Coercion in Adoption Counseling
“Coercion” is such a harsh word. Adoption is seen as a decision, a wise choice; made by selfless mothers, for the good of others, for the betterment of her child. We place our babies for adoption. In adoption counseling, we work on making our adoption plans. Adoption agencies do not truly violently rip children out of wailing mother’s hand, but wait until a birthmother “says her goodbyes” and tearfully hands over a child to the waiting adoptive parents.
The words “Adoption Counseling” should seem to invoke a positive response, but the counseling as practiced by many adoption agencies in this country is truly a delicate dance that gently contorts one’s boundaries with subtle, and unfortunately usually un-acknowledgeable, coercion.
Coercion as Defined
- a form of power based on forced compliance through fear and intimidation. The act of compelling by force of authority compulsion: using force to cause something;
- Another act defined by most states as an “unfair trade practice.” This one occurs when someone in the insurance business uses physical or mental force to persuade another to transact insurance
- Pertaining to unacceptable participant recruitment methods which involve duress, undue inducement or indirect pressure. One example of an environment conducive to coercion involves the recruitment of employees by their employer for human participant research.
- The act of forcing a person to something against her will.
- The process of converting a value from one class to another.
- The attempt to enforce desired behavior on individuals, groups, or governments To compel or force one to act based on pressure, harassment, threats, or intimidation.
- Circumstances that may make a potential research participant feel that participation is not fully voluntary or without prejudice.
You might find that you notice we do not see one full definition of coercion in adoption counseling practices, but selected parts of variations, and when alone, might be harmless, but together: coercion.
I think that one of the things that make it hard to fully see coercion in today’s, modern adoption practices is because it is so perfectly executed.
It is easy to take a hard definition of the word coercion and not imagine actual use of force or a full on threat. And with that it is easy to say strongly that obvious coercion, force and mistreatment that is so visible is undeniably wrong. Hearing the stories past of a birthmother who was forced to surrender her baby to adoption in the Baby Scoop Era, one cannot help but to recognize the lack of choice and the forces by which these women were compelled to comply. If anyone wants to be able to begin to understand what was lived though by these women, Ann Fessler’s “The Girls Who Went Away” is the new light of understanding. Read it and deny coercion and I know you lie. It is easy to be horrified by the mistreatment and one must have more cause for alarm since all the stories are current. But surely, these are the few sad minority stories?? Many mothers are smart and educated and they make a choice to surrender their children to adoption, right? And maybe that is the weakness of the coercion theory. We don’t want to believe that we, as human, can be twisted in such a way. That there is always personal accountability.
Adoption Coercion Weakens Us All
Believing in true coercion in adoption counseling is believing in a weakness of human strength.
It makes us all vulnerable. For really, birthmothers who place their children for adoption are no different that you. Our age, our time frame, who we were, who was surrounding us, what we were doing, and yes, our choices, and the act of becoming pregnant all came together at a certain perfect combination that created a catalyst for the chain of events. We probably were no more of a magnet for disaster than you at your darkest point of life, except for the circumstance of becoming pregnant. The domino that sets it all in motion at the right time and life falls like a house of cards. Birthmothers are not missing a cerebral firing sequence that allows us to just walk away from our children. So in essence, these subtle cohesive tactics that are played out in adoption are making us all vulnerable to be played.
Just remember, “But for the Grace of God, ( and a wily sperm) go I”.
Making a Birthmother
A little girl does not dream that when she grows up she is going to give away her babies to other people to raise.
She might grow up believing that she could be anything she wanted to be. She might grow up thinking that the world had great things in store for her. She might grow up thinking that great things were expected of her, or that perhaps she was entitled to great things. She might think that she has to power to make things happen the way she wants or the immaturity to think that the world will listen. Or maybe she has great hope. She might be a perfectionist and desires to excel with great plans or she might be lost and foundering, accepting what she gets. She might be expected to achieve or expected to fail. She might believe that she must do as expected to receive love or confused to why she has no love as expected. She might think she is worthy of everything or worthy of nothing. But she wasn’t expecting to be pregnant now.
When an unplanned pregnancy happens in the midst of great achievement, we consider it a great tragedy: “Oh, she just got that scholarship..now she will lose it and have to put her plans on hold” or “Gosh if this had just happened just 8 months later, she would at least have finished her degree..now she will never go back”.
When the ill timed conception occurs in the mid stream of a floundering life, it is considered another obstacle to one already challenged: “She doesn’t even have a decent job with insurance, it figures, she is a mess” or “Gosh, her apartment is so tiny, she doesn’t have room for another baby and can barley deal with this one. There is no way she can manage”
It really doesn’t matter if one is an overachiever with great plans or lost and muddled, the “professionals”, whose job is to make a woman believe that placing her child is something she wants to do, know exactly what buttons to push . Maybe she came up with the idea of adoption all on her own, maybe someone well meaning whispered it in her ear, maybe she felt that there was not another possible plan, maybe she was told that she would be filing out the forms. All she has to do is make that first move to call an agency or request some information…and that first domino begins to fall.
Motherhood is Never Perfect
Having a child is scary, whether you are 16, 21, 27, 35, or 42 whether it is planned, ill timed, welcomed, or a great hurdle.
Our society has built up the great myth of the Super Mom. Able to function on 3 hours of interrupted sleep with a smile on her face, faster than Rachel Ray at whipping up healthy meals on a budget, happily driving her echo friendly Prism to soccer and dance class with perfectly pressed designer outfits for her and her cherubic kids, returning home to a the loving man with a six figure income, house cleaned and shiny, white picket fence, juggling the day care to further her stellar career, which she worked hard for after finishing her degree, and let’s not forget time to exercise, throw fabulous diner parties, and shop for Christmas sales in August. Who can really do all this?? No one.
At least not really as perfectly as the mythical Super Mom would lead us to believe, but we all have her in our heads.
We all know that we can in no way pull all that off and lots of us know that it really doesn’t matter, because we do what we should, what is important to us and our families, what works. But that is because we have been there already, we have already debunked the myth in our own head, we took the plunge and fought our internal Super Mom for the mantle of a guilt free life.
Remember for a second what, where and who you thought you needed to be before you were ‘ready” for motherhood.
Your mental check off list, if you will. The roots of possible coercion lie in our own minds, our prejudices, our fears, our insecurities, our failings our societal collective of the expectations of motherhood and parenting. It only takes a skilled “caring” person to be able to see inside and exploit what lies deep in our souls. One of the things that I think is a common thread between infertility and uncontrolled fertility is the feeling of betrayal by one’s own body. Our reproductive system has failed us in some way. And even though it is a working of our body parts, we take it as a personal reflection on who we are, how we are perceived by the world, the real “stuff” we are made of. A person who has infertility issues has a pretty open ended amount of time to come to terms with their body’s betrayal, facing an ill timed pregnancy obviously consists of a nine month or less. Whether she was using contraceptives and they failed her, whether she was taking too many chances or too trusting, of maybe she really had no choice, being pregnant when one does not plan to be, well often she is now also angry at herself. She feels bad that she did this, somehow allowed it to happen, ruined everything, made such a mess. This is often compounded by the either real or perceived views of those in her life. Is her family truly disappointed? Is her boyfriend freaking out? Do they all think she is a loser? Are they angry? Are her friends able to “get it“ and even if everyone else behaves just as they should, supportive and kind, she still has the internal demons to wrestle..can she see it?? Or is she just projecting her damaged self esteem on other people’s views? She feels often that she has failed. She has failed herself, she has failed her love, her family, expectations for herself, the game of life, and filed the first goal of Super Momhood…the ultimate well executed plan.
Two lines on that pee stick means (Loud buzzer sound!) you lose!
Enter the Loving Arms of the Adoption Agency
Many women will report on the feelings of caring and concern for their contact at an adoption agency. There is something very welcoming in a relieving kind of way when you call an adoption agency and they seem generally happy, often the only ones, to hear that you are pregnant. No matter how unplanned, most women do have a small secret part of them that are generally happy to have this miracle of life growing inside them, but the outside influences and situational aspects can really rain on that internal joy. So having someone who seems like they care, that they are understanding and non judgmental, that don’t think you are a terrible person, it is like suddenly having a new fairy Godmother. They like you, they want to help you, and they understand.
That part alone inspires such trust in the adoption system.
Since it is perceived that everyone else in her world is mad at her and let her down and visa versa, our heroine wants to like the caring adoption agency counselors. Moreover, she wants them to like her. Often there is a new determination to “be good, follow the rules, and not disappoint”. She needs someone who will believe in her goodness. Add in that she is looking for guidance and is now often doubting her own abilities to make good decisions, after all if she was oh so smart then she would not be in this situation to begin with, so these “professionals’ with so much experience with women like her, get cast with a golden aura. They welcome her with open arms and want to educate her about the adoption option. Now, in adoption counseling, starts the list of fine benefits that adoption has to offer.
The Benefits of Making an Adoption Plan
All of the following are accepted from the American Adoption Attorneys Association and the National Council for Adoption as acceptable and desirable adoption practices towards potential birthmothers.
- All birthmother medical expenses paid. Defiantly a bonus for those without insurance or worrying about money for the doctors and birth. Heck, most agencies will even hook you up with their caring ObGyns, so more decisions and issues removed from her already troubled mind.
- The possibility of birthmother housing in the way of adoption expenses. Imagine that your home life is fraught with disapproving looks and cold silence, getting out of dodge fells real great when you would like to run away from life itself. Of course, often the very haven they offer removes her not from just the disapproving, but from those who would offer support. Isolation makes her all the more dependent on the agency and her friendly counselor. The more she needs them, the less chance that she will be able to disappoint those who “did everything, were everything” for her.
- Complete adoption services at no charge to you. Again, the money card is played. Parenting is big bucks, abortion is a few hundred dollars that is often out of reach, but adoption..a “free” ride. Add that now, many agencies offer things like scholarships for moms after they relinquish.
- An adoption counselor to assist you in finding a personalized adoption plan to meet your specific needs. Wow, doesn’t that just sound so nice and warm and cozy. They really care don’t they?
- Financial assistance with living expenses: And again, have you ever lived from hand to mouth for so long that all you dreamed about was a day of no financial worries? There are times that this kind of thing can be really really tempting. It’s like when you take a crappy job that you know that you will hate, but you can’t refuse the pay. Or go out with a doofus of a man because he promised to take you to the best restaurant in town. You think you can handle the job, you rationalize that he isn‘t so bad, having someone else pay the bills sounds just so nice…
- The ability to complete your goals: Here they play on your internal check list of things that you feel you need or want. If it is the over achiever, then school is made to be more important than the impending baby. Good for you for knowing what you want! If it is fun, then the “I am just not ready to handle the responsibility” is offered as a nicer way of saying “I don’t want to grow up”. If the relationship is new, then “Not being able to make that commitment” is given sound footing.
Whatever the main “issue” or motivation for the pregnancy is expanded upon and presented in new language so that it feels just so much better. Selfish becomes selfless, irresponsibly become knowing ones limits, loser boyfriend becomes “no opposition”. Then there is the subtle use of open ended questions to “ask yourself to help make your decision” that expand on the fears and doubts of new uncharted territory and the mythical Super Mommy.
- Am I ready to take on the day to day responsibility of parenting in addition to meeting his/her basic physical and emotional needs?
- What kind of time and space do I need for myself? What do I want out of life for myself?
- Am I patient enough to deal with the noise and confusion and the 24 hour a day responsibility of parenting?
- What do I think about having a child around all the time?
- Can I give up my sleep and still function at work and school or both?
These quotes are from a mailer from an adoption agency that I called pretending to be pregnant and considering adoption. This adoption agency had three pages of stuff like this. I have a whole file cabinet filled with them. Of course most of the answers to the above are mostly negative, there is no mention of any joy, nothing of love, nothing except the sacrifice and hard work of parenting. But they are not selling parenting, so they are not going to promote any of the good stuff. All these worries that any woman will have when facing a pregnancy are not given reassurance and given kind compassionate pats on the back with:
“You can do it, they don’t stay infants forever, he’ll take a nap, I managed three with a full time job, you will too.”
They are not brushed aside as normal worries, but given weight and credence as legitimate concerns with no answers, no solutions. Just “some things to think about”..read worry about nonstop. And then one is given the benefits for the baby and the shining examples of the wonderful waiting adoptive families that have all their ducks in a row and are just perfect. They will have everything you are not. They will be everything that you want to be. They will be everything that you wish you could have for your child if you were not such a loser. And it becomes easily apparent that you do not have it together enough with your questionable future, but these folks sure do and of course, you want your baby to have the best. Do you love your baby enough to give him or her the best? Well, how could you not? Here is the perfect life just waiting for you baby…yes, you are awful for getting pregnant, can you handle being even more awful by making your baby live this life with you?
So she starts seriously thinking that maybe adoption does provide all the answers.
And when she gets to that place, still unsure, she is met with more positive reinforcement by the kindly agency. How strong she is, how wise, how smart to know her limits. What a selfless angel, how thankful all will be, how happy she will make them all.
“In fact, women who make adoption plans for their children are among the most courageous, for they put their child’s needs first……Choosing to place your child with a family that can provide a stable, loving home is an act of love and sacrifice, not an act of abandonment….The biological mother loves her child enough to give him or her gift of life despite the pressures which surround an unintended or unwanted pregnancy.”
And it feels really good to have the adoption agency counselors think so highly of her.
They can see something in her that those who are suppose to know her and love her cannot see. Slowly she climbs on the “Birthmother Pedestal” and among the cheering, a beacon of light shines down and the heavens open up to her amazing goodness. She feels she is better than those stupid women who keep their babies and raise them in apartments with day care and weekend visits with daddy. She is stronger, wiser, different, better. Doing everything the “right” way becomes like a religion. The agency directs and she is too happy to follow suit. Pick the perfect set of parents, make sure that you “click”, allow them to get involved with doctors appointments because it makes them so happy, you want them at the birth since they are such great friends and you want them to bond right away and see the birth. Their happiness becomes tantamount, a way to redeem yourself for you past digressions, you still question whether or not you have any worth, any say, any ability to judge. But there is the cheering section, egging you on, but oh so kindly, that you don’t even see it. The make it seem like the power is in your hands, that you know what you are doing, that they believe in you to do the right thing, that you can make this choice above all others.
You have what it takes. This “Not me” attitude begins to really take form. Open adoptions that get closed by the families…not MY couple, they are really great people and like my sister, I love them, they wouldn’t do that to me. Regret and grief after placement…not ME, I know what I am doing, I made a choice, I am strong, I can handle it. “It will take time to move on from this, and I know I will never really leave it behind, but it will become part of me like every other hardship or joy that I’ve had.” . Those other women, the ones if she bothers to seek them out, the angry bitter ones, well she is not weak like them. She will NEVER regret placing Jonnyboo . She will never be like them.. She is gonna be a SuperStar!!
What is so subtly done is taking a broken woman and remolding her to feel like a million bucks and capable of anything….like giving up her child and being OK.
They give her the tools. The right sayings, the ease of the commitment, the words to make her feel better alone at night. The PC jargon to diffuse any hurtful situation:
“I didn’t give my baby away, I made a loving adoption plan”.
And the warm available adoption counselor to reassure her when the times get rough.
“Some birthmothers view adoption negatively because they fear they will never recover emotionally. Some feel they will never again be happy. A pregnancy counselor will help you choose the type of adoption that will be best for you and your child. You will grieve the loss of your child and that grief can be painful. However, the ability to grieve is a sign of mental health, and healing will come in time.”
So being sad is healthy, and if she does it right, she will be better.
By the time she realizes that it never really gets better, that the studies that show that the feelings of loss due to infant relinquishment grow over time rather than decrease, that the bitter old ones were right, it is all too late. And that might just be then when she realizes that she got played. That she feel for the adoption counseling techniques hook, line and sinker. But again, it’s her own fault. It was her choice after all. So carefully have they made her into a true Birthmother, that she can’t even see where her own blame ends and it is all what she did. She did it to herself so she thinks. She was warned and still didn’t listen. So now she has no right to complain. She failed again. Stupid girl, gets knocked up and then gives her baby away. WTF? Why didn’t she know better? What was she thinking? Why did she not see?
That’s the subtle coercion in adoption counseling. Very smooth.