“Can I look for my birthmother too?” was the next logical question. In this moment nothing I had ever been told when I adopted in the 1990’s about how to handle this question felt of any use at all. I was stunned into the realization that yes, she could search for and possibly find her birthmother quite easily. Would I join her and how was the question. How should I answer it thinking on my feet in this same state of bewilderment. “Yes, I can help you do that,” I managed to get out in barely audible tones.
I struggled. What would this mean now as my daughter was on the cusp of her teen years? How would introducing a third person, a second mother, impact the pushes and pulls between my about-to-be adolescent and me? I feared the worst. I hoped for the best. Mostly I wanted to help her and if this would help, I would do it.
Her birthmother was not on Facebook, but the internet does not stop there as we know! First a picture from a driver’s license materialized, then an address. I sent a letter. The wait was excruciating. I feared what would happen if we did not hear.
The e-mail arrived one Sunday morning three weeks later. “Thank You” was the subject heading. There was gratitude, fear, caution. I breathed relief, but also fear. A rupture could be mended, but so much work to do!
The e-mails flew back and forth woman-to-woman, mother-to-mother, then child to birthmother. “I’ve changed a lot since I was born,” sweetly started the first e-mail from my daughter.
I trusted my bond with my daughter through this process, but not without the normal fear that adoptive parents experience of losing their children to birth family. It is an act of profound faith to release a child you have adopted and mothered to discover another mother.
It is hard to imagine now, but back then open adoption was not widely promoted. Adoptive parents were given standard advice: Tell your children they are adopted. Tell them they can search for their birthparents when they get older, preferably at age eighteen. Birth parents were mostly invisible. Adoptee grief was tucked away behind the wish that everyone would be happy and the assumption that all would have a better life created by the "solution" of adoption. We believed, as most people adopting do, that our love could cure all.
Adoptions were by and large closed and at the time. We believed that was best for lots of reasons. We thought open adoption would be confusing to our children. And let’s face it, when you’re considering becoming a parent, you don’t usually think of sharing your child with another set of parents as a first choice!
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. It is hard to imagine now what we did not understand then. My children have struggled with their losses as have my husband and I. They have needed to know where they come from.
Many of us who adopted, guided by the advice described above are now rocking on the sea of anger at these presumptions. This outrage is creating dramatic and lasting change. Change never comes without pain, just as adoption does not come without loss.
There are many common features of closed adoptions: loss, grief, fantasies of lives not lived, anger at abandonment. These are all difficult feelings to deal with and overcome.
As my children have grown I have been challenged to rethink what I was told twenty-five years ago. In that process, my husband and I have helped both children search for and find their birth families with two dramatically different results. In order to do this, we have had to soul search and let go in ways we never imagined years ago.
Much to my surprise, it has opened my heart in ways I never imagined and brought into our lives a new extended family for one child that broadens our world and theirs. For my other child, questions were put to rest, but the birth family did not want connection and my child was challenged to grieve again, causing us all tremendous pain.
I think these two results of opening adoptions serve as reminders to us all that no two situations in adoption are the same. Biological connection gives us different kinds of connections, not always positive ones. When it does it is amazing and when it does not, it can be very hard, but also freeing.
Open adoption as a solution aims to eliminate loss by keeping connection. Children can know their birth families, birth families can know their children and it is hoped that everyone benefits from having children who feel more whole.
Thus the best interests of the child are at the heart of this new way of thinking about family-making through adoption. One adopts a child and to some extent, their birth family. Joyce Maguire Pavao, adoptee and adoption expert, suggests that birth family becomes like in-laws. They come with the person you love and sometimes you love them too. Sometimes you do not. Either way you navigate your way for the person you both love.
Open adoption is in many respects an extraordinary social experiment. For those of you who find yourselves adopting now, you are part of something very exciting, something that has the potential to make things better for adopted children and their families, both birth and adoptive.
On the other hand, when any change becomes the new paradigm it becomes hard to bring up what may be hard or unappealing about it. In the current enthusiasm for forming this new kind of arrangement with birth families I think it is important for adopting parents to feel safe to voice how uncomfortable open adoption may feel, even as they embark on it as a solution to a very complex problem.
Additionally, open adoption will not solve the challenges of those children for whose welfare the biological mother is truly unable to care due to her own deprivations, and for those babies who are subjected to in utero trauma such as alcohol, drugs, or violence. And it still will not be possible in some situations where the birth parents do not want it, however much adopting parents may be willing to do it.
Adoption has always been done a disservice by being sugar coated and romanticized. It seems important that we do not do this same thing to open adoption. Adoption is tough for everyone. The more we can minimize the pain and loss for all involved the better, but it is unlikely that we can eliminate it.
As an adoptive parent one hopes that the truth that emerges, whatever it is, will help. As I walk this road with my children I am reminded once again that there are no easy answers in life and certainly not in adoption.