The Social Stigma of Adoption

During the various adoption classes and trainings we did, we came to understand how adoption is a beautiful thing built on a foundation of loss.  The birth mother feels loss over placing her child.  The adoptee feels loss over a lack of identity or not knowing their biological family.  The adoptive parents often know the loss of infertility.

I feel as if I understand the losses that everybody in our two adoptions feels.  However, I tend to look at loss mostly from my perspective, which is rather rosy.  I have long accepted that my wife and I will never have a biological child, and I am perfectly fine with that.  Our children are amazing – smart, beautiful, vibrant little beings that make me happy beyond words.  I truly believe my wife and I could not have produced anything as wonderful as our two kiddos.  So I tend to forget about the other two sides of our adoption triangle and any pain they might be feeling.

I may be over my loss, and I’m naive enough to think that we can provide enough love and support to cushion whatever loss our kids may feel as their comprehension of their journeys to our home evolves.  But do I really understand what our birth mothers went through?

Sure, I can vocalize the pain they must feel over knowing that they have not seen their beautiful children in person since birth.  I can try to understand what it must be like to go through life – being with their other children, hearing a baby cry, seeing their C-section scar, or any of the thousand moments in the day where they are reminded that the life they brought into this world is (for differing reasons) not currently in their life.

It is a pain that I cannot understand, a loss that I will never know, an ache that (presumably) never goes away.  I am grateful beyond words these women chose adoption and chose us to parent their children.

But is another part of the story that I had never ever considered; one that makes me love and appreciate these women even more:  the social stigma they must face.  The judgment (silent, vocal, or implied) from everyone you know.

I recently read a very interesting piece in the Washington Post entitled “A Mother’s Day plea to stop equating adoption with abandonment“. It really opened my eyes.

I clicked on the piece expecting a rant against an all-too-common adoption phrase:  “gave up for adoption”*.

*I hate that phrase.  Despise it.  It makes the hair on my neck stand up and wakes up the protective Papa Bear inside me.  Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – “gave up” on my babies.  Not their birth moms, not their biological families, nor anybody else.  Say that about my kids, and you may “give up” on breathing for a while.

A belated Birth Mother’s Day to all of the wonderful birth moms out there, and especially to two amazing women who will always be special to us.

But while “gave up” is mentioned in the piece, it is a small component in the bigger message.

The loss a birth mom faces can sometimes pale in comparison to the social stigma they face for placing their child for adoption.  The author even asserts that for some women, aborting an unplanned pregnancy can have less impact than placing a child for adoption.

Think about it:  there is a woman at work, at school, at church, in your family, wherever.  You can tell that she is pregnant, even if you think she’s trying to hide it.  You hear that she’s gone into labor and delivered a healthy child.  Then one day, she is back but little is said publicly about where the baby went.

You would judge her.

You would think she was a slut for getting knocked up, or she’s a bad person because she couldn’t take care of her baby, or she has betrayed religious tenets you hold dear.

You would ask why.  Why couldn’t she raise baby?  Why did she have to “give up” this child?  Why is she such a bad mom?  Why?

You may not say or intentionally do anything, but you would likely judge her for placing her baby for adoption.  Or make negative assumptions.

Hell, I am a two-time adoptive father.  I owe an overwhelming debt of gratitude to our two birth moms.  And I can honestly tell you that I have made some negative judgments about birth moms (especially the one who lied to us in our failed adoption).

Simply put:  the social stigma our birth mothers faced is something that I (as an adoptive father) have failed to comprehend, or even acknowledge.

And that is what makes birth moms so amazing.  When faced with an unplanned pregnancy, they could take the “easy” way out and abort.  Few people would know, and they would not have to endure nine months of judgment, and a lifetime of whispers about how she “gave up” a baby.  Imagine the strength, the love, and conviction needed to make an adoption plan, especially in the face of such social stigma.

The solution is simple:  as a society, we readjust our mindset on birth moms.  They are not pariahs incapable of parenting.  They love their children and want the best possible life for them.  The author says it best:

“A woman’s decision to carry a baby to term knowing that she will not reap the fruits of motherhood should be treated as an act of bravery and selflessness — the ultimate standards of good motherhood.”

I agree.

*   *   *

Update…The WordPress Daily Prompt for 5/14/2013 is about unconditional love.  I definitely think the love birth moms have for their children qualifies.


Thank you. As a birthmother in early reunion with her relinquished child 41 years later your words are a salve. It’s nice to know adoptive parents think about the pain that went along with the gift of your children.

the last line you quoted makes me queasy. the ultimate declaration of love is giving your child away? this is why mothers relinquish…because they are told garbage like this. when you think about it, it doesn’t even make sense. love is not walking away from your child! i don’t know how people don’t understand this!

i mostly use the phrase “give up” to describe my adoption. it may not be the sanitized vocabulary people prefer, but it’s the absolute truth.

i think it’s easy to paint birth moms in gold sparkles and shower them with praise, or to go in the opposite direction and call them drug-addicted sluts whose children are better off separated from them. it’s easy to depersonalize someone you don’t want to know, and wrap their experience up in black-and-white generalizations that make you feel warm and fuzzy. personally, i would rather that someone saw me as a human being. but if i had to choose between being called a hero and being called an irresponsible abandoner? i would choose the abandoner, every time–relinquishing a baby is just that. it does not feel heroic, no matter how happy the adoptive parents are.

    First off, I appreciate your perspective, and I thank you for commenting.

    I’ll stand by that quote, and let me tell you why: I think it takes some serious balls (figuratively speaking, of course) to live your life through nine months of pregnancy and then place the child for adoption, knowing that you will have to face questions and judgment from those who knew about the pregnancy. Try as I might, I will likely never understand (or even know) all of the circumstances that led to our two birth moms a) placing and b) picking us. I think their decisions (especially to not abort an unplanned pregnancy) were brave and by definition, selfless.

    Without disclosing too much information, I am familiar with an adoption where the birth mom was truly unable to parent (the why is not relevant, nor is it something the parents would like shared publicly). The birth father is unknown, and all good-faith attempts to identify him failed. In this case, the birth mom knew that her choices for her child were adoption or the child entering into the foster care system. Obviously, every situation is different, but in this one, I believe her choice was made out of love for the child.

    You’re right – it is awfully easy to stereotype birth moms into the sinner/saint boxes you describe, when the reality is they are just the rest of us: real people, facing real problems, doing their best.

    Okay…its late, and I feel like I’m starting to ramble, but again I thank you for sharing your perspective. We currently do not have the relationships with our birth moms that we would like, so I like hearing/learning a different perspective.

      i know adoption is sometimes the best choice. but many of them are unnecessary–like mine–and the author is basically asking for more adoptions to occur. i find that stance reprehensible.

Thank you for your kind words and sharing parts of adoption most people never think about.

      ““A woman’s decision to carry a baby to term knowing that she will not reap the fruits of motherhood should be treated as an act of bravery and selflessness — the ultimate standards of good motherhood.” Thank you. As a birthmother I struggled for a long time with this whole concept of feeling like a rotten person despite my birthson’s parents treating me like gold. I appreciate reading posts like yours!

I have conflicting feelings about the social stigma of adoption. I certainly think it plainly sucks that women have to walk around with a scarlet A on them after adoption. I believe that women who choose adoption do so because they believe they are making the best choice for their children at the time. However, that does not mean it actually IS the best choice. The best choice is for biological families to remain intact, except in cases of neglect or abuse. It scares me to hear about the bravery and selflessness of birth mothers because that is a line many of us heard over and over from our agencies, lawyers, family, etc. when what we should have been hearing is how we could raise our children ourselves.

This quote, “A woman’s decision to carry a baby to term knowing that she will not reap the fruits of motherhood should be treated as an act of bravery and selflessness — the ultimate standards of good motherhood” is very misleading. The decision to place a child for adoption can never be made while the woman is still pregnant. This is a decision that must be made after the birth, after the mother has had ample time to recover and reflect on what adoption would truly mean for herself and her child. Of course a woman can begin to consider adoption during pregnancy, but that final decision can not be made so early in a pregnancy when abortion is still a viable option. We enter into dangerous territory when we start believing that a pregnant woman can choose adoption over abortion. It is dangerous for adoptive parents to believe this because when a mother decides to parent instead of giving the child up for adoption, it sets up heartbreak for the hopeful adoptive family. The assumption should always be that the mother will raise her child, not the other way around.

I also want to say that making the decision to terminate a pregnancy versus carrying a pregnancy to term is a very personal one. Of all the women I know who decided to abort, none of them took that decision lightly. I would not categorize that decision as the easy way out. Again, that decision involves the desire to no longer be pregnant. Let’s not forget that carrying a pregnancy to term involves the risk of serious complications and death, much more so than abortion.

Overall, I agree that there is no reason to stigmatize birth parents after they have already decided to relinquish. I do believe we need to be very careful not to influence and manipulate women into choosing adoption for their children and instead show women how brave it is to raise their children.

The first time someone said “How could anyone give up their baby?” to me when discussing my daughter’s birth mom, I was speechless. I honestly didn’t know how to respond – we had viewed the placement of our daughter as nothing but brave, selfless and strong. It shocked me that those not close to adoption judge it at all – but that is the sad truth.

Great post! It’s so important that we advocate on behalf of our children’s birth families!

I think the last quote would be lovely if it stopped before the em dash, “A woman’s decision to carry a baby to term knowing that she will not reap the fruits of motherhood should be treated as an act of bravery and selflessness.”

I’m also not a fan of assuming that adoption is an alternative to abortion, or even that birth mothers “chose life” instead of choosing abortion. For some, abortion is not an available choice in their home states. Abortion isn’t covered by Medicaid and some insurance doesn’t cover it, so women have to come up with quite a bit of money to choose abortion. Some women find out about their pregnancies too late to terminate them. Abortion isn’t an easy choice, even if you aren’t religiously opposed to it. I think society assumes that it’s simple to have an abortion, but placing for adoption is the more difficult, and therefore, more heroic, choice. I don’t believe that’s true.

Overall, I agree with leenilee.

That said, aside from the abortion/adoption language, you do make some very good points in this post. I do think adoptive parents in particular forget about the stigma associated with being a birthmother.

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