Recently, I was at a political fund-raiser, talking to a progressive, feminist legislative leader. I told her I was working with a group interested in legislation to require time after birth before a woman could surrender her child.Her response stunned me.
“A woman has seven months to figure out what she’s going to do” she told me. “She doesn’t need a waiting period after birth before she can consent to adoption.”
I was reminded of times when I heard people dismiss domestic violence with “if she doesn’t like it, she can leave.” Or the time when I spoke in favor of a gay rights bill as a member of the Governor’s affirmative action staff in the mid-seventies. A legislator pulled me aside and told me to forget the cock **** bill.
I try to keep in mind that society – and legislators – can be educated. No responsible person today says that abused women “deserved it” or “were asking for it”. No one tells them, as clergymen, police, and prosecutors did in the past: “Don’t irritate your husband; be a better wife.” Or in the case of rape, “You shouldn’t have been alone with him; you shouldn’t have worn provocative clothing; you were asking for it.” No one except extreme homophobes or screwballs who haven’t read any biology since they were in the tenth grade a half century ago tells gays to get back in the closet and pray for a cure or see a shrink.
Enlightened people understand the dynamics of abuse and why women may return to their batterers or why they may beg jailers to release the men accused of assaulting or raping them or why they may refuse “to file charges”. Enlightened people understand that gays are that way because they are born that way – and they can serve in the military as honorably as straights.
We can educate decision-makers if we speak up. To answer the question why women who have seven months to decide need time after birth to make a decision on adoption, I’ll walk through what I’ve heard and read to be typical scenarios. Of course not all women experience all these events.
Just like a battered woman, a woman with a crisis pregnancy may see herself as worthless, deserving of punishment. She hides her pregnancy, and, in some tragic cases, denies it altogether. She hopes for a miracle, the baby’s father will offer to care for them; her parents will stand by her. Perhaps the father and her family do offer help, but they have little money; they are not a “Cleaver” family. She wants something better for her child but has no idea how to make that happen. She cannot think beyond her immediate circumstance. Meanwhile, her tummy grows larger and time is getting short.
She believes Dr. Phil when he tells her that the best thing she can do for her baby and herself is to give her baby to strangers. Juno makes it all seem easy.
Her search for Ward and June begins. She calls a number in the Penny Saver expecting to reach a dream couple but reaches an attorney, unaware that the couple described in the Penny Saver ad may not exist. Her pastor recommends a fine Christian couple at their church. She surfs the internet, finding an adoption agency featuring attractive couples imploring her to give them the “gift of parenthood” and assuring her that her baby will have the “best.” She sees videos of beaming young women boasting that they made “the loving choice.” The agency promises comfortable housing, fabulous tours, a college scholarship.
The lawyer, pastor, social worker, whoever, is the first person who seems completely on her side. Skilled at communication, they guide the young woman into agreeing to surrender (“making an adoption plan”), telling her to think with her head, not her heart. They may encourage her to ignore advice from her family, pointing out they are experts in child development; she can prove her independence from her parents by following the lawyer’s/pastor’s/worker’s advice. They discourage her from placing her child with relatives, telling her that she needs to “break the cycle of" poverty, unwed motherhood, teen pregnancy, whatever ails her family. They may relocate her to an apartment or “home” owned by the agency, far away from her family or any support system. They refer to her as “birth mother,” beginning the process of making her think she is carrying the baby for another woman. “Babies are demanding and expensive”, they tell her, “and there is little help.” No one tells her that many teen parents have completed college and gone on to successful marriages and careers.
The young mother-to-be meets prospective adoptive parents, unaware that they have been tutored on how to convince young women to choose them as parents for their babies. The couple is “amazing,” superior to her own family. She trusts the lawyer/pastor/social worker, unaware that their income comes from fees paid by adoptive parents. She trusts the prospective adoptive parents, unaware that, like other couples, they may divorce, lose their jobs, abuse alcohol. She believes she can remain connected to her child, unaware that the open adoption agreement may not be enforceable. No one tells her that she is important to her child. No one tells her about the issues of being relinquished and adopted by strangers, lifelong scars that remain, no matter how loving the adoptive family is.
Within a day or two after her baby is born, an attorney (selected by the attorney for the prospective adoptive parents and paid by them)/pastor/social worker hands her a consent form to sign. She may be in pain, or suffering from the effect of drugs, and without question, feeling the powerful effects of post-partum hormones. The prospective adoptive parents may have been in the delivery room when the baby was born, even cutting the cord. She does not want to disappoint them. She fears that if she refuses to sign, she will have to re-pay money they have spent on her, money she doesn’t have. She signs the form and turns away, sobbing silently.
Soon she internalizes the consequences of surrendering her child, but it is too late. Her baby is gone. She has a lifetime to learn a central fact of adoption, the fact not disclosed when she was exploring her “options.”
“Adoption is pain. The pain occurs prior to birth, during birth. Post-partum pain becomes life-long pain for many and the wounds endure. No one in this drama of creating a new family system is untouched by the continuing, if not, constant consequences of separating a child from her original mother.” (Jane Guttman, The Gift Wrapped in Sorrow.As the adoptive parents gently cuddle their precious “gift,” they are blissfully unaware that the child entered their world through a violent act against his mother, not by the hand of an angry lover, but by the hand of his mother, the hand that signed the consent.
Just as reformers erected shelters and established counseling programs for battered women, we need to create better options for women in crisis pregnancies. Legislators, who passed laws granting civil rights to gays should pass laws assuring that women have the information and time to make informed decisions about adoption. Legislators who passed laws increasing penalties for assault and rape and requiring police and prosecutors to enforce these laws, should pass laws giving women redress when they sign consents without the opportunity to make informed decisions.