Steph Visco (they/them) is a writer of journals, love notes, and weird little lists who lives in Gentilly. Steph is lucky enough to have their dream job as birth worker, development coordinator, and member-owner with Birthmark Doula Collective (the only worker-owned doula cooperative in Louisiana). Their work includes birth justice advocacy and disrupting the barriers that prevent people from birthing and parenting safely and joyfully. Steph spends most of their free time looking for cool rocks and bugs with their four-year-old, Max, drinking coffee and giggling with their partner, Scott, and sitting by the river with a bunch of delightful humans who make up their expansive family of sisters, aunts, neighbors, and friends, without whom parenting would be a lot less possible.
The Primal Wound
To people who know me casually, I appear to be, among other things, the parent of one child, a curious and friendly kid named Max who boogies chaotically into every room they enter. But like most families, appearances are deceiving. Well-intentioned idiots seem to go out of their way to make parents uncomfortable, and a seemingly innocuous question lobbed at me frequently these days, as I climb past advancing maternal age is “When will you give Max a sibling?” as if everyone has always been afforded a vast array of reproductive choices without barriers, without consequence, without shame.
Because I work in the field of reproductive justice, which intentionally examines and aims to eliminate these barriers, this line of questioning strikes me as sneaky and callous. Probing someone’s family planning intentions with the confidence of someone asking for the time of day is not only inconsiderate, but it is contextually ignorant. There is a constant running list always in my head of reasons conception and family building is fraught and complicated at best, dangerous and regulated at worst, in ways that give individuals little actual control.
So how do I answer their question? Like many parents, I want to tell them to fuck off. But more than that, I want to bring up all the different ways we parent or almost-parent in the shadows, and how these actions deserve to shine in the light. I want to opine the near-misses, miscarriages, abortions, and infant loss that leave an indelible mark on our families. Don’t they know that we parent our stepchildren, cousins, niblings, and friend’s kids in deeply impactful ways, and more members of my generation find ourselves doing the caregiving of our own parents late in their life? I want to talk to these strangers about maternal mortality rates in the U.S. versus across the world, the legacy of forced sterilization here, and the difficulties of trying to conceive via IVF unless you have time, money, and privilege.
While sometimes I certainly do go there, more often, what I tell them is my personal truth. I tell them about Max’s 14-year-old sibling, my first born, who lives far away from us but is an ever-present force of joy in our lives. I tell them what is by now a well-practiced summary of my adoption experience, intended to force some nuance into their perspective and give them pause next time they make an assumption about what makes a family. What follows is the expanded and uncut version of the answer they get in the check-out line, which will hopefully shed even more light on the fact that most parents face a barrier to access—or multiple intersecting and stacking barriers—to some essential part of the spectrum of reproductive health care. It wasn’t a long fall for me, it was a sudden trip.
When I was 21, I found myself pregnant. Again. Unfortunately, I come from a fertile line of sexually liberated hussies, and by that point I had navigated several unplanned pregnancies and their accompanying abortions. A serious 10-year battle with bulimia, which made the pill’s absorption and efficacy an ongoing battle, and a series of partners with penises who refused to wear condoms for a host of ridiculous and, in retrospect, abusive reasons, familiarized me quickly with a few medical procedures that though certainly not pleasant, were affordable, safe, and kept me from becoming an unprepared and ill-equipped parent during a time in my life when parenting did not feel like a safe or reasonable option.
This time was slightly more complicated. I had been living paycheck to paycheck for many months, when finally the bottom fell out. My sins and debts exceeded my good deeds and income, bested by a desperate series of binges and purges that drained my energy and my bank account. I was several months behind on rent, and the same week I scheduled an appointment at Planned Parenthood, I received a text from my roommate giving me the boot. I quickly moved into my partner’s place, without asking any of his roommates, making things tense and hostile. I tried to take up as little space as possible, which became a pervasive theme throughout that time in my life. I borrowed $350 from my sister to afford the procedure, went to the consultation, and returned home for the standard three days that you were given at the time to wait for the date.
This is where the concept of choice, even pre-Dobbs decision, becomes murky. What is reproductive choice for someone with unstable finances and estranged family? Who is worthy of parenting, and who deserves access to the things that could make the choice of parenting safer, easier? And what can change in the three days you are given to consider your “choice” when you are mentally ill, with cash burning a hole in your pocket? Not to mention the shame of having another procedure, the shame of looking for a way out yet again—despite being an age when many can and do parent—warped my own perception of the kind of support and love I deserved. To this day I am still not sure how much of my self-sabotage during this interval was beyond my control, or if in many little ways, I was making some kind of chaotic, stubborn choice to parent, against the odds.
A Short Trip
By the time my appointment arrived three days later, the money was gone. Instead of telling my partner the truth, shame reared its head. I had him drop me off at the clinic, and I walked around the neighborhood in the rain for the next several hours, until what seemed like a reasonable amount of time. I texted him to pick me up, we ran by CVS to grab maxi-pads and Velveeta, and I didn’t say a word about it for the next seven months.
I have very few clear memories of that year, a testament to the twin powers of denial and dissociation, working in concert so I could survive. My world split in two, brain separated from body. The happenings in my uterus, the reality of my pregnancy, were shoved into a canister and blasted into outer space, a million miles away, while my brain went about my day and performed normalcy. I stopped initiating contact with friends and family. I canceled plans and ignored calls until the phone stopped ringing. I hunched over, I hid in baggy t-shirts, and I did something I have always been very good at: I procrastinated. I lived in the mercurial haze of indecision, until one night, the decision was made for me. My water broke.
Without support, without prenatal care, I gave birth to my first born alone, in a teaching hospital in Philadelphia. I had no health insurance and no clear plan for what would happen after the baby was born. When I arrived at the ER in the middle of the night, I remember the nurse smirking when I told her my water had broken. “Honey, you don’t look pregnant!” When I was in triage, I sobbed upon hearing the heartbeat, incredulous that the person inside me had survived what I put us both through. Because I received no prenatal care, because I admitted I was bulimic and a substance user and scared about the baby’s health, my case was flagged and a social worker appeared by my side during my labor, asking me about my postpartum plans. I was in some realm beyond pain and fear, unsure of my safety, but mostly just relieved to tell the truth to someone, anyone, finally. The social worker explained my options, not mentioning taking the baby home. That was decidedly off the table. I told them I was interested in closed adoption, the shame creeping in again, and she nodded in agreement and explained that the baby could be placed immediately in foster care until they found a family. Later, after pushing for a lifetime, I heard my baby’s first cry, clear and bright, and without warning, I heard my own voice swell in fast and eager reply. “I want to hold my baby,” I yelled, suddenly terrified I would be denied the chance. In a moment, my decision changed, certain that I must know this person in whatever small way I could. I marveled at their face, their fingers, their survival, and my own. When the social worker came back in, I asked to change the paperwork, to seek an open adoption. It was the first significant way I advocated for myself and my child as a unit, intuitively guided by the intrinsic and ancestral force of our bond.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Adoption
“You made the ultimate sacrifice!”
“What a selfless and brave choice.”
“It was the best thing for your baby.”
“You gave your baby more than you had to offer.”
These reactions to the disclosure of my adoption story have stung for years, never resonating. In the landmark documentary on adoption trauma, Reckoning with The Primal Wound, these phrases are referred to as adoption microaggressions, and they are also frequently experienced by adoptees whose fractured beginnings are sugar-coated intentionally, motivated by a highly profitable and privatized adoption industry. In the film, adult adoptee, licensed psychologist, and adoption researcher Dr. Amanda Baden says, “People aren’t always sure how to respond to revelations about your adoption, and by and large people assume that adoptions are a good thing, that it’s a win-win situation.” As an adoptee, you often hear, “You’re so lucky your parents chose you,” or “I always wished that I was adopted.” These cavalier suggestions negate the reality of such a profound disruption to the natural way of things. Adoption, commonly offered by pro-life advocates as the more humane option for people faced with unplanned pregnancy, should not be overlooked as a deeply traumatic event that has lasting implications on the parents and child involved.
To say I haven’t regretted the decision would be a lie. For years I told myself I did the right thing, and when doubt tried to sneak in I shoved it down, still in survival mode. I couldn’t make room for the grief of it. And because everyone affirmed the decision when I did eventually disclose it, seemingly validating that there was no possibility that I deserved to parent my own child, there was little space for the idea to take hold. So every time something hinted at the schism I was living, it took me by complete surprise. When Mother’s Day would creep up, I was shocked by the blunt force of my own emotional reaction. The first year following the birth, I was at work at my grocery store job in the deli kitchen, cramming pasta salad into quart containers with my earphones on, when one of the cooks walked in with an armful of roses proffered from the floral department. He heroically handed out single stems to each obvious mother, and the kitchen was flooded with appreciative sighs and congratulatory gestures towards the mothers, who smiled proudly. My brain broke and my heartbeat hurried. I kept a smile frozen on my face, unsure of what to say, how to act. I ran into the walk-in and sobbed, not sure where I fit in or what I deserved from a holiday that seemingly had little to do with me.
As the years progressed, what I needed and how I felt became more obvious as I stopped lying to myself. I started talking and writing about the experience more and more, realizing that it was an integral part of my identity, that being a mother looks different for everyone anyway, that families are fractured and rebuilt in myriad ways more complex and beautiful than Hallmark or Disney could imagine. I started reaching out more regularly to my first born’s adoptive parents, who had thankfully always kept the lines of communication open with me, remaining in touch and available even when I was not. We emailed and visited, and talked via Skype; and I watched, mostly from afar, as my child took their first steps, had their first day of school, and trick or treated. And they watched me as I grew out of my chaotic early adulthood, moved across the country, and found my career path and my soulmate. We visited their family during my pregnancy with Max, and when they felt my stomach move, speaking excitedly to their future sibling, a seam was stitched inside of me, gently connecting two truths that had once felt so discordant.
Not everyone is so lucky. While an open arrangement would seem like the best choice for all parties involved, and more and more birth parents are choosing this type of adoption in the best interest of themselves and their birth children, most open adoptions are not legally binding. In preparation for this article, I reviewed the contract I signed terminating the rights to raise my child. There is nothing in the legal document protecting my rights or the rights of my child to ongoing open contact. In a separate, obviously less formal document, called the “Future Contact Agreement” printed on the adoption agency’s letterhead, it outlines the contact responsibilities of all parties and names them clearly as intentions. It states that in signing, I acknowledged that the agreement is morally, but not legally, binding, and does not affect the legal status of parental termination of rights. It also states that the agreement will become invalid if the birth parents assume an “adversarial” relationship with the adoptive parents. The definition of adversarial is, obviously, up to the adoptive parents to define. In many cases, these “morally binding” agreements are forsaken. Letters are hidden, emails left unresponded to, and children, who could have had access to not just their birth parents but their extended biological families, are moved across the country in what is framed as their own best interest.
None of this begins to cover the disgraceful history of nonconsensual transnational adoption and predatory “baby brokers,” or the families forcibly separated for racial bias by the Department of Child and Family Services, or the wide-scale exploitative nature of the foster care system. It isn’t even the full story of my own experience of adoption, which included being criminalized for my mental illness and drug use by an adoption agency that rushed me to choose between a small handful of concerningly Christian families. When I couldn’t decide in the time they gave me, they sent social workers and law enforcement to my apartment, unwilling to lose the financial opportunity my unplanned pregnancy afforded them. Obviously, my privilege here was majorly at play. My whiteness, my rekindled relationship with my family, and their access to legal recourse gave me a huge advantage, one that many birth parents in my situation are not afforded.
Thankfully, there has been a growing movement in recent years led by a generation of adopted kids, now grown, who are pushing for regulations to the adoption and foster care industry. This movement is especially meaningful because it is primarily informed by the people who have suffered for its failings. Their major advocacy platforms include the right to obtain their original birth certificates (current law in most states replaces these with new birth certificates when the adoption contract is signed), access to citizenship for intercountry adoptees, and prioritizing open kinship or intra-family adoption when possible. It is important to consider these efforts to reduce harm within the adoption industry as vital within the spectrum of reproductive justice issues, especially as more folks faced with unplanned pregnancy will potentially be considering adoption among their options due to Dobbs—though historically, studies have shown that people “are more likely to parent or have abortions than to place their infants for adoption, regardless of education levels, race, socioeconomic status or familial arrangements.”1Sisson, G., Ralph, L., Gould, H., & Foster, D. G. (2017). Adoption Decision Making among Women Seeking Abortion. Women’s health issues : official publication of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, 27(2), 136–144.
So what does that tell us about the pain and impact of adoption for birth parents? For years I have looked for stories similar to my own, and they are hard to find. The shortcomings of birth parents are always conveniently framed as individual lack, so no fault lies with their communities, local or at-large. Their voices are suppressed in favor of the stories of adoptive parents, because it is much easier to root for them as big-hearted and generous heroes. It benefits the whole industry to broadcast the hoops adoptive parents have to jump through, the time and money spent so selflessly in order to offer a better life to an adoptee. And while I don’t place the fault of this very intentional marketing strategy on the families who pursue adoption, it is important for them to consider the true cost of family separation, for everyone involved. It is much more complicated when you have to consider that your adopted child might have a multi-generational family on another continent who were misled to believe that they placed their child in temporary care, or that their birth parent who struggles with addiction is not a villain unworthy of a family, but a human capable of healing if they had access to the right resources. It is far easier not to ask certain questions, like who deserves to parent, and why? Who gets access to abundant resources, the kinds of things that make parenting easier?
To be clear, I couldn’t accurately tell you the full story of this adoption, even if I tried. The other most central figure is their own person, a teenager now, with their own experience of the events I am sharing, and I cannot speak for them. I love them too much to fill in the blanks. Their own story continues to unfold, which is why they are unnamed here, in my parental effort to protect them.
I will always straddle two kinds of parenthood. Just like many parents, who hold so many stories beyond the easily named or most visibly accessible ones. I am the parent of someone parented by others, and the parent of someone parented by me. I know the parent I am able to be today is different from the parent I would have been then. But only recently have I begun to let myself grieve the parent I might have been. I’ve shed some of the guilt I held onto for so long, and have opened the door to new questions. What could have made parenting possible for me back then? What are the systems that failed me and continue to fail parents today? These questions keep me up at night; they have informed my political choices and my career path, and I hope that asking them makes me a better parent and advocate for my own kids, for my child-self, and for other families who deserve nuance, respect, and tenderness while they navigate the ambiguity of choice.
For more info on adoptee advocacy organizations, go to:
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illustrations by Victoria Allen