It is difficult 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. A number of birth parents have written personal accounts of their experiences in placing their children for adoption; there are also a few research studies of the experiences of birth parents and the emotions that often linger long after the adoption. Certain themes emerge in both types of literature, including themes of loss, guilt, and resolution.
As a framework for this discussion, this factsheet explores the experiences of birth parents by exploring some of these themes.
Grieving the loss of the child
Placing a child for adoption can cause a sense of loss that is all-encompassing. This sense of loss begins with the pregnancy itself as the expectant parents come to accept the reality of the unplanned pregnancy and the loss of their own immediate life plans.
Most struggle with the decision to place the child for adoption; those who decide to do so begin to plan for a great loss in their own lives with the hope that placing the child for adoption will result in a better life for their baby and for themselves.
The actual physical separation generally occurs soon after the birth. Many circumstances can have an impact on the birth parent’s feelings at the time, including mixed feelings about the adoption placement, support from other family members and the other birth parent, and whether the planned adoption is open (i.e., allowing some later contact with the child). The actions of the agency personnel (if an agency is involved), as well as those of the adoption attorney, adoptive parents, hospital personnel, and physician can all affect the feelings of the birth mother and father as they proceed through the process of the adoption and the termination of their own parental rights.
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 birth parents first deal with their loss, the grief may be expressed as 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 loss becomes more real. Anger and guilt may follow, with anger sometimes being directed at those who helped with the adoption placement.
The final phases, those of acceptance and resolution, refer not to eliminating the grief permanently but to integrating the loss into ongoing life.
Grieving other losses
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.
Additional losses may occur as a result of the pregnancy and placement. In some cases, the birth mother loses her relationship with the birth father under the stress of the pregnancy, birth, and subsequent placement decision. The birth parents may also lose relationships with their own parents, whose disappointment or disapproval may be accompanied by a lack of support. In extreme cases, the birth mother may need to leave her parents and her home. The birth mother may lose her place in the educational system or in the workplace as a result of the pregnancy.
Birth parents may also lose friends who are not supportive of either the pregnancy or the decision to place the child for adoption.
Guilt and Shame
Birth parents may experience guilt and shame for having placed their child for adoption, since societal values reflect a lack of understanding of the circumstances that might prompt birth parents to make an adoption plan for their child. At first, there may be shame associated with the unplanned pregnancy itself and with admitting the situation to parents, friends, coworkers, and others. Shame about the pregnancy may lead to feelings of unworthiness or incompetence about becoming a parent.
Once the child is born, the decision to place the child for adoption may prompt new feelings of guilt about “rejecting” the child, no matter how thoughtful the decision or what the circumstances of the adoption.
The shame and guilt felt by birth parents is often supported by the secrecy surrounding the adoption process. Thus, keeping the pregnancy a secret, maintaining secrecy throughout the adoption proceedings, and then treating the experience as unimportant may promote a feeling of shame in birth parents, since the pregnancy and adoption are not even discussed. Birth parents who can discuss their feelings with supportive friends, family members, or professional counselors may more easily come to terms with their decision over time and be able to integrate the experience into their lives.
Identity issues
Placing a child for adoption may trigger identity issues in some birth parents. They may wonder, “Am I a parent?” Some birth parents may experience a sense of incompleteness, because they are parents without a child. Generally, their status as parents is not acknowledged among family and friends. If the birth parents go on to have other children whom they raise, this may also affect how the birth parents view their own identity, as well as that of all their children.
These questions about identity may also extend to the relationship with the child when the adoption is open. Birth parents who participate in open adoptions may initially wonder how they will it into that new relationship with their child once the adoptive parents become the legal parents.However, this relationship with the child and adoptive family in an open adoption may evolve so that the birth parents maintain an agreed-upon role in the life of the child. Still, there are few role models for birth parents to help clarify this issue of identity.
Long-term issues
These questions about identity may also extend to the relationship with the child when the adoption is open. Birth parents who participate in open adoptions may initially wonder how they will it into that new relationship with their child once the adoptive parents become the legal parents.However, this relationship with the child and adoptive family in an open adoption may evolve so that the birth parents maintain an agreed-upon role in the life of the child. Still, there are few role models for birth parents to help clarify this issue of identity.
  • A birth parent’s feeling that she was pressured into placing her child for adoption against her will
  • Feelings of guilt and shame regarding the placement
  • Lack of opportunity to express feelings about the placement
The personal stories of some birth parents, as well as studies with birth parents in therapy, have indicated that some birth parents experience difficulties beyond longstanding grief. For instance, some birth parents may have trouble forming and maintaining relationships. This may be due to lingering feelings of loss and guilt, or it may be due to a fear of repeating the loss. Other birth parents may attempt to ill the loss quickly by establishing a new relationship, marrying, or giving birth again— without having dealt with the grief of the adoption placement. A few birth parents report being overprotective of their subsequent children, because they are afraid of repeating the experience of separation and loss (Askren & Bloom, 1999).
For some birth parents, the ability to establish a successful marriage or long-term relationship may depend on the openness with which they can discuss their past experiences of birth and adoption placement. Some birth parents never tell their spouses or subsequent children of their earlier child. Others are comfortable enough with their decision to be able to share their past.
Gaining control and resolution
Acceptance of the loss and working through the grief does not mean that birth parents forget their birth child and never again feel sorrow or regret for the loss. Rather, it means that they are able to move forward with their lives and to integrate this loss into their ongoing lives. For those in an open adoption, this may mean developing a new relationship with the child and the adoptive parents. For birth parents whose child was adopted in a closed adoption, it may mean learning to live with uncertainty about whether the parent will ever see the child again.
A number of birth parents have written about their experiences; these authors describe a number of different ways of dealing with loss and grief:
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. These ceremonies allowed the birth parents to say good-bye to their child and to maintain a sense of control over the placement. Such ceremonies may help with the later grieving process.
Ongoing rituals and traditions. Birth parents may find it helpful to create a tradition that honors the child and the decision that was made. For instance, planting a tree or writing a letter to the child (whether it is sent or not) are ways of acknowledging the loss. On special days, such as the child’s birthday, birth parents may want to continue with that type of ceremony or tradition.
Taking time. Both birth parents and counselors advise that birth parents must allow themselves time to grieve and recover (Roles, 1989). There is no timetable that predicts when the grief will be resolved, and there may be occasions, even many years later, when the grief may resurface. Birth parents who allow themselves time to grieve and to accept the loss may be better able to move on.
Finding Support. Birth parents should seek out friends, support groups of other birth parents, or understanding counselors in order to have a safe place to communicate their feelings. Being able to openly share feelings can be helpful in moving through the stages of grief and achieving some resolution.
Education. 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 for what some other birth parents experience.
These can be helpful to birth parents who may feel that they are essentially alone in their loss.
Writing. Birth parents may find it useful to keep a journal or diary of their experiences and feelings. 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.
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.
A counselor should be able to help a birth parent replace unrealistic fantasy with reality, to acknowledge what has happened, and to heal.
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.