What it’s Like to be a Birth Mom at a National Adoption Conference (Opinion)

The National Council for Adoption hosts the Nation’s largest annual conference for all things child welfare, foster care, international adoption and domestic infant adoption. The NCFA conference has been taking place for thirty years and since its inception has been the leader in education, tools and resources for adoption professionals.  You should walk away from the annual conference with an armory of ways to improve your practice, a wealth of information on advances in adoption and best practices, and a renewed passion for why we do the work we do. 

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the National Council for Adoption (NCFA) annual conference with PairTree, and let me tell you it was a strange feeling being there.  As an Adoption Professional, you belong in those spaces and you’re welcomed in.  You’re expected to attend.  You mingle and catch up with other adoption professionals, people you just met and friends you’ve gained along the way.  You lean in with other like minded professionals and learn; exchange ideas and come up with ways to help build your business.  But I’m not just an Adoption Professional, I’m also a birth mom. 

As a birth mom, you aren’t expected to be at the National Council for Adoption annual conference.

Birth mothers are usually a topic of the conversation, not a participant in the conversation.  You’re often not invited in, and even if you are, it’s overshadowed by a feeling of “I don’t belong here.”  And it’s true, I felt like I didn’t belong there.  I didn’t tell many people I met that I was a birth mom, because when I did, the response was awe, a bit of hesitation, and an “oh wow!”  

Walking around and looking at all of the people and businesses who have built businesses contingent on women placing their children for adoption is daunting. (Yes, I know PairTree falls into that category too – the difference is, we recognize the problems in the adoption industry, fight for change, and strive to be better.) Sitting in conference sessions given by agency directors, adoption consultants, and adoption professionals talking about expectant moms, birth parents, and how to support birth parents in the wait and offer birth parent focused education feels surreal.  What do these people know about supporting expectant mothers?  Does years of experience as an adoption professional, placing children for adoption, qualify them to support expectant moms well and support birth parents post placement?  How do they know what an expectant mother needs to feel supported – have they asked?

In most cases, no. They haven’t asked.  They have made assumptions, lumped us all together in one group, and figured that we are all the same.  When in fact we are all very different and need very different support. While customized support for each expectant mother that walks through an agency’s doors should be our goal, support offered with the input of birth mothers should be a standard in our practice.

A Shift in Perspective

I couldn’t imagine what the conversations at NCFA looked like thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, when society’s view of birth mothers was completely different and open adoptions were just a dark plot line in Lifetime movies.  Thirty years ago, adoptions were closed, records were sealed and expectant mothers were still sent away to maternity homes. What did the rhetoric look like at NCFA back then?  How were we perceived?   

My favorite birth mom podcast, The Twisted Sisterhood podcast, ends each episode with a quote from Shirley Chisolm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”  This year three incredible birth mothers brought a folding chair to NCFA, and were given the opportunity to speak at the conference and share their very different stories and expertise.  Two birth mothers, both adoption professionals, shared their expertise on why separate legal representation for expectant mothers should be standard practice.  One, shared her perspective on how to tend to an expectant mothers feelings as an adoption professional. Such a refreshing perspective – from the perspective that is often mute–offering insight and education that is desperately needed in the adoption industry. 

The team of AdoptMatch and TruAdopt Law presenting on the importance of separate legal representation for expectant mothers.

What needs to change?

This year at NCFA, there were 44 speakers in all.  Of those 44 speakers, there were 3 birth mothers – a record for birth mother representation at the conference.  A record for representation, but still less than 10% of the speakers.  Could you imagine the education and perspective that could be offered at national conferences like NCFA, if more birth mothers were an equal participant in the conversation, not just a topic of conversation?  We would be able to sit in more meaningful discussions about real issues within the adoption industry such as:

  1. The lack of post-placement care and what that means for birth mothers long term.
  2. Adoption competent medical professionals – too often hospital staff fumble adoptive placements or don’t offer adequate options counseling because they don’t know what to do, making an already difficult and painful situation even worse.
  3. The importance of Post-Adoption Contact Agreements and why they should be legally enforceable.
  4. The reality of trafficking in adoption and the ways that the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children(ICPC) needs to be amended.

 While 10% is better than zero, we are still a long way from equal representation in the adoption community.  We are still a long way from being offered a seat at the table.  Discussions regarding adoption reform need to include more than just adoption professionals – adoptees and birth mothers should be invited.  Maybe one day, we’ll be able to walk into a national adoption conference with confidence and finally shake the feeling of not belonging.

Three different birth mothers, with three different stories, all committed to making changes in the adoption industry.

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