Friday, January 27, 2012

Five for Friday: Birth Mothers in Open Adoptions

Here are five posts by mothers who placed. Each is involved in an adoption that has at least some degree of openness. I don't mean to imply that these posts represent the full range of experiences from the first-mother point of view; they don't. They are but five of many voices, but they are my "Five for Friday":

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pictures! A Childhood Retrieved

I heard my husband's car pull into the driveway, then the back door to the house crashed open and Ashley raced up the stairs. "Mom, Mom! I have a picture of D!" That was the first thing she said, but the picture of "D," her biological father who left the family before she was old enough to form strong memories of him, wasn't the only thing she had. Erica, her biological mother, had given her an entire stack of photos from Ashley's early years, with a request that we copy them and return them to her.

I pushed aside the laundry I was folding so Ashley could spread out the photos on the bed.

"Here's me on my second birthday! And here's me in a tutu. And brushing my teeth. That's me and H. And those are my brothers. And that's me wearing my grandma's slippers."

We went through the whole stack and somehow missed the picture of D, so we went back through.

"There he is, the one in the red shirt. I don't look like him."

"True," I answered. "You look more like your mother. Still, it's neat to have the picture. I have the same situation. I only have one picture of my biological dad, and I don't really look like him, but I'm glad I have it."

I've written about visit backlash and how Ashley responded to a visit in October by pushing me away afterwards. But that's the thing about open adoption ... you just never know what you are going to get; the adoptive parent needs to be adaptable, ready to respond to whatever comes up for the child. Ashley's response to this most recent visit was on the opposite end of the spectrum from that October visit. This time she wanted me -- intensively -- to help her process. After sharing the photos, she asked me to come into her room on some pretense, shut the door, and proceeded to talk for almost two hours while I listened, nodded, and, when appropriate, verbally reflected back her thoughts and emotions. Some of it was about her birth family, but a lot of it was about seemingly irrelevant things: her friends, school work, our adoptive family. She even shared a rare verbal expression of her feelings toward me: "It's really hard for me to say 'I love you,' but that doesn't mean I don't." A lot of it was about identity; she's figuring out who she is and how she wants to show up in the world.

The next morning I drove her to school. It was just the two of us because her sister was with my husband on the way to an appointment. Because we didn't have the scanner set up yet, she had taken pictures of the photos with her iPod and she was happily looking through them in the back seat.

"Look at this one, Mom," she kept saying, holding up the iPod. "Wasn't I so cute?"

"Yes, Ashley, you were adorable, but I really need to keep my eyes on the road when I'm driving."

But I also added "I'm so glad you have those photos now." And I meant it. I'm aware that a piece of her childhood has been returned to her. This is something that people don't often think about, but when kids enter foster care, they not only lose their families, they lose many of the things that connected them to those families: the homes, the furniture, the photos, the shared verbal memories. The photos give Ashley a part of that back.

"These pictures are bringing up so many memories," she said to me later that day.

"Good memories?"


We tend to think of kids who enter foster care as having nothing but negative experiences prior to removal, but that's not always the case. It's not true for Ashley. Her mother's addiction began to spiral out of control near the end of Ashley's time in the home, and those were bad times, but there were plenty of good times prior to that, and the pictures attest to this. These are happy, smiling kids in these photos.

My kid is amazing. She's been through so much and has shown so much resilience. I'm so happy that she now gets to experience the simple pleasure that so many of us take for granted, of looking back at photos of her earlier years and saying, "Hey, that was me. Wasn't I adorable?" (And for the record, she was!)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mrs. S. Was Adopted?

My adoptive parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, and the party was the first time that many family members and friends of the family met Ashley. Her addition to our family was a natural topic of conversation, so it's not surprising that I found myself talking about adoption with one of my mother's longtime friends. The part that was surprising to me was learning that this woman was herself adopted.

How could I not have known this? I've known this person for as long as I can remember. Her son is close to me in age, and our mothers got together weekly for coffee when we were toddlers. I was often in her house, and vise versa. She strained the pulp out of my orange juice because I was too picky to drink it otherwise. Her boisterous laugh kept me awake on the nights when "the bridge group" met at our house. Later, in my middle-school years, our two families went on ski vacations together. She's adopted. I'm adopted. But never, in all those years, had we ever had a conversation about that.

I would have loved to have had that information about her earlier. I would have felt a special kinship with her. I knew so few people who were adopted when I was growing up. In fact, I can only think of two other kids in my town who were known to be adopted, and they were considered to be somewhat bad examples because they "gave their parents a lot of trouble." (I had heard it whispered that their bad behavior might have had something to do with adoption; I didn't want to associate myself with those adoptees.)

But Mrs. S! Mrs. S. was adopted? Why didn't anybody ever tell me this?

I don't even know if she even knew that I was adopted; most people in town didn't. We moved to town when I was about a year old and I look enough like my adoptive family to "pass" for biological. My parents told me that I was adopted from the earliest age but preferred not to talk about it publicly. "It's not something that people really need to know," my mother would say. "You're no different from children who were born into their families. We love you just as much." It sounds lovely and child-centered put that way, and she really did have good intentions, but she also never asked me how I felt about the matter. And, of course, the unspoken flip-side to the coin was "I'm no different from other mothers and don't want to be singled out as such." The unofficial family policy was as follows: we don't hide it; there's nothing to be ashamed of ... but we also don't bring the matter up.

And if a code of silence was the norm in my day, it was even more so when Mrs. S. was growing up. Did my mom even know that one of her closest friends was adopted? It's very possible that she didn't. If we in my family didn't talk about adoption, it's likely that Mrs. S. didn't either. It just wasn't something people talked about much in those days. Adoption was considered to be a private, family matter; it wasn't anyone else's business.

But however it came to pass, there we were, the two of us, standing in the middle of the banquet hall as the party swirled around us, completely wrapped up in our conversation, sharing our experiences and nodding in recognition as the other spoke. "Even my husband doesn't really understand," she said. "He doesn't get that I respond to so many things differently because of this."

In Adoption Nation Adam Pertman writes the following (and yes, I do in fact plan on quoting him every other post):
At a dinner party with a half-dozen friends, I once offhandedly cited a well-known statistic among researchers -- that only about 1 percent of American women relinquish their babies for adoption today, a precipitous drop from a few decades ago -- to which one woman at the table responded: "Are you sure it isn't much higher? Just about everyone I know with children adopted them."
Pertman's statistic refers to domestic adoptions and the woman who responds is almost certainly taking into account international adoptions, but the point he is trying to make -- that adoption is currently very visible in our culture --  is a valid one.

Ashley's experience of growing up adopted is very different from my own. Adoption is all around her. Each of my daughters has two friends that they consider to have "best friend" status, and in each of the pairs, one of the two is adopted. And they know of other adopted classmates as well. Adoption is very visible in their school, in our church, and in our home. And of course, all of these kids know that I am adopted; for them, there will be no big discovery moment about this years down the road. It's not something we have big discussions about, but they know.

Adoption doesn't define Ashley, and I certainly don't go around introducing her as "my adopted daughter," but there is a light that shines on adoption that was absent in my growing-up years. Other adoptees may have a different reaction to this, but in my case, the dominant emotion is one of relief. I'm glad to be out of the shadows.

And my adoptive mom? She has come out of the shadows, too. On a recent visit home I went with her and a couple of her friends to visit an art museum in another part of our state. One of these friends is an adult adoptee who was in the process of searching for her biological family, and she already knew, because my mom had told her, about my adoption and reunion. On the long drive to the museum the four of us chatted extensively, and comfortably, about adoption, reunion, and our understanding of the ties that bond the adoptee to both families. It's a good memory for me; I felt happy and connected to my adoptive mom ... more fully present in our relationship because I was no longer expected to hide parts of myself.

Participating in the online adoption community is another way that I now stand in the light. So I'll end this post with a shout-out to the many members of the triad that I have "met" online in the months since starting this blog. I'm a lot less lonely in my adoption status than I was as a child, and I'm thankful for the work that is being done by so many of you to bring all aspects of the adoption experience into the light.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Five for Friday: More Blog Posts I Love

I thought I'd do this again ... except that last time was a Thursday and I featured ten posts. Also, this week I'm focusing on open adoption from the adoptive parent's point of view. Each of these posts is by a mother who has reached out to biological family members for the sake of her child. The first four are by adoptive moms in open adoptions. The fifth is not specifically about adoption, but makes a point that is certainly relevant. Please enjoy my "Five for Friday":

1) Minnie
2) Our Day with Ray
3) My Daughter's Mom
4) What Open Adoption Looks Like in Our Family
5) “Anyone Who Wants To Love You Is Always Welcome” 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Adam Pertman Quote

There's no clinical or practical evidence to indicate that adoptees or birth parents try to disrupt or interfere with adoptions that include contact. To the contrary, many adoptive families grow stronger, and all of the people involved become more secure, when their relationships cease to be based on fear and fantasy. -- Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation
I've been wanting to write something that would incorporate this quote, but it stands pretty well on its own. So I'll just add that my own experience backs up his statement; our adoptive family did grow stronger as we formed a real relationship with Erica, our daughter's first mom. Prior to opening things up, she was a shadowy figure lurking on the edges of our life. Now, she is a real (and loved!) member of our extended family. That's definitely a change for the better. If you are an adoptive parent who hasn't already made this leap, please consider doing so. Can it be scary? Yes. But the typical fears that come up around open adoption are largely unfounded, and the potential benefits are great. Taking that leap may very well prove to be the best thing you've ever done.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Domestic Infant Adoption

I recently wrote that I do not love adoption. That’s true. But neither do I hate it. I’m neither anti-adoption nor pro-adoption. My feelings toward the institution of adoption are complex because my own experience has been complicated. (Please note that when I speak critically of the institution of adoption -- or any of its branches: domestic infant, international, or foster -- I am doing just that: criticizing a flawed, human-created institution in need of reform. Please understand that I am not criticizing you or your family. I am not saying that you shouldn't have adopted or placed. I obviously don't know all the details of your specific situation. I do understand that there are cases in which, all factors taken into account, adoption remains the best option.)

(Image copyright 123RF Stock Photos)

I hold certain beliefs about adoption that are informed by both my own experience as an adopted person and by things I have read by birth parents and other adoptees. One of my beliefs is this: when a person (an adoption worker, a family member, a guidance counselor, etc.) tells a woman who is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy that she is selfish if she is thinking of parenting the child and that if she is truly loves her child she will do the unselfish thing and give that child a better life through adoption, that person, however well-intentioned, is making a statement that is inaccurate and insupportable. Simply put: adoption gives a child a different life, but there is no guarantee that it will be a better one.

Even if the adoptive parents have more money, more education, more resources; even if they are married and the first parents are not; even if they have no psychiatric diagnosis (that we know of) and the first parents do, there is no guarantee that life with them will be preferable for the adoptee. What we can almost certainly guarantee, however, is that whatever gains exist will be accompanied by losses: lack of genetic mirroring; struggles with identity; confusion (how to make sense of the unbreakable thread that binds you to one family when law and custom and experience have bound you to another). Who can balance that account and say with certainty whether the adoptee will come out ahead or behind?

Nevertheless, this is the decision that a parent considering placement must make. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, she must weigh the various factors and make the best decision she can in the best interest of her child. Parents who are raising children do this constantly; every day we make decisions that we hope will prove beneficial to our children without any guarantee that they will do so. For the birth parent, these countless little decisions are replaced with a single, huge, life-altering one: the placement decision.

A birth parent is first and foremost a parent. That may seem like a simple enough statement, but it is actually a radical one. Historically, birth mothers have not been viewed as such. My birth mother, during her pregnancy with me, was not considered to be a parent making a decision for her child. Rather, she herself was the child ... a child who had messed up and now needed the adults in her life to swoop in and and clean up her mess. She was told what do and how things would play out. Wheels were set in motion to make the "problem" (unplanned pregnancy) disappear.

Becoming pregnant did not make her a parent in the eyes of her mother and others; it reinforced her childlike status, proving her irresponsibility. For a birth mother of my mother's generation, an expression of a desire to parent would only have reinforced her "childish" naivety in the eyes of more "knowing" adults. And her case was not unique; certain social trends were at work and had been at work for a number of years: Here's a quote from Rickie Solinger's book Wake Up Little Susie:
Consistent with postwar [post-WWII] attitudes about single women, white unwed mothers became, by definition, unfit mothers, in fact, not mothers at all. By professional definition and diagnosis, white unwed mothers who wanted to keep their babies were diagnosed as particularly immature, or more usually, mentally ill.
I wish I could say that such attitudes are a thing of the past, but I've read enough first-person accounts from women who have placed more recently to know that many young and/or unwed women still face tremendous pressure, and in some cases, manipulation. Many are presented with an idealistic picture of adoption (with no negative repercussions for the adoptee or birth parent). In contrast, a negative picture is painted of the scenario in which the birth parent chooses to parent; in that scenario, neither the mother nor the child could possibly thrive. Birth mothers may no longer be given an official diagnosis of "mentally ill" if they express a desire to keep the child, but many are still told that they'd have to be "crazy" to do so. Crazy, and selfish to boot!

As an adult adoptee, I have a different perspective from that of most non-adopted persons. I speak up about the complexity of adoption because I believe that the decision to remove a child from his or her biological family to be raised in a family of genetic strangers is a serious matter. It should be an informed decision. I stand by my statement, radical as it may be, that a birth parent is first and foremost a parent and should be treated as such. I long for every birth parent to have the accurate information needed to make an informed decision, and then I long for each to have peace with whatever that decision turns out to be.

Friday, January 13, 2012

When Birth Parents Don't Want Openness in Adoption

A reader of my blog contacted me recently asking what adoptive parents can do when they are open to openness, wanting to maintain a connection to the birth family for sake of the child, but the first parents are not open to this possibility. It's a valid question, and one I have been asked before. When I advocate for openness, I tend to write primarily for an audience of adoptive parents, hoping to persuade them of the benefits of keeping adoptions open. But sometimes, the a-parents are not the ones standing in the way of openness.

I thank my lucky stars every day to have been paired with Erica (my daughter Ashley's first mom) for my own experience with open adoption. One of Erica's core beliefs, which she came to as part of her therapy and healing journey, is that parenting doesn't end when one's parenting rights are terminated. Though her hands-on role is reduced (and this is even more the case in terms of Ashley's siblings, who were placed in families less willing to include her), she believes that it is her job to do whatever is in the best interest of her children. This can be a tricky balance of stepping aside (so that bonding can happen with the adoptive family) and yet still remaining available. 

I know that there are lots of reasons why bio parents drop away; not everyone is going to have to inner resources to do what Erica does. And I also think that many b-parents don't realize that continuing to be a presence in their child’s life has a huge potential benefit to the child (in fact, they may have been told just the opposite). This understanding can be a key factor. When I read the blogs of b-parents in open adoptions, I often hear them express that there are things about openness that are difficult for them (the b-parent) but that they will continue the relationship because they believe it is in the best interest of the child.

But anyway, the question was about what an adoptive parent can do when such conditions aren't present. For anyone else who is interested in this, I recommend starting with my earlier post about emotional opennessI firmly believe that "emotional openness" is of key importance, whether or not there is actual contact with the first family. Emotional openness, for me, includes something I call "making space for mourning." It's not necessary to be heavy-handed about this; adoptive parents don't need to walk around all the time saying to their adopted children, “Gosh, it must be hard not having a relationship with your biological relatives.” But parents should try to be alert to those moments when their kids hint at feelings of loss. 

The a-parent can validate the child's feelings, communicating something along the lines of “I understand that you feel that way, and it is totally normal.” One of the major issues often raised by adult adoptees like myself who grew up in closed adoptions is that we never got to grieve. That was what inhibited healing. And, for many of us, one of the things that prevented grieving was the belief that doing so was in some way disloyal to our adoptive families. This is a place where adoptive parents can really make a difference. You can communicated acceptance of whatever feelings come up around adoption and birth families (while recognizing to yourself that these feelings will likely change many times through the years).

The other thing I would suggest is to be open to the possibility of creative solutions. Genetic mirroring can happen with other relatives, too. Bmom and Bdad may be unavailable, but maybe someday a grandparent or a sibling or a cousin will show up wanting a relationship, and if you are open, you’ll be ready. Pictures. Information. Every little bit helps. Again, the hard part for many adoptees in closed adoptions was that we had nothing. We went through our lives without ever seeing our genetic selves reflected back in any way.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Week in Review: Ten Adoption-Related Blog Posts That Rocked My World

I typically read a lot of adoption-related material online, and this week was no exception. The blog posts listed below tugged at my heartstrings (or punched me in the gut), inspired me, or eloquently put into words something that I want the world to know. Some are older posts that I just discovered (through the Best of Open Adoption Blogs 2011 list or other means) and others are new postings that popped up in my reader this week. All three sides of the triad are represented among the authors. Taken together, these posts present a complex (and at times heartbreaking) picture of this thing we call adoption, a crazy quilt of experiences stitched together with threads of love and loss. Here, in no particular order, are my top-ten finds of the week: 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

(Almost Wordless) Wednesday

Without open adoption, we wouldn't have had this moment:

Ashley welcomes her youngest brother to the world. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Good Morning Adoption World!

I love being part of the adoption blogging world. I love waking up and reading this post at The Chronicles of Munchkin Land first thing in the morning. There I was, half asleep and wishing I could crawl back into bed for another hour or three, spending a few minutes with my computer as I waited for the goddess Caffeine to work her magic, when I found the magic without her help. Bam! Suddenly I was wide awake and inspired and (channeling my tween daughters) thinking, Can I get a woot woot?!

Jenna's posts often make me feel this way, but this one especially so because it taps into some things I have been thinking about myself. Can I just say that I love that judge! Or rather, I love the writers who created her and put those words into her mouth. I'll borrow from my daughters one more time: she is totally beast, man!

Or no, actually, let me use my own word, the one that came to my mind most powerfully as I read about her: authentic.

That's a word that's been on my mind this week anyway because a friend used it to describe my own writing voice, and I took it as the greatest compliment she could pay. It was significant to me because for many years I did not have an authentic voice. This is something I've been discussing with some other adult adoptees online. Many of us have had to overcome obstacles to find our true voice. We look back on things we said about adoption and being adopted in our younger years and recognize that we were not speaking our truth. Rather, we were parroting what others had said or formulating what we somehow knew others wanted us to say. This dissembling had effects that rippled through other areas of my life, and I plan to write more about that another day, but for now let me just say that I find myself in a very different place today, and I celebrate that. When I say things like "I have two mothers; I love two mothers and am loved by two mothers; that is my reality and nothing will ever change that," this is my hard-won truth. Such statements come from my own most personal deep place of authenticity.

When the judge says, "But you all need to get this. Right now. Those are the biological parents. You cannot change that. And you need to get this. This little girl has been raised, by them, since the age of two. They’re a part of her life. A big part. Like it or not, you’re all in this pot. One side does not get to erase the other. Do you understand me?" I recognize something similar. It didn't surprise me to read that the plot eventually reveals the judge herself to be an adoptee. I've never seen the show, but in this one instance I think the writers hit the nail squarely on the head. It rings true for me. This is something an adoptee would say.

As I said, I haven't seen the show, but Jenna's words hint that elsewhere in the plot the judge's emotions about her own adoption inhibit her ability to view the situation objectively. Perhaps. But until I've seen the show, my focus remains on the one part that Jenna herself chose to highlight. Those words. Those amazing words!

But you all need to get this. Right now. Those are the biological parents. You cannot change that.


And you need to get this. This little girl has been raised, by them, since the age of two. They’re a part of her life. A big part.


Like it or not, you’re all in this pot. One side does not get to erase the other. Do you understand me?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Can I just say what a rare experience this is for me! More often, when I encounter fictional representations of adoption or adoptees, I experience a disconnect. The presentation on the screen or the page does not match my reality. But this one does! I can hardly express how exciting it is to find a little piece of my own truth, my own message, reflected in the words of fictional character. 

Can I get a woot woot?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Something Different

Well, here’s the story the best I can remember it. The first three weeks were horrible. Lonely. Here I was, newly arrived, and nobody welcomed me. Occasionally, someone held me, briefly. There was milk from a rubbery inhuman nipple. Voices talking around me, but not to me. Mostly, I was in the box. Hard plastic walls. Above me, shapes and sounds. Confusing, unwelcoming. Then there was movement, and more confusion. I slept as much as I could, to escape it. There was more color in the new place. More brown, less white. And the light was different. More shadowy. The voices here were loud and laughing. And I was a part of it. It was confusing, disorienting. But better, somehow than the other. I was both drawn to it and frightened by it. I wanted it, and it was too much for me. Flee, flee. Where? Into myself. Into sleep.

Then it was quiet. And dark. Darkness. For the first time darkness. I didn’t mind that. It was comforting, almost. Like the womb. The aloneness was okay, too. I was used to it. I cried, not from fear or loneliness, but as an experiment. And the arms came and the arms held me, and there was a voice, and I liked the voice.

It took a while for her to emerge into my consciousness in full shape. At first she was just the arms and the voice, and something else, soft and cushiony. Sometimes, other arms held me, but mostly hers. His voice was there, too, but not so often with the arms. Sometimes the world rocked, and his voice rocked with it. Soft and deep and flowing. I liked it, when the voice did that. Safe. A different kind of sleep than the other.

Safe. But not entirely. They came and went. The voices. The arms. Still, there was the aloneness. The not-quite-sure-ness. Is this my place? Do I belong here? I wanted to stay, so I made myself as quiet and still as I could. Freeze. Invisible. Lizard stillness.

In me, there was a tight, silvery pain. It resided in my stomach, mostly, in those early years, and sometimes, also in the spot between the shoulder blades on my back. Eyes wide. Shallow breath. Eventually, it came up through me in the night, and out through the scream of my mouth. And she would come to me. She had a body and name now. Mommy. Just a dream, she would say, and rub my back. Then she would go away.

In the day time it was with me, too. It was the bears that lived in closet, and more bears in the basement. It welled up in me when the girl across the street yelled that I was no longer her friend, or when his voice not-singing spoke sternly and I heard this: wrong, bad, wrong, bad, me, bad. Welcome? Maybe not.

The time between awake and sleep was the worst. Wild animals surrounded my bed, and even crept beneath the sheets. I curled my legs up to my chest, but I knew they were down there beneath my feet, always, with sharp teeth, waiting.

I grew, and over the years I became less conscious of it. The animals retreated, and I retreated, too, or escaped. Flee. Fly away into fantasy. Daydream girl. The mind learned to dance away. Eventually there were books. Solid rooms that welcomed me. Flee. Into books. To the spot on the end of the couch. Sit very still. Freeze. Don’t cause trouble. You can stay. You may be loved. Safe here. Quiet. Invisible. Good.

Do you think I have escaped it now that I am grown? No, it is here still. It is in my shoulders now, and in my jaw, and the teeth I grind at night. Tarnished now, and so familiar I almost cannot name it. Oh this, yes, I have always had it. Do you have one, too?

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