Birthmother Grief, Healing, and the Importance of Adoption Education: Interview with birth mother, educator, and adoption advocate Ashley Mitchell Transcript

Episode 2 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden:

Welcome, everyone to this episode of Adoption: The Long View. This is a podcast brought to you by the people at

Whether you've been married or not, you probably have an opinion on this question. Is a wedding the ending? The happily ever after ending? When I ask this in workshops that I lead people laugh and say no, they say the wedding is the end of the journey to the altar. It's, it's not it's just the beginning of the journey of the marriage. And that's the focus of this broadcast. Once you fill the crib and you're legally joined to your beloved child, your journey is not over. It's just beginning.

We're going to cover many of the things you need to know to navigate adoptive parenting over the long view, starting with the things that you need to know now, perspective that you need to hear now.

I'm your host, Lori Holden, author of The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption and longtime blogger at I'm a mom through domestic infant adoption to a daughter and a son now in their late teens, and let me tell you, it's been a ride.

Think of any road trip you've taken. There are ups and their downs and it's always an adventure. You're always glad for the trip. And afterwards you might on occasion and up thinking if I knew then what I know now. Regarding your adoptive parenting journey, we aim to help you know now.

My guest today -- I'm so excited about this -- is Ashley Mitchell. Ashley is the owner of Big Tough Girl and the founder and executive director of Lifetime Healing Foundation. And she has set out with conviction to seek increased care, understanding, and resources for birth mothers. For over a decade, Ashley has been one of the most consistent and sought after birth mother voices in the nation. She's well known for her vulnerability and transparency and adoption and her story has touched the hearts of countless members of the adoption community and beyond. I am betting There are a lot of birth mothers and expectant mothers tuning in today because Ashley has long been a champion of post placement healing for placing mothers speaking out about ethics and modern adoption and what responsibilities we all have in the process. Ashley, welcome.

Ashley Mitchell:

Hi, thank you so much for having me. This is such a blessing to be here today. It's always a treat to talk with you.

Lori Holden

Yes. Let's start with you. Tell us briefly the story of how you became a birth mom. I'm guessing that wasn't your goal in life, but tell us how you became a birth mom. And then also you have an interesting arc of your open adoption. How did that manifest?

Ashley Mitchell:

Yes, I definitely think you know, we don't go to our guidance counselor in high school and say I want to be a birth mom when I grow up. Right. So this was definitely not something that I saw for myself.

But when I was 25, I found myself in an unplanned pregnancy. I was on again off again with the biological father and found out we were pregnant. And through a lot of really, really big, tough decisions and different faces, we ended up choosing adoption. And when I was 26, I gave birth and became a mother for the very first time and placed my son for adoption.

And we've been in the grind for 14 years, and it's been beautiful and amazing and horrible and painful and all of the above, mixed with you know, adding parenting after placement, adding my my own kids to the mix that I parent with my husband and all of those kinds of things navigating this relationship.

We did not start with the beautiful open adoption relationship that we have now. We had our first five years I call my infamous Jerry Springer years were very very engulfed in self destructive behavior and a lot of grief that I did not understand, did not have a name to and did not have the support to process through it. And, you know, people think that it's so obvious that you would be that obviously, you're missing your son, obviously you're grieving. Obviously you've had these triggers over these last, you know, five years and you know, when you're in that fog of that grief and loss, it's tough to really see and understand what actually happened and what what you're looking at and when when that healing started to take place for me, which ended in a pretty, pretty significant event with an attempted suicide in time in a mental hospital, really processing all of that. All those things that had happened.

Then my journey really began. Then my healing really started. And I was able to come back to my son that I placed, back into his life with his family. We've been rebuilding trust and building this beautiful adoption ever since. And so with having little to no contact for five years, really doing the work, really getting into that mental healing grind, and now developing into this beautiful relationship has given me more perspective and more joy than I can imagine. It has been very, very hard work. Our open adoption relationship is constantly evolving and changing. But it's been worth fighting for for us. But it's been a long journey for sure.

Lori Holden:

With my two children, we have four birth parents around and what I've noticed is that over time, which is the piece I didn't always get at the beginning, but over time, there's going to be ins and outs. And I hear from adoptive parents who are looking for advice often and they're like, well, we just want more contact. We wish she'd be here, or he disappeared, meaning birth parent birth mothers and birth fathers. And I just tell them this is a long game. You're not locked into this things can change. And would you say that your son's mom had to kind of have that faith and openness to whatever happens is going to happen?

Ashley Mitchell:

Yeah. And we educate a lot on those seasons of silence, right. And it's tough for adoptive parents to kind of feel like they're in those one sided relationships. I know those adoptive parents want to show up and want to do well and want to love the biological parents well, and sometimes we aren't able, or in a season are capable of showing up in that season. There definitely are things that adoptive parents have to do to just kind of get really thick skinned about and just kind of find acceptance in.

But I know for a fact that the way that my son's mother loved him during my absence is the only reason why we were able to come to the table and have an open adoption relationship. It’s because of the way that during my silence she kept him connected to me and to his story. She never projected her own anger and frustration onto him so that when he got old enough to say, I want this relationship with her, she hadn't put up these blocks for him. And that's a really important thing that was a key factor for us to be able to come back to the table and we have that relationship because she was able to be consistent in my silence.

Lori Holden:

I absolutely love that -- her role in what I call an open door adoption. Sometimes you can't have that contact, but you can hold the door open for when contact becomes possible again, we keep the porch light on.

What have you learned along the way? That you wish you’d known earlier?

Ashley Mitchell:

Wow, that is a question. Um, I really should just write a book of all the things not to do because I have done all of the wrong things. And so if you could just do the opposite of what I did, then you everyone would be fine.

But definitely In the adoption journey specifically, um, I really wish I knew that I had more options. And I wish that I knew that I could be an advocate for myself. I wish that I was, you know, when I was 26, you know, I was a grown lady. Okay. And so it wasn't, you know, I wasn't a teen mom, I didn't have my parents making choices for me, you know, those kinds of things. These were things that I was figuring out by myself.

And even then I didn't know in something like this, that I could be an advocate for myself that I could stand and fight for what I really wanted. I think so much of it was wrapped in fear and shame and wanting to please and not be such a disappointment. There was a lot of religious culture put into that, you know, feeling like I needed to make the best decision that would kind of appease the masses. I wish I would have been more proactive in my own education in my own research and been my own advocate. I wish I would have known about the loss and the trauma piece. Those first five years were very dark and very scary and very painful. Um, and I wish I would have known I wish I would have had education around what this would have looked like so that I could have better prepared myself. I feel like I failed in that. And so I wish I would have known that

I wish I would have known that 14 years later in the throes that I would still be feeling all things, that this actually is for life. You know, we don't think about long term when we're in the hospital giving birth and placing our children. We don't think about what it's gonna look like when we have to date. We don't look like what it's gonna look like when we get married. When I gave birth to my first child, after placement, how triggered I was going to be in the hospital.

You know, we don't talk about explaining to my kids that they have a brother that doesn't live with us and what that looks like, you know, I just, there were so many things that they're like, you know, this is permanent. And this is, you know, you can't change your mind and this is irrevocable. I don't think that we understand the permanency of it. And I don't think that you can ever really get it until you're in the throes of it but I wish I would have been more informed in that. A lot of those things that I wish I would have known, just came around education, so much education that was lacking.

Lori Holden:

I hear you saying that having a voice and understanding the grief that's coming are both so important in healing, really having voice and choice in the whole process is actually choosing this from options, not from having to do it as part of what makes you be able to heal and move on from it.

But also, I think for both both that and knowing that there's a grieving that comes from these vestiges of the closed Adoption era, we kind of think that nowhere in the open adoption era all those problems are going to go away. But in those days, we told everybody pretend it never happened. We told the birth mom to pretend she hadn't had a childectomy. We told the adoptees to pretend that there hadn't been a big switcheroo at birth. We told the adoptive families to act like you hadn't had a grafting onto your family tree. And we were all supposed to go on as if something big, really big hadn't actually happened. BUT IT DID.

So that grieving of what actually did happen, that being open to working through that grief in all those stages and parts of life and the big milestones that are going to happen that are gonna look different if you've been through a traumatic event like this.

Ashley Mitchell:

Yeah, and I really believe, you know, it doesn't, it doesn't make the hurting go away. But I think we can be more effective in our healing if we're educated around a loss. I think the more informed we are, and the more empowered that we were in these choices and the more clarity that we have around them. Is it going to make the pain go away? Absolutely not. But the more educated we are, the more effective we can be in our healing. You know, I spent, it took me to be in a mental hospital with a psychiatrist going What's up with you? And I'm like, fine. I mean, literally at like rock bottom. I'm still fine, because that is what had been ingrained in my, in my head and my heart and my, you know, from my community around me, too, to say, I'd been programmed to say that it's fine.

And he was like, we're gonna put you in a straitjacket, you are not fine. We need to talk about this. And it wasn't until that experience was horrific and so sad, but it was life changing because when that light bulb turned on, it was like, Why didn't anyone tell me? but then I had a name to it. And now I had resources and I had the meds that I needed and the doctors that I needed and everything that I needed to actually Put tools in place to move forward. And that is vital in this for this to be successful.

Lori Holden:

I don't know if it was Carl Jung who said that which we resist persists. You and I share a mutual friend, Rebecca Vahle, who will be on this show, and she talks about it as a beach ball. You try to keep that beach ball under the water, but it's gonna pop up one way or another. In a neat way or in a messy way -- probably in a messy way.

So Ashley, if you could wave your BIgToughGirl wand over Adoption World -- this is a juicy question -- what are the top two or three changes you would make?

Ashley Mitchell:

Oh my goodness, if I mean, obviously, if I could wave the end all be all, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. We wouldn't have to have adoption in this world. Um, I would love to see a place where that wasn't a thing but we live in a broken world. That's not what this looks like.

So, you know, I'd love for every pregnant mother to be able to be empowered and be with their children. That's what this should be. But because we don't live in a space like that, this is what I would love to see.

I would love to see more education. I would love to see more adoptive parents, especially, walk into this completely informed of what this looks like, um, for adopting these children. They're uninformed about the trauma that is inflicted on the mothers, they're uninformed about the long term trauma that adoptees are feeling. They're uninformed on what they should be looking for and asking for their professionals. They're writing very big checks with very little information, trusting very blindly their adoption professionals.

I would love pregnant mothers to have better options counseling, I need them to know that adoption should not just be their first go-to. There are resources, there are organizations that can support them and help them. At the end of the day, if you are going to choose adoption, then there are people that can stand with you and support you. But have we exhausted every other option? And if you have the support that you deserve in making these life changing decisions, I want pregnant mothers to be more empowered, because if they can parent, they absolutely should. That's the kind of support that they should get.

Adoption is not going anywhere. And so if they are going to choose adoption, great, but I want them to come to the table better empowered in that choice.

I want more post adoption services. Regardless of how you came to adoption, there is going to be grief and trauma. It is unavoidable. It is built in brokenness and you cannot erase that with any wand in the world. But we can if you're if professionals are going to stand with us in destruction. Where are they in the rebuild? They have an ethical responsibility to stand with us to help us rebuild for parents to have post adoption support and how to navigate relationships with their children. Birth mothers getting free, post placement care, adoptees getting trauma education.

So for me, those would be the huge things would be making sure that everyone before they step into this have the education, education post adoption. And then I would love to see law reform, I would love to see the law force ethics, so that we're consistently across the board all playing on an even playing field. Because right now, that's not happening. And so I would love to see an adjustment there as well. I mean, just that's just a few small things that I would like to see. Yeah,

Lori Holden:

Well, I love those things because none of them are magical, that you know, none of them require an actual magic wand. They're all within the realm of possibility with work and advocacy and time and, and getting people on board with this. So that's great.

And I agree with you that adoption is born out of an imperfect situation. Not only from the birth parents side but also from the adoptive parent’s side. It's not a plan B for everyone, but a lot of times it does come out of infertility. And that's a traumatic experience.

So you have two sets of people who have been through traumatic events meeting in an adoption, possibly an open adoption with ongoing contact, and you expect it to go smoothly when there are wounds. And there's a baby there depending on the adults to do that work of healing themselves so that the baby doesn't have to be the magic salve. That's too much you put on a baby.

Ashley Mitchell:

Yeah. You know, I love that you brought that up about the adoptive parents because I think that they are this privileged voice in this situation, but no one is immune from trauma. Everyone, all people, all sides of this come to the table with trauma and some is inflicted from other members and some is inflicted from outside things that you know and some is self inflicted.

We -- all of us -- have trauma coming to the table. And adoption is just so weird. Because it's like in any other circumstance, our worlds would never collide, we probably don't even live in the same area, social classes, different, all religious beliefs are different. And then we're thrown together with all of our masks and bound together forever, because of this child and good luck! Now do life together, and do it well and ethical and love each other and be best friends and all of this stuff. And it's just like that is not realistic. There is so much work that needs to be done.

And so that's why the conversations like this are so important, and so that people aren't coming to the table saying, well, this is the next step. This is the next vehicle to try to become parents. And let's let's jump in here and drive down this road and see what it looks like because it's way more work than that. It is not. Adoption is not for the faint of heart, for sure.

Lori Holden:

Right. And as another previous guest said, It's not easy to do this, but it's right to do this in the way of openness of just thinking of it from the child's point of view and holding the other parents in your heart and giving grace when you need to. But this all kind of brings me to my next question for you, Ashley, what message do you most want adoptive parents to hear from you?

Ashley Mitchell:

For me today, I just really on my heart, I just really wanted to say that you were asked to do one thing. Really, in the big picture you were asked to do one thing and that was to take on the responsibilities of raising a child and loving them well, and if you're doing that, then you're doing what was asked of you.

I think that there is a lot of work to do around our open adoption relationships. But I want you to know that if you're loving that child well right now, even with all the other messy stuff, you're doing what was asked of you and that's that's okay. That's enough for right now. There will be a call to action for a lot of work in those open adoption relationships, but just I want to say that adoptive parents are tired. And I want them to take a breath and just say, am I doing what was asked of me? When I said yes, when I was chosen to take this child. And if you're loving that child, well, then I think that you're doing what was asked of you.

And I think that that is a huge first step. I needed my son's mother just as much as she needed me. And she stepped into a space when I asked her to take on the responsibility of things that I felt incapable of or unworthy of doing. And she is an amazing mother to my son and I am very, very grateful for her.

And so for the adoptive parents, whether you're getting that from your children's birth parents or not, I just want you to know that. I see you doing what was asked of you. And I think that's a great first step.

Lori Holden:

I love that. And you make me think of like a dance, a dance between the two of you -- and birth fathers are in there sometimes too -- where sometimes you're leading and sometimes you're following. Sometimes you’re the helper, sometimes you’re the helpee. Sometimes you're the healer, sometimes the healee. So and over time it does change.

Now at some point all that contact is going to have a complicating factor and that is when the child reaches the age where they have a say in it with whether or not they want to have contact, and more contact or less contact. And suddenly me as the adoptive mom, I'm not making all the decisions anymore. So have you hit that in your, in your situation if it's something you're able to talk about.

Ashley Mitchell:

Yes, I am. I was walking through Barnes & Noble in Arizona and our whole relationship -- I have come back into the picture and his Mom and I had been dictating the entire relationship. We'd been arranging visits. You know, we were kind of rebuilding that trust. It was visiting my sister in Arizona, and I was in a Barnes & Noble and I got a text message and my son was nine years old. And I got a text that said, Hey, this is Derek, I miss you.

And I went, Does your mom know you're texting me? I called her immediately. And I was like, do you know Derrick has my phone? And she said, She's like, yeah, it's my phone. And I was like, okay, and right then that's when our open adoption relationship actually started. And I thought that it had started when we had contact, and it didn't. Our open adoption actually started when HE decided that he had a voice and opinion and needs and wants and could express what he was feeling and all of a sudden we went, Okay, this has to change and we had to shift it.

So now our visits are 100% arranged around his desire to see me. And his desire to see his half brother and sister and his desire to spend time here. We didn't get that, that didn't click for us until I got that text and all of a sudden we went, Okay, he is expressing something new. And now our open adoption really begins.

And now it's been catered around him, which is what it should be anyway, which is awesome. So we're just transitioning into what that looks like.

Lori Holden:

Yeah, we’re just kind of caretakers of the relationship until we can turn the reins over gradually to the child at the center. And I love what you said because it confirms what I've long been telling adoptive parents in workshops: We start out thinking open adoption is about contact with birth parents, and we do this so the birth mother can have some peace of mind and maybe later if we need a kidney or something (I admit that might have been me).

But in the big picture and as time goes on the blinders come off. Open adoption is not just about the connection between adoptive parents and birth parents. It's really about an open channel with your child and being able to talk with your child about anything, if they wonder things, if they are sad, if they're excited, they can come to you without you having your own triggers in their way.

Ashley Mitchell:

Now, I love that you said that because that is so important because you see the adoptive parents on the birth parents and they have this beautiful like amazing friendship and relationship. But does that block them from really cultivating these relationships with the children because that's really what this is about. And I know there's so many years before the child is old enough to express some of those things. And so it's just a natural kind of, you know, tendency for especially the moms the two moms right? To kind of gravitate and build that relationship or completely repel against each other.

But man, and When, when he started to express what he wanted, we thought this is what adoption was really about is that it's about the child. This is how we show up and do that well. And open adoption is about making sure that he has answers to the questions that he has. And that he has a safe place to process in either dynamic, and it's awesome. It doesn't make it easier for him. And it doesn't mean that he's not going to have stuff come up. That's going to be complicated. But he has a team around him serving him that has his best interest, to be able to process and answer all the questions that he has. And it's awesome. It's awesome.

Lori Holden:

Absolutely. And speaking of awesome, you had some awesome news recently. Can you tell us about the new nonprofit arm of your organization Lifetime Healing?

Ashley Mitchell:

Yes, so Lifetime Healing Foundation was created so that we could offer innovative programs to support women that have been exploited. trauma that includes adoption, trafficking, addiction, incarceration, abuse, and beyond. We are so excited to have this nonprofit organization to be able to serve all women. I've been able to come to the table in the commonality of trauma through birth mother grief. And now we get to expand it to so much farther than that. And so we're so excited to finally be official and really get to work. We've been working for a decade, and now we're like, now we really hit some work. And so we're really excited about that.

Lori Holden:

So that that magic wand has now been supercharged, right?

Ashley Mitchell:

Oh, yeah. Now all the reform that we want, we actually have a platform to do that. We're excited.

Lori Holden:

Well, there may be some people listening who would like to be a part of that and maybe support that. So we'll make sure that the show notes have information on this.

Ashley Mitchell:

We would love that.

Lori Holden:

We're getting towards the end of our time together. So this is a question that I ask of all my guests. Boil things down to your best piece of advice for adoptive parent about the long view.

Ashley Mitchell:

Don't give up. At the end of the day, you will have to answer to your child about how you brought them home, and about what that looks like, and about what you did to fight for that relationship with the biological parents and it's gonna matter.

And how you are able to answer that question is going to be dictated upon the work that you put into it. It's exhausting, and it is for life. But at the end of the day, if you can look at your child and say that you did everything that you could to make sure that regardless of the circumstance, you did everything you could to cultivate these relationships, that's what's gonna matter. That's what's gonna matter.

And so, keep fighting, keep fighting for that. I know it's hard to be in the trenches. But when you get to look at your child and say that we did this and this and have those relationships intact, that'll be because of the work that you did.

Lori Holden:

Excellent advice. Good place to close. How can people reach you Ashley if they'd like to get more Ashley?

Ashley Mitchell:

Instagram is my favorite platform so you can find me there @BigToughGirl.

Lori Holden:

Excellent. Well, thank you so much for being with me today. I think you've brought a lot of points up that people may not have thought of and will be glad to know that they need to be thinking in these ways. So I really appreciate your help.

Ashley Mitchell:

Well, thank you for letting me have a space here to share with your audience.

Lori Holden:

So we'll see you all next time on Adoption: The Long View.