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Season 1, Episode 7: Dr. Rachael Clemens discusses her research, which uses an information science lens to more deeply understand the experience of first or birth mothers both before and after they make the decision to relinquish their child.  She highlights the information and resources that first/birth mothers sought and areas where mothers felt support was lacking. Her research describes the navigation of complex relationships in open adoptions from the first/birth mother perspective and themes of trust, power, vulnerability, and envisioning future possible selves.

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Dr. Emily Helder: Welcome! I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Rachael Clemens. She received her PhD in information and library science and is adjunct faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her research examines human information behavior in the context of personal crisis.

And she’s also the author of a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption, entitled “Intersection of information science and crisis pregnancy decision-making.” So, thanks so much for being here. Information science might be something that people are less familiar with. I know, you know, true confessions that, that was me as well before I worked with you on this chapter. And so I would love to ask you to give us a brief overview of the field, just so we can kind of understand what sorts of things the field tends to focus on.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Yes. And all of my students, we practice our elevator speeches about what is information and library science. Information and library science is a very interdisciplinary field. But it tends to focus on the relationships and interactions between three primary constructs. One is information, one is people, and one is technology. And so anything that happens amongst those three things we’re interested in. So our field, like I said, is very interdisciplinary.

We focus on things from information storage and retrievals systems, user experience , the world of archives,  the world, any library in any shape or format, as you might know it,  information literacy, trying to empower people to seek out and evaluate information for their, for their needs. That’s the primary components.

And really one of our biggest goals is to help empower people in their search  for relevant information. So we work with many different disciplines from health informatics to digital humanities, to my area of information behavior in particular, in crisis contexts.

Dr. Emily Helder: Thanks so much. So to focus a bit on the chapter we were so thankful to include it. One of our goals in designing the Handbook was that we’d really have information from all the different members of the adoption kinship networks. So the fact that your chapter focused on birth mothers or first mothers was, was really important for us. So can you say a little bit more from your perspective about why you see that kind of research as valuable and important when we’re thinking about the adoption context?

Dr. Rachael Clemens:  Well, so I have found in my research and this is nothing new that I’ve discovered, but that, but that women who are faced with an unintended, unexpected pregnancy and then have a time period to move forward and make, make some sort of decision is the research shows it’s perhaps the most stressful event or time in a woman’s life.

And so I am personally interested in contexts that involve crises and especially personal crises. And adoption is something that we we hear about, but we typically don’t have intimate knowledge of where to seek out information on that. Those information pathways are really far removed from kind of our everyday life.

And so I would like to any sort of the crisis context I’m interested in, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to focus on women who are traveling, this decision-making pathway. Where did they go for information to help inform their decisions? So then they’re making a decision that works for them. So that was the reason for my focus.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. And, and that, that traveling that road of information seeking is a real big focus of the chapter. I wanted to ask you more about that because intuitively I think that people think of information seeking, if they, if they don’t have a lot of background in the field, as a pretty linear process. You know, we’re seeking to make a decision, we get information, we make a pros and cons list, and we choose. And so it feels like this linear process, but your chapter, I think really nicely highlights that when birth mothers may be seeking information, sometimes it might be helpful, but also it can really add to the uncertainty and stress and that it’s much more of a nonlinear process. Can you say a bit more about what you’ve learned about that linear versus nonlinear process?

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Sure. Absolutely. So, as you mentioned we typically think in our everyday life that we have to make a decision, that more information is better, right? We want to explore all of our options and all of the, you know, pros and cons with each, each of our options. In everyday life, we often minimize those, we use a term called satisficing where you get enough information to help you make a good enough decision. Right. But this element of longterm and lifetime potential impact on a woman and potentially a child that she may relinquish really ups the ante and ups, the, the critical nature of how she perceives this situation.

So she may, and I found this in my study that women in my study anyway, followed along sort of a trajectory that begins with this confirmation of an unintended pregnancy. And it really forces them to kind of cognitively appraise their situation and the voices of the women in my study really were loud in talking about the negative emotions that come into play with it, with the situation. They may have other co-crises they’re often having to manage or think about or gather information for and even denial.

You know, “I just can’t deal with this right now. So I’m just going to not seek any information and try to push that, push that aside.” But at some point, women in my study did come to moments of self assessment and assessing their support systems, which really pushed them into seeking out information. And again not a pathway that they were typically familiar with.

So along the route there is a a continuum it comes from psychology a concept called monitoring and blunting, right? Where we, we may act as monitors at one extreme end of the continuum, where we’re trying to gather all the information about this phenomenon versus the other end of the spectrum, where we’re blunting. More information is just adding to my cognitive dissonance and really stressing me out.

So this kind of ebb and flow of gathering information, but then pulling back and needing a time to cope and kind of mull things over. I found both at the beginning of their journey and even at the end, even post decision, still struggling with this kind of monitoring and blunting. Too much information is overwhelming and so that this idea of monitoring and blunting really, is challenging for, for women or really anyone to deal with in a crisis context.

Dr. Emily Helder:  I think one thing that I really appreciated about the chapter was that you have direct quotes and, and kind of in their own voice sections, included in the chapter.

And part of that was because you, you, used that qualitative approach where you were interviewing the women and, and discerning themes from their narratives. So I wondered if you could say a bit more about why you felt like the qualitative approach was a really good fit for your research question.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Right. Well, so my research question was really quite broad. It basically is: What is the experience of women going through this process as they become birth mothers, as they make a decision to relinquish a child for adoption, what is that experience? So I had no hypotheses, no model that I’m testing or anything.

So I’m, that leads me then to kind of the world of qualitative research, right. I’m, you know, I’m not it’s not a, a question that, that requires a quantitative approach where I’m looking for large patterns, being able to predict behavior. I’m really wanting to instead of data condensing I want to enhance my data that I gathered, right. So I really want to dig deep. And so that’s what really lends itself to a qualitative approach,  seemed to be a good fit.  I’ll also say there are many qualitative approaches, of course, this, because I’m interested in the lived experience that little key word fits nicely with kind of a phenomenological approach, right?

Where we’re asking about what is the experience of people who’ve lived through this, right? Even within the phenomenological whole world, many, many methods and approaches within that. I selected one called interpretative phenomenological analysis or IPA for short, comes out of the UK. It’s a fairly recent approach.

But, but it allows you to not only look for patterns across your participants, but also explore gives you the freedom to explore kind of the ideographic nature or the individual unique perspectives that each participant brings and value those. Just as any similarities or patterns across participants.

So that’s, and kind of drilling down from my qualitative approach to a phenomenological approach to this particular methodological approach IPA, is how I arrived at that decision.

Dr. Emily Helder: Great. And I would think that would make sense, given that the women that you interviewed had some unique experiences, were different, you know, in terms of demographic factors.

Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So focusing more, I guess, on the themes that you found across the interviews, your research really identified six of them. And one was a set of themes around envisioning future possible selves. And another set were some different themes related to trust and power across the kinship network.

So why don’t we start with the first one that envisioning future possible selves. As I was reading  your chapter, what I thought was really interesting is thinking about that in the context of open adoptions just because the role of the birth mother and then the boundaries between relationships and the kinship network are probably going to evolve and change over time with open adoption. So I wonder, could you say a bit more about how birth mothers were able to navigate that open adoption process and how that kind of impacted their envisioning of their future possible selves?

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Right. So envisioning and kind of crafting what your future possible self might look like. You, you typically set up a few, you know, trying to check out this one and then this one and see what seems to resonate with you? So the women who participated in my study they had relinquished within the last 15 years. So they’re fairly recent. And so as they, all of them, at some point came into contact with an adoption professional, be that a social worker or a case  manager, usually with affiliated with an adoption agency.

So that’s where they often encountered this idea of open adoption. And so they relied intently almost exclusively on the, the information that these adoption professionals shared as they crafted this, you know, future possible selves of what they might look, what that might look like. So they’re relying heavily on, on that.

Coupled, occasionally with talking with other birth mothers who were in, either in, or not in open, depending upon what type of adoption relationship they were in open or not open, that was a second source of information for them as they crafted this. Another thing that I’ll point out is it also speaks to kind of the trust in the power dynamics and depending on what state these women were in, right.

Each state has different  support for any sort of legal contract in order to, you know, form these ongoing contract, ongoing communication contracts that we think of as supporting open adoption. You know, if there’s any kind of guarantee or contractual support for them really depends upon the state.

Again, they’re relying on these adoption professionals to give them information about. When we say you have an open adoption, what does that really mean in the longterm? So to get back to crafting future selves, all of the women who participated in my study, if they had that option to move forward with an open adoption, they took it.

, They will talk about, you know, down the road because some of them were several years out how that actually panned out and what that actually looked out versus the vision that they had back as they were making this decision So that’s where that element of power and trust really comes in and you can see some sad examples of that, where women felt that they were misled or the trust that they had placed in the adoption professional and the adopting parents was really undermined because the open adoption didn’t ultimately pan out, like they had envisioned.

Dr. Emily Helder:  So one of the things that I was really struck by as I was reading some of their quotes and sort of first person narrative was the level of uncertainty and vulnerability that the participants really had to carry, and especially in the context of open adoption. And I wondered if you could say more about what you learned regarding the level of trust that your participants really had to place.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Sure. So thinking about the level of trust that, these women are, they’re gathering information and working through their own coping and decision making process is they reach out to adoption professionals, perhaps other women who have gone through this process and who are birth mothers, working often in a, navigating open adoption relationship.

Amidst all of this as they determine whether or not they can trust information, they are also working with and struggling with elements of shame and stigma that they hear either from their own perception of adoption or from others, family members, friends who communicate either intentional, sometimes overtly these elements of shame and stigma.

So very much tiptoeing around information and whether or not to trust it while also coping with these emotions of shame and stigma. So the trust comes in largely, especially with working with adoption professionals too, down to just a very personal relationship you know, my feelings and my perceptions of how the person I’m working with is kind of setting up and helping me frame this narrative, moving forward, what it might look like.

And so deciding to trust information, from adoption professional. And then if you’re moving forward with an open adoption, often you are in communication with the prospective adoptive parents. And so those conversations again are very, as several of my participants put it very much walking on eggshells, both in the decision making process, leading up to the birth and potential adoption, relinquishment and adoption to then actually moving forward into life living as a birth mother in an open adoption, you know, just kind of constant eggshells, a worry that has a huge impact on how, whether or not a woman feels good and empowered about her decision and how to move forward with that.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. And I think one thing I’m hearing from you and that I remember, you know, thinking about more as I was reading your chapter was just the, the lifespan nature of this.

I mean, maybe I think people who are less familiar with adoption might think of it as a single time point. But really for adoptees, for birth parents, for adoptive parents, there’s really that lifespan navigation of that. Yeah. So I wondered, you know, in terms of conclusions that you came to, after speaking with your participants, did you get a sense for why information and support might be difficult for birth mothers to access and what kinds of things in particular would be helpful for them to have.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Right. So some of the sources of  information, because my study was fairly current and I intended to set it up this way so that my participants could have accessed to the internet, you know, autonomously without having to have an intermediary.

And of course they all did use the internet. And so the internet led them to lots of things, some helpful, some not, you know, that’s how they found like an adoption typically found an adoption agency and an adoption professional to work with. They used the internet to search for legal information, again, finding an agency, very much for support, finding other women, or birth parents in general, to, to listen to, in fact, this was one of the things that across the board women said were so helpful.

 So one of the strongest desires that, that, my participants in my study talked about as they were working through this journey in contemplating relinquishing their child for adoption was a desire to speak with other women who had already navigated this process who had already been through the decision to relinquish a child and were on the other side of this decision. Again, adoption is, it has lifelong impacts. As you mentioned that it’s not just a decision event and then it’s over, this has lifelong implications. So they really wanted to speak with  birth mothers who had been through the process, and that they often found that challenging and, you know, for whatever reason, either an information professional was unable or are perhaps unwilling to connect them, pre decision with other women who’d been through this process already.

And I think that’s really what they were looking for role models and examples that they can look at as they’re crafting this potential future self. It is, it is what they’re are imagining, actually playing out with other women down the road.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, right. Yeah. And as we conclude, I really want to talk a bit more about what you spoke about regarding stigma.

So I think given that there’s so much, stigma or secrecy around unplanned pregnancy, and that birth mothers might face, I think probably as a culture there’s just a lot of stereotypes that exist about birth mothers. And I wondered if you could speak to how the findings of your study help defy some of those stereotypes, help add complexity or nuance to our understanding of birth mothers and what they experience.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Right. So my participants talked about shame and stigma and kind of different perceptions of that. One common example is that a woman will feel, you know, she’s finds herself in a position of being pregnant with an unintended unanticipated pregnancy. And for a variety of reasons feels unable to have this child and raise this child, which just really cuts away your entire self esteem. So, so the self esteem, along with the shame and stigma of just having to even contemplate your inability to raise this child just is a huge blow in terms of shame and stigma. Shame and stigma also comes from outside environmental factors from family members in particular, perhaps, you know,  friends or any sort of religious community.

This is has a big plays a big role in crafting this narrative of, of one’s inability and kind of your to raise a child and your view of, of what your options are. And so I found an interesting connection between the narratives we’re often presented through adoption agencies or adoption professionals, these kind of messages of “you’re in this situation, here’s a narrative where you can make a great decision for you and for this child in the narrative of if you love this child, you will place this child with a family who can raise it the “right way” and with all the comforts and, and, and everything that you would want for this child.” And I did find that women, as they seek to kind of balance the stress of the situation are often looking for a way to frame the situation and looking for a narrative or a message that will then help comfort them moving forward. And so I found it interesting that I would like to follow up on, you know, kind of the narratives and the messages that are presented to women who go to adoption professionals, adoption agencies, and what they hear. Do they, you know, how does this come about that they are in this situation and they decide to grasp this narrative and this message and frame their situation and move forward with that.

So I think there’s a lot of interesting work that could be done. And I think shame and stigma plays a huge role in, in some of those narratives.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Yes. Oh, I will follow up on that research. That sounds really great. There’s so much that could be done to expand our understanding of the birth mother experience.

So thank you so much for sharing a bit about your research and thanks also for writing the chapter. I think it’s a really valuable section in the handbook.

Dr. Rachael Clemens: Well, I hope it’s helpful to some, future social workers or adoption professionals. This is a huge role. You play a vital role in the life of, of, women contemplating relinquishment, and then down the road in, in their life and adoptees life and adoptive parents too, it’s a huge responsibility.

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