“It’s a scary thing being pregnant, but nobody gets pregnant by mistake,” says Gina.* “God has a plan for every child. He knows every hair on their head. And so adoption came into it when I found out what a beautiful gift adoption is. It was a choice that was the most beautiful gift you could give anybody.”
Published: December 31, 2017
By: Paige Townley
Gina is one of the many birth mothers who placed her child for adoption through Lifeline Children’s Services. Lifeline walks side by side with birth mothers as they make the decision on adoption and select the family they want for their baby. “It’s a huge privilege for us to walk alongside these mothers,” says Christy Harmon, Lifeline’s pregnancy counseling clinical coordinator. “It’s an emotional journey with many highs and many lows. It’s a huge privilege to watch the sacrifice these women make. I feel like I’m sitting in the front seat of a miracle every single day watching these women selflessly make a plan that’s beautiful for their child.”
According to the National Council for Adoption’s most recent data, there were approximately 110,000 adoptions in the United States in 2014. In years past, most adoptions were done as closed adoptions, which meant there was no identifying information exchanged or communication between the birth parent and the adoptive parents before or after the adoption was finalized. Oftentimes, closed adoptions were the case because of the stigma surrounding adoption. “That shame surrounding adoption grieves us because a birth mother gave the gift of their child,” Harmon says. “They should feel like a superhero, not shameful.”
Slowly, over the past 10 years or so, that viewpoint has shifted. Today, more and more adoptions are actually open adoptions, and at Lifeline, almost every adoption facilitated today is an open adoption or a semi-open adoption.
An open adoption means that there is correspondence exchanged between the birth mother and the adoptive parents through a mutually agreed upon plan. A semi-open adoption means that the agency facilitates the communication so, for example, the adoptive parents send the birth mother photos and letters through the agency and the birth mother will not know the adoptive parents last name or address.
Both open and semi-open adoptions oftentimes include visits between the adoptive parents and child and the birth mother. “More and more people have started to see the benefit of open adoptions to all parties in the adoption triad, which is the child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parent,” says Christie Mac Segars, Lifeline’s vice president of domestic services. “The birth mother can be affirmed in the decision she made after seeing that her child is growing up in a stable family. The child can feel that he or she wasn’t abandoned and that being placed for adoption was a loving plan by their birth mother. And for the adoptive parents, they are able to better understand their child by knowing the birth mother.”
With most open adoptions, Lifeline recommends birth mothers and adoptive parents to start out with a semi-open adoption, mainly to allow both time to adjust. “The birth mother needs some space and time to heal,” Harmon explains. “Everyone needs time to adjust when an adoption takes place. We don’t want it to be too much all at once for anyone involved. Starting off as a semi-open adoption helps build trust in the relationship on both sides, and that typically leads to more openness in most cases.”
Oftentimes, building the relationship slowly between the birth mother and the adoptive parents can lead to a very close, open relationship. That is the case for Mark and Shannon,* who turned to Lifeline in 2014 hoping to adopt after struggling with infertility issues. Mark and Shannon’s contact with their child’s birth mother started early on – they were even able to go to an ultrasound appointment with her – and the relationship quickly grew. “The nature of our relationship changed over time,” Shannon says. “Initially, we exchanged emails back and forth, then those changed to phone conversations. Now, we see each other in person, and texting is much more fluid. For example, when our daughter first started walking, my first thought other than telling my husband is that I wanted to call her birth mom to share.”
Sometimes, however, a closer relationship can actually reveal the need for less communication between the two parties. “We have one birth mother who actually goes and visits the adoptive parents and the child once a month or so, even going on family vacations with them sometimes,” Harmon says. “But then sometimes with a very open relationship the birth mother can actually see that she needs to pull back and have less communication and more boundaries because it’s too painful. It is definitely different case by case, so that’s why we recommend starting off with minimal communication and try to let it grow organically.”
That growth in openness and communication can typically happen organically when everyone involved stays focused on the child’s best interests, Harmon adds. “That’s what everyone is really working toward,” she says. “That’s why the birth mother made the adoption plan, because she loves the child dearly and wants a stable family for the child. And that’s why the adoptive parents are adopting, because they want to be able to care for and provide a stable home for the child. So when both parties are looking at the child’s best interest, it’s easy to come to an agreement. And while the child needs to know their adoptive parents as mom and dad, it’s good for them to know their birth parents and to have that connection. That’s a huge piece of their identity.”
The child understanding that he or she was adopted also allows the child to see adoption as a positive factor. “There are a lot of children that didn’t find out they were adopted until they were older, and that’s hard news to find out that the parents who raised you aren’t your biological parents,” Harmon says. “When adoption is celebrated as part of the child’s story from the time they were born, they can see adoption as a place of joy and celebration.”
Harmon understands the significance and need for openness than perhaps most others. She was adopted as a newborn, and her parents celebrated it with her from the start. “I’m so thankful my parents are incredible people and never wanted to keep the adoption a secret from me,” she says. “They always called me their darling adopted child. They were intentional in telling me how thankful they were that my birth parents chose them.”
While Harmon’s adoption was originally closed, her parents understood the benefit to finding her birth mother, which they eventually did. Today, she has a positive relationship with both her birth parents.
“When I think of adoption, I think of the word ‘redemption,’” Harmon says. For the family struggling with infertility, for the birth mom who feels alone and is scared, and for the child – it’s a redemption story for them all. It’s a beautiful picture of redemption.”
Paige Townley is a Birmingham freelance writer.
*Names were changed to protect their identity.