Birth Mothers Amplified, a podcast produced by the Gladney Center for Adoption, gives a safe place for birth mothers to tell their stories and create a more compassionate adoption community. In Episode 6, hosts Emma and Muthoni speak to Courtney, a birth mother who is also an award-winning storyteller.
Courtney attributes her unplanned pregnancy to a lack of self-worth. As a teenager, she lived in a single-parent home, but she did not feel much love from either of her parents. This upbringing made her willing to do anything to be loved, even if it involved making decisions that she now believes were wrong.
She was 17 when she found out she was pregnant. The term “ghosting,” she says, was created just for her after she gave the birth father her news. She called and told him she was pregnant, only to have him hang up on her. After giving him a week to calm down, she reached out again. He had disconnected his number. She tried paging him (this all happened about 20 years ago), but that, too, had been disconnected. She finally went to his house, but even that was to no avail—he had moved.
“It’s funny now. It was not funny back then,” she remarks. And I believe her. While listening to her tell this amazingly awful story, it’s hard not to laugh incredulously. The whole situation sounds like it could be from a novel, but the fantasy comes crashing down when you remember she was a young woman who had to deal with her pregnancy alone—no help from the father and limited support from her parents.
Entering the Adoption World
According to Courtney, all women have three options when it comes to pregnancy—parenting, abortion, and adoption. Courtney knew that she could not parent her baby at this point in her life—she was working part-time while going to school and doing extracurriculars. Even then, she could barely afford her school supplies. Babies take a lot of resources and she wanted her baby to have a better life than she could provide. But, she also knew that abortion was not the choice for her.
Courtney hid her pregnancy from the parent she was living with—partly because of shame and partly because she knew her parent would prefer she get an abortion. When she was about 6 or 7 months pregnant, she finally told her parent—and even then she was forced to go to an abortion clinic (though the clinic could not do anything at that point).
So, she knew that adoption was her only option, but she also knew next to nothing about adoption; her only knowledge about it came from lifetime movies, and those were shockingly inaccurate. She had to learn about this option at neck-breaking speed.
Courtney found an agency in the yellow pages, contacted a caseworker, and “talked [the caseworker’s] ears off for hours.” She had so many questions. Courtney remarked how grateful she was for the patience and kindness of her caseworker; she answered all of Courtney’s questions and never pressured her into a decision.
Soon after she started learning about adoption, Courtney began putting together her wish list for her baby’s forever family. She wanted them to be adventurous, attractive, loving, and more. She realizes now that the items on her wish list probably find roots in her low self-esteem, too; she didn’t think she was “worthy” enough to raise her baby, but she wanted her adoptive family to be.
After Courtney put her wish list together, the caseworker compared it to the files of hopeful families. Nowadays, most of this takes place digitally, but in Courtney’s case, she actually thumbed through paper notebooks created by the hopeful parents. These notebooks included letters, pictures, biographies, and anything else the parents wanted expectant mothers to know. Interestingly, all of the families Courtney looked through were Black, because Courtney is also Black. At the time, transracial families were rare; nowadays, though, it is more common.
Courtney (partly) chose her baby’s family after seeing a letter they had written. It was on stationery decorated with stuffed animals, and she loved stuffed animals in high school. She didn’t meet the family at all during her pregnancy. During this time, she made her adoption plan, prepared for childbirth, and tried to savor the time she had with her baby. Courtney had a rough pregnancy—she had morning sickness the entire time. But, despite this, she looks back on her pregnancy fondly because it was the only time she knew she would spend with her baby.
Her labor, like her pregnancy, was also a little different. She was due in September but went into labor in August. She realized she was in labor. She got to the hospital at noon, and by 12:25, her baby had come into the world. There wasn’t even enough time to give her any drugs to help the pain of delivery.
Throughout this story, Courtney emphasizes that everyone’s pregnancy is different—and more than that, everyone’s story and life is different. What’s right or normal for someone else may not be what is right and normal for you—and that’s okay. Because of different needs and circumstances, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for any problem. Knowing this makes me feel more compassion for humanity as a whole, but especially for birth mothers and everyone involved in adoption who are thrust into unusual circumstances and made to be flexible.
Compassion and Grief
Though her caseworker had talked her through much of the process, there was still so much she hadn’t even thought to consider. While she was delirious with pain, the nurses started asking her questions that she didn’t know the answer to.
“Are you breastfeeding or bottle-feeding?” one of the nurses asked.
“Neither,” Courtney replied, “he’s being adopted.”
After Courtney said that, she heard whispers in the room; apparently no one realized that she was part of an adoption triad. The hosts cut in here and remark how unusual this is; most of the time, hospitals are informed about mothers who are placing their babies for adoption so the situation can be treated with more sensitivity. All three women agree emphatically that healthcare professionals who interact with birth mothers need to be aware that they are placing their children for adoption, and that medical professionals in general should be educated on adoption.
Courtney also hadn’t planned on spending time with her baby after giving birth to him. She assumed that he would automatically go to the nursery, but one of the nurses asked whether she wanted him in the room with her. She was shocked, but wanted to spend every second she could with him.
“You don’t know that you’re supposed to even know this,” she said, speaking of the gaps in her adoption plan.
She got to spend two days with her baby in the hospital before they parted ways. Courtney went home and cried for hours, but she made herself get up and work. Five days later, she was moving into her freshman residence hall—she had to start college less than a week after giving birth.
Courtney’s story reveals her tremendous strength and grace, but at this point, I can really only marvel. She had to learn, grow, and adapt so much during such a brief and changeable time in her life. Leaving home and starting college is hard enough without worrying about adoption plans and hospital stays.
Her grief did not end after she stopped crying. She felt the loss for a long time after that and started coping in unhealthy ways. She would stop eating because, unlike her emotions, food was something she could control. She would exercise for hours each day.
But after suffering through her grief alone, she learned that part of her student fees included free therapy sessions on campus and she chose to get help. Counseling was very beneficial for her and she continued therapy for her entire undergraduate experience. She worked hard to change her I-made-this-choicetherefore-I-can’t-be-upset-about-it mindset. Her therapist helped her realize that even if she willingly made the right choice, she is still entitled to the emotions associated with it.
Dealing with Negativity
Throughout the adoption process, Courtney was surprised at the intrusive questions she had to field. She experienced a lot of negativity from friends, family, and strangers. Some of it may have been unintentional, but other times it was very direct. Before she gave birth, a stranger once asked what she was going to name her child. Courtney politely replied that she wasn’t naming her baby because he was going to be adopted.
The stranger looked straight at her and said, “You’re going to hell.”
Courtney was, rightly, flabbergasted. But the stranger continued, “My granddaughter got pregnant at 15, and we were there to support her. How can you give away your blood?”
Courtney then replied, “Ma’am, I’m glad your granddaughter has help, but I don’t.”
This experience, and countless other situations like it, make me realize how important sensitivity is, especially when talking to people whose situations you aren’t familiar with. As Courtney said, every situation is different and not everyone can be judged by the same measure. Sensitivity not only helps us avoid embarrassing situations for ourselves, but (more importantly) it also helps us avoid causing pain. Courtney points out that negative interactions will stay in our memories longer than positive ones. There is a sharp ring of truth to those words. I don’t like to think that someone still remembers an unkind action of mine from the past.
Despite the physical and emotional pain of having an unplanned pregnancy and placing her baby for adoption, Courtney has never regretted it. She says, “No matter which of the three options you choose, there’s going to be a journey, there’s going to be pain, there’s going to be joy.”
The Post-Placement Journey
Courtney then discusses what her adoption has been like post-placement. She has a semi-open adoption—she knew she did not want a closed adoption, but semi-open was the best she could get at the time. Courtney and the adoptive family could communicate using the agency as the middleman.
The family would send letters annually or every few years, and she would always make contact on major holidays. From the beginning, she made the conscious choice to only send cards, not presents. She didn’t want her son to think that her presents, which may fluctuate year-to-year based on her financial situation—for example, she might send a $200 gift one birthday, but the next birthday she could only send a $5 gift—were reflective of her love for him
Her son knew from a young age that he was adopted; his parents were always open about it and talked about his birth mother positively. His parents have adopted other children since they welcomed Courtney’s son into their lives.
Per the adoption agreement, Courtney’s son could choose to reach out to her when he turned 18 years old. She described feeling anxiety each year as he grew older. She couldn’t help but wonder, “what if he doesn’t want a relationship with me?”
Now, he is 20 years old, and he hasn’t chosen to reach out yet. I was surprised when I heard this, especially because Courtney introduced this part of the story so confidently. I assumed that, to avoid pain, she wouldn’t mention this part of the story if he hadn’t made contact. But this is yet another example of the safe environment that Birth Mothers Amplified creates and an indication of Courtney’s strength.
And Courtney’s explanation makes a lot of sense to me. She says that her son’s decision didn’t hurt as much as she anticipated. She has realized that because she made a major decision for him when he was a baby, he deserves to make his own decisions now. I don’t know if I would be able to deal with this situation as gracefully as she has, but I do know I admire her for it.
“It’s very inspiring to speak to a birth mom who is further down the road and seems so content,” Emma remarks at the end of Courtney’s story. And though I am not a birth mother myself, I agree. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to place a baby with another family. Courtney’s journey was not easy—she didn’t attempt to sugarcoat her experiences. To see how willing she is to share her story and help others and to hear a little about how her life has turned out is truly inspiring.
One of Courtney’s more recent endeavors has been writing and publishing a book. It’s called “Worthy! A Book for Kids of All Ages.” Courtney gives listeners a peek of the book during this episode of Birth Mothers Amplified. This brings the discussion back around to the central topic: worth. While these ladies were talking about this, I had the chance to really think about the word “worthy.” Courtney declared that everyone is worthy, but what does that even mean?
I think a lot of the time, we think of worthy as being worthy enough to do something. It’s almost like those signs you see in amusement parks: “you must be this tall to ride the roller coaster.” But Courtney doesn’t use it in this sense. Rather, “worthy” seems to mean “having worth,” and this is an inherent trait. Everyone is worthy simply by being a human being. I love the focus on self-worth in this podcast, and if you are feeling down on yourself, I would definitely recommend this episode.
This summary doesn’t even cover the entire podcast. Courtney’s story has so much rich detail, and the hosts have some great input. If you want to hear more, you can find all their podcasts on YouTube.