It’s been said that difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations, but that doesn’t do much to comfort those who are still fighting through the wilderness.  Even when adoption is the best and most loving decision, it is completely normal for birth parents to struggle with a wide range of emotions before, during, and after an adoption placement.  It is important for birth mothers to know that they are not alone and that there is help available as they navigate this unfamiliar territory. Counseling is incredibly helpful throughout all stages of the adoption process.

Counseling During Pregnancy

Facing an unplanned pregnancy can bring a lot of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) emotions to the forefront.  While some women may feel excited, others may be terrified. Many newly expectant mothers feel a mixture of emotions all at once.  A feeling of immediate love and a sense of awe for the life that’s being created may be coupled with anxiety or downright panic due to the uncertainty of the future.  It’s wise for mothers/parents who are facing an unplanned pregnancy to explore their options as well as their emotions.  Finding a counselor or licensed therapist can be a great first step in deciding how to proceed.

A counselor can explain the options available, as well as the pros and cons that come along with each decision.  They can also help expectant mothers to navigate the decision-making process while realizing how each option would impact their current lifestyle and their emotional state.  Another wonderful aspect of counseling is that it is completely confidential.  If a mother isn’t ready to disclose her pregnancy to the others in her life just yet, she still has the ability to let someone know.  If she is experiencing thoughts and emotions that she isn’t comfortable sharing with her family, friends, or romantic partner, a counselor can offer a safe and unbiased place to express those feelings.  Family therapy and couples counseling are also options for those wanting to navigate these options together.  If she is involved in an abusive relationship or living an unhealthy lifestyle, a counselor can provide resources to help her leave a detrimental situation and work towards a brighter future.

Deciding where to seek counseling is a personal preference.  Some expectant mothers may prefer to obtain counseling from a crisis pregnancy center or adoption agency because they are trained in this specific area.  Others may prefer to enlist a private practice therapist, a faith-based counselor at church, or a social worker at their local mental health cooperative.

It is in an expectant mother’s best interest to learn as much as possible about each option.  Many women face unplanned pregnancies. Some choose abortion. Some choose adoption. Some choose parenting.  This is a major life decision that should not be entered into lightly, and there are resources available to assist women regardless of the choice they decide to make.

Counseling Throughout the Adoption Process

If an expectant mother decides to consider an adoption plan for her unborn child, it is important that she receives the education and support that she needs.  Researching adoption agencies in the area can lead her to a place that’s in line with her values and her hopes for the future.  Most adoption agencies offer counseling for potential birth mothers.  It is important that this counseling is informative and that it is not coercive.  When choosing the option that’s best for her unborn child and herself, a birth mother should be sure that this is her own decision and that she is not being pressured or forced into a situation by anyone else.

While considering adoption as an option, there is no such thing as a stupid question.  All questions and concerns are valid!  It can be helpful to make a list of topics to discuss with the adoption counselor.  Some questions a potential birth mother might want to ask include the following:

“How do I know if adoption is the right decision for my child and myself?”

“What is the difference between open and closed adoption?  Which one will be most beneficial to me?”

“How will I know that I made the right choice?  Will I receive updates?  How about visits?”

“How do I tell my family about the adoption?  How do I deal with their reactions?”

“What about the birth father?  How do I tell him, and what are his rights?”

“Are there resources that can help me with prenatal care, etc?”

“What kind of emotions can I expect?  How can I cope with the emotions I am having now?”

Counseling should be made available throughout every part of the adoption process.  A prospective birth mother should always have someone she can reach out to when deciding to make an adoption plan, when choosing adoptive parents for her child, when dealing with the legal process, at the hospital, and during the time that the actual placement occurs.  There will likely be many new emotions and concerns along the way.

Psychotherapist comforting sad female patient during therapy session in office

Counseling After the Adoption Placement

Just because the pregnancy is over and the placement has occurred does not mean that the need for counseling is over.  In fact, the need for counseling may be bigger than ever after the adoption takes place.  Most birth mothers will go through a grieving process.  While it is not exactly like dealing with the loss of a loved one through death, the stages of grief are the same. According to many psychologists, there are 7 stages of grief: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness, the upward turn, reconstruction and working though, and finally, acceptance and hope.  Birth mothers may experience these stages in the following ways:

1. Shock and Denial:  At first, the situation may not seem real.  It may take a while for the gravity of the adoption placement to sink in.  This is a coping mechanism which tends to make people think that their loss is not a big deal or that it’s not really final.  Shock protects people’s minds and bodies from being completely overwhelmed all at once.  Denial is a way of trying to keep from hurting.

2. Pain and Guilt:  Once the initial shock wears off, the pain comes.  It can hit a person like a semi-truck: fast and all at once.  This is incredibly difficult.  Many birth mothers feel an empty ache as they realize that they no longer have the baby they have been carrying in their womb for so long.  They may feel guilt at not “trying harder” or being able to provide the resources it takes to raise a child.  Even though it may seem like a horrible process, filled with tears and regret, it is an important part of healing.  Birth mothers need to feel the painfully before it can ever actually pass.  Attempting to numb it with drugs, alcohol, or other risky behavior will not make it go away.  It only serves as a temporary numbing agent that causes more problems in the long run.  It’s okay and very normal to feel pain when you have gone through such a life-changing experience.  A counselor can help with finding coping strategies and positive ways to express emotions.

3. Anger and Bargaining:  Once the pain has been felt for a while, it can lead to feelings of anger and injustice.  A birth mother may try laying the blame on others.  She may wonder why her loved ones didn’t do more to help her.  She may be angry with a higher power if she believes in one.  She might feel that someone pushed her into a decision she didn’t really want to make.  She might wonder what she did to deserve these negative emotions.  Some people make rash vows or try bargaining in an attempt to change the situation.  Counseling can help channel anger into creative outlets or at least help a person to avoid lashing out at others.

4. Depression and Loneliness:  As a birth mother, it is easy to feel alone.  After all, so many people who become pregnant go on to parent.  Feeling as if she is the only one who can truly understand the emotions she feels can be very isolating.  While those close to her may tell her it’s time to “move on” and embrace life, she just can’t let go.  Loss is hard.  Even when a mother is sure she has made the best decision for her child, it’s still hard.  She may lose interest in spending time with people.  She may not want to get out and do the things she once enjoyed. The magnitude and finality of such a loss hits her, and it’s really heavy.  Counseling can help her as she “gets through” this stage of personal reflection and loneliness.

5. The Upward Turn:  One day, out of the blue, her laughter might return.  She might find herself singing along to a song on the radio.  She might start making plans for the future.  She may see a photo of her birth child, smiling big and bright, and feel happy because he or she is thriving.  It’s not necessarily that time heals the wound, but it at least makes it easier to bear. Life becomes a little bit better, and the feelings of depression aren’t as constant as they once were.  Counseling can help a birth mother to focus on the good.  It can help her to appreciate and embrace the little moments as she heals.

6. Reconstruction and Working Through:  The human brain is an amazing machine.  After facing a difficult problem, it eventually starts to come up with practical solutions.  While it may have seemed impossible to carry on with life as usual, this is when the mind adapts and overcomes.  Sure, there are still difficult moments, but during this time, the focus is on reconstruction of one’s self and one’s life.  This is a great time to reflect on the decision that she has made, remind herself of her reasoning, and learn how to live life to the fullest now that the decision has been made.

7. Acceptance and Hope:  This is the last stage of grief.  It’s that feeling of peace and acceptance that many grieving people think will never come.  While acceptance doesn’t mean that people will suddenly be happy, it does mean they can move forward with their life.  They begin to look forward to new experiences and opportunities.  They look forward more often than backward.  They can stand tall and know that they have weathered the storm and are still standing.  They realize that joy is possible once again.  They may now focus on setting and achieving goals, and hopefully work towards becoming the best version of themselves.

The stages of grief may or may not go in order.  Stages may be skipped altogether.  Some steps may be revisited.  Even once the final stage of acceptance has been reached, there may be something that triggers the mind and causes a person to repeat an earlier stage.  That’s okay, too.  It’s one of the reasons why continued counseling can be helpful.

Long-Term Counseling

While counseling during the pregnancy and immediately after the placement are very important, long-term counseling can be beneficial as well.  The emotions a birth mother feels may change over time.  The joys that come along with adoption may be easy for her to share with loved ones.  The excitement surrounding new photos, the anticipation of an upcoming visit, and the pride felt when her birth child accomplishes something great are some things that a birth mother may be eager to share with those around her.  However, there may be some difficult moments that she would prefer to express only in a safe, confidential space.

Milestones such as birthdays, while a blessing, can also bring sadness for birth mothers.  Mother’s Day is another such occasion.  Sometimes, the communication with the adoptive family changes or doesn’t go as anticipated, and a birth mother may need to vent to someone who won’t judge her for being upset or resentful.  It’s always helpful to have a trustworthy person on standby when unexpected emotions arise.

Support Groups

Friends, family, and counselors are all amazing sources of support.  However, it’s nice to have a community of people who have gone through the same types of experiences.  Placing a child for adoption is a journey that many don’t truly understand, unless they have walked it themselves.  Joining a network of birth mothers can provide a sense of belonging and understanding. There are some ‘in person’ birth mother support groups, and there are also hundreds of online support groups.  While every birth mother’s story is different, many of them feel the same emotions.  They have similar questions, concerns, hopes, and fears.  A respectful and open-minded birth mother support group is an excellent resource for genuine, empathetic support.

Reaching Out to Others

Almost everyone has experienced something challenging or life-changing.  Some choose to keep these experiences private and would rather forget about them.  Others choose to open up and share them with the world.  The truth is, the most difficult experiences often shape peoples’ lives.  These trials can lead to a sense of purpose and a desire to help others.  Some people choose their career paths based upon their passion for a specific cause.

By sharing their stories, birth mothers can make a major impact on the lives of others.  There are many ways their testimony can help.  Some birth mothers may fight to decrease the amount of unplanned pregnancies by educating young people on the topic.  Some birth mothers may champion adoption over abortion by sharing the stories of their successful and happy adoptions.  Others may advocate for birth parent rights, which are steadily improving.  Some may offer a listening ear to ladies facing similar situations.  Some may even pursue a career in counseling or social work.  While helping others, birth mothers may realize that they are helping themselves as well.  By speaking their truth and using it as a tool to help those in need, they are taking an important step towards their own healing.  When a person owns their story (and all that goes along with it), it can be quite empowering.

Placing a child for adoption is not something to be taken lightly.  It can bring moments of both pride and guilt, laughter and tears, hope and uncertainty.  Support and understanding are vital to the emotional well-being of a woman making an adoption plan.  During the pregnancy, she needs to explore the pros and cons of all available options.  When coming to a decision, she needs to be completely sure that the decision is her own—that she hasn’t been pressured or coerced into doing something she isn’t comfortable with.  During the placement, she needs someone who can listen and comfort her, as well as being supportive of her decision.  After the adoption has taken place, she needs a safe place to express both her joys and her sorrows.  As time goes on and her healing progresses, she still needs to be surrounded with love and encouragement.  Family, friends, birth mother groups, and counseling can all be members of an invaluable support system.  Birth mothers are resilient, selfless, and incredibly strong, even more so when they have the support and resources they need.