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Do You Have Any Children? A Birthmother Speaks to the Personal & the Political

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This post appeared originally on RHRealityCheck's OnCommonGround forum

"Do you have any children…?"

It’s such a typical question to ask someone, and for many it’s an easy yes or no answer. For me though, I consistently find myself hesitating to respond. Generally when speaking to strangers, casual acquaintances, and even new friends, I opt to answer “no.”

On occasion, I brave the consequences and answer the truth: “Yes, I’m a birthmother.”

This, of course, has to be followed by an explanation that I once was pregnant and chose to place my child in an open adoption, that I have a close relationship with my now 12-year-old daughter and her adoptive family; essentially, I am a mother, I have a child, but I am not parenting.

My decision to plan an adoption did not come instantly, nor did it come out of any disapproval of abortion. Early in my pregnancy, my daughter’s birthfather and I were deeply in love and felt that despite our age, limited resources and our families’ disapproval, that we could parent. We didn’t want to consider other options at that time, we just wanted to parent. For nearly eight months, that was the plan I worked towards – that was 8 months of doing all I could to navigate through the world of pending parenthood, but continuously feeling that what I could give emotionally, physically and financially was not enough to be the kind of parent I wanted to be. By the time I came to open adoption, I had explored every possible avenue and option, and I knew with absolute certainty that adoption was the best choice for me, my daughter, and everyone else involved.

The process of choosing a family to parent my child, of meeting and getting to know them, and of working together to plan what our families would look like as we blended them into one was both empowering and reassuring. Granted, the placement of my daughter was decidedly the most difficult and heart-wrenching experience I have had, but it came with equal amounts of joy and excitement, knowing that I would always be a part of her life, watching her grow and thrive, and being included in her family that I respected and admired. Our relationship has grown over the years – her family is my family, our time together is always special and yet totally natural, and my daughter has grown up knowing exactly who I am and what my place is in her life. For my daughter, her brother, her parents, and myself, adoption has created our family, and there is nothing strange, scary, secretive or shameful about it.

So why is it so difficult to talk about my adoption experience (which was amazing, positive, and has continued to feel like the best possible choice I could have made at the time) outside of the adoption community?

For the same reason I don’t openly talk about my experience choosing to have an abortion many years later (also a positive experience that I have not regretted). The stigma that accompanies pregnancy choices is not limited to abortion. I have felt shamed by the widespread silence around adoption in the same way that I have felt silenced by the social stigma and shame around abortion.

I know I am not alone, and yet there has been such a political and public effort to divide my experiences into two camps (i.e., when faced with unplanned pregnancy there are pro-choice, liberal, secular women who have abortions and then there are pro-life, conservative, religious women who plan adoptions; both groups may parent, but this choice also comes with its fair share of stigmas and judgments if made under socially unacceptable circumstances, like being a young, single, or impoverished). The truth about me, and my experience, is that I don’t “fit” in these boxes: I am young, educated, liberal, a whole-hearted supporter of access to safe and legal abortion – I am a birthmother, I have had an abortion, and some day I hope to be a parent. The labels that have been politically and socially imparted, and widely accepted, do an incredible disservice to the conversation around pregnancy, parenting, abortion and adoption, by over-simplifying and dismissing the lived experiences of women and their loved ones.

This is where I think the discussion of common-ground has potential to break down the artificial divides that currently segregate pregnancy decisions and the women who make them. There are not separate women who have abortions, who plan adoptions and who decide to parent; these are experiences that can and do happen on a continuum in any woman’s life, depending on the circumstances of that moment in time.

As a birthmother, and someone who is fully invested in adoption being included in the conversation around pregnancy options, I think it is essential to reclaim adoption. Advocating for adoption should not be about decreasing the number of abortions, it is not just a pro-life choice – it is a legitimate pregnancy option that is not owned by any political party, religion, or social movement. The question is not “why don’t more women choose adoption instead of abortion?” but rather, “why don’t more women feel that adoption is even an option at all?”

There is an incredible lack of education around adoption, and perhaps more specifically about how adoption has changed. Historically, adoption actually did hurt women in many of the same ways that anti-abortion activists now allege that abortion hurts women. Women were traumatized – forced into situations of “giving away their babies” to complete strangers and told to never look back. These women often lived with years of unresolved guilt, with no avenue to grieve their losses, and no information about what happened with their children. These adoption practices created silence, secrecy, shame, fear and regret.

While the historical model is not how adoption is typically practiced today, the stigma of being the “type of woman” who would “just give her baby away” (now that other options are legally available and socially acceptable) carries on. Think of the movie Juno: true it was funny and hip, but it absolutely perpetuated the stereotype of a detached teenage girl that couldn’t wait to get rid of the baby she decided to place for adoption. The lack of education around what the real experiences of birthmothers are, and how those experiences, values and circumstances shape their choices and lives, is profound. Further, a public understanding of genuinely open adoption, which has revolutionized adoption practices and the experiences of all parties involved, is completely lacking.

Even if we educate and open the conversation around adoption, how do we bring about the change that is necessary? Part of the difficulty with creating a new understanding of adoption – including the women who chose it, the families who adopt, and the children who are adopted – is combating archaic adoption practices that not only reinforce negative stereotypes, but also do an incredible disservice to what adoption can be – that is, adoption is a legitimate pregnancy option for all women faced with a pregnancy decision, regardless of whether they identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” religious or not, conservative or liberal… In the face of a pregnancy decision, the women who choose adoption feel no more part of the political discussion around it then the women who choose abortion feel about the political rhetoric characterizing their decision.

In order to implement broad change and understanding of adoption, there must be a focus on creating standardized policies and practices that protect all parts of the adoption triad (birthparents, adoptive parents, and children) and respect that adoption is a woman’s choice, which she must be given power over in order to do what she feels is best for her and her family. These practices would include:

  • Pro-choice agencies that support a woman’s right to choice and access to all options – while it is not essential for the potential birth- or adoptive parents to subscribe to a particular value around abortion, it is absolutely essential that the agencies working with pregnant women and their loved ones not be in a position of coercion based on disapproval of abortion.
  • Access to free options counseling, regardless of the pregnancy outcome – again, it is imperative that pregnant women who contact an adoption agency to discuss their pregnancy options not feel pressured or coerced into making a decision the agency may see as "right."
  • Birth families’ ability to see all prospective adoptive families (without preemptive selection or “matching” from an agency) – this speaks to the heart of honoring women’s ability to choose what is best for them. This means including gay & lesbian couples, single people, and all potential adoptive families who meet the criteria of the background check, home study, etc.
  • Legally-binding open-adoption agreements – if a woman chooses to plan an adoption, she should be able to work in concert with her loved ones and the adoptive family chosen to create a legally binding adoption agreement that feels appropriate for both birth and adoptive families. These types of documents serve as a protection for birth families, but also serve as a launching point for open, honest discussion between birthparents and adoptive parents about their expectations for the adoption, their level of comfort with contact, and any other issues that feel important to address as they make a plan for their family. These agreements serve to outline a minimum level of contact between families, but are not a limitation.
  • Access to free, ongoing counseling and support, as needed, for both birth and adoptive families. It is important to acknowledge that families created through adoption are no more immune to struggle or potential conflict then any other family. Access to counseling from adoption professionals assures that families are able to work through difficult times they may encounter with guidance and support.

Without education, enforceable policies, and standards of practices to which adoption agencies can be held accountable, pregnant women, potential birthparents and adoptive parents will feel unsafe pursing this option. Furthermore, many healthcare providers, educators and pregnancy options counselors will not feel confident or comfortable discussing adoption with their clients, or referring to adoption agencies, until they too can be assured that adoption practices will not be manipulative or harmful to the women and families they work with. For the pro-choice movement, supporting access to all options for women is essential. Just as we support access to safe and legal abortion, as well as access to parenting resources and support, should we not demand access to ethical adoption practices?

written 10 Dec 2009 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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