Impact of Adoption on Birth Parents: Responding to the Adoptive Placement

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Responding to the Adoptive Placement

Birth parents often describe a variety of feelings and experiences, including grief, thinking about the child, guilt and shame, identity issues, and effects on other relationships.

Grieving the Loss of the Child

Placing a child for adoption can be traumatic for the birth parents (Henney, Ayers-Lopez, McRoy, & Grotevant, 2007). Most parents considering placing their child for adoption struggle with the decision. Parents who decide to place their child for adoption begin to plan for a great loss in their own lives with the hope that the decision will result in a better life for their baby and for themselves. The birth and the actual surrendering of the baby may prompt various phases of grief in the birth parents, including shock and denial, sorrow and depression, anger, guilt, and acceptance (Romanchik, 1999).

All these feelings are normal reactions to loss. Birth parents may feel a sense of ambiguous loss, or the loss of someone who still is or who may be alive, which is different than the loss of someone who has died (Powell & Afifi, 2005). Friends and family of the birth parents may attempt to ignore the loss by pretending that nothing has happened, or they may not understand what the birth parents are experiencing (Aloi, 2009; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2007). Although many people view the loss of a child as the most traumatic event one can experience, they may not accord birth parents an appropriate level of sympathy because the loss is viewed as a “choice.” In some cases, the secrecy surrounding the pregnancy and adoption may make it difficult for birth parents to seek out and find support as they grieve their loss. In addition, the lack of formal rituals or ceremonies to mark this type of loss may make it more difficult to acknowledge the loss and therefore to acknowledge the grief as a normal process (Aloi, 2009).

The actual physical separation from the child generally occurs soon after the birth. Many circumstances can have an impact on the birth parent’s feelings at the time, including mixed feelings about the adoptive placement, support from other family members and the other birth parent, and whether the planned adoption is open (i.e., allowing some later contact with the child). The actions of the agency personnel (if an agency is involved), as well as those of the adoption attorney, adoptive parents, hospital personnel, and physician can all affect the feelings of the birth mother and father as they proceed through the adoption process and the termination of their parental rights.

When birth parents first deal with their loss, the grief may be expressed as denial. The denial serves as a buffer to shield them from the pain of the loss. This may be followed by sorrow or depression as the loss becomes more real. Anger and guilt may follow, with anger sometimes being directed at those who helped with the adoption placement, especially if there was coercion, no matter how subtle, or if the mother had no other viable options. The final phases, those of acceptance and resolution, refer not to eliminating the grief permanently but to integrating the loss into ongoing life (Romanchik, 1999).

Many birth parents continue to mourn the loss of their child throughout their lifetime, but with varying intensity. In a study of birth mothers 12 to 20 years after placement, approximately three-quarters continued to experience some feelings of grief and loss, and one-quarter reported no current grief or loss (Henney et al., 2007). Some of the factors that have been found to be associated with longstanding grief include:

A birth parent’s feeling that she was pressured into placing her child for adoption against her will (De Simone, 1996)

Feelings of guilt and shame regarding the placement (De Simone)

Lack of opportunity to express feelings about the placement (De Simone)

Dissatisfaction with an open adoption (Henney et al.)

Having a closed adoption (Henney et al.)

Grieving Other Losses

Placing a child for adoption may also cause other (secondary) losses, which may add to the grief that birth parents feel. They may grieve for the loss of their parenting roles and for the person their child might have become as their son or daughter. These feelings of loss may reemerge in later years, for instance, on the child’s birthday, or when the child is old enough to start school or reach other developmental milestones. Some clinicians report that birth parents may experience additional grief when they have other children because it reminds them of the loss of this child on a daily basis or, if they encounter future infertility, they may perceive the loss as a “punishment.”

Thinking About the Child

Birth parents are unlikely to “forget” the child they placed for adoption. In one study, all the birth mothers, including those in both open and closed adoptions, reported thinking about or feeling something about the child to some extent, with the average response indicating occasional thoughts or feelings. These thoughts and feelings were both positive and negative, but they tended to be more positive when the adoption was more open (Lewis Fravel, McRoy, & Grotevant, 2000). Additionally, birth parents who are not in contact with the child may maintain fantasies about the child, such as continuing to visualize the child as an infant years after the adoption (Rosenberg & Groze, 1997).

Guilt and Shame

Birth parents may experience guilt and shame for having placed their child for adoption due to the social stigma that some attach to this (De Simone, 1996; Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2007). This guilt and shame may exacerbate the grief being felt by the birth parents. Some birth parents may feel shame in admitting the situation to parents, friends, coworkers, and others. Once the child is born, the decision to place the child for adoption may prompt new feelings of guilt about “rejecting” the child, no matter how thoughtful the decision or what the circumstances of the adoption. Other birth parents may feel guilt or shame because they kept the pregnancy or adoption a secret.

Identity Issues

Placing a child for adoption may trigger identity issues in some birth parents. They may need to determine who the child will be in their lives and how the child will be in their lives (Lewis Fravel et al., 2000). Birth parents will need to redefine their relationship to the child (Romanchik, 1999). Their status as parents may not be acknowledged among family and friends, and if they go on to have other children whom they raise, this may also affect how the birth parents view their own identity, as well as that of all their children. Birth parents in open or mediated (i.e., semi- open) adoptions may face additional identity issues as they interact with the adoptive family. In one study, adolescents who were adopted and in contact with their birth mothers most frequently noted their birth mother’s role as a friend, with some also reporting relative, another parent, or birth mother role (Grotevant et al., 2007). In another study, birth mothers most frequently desired to play a nonkin role in the birth child’s life (Ayers-Lopez, Henney, McRoy, Hanna, & Grotevant, 2008). This relationship, as well as the birth parent’s perception of his or her identity, may change over time due to various issues, such as formal changes to the level of openness or the adopted child’s wishes.

Effect on Other Relationships

Some birth parents may have trouble forming and maintaining relationships (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2007). This may be due to lingering feelings of loss and guilt, or it may be due to a fear of repeating the loss. Other birth parents may attempt to fill the loss quickly by establishing a new relationship, marrying, or giving birth again—without having dealt with the grief of the adoptive placement. In a study comparing teens who had placed their infants for adoption and those who parented them, though, birth mothers who placed their children had a more positive quality of relationship with their partners (Namerow, Kalmuss, & Cushman, 1997). A few birth parents report being overprotective of their subsequent children because they are afraid of repeating the experience of separation and loss (Askren & Bloom, 1999).

For some birth parents, the ability to establish a successful marriage or long- term relationship may depend on the openness with which they can discuss their past experiences of birth and adoption placement. Some birth parents never tell their spouses or subsequent children of their earlier child (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2007). Others are comfortable enough with their decision to be able to share their past.

In some cases, the birth mother may lose her relationship with the birth father under the stress of the pregnancy, birth, and subsequent placement decision. The birth parents may also lose relationships with their own parents, whose disappointment or disapproval may be accompanied by a lack of support. In extreme cases, the birth mother may need to leave her parents and her home. The birth mother may lose her place in the educational system or in the workplace as a result of the pregnancy. Birth parents may also lose friends who are not supportive of either the pregnancy or the decision to place the child for adoption (Romanchik, 1999).

Continue to Gaining Control and Resolution

Return to Pregnancy


Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Impact of adoption on birth parents. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.