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.)



New Gazillion Voices: Powerful and Free

Gazillion Voices, the only online adoptee-led, adoptee-centric magazine, published its 6th edition today–and all content is free for the week. There are essays, videos, a podcast, and articles about Positive Adoption Language, the LGBT community, poetry, and much more. Congratulations to everyone affiliated with Gazillion Voices for the successful launch and now 6 months’ worth of publication. Well done.

Among the articles is one by my daughter Aselefech, “On Closure and Loss.”  Click here to access that essay, and the rest of the magazine. You’ll see why I, as an adoptive parent, feel so strongly about the need for the voices of adopted persons and of original/first parents to be heard and honored. The journey of adoption is complicated, ongoing, and profound. My thanks to Aselefech, and to each of the writers who share their stories and tip their hearts so generously.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

First Families Project

Wow. Since I published it Wednesday (Dec. 11), my post about The Stories of Ethiopian First Mothers, and of Their Children touched a lot of hearts, and perhaps a few nerves. The response was incredible: close to 600 shares on Facebook, as of today (Dec. 16). More than 3000 views.

Many thanks to those of you who posted a link to my blog, and to those of you who commented and emailed me. I heard from many adoptive parents, some adult adoptees, and a few adoption agency workers. Several people have offered to help, in both big and small ways, and I am very grateful for those offers.

Please feel free to comment and/or send an email: Maureen AT

Over the next few weeks, I will be connecting with several folks who have varied and helpful perspectives on the possibilities of this project. I have no intention to reinvent wheels that already exist and spin well. I believe in partnerships that can move projects ahead in a respectful, transparent way.

One clarification about adding fathers/grandparents/siblings in the project: In proposals I have been writing, I acknowledge first families, not only first mothers. I have no interest in being exclusionary. I do want to be realistic and well-focused. The needs are huge, and there must be parameters in order to achieve success.  I have enough experience with nonprofits to be very aware of the dangers of over-extending resources, especially in the early stages of projects. Small steps can be vital to long-term success.

A recap of the two goals:

(1) To create an infrastructure to deliver information from adoptive families to Ethiopian first families. This one is very complicated and potentially fraught with all sorts of problems, involving laws, money, emotions, unintended consequences, and more. Lots of gray areas. I’m looking forward to seeing what the possibilities are, and then bringing about positive changes.

(2) To record, honor, and preserve the stories of Ethiopian first mothers. This one has its own complexities, and will be easier to implement.

Many thanks to all those who are joining me on this journey.

Watercolor by Katie Griffing Bradley

Watercolor by Katie Griffing Bradley

I love this beautiful painting of an Ethiopian woman smiling as she serves coffee, an essential and intrinsic part of Ethiopian culture. More information on the artist, Katie Griffing Bradley, is available here.

Birth Fathers, First Fathers: To Acknowledge, Remember, Honor

I wrote last month about Birth Mother’s Day, observed by some on the Saturday before Mother’s Day.

I am a big advocate of birth/first parents, and work to include them in conversations about adoption policy. But I freely admit I rarely note the fathers specifically.

So here today, the Saturday before Father’s Day, I embrace, metaphorically at least, all those men, young and old, who have lost their children to adoption and yet still keep them in their hearts.

I acknowledge all those men who may not know that they have a child, and who may never know.

I honor all those men who wanted to provide a safe, stable home for their children, were unable to, and who did the genuine best they could.

I honor those men who work to connect with the adoptive family in an open adoption, who work to connect with their child’s mother in a complex situation, and who are a positive presence in their child’s life, whether the child is 2 or 32.

I recognize those fathers, dead and alive, who did not get the support they needed, who were left on the sidelines, whose hearts may have broken in silence and without tears.

I hold in my heart those men who no longer have a common language or culture with their child, who are separated by geography or prison or illness, who hold fast to their children nonetheless.

And I offer hope: hope that they are not forgotten, hope that their children are well, and hope that we can continue to enlarge our understanding of family, in a dignified and powerful way, for all the fathers in our lives.