Invisible, Silent Birth Parents: What Do We Know of Their Grief?

Imagine if you heard that the child of a friend of yours had died. Maybe a baby was stillborn, a toddler had a terrible disease, a child was struck by a car. The parents would be devastated. There would be religious services, perhaps. There would be outpourings of sympathy. The parents would likely receive counseling and therapy, join support groups, and take much time to recover and heal.

Do we think the grief and despair are different for impoverished parents who place their children for international adoption? After handing over their child or children, oftentimes never to see them again, what happens? What support and counseling do they receive? The answer, for most, is none.

According to a master’s thesis from a student at Addis Ababa University, some 80% of Ethiopian birth parents suffered with moderate or severe depression after placing their children. Before placing their children, 5% reported receiving counseling about their decision.

After placement, what percentage received counseling services?


That, to me, is unconscionable.

The Ethiopian birth parents cited in this thesis dealt with their grief and loss mostly through prayer and through talking with friends. Both of those responses are appropriate and can be helpful, no doubt. But, really, is that the best we can do for them? Leave them alone and isolated in their grief after forever losing a child?

Most of the Ethiopian birth families in the thesis research placed their children because of poverty. They reported average monthly incomes of below 200 Ethiopian birr, or about $20. Their children were not orphans. Unlike parents who have tragically lost their children to death, these parents chose to place their children for adoption, and to potentially lose them forever. But is horrific poverty really equivalent to having a choice?

One birth mother said:

I had no regular income at the time of relinquishment. I was a daily laborer. Starting at the last month of my pregnancy, I couldn’t continue to work as a daily laborer, and it was very difficult to get an employer who can tolerate a pregnant or nursing woman to do his/her work.  No one was willing to employ me. My only choice was to give the child for  orphanage or adoption both for the sake of the child and for my survival. However, deciding on relinquishment was not a simple matter. It was so painful.

Most of the birth parents discussed in the thesis were between the ages of 16 and 37;  31 were birth mothers and 11 were birth fathers. About 32% were married; the others were unmarried (40%), widowed (12%), or divorced (16%). All too often, birth fathers are not fully considered in adoption policy discussions. In this research, the average depression of male respondents was greater than that of female respondents.

A friend of mine is an adoptive parent of 2 young Ethiopian children, and is in contact with her children’s Ethiopian families. She shared this with me.

…our first visit with family at the orphanage post-adoption in 2010 was eye-opening because that’s when I first heard from the orphanage directors about first families desperate for news for their kids. And then when I followed up with an acquaintance that was an ex-agency employee, he said that he was contacted a lot by grieving first mothers. He said one repeatedly called him in the middle of the night crying and begging for information on her child. Good God. That’s even hard to type.

The first parents hope and cry for information. But all too often their voices are not heard. I doubt this reality is unique to Ethiopian first families. I am sure it resonates for Chinese, Guatemalan, Korean, Russian, and other birth parents as well.

How do the adoption agencies who placed the children  provide post-adoption services to international birth families?

Most agencies offer some sort of post-adoption resources in the US for adoptive families, though there is a great need for more. Therapists have practices that include adopted children and families. There are attachment centers, behavioral coaches, medications, and many other resources available, especially if the families have insurance and funds for them.

Where do post-adoption services for international birth families fall on the spectrum of priorities for adoption agencies? Are post-adopt services even on the list?

I don’t take adoptive parents off the hook here, either, including myself, though I recognize that follow-up with Ethiopian first families can be complicated for many reasons.

It’s just too easy, though, to close our eyes, ears, and hearts; to want to think positive thoughts about birth parents who made a loving decision; and to not want to think that our joys are built on someone else’s deep sorrow and abject poverty.

I’m convinced we can and must do better for birth families. We need to let go of fears.The possibilities include having hard conversations about loss and grief, taking deep breaths and thoughtful actions, and demanding transparency and equity in adoption.

My next post will include some concrete ideas about how we might do this.

(A note about the research on Ethiopian original families: there needs to be lots more. The thesis I cite in this post is available on Amazon for around $40, which to my mind is a lot of money for a 42 page slim book. I have not been able to find the thesis on-line. I have written before about 2 other master’s theses (available on-line) that provide research about birth parents. One is Research on Ethiopian Birth Families: A Must-Read. The other is Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University.)



6 thoughts on “Invisible, Silent Birth Parents: What Do We Know of Their Grief?

  1. I am adopted, and it hurts me to think of my mother. She now has a son, I’m afraid that she loves me, she loves him and not me. I want to ask you mothers: what do you feel when you give the child up for adoption? I read that many mothers write “I really love my son.” But what do you feel concretely for this child? My mother was happy to know that I’m okay, and that I seek her, but relatives say she was a bad woman, who did not care much about his children.
    Answer me please, you do not grow the children that you gave up for adoption, so I want to ask you: why do you love this child? what you feel for him? you worry for him? if hem die or has an accident do you worry as they worry her adoptive parents?
    the relationship that a (birth) mother has with her child is not the same relationship that you have with a child that you grow for a lifetime. My (adoptive) mother worries a lot to me, she loves me, she knows my character and how I react to events, my (birth) mother does not know anything about me, so why she should love me? i don’t judje, but think about that hurts me so much, i want to understand, i want to have a testimony from a (birth) mother.
    Update: What would you do for that child? would you kill urself for him? I think that love we must built, as well as the relationships, just maternal instinct isn’t enough……

  2. If our motivator is faith, as mine would be if I were inclined toward adoption, shouldn’t we adopt the whole family??? Financially support a family so they can stay together????

    I know too many Christians who feel it’s trendy to have a multi-racial family (progressive Christians anyway), and adopt so they can have that multi-racial Christmas card. Not that they don’t have good intentions (they do). If we truly love these kids, wouldn’t we support the whole family so they can stay together as a unit??? Or at LEAST have an open adoption with contact and mandatory financial support of the family the child left behind.

  3. As an adult adoptee and a follower of your blog, I appreciate your stories so much. I hope with this piece along with the past others that readers really pause to think.

  4. Thanks, Maureen. We need to have empathy for the other side in adoption. Too often, natural families are made out to be selfless, romantic heroes.

    Yet my first thought is this: if we have empathy, and we support counseling for natural families, and we maintain contact, does that then make the adoptions ok? Does it lessen a mother’s grief to have counseling, or does it just makes us feel better about having caused it? Can adoption agencies, who benefit financially from adoption, be entrusted with fair counseling for natural families?

    Just thinking out loud. The whole equation is so lopsided.

    • All valid, valuable questions. My main focus in this post was post-adopt issues, in relation to the master’s thesis on depression in birth parents. I agree with the thesis author that there must be counseling and other resources, after placement has occurred.

      If there is effective pre-adoption counseling, perhaps fewer adoptions will take place. There would likely have to be additional supports in place, obviously, to help alleviate or solve the reasons that adoption was first considered.

      I don’t know that if we have empathy, support counseling, and maintain contact, whether that makes adoptions okay. It would, I think, provide more integrity and transparency to the process; that would seem to be vital. It could lessen a mother’s grief. I do know of several folks who are living a version of this scenario out now, though their children are young.

      Would adoption agencies provide fair counseling? Good question. Certainly pre-adoption counseling is a fuzzy area, as it is in their financial interest for adoptions to occur. A non-agency, objective counseling system would be best, one not connected with an agency, one with deep cultural understanding and solid language (translation) skills.

      I continue to argue for equitable treatment post-adoption. Once the water is under that bridge, agencies have a responsibility to the birth/first/original families to provide services and resources to them.

      It is lopsided, and very complex. So very much to think and talk about.

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