A Reality Check for TLC’s Latest “Reality Show,” “Birth Moms”

Correcting misleading portrayals of adoption in the media is a never-ending battle for many of us. And while I often ignore bad adoption references, choosing to roll my eyes at things like Loki being “adopted” or yet another bad-seed-type horror movie, I couldn’t let this one go. I am sure that my readers are aware of the scripted and false nature of so-called reality television, but I wanted to point out just a few of the most obvious problems–mainly enormous breeches of ethics–in the show, beyond the meta-problem of putting these women on television in the first place, with an assumed story line that they will be relinquishing their children at the end of the narrative.

1. Moving expectant moms out-of-state removes them from their own support networks, isolates them and creates a more vulnerable situation in which they are less likely to feel in touch with their own parenting and other resources.

2. Housing pregnant women in adoption-agency housing does everything above, plus creates a sense of dependency and indebtedness towards the agency.

3. Moving expectant mothers to Utah puts them in a state which has, perhaps the worst record of all fifty states on adoption ethics. Utah adoption law is often used to intentionally cut off biological fathers from their children even when they want to and would be able to parent. In Utah, a woman is allowed to sign an irrevocable termination of her parental rights to her child as early as 24 hours after birth.

These times limits–in any state, of whatever length–are almost always explained in these terms: “the birth mother has XYZ hours/days to change her mind.” This completely misrepresents the law. In fact, the mother has eighteen years to make decisions about her child. These time limits are supposed to be helpful to women making adoption placement decisions by restricting them from being allowed to sign papers before they’ve had a real chance to carefully consider the decision, spend time with their babies, contact friends and relatives who might be supportive of their parenting or even allow the drugs they received in labor to fully leave their systems. A state that allows a woman to sign away her rights so soon after birth with no option to rethink her decision is failing in its obligation to protect women from coercive adoption practices.

4. I know that it is a sticky subject, and that there are exceptions to this rule and people on all sides of the adoption “triad” (for lack of a better term) who have had good experiences, but with that caveat, it is not a good idea to have prospective adoptive parents in the birthing room with a woman considering placing her child.

This situation creates an emotionally coercive atmosphere in which the adoptive parents seem like the baby’s parents before they are. It creates a situation in which a birthing mother feels that much more obligated not to let them down and disappoint them by keeping her child.

5. When a mother says “I want to keep my baby,” or “I don’t want to give him to anyone else,” or “I want to raise him myself” but that she feels she has no choice but to place him for adoption because she has no money, no job, no car, no house… a social services worker has a moral obligation to find support for her to keep her child. Poverty alone is not a good reason to place a child in adoption. Virtually no healthy infant adoptions are occurring in countries with strong social safety nets like paid maternity leave, free and subsidized child care, socialized medical care and other benefits. Adoption is a drastic, traumatic life event for both mothers and children and should never happen unless absolutely no other options are available.

6. At least in the way this show was filmed and edited, it looked like the “counseling” session these young women had with a man from the adoption agency was nothing but a give-away-your-baby class. When one of the expectant moms suggested that another’s difficulty in choosing a family might signal her desire to keep her baby, the “counselor” was silent and the woman seemed pressured to prove that she was committed to adoption, when in fact, she explicitly wasn’t. A real counselor ought to have picked up that thread and helped her explore her options besides adoption.

Likewise, when she complained about the lack of racial diversity in the prospective parent profiles, the “counselor” again said nothing. She made an excellent point that the only family she liked already had three biological children–all blonde–and her biracial son might feel out of place in such a family. No one affirmed her hesitations as reasonable or right. No one offered her information about transracial adoption and its effect on children or the ways in which white parents ought to be prepared to raise a child of color. No one offered to put her in touch with adult adoptees who grew up in transracially adoptive families.

Similarly when another expectant mom asked the prospective adoptive parents of her child not to tell her son that he was adopted it ought to have raised a red flag that she was not ready to place. Whatever her troubles–and the show certainly made her look quite troubled–adoption, if she is feeling that much shame about it, will only add to them. At the very least, she ought to have been given some real counseling. She ought to have been given such counseling when she talked to the doctor about her drug and alcohol problems as well. It was sadly clear that no one she talked to–the adoption agency “counselor,” the doctor, the prospective adoptive parents–cared at all about her and what would become of her after her baby was born. All they cared about was getting that baby away from her. And all the show seemed to care about was portraying her as always-already unfit to raise her own children, so that we wouldn’t care too much about her ourselves.

[Just a little update here to say that if you read the Huffington Post’s ridiculous story about this woman–which concludes “Are you horrified by her?”–and then read the comments you will get a sense of just how horrifying people are about young women in distress. There is just about zero compassion for this woman. It alarms me that people with that attitude towards pretty much anyone, might go out and become parents–by adoption or otherwise. I am surprised that so many people don’t seem to know the basic fact that addiction is a disease, that by its very nature is uncontrollable. The woman with an alcohol and drug addiction could not stop her behavior through willpower or love for her baby, no matter how much she wanted to. But it doesn’t surprise me that such a woman might have given up trying to be “good” when everyone is so determined to paint her as evil.]

7. When a baby goes home with adoptive parents and a mother goes home without her baby, that is not the end. Adoption is a lifelong condition that has repercussions forever–into future generations. I am not saying that adoption can never create a happy family (it created one for me) or that all adopted people are especially broken. (We are all broken in some way, but we are also resilient.) But adoption is not automatically a good thing just because it’s adoption. In fact, I was not sure why some of the prospective parents were adopting. It seemed like a couple of them just thought adoption was an inherently charitable act and they wanted to do it to have done this good deed, when in fact, it was unneeded by the mother and the baby. (I am thinking of the family with three children who said “we’ve always wanted to adopt.” Why? And they adopted a baby whose mother wanted to keep him and was already raising a healthy daughter. It was not exactly a “rescue” of a child in desperate circumstances.) There is so much more to adoption than these simplistic stereotypes.

8. A small note about language: A woman is not a “birth mom” before she has given birth and relinquished her parental rights. The term “birth mom” itself, even after relinquishment is problematic to many people. But even those who accept the term don’t accept it before the adoption happens. Calling women who are merely considering adoption “birth moms” is part of the cultural coercion that makes it more difficult for a woman struggling with a crisis pregnancy to see options besides adoption.

Have you got feedback about this show? Please leave it in the comments. If you’re blogging about it, please leave a link.

20 responses to “A Reality Check for TLC’s Latest “Reality Show,” “Birth Moms”

  1. Thank you for this. I am a mother through international adoption, and I’m trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to find a way to begin the process of domestic adoption in an ethical way. I read about this new show on a mainstream TV review blog and couldn’t believe how awful it was, both the show and the blog’s perspective of “birth mothers”. You’ve articulated so many of the things that made me want to cry.

  2. Thank you for this post. As an aging mother parenting one biological child with my lesbian partner I am considering the possibility of one day (in a year or two after my dissertation is finished) adopting a child. I always wanted two. And would love for my son to have a sibling. But the more I read about this issue, the more complicated and heartbreaking it seems for everyone involved – especially the “birth mother.” BTW, did you watch the tv show Parenthood? They had a story line about a birth mother who changed her mind. I thought it was handled quite beautifully.

    • Haven’t seen Parenthood, but it’s good to hear the complexity of adoption decisions can be handled well.

    • It’s even worse for the adoptee, given that they’re the only one who (1) loses everything (at least legally, if not practically); and (2) they’re the only one with absolutely NO SAY AT ALL in what gets decided.

  3. The show sounds hideous. I could not bear to watch something like that, But I do not watch any so called “reality” TV, it is not “real” and most of it exploits its participants and viewers, it demeans all it touches. As a mother who surrendered I am appalled that this is considered “entertainment: by anyone, and that the worst stereotypes of birthmothers are reinforced. I hope this show dies the quick death it deserves. And Ugh, Utah! Worst of the worst for adoption corruption.

    • I don’t tend to watch “reality” t.v. either, but in this case, I felt I ought to take one for the team so I could critique it on behalf of all of us who are ticked off about it, though some of us quite literally could not bear to watch it and shouldn’t have to.

      • Is there a special “Taking One For the Team” medal we can give you? I don’t have television but just reading about this show gives me the heebie-jeebies. I sure appreciate your thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

      • I agree with Carrie (below) – I didn’t watch the show either, but heard enough about it during the show from a couple of people who did (felt they HAD to because they knew they’d get questions about it because of who they are) to literally give me the heebie-jeebies and get me quite angry. Thank you for taking one for the team, and I’m with Carrie. You deserve a medal!

  4. Thanks for watching it so I didn’t have to, my dear. I was afraid it would do everything you’ve written here… AND send me into an emotional tailspin.

  5. Jake Flaherty

    Thanks for stating so clearly many of the problems my wife and I had with the show. I’ll forward this to as many places as possible.

  6. adoptive daddy

    sounds like a horrible show.

  7. I LOVED this post, ESPECIALLY point #7. I was going to post a “recap” sort of post with some similar points to yours today, but ended up blogging about something different. However, I did blog about my impressions of the show prior to its airing and would be interested to hear your thoughts when & if you decide to read my blog: http://musingmonika.blogspot.com/2012/05/tlcs-birth-moms.html

  8. I chose not to watch the show. Well, honestly I probably would have but I don’t have cable so that made that decision easier. From what I have heard this show was a total trainwreck, so as a birthmom probably better to stay away.

    Loved the post! Just found your blog and will definitely keep reading :)

  9. declassifiedadoptee

    Love this post. As usual, you nailed it.

    I can’t believe that there are so many instances on this show where the women are in obvious danger or at risk of some kind that they just stand by and film….and the SS workers…..what are they doing?? Did you happen to notice the credentials of the “counsellors?”

  10. fabulous post! I’m so glad I didn’t watch, but even more glad that you did so you could write this.

  11. This is a great post, very good points and I agree that Kandice was calling out for help only to have her thoughts squished and trampled by the editing and big guns calling the shots. The only thing that I read here that caught my attention was this statement:
    “it is not a good idea to have prospective adoptive parents in the birthing room with a woman considering placing her child.”
    My twins parents were with me during labor and birth and I can honestly say that I would have had to no other way. When my sons were brought into this world, their parents were right there to witness it. It was a truly amazing experience for me to see.

    Here it is, years later, and they are adults with lives of their own. Speaking to both of them, I have asked what is their favorite story that their parents have shared with them about their lives. Both of them told me that they were told the story of their birth and how much it meant to both boys that their parents were there with me when they were born. They have told me that although they know it probably was very hard for me to have both of them there, their parents have always talked about that moment with smiles on their faces and gratitude in their hearts for the woman that helped them become family.

    Not every adoption case is the same, nor is the outcome for those involved. But I do like the fact that from the beginning their family was together, as I wanted them to be.

    As far as the TLC show, I had some of the same reactions that you did. However, I do have to say that the last 20 minutes … when they chose to show the very difficult time that comes when a woman has to sign those papers, well let me just say that I was appreciative that they chose to give the world an inside look at that moment. It is not what we choose to think about when speaking about adoption, and I am glad they did not shy away from the honest moments that those women had to go through.

    I did give my thoughts on my blog ….

  12. Great post! I won’t watch the show for this and other reasons: “it looked like the “counseling” session these young women had with a man from the adoption agency was nothing but a give-away-your-baby class.” I was a Bethany counselee while pregnant and, yes, my “counseling” amounted to listening to the reasons I should follow “God’s plan” and relinquish my child. A “group counseling” session I attended was the same. When I said I was looking to parent, the counselor and other attendees disapproved. My counselor knew I wanted to keep and raise my child, even in the hospital. Even in the hospital, I said no. My no was met with horrific pressure no new mother should endure. It does my heart good when I see adoptive parents speak to this issue (got her late from Barb’s blog) because we first/birth mothers aren’t yet validated (by the larger adoptive community and beyond it) when we speak our truths. Thank you.

  13. You are more than welcome. This kind of unscrupulous nonsense isn’t good for anyone. No adoptive parent should want a baby that was taken unnecessaryily–let alone coercively–from its mother.I’m so sorry for your awful experience. We have got to put an end to these practices!

  14. Pingback: By Special Request: 10 Red Flags that Your Adoption Agency Might be Coercive | Peter's Cross Station

  15. Thanks for this article. I love that you said that poverty isn’t a reason for adoption. I totally agree with you. I also think you hit a bullseye: “the birth mother has XYZ hours/days to change her mind.” This completely misrepresents the law. In fact, the mother has eighteen years to make decisions about her child. ” You’re absolutely right.

    I like your writing and insight & am now a subscriber.

    I also want to offer you to take a look at my blog; I’m focusing on reviewing movies from an adoption point-of-view; you mentioned Loki. I rolled my eyes at the same things you did. Well, with me, it’s more of a head-shake, face-palm kind of thing.

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