Birth Moms — The Forgotten Parent: Our conversation with Adam Pertman

Every adoption involves complicated circumstances that deeply impact parents on both sides of the equation.

When it comes to the emotional and physical struggles every new parent faces though, birth moms get very little support. In fact, Adam Pertman, President and CEO of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and the father of two adopted children, says, “they’re too often considered an afterthought.”

Pertman is also the author of Adoption Nation (Harvard Common Press; 2nd edition, 2011) and an expert at navigating the world of adoption, which he says is understandably “very sensitive territory.” We began our conversation by clarifying some terms.

Pertman: “Usually, we use the term ‘birth mother’ but some women don’t want to be called that. They prefer ‘original mother’ or ‘first mother.’ I tend to say first/birth mother. They also don’t like the words ‘gave away’ or ‘gave up,’ as in ‘she gave up her baby.’ They don’t feel like they’re giving anything away. They just aren’t parenting the child.”

Every Mother Counts: According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, 135,813 children were adopted in the U.S. in 2008 (most recent statistics available) including through foster care, inter-country adoptions, and private adoptions. Are those numbers still about right?

Pertman: Pretty close, though they’ve dropped in recent years to about 120,000 because inter-country rates have plummeted. The numbers were probably higher during generations when unmarried women were intimidated into parting with their babies. Even though they only represent about 14,000 of the total adoptions that occur every year, many people still think of adoption as primarily being the kind that happens when a pregnant woman decides to relinquish her baby. Far more adoptions, about 50,000 per year, come through foster care. Nearly all of these are older children who were removed from their homes.

Every Mother Counts: When you think about all the adoptions that occur cumulatively, you realize how many birth mothers are living among us. What issues do they have in common?

Pertman: There are millions of mothers alive today who’ve been through this experience and, without over-generalizing, we can say it’s terribly difficult for all of them. Every first/birth mother feels some level of grief and loss and in many cases they also feel shame that they were unable to parent their child. This is true even when the mother thinks it’s the best decision she can make for herself and her child. And for women who were pressured, or had no choice but to part with their babies, the emotional and psychic toll can be particularly traumatic. When you carry a child, you can’t just give it away like an old record player and not think about it. It’s going to be part of you forever.

Every Mother Counts: Why don’t we hear more about these mothers?

Pertman: Historically, it goes back to our judgments about women having babies out of wedlock. For generations we shamed these mothers, silenced them and wouldn’t let them raise their own children. Social workers told unwed pregnant women that adoption was their only reasonable option. ‘Just give us your baby and move on with your life. Act as if nothing ever happened. Don’t tell anyone.’ And to support that attitude, we developed adoption as an institution whose laws and policies were built on secrecy. We developed a culture where we didn’t even tell our own children they were adopted. Thankfully, attitudes around pregnancy and adoption have evolved, but remnants of that culture still remain. Even today, many first/birth mothers tell only their closest confidants what they’ve been through.

Every Mother Counts: What resources do birth mothers have for dealing with the physical, cultural and emotional issues that come with adoption?

Pertman: Not many and that’s part of the inequities first/birth mothers face. The parents who adopt a child have far more support. They’re plugged in to regular pediatric visits and social services. They have family support to help them adjust to and raise a new baby. Most first/birth mothers, on the other hand, are left to deal with the fallout on their own and many fall through the cracks in terms of mental health support. There are support groups in some areas and more mental health experts are learning about their issues, but still, most of these women say their doctors and therapists have no idea what they’re going through.

Every Mother Counts: What kind of support would you like to see?

Pertman: First we need to guarantee we don’t do this to more women. No more coercion or shaming. Voluntary placement should be all about informed consent. Women deserve to be educated about all their options and respected for their choices.

Secondly, adoptions should be open whenever possible. Just because a woman decides not to parent doesn’t mean she shouldn’t exist in that child’s life or have the opportunity to do so. Fortunately today, over 90% of infant adoptions in this country are open. But one of the remnants of the old culture is that original birth certificates issued years ago were sealed at the time of adoption and in most states cannot be accessed by the adoptee without a court order. That’s not true for any other class of people in America and the ostensible reason they remain closed is to protect the anonymity of the birth mother, even though research and experience show that over 95 percent don’t want that protection. It’s patronizing, infantilizing and sexist. The culture is changing, but we still have a long way to go.

To learn more about adoption and birth/first moms experiences:

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