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questions and answers

Friday, 14 January 2011

O Solo Mama wrote a post recently asking questions about open adoption. Since I’m way too wordy to even begin to give my answers in comments, I figured I’d give it a shot here. (The weird numbering is because I can only answer from my own perspective, and as an adoptive mother I’m completely unqualified to answer the questions aimed at first parents and adoptees.)

1. If open adoption is so great, why do so many people suck at it? By this I mean, not honouring commitments, closing the adoption, telling the other family they’re not “doing this thing” correctly or playing the “for the sake of the child” card?

Honestly, I think that when adoptive parents do these things it’s because they went into open adoption because they thought they “had” do, and their heart isn’t really in it. I say this recognizing that sometimes there are compelling reasons to close an adoption, that sometimes life gets in the way & one’s best intentions aren’t always met, and that sometimes the status quo truly isn’t in the best interest of the child—I am talking here not about people who are doing their best & get hung up on the details but rather about the people who seem to be looking for a reason to blow off their commitment.

We worked with an excellent agency that prepared us well for open adoption; when we first started talking about adoption, George and I did not think OA was something we were capable of doing. Over time, we came to see it as a good thing for the children involved; later still, we came to embrace it. By the time Julia was placed with us, we were hoping for a completely open adoption & would likely not have accepted a match with an expectant/first mother who wanted a closed adoption.

Not everyone moves on that same trajectory. Some people go into it wanting openness from the start; others never get to a place where openness feels right to them. I’m not going to judge anyone here, except to say that I don’t understand why an adoptive parent would want a completely closed adoption; it is simply important to recognize that different people approach adoption in different ways. The problem that arises, I think, is that openness is more and more becoming standard practice in adoption, so you end up with situations in which the adoptive parents aren’t truly on board with the idea but agree to it because it’s what they think they have to do in order to become parents.

Remember I said before that we worked with an excellent agency. It was a pioneer the movement toward open adoption and encourages prospective adoptive parents to really think about openness. Even so, during one of our pre-parenting education classes I remember someone saying, “Most of the birth mothers we work with want to have visits.” A simple statement of fact – but to a hopeful parent who has perhaps been through years of disappointment, it could easily be taken to mean “You need to agree to this, or you’re in for years more waiting.” I remember being startled hearing it, because I understood how it could be “read” by hopeful parents, even though that wasn’t how it was intended.

And that’s a big part of the problem, as I see it. More and more often, women who relinquish their children want to have some role in those children’s lives, but many prospective adoptive parents remain hung up on the idea that they want to be the parents to their children. People don’t understand open adoption – what it means and what it doesn’t – they only see that it’s something they “have” to do if they want to have any hope of adopting a child.

What’s the solution? As always, I really think it is education, education, education. Prospective adoptive parents need to understand open adoption and how it benefits everyone in the triad. They have to understand that it’s not a favour they’re doing for their children’s first parents but rather an arrangement that benefits their children. And they have to understand that if, after they’ve searched their hearts, they feel it is something they’re not capable of doing, it’s important to be honest about their limitations.

3. I’m guessing kids are not hung up on how many relatives they have. Tell me that the thing that hangs up the public all the time about open adoption and other unconventional relationships—two mommies, two daddies, three, four, parents—is the least of your worries because it seems to me it is.

It’s the least of my worries. I don’t understand why it hangs everyone else up in the first place. Isn’t the divorce rate something like 50%? That means a lot of kids are living in split families and blended families with step-parents and half- and step-siblings and multiple sets of grandparents and all sorts of other odd relative configurations that don’t seem to bother anyone much.
Open adoption is “new” and “strange” and so of course people aren’t always clear on or comfortable with the details. I figure that to a child growing up in an open adoption, who has never lived in a family structured any other way, it’s just “normal.”

4. Do you ever feel like you should give this child back? Does the thought ever seize you totally as you watch your child with her bio-family: “ooops?”

Give them back? No, I can’t say I’ve ever felt like I should do that.

We’ve had only one visit with D since Julia was born—at the hospital after Asher was born—and I was worried beforehand because Julia was in a clingy stage with me & generally wouldn’t go to anyone else if I was in the room. And when we got to the hospital, she climbed up on D’s bed and sat right on her lap. So clearly there is a connection there, and Julia felt it. It was amazing to me, and it made me happy to see it; it didn’t feel like an “ooops.”

I do worry about whether D ever regrets her decision. Which isn’t exactly what is being asked, but it’s the only time I ever think anything approaching what the question asks.

6. Can you say comfortably that some surrendering mothers could not cope with an open adoption or do you think that it should always be the standard?

I think some degree of openness should be standard because it’s pretty clear that children do better with it than they do without it. And really, it should be about what is best for the children involved; they are living lives crafted for them by adults who made decisions (both deciding to place and deciding to adopt) into which they had no input, so we owe it to them to keep their best interests at heart in making those decisions.

That said—yes, I would imagine some mothers would have a great deal of difficulty with open adoption, and I don’t think it should be forced on someone who doesn’t feel she can handle it. In our own situation, D didn’t want a completely open adoption at first; she had requested letters and photos to be sent through the agency. When we first spoke I told her that if she ever changed her mind about that & wanted the adoption to be more open, we would love to have visits with her; when she talked to her caseworker after our conversation she said she’d like to have visits. (She later told me her hesitation was because “you don’t know who you’re going to end up with” – which I thought was interesting because it is the same concern a lot of prospective adoptive parents have about open adoption.) A short while after Julia was born we decided to cut out the middleman entirely & exchange addresses so we could write directly.

And even in a completely open adoption, contact might wax and wane. It does in our case; I send a letter with photos every month and we send messages on Facebook occasionally, but our phone contact is heavier at some times and lighter at others. We might speak weekly for a while and then go a few months without talking. I think sometimes it is easier to deal with openness and others it is maybe more difficult, and I try to be sensitive to that. Sometimes I think I completely miss the mark, but at the end of the day I am trying not to force our a relationship at times when it seems it might be too much, while still keeping things going on my end so that the metaphorical door is always open.

I am writing about this from the perspective of someone having very small children. As they get older, I think the open adoption has to become more directly about them and what they need, but right now I am more concerned with D and what she needs and making sure I’m not pressing on her a relationship that becomes too difficult to handle. Our children will develop their own relationships with her as they get older, and that is the most important part of it.

7. Is there ever a reason (aside from extreme/illegal behaviours) to close an adoption totally?

Honestly, I can’t think of a single reason I would ever completely close my children’s adoptions. The only thing I can think of—and even this is very vague—is if I ever felt the open adoption was putting them in danger (physically, mentally, emotionally). And even then, I can’t think of a circumstance in which all contact would have to be cut off in order to keep them out of that danger. I have a lot of difficulty with this question because I’m hard pressed to think of even a hypothetical example of anything in our situation that would fall into that category. I think the short answer is this: If I wouldn’t cut off one of my siblings or parents over it, I don’t think it’s a reason to close an adoption.


Updated 21 Jan 2011: The post that inspired this one is the featured topic for installment #23 of the Open Adoption Roundtable. You can read other responses from roundtable participants there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, 23 January 2011 7:26 pm

    I think you’re so right that an agency who educates on the benefits to the child is key to helping the parents see WHY to keep an adoption open. Then they are more motivated to figure out the HOW.

    • Tuesday, 25 January 2011 11:38 am

      Yes, exactly. I think people too often see it as—like I said—a “favour” adoptive parents do for first parents. I’ve heard or read of the comment a million times to adoptive parents: “Oh, isn’t that so nice that you let her see the baby!” which of course isn’t entirely unexpected from the world at large, who can’t really be expected to entirely “get” why we do what we do. But hopeful adoptive parents *have* to be “educated out” of that sort of thinking.

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