Michelle, who placed her son, Ryan, for adoption 15 years ago, shared some of the things she’s learned from her adoption experience. Michelle is now happily married and raising her daughter, Callie, while working at American Adoptions counseling other women considering adoption.
What is the first thing that you tell women when they call you for counseling?
I make sure they know that the best thing you can do when you find out you’re pregnant – if you’re not 100 percent sure about parenting – is to look at all your options. That way you can make an informed decision and be comfortable, down the road, looking back knowing that you looked at all your options and that you made the decision that at the time was the best. I also want them to know that giving information about your pregnancy is not obligating you to anything and also help them understand that an adoption plan is theirs to create and control.
How did you decide that adoption was the right option for you?
I definitely knew right away that the birth father and I were not going to be together long-term. So I knew the baby wouldn’t have a mother and father. I wanted him to have that. I also knew that we were young and that I wanted to finish school. I felt like education was important to be able to get a job and take care of him. I also didn’t want to work so much to make ends meet that I wouldn’t be able to spend any time with him. Maybe I’d be able to provide financially for him, but I wouldn’t be physically present in his life. I realized I could give him all of that by choosing adoption. It was something I could still give him, even if it wasn’t directly from me.
How did you decide on the family you chose? Did you worry about being accepted by them?
The family I chose was acquaintances of my family. I was able to talk on the phone with the family a little ahead of time, and we got to know each other as much as we could. I knew that we had a lot of the same morals and values, which were the main things that were important to me. I think a lot of women are looking for things in common with a family. Or maybe a family that looks like they do or what their child might look like. But sometimes, it’s just getting that feeling or finding commonalities.
I never really felt worried about the family accepting me, but lots of birth moms do. I usually reassure them that for any family they’re working with, their whole goal in life and reason for wanting to adopt is because they want to be a mom and dad. They want to give their lives to this child and provide for this child. I also tell them how all of the families have been interviewed and evaluated to ensure that they are financially and emotionally ready to adopt. All of that is being done upstream so that the pregnant women don’t have to worry about that.
Once a woman selects a family for an adoption opportunity, that connection is going to happen naturally as they get to know each other. Even in situations where a woman would rather have her Adoption Specialist select the family for her, her Specialist will find a family for her that fits her preferences. If a woman ever feels that she isn’t connecting with a family, she can look for a different couple.
Will the adoptive family love my child the way I could?
I used to believe that nobody could love your child as much as you do. When it comes to adoption, I think it’s 100 percent possible. I have no doubt in my mind that Ryan’s family loves him the same amount that I do. The adoptive family will always recognize the birth family, but ultimately in their hearts and minds, this is their child they’re raising. So they love them just like they would their own.
How much control do women have in the adoption process?
Women have as much control as they want. There are things nobody can have control over – like the laws they’ll have to follow or medical risks that might occur. But those are the only things that we don’t have control over. As far as all other aspects of the adoption, the pregnant woman will get to express her preferences. Her Adoption Specialist will go through different questions with her to see what kind of adoption plan she wants to create and then will do his or her best to get as close to that plan as possible.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking about telling the birth father, family members or friends about their pregnancy or adoption plans?
I always encourage women, if they don’t think they can have a face-to-face conversation, to write a letter or send an email. Write a letter and make sure you get all of your thoughts down on your pregnancy and options, how you feel about adoption and why you think it’s a good option for you. Then you can send it, or even read it to them in person, so that even if you (or they) get emotional, you still have all your thoughts together. I highly recommend that women get everything down on paper first and then choose how to share that information in whatever way works for each individual person.
I think it’s important not to let your other children make your adoption decision. But at the same time, it’s important for those kids to know that you love them very much and you love this baby too. Explain that there are women who can’t have children of their own, so we’re going to let them have this baby and raise this baby and love this baby just like I love you. You can even include your child in the process by having them write letters or draw pictures or just having them look at the family and say what they like about the family. Including them in a way so that it’s not a scary process for them is important. It’s also important for them to feel emotionally positive about it. Some women use it as a learning tool that sometimes we get into situations where we have to make a hard decision. It might make us sad but that’s ok, and we have to live with the consequences of our actions.
How did you prepare for the emotions involved with your pregnancy and the adoption? How were your emotions during pregnancy and after?
I definitely went to counseling. My counselor asked me if I liked to make mistakes. Of course, I said no. And she told me that I needed to forgive myself for being in this situation. Although my son could never be a mistake, the entire situation was a mistake because it wasn’t planned. I think that learning to forgive yourself and understand that this is your situation is important. You need to make a decision you can live with, the best decision you can make. And then you need to decide that you’re going to learn and do whatever you can to work through the grief and loss that goes along with it.
I went to counseling and was lucky to have a very supportive family. There were still people who weren’t supportive, and I just kind of learned that they didn’t have to be; it was my situation and my decision. I started to think of my pregnancy as though the baby was already the adoptive family’s and I was having him for them. I never prepared mentally to take him home; I prepared to hand him to them. I did start a journal and wrote in that, writing letters to him so that he would know what I was thinking. Someday if he wants to see them, I have that, and he can know I was thinking about him.
I think having that one supportive person makes a huge difference. Emotionally, the hospital is the most difficult time, so having that support person who is there is so helpful.
It’s also important to remember that any decision you’re making during the pregnancy and after is in your child’s best interest. I always tell women that, no matter what, their job as parents is to make the best decisions for their child. If choosing adoption is making the best decision for your child, then that’s being a good parent. Just because you’re not the one physically parenting them doesn’t mean that you’re not a good parent to them. And you have to be willing to go through the effort and counseling and talk to your Specialist or someone who’s supportive so that you can work through those emotions in a healthy way.
What is life like after adoption? How do women handle their emotions after the adoption?
I definitely went through the whole grief and loss process. My dad said I traveled through life like a zombie for a couple weeks. I slept with my son’s picture under my pillow. He was always a big part of my life, and I kind of used that as motivation to finish school and accomplish the things I feel like I need to in order to be a good mom. I wanted to make sure that the next time I got pregnant, I would be prepared and ready to parent. I did go to counseling a couple times after too. Then I just really focused on accomplishing the goals I had. I felt like I owed that to him and he deserved that. I want him to be proud of who I became and the things that I’ve done.
It is important to know that you’re going to go through the stages of grief and loss over and over again, several times afterwards. Little things and big events in your life might trigger some of the emotions, and you might start the grief process again. Graduating college did that for me. Also when Ryan turned five and started kindergarten. But it wasn’t as intense. Each time, it gets less and less intense because you learn how to grieve and what works for you. You also learn to warn the significant people in your life that you’re going through a hard time. If you need to go back to counseling, do it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Does ongoing contact help you find peace with your decision?
For me that has made a huge difference. Especially at the beginning, it made a huge difference to see that my son was ok. It’s fun to get updates and see how much they change, and it’s good to see them bonding with the adoptive family. As time has passed, I look more forward to getting the updates, but I no longer feel like I need them like I once did. I still wonder how he’s doing, but I would never question that he’s doing well.
What’s been the hardest thing for you with adoption?
Part of adoption is letting go of control. I like to have control of my personal life. So once I made the adoption decision, I had to understand that I was trusting the family I chose. Trust takes time to build; it won’t happen overnight. I think adoption has affected how I parent my daughter now. I go everywhere with her. I love spending every minute with her, and I think some of that is just a reflection of missing all that time with Ryan.
Being a mom and parenting my daughter has brought about a new understanding. I used to tell women that I could have raised Ryan and he would have been just fine. As much as I still believe this, I am now reassured more than ever that I made the right decision in choosing adoption for him. He would have had all the love in the world, but I could not have done it on my own. Parenting my daughter has brought another layer of closure. It is also the hardest job I have ever had. I know that Ryan has the family he was meant to be with and that everything truly did happen for a reason. I love both Ryan and my daughter, Callie, equally, and Callie will grow up knowing about her half-brother. My children mean the world to me, and I never knew it could feel so good to have the experience of adoption and the experience of parenting.