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Birthmothers, the Unsung Heroes of the Adoption Movement

On December 18, 1987, Heidi Russo slipped out of a Milwaukee social worker's office with a sticky terrycloth bib in her purse. The bib was one of the few mementos from her brief time with her son—the nine months she carried him and the six sweet weeks they had shared before the legal process for his adoption was complete.

Russo, 19, had selected a wonderful family for her son, Colin. The couple was loving, the siblings, eager to welcome another one. Even still, Russo walked away empty-armed with a weight of shame, knowing that she wasn't equipped to lend support.

Now Russo is working to ensure that other birthmoms walk away with a lighter, more hopeful load.

In recent years, adoption/orphan care has become something of a darling cause of Western Christians. Advocacy groups like the Christian Alliance for Orphans, Project 1:27, and Bethany Christian Services partner with churches and families to support in-country and overseas adoptions, and conferences like Together for Adoption connect a theology of adoption to practical outreach. The Christian Alliance for Orphans reports that in the past decade, about 180,000 children from around the world were welcomed into U.S. families through inter-country adoption.

But in the push to provide for vulnerable children, one member of the adoption triangle sometimes remains in the shadows.

In the Shadows

In her 2006 groundbreaking book, The Girls Who Went Away, researcher and filmmaker Ann Fessler shared the untold stories of birthmothers who relinquished children in the decades before Roe v. Wade. Without moral or practical support from families or communities, these young women were assured by well-meaning social workers that they would forget their children and go on to live happy lives. Fessler's research, however, revealed that the women never forgot.

In countries such as China and Pakistan, out-of-wedlock birth carries the same stigma it did for Fessler's women during the 1950s and '60s. While pregnancy among Western single women no longer bears the same shame (40.7 percent of all U.S. births are to unmarried women), the stereotype of the "promiscuous" or "bad" birthmother is not completely erased from cultural consciousness.

Three women, though, are working hard to challenge the stereotype through a new Atlanta-based nonprofit, Three Strands. Adoptive mother Stacey Coleman founded the ministry to elevate birthmothers like Heidi Russo and Jennie Hundley, and named it after Ecclesiastes 4:12: "A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (NIV). Together, the women are reaching out to birthmothers and encouraging the adoption community to fully recognize and include all members in the adoption process. They want to celebrate the brave women who have chosen not to abort their babies but to give them life instead.

Colin Kaepernick
Courtesy of Heidi Russo

Colin Kaepernick

Russo, now 44, is the birthmother of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. When Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII this time last year, she was hounded by media attention. "It's like I was watching them talk about a stranger," she says, noting that many of the reports were inaccurate. Commenters on sports forums and blogs called Russo an opportunist, and Kaepernick told Time that he was not interested in meeting with Russo.

Still, Russo is delighted with the life Kaepernick has had and grateful for Rick and Teresa, who raised him in Central Valley, California. Today, Russo wants to spare more women the loneliness and shame she carried for more than two decades. That burden began to lift when she met adoptive mother Stacy Coleman, the founder and executive director of Three Strands.

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Birthmothers, the Unsung Heroes of the Adoption Movement