On this episode of the Gladney ReFRAMED Podcast, host Emily Morehead LPC, discussed the complexity behind birth parent identity in the adoption process. Two birth mothers, Katie and Muthoni, were interviewed about their experience as birth parents and how placing their child for adoption affected their lives. After choosing adoption for their children, both mothers worked with Gladney Center for Adoption to create an adoption plan.
From the start of the table talk, both women were very upfront about the fact that they were proud of being a birth mother. Katie and Muthoni described how mostly everyone in their lives knew that they had chosen adoption for their children. For Katie, however, sharing her adoption journey was a little different. Along with being a birth mother, she is also an adoptee. While this adds a layer of complexity to how she handles her identity as a birth mother, she says it has helped her to be more cognizant of how to share her adoption story.
Life after placement looks different for each woman, reflecting the diversity of experiences birth mothers have post-placement. For Muthoni, keeping herself busy with work and other activities during the first year helped her. However, she describes not being “fulfilled” from what she was doing unless she was speaking about her experience as a birth mom. Like many who experience a stressful situation, especially those involved in the adoption triad, she thought that accelerating her productivity would help to avoid the absence in her heart. This left her with no time to “actually grieve,” meaning she never truly processed the difficult situation of placing her child for adoption. Now that she is actively in the grieving process, she has sought counseling and has begun to share her adoption journey. She reports feeling that she is in a much better place than she was in the beginning. Along with her own personal healing, she realized that sharing her story—the good and the bad—and helping other birth moms was her calling. This led her to go back to school to obtain a degree so she could transform her passion into a profession.
Morehead then brings up the common “great and wonderful” conversation around adoption. She asks Muthoni if she ever felt that she was not able to fully express how she felt about being a birth mother because of this narrative. Here, Muthoni spoke about how she was not allowing herself to express the sadness, stress, grief, and anger that comes with placing a child for adoption; she was not letting herself “be.” She brings up how the past Mother’s Day weekend was tough for her when it had not been in the past. She thought she was “fine” but realized that, although she may have been okay, she was still not being “aware” of her feelings and embracing her emotions.
Katie corroborates much of what Muthoni says but emphasizes how, during her pregnancy and post-placement, she was in denial. As an adoptee, she told herself that she was already equipped with the knowledge and skills to handle placing her child for adoption. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case. She makes a prolific statement about the reality of adoption: “…just because we have positive thoughts completely about something, it’s still a trauma. I still lost something.” Katie realized that it is okay to verbalize and acknowledge the grief, trauma, loss, and emotional aftermath of placing a child for adoption. In other words, it is possible to be content with the choice that you made (not regretting placing your child for adoption) and still recognize the loss that you’ve experienced.
Changing the overly positive adoption narrative that can sometimes be portrayed by a lot of members outside the triad such as adoption agencies, lawyers, and nonprofits is crucial to allowing birth mothers to have more freedom to acknowledge and express their trauma during the adoption process. As Morehead points out, if the loss or pain is not recognized, “you don’t get to rest in the beauty or the pain.” If nothing else from this podcast resonates with you, let it be this: as we become a more conscious and inclusive society, the adoption community must welcome a new mindset that reflects the reality of each person’s unique adoption journey. If the generations of unrest continue, adoption trauma will only become more embedded in the process; this ultimately will detract from the true beauty of adoption.
Next, the group discusses the importance of counseling. Although both women have actively sought counseling post-placement, they arrived at the decision to get involved with therapy in different ways. Muthoni describes her wantingness to “fix her own house” and become more at peace with her own story before jumping into a counseling role where she would be working with other birth mothers. She also emphasizes that therapy isn’t easy; in fact, she and Morehead agree that “counseling is hard.” Katie, on the other hand, reflects on how she has been in both individual and group counseling since she was a child. Because she was taken to counseling by her parents at a young age, she never felt like she had the choice or the opportunity to learn what counseling was truly about for her. This led her to develop a negative stigma around counseling for a long while as she felt uncomfortable with the idea of being told “something is wrong with you.” Now, however, she focuses more on creating a catalyst for change in her life. Essentially, what can she focus on to help improve her mental state and daily life?
Triggers are also something both women are familiar with when it comes to their adoption journey. Muthoni describes how her triggers can differ, depending on the situation. For example, she talks about how Mother’s Day weekend was not a difficult time for her until this past year. She also brings up how even something as seemingly insignificant as seeing a mother with her baby can bring up emotions at any point. For her, dealing with her triggers “in the moment” can help her stay grounded on a day-to-day basis.
Katie’s grief, on the other hand, is described as “not consistent.” For her, she realized one day that she was not processing her grief when she broke down crying after finishing a visit with her child. She was shocked that she had this sudden feeling of grief after thinking she was “fine.” Now that Katie is in a different season of life and is thinking about whether or not she wants to have a family one day, she describes having more motivation to deal with her inconsistent triggers when they appear. Another trigger for her is going to the OB/GYN. Seeing families who are expecting or who have young children gives her almost an envious feeling; although she doesn’t regret her decision to place her child for adoption, there is a tinge of sadness and grief that comes with knowing she is missing out on “little things” during her daughter’s childhood as a birth mother.
Another complex situation for both women was entering a new relationship with someone. Muthoni has found that in her relationships, although nerve-wracking, sharing things right from the beginning worked best for her. She thought it would take much longer in the relationship to disclose that she was a birth mom, but surprisingly, Muthoni brought it up on the first date. She said the person at the time was very accepting, and she is still with him today. Katie, however, paints a different picture of disclosing her adoption story during dating. While her family and friends were very pro-adoption and supportive of her decision, she stated that she has “experienced more hateful comments from men than I have ever heard from anyone else.” She’s been called “selfish” for choosing adoption, but it didn’t compare at all to what she had been told while dating. Someone even told her that their relationship wasn’t going to work out because he “wanted a family from scratch.” Can you imagine the hurt she must have felt when being told that? She describes “waiting for the backlash” when disclosing her story in dating relationships and how emotionally taxing it has been on her.
All in all, both women describe how they are doing the best they can for such an abnormal situation. Placing a child for adoption is one of the hardest choices someone may ever make in her life, and dealing with the emotions and grief post-placement can be even harder. Katie and Muthoni both showed the strength, resilience, and reality of being a birth mom.
A Bit of History About Birth Parent Stigmas…
At the heart of adoption’s foundation, protecting birth mother privacy was of the utmost importance post-adoption. If a young woman found herself pregnant out of wedlock during the early days of modern adoption, she could be ostracized from society. It was seen as the ultimate sin and shame on families, essentially ruining a woman’s reputation and chance for finding a reputable husband. Although our society has come pretty far in how women are treated, it is mindsets like these that helped to establish the negative stereotype about birth mothers.
In the past, adoption records were sealed, which meant that adoptees could not have access to any of the original documents pertaining to their adoption and would most likely never know their birth parents’ names. Without significant investigating, which often takes decades, neither birth parents nor adoptees could find each other. In some states, records are still closed to adoptees; however, as technology grows more user-friendly and more people are on social media sites, it has become easier to find birth family members.
Brave women like Katie and Muthoni that share their experiences as birth mothers are breaking down these stereotypes one day at a time. The more we talk about the reality of what it’s like to be a birth mother and having to constantly debunk stereotypes, the more likely these decade-old beliefs are to go away. When discussing how they combat stereotypes that are made against birth mothers, Muthoni and Katie describe the importance of educating people on what being a birth mother is really like. However, they do recognize that negative comments and judgments can “sting.”
It is essential for members of the adoption community to come together and try to change the narrative of adoption to one of comradery and loving honestly.
Throughout this podcast, there were several notable quotes. Reflecting on these after listening to the recording can help you to better understand the perspective of the birth mothers:
“Joy and pain can coexist.” Megan Devine
“Adoption is born out of loss. It’s beautiful, and families are made, but there’s also a flipside where there is a big loss.” Muthoni
“Never should a birth parent be shamed for what she chose to do—what she found best for her and her child.” Katie
Thoughts from an Adoptee
As an adoptee, I never thought I would get to the point where I could write about birth parent identity without a biased perspective. I had grown up with the stereotype that birth parents “gave away” their children and weren’t good people, which now I and most everyone else knows is not true. Believing and perpetuating this stereotype clouds a person’s judgment when thinking about birth parent identity. It’s not always easy to break these stereotypes, however. It took meeting one of my birth parents and having an on-and-off relationship with the other for me to realize that the stereotype wasn’t true. Hearing their perspectives on what happened in my adoption and finally being able to learn the complete truth, (or as completely truthful as an adoption story can be), I can only think that if it was this hard for me to readjust my mindset, imagine how hard it must be for other people involved in the adoption triad and even the general public. Watching this podcast was not only a very therapeutic experience, but also a heartwarming one. My hope is that more birth mothers like Katie and Muthoni continue to speak out and share their stories.
There are two different resources that expectant mothers and birth parents can use both pre- and post-placement. The first, Adoption.org, is a site that expectant parents can visit to find resources about different options for an unplanned pregnancy, starting an adoption process, and finding an adoptive family. Opportunities to speak with an options counselor are also available, providing a more individualized experience to expectant parents. For post-placement, birth parents can visit Gladney’s Post Adoption Department. Gladney also offers clinical support and provides resources for birth parents.
Listening to this podcast was an even more eye-opening experience for me as I hope it was for you. No matter your position in the adoption triad or lack thereof, understanding the narrative of a birth mother in today’s world is crucial to becoming more aware about the reality of adoption.