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Choice in Adoption: A Birth Mom’s Call to Empathy

by Kathleen Neilsen


Choice is treasured in our society. From what we eat, to where we shop, to what we watch on television, Americans value having options. Some hypothesize that this value is associated with being members of a capitalist society. Regardless of what prompted it, we tend to see options as abundant and making choices as an exercise of free will. But how do we discern the available options and how do we choose between them?

Choice is pervasive in adoption; however, role matters. The choices available—as well as the amount of time to explore those choices—are different for potential adoptive parents than for a relinquishing parent.

Potential adoptive parents have a lot of choices to make on their journey. Will they choose international, domestic, or foster care adoption? Will they use an agency, facilitator, or attorney? Will a single child or sibling group be added to their family? What age and gender will the child be? Will they adopt a child who is the same race as they are or a child who is a different race? How much information will be exchanged with the first family during and after the adoption process? How much ongoing interaction will there be between constellation members? The list goes on, but availability of these choices are mitigated by legalities, agency policies, and other constraints.

Potential adoptive parents explore their options before beginning the adoption process, but they can also have additional time built in to educate themselves and further consider their options during the home study process.

Parents whose children have entered state custody are faced with fewer choices. They can choose to comply with demands, but not what services they’re offered. They can choose to remedy their parenting, but have no say as to what that looks like. They can choose to relinquish, but not to whom. Additionally, the time they have to make these choices, engage in services, and meet standards are limited by state and federal law.

Fathers’ choices are also limited. A man can choose to be present and involved to the extent others allow. But even that choice is contingent on being aware of the pregnancy or birth of a child. And in states with putative father registries, even not knowing is framed as a choice. [1]

When a woman becomes pregnant, she too has choices to make, but instead of a series of options, she has a pair. Will she choose to remain pregnant or not?[2] If she continues the pregnancy another pair of choices emerges: She can choose to parent or not.

Should she choose to make an adoption plan her choices expand. She can choose the potential parents, their involvement during the rest of the pregnancy, and the level of continued contact. These choices, however, are constrained by the agency, her knowledge of adoption, and state laws.

Expectant parents also have a finite timeframe during which to consider their options, based on when the pregnancy is discovered and the looming due date. This is generally less than 20 weeks to decide whether to continue a pregnancy, and less than 40 weeks to decide whether to parent.  Theoretically, the decision to parent can be postponed until after birth; however, agencies and social workers (and potential adoptive parents, too) can add pressure to make a decision as early as possible and not change it.

I was lucky in that I learned of my pregnancy early, affording me some time to consider my choices. As a social worker, I’ve worked with women who were unaware of their pregnancies for months, as well as those who’ve gone into labor very early. These circumstances decrease the time for well-reasoned decisions while simultaneously increasing the stress and pressure. I was not so lucky in that I gave birth in a state that allows relinquishments to be signed just 48 hours after birth. Two days after my son was born, while still recovering from an emergency Cesarean section, a lawyer I’d never met before came to my hospital room with contracts to sign.

Psychological theorists have asserted that the way we make choices is influenced by our position in life and our personal development. These academic frameworks provide various ways of thinking about the choices that humans make.

For Abraham Maslow, choices are constrained by a hierarchy of needs. Maslow argues that in order to look beyond one’s self, a person’s full potential must first be reached. Before a person’s full potential can be reached, they must respect themselves. Self-respect can only come after they’ve felt the respect of others. Before they can experience respect, they must experience love and belonging through friendship and family. Before love and belonging can be felt, there must be safety and security. Before there can be safety and security, one must have access to basic needs such as, air, water, food, shelter, and clothing. These constraints influence the options we recognize as available to us.

Lawrence Kohlberg posits that human reasoning and motivation evolve over time, experience, and development. In his theory, those in the earliest stages are motivated by fear of punishment and then by hope of reward. Social norms then become the motivating factor. Decisions are made in order to be viewed in a positive light by society at large or because they are in accordance with the rules. Most people never reach a place where they act in accordance with the spirit of the law or through efforts to change the rules. Fewer still make decisions for a greater good, social justice, or higher moral principles.

Carol Gilligan claims reasoning and motivation evolved from self-interest and survival to self-sacrifice for the good of others, before ultimately aiming to find a balance between the good of others and the good of self.

The words and actions of others, well-meaning but unsolicited advice from friends and family, or declarations from those pushing agendas also impact our ability to make choices. This can be a Catholic priest insisting in vitro fertilization is immoral. Or a Mormon Bishop declaring unmarried parenthood is an abomination. Or would-be grandparents who are afraid of birth parent involvement. This can be a social worker offering on-going contact, but only if you sign a relinquishment contract right now. Or agency workers who threaten to call child protective services if a mother refuses to sign relinquishment papers. Maybe it is the media portrayal of the scheming expectant mother who plans an adoption to get her expenses paid before changing her mind at the last minute.

Despite all the constraining factors and influences, we label all the results as choices, in part because it makes us feel better. We see choice as a panacea. Choice is what allows adoption to be seen as a win-win-win. It helps us to ignore that those at the center of these choices, our children, are the ones with no choice at all.

We use choice to silence complaints, to invalidate hard feelings and to dismiss negative experiences. “You chose this,” we say to others. “You chose this,” we say to ourselves.

I chose parents who lived 3000 miles away. I chose an open adoption. I chose to sign paperwork. I made all those choices and more, thinking they were better than the alternative. But that doesn’t make it any easier as his birthday approaches. It doesn’t make it any easier to cross my fingers waiting for the airline to have a sale so I can afford to visit him. It doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye one more time as each visit comes to an end.

Chosen or not, no path is without challenges. Rather than focus on who chose what when, focus instead on choosing empathy in each and every moment. Choose to understand that every one of us is doing the best that we can. Sometimes that means we fall short, we struggle, we hurt. In those tough moments what we need is not to be reminded of the choices that led us here, but to be understood and to be cared about.

Kathleen Nielsen, MSW, is a relinquishing mother who placed her son for adoption 14 years into a fully open transracial adoption. Additionally she is a trained social worker currently pursuing a doctoral degree in social work with a focus on adoption research.


[1] In the United States, a putative father registry is a state-level legal option for unmarried males to document through a notary public any female they engage with in intercourse, for the purpose of retaining parental rights for any child they may father.

[2] When this article was published in 2015, the right to choose an abortion was still federally protected in all states.

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