I am not a birth parent. In many ways, I need to be careful to hold space regarding this topic and remember that my journey is different. I am a different part of the foster/adoption triad that is made up of the child, the birth parent, and the foster or adoptive parents. This topic pulls me in, and is very interesting to me, though. I know many, many birth moms. Over the last decade of being a foster and adoptive mom, I have worked with many birth families. Very early on, I found myself wanting to sit and listen to the stories of those from the birth family side of the triad when sharing their perspectives: “What do I want the parents who adopt my child to know.” I found myself feeling deep respect for their experiences, and journeys.
Through the years, I have interviewed many birth parents for articles and for my own personal understanding. I have compiled notebooks and bins of letters: some written to me from jail cells, some written by women I have never met in person, and some written by women that I consider dear friends now. I also have loose-leaf paper with rough notes hurriedly scrawled on them—evidence that I was taking notes as fast as I could with the permission of a birth mom, dad, aunty, uncle, or grandparent, to record their wisdom. Some of the correspondence is devastatingly sad; others are full of hope, joy, and laughter. One thing is for sure: no two birth families are the same, and no two adoption journeys are the same.
For this article, I dug through it all—all notes, old letters, old articles. I also reached out to the many birth moms in my life and asked if anyone wanted to share. Some are eager, some are hesitant, and some aren’t quite sure what to say. And all three responses are valid. I am of the solid opinion that birth parents deserve our utmost respect for the places they have been and the paths they have walked; few will understand what they have been through.
Before I dive into what birth parents want adoptive families to know, I want to remind us all that birth parents are, firstly, human beings. That makes us incredibly familiar and relatable, even if we feel we share no other experiences. I want to encourage us all that although we might not ever be able to wear the shoe the other person has worn, because we are both human, we can try to imagine what it might be like. Empathy goes so very far in bringing us closer together.
I want to say that in all my research and experience, there are always a birth relative or two that feel completely different from anyone else I have come across before. There are always variables because human beings have free will and uniqueness that can’t be tamed. No two are alike and this means that, although many responses are similar in flavor, some can be totally opposite. For the purpose of this article, I am going to record responses that are commonly held by birth parents. We can hold space for those that think differently without labeling them as odd or wrong. We don’t have to agree, but we can acknowledge their journey just the same.
And so, here we go:
1. “I want the parents who adopt my child to know that I love my child. Probably more than they will ever realize.”
This is word-for-word from many, many birth parents’ mouths. There are plenty of myths surrounding adoption, and although public education about adoption issues is getting better all the time, there can still be a lingering thought that parents who place their children for adoption must not love them or feel very attached to them. This can be compounded in situations where a birth parent, particularly the birth mother, struggles with addictions. I have heard many an ignorant comment about how a loving parent would not use drugs or alcohol while pregnant. Let’s just halt right there for a moment. Remember, you haven’t walked in those exact shoes. I am a big advocate of the idea, “if someone could do better, they would.” Many people that I have interviewed and that I work with are just struggling to survive, whether that be a difficult situation, (losing custody, or the ability to make decisions for a child), an abusive relationship, or incredible trauma that has physically changed the pathways in their brain. It does not matter the background of the parent. So far, no matter what the birth parent has done in their past or how their pregnancy played out (and I have interviewed those with pretty bad birth stories . . . things you can’t imagine), every single birth parent has said, “I love my child.”
2. “I want the parents who adopt my child to know that I want a better life, a good life, for them.”.
Sometimes birth parents make an adoption plan ahead of time. These birth parents are making an incredible sacrifice because they want a life of joy, love, and protection for their child. Not all birth parents make an adoption plan. Some have their children enter the foster care system. The aim of the foster care system is to reunite parents with children as soon as possible. Sadly, this is not always possible. Sometimes, parents realize they will not ever be able to care for their child and then agree to an adoption. In our family, we have had a birth mom ask us to adopt her child that we had fostered since birth. Other times, a judge will decide that a child will not ever be able to return to the birth parents (this is typically against the will of the birth parents). The child is then on an adoption listing and awaits being matched with a forever family. Each of these scenarios are quite unique and the parents have different outlooks on adoption. Even in these different cases, birth parents still want their child to have a good life with rich experiences free of extreme poverty and abuse.
3. “I want the parents who adopt my child to know that I have hobbies and interests.”
Seriously. Birth parents have had a full life of experiences, just like you and I, leading up to the birth of their child. I find that birth parents want to be seen for who they are. Birth parents have unique interests, skills, and abilities. One of our birth moms crochets beautiful blankets, one of our birth dads breaks horses for riding, and two other birth dads are amazing artists. Sometimes we reduce them down to just birth parents. But, they want you to know that they are so much more. Often, moms and dads would like the opportunity to show their skills to their children in open adoptions. They want to know if their children are also musically gifted, like to draw, or are into the same sports they were. They would like to share about their pasts and their interests. Early on, I was often quite surprised by our birth parents. I had no idea that they enjoyed gardening, woodworking, or could sing and play guitar so well, etc. It shouldn’t have surprised me— don’t I have my own special skills that I am proud of, even like to show off about, from time to time? Birth parents like to be acknowledged as a whole person with gifts, talents, interests, and tastes. They like to be respected as more to you than a birth parent alone.
4. “I want the parents who adopt my child to know that I am always thinking about them”
If you have the idea that after the adoption the birth parent forgets the whole thing, sorry. That isn’t quite how it goes. As I talked about before, there are exceptions to every rule. But, here are examples of how birth parents have surprised me with just how closely they hold their memories of their child: two birth parents have large tattoos as a reminder of their child. One of our children’s birth parents tattooed himself along his entire forearm, with our daughter’s name. He wanted to be able to think of her every time he saw it. Let that settle into your heart. It still brings a tear to my eye now. Another birth parent named their child after important people from their past. Have you thought about where the birth parents got the name for their child from? If they chose a family name or a name of another significant person in their life, they will hold that dear and remember it often. Sometimes adoptive families change the name of the adopted child. That is allowed unless you are adopting children over a certain age. Hold space for the name given, though—I guarantee that name is echoed in hearts you don’t know about and it is incredibly important to someone out there. Some birth parents have been collecting items for years: items they one day want to give their child if they are given the opportunity to meet them in person. This one actually breaks my heart a bit because there is no guarantee this meeting will happen. I’ve seen many collections and the thoughtfulness and care taken in choosing the items is very apparent. Birth parents continue to think about the children they placed for adoption.
5. “I want the parents who adopt my child to know that I think about what could have been”.
We all do this, especially after a loss. Birth parents may continue to think about what life with their child could have been like the things they could have done together, where they might have lived, or what it might have been like to take the child to soccer practice. There is a yearning. For birth parents that do go on to parent later on in life, this might be even more poignant. Sometimes, birth parents might vocalize that they could have parented, “If only” and they need you to be ok with their thoughts. It does not mean they resent you as the adoptive parent (although, it can happen). It does not mean they regret the adoption. It means they are still processing. This might be a lifelong struggle for some adoptive parents, and it does help to talk about it.
Birth parents come in all shapes and sizes just like adoptive families. Birth parents often wonder about adoptive families and see us as interesting or even weird. How much do we think about birth parents? How much do we understand birth parents? I think we would be wise to learn more about the birth parent journey and also to take time to understand the birth parent as a person. This is a gift to the adoptive child who will, one day, have many questions about their past. It is a gift to the birth parents: as human beings. We all want to be known. To show genuine interest in someone else is a beautiful thing. To celebrate someone else and their journey creates inclusiveness, a feeling of safety, and a feeling of community. Birth parents don’t cease to be parents after placing for adoption; birth parents will always be parents, but they have to deal with the deep grief of placing their child in another’s arms. Birth parents may feel a hollowness, and emptiness particularly right after the placement, or match, is made. As adoptive, and potential adoptive families, we have much on our plates. We have a new child, or children, to care for, busy households, work, and life in front of us. In the busyness of raising these children that have been entrusted to us, remember to look around, and appreciate those—give thanks for those—who made this adoptive family possible.