A Young Woman's Choice, Your Choice
by Jennifer Bliss, PsyD, MSW, LCSW
In general, society views pregnancy as an exciting time in a woman's life. However, when it is unplanned, it can be an overwhelming and frightening experience. Confronting an unplanned pregnancy involves intense emotions and forces a young woman to make very adult decisions. Being a young adult can also make it difficult in that parents or other adults most likely influenced all of your previous significant decisions. Although it may be helpful to receive input from others, you must make your final choice.
Myths of Adoption
There are many myths about adoption and the experience of birthing a child. The first is that adoption solves everyone's problems by meeting the needs of an unborn baby, a pregnant woman, and an infertile couple. In reality, all parties experience a significant loss and must make accommodations in order to heal and move on. You will grieve the loss of never being able to parent your baby. The adoptive couple also grieves the loss of the opportunity to have a biological child. Finally, the child will experience a loss in coming to terms with not having a biological connection to his or her parents. Although adoption is a blessing in many ways, everyone in the process deserves an opportunity to heal.
The most universal myth is the belief that birthmothers do not grieve. This falsehood is a result of a misconception that, because the choice to place your baby is voluntary, this must mean that you want to do it and thus will not mourn the loss. The truth is that the choice is made on an intellectual level, despite contradictory emotions. A birthmother does not place her baby because she is not maternal. In fact, it is your overpowering love for your child that turned your attention to adoption in the first place. In the final moments before you sign the relinquishment, it will be the desire to give your baby the life that you have chosen for him or her which will give you the strength to go through with the placement.
The Grief Experience
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the birthmother's experience, and social service professionals have begun to acknowledge that a legitimate grief process does occur. However, the majority of society does not recognize its seriousness, which can lead you to feel that, as a birthmother, you do not deserve time to mourn. Furthermore, the lack of available literature and support services outside the adoption agency serves to validate these feelings. While society expects people who experience loss through death or divorce to take time off of work or away from other responsibilities, there is no assumed period of mourning when a woman places a child for adoption. Too often, birthmothers are expected to simply move on. This speaks to yet another myth: that the birthmother will move on by forgetting that it ever happened.
There are significant differences between the loss experienced in adoption and other losses. One of the differences from the normal grieving process is that adoption lacks the finality of death. Often times when a family member passes away, mourners catch a glimpse of the person in a crowd of people, or scan the environment in hopes of seeing their loved one. Searching activities are a normal part of the grieving process and occur in adoption, as well. However, when a woman places her baby for adoption, the person she is mourning is still living. Because the child is still alive, the behavior is not irrational and transitory. It can last for years after the adoption occurs. Thankfully, by opening up communication among all parties, the growing practice of open adoptions have relieved the anxieties associated with so many of the unknowns.
Anticipating the Birth
Counseling before you give birth can help you anticipate how your life might change after the placement. Often times, birthmothers will feel "different" from her friends and that other people her age can no longer "understand" her. If not addressed through counseling or other means, these feelings have the potential to worsen and can lead to increased isolation, loneliness and depression. In hopes of preventing this additional suffering, an IAC adoption counselor can begin working with you before the birth. Through counseling, the counselor can address feelings of ambivalence and emotions surrounding your decision. It is imperative that you make an autonomous decision and that others do not pressure you.
By emotionally preparing yourself for the adoption, you are less likely to feel shocked by the emotions that can arise when you are with the baby at the hospital. Although you cannot do all of the grieving beforehand, anticipatory grief can help to lessen the intensity of the feelings that follow placement.
One of the birthmothers who placed through IAC recently said, "Leaving the hospital was the hardest thing I have ever done. After nine months of loving him, feeling him grow inside me, I'm walking away with nothing to show for it."
However, because she was expecting the pain, she was able to trust her prior commitment. Even though it felt like her heart was betraying her, she knew that proceeding with the adoption was ultimately best for her child.
Healing in Therapy
After relinquishing your rights, the ability to acknowledge your grief is the first step in the healing process. Because your baby is an extension of you, it may feel like you have lost a part of yourself. You have shared a legitimate relationship with your child, so it is important that your loss is validated. Because of the significance of your decision, you may fear making other decisions. This reluctance can lead to avoiding life decisions and postponing important commitments. Hence, making an effort to regain the confidence to make decisions will help you move forward in your life. During the first few months after the adoption, your healing process will influence many aspects of your life. However, the intensity of your sadness will wane and will continue to do so as the months progress.
Ultimately, always remember that your decision required an immense amount of love. Because in a way, keeping the baby so that you don't have to go through the sadness could have been the "easier" choice. Know that the experience of your adoption should be one where you realize your strengths and build a healthier confidence in yourself. Think of the ways that your experience helped you mature and have ownership and pride over your choice. Everything you have gone through during this process will help you confront other challenges that you never anticipated. It's important to realize how strong you are and that you've already shown how you can pull through whatever might come your way. There is no doubt – a very bright future awaits you…
Jennifer Bliss, PsyD, MSW, LCSW, is Los Angeles-based and is IAC’s Branch Co-Director and National Associate Counseling Director. Dr. Bliss has written numerous papers on adoption and its impact on the adoption triad.