my son made his entrance into the world last November, a second
birth took place. There on the delivery table, soaked in sweat
and blood, I was reborn as a first mother. In the long days since
that double birth, I have grieved a grief of a severity I didn't
think possible. I have reached new depths of suffering, and I
have lived the meaning of regret. For a person who despises
victimhood and espouses personal responsibility, this has been
a hard role to accept--but the truth remains...I was hurt by bad
little girl grows up dreaming of becoming a first mother or "birthmother,"
a role that is generally either ignored or despised. Yet millions
of women carry the badge. Increasingly we are more forthright
about our aborted chance at motherhood, and some of us are even
militant. But first mother from an earlier era still stumble upon
one another, often after long acquaintance. "You too?" they say.
"I had no idea..."
even if a first mother did summon her courage to speak, the shameful,
inhumane practice of closed adoption ensured that no one wanted
to listen. More frequently, mothers who surrendered children didn't
even try, having bought into the big lie that they would "get
over it and move on." How many women have we lost to the
aftereffects of this evil untruth? The terrible pain of our older
first mother (those from the era of maternity homes and secretive
births) is living proof that "you will forget" is a fabrication
so wicked that Satan himself may have been its creator.
First mothers never forget.
adoption, in which adoptive families maintain ongoing, lifelong
relationships with the first family, has elevated first mother
status in important ways, but injustice in adoption remains rampant,
and prejudices still abound. Would-be adopters and social
workers alike have an image of the "typical" first mother, and
they look down on her in smug condescension. They think
they are rescuing the poor confused dear, and expect her to be
grateful to their charity in "saving" her child from a life that
is not solidly middle class, or a home that is not two-parent.
after two decades of progress toward open adoption, first mothers
still pay. We pay every time someone tells us our child is so
lucky to have found a good family (i.e., to be away from us?)
We pay when coworkers (usually the same ones who told us during
our pregnancies that it would be selfish to keep our children)
go on to ask in disbelief, "How could you have given away your
baby?" We pay dearly on Mother's Day, and we pay each time
we are asked, "Do you have any children?"
am not anti-adoption. Many cases really do call for a good adoptive
family, and many children benefit from growing up outside their
biological homes. But adoption as it is practiced today
is a disgrace. It's become an industry geared not toward "the
best interests of the child" (itself a worn out catch-phrase with
little real meaning) but toward serving people who think they
have a God-given right to add a child to their home. Adoption
used to be about finding homes for children, but now it's about
finding children to fill the homes of infertile couples. To save
the institution of adoption, I propose a list of nine reforms.
understand why I make them, however, it's first necessary to have
some background on me. For starters, I fit none of the first mother
stereotypes. Aged 27 when I gave birth, I was hardly a teen mother.
I am not poor or unstable: I have a good job with a major corporation.
I am not uneducated; I have a sharp mind and an undying love of
learning. My child was unplanned, but not unwanted. My family
and I had much to offer my son, save the one thing we could not
give him: a father who stuck around.
into the effects of adoption on infants shows that the psychological
cost of infant-maternal separation is so high that an adoption
should only be done as a last resort. It is a well-documented
fact that infants do suffer lifelong consequences as a result
of separation from their first family, regardless of how joyous
and successful their adoption eventually turns out to be.
Experts in the field caution, therefore, that adoption should
be done only if there is no other way for mother and baby to stay
together. Unfortunately, this is not how adoption is commonly
practiced. Agencies and private adoption "facilitators," which
profit based on how many adoptions they can arrange, don't ask
too many questions about why a mother-to-be is considering adoption.
despite the red flags that the demographic indicators ought to
have raised in my case, the adoption industry forged ahead, desperate
to get one more healthy, white newborn. No one said to me, "If
anyone has the resources to be a single parent, it's you." No
one asked me why I was really choosing adoption, or if I was being
influenced by those around me instead of going with my gut feelings.
No one acknowledged that what I was actually trying to do was
pay for my "sin" in getting pregnant out of wedlock--trying to
make atonement by making an infertile married couple happy. The
"counseling" I got was perfunctory and biased and all-around unacceptable
(I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) But I didn't know
better. Despite attacking the potential adoption of my son as
a research project, and reading a great deal of material while
pregnant, I did not collect enough unbiased information to fully
understand what I was doing. No one knows just how to go about
becoming a first mother until it's already too late.
I signed the papers and they got the baby. But is this the basis
for building a family--on the grief and regret of another? I often
wonder how adoptive parents live with themselves, knowing how
much they have taken away from my child's natural family. Unless,
that is, it's absolutely clear that they are offering the child
much more than the natural family could have done. My situation
lacks such clarity. It is far too ambiguous. I fear that in the
life of my son, I merely replaced one major loss (lack of a present
father) with another (being cut out of his natural family).
my proposed reforms:
Eliminate biased social workers. When I was trying to decide
if I was going to surrender my child to adoption, the agency provided
the prospective adopters with a counselor, as well as one for
me. But that counselor was herself an adoptive mother. In our
"talks," she bubbled inanely about what a wonderful gift her daughter
has been (as if the girl's first mother had searched valiantly
for the perfect present and done so much better than a gift certificate.)
Mothers do not give their children as gifts to needy parents;
if anything they give the parents as gifts to their children.
phenomenon of presenting adoption as "gift-giving" is far too
prevalent. A mother-to-be does not need to be thinking about the
plight of childless couples, no matter how sad infertility may
be. A woman in the midst of a crisis pregnancy has been stigmatized
as a bad girl, often experiencing the disapproval of and anger
from family and friends. In order to regain her "good girl" status,
she will do anything to make these people happy again, and giving
away her baby to a needy couple seems like the perfect way out.
The danger is that she will make an adoption decision based solely
on the feelings of others.
counselor's pro-adoption propaganda colored my thinking at a time
when I desperately needed objectivity. It is unacceptable
that supposedly neutral parties, offered for support and guidance,
have such personal interest in the outcome. Adoption lawyers and
social workers should never be adoptive parents themselves.
Mandate counseling for all potential first mothers.
Even if the expectant mother is in denial and thinks she does
not need counseling, she is wrong. The law should require
that she receive free counsel from an uninterested, outside party.
Voluntarily losing one's child is the most serious loss most women
will ever face. Being forced to do so without extensive
advisement is sheer cruelty.
need for counseling leads to another needed reform: ending private
adoption. Private adoptions circumvent agencies by using lawyers
as facilitators, In private adoption, there is little to no counseling.
What's more, a lawyer is trained in law, not in helping expectant
mothers to make painful, human decisions, and he will not see
to it that she gets the support she needs (or that the prospective
adoptive parents receive the education they need to realize all
that they are taking on). Education should become mandatory for
all hopeful adopters, and required reading lists should be standard.
Train all hospital workers in sensitive adoption practices.
The horror stories I have collected from other first mothers regarding
their experiences in the hospital are hair-curling, and they come
from both sides of the fence. Every day I hear of nurses who think
adoption is wrong and try to talk the first mother into keeping
the child in the biological family, or nurses who think adoption
is glorious but that the first mother is sinful and has no right
to enjoy her own birthing. Both are equally offensive and
could be cured with more education among hospital staff, who need
to learn that their role is to make a mother's delivery as pleasant
and stress-free as possible, regardless of what plans she may
be making for her child. Doctors, nurses, and support staff
should never express their opinions on the adoption plans taking
place. In the meantime, potential first mothers must
take full control of their hospital experience and not let outside
ignorance alter a well-made birthing plan.
Keep adoptive parents out of the delivery room and away from the
hospital. They don't belong anywhere near the scene.
This is hard for me to say, because my child's parents were in
the delivery room (at their request, not mine) and it seemed at
the time to be a relatively pleasant experience, though not without
a measure of awkwardness. Looking back, however, I see how it
interfered with my decision-making ability. Since then I've also
learned more about the pre and perinatal experience of the child.
The question ought to be, "Who does the adoptee want in the delivery
room?" Unfortunately, this question is almost never asked.
to psychologists, the newborn baby recognizes its mother immediately
at birth. That baby needs time to continue the bond with his first
mother, who he already knows from forty weeks of sharing her body.
The prospective adoptive mother, no matter how wonderful she may
be, is still a stranger to the newborn, who does not experience
himself as separate from his biological mother until the age of
will be time for gentle transitions into an adoptive family later,
if they are in fact needed.
are often handled as if the baby is not really present. The thinking
seems to be that if the switch-off is handled quickly enough,
the baby will never notice. This is patently untrue, and rushing
to place a child in an adoptive home does lasting damage.
is yet another reason prospective adopters don't belong anywhere
near a delivery room. No matter how much thought has gone into
a pre-birth decision, an adoption plan must be made anew after
the birth, once the child has become a reality. A great majority
of first-time mothers report feeling disconnected from their child
while pregnant--and these are women who planned their pregnancies
and intend to keep their children. For most potential first mother,
this is their first child, and they have no idea how they will
feel after the baby's actual arrival. A child that they wonder
if they could love is now known to be the most precious thing
on earth to them. Yet adoption laws are mostly written by men,
who have no idea that motherhood is a great unknown until it actually
frequently hear about the horrible first mother who so inconsiderately
changes her mind, as if a change of heart is a sin. Yes,
the prospective parents will face real pain if the first mother
decides to keep her baby. But the cold truth is that no one is
going to leave that hospital without pain. The first mother is
expected to bear the pain, and to bear it FOREVER. When she backs
away from that pain, she is treated as if she has violated a contract,
much as if she were selling a car, not relinquishing a child.
Most states do not allow an intent to relinquish statement, but
those that do must act at once to outlaw them.
mothers do not owe anyone a child. Where the prospective
adoptive parents and potential first parents have formed a meaningful
relationship, with a firm commitment to ongoing presence in each
others' lives (which in open adoption we hope they will have done),
adoptive parents' presence in the delivery room may be acceptable--as
long as the first mother is the one asking for it and the emotional
risks are known to her.
Abolish irrevocable consent. Many states allow a window of
time for mothers to change their minds about this most immense
of decisions, but many do not. In addition, many states allow
consents to be taken in a hospital bed, shortly after birth, rather
than in a courtroom in front of a judge--the proper place for
a decision of such solemnity to be formalized.
you are given 72 hours to decide whether you will lose your child.
Is that enough time? The place you are given to do it is
a hospital bed, where you lie worn out from labor, hovered over
by anxious adopters and their guests. Their joy at the new arrival
is infectious, and you might start to think that life as a first
mother will always be this saturated in gratitude and happiness.
Is that the proper atmosphere to make a decision which will completely
recreate you as a person and affect the rest of your days?
In three months, many things can change in a first mother's life,
factors that will make her want to keep her child. Give her the
time and the space to make the decision, and if her economic or
social standing has not improved or if she still doubts her mothering
ability, proceed with the adoption.
End adoption advertising. Adoptive families like to
say their families were formed by God. If so, then why do they
need marketing to get the job done? If God wants to form
a family by adoption, then prospective adoptive parents need to
sit back, shut up and let Him do it. They shouldn't sell themselves
with saccharine ads and gooey posters, troll for babies on the
Internet, or omit crucial facts in those "Dear Birthmother" letters.
(And while they're at it, they should never refer to a pregnant
woman as a "birthmother" at all. A woman is not a birthmother
until she has signed away her legal rights to her child, so an
expectant mother can never be a birthmother. Calling her one denies
reality, forces her to think of herself as something she may not
want to become, and is coercive in the extreme.)
adopters who paint themselves as the Cleavers of the nineties
are hawking the family for gain. Thankfully, a lot of potential
first mother see through it--but many of the younger, more naive
ones do not. Babyselling is rightfully despised in our culture,
yet somehow baby soliciting is not. There are plenty of
non-coercive, dignified ways for prospective adopters to get the
word out that they hope to adopt. Let's use them. We must bring
back integrity to the adoption process, or we haven't progressed
much since the days of the orphan trains.
Let closed adoptions dwindle like the Dark Age remnant they are.
I have no respect for potential adoptive families who would even
consider a closed adoption. Adoptive parents in a closed adoption
have only solved one thing: their own infertility. They
are not acting for the sake of a child but for the sake of their
own need to "play family." Closed adoption parents certainly do
not have the child's well-being in mind, since as a result of
their own fears and insecurities they only trade one set of problems
(a single parent home) for another (genealogical bewilderment).
who adopt overseas to make things easier on themselves are also
suspect. It's one thing to save an orphaned child from a
group home. It's quite another to purchase a baby overseas because
you don't want to deal with the child's biologic roots, or because
you feel you need a perfect white baby. Going halfway around
the world to avoid the natural family is cowardly and wrong, but
somehow society views these do-gooders in a positive light. There
are plenty of adoptable kids right here in the U.S. The
question is, is the adoptive family up to the challenge?
Open records for adult adoptees. Unfortunately, we have
not yet reached the point where all adoptions are open, so we
have an additional problem, that of closed records. How
can we say we have the best interests of a child at heart when
we tell her she has no right to her original identity? Why
are adoptees the only class of people deemed not trustworthy enough
to know of their origins? This seems so obvious as to defy
further explanation, yet only three states understand it so far.
If you believe in basic human rights, you must grant adoptees
the right to know. Don't let the Oregon Seven fool you.
The vast majority of first mothers (some 98%) are for open records--for
they are mothers first, who care about their children's psychological
records damage the adoptee, by keeping him forever a child. Adoptees
grow up, but adoption laws do not reflect that obvious fact. They
are never trusted with their heritage. This perpetual infantilization
of adoptees is demeaning to all involved, and violates basic constitutional
(and property) rights.
Make open adoption agreements legally enforceable. Only
one state allows first mothers the protection of open adoption
contracts, which help to hold adoptive parents to their promises.
In all other states, such agreements are actually illegal.
[note: such contracts
are NOT legally enforcable in any state or province]
a sad fact that a large percentage of adoptive parents break their
promises for continued contact once they have the baby in their
home. It happens more than you would think, and is especially
tragic when the only reason a first mother agreed to adoption
in the first place was the promise of ongoing contact with her
child. Such agreements must have the protection given to
other serious agreements--the protection of law.
mothers don't ask to be created. We become, without wanting
to become. We are, without wanting to be. Our mistake? Struggling
through an unplanned pregnancy in order to give life, sticking
to a strong value system, refusing to care what others think of
our choice. We are told over and over again during pregnancy,
by people who want our oh-so-valuable babies, that we are doing
the honorable thing, making a beautiful choice, loving our child
completely. Then, as soon as the placement is secure, we
are told to be ashamed of what we have done. We are asked how
we could give away blood. We are shunned and scorned as somehow
less than the "real" adoptive mothers. We hear that "good birthparents"
ought to ride away into the sunset, leaving their children in
the past, leaving the adoptive parents to answer the tough questions
and soothe the child's losses.
fifty years of closed adoption in the United States has proven
that it doesn't work. If you doubt it, turn to the
Internet to see the number of adoptees in immense pain.
The sugarcoating of adoption has got to stop. It is not a win-win
situation. The biggest losses of all come to the one who tried
heroically to find the best solution to an unplanned pregnancy.
In reality, there is never a solution. All three options have
severe effects on a mother's life, and when a mother chooses the
very hardest road for the sake of her precious child, society
ought to scrape its collective knees as it bows down to honor
her sacrifice. And yet the very word is ugly...birthmother.
As if the word "mother" is not big enough to encompass more than
one type of love. I prefer the term used by some enlightened adoptive
parents: first mother.
I seem to be hard on adoptive parents. This is not because I dislike
them, but because they have all the power in adoptive relationships,
and therefore far greater responsibilities. The child has no say
in what happens to him, and the first parents lose all rights
once the papers are signed. Adoptive parents function as the gods
in the adoption triad, and like the gods of mythology they can
be either benevolent or terrible. I urge both present and prospective
adoptive parents to try to truly feel the enormity of first mother
and adoptee loss. Then, if you still feel the adoption is necessary
and good, go ahead with it...but do it in a dignified way that
honors your child-to-be and the family from which he comes.
Then adoption is allowed to be a blessed event, not a disgraceful
© Heather Lowe, 1999