Too Much Oxygen

Photo by Matt Lemmon via Flickr

8/5/12 Edited to add: Please also check out this list of blog posts on this topic written by other adoption triad members.

The adoption community is up in arms about a new show that premiered on the Oxygen network this week. I’m Having Their Baby is described as a “six-part docu-series that reveals the story that often goes untold – that of young, pregnant women as they struggle to go through with the most difficult decision of their lives, whether or not to place their babies for adoption.”

My first reaction was to join the @Boycottoxygen movement that quickly sprouted on Twitter. Then I read a post by someone who knew of people who had been banned from the show’s Facebook page for their comments opposing the series. I looked at Oxygen’s site for the show and found statistics from a survey they had commissioned to learn the public’s attitudes toward adoption–a survey of a mere 1,000 people, with no mention at all of adult adoptees. The survey made me mad enough that I tried to leave a comment refuting its results, but after getting an error message for nearly a half hour, I gave up. It had been two days since the last successfully posted comment (there more than 40, all negative), and me thinks Oxygen had heard enough from us protesters.

Now I was REALLY mad, so I went over to the Facebook page for the show to read the discussion there. All I can say is, wow! Every corner of the adoption triangle had chimed in, along with quite a few audience members who seemed to have no real-life connection to adoption at all. Those folks were easy to recognize because of their very misguided comments. I ended up spending over an hour reading the discussions and leaving comments of my own, mostly in an attempt to educate, sometimes to support adoptees who were literally being attacked for expressing their feelings about adoption, both positive and negative. Sadly, some of the attacks came from other adoptees who seemed to be so trapped in their own inner turmoil, they couldn’t accept that anyone might feel differently.

Finally, I decided that if I was going to publicly comment about the show, I had to watch it. So on Wednesday I sat down with my computer and watched the first episode, which is available via Oxygen’s website. Two pregnant women are followed: Mary, who became pregnant with another man’s child while separated from her husband, and Claudia, who became pregnant after a month-long relationship with a guy in his mid-twenties who’d already managed to knock up three other very young women. The women were assisted in their adoption plans by Bethany Christian Services.

Now, I should mention that I watch quite a bit of reality TV, and I’m not naive enough to believe everything I see on a reality TV show is authentic and unscripted. When you watch these shows, you have to always keep the camera in mind, imagine yourself in that place with a crew of people recording your every action and word. Keep in mind also that when you watch a reality TV show, you’re not seeing raw footage. You don’t even see raw footage on the news, so you’re certainly not going to see it on the Oxygen network. It was obvious to me that every scene on this show was carefully pre-arranged. I think it’s important to realize this, because if you acknowledge this fact then you also must acknowledge that the real life experience of a pregnant woman considering placing her baby for adoption is much more complex than anything you’re going to see on this show. A great documentary could be made on the adoption process, but this show is definitely not that great documentary. (If you really want to understand the experience of birth mothers, check out Ann Fessler’s work.)

Of course, having read comments about the episode before I watched it, I already knew going in what to expect. Many commenters were angry at Mary because she decided not to place her child after he was born. I say, good for you, Mary! She was also criticized for her reasons for considering adoption in the first place–because she wanted to try to salvage her marriage. Any idiot could see that her husband just wanted out, that nothing she did was going to save that relationship. Interestingly, Claudia was not criticized nearly as much for her path to pregnancy or her decision to surrender her child for adoption. I had the distinct sense that public opinion–at least on Oxygen’s Facebook forum–was much more symapthetic to potential adoptive parents than to the young women who were contemplating handing their newborns over to strangers. And very few commenters who weren’t adoptees had anything to say about what struggles the children themselves might face in their futures.

What struck me while watching the episode was how very young both Mary and Claudia were. Mary was better established, living in her own home and having a full-time job, but her reasoning was still quite immature. Claudia was barely of age, and an adoptee herself, one of thirteen children who had been relinquished when her biological parents could no longer manage caring for so many young ones. There was a lot the viewer didn’t get to see: we don’t know how the women’s families felt about their pregnancies, and we don’t know what counseling they received at Bethany prior to when they appeared on the show, which was in their third trimesters. The biological father of Mary’s child did not appear onscreen. Claudia’s adoptive mother joins her in one scene, but does not speak on camera. My point is, we have no idea how these very young women were influenced by the important people in their lives or by the staff at Bethany. When I think back to how I made decisions in my late teens and early twenties, I know I was just as immature as these two women. I remember how easily I was influenced by my parents, my friends, my teachers, how easily I was influenced by what was expected of me. In the end, when Mary tells her Bethany counselor she has decided to keep her baby, she cries as she talks about how ashamed she felt because of her unplanned pregnancy. Shame was a factor in her considering adoption for her child. How many young women unnecessarily lose their children to adoption every day because they’re shamed?