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Adoption and Trauma: One Birth Mother's Opinion — Part One

Is Adoption a Trauma?

  • What is trauma?
  • Is adoption traumatic?
  • Is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) inevitable for the woman who chooses adoption for her baby?
  • Can you heal from choosing adoption?
  • Is it possible to transition from life as a mother to a birth mother in a healthy way?
  • How do birth mothers choose a path of healing? What does that look like?
  • If we do suffer from PTSD, is healing possible?

These are some of the questions I find myself silently asking lately. I haven’t had contact with my son’s parents in months, have been dealing with some serious personal issues, and have been feeling as if the brokenness in my soul will never heal. To cope with some of the pain that I am experiencing, I thought it might be helpful to gain some insight into trauma, PTSD, and how such circumstances can affect birth mothers.
As a birth mother of more than eight years, I have suffered from PTSD — but not from choosing adoption alone. There were quite a few personal relationships that ended for me as a result of choosing adoption, and I have found this challenging to heal from. I have also suffered many traumatic situations over my lifetime and am constantly seeking out ways to heal in the hopes that I can become a productive member of society.
The truth is: I have come quite far in my healing process and feel extremely blessed when I get to share my hope with others. However, like many women, I am my own worst critic. Sometimes I struggle to acknowledge how far I have come, I am constantly reminded to treat myself with the kindness that My Creator would show me, which means being patient with myself. Eight years after choosing adoption, a lifetime later, however far away it seems, however close it seems, I still have good days and I still have bad days.

What is Trauma?

There can be a great deal of talk about how adoption and trauma are related — not just for birth mothers but for adoptees, as well. Before I dive into that topic, it’s important that we all understand exactly what trauma is.
The Center for Anxiety Disorders defines trauma as “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” Trauma can be in response to something minor, like an accident or an illness, or something major, such as rape or torture. A broad trauma definition is more of a guideline; as the Center states, “everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all face them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives.”
Basically, there are endless possibilities of events, different stressors for different people, and multiple perspectives on the same event that can cause trauma. For example, let’s look at a car accident.
I witnessed the aftermath of a car accident recently. I saw the two girls in one car get out of their car and heard them screaming. I saw the old man in the other car sitting in his car, too shocked to get out. It was a bit more than a fender bender, but nobody was hurt. However, there were more people involved in that accident than just those in their vehicles. There were those who witnessed the accident, those who came upon the scene after hearing the crash like myself, onlookers in traffic trying to get a peek of what had happened, the first responders who came to help, and the family and friends who came on scene to support those who were involved. Is a fender bender or a car accident a traumatic event? The answer: It might be.

What Makes an Event Traumatic?

Trauma is a perceived reaction to an event. I was not traumatized at all by the fender bender I came upon. I was able to get the girls and the old man who were involved in the crash out of the street and onto the side of the road. I was able to sit with the girls while they struggled to catch their breath and to reach a conscious state of reality while fighting off the shock. I was upset, but I have found that remembering that situation has made me grateful that I was able to offer a helping hand.
However, the two young girls had just experienced their first car accident, no matter how small it may have seemed to me. One of the girls was gasping for her breath in a state of panic and shock, while the other girl was repeatedly thanking me for staying by her side. This “fender bender” was clearly a traumatic event for those girls, the old man, perhaps the witness and the onlookers, and maybe even the first responders. However, many of us were not in shock, did not find the accident traumatizing, and only just wanted to help how we could.

How Does Trauma Manifest?

So, what makes something traumatic to one person, but not to another? Perhaps one day science will explain how the human brain perceives one event and not another as traumatic, but this isn’t yet possible today.
When an event is perceived as traumatic by a person, this means that it has impacted the person’s brain in a way that shall be imprinted for some period. It may be a few days that these girls decide they will stay away from a vehicle but then find the courage to face the fear that they will wreck again within a few days. Or, perhaps these girls decide that they will never be able to safely drive a vehicle again.

The Trauma of Choosing Adoption

As a birth mother, I can tell you that there were many occurrences throughout my adoption process that I found traumatic. However, most of these occurrences involved members of my family and loved ones provoking feelings of loss. I had much to grieve after my adoption decision. Not only was I trying to process and grieve the loss of my role as a mother and the physical removal of my son, but I had many friends and family members who turned their backs on me. In the moments when those I loved told me they would no longer support me, I felt as if a knife had been stabbed into my heart and then twisted to bring the point home even further. For me, it was not the adoption itself that caused trauma but the events surrounding my adoption decision.

Preventing Adoption Trauma

If you are a woman considering adoption who is concerned about feeling traumatized because of choosing adoption, I encourage you to reach out to those who will support you in an adoption decision. Many adoption agencies offer pregnancy counseling and can give you an idea of what the adoption process looks like. This way, you can prepare yourself before making the decision. Your pregnancy counselor, and even your assigned adoption professional, can also help you navigate conversations with difficult friends and family members.
Remember, just because an occurrence may seem traumatic at the time does not mean that the memory will haunt your forever. There are different levels of trauma in each situation for every individual.
In the next article in this series, I will discuss PTSD. This discussion will include what PTSD is, how it is diagnosed, and how to cope with symptoms while it is active. Of course, just as in the car accident that I witnessed the aftermath of, not every traumatic situation brings about a traumatic response in the individual. Every person is different and will have different reactions that may or may not trigger long-lasting trauma.
Therefore, now knowing the definition of trauma and the reality that trauma is a perception of an event, it cannot be concluded that choosing adoption means that a birth mother will be traumatized or that PTSD is inevitable. Every woman is different. I highly recommend that every woman considering adoption consult with a pregnancy counselor through her adoption agency to prepare for the adoption process and to help decide if adoption is the right decision for her.
This article is not intended to serve as medical advice. Please speak with a medical professional if you have concerns regarding your mental health.
~Lindsay Arielle
Lindsay is a guest blogger for Considering Adoption. She placed her son for adoption seven years ago and hopes to use her experience to support and educate other expectant mothers considering adoption, as well as adoptive families.