I remember the first time I ever felt grief after placing my child for adoption. I was 18, and I had tried with all of my might to parent and create a stable home for my son, but six months down the road, I knew I needed to ask my parents for help. They offered to adopt him and despite how much that hurt, I knew it was the best choice for him. The day that I signed the relinquishment papers to hand over my parental rights of him is still so vivid in my brain. I remember going to some office because we needed a notary present, and my mother was there to witness. After signing the papers, I just remember falling to the floor and bawling. I had failed at being a mother. I felt that I had failed him. Nothing in the world was able to alleviate that grief, so I locked it away and kept so busy so that I didn’t have to process what I just went through. 

A few years later, I was pregnant again. Because of the pain I experienced before, I knew I needed to be far more intentional and proactive this time. I decided the day that I found out I was pregnant that I wanted to go to an agency and make an adoption plan. I went to an adoption agency that had a dorm for expectant mothers considering adoption, so I moved in to be around women who knew what I was going through. 

Part of the rules of living in the dorm was that we had to attend a weekly group counseling session called Loving Decisions. I loathed it. You see, not only did I have some strong opinions about counseling because I grew up going to so many sessions, but I also am an adoptee, so I already had preconceived notions of how adoption looked. After all, I was a product of it. I refused to believe the counselor in my Loving Decisions class when she said I would grieve and that the resources she was sharing with us would be beneficial down the road. Honestly, I was so defiant and in denial that I got kicked out for arguing so much. If you would have known me back then, it was a pretty predictable Katie moment. 

Because I was adopted, my personal perception of adoption was that it was beautiful, loving, and all positive. It was hard for me to reframe my definition of adoption from the other side of the adoption process, the difficult side that is less spoken about. The first time that I began to realize that I was grieving was when I was in the hospital. I had just given birth to my beautiful daughter earlier that day and everyone had finally gone home, and it was just me and her. I was beyond exhausted and I knew I needed rest. However, I felt selfish and didn’t want to send my daughter to the nursery. I would never get the intimate mama and baby time back. I cried and cried before finally sending her to the nursery for an hour of rest. This was when the reality of parting from her finally set in. Even now as I recall the pain I felt, tears rush down my face. That pain is like being suffocated slowly as I replay the moment in my mind over and over. It leaves me numb and breathless. 

After I left the hospital without her, I went back to the dorm and decided I wanted to wait a week before placement day. I asked to see her every day while she was in transitional care, so I got that one-on-one time for two hours each day. Even on placement day, I spent time with her until I was ready to go into the room where her parents were and hand her to them. I hadn’t ever gone back into that room until years later, and the heaviness rushed back like a tidal wave. I had to leave and catch my breath. While that day was joyful for me in a bittersweet way, it symbolized the formal goodbye as her mother. Yet again, I felt like I had failed as a mother. I was in pain for months after placement but eventually, I decided that it was easier to lock the pain in a safe and drop it into the depths of my mind. 

Every now and then my hurt would seep through in vulnerable moments, but for the most part, I stayed busy. After all, this unhealthy coping method worked well enough the first time around. About six years after my daughter was born, I had ignored my grief long enough that it boiled over, and I had a breakdown. I got into my car after a visit and just wailed and wailed. It hurt so much. I knew I needed help. But as I mentioned before, I had some really opinionated thoughts about counseling, and I was not about to let someone else psychoanalyze me. So, I procrastinated for a year or so before finally giving in and going into therapy.

 I finally realized that I had all of the control going into a therapy session. No one was forcing me to be there anymore, I didn’t have to agree with them or their practices, and I could walk out if I chose to at any moment. With that empowerment, I scheduled a session and went. Before even before ten words were exchanged, I let my defense wall up and told my therapist how it was going to be. And guess what? She was amazing. She relinquished control to me, and we began to chip away at my wall. Eventually, I began EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) a technique to help me reprocess my trauma and boy was there a lot to process. Eventually, through that, I was able to retrain my brain that emotions are good. It’s healthy to unpack my story and to sit in my feelings and work through it all. I am still in therapy and I am still growing and learning, but I have a way better handle on my grief to where I am not sad all of the time anymore. Now I just get triggered by certain things or days, but I know how to cope in a healthy way and move forward. 

My life after placement caused me to really look at post-adoption support and the resources available to birth parents. Over the years, I began to notice that a lot of birth parents were not taking advantage of the resources available to them. Eventually, with the help of another birth mom friend, The Table DFW was formed. A place for birth parent connections. Through The Table, we started a support group called Resilience and we get to use our platform to share stories and the realities of modern adoption. Championing this passion for supporting birth parents has been another huge part of healing. The last part of my healing process has been my open adoption plan with my kids. Obviously, since my son is being raised by my parents, I get to see him far more than most open adoptions, but with my daughter, I see her whenever we make plans. It hasn’t always been that way, but through healthy boundaries and respect, we have progressed to a really natural and open adoption. Life is better with each day and my decisions are validated as I watch my kids blossom into young adults. 

So, when will life feel normal after placement? Honestly, it never gets easier, but you learn how to live with the grief over time. It becomes more manageable. I wish that I could tell you things get normal again, but the reality is that your old normal is gone. The new normal is that you went through something hard and painful. Even if you don’t feel anything yet, some kind of feelings will eventually reveal themselves in the years to come. I don’t share all of this to scare you, but rather to reiterate the advice I ignored as a pregnant woman considering adoption. Grief is part of a birth mother’s journey. It’s inevitable and eventually, you have to face it, or it will consume you. There is hope in it all and I want to give you some steps to move forward and hopefully find healing as I did. 

Accept Grief After Placement 

As you read in my story, life after placement is harder than it sounds. We like to deny things that make us feel weak or that are not accepted by society as a strength or normal process. However, the reality is that sitting in your feelings and giving your grief a name is strength. It’s bravery. It is normal to feel all of these feelings. At some point, every birth mother grieves the loss of motherhood and the loss of their child. Often times when we think of grief we think of loss in a more permanent way, but here we grieve what could have been, we grieve the physical distance, and we grieve the ambiguous loss of our child. According to Psychology Today, Pauline Boss, a renowned researcher, has named this type of loss an ambiguous loss. She identifies two types. The first is when a person is physically present but psychologically absent, as in the dementias. The second type, the focus of this article, is when there is a physical absence but a psychological (emotional) presence. A birth mother grief fits the second type. 

Accept Help After Placement

Just as difficult as the first step. Accepting or even admitting that we need help is something most humans struggle to do. We are conditioned to be independent and to not talk about our feelings or struggles, but asking for help is strength. If you placed through an agency, they should have post-adoption services. If not, there are organizations dedicated to helping birth parents after placement. Reach out to them and see where you can get counseling or find other birth parents to talk with.

Find Support

This doesn’t have to look like professional counseling. It’s extremely common for people to be reluctant when it comes to counseling. Again, we are conditioned to not talk about our feelings and struggles, so it takes going against the grain to get a foot in the door. If you need to take time to get there or to even consider ever getting to that place, take it. Take as much time as you need. However, at least connect with other birth parents through a support group, a networking opportunity, through social media, or through organizations and begin to listen to their stories and share yours if you are ready. I guarantee that you will find birth parents that can understand you unlike anyone else ever will. I personally find strength through my relationships with other birth moms. I don’t have to be brave enough alone, because they will show up and support me.

Find Healthy Coping Skills

Even if you never decide to go to therapy, you need to find ways to cope when you are triggered or are feeling grief long-term. Most of the time coping skills are just normal activities that you enjoy. Try hiking, playing music, drawing, writing in a journal, listening to a podcast, talking on the phone with a friend, or playing with your dog are all great and healthy coping skills to utilize. I also challenge you to write down things when you are feeling overwhelmed. Just venting it out can help you process and sit in your feelings. 

Life will not feel normal after placement, but no matter what, please know that while life looks different after placing a child for adoption, you are strong, and your grief is valid. My hope for you is that you begin to find healing and support through the birth parent community and your adoption plan. I believe you can do hard things, after all, that’s where your story began. I’m cheering you on!

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.