“I could never do what you did.” That’s what I heard a family member say to my son’s birth mom. My son’s birth mom was 17 when she had my son, and this family member also found herself giving birth at 17, yet she chose to parent her daughter. She meant it as a compliment to my son’s birth mom’s strength, but the wording stung. It insinuates that had she loved her child just a little bit more, been a little stronger, or struggled a little harder, she would have parented.

“Yes, you could have.” That’s how I inserted myself into the conversation. “If your situation had been identical to hers, you could have found the strength to place your child into a family who could provide safety.”

I’ve heard people say, over and over, “Wow, I would have never been able to do that.” The truth is, maybe you wouldn’t have been strong enough to do it. Maybe you would have kept parenting that child, but maybe—just maybe—if you’d been in that woman’s shoes, you would have made the same decision. You would have known that child would go home to an abusive household or that they would be in immediate danger or that they would take a backseat while you struggled to get your head above water. You might have weighed your options and realized that parenting would be the selfish decision, and maybe you would have done whatever necessary to protect your child. That’s what a good mother does after all, right?

Instead of saying “I could never do what you did” to a woman who placed her child, say something like, “It must have been so hard to place your child in the arms of someone else,” or, “You were incredibly strong to do that.” Show her that you realize it took guts, selflessness, and unimaginable strength to put that child first. Make sure she walks away from the conversation not feeling judged. It takes incredible love and a fierce level of protectiveness to admit that you believe your child should be raised by someone else and leave you with empty arms.

Insinuating placement has anything to do with lack of love is not only the furthest thing ever from the truth; it’s one of the most hurtful things you can insinuate to a birth mom. Birth moms know their decision had everything to do with love and that they would have parented had they loved their child just one ounce less. It feels good for that to be validated when they open up to you about how they placed a child with a family who could provide what they couldn’t at the time.

Adoption is not the right choice for every woman in crisis, and it should only be considered with proper, objective, non-biased options counseling. Women who opt to parent their children through a life of crisis are not always selfish, and women who place their children are not always unselfish. Each situation is different, so choose to support a woman who opens up to you with empathy and encouragement, letting her know you realize her sacrifice was all about love.

What have you said when a birth mom opened up to you about placing her child for adoption, or how have you handled hearing this from people when you’ve shared your story?