Beating Birth Mom Stigmas
Speaking Out to Change the Perception of Birth Mothers
by Kelsey Quesenberry
Not a lot of people know that I’m a birth mom. In the months of my pregnancy, I was more inclusive than usual. Which is a feat of its own, really. I’m much more of a Netflix kind of person, I’d rather be comforted by the Roseanne collection than being around people in general. Four years later, I still say no when people ask me if I have children. Usually accompanied by some sort of pained smile on my end. No one has really picked up on that yet.
I’m never sure what to say, and if I do say “Yes! I have a four year old who lives with his parents in Pennsylvania!”, what kind of reaction will I get? Will I get a confused, furrow of the brow? Unsure of what I’m really saying, unless someone is familiar with adoption, there’s a really good chance they won’t have any idea of what I’m actually talking about. If I even chose to utter this phrase to them, which I don’t.
Because for the most part when you express to the uneducated that you are a birth mother, there’s a few things that can happen. If you’ve known them for a while and decide to ‘out’ yourself, there’s usually pity involved. The walking around on eggshells. The ‘can’t say anything about babies/pregnancy around Kelsey ever again, because it might make her sad!’ The consideration is kind, and from a thoughtful place, I know that much. But for me, for someone who doesn’t like to feel like a victim, the pitying is horrible. The biggest struggle I’ve faced since ‘Becoming Juno’ is keeping my identity. I didn’t want to become someone else. Yes, I am a birth mom, and I’m happy to educate and help wherever and generally make adoption better in whatever little way I can, but that’s not all I am.
I’m Kelsey, a girl who ends up crying over puppy rescue videos (and in shelters), collects nail polish and has a sarcastic sense of humor. I don’t feel special, or brave. Sometimes I just want to scream, I’m still ME! I don’t want to be treated like I’m fragile, easily broken and shattered. It’s so hard to find that balancing act, because while I’m not broken, I don’t feel strong either. Sometimes I just want to feel normal, even though I’m not sure what normal is anymore.
I’ve had pro-life people praise for my choice for choosing adoption, for saving a life! Taking no consideration to what led me to adoption. In my four years of blogging, I’ve gone head to head with many pro-life people who chose to take my story and twist it to fit their agenda. Every few months I had to post a disclaimer on my blog that while I appreciate the discussion that adoption can generate, I won’t tolerate anyone who tried to take my words and warp them to what they believed. I’m fiercely pro-choice, pro-do whatever makes you happy. I’m terrified of having to face these people in real life, another reason that I don’t tell very many people that I’m a birth mother.
I’m afraid of prying questions, usually from a good place (although, sometimes not). Ones that maybe even be coming from a place of curiosity and trying to understand, make me feel vulnerable, poking into my very very personal business. I think the reason that I like being active online is that I can always think about what I’m going to say. It’s easier to talk to strangers, people I don’t know. I can just pretend I’m at one of the many adoption education courses I’ve done over the years. It’s harder when the relationship is personal, when they know who I am, and the pity seeps in.
I worked in the same office for three years, I started there less than a year after I placed, and only two people out of a constantly changing 12, knew about me being a birth mother. One, because she saw me looking at pictures I got at work and I felt the need to fess up, and immediately swore her to secrecy. The other because I had heard from another co-worker that she was also a birth mother (and although she told me in a non-judgmental way, I still couldn’t bring myself to tell her even though we were good friends) and I finally let it out after a few weeks. Besides those in adoption related settings, those two people are the only people I ever really told.
Of course, because of my sister who never respects my boundaries, other people knew. Once right after placing, she posted a picture to Facebook, right on my wall. I don’t remember if I called her to take it down, or my mother. All I know that is she didn’t care about my privacy or Zach’s privacy that she was disrespecting. It was finally when I mentioned that Mike and Amanda may not be comfortable with pictures of Henry online did she take it down. Years later, she would use my own adoption (which she has admitted she does not and will never agree with) as a foil to my oldest sister’s whose son SHE adopted. Sometimes it seems that it’s never the birth mother’s voice that matters, it’s the adoptive parents.
She talked to anyone who asked about me, or maybe even whenever she felt like it. I had people messaging me on Facebook, people I haven’t spoken to in years and had no interest in being friendly with again, asking me why I chose adoption and did I not love my son enough.
To those whose only understanding of adoption came from the movie Juno, deciding to make an adoption plan, clearly meant that I was either unfit in some way, or that I didn’t love him.
The only kind of positive adoption stories out there that are easily found are from adoptive parents. Although they often face their own set of insecurities and nosy people (and their nosy questions), no one doubts if they love their child, or what they did wrong to have their child taken away. Or in the words of my then nine year old niece, ‘why they sold their baby’.
It’s hard hiding such a big part of myself, and feeling that I have to because of how people might react. There’s no telling what kind of reaction you’ll get out of a person.
People see us as irresponsible women. Women who weren’t careful, who should have known better, our children unwanted. It’s so hard not to lash out when I see people say those things, but I have to be the bigger person. Birth parents are such a misunderstood and underrepresented part of adoption, so even if I don’t want to speak out, someone has to.
Birth parents are such a misunderstood and underrepresented part of adoption, so even if I don’t want to speak out, someone has to.
It’s hard not to feel resentful, not to be the bitter angry birth mom that some people expect. I try to take it in stride, to be the bigger person. But honestly, being a birth mom sucks sometimes. There are people who admire you (“You are selfless!” which is nice, but I don’t feel selfless), there are people out there who want to make adoption better and listen to your voice, people who empathize. But some days, there’s no beating around the bush, it just feels impossible.
Why are these my only options? I wish there was a healthy, portrayal of birth mothers somewhere in the media where people could glean some kind of understanding so that I didn’t have to crack myself open and tell my story anytime someone says something ignorant. Why can’t there be a birth mother, one who isn’t fifteen years old, and one who doesn’t do drugs, or abuse or neglect her children? One who approached every option that one does when finding out they are pregnant with an open mind? Who decided adoption was best for her, and not influenced by someone else? Someone you could really admire.
Better yet, why isn’t that birth mother in movies somewhere, with a steady and dependable birth father by her side? I know so many strong women who have gone through this alone, but there are plenty of birth fathers who have been forgotten. Good guys who want the best for themselves, and their children. Why do both of these things seem so unattainable?
But the only way for that to happen is if media, where people get this idea of negligent birth parents, actually listened to birth parents. Sought out our stories instead of fabricating ideas of what they think we feel, what they think adoptees feel. Media chooses to ignore us, because we aren’t the picture perfect, clear cut idea that adoptive parents present. It’s easier to choose the narrative of something positive and speculate than it is to actually think and consider the melting pot of anger, confusion, guilt and bitter sweetness that birth parents wade through. We are human, we have feelings, and we aren’t this plastic mould that people automatically default too.
It means that women who have frequently been silenced since the beginning of adoptions stepping out of the shadows and speaking out. I’m still weary of discussing my experience but I know that I have too if I ever want people to understand, really understand and change how they think of birth parents.
Kelsey Quesenberry is a Birthmother Buddy at Binti, where she shares her experience and provides advice and support to expectant parents considering adoption and adoptive parents. Kelsey has also recorded a series of videos about her experience as a birth mother, which she hopes will help more people understand what birth mothers are really like.