New adoptive parents love nothing more than telling their adoption stories,” and people considering adopting never get tired of listening to them. These stories generally begin with a description of the adoptive parents’ difficulties conceiving a child and end with the day they meet their baby. When the story is about a domestic adoption, one of the first questions people ask is, “Weren’t you worried that the birthmother* would change her mind?”
“Birthmother fear” is so entrenched in our culture that many pre-adoptive parents immediately opt for international adoption, which places the birthmother far away and therefore less likely to show up on their doorstep. These fears are fueled by tabloid stories such as those in 2007 when Allison Quets of the U.S. fled to Canada with her biological twins after she had placed them with an adoptive couple in North Carolina. “Fugitive Mother Vows to Fight” blared the Ottawa Citizen paper. The fact is, scenarios like this rarely happen.
What does happen, though, is a pregnant woman changes her mind sometime during the process of planning to place her child. The reasons range from choosing to abort, to marrying the birthfather, to getting the needed support from family members to raise the child. Some choose over time, others choose suddenly just before or after the birth of the baby. A very small number have a change of heart after the baby has gone home with the adoptive parents. But experts say that less than one percent of adoptions are reversed after the relinquishment of parental rights.
One of the best ways to overcome birthmother fear is to understand it by stepping into a potential birthmother’s shoes for a moment. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s 2006 study, “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process,” voluntarily placing a child for adoption is exceedingly difficult for the vast majority of women. For most, it is a step that causes deep pain that reverberates throughout the course of their lives even when they make the choice in a self-determined manner. Yet, according to the study, approximately 14,000 pregnant women are able to follow through on their adoption plans each year.
When a pregnant woman begins to consider placing her child, she is invariable coping with a sense of impending loss. And pre-adoptive parents are often in the midst of grieving over the loss of the biological children they could not have. Pre-adoptive parents can begin to view a potential birthmother as someone with the power to take their pain away and replace it with joy. The pregnant woman can, and often does, become feared because of her ability to “withhold” the baby and create a new loss for the pre-adoptive parents.
With emotions running high, a potential birthmother and pre-adoptive parents can become adversaries in the course of planning an adoption. Dawn Smith-Pliner, Executive Director of Friends in Adoption, an agency in Vermont, encourages all the adults to put their needs aside long enough to recognize their common goal: “They all want to make a plan that will enable the baby to grow into a healthy child and a healthy adult.” Many adoption professionals believe that open adoption, where connections among birthparents, adoptive parents and the adopted child are maintained, is in the best interest of the child.
Creating and fostering an open adoption takes hard work on the part of the birthparents and adoptive parents. For this reason, Smith-Pliner encourages birthparents coming to her agency to get counseling to help with decision making and provide support. Lately, she has noticed a new trend. Adoptive parents, too, are seeking counseling, which can give them the opportunity to discuss their fears about adopting and begin to manage them before stepping into what can be an emotionally turbulent process.
Ronnie, 45, the adoptive parent of 6-month old Zach, describes the fears she had two years ago when she and her husband, Ben, also 45, decided to adopt. She was exhausted from infertility treatments when she approached adoption and angry that she could not conceive a child. She found the whole concept of adoption anxiety provoking, and worried about all the things that could go wrong.
Today, Ronnie is able to smile at her fears, saying that she has taken a 360 degree turnaround in her attitude toward birthmothers. The night Zach was born Ronnie and Ben drove up to the hospital amidst a giant snowstorm that left them stranded there. Since the hospital was filled to capacity, they wound up having to share a room with baby Zach and his birthmother, Jen. Needless to say, everyone got to know one another very well, and Ronnie’s fears about Jen and her own life as an adoptive parent dissolved.
While Ronnie, Ben and Jen made up a formal agreement about how and when they would be in contact, they trust one another to use it flexibly. If Jen develops a medical condition that could be passed down to the baby, she will alert Ronnie and Ben. Zach will grow up having a relationship with his birthmother as well as her family. He will also know his adoption story and can turn to his birthmother and adoptive parents for more information as he grows.
Once adoptive parents talk to a potential birthmother, “birthmother fear” often evaporates and is replaced with gratitude and a sense of awe that a near stranger is entrusting her child to them. Conversations with potential birthmothers, although initially approached with trepidation, become the avenue by which adoptive parents who are good listeners can learn a lot about the child they soon hope to adopt. And a genuinely good relationship between birthparents and adoptive parents can help the adopted child celebrate the positive characteristics of both his birth and adoptive families.
*A pregnant woman can only be called a “birthmother” after she has placed her child.
Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is a Board Member and Adoption Coordinator of The AFA. She has a private practice devoted to Fertility, All Family Building Options, and Adoption in
Larchmont and New York City.