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When my son made his entrance into the world in November 1998, a second birth took place. There on the delivery table, having just become a mother, I was reborn as a birthmother. In the long days since that double birth, I have grieved a grief of a severity I didn't think possible. I have reached new depths of suffering, and I have lived the meaning of regret. For a person who despises victimhood and espouses personal responsibility, this has been a hard feeling to accept--but the truth remains...bad laws are what brought our separation about.
No little girl grows up dreaming of becoming a birthmother; a role that is generally either ignored or despised. Yet millions of women carry the badge. Increasingly we are more forthright about our aborted chance at motherhood, and some of us are even militant. But birthmothers from an earlier era still stumble upon one another, often after long acquaintance. "You too?" they say. "I had no idea..."
For even if a birthmother did summon her courage to speak, the shameful, inhumane practice of closed adoption ensured that no one wanted to listen. More frequently, mothers who surrendered children didn't even try, having bought into the big lie that they would "get over it and move on." How many women have we lost to the aftereffects of this evil untruth? The terrible pain of our older birthmothers (those from the era of maternity homes and secretive births) is living proof that "you will forget" is a fabrication so wicked that Satan himself may have been its creator. Birthmothers never forget.
Open adoption, in which adoptive families maintain ongoing, lifelong relationships with the birthfamily, has elevated birthmother status in important ways, but injustice in adoption remains rampant, and prejudices still abound. Would-be adopters and social workers alike have an image of the "typical" birthmother, and they look down on her in smug condescension. They think they are rescuing the poor confused child, and expect her to be grateful to their charity in "saving" her child from a life that is not solidly middle class, or a home that is not two-parent.
Even after two decades of progress toward open adoption, birthmothers still pay. We pay every time someone tells us our child is so lucky to have found a good family (i.e., to be away from us?) We pay when coworkers (usually the same ones who told us during our pregnancies that it would be selfish to keep our children) go on to ask in disbelief, "How could you have given away your baby?" We pay dearly on Mother's Day, and we pay each time we are asked, "Do you have any children?"
I am not anti-adoption. Many cases really do call for a good adoptive family, and many children benefit from growing up outside their biological homes. But adoption as it is practiced today is a disgrace. It's become an industry geared not toward "the best interests of the child" (itself a worn out catchphrase with little real meaning) but toward serving people who think they have a God-given right to add a child to their home. Adoption used to be about finding homes for children, but now it's about finding children to fill the homes of infertile couples. To improve the institution of adoption, I propose a list of nine reforms.
To understand why I make them, however, it's first necessary to have some background on me. For starters, I fit none of the birthmother stereotypes. Aged 27 when I gave birth, I was hardly a teen mother. I am not poor or unstable: I have a good job with a major corporation. I am not uneducated; I have a sharp mind and an undying love of learning. My child was unplanned, but not unwanted. My family and I had much to offer my son, save the one thing we could not give him: a father who stuck around.
Research into the effects of adoption on infants shows that the psychological cost of infant-maternal separation is so high that an adoption should only be done as a last resort. It is a well-documented fact that infants do suffer lifelong consequences as a result of separation from their first family, regardless of how joyous and successful their adoption eventually turns out to be. Experts in the field caution, therefore, that adoption should be done only if there is no other way for mother and baby to stay together. Unfortunately, this is not how adoption is commonly practiced. Agencies and private adoption "facilitators," which profit based on how many adoptions they can arrange, don't ask too many questions about why a potential birthmother is considering
So despite the red flags that the demographic indicators ought to have raised in my case, the adoption industry forged ahead, desperate to get one more healthy, white newborn. No one said to me, "If anyone has the resources to be a single parent, it's you." No one asked me why I was really choosing adoption, or if I was being influenced by those around me instead of going with my gut feelings. No one acknowledged that what I was actually trying to do was pay for my "sin" in getting pregnant out of wedlock--trying to make atonement by making an infertile married couple happy. The "counseling" I got was perfunctory and biased and all-around unacceptable (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) But I didn't know better. Despite attacking the potential adoption of my son as a research project, and reading a great deal of material while pregnant, I did not collect enough unbiased information to fully understand what I was doing. No one knows just how to go about becoming a birthmother until it's already too late.
So, I signed the papers, and they got the baby. But is this the basis for building a family--on the grief and regret of another? I often wonder how adoptive parents of this type live with themselves, knowing how much they have taken away from my child's birthfamily. Unless, that is, it's absolutely clear that they are offering the child much more than the birthfamily could have done. My situation lacks such clarity. It is far too ambiguous. I fear that in the life of my son, I merely replaced one major loss (lack of a present father) with another (being cut out of his biological family).
Thus, my proposed reforms: 1. Keep social workers with an agenda away from expectant mothers. When I was trying to decide if I was going to surrender my child to adoption, the agency provided the prospective adopters with a counselor, as well as one for me. But that counselor was herself an adoptive mother. In our "talks," she bubbled inanely about what a wonderful gift her daughter has been (as if the girl's birthmother had searched valiantly for the perfect present and done so much better than a gift certificate.) Birthmothers do not give their children as gifts to needy parents; if anything they give the parents as gifts to their children.
This phenomenon of presenting adoption as "gift-giving" is far too prevalent. A potential birthmother does not need to be thinking about the plight of childless couples, no matter how sad infertility may be. A woman in the midst of a crisis pregnancy has been stigmatized as a bad girl, often experiencing the disapproval of and anger from family and friends. In order to regain her "good girl" status, she will do anything to make these people happy again, and giving away her baby to a needy couple seems like the perfect way out. The danger is that she will make an adoption decision based solely on the feelings of others.
My counselor's pro-adoption propaganda colored my thinking at a time when I desperately needed objectivity. It is unacceptable that supposedly neutral parties, offered for support and guidance, have such personal interest in the outcome. Adoption lawyers and social workers should never be adoptive parents themselves.
2. Mandate counseling for all potential birthmothers. Even if the expectant mother thinks she does not need counseling, she is wrong. She is in denial, and needs counselling more than ever. The law should require that she receive free counsel from an uninterested, outside party. Voluntarily losing one's child is the most serious loss most women will ever face. Being forced to do so without extensive advisement is sheer cruelty.
The need for counseling leads to another needed reform: putting more controls on private adoption. Private adoptions circumvent agencies by using lawyers as facilitators, In private adoption, there is little to no counseling. What's more, lawyers are trained in law, not in helping expectant mothers to make painful, human decisions, and they will not see to it that she gets the support she needs (or that the prospective adoptive parents receive the education they need to realize all that they are taking on). Education should become mandatory for all hopeful adopters, and required reading lists should be standard.
3. Train all hospital workers in sensitive adoption practices. The horror stories I have collected from other birthmoms regarding their experiences in the hospital are hair-curling, and they come from both sides of the fence. Every day I hear of nurses who think adoption is wrong and try to talk the birthmother into keeping the child in the biological family, or nurses who think adoption is glorious but that the birthmother is sinful and has no right to enjoy her own birthing. Both are equally offensive and could be cured with more education among hospital staff, who need to learn that their role is to make a mother's delivery as pleasant and stress-free as possible, regardless of what plans she may be making for her child. Doctors, nurses, and support staff should never express their opinions on the adoption plans taking place. In the meantime, potential birthmothers must take full control of their hospital experience and not let outside ignorance alter a well-made birthing plan.
4. Keep hopeful adoptive parents out of the delivery room and away from the hospital. They don't belong anywhere near the scene. This is hard for me to say, because my child's parents were in the delivery room (at their request, not mine) and it seemed at the time to be a relatively pleasant experience, though not without a measure of awkwardness. Looking back, however, I see how deeply it interfered with my decision-making ability. Since then I've also learned more about the pre and perinatal experience of the child. The question ought to be, " Who does the adoptee want in the delivery room?" Unfortunately, this question is almost never asked.
According to psychologists, the newborn baby recognizes its mother immediately at birth. That baby needs time to continue the bond with his first mother, who he already knows from forty weeks of sharing her body. The prospective adoptive mother, no matter how wonderful she may be, is still a stranger to the newborn, who does not experience himself as separate from his biological mother until the age of two months. There will be time for gentle transitions into an adoptive family later, if they are in fact needed.
Adoptions are often handled as if the baby is not really present. The thinking seems to be that if the switch-off is handled quickly enough, the baby will never notice. This is patently untrue, and rushing to place a child in an adoptive home does lasting damage.
There is yet another reason prospective adopters don't belong anywhere near a delivery room. No matter how much thought has gone into a pre-birth decision, an adoption plan must be made anew after the birth, once the child has become a reality. A great majority of first-time mothers report feeling disconnected from their child while pregnant--and these are women who planned their pregnancies and intend to keep their children. For most potential birthmothers, this is their first child, and they have no idea how they will feel after the baby's actual arrival. A child that they wonder if they could love is now known to be the most precious thing on earth to them. Yet adoption laws are mostly written by men, who have no idea that motherhood is a great unknown until it actually happens. We frequently hear about the horrible birthmother who so inconsiderately changes her mind, as if a change of heart is a sin. Yes, the prospective parents will face real pain if the birthmother decides to keep her baby. But the cold truth is that no one is going to leave that hospital without pain. The potential birthmother is expected to bear the pain, and to bear it FOREVER. When she backs away from that pain, she is treated as if she has violated a contract, much as if she were selling a car, not relinquishing a child. Most states do not allow an intent to relinquish statement, but those that do must act at once to outlaw them.
Potential birthmothers do not owe anyone a child. Where the prospective adoptive parents and potential birthparents have formed a meaningful relationship, with a firm commitment to ongoing presence in each others' lives (which in open adoption we hope they will have done), adoptive parents' presence in the delivery room may be acceptable--as long as the birthmother is the one asking for it and the emotional risks are known to her.
5. Abolish irrevocable consent. Many states allow a window of time for birthmothers to change their minds about this most immense of decisions, but many do not. In addition, many states allow consents to be taken in a hospital bed, shortly after birth, rather than in a courtroom in front of a judge--the proper place for a decision of such solemnity to be formalized.
Imagine you are given 72 hours to decide whether you will lose your child. Is that enough time? The place you are given to do it is a hospital bed, where you lie worn out from labor, hovered over by anxious adoptive parents and their guests. Their joy at the new arrival is infectious, and you might start to think that life as a birthmother will always be this saturated in gratitude and happiness. Is that the proper atmosphere to make a decision which will completely recreate you as a person and affect the rest of your days? In three months, many things can change in a birthmom's life, factors that will make her want to keep her child. Give her the time and the space to make the decision, and if her economic or social standing has not improved or if she still doubts her mothering ability, proceed with the adoption.
6. End adoption advertising. Adoptive families like to say their families were formed by God. If so, then why do they need marketing to get the job done? If God wants to form a family by adoption, then prospective adoptive parents need to sit back, shut up and let Him do it. They shouldn't sell themselves with saccharine ads and gooey posters, troll for babies on the Internet, or omit crucial facts in those "Dear Birthmother" letters. (And while they're at it, they should never refer to a pregnant woman as a "birthmother" at all. A woman is not a birthmother until she has signed away her legal rights to her child, so an expectant mother can never be a birthmother. Calling her one denies reality, forces her to think of herself as something she may not want to become, and is coercive in the extreme.)
Prospective adopters who paint themselves as the Cleavers of the nineties are hawking the family for gain. Thankfully, a lot of potential birthmothers see through it--but many of the younger, more naive ones do not. Babyselling is rightfully despised in our culture, yet somehow baby soliciting is not. There are plenty of non-coercive, dignified ways for prospective adopters to get the word out that they hope to adopt. Let's use them. We must bring back integrity to the adoption process, or we haven't progressed much since the days of the orphan trains.
7. Let closed adoptions dwindle like the Dark Age remnant they are. I have no respect for potential adoptive families who would even consider a closed adoption. Adoptive parents in a closed adoption have only solved one thing: their own infertility. They are not acting for the sake of a child but for the sake of their own need to "play family." Closed adoption parents certainly do not have the child's well-being in mind, since as a result of their own fears and insecurities they only trade one set of problems (a single parent home) for another (genealogical bewilderment).
Those who adopt overseas to make things easier on themselves are also suspect. It's one thing to save an orphaned child from a group home. It's quite another to purchase a baby overseas because you don't want to deal with the child's biologic roots, or because you feel you need a perfect white baby. Going halfway around the world to avoid the birthfamily is cowardly and wrong, but somehow society views these do-gooders in a positive light. There are plenty of adoptable kids right here in the U.S. The question is, is the adoptive family up to the challenge?
8. Open records for adult adoptees. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the point where all adoptions are open, so we have an additional problem, that of closed records. How can we say we have the best interests of a child at heart when we tell her she has no right to her original identity? Why are adoptees the only class of people deemed not trustworthy enough to know of their origins? This seems so obvious as to defy further explanation, yet only three states understand it so far. If you believe in basic human rights, you must grant adoptees the right to know. Don't let the Oregon Seven fool you. The vast majority of birthmothers (some 98%) are for open records--for they are mothers first, who care about their children's psychological well-being. Closed records damage the adoptee, by keeping him forever a child. Adoptees grow up, but adoption laws do not reflect that obvious fact. They are never trusted with their heritage. This perpetual infantilization of adoptees is demeaning to all involved, and violates basic constitutional (and property) rights.
9. Make open adoption agreements legally enforceable. Only one state allows birthmothers the protection of open adoption contracts, which help to hold adoptive parents to their promises. In all other states, such agreements are actually illegal. It's a sad fact that a large percentage of adoptive parents break their promises for continued contact once they have the baby in their home. It happens more than you would think, and is especially tragic when the only reason a birthmother agreed to adoption in the first place was the promise of ongoing contact with her child. Such agreements must have the protection given to other serious agreements--the protection of law.
SummaryBirthmothers don't ask to be created. We become, without wanting to become. We are, without wanting to be. Our mistake? Struggling through an unplanned or unsupported pregnancy in order to give life, sticking to a strong value system, refusing to care what others think of our choice. We are told over and over again during pregnancy, by people who want our oh-so-valuable babies, that we are doing the honorable thing, making a beautiful choice, loving our child completely. Then, as soon as the placement is secure, we are told to be ashamed of what we have done. We are asked how we could give away blood. We are shunned and scorned as somehow less than the "real" adoptive mothers. We hear that "good" birthparents ought to ride away into the sunset, leaving their children in the past, leaving the adoptive parents to answer the tough questions and soothe the child's losses. But fifty years of closed adoption in the United States has proven that it doesn't work. If you doubt it, turn to the Internet to see the number of adoptees in immense pain. The sugarcoating of adoption has got to stop. It is not a win-win situation. The biggest losses of all come to the one who tried heroically to find the best solution to an unplanned pregnancy. In reality, there is never a solution. All three options have severe effects on a mother's life, and when a mother chooses the very hardest road for the sake of her precious child, society ought to scrape its collective knees as it bows down to honor her sacrifice. And yet the very word is ugly...birthmother. As if the word "mother" is not big enough to encompass more than one type of love. I prefer the term used by some enlightened adoptive parents: first mother.
Perhaps I seem to be hard on adoptive parents. This is not because I dislike them, but because they have all the power in adoptive relationships, and therefore far greater responsibilities. The child has no say in what happens to him, and the birthparents lose all rights once the papers are signed. Adoptive parents function as the gods in the adoption triad, and like the gods of mythology they can be either benevolent or terrible. I urge both present and prospective adoptive parents to try to truly feel the enormity of birthmother and adoptee loss. Then, if you still feel the adoption is necessary and good, go ahead with it...but do it in a dignified way that honors your child-to-be and the family from which he comes. Then adoption is allowed to be a blessed event, not a disgraceful one. © Heather Lowe, 1999