Impact of Adoption on Birth Parents

It is difficult to generalize about the feelings or experiences of all birth parents. Many birth parents feel that the child will have a better life in an adoptive home and are putting the child’s best interests ahead of their own when they make the decision to place the child for adoption. Other reasons birth parents place their children for adoption include societal and family attitudes, personal goals and ambitions, and socioeconomic situations. Each birth parent has faced a unique experience and dealt with the situation in his or her own way, but certain themes emerge in literature, including grief, guilt, and resolution. Helpful resources such as websites, documents, and organizations can help address these issues and provide additional information.

Responding to the Adoptive Placement

Birth parents often describe a variety of feelings and experience, including grief, thinking about the child, guilt and shame, identity issues, and effective on other relationships.

Grieving the Loss of the Child

Placing a child can be traumatic for the birth parents. Most parents considering placing their child for adoption struggle with the decision. Parents who decide to place their child for adoption begin to plan for a great loss in their own lives with the hope that the decision will result in a better life for their baby and for themselves. The birth and the actual surrendering of the baby may prompt various phases of grief in the birth parents, including shock and denial, sorrow, and depression, anger, guilt, and acceptance.

All these feelings are normal reactions to loss. Birth parents may feel a sense of ambiguous loss, or the loss of someone who still is or who may be alive, which is different than the loss of someone who has died. Friends and family of the birth parents may attempt to ignore the loss by pretending that nothing has happened, or they may not understand what the birth parents are expecting. Although many people view the loss of a child as the most traumatic event one can experience, they may not accord birth parents in an appropriate level of sympathy because the loss is viewed as a “choice.” In some cases, the secrecy surrounding the pregnancy and adoption may make it difficult for birth parents to seek out and find support as they grieve their loss. In addition, the lack of formal rituals or ceremonies to mark this type of loss may make it more difficult to acknowledge the loss and therefore to acknowledge the grief as a normal process.

The actual physical separation from the child generally occurs soon after the birth. Many circumstances can have an impact on the birth parent’s feelings at the time, including mixed feelings about the adoptive pal cement, support from other family members and the other birth parent, and whether the planned adoption is open (i.e. allowing some later contact with the child). The actions of the agency personnel (if an agency is involved), as well as those of the adoption attorney, adoptive parents, hospital personnel, and physician can all affect the feelings of the birth mother and father as they proceeded through the adoption process and termination of their parental rights.

When birth parents first deal with their loss, the grief may be expressed as denial. The denial serves as a buffer to shield them from the pain of loss. This may be followed by sorrow or depression as the loss becomes more real. Anger and guilt may follow, with anger sometimes being directed at those who helped with the adoption placement, especially if there was coercion, no matter how subtle, or if the mother had no other viable options. The final phases, those of acceptance and resolution, refer not to eliminating the grief permanent but to integrating the loss into ongoing life.

Many birth parents continue to mourn the loss of their child throughout their lifetime, but with varying intensity. Some of the factors that have been found to be associated with longstanding grief include:

  • A birth parent’s feeling that she was pressured into placing her child for adoption against her will
  • Feelings of guilt and shame regarding the placement
  • Lack of opportunity to express feelings about the placement
  • Dissatisfaction with an open adoption
  • Having a closed adoption

Grieving Other Losses

Placing a child for adoption may also cause other (secondary) losses, which may add to the grief that birth parents feel. They may grieve for the loss of their parenting roles and for the person their child might have become as their son or daughter. These feelings of loss may reemerge in later years, for instance, on eh child’s birthday or when the child is ole enough to start school or reach other developmental milestones. some clinicians report that birth parents may experience additional grief when they have other children because it reminds them of the loss of this child on a daily basis or, if they encounter future infertility, they may perceive the loss as a “punishment.”

Thinking About the Child

Birth parents are unlikely to “forget” the child they placed for adoption. In one study, all the birth mothers, including those in both open and closed adoptions, reported thinking about or feeling something about the child to some extent, with the average response indicating occasional thoughts or feelings. These thoughts and feelings were both positive and negative, but they tended to be more positive when the adoption was open. Additionally, birth parents who are not in contact with the child may maintain fantasies about the child, such as continuing to visualize the child as an infant years after the adoption.

Guilt and Shame

Birth parents may experience guilt and shame for having placed their child for adoption due to the social stigma that some attach to this. This guilt and shame may exacerbate the grief being felt by the birth parents. Some birth parents may feel shame in admitting the situation to parents, friends, coworkers, and others. Once the child is born, the decision to place the child for adoption may prompt new feelings of guilt about “rejecting” the child, no matter how thoughtful the decision or what the circumstances of the adoption. Other birth parents may feel guilt or shame because they kept the pregnancy or adoption a secret.

Identity Issues

Placing a child for adoption may trigger identity issues in some birth parents. They may need to determine who the child will be in their lives and how the child will be in their lives. Their status as parents may not be acknowledged among family and friends, and if they go on to have other children whom they raise, this may also affect how the birth parents view their own identity, as well as that of all their children. birth parents in open or mediated (i.e. semi-open) adoptions may face additional identity issues as they interact with the adoptive family. In one study, adolescents who were adopted and in contact with their birth mothers most frequently noted their birth mother’s role as a friend, with some also reporting relative, another parent, or birth mother role. In another study, birth mothers most frequently desired to play a non-kin role in the birth child’s life. This relationship, as well as the birth parent’s perception of his or her identity, may change over time due to various issues, such as formal changes to the level of openness or the adopted child’s wishes.

Effect on Other Relationships

Some birth parents may have trouble forming and maintaining relationships. This may be due to lingering feelings of loss and guilt, or it may be due to a fear of repeating the same loss. Other birth parents may attempt to fill the loss quickly by establishing a new relationship, marrying, or giving birth again – without having dealt with the grief of the adoptive placement. In a study comparing teens who had placed their infants for adoption and those who parented them, though, birth mothers who placed their children had a more positive quality of relationship with their partners. A few birth parents report being overprotective of their subsequent children because they are afraid of repeating the experience of separation and loss.

For some birth parents, the ability to establish a successful marriage or long-term relationship may depend on the openness with which they can discuss their past experienes of birth and adoption placement. Some birth parents never tell their spouses or subsequent children of their earlier child. Others are comfortable enough with their decision to be able to share their past.

In some cases, the birth mother may lose her relationship with the birth father under the stress of the pregnancy, birth, and subsequent placement decision. The birth parents may also lose relationships with their own parents, whose disappointment or disapproval may be accompanied by a lack of support. In extreme cases, the birth mother may need to leave her parents and her home. The birth mother may lose her place in the educational system or in the workplace as a result of her pregnancy. Birth parents may also lose friends who are not supportive of either the pregnancy or the decision to place the child for adoption.

Gaining Control and Resolution

Each individual’s path toward reconciling the placement of a child for adoption is different, but there are some common themes:

  1. Resolving grief
  2. Making peace with the decision
  3. Incorporating being a birth parent into one’s identity
  4. Overcoming the effect of the experience on other relationships

Acceptance of the loss and working through the grief does not mean that birth parents forget their birth child and never again feel sorrow or regret for the loss. Rather, it means that they are able to move forward and integrate this loss into their ongoing lives. For those in an open adoption, this may mean developing a new relationship with the child and the adoptive parents. For birth parents whose child was adopted in a closed adoption, it may mean learning to live with uncertainty about whether the parent will ever see the child again.

The following describes ways birth parents may cope with the placement of their child:

  • Rituals. Birth parents may find it helpful to create a tradition that honors the child and the decision that was made. Some birth and adoptive parents use an entrustment ceremony as a ritual to transfer parental roles. Entrustment ceremonies can take place in the hospital, a church, a home, or any other location in which the families feel comfortable. There are no guidelines to an entrustment ceremony; the families can tailor the ceremony to fit their needs and wishes. Entrustment ceremonies allow the birth parents to say good-bye to their child and to maintain a sense of control over the placement. Birth parents also may choose to establish other ongoing or finite rituals, such as commemorating certain days or milestones in the child’s life, such as the child’s birthday or a high school graduation or writing a letter to the child, whether they send it or not.
  • Finding Support. Birth parents can seek out family, friends, support groups of other parents, or understanding counselors to communicate their feelings and gain support. Being able to openly share feelings is often helpful in moving through the stages of grief and achieving some resolution.
  • Education. There are a number of books, articles, and websites (including blogs) about adoption and the birth parent experience. Many of these include first-person accounts from birth parents, which can provide some context about what other birth parents experiences. These resources can be helpful to birth parents who may feel that they are alone in their loss.
  • Writing. Birth parents may find it useful to keep a journal or blog of their experiences and feelings. this may serve as an outlet for grief or other emotions, and it can also serve to provide some perspective over time. Keeping a journal also allows birth parents to remember details that might otherwise be forgotten over the years.
  • Counseling. Birth parents may find that they need more support than family and friends can offer, or they may be unable to move forward in the grieving process. In such cases, professional counseling may help the birth parent make progress in dealing with the grief or may reassure the parent that such feelings are normal. A counselor should be able to help a birth parent replace unrealistic fantasy with reality, to acknowledge what has happened, and to accept the reality of the birth parent role. Birth parents should look for counselors who have significant experience with adoption and with bereavement. Referrals for counselors may come from friends, birth parent support groups, or from the adoption agency or attorney who helped with the adoption.
  • Other Post-Adoption Services. Birth parents also may benefit from post-adoption services, such as support groups or mentoring programs. Some birth parents may be reluctant to return to the agencies that facilitated their placements and seek out in-home services or other agencies.

While the birth parent will never forget the child, it is important that the birth parent adapts to the new circumstances and comes to terms with any regret. When birth parents are able to integrate the loss into their lives and gain some feeling of control, they can then move on to deal with whatever else life brings to them.

Maintaining Contact

Placing a child for adoption does not necessarily mean a birth parent will never be able to contact the child again. Adoption can have some degree of openness, including some communication between the birth and adoptive families, or the birth family or the adopted person may attempt a search and reunite later in life. Birth and adoptive parents need to determine the level of openness that best matches the needs and wishes of all parties. Birth parents can benefit from information about the advantages of open adoption for children.

The number of open adoptions (in which the birth and adoptive families know each other’s identities and have direct contact) and mediated adoption (in which contacts between the birth adn adoptive families are made indirectly through a mediator) are on the rise. Although the context around each adoption is unique, research indicates that open adoption can be beneficial for birth parents. Birth parents in an open adoption have been shown to have better post-adoption adjustment, increased satisfaction with the adoption process, and better grief resolution.

Even if an adoption was not structured as having some level of openness, or if the level of openness has declined over time, birth families and adopted persons still may seek out each other on their own. The primary reasons for not searching often include birth mothers feeling like it was the child’s right to decide whether to initiate the search, and birth mothers not wanting to disrupt or complicate the child’s life. Primary reasons for wanting to initiate a search include desiring to have contact and a relationship with the child, as well as wanting to know about the child. A majority of birth mothers studied have felt their children might search for them, with most of those mothers feeling positive about a possible contact.

Search And Reunion in the Age of the Internet

With seemingly everything available on the internet, birth families and adopted persons are much more easily able to research contact information and establish connections than they have been in the past. This increase in information availability is changing the landscape of privacy and confidentiality, including in adoption. With a simple internet search or review of social media sites, individuals may be able to quickly determine identities and establish connections. Search and reunion among birth parents and adopted persons is not new, but the speed at which it can occur is. Because of the sometimes instantaneous nature of eh internet, connections may be attempted without giving pause for self-reflection, consideration of the consequences, or assistance from support systems, such as family, friends, and professionals.

Since search and reunion can be enormously emotional and may tap into strong feelings of separation and loss, adoption professionals strongly recommend emotional preparation before search and reunion. Preparation will help individuals think through their expectations and prepare for a range of potential reactions from the other party, including rejection.


Although the decision to place a child for adoption can be a painful process and affect many aspects of a birth parent’s life, many birth parents are able to reconcile the loss and make peace with the decision. Recent shifts away from secrecy and toward openness in adoption are not a panacea for the grief, loss, or other negative experiences a birth parent may have, but research indicates that openness can be beneficial to birth parents, as well as people who were adopted. Additionally, the ever-increasing availability of information and supports for birth parents, particularly on the internet, provides a way for parents to make a more informed decision, find assistance as they move through the process, and discover other parents who have had similar experiences.


Source: Child Welfare:



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