Her whisper fills an empty silence as, staring at her growing belly, she says, “I don’t know what to do.  If only you could tell me what to do.” Her unborn baby’s voice is just as still as her own, a floating conscience that seems to be waiting for something, though what … neither knows for sure.

Her eyes pan slowly across her bedroom on the second floor of her parents’ house, as she tries to imagine an infant living there. She creates a vision of mid-week mornings,  awakening after a sleepless night in time to feed and dress both herself and her baby. How will she get to school, and where will she take her child?

But the vision is interrupted as she realizes she doesn’t even have a crib. Should she ask her parents? Can she expect them to pay for a nursery? Panic sets in and as she sits quickly up, a small sharp cramp takes over her lower belly.  She winces.  ”I don’t know what to do … what am I going to do?” And then the crying starts … all over again.

She has explored all avenues of parenting: She bit the bullet and finally talked to her parents about how much or how little they would be willing and able to help her. She visited the local Crisis Pregnancy Center and equipped herself with the information available to her. She researched local grants and available financial aid for young single mothers. She has spoken with the birthfather’s family and found out whether or not they are willing to help. She’s looked into homeschooling and any available schools for pregnant and young mothers. She has used online information and support groups and feels secure in knowing that she has examined all areas and issues of parenting.

Then she makes her first contact with a local adoption agency. This is when she begins to “Explore the Adoption Option.”

She has not yet made the decision to relinquish.

The Facts and the Small Print:

Fact: She will be assigned a counselor through the agency.

Small Print: Agencies use their own counselors. It is very common that the counselors are they themselves associated with adoption, as adoptive mothers or in less common cases, as birthmothers.
These sessions are used for two reasons:
1.) The counselor will have the ability to report back to the agency on whether or not you are likely to relinquish.
2.) To help you “talk” through your decision.
Keep in mind that these counselors are paid employees of the adoption agency and therefore have the agencies best interest in mind. The best way to avoid this is to request a counselor not affiliated with the agency. The costs incurred by doing this will be equal to or less than what the agency will charge the adoptive parents, so do not feel “obligated” to use anyone they refer you to. It is often in the adoptive parent’s contract that they will pay all adoption- related expenses and this is definitely a must.

There are several well-known adoption agencies that have highly trained and qualified counselors who do an excellent job and do not counsel with bias. It is important that you find this out for yourself. Things to ask:
1.) Are you associated with adoption personally?
2.) What is the overall goal of our sessions together?
3.) Are you required to report any part of, or all that I might say in our sessions to my caseworker or anyone else at the agency?
4.) If, after several sessions, you would not recommend that I choose the adoption option would you honestly talk to me about that? Would I get the same amount of support and help if I chose to look into parenting?
5.) After getting to know me, would you evaluate which type of couple and adoption plan would be best for me? And how would you come to that conclusion?
6.) If I do choose adoption will our sessions continue, will they end, or will someone else counsel me?
7.) How long and how often do we meet?

Fact: She may not think she needs counseling.

Small Print: Often in crisis we tend to go into shock mode. This is a numbing travesty. We either want the pain to just simply be over, or we do not have the ability to associate ourselves with it at all. Do not end up saying a year from now, “I never had any counseling … maybe things would be different if I had.” A clear-cut case of the truth can be displayed by this example: A young child experiences a traumatic event. When asked about the event the child will normally respond, “Nothing really happened, it’s no big deal, or, I’m fine, really.” When you are in the middle of a crisis you don’t have the ability to evaluate the reality of what it may emotionally and physically cause you in the future. Ten years from then the child will be grown and find herself saying, “I wish I had told someone about that that I could have gotten help. I was scared I guess, I just had no idea the effects would be this bad.”

So whether you think you need it or not, get counseling.

Fact: She will choose from portfolios of wonderful waiting parents.

Small Print: It will literally take you hours to sort through them all, and in the end they will all sound very much the same. You will find your head spinning from all the amazing couples who have so much to offer. You will experience a great deal of guilt and pressure. Guilt coming from not having what the prospective parents have to offer your child. Pressure coming from all the faces and stories of infertile couples. You will have to separate these two emotions from the task at hand. Number One: There are many great parents who do not make $100,000 a year or own boats and houses. Your child’s happiness is not guaranteed based on material goods. Number Two: It is not your fault that the wonderful couples you’ve read about cannot have children. AND: Do not look at this as if you are “making a child-less couple very happy.” Your relinquishing into adoption is not about “righting” the “wrong” you may feel you’ve done. Do not do this to “save face” in the eyes of your family and friends. This isn’t about redemption. This is about what is best for your baby.

Fact: She will make a decision to meet with a couple she has selected.

Small Print: However nervous you are, multiply that by about ten thousand and that’s how nervous they will be. First impressions are critical. You have chosen to meet with a couple, but the final decision is still pending. Remember that, and be prepared. It is easy to get lost in how kind and sweet they are and forget that you really need to know them better before choosing. Whatever they say do not accept, “We want what you want, whatever it is we will make it work.” Get specific. Don’t offer your needs and wants first but rather ask them their hopes and ideas of how they want their adoption to be. This way their response is honest and not manipulated by what they think you want to hear. Set up several meetings before choosing.

Fact: They will be great.

Small Print: Of course they will be! It’s tough getting as far as they have, but they’ve done it and met all the criteria for meeting you. They have spent hours and hours in meetings, had their home inspected, and been counseled as well. You will feel as if you are becoming an extended part of their family! You may even go to dinner with them, talk endlessly on the phone, write e-mails back and forth, go shopping together, you name it! You will probably become very good friends over the course of your remaining pregnancy. But remember they will soon become a family. They will become parents. Their lives will separate from you, legally and emotionally. They will go through sleepless nights, baby showers, and the beginning of parenthood. You will go through grief, loss, and the pain of separation. What was once a common goal between you will become separate journeys. Although you may continue to share a relationship with them, whether it be an open or semi-open adoption, it will be dramatically different. Many new birthmothers in open adoptions have said, “Before the adoption we talked on the phone almost every day– now I’m lucky if I get to talk to them once a month.” You may feel betrayed, hurt, and forgotten unless you are prepared for the next stage of your relationship with the adoptive parents and your birthchild.

Fact: She can choose between closed, semi-open, and open adoption.

Small Print: Since closed adoptions are going out the door as fast as yesterday’s garbage (thank goodness), the most common of adoptions are semi-open and open. This is where it gets confusing. I can’t count the times I’ve heard, “I have an open adoption, but the agency prefers that we send all our correspondence through them.” And I can’t count how many times I’ve replied, “Oh, but you do know all identifying information right?” And the reply, “Well … no, I just go through the agency.”

Semi-Open Adoption: No identifying information is released from either party to the other party under ANY terms (unless there is a “death or illness” clause). You will correspond using the agency as a mediator. Any letters, pictures, needs, and concerns will be directed to a caseworker who will then evaluate the information and make the following decisions: 1) If it is agreed-upon material (meaning your letters will be opened and read and all names or inappropriate content will be blacked out), it will be copied so that the agency has record of it, then it will be placed into a separate envelope and mailed. 2) Should you become concerned because the agreed-upon pictures and/or letters have not arrived, you will speak with a caseworker who will check your files to ensure it has not been received. Then she will evaluate the amount of time you have waited and if action is necessary. She will then make the decision to contact– or not contact– the adoptive parents. 3) Any concerns or needs that you might have will be addressed by your caseworker. In semi-open adoptions it is recommended that you have total and complete trust in your agency (not necessarily just your caseworker) and that you consider whether or not they will be able to voice your needs and concerns as if you were speaking with the adoptive couple yourself. And remember, in semi-open adoptions you will not know where your child lives, nor will you have any means to get in contact with the child or his/her family. If the semi-open adoption turns closed, by request of the adoptive couple, you will hear this news from your agency and you will not be able to challenge the adoptive parents’ decision.

Open Adoption: You will exchange identifying information including, but not limited to, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and physical addresses. Any plans or agreements made must be upheld mutually with one another and only in the case of miscommunication or upset will the agency become involved. You will send pictures, letters, etc, to one another directly. You may arrange meetings with one another and even extended family. This will be completely up to both of you. You will not have a mediator and your adoption plan will be contingent based only on the adoptive parents and you. Should any unforeseen problem arise and either you or the adoptive parents choose to discontinue the open relationship, the agency will be called in to then act as mediator and all parties will be required to comply with semi-open adoption standards. Again, just as in semi-open adoptions, no verbal agreements are legally upheld in a court of law.

Fact: She has signed the paperwork and the child has been relinquished, but she still has up to eight weeks to change her mind (in most states).

Small Print: Many birthmothers experience the worst battles of choosing during this time. They have committed to signing the papers and the baby is physically with the adoptive family, but the window of opportunity still exists.

Birthmothers who have not had real time with their babies, i.e. in the hospital before the child was placed, will suffer the worst battles of all. They will feel as if they didn’t get appropriate time to say “goodbye” and they will wonder if they shouldn’t have spent more time with the baby. They will question their decision and often regret that it went by so quickly. Many birthmothers will panic in the last days before the adoption is made final by a court of law. They will change their minds.

This is devastating, not only to the adoptive family who has already begun to bond with the baby, but also to the baby itself and the extended family members of both sides. In many cases the baby is ultimately adopted into the adoptive family once the birthmother feels that she spent time with her child and was able to make a more secure choice. But this can be easily avoided.

Before the paperwork is put into motion, before you have that final countdown, remember that you have every right to bond with your baby. You can place the baby into what is now called “Cradle Care.” It is a home consisting of volunteer “foster” parents who care for your baby.  Usually the agency has several of these homes lined up for such a situation. Cradle Care is not like a foster home in that your baby will be placed out as soon as someone becomes available. The adoptive parents you’ve chosen still remain waiting while you take the time you need with your baby. Only when you choose to relinquish will the baby then be given to the adoptive parents.

Or you can take your baby home for a while. Once you have your baby for a while you may feel better about your decision to relinquish, or you may realize that parenting is really the choice for you. Doing this ensures that no one is hurt in your decision-making process. You will be able to surrender your child having faith that it is the best decision possible and enter into an adoption plan with a peace of mind– or you will be able to parent knowing that you considered all options. Do not feel rushed. One of the top regrets that birthmothers experience is not walking out of the hospital with their babies. They have what is known as “empty arms” syndrome. Just because you have given birth does not mean that you must immediately make your choice before leaving the maternity ward.

Fact: The adoption is final and she is satisfied that this was the best choice for her.

Small Print: Even the best surgeons in the world cannot ensure painless recoveries. Just like the woman who had heart surgery knew it was the best thing to do, you will be afraid, anxious, and extremely concerned that the wounds you suffered may never heal. You will attempt to ignore the pain by repetitively telling yourself you made the right choice, your baby is happy, and that the adoptive parents you chose are the best. While all three of these are most likely true, knowing them and telling them to yourself will not defeat the heartache within you. You have a long road of recovery ahead of you. Where the agency was there waiting on you hand and foot, they are now busy with new caseloads and suggest you find a support group. Where you once lay in bed, caressing your stomach and talking things over with your unborn baby, you will find that you have extra time on your hands. You will experience a second birth; you are now what we in the birthmother world call a “First Mother.”

What You Don’t Want To Wish You Knew:

Know these things BEFORE you go through with it.

1. You can meet with more than one prospective couple.
2. You don’t have to make your decision so soon.
3. You can spend time with your baby before you decided.
4. Semi-open and open adoption are not legally upheld in a court of law.
5. You have a right to non-agency affiliated counseling. Get off-site counseling and don’t stop going for at least two years.
6. Your relationship with the adoptive parents can change dramatically once the adoption is final. Examine your relationship with the adoptive couple and communicate about what your expectations are after the adoption is final. Don’t leave room for guessing and don’t say, “We’ll just play it by ear.”
7. There are agencies, schools, and support centers for teen mothers.
8. Don’t be afraid to talk to your parents. They many surprise you by how much they want to help if you ask them to.
9. Before relinquishment you are told you are a selfless, amazing, unique young girl. After  relinquishment you will endure long silences and hard stares. Prepare yourself. Start communicating with other First Moms. Get into support groups.  Journal, write, and educate yourself.
10. This will be hard. Don’t be naïve in thinking that this will be easy just because it’s the right thing or because the adoptive parents are so great.