Support groups are an amazing resource to birth mothers, adoptees, and even adoptive parents. They help us gain new perspectives, learn about healthy coping skills, lead us to new friendships, and help us begin to heal. Whether we are comfortable sharing our story or we are just looking to be around other birth parents that understand our journey, we find comfort in having a support group to be a part of. Unfortunately, they don’t always have a supportive vibe. It’s a common situation for a support group to go through some growing pains, but they don’t have to stay stuck in their negativity. Here are a few ways to bring positivity to your support group.
Recognize that All Stories are Unique and Worthy of Being Heard
I used to be in a support group that was toxic. The host was not the cause of it and no matter how hard they tried, a remedy did not seem to exist. I remember one time specifically where I spent the entire hour and 15 minutes listening to constant narratives about these birth mothers’ self-proclaimed crappy situations. There was 15 minutes remaining in that session and aside from introducing myself at the beginning, I hadn’t spoken up. I remember thinking, I have nothing to add to this conversation because my reality is the polar-opposite of theirs and it would be inappropriate to talk about how great it is at this moment. I was sure I would leave without speaking another word until one of the girls turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, we’ve been talking the whole time and you haven’t had a chance. So tell us, what’s crappy about your open adoption?” I was speechless. I didn’t know what else to say except, “I don’t have any negatives in my situation.” It was direct, true, and didn’t negate their hurt in their situations.
It was extremely hard for me to sit through all of the negativity. I felt that way for a really long time, until I realized that no matter the situation, when we sit in feelings not similar to our own, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable. However, choosing to sit in that discomfort in order to support someone who is hurting, to grow, or to see a different perspective than ours can be beneficial to us personally. So I began to challenge myself to listen to different perspectives and try to understand where each person was coming from.
The reality of a birth mom group, or really any group that consists of a lot of people, is that it will be messy, emotional, and challenging. But while those things exist, so do growth, support, empathy, and healing. Finding the balance is key. I also had to realize that regardless of how negative or positive someone’s story is if they are sharing it- it’s worthy of my attention. They came to a support group to be heard, understood, and supported. We all have different seasons of our lives and that’s true with our healing journeys as well. Healing is not linear and if someone needs a season of grumbling then let them, but also follow up with encouragement and empathy. While it’s important that everyone feels heard and that their story matters, you also want to make it a safe space for stories from other seasons of healing to be shared. But keep an open mind and realize that the negativity is hurt. Remember that the remedy for hurt is support.
I think it’s important to also say that sometimes people will just be destructive. They don’t want the group to progress, they refuse to give space for others to share their feelings, or even that they cause such a disruptive presence it is no longer viewed as a safe place. This is unacceptable, but it happens in many support groups, just like the one I mentioned. It is a support group leader’s job to notice when these patterns are taking place and when it’s time to unfortunately tell someone they need to leave the group for a while. If you ever end up in this situation, to be very mindful of that person’s mental health and healing journey in that moment. Be sure to let them know why they are being asked to leave in a gentle manner. Try giving them some available resources and then follow up with an email. In many cases this is temporary and they’ll usually be welcomed back in a few months to try and move forward with healing. Granted this all depends on the extremities of the situation, but never tell someone who is hurting that they aren’t still supported. In these circumstances you have to think of the group as a whole and what’s best for it, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop caring about someone just because it’s difficult to support them right now. Hopefully they’ll come around and want help in the future.
It’s important not only to keep an eye out for disruptive people but also cliques. Your support group may meet every third Wednesday, but you don’t have to wear pink to score a seat. Above all, support groups need to be inclusive. You don’t even have to share your story; if you want to be a part of the group- we want you there. Part of bringing positivity to your support group is to make sure that everyone knows they have a place at your table. Create a warm environment where everyone is excited to connect with other birth moms or birth parents regardless of their interests, who they worship, or how they look.
Know When Someone Needs Help
People are not always aware that they are in need of professional help. As a support group, it’s important to notice when someone is in need of a mental health professional. Oftentimes support groups are therapeutic and are led by a licensed professional, but some are just peer-to-peer groups. For those who are not in therapeutic support groups, make sure that there is someone that you can reach out to who can help. Also, for those who just want to get extra therapy and mental health support, having individual counseling alongside being in a support group is great for personal growth and promoting positive feedback in a group setting.
Stay Away from Comparison
As Theodore Roosevelt says, “Comparison is the thief of all joy”, and he is absolutely right. Nothing beneficial comes from comparing yourself to another. We were all made to be different and while commonalities bring us together, we are all unique. I used to think that I didn’t need to connect with others because my story was so different and I wouldn’t bring anything of value to a friendship with them, but I was wrong. Our differences make us strong and knowing that I have birth mother friends who have different perspectives always comforts me because I know that they can help me process things differently than I can alone.
Keep it Casual
I started a community organization last year with a fellow birth mother that I met at a support group. The group was going through transitions and trying to reframe their structure so they asked a few of us for input. When I began brainstorming with Lacy one day, we realized we had something great in the works. We knew that sometimes birth parents don’t take advantage of a support group because it’s too structured. The support group may be hosted by the organization they placed through and that may trigger difficult emotions. As a result we started trying to figure out how to change how people see support groups by creating The Table. The Table is an instagram based platform that allows birth parents to connect and meet up through happy hours and events, we also have a nationwide monthly support group available to birth parents too. Taking the therapy and structure out of it and adding in a super casual vibe seemed to be a good start. While therapy is important, sometimes we just need to connect with someone to feel supported. I challenge you to find ways to make your support group casual, whether it is through breakout sessions that are more like networking events or simply by adding fun activities, it will help make things less stuffy and more joyful.
Add Activities or Themes
A lot of people really hate icebreakers at the start of a get together. As an introvert, I am always thankful for a conversation starter, but I know it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. So, to shake it up a bit I’d try doing some kind of spontaneous icebreaker like a game of bingo, a trivia, any kind of game in general, listening to a short Ted Talk and discussing it, inviting a guest speaker to talk about a theme, or attending happy hours. Anything that promotes community, connection, and creativity will surely bring positivity to your support group.
Merch and Gifts
Giving gifts is a wonderful way to connect with members of your group. A few great ideas would be to write a handwritten note to any first time attendees to your support group and send a decal or a keychain with it promoting your group. If you are having a more casual networking event or even at an event to promote your support group, have some merchandise available to sell in person or online. Again, this promotes solidarity and a connection to something greater than just one birth parent. Gifts are also a great thing to pop in every now and then just for the heck of it. Nothing says, “You are appreciated” more than a surprise tumbler or blanket. Whatever the idea, test it out. The beauty about these things is that no idea is bad and groups can evolve if everyone is gracious enough to be flexible with you.
The last piece of advice I have is to connect with the people in your group outside of the designated session times. Check in on attendees and see how their week is, ask about their story and if they are willing to share with you over some coffee sometime, write a note or a thoughtful text to someone each week to share what things they have contributed that have resonated with you or felt impactful to you. It’s human nature to connect and if you are already in a support group, you’ve overcome half of the battle to get to know someone. This takes intentional effort to make time for someone, but it will be rewarding on both ends if you just dive in and try.
No matter what your support group looks like today, remember that change is good and a lot of the times it is necessary. Embrace new ideas, take surveys for feedback, brainstorm with other support group facilitators, read articles and books on good therapy practices to bring to a group, and have an open mind. You never know what positivity and growth you can bring in just by simply using creative thinking!
Katie Reisor is an adoptee and birth mom who is passionate about adoption advocacy and breaking stigmas around birth parents. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and hanging out with her dog, Chloe.