Many situations in life can be intimidating, and from what I have heard in my adoption groups, speaking to a birth mom is one of those intimidating things. For those of us who have fostered, we may have been eased into speaking to birth moms a bit more naturally. In the foster care system, we likely have spoken to birth moms, dads, and even extended family many times as supervised visits, in plan-of-care meetings, or team meetings for all adults involved in the child’s life. This is actually how I was introduced to speaking to birth mothers, and I am thankful for that prior experience. This skill would be crucial on our family’s journey into adoption, and ultimately, in choosing open adoption.
Why do we feel intimidation? In his book Breaking Intimidation by John Bevere, he says that the fear of confrontation causes intimidation. This makes sense to me. In my own life, I can feel intimidated by people with big personalities, those people who tend to take up all the space in a room. Why? Probably because I feel that any move or sound I make might have them turn upon me, asking for an explanation. Human beings, or at least the healthy ones, do not enjoy conflict.
With birth parents, we are often wanting to be seen at our best. We are raising the child or children of another woman, and that is a weighty task. From personal experience, I have gotten all tied up in knots at birth parent visits over everything, from what clothes I put the child in to worries over what they would think of my messy vehicle. Afterward, I usually feel silly, but in the moment, we tend to see our own weaknesses and shortcomings, silently praying that we don’t come up short from the birth parent’s perspective. If you are dealing with feeling intimidated when speaking to birth moms, please remember the following:
- Birth moms are human, just like you. They are probably equally nervous; probably questioning their own choice of clothing, garlic breath, thinking about if their hair is smoothed down; you name it. If you are thinking it, someone else is capable of thinking it too. Most social situations where you have the capacity to feel nervous are completely normal. Your body is responding to stress. Realize that this is okay. Give yourself grace and extend the same grace to the birth mom who is probably quite nervous as well.
- We all stumble on our words. Sometimes we say the wrong thing. Sometimes we pick a joke that was really, really bad. Sometimes we are tongue-tied. You know what? You’re a human, and the birth mom will see this. Be honest! If you can say out loud that you are nervous, I bet it will take the edge off for both of you. Most healthy adults can empathize with someone else who is struggling. If you saw someone who looked visibly nervous and was having trouble speaking due to their nerves, you would most likely feel compassion and give them time and space to finish their thoughts. It’s likely you would encourage them with a kind word or assure them you want them to finish their sentence. Of course, there are special situations when adults are not healthy enough to have empathy like this, and that is not your responsibility to fix or diagnose. The point is, if you feel nervous, say so. Break the ice and induce some compassion. Your honesty will make you real and relatable.
- She loves the same child you do. Read that again. Sometimes, this is all it takes to gain the courage to speak to a birth mom. You both love the same child. In fact, she knew about the child before you did and has probably loved the child longer. There can be many reasons for speaking to a birth mom: getting medical history details, giving an update on the child, starting or continuing openness, etc. All of these reasons root back to one thing: mutual love and care for your shared child. She will always have a special place in your child’s story (yes, I know that some stories are really hard and really bad things might have happened. Regardless, she will always be your child’s birth mom), and you will always have a special place in your child’s life. Never forget, when speaking to a birth mom, that you are mutually invested in this relationship.
People often ask us, what is the best way to talk to birth parents or even extended family? The good news is there is no one right way to do this. I know that I feel better preparing ahead of time for huge things in my life, and these conversations can feel huge. Here are some ways that you can prepare to speak with a birth mom and some other things you can do to make the process smooth:
- Plan ahead. Think about where you will meet to talk. I personally think a close, intimate setting might be too intense for a first meeting. I would choose a public area for the first time. Maybe a busy restaurant, coffee shop, or a park that experiences quite a bit of use rather than a really small diner or tranquil, remote park. This not only will help put you both at ease, but it will also give you something to talk about. You may be learning about someone entirely new to you. It’s not lame to talk about the weather or the menu. It is learning how to talk to someone you don’t know. In a public area, a conversation about what is going on around you is at least something if the conversation stalls completely. In some cases, speaking to birth moms might be a challenge. If this is your first time meeting a birth mom, think about what advice you would give someone else meeting a stranger.
- If you plan to speak to a birth mom over the phone, plan some topics you can speak about. Dead air time on the phone can make you feel awkward, so you might jot down talking points regarding your child or children. I suggest you make a list of questions to ask the birth mom. People feel valued when they are asked questions and provided time to talk about themselves. Respond thoughtfully and perhaps inquisitively with further questions, if you have any. I would also suggest being slow to share about yourself until asked. If they ask, then share, but otherwise, be ready to listen to them rather than rattle on about yourself.
- Check your privilege. This phrase has appeared quite a bit in recent history, but it is important. There were big reasons that this birth parent was unable to raise her child. Whether it was age and experience, poverty, addictions, or abuse, this parent underwent the severing of the primary attachment between mother and child. Some birth moms had no intention of placing a child for adoption but rather had the courts make that decision for them. Some situations in which privilege can hinder adoptive/birth parent relationships are when the birth parents are quite impoverished, and the adoptive family is oblivious or ignorant in their comments and actions. In a real-life example, I know of one birth parent who was able to get gifts from a local outreach for her child but lacked the funds to send them to her child in the mail. Some people cannot imagine not having $15 to send a small package in the mail. Believe me, this is a real thing. Some birth parents are homeless, may live in a shelter, or be working multiple jobs and still find themselves unable to make ends meet. Socioeconomic differences or inequalities can make birth parents feel unworthy or embarrassed. I would definitely not plan to discuss at length your expensive tropical trip or give your extensive Christmas present list. Turn the tables for a moment and wear someone else’s shoes. If you had struggled to pull together a few gifts from the thrift store, and the birth parent was the one who was listing off brand new electronics and expensive clothes that were given to your child as a gift, it might be hard to feel good about what you had given. Of course, there are exceptions to every situation, and one time, I had over $300 in gifts given to one of our kids from an extended family member (which was far out of our budget for a birthday). In general, though, respect that you are coming from different places. Another example might be in past trauma. The birth parent, if coming from a background of addictions, may have had intense family problems or may continue to live in abusive situations. While it is fine to enjoy a rich and loving relationship with your own spouse, it probably isn’t the time to go on and on about it.
- Don’t dig around. People that are different from us often fascinate us. And that is okay. But don’t go poking around for information that is not freely given. The birth mom might still, even if it has been many years or even decades, struggle with talking about her decision to place her child for adoption, for example. The worst thing you could do is ask insensitive, intrusive questions. Be discrete and know when to stop. I once asked a birth father a question about his family of origin, and he started to cry. We had been conversing for a while and had gotten comfortable, so I was extremely dismayed that I had asked this question altogether too soon. And it is possible I shouldn’t have asked it at all. Either way, I had to immediately stop and apologize. If you can see visible signs of discomfort (or hear signs of upset in the voice, if you are on the phone), STOP. Look for body language: looking away, fidgeting, coughing, or covering the mouth to mask tears all mean that it is time to take a step back. Be respectful of the journey this birth mother has taken, and know that the adoption, while it has caused you much joy, has probably caused her much sorrow. If the birth parent offers to continue talking about a painful subject, that is okay. Otherwise, hands off; this is not your territory.
- Respect differences. One of our fears as adoptive parents often is that the birth parents will be unhappy with how we have parented or with the choices that we have made for the child. This is reality, and it does happen! I have learned to have space for these opinions, even when it feels like criticism. It can be hard to take criticism, but remember, this parent may have had many dreams die when she placed their child for adoption. She may have dreamed of her child playing soccer, and it wasn’t something your family was into. It is true that a birth parent cannot project onto you and your family what her or his wishes are, but we can still hold space for a birth parent that is grieving the loss of what could have been. My advice is to shake it off, let it go, roll with it, and refuse to feel offended. Being offended is a choice, not a right. Choosing to be offended is rarely helpful.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, preparations, and planning, things go wrong. A birth mom may not seem to like us or may seem to really dislike us. Never forget that “hurt people, hurt people,” and that other people’s actions are more about them than they are about you. Try to think of things as experiences that help us learn rather than “good things” or “bad things.” This will help you to learn for the next time. Birth moms come in all varieties just like adoptive families. Some people are harder to get along with. I’ve heard that some adoptive parents aren’t perfect in this arena, either. Keep a sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously. Birth moms are, in my experience, both fantastic and fascinating. I love to hear their stories and their journeys, and I feel privileged to call many birth moms my friend. Birth moms have made the biggest sacrifice I can imagine. I think we owe it to them to learn to speak with respect and love.
Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Do you want more choices with your adoption plan? Do you want to regain more control in your life? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98. We can help you put together an adoption plan that best meets your needs.
Jamie Giesbrecht is a stay at home mama to three adopted and two biological children. When she isn’t homeschooling the kids, she can be found seeking adventure with her family in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, hunting, fishing, camping, or trail-riding the horses to town for some snacks. Her hobbies include cross-stitching, sewing jingle dresses for powwow, reading, and horseback riding as often as she can. Jamie married her high school sweetheart and best friend, Tyler, and together they enjoy watching the kids hatch ducklings and chicks, shear sheep, race around the yard on their horses, and raise pigs on their small farm in rural Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Jamie is passionate about adoption and has been a foster parent on and off and in between adoptions since 2011.