Adoption has been handled so badly on so many television programs that I approach any new show with credulity. Following Juno, there has been a proliferation of shows featuring real life “birth mom” stories, including MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, TLC’s Birth Moms, Oxygen’s I’m Having Their Baby, and now Logo’s The Baby Wait. Each have their own special flaws, and some are more dangerous than others.
There are many good arguments that any shows about these intensely personal, extremely fraught decisions are exploitative. How can an expectant woman considering adoption make a free choice when everyone is already calling her a “birth mother”? How can she have the space to make such a decision with a camera in her face? And how could she ever change her mind without looking like a villain on primetime television?
Which brings us to the second problem: nearly all of these shows are presented in a way that favors the adoptive parents. I’m Having Their Baby puts it right in the title who this baby will “belong” to, while the title Birth Moms assumes, of course, that the adoption will and should take place. The Baby Wait seemingly presents both sides of the story, yet really only one set of parents are doing the waiting (and the show’s airing on Logo, a channel with programming designed for LGBT audiences, seems to be designed to appeal to same-sex couples considering adoption). These frameworks mean the shows are biased to present one outcome – adoption – as more favorable than others, and that’s a problem.
However, I have often argued that we need to talk more about adoption, we need to pay more attention to the stories of birth parents, and we need to have people outside of the adoption community learn about open adoption and adoption loss. That is why, despite their many flaws (including whether or not they should be on the air), it’s worth considering these shows for the opportunity they present to educate more people about adoption.
What are they teaching us, then?
To answer this question, I looked more closely at the The Baby Wait, which I find the most nuanced of the shows I’ve mentioned (admittedly, this is not a high bar to clear). The show highlights waiting periods – the time after placement with the adoptive family during which a mother can legally decide to parent her child. The length of the waiting period varies state by state. Again, during this intense, vulnerable time I do not believe you should have television cameras documenting your every thought and move – the very existence of the show seems exploitative. Yet, given that the show does exist, it provides a window into the common narratives and challenges that many surround adoptions today.
Here, I’ve gathered some of the most telling quotes I noticed in the shows first two episodes, with my thoughts on what these quotes tell us about adoption today.
“It would be like losing a child, and that’s not something I want to give much thought to.”
In the first episode, this quote was said by Paul, an adoptive father, when discussing the possibility that his new daughter’s birth mother would decide to parent. My response: exactly. Exactly! This is what the mother is going through during the waiting period. She is losing her child. That is the grief that she is facing to make way for your joy (and, in this case, to be used for television drama). Paul does recognize this, saying “This is now also a loss for Gen. And we have an incredible responsibility to live up to our end of the deal.” Yet, because of the way the show presents it, Genavieve’s loss is always portrayed as somewhat easier than the loss that Mark and Paul would face should she change her mind.
“Genavieve is our birth mother.”
No, Mark (Paul’s husband), Genavieve is your daughter’s birth mother, not yours. I think it’s important to recognize that Genavieve has one replacement to the child, and another relationship with her daughter’s adoptive fathers. We don’t have a word for that relationship, making it difficult to situate birth parents within adoptive families. (And, in fact, because your daughter only has two adoptive father, you could drop the “birth” part – it’s not necessarily to delineate between an adoptive mother and a birth mother in this context.)
“I was really sad when they handed Morgan to Mark and Paul before me. I know they’re going to be her parents, but I’m her mother. I want to hold her so badly.”
Seeing Genavieve’s face when, immediately after birth, her daughter was handed to Mark and Paul before her was one of the more heartbreaking moments of the episodes. She, who had done all the work of pregnancy and delivery, has the moment of joy taken away from her by hospital staff who favor the adoptive father’s claim to the new baby. This was a moment to respect her, her work, and her relationship with her daughter – and it was denied to her.
“$36 for a piece of fabric?”
At a Gymboree store, Genavieve’s boyfriend seemed aghast at the cost of a baby outfit that Genavieve wanted to buy as a gift during her first post-placement visit with her daughter and Mark and Paul. Meanwhile, we’ve seen Mark and Paul in their beautiful Manhattan apartment, at their country house in Pennsylvania, and looking at $1000 strollers in a store that is actually called Buy Buy Baby. These examples highlight the differences in background, specifically class background, that birth and adoptive families often face. So often, adoption involves the transfer of children from families with less means to families with more, and adoption decisions are made from less privileged position. This is not just about money, it’s about who gets to parents on what terms, and whose parenthood is deemed acceptable (though, surely, the fact that the adoptive parents here are a same-sex couple warrants discussion beyond the scope of this post). This is not a system that promotes reproductive justice.
“That concerned me that she would be there and she would be holding Morgan.”
Paul and Mark both expressed nervousness at having Genavieve and her family over for Thanksgiving before the waiting period passed. This nervousness is understandable, and reflects a fear that many adoptive parents feel. This tension early in the relationship could make it challenging to forge the type of trust and friendship required to make open adoptions successful. It’s understandable as an emotional response on the part of the adoptive parents, and it’s good to see them openly discussing it — and it’s even better that they didn’t let this nervousness alter their plans to see Genavieve.
“If she tries to get Morgan back, she needs to leave.”
… said Genavieve’s mother when Genavieve was feeling a large amount of regret, threatening to quick her out of the house if she chose to parent. Lack of family support is a common reason for expectant mothers to consider adoption.
“I want her back so bad. I’m so tired of people saying that I can’t do it. And for once I just wanted someone to say I could.”
It’s easy to say that Genavieve couldn’t have been a mother – and it likely would have required a great deal of support for her to parent her daughter, as well as taking her longer to finish school and become self-sufficient. Mark and Paul are loving parents with a secure and stable home. When they keep custody of Morgan at the end of the episode, the viewer knows she will always be loved and provided for. But to what extent was this family made at the expense of a young mother’s own hope to parent her child, a hope that continually dismissed and belittled? It’s easy to say that this happy result was the inevitably best result, but we must wonder if another path was possible – because Genavieve will likely be wondering that for the rest of her life.
“Alright, well, take care of yourself!”
This is the parting line from the social worker (or employee at the adoption agency, it’s unclear if she was, in fact, a social worker) when Genavieve calls to confirm she will not be changing her mind. To which I say, where the hell were you all episode, social worker? Where were you when Genavieve was feeling depressed? Where were you when Mark and Paul were feeling nervous about their first visit? Where were you when everyone needed ongoing support and counseling to process their grief and joy, and make sense of this new and strange relationship? And where will you be now that the adoption is complete? Perhaps she was there all along and it simply was never filmed, which was a huge misrepresentation. The more problematic scenario, though, is that she wasn’t there, and Genavieve was not receiving the support that every parent in this situation deserves.
“It’s an open adoption. I know it’s very different. It’s not how it’s normally done. But Kristen is a part of our lives.”
In the second episode, adoptive mother Marcie begins the conversation of open adoption with her friends at her baby shower, stressing the importance for her relationship with Kristen, the expectant mother who plans to place her daughter with Marcie and her husband Mike. She’s starting the conversation early and focusing on the mother as a person with her own importance, without even mentioning the baby. There is a respect conveyed here that Marcie will continue to show throughout the episode.
“I was so ashamed. Before I got pregnant with Ellie, I was in the good place, I was starting to pull things together and I was going to go back to school. Then I found out I was pregnant and I just became so obsessed and I became wrapped up and consumed with the shame. ‘Oh, she’s still so young and here she is on Baby #3.”
Kristen has a 4 year-old son and a 13 month-old daughter. Because of a history of substance abuse, her son lives with her parents, while she and her daughter live with her mother-in-law. It worth noting that the show is featuring a birth mother who isn’t a teenager and who already has children. What’s more important here, though, is the huge amount of shame that Kristen will continually mention. Whenever life-altering decisions are made because of shame and stigma, we, as reproductive justice activists, must know we still have a great deal of work to be done.
“We were thrilled, because we had seen the pain she had gone through, so in order for her heart to be healed and be able to have what she desires so badly was a blessing for us.”
Here, Marcie’s mother tell Kristen how pleased she felt when she learned Mike and Marcie had been matched for an adoption. One of the less discussed challenges in adoptions is the prolonged, exhausting, emotionally-draining struggle with infertility many couples face. In moving on to adoption, many couples must mourn the loss of the family they thought they would have, and make room for the new kind of family that adoption requires – a family that has room to include an ongoing relationship with the birth parents as well.
“You know that if at moment you want to see her, you just need to call us and say you’re on your way.”
Mike says this to Kristen while they’re at her home the first day of the adoption. Mike and Marcie went to Kristen’s house after they were discharged from the hospital so that she could spend some more time with the baby, and so that they could have longer to say goodbye. The openness he’s conveying here is what most birth mothers need to feel supported in their decision. They must feel welcomed as part of the child’s adoptive family in their own right.
“I still can’t seem to shake the shame about getting pregnant.” And later: “I’ve definitely avoided people because I’ve been afraid of them thinking I’m a bad mom or that I’m not good enough or that I’m a let down.”
Oh, Kristen. No women should feel this, and no women should be making decisions based on shame.
“I love you so, so, so, so, so much.”
So says Judah, Mike and Marcie’s son, on the phone to Kristen when he first meets his new sister Ellie. Kristen tearfully replies that she loves him, too. Kristen is part of their family.
“How are you?” “I’m worried about you.”
A phone conversation with Marcie and Kristen, showing Marcie’s ongoing recognition of and concern for Kristen’s grief. She goes on to say, “I know that we have Ellie, but we have you first. You were put into our life before she was. I hate to know that you’re hurting so bad.” This is an adoptive mother that is not just looking for a child to complete her family (though she is, of course, looking for that), she has genuine care for Kristen outside of the fact that Kristen gave birth her daughter.
“I got a whole new family.”
In the end, this is what I have found is most important for birth mothers’ ongoing well-being and mental health: are they considered part of their child’s adoptive family? When the answer is yes, they have less regret and experience more joy in continuing to be part of their child’s life. This does not mean it’s easy. Kristen also says: “Am I gonna feel this way for the rest of my life? … Is there more that I could have done or should have done?” And the answer to this, too, is yes: she will probably wonder about this forever. For birth mothers even in the best of open adoptions, there is almost always a loss accompanying whatever is gained. This grief should be an openly acknowledged part of adoption, because only be first acknowledging it can we become accountable to it.
I have not really written this post to encourage you to watch this show, or others like it. But, for those that are watching it, or are having conversations with those watching it, I hope that you’ll think carefully about what’s shown, what’s missing, what challenges your assumptions about adoption, and what needs to change.