How Do We Treat Birthmothers?

by Luanne

I’m prefacing this post by saying that I’m an adoptive parent, so I can only speak from my own adoptive-parent-perspective, not that of an adoptee or a birth parent.

Back in 1986, The Child Welfare League of America adopted a resolution outlining their perspective on open adoptions.  At the end of this post, I am going to print the whole resolution as it is published on their website.  Notice that they were already advocating open adoption and that they recognized that there can be no hard and fast rule as needs of the child may differ.  But they could see that open adoption was what was going to happen and that it was in the best interests of the child.

Flash forward to today: 2013.  In the United States today open adoption is the norm.  The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute states:

A major new report depicts just how extensively adoption in the U.S. has changed over the last several decades – from a time when it was shrouded in so much secrecy that birth and adoptive families knew nothing about each other, to a new reality today in which the vast majority of infant adoptions are “open,” meaning the two families have some level of ongoing relationship.

So I have a question.  Since open adoption is the best option in many situations, why do some birth mothers get flak from other people, even from strangers?

230px-PregnantWomanWomen no longer feel that they have to hide that they had a baby. They no longer have to shroud that part of their lives in secrecy. Yet that openness leaves them open to attack.  A birth mother in an open adoption decides to be in a transparent relationship with the child and the adoptive parents because she did what she felt was the best thing she could possibly do for her child.  This exposure can lead to private and public criticism.

If women are criticized for placing their children with well-chosen adoptive families, isn’t this related to the shunning, discrimination, and embarrassment that women were subjected to if they publicly bore a child “out of wedlock,” in mid-20th century?

Isn’t this misogyny in a new form?  How is this in the best interests of the child?

In a world closer to the ideal, pregnant women who are considering adoption for their children would get more help keeping and raising them.  This help would be financial, emotional, whatever was needed.  But until that happens, sometimes the best option is adoption.  Should birth mothers be driven back into secrecy?  Is that what is best for the children?

Adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, and members of society: we’re all in this together.  We’ve made great strides in the area of adoption and there are still many more to be taken.  Let’s hope they all move in a positive direction.


Openness in Adoption by the Child Welfare League of America:

  • The agency providing adoption services should recognize the value of openness to all members of the adoption triad, but should allow determinations concerning the degree of openness in an adoption to be made by the parties to the adoption on an individualized basis.
  • Openness in adoption has the potential to benefit all members of the adoption triad. The degree of openness in the relationships between birth and adoptive families should be arrived at by mutual agreement based on a thoughtful, informed decisionmaking process by the birth parents, the prospective adoptive parents, and the child, when appropriate.
  • Decisions about the degree of openness should be based on respect for the rights of all individuals involved in an adoption.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 1.17, p.17.
  • When adoption is being considered as an option, counseling for birth mothers, birth fathers, and other family members can clarify the options within adoption and the consequences of each option. Counseling also provides an opportunity for members of the birth family to explore the various level of openness that are possible in adoption and the extent to which they may desire openness if they make the decision to place their child for adoption. In all instances, birth parents and other family members should receive counseling to help them understand the grief and loss inherent in adoption.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 2.1, p. 28.
  • The agency providing adoption services should advise birth parents who are making a plan for the adoption of their child that information related to their identities may be disclosed to the child at some point in the future.
  • Many birth parents may express an interest in having their identities disclosed to the child whom they place for adoption at the time the child reaches adulthood. The agency providing adoption services should obtain, in writing, the birth parents’ interest in having such information provided and should retain the birth parents’ written statement in the adoption record.
  • Some birth parents, at the time they make the decision to place their child for adoption, may express a desire to have their identities withheld from their child. The agency providing adoption services should advise the birth parents that under current law in all states, courts may order the opening of sealed adoption records and allow adopted adults access to identifying information.
  • Laws sealing adoption records are being re-examined in many states, and the possibility exists that adopted adults may have increased access to identifying information in the future. As a result, agencies should assist birth parents in understanding that it is not possible to assure them that their identities will be protected from the children they place for adoption.
  • The birth parents’ desire to have their identities shared or withheld from the child they placed for adoption may change over time. The agency providing adoption services should inform the birth parents that they may at any time communicate to the agency any changes in their desires in this regard.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 2.8, p. 32.
  • When appropriate, some level of contact between birth parents, other relatives, and the child after adoption should be considered. Openness after adoption, however, should not be used as an incentive to obtain the birth parents’ agreement to voluntarily relinquish the child.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 2.9, p. 34.
  • Education about and consideration of the benefits and challenges of openness in adoption should be an integral part of the home-study and preparation process for all adoptive applicants.
  • Adopted individuals, birth families, and adoptive families are best served by a process that is open, honest, and supportive of the concept that all information, including identifying information, may be shared between birth and adoptive parents. The degree of openness in any adoption should be arrived at by mutual agreement based on a thoughtful, informed decisionmaking process by the birth parents, the prospective adoptive parents, and the child, when appropriate. Educating applicants during the homestudy process about the range of openness in adoption provides them with time to explore their attitudes and possibly expand the level of openness with which they will be comfortable in adoption.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 4.12, p. 60.
  • The agency providing adoption services should support efforts to ensure that adults who were adopted have direct access to identifying information about themselves and their birth parents.
  • The prevailing legal practice in the United States prohibits adults who were adopted as children from obtaining access to their original birth certificates or to identifying information contained in their adoption records.
  • The practice of sealing records has come under scrutiny as the benefits of openness in adoption for the adopted individual, birth parents, and adoptive parents have come to be understood. The interests of adopted adults in having information about their origins have come to be recognized as having critical psychological importance as well as importance in understanding their health and genetic status. Because such information is essential to adopted adults’ identity and health needs, the agency should promote policies that provide adopted adults with direct access to identifying information.
  • This trend toward openness has already been recognized by the Indian Child Welfare Act (P.L. 95-608). Under that Act, courts must unseal records for American Indian children, on request, and provide information necessary for the adopted individual to ascertain his or her tribal affiliation and membership. Such information may include the names of the adopted child’s birth parents.Child Welfare League of America Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services, 2000. Section 6.22, p. 87.
  • All members of the adoption triad are affected by the adoption and as such should be consulted as to their desires, needs, and capacities in determining the level of openness in their particular adoption plan. To provide such opportunities agencies should make available a broad spectrum of options which may range from closed placement to open adoption. Selection and utilization of these options is dependent on the birth parent, the prospective adoptive parent, and the child if he or she is of age or ability to make such a decision.Child Welfare League of America-First Biennial Assembly Resolution, 1986. Adoption Resolution #3.


  1. Excellent points. Sadly, the abortion rights groups have worked tirelessly to make abortion more palatable to the general public, that far too many people’s attitude has become “If you can’t raise a child, don’t have one.” This of course completely negates the reality that these mothers have to live with the rest of their lives: that they have killed their own flesh-and-blood. (Birth fathers have spoken of a similar burden, of their helplessness to save their child.)

    Whenever a child is born, it’s important to remember that he has TWO parents, both of whom are responsible for this child’s life. This reality is often overlooked by everyone … but the child, who grows up wondering about BOTH his parents, and who needs them both. Mothers and fathers are both important — but their roles are hardly interchangeable in the life of a child, for his healthy development.

    This is one of the beauties of adoption: By choosing adoption, birth parents have the opportunity to provide something they cannot: a stable, loving, two-parent home for their child. Yes, in an ideal world they, too, could marry — but this does not necessarily make the home more stable, or more loving, if it is “forced” by the arrival of the child. This is particularly true when babies are born to teenagers, who may not have the support or developmental maturity to sustain a marriage as parents.

    Adoption, too, is not without challenges. Especially in open adoption, birth parents will have to accept that the child will one day want to know why they didn’t raise him/her. (This is often true in closed adoptions as well, but the dynamics are somewhat different in terms of the process by which the child comes to terms with his/her loss.) The trauma created by adoption is real — but so are the alternatives, to birth parents and child alike. Whenever a child is born to unmarried parents, or parents who are otherwise ill-prepared to raise a child, a natural imbalance occurs that can never be completely righted righted, only minimized. Adoption is often the best choice, and birth parents who make this decision for their child should be commended for putting their own feelings and desires second to the long-term needs of the child.

    • Heidi, thank you so much for writing this comment. And I agree that “birth parents .. . should be commended for putting their own feelings and desires second to the long-term needs of the child.” I don’t think anybody else can make that decision for the birth mother, in particular, because only she knows herself and her situation and even then it’s only a guess based on her life at that particular moment in time. Very complicated situation. Thanks, Heidi!

  2. You’ve posed some complicated questions, Luanne. They point out our uneasy feelings about “parenting somebody else’s child”. Hey! There’s a post idea!

  3. Kind of sad that CWL document is from 1986, and today based on reading forum posts, the agencies don’t seem to do a very good job in helping the parties define, and determine how it will look to them pre-adoption so post-adoption it is okay. Some type of agreement that is open to fluctuations over the years, and how to modify it based on current day life – what I see is after the fact they have no idea of what the other party wants/see’s it working, and then “boundaries” are crossed, feelings get hurt, and adoptions close…

    Anyway to your question – yes both in adoption, and in public, women who chose adoption are still considered bad, and any grief shown is countered by “you signed the papers – this was your choice”. That to me is the saddest – no-one can begin to comprehend what grief will be like afterwards, especially while you are being told how brave and selfless you are – nor can you imagine not being held as the brave and selfless one after the fact, when you crossed an undefined boundry, and are suddenly the woman who gave her child away and real mothers don’t do that. I put it solely on the lack of pre-adoption preparation, and the fact that there is little recourse if things break down – either through legal mediation channels, or the agency – because hey that check was cashed a long time ago. Mothers get a bad rap a lot of times when if you look back – they never defined what it would look like – so everyone is responsible for how it turned out.

    Apparently – this is a hot button issue for me…but at the end of the day, it is the child who either benefits because the adults were adults – or is stuck even more in that tug of war loyalty thing.

    Have you ever talked to prospective parents about how in-depth the training and focus was by their agency on openness? Was it a one-hour class type thing – or a major focus in how it would look and ways to document it?

    • I agree with you, Tao. I cannot begin to imagine facing the decision as a mother to place my child for adoption and the kind of grief and loss one experiences as a result. I know in some situations this may be the only option for the birth mother. I tend to think that in adoption, we don’t think as much about the birth mother (or birth father) when indeed they suffer incredible loss. I do wish and hope that one day there will be more support and programs for birth mothers/families who are living in poverty to have the kind of aid that will allow them to keep their babies. It breaks my heart that mothers have to relinquish their children due to poverty (although I know that there are multiple reasons besides poverty that a birth mother may decide to place her child for adoption). Thanks for your post, Luanne.

    • Tao, that’s a great idea–to find out what kind of in-depth understanding prospective parents are given today about open adoptions. I’m going to ask that question one of these days and see if we get some responses. And how many people really seek out info and listen and absorb when they are in that emotional place of infertility and wanting a baby so badly?
      Marijane, you’re right there are reasons other than poverty. Some of them can be unpleasant to consider and sometimes it is simply that the woman knows she is too young, not ready to be a good mother, and yet in the case of open adoptions still wants to be a part of her baby’s life.
      The situation is so complex. I too thought 1986! because my own children were adopted in 84 and 88 and open adoption wasn’t even something presented to us as an option. I didn’t know anything about it!

  4. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Such an important and thought provoking essay, Luanne. Like you, I am an adoptive parent, and I feel nothing but compassion and respect (and sorrow and admiration) for my daughter’s birthmother (and birthfather, but as a woman, I identify most closely with her birthmother.) It pains me when people (in the past … doesn’t happen anymore) make negative comments indicating that the birthmothers of children who were adopted from China must not have cared about those children or they wouldn’t have “given them up.” I don’t believe that is true. Yet the public persists in condemning women who decide to put their children up for adoption as “uncaring,” etc. I also think there persists some moral judgments about being pregnant outside of marriage, which is rolled into the mix. It’s a very complex gumbo of societal feelings and norms, all stirred together.

    • Yes, so many moral judgments surround birth mothers. Others include: If they are too young to mother and do so, they are judged as poor mothers. If they place their babies for open adoption they open themselves up to condemnation. If they place their babies in closed adoptions they close a door which they might later wish open (and so might the child and even the adoptive parents).

  5. I used to work in the poor country areas in our southeast. When I saw a young mother during the day I soon realized there’s a very high percentage that she is unwed. And when I told some people I was adopting I frequently got a response of “oh how could she do that” or “I couldn’t do that” The fact is that single parenting is a way of life some places. These 15 year old girls that get pregnant were probably raised by their single mom too; as she was by her mother. Its accepted as normal. A ‘family unit’ is a foreign concept sadly. That is one rason I would like adoption to be talked about in high school’s. Rarely is the idea of what’s best for my child considered. Its more about “what other people think.”

  6. With 25 years of life as a birthmother under my belt, I have thought about the “why’s” often.

    While the adoption community has been taught to honor, to an extent, the birthmother (which I can’t say I 100% agree with.. not the “honor” part, but the whole sainthood, strong, selfless, bit that glorifies us), the general public IS horrified by the act of giving up a child and does NOT understand the idea of open adoption, or even the natural desires of the Adoptee to want to know their original families.

    I have come to the realization that I think it is because the concept of being separated form one’s child IS horrifying and they must vilify the women who does so because they cannot imagine it. If the birthmother is somehow different or deserving of the pain, then she is separated from “them” and they are insulated from playing any part in that loss and grief.

    In the end, I can tell you that it is a harsh and often cruel existence living this life. If you would like some “good” examples of the general things peole say: I wrote about them here:

    • Wow, Claudia, that is a powerful piece. It really hits on just the attitudes I was talking about. Thank you so much for sharing it with us and our readers. I will say that I don’t agree with Renee’s comment because she made it sound as if she thinks all adoptive parents hate their children’s birth mothers. I have no idea of the percentages of people that might fit, but it’s certainly not all. It’s sure not how I feel, and I can tell you that the other adoptive parents who have guest blogged on this blog do not feel that way either. And those are the ways of dialogue that shut down good discussion between adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. However, what prompted me to write this blog post is that I think that there are many people who feel extremely uncomfortable with a woman choosing to become a birth mother. So many people seem much more comfortable when a birth mother is kept “secret” and/or if they believe the woman was coerced into becoming a birth mother (rather than it being her own free will). And as a society we can’t have it both ways–the movement toward open adoptions for the good of adoptees AND treating birth mothers in open adoptions poorly. Not sure I’m making sense as it’s been a really long day, but bottom line–I do agree with your post over on your blog and sympathize with your position.

  7. I happened to come across your blog and am truly happy I did. I was adopted by my parents at the age of 2 years old from Taiwan and have gone through my whole life knowing that my parents abandoned me on the streets of Taiwan and left to die. I was found by someone and brought to a nearby orphanage. To this day I do not know my real birthday or my real name or what truly happened. I may never be able to find out.

    • Oh my goodness, gourmandchic, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s very painful, heartbreaing. I checked out your blog, and it looks great! We’d love to post a longer version of your story, to learn more about the orphanage and what happened after you were brought there if you would ever like to write a guest post for us!

  8. Unfortunately, “Open” Adoption, despite the awareness it has created and thankfully, many triads engaging in it, is still not classified as a legally upheld practice. Open adoptions are agreements made in promise between triad members, and should one or the other discontinue that agreement at any time, the courts cannot step in and uphold that agreement.

    I honestly believe that until the justice system decides that these agreements can be legally upheld, that the stigma it holds will not change much. I also believe that agencies and facilitator’s of adoptions should be held to pre and post “open/semi-open” joint counseling between triad members for the purpose of preparing them for what an open relationship is and to guide them through the rough first years as well as transitions when the child becomes more aware.

    I fought at Capital Hill and spoke in 2003 against a new law that Colorado was putting up to pass that allowed adoption agencies and facilitators to allow birth mother’s to sign relinquishment forms in their 9th month of pregnancy. I also worked with several advocacy groups to try to push for a new bill that required pre-placement counseling for birth mother’s and adoptive parents cohesively together. We failed at both, but I have hope that one day eventually this will happen.

    Great post … keep them coming!

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