Looking forward to bringing home a bouncing bundle of joy? Brace yourself for the cold, hard fact that the adoption process is not all sweetness and light, even if it involves a sweet-smelling, adorable baby. The reality is that a typical adoption scenario is one more likely to resemble a soap opera than a storybook tale. Why? Because adoptions take place in the real world, and the reasons a birth mother chooses to make an adoptive placement often relate to something negative in her life.
No birth mother has ever said to me in my over 30 years of doing adoption work that she intentionally set out to get pregnant just so she could place her child for adoption. Actually, choosing an adoptive placement is normally a choice made for an unplanned pregnancy. In doing so, the birth mother is making the decision which is best for the child under the circumstances. And these circumstances are where the negatives enter the picture.
A growing concern and a negative in the adoption context is drug use by birth mothers during pregnancy. In particular, opiate use in pregnancy has shown a worrying rise in recent years. Substance abuse is increasingly contributing to adoption rates. Either the birth mother is incapable of parenting due to such behavior, or the state will not allow her to parent because of it (likely a combination of both). In the later case, state authorities remove the baby and place the child in foster care. With roughly 40% of adoptions coming from the United States foster care system according to Child Welfare Information Gateway, maternal drug use is a common and unsettling factor for adoptive parents to face.
Substance abuse is most prevalent in adolescents and young adults, the time when women may conceive. Moreover, the Addiction Resources website notes women of childbearing age (15-44) are at the greatest risk of developing an addiction. Strikingly, 90% of female drug users are of reproductive age.
Statistics put out by the March of Dimes indicate that approximately five percent of women take street drugs during pregnancy. Street drugs are illicit or illegal drugs such as heroin, ecstacy, meth, cocaine, marijuana (if not legalized), and prescription drugs which are abused.
Maternal drug use is not figurative ecstasy for the fetus, but a nightmare. Taking street drugs during pregnancy, as the March of Dimes relates, can cause issues such as preterm labor, miscarriage, or stillbirth. For example, women who use cocaine while pregnant, per the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecology, have a 25% greater chance of premature labor. Therefore, couples matched with a pregnant woman abusing drugs face the possibility of negative pregnancy outcomes.
Even if a drug-using birth mother delivers a viable infant, other problems can arise. Maternal drug use is associated with a low birth weight, a slowed growth rate, and a variety of physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems. The impact can even reach years into the future. It is widely accepted that genetics play a significant role in a person’s susceptibility to substance abuse. If additional substance abuse issues run in the biological family, a child has a significant predisposition to face the disposition themselves.
Another harsh reason for the adoption option to be chosen is the mother having a criminal history. If the birth mother is incarcerated or facing incarceration, she may be practically incapable of parenting because she is or will be behind bars. The nature of the crimes a birth mother has committed might provide a basis for the state’s removing the child from her custody out of concern for the child’s welfare. For example, a birth mother who has previously been found guilty of abuse or neglect of her children will typically not be allowed to retain custody of her newborn.
Brenda Woodard, birth mother of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, may be the poster child for birth mothers with a criminal history. She is a career criminal with close to 30 arrests. Her offenses include crimes of violence such as beating a friend with a tire iron, and threatening to burn down the friend’s house. Her biological offspring is alleged to have inherited her violent tendencies by killing 17 as a result of the Parkland shooting.
But it is not just the criminal history of the birth mother which may be the crucial factor for choosing adoption. Birth fathers with criminal histories or are suspected to be involved with ongoing criminal behavior will be faced with special scrutiny. A common scenario is a birth father being a drug dealer. The birth mother may decide to make a placement to ensure her child is not exposed to criminal activities, and the violence which often accompanies it.
Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz’s mother was often homeless, which points out another issue many birth mothers may be facing—undesirable financial situations. While these situations may not all be as dire as to require she live on the street, these birth mothers all share the common theme of being in a place of want. A lack of stable and/or permanent housing may be a challenge. Couch surfing or living in one’s car could be an option, albeit a poor one, for a pregnant woman, but it is likely to be out of the question for her and a baby.
Women who live hand-to-mouth often experience a lack of viable transportation options. Owning, operating, and maintaining a car is expensive, and could be out of their budget. Thus, they may resort to walking or riding a bike to and from work or the store. Without adequate or reliable means to transport a child to the doctor, childcare, etc., a birth mother is apt to conclude an adoptive placement is a better option for her child.
When a birth mother facing an unplanned pregnancy is already parenting other children, finances can be the controlling factor for her choosing the adoption option. If she is barely scraping by to provide for the children she is already raising, taking on the responsibility of raising another child would strain an already limited or insufficient budget. The birth mother is confronted with a difficult choice: Does she raise her child thus further reducing the financial resources available to provide for the children she already has? Or does she attempt to do what is financially best for all by making a placement? Love for a child simply cannot pay the bills.
Even if a birth mother would welcome the opportunity to parent her child, her circumstances may lead her to choose an adoptive placement. Abusive relationships are toxic environments in which to raise children. If the birth father or the birth mother’s current significant other treats her badly, whether verbally, physically, or both, she may fear for the safety of her child, or at least desire a healthier environment in which her child can grow up.
The circumstances of a child’s conception may be the critical factor in a placement decision for a birth mother. If those circumstances are unpleasant, raising the child may be a constant reminder of a time which she may wish to forget. Conception as the result of rape is a prime example of an event of which a birth mother does not want a daily reminder of. Such a pregnancy was obviously not planned, but it was additionally literally forced upon her. Having to see the face of her attacker on a daily basis in her child is simply more than some women can bear; an adoptive placement provides a positive solution not only for the birth mother, but for the child to whom she gives birth.
A placement decision may also result when the conception arises from an affair. Where the birth mother wishes to repair the relationship with her significant other, be it a husband or a boyfriend, having the child fathered by another man in the home makes that attempt even more difficult. An adoptive placement offers the child the opportunity to have a stable and loving home forever, and gives the struggling couple a better chance to mend their relationship.
Since everyone is human, everyone makes mistakes. Some mistakes are more obvious than others. A lapse in judgment giving rise to a one-night stand resulting in a pregnancy is visible evidence of that mistake. A birth mother who did not plan a pregnancy, who is not invested in a relationship with the birth father, and who is remorseful for her poor judgment could find the adoption option an appealing choice. She can turn a bad decision into a blessing for a couple who would find the addition of a baby to their family to be a miracle.
Given the problem with drug abuse in society today, a specific type of one-night stand can result. Addicts who have no cash to pay for drugs still need their fix and are willing to use whatever resources are at their disposal to get them. Unfortunately, such a resource might be their own body. Trading sex for drugs is sometimes the only means a desperate drug addict has to obtain the drugs on which her body is physically dependent. In such situations, birth mothers are not thinking clearly; birth control is not their number one consideration. If a pregnancy results, the birth mother is highly unlikely to be in any condition to raise a child as she is struggling simply to take care of herself. Furthermore, she is likely not invested in the child, because the conception resulted not from a current relationship but merely from a business transaction.
Since people are products of their upbringing, a birth mother’s family background can play a huge role in a placement decision. When a dysfunctional family dynamic is the hand in life dealt to a birth mother, she may desire more for any child she bears. Let’s say a birth mother was raised in a single parent home with a mother who worked all the time and was rarely home as a result; her father was not in the picture. Because of what that birth mother went through when she was growing up, she might decide she wants her child to have what she did not. With an adoptive placement, she could select a prospective adoptive couple who offers a stable two-parent home, an involved father, and a stay at home mother, should she so desire.
The active presence of dysfunctional family members in a birth mother’s life might also spur her to make an adoptive placement. The birth mother may feel herself fully capable of parenting; however, if her own mother is a drug addict or verbally abusive, she may wish to spare her child from being exposed to such negative influences who are present on a regular basis.
While prospective adoptive couples usually inquire about a birth mother’s habits such as smoking, drinking, and using illegal substances while pregnant, physical health is not the only concern. Mental health issues must also be taken into account by both birth mothers and prospective adoptive couples. Birth mothers suffering from a mental illness are often not able to care for themselves, much less for a helpless baby. Sometimes, these women recognize their limitations on their own and decide to pursue an adoptive placement. In other instances, the state must step in because it is clear given the nature of the woman’s mental health issues that allowing her to parent is not safe for the baby.
In a storybook adoption tale, everything would be wonderful. The birth mother and birth father are deeply in love, are in good health mentally and physically, have no criminal histories of dysfunctional backgrounds, and consensually conceive the child without any laws being broken. Unfortunately, real world adoptions scenarios are often dark and suitable as fodder for soap opera scripts. The demons of drug addiction and criminal behavior often play a starring role in the baby’s conception. Mental illness monsters may lurk in the shadows. Abusive family members, casual sexual partners, or rapists may be in the cast of characters.
Happy endings for adoption stories can and do occur where a couple is blessed with a baby to a parent, and the baby is blessed with a loving forever family. But these real world placements are more realistically going to occur out of soap opera settings than from perfect storybook ones. Negative factors in a birth mother’s life are often the crucial reasons leading to the positive choice of an adoptive placement.