Modern adoption: Birth mothers stay connected to children

| November 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

Kate Gillen and her birth son, Michael, attend a Minnesota Twins game in 2016. Courtesy Kate Gillen

November is National Adoption Month

When Kate Gillen walks down the aisle on her wedding day next June at St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park, the son whom she placed for adoption as a college freshman will be there with a special role. 

The open adoption from 2001 has allowed Gillen, 35, and Michael, 16, to maintain a relationship. He’ll be an usher at the wedding. 

“He doesn’t quite know what an usher is yet, but he’s very excited to be involved,” Gillen said. “He’s told all his friends about it, and it’s very sweet. I think it’s just a testament to how positive [the open adoption] has been for him as well.” 

Through the years, their relationship has looked different — some years it entailed regular phone calls and emails, and in other years, regular visits. 

“As he’s gotten older, we’ve entered this new phase of our relationship where he’s had more questions and kind of testing the waters of showing more emotion toward me,” Gillen said. “So, it’s exciting to see that he’s eager to have even more of a relationship the older he gets and to see how that will unfold.” 

Gillen, who grew up attending St. Vincent de Paul church and school, discovered she was pregnant the summer after graduating from Totino-Grace High School in Fridley in 2000. The pregnancy remained a secret that fall when she went off to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Once she had the courage to share the news with her parents, they were supportive, and her mom was the first person to suggest adoption. 

With her parents and a social worker from an adoption agency, they looked through three-ring binders with 100-some prospective adoptive parents. Ultimately, Gillen chose a Catholic couple who live in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Seeking support after placing her son with his adoptive family, an adoption nonprofit has provided a platform for Gillen to share her story, process her emotions and also help others. Bellis, formerly the Adoption Option Council of Minnesota, connects people affected by adoption and advocates for a better understanding of adoption in general. 

In its primary work, Bellis trains volunteers and sends them in teams to speak to health, child development, and family and consumer science classes in Minnesota high schools. The organization reaches about 4,000 students in 50-60 high schools each year. 

“Our hope in doing that is to be able to talk about what modern adoption looks like. It’s fun to be able to dispel myths, so they can see adoption more accurately,” said Jenny Eldredge, Bellis’ executive director and adoptive mother of two. She added that Bellis also provides information to pregnancy resource centers, corporate groups and other organizations.  

Eldredge said there are a lot of stereotypes about adoption, and most people are surprised to learn that 90 percent of domestic infant adoptions are open, and the relationships between the birth mother, child and families involve common family dynamics. 

“It’s not always easy; it’s like any relationship, with issues and ebbs and flows,” said Eldredge, a parishioner of St. Katharine Drexel in Ramsey. 

Bellis doesn’t have any religious or political affiliations, but it has partnered with Annunciation in Minneapolis for its annual fundraising brunch and received financial support from the social justice ministry at Our Lady of Grace in Edina. The Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota provided grants this year. 

Eldredge noted the need for such an organization. Its Adoption Connection gatherings bring together birth parents, adoptive parents, adopted children and family members to share their experiences every other month. She cites a gap in support, especially for birth mothers, who often deal with grief and shame. 

“They can feel so intentional and proud of their decision to make an adoption plan for their baby, and it’s just really hard to get the support they need, because it’s joy and grief wrapped up in one,” Eldredge said, noting that in its 34-year history, Bellis has supported about 1,000 birth mothers from all walks of life. 

Gillen knows those feelings. As a volunteer, board member and past president of Bellis, Gillen has helped plan the annual weekend birth mothers retreat, Stronger Together, which began four years ago. But she didn’t realize how much the retreat would impact her as a participant.

“I was totally blindsided by … a lot of things that I never really dealt with or faced head-on, especially in that first year after placement,” she said. “While it was always a positive experience, there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen that first year, and I think I skipped that. That retreat allowed me to take myself back there and acknowledge everything that happened in that first year and not to feel shame and guilt around how I got myself there in the first place.”

She added: “I’ve come to such a strong place through my work with Bellis and [am] proud of the decision that I made and the life that Michael and I both have now because of it. [And I try to] use that to help others and to share that story as a beacon of hope for people who are maybe in that decision-making process or are struggling post-adoption to really show the value in that, over the course of life, [adoption] just keeps giving.”  

Gillen graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in English and works in marketing at Children’s Minnesota. 

“To this day, Michael is my motivator,” she said. “I never wanted him to look back on this and have it all be for naught. I wanted him to be proud of me, too, and the things that I accomplished because of our adoption. So, a lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish in life I attribute to trying to make him proud.”

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