Putting A Child Up For Adoption Impacts Mental Health, Stigma Doesn't Help

drawing of adoptive parents receiving baby

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Over 18,000 children are domestically adopted each year in the United States.
  • Stigma has often prevented people from openly discussing their mental health during and after putting a child up for adoption.
  • Open support from loved ones can help people cope during this process.

When Janice Wright was 16 years old, she became pregnant, and her fiance dumped her. It was 1980, and Wright’s doctor asked if she had considered adoption—he was treating a couple for infertility at the time and thought they would be a fit as adopted parents. For months she alternated between feeling alright and distraught about moving forward with the adoption.

The process was incredibly trying for her well-being. Wright lost friends who weren’t “mature enough” to help and had no support from her family. “In hindsight, I am fully aware of how depressed I was during that time,” says Wright. “I don’t remember anyone ever counseling me or asking me if I was okay. I do remember after the baby was born that the doctor loaded me up with a three-week supply of pain pills to sort of help me ‘numb’ my way back to life afterward.”

Wright says the most significant struggle she faced came from the lack of mental health care provided to explore her feelings and prepare her for the difficult process.

With a little over 18,000 children domestically adopted each year in the United States alone, many people choose to put their child up for adoption—and deal with potential mental health effects. November is adoption awareness month, and the conversation is frequently centered around people who themselves were adopted, as opposed to those who gave up their biological child.

“Contemplating putting your child up for adoption is a very traumatic experience regardless of whether or not you believe the choice you’re making is the right one,” says Dr. Bethany Cook, a psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth – A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0 – 2.

“An individual may feel anxious, sad, fear, confusion, frustration, happiness, and even relief. Many times there are people in your life trying to influence your decision one way or another creating even more angst and dilemmas. Along with natural hormones influencing mood and thoughts, it’s typical for an individual to go back and forth about their decision several times throughout the pregnancy. Even after the adoption has gone through, some biological parents still struggle with their decision.”

Bethany cook, PsyD

Contemplating putting your child up for adoption is a very traumatic experience regardless of whether or not you believe the choice you’re making is the right one.

— Bethany cook, PsyD

After spending three days with her child in the hospital, Wright returned home alone and felt immense shame internally and from her peers. Eventually, she opted for a GED-equivalent exam to leave school and “numb out some more.”

Looking back on her decision, Wright reflects on the societal attitude towards pregnant teenagers. “Mainly what most people seem to overlook is that the girl that got pregnant is a child,” she explains. “Girls just aren’t prepared to become ‘mothers’ just because their bodies are working correctly. They are even far less prepared to go through the process of adoption—then they really seem like a full failure if they didn’t already feel that way before. The girls are children themselves, and making these huge decisions should come with lots of support.”

Coping With the Decision’s Finality

Whether made as a teenager or as an adult, unlike many other decisions, adoption is forever and can feel incredibly overwhelming in its finality. If you or someone you know is struggling with this decision, Cook recommends making two pro and con lists detailing the current and potential long-term issues and benefits. Tailor the first list to yourself and the second to your child.

As an adopted child herself, Cook appreciates that when her birth mother felt “too young” at 18 to raise her, she made the difficult decision to have an older, married couple raise her. Of course, each person’s circumstance is different, and there is no age, relationship status, or profession that means a person should put their child up for adoption or choose to raise them. The decision is incredibly personal and unique to the individual.

Cook believes the finality of their decision is one of the reasons more people are choosing to have an open adoption—when the birth parent has contact with the child after adoption occurs. 

This dynamic can relieve a lot of stress for the birth parent. Such is the case for Kira Bracken, who put her child up for adoption in January 2019. “The fact I have an open adoption helps for me to know when he has questions, I can answer them,” she says. After unexpectedly becoming pregnant, the compounding factors of being a single mom to a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, recently leaving a marriage, and her mother’s passing of cancer, led Bracken to place her child up for adoption.

Kira Bracken, who put her child up for adoption in 2019

It’s not an easy decision, and I wish people would stop acting like it was and that one answer fits all scenarios.

— Kira Bracken, who put her child up for adoption in 2019

Bracken felt sad and grieved the life she and the child could have. “You lose the right to be the mom they turn to when they are sad or get hurt, just the everyday life things,” she says. It wasn’t until she met the adoptive parents that Bracken felt there was a reason for this experience.

“With that sadness, there is a glimmer of happiness too, happiness that you chose to put them above yourself, happiness that you gave them a life that at the time you couldn’t provide them,” she adds. “I was meant to get pregnant, so I could carry that sweet baby for them, who on their own wouldn’t have been able to have a child.”

Knowing and communicating with the adoptive parents also provided a sense of relief in Wright’s case.

The Stigma Towards Adoption

Throughout the past decades, a stigma has remained towards putting a child up for adoption. “Adoption is not a sin. Adoption is a rebirth,” says Edelys Mariel Diaz, LMFT, who works with both pre and post-adoptive children and teens, as well as the adoptive families. “People are too focused on these parents being ‘selfish’ and don’t give them credit for actually wanting to give the child a better life than they can offer. All children deserve to have a healthy family, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the birth family is the only one that can provide that.”

Bracken attributes the stigma to a lack of understanding. “Adoption is so complex and happens for a multitude of reasons. Birth moms go back and forth constantly until they sign those papers on whether this is what they want to do. It’s not an easy decision, and I wish people would stop acting like it was and that one answer fits all scenarios,” she says. “We beat ourselves up enough for the both of us, so instead of criticizing our choice, be there as a friend to help in whatever way we need.”

Cook encourages open conversation around adoption—when a person is comfortable doing so—as a way to break down the stigma further. This dialogue may involve discussing how you’ve benefited from adoption as the adoptive parent, birth parent, or adopted child. Especially for the latter two, it may also include examining the potential mental health implications of the decision with loved ones.

How To Support Someone Struggling With Their Decision

According to Diaz, there is nothing more important for an individual coping with this process than being surrounded by a strong emotional support system. 

Without a person in their corner, birth parents can feel even more traumatized by the process. Such was the case for Wright, who felt incredibly alone after putting her child up for adoption. “I had to bear it alone because no one wanted to talk about it,” she explains. “Maybe friends and family were afraid to bring it up, and no one talked about it.” It took over ten years until anyone told her the decision was strong and courageous.

Edelys Mariel Diaz, LMFT

People are too focused on these parents being ‘selfish’ and don’t give them credit for actually wanting to give the child a better life than they can offer.

— Edelys Mariel Diaz, LMFT

Some people may want the space to process alone, and others may be looking for a trusted person with whom they can talk. If someone in your life is in the process of putting or has previously put a child up for adoption, make sure they know you’re available.

“The best thing you can do is be a non-judging, validating place they can turn to vent and process their conflicted feelings without fear of filtering what or how they share their core emotions,” says Cook. This includes validating their feelings, listening to them when they’re upset, and providing regular support.

In addition to speaking with loved ones, when possible, a therapist can help people sort through their emotions long-term. “Every person copes with stressful life events differently,” says Cook. “They bring different baggage and experiences to the table and will benefit from an expert hand to help them sift through their feelings, society's expectations, and religious issues.”

What This Means For You

The decision to put a child up for adoption is completely individual and varies for each person. It does not warrant judgement, instead calls for support both from loved ones and mental health professionals.