The Secret Burdens of Adoptive Motherhood

The Secret Burdens of Adoptive Motherhood

If you became a mother through adoption and you are struggling to balance the secret burdens of adoptive motherhood, take heart: you are not alone, and your efforts really are appreciated, even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. (Okay… most times, perhaps?)

Being a mother through adoption seems like a dream come true to many who long to adopt, and yet, one of the few things openly discussed about the experience are the secret burdens of adoptive motherhood.

What is this secret burden?

It’s a unique conundrum made up of all the expectations, responsibilities, sacrifices and challenges that come with becoming a mother through adoption. It can affect women who have just recently become new moms by adoption, as well as experienced adoptive moms, and it can be exacerbated by a number of factors (both external and internal.)

Let us be very clear: the children who are being or have been adopted are not the burden here. Rather, the secret burdens of adoptive motherhood have to do with the expectations that are put upon mothers by adoption– placed upon them by society, by the system that enables them to adopt, sometimes by birthfamilies or other in-laws, but far more often, by adoptive mothers themselves.

To be certain, women who take on the unique responsibilities of parenting other women’s children assume a position of unparalleled weight to which seemingly nobody else can possibly relate. And despite all the congratulations and celebration that accompany the birth and adoption of any child, women who join the club of adoptive motherhood sometimes find it to be a very lonely and/or trying experience, because try to vent about your feelings and you’re sure to have somebody remind you “well, you signed up for this, didn’t you?” (That’s SO not helpful, by the way.)

Why is adoptive motherhood sometimes so hard?

As one Abrazo mom who adopted recently shared online, “I just want (to enjoy) the title of Mom… not ‘Adoptive-Mom-put-on-a-pedestal-and-held-to-a-ridiculous-standard.’ Anybody would crack under that pressure! There are days when I feel like since I’ve adopted I’ve been held to such a high standard, but I’m only human. I’m not an angel or savior to my children; I’m just a Mom trying to do the best she can.” We hear you, AbrazoMom! And we know your job is not an easy one.

Whenever someone adopts a child through Abrazo, they are told at placement they are becoming parents at long-last. Yet unlike other parents, they must submit to 6-18 months of additional scrutiny from social workers and agency staff before they can even get a court date to finalize their adoption. adoptive-motherhoodDuring this supervisory phase, they are required to turn in monthly written progress reports and forward baby pictures to the agency and the birthparent/s and advise the agency of every pediatric visit and continue quarterly homework assignments and request the agency’s consent every time they plan any travel across state lines and have their home ready for five in-person supervisory visits involving the entire household five times in the first six months and quarterly thereafter.

Meanwhile, the adoptive parents are also expected to provide for all the needs of their new child, as well as offering continued emotional support to the grieving birthparents, with whom they are maintaining direct contact. And all too often, the bulk of the responsibility for keeping up with all these requirements inevitably seems to fall to the mother who is adopting (although certainly, adopting fathers are just as capable as mothers of fulfilling any or all of these requirements?)

It’s a lot to keep up with (especially for the sleep-deprived.) However, the external pressures are nothing compared with the internal pressures of living up to one’s visions of ideal motherhood.

Women who adopt often begin the adoption process hampered by fears of inadequacy. Where do these fears come from? Often, they are remnants of the infertility experience, and the accompanying cultural myth that suggests that a female’s fertility reflects her value in the world. Most religions have traditionally taught that a woman’s highest calling is to “be fruitful and multiply” and to raise children who will be a credit to their family’s reputation.

When you become a parent through adoption, however, you inherit not only the expectations of your own family system, but you become acutely aware of the spoken (and unspoken) expectations of the birthfamily whose sacrifice enabled you to become a parent. Open adoption practices may have increased adoptive parents’ awareness of birthparents’ opinions, yet throughout history, adoptive mothers have taken to heart their duty to “do right” by the parents whose loss became their gain. In truth, most birthmothers do not expect more of adoptive moms than they do of themselves; few people hold higher expectations for adoptive moms than do adoptive moms themselves. (And if they do, that’s on them, not you.)

Adding to the challenge, though, is the reality that gender roles can magnify a mother’s sense of responsibility for another mother’s loss. Adoptive fathers don’t “replace” or usurp a birthmother’s role in her child’s life, yet birthmothers and adoptive mothers alike often struggle with the weight of their similar job title(s.) In truth, though, the roles of birthmothers and adoptive mothers are distinctly different– despite some occasional overlap.

What can make it better for moms that adopt?

What seems to make things better is the liberation that comes with education and the affirmative power of community. Adoptive moms need to be able to find validation for their feelings and needs from other adoptive moms and nonadoptive moms, alike. It also can be incredibly healing when adoptive moms and birthmoms are comfortable enough with each other and secure enough in their respective roles to look out for the other. Birthparents who only see the “pretty side” of the adoptive parents’ experience often feel naturally envious of how “easy they have it” without ever realizing how much the adoptive family longs for the birthparents’ affirmation. Adoptive parents often need to know that they are doing a good job of parenting, and that they are indeed living up to (or exceeding) the birthparents’ expectations, just as birthparents need to know that their continuing love for and interest in the child/ren they placed is still (and always) appreciated.

Positive self-talk and recalibrated personal expectations can also go a long way towards alleviating some of the pressure. If you’re one of those adoptive moms who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, sit down and rest a spell. You’re doing your best, and that is all anyone can ask of you (including you, yourself.) If you feel like you’re shooting in the dark most of the time, rest assured: most mothers can relate, whether they’ve adopted or not. No child comes with an instruction manual, and all the experts in the world don’t know your kid like you do. You don’t have to raise a perfect child, nor does anyone expect you to raise a child perfectly. Your child’s happiness is not solely dependent upon you, nor is his or her success in life any measure of your worth.

If your child is loved and cared for by you, has all his/her basic needs met and knows the truth of his or her adoption, then you have done what is expected of you, and anything beyond that means you are exceeding expectations. (Thank you!)

Dear mother, please: take good care of you. We’ve all heard the old expression: “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” and despite the humor of that quip, it also bears an important truth. Your happiness matters, too! You cannot draw from an empty well, so while you’re busy taking care of everybody else, please be sure you are also feeding your own soul. What gives you joy? Signing up for motherhood (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) does not have to mean forfeiting all your own goals or ignoring all your own needs.

Your child/ren will learn from you how to care for themselves as well as others, after all, so take time for you and help your family learn how and why this matters. Don’t be afraid to tell others when you need support or to seek out help as needed.

Remember, you don’t have to do it all on your own! Because truly, it does take a village to raise a child– and to help balance the heavy burdens of adoptive motherhood. You’ve got this, and we’ve got your back. Carry on, and know we’re all behind you, all the way.

3 Responses to “The Secret Burdens of Adoptive Motherhood”

  1. Laura Rogers says:

    Every single sentence resonated with me and my experience! Especially the words about the pressure to “do right”!by everyone and “prove myself.” Thank you for your words and support. As always, I am grateful for Abrazo who, almost seven years since placement, still lifts me up and supports me directly and indirectly. You guys rock!

  2. Laura Rogers says:

    Also, this points out the importance of continuing to nurture my relarionship with our birth parents and appreciate that we are able to be genuine with each other. I am also blessed to have genuine relationships with other adoptive moms AND birth moms in my community. I have been blessed with my circle of support.

  3. Abrazo says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Laura, and for being the awesome mom we know you are!

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