Guest post by Donna Nicholson, LPC, from Bethany Christian Services
Emily* was a 36-year-old mother of two and facing an untimely pregnancy when we met.
Her story was long, complicated and, to me, a pregnancy counselor for Bethany Christian Services, very familiar. She came to me contemplating an adoption plan, but hesitantly revealed a more prevailing concern: the domestic violence she experienced and a history of substance misuse. Heroin was the only reprieve she’d found from the traumatic memories that still caused her so much pain.
Emily’s drug use created a wedge in her family—her mother, who was not speaking to Emily, was raising her children. Now, Emily was about to have another child. Emily loved her children, and this, the newest, tiniest addition was no exception.
But she knew she had not overcome her battle with addiction nor healed from the trauma of past abuse. The father of her child did not support her. And she didn’t think she could be the kind of mother her child needed.
Out of an abundance of love, heartbreak, and personal tragedy, Emily would pursue adoption for her newborn child.
An Inaccurate Picture
Popular culture portrays domestic adoption as a decision made by pregnant teens who cannot parent their babies. Likely, that is the narrative most Americans still conjure up at the mention of adoption.
But that picture has been inaccurate for decades or longer.
Through our work at Bethany, most women we see considering adoption today are in their late 20’s to late 30’s and already parenting other children. They’re thinking about adoption because every day is a battle to survive. They do not represent teen pregnancy statistics. In fact, in 2017 the CDC reported a record low rate of babies born to women ages 15-19 years old.
What we’re seeing is a tragic trend indicative of many underlying issues in our nation. These are women, and often fathers too, who desire to love and parent their child, but do not have the resources to be responsible for a new life—whether that’s access to mental health services, a stable job, affordable childcare, or rehabilitation.
We do not often think of drug addicts as mothers, but many are—and no less capable of the immense motherly compassion, empathy, and love for their newborns than any other.
Who Are Birth Moms in America?
Today, many women considering an adoption plan have high Adverse Childhood Experience scores (ACEs). The likelihood of drug use during their pregnancy is high, and they may be less likely to have sought prenatal care. The first connection many women have with an adoption agency is increasingly happening at the hospital at the time of delivery. And because of current COVID-19 precautions, a pregnancy counselor may be the only individual a new mother is able to interact with in-person after labor.
To sit with a new mother in a hospital room as she holds her baby, wrestling with the life-altering decision of parenting versus adoption, is to occupy sacred ground. Even after walking with women in this space for more than a decade, I still feel the magnitude of this decision every time I bear witness to it. I have a special place in my heart for these women.
Birth moms have helped me better understand a side of adoption the world doesn’t talk about much: the impact of stress on a developing baby, the depth of grief and loss, and what it means for adopted children to become disconnected from the birth family, racial identity, birth culture, and community.
The One Thing You Should Know
If there was one thing I desire everyone to know about domestic adoption, it would be that mothers and fathers seeking adoption over parenting have made that choice amid every affection for their child.
In fact, this affection has caused another emerging trend in domestic adoption towards open adoptions. We’re seeing this almost exclusively in our line of social work.
Having a beautiful, open relationship when birth moms struggle with addiction is possible. New parents rightfully are concerned about their child’s safety. In a recent Lifelines article, Bethany’s Angela Welch writes—“Your child’s safety should be your number one priority. But it is important that you don’t confuse uncomfortable with unsafe.”
I recently asked an adoptive parent why a relationship with the birth mother of their child mattered. They said—“It is so wonderful to see how our relationship has had a positive impact on our child’s birth mother. She was surprised that we wanted to have a relationship with her. Our life is much richer having her as part of our extended family even if it becomes challenging at times.”
Respond to Change
Adoption is a messy, beautiful experience full of both grief and joy for the child, the birth family, adoptive family, and their communities. It looks different today than it did decades ago.
We must recognize this and respond in turn by empowering adoptive families with the knowledge and training they need to be aware of their child’s specific needs. By cherishing the humanity of birthmothers and fathers and emboldening their journey to healthy, fulfilling lives. And by promoting families as the restorative glue that can heal the hurts of a nation one by one.
*Emily’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Donna Nicholson is the Senior Director of Maternal & Infant Health and Clinical Services at Bethany Christian Services