Hope O. Baker is a successful business woman and entrepreneur. Her bestselling birthmother memoir, Finding Hope: A Birthmother's Journey Into the Light, details her journey in placing her new-born son in an open adoption. Last November, we had the opportunity to interview her about that book, and today we had the privilege of talking to her about our May Activism in Adoption Speaker Series event, which she is co-hosting with Nam Holtz, LMSW. There aren't a lot of places for potential adoptive parents to learn about the expectant parent and birthmom experience directly from a birthmom, but we talk about it here, as well as the importance of potential adoptive parent voices in the adoption sphere, and the important role they can play in improving outcomes for birthparents.
How did you become affiliated with OYFF?
That happened after I moved back from London. I was invited to the birthmother's day event last year. That was really one of my first exposures to On Your Feet Foundation, and I joined a couple of support groups. That’s how I got connected - it was On Your Feet Foundation's birthmother's day event that I saw on Instagram, which was my first ever birthmother's day celebration. I've never been to an event that was celebrating that day and that was probably the first time I've been in a room (a virtual room) with birthmothers, ever. That was the first support group that I had ever been to; the first time I'd ever sat and listened to women introduce themselves and tell their story. There are women who are coming to these groups who have never shared their story. They're 60 years old, and they've never shared their story. There are birthmothers who have never spoken to another birthmother, or never shared their story. How tragic is that? To have to go through that alone?
There are no adoption industry standards of care for expectant mothers considering placement. Should there be?
Mine was a private adoption – not through an agency. Some agencies have support groups, pre and post-birth, but I didn't have that. Support groups, or access to recommendations for therapy - that's not required. You don't have to do that. In my placement, my son's mom arranged for me to have three therapy sessions, post placement. And at the time I remember thinking, “wow - that's so nice of her.” And her probably thinking the same thing like, “I didn't have to do this, but I am.”
So my post-placement care was two or three paid therapy sessions. And the world tells you to move on and get over it. You are told you did this incredible thing, and it gave such a gift, and all these things, and then you are expected to just move on with your life. I remember being told that all the time, and people are still told that. Get over it, move on, you know, have other kids. I think there's agencies that are starting to change and do things right. There are some agencies that try to take care of their expectant moms, and it's not just for a few months, it’s for life, like you are in their family, and they're going to take care of you. I hope that we'll start to see more agencies like that.
What are some of the misconceptions about birthmothers?
I live in a world, and I exist in a world, that is completely separate from my son. My biological son is out living his life in a completely separate world from me. And the magnitude of that realization is something I go through every single day. And no one - nobody - can get over that. You just can't. I really hope that more attention is paid to the voices we are starting to see on Instagram, and places like On Your Feet Foundation, who are shedding light to the fact that you can't just get over trauma.
I'm his mom, and it's so unfortunate that the society that we live in tells expectant moms that we are not good enough for our children, and that there is somebody out there who is good enough. No matter how you come to the table. Typically, when you go to a crisis pregnancy center, they don't tell you there are resources available. Most of the time they point you to adoption, because you're less than. Adoption is a billion dollar industry telling you you're not good enough. Somebody else is better. How do you even get over that? How do you get over an entire industry, telling you you're not enough, and your child deserves better?
And now we have to live with this guilt and this shame that we weren't enough, and will we ever be enough? Am I lovable? I have to wrestle with that in my head on a daily basis. Am I worthy of love? Do I deserve that? And I do think that a lot of that comes down to just the adoption industry as a whole and how birthmothers are treated and portrayed.
That sounds like such a hard place to be in.
I struggle with this question of how do I find my own worthiness? Birthmothers all over struggle with this, and I've never met a birthmother who didn't, and on the same token, adoptees feel that same way. They feel shame, they feel not good enough, they feel unworthy, and it's for completely different reasons - they feel those same things as birth mothers feel - just in different ways. It's the same shame. Not good enough.
I think with On Your Feet, and with this Instagram community that has been created around adoptees and birthmoms, people are starting to share more. And it's incredible to see people’s stories breaking the silence, or as Nam talked about in her Activism in Adoption talk last month, coming out of the fog. We see people talking about how they didn’t really know why they felt the way they felt, or made the choices they made, and now when they look at it through an adoption lens, it all makes sense. People are talking more publicly about adoption trauma, and I think its so important that these communities and these online forums and people are talking about it. Because the adoption industry isn’t going to talk about it. The majority of them aren't going to talk about it.
What should adoptive parents know as they start on the adoption path?
In the past, there was this feeling of, I just want a baby, and they are listening to the professionals who they trust to be doing things ethically, because they're the professionals, but there's not really oversight of the professionals. I think now, with the growth of adoption triad voices online, people have the opportunity to be more aware of how to approach adoption in an ethical way. Even five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of information available for potential adoptive parents about what they should ask agencies, and what an ethical adoption situation might look like, or what questions they should ask to find out. People didn’t know, because that information wasn’t public. And now it is.
I did a podcast interview recently with an adoptive mother, and I asked her, “did you ever speak to a birth mom or anything like that,” and she said, “no, no, our agency didn't even want us speaking to the expectant mom, nor did they call them expectant mom.” And that is just the issue, right, because there is this big fear that if we talk to expectant moms too much, pre-adoption, there’s a fear that the adoption might fall through.
Adoption is an industry, and I am not ragging on it, or suggesting that all agencies are bad, but when it’s a billion dollar industry, there are bound to be questionable decisions made, because there’s a lot of money at stake. And that’s a tough realization both for birthmothers and for adoptees, that moment when you suddenly realize that you are part of this billion dollar system and you didn't even know.
So, ask questions, like, what are your standards around pre and post-placement care for expectant moms? How do you support the expectant mom after she places and becomes a birthmom? What do you do for that birthmom? Do you have support groups, do you have funds set aside for if that birthmom needs extra support at some point, do you offer counselors for the expectant moms? These are simple things that can be asked. Do you do options counseling, has this expectant mom been counseled on her option to parent? Are your expectant moms counseled on that, or are they only talked to about adoption? Do they know there's resources available to them if they choose to parent? Are they offering support for trauma, the trauma that expectant mom is going to go through? And I think that hopeful adoptive parents have to start actively asking agencies, how do they build their pipeline of expectant moms because that's what it is called - a pipeline.
What should adoptive parents know, post-placement, about the birthmother experience?
Open adoption agreements are just that – agreements. And so we live in a constant state of fear. Fear of having access to our children taken away, if we do something wrong. And ‘wrong’ is arbitrary. Some of us are told we can’t talk about our children online, or display photos of them in our homes, or tell anyone our child’s name. We have to think about it all the time – what our child’s adoptive parents might not like us to do – and how it might impact being able to see our child. We have to think about what might happen if we put a photo of our child up on the fridge, or what happens if someone takes a picture in our home and that photo shows up in the background. We regularly live with the stress and fear that we could lose access to our child.
In open adoption agreements, there is this clause, always, that says, “for the health and safety of the child.” So who determines what that is, or what is healthy and safe for the child? It’s such a vague statement that anything we do could get our access cut off. An adoptive parent can close an open adoption at any time. We live in constant fear and dread of that happening, whether that’s rational or not.
Sit down in any birthmother support group and ask if they’ve ever felt that, and people will tell you, at least once a week, and maybe every day. What could get me in trouble? Asking for too many visits? Losing my cool about something? And that is why birthmothers are afraid to speak up about the negative aspects of adoption.
The reality is, placing a child is a traumatizing event, and they feel that trauma six months, a year, five years, ten years post-placement. No one tells them they are going to struggle for the rest of their lives. It’s not shared, it’s not talked about. But I saw something on Instagram once that really stuck with me, and it’s this: some day, you are going to have to explain to your adopted child how you brought them home. How you matched with their birthmom. How she was treated in the hospital. Was she taken care of afterwards? Did she get the support she needed to heal? You’re going to have to explain that to your child someday, so you should make damn sure in advance that you can give them answers that are ethical. Would your child be mad at you someday if they found out how you came to the table for that expectant mom and that birthmom?
To learn more about how we can improve the experience and outcome of expectant mothers considering adoption, please join us for Hope and Nam's talk. Tickets for our May 16th Activism in Adoption Speaker Series, are on sale now, and potential adoptive parents can earn adoption education credits for their atttendance.
To learn more about Hope, visit her web site, or find her on Instagram and Twitter. We also got the inside scoop on her next project, coming out this summer. If you are in the adoption triad, this podcast is for you:
Hope O Baker is joining forces with Adoptee Sharon Butler-Obazee and Adoptive Mom Shelby Walker to create The Triad podcast. The TRIAD is a podcast dedicated to tackling every topic related to adoption. Whether we debate the accessibility of original birth certificates, the complexity of the Seven Stages of Adoption, or interview guests willing to tell their personal stories, the TRIAD goes straight to the heart of adoption with compassion, understanding, and an open mind. Our conversations are raw, emotional, and challenging, and they offer the listener the opportunity to be heard.