Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rambling Post Containing an Old Poem and a Lot of Love

While I was digging through my old writing looking for the sea glass piece, I found a poem that I wrote a few years back about Mackenzie, the older of my two daughters:

"Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." -- Elizabeth Stone

Last night we cuddled, watching TV,
through the mouth of a tent pitched in our living room,
her adoration wrapped around me like a down sleeping bag.
She drank in my love, filling up.
Tonight she said, “oh hi,” and turned back
to her art project.
I celebrate both.
Lately, she’s taken to carrying around my heart
in the pocket of her winter coat,
with the collection of bouncy balls
that she buys for a quarter
from the machine at the Chinese restaurant.
And that’s okay.
In fact, it is precisely where my heart wants to be.

Mackenzie still has that collection of bouncy balls. (When Tornado Tyler was at our house recently he dumped them all out on the living room floor and then jumped onto them. Feet up; Tyler down. No injuries, thankfully.) She doesn't carry them around in her pocket anymore, but you know my heart is still there.

People often ask me how Mackenzie adjusted to having Ashley come into her life. The answer is "not well at, at least initially." Mackenzie wanted a sister. She really, really wanted a sister. Until that sister moved into our house. And then she really, really did not want a sister. The addition of a sibling to a family can be challenging even when the child joins in the more usual way as a infant, but when that sibling is an older child with a trauma history, the situation is likely to be even more problematic. Mackenzie had been the only child, wrapped in that cocoon of my love, and suddenly there was someone else around whom she perceived as competition.

I am happy to report that these days Mackenzie and Ashley get along better than the average siblings. The bond between them is actually very heartwarming to observe. And my heart ... well, they both walk around with it now. I know that metaphor doesn't quite make sense, but try not to get too caught up in the physics of it. Love is not a pie. When you have two children, they both get your whole heart. You don't take half of your heart from the one child and give it to the other.

It doesn't matter if a child comes to you by birth or adoption; the effect is the same. It's a love that cracks you wide open, leaving you forever raw and vulnerable.

But in adoption, there's another layer to things. The birth parent's heart not only goes walking around outside of her body, it goes walking around outside of her life. I urge adoptive parents to keep this in mind. As much as you love your child (and believe me, I know how much you love your child), always remember there is someone else who loves them too, with an equal amount of rawness and intensity, plus an additional element of grief. Please hold them always with care in your heart.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Adoption Reunions and the Magical Number 18

The other night at a school-sponsored Halloween party, I had a conversation with the adoptive father of one the schoolmates of my daughters. I had shared a bit of the story of my open adoption, and he responded by sharing that the biological parents of his daughter had recently sent a letter and photos. His daughter hadn't seen the letter or the photos yet, but he and the adoptive mother were planning to show them to her soon. He seemed pleased about the letter but went on to say that he didn't think his daughter would meet her biological family at any point -- well, not until she was 18, at least. When she was 18, if she wanted to make contact, they would support her.

I like and admire this man, I know he has his daughter's best interest at heart, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't know all of the details of his daughter's situation. Also, on the surface, his statement seems perfectly reasonable, even child-centered. He is saying he will support his daughter in whatever decision she makes once she is old enough to make that decision. What could be wrong with that?

So why did his statement make me slightly uncomfortable?

One reason is that, somewhere along the line, I received the same message from my own adoptive parents, and it proved problematic for me in the long run. I don't have a clear memory of the exact conversations, but I know that I heard from them in some way that if I wanted to search for my biological family, I could do so when I was 18. What I didn't hear from them was that they understood the reasons why it might be important for me to do so. I also didn't hear that my decision to search or not had no bearing on their love for me, which was unconditional. Although they didn't add "but we kind of hope you won't" to "you can search when you are 18," it hung in the air between us nevertheless.

I didn't search until I was 30, and the main reason for the delay was that, on some level, I believed searching for my biological family would be a betrayal of my adoptive one. I thought my adoptive parents would not approve, not really, and the child in me equated disapproval with  rejection and rejection with annihilation. Even as I grew to understand that I needed to reconnect to my biological roots to be whole, I could not take that chance. I chose security over wholeness.

In the end, I got them both. Ultimately, my adoptive parents were not only supportive, they were instrumental in my search. Their love for me is unconditional and they do understand my reasons for wanting a connection to the biological side of my family. So, why did it take me so long to come to this understanding?

Eighteen is the age at which the adopted person can technically search without the consent of his or her adoptive parents. And yet, I have often heard adoptive parents mention it as the age at which they will give consent and support, even in cases of semi-open adoptions like the one of my daughters' schoolmate. I have to admit, it's hard for me to interpret this message as anything but a stalling technique. An unspoken "but we kind of hope that won't be the case" still hangs in the air for me. If I'm hearing it, are their children hearing it too? And if so, what is the effect?

At what age is a child old enough to long for wholeness and to want the missing puzzle piece that biology can provide? At what age can they trust that their adoptive parents will hear them if they express such longings? Does something magical happen at age 18 in this regard?

If you've read my blog before you probably know how important I believe it is for adoptive parents to remain "emotionally open" to first families. I understand that actual contact with certain biological family members may be inadvisable in some cases. And I understand the reasons why some parents may wish to wait until their children are older, developmentally and emotionally, before bringing some relationships into their lives. But if you are an adoptive parent, please always remember that your child's biological family is a part of them. Biology isn't destiny, but it is a piece of the puzzle. Know that it is natural and normal for adopted children to long for a connection to their original family and an understanding of their genetic heritage. And most importantly, let them know, at every stage and every age, that you understand this. Sometimes adopted children will tell their adoptive parents that they don't have any desire to know their biological family; if this happens, I encourage you to take the child's word for it ... more or less. If that's where they are truly at, then fine. But I also encourage you to ask yourself one tough question: Is there any chance they are saying that because they believe it is what you want to hear?  Regardless of what your adopted child chooses to express, you can let them know that your love is unconditional, and that if the desire to know the biological family should come up, at 18 or any other age, it will have no bearing on the strength of your attachment to them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sea Glass

A few days ago, Erica wrote the following in a post about her toddler: "Tornado Tyler has taught me life doesn't always turn out the way you thought it would, it can be better than you ever imagined." That put me in mind of something I wrote some years ago. Actually, I wrote it when I myself was the mother of a toddler, and though my daughter doesn't appear in the piece, the messiness and unpredictability that swirl around young children were certainly a part of my life at that time. On the surface, the piece is about sea glass, bits of broken glass that have been transformed by the motion of the sea and the friction of tumbling rocks into soft, translucent gems:

But on a deeper level it is about accepting the messiness and unpredictability of life. Here is the piece: 

I sit on the pebbly part of the town beach at the end of the shore path, combing my hands through the damp loose stones looking for sea glass. I am looking for blue pieces, of course, but they are too rare and I’m not having any luck. I don’t want to go home empty handed, so I begin to gather the white, the brown, the green. I study the subtleties of each piece. I look at them the way some people must look at diamonds, noticing the unique way the light shines through each one. I am a connoisseur of sea glass. I rub my fingers over the edges, judging. Is it soft enough? Is it ready for plucking, or does it need more time with the sea?

Two children, a boy and a girl, about 10 years old, possibly twins, begin to hover nearby. They pat my dog, then stand, unselfconsciously, as 10-year-olds will do, watching, waiting for me to take the lead. I explain to them that I am looking for sea glass for two friends from Massachusetts who have been especially kind to me lately. I tell them that I want to bring these friends some little bits of Maine. I don’t know if they understand the last part or not, but they don’t question it. They sense that an important mission is at hand. Without a word, they begin to help. The girl, whose name I eventually learn is Krista, works beside me, putting the pieces in my hand one by one as she finds them. The boy, Cain, works a wider territory, wandering off on his own, returning periodically with his finds. We work quietly, with reverence almost, with only an occasional comment about the beauty or uniqueness of a particular piece. It feels almost as though the three of us are participants in some sacred ceremony.

The children do not adhere to my standards for the sea glass, and soon they are also adding small rock, shells, and even pieces of shell. My first impulse is to protest. “No, that’s not what I’m looking for.” But instead I relax. I decide to accept whatever gifts they have to give. I watch as the mixture in my hand grows increasingly messier, and richer. When my cupped hand is full, I tell them it’s time for me to go. I say my goodbyes, thank them for their help, and slip the collection into my jacket pocket. As I walk away, I look back at Krista and Cain. They sit, heads close together, still sifting through the rocks.

It's interesting to me to look back on this piece. It had been on my mind, even before Erica wrote that line about Tyler, because my friend Maureen recently started making and selling sea-glass jewelry: 

The images in this post were taken, with her permission, from her facebook page Tidal Gems.

Maureen and I met in a prenatal exercise class when we were both pregnant with our first children. Now our  kids are close in age to the two children in the story above. A lot has happened in the intervening years. Things have come into our lives that we would not have chosen or hand-picked, include a painful divorce on my part and an unexpected job loss on hers. Like me, Maureen is a "connoisseur of sea glass." She selects the most beautiful "gems" for her creations and even finds the occasional coveted blue piece: 

But when it comes to life, I suspect that neither of us would exchange the crazy, messy, beautiful jumble we've ended up with for anything different. Krista and Cain, two 10-year-olds who came into my life for a few moments one afternoon in Maine, taught me that sometimes you go looking for one thing and find something that is unexpectedly better. Or, as Erica put it, though life doesn't always turn out the way you thought it would, it can be better than you ever imagined. It's the simplest of lessons, but one that continues to resonate for me all these years later. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Open Adoption Roundtable #31

Open Adoption Blogs

The current, Halloween-inspired, Open Adoption Roundtable prompts is: Write about open adoption and being scared. Here is my reply:

There is a monster that no one ever dresses up as for Halloween. She is a hateful creature who selfishly gave birth without caring about her offspring. She drank; she used drugs; she put her own interests above theirs. She was irresponsible and neglectful in countless ways. Her children have been rescued from her terrible clutches, but they are not safe, for she is always there, lurking dangerously on the edges of their lives, waiting for an opportunity to pounce and steal them back. She does not love her children; she is incapable of loving and unworthy of being loved.

I have never met one of these monsters, but I have encountered them on the Internet. I have read the descriptions of them that show up in such places as the comment sections on blogs. 

I have never met the monster, and, truth be told, I doubt she is any more real than the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. But I did meet a woman the other day who cried real tears and shared her pain with me, spoke of her heartbreak at being separated from her children, gave voice to her regret that she hadn't managed to overcome her addiction in time to keep her children with her. I also remember another woman who approached me in a parking lot years ago, identified herself outright as an addict, and poured out her anguish to me. Her children had been removed from her that morning, and she was beside herself with grief. "You must think I am a terrible person," she said, repeatedly. "No," I said, "I don't." And I meant it.

But here's the thing: as scary as the woman I described in the first paragraph may seem, there is something that can be even scarier to some parents who adopt from foster care, and that's the first mother who gets her life together. Why? Because it's easy to justify keeping a monster at arm's length. Surely no one would expect adoptive parents to interact with someone like that, or to invite her into their lives. But what if she ceases to fit the stereotype? What if she begins to emerge as human, capable, and even lovable?

The adoptive parents' fear of the first mother can take a variety of forms, but ultimately at the core of it is the deep fear that we will lose our children, that despite all our love and care and our insistence that raising the child makes us the only "real" parents, biology will trump all and we will be ousted. When fear rules us, we panic, cling to our children, and build up walls between them and their other family.

I am not immune to fear; I can be as insecure as the next person. But I refuse -- I simply refuse -- to let fear be the guiding force in my open-adoption relationship. I don't trust fear; it is a tricky master that sends me off track, away from my intentions. That's not to say that fear must be ignored completely for it often carries a message about something important that needs attention. I can let fear guide me to communicating things that are important to me, but I cannot let it trick me into building walls or running from relationship. My commitment to openness is foremost; whatever else comes up for me emotionally must be balanced against that. When fear flickers in me, it is usually because some small issue has come up, stimulating discomfort in me. But the small issues are resolvable. In my heart of hearts I know that openness is the right thing for me and for my daughter, and that is my guiding force. 

Links to other bloggers' replies to this prompt are available here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Quick Update

Yikes! Has it really been more than a week since I last posted?

I've been busy off-line. Our open adoption continues to expand like a balloon as we gradually add more air in small increments. Since I last wrote, Erica and Ashley have engaged in a bit of texting, and Erica and Tyler (Ashley's little brother) came to our house for the first time. I want to write more about both of these developments, but right now I'm busy getting ready for a conference that Erica and I are speaking at tomorrow.

While I'm doing that, please read this post that I absolutely love by Tiruba Tuba. "There can never be too many people who love a child." My thoughts exactly. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Let's Get Real: Embracing Duality in Adoptive Families

In her book Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton addresses the sticky issue of the word "real" in adoptive families:
The adoptive mother believes she is the real mother because she is the one who got up in the middle of the night and was there for the child in sickness and health. The birth mother believes she is the real mother because she went through nine months of sculpting the child within her body and labored to bring it forth into the the world. They are both right. The adoptive mother who loves and cares for the child is the real mother. And the birth mother who never forgets her child is the real mother.... By denying that adoptees have two real mothers, society denies them their reality.
These words are of particular importance to me as an adoptee because not only did "society" deny me my reality, I denied it to to myself. An important therapeutic moment happened the day I fully acknowledged myself as the child of two mothers, allowing myself to embrace that duality and all that it meant. I suspect I am not the only adoptee to internalize the struggle between two mothers. The day I gave up the belief that I needed to prioritize one definition of "real" over the other, something important shifted within me. I found wholeness. 

Lifton also writes, "For me, a real mother recognizes and respects the whole identity of her child and does not ask him to deny any part of himself." By this definition, I am happy to say that my daughter Ashley clearly has two real mothers. The acknowledgment and valuing of all that Ashley is, including those parts of her that come from the other mother -- this is the core, the very essence, of what her first mother and I are attempting to accomplish through our open adoption relationship. Acknowledgment of the whole of an adopted child's self, writes Lifton, "is difficult to do in a closed adoption system that requires the child be cut off from his heritage, and that pits the original mother against the replacement mother.

I don't want my daughter to have to wait until she is an adult in therapy to discover wholeness. In traditional family situations, nature and nurture come in one package. In adoption, they are split, but they don't have to be pitted against each other. The more that I am able to embrace my child's whole identity, the better equipped she is to embrace it herself. Like me, she a child of two mothers and is loved, wholeheartedly, by both of us. We are each a part of who she is, and we are both very, very real.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Confessions of a (Sort of) Slacker Mom

As a mom, I'm not a total slacker. In fact, in some ways, the opposite is true. I parent fairly intensively, giving each of my two daughters as much one-on-one attention as I can. (As I wrote in an earlier post, they are tweens and I still do a fairly extensive bedtime routing with them.) My husband and I each bend over backwards trying to give these two children the best start in life that we can provide. They are the center of our universe and everything in our lives pretty much revolves around them.

But some ways, I have to admit that I am a bit of a slacker. I'm not the kind of mother who believes she has to do everything for her kids, and lately I've become aware of some of the surprising benefits of slackerism. We tend to think of parenting in terms of what we do, but sometimes it's actually more about what we choose not to do. When children are infants, they are completely dependent on us and we do everything for them. But as children get older, effective parenting sometimes means hanging back to give children the chance to rise to the challenge of taking care of themselves. So I stopped packing lunches in the morning. And then I stopped putting my daughters' laundry away (I sort it into baskets and put the baskets in their rooms). And then I stopped cleaning their bedrooms. 

And in every case, these amazing children of mine have risen to the challenge. I mean really! Not immediately, but over time, with a little coaching and guidance, and, most importantly, my determination not to step in and take over, they got there. No, the jobs aren't done perfectly -- effective slacker parenting means letting go of perfectionism. The bedrooms are not quite as I might clean them and the laundry, well, let's just say we have a pretty loose definition of "folded." But for a 10- and 11-year-old, these kids are pretty darn neat. And we manage it without bribes, star charts, or threats of punishment. Not bad for a slacker mom!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Some Random Thoughts After Reading Various Adoption-Related Blogs

1) Human-beings are biologically programmed to reproduce, from puberty on.
2) Throughout much of human history, most mothers have been young mothers. Youth does not, in and of itself, make someone unqualified to be a mother.
3) Our current culture is not set up to support young mothers.
4) Adoption does not make a child disappear.
5) Adoption is not a convenient fix to the problem of unplanned pregnancy.
6) Adoption does not undo a pregnancy or make someone not a mother.
7) I'm tremendously grateful that my birth mother told others about me (especially my younger brother) before I reappeared in her life.
8) Secrecy is almost always harmful.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Being "Emotionally Open" to First Families

Back in July I wrote a post that included the following paragraph:

"I do believe that it's important for anyone who is considering adoption to understand that they are not bringing a single child into their life -- they are bringing an entire family. That's just a fact. The old adoption model, and even many current adoption arrangements, try to ignore this reality, but ignoring doesn't work. Even if the adoptive family has no contact with the biological family and rarely discusses them other than in vague, almost mythological ways (such as the 'your birth mother was someone who loved you very much' story), that family, and especially the birth mother, is still there, fully present in the child's psyche. They may exist primarily as an absence, as a longing (spoken or unspoken), but they are still there."

I'd like to to expand on that a bit today. For adoptive parents, the choice between closed, semi-open, and fully open adoption isn't really a choice between having the biological family in your life or not. The first family is a part of your life regardless because they are a part of your child; the question for adoptive parents is: "How are you going to respond to this reality?"

I really appreciated the many thoughtful comments I got last week in response to my Attuned Adoptive Parent post, and I especially liked the following words from Martha Crawford, LCSW:

"Even when families are forrmed through international adoption - emotional openness to the first families: ie listening to children's wishes to search, supporting that process when it feels age appropriate, inviting your child to communicate about their first parents and then accepting whatever feelings or language emerge, offering acceptance and support with out fear or defensiveness - this to me, is the primary sacred task of being an 'adoptive' parent."

I love her phrase "emotional openness to the first families," and I believe it represents a key factor. If an adoption is nominally open on paper but the parents are not emotionally open to the biological family, the openness of the adoption is likely to be perceived as a burden rather than a gift and is much less likely to succeed in the long term. This lack of emotional openness is detrimental to the relationship between the adoptive parents and the biological family, and, sadly, it is ultimately detrimental to the relationship between the adoptive parents and the adopted child. By contrast, there may be situations where circumstances preclude regular contact with the biological family but the adoptive parents are emotionally open and therefore able to hold space for the child's experience, whatever it may be. In such situations, the adoptive parents communicate acceptance to the child and able to help facilitate his or her growth and healing.

Some adoptive parents (including my own) like to say that adoptive families are no different than other families; they are just formed in a different way. This well-intentioned sentiment is meant to communicate that adoptive parents love their children as much as if they had given birth to them. As an adoptive (and biological) mother I can attest that this is true; I love my two daughters with equal intensity, though my relationship is different with each of them, just as it would be different if I had two biological children. But being an adoptive parent is not the same as being a biological parent. It is different because something more is asked of us, the "sacred task" that Marth Crawford mentions above. The adoptive parent is asked to open his or her heart to something more than just an individual, separate child. Loving and accepting an adopted child means loving and accepting all that the child is and holds within them, including the unbreakable thread that binds them to another family. 

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

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