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Tatum HunterDecember 06, 2020
Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash

I would rather jump through a glass window than talk to literally anyone about reproductive politics.

Church friend from childhood? Glass window.

Tipsy coworker at happy hour? Glass window.

Given the choice between a very normal and appropriate conversation about reproductive politics and a glass window, I will be in the bushes out front, picking glass out of my torso.

That is because when I was 17 I got pregnant by accident and placed my baby for adoption. As such, I have two options during these conversations: Stay quiet about my intimate familiarity with unplanned pregnancy and the difficult choices that come with it, or speak up and make everyone uncomfortable.

By inviting birth mothers into our conversations, we risk complicating the stories we tell ourselves about adoption and the people who participate in it.

If my conversation partner is pro-life, I get to watch their eyeballs spin as they think back over our discussion and try to remember if they said anything suggesting that people like me are irresponsible or immoral. If they are pro-choice, I get to watch steam pour out of their ears as they wonder if it was rude to imply that my 9-year-old son was once a zygote.

The sudden appearance of a birth mother in conversations about reproductive politics makes people uncomfortable—and who can blame them? Usually, if birth mothers get mentioned at all, they are people we talk about, not with. By inviting birth mothers into our conversations, we risk complicating the stories we tell ourselves about adoption and the people who participate in it.

Left Behind

For nine years, I kept my adoption hidden from almost everyone in my life, and it was incredibly lonely. “Coming out” as a birth mother has been a healing journey for me, but it has not made the loneliness go away. In fact, it has made me painfully aware of the near-total absence of birth mothers in media, politics, religion, family, academics and medicine.

That absence can be traced back to some deep-rooted societal discomfort with the institution of adoption. For a long time, stigmas about infertility, illegitimacy, genetics and sexuality drove all three members of the adoption triad—birth parents, children and adoptive parents—to keep adoptions a secret.

Then, attitudes shifted. Today, U.S. culture largely celebrates adoption as a way to form new family ties. Religious communities, particularly Catholic and Protestant Christian, played an important role in normalizing and encouraging adoptive families. Meanwhile, adoption was ensconced in contemporary pro-life rhetoric. If women get abortions because they do not want to be parents, the thinking goes, adoption is a life-affirming alternative.

“Coming out” as a birth mother has made me painfully aware of the near-total absence of birth mothers in media, politics, religion, family, academics and medicine.

But there is a problem. The cultural acceptance we rightly extended to adoptive parents and children was never extended to birth parents. Birth mothers still feel pressure to keep their experiences secret, and that pressure speaks volumes about where our goodwill starts and ends.

While adoptive parents may enjoy telling new friends or coworkers their family’s origin story, I cannot talk about my adoption without sucking the air out of a room. While most everyone can rattle off a handful of adoptive parents or children they know personally, few people can name a birth mother. In fact, I have never met another in person, and I have been one for almost a decade.

Erasing Loss and Silencing Grief

Adoption’s move from hushed-up transaction to mainstream ministry relied on its portrayal as a positive, happy thing. And it is a positive, happy thing. Adoption creates entirely new families bound by a powerful love. But adoption is also a sad thing; a parent and child, whatever the circumstances, are separated.

Some birth mothers willingly relinquish children because they are not ready or do not want to be parents. Others are coerced into relinquishing children because of social pressure from families or communities. Still others are unable to parent their children because they lack resources, lack support or are dealing with addiction or other hardships.

Reckoning with birth mothers in all their complexity is tough. So, we usually do not bother to do it.

Instead, we take the beautiful dynamics of adoption, with its sadness, joy, gain and loss, and package them into simple, one-note stories: A heroic teenager spurns abortion and gives her baby a chance at life. A pitiful, fallen woman abandons her child. A weak-willed teen in an oppressive religious community has her choice made for her. In all of these cases, to introduce a flesh-and-blood birth mother—her grief, her love, her courage—would ruin the story.

While adoptive parents may enjoy telling new friends or coworkers their family’s origin story, I cannot talk about my adoption without sucking the air out of a room.

Other times, we omit birth mothers entirely. We applaud adoptive families for giving children a loving home, forgetting that those children may have had loving homes in their birth mother’s body for nine months beforehand. We ask sincerely why abortion still happens when there are so many couples waiting to adopt, as if placing a child for adoption is a matter of supply and demand.

Even homilies and sermons on adoption frequently leave out birth mothers. The biblical mandate to “love the fatherless and the widow” may feel relevant, but it fails to draw any distinction between orphaned children and adoptees with loving birth parents. Adoption often serves as a metaphor for God’s parental love, as well. But that metaphor gets messy when you introduce a birth mother. If God is the adoptive parent, and humans the adopted children, then who represents the birth mother—death, sin, hell? All flattering options.

Adding a three-dimensional birth mother into our common adoption narratives makes those stories clunkier and more complex. Why did this birth mother relinquish her child, if not from heroism or heartlessness? How did she feel afterward?

Compared to those impossible questions, stereotypes and omissions feel much better. And, for years, I leaned on those shortcuts, too.

Adoption often serves as a metaphor for God’s parental love, as well. But that metaphor gets messy when you introduce a birth mother.

When I was a senior in high school dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reactions that came with it, the opportunity to present myself as an unlikely hero who marched out of the abortion clinic to give a wonderful couple a chance at parenthood is what got me through a lot of interactions with teachers and church members. When I was a young adult in Chicago nervously telling new, progressive friends about my adoption, I would be sure to put extra emphasis on my evangelical upbringing and devout religious family.

Hero or victim, brave or damaged, selfless or angry. I was a birth mother chameleon, shifting to fit whatever simplified storyline would make me sympathetic to my listeners.

And I really wanted those easy stories to be true. But how could I be a victim when I would never change my choice? How could I be selfless when sometimes I wish the whole thing never happened? How could I be brave when sometimes, I miss my baby so much, I cry really hard in the shower?

I felt I couldn’t mold my experience into something digestible for my parents, my friends, my partner, my coworkers and my son’s awesome mother, so I spent years stripping it of its complexity or hiding it entirely.

Hero or victim, brave or damaged, selfless or angry. I was a birth mother chameleon, shifting to fit whatever simplified storyline would make me sympathetic to my listeners.

That approach has not done me any favors. It has not done any favors for birth mothers, adoptive parents or children, either. It has not done any favors for my spiritual communities. It has not done any favors for the people who want their reproductive politics to account for the real experiences of real women.

So, maybe next time someone wants to share their take, I’ll leave the window intact and share why I decided to place my son for adoption: Because I didn’t want to be a parent. Because I was too young to get an abortion in Ohio without parental consent. Because I wanted my community to accept me. Because I wanted to be a normal teenager again. Because I had dreams that didn’t involve being a mother. Because it was the best option available to me. Because I wanted my son to live, and I had the necessary support to make that happen.

As a birth mother, my perspective is nuanced. And that, I’ve learned, is not something to apologize for.

Making Space for Birth Mothers

If religious communities are going to celebrate adoption, especially as a pro-life talking point, they must seek out and amplify the perspectives of birth mothers.

Those perspectives will be diverse, and they will not always be what people want to hear. But that makes them all the more necessary if communities want to develop a truer, more loving understanding of adoption.

Making room for birth mothers in religious communities may look like expanding and refining grief support programs and resources. Academic research suggests birth mothers experience lifelong, unresolved grief: After their adoptions are finalized, they are expected to move on silently, rather than grieving outwardly with a supportive network.

If religious communities are going to celebrate adoption, especially as a pro-life talking point, they must seek out and amplify the perspectives of birth mothers.

Consider this: As a teenager, I was on stage at church giving a “testimony” about my pregnancy-and-adoption experience—while I was still pregnant. The intentions were good, but the outcome was bad. In the eyes of my congregation, my story had been wrapped up with a bow before it had begun. Instead, we should:

Treat birth mothers with the care afforded a mother who loses a child. Do not brush the experience away because it makes you sad or uncomfortable. Do not wrestle it into an inspirational tale. Let birth mothers speak openly about their sadness, anger or confusion, if they want to. Sit with them. Cry with them. Make space for their loss and ongoing grief, even as you celebrate an adoptive family’s joy. Grief does not cancel out joy, or vice versa.

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Incorporate actual birth mothers into your political conversations about abortion. If you are willing to toss out adoption as an alternative for pregnant women, be equally ready to amplify resources created by birth mothers. Read and recommend books by birth mothers who, like myself, had positive experiences with adoption, as well as books by birth mothers who had terrible experiences. Both will make you more informed and empathetic. Toss in plenty of books by adoptive parents and children, while you are at it.

Think twice before simplifying adoption to a transaction. I hear it all the time: “There are thousands of couples waiting to adopt.” Adoption is an incredibly difficult decision. If you wouldn’t want to take on nine months of medical risk and social punishment to give your much-loved baby to someone else, don’t blithely suggest that others do so.

Examine your reliance on stereotypes to understand birth mothers. Is the birth mother in your imagination a shadowy specter leaving her baby on the steps of a firehouse? A selfless hero, happily relinquishing her baby so someone else can start a family? Or is she a three-dimensional person with a future and a backstory, with a variety of feelings and motivations?

Honor the adoption triad. When adoptions involve three parties, don’t erase birth mothers. We can rejoice with adoptive families without implying that they saved adopted children from their birth families or that those children were unloved or unwanted.

Last, when theological language of adoption omits birth mothers, find a way to reinsert them. Our focus on God as an adoptive parent is valuable, but what about God as birth mother, giving her child to us all?

Even more, what about God as a triad: three entities, all blessed and indispensable. Or is that too much to imagine?

More Stories from America

– I have two kids with Down syndrome. Here’s what I wish those considering abortion knew about life with them.
– This Catholic doula wants to broaden our understanding of ‘reproductive justice’
– White parents adopting Black kids raises hard questions. We can all learn from them.

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