When Does Adoption Begin?
With narrative from the experience of
Heather Lowe, birthmother
The only thing I was ever told was that it was best to begin separating now. To start addressing the child by the name the prospective adoptive parents picked out for him. To think of myself as a birthmother rather than a mother.
When does adoption begin? This is less a question in search of an answer, and more an invitation to us in the adoption field to join in an exploration of where the question itself takes us.
When does adoption begin? When does parenting begin? When does the connection between a mother and the child growing in her womb begin? And when, in the context of planned adoption, might that connection be undermined by all the best intentions?
I had already been telling him they would be his parents, and what kind of life he would have with them. I told them, in an effort to reassure them and make them feel good, that the transfer had already taken place in my heart-that he was really theirs.
The field of pre- and perinatal development has much to say about what might happen when the circumstances of crisis timing, relinquishment and adoption insert themselves itself into the processes of pregnancy, and a growing body of research supports the profound effect of a mother's emotional state upon her baby in utero. British physician and primal therapist Frank Lake believed that if maternal emotion, or "umbilical affect," is negative, the fetus feels unrecognized and insignificant (Maret, 1997.) In a crisis pregnancy in which adoption is a strong consideration, the balance of the pregnancy is often done without a sense of connection to the unborn child, and with planned separation always in the mother's consciousness. For a fetus/infant whose existence so depends on its mother that it perceives itself as part of her, this is profoundly terrifying. This notion of psychological separation being traumatic to a fetus could be characterized as unsupported speculation since it has yet to be proven by double-blind studies and yet I challenge you to find a mother, any mother, whether she has relinquished for adoption or kept and reared, who doesn't believe it to be so.
I now know that this left my child very alone in the womb. He must have felt that no one cared about him, since these mythical parents-to-be were nowhere around and I had vacated my motherly responsibilities to him, in deference to their feelings. Sometimes I wonder if this is why, as a seven-month-old baby, he still doesn't smile very much.
It is frequently the case that "hard science" lags behind our "softer," more intuitive ways of knowing; moreover, the highly interdisciplinary field of pre- and perinatal development is an example of the growing need to bridge scientific and spiritual/intuitive methods of inquiry, as it encompasses such diverse realms as the bio-behavioral aspects of embryonic and fetal development; the first stirrings of consciousness (and thus psychic life) in the fetus; the effects of maternal emotions, mental states and behavior on fetal development and birth outcomes; and the effects of cultural attitudes, norms and mythology on the experiences of pregnancy and birth1.
Having said that, there is, in fact, leading-edge NIH-funded research exquisitely relevant to our question, When does adoption begin? Curt Sandman et. al. have found that chronic stress in a pregnant mother leads (statistically, of course--not for each individual woman) to a host of negative outcomes, including preterm labor, low birth weight, and more temperamental, irritable babies (Rini et al., 1999.) Presumably the chronic activation of the pregnant mother's stress axis, and the ensuing soup of stress hormones (which in excess will cross the placental barrier and impact the baby's developing system), results in adaptive changes in the baby's development on cellular and neurological levels (Sandman et al., 1986; Sandman et al., 1994.) For instance, if a mother is constantly filled with anxiety, the "message" communicated to her baby is that they are in an unsafe environment (regardless of whether or not this is objectively true.) According to cell biologist Bruce Lipton, the baby's cells will actually mutate (adapt) to prepare it for the unsafe environment into which it perceives that it will be born (Lipton, 1998.) Indeed, Sandman sees fetuses of stressed mothers developing better coping and survival skills, and decreased sensitivity in neural chemical receptors which modulate, for example, the experiences of pleasure and reward. This could well correlate with the hypervigilance, hyperarousal and tendency toward depression we see in those with prenatal trauma (Janus, 1997.)
I'm particularly intrigued by the finding of Sandman and his colleagues that it isn't just any kind of stress most strongly associated with these outcomes, but rather, pregnancy-related fears and anxieties. What is it about those pregnancy-related anxieties that would differentiate it from, say, work-related stresses? And how might the experience of what I call "premature relinquishment"-emotionally detaching from one's baby during pregnancy-perhaps register as a special kind of pregnancy-related stressor, a violation of the mother's deep-seated sense of the natural order of things?
No one ever told me to read to my baby or talk to him. I remember the one night I did read to him, a collection of Dr. Seuss books, I felt furtive, as if I was doing something wrong. After all, I was just a birthmother, not a mother. What was I doing trying to act like a mother?
Let us entertain for a moment the possibility that-through her loving consciousness of welcome, safety and support for its highest unfolding of self-a pregnant mother can, even subtly, influence her developing baby toward a more secure, grounded, and "wired for love rather than fear" experience of self. That this is the case has been hinted at by both mainstream scientific research, as well as "softer" methods, through which it has been shown that the attitudes and feeling states of the pregnant mother and her partner carry lifelong implications for her child.
We are thus led to consider the need to support the pregnant woman-any pregnant woman, considering adoption or not-in claiming that sacred and profoundly important nine-month role of mother, regardless of what plans will be made thereafter.
If I had read some of Marcy Axness' or Michael Trout's work while pregnant, I would have rallied. I would have felt encouraged to offer my baby all that I could during the brief time I had him. I would have realized that when you are a potential birthmom, prospective adoptive parents should come last in your thinking process...the child coming first and yourself coming second.
So when should adoption begin? Passionate debate about the particulars of adoption practice continues2, but the bottom line is that, I believe, the connection between mother and child must be preserved during such a critical period of development, for the sake of both child and mother. Some prospective adoptive parents can handle this; indeed, some actively nurture and support it. Others are simply too motivated by their ownership needs and a short-sighted perspective on "getting the baby." Ideally, if she has the support resources to do so, I'd prefer to see a prospective birth mother remain with her newborn for a week or more--even if she has already decided to place and doesn't need that time to struggle with a decision, but, rather, to allow for a more gentle transition--before moving the baby to awaiting adoptive parents or even before meeting and choosing prospective adoptive parents!
The nine months of pregnancy and few days and weeks of postpartum is a miracle of development, for both baby and mother, which is precious. It is theirs. We in adoption need to respect, protect and honor that connection.
Maret, S. (1997). The Prenatal Person: Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Rini, C., Dunkel-Schetter, C., Wadhwa, P., & Sandman, C. (1999). Psychological adaptation and birth outcomes: the role of personal resources, stress, and sociocultural context in pregnancy. Health Psychology, 18(4), 333-345.
Sandman, C., & Yessaian, N. (1986). Persisting subsensitivity of the striatial dopamine system after fetal exposure to beta-endorphin. Life Sciences, 39, 1755-1763.
Sandman, C. A., Wadhwa, P. D., Dunkel-Schetter, C., Chicz-DeMet, A., Belman, J., Porto, M., Murata, Y., Garite, T. J., & Crinella, F. M. (1994). Psychobiological influences of stress and HPA regulation on the human fetus and infant birth outcomes. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 739, 198-210.
Lipton, B. (1998). Nature, nurture and the power of love. J of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 13(1), 3-10.
Janus, L. (1997). The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience: Echoes from the Womb:. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2001 edition of the American Adoption Congress "Decree", and is posted here with their generous permission. For more excellent information about humanizing adoption, please visit their website at http://americanadoptioncongress.org.