Do You Have Any Children?


“Do
you have any children…?”  It’s such a typical question to
ask someone, and for many it’s an easy yes or no answer. 
For me though, I consistently find myself hesitating to respond. 
Generally when speaking to strangers, casual acquaintances, and even
new friends, I opt to answer “no.”  On occasion, I brave the
consequences and answer the truth: “Yes, I’m a birthmother.” 
This, of course, has to be followed by an explanation that I once was
pregnant and chose to place my child in an open adoption, that I have
a close relationship with my now 12-year-old daughter and her adoptive
family; essentially, I am a mother, I have a child, but I am not parenting.

My
decision to plan an adoption did not come instantly, nor did it come
out of any disapproval of abortion.  Early in my pregnancy, my
daughter’s birthfather and I were deeply in love and felt that despite
our age, limited resources and our families’ disapproval, that we
could parent.  We didn’t want to consider other options at that
time, we just wanted to parent. 
For nearly eight months, that was the plan I worked towards
– that was 8 months of doing all I could to navigate through the world
of pending parenthood, but continuously feeling that
what I could give emotionally, physically and financially
was not enough to be the kind of parent I wanted to be.  By the
time I came to open adoption, I had
explored every possible avenue and option, and I knew with absolute
certainty that adoption was the best choice for me, my
daughter, and everyone else involved.

The
process of choosing a family to parent my child, of meeting and getting
to know them, and of working together to
plan what our families would look like
as we blended them into one was both empowering and reassuring. 
Granted, the placement of my daughter was decidedly the most difficult
and heart-wrenching experience I have had,
but it came with equal amounts of joy and excitement, knowing that I
would always be a part of her life, watching her grow and thrive, and
being included in her family that I respected and admired.  Our
relationship has grown over the years
– her family is my family, our time together is always
special and yet totally natural, and
my daughter has grown up knowing exactly who I am and what my place
is in her life.  For my daughter, her brother, her parents, and
myself, adoption has created our family,
and there is nothing strange, scary, secretive or shameful about it.

So
why is it so difficult to talk about my adoption experience (which was
amazing, positive, and has continued to feel like the best possible
choice I could have made at the time) outside of the adoption community? 
For the same reason I don’t openly talk about my experience choosing
to have an abortion many years later (also a positive experience that
I have not regretted). The stigma that accompanies pregnancy
choices is not limited to abortion.  I have felt shamed by the
widespread silence around adoption in the same way that I have felt
silenced by the social stigma and shame around abortion.

I
know I am not alone, and yet there has been such a political and public
effort to divide my experiences into two camps (i.e., when faced with
unplanned pregnancy there are pro-choice, liberal, secular women who
have abortions and then there are pro-life, conservative, religious
women who plan adoptions; both groups may parent, but this choice also
comes with its fair share of stigmas and judgments if made under socially
unacceptable circumstances, like being a young, single, or impoverished). 
The truth about me, and my experience, is that I don’t “fit” in
these boxes: I am young, educated, liberal, a whole-hearted supporter
of access to safe and legal abortion – I am a birthmother, I have
had an abortion, and some day I hope to be a parent.  The labels
that have been politically and socially imparted, and widely accepted,
do an incredible disservice to the conversation around pregnancy, parenting,
abortion and adoption, by over-simplifying and dismissing the lived
experiences of women and their loved ones.

This
is where I think the discussion of common-ground has potential to break
down the artificial divides that currently segregate pregnancy decisions
and the women who make them.  There are not separate women who
have abortions, who plan adoptions and who decide to parent; these are
experiences that can and do happen on a continuum in any woman’s life,
depending on the circumstances of that moment in time.  As a birthmother,
and someone who is fully invested in adoption being included in the
conversation around pregnancy options, I think it is
essential to reclaim adoption. Advocating for
adoption should not be about decreasing the number of abortions, it
is not just a pro-life choice – it is a legitimate pregnancy option
that is not owned by any political party, religion, or social
movement.  The question is not “why don’t more women choose
adoption instead of abortion?” but rather, “why don’t more
women feel that adoption is even an option at all?”

There
is an incredible lack of education around adoption, and perhaps more
specifically about how adoption has changed.  Historically, adoption
actually did hurt women in many of the same ways that anti-abortion
activists now allege that abortion hurts women.  Women were traumatized
– forced into situations of “giving away their babies” to complete
strangers and told to never look back.  These women often lived
with years of unresolved guilt, with no avenue to grieve their losses,
and no information about what happened with their children.  These
adoption practices created silence, secrecy, shame, fear and regret. 

While
the historical model is not how adoption is typically
practiced today, the stigma of being the “type of woman” who would
“just give her baby away” (now that other options are legally available
and socially acceptable) carries on.  Think of the movie Juno,
true it was funny and hip, but it absolutely perpetuated the stereotype
of a detached teenage girl that couldn’t wait to get rid of the baby
she decided to place for adoption.  The lack of education around
what the real experiences of birthmothers are, and how those
experiences, values and circumstances shape their choices and lives,
is profound.  Further, a public understanding of genuinely open
adoption, which has revolutionized adoption practices and the experiences
of all parties involved, is completely lacking.

Even
if we educate and open the conversation around adoption, how do we bring
about the change that is necessary?  Part of the difficulty with
creating a new understanding of adoption – including the women who
chose it, the families who adopt, and the children who are adopted –
is combating archaic adoption practices that not only reinforce negative
stereotypes, but also do an incredible disservice to what adoption can
be – that is, adoption is a legitimate pregnancy option for all
women faced with a pregnancy decision, regardless of whether they identify
as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” religious or not, conservative
or liberal… In the face of a pregnancy decision, the women who choose
adoption feel no more part of the political discussion
around it then the women who choose abortion feel about the
political rhetoric characterizing their decision.

In
order to implement broad change and understanding of adoption, there
must be a focus on creating standardized policies and practices that
protect all parts of the adoption triad (birthparents, adoptive parents,
and children) and respect that adoption is a woman’s choice, which
she must be given power over in order to do what she feels is best for
her and her family.  These practices would include:

Pro-choice agencies
that support a woman’s right to choice and access to all options –
while it is not essential for the potential birth- or adoptive parents
to subscribe to a particular value around abortion, it is absolutely
essential that the agencies working with pregnant women and their loved
ones not be in a position of coercion based on disapproval of abortion.
 

  • Pro-choice agencies
    that support a woman’s right to choice and access to all options –
    while it is not essential for the potential birth- or adoptive parents
    to subscribe to a particular value around abortion, it is absolutely
    essential that the agencies working with pregnant women and their loved
    ones not be in a position of coercion based on disapproval of abortion.
  • Access to free options
    counseling, regardless of the pregnancy outcome – again,
    it is imperative
    that pregnant women who contact an adoption agency to discuss their
    pregnancy options not feel pressured or coerced into making a decision
    the agency may see as “right.”
  • Birth families’
    ability to see all prospective adoptive families (without preemptive
    selection or “matching” from an agency) – this speaks to the heart
    of honoring women’s ability to choose what is best for them. 
    This means including gay & lesbian couples, single people, and all
    potential adoptive families who meet the criteria of the background
    check, home study, etc.
  • Legally-binding
    open-adoption agreements – if a woman chooses to plan an adoption,
    she should be able to work in concert with her loved ones and the adoptive
    family chosen to create a legally binding adoption agreement that feels
    appropriate for both birth and adoptive families.  These types
    of documents serve as a protection for birth families, but also serve
    as a launching point for open, honest discussion between birthparents
    and adoptive parents about their expectations for the adoption, their
    level of comfort with contact, and any other issues that feel important
    to address as they make a plan for their family.  These agreements
    serve to outline a minimum level of contact between families,
    but are not a limitation.
  • Access to free,
    ongoing counseling and support, as needed, for both birth and adoptive
    families.  It is important to acknowledge that families created
    through adoption are no more immune to struggle or potential conflict
    then any other family.  Access to counseling from adoption professionals
    assures that families are able to work through difficult times they
    may encounter with guidance and support.

 

Without
education, enforceable policies, and standards of practices to which
adoption agencies can be held accountable, pregnant women, potential
birthparents and adoptive parents will feel unsafe pursing this option. 
Furthermore, many healthcare providers, educators and pregnancy options
counselors will not feel confident or comfortable discussing adoption
with their clients, or referring to adoption agencies, until they too
can be assured that adoption practices will not be manipulative or harmful
to the women and families they work with. 
For the pro-choice movement, supporting access to all options
for women is essential.  Just as we support access to safe and
legal abortion, as well as access to parenting resources and support,
should we not demand access to ethical adoption practices?

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To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • ahunt

    Thank you for this. Thank you so much! With your permission, I’d like to add this to my “they say it best” library in my documents, to pull it up at need in my travels around the NET.

    Always crediting you and RHRC!

  • marci

    Thank you, Melissa, for sharing a part of you and your experience with choosing open adoption. I saw you speak at the Pregnancy Options Dialogue in Seattle, as well. It is SO refreshing to hear a real woman’s reality that challenges the shame and stigma that is so often attached to the outdated myths and misinformation associated with adoption. It is so vital to bring awareness to adoption as a reproductive justice issue so that more women like you can have positive, empowering experiences and are able to obtain true pro-choice, client-centered adoption services.
    We have an uphill battle against anti-choice adoption establishments and unethical adoption practices because they have really trampled all over the word "adoption" and left people to distrust it as an option all together. It’s been pitted against abortion as the "right" choice and it should just be treated as A choice. I hope that more counselors and providers will educate themselves of the trusted adoption resources that are out there, as well as educate themselves on how to talk about adoption as a viable option, and understand as you so eloquently said, "adoption is a legitimate pregnancy option for all women faced with a pregnancy decision, regardless of whether they identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” religious or not, conservative or liberal… In the face of a pregnancy decision, the women who choose adoption feel no more part of the political discussion around it then the women who choose abortion feel about the political rhetoric characterizing their decision."

    Again, thanks so much for sharing!

  • isabellamirac

    What a fantastic post. When I found myself facing an unplanned pregnancy, the judgement of those who thought raising a child without marrying her father (who is not involved and terminated his rights) was often harsh. I was told I was irresponsible to raise a child without a father. And on the other side, I’ve been told I’m not really pro-choice, as I opted not to terminate. But that’s the beauty of reproductive choice – having a choice to make. Kudos to you for making the right choice for you and your daughter.

  • crowepps

    there has been such a political and public effort to divide my experiences into two camps

    It is impossible to divide everything and everybody into two groups. It’s unfortunate that all too often that’s the reflexive way everything is automatically handled, because it does not reflect reality or the complexities of people’s lives and it makes it immensely harder to deal with issues where policy intersects reality.

    “What is madness? To have erroneous perceptions and to reason correctly from them”. Voltaire

  • j-parker

    Thank you, Melissa, for writing such an eloquent piece, and for sharing your story. I am so honored to be working with you at Backline (http://yourbackline.org) to promote this kind of honest, respectful conversation about pregnancy, parenting, abortion and adoption!

     

    Like our allies at RH Reality Check, at Backline we believe that women who are pregnant and unsure of how they want to proceed deserve unbiased information about all of their options, along with nonjudgmental support to help them make the decisions that are right for them. We also stand as allies to women before, during and after their pregnancies, regardless of their choice. This kind of support is vital for building a world where pregnancy decisions and experiences are recognized as complex and personal. And yet, as you articulate so well, politics and policies play a critical role defining the context in which women make these decisions.

     

    We must insist that all women have access to information, support and resources for all of their pregnancy options. Advocating ethical, non-coercive practices and policies in adoption, abortion and parenting is the only way to ensure reproductive justice and true choice for all women.

     

    Thanks for being such a fabulous spokesperson for Backline!

     

    Parker Dockray

    Backline President

    http://yourbackline.org

  • lauracarroll

    Bravo to you for thinking and acting so responsibly re your decision not to parent your child. So many people do not consider whether they are truly ready to become parents before they find themselves with a child. You thought hard about this and took your decision even further by having a relationship with your child and the parents. Your story is a such a reminder that pregancy and parenthood are two separate things. And you are right on re needing to change the frame around adoption to break the common stereotypes and promote policies that include all pregnancy options. We need more stories out there like yours….

    Laura Carroll,

    Families of Two: A Decade Later http://www.lauracarroll.com