The biological or genetic mother of an adopted child; the woman who, with the birthfather, conceived the child and who carried the pregnancy to term and delivered, then subsequently placed the child for adoption.
The term is sometimes also used to refer to all biological mothers, whether their parental rights are transferred to adoptive parents or they choose to parent their children, but usually the terms is used to refer solely to a woman who chose adoption for her child.
One problem with research on birthmothers is that most researchers concentrate on pregnant adolescents. Yet experts agree that most females choosing adoption are over age 18. As a result, research may not reflect the reality of most birthmothers.
It may be that pregnant teenagers are studied because teenage pregnancy is perceived as a social problem, whereas if a single woman in her late teens or twenties is pregnant, it is not considered a problem to society.
In a study released in 1999 by the National Center for Health Statistics, which did not look only at teenagers, the researchers released data on children who were placed for adoption from pre-1973 to the 1989-1995 era, the latest information available. As the table very clearly illustrates, adoption was a much more popular option prior to 1973, when nearly 9% of all never-married women placed their babies for adoption, and 19% of never-married white women chose adoption. This number plummeted to about 4% in the 1973-1981 period (and 7.5% for white women, who are more likely to choose adoption than are black women) and continued its downward spiral to less than 2% for white women. The data follows:
Many authors and researchers believe older birthmothers are more likely to choose adoption today than are younger birthmothers under age 17. Author Leroy Pelton has stated that in past years, birthmothers tended to be younger women living at home, but he hypothesized that this pattern began to reverse in the 1970s when older mothers became more likely to choose adoption than did younger women.
It should also be noted that there has been an increasing trend for older single women to have children, which may mean that there are more women ages 18 and over who choose adoption for their children.
In addition, according to Pelton, the women choosing adoption for their infants were "more likely to be living independently, less likely to report that the baby's father was supportive of her during pregnancy, and less likely to receive help during pregnancy from family and friends than the nonrelinquishing mother."
Pelton also points out that many more unwed teenage parents today are parenting their children than in past years, some living with their parents and some living apart.
Pelton's contention was anticipated by researcher Lucille J. Grow in her 1979 study of 210 unmarried mothers. The mothers were ages 14-24 at the time of the child's birth. Of the group, 182 chose to parent their children, and 28 made an adoption plan.
Although unmarried mothers who chose adoption for their children prior to the early 1970s were often young students living at home with their parents (based on various studies, including one by Trudy Festinger in 1971), Grow found a reversal and a trend for older mothers rather than younger mothers to choose adoption. Said Grow, "In contrast to earlier findings, it was found that younger women-that is, those under age 21-were more likely to keep than surrender their children."
In addition, she also found the birthmother choosing adoption was more likely to be living away from home and was less likely to receive assistance from family and friends. The young mother who chose parenting was more likely to have parents who were divorced or separated. Grow hypothesized that the women who had lived in a one-parent household were less likely to consider single parenthood in a negative light and more likely to consider parenting their child.
Parenting vs. Placing
Although many people in the general public persist in believing that the average person who places her child for adoption is a young teenager, the reverse is clearly true. However, as mentioned earlier, most research on birthmothers centers on teenagers.
Michael Resnick studied 93 adolescents, including 67 who chose parenting, 24 who chose adoption, 1 who had an abortion and 1 whose child was in foster care. Resnick stated that 85% of the "placers" (those who chose adoption for their infants) and 94% of those who chose parenting were satisfied with their decision.
When both placers and parenters were asked for the most crucial factor in their decision making, 80% of the parents stated they were ready to be parents. Other reasons were that they feel they could not carry a child for nine months and then make an adoption plan or that the birthfather wanted them to parent the baby.
Of the placers, 75% said they were unable to parent a child and offer the type of environment they believed was important. Other reasons cited for choosing adoption were that they believed adoption was in the child's best interest. Some cited their plans to continue their education.
In a study much larger in scale than other studies that compared adolescent "parenters" to "placers," Debra Kalmuss et al. in Family Perspectives looked at the short-term consequences of young women who made this choice. Researchers studied 311 women who chose parenting and 216 who chose adoption. The sample was heavily skewed toward young women living in maternity homes, while others were recruited from prenatal clinics, teenage pregnancy programs and adoption agencies. The mean age of the women was 17.5 years.
Researchers found significant differences between the two groups and said, "Placers were considerably more likely to have lived in a maternity residence during pregnancy, they were somewhat older and were more likely to have graduated from high school. Moreover, they were more likely to be white and to have come from intact families, and less likely to have grown up in a family which received public assistance, or to have been receiving public assistance themselves at the time that they became pregnant." They also found that 60% of the "parenters" were receiving public assistance at the post-birth interviewers, versus 4% of the placers. These findings support earlier research.
In looking at the psychological area, researchers found that parenters and placers were about equal, although placers were happier with their lives and their relationships with their mothers. Placers had a more positive outlook on the future achievements they expected to make by the age of thirty. They were also more likely to return to high school after the birth than were parenters.
Both groups were generally satisfied with their choices, and 56% said they had few or no regrets about their adoption decision. About 80% of the placers said they would have made the same decision if they could. Although both groups expressed high comfort levels with their decision, parenters were more likely to say they would make the same choice again. Researchers were unclear if this was the result of the birthmothers still dealing with feelings of loss or if the parenters felt inhibited about saying they were unhappy to be parents.
In a study reported in 1993, researchers studied 162 unmarried pregnant teenagers. Fifty-seven percent initially planned adoption for their babies and about half ultimately changed their mind and decided to parent the babies. The teenager's perception of what her mother preferred affected her initial decision. However, they found that the birthfather's preference was the driving force in the final decision. Said the researchers, "A perception that the birth father would prefer that the infant be placed for adoption more than tripled the odds that the teen mother would remain consistent in her choice to place." Interestingly, adoption knowledge and attending adoption seminars did not affect the decision significantly. Socioeconomic status and race did not have statistically significant impacts in this study.
According to a report by Christine Bachrach for the National Center for Health Statistics, a birthmother choosing adoption is usually placing her first child for adoption. An estimated 75% of all infant adoptions are firstborns, 12% are second children, and 13% are the third, fourth (fifth, etc.) child.
Many women choosing adoption are white, and infants born to white single mothers are much more likely to be placed for adoption with nonrelatives than are the newborns of black mothers, according to studies by the National Center for Health Statistics.
This does not mean, however, that black and other nonwhite birthmothers are invariably uninterested in learning about adoption. A study by Margaret Klein Misak in 1981 of 387 women of all races (217 white, 111 black, 50 Latina and 9 racially designated as "other") revealed that as many as 51% of the black "clients" were considering adoption, compared to 53% of white women in crisis pregnancies. An apparent factor affecting the number of black women choosing adoption for their babies was the insufficient number of families interested in adopting black infants. Today, public and private agencies continue to find it difficult to recruit enough adoptive families for minority infants and children. (See BLACK ADOPTIVE PARENT RECRUITMENT PROGRAMS.) Public agencies, of course, may not discriminate, because of the MULTIETHNIC PLACEMENT ACT.
Attitudes Affecting the Choice of Adoption
It has been hypothesized by some that birthmothers who plan for their babies' adoptions have a lower self-esteem than those who choose to parent. Dr. Steven McLaughlin of the Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers in Seattle, Washington, compared adolescent "relinquishers" (adolescents who chose adoption) to "parenters" (adolescents who chose parenting) in his 1987 study, "The Consequences of the Adoption Decision," and found both groups had about the same levels of self-esteem.
Some have speculated that women who elected adoption for their babies may quickly become pregnant again to replace the child they lost, but McLaughlin found this was not the case. Instead, the teenagers who chose parenting were more likely to become pregnant again shortly after the first child's birth, and many of these pregnancies ended in abortion.
A small study of 21 pregnant adolescents revealed that societal pressure was strongly perceived as a factor in choosing parenting over placing for adoption. According to researcher Marcia Custer, in her article in a 1993 issue of Adolescence, teenagers believed there were no social sanctions against them parenting their children but strong societal sanctions against the adoption choice. Teenagers believed that parenting was the responsible and socially acceptable choice.
Custer also found that most of the teenagers as well as professional counselors had very little knowledge about adoption, and nearly all were basing their assumptions about adoption on this ignorance. Only two of the adolescents had received any information about adoption. She stated, "This low level of adoption knowledge nurtures the stereotypical beliefs held by society in general, including pregnant teenagers and the professionals who interact with them."
Custer speculated that the counselors' failure to initiate any discussion about adoption may have been due to a self-fulfilling prophecy: most counselors assumed teenagers didn't want any information so they didn't offer it or seek it out for them.
Custer's findings confirm what Mech found in 1984: that the attitude of the pregnancy counselor is a critical factor.
Although most birthmothers are single (or divorced), birthmothers may also be married, and the National Center for Health Statistics estimates at least 5% to 6% of all infant adoptions are infants placed by a married couple. The couple may be in the process of divorcing or may be very poor and financially unable to support an additional child.
In some cases, the child may be the result of an extramarital affair, and although the husband would be the legal father if he opted to raise the child, he and his wife choose to place the baby for adoption.
Married couples who elect adoption for their children may also face mental or physical problems, drug addiction or alcoholism and a wide variety of social problems. They decide placing the child with a stable two-parent couple is in the best interests of the child. (See MARRIED BIRTHPARENTS.)
A 1986 article by Christine Bachrach for the National Center for Health Statistics contrasted women who chose adoption for their infants to women who chose parenting. Her raw statistics revealed that women who made an adoption plan were less likely to receive public assistance than women who chose parenting (51% versus 21%). In addition, the women who chose adoption were more likely to complete high school than the women who chose parenting (77% versus 60%).
Researcher Carmelo Cocozzelli found a correlation between socioeconomic status and the decision to rear or place the baby. Women who are receiving welfare are more likely to decide to parent the baby than women who are not on public assistance. (This finding has been reported in study after study-women who choose adoption are usually of a higher socioeconomic level than women who choose parenting.)
Women whose fathers are employed or whose fathers are professionals were more likely to make an adoption plan. The socioeconomic finding was backed up by a study in 1987 by Jane Bose and Michael Resnick, who found a higher socioeconomic status among adolescents who chose adoption than among adolescents who chose parenting for their children. Similar findings were also reported by researchers Debra Kalmuss and associates in a 1991 issue of Family Planning Perspectives.
Grow found that women who spent their childhoods in cities with 500,000 or more people were more likely to choose parenting than adoption. In addition, she found that those who chose parenting were apparently less religious: 14% of the women who chose parenting reported regular church attendance versus 46% of the mothers who made an adoption plan.
Grow's findings were confirmed in the later study by Jane Bose and Michael Resnick on placers and parenters. Bose and Resnick found that placers tended to come from suburban areas rather than rural or urban areas. In addition, the placers were more religious than were teenagers who chose to parent.
The researchers also found that both placers and parenters came from a "high proportion" of families who had already faced a teenage pregnancy. In addition, placers were more likely than parenters to have a family member who was adopted or to have been adopted themselves. If a placer's sister became pregnant, the sister was more likely to choose adoption than the sisters of birthmothers who chose parenting.
According to Bachrach's raw data, women who chose adoption were also more likely to marry than the women who chose parenting (73% versus 51%).
The Adoption vs. Parenting Choice
Several researchers have studied why birthmothers choose adoption for their children. A study on birthmothers and factors influencing their decision to choose adoption for their babies or to parent them was described in an 1989 issue of Child Welfare.
Carmelo Cocozzelli studied 190 biological mothers in Hawaii. She found three variables with which the decision could be predicted with 77% accuracy.
These variables included whether or not the birthmother had career or life plans that would be interrupted or delayed by parenthood (individuals with future plans were more likely to choose adoption); the number of interviews the birthmother had with a social worker, with a greater number of interviews correlating with a higher probability of choosing adoption; and whether or not the birthmother planned to view her newborn child, with those who expressed a plan to see the child being less likely to place.
The study also revealed mothers who choose single parenthood were more likely to have had a difficult delivery and also to have been born themselves to single mothers.
Birthmothers of Past Years
Birthmothers who are today 45 and over and who placed their infants 20 or more years ago found a cultural climate that was vastly different from today's.
Adoption was what one was expected to do when one was a young unwed mother before 1970. Pressure was common from parents to place the baby for adoption, and women really did not have much of a choice at that time.
In 1961, a parent frequently said, "You're pregnant, and you're not ready to be a parent. Either have the baby adopted or get out of the house."
In 1999, a parent frequently said, "You're pregnant, and you're not ready to be a parent. Either have an abortion or get out of the house." Conversely, some parents urge birthmothers to parent their babies and say, "Don't come home from the hospital without the baby."
Thousands of young women before 1970 went or were sent to maternity homes, but many more were quietly kept at home or taken to relatives, where they received no counseling or emotional support and little or no information about pregnancy and childbearing.
Before 1970, very few agencies provided resumes of prospective adoptive parents to choose from, and the women retained little or no control. Some women report that they were not even informed on what labor and delivery would be like. Alone and terrified in a strange hospital, they experienced childbirth.
The women were urged to then go home and forget. The problem was, not all of the others who knew about the pregnancy forgot about it. Adoption was never discussed, but some remembered and wondered about the child who was, if literally, "given up." Even though she had been told she had done the "right thing," people who knew about the baby looked down on the birthmother. In essence, she was in a no-win situation. She would be condemned if she tried to raise the child as a single parent, and she was also condemned when she made an adoption plan.
Some birthmothers who suffered such conditions are intensely bitter today. These birthmothers who have suffered should be treated, belatedly, with the compassion they were denied in their time of need. Their desire for confidentiality, or a chance to speak their minds, should be equally honored.
Birthmothers and Trends in Adoption
Over time, more and more agencies began to question prohibiting birthmothers from having input in the adoption process. Today, nearly all agencies and increasing numbers of intermediaries provide extensive nonidentifying background information about the adopting couple, for example, their age, religion, why they want to adopt a child and many other factors. Today most U.S. agencies show the birthmother a resumé that describes approved prospective adoptive parents, and the birthmother chooses which family she feels would be the best.
Some agencies arrange one or more face-to-face meetings between birthmothers and prospective adopters on a first-name basis. Some agencies that encourage continuing contact between birthparents and adoptive parents subsequent to the adoption.
The agency may arrange for photographs and letters to be sent back and forth with the agency maintaining confidentiality. In some cases, identities of the birthparents and adoptive parents are known to each other, and they correspond or communicate over the phone directly (the last case describes a situation of a fully disclosed OPEN ADOPTION.)
Birthmothers in Intercountry Adoptions
Although researchers have not yet studied birthmothers in countries outside the United States whose children are adopted, most agencies and attorneys who handle INTERNATIONAL ADOPTIONS believe these birthmothers are young and/or poor. They may have other children and be unable to support additional children. In addition, the stigma of unwed parenthood is still very powerful in some countries of the world.
Children from other countries who are adopted by Americans usually live in orphanages (although, in some cases, the child may reside in a private foster home) and must be an "orphan" or officially "abandoned" according to u.s. IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE rules. As a result, few American adoptive parents have the opportunity to gain much, if any, information on the birthmother. (See also ADOLESCENT BIRTHMOTHERS; ATTITUDES ABOUT ADOPTION; INTERNATIONAL ADOPTIONS; PREGNANCY COUNSELING.)
Christine Adamec, There ARE Babies to Adopt: A Resource Guide for Prospective Parents (New York: Kensington, 1996).
"Advance Report of Final Natality Statistics, 1987," Monthly Vital Statistics Report, Final Data from the National Center for Health Statistics 38, no. 3, supplement (June 29, 1989).
Christine A. Bachrach, "Adoption Plans, Adopted Children, and Adoptive Mothers," Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (May 1986): 243-253.
---, "Adoption Plans, Adopted Children, and Adoptive Mothers: United States, 1982," Working paper no. 22 for the Family Growth Survey Branch/Division of Vital Statistics, March 1985.
Christine A. Bachrach, Kathryn A. London and Kathy S. Stolley, "The Relinquishment of Premarital Births for Adoption" (Poster prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, November 11, 1990, Seattle, Washington).
Terril L. Blanton and Jeanne Deschner, "Biological Mothers' Grief: The Postadoptive Experience in Open Versus Confidential Adoption," Child Welfare 69 (November-December 1990): 525-535.
Jane Bose, M.S.S.S., A.C.S.W., principal investigator, Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D., study director and report author, and Martha Smith, M.A., research assistant and coauthor, Final Report: Adoption and Parenting Decisionmaking Among Adolescent Females (University of Minnesota, July 1987).
Anjani Chandra, Ph.D., et al., "Adoption, Adoption Demand, and Relinquishment for Adoption" (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Health Statistics, May 11, 1999).
Carmelo Cocozzelli, "Predicting the Decision of Biological Mothers to Retain or Relinquish their Babies for Adoption," Child Welfare 63 (January-February 1989): 33-44.
Marcia Custer, "Adoption as an Option for Unmarried Pregnant Teens," Adolescence 28 (winter 1993): 891-902.
Rosalind J. Dworkin, et al., "Parenting or Placing: Decision Making by Pregnant Teens," Youth & Society 25, no. 1 (September 1993): 75-92.
Gayle Geber and Michael D. Resnick, "Family Functioning of Adolescents Who Parent and Place for Adoption," Adolescence 23 (summer 1988): 417-428.
Lucille J. Grow, "Today's Unmarried Mothers: The Choices Have Changed," Child Welfare, 58 (1979): 363-371.
Dora Kalmuss, Pearila Brickner Namerow and Linda F. Cushman, "Adoption Versus Parenting Among Young Pregnant Women," Family Planning Perspectives 23 (January-February 1991): 17-23.
Cynthia Leynes, "Keep or Adopt: A Study of Factors Influencing Pregnant Adolescents' Plans for Their Babies," Child Psychiatry and Human Development 10 (winter 1980): 105-112.
Steven D. McLaughlin, principal investigator, Diane L. Manninen and Linda D. Winges, Final Report: The Consequences of the Adoption Decision (Seattle: Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers, April 1987).
Steven D. McLaughlin, Susan E. Pearce, Diane L. Manninen and Linda D. Winges, "To Parent or Relinquish: Consequences for Adolescent Mothers," Social Work 33 (July-August 1988): 320-324.
Edmund V. Mech, Orientations of Pregnancy Counselors Toward Adoption, Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, 1984.
Margaret Klein Misak, Experience of Multiple Unwed Pregnancies: A Report from Selected Catholic Agencies (Chicago: Catholic Charities of Chicago, 1982).
National Committee For Adoption, Adoption Factbook (Washington, D.C.: National Committee For Adoption, 1989).
---, "New Study Shows Black Unwed Mothers Want Adoption Counseling from Agencies," Unmarried Parents Today, February 12, 1982.
Leroy H. Pelton, "The Institution of Adoption: Its Sources and Perpetuation," Infertility and Adoption: A Guide for Social Work Practice (New York: Haworth, 1988).
Michael D. Resnick, "Studying Adolescent Mothers' Decision Making About Adoption and Parenting," Social Work, 29 (January-February 1984): 5-10.
Kathleen Silber and Phylis Speedlin, Dear Birthmother: Thank You for Our Baby (San Antonio: Corona, 1982).
Jerome Smith, Ph.D., and Franklin I. Miroff, You're Our Child: The Adoption Experience (Lanham, Md.: Madison, 1987).
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©2000 by Christine Adamec and William Pierce, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Adoption, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition) with permission of Facts On File, Inc.