The Other Side Of Adoption

Some years ago, I got a near hysterical call from a new mom and dad who had just adopted a beautiful baby girl. All should have been rosy for these two who had struggled with fertility issues and longed for a child of their own for many years. Finally they had their baby safe at home but things were about to blow up – the biological mother was threatening to take her back.

The young couple who gave up their baby had chosen an independent adoption* and the mother-to-be had lived with the adopting couple for the last months of her pregnancy. Everyone got along well. The adopting mother took the birth mom to doctor’s appointments and made sure she was well cared for. It seemed like smooth sailing ahead. But then, two weeks after the birth, they were barely speaking and lawyers were circling in the background.

The adoptive parents asked for my help in an effort to calm things down and save the adoption. They were willing to pay the bills and approach the situation in whatever way I saw fit but they needed help NOW. They were afraid that the young couple would soon return to their home state and take the baby with them. **

As I began working on the case, it became clear what had gone wrong. Despite the best intentions of the adopting couple, they had failed to take into account just how delicate the situation was and how complicated the biological mother’s feelings were about her situation.

The young woman confided that she had not been prepared for the avalanche of emotions she felt when the baby was born. She and her boyfriend were very young college students who had accidentally gotten pregnant. They knew they couldn’t responsibly raise a child at that point in their lives but couldn’t face an abortion either. So they decided to go the adoption route. They had struggled hard in making this decision and even though she was happy to have found great adoptive parents for her baby, she was also grieving.

She was also unprepared for how things would proceed following the birth – for example, the baby was taken from her the minute she was born and placed in the arms of the other parents. Their loud screams of joy and excitement had hit her hard and watching them pop open bottles of champagne had turned her stomach and made her panic. She wasn’t happy or celebrating. She was devastated and didn’t understand why they didn’t know that.

She had never had the chance to examine her infant – the one she had carried and cared for for nine months and it was tearing at her heart. Now she was supposed to hop on a plane, go back to school and resume her life. But everything had changed. Her hormones were raging, tears were pouring from her eyes, milk was leaking from her breasts and she was terrified that she had made the wrong decision.

After several intense sessions, she regained her equilibrium and she and her boyfriend thoroughly reviewed the pros and cons of giving up their baby. They decided that they had, in fact, made the right decision but needed to do a few things before they could leave and not look back.

With the adoptive parent’s blessing, arrangements were made for the birth mom to have a couple hours alone in the house with the baby. In order to remember her baby clearly and say goodbye, she needed to hold her, rock her and play with her a little with no one else around.

She also needed to explain. So she prepared a scrap book for her baby with pictures of herself and her boyfriend, the hospital where she was born, and the house where she had lived while carrying her. She wrote a letter telling her child how much she loved her and how sorry she was that she had not been able to keep her. She also shared a little bit about her own life and family, where she had grown up, and how much she liked her adoptive parents. She left it up to the adoptive parents to choose when to give it to her. Finally, she came to a place of peace about letting her go. And she did.

If you plan to pursue an independent adoption (as the majority of adopting parents do these days), there are some important things to keep in mind as you go forward, besides the legal issues. Obviously each situation is unique and will have to be approached differently, depending on the specifics of the case.

First, remember that giving up a baby is no small thing to a woman, regardless of her reasons for doing so. She is bound to have very mixed feelings about it. Be sensitive to what she may going through. Yes, it is a joyous occasion for you, but she may be feeling very sad, conflicted or guilty.

Encourage her to take the time to process her feelings about the adoption with a counselor or therapist. She needs to have support from someone trained to understand the complexities of the situation who is not personally involved.

Seriously consider whether it is wise for you to be present at the birth. It is vital for you to have an open and honest conversation with the birth mother about her comfort level with this. Without a doubt, it is truly a gift to see your child enter the world, but giving birth is a highly charged emotional experience. She needs to be comfortable with the idea of you being there.

If you and your spouse do attend the birth, keep a low profile. Make sure that the focus is on her and what she needs. Do your best to keep the mood as respectful and serene as possible. Give her the recognition she deserves for laboring hard to deliver your/her baby.

When the baby arrives, be patient and take a back seat. You have a lifetime with this child to look forward to, she may have but a few minutes or hours. Give her some space and a little time with the baby, if she wants it. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, it just has to be enough.

Obviously express your joy and gratitude, but save the cake and champagne for a private celebration later, at home. Even though you may be walking on air, she is bound to feel depleted, exhausted and possibly depressed about losing her child. Loud whoops of joy and grabbing for the baby may make her feel marginalized and disposable. It may also increase feelings of anxiety and ambivalence about losing her child.

Before she says goodbye, the birth mother’s place in the life of this child needs to be acknowledged. There are many ways to do this. One way is to ask her to put together a scrap book, as this couple did. Also, make sure to express your profound gratitude for bringing your child into the world through spoken or written words.

One more thing to agree upon before the birth is how much contact the birth mother will have with the baby as he grows. Some couples agree to send her a picture of the child each year while others say goodbye for good once the baby is born.

Whatever you decide, just remember that there are two sides to the issue of adoption. Try your best to be sensitive and aware. It can be tricky territory to navigate and it’s important to realize that even if you do everything right, it can still fall apart at the last minute. Even so, for most couples who go down this road, the joy of bringing home a baby of their own outweighs the risks.


* as opposed to an agency adoption in which the birth parents give up their rights to their child to the agency, which in turn relinquishes its rights to the child to an adopting couple.

**  At that time in the state of California, the birth mother had six weeks in which to change her mind. As of Jan. 1, 2002 the law was changed to allow the birth mother 30 days to reconsider, after which the relinquishment becomes irrevocable. Remember that adoption law varies from state to state.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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