Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University

Adoption agency staff and social workers, prospective and current adoptive parents of Ethiopian children: Nothing should shock you in this research. It may break your heart a bit. I hope it will bring us closer to meeting the realities of Ethiopian birth mothers, and birth families.

Written as a thesis by Kalkidan Alelign, an Ethiopian graduate student for a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Addis Ababa University, “Birth Mothers’ Experience After Relinquishment” is an anomaly of sorts. It appears to be one of only two academic papers that look at what happens to Ethiopian birth mothers after they place their children. I’ll discuss the other in my next post on this subject. My thanks to Themia Sica for first posting the link in a Facebook adoptive parent group. Kalkidan is now vice president of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, also known as Betesab Felega. They do remarkable, valuable work reuniting Ethiopian adoptees and their families.

To say there is a need to provide post-adoption counseling to Ethiopian birth mothers is a laughable understatement. Agencies: are you listening, especially if you are looking at moving to new countries to place children? Please do not abandon the first families.

The writer of the thesis, Kalkidan Alelign, defines adoption as the separation of mothers and their children as a result of relinquishment.

The thesis itself is typical in that half of it is the question/objective, the literature review, and the research method. It’s around Chapter 4, “Findings,” that the objective academic language delves into the lives of 5 birth mothers: Fikirte, Hayat, Hewan, Nina, and Selam. The names are not real. The emotions are.

Admittedly, it’s a small sample. The author calls it qualitative research, and my sense is that it is likely quite representative of many birth mothers in Ethiopia.

Of the mothers interviewed for this thesis, 3 are single, and 2 are widows. They range in age from 25 to 30. Two are Muslim, 3 are Orthodox Christian. Their education ranges from “none” to a diploma. The interviews took place a year after relinquishment for 2 of the mothers, 3 years after for 2 mothers, and 5 years after for 1 mother.

I’ll give an overview here, and I encourage you to read the thesis for yourself.

Why did the mothers relinquish?

  • Money problems (usually temporary)
  • Social pressure (stigma, children born to unwed parents)
  • The mother’s HIV status (fear of dying and wanting to have a plan for the child/ren)
  • Lack of social support (the father of the child didn’t want the child; no friends or relatives to help with a baby)

The above reasons are not surprising. But what about this one?

  • Disinformation (expecting to maintain contact in some way)

Hewan, a 30-year-old widow with no education, said “she was willing to relinquish because she was told she would be receiving information about her children…However, it had been about five years and she still never heard about her children. Nina and Selam had to wait three years before they heard about their children.”

Hewan, Nina, and Selam also “never had the chance to say good-bye to their children.”

Read that sentence again, and then look at your children.

“All participants indicated that relinquishing their children was ‘the most difficult experience’ of all.”

Nina said of her last day with her child: “I could not sleep. I was holding him and staring at him all night long…I was telling him not to be scared and that he would grow up being a good man. Even though he was only four days old, he was looking straight into my eyes and it felt like he was searching for my soul.”

What were the feelings of the mothers after they relinquished their children?

  • Realizing the Loss (Nina: “After I gave my child to the orphanage I went home. There the first thing I did was take a shower, then it hit me. I just lost my baby and here I was being comfortable. I cried for a long time every day.”)
  • Anger (“After they relinquished their children, it was challenging for them to be back in the environment in which their children were lost from…They were also crying a lot and were angry almost every day.”)
  • Regrets (“Selam and Hewan regretted their decision in relation to what their expectation was and what the reality is. They state they were told by the delala (the broker) that they will have frequent contact with their children or with the adoptive parents…Hewan said: ‘If I knew that there would be no contact, that I would end up wondering about my children every day, that the pain does not go away…if only I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have relinquished my children.'”

Two of the birth mothers do not regret their decision. Hayat and Fikirte…have met the adoptive parents. Both have some sort of contact with their children, one through the adoption agency and one via telephone and email. Fikirte says ‘The meeting and the pictures assured me that my daughter is well taken care of. She has grown up and is living a life that I am sure she wouldn’t be having if she was with me.'”)

  • Blame (Two mothers blamed themselves “for not being mother enough to endure the challenges they once faced.” Others blamed the father, or family, for “not caring enough or for not understanding their pain.”)
  • Grief (“All participants stated that they grieved for their children every day. They also stated that though they grieve every day, some days are more painful than others.”)
  • Fear (“Nina and Hewan imagined everything that may go wrong in their children’s lives. They also wondered if their children understood why they relinquished them. They wonder if their children would accept them as their mothers when and if they meet them in the future.”)

Further, those who have children after placing a child for adoption feel overprotective, For Hewan, “It is her fear that she would lose him (the child she kept) too and ‘end up alone.'”)

The mothers also talked about circumstances that evoked or worsened their experience, such as “holidays, birthdays, and any other days that are celebrated in each family…On such days they either wish for their children to be part of the celebration or blame those who are celebrating it for doing it in the absence of their children.” Other triggers were “visiting a mother who gave birth, watching a mother with her son in public, watching young couples walk hand in hand, and watching a mother begging for alms with her children.”

Another trigger is lack of contact. Hewan said “having no contact with her children or the adoptive parents has made her loss ‘unbearable.’…She further stated that all the negative news that she heard about adoption in different media affected her, including her will to live.”

What are some of their coping mechanisms?

  • Acceptance (“Fikirte said, ‘When I finish my daily work, I sit for a long time and look at her (daughter’s photo) album or the framed picture of her in my room. I feel mixed feelings of happiness and sadness.'”)
  • Talking (“All participants reported that talking about their feelings and getting support from friends makes a lot of difference in their experience of relinquishment…(W)hen they share their experience, they feel like a weight is lifted off their shoulders…”)
  • Helping Others (Nina said, “When I see mothers in trouble or youngsters in the street I would go and talk to them to show them that somebody cares. Because I feel if somebody had cared enough I wouldn’t be in this position. Everything I feel I have missed or should have been done for me, I do it for others.”)
  • Concealing feelings (“All participants reported that they prefer not to talk about their feelings whenever they feel that they are judged or when they feel people would not understand them.”)
  • Withdrawing (“…the participants stated that the response from the community regarding their decision and how they should live their life after (the relinquishment) makes them question their desire to be part of the society.”)
  • Spirituality (“All of the participants stated that their faith has a major contribution in helping them accept what happened in their life.”)

I have met and embraced my daughters’ Ethiopian mother. My heart aches for her and for these mothers, recognizing that we can, and must, provide better, humane, and helpful services to them, the women who have placed their children in the hands of others. Regardless of whether adoption declines or continues, there is an obligation to not forget these mothers and families.

While this thesis is difficult to read, I am grateful for it. Ms. Alelign, the thesis author, recommends the following, in terms of social work practice:

Counseling, to make sure that birth mothers fully understand what relinquishment means and can make genuinely informed decisions. “Counseling services should also be provided to help birth mothers deal with what they experience after relinquishing.”

Advocacy, “for better awareness of the community about  birth mothers…because a positive response from the community can have an impact in minimizing the challenges they face while trying to play their role in society.” Advocacy is also important regarding “awareness as to how significant it is for the birth mothers to have contact with the adoptive parents or their children.”

Networking, because “Creating a psychosocial support group for birth mothers is also very important at this level since there are no support groups or organizations that help birth mothers.”

We must see their faces and hear their voices when adoption policy is discussed.

We must listen to them, and we must tell their stories.

12 thoughts on “Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University

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  5. What about having a system in place so adoptive parents can locate the birth mother again after meeting her in Ethiopia ? I have tried contacting the orphanage but they won’t help. Very frustrating! My daughter and I would love to communicate with her regularly and see her again someday.

  6. Reblogged this on Betyie and commented:
    Eine lang überfällige Arbeit über die Situation abgebender Mütter in Äthiopien, zusammengefasst.
    Sie enthält nichts wirklich Überraschendes, bietet aber, weil sie die Betroffenen zu Wort kommen lässt, eine authentische und sichere Referenz.

    • Danke (thank you) for sharing this with German adoptive parents of Ethiopian children.

      Here is the Google translation of the comment above, edited a bit by me (I do not speak German):

      “A long overdue work summarizing the situation of birth mothers in Ethiopia. It contains nothing really surprising, but it gives voice to those affected, in an authentic and safe way.”

      • Thank you for sharing the findings of this important study. Awareness for the needs of the adopted child to be in contact with his/her family of origin has slowly been growing in recent years – though the legal rights of children to their heritage and to ongoing contact with their family of origin is yet to be established. It is good to see research also focussing on the situation of the reliquishing families. The fact that the researcher is Ethiopian makes the results so valuable, because the reader does not have any reason to assume that there were cultural misunderstandings, or things were “lost in translation.”

  7. Would you say that MOWA and the internal-country “players” are the people who should be held accountable for the emotions and lost feelings these women have? Or do you believe that we, as the adoptive parents, who trusted and believed in our agencies in the States need to do something now? Also, do you happen to know what MOWA does with the yearly reports and pictures we are required to send until the child is 18? Maybe I am just guessing that we all have to do it, but my agency is on me to make sure my report and pictures get done timely so as to not slow down the process for other Ethiopian adoptions. So maybe I am naïve’ but I was under the impression that MOWA gets the updates of each child each year and therefore, MOWA has or should have a system to let the first families know how their child is doing? Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Great and important questions. To me, and there are plenty of people with more knowledge than I have, the adoption agencies and their social workers are at the front lines of proactive, thorough services for birth families. Birth families should receive clear explanations of options and of ramifications, in their own language, and with attention to their circumstances (teenager, sex worker, widow, rape victim, etc.)The reality of western adoption, with its severing of all parental ties, should be made clear. There’s a possibility of reunion, but no guarantee at all.

      How great if birth mothers could talk with prospective birth mothers to share their experiences with them, as we adoptive parents often do with prospective adoptive parents. Different perspective, I realize, but the model is appropriate.

      I think adoption agencies also have a responsibility to train their in-country staff to be (as we say here) culturally competent–able to understand and share the US or western cultural/legal approach to adoption as well as the Ethiopian (add in which distinct group–Oromo, etc.) approach.

      It would be wonderful if MOWA and US adoption agencies (or European, Canadian, etc.) made sure that everyone involved in international adoption clearly understood the basics of the laws in each country. There seems to me to be a lot of confusion there.

      And quite a bit of confusion about the reports. I’m trying to learn more, but my general sense is that MOWA requires annual updates/photos primarily to know that the children placed for adoption are alive and well, that they are safe, are being educated, are having their mental and physical needs met. I doubt MOWA has the infrastructure to translate and deliver the reports to the first families. I am aware that some agencies told adoptive parents that the first families would receive the update–and certainly some first families had that clear impression. I don’t know how many first families have had that happen.

      I do know that some adoptive families do their own searches, connect with birth families, and share information on their own, still sending in (or not) annual reports to MOWA. Some families search, and find nothing. Some wait a few years, and then find lots, some of which may be exactly what the agency told them, some of which may be completely different.

      I have more to say about this, and will post my response in more detail on my blog. Your questions are shared, I’m sure, by many adoptive parents, and first parents. I’m so glad you asked them. It’s a big, challenging, important conversation.

    • Hi Beth, at this point I think it’s more likely that a birth/first family will not be able to access the PPRs than that they will be able to. Some families were never informed of this option to begin with and in other circumstances, PPRs just aren’t accessible. In my own children’s cases, the family is no longer able to get PPRs because the orphanage has closed. In the other, the family has moved within Ethiopia and isn’t close to the orphanage any more. In both cases, a trip to Addis Ababa to review the PPRs (if our agency would even allow it) is just not very feasible.

      In our case, we have got around this by having independent contact with both families. We visit annually and send photo albums and updates in between visits. In fact, later this week a new photo album will be delivered to my daughter’s family (my son’s went to a different area of Ethiopia to his family just a few weeks ago.) I understand that these photos and updates are very, very positively received by both families — and frankly, it is a huge relief and comfort to us to be in continual contact.

      If any adoptive parent asked me, at this point I would say the most prudent thing to do is to operate under the assumption that your child/ren’s birth family is not able to access PPRs. Every year when we go to Ethiopia, we hear of birth families desperate — suffering — for news of their lost children. It is heartbreaking and has done more to influence my thinking about adoptions from Ethiopia and my actions as an adoptive parent to young children than anything else.

      • Thanks, Chris. Your insights and perspective are helpful, as always. Your experience (and those of similar families), plus this MSW thesis by an Ethiopian, helps bring awareness to the realities of Ethiopian first families in a powerful way. Let’s keep it going.

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