When I gave birth to my son two years ago, I was stunned by the depth of my feelings—not the love, I expected that. It was the sense that the life of this baby was now more important than my own. I would fight a mountain lion or step in front of a truck to protect him. I would even, if I had to, send him to my parents to live, if my husband and I could no longer provide the best care for him. That doesn’t make me special—it just means I’m a mother, same as hundreds of millions of other women. No matter whether it’s staying home, going to work, raising their kids alone or choosing to leave their children in order to provide for them, there is nothing most of us would not do to ensure our childrens’ safety. And, for some Moms, giving their children the best chance at a good life means making the most excruciating sacrifice of all: placing them up for adoption.
We hear a lot about adoption, but usually only when things go wrong or a celebrity is involved. We talk plenty about the kids themselves and the selfless families taking them in—whether they’re fictional scenarios like the adoption storyline on Glee, or all-too-real news footage from Haiti, Ethiopia, or China. But our culture still seems to show so little respect and support for the women who choose adoption in the face of an unexpected pregnancy. Rarely do we focus, in a positive way, on the birth mothers, aside from picking the most relevant stereotyped assumptions: “Pregnant teen, crack addict, prostitute, trash, etc.”
For the better part of the 20th century, adoption was seen as exploitative and cruel to birth mothers. Since single motherhood and abortion were not readily accepted options, women and girls were often forced by their families into hasty marriages or hustled into homes where their babies were taken without their informed consent. But now adoption has come out of hiding—indeed, both domestic and international adoptions have become increasingly common. One would think that women or teenage girls would be able to explore this option free of the guilt and shame. But as Amy Benfer wrote last month at Salon.com when discussing the reaction to notable on-screen pregnancies: “By the end of 2008, you could be forgiven for believing there was absolutely no way to portray a young unmarried woman who happened to be pregnant in a responsible manner: Juno was too smart, funny and likable; Katherine Heigl in ‘Knocked Up’ was too pretty and too happy; the Gloucester girls were too poor and too dumb; Jamie Lynn Spears was too rich and too dumb; Bristol Palin was too privileged and too Republican. When MTV came out with ‘16 and Pregnant’ in the summer of 2009, it was more of the same: the girls were too trashy or too popular; bad mothers for dropping out of school, or unrealistic role models for other, less privileged girls, should they continue with school.”
For Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at the Harvard Law School, society’s distrust of birth mothers reveals our enduring bias for biological families. “It is very deeply ingrained in our society that all kids belong where they came from, it’s unnatural to give them up. So we stigmatize surrendering the child ... but most young unmarried women who give birth are not in a good position to raise their child. What if we allowed people to think it’s also natural to give their children to somebody else to raise?” Don’t believe that we’re so biased against birth moms? Do a little thought experiment with me—imagine it’s the 2008 presidential race all over again. What do you think the response would have been if Bristol Palin had announced she was having her baby but placing it for adoption? Something tells me she wouldn’t have been hailed as a real-life Juno but as a selfish promiscuous tart who doesn’t care about her baby.
To me, it also indicates a strain of our culture that is not yet ready to accept that a mother’s love might dictate placing her child with somebody else to raise and instead dismisses her as unnatural. As Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute explained to me, “Our society has lifted much of the stigma of single motherhood, but still finds it difficult to support a woman who is, as they see it, abandoning her child. These women are told: ‘How can you possibly give up your child? What kind of person could do that?’ So while adoption is listed as viable option, it’s a choice that’s rarely made.” Indeed, the number of newborn babies available for adoption has remained flat for almost two decades while the number of unmarried women having children has soared.
What if we stopped pretending we lived in a world where the traditional nuclear family is the norm and accepted birth mothers into the fold of family life? We’ve certainly managed to do that in the world of reproductive medicine where we welcome offspring as biological even if the child was the product of donated sperm and egg. And we’ve somehow managed to accept a bewildering array of familial choices from multiple stepparents, two moms, or a single grandparent. But, thanks to society’s misgivings and misconceptions about adoption, birth mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. By indicating that placing a child for adoption is a selfish or painless choice when it’s not, or talking about birth mothers as if they were all crack-addled prostitutes or at the very least wayward youth, we not only limit a woman’s right to choose but also shut out the possibility that there are other people out there who would love to adopt. Why not try respecting these women as mothers able to make the best decision for themselves and their pregnancies—even if that decision is not to parent?