She was 23 years old and already six months along by the time Ashley realized her bloating was an unplanned pregnancy. Though she had the emotional support of her boyfriend and her mother, she decided adoption was her best option. “I had to go through a huge stack of brochures for potential parents and one couple stood out,” she says. The two couples met and it was like an awkward blind date, but they got to know each other very well over the next few months.
The labor and delivery were hard, but Ashley wasn’t alone. The adoptive parents were at the hospital the whole time and even stayed overnight in the room next to hers. “Of course I had moments wondering if I was doing the right thing,” Ashley says. “But I had a gut feeling that nothing would go wrong.” And nothing did.
Ashley considers her son’s mom and dad part of her extended family. They see each other often and talk almost daily. To this day they work hard to keep communication open and honest. “My son knows he came from my belly and he knows he is adopted,” Ashley explains. “He calls me Ashley and he calls her Mom.” That’s exactly how Ashley wants it, and she can’t overstate how smoothly her adoption journey has gone. She says one of the best things adoptive parents can do to build a successful relationship is be open-minded and empathetic to their birthmom. “My son’s adoptive mom is literally my best friend,” she says. “My story has been smooth sailing, and I’m happy to share my experience with other birthmoms and adoptive parents so they can see that a happy story is possible.”
NANCI RIDER, BIRTHMOTHER
When Nanci was 20 years old, she placed her son. She had no choice. It was the 1980s and her parents weren’t supportive, so they sent her away to a maternity home. The experience was traumatic and isolating. Years later she attended a retreat. “I’ll always remember 30 birthmoms stood in a big circle and we each told our story. It was exhausting but so validating. I wasn’t alone like I thought.”
After a good deal of therapy and soul searching, Nanci decided to look for her son. She found a “search angel” online who in a matter of days tracked down her son’s adoptive family. The rest of her story is about family and healing. Her son was 27 years old when they reconnected, and it fills her heart with happiness that he now calls her his “bonus mom.” They have a special relationship and can talk about anything. That’s not the only bonus — Nanci has grown close to her son’s adoptive mom too.
Today, Nanci supports other birthmoms through her work with MPower Alliance and says that paying it forward has helped with her own healing.
RACHEL, BIRTHMOTHER & SOCIAL WORKER
After giving birth to a child in high school, Rachel ended up placing her child in adoption due to economic pressure. The experience changed her forever. In the 22 years since her daughter was born, she’s become a passionate advocate for positive and ethical adoption experiences. Today she’s a social worker in a postpartum and neonatal intensive care unit.
At work, Rachel sees how birthmothers are often stigmatized and seen as having somehow failed as mothers. In reality, she knows a birthmother desperately wants to give her child a good life. She knows firsthand that birthmothers want and deserve respect and that most want some level of ongoing contact with their child. “Love needs to overcome the fear of birthmother baggage,” she says.
Rachel says the best adoption story is based on flexibility and truth. Both sets of parents need to respect one another’s differences, have a sense of humor, be flexible, and be honest about what they need. “There shouldn’t be a competition for love,” she says. “You can’t have too many people loving a child —the more the merrier.”
Rachel believes strongly in a child-centered adoption that keeps the health and well-being of the child front and center in every interaction and decision. While some adoptive parents don’t value an ongoing relationship with the birthmother, Rachel says they need to understand the value for the child. Children want to know where they came from, and at every age and stage there will be questions. “The child’s feelings will often differ throughout the stages of their life,” she explains. “It’s important to let them know that all those feelings are okay.” Rachel feels strongly that both birth and adoptive parents need to be mindful about how their actions and conversations are framed, always keeping in mind what’s best for the child.
“The child needs to know they weren’t abandoned. The adoptive parents need to know they are doing a good job, and it’s their moral obligation to ensure the birthmother thrives,” she says.
Regarding adoptive parents, Rachel has found that “some are very open, some are very protective, and some can be toxic.” Some feel that they have already done their part by adopting the child. Others fear the bond the child may have with their birthmother. They resent the birthmother or are jealous of her since it was so difficult for them to conceive. “They don’t understand how critical the relationship is with the birthmother, and fail to recognize the support she needs to manage the trauma she has endured and will continue to endure throughout her lifetime.”
Rachel believes that empathy is vital for a healthy adoption scenario. “Birthmothers need to be humanized,” she says. “This may be the first time that adoptive parents have interacted with someone from a different economic status, and leading with empathy is the key.”
Like many birthmoms, Amy made the difficult decision to place her daughter through adoption out of desperation. She was in an unhealthy relationship, living far away from friends and family. Her boyfriend “was abusive in every way. Emotionally. Financially. Physically.” Amy was experiencing intimate partner violence, poverty, food insecurity and housing insecurity. When she realized she was pregnant, she was scared for her child’s well-being and safety.
Amy contacted an adoption lawyer who arranged an open adoption. Despite feeling that she was doing the right thing under the circumstances, she felt tremendous loss and grief after leaving the hospital. “I cried nonstop and had suicidal thoughts,” she says. Three months later she reached out to the family and asked to see her daughter. The family replied back through their lawyer — no. They had agreed to send photographs and update letters twice a year. In actuality, it was a semi-open adoption. The adoptive parents paid for Amy to attend therapy for a year, and despite the support, she was still in the same abusive relationship, on the verge of becoming unhoused and struggling financially. The family didn’t want more contact than they had agreed to. As the years progressed, the adoptive parents were inconsistent in sending updates. Sometimes a year would pass with no updates. Amy was crushed when she did not receive photos and letters of her daughter.
When the child was 14 her parents asked her if she’d like to meet Amy and ultimately, they were reunited. Amy had broken free from the abusive relationship and attended her first MPower Alliance retreat. “It was validating,” she says, “Because in some ways everyone’s experience was the same — full of coercion, inequity, and shame.” Today her daughter is 23 and they are building a relationship as two adults. In non-pandemic times, they see each other every six weeks. And her daughter most recently surprised her with a visit — on Mother’s Day.
ANNA, ADOPTIVE MOTHER
There is no typical birthmom. The birthmom Anna and her husband were matched with was a gifted student and athlete who had the full support of her mother. “I just wish I had known better how to interact with her, especially in the hospital,” Anna says. “I was so excited that I worry I came in there with the wrong energy. My intentions were respectful, but I wish I could have been more sensitive to who she was and what she needed.”
After struggling with infertility for many years, Anna and her husband decided to adopt. Even after coming to that decision, it took them another two years to match with a birthmom. Jacqueline shattered stereotypes about birthmoms. At 18, she was young, but unlike many birthmoms she was fully supported emotionally and financially by her mother. She was from a rural state, a competitive athlete, and a high academic achiever who had big ambitions. No one but immediate family and clergy knew she was pregnant, and that’s the way Jacqueline wanted it. She was driven, and having a child at such a young age wasn’t in her life plan. Anna and her husband wondered if they would be good enough for Jacqueline. “If anything, we felt under qualified,” she says. “They are a very achievement-focused family.”
From day one, Anna hoped for ongoing contact, but Jacqueline wanted to put the whole experience behind her. At the hospital, Jacqueline was intent on being discharged so she could return to school responsibilities. In the seven years since, things haven't changed dramatically. Anna stays in regular contact with Jacqueline's mother, exchanging occasional emails and photographs. She sends a text once or twice a year to Jacqueline herself, and always receives a reply. Jacqueline's views of her experience may be evolving, but it is hard to tell. Anna is happy to remain open to any connection Jacqueline might - or might not - want in the future.
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