Emotional & Psychological Effects of Adoption on Birth Mother

The psychological effects on a birth parent who places their child for adoption can often be overlooked.

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As one of our efforts to honor and support birth mothers, Adoption Network Law Center developed its private Healing Hearts page on social media. This Healing Hearts page is a safe place in cyber space where women can gather to share their experiences and be encouraged by others who understand what it is to place a child for adoption. Women who are currently pregnant and wish for pre-placement support are also welcome to become part of this community.

The drive behind the creation of Healing Hearts came from concern that not enough is done to address the effects that adoptive placement has on the emotions and wellbeing of a placing parent. Although much study has been conducted on how the adopted child weathers the experience, less resources have been directed towards assessing the psychological effects on a parent who places their child for adoption or for post-placement services that may be beneficial. Birth parents are deserving of respect, support and encouragement they experience their lives post-placement.

It is not appropriate to generalize about the impact of adoption on all birth parents. Each has faced a unique experience and coped in his or her own way. Some who have placed have written personal accounts of their adoption experiences. Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a comprehensive fact sheet Impact of Adoption on Birth Parents. Common themes emerge when reading through both types of literature, including those of loss, guilt, and resolution.

Although there are some positive feelings that reside around the adoption experience, such as relief, gratitude, acceptance, primary among all of the emotions experienced by those who do not have their child because of adoption is grief. How can it not be grief? There is loss: the opportunity to parent their child is lost. There is pain: studies have shown that feelings of grief activate the same areas of the brain that are associated with pain. Grief does not require a death to exist, and certainly this is a circumstance that demonstrates it.

For some, the feelings of loss begin with the pregnancy itself as the expectant parents come to accept the reality of the unplanned pregnancy and the resulting changes to their own immediate life plans. The struggle with the decision to place their child for adoption could be quieted with the hope that adoption will result in a better life for their baby. This can be comforting, but only goes so far when also anticipating a great loss in their own lives. Many factors can have an impact on the birth parent’s emotions at the time, including mixed feelings about the adoption placement, support or lack of support from other family members and the other birth parent, and even whether the planned adoption is open (with some later contact). Although they may not realize it at the time, the actions of the agency personnel or attorney, if one is involved, as well as those of the hopeful adoptive parents, hospital personnel, and physician can all affect the feelings of the birth mother and father as they experience the baby’s birth and proceed through their adoption steps.

The birth and the actual surrendering of the baby may prompt feelings of numbness, shock, and denial, as well as grief, in the birth parents. All of these feelings are normal reactions to loss. This particular type of loss is different from a loss through death, however, because there is rarely a public acknowledgment, and friends and family of the birth parents may attempt to ignore the loss by pretending that nothing has happened. In some cases, the secrecy surrounding the pregnancy and adoption may make it difficult for birth parents to seek out and find support as they grieve their loss. In addition, the lack of formal rituals or ceremonies to mark this type of loss may make it more difficult to acknowledge the loss and therefore to acknowledge the grief as a normal process. When someone has a miscarriage or stillbirth we think that we know the right things say, but when someone comes home from the hospital without their baby because they have chosen adoption, we find that those right words may not exist.

When birth parents first deal with their loss, they could experience various stages of grief including denial. The denial serves as a buffer to shield them from the pain of the loss. This may be followed by sorrow or depression as the sense loss resonates. Anger and guilt may follow, with anger sometimes being directed at the other parent or those who helped with the adoption placement. The final phases, those of acceptance and resolution, refer not to eliminating the grief permanently but to absorb the loss into ongoing life. Acceptance of the loss and working through the grief does not mean that birth parents forget their birth child or never again feel sorrow or regret for the loss. Rather, they are able to integrate the loss into their current selves as they move forward with their lives.

Placing a child for adoption may also cause other (secondary) losses, which may add to the grief that birth parents feel. No one fantasizes about having a baby and then giving it up, so expectant parents who are planning to place the child for adoption may grieve for the loss of their parenting roles. They may grieve for the person their child might have become as their son or daughter. These feelings of loss may re-emerge in later years, for instance, on the child’s birthday, or when the child is old enough to start school or to reach other developmental milestones.

Just as with any profound life event, the feelings that surround it can vary in how strongly they are felt, and when. Because each parent is an individual, what he or she experiences and does as a result of their child’s adoptive placement is personal to them. What birth parents do share in common is that they have to move forward in their lives not parenting their child. We asked our Healing Hearts group to share with us some of the things that help them to navigate their lives as parents who have placed.

Take time. Both birth parents and counselors advise that parents who place their baby for adoption must allow themselves time to grieve and recover. There is no timetable that predicts when the grief will be resolved, and there may be occasions, even many years later, when the feelings of grief resurface. While it may be tempting to try to minimize feelings of sadness by “putting it behind” you, birth parents who permit themselves to take the time whenever it is needed to experience and process their emotions may be better able to accept their loss as they move forward in their lives.

Find Support. Birth parents should seek out friends, support groups of other birth parents, or understanding counselors in order to have a place where they feel safe to communicate their feelings. Being able to openly share feelings can be helpful in moving through the stages of grief and achieving some resolution. These can be helpful to birth parents who may feel that they are essentially alone in their loss.

Counseling. Birth parents may find that they need more support than family and friends can offer, or they may be unable to move forward in the grieving process. In such cases, professional counseling may help the birth parent make progress in dealing with the grief or may reassure the parent that such feelings are normal.

Birth parents should look for counselors who have significant experience with adoption and with bereavement. Referrals for counselors may come from friends, birth parent support groups, or from the adoption agency or attorney who helped with the adoption. While the birth parent will never forget the child, it is important that the birth parent adapts to the new circumstances and comes to terms with any regret. When birth parents are able to integrate the loss into their lives and gain some feeling of control, they can then move on to deal with whatever else life presents to them. Courtesy of Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Education/Information. There are a number of books and articles about adoption and the birth parent experience, as well as a growing number of websites that carry information on the topic. Many of these include first-person accounts from birth parents, which can provide some context of what some other birth parents experience.

Writing. Birth parents may find it useful to keep a journal or diary of their experiences and feelings. Some even put their thoughts on the internet for others to read. This may serve as an outlet for grief or other emotions, and it can also serve to provide some perspective over time. Keeping a journal also allows birth parents to remember details that might otherwise be forgotten over the years.

Entrustment ceremonies. Some birth parents describe a ritual or ceremony that took place when they entrusted their child to the adoptive parents. In many cases, these entrustment ceremonies took place in the hospital or soon after leaving the hospital. These ceremonies allowed the birth parents a way to say good-bye to their child while maintaining a sense of control over the placement. Such ceremonies are affirmative in nature so may help later with the grieving process.

Affirmation: Even if a formal entrustment event did not happen at the time of birth or placement, a birth parent may give herself a ceremony like this at any time by creating a meditative environment and using it for reflection and healing. Affirmation is defined as the act of doing something in that confirms or verifies. Affirmation is also the act of being supportive or encouraging. Birth parents may find it helpful to create a way to honor their child and the loving decision that was made for them. For example, rather than focus on the painful emotions felt during the time of placement, reflect on the feelings of optimism and encouragement that came with finding the family that you knew would be best to love and raise your baby.

These suggestions, shared with us by members of our Healing Hearts community, are just some of their tools. Other methods that they recommend for keeping emotions healthy and balanced in general included physical activity and holistic therapies like massage, meditation and yoga. Because every person’s experience with adoption is unique, so will be the way that the resulting emotions are faced. One size does not fit all, and if the first attempt is less than hoped for, keep trying because this is important! Our goal is for birth parents to feel supported in their journey, not only while it takes place, but also whenever there is need.

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