Relinquishing a Baby for Adoption

QUESTION

Dear Experts,
I have a friend who is giving up her baby for adoption. It will be an open adoption and she is comfortable with everything happening.

I'll be spending a few days around her birth with her. I know that even though this is what she wants, there is going to be an empty spot. Do you have suggestions of how I can help, what I could say or do?

ANSWER

Even though she has chosen to relinquish this child and is comfortable with this decision, she may be suprised at how much grief -- or maybe how little -- that she will feel. As her friend, the best support you can offer is to just be attuned to her emotionally. You don't have to make her feel better or "fix it"; just listen, empathize, understand, and reassure her that whatever she is feeling is just right, and normal. What to say? You may not know what to say, and you can just tell her honestly, "I don't know what to say." Even more important than what to say to her, is for you to listen to her as she processes this experience, with you as her supportive witness. Mostly, just be yourself -- the kind, caring, empathic person you are. Walk with her, and rather than leading her, follow her lead.

You might also be there to remind her that her hormones and her body will have a will of their own, and much of her emotional reaction will be tied to that. Also reassure her that letting go of a baby can be a process that takes time, and you have faith in her ability to make a healthy adjustment, on her own unique timetable. If she has doubts about her decision, you can reassure her that regret is normal for birth mothers, affirm the strength and courage it takes to relinquish a child, and remind her that it is a testament to her devotion that she has made the decision according to the best interests of her child. Her grief doesn't indicate that she made a bad decision, but that she has made a difficult decision.

If you ever feel like she needs more support than you can give, encourage her to reach out to others, and also refer her to a support group or professional counseling of some sort. The need for counseling is not a sign of weakness, any more than is the need to see a doctor for a sore throat. This is a significant event in her life and she deserves to get the support she needs to cope and adjust.

One final suggestion that you might discuss with her, is to think about collecting keepsakes and creating some sort of meaningful ritual with the adoptive family as she hands over her/their baby. Perhaps she and the adoptive mom could exchange gifts, or maybe she could keep a photograph, a lock of hair, and/or the hat and blanket that the baby was wrapped in, or perhaps she could give the baby an heirloom from her family. These keepsakes and rituals can help her remember this child in a tangible way, and process whatever feelings she has about letting go. Encourage her to do whatever feels meaningful and right to her.

We wish her well.
-- Debbie and Mara
The Crisis Pregnancy Expert Team

Davis and Stein

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. and Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D. are the authors of Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey, a 2004 National Parenting Publications Awards "Gold Award" winner. They also collaborated on Parent: You and Your Baby in the NICU (2002), as part of the nationwide March of Dimes NICU Project. They.ve been invited to regularly contribute to Advances in Neonatal Care, a neonatal nursing journal; their first article appears in Spring 2005. They are the founding members of Partners in Perinatal and Pediatric Consulting, which promotes developmentally supportive care for babies and parents, as well as collaboration between families and health care professionals.

Dr. Stein is a clinical psychologist in private practice, specializing in the emotional aspects of coping with crisis and adjustment around pregnancy and parenting. She is regularly invited to lecture and give workshops on these issues throughout the country to conferences of physician and nursing groups, doulas, and lactation consultants. Since 1997, she has been consulting with organizations and providing training to health care providers, guiding their efforts to improve the level of psychological support and developmentally supportive care to families during and subsequent to perinatal crisis.

Dr. Davis is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and writer who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement, parent education, and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993; 2002), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). She is also on the Board of the Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Alliance (PLIDA.org) and is regularly invited to write articles for professional periodicals and parent support materials.