Merriam-Webster defines stigma as a mark of shame or discredit. Just hearing that alone sounds harsh enough for you to not want to place that on another…or so you’d think. However, over time, stigmas carry like misconstrued words in a game of telephone. They become something people say that seems to hold truth. While oftentimes myths and stigmas come from a form of the truth, it’s usually only a thread and not the whole story. Stigmas do carry a lot of weight in shame for the women who have chosen adoption as part of their story. So for the sake of birth moms everywhere, let’s break some stigmas.
Birth Mothers Are Selfish
It is easy for someone outside of the situation to think, “She gave her baby up, so she could do whatever she wanted.” There are so many things wrong with that quote. First, she did not just give her baby up as if her child were some “hand-me-down clothing.” She did not just give the baby away without feeling deep pain or maybe even regret. She did not give away her baby; she made a plan for her baby to have a different life than she could give at that time.
Second, “so she could do whatever she wanted”? The world likes to place these expectations on women, even at a young age that should dictate how they progress in life. There is a heavy pressure to “grow up” and take responsibility for the life you created. Even if you don’t have resources to be successful, even if you have to scrape by, even if you are alone, even if…” It’s an unrealistic expectation for so many, even those who seemingly have a stable foundation to work off of.
It’s hard work and super expensive to have kids, and we are not always in good seasons of life to make that work, regardless of how badly we want to. When I think of motherhood, I think of how much time and personal wants are sacrificed, how mothers put their child before anything else, how they put their child on a trajectory for success and growth, and how they never knew how much they could love someone until they held their child for the first time.
Every single one of those things is also true about my story as a birth mother. I sacrificed raising my child and watching all of the firsts; I sacrificed my feelings; I sacrificed a million times over because I knew my child deserved something different than I could provide at that time in life. However, I was still focused on putting my child on a trajectory to blossom. I put my baby first, and I have never witnessed love greater than the love I carry for my kids.
While birth mothers do not parent their children or do life by their sides, they are still mothers by definition and are furthest from selfish. And if the fact that they put their child’s needs above their own is not enough, being a birth mother is an emotional and challenging life to choose. No one would make that choice if she did not love her child enough to put him or her first. Sacrificial love knows no bounds; birth mothers understand this completely.
Birth Moms Are Just Troubled Teens
I think that this one originated from the beginning of adoption as we know it. You know, the taboo story where Betty Sue got pregnant, and her family ships her off to a Catholic nunnery to quietly have a secret baby that the nuns help find a home for. We’ve all heard stories like this, and unfortunately, adoption has been a taboo subject on the expectant mother side of things for a long time. Even today, I still hear slight whispers about how sad or shameful that situation must be.
The problem with this, however, is that in modern adoption most birth parents do not keep their pregnancy, adoption plan, or child a secret. Don’t get me wrong, it still happens today where women keep it a secret. I knew another birth mom when I was placing in 2010 that only her immediate family knew about her pregnancy. The truth is we all cope with things differently, and if a woman chooses to only let a select few know about it, well as Britney Spears says, “It’s their prerogative.” But in my entire lifetime of being in the adoption world as an adoptee and birth mother, I have only heard of three stories where there was a secret on the birth mom side.
For most of us, we find healing in telling our stories and find support in those who were with us during the journey. Now about this “troubled teen bit.” I will admit that I always tell people that I did not know my worth and was looking for it in the wrong places back when I was faced with an unplanned pregnancy. HOWEVER, we are all broken in some shape or form at some season of life. Just because a girl is young, doing typical teenage rebellion things, and ends up pregnant, does NOT make her a troubled teen. She is simply young and figuring life out. Period. Are there troubled teens, and even adults, who end up placing a child for adoption? Yes. My birth mom was one of those teens who struggled with self-destructive choices and continues to struggle now that she’s almost 50. It happens, but it is not the norm. In fact, today in adoption, we see far more young adult women who are already parenting a child or children at home, who decide to place their second, third, or fourth child for adoption.
Birth Moms Don’t Love Their Babies
I don’t even know where this one came from, but it is so hateful. As I touched on in the first stigma, sacrificial love is the epitome of choosing an adoption plan for a child. While that seems to be enough of a reason for me, I’ll expand on this. While birth mothers do not get to have the traditional parenting story, a lot of women choose to have an open adoption plan—meaning that they stay connected to their child and the adoptive parents in some fashion.
When chatting with other birth moms about why this is important to them, I always hear a lot about how they want to see their plan in action. Birth moms want to watch their children grow up in the family they envisioned for them—to see them get the opportunities that birth parents dreamed for them. Another common reason is that birth mothers want to still be a part of their child’s life, even if it’s only in moments rather than all the time.
For me, I grew up without an open adoption as an adoptee. I had a closed adoption, which means I did not know anything about my biological family until I sought out that information in my early 20s. Growing up, I had a LOT of questions about my identity and hoped that love was what created my story. As a birth mother, I did not want my children to ever have to guess about my love for them or where they came from. I want to be able to live my love out for them in life and to answer those questions as they come up. You see, it simply comes down to this: birth moms love their children more than you could ever fathom.
They’ll Just Move On
Jesus take the wheel. This one seems obnoxious to me, because if anyone who said this knew anything about adoption trauma, birth mother grief, or how adoption works, they’d know it’s not just a simple decision that doesn’t impact us deeply. Adoption trauma is real, and it is not as negative as it sounds. Adoption is a loss of motherhood for a birth mother, a loss of a mother for a child, and a completion of family in the adoptive family. It is complex and full of highs and lows. But even with all of the complexity aside, a loss is trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association, “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.” I do not believe that adoption is a terrible event, so I say, “trauma is an emotional response to a stressful event.” It is simply stressful and deeply emotional to relinquish parental rights of your greatest love: your child. It’s traumatic, and it definitely leaves grief in its wake regardless of how positively a birth mom views adoption or not.
Birth mother grief is complex too, because as we all know, feelings are hard, and it’s not uncommon to shut them away. Sometimes, a woman begins grieving at the beginning; sometimes, she gets it out in a week and shuts it away until it’s overwhelming; sometimes, she doesn’t feel grief until five years down the road out of the blue, or she finds out her sister is pregnant and is hit with triggered grief. Regardless of how it comes, it always does, and at some point, that birth mom will have to figure out how to heal and move forward. But moving forward does not mean that birth mothers just put that grief back in a box and get on with their lives. It means that they have to sit in their emotions and feel. They have to process their story and find out things about themselves that can be hard. Birth moms have to put in the work every day to cope with their adoption plan.
They Will Come Take Back the Baby
This one is always my favorite to pick apart. What movie script did this mess come out of? It is scandalous, dramatic, and UNREALISTIC—which are all great for the entertainment world. Adoption is FINAL, and pregnant women choosing adoption know that going in. It is a decision that cannot be made lightly because it cannot be changed once a woman signs relinquishment papers.
Unfortunately, I think that this is still the biggest stigma that is placed on birth mothers today. I sat in on an orientation for prospective adoptive parents one year, and no one knew that I was a birth mom, so they were able to speak their minds about worries and concerns. I was shocked at the amount of people, especially men, who were very worried about having an open adoption because they did not want the baby to be taken away, to get too close to her or his birth mom out of fear of attachment, or that it would be inappropriate.
Listen adoptive parents out there: I get it that open adoption is scary, and that you probably do not know what normal birth moms look like in reality. But you have got to have an open mind going into adoption. Not only are most adoptions today open adoptions, but also birth moms want to be able to communicate with you. Educate yourself on what open adoption can look like in its many customizable forms; communicate your worries and fears with your caseworker as he or she is equipped to help you navigate through those issues; listen to birth mothers’ stories as there are many podcasts, articles, and videos out there to hear birth mom voices. And lastly, just give everyone room to figure it out with grace. We all get fearful when it comes to uncertainty, but it’s also all up in the air how you will feel once you are matched with an expectant mother considering adoption or even how you will feel about open adoption in the future. You just have to step into the unknown and trust the process.
In closing, I feel that it is also important to mention the effects these stigmas have on birth moms. For me, when I hear that these stigmas are still so prominent in the adoption world, it hurts. I hurt for the many women who go through such a challenging process that are still questioned. While I believe that many of these stigmas come from ignorance, we have a choice to do better. For the birth mothers that sacrifice everything for those who gain a family, the very least that you can do is honor her by being intentional with your words and how you see her.
To the rest of the world, education is important for growth, and in order for us to continue breaking stigmas, we have to put in the work of raising awareness to the realities of adoption, to use positive adoption language in how we speak about birth mothers, and to always listen to birth mothers’ stories and learn from them.