafficking, coercion, and manipulation are alive and well in modern adoption. Prospective adoptive parents need to be educated on these things so they know what red flags to look out for and can help advocate for change,” she said.
“I want adoptive parents to understand that before we build a family, we break a family. I want them to know that their deep desire to be parents, no matter how pure the intention, will play a role in trauma. You can’t avoid it. It is a part of adoption,” said Ashley Mitchell, a birth mother and creator of the Lifetime Healing Foundation for women who’ve experienced trauma and the Twisted Sisterhood Podcast for birth mothers.
I want them to know that their deep desire to be parents, no matter how pure the intention, will play a role in trauma. You can’t avoid it.
“I want adoptive parents to be prepared to deeply understand and acknowledge that by adopting, they are playing a role in loss. If they can get straight with that, they will have so much more integrity and success in their actions as parents,” she said.
2. What supports are useful for expectant parents and birth parents?
“For expectant parents, what they need is access to knowledge about adoption and resources that support family preservation. The choice to relinquish a child is almost always based on temporary circumstances, such as finances, age, and relationship status. Expectant parents need to be given the knowledge and tools to help them understand that these things can change for both them as well as prospective adoptive parents so they can make a truly informed decision. Very few expectant parents are ever told the truth about how adoption with affect them, their child, and entire generations of their family. They need to know that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide and have a higher risk of developing addiction. They need to know about secondary infertility and that this may be the only child they can ever have.
If they are not told the full truth, their decision wasn’t truly theirs. For birth parents, there is virtually no support as soon as the papers are signed. Few birth parents ever hear from the adoption agency or professionals involved ever again. We go from being put up on this pedestal—being told how amazing and brave and selfless we are—to being ignored completely. We’re expected to feel nothing and simply move on with our lives despite the fact that we have just lost our child.
There is no socially acceptable form of grief for birth parents. There’s no comforting ritual to take part in and help you through the grieving process. There’s nothing but people telling you to get over it and asking how you could ever do such a horrible thing.
There is no socially acceptable form of grief for birth parents. There’s no comforting ritual to take part in and help you through the grieving process.
What birth parents need is high-quality, free, lifelong support. They need unlimited access to therapists who understand adoption trauma and won’t just regurgitate the rainbows and sunshine narrative. Their loss needs to be acknowledged and their feelings need to be validated. Far too many birth parents lose themselves to addiction, depression, and/or reckless lifestyles because of their grief. Suicide is common in our community because we have almost no support available to us,” an anonymous birth mother said.
“I believe we have a giant lack of options for counseling that is not just pushing religious/political agenda. However, for me, my focus is on post-placement support once women have chosen adoption. I believe that post-placement care, mental health resources, financial support, interviewing for jobs, housing, etc. are vital for forward movement. I deeply believe that healthier birth mothers create healthier open adoption options for personal relationships. The women will need support if they choose adoption. It is unavoidable. We must do better in that support. It doesn’t end with relinquishmet—it is just beginning,” Mitchell said.
3. Is there anything adoptive parents can do to better support birth mothers and expectant parents?
“For expectant parents, the absolute best thing that prospective adoptive parents can do is leave them alone. Stop trying to ‘match’ with women and families in crisis because all that ‘match’ does is put an incredible burden onto that family’s shoulders. Not only are they navigating an extremely difficult time in their life, but they’re also now having to hold up your dreams of being a parent. If you want to talk to expectant parents, leave adoption out of it. Help them find and navigate resources to help them through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting with absolutely no expectations of getting to take their baby as your own. If you cannot separate yourself to that degree, leave expectant parents alone.
Do not work with agencies that only or primarily offer pre-birth matching. For birth parents, this can vary so much. The #1 thing I would recommend is to learn as much as you can about the lifelong grief, loss, and trauma that birth parents go through. Learn in depth about their pain to help you understand what they may be going through.
There will be times, even in the most open and loving adoptions, where one or both birth parents need to pull back. They may need space to process their loss. They may not be up to responding to your emails and calls quickly or even at all. That’s not an excuse to drop them or stop reaching out. You chose to enter into this lifelong relationship with both your child and their first family. You owe it to your child to keep that door open and to do everything you can to support your child’s parents. As a birth mother, any contact with my son’s adoptive parents is both the most amazing thing in the world and the most terrifying thing. The smallest mistake could lead to them slamming the door shut in my face forever. Many, many birth parents have a lot of fear and anxiety over open adoptions being closed since we have no legal rights,” said one anonymous birth mother.
As a birth mother, any contact with my son’s adoptive parents is both the most amazing thing in the world and the most terrifying thing.
“Again, I think we come into two very different lanes of support: while the mother is pregnant and while she is trying to decide what is best for her and her child. Prospective adoptive parents are there to walk with her as she makes this decision. They must understand that they have no rights to a child. Their job is to love her and support her through her decision-making process. I think this carries over into post-placement as well, but we have put such an emphasis on ‘title over a child’ that it makes it difficult to see that nobody owns a child or is entitled to a child as a parent.
When we get wrapped up in that space, we can’t support the biological parents as they fight for their right to matter. If we can walk through their right to parent before we take claim over a child, then we can love in a space where we know that the choice to place was hers and not her guilt or obligation to you,” Mitchell said.
4. What are some misconceptions about birth mothers that you are tired of hearing?
“I’m tired of being used as a pawn by pro-life Christians. I’m not religious and I’ve been strongly pro-choice since I was old enough to understand what an abortion is. It makes me extremely angry to have people assume they know my beliefs and can use me to push their agenda simply because I’m a birth mother. Relinquishing my son had absolutely nothing to do with abortion or God in any way, shape, or form, and I’m sick of people assuming that it did,” the anonymous birth mother said.
“I think it depends on [who] you are talking to. I am the hero and the villain depending on the audience, but the truth is so much different from either of those realities. I wish people would just stay off of Google and stop watching Lifetime Movies. I know for sure that if you are looking for something that is negative about me, you can find it. The drug addict, the whore, the angel that is giving the gift of life, the vessel, the abuser, the abandoner, the saint, the hero. All these labels were only created to make others feel better about who I am. There is little pursuit to know me.
I am the hero and the villain depending on the audience, but the truth is so much different from either of those realities.
I am a woman that found herself in a place where a decision had to be made. I took everything I knew, and I made the best decision possible. Period. That was it. I didn’t ask for the titles, I just did what I felt I could do. What I know for sure is that society can’t understand how a mother could walk away from her child, so they must label me so they feel better about it. I don’t feel better about it,” Mitchell said.
5. In your experience how has the adoption industry failed birth mothers?
“The biggest way I think the adoption industry has failed birth mothers is the entire concept of pre-birth matching. I feel very strongly that pre-birth matching should be entirely illegal due to the inherent manipulation and coercion it encourages.
Even if the prospective adoptive parents and the adoption professionals involved are all committed to ethics and supporting the child’s parents no matter what, Western society puts so much pressure on expectant parents involved in pre-birth matching. Even people with no direct ties to the situation will put immense pressure on the mother to relinquish her child. And unfortunately, that rosy experience of everyone supporting mom and dad is extremely rare. So much pressure is put on expectant parents to not disappoint the prospective adoptive parents. There’s a huge emphasis on not hurting the prospective adoptive parents and not harming their dreams or their potential family instead of there being any focus at all on the actual family at risk: the expectant parents and their child,” the anonymous birth mother said.
“This is such a difficult question and I appreciate you asking it so much,” Mitchell said. “I think there are so many ways that we are failed. If we are looking at options while pregnant then you must acknowledge the deep-rooted shame from religious culture about whether you will give this baby life. We must be better about sitting with these women, meeting them where they are at, and looking at needs to help them be successful no matter what they choose to do versus pushing our own agenda.
If we are looking at women after they have placed a child for adoption, then we must look at the lifelong pursuit of post-placement care through mental health needs, financial needs, and more. If agencies are going to claim best practice and they are going to sit with us in destruction, then you would have to assume that they have an ethical responsibility to sit with us in the rebuild,” Mitchell said.
6. In closed adoptions, in your opinion, is it ever okay for adoptive parents to reach out? If so, what type of contact would be appropriate?
“Absolutely. I think that the needs and rights of adoptees should always come first. Closed adoptions are incredibly cruel. There should always be an open door for the passing of medical information and other extremely important updates, even if there’s minimal contact otherwise,” the anonymous birth mother said.
“This is tough because I don’t know the ‘arrangements’ made at the time of relinquishment. However, I believe that time changes more than we can ever prepare for. This may not be the ‘popular’ opinion, but I would encourage families to reach out all day. I think the effort speaks volumes to the adopted person, and whether the birth parents are capable of being present or not, they can say that they showed up. They fought. They cared enough. I know it is scary when we want to deeply to respect the wishes of other parties and we don’t want to cause more pain, but at the end of the day, this is about making sure that you did everything you could to keep the child connected to biology. Reach out—what is the worst that can happen? It has already been closed; it can’t get worse than that,” Mitchell said.
As an adoptee, conducting these interviews was difficult because as I read over each answer, I couldn’t help but think about my own birth mother and how vulnerable she was. And while I know not all adoption professionals and adoptive parents have malicious intent, there is no longer an excuse for ignorance or lack of ethics in the adoption process. We need to listen to birth moms and adoptees. We can advocate for policies that promote family preservation and mandate necessary post-adoption services to help birth parents even after the child is placed. As Mitchell said, “This is for life, and I think as an adoption community, we greatly underestimate how long that actually is.”