- September, 2023
- June, 2023
- February, 2023
What is a Birthmother?
I approach this topic with a myriad of emotions. My palms are a little sweaty; my brain is unfocused, and the combination of words I want to say seem to all come out wrong.
Almost two years ago I paused my professional work with birthmothers and women in unplanned pregnancies when my own daughter was born—and now, when I revisit the topic of adoption placement, I recognize the major shift that has occurred in me since becoming a mother. I think back to my time working with birth mothers and I sit in wild wonder at the powerful love I got to witness pouring from these women. They have taught me so much about unconditional love.
While I have always harbored empathy and admiration for the resilience of birth mothers, there is now an ache that resides in the depths of my gut on their behalf. It gnaws at me ferociously. I have never had more desire to see the adoption community become a place of support and truthfulness for birth mothers. They deserve that in the very least.
Birth mothers are strong. They are brave and sometimes not so brave, like most of us. They have jobs and families and a backstory; many have a strong faith. Lots of them are parenting.
All of them are parents.
Birth mothers find comradery with one another in the specific burdens they bear, with the most obvious and piercing of these burdens being a distinct desire to love, protect, and care for a person whom they may only know from a certain distance.
Birth mothers’ emotions are many, and often exist concurrently: Joy and pain. Sorrow and gratefulness. Fear and hope.
As you continue to read this, I hope you do so with a mind of utmost respect for women who have made adoption plans for their children. It has been my honor to sit in the power of resilience that birthmothers exude, and I pray I describe those experiences well.
A Birthmother by definition
A birthmother is simply a woman who has carried and birthed a child. In the case of open adoption, a birthmother is someone who voluntarily chooses to make an adoption plan for her child and has relinquished her parental rights.
Typically we do not consider a woman a “birthmother” until she has officially signed paperwork to relinquish those parental rights. This honors the fact that she may still choose to parent her child up until that point. Relinquishment, however, is permanent and final.
Some birthmothers may have placed a child for adoption during a time in which closed adoption was the norm, and have yet to experience reunion with their child(ren). Some have varying levels of open relationship with the adoptive family.
Birthmothers of all ages and stories are women whom AdoptionWorks and ChristianWorks seek to support in their healing journey.
The birthmother experience throughout the lifespan
Words will not give expression to the aching within, the anguish of birthing but not nurturing, of creating but not guiding, of the giving of life but not the care-giving of life
-Jane Guttman, The Gift Wrapped in Sorrow
While each adoption story is unique, birthmothers tend to share some common experiences. Open adoption has been identified to have significantly more positive outcomes for an adoption triad than closed adoption, but it is not without themes of grief, loss, and sorrow.
After all, the process of infant adoption begins with a loss: the separation of a child from his or her mother. Regardless of the reason for this separation, even if it is a seemingly necessary one, this loss is experienced by both mother and child and is not insignificant. For a minute or days-old child, this loss is earth-shattering. It is a rupture of the only human connection he or she has ever known. A birth mother’s body and brain likewise continue to prepare to nurture this child in various ways until the loss is realized. From these moments forward, birth mothers and adoptees alike experience various intensities of ambiguous loss. (For more about this topic, The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier is a suggested read).
Ambiguous loss is a term used to describe a loss that is not final, such as a loss to death. In ambiguous loss, a person may grieve a relationship with someone who is still alive and well but is separated from them in a major way.
A birth mother often experiences ambiguous loss in different ways throughout the lifespan of her child. Even in a very open adoption relationship, a woman may grieve the loss of a direct role in raising her child, or the loss of witnessing first steps or packing a lunch on the first day of school. The child—her child— is growing and thriving and living, but this birthmother is not in a caregiving role. Ambiguous loss is not resolved quite the same way as more definitive losses; it is ever-changing and re-appearing and can manifest itself in entirely new ways at each turn of life.
Birthmothers may also experience disenfranchised grief, which is grief that is not socially understood or recognized. Those unfamiliar with adoption may question a birthmother’s right to grieve. Questions such as Didn’t you choose this? or Won’t you get to see her periodically? show a great lack of understanding of the complexities of a woman’s decision and circumstances in which she may choose to place a child for adoption. Under such circumstances, a woman may feel that her grief is unwarranted or wrong. Feels isolating, no?
Disenfranchised grief is one of the major reasons that post-adoption support (see below) should be an essential part of an adoption agency’s work. Our birthmothers often feel alone
and guilty about their very real grief. It is our duty to offer accessible resources or point them to trusted ones.
Birth mothers also may experience changes in emotional and mental health post-placement for years to come. Many report going through the grief cycles of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance at different seasons of life.
Anxieties regarding the open relationship also heavily exist. Birthmothers may often feel unsure of how to request visits or feel like they may not want to impose on an adoptive family. What-if questions can be overwhelming.
What if I bug them so much they do not want to see me anymore? What if I don’t call and they think I don’t care?
What if I disappoint them?
What if they suddenly decide to quit responding if they think I am not good enough?
What if…what if…what if…
Like any relationship, open adoption relationships take a while to feel natural. Communication, trust, and respect are built upon over the years and can feel understandably tricky to navigate at first.
Sometimes a heavy dose of ambiguous loss feels too overwhelming, leading a birthmother to step back from the open relationship for a bit. This can feel emotionally safer for her as she learns to manage her grief and loss in real-time.
The role of adoption professionals
Recovery from the loss of a child to adoption represents an under-researched and poorly understood experience for women. Even today, too many women feel pressured to relinquish their children without adequate preparation, counseling, or support during their pregnancy, the placement process, and in the years following the adoption (Brodzinsky& Smith, 2014).
In recent years, new efforts have been made to better serve birthmothers. Calls for adoption reform and standards of care persist. Many agencies are learning that their ethical obligation to serve the entire triad must include expansive care for the expectant mother before, during, and after placement.
AdoptionWorks at ChristianWorks consistently strives to be the standard for such care. The team is dedicated to better understanding the needs of women placing a child for adoption, both pre- and post-placement. AdoptionWorks also provides extensive education on the birthmother experience when training prospective adoptive families.
Pregnancy: We believe a woman deserves support and empowerment throughout her pregnancy with professionals who will be honest about the experience of the birth mother
journey and readily connect a woman with resources to help her pursue parenting if she decides to do so.
We hold sacred the role of mother and believe that a mother’s decision to parent or place her child for adoption is one that she is capable and qualified to make. We journey with her through these decisions with her as much or as little as she prefers for us to.
Post-placement: AdoptionWorks partners with Ashley Mitchell of Lifetime Healing Foundation to provide a framework for a post-adoption birth mother support group. This group is facilitated by a licensed counseling professional and exists to help women courageously face the difficulties of post-placement within a community of women who understand the deep-seeded wounds that can persist.
We also provide lifetime assistance in navigating the open adoption relationship.
Other Resources for Birthmothers:
1. Brodzinsky, D., & Smith, S. L. (2014). Post-placement adjustment and the needs of birthmothers who place an infant for adoption. Adoption Quarterly, 17(3), 165–184. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926755.2014.891551
2. Byun, I. (n.d.). A phenomenological study of birth mothers and their experiences with open adoption (dissertation).
3. Krahn, L., & Sullivan, R. (2015). Grief & Loss resolution among birth mothers in open adoption. Canadian Social Work Review, 32(1–2), 27–48. https://doi.org/10.7202/1034142ar
4. Landers, A. L., Danes, S. M., Carrese, D. H., Mpras, E., Campbell, A. R., & White Hawk, S. (2022). I can still hear my baby crying: The ambiguous loss of American Indian/Alaska native birthmothers. Family Process, 62(2), 702–721. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12815
5. Minnesota Department of Human Services. (n.d.). Understanding ambiguous loss. https://www.motherschoice.org/app/uploads/2020/10/Understanding-Ambiguous-Loss.pdf