No one understands that better than Vicki, a Chicago-area resident who jokingly refers to herself as a “professional birthmom.”
Nineteen years ago, she placed her son, Kevin, in an open adoption. Afterwards, she worked as an expectant mother counselor, helping women make adoption plans for their unborn children.
Today, she is the case manager at On Your Feet Foundation, an organization that provides support to birthparents to help them get back on their feet.
A frequent guest speaker at adoption events, Vicki hopes her story and experiences will give adoptive and expectant parents a better understanding of the joys and challenges of open adoption and the selfless decision that birthmothers make every day.
In my research for this interview with Vicki, I came across an article she wrote describing the reaction she gets when she tells people she’s a birthmother: “They either say something like ‘Wow, that must have been hard’ (biggest understatement in the world)…Or they ask ‘How could you do that?’ then say ‘Wow, I could never just give my baby away’ followed up with a ‘You are so selfless'”
Most people, she explains, have never met a birthmom and have no idea how to react — a good starting point, I thought, for our conversation.
Tell me a little more about the responses you get when you tell people you’re a birthmother…
Most people are supportive, but I am what you call a professional birthmom! Meaning I work in adoption and have lots of connection to adoption so it is a natural conversation to have with most people.
In addition since the first day I placed I have been very adamant that I would never be ashamed of my decision and therefore am very transparent.
All of my friends and family know. In fact, most of my friends know my son,s parents and get along great! That is just a long winded way of saying that I do not have the opportunity to tell new people very often, but when I do the responses are generally positive though sometimes initially confused.
Often I have to explain what a birthmom is, because of my age they think I am an adoptive mom. I think it is easier telling people I am a birthmom as a 40 year old professional married woman that lives a middle class life (I own a home, car, go on vacation) versus when I was young and not established. When I was younger, people jumped to all sorts or horrible conclusions about the type of person I was.
At what point in the conversation does it usually come up?
I let it come up naturally. My son and his family are part of my life and as such easily come up in conversation for me. If someone is talking about their kids and it reminds me of Kevin I will tell the story and I will say, “My son, Kevin, did that when he was…”
And the follow-up comment is often, I did not know you had kids. Same thing with his parents. If I have something to add to a conversation I will say “Ann, my son’s mom, once told me…”
How do you decide who to tell and who not to tell?
Since adoption is a large part of my life, anyone that is part of my life knows. Most people find out within the first three months of knowing me.
There are rare occasions when I just don’t want to get into the long drawn-out conversation that usually accompanies telling someone at a specific moment so I will refrain. Or if a person is fleeting in my life. I know this is the only time I will ever talk to them then I will not bring it up.
What do you say to help them “get it” — or do they?
I do not think anyone can “get it” unless they are a birthmom. There is no other experience that can compare. The best I can hope for is that they understand its importance and respect me.
How difficult was it to find accurate information about placing a baby or to speak to a birthmother when you placed?
I placed 19 years ago, and the internet was not around. Well, it was around, just in its infancy! So I was not very educated. If I were considering adoption now it would be very different! I was very lucky with the organization I picked.
The women there were focused on helping expectant moms make an adoption plan versus helping hopeful parents find a baby. The distinction is subtle but very important. They did not run their business for money, which is one reason it closed its doors, but for the love of the work and were really in the expectant mom’s corner.
Being expectant- and birthmom-focused is rare even today. They had monthly support groups that included both and I was able to join in and talked to women that had already made the decision.
Even now, years after they have closed, they still talk to and get together with the women they helped with their adoption plan sometimes 20 years ago.
As a side note, though I think it is important for expectant moms to talk to birthmoms, I think it is equally important they not only talk to the happy ones.
It is not fair to have an expectant mom only talking to a birthmom during a happy, idyllic stage. It gives the impression that their adoption will also be great. And that is not true. Adoption isn’t all rainbows and puppies, it is more complicated than that.
How did you eventually make your decision — did you have a list of pros and cons, and if so, do you remember what they were?
I made all the lists. But for me it came down to simply I wanted more for my child than I could offer. I could have parented, but I would have been on welfare and would have struggled.
I do not think there is anything wrong with raising a child that way. It is just not what I wanted. It was the same old story of a child from a difficult background wanting more for their own kids.
What was your family and friends’ reaction when you told them you were placing your baby for adoption?
That is a harder question. Very, very mixed. The birthfather’s family wanted me to parent and said Darren, the birthfather, would come around, step up. I had multiple friends families say I could live with them and raise my baby with their family.
My parents wanted me to place. My mom was a birthmom herself so it was a natural option for her. During this time I did not know what I was going to do myself. At the time I was living outside of DC and could not think with everyone telling me what to do.
So I transferred my job to a Wal-Mart near Chicago and moved in with my Grandma so I could get away and make some decisions. Of course I decided on adoption and have lived in the Chicago-land area ever since.
What were the most important considerations when it came time to choose Kevin’s adoptive parents?
My biggest concern at the time was that Kevin is bi-racial and I was worried that no one would want a child of mixed race. I was experiencing racism for the first time because I was carrying a bi-racial baby and it was horrible.
Because of this I had fewer options when it came to picking parents. I would like to say this was 19 years ago and things have changed but they have not. At the time I felt like I was lucky anyone wanted my baby and was very submissive and grateful. Do not get me wrong, I LOVE my son’s parents. They are some of the best people in the world, but I was lucky.
How has your relationship with Ann and Tom evolved over the years?
Nineteen years ago I was just a kid and Ann and Tom were my parent’s age. We did not have a lot in common. But as I got older we had more in more in common.
Simply put, we have become friends. I see Ann and Tom at events and have lunch with Ann, just the two of us. A few years ago I was having infertility problems and Ann was there to support me through the process. She knew how hard it was and we went to lunch monthly for a while
Has the passage of time made things easier or harder for you?
Neither and both. I am no longer a lump on the floor crying for weeks at a time. When I see Kevin it is not the quick, deep pain of losing him all over again. But at the same time it is complicated. He is a young man and is struggling and I can’t help him.
I worry that he is struggling because I placed him, that the Primal Wound is right. I worry that he is struggling because I drank for the first two and half months before I knew I was pregnant. I am also unable to have more children, and though I do not regret placing Kevin, I do regret that I will never parent a child that is genetically related to me.
How did your experience as a birthmother influence your decision to work with other birthmothers?
I am a joiner by nature, so after I placed I volunteered with my adoption organization. I spoke on panels, was interviewed on the radio and was a huge advocate for open adoption. So being an expectant mom counselor was a natural progression.
In what way has your work with other birthmothers changed the way you see your own adoption experience?
I now understand I was super lucky. I was uneducated and things still worked out for me, my son and his family. A better question is how working with expectant and birthmoms has changed my view of adoption overall.
I now realize that our country’s entire adoption machine is inherently flawed, and not just a little flawed, horribly flawed. Agencies are paid by hopeful parents working with women considering adoption.
Think about that. The agency gets the big payout when the woman chooses to place. Therefore the agency is incentivized to have her place. It looks good for their bottom line and it looks good for their statistics, and that is what attracts more hopeful parents. I am not anti-adoption, but I am pro full disclosure.
One example of how following the money does not work is when hopeful parents and expectant moms find each other and then go to an agency. The hopeful parents hire the agency to work with the expectant mom on their behalf.
Often this includes finding out the expectant moms health/mental history, the race of the baby, what financial needs the woman has, and that is all passed along to the hopeful family so they can determine if they want continue their relationship with her. But in most cases this does not happen in reverse.
No one is sitting down with the expectant mom and completely disclosing everything about the hopeful parents. Why? The agency’s client is the hopeful parents, not the expectant mom.
Granted the agency is supposed to be the expectant mom’s advocate but only when it comes to working with that specific family — not her advocate for what is truly best for her and her child, which might include picking a different family altogether. Somehow since they “found” her, the expectant mom is theirs, regardless if it is a good fit.
What are some of the most common questions or concerns you hear from other birthmoms?
As I said above, no adoption is all rainbows and puppies. Many of the birthmoms I know struggle with questions like, “Will I ever be ok?”, “Why do I keep breaking down?”, etc.
Being a birthmom is forever. It colors all your futures. Just a few examples are birthmoms who have memories of their previous pregnancy rushing back when they get pregnant again, and then it affects everyone around them.
Say it is your partner’s first pregnancy and you should be joyful but instead you are remembering how hard it was last time, how no one supported you, how the nurses were mean in the hospital. And you can’t share in the wonder and joy with your partner.
Or if, like me, you face infertility issues it somehow seems a little more unfair. So we keep “breaking down,” when really we are dealing with the repercussion of being a birthmom forever. I work with women that placed as recently as last week up to some that placed 45 years ago and it never goes away. Of course, some are happier than others, but there is always a hole .
What’s the most important thing expectant parents need to consider before placing their baby for adoption?
Three main things. First is that expectant parents — and I know I have said mom through most of this because from my experience it is less common to have the father involved, though I wish they were — need to know that you do not have to be perfect. Do not let anyone tell you your baby would be “better off” with hopeful parents.
Money is not everything, a two parent home is not everything, and in most cases you will be a great parent even if you have to struggle. I want expectant parents considering adoption to know that they can do it and start from that premise so that they are making the decision for themselves and the baby, not for the agency or hopeful parents, no matter how good their intentions are.
Second, open adoption is a double edged sword. It is wonderful that you get to meet and know your baby’s possible parents — look them in the eye and trust that they are going to be the parents you want for your baby.
But the down side is no matter what, you will feel pressure to place because you have looked them in the eye. You know how nice and great they are. You like them and want them to have the one thing you can give them, a family. So though I think open adoption is the way to go, every expectant parent must be ready for the pressure that comes along with it. Going back to full disclosure, do not sugarcoat it, tell the truth.
The third thing is what I said before, it never goes away. Being a birthmom is hard. It can include lots of emotions that are confusing, all bundled together. You can be happy you placed, you can know it was the right decision. But at the same time you will be angry, sad and heartbroken. We often think we cannot both be happy and sad at the same time; that just because it was your choice you can’t be upset that you had to make that choice. You can!