Written by Tatum Hunter.
Art by Elene Chamberlin.
In the beginning, my secret was not a secret because I was a visibly pregnant teenager. I was pregnant at home, at the grocery store, and, to my disappointment, at school.
Your classmates voted you ‘Most Likely to Have 10 Children,’” the vice principal told me after calling me out of class. “I want you to know I’m not going to print that in the yearbook.”
At the time, I was obsessed with college and everything surrounding it. I earned excellent test scores. The U.S. Navy even gave me a full scholarship to study linguistics at my school of choice, only to revoke that scholarship when they found out I was pregnant.
All in all, my experience as a pregnant teenager taught me that people don’t like pregnant teenagers.
But I was — and am — very proud to be a birthmother. My son brings me joy, and his mother is a true friend.
That’s why on August 10, 2012 — the moment my parents’ Honda CR-V pulled away from my college dorm — the story of my teenage pregnancy and adoption became an actual secret, and one I fought hard to keep.
Every birthparent’s experience is different. But I was — and am — very proud to be a birthmother. My son brings me joy, and his mother is a true friend. I would not change what happened. Nonetheless, I kept my adoption quiet for nine years, and, for a lot of that time, it didn’t feel weird.
That’s because secrecy surrounding “out-of-wedlock” pregnancy and adoption is as much a part of our culture as unnecessarily screaming “da-da-da” during the chorus of “Sweet Caroline.
In the 1930s, for instance, states began sealing adoption records to protect the privacy of adoptive parents, children, and birthmothers from the gossip of community members. This policy was quickly leveraged to prevent birthparents from accessing records of their relinquished children — then, to prevent any party in the adoption from learning about each other. This reportedly protected adoptive parents from the stigma of infertility, adopted children from the stigma of illegitimacy, and birthmothers from the stigma of pregnancy outside marriage.
Secrets, historically, were meant to protect birthmothers from the people around them. But, as I learned, other people aren’t always the problem.By the time I was 25, the anger and pain I carried around had completely hijacked my heart.
Scholarly studies of birthmothers are rare, but the existing literature paints a picture of immense, unresolved grief and loneliness.
Never given permission to grieve.
A 1999 study of 80 birthmothers by Judy Kelly found that 89 percent considered relinquishing a child to be an “extremely” traumatic experience. Ninety-four percent did not receive adequate counseling at the time of relinquishment. Eighty-five percent reported feeling misled as to the lasting psychological effects of relinquishment.
These are some of the phrases participants in Kelly’s study used to describe their grief:
“Never given permission to grieve.” “Not allowed to share.” “Isolated with pain.” “Howling with grief.”
Meanwhile, a 1986 birthmother study by J.T. Condon found that for a majority of participants, grief didn’t lessen over time. In fact, it got worse. Eight years after my pregnancy, I had a frightening meltdown, followed shortly by a profound spiritual experience. I realized that in order to move forward, I needed to talk about what had happened.
I started immediately. I told someone in my living room. I told someone at a comedy bar while I played with my straw. I blurted it out at a pizza restaurant.
The most difficult part wasn’t the reactions — people were nothing but kind.
It was that neither my friends nor I knew what it really meant to “be a birthmother,” because birthmothers have been almost entirely erased from our cultural conversations.
I’ve never seen a story about an adult birthmother processing her decision and living her life.
In books, films, and TV, birthmothers are fodder for teenage adoption drama. I’ve never seen a story about an adult birthmother processing her decision and living her life. (Embarking on a harrowing journey to find her estranged child doesn’t count.)
When adoption shows up in figurative language, birthmothers are typically left out as well.
According to common Christian teaching, for example, God saves us from a sinful nature and adopts us as his children. In this adoption metaphor, the adoptive parent is God, the adopted child is us, and the birthmother is… Satan?
Every year on Mother’s Day, I see friends share lists of additional people to remember: People who’ve miscarried, people who can’t conceive, people who are estranged from their mothers. Birthmothers have never — not once — made the list.
Hello! Birthmothers exist. And they love those children, too.
Even in conversations that are literally about adoption, birthmothers are often missing.
“How beautiful,” some people say, “Those adoptive parents gave that child a loving family.”
Hello! Birthmothers exist. And they love those children, too.
As birthmothers, we undergo the trauma of losing a child. Instead of receiving the grief support we need, however, we are individually silenced and culturally erased. I profoundly respect birthmothers’ right to keep their experiences private. In my case, though, the line between “secrets that protect” and “secrets that oppress” became impossible to parse.
If we want to make the world a more welcoming place for birthmothers who choose to share their experiences, I believe there are a few things we must do. First, we must confront how our conceptions of family and motherhood can hurt people.
Let’s think about our unblinking acceptance of terms like “illegitimate child,” “unwed mother,” or “childless couple.” Consider how our culture’s limited empathy for birthmothers is reserved for white women (Juno and the manic pixie birthmother, anyone?). Ask yourself if you participate in the social punishment of people who become mothers the “wrong way,” and learn about the historical mistreatment of birthmothers, mothers without husbands, and women without children.
We must also reinsert birthmothers back into a narrative we’ve been erased from. Conversations about adoption must hold space for birthmothers and their lived experiences. Communities must acknowledge a birthmother’s loss as they celebrate an adoptive family’s gain.
The silencing of birthmothers contributes to their erasure, and their erasure, in turn, contributes to their silencing. I, for one, am done participating in that cycle.
So, hi. I’m Tatum. I’m a birthmother.
About The Author
Tatum Hunter is a journalist, performer and birthmother based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Built In, American City Business Journals, Reductress and more. You can find her newsletter, Mom’d, at momd.substack.com.
Follow on IG: @tatumrhunter