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
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?