Common and Not-So-Common Myths About Birth Mothers Explained
The road to placement for a birth mother can be very lonely especially with limited support and resources to aid her in working through the pain and grief that accompanies making a life plan through adoption for a child she deeply cares about. Even though adoptions have been occurring since Biblical times, birth mother experiences are kept out of mainstream media, misrepresented in movies and books and generally remain a mystery making it virtually impossible to dispel myths about birth mothers that are potentially harmful. Let’s look at some of these common and not-so-common myths.
Myth 1. She must not love her baby.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines love as “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.” From the moment a woman learns she is pregnant and begins considering adoption as a viable choice, love and concern for her baby’s safety, well-being, and future lead her as she seeks out information in order to make an informed decision. It takes a whole lot of courage to recognize that you may not be able to parent your child. It requires being able to put the needs of the child first above all else and actively plan for their future. Adoption is a means of making sure a child has a safe, caring, responsible parent(s), and home when the biological mother is not able to fulfill that role. It is love that helps a mother endure the pain of letting him or her go.
Myth 2. Adoption is an “easy out.”
It is not the easy way; it is quite the opposite. Coming to the decision to voluntarily relinquish a child for adoption is perhaps the hardest decision a mother must make. It can be traumatizing, lead to depression, involve long term or even lifelong grieving, and yet she is still willing to endure the pain and anguish if it means creating a better, more stable, or safer life for her unborn child.
Myth 3. Birth mothers are typically teenagers, uneducated women, or struggling with addiction.
There is not a one-size-fits-all or “type” of a woman that chooses to place her baby for adoption. An unintended or crisis pregnancy can happen regardless of age, occupation, or socio-economical background. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the contemporary birth mother is in her early 20s, likely to have some education with aspirations to continue that path, and is transitioning from living with parents or caregivers to independent living. She may even be parenting other children and experiencing financial hardships. Other factors that may influence a woman’s decision to place include homelessness, domestic violence, mental health issues, and pressures from family. Yes, some women who make adoption plans have substance abuse issues or they are teenagers but certainly not all of them.
Myth 4. Terminating parental rights ends her relationship with her child.
Out of sight, out of mind does not apply. Whether a mother chooses an open, semi-opened, or closed adoption, signing on the dotted line doesn’t end the relationship with her child. The type of adoption determines how often a biological mother and child see each other, whether they can talk or video chat, and when pictures will be exchanged. But in the absence of physical presence, psychological presence remains. For many—if not all—birth moms, their child forever stays in their hearts and minds. Particularly on birthdays, Mother’s Day, the anniversary of adoption finalization, other holidays or family gatherings in which nieces, nephews, grandchildren or other children are present. Current research in the subject of attachment now tells us that maternal attachment, a biologically driven need to nurture and protect offspring, does not stop or go away when her child is removed from her life either voluntarily or involuntarily.
Myth #5. A birth mom can take back her child.
Undoubtedly, this may be the greatest fear faced by a couple or family hoping to adopt. Adoption is a legal process meant to be irrevocable once a final decree of adoption is issued through family court. According to the National Council For Adoption, there are certain circumstances when consent can be revoked and great care is taken to ensure the best interest of the child is a priority. Most states have put guidelines in place such as time limits that can range from a few days to a few weeks during which biological parents can withdraw their intentions to relinquish parental rights. Once that time period has passed and the adoption is finalized, it becomes a permanent legal transfer of parental rights.
Changing the Narrative; Tips for Dispelling Harmful Myths About Birth Mothers
The world of adoption is evolving, yet these and many other unhelpful beliefs surrounding the very personal and often traumatizing decisions women experiencing unplanned or crisis pregnancies face continue to exist. They are misconceptions that feed into an already complicated and emotionally challenging moment in someone’s life. Messages that may be playing a role in the cycle of depression, guilt, shame, grief, and even post-traumatic stress disorder so many birth moms live with. In order to have a conversation about how to dispel these myths, we need to understand how and why the myths are harmful.
More steps are being taken by adoption professionals to understand the depth of emotions a biological mom feels related to her loss and yet, in general, birth mothers continue to be among the least supported and most stigmatized. The National Adoption Attitudes Survey reported that nearly 2/3 of families in the United States have had an experience with adoption. Either someone came into the family through adoption, a member of the family placed a baby for adoption or they know someone who is adopted and yet the women at the center of these life-changing decisions are rarely talked about or get depicted in movies and books in ways that keep these and many other myths alive.
Adoption was previously based on a model of secrecy. Today it is more common for the birth family and adoptive family to remain in contact and have ongoing relationships which include regular visits and open lines of communication. This openness has been shown to ease grief and reduce pain and emotional suffering by a birth mother. There simply is not enough adequate information explaining the lived experiences of women who have chosen adoption. Knowledge is power but at the end of the day, it’s not the statistics that are going to dispel the myths and stereotypes about birth moms. We need to change the conversations or at the very least start having them.
The Start of a Conversation
I am a birth mother. My story isn’t extraordinary, but it is unique to me just as every other woman who experiences an unplanned pregnancy story is unique to her. I placed my baby for adoption in 1989, a time when adoptions were more likely to be covered in a veil of secrecy. Semi-open adoptions were becoming more commonplace and I had the opportunity to not only choose the family that would raise my daughter but also to meet them in person briefly at the adoption agency.
I never knew any identifying information about the family raising my child and the annual letter and pictures I received went through the agency to ensure privacy for all. From the outside looking in, very few people would know that anything had changed in my life. I went back to my normal routines, I thought about and made plans for my future, but I never once forgot about her. At night, I wondered what she dreamed about; during the day, I found comfort in imagining her holding on tight to the stuffed animal I gave to her parents the day I met them.
When I learned I was pregnant and began putting together an adoption plan for my daughter, I was faced with both guilt and shame. The guilt stemmed from knowing that a choice on my part was going to cause pain, confusion, and a whole lot of conflict within my family. The shame stemmed from a little voice that told me I needed to keep this a secret or I would forever bear a scarlet letter letting the whole world know what I had done.
That all began to change one day when an invitation to speak at an upcoming adoption workshop came by way of the social worker in charge of my adoption case. Imagine, for a moment, having recently made a life-changing decision not only for myself but for this innocent child, a decision that ultimately required choosing another human being that I had never met to not only raise, but love, care for, cherish, and guide my daughter, each and every day for the rest of her life. Swirling in sadness, grief, worry, guilt, hope, and awe, the quiet whisper of shame always present, and here comes an invitation to stand before a group of strangers and tell them what I had just done. Sign me up.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance.” She goes on to share that “women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations.” Guilt, on the other hand, according to Brown, “is adaptive and helpful.” In other words, shame leaves us feeling like we are innately bad because of a choice we made. Guilt holds the value of a slight shift in thinking—you may not feel good about something you have done but you still see yourself as generally a good person with good intentions.
Shame has a way of isolating us from the people and things that matter the most and the result is a feeling of disconnect, keeping secrets (or silence), and an inability to manage the swarm of emotions that don’t seem to go away on their own. I am not sure what brought me to the point of agreeing to share my story to a room filled with prospective adoptive parents, especially when it was all so new and raw, but I have never regretted my decision. You see, shame cannot survive and thrive when it is met with empathy and openness. It became evident that the more I shared and talked about my experience with an unplanned pregnancy and choice to place my child for adoption, the heaviness in my chest, the knots in my stomach, and the negative self-talk began to ease up. In their place was a desire to extend grace to myself and that came in the form of acceptance, compassion, and hope. Since then, I have shared my story countless times in hope of paving a way for other women to feel safe enough to come forward and talk about their powerful life-altering decision because I believe that it is in this space that healing can begin and stereotypes can be shattered.
Today I invite you to join my conversation and share a part of your adoption story as we work toward debunking myths and creating a more balanced and accurate view of birth mothers. If the idea of going public feels scary or overwhelming, know that you are not alone. Look for a venue that feels safe to you, maybe talking with a trusted friend or family member, attending a support group or speaking with a therapist. The therapy room is a great place to not only try out new communication skills but explore and process the feelings that come up as you begin to sit with your story in a new or different way.
The myths and beliefs about who the women are and what motivation drives their decisions to choose adoption have been around for decades and are not likely to change overnight. However, we live in an age where getting information out to large groups of people is available at the push of a button. One need not look farther than the hashtag #birthmomstrong on social media to see that the shift toward openness and acceptance is on the rise.