“Outed” as a Birthmother
Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the bio and adoptive families agree to provide access to varying degrees of each others’ personal information and have the option of direct contact. Although open adoption is becoming more and more the norm (67 percent of private adoptions in the U.S. have pre-adoption agreements of at least a semi-open adoption*), secrecy still often surrounds the adoption, in terms of birthparents revealing that they have placed children.
I’ve long thought that revealing one’s status as a birthparent must be similar to coming out as being gay, particularly for those who have kept the information secret, for whatever reason. You’re never sure how people will take this bit of news. Mostly, they seem to wonder why it took you so long to get around to telling them. How badly must you have thought of them to have been fearful of confiding in them?
A birthmother friend of mine, whose son is a few years older than I am, had the unusual experience of trying to remember exactly to whom she had revealed her secret over the years. She was 19 when she got pregnant in the 1960s, and was forced by her parents to go to a maternity home. Shame and secrecy shrouded her entire adoption experience, and she told very few people. Eventually, she put her name on the international adoption reunion registry, and in his 30s, her son found her. She met him – and their reunion went well. Having him in her life going forward, however, meant having to tell a certain number of people about him. She laughed as she explained, “I just didn’t remember which ones I’d told about my pregnancy, and which ones I hadn’t. Some people I assumed knew didn’t know – and with others, I was sure I was revealing a big secret, and they said, ‘Yeah – you told me years ago.’”
Up until my son was nearly 5 and I moved away from the New Jersey area, I did a fair amount of speaking to adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, social workers, and hospital staff. Typically, Judy Greene, the Spence-Chapin birthparent coordinator, would introduce me and any other birthmoms who happened also to be speaking. Judy wasn’t a birthmother – she was a social worker who’d ben working with birthmothers for about 26 years at that point. Nevertheless, every time she would introduce me, I would hold my breath waiting for her to trip up, to say something to misrepresent the birthmom experience. And never once, in all the times she made those introductions, did she ever misspeak on behalf of me or other birthparents.
Judy would begin by cautioning the audience that our identity as birthmothers was confidential. If by chance, we later happened to run into each other, they should be discrete about having met us and where. This came about because one birthmom who gave similar presentations to me was sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone with a friend when an adoptive couple she’d met a few weeks earlier strolled past and yelled out, “Hi, Cheryl!” When Cheryl didn’t recognize them, they announced that they’d met her at an adoption panel. In this particular birthmom’s case, Chery’s friend knew about her adoption, but if she hadn’t, it could have been a very uncomfortable situation.
I never had any worries about being “outed,” and always told my audiences as much before I began my presentations. But I can respect any woman’s decision to keep that information private.
Here’s the thing, we can’t normalize adoption until we destigmatize the birthmother’s role. It really is rather strange to me that people seem to have more of an emotional reaction on hearing that a woman placed her baby for adoption than that she had an abortion. A good friend of mine, a birthmom I met through the birthmother support group at Spence-Chapin, got pregnant her senior year in high school. This would have been in the early ’80s in a Baltimore suburb. She said that a number of girls in her class got pregnant – but they either got married the week after graduation or they had abortions. She was the only one who chose adoption, and she was ostracized for it.
I’m not sure what makes people so uncomfortable about birthmothers. My guess is that it’s birthmothers themselves who unintentionally further the stigma. Many have unresolved issues with grief and guilt and shame. And if you walk around feeling bad about something – like many gay people did in the past (and, sadly, some are still made to today) – it’s hard to own up to it, wear the mantle proudly, identify with it, or be public about it.
We made a start by formally acknowledging birthmothers with Birthmothers’ Day, which has been commemorated annually since 1990 on the Saturday before Mothers’ Day. We say commemorated – not celebrated – because being a birthmom is, typically, bitter-sweet at best and has, for some women, been downright harrowing. Even those of us who have had pretty positive adoption experiences and/or reunions still went through some level of emotional trauma before, during, and after the placement of our babies.
And as nice as it may be, having a day that acknowledges us is a small step, really. A look at the adoption literature – even on a website dedicated to adoption-themed books like TapestryBooks.com – shows a dearth of books by, for, and about birthmothers, especially when compared to the scads and scads of titles written by, for, and about adoptive parents. And if you think birthmothers get short shrift – imagine being a birthfather! They are still pretty much personas non grata throughout the adoption world, so I’ve gotta imagine that guys coming clean about their status as birthdads is even rarer and more isolating than what birthmoms experience.
It’s time for birthparents – mothers and fathers – to throw off that mantle of shame that so many of us picked up somewhere along the way, and instead wrap ourselves in cloaks of majesty and dignity. We made a tough decision in choosing adoption over parenting or abortion. Whether others think it was awful, brave, or somewhere in between should not be our concern. However, we’ll give them a lot less reason to think badly of us if we come out voluntarily, speak openly about our experiences, and freely educate anyone willing to listen.