Category Archives: Ethics in adoption

Birth Mother Stories: A Longitudinal Walk Through the Decades

Previously, I introduced you to three women who had the experiences of placing a child for adoption in the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. They told us their adoption stories as birth mothers and shared their thoughts on what needed to change with the way adoptions were done. We continue the conversation here.

Lee, 1960s | Kim, 1980s | Monika, 2000s

birth mother stories

Adoption Activism

Give us some context by telling us a little bit about you and how your adoption experience has influenced your interests and activities.

Lee: In 1976, I founded Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), the first organization in the world to support and advocate for birthparents, a term I coined to dignify the birth connection between parents and the children they lost to closed adoption. Between 1976-1980, I was appointed by the then-head of the then-named “US Department of Health, Education and Welfare” to sit on a panel of 17 adoption experts to draft model adoption laws for the country. Although kicked out of high school in 1962 due to my pregnancy, I also returned to the educational system in 1978 and began to make up for lost time. After earning a doctorate degree, I began an almost 30-year career as a college professor in the social sciences. When I retired I reconstructed more than 10,000 pages of CUB’s history for the women’s activist center of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and oversaw the digitization of 4,000 of these pages for CUB’s website. 

(Lori: Wow.)

Kim: I’m a writer, blogger, mother to two wonderful daughters and birth mother to one amazing son for the last 25 years. I blog about parenting, motherhood, family life, adoption and life in general at kimcourt.com.

Monika: I’m the author of Monika’s Musings, a blog dedicated to speaking out about the good and bad in adoption today (but which has been dormant lately as my schedule’s been full with school commitments). For years I’ve volunteered with BirthMom Buds, an organization dedicated to women who have surrendered children to adoption, whether by choice or not.

On Guilt, Shame and Unworthiness

Kim: Lee, I watched your video from The Donahue show and was absolutely mesmerized by your poise and composure in the face of a lot of ignorant comments and questions. I was struck by how much and also how little things have changed with regard to how people think about adoption — and especially how they perceive birth mothers.

You mentioned feeling shame and guilt and wanting to appease the wishes of your parents. I can relate to these feelings in such a powerful way. I’m curious how you reconciled these feelings as an adult? Did they affect your other relationships (as a wife, parenting mother, etc.)?

Lee: As you know from my book, Stow Away, I was in the amnesia phase of PTSD during the early years of raising my two parented sons. Having lost their older brother to adoption wasn’t anything I allowed myself to remember. But maybe because I had lots of babysitting experience with my younger siblings pre-Michael [placed son], I was able to tap into unadulterated caring feelings to raise Scott and Todd. There wasn’t anything negative in my mothering. Just the opposite. If anything, Michael missing within my memory and beyond, in adoption, made me more devoted to my children than I may have otherwise been. On a level deeper than my awareness, I felt privileged and awed to be able to keep my boys. I could have taken my devotion to an extreme; I could have become a smother-mother. But somehow I intuited that I needed to rein in my devotion — to hold back just enough investment to avoid hurting them — or avoid hurting me.

You may have wondered about my relationship with my parents. As you also read in Stow Away, my parents sacrificed my motherhood and Michael’s rightful place in my family to “protect” my younger siblings. The upshot of their abandonment of Michael and me was that I emotionally distanced from my original family. At the same time, I felt a huge responsibility to make something of myself, to prove “they” couldn’t beat me down. Now, as a backdrop, you need to keep in mind that my parents were awesome parents. We had a close and loving family. This contributed to the dissonance I felt with their willingness to sacrifice Michael and me. How could such great parents do that to us? It added more bewilderment to my already staggering bewilderment

As my mother aged, she grew very dependent on me. I resented that. It was, I now realize, a “where were you when I needed you” kind of thing. On some level, I wanted to “pay her back” by delaying my duties as a dutiful daughter. If she needed me “now,” she just had to wait a few minutes longer. My father, whom I had adored, always mystified me post-Michael. I knew he and my mother had lost their first child (my older sister) when she was only a couple of months old, and he had never gotten over it. Why he would be willing to put me through a repeat of his own family history, I will never know.

Interestingly, when I first wrote the journal upon which Stow Away was based, my antagonist was my mother. As a woman and a mother, as my semi-conscious reasoning went, she should have understood and helped. But when I wrote Stow Away, I discovered I was actually more angry with my father’s insensitivity than I was with my mother’s.

Bottom line is, if parents don’t support their daughter’s need to keep her child in the family, assuming that’s what she deep-down wants to do, then be forewarned: there will likely be some kind of fall-out. 

Kim: In the Donahue video you said you felt “unworthy to struggle.” This is exactly how I felt. I became pregnant at 17 and had my son shortly after I turned 18. I was in a loving relationship with my high school boyfriend and was not at all promiscuous. However, the pressure from my family (and really from society in general) was so profound — sex out of wedlock, having a child out of wedlock, etc. — all of it was scandalous. I buried my feelings and placed him in an open adoption. His parents are absolutely phenomenal. It has been open since day one. We are all close — my husband and children, my family of origin, the birth father and his family, and my son and his family. It is truly a wonderful relationship. But my personal struggle has been difficult at times (bouts of depression, anxiety, fluctuating self-esteem, etc.) I would love to know how you coped; how you overcame the feelings of unworthiness.

Lee: Looking back, I chose activities that provided good feedback for my self-esteem. While forming CUB scared the heck out of me and was risky for my self-esteem, as time went on, I received much appreciation from other mothers like me. That told me I was on the right track, and tracing back that sense of being on the right track, only a good intuitive person could have risked taking that track, yes? Actually, there’s science to support the notion of “risk” being a four-letter word that enhances self-esteem. If you risk, you can’t lose. Even if the risk fails, you can pat yourself on the back for the courage to go for it.

Lori: I love this way of thinking about risk.

I went into my pregnancy with healthy self-esteem. But no one else held me in esteem, so I ended up being the only one who thought I had something to offer, which was erosive. I began to question my sense of self as much as I questioned everything else, which was a lot. Much later, I found that my lost-then-found son loved me, which I hadn’t expected (I thought he might want me in his life to get answers but his feelings for me went much deeper). So having Michael’s love gave me back a lot (but not all) of the esteem my pregnancy had cost me.

Meanwhile, as my second book Cast Off shows, I learned and learned and learned through CUB. I also unlearned and discarded old beliefs. It was exhilarating. I wanted more learning and unlearning. I hungered and thirsted for it. What else was out there, I wondered? I gave up my resistance to the education system — which kicked me out due to my pregnancy. Each course taught me something new. I began to earn one degree after another. I began to teach at the college level. My students gave me affirmation, one saying — and others agreeing — she would have taken a course with me if I taught how to make concrete. I kept all their accolades and have them to this day.

Bottom-line: Try to reclaim any good stuff you thought about yourself before others’ reaction to your pregnancy began to strip-mine you. Take risks; the bigger the risk, the stronger the potential boost. Find out what excites you and develop that as fully as you can. Don’t be shy; ask for good, specific feedback (“general” feedback will not do).

What progress has been made in adoption world since your era?

Lee: Thanks to the agitation created by Concerned United Birthparents, alternatives to surrender are more likely to be presented to needy new families. If a parent at risk freely chooses adoption as an option to further explore, a process called “open adoption” can be, and is in 95% of today’s adoptions, invoked.

Kim: There has been good and bad progress since my era. While there are still, unfortunately, stories in the media about bad adoption experiences, the positive stories about open adoption are making their way into the collective consciousness. Books like Lori’s would have made a world of difference for me, had it been written a couple of decades ago.

Lori: Thank you, Kim.

Monika: I haven’t seen much, to be truthful. Bio/first/birth parents (especially mothers) who speak out against coercive adoption practices are labeled negatively and pushed aside. Coercion is still way too rampant. Though, like Lee said, open adoption is more common now, I’ve also seen agencies and adoptive parents both admitting to promising (or encouraging, in the case of the involved agency) an open relationship prior to surrender and then promptly closing off contact completely after the ink has dried. I see it used as a bludgeon and a tool to coerce more often than I see it committed to by all parties involved.

Lori: That’s unconscionable, to do a bait and switch like that. Better pre-adoption education is key to helping prevent that. As you know, I’m a proponent of helping people move from an Either/Or mindset to a Both/And heartset.

What are the top two things you’d change today about how adoptions are handled?

Lee:

  • I would make “open adoption” more than something that is in name only. Like Monika says, too many “open adoptions” are betrayed by prospective adoptive parents who promise the moon to get a child and then slam the door shut once the ink is dry on the adoption degree. Open Adoption Agreements should be supported in law and enforced by the courts. The betrayal of this ultimate trust should be grounds for litigation and penalties.
  • I would require that only supportive members of the birth family be allowed to visit the mother and baby in the hospital or birthing center. A child-centered open adoption should be developmentally-respected. The baby already knows its mother’s scent and sound, and needs the assurance that she remains there for him or her. Meanwhile, the mother needs to fully grasp the reality of her child, who is no longer theoretical but an actual extension of herself and her own family. After some prolonged alone time between mother and baby, if the mother wants to continue to explore the possibility of transferring custody to another unrelated family, members of the other family should begin to acquaint the baby with their own distinctive scent and sound by adding their senses to the mother’s. Custody should be offered and accepted slowly and sensitively.

Monika:

  • I agree with Lee’s second comment completely. Legal surrenders of children should NOT take place in the hospital, period, though I’m less firm on the idea of not allowing hopeful adoptive parents to be in the hospital at any point. There should be no adoption case workers on the premises of a hospital, ever. Forced surrender, in the cases of drug abuse by the mother, is a different circumstance.
  • As an add-on to my statement, I’m actually for the idea of a person unrelated to either the hopeful adoptive parent(s) or the biological parents taking temporary custody of an infant when adoption has been decided upon prior to birth. This would give the hopeful adoptive parents a chance to figure out that an adoption IS about “sharing,” and would give the biological parents a chance to see the reality of adoption while they are still legal parents. I’m not certain how this would be accomplished, but I think it’s a great idea.

Kim:

  • I would love to see some of these reality shows that glamorize adoption and teen pregnancy cancelled! I know that is wishful thinking, but young people are so heavily influenced by what they see on TV or on social media, why on Earth would we not want to give them as much truthful information as possible!
  • I would love to see more stories that show the realities of what it’s like to choose adoption and how positive an open adoption can be.

For those of you later in the timeline: how did the efforts of activists who came before you change the birth mother experience in your time period? For those of you earlier in the timeline, what changes are you most proud of or pleased to see?

Lee: Until I realized open adoption agreements were frequently betrayed, I was proud of the work early CUB members and I did to make that option available. Another facet of CUB’s work was to allow adoption-separated family members the opportunity to discover their counterparts’ identities, if these had been sealed by the state. At this writing only eight states allow adopted persons the same unconditional access to their truthful, original birth certificates as allowed to non-adopted persons in their states. Only one state (OR) allows birthfamilies’ access to adoptees’ identities. Only one state (CO) allows birthparents the right to copies of original birth certificates, and to copies of surrender and adoption documents that they signed or were named in, while named parties of non-adoption events and transactions are automatically given copies of their records.

Kim: I am in awe of the work that Lee began so many years ago. From founding CUB, to creating the term “birthmother”, and working to make sealed records more open, her work has made a positive difference for me and so many families. Sharing her story in the 70s and 80s was extremely brave. I cannot imagine the backlash she faced. But she did it anyway. And she made it easier for people like me to tell my story.

Monika: Since I’m the “earliest” in comparison to the other ladies on this panel, I can’t say I’m pleased to see much change at all. Adoption as a whole is very complex, both in idea and practice, and I realize this complexity means that it will take a while to make change. I hope that with time, an emphasis toward fixing the foster care system will take precedence over encouraging hopeful parents to seek private adoption. But since it’s only been four years since I surrendered, there hasn’t been much that has changed.

Lori: Thanks to each of you for sharing you experiences and views with us. I, for one, have enjoyed taking a longitudinal walk through the decades with you.

~~~~~

Readers: What are the top two changes you’d like to see in Adoption World?

How Not to Handle Your Own Ignorance On the Internet

Now I know how adoptee Laura Dennis felt when she was called adoption’s “house slave.” In an ironic turn of events — considering that Laura and I work together to promote adoption ethics and adoption awareness — yesterday I was called out as a leader of a “lynch mob.”

My last post was picked up by the Huffington Post, which is great because there it’s more likely to reach an audience that may not already have an understanding about adoption. From there, a woman named Bethany Ramos wrote a post in response on a site called Mommyish.

But before we go there, let’s talk about the word “ignorance.” The dictionary version of the word is is less emotionally charged than the way we often use it.

definition of ignoranceWhen I say “ignorant”, I simply mean lacking knowledge, with no intended slam against one’s intellect. With that in mind, we can now address…

How TO handle your own ignorance about a topic

My friend, Lisa, a birth mom, wrote on Facebook that the Kay commercial triggered her. Others began talking about being triggered, as well. Lisa’s friend Angela, who seemingly has no personal connection to adoption, began to remedy her ignorance by asking questions of the people on the thread.

Why can’t we see a loving family celebrating becoming parents? Why do you refer to it as separating mothers and their babies. I have not been in the situation and am trying to understand.

And people responded respectfully to her questions. Angela, open to listening, now has more understanding about  why this commercial was triggering, especially to birth parents and adopted people, and she also has greater awareness about what goes on in an adoption from the three main points of view.

In contrast…

How to use your own ignorance as a billy club

[lynchy-snarky portion edited after a taking few calming breaths]

Post writer Bethany Ramos demonstrates  her ignorance with her post’s headline:

“The Adoption Lynch Mob Needs to Take a Chill Pill Before Freaking Out About This Commercial”

Melissa of Stirrup Queens calls Bethany and Mommyish out as linkbaiters:
Do you know what a lynch mob is?  Wikipedia sums it up nicely: “Lynching is murder by mob, often by hanging, but also by burning at the stake or shooting, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate, control, or otherwise manipulate a specific sector of a population.”  It’s a means for a dominant group to control a weaker group.

Bethany then goes on to gloat about her ignorance. I have no personal experience with adoption, but I always have thought it to be a wonderful, selfless act.

Being able to imagine herself in only one of the three positions of the adoption triad, Bethany says,

Apparently, this touchy-feely commercial overlooks all of the heartache that goes into adoption, i.e. hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on fertility treatments, as well as emotional pain and stress. I’m not denying that all of these things are true, but why are we looking a gift horse in the mouth here?

Yes, she’s able to feel the heartache from the adopting parents point of view, but had she read the Huffington Post article with an open mind, she would have remedied her own ignorance about the presence of placing parents and adoptees in every adoption situation, a stereotype that Kay’s commercial was effective in solidifying in her.

And who, exactly, does a “gift horse” represent?

Many of Bethany’s commenters go on to prove my point about ignorance, that the commercial perpetuates the myth that adoption is “wonderful” to all involved. The comments below show that like Bethany, the commenters are able to see only the adopting parents’ perspective. They’ve been further brainwashed by the commercial! They can’t seem to get that there are other people involved in every adoption, people who hurt. People who may still be hurting.

After each actual comment, you’ll see in bold how it may come across to those who were triggered.

  • Seems to me because of all of the heartache and difficulties they suggest come with adoption, being happy and celebratory IS the right reaction. For the adopting parents.
  • Anti* adoption people make me sick. What do they want to do with unwanted children? Execute them? Put them in labor camps? Hello perpetuated adoption stereotype! People who place babies do so because they don’t want them!
  • God forbid some family take them in and actually love them. All hail the selfless adopting parents, taking in the unwanted babies!
  • Bringing a child home is a culmination of struggle and heartbreak so I agree with Bethany – buy some damn jewelry and celebrate!! Culmination and celebration for the adopting parents!
  • Just look at the cute commercial and smile at a couple of new parents being happy. Yeesh talk about sensitive. Again the smile and the happy are adopting-parent-centric, only a fraction of a  whole adoption scenario.

It’s like Bethany and many of her commenters are living in Pleasantville. They love the Beaver Cleaver neat and tidy style of the 1960s, where things are in black and white and they don’t have to do with the unpleasantries and complications of too many other hues.

I ask Bethany and her myopic commenters to take a cue from Angela and allow those of us who live in color to bring shades of reality to your lives.

What responsibility does an advertiser have regarding stereotypes?

One commenter said, They’re supposed to show the multi-faceted heartbreak of adoption? It’s a bloody commercial, not a documentary.

I don’t expect Kay to teach the complexities of adoption in 30 seconds. But neither should it sell a fantasy that’s full of stereotypes and misconceptions. Yes, adoption can be something to be celebrated. But we need to see it in its wholeness, from 360 degrees, and not just the pretty Pleasantville parts. Yes, there are gains, especially for adoptive parents like me who end up with what we want. Birth parents can also gain a way out of a tough situation, and the adopted person gains a family.

But each of these positions has also experienced loss. Loss of dreams, the pruning of a family tree, the loss of a genetic line and all that was familiar. Visceral, deep, profound losses. This ad was dismissive of the loss — if the ad people even knew there was loss in adoption — and it perpetuated myths for all three parts of the adoption triad.

In the pursuit of a link-baity headline, Bethany and her frenzied followers completely missed that point.

How could the ad have been improved? I would like to have seen a set of birth parents present. Of course, you can’t give the placing mom jewelry without creating another crapstorm, but Don Draper would surely be able to figure out something, even drunk and in the 60s. Many of today’s adoptions include adoptive and birth families coming together with open hearts, connecting with each other as extended family members.

That’s something Kay Jewelers could more authentically link with its open heart collection.

The Internet sometimes makes people forget they are talking about real people

I suspect that Bethany and many of her readers are pretty nice folks. They might open the door for others, pay it forward in the Starbucks drive-through, and volunteer to help their kids’ teachers with the upcoming Valentines Day parties. They probably speak nicely in real life to most people most of the time.

But some switch gets thrown when they play in the faceless Internet playground. They forget that they are talking about real people.

  • Some people need to be punched in the neck, for realsies.
  • On what planet is this acceptable to say to a total stranger on the internet? Seriously, you’re an idiot.
  • F**k you!
  • The implication: If you disagree with me you are part of an angry lynch mob.

Bethany’s post title itself is inflammatory and offensive. Lynch mob? Chill pill? My Huffington Post piece was not designed to convert anyone to my way of thinking, but rather to show how Kay told only part of a story, badly so, while feeding stereotypes.

Bethany’s title and post indicate there’s no room in her world for people who don’t share her opinion. She tells me I need to do something. With her first dozen words she deliberately  creates a frenzy. Her followers follow and feed the frenzy shutting down the likelihood of actual dialog. There’s a whole lotta shouting going on over there and not a whole lot of listening.

And, as Angela demonstrated, being open and listening is how to remedy ignorance.

* I’ve been called “anti” before.

Every Diss Begins with This Kay Commercial

adption commercial gone wrongWhile the ad below didn’t appear during the Superbowl and doesn’t have puppets or cute puppies in it, it merits diss-cussion — and is getting it from people in the adoption community.

Epic fail for adoption-themed Kay Jewelers ad.

How many adoption stereotypes ad myths, much general cluelessness can be crammed into one 30-second commercial? Kay Jewelers and Stern Advertising have reached new, uh, heights.

Let’s narrow it down to just two. Two big ones.

Diss #1: “Just adopt — it’s easy!” Show up at the hospital where you’ve placed your order and have your baby delivered to you, a gorgeous little bundle of certainty! Celebrate your shiny life with shiny things! Because of course after completing your adoption application and homestudy, and after taking on the lifelong responsibility of parenting, you still have money to burn!

Diss #2: “Adoption is shiny! — it’s all gain and no loss!” Pay no attention to the trail of devastation left by fertility treatments and the arduous path of an adoption homestudy. Look away from the loss that’s just beginning for the woman back there somewhere who just gave birth, her family, the birth father and his family, who are facing immeasurable loss. Let’s forever ignore the possibility that the baby herself is experiencing a confusing twist of fate, that everything she’s sensed since her brain began developing has just changed, and that the people taking her home mark her experience with their bling.

But don’t take just my word for it. On Stirrup Queen’s post, on my Facebook Page and on iSpot.tv, you can read how this ad strikes others. Some gems:

  • “Kay Jewelers, do you plan to design a smashed heart for the mothers who lost their babies ? This ad is extremely insensitive to all parties involved in an adoption.”
  • “Having relinquished a baby for adoption over 30 years ago, this made me so unbelievably sad. This company did not take into account the feelings of all parties involved.”
  • “I guess they conveniently forgot about the heart break and tragedy of the family losing the child. Yes, money buys both diamonds and babies. This was tasteless.”
  • “Meanwhile, in the other room, a woman is overcome with the grief and sadness that will last the rest of her life. But this one has a shiny new necklace and a shiny new baby.”
  • “If you were trying to materialize and trivialize a very complex process, you succeeded.”
  • “I found this commercial to portray an offensively stereotypical and unrealistic vision of modern adoption….the well-off white married couple sitting in the adoption agency, the healthy white infant, the birth parents comfortably nowhere in sight. This is not the face of adoption today.”
  • “I bet everyone who’s paid for an adoption is dying to fork out more money for jewellery, too.”
  • “Way to undermine the whole [adoption] process Kay and make it look like it really is as easy a drive through.”
  • “Who thought THIS was a good idea? And couldn’t they have shown this to persons affected by adoption prior to green lighting it?”
  • “As an adoptee and therapist who specializes in working with the adoption and foster care community, I’m baffled how society continues to perpetuate such an archaic portrayal of adoption.”

And this…

“I’d love to meet the marketing geniuses who came up with this one.”

If you’re going to create an ad around adoption, you’d be well-advised to understand adoption from the viewpoints of those who live it. Otherwise?

— “I will never shop at Kay Jewelers again.”

Image courtesy digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net