Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rewriting the Open Adoption Fantasy

There’s a widespread fantasy about open adoption. It goes something like this: Birthmother (young, pretty, probably white, possibly poor) is sad but knows that giving up her baby is the “right thing to do,” probably because she is “too young” to raise her baby. Birthfather is not present, ever, nor are any other biological family members.  Adoptive family is white, middleclass and will provide adopted child with all the “good things in life” and send Birthmother letters and pictures and maybe even see her about once a year.  Everyone is happy with the relationship and there are never any problems.

Of course, reality is always different from fantasy and adopting through foster care presents challenges to this scenario. Right off the bat, Birthfather is likely present and neither he nor Mom willingly hands over their child to the State.  They get to see that their child is well loved where s/he is placed, but the foster family is still strangers. Strangers from a different race, class, county, culture.

Then there are the problems that led to the child’s removal in the first place that complicate their lives and ability to stay in touch. In our case, their lifestyle is transient, so there is no reliable address to send photos to.  Texting messages and pictures works until there is an unexpected phone number change.  While the idea of staying in touch with their children seems to appeal to them, the follow through is tangled up in a complex web of emotions of which I have no firsthand knowledge. I have no idea what it is like to see my toddler turn to another woman for comfort or hear my preschooler call a strange man “Daddy.” I realize that even though we, the adoptive parents, are enthusiastic about having an open relationship--for the Birthparents, there are a lot more devastating emotions involved.

So I have no expectations from them nor do I push for more. I stay steadfast in my commitment to being open and continue to attempt to include them in the children’s lives. I hope that one day they will be able to be more involved.

In the meantime, E is starting to feel the pain of the loss of his first family (our family’s terminology for biological family). At the age of seven, he is a happy and well-adjusted boy and only mentions it from time to time. Sometimes I know the pain is real, like when he told me he wished a brown family adopted him. ( At other times, I think he brings it up for a little attention. For example, he was recently thoroughly exhausted at bedtime and was in one of those ‘I’m just thinking of sad things so I can keep crying’ modes and was bringing up all kinds of sad things so he could wail himself to sleep. “And…and…and I want to see my Birthmom again!” I hugged him and said I’d see what I could do.

Back to that open adoption fantasy I was deconstructing: in the fantasy, Birthmom is thrilled to stay in touch, has no evident conflicting emotions about it all, has no other family that might want to be involved in adopted child’s life.  In reality, I text Birthmom and wait to see if she responds (mainly on birthdays and holidays). I don’t tell the kids unless she does respond so they don’t get disappointed if she doesn’t. Honestly, she usually doesn’t. So what could I do to assuage E when he gets to feeling this way?

What I did was to broaden my understanding of open adoption to include other family members. Because even though in the fantasy Birthmom is the only biological family the adopted children have, in reality of course there is more biological family that cares about these children. I will admit I had a little trepidation about reaching out to other family members when the kids’ adoptions weren’t yet complete. I selfishly let the threat of a biological family member wanting to adopt the children themselves trump my desire for open relationships. You see, in foster care/adoption in general there are always stories of the long-lost relative coming in at the eleventh hour to claim the child, devastating the foster parents that had been raising the child for years. (And yes, strangers have felt the need to tell me about their best friend’s daughter that this happened to. Because that’s the kind of thing you should totally mention to someone who’s obviously in love with that baby she’s been raising since birth.)

So I waited until our third adoption date was on the horizon.  As I had done in the past to get in touch with the kids’ biological siblings (that had been adopted by other families), I wrote a letter and asked the caseworker, who was not allowed to give me her contact information, to send it on our behalf. Then on A’s second birthday, her biological Great-Grandmother called me. The one who had raised her own six kids, then her four grandkids (including my kids’ Birthmom and her siblings) and for years had wondered, worried and prayed for the babies she never got to meet. At age 83, she thought she’d never live to hear anything about them. We made plans to meet her within the week.

Since first meeting Great-Grandma, we have met the kids’ Auntie, Uncle, two Great-Uncles, Grandfather and one of their cousins. All five of my kids are outgoing, but even little extroverts can occasionally be shy when meeting new adults. However, this has never happened when they have met new family members. They immediately take to them and then talk about them later at home. The new adults automatically love our children and the love is reciprocated. Even our biological children are met with open arms, hugs, prayers, love and occasional gifts. All of our lives have been enriched by these connections.

There are other benefits to these relationships as well. The primary one is that I am now connected to their Birthmom in more ways than a sometimes changing, often unanswered cell phone number. There were times when I hadn’t heard from her in months and was so worried that if something happened to her I would never find out so I would scroll the online obituaries on the lookout for her name. Now I know if there is any information I should know, I will find out about it.

I also now have access to family photos, stories and medical history that I never had for my adopted kids before.  I never could have imagined having this access for them. We are so lucky that we not only had the opportunity to meet these family members but that they were so responsive to being involved in the children’s lives.

Does our open adoption look like the fantasy? Not at all since it has come to the point where it actually includes almost no contact with Birthmom whatsoever.  Would I change any of it if I could? Sure, I’d love more consistent contact with her and Birthdad, and I hope one day that can happen. In the meantime, by letting go of our expectations of them and broadening our understanding of open adoption to include as many biological family members as we can, we are now connected to our children’s histories in ways we never imagined we could be. The lives of ALL of our children, not just our adopted ones, have benefited from these new relationships.


  1. Gina you just wrote my fantasy post (for my fantasy future blog). My story is the other way around, of course - I am not Nina's mom, I am her former foster mom. Rayna is her mother, someone I have come to know and love, yet someone who I always feel as if I am in the early stages of dating, even after almost 5 years: "Should I call her? Am I intruding on their space? Is it OK to cry on the phone and tell her I am desperately missing Nina because it has been too long? (and yes, I did do that, against my best instincts, and Rayna said please - when you feel that way, just call and ask to speak with her! She misses you too, you know)" Our relationship also involves other family members, greatly adding to the dynamics and complexity. Because of these other family members, there are times when our contact with Nina is sporadic even though I (and especially my son Lenny, who adores her so much he says his heart hurts really bad when she is not with him) want to see her and hold her so very badly.

    Hard on my heart sometimes, this relationship with Nina, yet so enriching and we are so lucky to have these children AND their families in our lives. When Rayna called me the other day and said Nina was feeling sick and vulnerable and really needed to hear my voice, it gave me so much satisfaction that I am there at the other end of the line for my Nina - and much warmth in my heart that Rayna so generously acknowledges Nina still needing me from time to time.

    Can't wait to read your sequel. You are a special person indeed to navigate these relationships with such sensitivity.

  2. Well and I think it's amazing you have the kind of relationships you do, too. We have no guides for navigating them but I think you and I, we're both doing alright.