The night before my oldest son was born, I sat in a hotel room and texted with his birth mother. She was anxious and scared about her cesarean section that was scheduled for early the next morning.
My world shifted when she gave birth on March 15, 2015. This expectant mother became my son’s birth mother, and I became a mom. We expanded our family again in 2019, when our second son joined our family via adoption.
Doreen, my older son’s birth mother, made an adoption plan to place her child at six months pregnant. She chose my husband and I to parent her child. During her final trimester, we got to know her and, well, we fell in love with Doreen. All the while we knew she had every right to decide to change her mind and decide to parent her unborn child at ANY time, including up to 48 hours after giving birth (this time frame is specific to Florida adoption law).
Her decision to place her child for adoption was thoughtful, deliberate, intentional—and in many ways devastating. She was choosing to let us in, as she was simultaneously preparing to say goodbye to her child. She decided what contact would be like with us prior to giving birth, and together, we made a plan for what her contact with us, the adoptive family, would be like after we became his parents.
As much as I wanted to celebrate my motherhood, I knew it wasn’t mine to celebrate until she had legally signed her parental rights away and placed the baby with us. This was her adoption plan, while my plans of motherhood needed to take a backseat.
We spoke to our second child’s birth mother, Mary, on the phone, 24 hours after she gave birth. As she held her tiny little child, through tears she told us all the things she wanted for her child. She shared why she had chosen us and what she wanted moving forward. The next day, we arrived at the hospital and met her and our son. She gently placed him in my arms and watched as I slipped into motherhood and part of her motherhood slipped away. She ever so gracefully made room in her heart for me.
Both women made a plan to place her child for adoption. Neither woman simply “gave up” her child.
I cringe when I hear the question “why did his mother give him up for adoption?” It’s the phrase “give up” that really gets under my skin.
First, there’s the origin of where the phrase came from. The history of adoption is long and fraught with unethical practices. The phrase “giving up a baby” originated during the Orphan Train Movement in the United States. Between 1854 and 1929, approximately 200,000 children from New York and other major cities in the east were sent by train to towns in midwestern and western states. Families interested in the children showed up to look them over when they were put on display in local train stations, and children were frequently given to families with little or no investigation or supervision.
There’s something about the phrase “give up” that feels it turns a child into an object, a thing, something transactional. You give up a bad habit or give up a way of thinking.
Giving up is often a sign of weakness. I can assure you that my children’s birth mothers are the strongest women in my life. Their strength in making an adoption plan and continuing to show up for their children in our open adoptions is nothing short of heroic. The grief and loss that these women live with and work through in order to be there for their children is astounding.
A birth mother is giving up many, many things when she decides to place her child. She is giving up the opportunity to see first smiles, first steps, first words. She is giving up being the one he calls out to in the middle of the night, the one whose hand he easily slips his hand into to cross the street, or the one he first mutters the word “mama” to. She is giving up so much by placing her child for adoption. However, she is not giving up. She is fighting tooth and nail to provide her child a life that she feels she cannot provide.
As a mother, all I want is to protect my child. Isn’t that what all mothers want? Adoption is complex. There are many parts of my children’s stories that will raise complicated questions and answers. I think of that moment often, when they ask, “why?”
There is a difference in my child asking, “why did my tummy mommy place me for adoption?” and “why did my tummy mommy give me up?”
The shift in language recognizes the complexity of their adoption story, and allows my children to know their value, worth, and the intentionality behind their birth mothers decision to make an adoption plan.
It won’t only be adoptees who ask “why” when it comes to adoption. We have been asked by the strangest of strangers to the most well meaning family members, why our boys' birth mothers “gave them up”. An adoptee's story is private. It is sacred. It’s theirs to share.
Adoption education without compromising an adoptee's story can be tricky. Changing the language around adoption is a great place to start. I often say, “my child’s birth mother made an adoption plan and chose us to parent her child.” Full stop.
Chances are, your child will have classmates who were adopted. Chances are, they will ask, “why were they given up for adoption?” Chances are, you won’t know why. What a wonderful opportunity to model more inclusive and thoughtful language. You can honor someone’s adoption story by simply saying, “I don’t know why they were placed for adoption.” Any further explanation will most likely be speculation.
I encourage you to ask for help from adoptive families and adoption professionals. We want to talk. We want to help. You can keep the conversation going while respecting the privacy of an adoptee’s adoption story.
Any shift we can all make in our language to help understand the complexity involved in adoption is a simple change I’ve been willing to make, and I hope you will too.