2022 marks the launch of the Birthparent support Alliance and we could not be more excited. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Paige Knipfer, owner of Love Grown Adoption Consulting, to learn more about her work, discuss common misconceptions about adoption, and discuss her decision to join this new program offered to adoption professionals.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about who you are, and how you are connected to the adoption constellation?
My name is Paige, and I am the owner of Love Grown Adoption Consulting. About seven years ago I started to pursue adoption and I have two kiddos now that were adopted.
I've always been racking my brain trying to figure out how to make this process better, and the whole adoption world better. I did a lot of article writing (see here, and here), podcasts (see here, and here), and interviews (Things You Should Know About Adoption), more so to just educate people who don’t touch adoption directly: how they can be more inclusive in books in schools and libraries, questions that are (and are not), appropriate to ask, things like that. Three years ago, I came home with my son and I wasn’t sleeping a lot, and I started building the Love Grown website because I’d been meeting people and doing adoption education for free for years. I also went through 60 extra hours of training through the state of Wisconsin for political advocacy work and did advocacy work in the state of Wisconsin, which is where I reside. My undergrad is in political science, so it ties in well. I built the site and I launched it to do platform education training. [Back then] the goal was to just help one prospective family a year, and – pun intended – it has grown way more than I ever anticipated. I've helped over 45 families adopt since 2019.
I do a ton of education stuff: education is my jam. I feel like a lot of prospective families are not properly educated in a lot of areas, and not properly prepared. I think oftentimes, unfortunately, sometimes agencies or even consultants, gloss over things. There were a lot of things I didn't know I could ask and I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't know I could advocate for things. And so that's really where my passion lies, educating adoptive parents. I walk with [prospective families] throughout the whole thing. So even when they bring baby home, education doesn't stop. I believe it's crucial to listen to birthparent and adoptees perspectives, because I think we can only get better as a generation as we continue to learn. Open adoption has become more common, and we need to learn and understand why that is so important, and how to facilitate it. Adoption is constantly evolving, and I hope getting better, as we listen more to adoptee voices, and learn.
What are the two biggest misconceptions outside of the adoption sphere about adoption?
The one that I struggle with the most is the outside perspective. People often don't understand that foster care and domestic infant adoption are two separate things. And so oftentimes they think that there's this huge need for domestic infant adoption, when there isn't. And you have to explain that there's an estimated 36 prospective families for every one adoption that occurs. I think that just bothers me a lot. There are a lot of differences, but for the general public who's never touched adoption and don't understand the two differences, they often just see them as oh, these kids are in need of families. It’s so much more complex than that.
The second one is about birth parents. I obviously am not a birth parent but I experienced this often with my kiddos’ birthparents, that there's just a lot of misconceptions about birthparents. People automatically assume birthparents are young teens, when the average woman who makes an adoption plan is in her late 20s. She's not a teenager. People assume that birthparents are uneducated, that they have a substance abuse problem. There's just a lot of misconceptions about birthparents and they're often portrayed negatively. That frustrates me.
Movies don't help either, right? Even in kids’ movies like Despicable Me, [the main character] Grue walks into the adoption agency and walks out that day with three little girls. That's not how it works. But for the general public, you can't blame them if they've never been personally touched by adoption, for thinking that adoption is that way, because that's all they've ever been shown, that it's this easy.
That's the other thing, right? That it's easy. Nothing about adoption is easy. Even at birth, there’s trauma for the adoptee. They're being removed from their biological family, and that relationship with a biological family There’s just so many layers that I think, again, are just glossed over and people don't understand the complexities of it. Or maybe they don't want to, I don't know.
There can be a lot of gaps in education for adoptive parents. We have a whole speaker series – Activism in Adoption – dedicated to filling some of those gaps. Where do you see the most common gaps in adoption education?
Most commonly, again, I think it’s understanding that there is trauma, even at birth, and helping that adoptee navigate that trauma. Prospective families often think they can protect their child from it. And that's not it; you can't stop it from occurring. It already happened. And education [can provide] these tools so that you can walk with your adoptee, because you can’t stop that trauma from happening. Shifting that mindset takes a lot of education, a lot of consulting, and I do a lot of different things in that realm. For example, at Love Grown we do book clubs, and we have a lot of guest speakers so adoptive parents can hear different perspectives, because it takes a lot of time, I think, to get someone's brain shifted from what they came in thinking to what it really is. That's a big one.
The other misconception I often see is regarding transracial adoption. There's just not enough out there on what that really means for you and your future child. And again, I don't fault prospective families for this, but they often think they know how it's going to be, and it actually is a lot different than they assume, helping that child navigate their identity and who they are as a person, including whether or not they have a relationship with their biological family, and whether or not you live in a place that reflects their identity in a positive way. There's just so many things: it's not just hair care. I love having transracial adoptees come speak to my families on their experience, because even ones that have had really great, positive experiences and stories, and whose adoptive parents did a lot of things right? There were still missing pieces for them on their identity. Whether you’re an adoptive parent or a biological parent, there is no perfection, and there is always room to learn. We are trying to help adoptees as best we can, navigate their journey.
Do you ever have contact with birthparents in the adoption process?
No. Not my lane. However, I do have birthparents come speak, for educational purposes, and I compensate them for their work. Through my education work, and social media, I’ve had the opportunity to build relationships with [post-placement] birthparents, and become friends
Do you think adoptive parents usually get much education on birthparent needs, or how to build relationships with birth parents?
No, I think we come in with a lot of misconceptions, which doesn't help. There are a lot of irrational fears. Prospective adoptive parents fear that the birthparents will decide to take back the baby. I don’t know where that comes from, but I think I blame movies. And I always tell my prospective families, however, birth parents have a very real fear that you will disappear after paperwork is signed. And that is a very real fear because it happens all the time where adoptive parents, once the paperwork is signed, peace out on the birth parents after promising the birth mother contact, updates, and pictures. I tell them, put yourself in her shoes. She just wants to make sure that this child is okay and that they're healthy and happy, and you just stopped communicating.
I always tell people to assume it's a relationship. Like any relationship in your life, it takes work and time and energy and effort on both sides. So, I stay with my families, even after they bring their baby home. I continue to do these guest speakers. I don't kick people out when they've adopted because, like I said, education continues. There's so much focus on the process of bringing the baby home, and then you bring the baby home and you're like, Oh, this is the beginning now. This isn't the end. This isn't the finish line. Often, you come home and you feel isolated, because friends and family love you and your kids dearly, but they just don't get it. You feel isolated. You feel guilt.
I definitely remember rocking my kiddos when they were sleeping on me and thinking about their birthparents missing out on these small moments, and you sit with that level of guilt. Because if you look at the adoption constellation, adoptive parents come in with a win-win-win. We are the ones, out of the whole constellation, that pursue this by choice, and the other parts of the constellation did not, and we win. We get to become parents. We get those moments. Those are the things I would love to build on in an adoption curriculum for adoptive parents when they come home. And then a whole other set of curricula about when they get older: answering questions in public, what happens when they start school, what part of the story is yours to tell, and what part isn’t. There’s just so many things that I would love to build on.
What you said about adoption being just the start, and not the finish line, isn’t a common viewpoint. So many people talk about it like it is a process that can start and then end.
It's usually described as a process: checking boxes. And then when you come home, you're trying to navigate without really much guidance, especially open adoption. Even if you sign an agreement or have an agreement ahead of time, there’s no sense of who's facilitating that, and who's continuing to come back together. I often say, people's lives change, birth parents and adoptive parents alike. Your relationship changes and evolves, as you continue to get to know one another and talk more.
What can you tell us about your relationships with your children’s birth parents?
I have told this story publicly before and can share it here. When we started our adoption process, I was very unaware, and I learned a lot, which is why I do what I do now. But the agency actually told us that the birth mother didn't want a relationship with us, and told her we didn't want a relationship with her, when in fact all of us did. And so, it was closed. Everything was sealed. I didn't know, right? I didn't know how to advocate for original birth certificates. I didn't know what that meant, that that sealed the records. I just didn't know. And then about six months into my kiddo’s life, I got an ultrasound picture with a permanent marker over her name, and I Googled how to get it off. It's nail polish, in case you want to know. And I got her [birthmother’s] name.
I found her on social media. I contacted her against attorney and agency advice, and I just said, Hey, I know you didn't want contracts. I respect that. But there’s always a but for me, so I just kind of worded it like, I just want this connection point for her for when she's older. One of my biggest things was, I kept thinking about when my daughter is old enough, I want to tell her I did everything possible for her to have a relationship, whatever that relationship looks like. And I also thought about how, if my daughter ever wants to have a family of her own when she's older, I'm never going to be able to talk to her about pregnancy, or about her medical history. All these things were in my head, thinking about my daughter when she's older, and now I tell that to prospective families:what are you going to tell your kids?
I also say that about ethics. If you are worried about explaining the story of how you adopted them, maybe you shouldn't be pursuing it the way that you are, because at the end of the day, they're going to find out their story. Whether you tell them that or not, 23andme and all these other places exist now. They're going to know their story, and I don't want my clients to ever have shame or feel guilty about telling their story and these are things to think about as you're navigating it.
Long story short, my kiddo’s birthmom and I started talking, and we found out we had both wanted a relationship with each other. And so we started just building on that, to a point where, in September, she stayed here for four days, which was awesome. It was amazing. My passion for education stems from my experience, because what happened was not what was best for any of the people involved.
There’s a statistic that floats around in adoption research that says 90% of adoptive parents close an open adoption by the time the child is five, usually citing relationship difficulties. What would recommend for adoptive parents to avoid this, or to build a positive relationship with their child’s birth parents?
There are so many things! I tell my clients that the education component is so important, because in listening to adoptees' voices, you'll know that it's important. The focus should be on the adoptee; what is best for the child. And at the end of the day, having a connection to their biological family, to some degree, is important. And even if it's not important for them, right, because every adoptee is different, you have done everything in your power to facilitate that connection. And that's the unfortunate part too, is in domestic infant adoption, you're making these decisions on behalf of a baby for the first couple of years, because you're the middle person as the adoptive parent, and navigating the relationship between the biological family and the adoptee. But at some point, you won't be the middle person, and you hope you are still included. That was my fear. I don't ever want my kiddos to just get in the car when they're 16 and drive to XYZ state to visit their birth family. I want them to ask me to drive them. I want to be included whether it's 'I'm driving the car', or 'I'm supporting them when they are sad'.
I read a lot of books that are written by adoptees and birth parents as another way to listen to their perspectives, and I have a lot of books that I recommend, and I send my clients books when they sign with me. I think that those are so important because you can take the time to sit and digest it.
I think a lot of prospective families come to adoption thinking it's just going to be this magical relationship, but it takes time and energy and effort. It’s not like one day we woke up and we're all like, hunky dory, and she came here to visit. Often, adoptive parents miss the middle part of the work that went into it.
I definitely hear that a lot, that the relationship has ended, which I feel like should only ever occur if there is a reason for thinking that your child is in danger. Otherwise, there is no reason. Substance abuse, or incarceration are not reasons to close a relationship, in my opinion.
How do you feel about the role of social media in adoption?
For the most part, I tell my clients that 99.9% of birth parent and adoptees that are on some social media platform aren't hating you for pursuing adoption. They're trying to help you be a better adoptive parent. So if you feel attacked, just let yourself sit in that. Why do I feel that way? What made me feel that way? And I also tell people to not be a keyboard warrior. I say at least four months, four months in a new Facebook group or if you're following someone new on Instagram that's a birth parent or adoptee or a different perspective then you, do not comment for the first four months. Just listen.
Do adoptive parents have a responsibility to birth parents for post-placement aftercare?
That’s why I aligned with On Your Feet Foundation for Love Grown clients. Like I said, I don't just leave my families once they bring their family home. And I often have families come to me telling me they love their kiddo’s birthparents, and they want to help them in XYZ situation, and I often have to tell them, even if you're a licensed social worker or therapist, you aren’t in a position to help, and if you're not, you're not qualified to help. I love that they love their kids’ birth parents that much, but I feel like this alignment with On Your Feet is what will help my families best support birth parents.
Unfortunately, that's where I feel like a lot of agencies are lacking. Often it [post-placement care] might be just three therapy sessions, and if anyone has gone to therapy, three therapy sessions is not enough to help any type of trauma. I love families who want to help their birthparents. But I also caution them about the complexities that kind of direct help is going to add to their relationship. But there are amazing places out there, Like On Your Feet, that offer that help, whether they want a support group or retreats, or more comprehensive help. It’s not my lane. It's not your lane as an adoptive parent. But it is On Your Feet’s lane. I love when my families ask about this stuff, because it means they care and it means that they love their kids’ birth parents, which is amazing. But trying to help on their own? It would be a lot of weight for adoptive parents to take on by themselves.
We are so grateful to Paige for her time, and for her commitment to birthparents. The Birthparent Support Alliance is a membership offered to adoption professionals committed to best practices in post-placement care. We invite you to contact us directly if you are an adoption professional looking to build out your post-placement birthparent support.