Birth mothers are often the forgotten or ignored part of the adoption triad. Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is a collection of personal stories by birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees. The stories cover a range of topics about adoption, open adoption, birth parent connections, and unification with children after closed adoption, focusing on the relationship with birth mothers. Here, editor of Fertile Source Jessica Powers talks to mother-daughter duo Ann & Amanda Angel, the book’s editors. Ann Angel is an adoptive mother of four. Amanda is an adoptee and also a birth mother. She placed her daughter in an open adoption in 2000.
AMANDA: A few years ago, I was preparing to visit my birth daughter. Previous to that, I had been exchanging letters and pictures, so this was going to be a new experience. She was seven years old and full of questions, according to her mom. So, I wanted to see what resources were out there for birth mothers to help them prepare for such events. As I scoured the internet and library, I realized there was a real deficit of materials for birth mothers. I wanted to know what I could say, could I hug her, how do I answer questions appropriately, was I feeling the way most birth mothers feel in this situation; none of the materials out there even touched upon the birth mother’s perspective. So, I went forward with no rules in place, mentioning to my mom along the way that birth mothers need help too. They need a voice and to be recognized for the experiences they encounter as a birth mother. And from there, the seed had been planted.
ANN: When Amanda mentioned that a book of essays for birth parents would help start the conversation on how to open adoptions in healthy ways, I mentioned that I’d just completed an essay for Catalyst Book Press for a collection of birth stories. This seemed like the ideal press to play an activist role. I also thought the book could help birth mothers connect with adoptive parents because it seems emotionally healthier and more connected in open adoptions if the adoptive parents are supportive enough to step up and be part of the relationships.
AMANDA: I thought it was a beautiful discovery of the complexity of the roles in adoption. Each essay had its unique purpose, all of which helped me continue to shape my view of adoption, both as an adoptee and a birth mother. It made me proud to hold the title of birth mother, among the ranks of such amazing women.
ANN: I find myself humbled whenever I hear their stories because these writers spoke of connection and loss, finding one another in ways that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Some of the stories were so sad and loss-filled they made me cry. Others made me laugh with the joy of connection. I found almost all of the stories were stories of redemption and they lifted my own spirit. I wish we could have included all the stories we received because it is important that we give all the members of adoption the chance to tell their stories.
3. How do you think American society characterizes birth mothers today? How has this perception developed/grown/changed over time and why is it what it is?
AMANDA: I think our culture, at times, glamorizes adoption, especially when it comes to Hollywood stars adopting. However, I think we still forget that it is a process that involves more than just the adoptive parents and adopted child. The birth parents are often shuffled aside, whether in Hollywood or not, as just a vehicle to the end result. From personal experience, the stigma is still there. In some cases, people assume that if you are a birth mother, there must be something wrong with you if you don’t want to keep your child. In the past, it was difficult to explain that it’s BECAUSE I love my child that I couldn’t keep her. To give your child a healthy, stable environment in which to live, is a bigger gift than to subject them to an unhealthy, chaotic life. I can say, however, that in the last few years, as I’ve started to share my role, I have received more positive reactions than negative ones. My hope is that this book will “pay it forward.” The stories will help others get the word out that this is an act of true love.
ANN: While our culture encourages open adoption to help ease the adoption issues that can hurt adoptees in adult relationships, I think our culture still places a stigma on birth parents. This book helps birth parents share the truth of their individual stories in a way that I hope encourages other birth parents to come forward in ways that will help their adopted children know their origins.
4. What is it like to make the decision to place a child for adoption? Why do you think pregnant women make that choice, as opposed to abortion or raising the child themselves? What’s at stake for a birth mother (in the whole adoption process)? For the adoptee? For the adoptive parent?
AMANDA: The decision to place my daughter for adoption will forever be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, choice I will ever have faced. I was 22 years old and ready to be a mom; circumstances had a different plan for me. In being an adoptee, I think I was lucky in seeing firsthand how wonderful the results of placing a baby could be. Even though I knew that this was the best option for my child, there were still times I doubted I could cope.
ANN: From my perspective, the birth mother will go through life with the knowledge that her child is in the world. She might fear letting others know that she has a child she couldn’t take care of. She might fear how the world perceives her. But women become mothers the minute they conceive. Whether a woman aborts a child, places a child for adoption or raises a child either in a marriage or as a single parent, she lives with the knowledge of her motherhood every day of her life. I’m not saying society judges the mother, I’m saying the mother either lives with grief of loss or raises the child-either way, it’s just always with her.
AMANDA: Time can heal a lot of the grief. Having an open adoption helped me confirm that I had made the best choice possible for my daughter. For those women that do not have an open adoption with their child’s family, support groups could be another way to work through the emotions they may feel. Our hope is that this book will become a resource of sorts for women who need to know they are not alone.
ANN: Adoptive mothers can help birth mothers through the grieving process by sharing information even in a semi-closed adoption. If the adoption has been opened, I think the adoptive parents can serve as a bridge between the birth mothers and adoptees. In my own experience, sharing photos and connecting on occasion is especially important when an adoptee might back off and need time and space to work relationships out. The relationship is extremely complex and all involved need to be patient and sensitive to one another. I also think adoptive mothers can be supportive if they know an adoptee is searching for birth parents. In those cases, when a birth parent refuses contact, the adoptee will need to heal from loss once again. I can’t imagine being in a position where you feel you have to do that alone while an adoptive parent remains unaware. Given that, it’s also important that the adoptive mom provide a safe environment where an adoptee feels he or she can talk about searching.
AMANDA: Art and Literature offer a different perspective on our stories. As artists, we have a certain idea on how our work will be perceived; however, people’s interpretations vary based on their own personal experiences. Through this book, I’ve realized that I am not alone in my role as birth mother. There are many women in the world that share a similar experience and have now put their story into words to help others. This book helped me appreciate my relationship with my birth daughter and her parents even more than I already did. I have been so fortunate to know how my decisions impacted their lives in such a positive way. It’s also given me the confidence to become more public with my role as a birth mother, in hopes of helping others.
ANN: When we share our stories through art and literature, we share ideas and experiences that can lead to healing. These stories can also lead us to open our hearts to nontraditional ideas of family that enrich the lives of all involved. Working on this book has made me realize even more how important it is for me to encourage open expression of loss and grief and joy. It’s taught me how generous birth parents can be and I think it’s made me communicate more openly about adoption with my adult kids and their non-traditional families.
ANN: In most cases, contemporary adoption agencies encourage open adoption for the sake of the adoptee. Many counselors are trained to work with all in the adoption. But I think it’s imperative, if a family member wants to work through adoption issues with a therapist or counselor, that they make sure to seek help from someone experienced or trained in the complexities of adoption, perhaps touched by the experience themselves.
Our book, Silent Embrace, Perspectives on Birth and Adoption, fills a resource need because it addresses the complex emotional responses of all in adoption. I think it would be especially valuable for those who find their adoption records will remain closed. But the book serves all in an adoption triad because the essays reflect such a broad, intensely personal and honest response to the issue of parents and origins in adoption. Each story can help readers consider what a healthy relationship is and how we can navigate that relationship over time.
Ann Angel is a professor of writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The editor of Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams/Amulet 2007), she is also the author of several biographies for teenagers, including the forthcoming Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams/Amulet 2010). Ann is the adoptive mother of four children, including her daughter Amanda, with whom she edited her most recent collection, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption . Please visit her website at www.annangelwriter.com.
Amanda Angel is an elementary school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2000, she placed her daughter in an open adoption. Since then, she has become an advocate for both birth mothers and adoption. Although she has written plays including Three Rocking Pigs, a children’s musical produced for Marquette University, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is Amanda’s first book.