Open Adoption: Giving Birth Mothers a Voice

Open Adoption: Giving Birth Mothers a Voice

There are three choices. Each one sounds more perfect than the last. The intricate letters and beautiful photographs overwhelm your mind. Only one couple can be chosen, and they will be the new parents of your child.

In 1989, 21-year-old Margie was faced with this choice for the child she was carrying. Margie was placing her baby with adoptive parents, and no decision had ever been harder. Thanks to two women, Dean Borgeson and Enid Callen, Margie was able to choose the birth parents for her child, and be a part of the process.

Had Margie had to make this decision a few years earlier, she may not have had the option to choose the parents herself. Before the late ‘80s, adoption was usually a closed process. This meant that all records of the birth family would be sealed off to the adoptive family. Open adoption, which involves the birth mother meeting the adoptive parents and maintaining contact, can range from letters and photos every few months, to a close relationship involving face-to-face visits.

Two years earlier, in 1987, Enid Callen and Dean Borgosen wanted to make sure birth mothers would have the assistance and options Margie would have. Working at Links, a health clinic in Northfield, Illinois, Dean was volunteering as a clinic coordinator. Many of the women who came in would terminate pregnancies, but for the ones who wanted to carry to term and place, Dean was ready to help.

While at Links, Dean housed a total of eight birth mothers in her home while they worked out their adoption plans. The process was very informal, but Dean and Enid felt that the birth mothers were the most important part of the equation.

Dean is an adoptive mother herself, with three biological children and two adoptive children. She was also adopted in a closed adoption, so she has never had any information on her birth family. Having three children at the time, Dean felt like it was time to take off work and try being a stay-at-home mother. Very quickly into it, she knew it wasn’t for her.

Dean got in touch with Links and was connected with Richard Pearlman, who was in the process of opening an adoption agency. Dean contacted Enid.

“I don’t know how I know, but I felt like she would want to help,” Dean said about Enid. “She always felt that birth mothers were the most important, too.”

The two embarked on a journey to help open an adoption agency, but soon realized this was not the path they wanted to take. “We were never in it for the money,” Dean said. “Enid and I had realized she and I had a different idea of what we wanted to do.”

After parting with Richard, Dean and Enid got right to it. They had their purpose, and in June 1988, The Adoption Connection opened for business.

At this point, only one-third of adoptions in the US were considered open adoptions. However, the term “open” can be used very loosely. The Adoption Connection was going to change this. By 1993, 79 percent of agencies offered open adoptions.

Dean and Enid were changing the game. They wanted the process to be simple, and for the only middleman to be a lawyer facilitating the paperwork. During the first year of operation, they had anticipated placing three babies. By the end of the year, they had already placed 12. “We were doing something that hadn’t been done before,” Dean said remembering their first year. “We were serving a niche that hadn’t been reached yet.”

Before making her decision to place her child through adoption, Margie had met Dean while she was working at Links. Dean had given Margie information on adoption.

“She was shocked to hear from me, I guess I didn’t seem particularly friendly the first time,” Margie remembered about the first time she called Dean back. Margie would become one of the first birth mothers they would help place.

At this point in her life, Margie was 20 years old and “doing nothing” as she put it. When asked if she had a career or was in college she laughed out an “oh, please! I think I worked at Kohl’s, a bridal store, I don’t even know.”

Margie knew she wasn’t going to terminate her pregnancy, but she knew she couldn’t keep the baby.  “I knew I couldn’t give her a life,” Margie said about making the decision. After contacting Dean and Enid, they began the open adoption process.

Open adoptions allow birth mothers to choose among adoptive parent profiles. During the early ‘80s, most adoption agencies restricted adoptive families to almost an impossible group. The “ideal” adoptive parents were in their 30’s, had a fertility problem hindering them from having biological children, and made a certain amount of money.

Dean and Enid wanted a broad spectrum of people to be able to adopt. Theprospective parents had to create profiles, including a letter, which usually starts out with “Dear Birth Mother,” along with pictures and some family history.

“I remember me, my roommate, and the father all reading them and picking the same family,” Margie said. “They just seemed like really amazing people.”


The decision had been made.


Shortly after, Margie met the adoptive parents. The three first met at The Adoption Connection, and then progressed into going out for dinners. “They were so easy to talk to,” Margie remembered. She describes the whole process during her pregnancy as very easy to deal with because they were so great.

As the birth of the child approached, the adoptive parents agreed not to be there when the baby was born. Margie was given two days with the baby girl before they came to pick her up.  Two days is typically the standard amount of time a birth mother spends with the baby in an open adoption. She remembers taking her aggression out on the woman who was there to witness her sign the adoption papers. “This poor woman was just trying to do her job, and all I could do was scream and cry in her direction.”

After two days, it was finally time. Margie did not want to see them while they were in the hospital either, but as luck would have it they bumped into each other on the way out. Awkwardness aside, Margie was glad to see how happy they looked with their new daughter.  

The parents sent Margie photographs and beautiful letters every three months. They would go out to dinner, but the baby would not be present. Margie wasn’t ready to meet her yet. The meeting wouldn’t happen for another six years.

As time went on, Margie was happy to see how well they were taking care of her.  “She had a pony, so obviously she was having a very tough childhood,” she joked, remembering photos she received. Margie knew she was okay, and that was enough for the time being.

Life went on for everyone, and Margie decided she was ready to meet her daughter. At this point, she was married and pregnant.

“I figured if I was pregnant again, it may be less threatening for them having me around, and it was just kind of time,” she said.

After the first meeting, Margie was able to see her daughter at least once a year. She is now 25, and the two are still in contact. They have a very healthy relationship.

Margie and the adoptive parents continued to work with The Adoption Connection, attending benefits every year such as silent auctions and pool parties for the families and birth mothers. Margie spoke on birth mother panels at events, along with Vicki, another one of The Adoption Connection legacies, as Enid likes to call them.

In 1994, 20-year-old Vicki was faced with this choice for the child she was carrying. She was placing her baby with adoptive parents, and no decision had ever been harder.

Vicki was living on the East Coast working at Wal-Mart. She found out she was pregnant in July, already three months into the pregnancy.

Not having much time to decide between termination and parenting, Vicki and the father decided to keep the baby.

“If you think about the stereotype of a birth mom, they’re crack whores who live under bridges.”

Once Vicki started attending doctor’s appointments, the father stopped showing up. He was gone, and she was going to have to raise the child on her own. At this point, Vicki’s mother and father had disowned her for being pregnant with a black child. “My dad said I was never going to be able to walk into the house with my black son ever again,” Vicki remembered. “My entire family disowned me because I was pregnant with a black baby.”

“I couldn’t think anymore, so took my car and came here,” she said.

Vicki moved to Gurnee while eight months pregnant to live with her grandmother.  She continued to work at Wal-Mart, and still had to figure out what she was going to do.

While planning to keep the baby, Vicki’s grandmother introduced her to a counselor who worked at The Adoption Connection in Highland Park.

When she first found out she was pregnant, Vicki didn’t think adoption would be an answer. She was pregnant with a biracial child.  She called The Adoption Connection and they sent her information.

Since Vicki had reached out to them for adoption, it didn’t take her long to make the final decision. She was given three profiles, and the choice was easy. Vicki’s main worry was whether she would be good enough for the family she chose.

“When you look at these profiles all the families look so perfect,” she said. “All I kept thinking is I don’t want my son in that kind of place! What if he’s not perfect?”

One factor about the adoptive parents she chose stuck out to Vicki. “When I found out that the father smoked, I was like ‘Great! I love these people! They’re not perfect either!’ ” she said remembering her choice. Vicki isn’t the only birth mother to make the choice over something humanizing like that one of the parents smokes.

“One of the girls we had chose a family because they were White Sox fans,” Dean remembers. “Sometimes all it takes is that simple connection.”

Three months later, Vicki had her son. Both parents were there for the birth, but Vicki doesn’t remember much about being there. However, she does remember her mother coming around and flying in to be there for her during the birth.

“We were going to have pictures and letters because that’s what open adoption meant back then,” Vicki explained. “There wasn’t going to be any other contact.” By the time her son was a year old, they were having visits at the house at least once a year. It wasn’t entirely easy at first for the adoptive father to let Vicki into their home.

“If you think about the stereotype of a birth mom, they’re crack whores who live under bridges,” Vicki laughed. “It’s this imagination of who they are, not normal women who are trying their best.”

Vicki knew that her son’s parents didn’t think of her this way, but there was always the fear that she would screw up and they could take away the visits. She remembers a time she was running ten minutes late for a visit, and all she could think was that they would cut off contact because she messed up. “If I can’t be on time, they’re not going to let me see my son anymore,” Vicki remembers from that day. Everything worked out fine. Vicki is very close with her son’s adoptive parents, and her now 21-year-old son.

Along with Margie, Vicki continued to work with The Adoption Connection speaking on birth mother panels. Unfortunately in 2005, Dean and Enid had to close The Adoption Connection’s doors on account of a new legislature.

“We were the only place of our kind in Illinois, so they wouldn’t make an exception,” Dean said. The legislature passed made it so private adoption needed to be overseen by a licensed agency. Dean and Enid didn’t see this as an option, and so they closed.

However, an organization in Evanston, the On Your Feet Foundation reached out to ask them to take over running a place for birth mothers. “It seemed like the right fit,” Enid said.

Moving to On Your Feet brought their focus onto birth mothers post adoption. The organization provides a sense of community for birth mothers with all different stories. Once Dean and Enid took over, Vicki also started working for On Your Feet as a caseworker. Enid is now retired, but still keeps in touch with birth moms and families she has helped over the years. Dean and Vicki are on the board at On Your Feet still, and Vicki helps put together retreats. The era of On Your Feet has connected The Adoption Connection to a new generation of birth mothers, and has given them the opportunity to help them go through what they went through years ago.

In 2004, Sheena was 20 years old and enjoying her time in college. The last thing she was expecting was an unplanned pregnancy. However, this is exactly what was handed to her.

“I felt guilt because if I brought this baby home, it would be because of my pain.”

Sheena was living with roommates at the time, and decided to move back in with her parents. Still undecided on termination or carrying to term, Sheena decided abortion wasn’t for her pretty quickly. “I thought about it for like two minutes,” Sheena said. “Abortion was not something I would have been able to live with. I thought that was going to be a lot harder of a journey.”

Sheena remembers feeling very angry at the time, since she was only doing the same things as her friends. “We were all in college, going out, and had boyfriends,” she said. “I just happened to be the one who ‘got caught’ is what I always say.”

During her pregnancy, Sheena lost touch with a lot of friends. “I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to see anyone.” She remembers it being a sad time and just wanted to get through it.  Even though she had decided termination wasn’t the answer, the final decision had not come to her yet.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do parenting or adoption-wise until about six or seven months in,” Sheena remembers. “I was 20 at the time, when you’re old enough that you could do it. It’s not like I was fifteen.” Once she had decided to pursue adoption, Sheena contacted The Cradle, located in Evanston. “I had talked to some other places, but I figured I would have more options through a bigger agency out of Chicago.”

Unlike at The Adoption Connection, Sheena was given a huge binder to go through of prospective parents. The decision was tough. “When you’re picking parents for your children, you want to pick maybe more than what you had,” Sheena said on the decision. “I wanted someone to raise my child that was excited about travel, had degrees, working in a corporate environment! Those kinds of things,” she explained.

“I had some basic criteria I was looking for,” she said. “Of course college educated, in the Chicago area, Catholic, and that was really it.

After a long search, one couple stood out to Sheena. The couple she chose already had a biological daughter. Sheena felt that this would help the adoptive mother to understand the struggle she was going through. “I wanted my son to have siblings, and it would be great for him to have one right off the bat.”

Once Sheena had made the decision to place her child with a set of adoptive parents, the meetings began. Since Sheena was so far along, they had a short time to get to know each other. The trio would have dinner, talk on the phone, and send pictures. “The dynamic is interesting,” Sheena remembers. “It’s very awkward at first. They’re strangers, and you’re promising them your baby.” During the pregnancy, a birth mother can change her mind and decide to keep the baby, while the adoptive family is assisting in cost for medical bills as part of the process.

Sheena and the adoptive family got to know each other as well as they could over the next few months. When the day Sheena went into labor came, she kept telling herself this was going to be the worst part and then it would be over. She was very wrong.

“After I had him everything changed,” Sheena said. “I never thought that it wouldn’t be hard, I knew I was going to be upset, but I think until you go through that you don’t know how it feels.”

Sheena had feelings she never thought she would after she gave birth to her son. When a birth mother has a baby through open adoption, they are typically given two days with the baby. A request can be made for more, but two is standard. This gives the birth mother some time to process what is going on and finalize her decision. Many birth mothers have second thoughts during these days, and counselors are present to help them through it and remind them of the decision they have made.  

While in the hospital for those two days, Sheena was overcome with love for her new baby boy, and also guilt. Knowing these will be the only two days she would be able to have with him like this unless she took him home was heart wrenching. The type of love Sheena felt was indescribable and she had never felt it before. The guilt would end up overriding the love for Sheena.

“I felt guilt because if I brought this baby home, it would be because of my pain,” she said. “Not because he’s better off with me.”

Sheena knew that she wasn’t going to be able to give her son what he needed at that point. She knew her initial decision was the right thing to do. She doesn’t know where the strength came to sign the papers, but she signed them, and that was that.

After Sheena had gone home from the hospital, she was asked to come back to see her son and the adoptive parents before they took him home. She didn’t want to see her son, but she did want to see his new parents. The memory she has of seeing them is her puffy-faced and crying. Sheena wanted them to see how devastated she was, so someday when her son asked about his birth, they would be able to tell him they saw how hard it was for her to make this decision.

Sheena’s son is about to turn 12, and they have a very close open adoption relationship. He has even met some of her family.

“If someone had told me all those years ago this was how it was going to turn out, I would have thought they were crazy,” Sheena remembers.

Sheena found The On Your Feet Foundation six months after her son’s birth. She’s on the board, helps plan retreats, and is very involved in the birth mother community they have created. “I really truly feel that it’s been my purpose in life to do this work,” she said. Through the On Your Feet community, Sheena met a young woman named Shanyce on a retreat, who had a much different experience with her pregnancy.

Shanyce was attending college in Iowa when things started to get difficult. College wasn’t working out for her, so she went to visit her dad in Tennessee. The visit resulted in an unplanned pregnancy for a 23-year-old Shanyce. Once Shanyce realized she was pregnant, she moved back in with her mother.

“It was probably the worst day of my life, to this day.”

By the time Shanyce found out she was pregnant, she was too far along for termination to even be considered. This was brought to her attention while at a clinic to inquire about termination. Shanyce was already very close to finishing the term, and much to her surprise, she was carrying twins.

The only person that Shanyce told was her best friend.  On the day her water broke, she managed to walk to the hospital by herself. Not wanting her mother to know, she told her she was staying at a friend’s house.  Only one week prior did Shanyce talk to a counselor about looking into adoption.

“I already knew what I wanted,” Shanyce said remembering her parent choice. “I wanted a two-parent household, religious, and a very open adoption.”

Unlike Sheena’s endless options of adoptive families, Shanyce was brought one portfolio. They were exactly what she wanted, so she chose them.

Shanyce went into labor a week before Christmas. The adoptive parents were away for the holidays, but flew in so they could be there when she gave birth. They were the only two in the room. With twins, it is very common to be premature, which was the case with these two. They were taken to the NICU, and Shanyce was asked to return every day for a week to breast feed them. Shanyce was sent home with the breast pump materials, and still keeping the secret from her family, she pumped in secret and would sneak off to the hospital.

After getting to spend the week vising with the twins, on the sixth day Shanyce had to sign the adoption papers. “It was probably the worst day of my life, to this day,” Shanyce said. “I just kept thinking that they would hate me if I signed them.”

Once the twins were well enough to go home, Shanyce stopped going to the hospital, and continued to keep her secret from her family. Shanyce was worried about how the open adoption was going to work. She didn’t just want letters she wanted to be a part of their life.

Since the twins were born around Christmas, she didn’t get to meet them until the end of January.  The first meetings were at the adoption agency, but quickly moved to the adoptive family’s house. Shanyce was nervous because she had already lost her children once, and didn’t want to go through it again.

The visits became very regular, and Shanyce still sees the twins at least once a week. They’re five now. She is so close to the adoptive parents that she will even go over to their house just to spend time with them. Regardless of having a close relationship with the adoptive family, Shanyce still couldn’t talk to anyone about it. She was scared to tell her family. During her struggle, the counselor that assisted her during the adoption got her in touch with The On Your Feet Foundation. She met with Vicki about a year after the twins were born.

“I usually work through everything on my own,” she said. “But this was too much for me to handle.”

While working with On Your Feet, Vicki helped Shanyce get back in school. Vicki bought her a bus pass, so she could get to the community college. Assisting with class tuition and transportation are two of the services On Your Feet offer to help birth mothers get their lives back together. Sheena helped Shanyce get a job as an intern at her office. Shanyce will be starting at DePaul in the spring to finish her bachelor’s, thanks to the assistance she received from On Your Feet.

Four years later, through a chain of gossip, Shanyce’s family found out about the twins. Trying to figure out how to tackle it, Shanyce gave her mother a letter she had written while she was in the hospital. To her surprise, her mother was very supportive of the situation, as was the rest of the family. In fact, her mother met the twins recently at a birthday party. This is one of the first times Shanyce has told her story.

The Adoption Connection and On Your Feet Foundation have changed the face of adoption, making it possible for birth mothers to come out of the shadows and have a voice. Having a community of other women going through similar things gives birth mothers people to talk to when they may not have had anyone before. Within the last twenty-five years, birth mothers have come to embrace the labor of love that is doing what they do. About 95 percent of adoptions in the US have openness now, whether it’s just letters and pictures or in-person visits. They all agreed it is a different time for them now.  It’s not a secret anymore.

“Birth mothers wear it on their arm like a badge of honor now,” Sheena said, smiling. “It’s a truly amazing thing.”

For birth mothers who would like help:



Header Image: Birth Mothers create prayer flags for children they have place at On Your Feet Foundation retreats. Photo by: Devin Bohbrink