I kind of always knew I would become a birth mother. Is that weird to say? It’s weird to say. Ever since I started sleeping with dudes at the ripe old age of 21, I figured that if I got knocked up, I’d pull a Juno. (When this did happen, that’s exactly how I started explaining it to people: “I’m pulling a Juno.” It was the fastest way to get the message across.)
Whenever I thought my period was late (usually, it wasn’t really; I just can’t count), I’d think, I’m pregnant. I’m totally pregnant. I guess I’m going to give this baby up for adoption. Then, I’d get my period, or the test would come out negative. But, the day I did get a positive test, it felt...inevitable.
Although Juno is a teenager, most birth mothers these days are not: According to the Donaldson Adoption Institute, most American birth mothers are in their 20s, like me. But, much of the world doesn’t realize that. So, when a grown-ass woman tells you she’s going to place her child for adoption, a lot of people have no idea what to say, other than, “So, was this planned?” (No, honey, it wasn’t planned. Remember that you are an educated adult who knows the difference between surrogacy and adoption) or “What if you change your mind? Has that occurred to you?” (No! That NEVER occurred to me! Thank God I met you or I would never have given this any thought at all!) or “Are you depressed?” (I wasn’t until you asked me that).
Most of us have at least one friend who was adopted. But, how many birth mothers do you know? I’m guessing none. This is for a few reasons. One is that domestic infant adoptions have become the least common kind of adoption, in part because of increased access to birth control and abortions. Another reason is that birth mothers are mostly invisible.
That’s not an accident; historically (and by “historically” I mean “since the ‘50s”), adoption laws were constructed with the understanding that an unmarried pregnant woman was a horrifically shameful thing that should be hidden at all costs. Today, things are a bit better — for instance, more and more adoptions these days, including mine, are open, with ongoing contact and visits with the adoptive family (I visit my son and his parents every other month). But, when modern adoption laws fail to meet the needs of all parties involved, it’s generally because they’re still reflecting an antiquated attitude of shame.
As an openly sex-positive theater artist in New York City, I was anything but ashamed. I told EVERYONE about my pregnancy and plans for adoption — friends, acquaintances, strangers. Keeping this a secret would have meant upending my whole life and going into hiding. And, why wouldn’t I want to share it? I was proud of what I was doing — even excited. When I met the gay couple I had chosen through the adoption agency, I took a picture of us together and posted it on Facebook. During my seventh month, I performed a burlesque routine that was a letter to my son, holding signs that I dropped one by one until the final words (“LOVE YOU”) were revealed, written on my pregnant belly.
My open, celebratory attitude backfired a little when I went from delight to debilitating grief once the time to say goodbye to my son actually came. I had to communicate to everyone who’d seen me being so upbeat that I was actually in hell — and that constant explanation took a toll. But, it also meant that my community rallied around me and cushioned the blow with home-cooked meals, beer, cookies, and Muppet videos. Ultimately, my transparency worked out well for me.
While researchers aren’t really out there measuring how often birth mothers keep their children’s adoptions a secret, I get the sense that most are not as open as I was, and am. A fellow birth mother, Annie, explains: “I guess I just didn't want to hear other people's reactions… For several years, the prospect of telling those close to me — and having to deal with their anger...or their grief...or their rejection of me — [it] felt like I wouldn't be able to get past it.” Another birth mom, Wendy, says it’s been a struggle to explain her experience because people just don’t get it. “When I tell people, they are in complete shock — how I [could] choose to give up Thomas but five years later still [be] a part of his life.” (Wendy also has an open adoption.)
I tend to out myself as a birth mother almost compulsively. I figure, people will find out eventually, so I’d rather control how the conversation happens. But, once I say it, I almost inevitably watch people’s faces go through various states of confusion as they try to figure out how to reply. I’m not unique among birth mothers in this. Annie says, “Many of the women I meet who relinquished in the last five years haven't told [many people; their reasons] usually revolve around the judgment they get when they do tell — people making comments like, ‘I could never do that.’” The problem with such comments is, first, you COULD do it, if you felt it was the best (or only) option for you; second, saying that makes the birth mother feel even more alienated than she already does.
It’s a Catch-22: People say ignorant, unhelpful, or downright hurtful things because they don’t know enough birth mothers to know what to say, so birth mothers stop telling their stories and nobody ends up knowing they’re birth mothers.
So, what should you say when a woman tells you she’s either planning to place a child for adoption, or already has? Try: “Thank you for sharing that with me. How much do you want to talk about it?” Remember, she might just be getting this piece of information out of the way and may not want to teach Adoption 101 at the moment. If she does want to talk about it, ask, “How are you doing with it?” If she’s having a rough time: “How can I help?” Or, “Well, I may not know what that’s like, but my heart goes out to you.” If you have questions about the logistics of the situation (i.e. How open is the adoption? How did she find the family? Etc.), you might start with, “Do you mind if I ask you some questions about that? I don’t want you to feel interrogated, but I’m curious.”
Things have gotten much better for birth mothers over the past 50 years. The stigma against “unwed mothers” has lessened considerably, though not vanished. Increasingly regular open adoptions, while still not universal or perfect, do significantly ameliorate birth-parent grief. And, almost every American birth mother chooses her child’s adoptive parents, either by meeting them in person or selecting them from a profile. But, the invisibility has persisted.
When I was pregnant, I found myself feeling paralyzed because I lacked role models for my situation. I knew no birth mothers under the age of sixty, so I constantly felt like I was inventing my own wheel. Part of my decision to be vocal about my experience has been so that no one who hears my story has to feel like she’s the only one who’s had to face this decision — because, she’s not.
So, hi. I’m Mariah. And I’m a birth mother.