Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

As far as I’m aware, there’s no rule that a pregnant woman considering adoption must have counseling, although it is highly encouraged. I remember hearing once – again, research to support this piece of anecdotal information yielded nothing – that by law, counseling had to be offered to a woman considering adoption, even a private attorney adoption, but that’s pretty much the extent of things. As you might imagine – particularly if you’ve ever dealt with (or been) a pregnant woman – she has lots of bonus hormones looking for a place to land. Combine that with an ill-timed, out-of-wedlock, and/or crisis pregnancy and a woman considering adoption, and you’ve created the emotional perfect storm.

It’s not the time for remembering details – or hearing, let alone acting on, the information. Particularly when someone says, perhaps as a casual comment, “Oh, by the way, counseling is available if you want it.” That’s why an agency adoption is so important for the prospective birthmother. She is assigned a caseworker who makes sure to talk her through the most essential details – and offers an ear to listen, as well as (hopefully) wise counsel and answers to any questions the pregnant mom does think to ask in her flustered state. That’s the problem, though, with a first-time pregnancy. You don’t know what you don’t know.

On the other hand, I don’t envy the job of an adoption social worker – or any social worker, for that matter. At least a baby usually finds a (better) home at the end of an adoption, so I guess there are pluses. But I imagine there’s a lot to know and remember to explain along the way. Still, it would seem there should be a checklist of topics for the caseworker to discuss with the pregnant mother, whether or not she decides to keep the baby. If she’s going to carry the pregnancy to term, things will come up and decisions will need to be made.

Yes, there’s that ubiquitous book, What to Expect When You’ve Got Anything at All to Do With Having a Kid, EXCEPT Be a Birthmother. That book – and all the others like it – focus on the happy event, assuming the baby will go home from the hospital with the same people it went in with, which is exactly what does not happen in adoption. Not ideal reading for the prospective birthmom. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Patricia Roles’ book, Saying Goodbye to a Baby, came closest to answering and addressing my questions, but (a) I didn’t find it until after my son was born and living with his other family and (b) even it didn’t cover some of the more basic issues.

As a matter of fact, after scoping out the Amazon reviews for Roles’ book (two 5-star reviews; two 2-star reviews, and one 1-star review), I think I’m going to order another copy so I can re-read it, 22 years later, as it seems my perspective just may have shifted. I do get the sense that the writer of the 1-star review is one of those people I wrote about in a prior post who has no desire to release her grief or heal from the adoption wounds. Yes, her pain is real, and there is no timeline for getting over it. But forward movement after any trauma is probably a healthier option than choosing to live in that pain forever. Yes – for many people, birthmothers included, living in pain is a choice.

So here are the things I wish I’d known before they occurred:

My scoliosis would matter when it came to the epidural. Epidural is a drug commonly used during labor and delivery. It is inserted into the spine by an anesthesiologist, with the command, “Hold still or you might wind up paralyzed.” I had a single dose that helped for the first little while, but the second dose didn’t “take.” We later deduced that the curve in my spine meant the epidural hadn’t gone where it was supposed to go. The nurses told me the pain I experienced was the equivalent of natural childbirth. You’re welcome, kiddo!

Those little red dots all over your neck and chest are capillaries that broke during the “pushing.” Nothing earth-shattering here, but it would have been a good thing to know so I didn’t have to freak out about it.

The birthparents make the circumcision decision. It was a bit surprising to find out after the fact that my OB/GYN did not perform this procedure. So Eric had to go home a happy kid, and come back a week later to be mauled and – some might say – mangled. Although a huge debate churns on about the merits of circumcision, as I understand things, the child still generally does whatever the father did. Had I realized ahead of time that it would be important to know my doctor’s stance, I would have made other preparations.

Breasts are milk producers. Duh, right? But not when you’re not expecting it. No one prepared me for my milk to come in, or informed me of the need for nursing pads even though I wouldn’t be nursing. Not to mention that nursing the baby you will place for adoption is an option. It would seem immeasurably more difficult to surrender a baby with whom you’ve shared that kind of bond, but I have known birthmothers who’ve done it.

I could have had Eric baptized in the hospital and been there for the ceremony. This is, of course, specific to Christian religious belief – in our case, Catholic. It wasn’t until I read in a chatroom about a birthmom who did this that I was even aware it could have been a possibility. Again, this is less important to me now, but it would have been a very special moment to share and is one of my very few regrets.

Grief can show up as anger. Though I discussed this in a prior post, it’s worth noting again here. I spent the entire first year of Eric’s life extremely pissed off at the world, and it wasn’t until someone I didn’t even like very much pointed it out to me that I recognized that anger as grief. I’m not sure there would have been anything to do differently, but it feels like it would have been useful information at the time.

It seems unlikely that Patricia Roles will update her book – so maybe it is time for a new book. And maybe my job is to write two of them: one, a handbook like Roles’ for birthparents, and the other my own adoption story.

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Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

Birthparent Advocates

Birthparent Advocates

People who get birthparents get birthparents. Four individuals come to mind – all of whom are/were adoption social workers whose job it is/was to advocate for women who place(d) their babies for adoption, as well as birthfathers when they are involved.

The first is Jim Gritter. I don’t know if Jim has any personal connection to adoption beyond his role as a social worker, but according to the National Association for Social Work (NASW) website:

James Gritter is a nationally known champion of open adoptions. He became a child welfare caseworker in 1974 in his native state of Michigan and has been practicing, writing, and educating the profession and the public about the issue of open adoption since then. In 1982 he organized the first conference on this issue, “Beyond the Shadow of Secrecy,” in Traverse City, Michigan, bringing together adoption professionals from around the US.

I met Jim at an adoption conference and have always admired and appreciated him for being such an outspoken advocate for openness in adoption.

The next is a person I’ve mentioned before, Sharon Kaplan Roszia. She is the mother of biological children, adopted children, and foster children. According to her own website:

Sharon Kaplan Roszia is an internationally known educator, presenter, and author who has devoted fifty years of her professional career to the institution of foster care and adoption. While working in public and private agencies as well as private practice venues, she has focused on crisis pregnancy; infertility; infant adoptions; placement of children from the foster care system, including sibling groups and teenagers, and search and reunion. The additional issues of international adoptions; trans-racial adoptions; gay and lesbian built families; and traumatized children with attachment challenges have also become a specialty. In the last twenty five years, Sharon has also paved the way in the world of open adoptions; believing in preserving connections over time.

Sharon impressed me from the first time I learned about her when my friend Lynn Franklin interviewed her for her book, May the Circle Be Unbroken. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Sharon in person, hearing her speak, and reading her books. Like Jim Gritter, she’s been a vocal champion of birthparent rights.

I’ve also mentioned Judy Greene, the birthparent coordinator when I placed my son through the Spence-Chapin agency in New York City. As is probably appropriate, we knew virtually nothing about her private life. I don’t even know how old she is – except that because of the long, completely white hair she usually wore in a single braid down the back, she seemed old-ish to me. Of course, when you’re 27, everybody over 35 seems old-ish. I know she’d worked on the birthparent side of the adoption world for her whole career and had been doing it for 26+ years when I was placing. She retired before I moved back to Phoenix, with a plan to move up to Massachusetts and start a B&B. I would love to have an update but haven’t been able to learn any more.

What I most remember was that Judy was truly a birthmother champion. She arranged for me to speak to many different groups, comprised of prospective adoptive parents, parents who had already adopted, social workers, and hospital staffs. Judy would usually be the one to introduce me, and the other birthmothers, if it was a panel. I’m not sure why – my guess is it’s because I knew that Judy was not a birthmother and had no ties to adoption other than her professional life – but every single time she introduced me (and other birthmothers), I would hold my breath and wait for her to make a mistake. I would wait for her to say something – anything – that misrepresented us or indicated that she didn’t really know what it was like to be a birthmother because she wasn’t one. And I’m really glad to say that every single time – probably a dozen or more – she proved me wrong. Judy never, ever said anything to disrespect, denigrate, or misrepresent the birthmother’s perspective when it came to adoption. I really wish I could find her to thank her for that.

Lastly, I want to tell you about my friend, Beth Kozan. I met Beth here in Phoenix way back in 2005. I had been living here for a few years and was missing my connection to other birthmothers. So I decided to host a spoken word event that I called “The Birthmother You Know.” My intention was to have women come to share their stories, written or oral, as they related to being birthmoms. The only problem was that I didn’t know any birthmoms in Phoenix. So I reached out to every adoption agency and adoption support group in the area to ask them to invite their birthmothers to my event.

Very few responded. We held it at a now-defunct coffee shop, and for a first-time event with little response from the Phoenix adoption community, it was still pretty well attended. Some women read poems, others short stories. One gal read the email correspondence she had exchanged with her daughter before their face-to-face reunion. Beth was a big part of the success of this event, as she brought a number of the birthmoms who attended.

Subsequently, Beth has written a book titled, ADOPTION: More Than by Chance, about the coincidences and synchronicities that occur in so many adoptions. Hers are stories of the more memorable ones she witnessed over her 30-year career. Beth is currently working on a second book, Helping the Birthmother You Know, which will be a resource for friends and family members of women who are considering placing their children for adoption. So many people struggle with what to say and how to behave. Birth-grandparents my try very hard to talk their daughter out of the decision, because if she places, “normal” access to their grandchild walks out the door with the baby. Siblings and friends often just don’t know what to say. I can’t wait for Beth’s book – because it’s so long overdue.

The other night, Beth and I attended a meeting together where we were discussing our goals for 2018. Beth mentioned that she belongs to an adoption triad group in Phoenix that has an incomplete logo. There are images for the adoptive parent and adopted person sides of the triangle that represents the adoption triad – but the birthparents have no image. Almost like they don’t exist. Check the adoption literature, and it sometimes feels that way.

When Beth asked the organization about the missing piece of the logo, the answer was, “Well, birthparents don’t really attend the group very often.”

“Could that be because you do nothing to welcome them?” Beth asked in response. So Beth promised that by May 12, Birthmothers’ Day 2018, she will make sure that birthparents are equally represented on this organization’s logo – and, hopefully, at the meetings. Like Judy, Beth has no personal link to adoption. She fell into it as a young social worker, and has been advocating for birthmothers and birthfather ever since.

I’m sure there are other birthparent champions out there. These are the four I happen to have met, whose books I have read, and whose hearts I know. If you know of others, let me know. Let’s give them a resource page so that we can help them help us to continue to destigmatize the birthparents’ role in the adoption process.

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

A birthmom friend of mine, Lynn Franklin, wrote a book about her adoption story, titled May the Circle Be Unbroken: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Adoption. In the book, she juxtaposed her adoption experience with the changes that had taken place in adoption from the time she placed through the time she wrote the book in 1998. I have a story in that book, and I helped Lynn with the transcriptions of her interviews of people on all sides of the adoption triad, as well as adoption professionals. One story, in particular, will haunt me forever. In quickly flipping through the book now, I do not see this particular story. But I’ll never forget transcribing the words.

The interviewee was a woman – an adoptive mother who, with her husband, had ultimately chosen international adoption. They first opted for a traditional adoption through the same agency I used, Spence-Chapin. Founded in 1910, the agency is one of the oldest and most reputable in the country. I was referred to them by a colleague who had adopted through them.

As a birthmother who used only Spence-Chapin’s birthmother services, I can simply guess what might have occurred on the adoptive parent side, in terms of counseling and recommendations. One thing that was strongly encouraged of prospective adoptive parents (I don’t believe it was mandatory) was meeting a birthmother so they could ask questions and get some sense of what adoption was like through her lens. I volunteered to be one of the birthparents with whom prospective adoptive parents could speak. The idea was to give prospective parents a glimpse into the life of the birthmother, from why she might choose adoption to the kind of contact she might desire after the adoption was complete.

I had asked about open adoption early in our process and was told something along the lines of, “We don’t really do that.” Spence was traditional through and through, and though open adoption had started to pick up support on the West Coast in the early ’90s, Spence was very slow to come around to embracing it. They were cool with semi-open adoption, though, which meant limited contact between the birth families and adoptive families, facilitated by the agency. So at this point, a prospective birthmother could choose between a [still] closed or semi-open adoption.

Evidently, all of this counseling and meeting of birthmothers was too much for this couple Lynn had interviewed. I still recall the woman’s words from all those years ago. “There was just too much namby-pamby handholding at this agency. We just wanted to get it done.” This was the definition of a power couple: he was a Wall Street investment banker and she was a corporate lawyer. They were used to getting what they wanted when they wanted it. And they wanted a baby now. Not tomorrow. Not in a month or two. TODAY. And they were willing to do whatever it would take to get this baby. She stopped just short of saying they were willing to pay whatever it cost to buy this baby.

So they left Spence-Chapin by the wayside and opted instead for a private international adoption. Remember my post about parents returning “damaged” babies to agencies in Eastern Europe? This couple was headed down that same path. I was terrified for whichever child they might have adopted, because anything short of perfection was not about to be tolerated. And what were the chances that their adoption attorney might have found a healthy, highly intelligent, Type A baby just waiting for them to come along and scoop him up?

If I hadn’t personally known Lynn and heard this recording for myself, I would have sworn the interview was a clip from a bad Lifetime movie script. My stomach was in knots just listening to this woman describe her expectations for her new child and the family they would build. People are people – whether they adopt or give birth to their children. Some are great at parenting; others have no business doing it. I have no idea how that adoption turned out – and I hope for the best for the kid who eventually made his home with this couple. But even after all these years, I still fear for how things might have gone.