Friday, September 30, 2011

Returning to Normal ... Whatever That Is

Well, I did it. Or rather I will have done so when I click "publish" for this piece. Thirty days; thirty posts. I've enjoyed writing every day, but I've had to put off some other things while doing so. My "to do" list has grown. Though I intend to keep writing (just not quite so frequently), I'm also looking forward to getting back on track with some other projects; namely,, the website that Erica and I created as part of our efforts to promote open adoption. We've got plans for things we want to add to the website, and we're also looking forward to a speaking engagement we've got lined up for mid-October.

My blog readership has grown this month, and I have really, really appreciated the comments. You'll be hearing lots more from me, but unless I really happen to get smacked up the side of the head with inspiration tomorrow, I'm planning to take a day off. Enjoy you're weekend. I'll see you soon.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Return of the Bug

In August of 2004 a bug appeared on the wall in front of my computer at work. I opened a word document and composed the following:

There is a very large bug on the wall,
a spray of filament legs radiating
from a wormlike body.
Almost beautiful.
I can't think of a good enough reason to kill it
so instead I watch
as it worries itself precariously
up the smooth flat wall.

Today, all these years later, the same bug reappeared. Well, more likely it is one that is simply identical to it, presumably a descendant of the bug of the poem, owing its very existence to my reluctance to squash its ancestor. But it seems like the same bug. Is there a message here? Some deep meaning I am meant to take away? Or has the bug appeared today merely to prompt me to look back over the years since 2004, noting the things that have changed -- the people who have left my life or come into it -- and the things that have not changed. I'm still staring at the same wall at the same job, and is it really possible that so many years have passed and I still haven't pulled up that ugly rug on the stairs in my house?

Or maybe the bug is my muse ... giving me one more tie-in to NaBloPoMo's September theme of "return." I believe I have stretched this theme about as far as I can stretch it. Only one more day of this silliness. Thank you patient readers for sticking with me thus far.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Returning to Fun and Connection

We all get a little off track sometimes, gradually slipping away from our core-value intentions, like a car slipping out of alignment. I'm aware that I've gotten a little off track in terms of one aspect of my parenting.

This summer, the girls and I did a lot of fun things together, but since the return to school parenting has become more about driving them to activities, helping with homework, and pestering Ashley to do her eye exercises. Weekends have been taken up by the usual slog of laundry, plus a home-improvement project that my husband has been working hard to complete. There's nothing really wrong with any of this, but I'm aware that something is missing. This weekend, I want to do something that's just plain fun. It's time to put the joy back in joyful parenting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Are You an Attuned Adoptive Parent?

When a baby cries, an attuned parent or caregiver recognizes this as a communication of an unmet need and subsequently tries to a) decipher the communication, and b) meet the need. Repetitions of this cycle facilitates attachment between the child and their caregiver.

When an older child comes into a family as a foster or foster-adopt placement, a similar scenario plays out. The child "cries out" -- sometimes with words, sometimes with actual tears, often with behavior. It's a more challenging situation because trauma scrambles the message. Fear masquerades as anger; anxiety as aggression. But a loving and attuned parent can learn to decode the message, to "hear" what the child is saying.

Most parents will bend over backwards to meet the needs of their children. Love, safety, a sense of belonging. Anything that is beneficial, we want them to have it. But what happens when an adoptive parent tunes in and hears the child asking for a connection, or more of a connection, to their biological family?

Here's where many adoptive parents panic and freeze. If they manage to hear the message at all. Sometimes the message doesn't even make it through because it is one that is so scary to adoptive parents that they can't even let it in. There are adoptive parents who would lay down their lives for the children, make any sacrifice, do anything and everything possible to increase their child's happiness and well-being ... anything, that is, but that.

There are a couple of issues here. One is that it is simply very difficult for some adoptive parents to understand that the longing for the biological family does not detract from the solidity of the adoptive family. The biological longing is often perceived as something dangerous and destructive, something that prevents the child from bonding in the new family and that must therefore be quashed.

A second issue is that a sense of connection to one's biological family is not simply recognized as a need. As an adoptee, I believe that it is one of the basic and primal of needs, but the entire adoption industry is based on the premise that it is not a need, or at the very least, not an important one. It's a premise that has benefited from a lot of PR over the years and is still very prevalent, in spite of the attempts on the part of many adoptees, first parents, and others to dismantle it.

As an adoptee, I was in a unique position to hear my daughter when she communicated her longing for more connection with her first family, as she did in many ways. If you've read my blog before you know that I consider open adoption to have contributed positively to my life in many ways. If you've read the new blog of my adopted daughter's first mother, Erica, you likewise know that our open arrangement benefits her as well. But the main reason we have an open adoption is because it benefits our daughter.

I know that some adoptive parents will say that their child doesn't communicate any longing for the biological  family. I have heard adoptive parents say with pride, "My child says they won't ever search for their biological family because we are their real family and we are all they need." I cringe a little when I hear this. Why? Because I was that adoptee -- the compliant adoptee saying what I knew would garner approval. No one ever told me I had to say that, but I picked it up somehow. I knew it was my expected line. For years I repeated it without questioning it, believing I believed it. Then one day, in my twenties, I found myself curled up in a ball on the floor of my apartment, weeping uncontrollably, knocked flat by grief and longing that came at me out of the blue.

I know a set of adoptive parents who have done everything in their power to squash their child's expression of longing for her first mother, including telling her outright that she shouldn't talk about her, or really even think about her, because they are her parents now. Those parents recently told me, without any sense of irony, that one of the reasons they are not pursuing visitation with the first mother is that the child "never asks about her." If you are an adoptive parent, I know that you have your child's best interest at heart. But I urge you to ask yourself the hard questions. Have you really made it safe for your child to express all that is in his or her heart? Does the child trust that you will be able to hear them if they speak their truth, or do you have blinders on in this one area? Is there any way that your own fears and anxieties may be getting in the way of your child's message getting through?

I understand that there are some biological parents who are not safe people for children to be around. Or in some cases the biological parent may be the one who has retreated and pulled back from contact. And then there are those situations in which distance makes regular contact with the biological family impossible. Meeting the longing in the child will look different in different families. In some cases, the best the parent can offer may be empathy and understanding -- acknowledgment of the child's loss. It may mean making space for mourning. (Even this can be challenging for some adoptive parents.) In other situations, creative solutions may be possible. If one or both biological parents are not accessible for whatever reason, is there another relative with whom a relationship might be formed? Can siblings be connected? (For example, there are summer camps devoted to bringing siblings back together for a week or two or reconnection.)

I tried to explain to a friend recently how my bond with my adopted daughter strengthened as I facilitated more contact with her biological family, and she looked at me in disbelief. But when viewed in terms of what I wrote above about attunement, it's not so surprising. My daughter communicated a need and her need was heard and met, by me, her attuned parent. I'm not a perfect parent. I get tired and cranky; I've got buttons and my kids know how to push them. I often look back on situations and wish I had handled them differently. But in this one area I am confident that I am on the right track.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Monday, September 26, 2011

Looking Back: What I've Learned From NaBloPoMo

I still have a few more days, but I already have a pretty good sense of some of the lessons I'll be taking away from my experiment in blogging every day for one month.

1) Blogging every day is hard. 
This one is perhaps a little obvious. And no, I didn't think it would be easy. But I'm aware that there are some bloggers out there who do this regularly. Not just for a month, but all the time. And all I have to say is, wow! Kudos to them!

2) Sometimes I just need to sit down and do it. 
Before NaBloPoMo, I pretty much only sat down to write when I had an idea of something I wanted to say. This month, I often sat down with no idea in my head at all. Really. Nada. I learned that if I stared at the screen long enough, something would come out. It wasn't always brilliant or pretty, but it was something. And I like to think that there may even have been a few gems among the dross.

3) It's good to push beyond my comfort zone.
Blogging is a risky business. We put our raw selves out there. Sometimes I'd write something and think "I don't know if I can publish that." And if it wasn't for NaBloPoMo, maybe I wouldn't have. But the clock would be ticking and I'd be feeling the pressure to get something up, so I'd hit that "publish" button anyway. Some of those posts were the ones that readers most connected with.

4) It's not always about adoption, but often it is.
I started out with the goal of not just writing every day but of trying to tie each post to my focus on adoption issues and to the monthly theme of "return." I didn't quite accomplish that goal. Some days, I found I needed to widen my focus beyond adoption, and that's OK. In fact, it's something I may want to continue, though adoption will remain the dominant theme woven through most of my pieces. Also, even when my writing's not about adoption, it still kind of is.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Quiet Sunday

Ashley has spent a lot of time in her room today. Her sister is at a friend's house, so Ashley has been entertaining herself. I've heard her singing, and I just went in and discovered that she had moved a number of her belongings (including her computer and her bean bag chair) into her closet. She explained that she was playing a game in which she was a teenager at high school, and the closet was her locker. (She obviously has no idea how tiny high school lockers are, but never mind that.)

This quiet alone-time play is not a bad thing. In fact, I see it as an important development for her. When she first came to us, it would have been unbearable -- nay, impossible -- for her to spend so much time alone. Too many fears and anxieties. Now she is comfortable with herself, and comfortable in our house, and she is developing a new skill, the ability to play alone.

Community is important; connection to others is important. But there's also something tremendously valuable in being able to enjoy your own company. She played by herself for a while, came out and connected with me for a while, then went back to the world of her imagining. I think she is striking a good balance.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Twitter Jealousy: The Open Adoption Symposium Happens Without Me

The 2011 Symposium Opening Adoption is taking place this weekend in Richmond, VA, and I'm not there. I really, really, really wish I was, but I'm not. Instead, I've been torturing myself all day by reading tweets by people who are. It's sweet torture. Here are a few of my favorites: 

We are still paying the price for the generations of secrecy. (Pertman) #OAsymposium

"Goal of adoption is to help kids feel 'at home'." To me, that means at home in adoptive family and in family of origin. #OAsymposium

Need to stop talking about forming families & start talking about forming successful families. Much broader, longer commitment. #OAsymposium

#Openadoption confuses child? JGritter responds: Is it your experience that when you're well-informed you're confused? #adoptionsymposium

J Gritter: Growing up in a closed #adoption is like coming into a mystery movie 15 min late. You've missed the connetions #adoptionsymposium

"Commercialism in adoption is as damaging as secrecy." - James Gritter at #OAsymposium

I'm glad this symposium is happening. I'm glad the conversation is taking place. Next time, I just need to make sure I find a way to get myself there. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Returning to the City of my Birth ... with my Birth Mother

About nine years ago, I spent a weekend with my biological mother and aunt in the city of my birth. We picked the city because it was a half way point between my aunt's home and mine; my mother flew in from out-of-state and met us both there. I had my two-year-old daughter with me as well. It happened to be an especially difficult time in my life; I was going through a painful divorce and was parenting on my own. I was extremely sleep deprived, and perhaps as a result, my memories of the weekend are not especially crisp. I can tell you that we ate in restaurants, browsed a museum or two, and all shared one hotel room, but what mostly stands out in my mind from that visit is the hospital.

The hospital that I was born in is on hill, visible from various points in the city, and it seemed that everywhere we went, there it was. I didn't grow up in that city, and my mother didn't stay there either. She had only come there during the last part of her pregnancy, after she had begun to show, to hide out in a cousin's apartment until I was born. The city wasn't our city, but there was that hospital, hovering above us throughout the weekend, a reminder of the one event that linked us to the location. 

Being reunited in adulthood with a biological family that you didn't grow up with is a bit like suddenly acquiring a new sense, or an aspect of a sense. For example, I recently read about a woman who (through vision therapy) acquired the ability to see in 3D after not being able to do so for most of her life. She described how amazing it was to experience the world in this new way as an adult.  Being with my biological family is a bit like that for me. I am more keenly aware of "relatedness" than I presumably would be if I had always known genetic mirroring. That weekend in the city of the looming hospital, I experienced that heightened sense of awareness together with the strange sensation of coming full circle.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Birthday Card Dilemma

We bought a birthday card today for Ashley's sister. Not Mackenzie. The other sister. The one I don't write about much on this blog because I've never met her. This would be Ashley's biological sister, who is two years older than she is and who was placed for adoption in a different family.

Unfortunately, that family is not as open as we are to openness in adoption, so we have not managed to get the sisters together. (The primary sticking point is that there is a younger brother who was born after the girls came into state care. Ashley knows about him and the older sister doesn't ... and her family doesn't want her to find out. Ashley adores this brother and sees him often. There is no way to guarantee that she won't mention him if we get the girls together.)

Ashley feels a connection to this sister, but standing in the card aisle today, it was painfully obvious that many of the choices would not do for our situation. Any cards with references to "the great times we share" were out. This one would be perfect, she said at one point, if I could add a "d" -- in other words, change the tense from present to past, as in "the great times we shared."

We eventually found a card with a simple message that basically just said: "You are awesome, Sister. Happy Birthday!" It will do for now, but I hope that someday their relationship will again be present tense.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Visit Backlash" in Open Adoption and Blended Families

Ashley's first visit with her biological mother after moving in with us came only a short time after her transition into our household. In fact, the visit had been postponed to give her a few weeks to get settled. I expected that this might be an emotional visit for her, and I was ready. Though I wasn't involved in the actual visit (at this stage of things, visits were supervised by a social worker, who picked her up at our house and then returned her afterwards), I took the full day off from work so I could support her. I knew that we might encounter regressive or difficult behavior or expressions of grief and sadness. I knew that Ashley had been looking forward to the visit and would likely experience post-visit letdown.

I call this "visit backlash," and I was already experienced with it from my older daughter. Though Mackenzie is my biological daughter, we are a blended family. Her father and I split up when she was a little over a year old, and he moved to a distant state shortly after that. My current (and final) husband officially adopted her when she was 5, and had already been "Daddy" for several years before that. Mackenzie sees her biological father a couple times a year. Nowadays, the visits are not a problem at all, but in the early days they were tough. Seeing him seemed to open up the wound of losing him, and I noticed that we would spend weeks "putting her back together" after one of these visits. We would see a regression to younger behaviors as well as clingy tendencies, irritability, and disruption of sleep habits. How did we handle it? We simply did everything in our power to meet her needs and to be really present for her during this time of mourning and readjustment. It was parenting as usual -- lots of love, lots of one-on-one attention -- just cranked up an extra notch or two.

I did the same with Ashley. She arrived home with a bag of gifts from her first mother that she was excited to show me. She seemed happy, but a little wound up. At times her speech became "young," even nonsensical or difficult to follow. I just followed her lead, letting her direct the play. Eventually, she ended up creating a puppet show. I no longer remember the exact themes, but I remember being aware at the time that she was using the puppet show to process her emotions around the visit. Her energy continued to be a little bit "off" for the rest of the day -- she was OK, just not relaxed. I continued to give her a lot of focused attention throughout the day, and, actually, throughout the weekend. By the time she returned to school on Monday morning, she seemed pretty well grounded.

Some adoptive parents see visit backlash as a reason to discontinue visits. Clearly these visits can't be good for the child, they say. Just look at how the child behaves afterwards! I take a different view. I see the backlash as a stage, something to walk through with your child as you help them heal from wounds of loss and separation. Also, it's temporary. We saw with Mackenzie, and then experienced the same thing with Ashley, that the backlash became less pronounced with each visit. Now we really don't experience it at all with either of them, though we have learned that it is important (especially with Ashley) to end each visit with a word or two about the next visit, even if it's just to say "OK, so we'll be in touch to plan the next visit." Understandably, many children find it uncomfortable (as would many adults) to end a visit on a note of uncertainty, not knowing if or when they will see the other parent again, so we make a point of departing with at least a loose plan for future contact.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NaBloPoMo Day 20

Today's NaBloPoMo prompt is "What point in time would you like to return to and live again?"

I am answering honestly when I say that there is no time I would rather be in than the present. There are things I miss about being younger. I miss the energy I once had and the feeling of strength and confidence that accompanied my younger, more athletic body. I wouldn't mind turning back the clock to the skin I had in my twenties. And sometimes, yes, I miss the carefree feeling of being responsible for no one but myself. But would I really go back? Of course not.

I wouldn't go back to a time before before Ashley was in my life. Or Mackenzie. Or my husband. Or my birth family. Nor am I willing to trade in even the tiniest fragment of the knowledge and experience I have gained.

I once participated in a workshop where I was asked to close my eyes and imagine myself at my fullest power. What immediately popped into my head was an image of myself with long gray hair. This may be because the neighborhood I grew up in happened to be populated by older women. I found them all fascinating and I would go from house to house visiting. I spent many hours sitting by their feet, listening to the amazing stories they would tell. Since that early age, I have always known what I want be when I grow up: an old woman.

I hope I may be lucky enough to live to see my dream come true. In the meantime, I will try my best to be present for each moment along the way. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Returning Ashley to Miss D's

During that long, difficult time when Ashley was my daughter in my heart, but not legally anything to me, not even yet my foster daughter, thanks to a bureaucratic snag, I had to return her after each visit to her foster mother, Miss D. This stretch of time was difficult for all involved. Ashley had been told that we wanted to adopt her and didn't fully understand why she couldn't move in with us. As she began to bond with me and my husband, she began to separate emotionally from Miss D. This is a natural development and was her way of preparing to leave someone who had been "mom," if only temporarily, but it caused problems.

Miss D is a loving, strict woman who had been doing foster care since the early 1980s. She once told me that of all the children who had been placed with her over the years, Ashley was the most challenging. Ashley is a child to whom the words "obstinate" and "strong-willed" have been applied, though my husband and I prefer "free-spirited." In any case, she gave Miss D a run for her money, but Miss D, to her credit, never gave up on her as previous foster mothers had. Ashley and Miss D had adapted somewhat to each other, and things had been going relatively well in the months before my husband and I came into the picture.

Unfortunately, Ashley's way of separating from Miss D in preparation for the transition to our family was to begin acting out. The social worker explained that this was normal and happens frequently in such situations. It was a sign that Ashley was ready to move on. All would have been fine if only Ashley could have moved in with us at that point, but because we were stuck in red tape, she had to stay at Miss D's, even though it was clearly no longer the right place for her.

Oh, how I dreaded walking up to Miss D's door to drop Ashley off. Ashley didn't want to go. I didn't want her to go. And Miss D was overwhelmed with the stress of dealing with the behaviors that Ashley was exhibiting in her home. She would meet me at the door and vent. I didn't blame her. I was frustrated, too. But there we were, stuck in a situation that neither of us could change.

I am happy to say that when I walk up to Miss D's door now, as I occasionally do with Ashley when we return for a visit, it is with much lighter emotions. She is delighted to see how Ashley has thrived in her new, permanent home. She laughs and tells me how worried she was that my husband and I would not prove up to the challenge of parenting this particular child, and how happy she is to have been proven wrong. I in turn am grateful to Miss D, for the love and safe haven she provided to Ashley on her journey.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Homecoming of Sorts

Yesterday, Ashley returned home, in a way -- not to a home that she'd been to before, but to a place full of people who consider her to be a family member, which she is. It is a house where she is loved, where photos of her hang on the wall, where she is mentioned in prayers. I am talking about her biological grandmother's house. She got to visit with her mother, her little brother, a baby cousin, her grandmother, her great grandmother, and a slew of aunts and uncles, some of whom are not much older than she is.

Ashley was happy to be there, and she was happy to come home to us, her other family, after the visit. What I've noticed about open adoption in our case is that the more we open it, the more natural it becomes. There was no drama or tension involved in yesterday's visit, though there was gratitude. It was just day with family. Our definition of family just happens to be a little broader than the norm.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Adoption Reunion Search, Part Two

I read once that the typical adoptee who searches is female and in her early thirties. I fit that profile exactly. I was 30, recently married, and working at a job that I expected to be at for a while; in other words, my life was pretty stable -- enough so that I finally felt ready to take on the emotional risks of a search.

I knew that the state I was born in had an adoption reunion registry. The way this works is that if both the mother and the child register, the registry will send each party the other's identifying information. It seemed like a long shot, but I decided I might as well start there. I sent off my information in the mail, and a week later I held the reply in my hand. My birth mother had registered, ten year earlier.

The address and phone number that they sent were outdated, but knowing that she had wanted to be found, at least at one point, gave me the courage to take the next step. It required a bit of mild deception, but was surprisingly easy. I did it on my lunch break at work one day.

Using the newspaper clipping that my adoptive mother had given me, I called the library where my birth mother had been working at the time of her marriage. I said that I was trying to locate an old family friend who had worked at the library some years ago. I asked if there might be anybody there who could help me locate her. The friendly librarian who answered the phone said why yes, she knew her. No, she didn't live in town anymore, but her ex-mother-in-law did and would probably know where she was. I called the mother-in-law, and she answered right away. This time I said I was planning a surprise party for someone and trying to track down this person's old friends. Within minutes, I had my birth mother's current address.

I sent her a note and included with it my own wedding announcement so that she would have the same biographical bits about me that I had about her. Then I went away for Thanksgiving and tried to put the matter out of my mind. When I returned to my apartment, my answering machine was blinking. There was her voice on the machine, saying how happy she was to hear from me, telling me how to reach her.

I called her back the next day. I had a list of questions. This was before I had a cordless phone, so I sat on the wooden floor in my foyer. We talked for two hours. After that came numerous letters and eventually email. We met in person for the first time about 6 months later, and by that point it felt like we already knew each other because of all the correspondence we had exchanged.

We have kept in touch ever since, and today, she is simply a part of my life. We communicate mostly through email and facebook, and we see each other in person about once a year, usually for a week. At first I struggled with loyalty issues, and I still do to some extent, but for the most part I have managed to let go of that, and to instead embrace the number two. I have two mothers; I love two mothers; I am loved by two mothers. This is my reality. It really is that simple.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Gave My Adopted Daughter Back to Her Birth Mother

Yes, I stooped to sensationalism with that headline. No, Ashley hasn't gone anywhere. She is still very much my daughter.

But here's what I've learned so far from my journey through open adoption. You can give something back without giving it away. To the contrary, Ashley's bond with me has only strengthened as I have facilitated increased visitation with her biological family. 

Is the headline true? Did I give Ashley back to her first mother, Erica? I believe so. But don't take my word for it. Let Erica tell you herself, in her own words.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Open Adoption Roundtable #29

Open Adoption Blogs

The "assignment" for Open Adoption Roundtable #29 is to pick a favorite post on one's own blog and explain the reasons for the choice. I chose Love Is Not a Pie because it was one of the first blog posts I wrote (I composed it for BlogHer before I had even set up my own personal blog at this location), because the name for my blog came from this post, and because it summarizes my personal philosophy ... about open adoption and life.

You'll find links to lots of other great posts there as well. A few of my favorites are "Sister, Sister" (this one brought tears to my eyes and shows so beautifully what open adoption can be), "I'm Just as Scared of You as You are of Me" (which address the fear that can exist on both sides of the open-adoption equation while also touching on the benefits), and "
This is Perfect for When I Can't Sleep" (a touching description of a birth mother's love, with music). 

I found a few new blogs to follow, and you may as well. Happy browsing! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lunch with Erica

I had lunch today with Erica, Ashley's birth mother. It is something we do every once in a while, just the two of us. As usual, we talked the whole time and would probably have sat there for hours longer if we hadn't both needed to get back to our jobs. (Working for a living can be so inconvenient.)

I feel incredibly blessed to have been paired with Erica for this journey of open adoption because, quite frankly, she's awesome. Yes, she's made mistakes in her life (mistakes that resulted in the termination of her right to parent Ashley and three siblings), but she isn't afraid to admit them or even to talk about them publicly, as she now sometimes does. She has worked hard to turn her life around, and because of that hard work she is now able to be a beneficial part of Ashley's life ... and mine.

I know that not all relationships between adoptive and first mothers are going to be like mine with Erica. We're lucky; we have a lot in common and find it very easy to get along. But we wouldn't have realized this if we hadn't first taken those initial steps to get to know one another. Erica asked to meet my husband and me early on in the process, when she first learned that we would be Ashley's adoptive parents. That meeting went well, and I took the next step after Ashley's adoption was finalized, inviting Erica to join me for what turned out to be the first of many lunch meetings.

Successful open adoptions originating via foster care are a rarity. I understand that there are situations where a high degree of openness is not possible (as because of distance) or not in the best interest of the child. But I'm also aware that it would have been very easy for Erica and me to have missed this opportunity and, instead, to have erected a wall of suspicion and distrust between us. (In that scenario, the person to really lose out would be Ashley.) And I can't help but wonder what would happen if more first parents and last parents would make a habit of getting together for lunch.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Adoption Reunion Search, Part One

"Do you think you will search for your birth mother someday?" That's a question I was asked, in various forms, throughout my life.

For many years, I answered it automatically, without much thought. In my childhood years, the answer was, "Oh, yes, probably when I'm older" (in other words, that's a matter for a distant future that I can't even quite imagine yet). Then, in my teen years it became, "No. I have one mother already, and that's more than enough, thank you very much." But it wasn't actually something I thought about a lot. It was too big and scary to approach, even in my thoughts.

The complexity of emotions for a pre-search adoptee is mind-boggling. The adoptee may have lived for years with denial and unprocessed grief over loss ("Why would I search? I'm just fine as I am."), and then there's the loyalty issue ("Am I betraying my adoptive family if I search?"), and the big R, fear of rejection ("What if she doesn't want to be found? What if she refuses contact?"). I hadn't actually consider the fact that it might not be possible to find her, but I now know that, because of sealed records and denial of access to original birth certificates, many adoptees can't get past square one. In fact, I feel a little guilty about what I am about to write because I'm aware that so many other adoptees have struggled and continue to struggle with lack of access to the information that would allow them to search.

For me, adoption grief and awareness of loss began to rise to the surface in my twenties, but I still hesitated to approach my adoptive mother with questions, and I couldn't bring myself to begin the search without her knowledge. Then one day, the topic arose spontaneously in a conversation between us. She was very open to talking about it; in fact, she had been expecting the conversation for years but apparently believed that I needed to be the one to initiate it. And not only was she prepared to talk about it, she also had some surprising information.

There was a crack in the seal of my closed adoption. My adoptive mother should not have known the identity of my biological one -- and she couldn't, or wouldn't, explain how she got the information -- but  somehow, she knew the name. Not only that, but one day during my childhood she had opened up the paper to see my first mother's wedding announcement. She had cut it out and saved it, waiting for the day when I would ask about "my beginnings," as she put it.

And so I suddenly found myself in possession of a newspaper clipping of with a photo of a woman who looked a lot like me and all of the little tidbits of biographical information that are typically included in such write-ups. The bride had attended graduate school (as had I); she had lived in various places in the United States (as had I); she was a librarian (I was -- and am -- a lover of books).

But I didn't search right away. For a while, just having these little pieces of information was enough.

To Be Continued ...

Read part two here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Looking Back: The Wallpaper (NaBloPoMo Day 12)

I had outgrown the babyish print that had been on my bedroom walls since before we moved into the house; I was in second grade, and my mother had told me I could pick out whatever I wanted to replace it. Off to the wallpaper store we went, each with our own visions of what the future room might look like.  

When I spotted the paper, I knew immediately that it was the one for me. I wish I could show you a photo, but you'll have to use your imagination. Picture an explosion of large, bright flowers. Now, double the brightness. Hot pink, shocking purple, parrot green. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

My mother gently tried to steer me toward other choices. She reminded me that I would have to live with my choice for years to come. She coached me to envision the paper, not as it was in small sample in my hand, but on every wall. She allowed that it was lovely, but perhaps a little bright.  

But I was firm, and, to her credit, she stuck to her word. She had said I could choose, and I did. "Are you absolutely certain?" she asked, one last time, before paying at the register. Yes, I was sure.

My father hung the paper without comment, and only the slightest twinkle of amusement in his eyes. We finished the room off with a green shag rug. The result -- to my second-grade self -- was glorious; I had the most beautiful room in all the world.

The NaBloPoMo writing prompt for Monday, September 12, 2011 was "Write about your childhood bedroom." Learn more about NaBloPoMo at

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Necklaces

Today I was in Ashley's room and I happened to catch sight of two necklaces, two prized possessions, laid out carefully side by side:

The necklace with the flip-flop charm was a gift from her first mother, received during one of Ashley's earlier foster-care placements. It came with the following note, which Ashley keeps taped up in her room:

The heart-shaped "Forever" necklace has the date of her adoption finalization inscribed on the back; it was a gift from my husband and myself, given on that day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

No Returns

In a haunting recently published post on First Mother Forum, Lorraine Dusky writes of hearing her relinquished daughter say, "My parents could have returned me. They could have sent me back.” Dusky continues: "Could have sent me back, like goods in a consignment store that nobody wants. If Jane was 'chosen' like a pair of shoes, she could be returned. Could have sent me back -- what non-adopted person ever thinks that? There’s nowhere to send one’s biological child. Could have sent me back. The concept is a particular demon of the adopted."

I don't believe I ever consciously considered the possibility of my adoptive parents "returning" me, but I'm sure the idea lurked in my subconscious. I was a compliant adoptee -- "never any trouble at all," as my adoptive mother has told me many times. No, I don't believe I thought they would send me away, but I wasn't taking any chances. I wrote recently about my fantasies of running away. That's one thing, but to be sent away -- rejected -- is an adoptee's deepest fear.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Home I Left, and the Longing for Return

Today's NaBloPoMo prompt is "If you could return to a place you once lived, where would you go?" This is an easy one for me because it's something that is always on my mind.

I grew up on a rocky chunk of coast, an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. Locals refer to the island as "The Rock," and that's an apt descriptor.

One thing that adoption gave me was a rock-solid base. Not only is the island itself composed of granite, but my adoptive parents are similarly rock-solid in their values and stability. They have been married for more than 50 years, have lived in the same house for almost 45, and are pillars in their community. They have never faltered or failed to be there for me when I needed them.

The island is also stunningly beautiful with take-your-breath-away scenery and easy access to nature. And, of course, there's the ocean. My ocean. When I return to visit my adoptive parents, one of the first things I do is walk through the streets of the small town to the path that leads to the water. When I catch sight of the first patch of blue, my heart quickens, and when I reach the point where the full bay opens to my view, all anxiety washes out of me. I breathe in, and everything is right. I find I can think clearly; answer to problems I have struggled with come to me easily.

When I am there I sometimes think, "I don't know how I can bear to live apart from this."

But then I return to the place where I have lived for the past 18 years. It is not beautiful. It's not rock solid; in fact, it's crumbling -- an urban area struggling to hold on in times of economic decline. It is not a place I would have picked, but it seems to have picked me. I came here for a job and stayed. It was here that I gave birth to one daughter, met my husband, and found my second daughter by way of foster adoption. Erica, my adopted daughter's first mother, is here, and she and I are currently full of plans regarding work that we want to do locally by way of our fledgling organization Ashley's Moms. And I am connected to the community in other ways. Friends. Church.

And so I will remain here for now.  It is not yet time to return permanently to the other place I call home. But the pull is always there, and I've warned my husband to be prepared. One day, I may wake up and say, "I can't stand it anymore -- I've got to get back to The Rock."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's in a Name: How I Became Rebecca Hawkes

Today my approach to the theme of "return" is genealogy, or the return to ancestral roots.

For many adoptees, this is a complicated matter. The adoptive family's history is not really our own, and if we have not succeeded in locating our family of origin, our biological roots may remain a mystery. Like medical history, this was assumed to be something that we could live without, but it is a loss, one that adds to the complexity that so many adoptees already experience around matters of identity.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have reconnected with my "blood mother," and one of the many gifts that I received from this reunion was a genealogy. And in my case, there was a surprising twist. When I shared the information with my adoptive mother, she noticed a similarity. We did some more research and discovered that six generations back, my two mothers' genealogical lines converge at single point: the union of Ebenezer and Anna (Breed) Hawkes.

And so I am Rebecca Hawkes. It is not my legal name nor is the one that I am generally known by in my offline life. But is the name that I have claimed as my own in this space and for my open-adoption advocacy because it represents and unites the two parts of myself and my history.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Adoptee's Fantasy of Return

I grew up in a very loving adoptive family, yet throughout my childhood I fantasized about escaping from it. I would fall asleep at night thinking over my plans to run away. These plans were very vague; I thought little of how I would survive or what I would do after I set off ... but I knew in which direction I would head. It wasn't until many years later, as an adult, that the significance of that direction struck me. I was planning to head toward the hospital in which I was born, the place where the separation from my biological mother occurred. It was a fantasy of return.

I wonder if this is common among adoptees? Does a desire to return our families of origin lurk beneath the surface of our consciousness, rising up periodically in ways beyond our control? I would love to hear from other adoptees on this subject. Have you experienced anything similar?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Day 6

Today's writing prompt for NaBloPoMo is "How do you feel when you return home at the end of the day?"

Well, let's see. On a typical day I work six hours at the office then pick up my daughters for dance or acting or whatever's on the after-school schedule for the day. When I walk through the door to my house after that I am tired and still facing dinner, homework (and accompanying whining), Ashley's vision therapy exercises (and accompanying whining), and the bedtime routine. So, naturally, I feel ...


Or at least, that's how I feel when I remember to practice gratitude. Yes, it's a crazy life, but I wouldn't really trade it for another. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Returning to Running in Middle Age

Somewhere inside of me is the skinny runner I used to be -- the one who could run a mile in close to 5 minutes, who for a short time in college ran 70 miles a week, and who completed the Boston Marathon, albeit as an unofficial entry.

I am 25 pounds heavier, and a decade older, than when I last ran for fitness, and 40 pounds heavier than when I ran competitively. But I've still got decent form, and somewhere in my muscles is the memory of what it feels like to be strong and confident in my body.

I have recently started a variation of the popular Couch to 5K program, alternating walking and running for a 30 minute workout. My old self would have scoffed at what I count as a workout these days. What I consider serious running now would have been a mere warm up for my younger self.

I am determined to claw my way back to fitness, or some version of it. I was a relatively active person before becoming a mother; I exercised regularly at the gym during the week and in the winter I skied every weekend. And I kept up some semblance of a fitness routine in the early years of motherhood. When my first child was still able to be confined to a stroller, I would strap her in and walk and walk. But as she became more active, somehow I became less. My priorities changed, and working-out just kept getting pushed down the list.

My daughters are older now. They can work-out with me (as they sometimes do) or be left alone for short periods of time as I walk-jog around the neighborhood. It's time to return to a healthier me.

I'm at the age where my biological mother began to get heavier, and in the past year especially my body has begun to move in that direction. Is biology my destiny, or can I successfully fight back with diet and exercise? I don't need or want to be a twig, but this body I am walking around in these days doesn't feel like mine. I'll never be the runner I once was; those days are past. But I'm sure there's an older-but-fit version of myself in me somewhere. I am working my way toward her one day, and one workout, at a time.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Adopting an Older Child from Foster Care

People often ask me why I decided to adopt from foster care. As with so many things in life, there is no one simple answer. My husband and I had a desire to grow our family and a vague awareness that there was a need for parents to adopt older children, who are considered difficult to place compared to infants and toddlers. (I'm even more conscious of that need now, having since acquired additional awareness about the challenges faced by teens who age out of foster care without finding permanency with adoptive families.) I thought that my husband and I would be good candidates to parent an older child. Though I had loved parenting my biological daughter Mackenzie when she was an infant, I had also enjoyed moving into later stages of child development. I didn't really want to return to the baby stage. I'm a word person -- I like interacting with children when they have acquired language and I enjoy them even more as their sophistication with language increases; my husband is similar to me in this regard. I have enjoyed every stage of parenting, and I have never wanted to go back to an earlier one. I seem to like each stage better than the one before. (So far, at least. I'm aware that I may feel differently when the teen years arrive.) Adopting a child who was close in age to the one we already had allowed us to stay at the same general stage of development, more or less. (Because of her challenging history, there are some ways that our adopted daughter is developmentally "younger" than her chronological age, but that discrepancy is decreasing already and will likely continue to dissipate.)

Prior to becoming a foster-adopt parent, I had read a lot of books about trauma and attachment issues (including Heather Forbes' Beyond Consequences books, which were especially helpful in increasing my understanding of how problematic behaviors are rooted in fears and anxieties). I believed that I had a pretty good grasp of the challenges we were likely to encounter, and I believed that my husband and I were up to those challenges. I underestimated. I really could not have imagined just how challenging the first year would be. Ashley entered our home with a lot of emotional baggage and behavioral issues. In the beginning, we experienced melt-downs almost daily. She swore at us. She threw things. She destroyed things. She hit.

But after each one of these melt-downs (and she wasn't always the one having the melt-down -- sometimes it was me!), we would find our way back to connection, and she learned that we were going to stick with her no matter what. We weren't going to send her away (as previous foster parents had done) when she "misbehaved." Over time, the difficult behaviors decreased and the good days increased. Eventually, the good days became the norm. Today, she is a different child. The aggressive behaviors are gone, and the truly amazing child that she is has emerged.

Would I go back and do it all again? In a second! Yes, those early months of her placement with us were difficult, but the joyful outcome is worth every one of the challenging moments.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up

One obvious way that word "return" is significant to adoptees is the reconnection to the biological family, which so many of us seek by way of reunion as adults. I will certainly write more about that before the month is out, but the subject that is most alive for me today is another return of significance to adoptees -- the return to self, or to some part of our selves that we lost when we were separated from our biological roots. Reunion is tied to this idea; we are searching for our families but we are also searching for ourselves.

Nancy Verrier's book Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up played an important role in my own journey back to self. This book has been criticized because of the author's tendency to overgeneralize. Verrier's critics have a point; some of her descriptions of adoptees are a bit like astrological fortunes in their broadness. Sure, adoptees may have the traits that she ascribes to them, but can't such traits (such as fear of rejection) be found in the general population as well? Undoubtedly they can, but that doesn't mean that adoptees aren't more likely than others to have certain tendencies formed from our experience of separation.

For me, so much of the book rang true. I saw myself on every page. It was as if I had been seeing things a little out of focus my whole life, and when I read this book everything shifted into focus for the first time. Coming Home to Self started me on the path to healing, and I have made tremendous progress.

But I'm still a little off. One of the points that Verrier makes is that adoptees have difficulty knowing ourselves, and being ourselves. Because we are so afraid of rejection, many of us tend to be chameleons, attempting to become whatever others want us to be. 

I recently started Rhonda Britten's book Change Your Life in 30 Days : A Journey to Finding Your True Self. The first question that she asks (and it is one of several that the reader is meant to answer on day one of the program) is something like "What would it look like if you were really true to yourself?" (Apologies to Britten if I haven't quoted this exactly; I don't have the book with me currently.)

When I encountered that question, I felt a mild panic rising up in me, and I knew it was going to take me a lot longer than 30 days to complete Britten's program. That is no easy question for me to answer. It is the question I have been working on for years, and I'm still working on it. Strip away the anxiety, the people-pleasing, the intense desire for belonging (coupled, confusingly, with apprehension about closeness), and who am I? For adoptees, definition of self is complicated by divergent influences: the biological, the environmental, and the trauma of separation. For many of us, the journey home to self is not a single trip, but an ongoing journey. And yes, that's a statement that can be made of non-adoptees, too. It's just a little bit truer for us.

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Are You Coming Home? Soon, Sweetie, But Not Quite Yet.

My assignment for myself this month is not just to post something every day, but to try to tie each post somehow to the theme of return and my overall focus on adoption issues.

Tonight the return part is easy. "Return" is what I'm not quite ready to do yet. My house is full of tween girls: my two and a friend for each of them. I left my husband home to deal with it all and slipped out for a rare night of grown-up company. I have left the party at my friend's house, now, but I'm not quite ready to head home just yet. It is 10 p.m. my time, day two of NaBloPoMo, and I haven't written my post. I could try to slip quietly into the house and hope nobody notices as I sneak up the stairs to my writing chair, but I just can't risk it. Chances are somebody will want me for something, and that will lead to something else, and then ... Well, you know how it goes.

So I'm hiding out at a local fast food joint that is trying (half successfully) to pass itself off as an Internet cafe. Free WiFi and no interruptions -- I'm not complaining!

But soon I'll be heading back to all that young energy, and I will be glad. I like having a house full of girls. I like being the house of sleepovers.

This is another return, of sorts, for us. When Ashley first moved in with us, we had to take a break from such things for while. The dynamic of our family was just too unstable initially for any inclusion of outside friends. Incorporating an 8-year-old child with a trauma history into your family is no easy task. A lot of people are hesitant to adopt from foster care, and I understand the hesitation. It isn't easy. 100% worth it -- but not easy.

But now, we are the house of sleepovers again. And Ashley has just called me on the phone asking when I will be home. So, I guess it is in fact time for me to return.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Day One

So I've decided to do NaBloPoMo for September. I have no idea if I can pull this off without neglecting my family or my paycheck job, but this month's theme of "return" was just too tempting to pass up. Just so many directions I can go with that. The basic idea of NaBloPoMo is simple; you merely have to post something every day for one month. That's it. Easy peasy. Well, we'll see.

Today's writing prompt ("What magical creature would you love to meet?") doesn't grab me, nor do I understand its connection to the theme, but I've been mulling over various ways that "return" resonates for me. Today, I think I'll start with an obvious one for September, the return to school. Yes, I know, it's been done already. The blogosphere (or at least the mommy-blogger part of it) has been fairly crackling with back-to-school posts this past week. I haven't jumped on the bandwagon until now because, to be honest, back-to-school has been a relative nonevent for us this year. The girls were a little sad that summer had ended, and they complained some about their new, treeless (post-tornado) playground, but mostly they seem glad to be back with their friends and back in the routine. Ashley's transition to "upper elementary" went smoothly -- so far nothing but positive comments.

But here's the thing, the very ordinariness of this fall's return to school is something to celebrate! Let's start, for instance, with the fact that this week Ashley said the words "I like school," and meant them in all sincerity. In her years of foster care, before her placement with us, school was not a positive experience, for her or for the school professionals. She was viewed as a "problem child," a disciplinary challenge. Academics were barely focused on; all of their energy went into controlling her, preventing her outbursts. These days I send her off to school without any concerns about serious behavioral issues. How's that for amazing?

Academically, she still struggles a little, but we are beginning vision therapy this week and I am hopeful that this will help. When I used Strabismus in my last post as a metaphor for the experience of being adopted, I was drawing on her situation. She has Strabismus, literally, and we've learned that she has to struggle to keep her eyes in focus, which is likely exhausting her, leaving little energy for learning.

Another celebration is that for the first time this year both of my daughters are in the same classroom, and this seems not to be an issue at all. Two years ago it would have been a disaster. People often ask me how Mackenzie handled getting a new sister, close to her own age, at 8-years-old. It wasn't pretty, believe me. Oh, she had wanted a sister so badly. She had begged, longed, and wished on a star for a sister. But as soon as that sister moved in, she did not want a sister ... at all. She would have given anything for an "undo" button.

That first year was so hard, and my husband and I got through it mainly by adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy. One with one child, the other with the other. It was a good investment in the long run, but challenging; each child got a lot of one on one time with a parent, but he and I got barely any with each other.

Things are so different now. I would say that Mackenzie and Ashley get along better than most siblings. That's not to say that there are never any problems -- no siblings get along all of the time -- but for the most part things are peaceful in our household. And in the classroom, too, apparently. What a long way we have come!

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