Sunday, August 28, 2011

Double Vision: An Adoptee's View of Family

I sometimes wish I knew what it would be like to not be adopted. If you are not adopted, please think about that for a moment. Think about the things that you take for granted. Think about the simple, natural connection between you and the people to whom you are related. Even if your relationship with your family is not 100% positive, there is a quality of your connection to them that you have probably never questioned; they simply ARE your family. They didn't choose you; you didn't choose them. You are connected to them by the interwoven threads of shared experience and biology.

For me, as an adopted person, things are not so simple. It occurred to me recently that being adopted is a bit like having Strabismus, or "Wandering Eye," a condition in which the two eyes don't quite work together as they should to create a single, unified picture. As a metaphor for the adoption experience, this translates to two separate visions of family. One eye sees the world through the lens of experience and upbringing. This is the "nurture" lens, connected to a definition of family as those people with whom I grew up, who cared for me, and shared the experiences of family life with me. The other eye is the lens of "nature," or biology. It sees family as those people who share my genetics and genealogy, who are related to me in spite of our lack of shared history.

Some people with Strabismus compensate by favoring one eye over the other, and some adopted people do so as well, metaphorically. There are adoptees who will tell you that their real family is the one that they grew up in. Period. There are even those who express distance from, and disdain for, their biological mothers by referring to the them as "incubators." On the other end of the spectrum are those who refer to their adoptive parents as "adopters," rather than parents, rejecting the adoptive definition of family in favor of a strictly biological one. But many of us find ourselves in the middle, struggling to hold two (at times contradictory) definitions of family simultaneously, striving to create a single, unified vision from these two divergent points of reference.

Can I say that my life would have been better if I hadn't been adopted? Would I be happier or psychologically healthier today? I can't say that with any certainty at all; who knows where that unknown path would have led. Most of the time I am able to accept, and even celebrate, my life for what it is and to see the duality of adoption as an enrichment rather than a detraction. Usually, I am thankful that I have the love of not just one but two families. But to be honest, I'm not always in that place of acceptance and gratitude. Sometimes I wish that instead of families, I simply had "a family."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Children in Open Adoptions Are Not Confused by Contact with Biological Families

I was reading a list of Adoption Myths and Facts earlier today, and one myth in particular jumped out at me:

Having regular contact with the Natural family would be confusing and destructive to the adopted child and her family

Followed by the refuting statement:

Regular contact with the Natural family is less confusing than no contact and will reduce many of the pains and problems that face the adopted person as she lives her life

As someone who advocates open adoption, my views are obviously strongly in line with the second statement. The prevalence of the first belief is something that has long bothered me, especially when I encounter it among members of the psychiatric and therapeutic community. 

About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in the office of one such professional discussing my daughter Ashley, who was at that time still my foster child. I mentioned that she had twice yearly visits with her biological mother, adding that she did well with the visits and that I intended to continue them following adoption. A look of concern crossed his face. "I don't know," he said. "Don't you think that will just be confusing for her?"

This was a pivotal moment -- one that could have sent my adoption journey off on a very different track. The visitation agreement that Ashley's biological mother had signed with the state included a clause stating that the visits could be stopped if a therapist believed they were not in Ashley's best interest. If I was looking for an "out," here was one being handed to me on a silver platter.

Fortunately, I wasn't looking for an out. And I also knew that even though this man was in the position of an expert, sitting behind a big desk with degrees hanging on the wall behind him, his education likely included little or no training specific to adoption. I knew that as someone who was herself adopted and who had read countless books and articles on adoption, I was the one who was in fact the expert on this subject. I spent the next 15 minutes educating him on the importance and endurance of the biological bond. 

Can we really say that the second of these two statements is a "fact," or a proven scientific statement? No, probably not. But I can say with confidence that everything in my experience as an adopted person and in what I have seen so far as an adoptive mother in an open adoption supports the second statement. Ashley was very definitely "confused" (or more accurately, "traumatized") by her removal from her biological family, but my husband and I have not seen any evidence of confusion as we have continued (and, in fact, increased) her visitation with them. Nor have we seen any evidence that increased contact with the biological family is harmful to our adoptive one. To the contrary, we have seen Ashley's bond with us strengthen and we've noticed her seeming more relaxed and happy.

There are a lot of things about adoption that can be confusing to children. The separation from the biological family, and the various explanations that adults give for that separation, can be very confusing. But loving two families, and being loved by two families -- that's not confusing. It's actually pretty simple!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are My Kids Too Old for “The Bedtime Routine”?

My daughters are 10-years-old, and my husband and I still do a fairly elaborate bedtime routine with them involving reading, cuddling, and a lot of talking and listening. We have a system and a schedule, and each child gets one-on-one time with one or both parents.

To be honest, it can be exhausting, and there are times when I want nothing more than to crawl into bed myself and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. I’m aware that many parents have trained their kids out of needing such elaborate routines well before age 10. Why haven’t we done so?

Though it would certainly be easier if my daughters went to bed by themselves, I see so many advantages to doing things as we do. The bedtime routine is a cornerstone of our bond with them. Our days are busy, filled with school, work, after-school activities, homework, etc.. But the bedtime routine guarantees that we have at least some small amount of time for connection. Many of the most important conversations in our family happen in the hour before bed.

I actually don’t know how we would have made it through the last two years without "the routine." When our younger daughter (the just-turned-10 one, as opposed to the almost-11 one) joined our family as a pre-adoptive foster placement, our household was temporarily thrown into chaos. It’s not easy to integrate an 8-year-old child with a trauma history into a family, and in the beginning we had many rough days. The bedtime routine was one of the ways that we showed our new daughter that we cared for her; we cared enough to listen to her fears and to sit with her until she fell asleep. Eventually, we integrated foot massage, relaxing music, and other calming techniques into the routine to help her relax; bedtime for her became something to look forward to rather than something to dread. And it was at bedtime, also, that we introduced her to books and made reading a regular part of her life.

During that same time period, bedtime was when our older daughter cried in our arms and poured out all of her frustrations and regrets regarding this new sister -- the terrible, awful sister that she wished would go away. Bedtime was when we helped her process the complex swirl of emotions that she was experiencing as part of the major transition that was happening in her life.

Things are very different now; our younger daughter has made dramatic developmental and emotional progress and our older one no longer wishes the younger one would cease to exist. In fact, they seem to get along better than most siblings. And they are 10. Isn’t it time we dropped the bedtime routine?

I know there are those who would argue that it is high time we did so, but I’m just not ready to give it up yet. The fact that each child gets one-on-one time with a parent every day may be one of the very reasons that these siblings get along so well. And the reading and the conversations are also still just too valuable. Our family isn’t perfect; we squabble and disagree and sometimes say things that we regret saying … but because of the bedtime routine, we end each day on a positive note. I see my children maturing daily in so many ways, and I know that the time will come when the bedtime routine will pass out of existence. I don’t need to force its demise; it will simply come about eventually. When that happens, I will probably feel a mixture of relief and regret. I will l still want to prioritize the things I value now about the bedtime routine: connection and conversation. I’ll just have to work a little harder to fit them into our busy lives.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is Open Adoption a False Promise?

I follow a lot of adoption-related blogs and online groups -- some of which are very critical of adoption as an institution and some of which are very supportive of it. One of the concerns voiced by those who are less enamored of adoption (usually because of their own negative experience with it as an adoptee or birth parent) is that many birth parents today are being persuaded to sign away parental rights with promises of contact that never materialize. It’s a serious concern, and a complicated matter. Open adoption only works if the adoption really is open -- in practice, not just on paper -- and that takes commitment from both parties.

Why do adoptive parents enter into open adoption agreements? Some do so because of a firm belief that openness is best for all involved, but others may do so merely as a matter of expediency. Potential adoptive parents interested in domestic infant adoption may recognize that a willingness to engage in open adoption will make them more attractive matches for birth parents. If open adoption increases the likelihood of become parents, or has the potential to decrease the waiting time, it’s not surprising that prospective parents would be willing to consider it. But is openness truly what they want? Possibly not. Maybe they would prefer to have a biological child of their own or to adopt a child through a closed adoption; for such parents, openness is a compromise. I’m engaging in a lot of speculation here, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that all open adopters fall into this category -- but it seems very likely that some do.

A similar ambivalence can arise in foster-adopt situations. After a foster child’s goal has changed from reunification to adoption, many birth parents are persuaded to voluntarily relinquish parental rights in exchange for visitation rights. For the biological parent, it is usually a choice to gamble on the side of something rather than nothing -- they are afraid of losing all rights, so they voluntarily give up the bulk of them in exchange for the guarantee (or so they think) of some of them. The adopting parents may not be thrilled about the situation either -- they might prefer that the biological parent retain no rights at all -- but they agree because it paves the way for the adoption to move forward.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that my husband and I have such a contract with Erica, my daughter’s birth mother. Our agreement gives her the right to one supervised visit a year and stipulates that we must maintain a post office box where she can send gifts and letters. What makes our situation somewhat unusual is that we have decided to have visits on a significantly more frequent basis than our contract stipulates. Our frequent visitation schedule wouldn’t be right for all families but is right for ours.

Our open adoption works in large part because I want it to. As an adoptee myself, I probably have a stronger awareness than many adoptive parents of the importance of maintaining a relationship with the biological family whenever possible; the endurance of the biological connection is not just something I’ve read about -- I know it by experience. I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with Erica for this journey of open adoption because I genuinely like her and admire her for the work she has done in recent years to turn her life around. Her stability is one important factor in our success, but so is my openness. Because to be honest, if I didn’t want this adoption to be an open one, I probably could find a way out of the agreement. Our contract, a fairly standard one for our area, includes lots of potential “outs” for the adoptive parents.

The enforceability of post-adoption agreements between adoptive and biological families varies from state to state, but there are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories out there on the Web about open adoption agreements that have fallen apart. As someone who self-identifies as an “open-adoption advocate,” I feel compelled to qualify that it is not the signing of agreements that I advocate but the creation of actual functioning relationships between adoptive and biological families. In fact, my message to potential adoptive parents might even be don’t sign it if you aren’t prepared to live it -- fully and joyfully.

But the other part of my message would be “be open to the possibility that openness may turn out to be a blessing.” You may discover, as I have, that openness contributes not only to your child’s well-being but to yours as well. You may find that your bond with your adopted child is actually strengthened by increased contact with the biological family. There are plenty of great stories out there about open adoptions that do work, and a positive, open, nonjudgmental attitude on the part of the adoptive parent or parents is typically an important factor in these successes. Yes, there are situations in which open adoption is not a possibility or not in the best interest of the child, but don’t be too eager to assume that your situation is one of them.

“Is it ethical to use promises of ongoing future contact with their children as an incentive for birth parents to relinquish parental rights?” (http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f_openadoptbulletin.cfm). I’ve been mulling this question over quite a bit lately; it’s an important and complex issue. It would certainly seem very unethical for an adoptive parent or an adoption agency to promise contact with no intention of following through, but I suspect that is rarely, if ever, the case. More likely, people begin with good intentions, combined in some cases with a bit of ambivalence, and later things break down. Let’s face it, relationships are tricky, and open adoptions are just that: relationships.

What are the factors that contribute to success in open adoption and what can be done to ensure that more adoptions remain truly open while serving the needs of all involved, especially the child? These are questions that interest me. What is your take on the situation? Do you have a story of an open adoption that succeeded or failed or maybe ended up somewhere in the middle? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or email me at ashleysmoms@gmail.com.

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