Thursday, July 28, 2011

These are busy and exciting times for me. Erica (my daughter's biological mother) and I recently launched Ashley's Moms, an organization devoted to helping families create successful open-adoptions. And this coming Tuesday (Aug 2), she and I will tell our story on the Internet radio show All Things Adoption. We also found out this week that we have been accepted to present at a conference in the fall.

My recent blog post on the term "birth mother" was picked to be a featured piece on BlogHer last week, and has generated some interesting discussion. Today, I'm a guest blogger on Foster2Forever.

On a personal level, I had the great joy of attending my biological brother's wedding in California last weekend and now I am in Maine visiting my adoptive family.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Should Have Been a Criminal: How My Lack of Fingerprints Brought Our Adoption Process to a Grinding Halt

Apparently, I missed my calling. I should have been a safe cracker or a cat burglar. It isn’t really the case that I have no fingerprints at all; I do. I just have "shallow groves," or so I’ve been told. I don’t "print" well. Who could have predicted what problems this condition would cause!?

My husband and I had been drawn toward Ashley (then 7 years old) since seeing her profile on an online photo listing of "waiting children," and we had become even more convinced that she was the child for us when we met her at a public adoption event. (See my guest post at Foster2Forever for more of that story.) We had taken the required class and our home-study was complete -- almost. We were waiting on just one thing: my fingerprints, as required by a new state law. I had "failed" one fingerprinting attempt, but I was scheduled to have them done a second time. I had been given instructions -- keep my hands dry; avoid hand creams, etc.

Since the fingerprinting was the only thing holding up approval of our home-study, and we believed that matter would soon be resolved, we had asked for and received permission for a draft of the home-study to be sent to Ashley's social worker. To our joyful delight, we were matched with her. The social worker informed Ashley that we wanted to adopt her, and we began visitation, with the intention of gradually increasing the visits until she was with us all the time. Everything was going great.

Everything, that is, except for the small matter of the fingerprints. My second set of prints failed to meet the standards. I was sent for electronic fingerprinting, and that set failed as well. I was informed that the department would not fingerprint me a fourth time; three strikes and you’re out, apparently.

We had seemingly hit a bureaucratic dead end, but both our social worker and Ashley’s remained hopeful that the matter could be resolved. They scrambled for answers. Because the law was so new no one was certain how to proceed, but surely there must be a plan in place somewhere to cover situations like mine. We continued visitation with Ashley, including a successful overnight visit on the weekend. Her social worker told us that the department was ready to move her in with us … just as soon as the fingerprint matter was resolved. Another weekend visit was scheduled.

Then everything fell apart. We received a phone call on Saturday, an hour before the visit was supposed to begin. The questions about our situation had worked their way up through the hierarchy of the department until they had reached someone in authority who said, "These people never should have been allowed to begin visitation without a finalized home-study. Stop the process, immediately." Ashley would not be staying with us that weekend.

Hearts broke on two sides of town. I cried. Ashley shut herself in her room at her foster home, refusing to come out. Ashley’s foster mother and social worker tried their best to explain the situation to her, but she couldn’t understand -- not really.

The weeks that followed were difficult and full of uncertainty. We were allowed to continue visits with Ashley, with a social worker present at first, and later, when someone in the department pointed out that they were holding us to a higher standard than babysitters and day care providers within the system, on our own. (To be a daytime-only care provider for a child in foster care you only need to have passed a CORI -- Criminal Offender Record Information -- check, which my husband and I had done.) But Ashley was not allowed to spend the night at our house, and she could not move in. We were in limbo.

I had made arrangements with my employer to take the month of August off so that I could have bonding time with Ashley before school began in the fall. But August passed, and then September, and still we waited for answers. It was an agonizing time; I cried, I prayed; I wrote to my state representatives; I lost sleep and weight. Ashley would sit on my lap during visits and pick up my hand to look at my fingers. "Have you fixed these yet?" she’d ask. At the visit's end, she'd ask, "Why can’t just I stay with you?"

This photo was taken during our limbo period.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer; the FBI completed an alternate check on me in October, and Ashley moved in with us at that month. A little over a year later, her adoption was finalized. I probably don’t even need to tell you that I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Would I have preferred an easier journey? You bet! But I wouldn’t change the end destination.

In a recent guest post on the blog Foster2Forever, Rita L. Soronen, President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, wrote “there are … many challenges that anyone jumping into the child welfare system faces -- unresponsive agencies, paperwork, system delays, and lack of post-adoption resources, to name just a few.... But we cannot give up.” I’ll second that. Our case was an extreme example, but there was never any question of giving up. And although the pre-placement experience was highly stressful, now it is simply part of our story. It was the path we needed to walk to bring an amazing child into our home.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Birth Mother Doesn't Like the Term “Birth Mother”

One of the first commonalities that my birth mother and I discovered when we reestablished contact shortly after my 30th birthday is that we are both wordy people: readers, writers, storytellers.


So it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually get into a discussion of the language of adoption. She and I have many things in common, but one thing we differ on is the word “birth mother.” She doesn’t like it. I’m rather fond of it.

For her, the word “birth” refers to an event that happened and passed in our relationship, whereas her connection to me continued. “Birth mother” doesn’t reflect that her mothering of me didn’t end; it continued even through the years that we were separated.

She likes “blood mother,” which reflects a connection between us that is more enduring. But I’ve never really warmed to that one. With its “blood brother” association, it calls to mind an image of the two of us in a club house making a solemn pact. In a recent e-mail conversation, she hinted that she likes “blood mother” for that very reason. “It implies sacrifice,” she wrote, “and a deliberate chosen bond. I choose to connect with you and to maintain that connection. I want a pact. I want a ritual: Maybe write my name in ink on a copy of your birth certificate….” (See, I told you she was a word person.)

And yet for me the “blood brother” association remains problematic; it suggests two people who aren’t biologically related becoming related symbolically through ritual. The crux of my relationship with my birth mother is the opposite. We are related, and nothing can change that. Not the fact that the law doesn’t acknowledge us as such or that her name doesn’t appear on my birth certificate. Not thirty years of separation. The bond between us simply is.

I use “birth mother” and “birth mom” largely for reasons of practicality (they are the established words that people instantly recognize as having the meaning I intend). But I also like them. It's true that my birth was not the last event that we shared together. (Nor was it the first. Those nine months in the womb were not insignificant. Nancy Verrier notes that adult adoptees are often driven to locate their biological mothers yet typically show very little interest in finding biological fathers; she attributes this to the bond formed in utero.) My birth was also not a purely joyful event, followed as it was by our separation. But it is a history that I share with her and no one else. It is something that separates her from every person on the planet.

Like a lot of adopted persons, I was told growing up that my birth mother was someone who loved me very much and that she gave me up because she wasn’t able to care for me and wanted me to have a better life than she could provide – and act of love. There are problems with this story; it does not reflect the fact that many birth mothers, including mine, experienced coercion around the act of relinquishment. They did not give their babies away because of love; they reluctantly signed papers giving up their right to parent because they experienced intense pressure to do so, and – young, scared, and lacking support – couldn’t see an alternative. The love was there – yes, definitely – but it wasn’t the reason for relinquishment.

For an adopted child, however, this isn’t a bad story to grow up with. I never associated the word “birth mother” with abandonment. I associated it with love. There was somebody out there who loved me – somebody unknown but connected to me by an unbreakable thread.

I am aware of other terms that have been put forth as alternatives to “birth mother.” “First mother” is one that has become common in recent years and is preferred by many first mothers themselves. I can understand the appeal from their point of view, but it resonates less strongly from mine. My birth mother may have been the first mother that I knew, but she wasn’t the first mother that I knew as “mother.” The word “mother,” with all of its associations, was originally linked to someone else. “Birth mother” has a specific meaning to me that none of the alternatives capture. It refers to someone who began as an amorphous concept, shifted over the years in my psyche to something more specific, and eventually, through reunion, became flesh – a real person who looks like me and shares many of my quirks of personality, including a tendency to be over analytical about words. (When you think about it, that’s kind of miraculous – a sort of “birth” in and of itself.) I’m aware that “birth mother” may not be the perfect word, but I choose it intentionally because it is the only one that, for me, represents all that this person is and always has been in my life.


Did the Department of Children and Families Use Me as a Pawn? Sure Looks That Way!

They probably didn’t expect that my daughter’s birth mother Erica and I would one day be on such friendly terms that we would be sitting at lunch together talking about the time before my daughter’s adoption was finalized. But that’s what happened last week. And I received a surprising piece of news. During that pre-finalization ever-agonizing waiting time, Erica was told that my husband and I had refused to sign an open-adoption agreement, and that we were unwilling to do so unless she dropped her suit against the department. (She had sued because she had been denied visitation with another one of her children who was placed with a different foster-adopt family.)

Things were never difficult between Erica and us. She had relinquished her parental rights before we came into the picture in exchange for an open-adoption agreement with the department, which we were willing to continue. She had met me and my husband, had received positive reports about how Ashley was doing with us, and felt positive about the placement. Ashley had adjusted well to life with our family, and we were ready to finalize. But things dragged on and on. Why was it taking so long? My husband and I asked each other this question time and time again. We chalked it up to bureaucratic inefficiency. But I now believe it was something more.

It seems that our situation had become tied to that of the other family. Erica was told (though we never were) that the goal of the department was to finalize the adoptions of the siblings on the same day (even though they were placed separately and weren’t having visitation with each other). It makes sense, in a way. If you’ve got one adoption situation that’s chugging along nicely and another that has come to a grinding a halt because of failed mediation between the adoptive family and the birth mother, why not use one to pull the other along?

But do good intentions justify deceptive means? Here’s what actually happened on our end. We were contacted by DCF and told that Erica’s lawyer had proposed a visitation agreement. My husband and I discussed the offer and considered it very reasonable. We actually would have been willing to agree to more visitation than she had requested, but as there was nothing to prevent us from doing more on our own, we were happy to sign the contract as a base starting point. We told the department that we were very willing to sign.

But, until our discussion yesterday, Erica never got this information. Instead she was led to believe that if she didn’t comply with the department’s requests, she was at risk of losing everything - visitation with the other daughter AND with Ashley. So she backed down.

I’ll admit - I wasn’t there. Maybe there’s a crucial piece of information that I’m missing. Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. But however it played out, I’m saddened by it. I’m sad that Erica doesn’t have visitation with her other daughter, and I’m especially sad to think that words and intentions that were inaccurately attributed to my husband and me may have played a part in that outcome.

Do I Actually Advocate Something Other Than Adoption? No … and Yes.

I was recently asked the following question on Twitter: “You seem to advocate more communal care of children than adoption per se. Isn't there a big difference between the two?” It’s a good question, but don’t think I can answer it in 140 characters, so I’ve decided to address the matter here.

The word “adoption” can refer to a spectrum of arrangements from completely closed, with identities kept confidential and zero contact between the adoptive and biological families, to very open, with frequent contact and interaction. Even so called open adoptions can vary significantly in the degree of openness and frequency of contact. To quote one of my favorite informational resources on open adoption: “In open adoptions, communication may include letters, Emails, telephone calls, or visits. The frequency of contact ranges from every few years to several times a month or more, depending on the needs and wishes of all involved.”  http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f_openadoptbulletin.cfm

Each adoption situation is different, but I encourage adoptive parents to be open to higher degrees of contact whenever possible. My own daughter is legally adopted but currently has relatively frequent visitation with her biological mother, and this works well for our family. I believe that both parts of the equation contribute to her well being. The adoption gives her permanency, something she desperately needed -- she was not thriving as a foster child bouncing from home to home within the system. Adoption is a legal agreement, but it is also a ceremonial contract between the parent and the child. To my daughter, it means that we will stick with her, even when the going gets tough. It means, “no take backs.” But the connection to her biological family, and especially to her mother, nurtures her as well.

I’m not anti-adoption, and my intention in writing and speaking about adoption is not to discourage potential parents, especially those open to adopting from foster care, from considering adoption; with a distressingly high number of kids aging out of foster care without finding permanency, more adoptive parents are needed, not fewer! But I’m also aware that the old, closed adoption model really didn’t work for a lot of adoptees. Many adult adoptees today are angry and resentful, and even those of us who are ultimately grateful for our connection to our adoptive families will usually acknowledge challenges as well. Adoption may be a beneficial option in many situations, but it is rarely a painless option. My focus is primarily on making it less painful, for all involved but especially for the adoptee. I believe that nurturing and maintaining a connection to the biological family and/or culture is a crucial part of attaining that goal.

Though I don’t want to discourage potential adoptive parents from adopting, 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 myself grew up with an adoption-positive framework. I had always known that I was adopted and for the most part I viewed being an adoptee as a good thing. For a long time I thought that I was fine and had no issues related to being adopted. Then one day, in my mid-twenties, I found myself on my floor in my apartment sobbing uncontrollably, with the phrase “she doesn’t even know who I am,” in reference to my birth mother, repeating incessantly in my head. The feeling of loss came at me out of the blue, and knocked me flat. It had actually been there all along, but I’d never acknowledged it.

An eventual reunion with my birth family, plus some good therapy, brought healing, but also left me with a keen awareness of the endurance and importance of the biological bond. When I became an adoptive parent myself, I brought this understanding with me and it has guided me to my current, friendly relationship with my daughter’s birth mother. Our arrangement falls under the umbrella of adoption because, as I said, my daughter is legally adopted. Also, although the birth mother has comparatively frequent visitation, the nuts-and-bolts parenting still falls to my husband and me. But I’ve also coined a phrase -- “post-adoption reunification” -- to describe what I consider to be an important developmental phase for most adoptees. Whether it happens early with the support of the adoptive family or later by way of a reunion search on the part of an adult adoptee, most of us seem to need to reconnect to our biological roots eventually. I advocate open adoption as a more seamless (and less psychologically traumatic) way for this to happen.

And yet it’s interesting that my Twitter correspondent should mention “more communal care of children,” because that is in fact something that has been frequently on my mind. I don’t advocate doing away with adoption altogether, but I would like to see more emphasis put on preservation of biological families whenever possible … and this can only happen with community support. It is often said that a birth mother’s relinquishment is an act of love, and this may be true in many cases, but my birth mother will tell you that she would have preferred to have demonstrated her love by keeping me. What she longed for, and didn’t have, was the support of family and community that would have made it possible for her to raise me.

A few years ago, I had a dream (an actual dream while sleeping) that was very vivid and specific and that has stayed with me as a memory. I was visiting a college and being given a tour of a dormitory that was part of an innovative program. All of the students in the dormitory were young (typical college age) mothers. The children lived with the mothers in the dormitory, and day-care and other support services were provided. And each mother and child pair was also connected with a “foster family” in the college town who functioned as an extended family, providing additional support. Mother and child would sometimes visit the family together -- for example, for a Sunday dinner -- and sometimes when the mom needed more support, such as during finals week, the child might briefly stay there without mom. Wow, I thought, this is exactly what my birth mother would have wanted!

I’ve since learned that family foster care (in which a mother and child are both “fostered”) does exist, in some places in the UK and the United States and perhaps elsewhere, though not, to my knowledge, in the exact form of my dream. I don’t know much about such programs, but I’d love to learn more. I’ve also read about programs, such as Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which have had success at reducing the number of children entering the traditional foster care system by strengthening and helping to preserve original families, and I applaud such efforts.

For me, the experience of being an adopted person is often about embracing contradiction, finding simultaneous truths in things that would seem to oppose one another. I wouldn’t undo my own adoption or change my upbringing, and yet I feel called to support alternative options for others. I’m aware that the separation of a child from its biological mother can be painful -- traumatic even -- for both mother and child, and I’d love for others to be spared that pain, even though I am able to view my own trauma and healing as simply part of my growth process. I don’t reject adoption as a model for caring for children whose biological parents are unable, for whatever reason, to care for them fully -- to the contrary, I live it, love it, celebrate it -- but I’m also intrigued by emerging and potential models that support biological family preservation. Do I support something other than adoption per se? When all is said and done, yes, I do -- not as a replacement for adoption in all case, but as an alternative to adoption in some cases.


When a Birth Parent Has Another Child After Relinquishment or Loss of Parental Rights

I’d like to say that my husband and I thought about it carefully, discussed it as a couple, and after much deliberation, decided that, since she was bound to find out about it sooner or later, sooner -- and from us -- was preferable. But what actually happened was that my husband just kind of blurted it out. He tends to do that – he’s a wonderful man, but a bit of a talker. A couple of days later, my adopted daughter, Ashley, casually mentioned to me that her biological mother had given birth to another child. “How do you feel about that?” I asked. “OK. When do I get to meet him?” At her next visit with her birth mom, she asked the same question, and at the visit following that one, Tyler (who lives with Erica, the birth mom) attended at our request. Ashley was thrilled and came home talking excitedly about her baby brother.

There are three other siblings in this family, all of whom, for various reasons, were placed separately from Ashley -- two brothers in one placement and a sister in another. Of these siblings, Ashley is the only one who has a relationship with this youngest brother. Not only that, she is the only one who knows of his existence. Each of the other families has made the decision that it would be unproductive for the older children to know about Tyler. They are concerned that the older children will be extremely upset – “devastated” is the word that one of the parents used – if they learn that Erica had another child after they were removed from the home.

I know that each of these parents has the child’s best interest at heart. And to be honest, I might have even raised similar concerns if my husband had given me the chance. It’s natural for parents to worry about about their kids, and this issue is one that raises red flags for many adoptive parents. But I wonder if sometimes we go to far, projecting our own fears onto our children, and making the matter more complicated than it needs to be. Sometimes our kids surprise us; sometimes they are capable of handling far more than we think they can.

Tyler is now almost two, and he pronounces Ashley’s name in the cutest way. Erica keeps a picture of Ashley on their refrigerator, and Tyler kisses it every day. He has the sweetest smile, and it lights up his face whenever he sees his big sister. Ashley adores her little brother, and my older daughter is quite taken with him as well. At a recent visit, we all chased him around as he toddled excitedly away from us, laughing. We managed to get him to sit still just long enough to snap this photo:

 


Devastated? Not my kid. Delighted is more like it. Turns out my husband handled this one just right after all.

Genetic Mirroring: The Missing Piece for Many Adoptees

“Genetic mirroring” is a term that no one used when I was growing up. I didn’t encounter it until a few years ago, though I had an intuitive understanding of the thing itself long before I discovered the vocabulary to match. If you grew up with biological relatives, genetic mirroring is something you probably take for granted. You’ve likely never given it a second thought, and you also probably can’t really imagine not having it. But for many of us who grew up without it, genetic mirroring was the strangely absent piece that we may not have even known was missing.

Genetic mirroring is one of the ways that human beings make sense of who we are and define our identities, by observing people who share our genetic make-up. I experienced it for the first time when I was 30 years old, after locating my biological family. The first people I met in person were an aunt and uncle, and I will never forget that night. I don’t think I can adequately describe what a bizarre experience it was to have reached adulthood without ever having met a member of my immediate biological family, and then, suddenly, to see parts of myself reflected back in these people, who were strangers but not strangers at all. And it wasn’t only the similarity of physical appearance, but also the unexpected little things, like gestures -- the tendency to turn a hand a certain way when telling or story or a certain tilt of the head. As I got to know my original mother, at first through letters and e-mail, and eventually in person, we discovered striking similarities of appearance, mannerisms, interests, personality, education, and even profession. On the day I met my biological brother for the first time, I was completely fascinated by his hands as we made tacos together in the kitchen -- my hands, on the end of someone else’s arms!

Yes, I survived without genetic mirroring, and no, I wouldn’t really change the course that my life took. I grew up in a loving adoptive family and am thankful for the nurturing and care that I received in that family. But I’m also truly thankful that I don’t have to do without genetic mirroring any longer. And I’m glad that my own adopted daughter, who lived with her biological family for the first years of her life and still maintains a relationship with them via open adoption, will be one of the children who grow up taking genetic mirroring for granted and not really being able to imagine life without it.

An Adoption Journey: From Trauma to Healing

My journey with adoption began before I was born. It was the 1960s and teenage pregnancy was still a hush-hush topic, shrouded in shame. “How could you do this to me?” -- that’s what my biological grandmother said when she found out my birth mother was pregnant. Though my original mother was an academic achiever, she was not allowed to graduate with her high school class because she was beginning to show. Instead, she was whisked into hiding in a nearby city, where she spent the next several months holed up in a cousin’s apartment, doing crossword puzzles, eating brownies, and waiting for me to arrive … and depart again.

She gave birth to me in a medication-induced haze under the watchful eyes of medical students, and then I was the one who was whisked away. She never saw me or held me. She signed the paperwork that said she was giving me up of her own free will and was not coerced into doing so, but the wording didn’t sit right with her. True, no one was holding a gun to her head, but it didn’t really feel consensual.

I don’t have a conscious memory of the first hours of my life, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a lot of fun, and on some level, I probably do have a memory of that time that I hold in my body and carry to this day. In those days, it was believed (and a lot of people still believe this) that an infant could be separated from its biological mother and given to another caregiver, and, as long as its basic needs were met by someone, the infant wouldn’t know the difference. I am not in agreement with this view. I believe the infant very much notices the absence of the biological mother that it has bonded with in the womb. I believe that I felt my birth mother's absence in every cell of my body, and knew that something had gone terribly wrong. Fear, rage, powerlessness: this was my introduction to the world.

The next three weeks are a mysterious blank. I was apparently in custody of the state, but the details are unknown to me. What I do know is that at the end of those three weeks I was placed into the arms of a loving couple who had struggled with infertility (in the days when infertility was also still a hush-hush topic) and considered me a miracle, a gift from God.

Throughout my childhood, I exhibited signs of trauma, but in those days, nobody recognized them as such. I was an anxious, fearful child, often “spacey” and oddly distant, but my parents, teachers, and others assumed that this was all just part of my personality. As an adult, I continued to struggle with self-esteem issues, anxiety, and (self-fulfilling) fears of abandonment as well as other relationship challenges.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 40s that I got the information that allowed me to make sense of how things had been just a little bit “off” for me my whole life. When I read Nancy Verrier’s book Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up, it was as if my life shifted into focus for the first time ever. Finally I had a framework to make sense of my life, and that framework was adoption trauma. Reading the book was therapeutic in and of itself, but I followed it up with actual therapy (mostly, somatic experiencing), and with the help of my therapist I was finally able to release the traumatic energy that I had been carrying all my life. The experience was, quite simply, life transforming.

Many things have changed in the adoption community since the days of my birth. As an adopted person, I support the shift from closed adoptions as the norm to a preference for open adoptions, when such arrangements are truly open and not just nominally so. And pregnant teens now have more options, too; some, with the support of family members or community programs, are able to keep their babies with them while simultaneously continuing their own education and growth. But on the subject of adoption trauma in newborns, I find awareness is still often lagging behind. I frequently hear prospective adoptive parents say that they want to adopt a newborn rather than an older child because the newborn will be a blank page and unharmed. Gazing down at that beautiful, precious baby, adoptive parents want to believe that the child is perfect and whole and unscathed. And the baby is perfect … but he or she may also have entered the world in such a way that the very first experience of life was a traumatic one (especially, if like me, the child was removed abruptly without being held by the biological mother -- it turns out that even being held for a short time can reduce the development of trauma symptoms).

The good news is that healing is possible, and there is much that adoptive parents can do to support the adopted child’s healing journey. Recent years have seen many developments in our understanding of trauma and how to support healing. Somatic experiencing was tremendously helpful to me, but there are also many other therapeutic methods that have been found to be effective. Finding a good child therapist with experience in adoption issues can be challenging (therapists generally get little or no training in adoption-specific issues), but a persistent parent will likely find someone who is the right match. There are also many things that parents can do on their own. Learning about attachment and neurobiology (Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell is one good resource) can aid parents in helping their adopted child form secure bonds with them. And books like Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline’s Trauma-Proofing Your Kids can help parents support their child’s healing from adoption and other forms of childhood trauma. With the support of informed parents, today’s adopted children can find healing and resilience much sooner in life than those of my generation.

Note: On November 30, 2012 I published a post called I May Never Completely Heal, and That's OK. It is essentially postscript to the above post. If you have come to this one first, I urge you to please click through and read the other as well.


Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photo

Love Is Not a Pie

When I tell people that I have developed a good relationship with my daughter’s biological mother and am feeling very positive about the efforts my husband and I have been making to include her more in our lives as an extended family member, they almost always respond with some version of the following: “Wow, that’s great! But aren’t you afraid …” This is followed by the expression of various concerns that naturally arise.

This response is not too surprising. We live in a fear-based culture that tends to encourage scarcity thinking. One of the dominant undercurrents of the concern I encounter is that if we allow our daughter (whom we adopted through the foster system, finalizing last year) to have continued contact with her biological family, she will be less attached and bonded to us. I’ve also seen this fear in other adoptive parents. Even therapists sometimes express the view that contact between an adopted child and his or her biological family can confuse the child and inhibit bonding with the adoptive one. I disagree.

Here's the thing: Love is not a finite object, like a pie, that gets divided up and handed out in limited quantities. It isn’t the case that if my daughter gives X-amount of love to her biological mother, there will be X-amount less for me. Love just isn’t like that. As parents, we know this in relation to our children. When we give birth to or adopt a second child, we don’t divide our love so that the first child now gets half the amount. True, our time and resources are limited and we must sometimes divide those, but the love itself is infinite and ever reproducing. The more of it we dole out, the more of it we have to give. Most people don’t question that parents can love more than one child, yet we sometimes assume that children are not capable of loving more than one parent or set of parents, biological and adoptive.

I’m happy to report that, from what I’ve seen so far, the fears of well-meaning friends and family members are unfounded. As we’ve increased contact between the adoptive and biological sides of my daughter's family, her relationship with me especially has improved. My daughter had bonded first with my husband, her adoptive father. Her relationship with him was less complicated because there was no other father figure currently present in her life, mind, and heart. But with me, there was that divided loyalty issue; she had grown relatively close to me, but there was still a bit of a wall between us. In the months following the finalization of her adoption, that wall got a little thicker as she processed what it meant to be a permanent part of our family. But as we increased visits with her original mother, the wall began to crumble. She became warmer and more affectionate toward me, began to seek me out more frequently for comfort, regulation, and companionship. Our bond strengthened.

I am not surprised. For one thing, who would you feel warmer toward: someone whom you perceive as keeping you from someone else you love or someone who facilitates that connection? Her original mother has also done a great job of giving our daughter “permission” to love me and my husband. She tells her, as I do, that having more parents just means more people in your life who love you. When our daughter sees me with her first mother, she can tell that there is genuine warmth and friendliness between us. It’s easier to give yourself permission to love two people when you can see that they like each other. Another positive factor is that the tension my daughter felt around visits has evaporated; the visits now occur with enough frequency that she no longer has to feel anxious, wondering when, if ever (always that doubt lingered), she will get to see her mom again. The visits, quite frankly, have become nonevents -- they are not disruptive; they are simply a normal part of our life.

Every family is different and every adoption is different. What has worked so beautifully for my family might not work at all for another. (In our case, the biological mother is someone who has worked hard to turn her life around and is currently very stable - that’s not always the case in foster-adopt situations.) But I’m glad that my husband and I had the courage to follow our instincts and create the right situation for our family. Everything in life involves risk. Is there a risk in allowing an adopted child to have more contact with the biological family? Sure. Do I at times feel jealous of my daughter’s biological mother? Sure, I’m human. But there is also a risk involved in restricting contact between the child and his or her birth family. There is a risk to the child, emotionally and psychologically, and a risk to the relationship between the child and the adoptive family. I’m so grateful that my husband and I chose to gamble in the direction that we did because the prize has been not only a fulfilling relationship with our daughter’s birth mother but a closer, more bonded relationship with our daughter as well. We didn’t just get a piece of the pie -- we got a whole lot more!

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