Here comes Hallmark once again to wake us up to our vulnerabilities!
Mother’s Day is a challenging holiday for many people for many reasons. It is an affliction for those trying to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, to those blocked by finances or discrimination from building a family by other means. It is an intrusive reminder of loss for those whose beloved mothers have died and for those who have a more ambiguous loss via a complicated, difficult relationship with their mother.
For members of adoptive families --- adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents --- all of the above may be true for them and yet there is more.
Imagine how Mother's Day may land for someone who is being raised by an adoptive mother. The holiday can be a reminder that there is another mother out there. Are they allowed to talk about that? To ask questions? To speak to the reality --- what will always be true --- that they have more than one mother? Even if an adoption is open and the child has contact with their birth mother they are getting messages, spoken and unspoken, about the extent to which it is ok to acknowledge these feelings and questions. In an adoptive family that does not have the ability to fully acknowledge the fact that the child has at least four parents, there is an emotional asterisk on the holiday, the thing that cannot be mentioned. A sense of disloyalty to the mother who is raising them can be conveyed and mapped onto the curiosity and feelings the adopted child has about their origins. To think these thoughts, to grieve this loss is to be disloyal.
Adoptive moms who are able to feel fully entitled to parent and embrace their children's reality can offer something very different to their children. They may have their own complex relationship to the holiday, some combination of joy at being a mother and grief about lost pregnancies or the aching desire to have been the one to carry and give birth to the child they love so dearly. If they are able to hold the complexity of their own experience they can hold complexity for their children, which starts with allowing their children to love as many people as widely and deeply as comes naturally. Adoptive moms have better outcomes in terms of satisfaction and emotional health when they are able to see that their children's love and curiosity for their birth mothers are additive and do not take anything away. My child loves their birth mother and me, rather than my child loves their birth mother or me.
Whether the family has an open or closed adoption, an adoptive mother can nourish her bond to her child by being willing to parent the child's experience, initiate conversation about it and give explicit permission to explore the issue verbally. "You know, I always think of your birth mom on Mother's Day. Do you? Would it feel nice to make her a card like you do for me?" If there is contact, "Would you like to have a Mother's Day call with her?" If an adoptive mom has a relationship with their child's first mom she can let the child know what that looks like, which is a meta communication that the relationship does not have to be dodged or hidden. "You know, I always send her a card myself because I appreciate her so much and am glad she is in our lives." If it is a closed adoption, an adoptive mom can demonstrate her availability to parent her child's experience by being inquisitive. "I wonder what it is like for you to not be able to speak to your birth mom. Do you have questions about her? I wish she was able to be in contact with us too."
Did you know that the Saturday before Mother's Day has been designated as Birth Mother's Day? The holiday was created as adoptions in the U.S. first started to open up in the early 1990's and was a step toward recognition of the women who had to that point been largely erased from the mainstream narratives of adoption. It has become a means for some of honoring their motherhood and their loss. Some first mothers embrace this day and some reject it, either skipping it entirely or preferring to be celebrated on the national mother's day rather than being designated to a special subcategory. I think it's important to recognize the magnitude of the task of identity-development for those who have placed babies for adoption. There is a process of reckoning with both being and not being a mother, of always being a mother who has given birth and yet not being the mother who raises the child. There is an extraordinary legacy of emotional labor left to do once the baby has been placed with a family. And even if a birth mother finds herself in a welcoming and warm open adoption, there is uncertain and often shifting terrain in terms of who they are and who they get to be in the constellation of extended family around their child.
First mothers will always have a deep relevance to their children on many levels. Birth mothers and their children will either have a direct relationship in an open adoption or a relationship to one another's absence in a closed one. How their relevance to one another gets explored and developed typically depends on the adoptive parents.
If you are any member of the adoption triad, Mother's Day and Father's Day often come with a lot of freight to carry. If you need support bearing it, please know you are not alone. See my resources page or contact me directly for support or referrals to supports appropriate to your situation.
As a therapist who specializes in working with adoptive families, I wish that all adoptive parents and those considering adoption would read Larissa MacFarquhar's recent article "Living in Adoption's Emotional Aftermath." It’s rare for a mainstream publication like The New Yorker to explore the complexity of adoption at any depth and MacFarquhar succeeds in delivering a primer on the experience of many adoptees.
I have worked with many adult adoptees who --- like the people profiled in this article --- report some version of “coming out of the fog,” of re-examining aspects of their interior lives, particularly pain points, and newly seeing them not as quirks of personality or general experience but as a specific result of having been relinquished and adopted.
The MacFarquhar article is about adoptees and I want to announce now that even at the risk of de-centering their experience, my purpose in this post is to discuss the article with adoptive parents. I’m speaking to you too prospective adoptive parents. The article has the potential to be a tough read for all of you because it asks very pointed questions about the ethics of adoption in general and transracial and international adoption in particular.
I really want to encourage current and potential adoptive parents to read it for two reasons. One, these questions are important to consider before adopting --- you are building the creation narrative of your family and it must be clean and kind and principled and you need to be able to imagine explaining your choices and how you arrived at them to an adult child.
Two, if read closely, you can discern the outline of sturdy and ethical adoptive parenting.
Angela Tucker is one of the adoptees profiled and when she went to visit her birth family for the first time “her [adoptive] parents had supported her throughout her search, and she wanted them near her for this.” In other words, she wanted her parents to parent this experience. Later in the article Angela’s current take that transracial adoption should only happen when absolutely necessary is revealed as well as her wish that she had not been adopted. I think we can safely assume she would also like to have these feelings and experiences parented as well.
Though not the focus of the article, there is an important background message here that matches one I always give to adoptive parents: your children can hate the complexity of how your family was created, they can wish they were never adopted, they can need to explore and have relationships with birth family and culture and language and still love you and be attached to you and very much need your parenting of these experiences. There are other adoptees mentioned in the article that feel they cannot bring desires to contact their birth family to their parents because they have intuited that it will hurt their parents’ feelings. What this means then, is that as adolescents and young adults they process feelings and make decisions about whether or not to pursue contact with birth family secretly. And often totally alone.
Joy’s story highlights the need for adoptive parents to acknowledge that their internationally adopted child’s life did not start when they all met at the airport or orphanage. There was a life, family and history that existed in Korea before the transracial American family was created. Internationally adopted people need their adoptive parents to acknowledge this and parent the experience by assertively collecting all information they can during the adoption process and then being present for what is known and unknown. "It is so hard to not know how you came to be at the orphanage. It is so hard to have fragments of memories and not know how to understand them. I am here with you. We can talk about this."
What should adoptive parents take away from this article? Concretely they should
Emotionally, be sturdy. You will know from parenting that if your child is injured, yours is the lap they want to crawl into. They want your comfort and reassurance. Think of their adoption experience the same way you would think of any other hard or complicated thing with which your child has to find a way to cope. And if you find yourself feeling insecure, ask yourself: is this something I want my child to go through all alone? Or instead is it something I want them to feel supported and guided through?
I have been asked many times this year how I expect the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization decision will affect the current adoption landscape. When the Supreme Court announced it found no constitutional right to abortion, individuals pursuing or otherwise touched by adoption had good reason to wonder how this might change the lives and decision-making of women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. Many don't expect the ways in which this decision affects some adult adoptees.
I used to provide choice counseling to women presenting with an unplanned pregnancy. It was our policy at the agency at which I worked to present all choices --- abortion, adoption, parenting --- otherwise I wouldn't have worked there. What I found was that once abortion was ruled out, either by legal time limits, funds or the expectant woman's personal feelings about abortion, there was rarely equality between the two remaining choices. For the majority of my clients, from the outset the choice was between abortion and parenting. Adoption was only marginally considered by most even when choice counseling was sought at my adoption agency.
My anecdotal experience has been substantiated by real data from Dr. Gretchen Sisson's five-year "Turnaway Study" out of UCSF. In it she collected data on the situation well known to reproductive choice counselors: the vast majority of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and unable to access abortion services will choose to parent. Only 9% of these women will choose to place their babies with adoptive families. This amounts to approximately 10,000 more babies available for adoption in the U.S. annually post Dobbs. The data on waiting adoptive families in America has been notoriously difficult to capture, but the estimates I have seen range between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 at any given time. Waiting adoptive families are not likely to notice a difference.
What these figures do not capture is the distress felt by two communities in the wake of Dobbs: birth mothers who do choose adoption and adopted people.
Coping with an unplanned pregnancy has become exponentially harder. In my 25 years as a social worker, I have not seen funding for social services increase as reproductive choice has been curtailed. In fact, it is radically more difficult to assist women seeking some kind of access to a social safety net. Women are facing unplanned pregnancies in a land where the waiting lists for Section 8 housing are now often years long, in which SNAP (food stamps) have been reduced because some in government think it is character building to require our poorest citizens to remain hungry for part of every month. We are asking women to make what may well be the most impactful decision of their lives from a place of precarity. The message is less pro-life and more you "give up this baby for adoption" or you must parent this child as punishment and your poverty will be a mark of your shame.
I am also astonished by the ways in which adopted people and their experience are not in any way held in mind by the public arguments around choice and Dobbs. Justice Barrett revealed her lack of sensitivity (one particularly abhorrent in an adoptive parent) when she suggested that safe haven laws make [the problems of unplanned pregnancy] irrelevant" and "obsolete." Embedded in her comment is an assumption that adoption "solves" more than it does, that adoption is a choice without consequence.
The adopted adults in my life have expressed genuine distress at both the assumption they are not pro-choice and at the whitewashing comments such as "she could just give the baby up for adoption" which remove all complexity from the situation. Is it that hard to imagine adoptees having abortions themselves? Do we think the fact that they have been adopted somehow magically excuses them from all the complication of any unplanned pregnancy?
The person being adopted is the one person who has no vote on the arrangement. And the person being adopted is the one who will have to reckon with, make meaning of and integrate the fact of their complicated origins their whole lives. To say "she should just give the baby up..." is to express indifference to the impact of relinquishment on the adoptee and the birth family, to erase that loss. The adoptions with good outcomes are the ones in which the adults involved face that loss squarely and make space for grief and complication as well as the joy of a family created. Adoption is not a singular event. It is a lifetime.
Tara Noone is a therapist currently treating all members of the adoption triad in her private practice. She was formerly an adoption social worker and the Director of Adoptive Parent Services at Adoption Connection in San Francisco. She served on the planning committee for the California Adoption Conference for five years and led workshops at the conferences each of those years. She has taught adoption competency and the evaluation and treatment of the members of the adoption triad to therapists and school psychologists in Northern California. She has served on the board of Weaving Threads, a group that serves first/birth mothers in adoption.