Conquering Birthmother Fear / Vanquishing Birthfather Fear

New adoptive parents love nothing more than telling their adoption stories," and people considering adopting never get tired of listening to them. These stories generally begin with a description of the adoptive parents' difficulties conceiving a child and end with the day they meet their baby. When the story is about a domestic adoption, one of the first questions people ask is, "Weren't you worried that the birthmother* would change her mind?"

"Birthmother fear" is so entrenched in our culture that many pre-adoptive parents immediately opt for international adoption, which places the birthmother far away and therefore less likely to show up on their doorstep. These fears are fueled by tabloid stories such as those in 2007 when Allison Quets of the U.S. fled to Canada with her biological twins after she had placed them with an adoptive couple in North Carolina.

"Fugitive Mother Vows to Fight" blared the Ottawa Citizen paper. The fact is, scenarios like this rarely happen.

What does happen, though, is a pregnant woman changes her mind sometime during the process of planning to place her child. The reasons range from choosing to abort, to marrying the birthfather, to getting the
needed support from family members to raise the child. Some choose over time, others choose suddenly just before or after the birth of the baby. A very small number have a change of heart after the baby has gone home with the adoptive parents. But experts say that less than one percent of adoptions are reversed after the relinquishment of parental rights.

One of the best ways to overcome birthmother fear is to understand it by stepping into a potential birthmother's shoes for a moment. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute's 2006 study, "Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process," voluntarily placing a child for adoption is exceedingly difficult for the vast majority of women. For most, it is a step that causes deep pain that reverberates throughout the course of their lives even when they make the choice in a selfdetermined manner. Yet, according to the study, approximately 14,000 pregnant women are able to follow through on their adoption plans each year.

When a pregnant woman begins to consider placing her child, she is invariably coping with a sense of impending loss. And pre-adoptive parents are often in the midst of grieving over the loss of the biological
children they could not have. Pre-adoptive parents can begin to view a potential birthmother as someone with the power to take their pain away and replace it with joy. The pregnant woman can, and often does, become feared because of her ability to "withhold" the baby and create a new loss for the preadoptive parents.

With emotions running high, a potential birthmother and pre-adoptive parents can become adversaries in the course of planning an adoption. Dawn Smith-Pliner, Executive Director of Friends in Adoption, an agency in Vermont, encourages all the adults to put their needs aside long enough to recognize their common goal: "They all want to make a plan that will enable the baby to grow into a healthy child and a healthy adult."
Many adoption professionals believe that open adoption, where connections among birthparents, adoptive parents and the adopted child are maintained, is in the best interest of the child.

Creating and fostering an open adoption takes hard work on the part of the birthparents and adoptive parents. For this reason, Smith-Pliner encourages birthparents coming to her agency to get counseling to help with decision making and provide support. Lately, she has noticed a new trend. Adoptive parents, too, are seeking counseling, which can give them the opportunity to discuss their fears about adopting and begin to manage them before stepping into what can be an emotionally turbulent process.

Ronnie, 45, the adoptive parent of 6-month- old Zach, describes the fears she had two years ago when she and her husband, Ben, also 45, decided to adopt. She was exhausted from infertility treatments when she approached adoption and angry that she could not conceive a child. She found the whole concept of adoption anxiety provoking, and worried about all the things that could go wrong.

Today, Ronnie is able to smile at her fears, saying that she has taken a 360 degree turnaround in her attitude toward birthmothers. The night Zach was born Ronnie and Ben drove up to the hospital amidst a giant snowstorm that left them stranded there. Since the hospital was filled to capacity, they wound up having to share a room with baby Zach and his birthmother, Jen. Needless to say, everyone got to know one another very well, and Ronnie's fears about Jen and her own life as an adoptive parent dissolved.

While Ronnie, Ben and Jen made up a formal agreement about how and when they would be in contact, they trust one another to use it flexibly. If Jen develops a medical condition that could be passed down to the baby, she will alert Ronnie and Ben. Zach will grow up having a relationship with his birthmother as well as her family. He will also know his adoption story and can turn to his birthmother and adoptive parents for more information as he grows.

Once adoptive parents talk to a potential birthmother, "birthmother fear" often evaporates and is replaced with gratitude and a sense of awe that a near stranger is entrusting her child to them. Conversations with potential birthmothers, although initially approached with trepidation, become the avenue by which adoptive parents who are good listeners can learn a lot about the child they soon hope to adopt. And a genuinely good relationship between birthparents and adoptive parents can help the adopted child celebrate the positive characteristics of both his birth- and adoptive families.

The first thing you notice when looking through the literature on birthfathers is how little there actually is. When we think about the "adoption triangle," those people who play pivotal roles in an adoption,
we are generally talking about the child, birthmother, and adoptive parents.

Often, our thoughts about the birthfather in an adoption that is taking shape are colored with fear. Will he come along at the last minute and say that he wants to parent the child? Or will he enter the picture even later than that when the child has gone home with his adoptive parents?

The New York Case of Robert O. v. Russell K. had people involved with adoption riveted in 1992. An unwed couple in New York broke up without the birthfather knowing about his girlfriend's pregnancy. The
birthmother did not name the birthfather and relinquished the child for adoption. Ten months after the court had ordered the adoption, the birthmother told the birthfather about the child, and the birthfather
tried to get the adoption "vacated." The court denied the motion, saying that the constitutional right to form a qualifying relationship existed only for unwed fathers who showed their willingness to be custodial parents
promptly. Because this birthfather did not know about his son either before or right after his birth, he lost the case and the adoption that had already gone through remained valid.

Many saw this case as a victory with regard to birthfathers who showed up unexpectedly to prevent an adoption but, of course, this was hardly a victory for birthfathers who had been left in the dark.

Dawn Smith-Pliner, Founder and Director of Friends in Adoption, an adoption agency based in Vermont, tells a different kind of story, one where the birthfather is not considered an adversary-rather, he is part of an adoption plan. In this case the birthfather, Shane, also got involved at the last minute, declaring that his child would be placed for adoption "over {his} dead body." The agency sprang into action and arranged counseling for both the birthmother and birthfather. The birthmother agreed to "babysit" her baby boy until things got resolved.

Eventually, Shane came to believe that adoption was in his son's best interest. But he realized he needed to know that he would have a relationship with him, too. Shane had grown up fishing, and he needed to know he could share this experience with his birthson one day. He and the birthmother got to know the adoptive parents and they created an open adoption which is thriving. The birthmother and Shane have since gotten
married to other people and they, along with the adoptive parents and their son, now 12, attend the adoption agency's picnic every year. And chances are good that one day, father and birthson will go fishing together.

Birthfathers are an essential part of our adoptive children's identities. No one knows that better than Paul Schibbelhute, a well-known birthfather and Vice President and New England Regional Director of the American Adoption Congress, an organization committed to adoption reform. He is a mechanical engineer living in New Hampshire, but his passion is for getting legislation passed that allows adult adoptees' access to their original birth certificates. (As of this writing, there are seven states that allow this: Alabama, Alaska,
Maine, Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Tennessee.)

Schibbelhute was in college when he learned that his girlfriend was 5 months pregnant back in 1977. Her family took charge of having his son adopted. "The last person they wanted to deal with was the birthfather,"
says Schibbelhute.

Today, after much searching Schibbelhute has a relationship with his birthson, Josh, and the birthmom. Schibbelhute has been able to talk with his birthson about the circumstances around his birth and adoption.

It is Schibbelhute's belief that you cannot deny a person the right to know about his beginnings. He acknowledges that not all birthfathers are responsible-but many are.

Birthfathers and Their Adoption Experiences, a book by Gary Clapton (2002) takes us into the heart and soul of the birthfather experience. It is based on a long-term study of 30 birthfathers living in the UK. Clapton, a
birthfather himself, conducted in-depth interviews of thirty birthfathers before, during and after the adoption of their children. Some of these men were directly involved with the adoptions and some were deliberately
left out of them.

All of them expressed feelings of loss. One said, "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of him {the child}. I feel as if there is something inside me that has been ripped out and I feel empty and nothing is
going to fill that." Another said that the initial void closed up but, like many of the men, he talked about the "regular presence" of the child in his thoughts in the ensuing years.

This sounds surprisingly like comments birthmothers have made. And, in fact, the resonance with experiences of birthmothers was the central finding of Clapton's study. He points out that this has implications for policy and practice in adoption.

Clearly, it's time we reconfigure the adoption triangle to include birthfathers whenever possible. Our adopted children can benefit from knowing about the "other half" of their genetic heritage and, perhaps not all but many, birthfathers need to play a role in their adoptions.

*A pregnant woman can only be called a "birthmother" after she has placed her child.

Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is a Founder, Board Member and Chair of the Adoption Advisory Council of Path2Parenthood. She has a private practice devoted to Fertility, All Family Building Options and Adoption in Manhattan and Larchmont, NY.