Adoption: We Need a Better Way

I’ve needed to write for a while, but I haven’t had the guts. Our family has been struggling and a lot of it is confidential, so it is a challenge to sort out what parts are my story to tell and what parts I need to keep private.

I knew the words were a mistake as they were leaving my mouth, but I was in the grip of an anger so fierce it literally felt like fire. Some of you may recognize this: Mama Bear when the ones you love are being hurt. Claws and sharp teeth and ROAR. So much roar.

I don’t know how to tell this story without telling the story, but I don’t want to break confidences.

A friend who grew up in Oakland says that when he was a kid, you never wanted to be taken to Kaiser. If you got sick, you told the ambulance driver: take me anywhere else.

But recently as I sat in the playroom in the Pediatrics ward of the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, it didn’t seem that bad. My robust, healthy daughter played with a thin boy in a brown hospital gown with IVs taped to his arm: Sammy.

Sammy’s dad and I sat around the table in the playroom. Sammy invented a game with plastic beaded bracelets his dad had made for him, and we participated the best we could with the inventive rules of a 5-year-old. We began with just a few bracelets, and then when the game got more complicated, Sammy’s dad dug more bracelets out of his jeans’ pocket.

I wondered about those bracelets: when had Sammy’s dad made them, and how long had Sammy been in the hospital, and when might he go home? Sammy’s daddy looked so tired. But we had fun playing the game, laughing and joking, as my rosy-cheeked girl ran circles around the table and pushed chairs about.

When you are in a crisis, the best and the worst seem to float to the surface and persist. That day, playing with Sammy, was one of the best.

I will always regret that it was there — in that playroom, Sammy and his dad having stepped out to meet with their nurse — that I lost my temper and the very worst of everything collided.

Some of you know that fierce anger, and how it feels in your body to be Mama Bear when your cubs are being hurt. Sharp claws, teeth, the roar. I roared. And received in return, the worst of all possible things: I was not going to be allowed to see him. And they would take away my wife’s access to her birth son. Unless we behaved, didn’t insist on our “rights” or confront them. There is no way I can describe the terror that flooded me in that moment, or how heavy the regret hunched in my stomach.

I’m an adoptive mom, married to an amazing woman who is an adoptive mom and birth mom and adoptee.

We were there in that hospital for my wife’s birth son, who was fighting for his life. But we had no legal right to be there. And so we behaved. Choking down panic and grief, I left the hospital, and my wife apologized for me, accepted her role: they were generous in allowing her to even be there, to see her birth son.

This is open adoption, what it looks like for us in this part of our family. My heart, whatever jumble of love and pain and fury might be called “heart,” is still shattering and reassembling itself, over and over, as I try to understand how to be helpful and compassionate and wise instead of wounded and furious and selfish.

I know that there is much in this story that probably doesn’t make sense, but my reason for writing is to ask, again, about how we decide who has the rights to a child. The social worker at the hospital who intervened (to ask to me leave) argued with us that my wife’s son was “not your son because you gave him up.” When we explained about open adoption, about the agreement and the (broken) promises, she asked how often we’d seen him and then quickly retracted. Apparently there is some measure of number of visits that do grant you something (nothing legal, just generosity) in regard to the life you made in your body, the one you would die for.

We aren’t delusional. As adoptive moms, we know very well what it means to be a parent. It’s how children experience it: mom or dad is the one who makes you the bracelets, dozens and dozens of them, for your days in the hospital. They are there always. Every day.

From the outside, and to the kids themselves, it looks like birth parents aren’t there every day. That’s part of the deal, what was signed up for. But I know, because it is my family, that some birth parents think of their child EVERY DAY. Love that child. Hope and pray and weep for that child, the one that is part of them, will always and never be theirs.

It doesn’t count legally but it counts. Oh it counts. It’s called love.

And there has to be a better way to do family than this setup where adoptive parental power is absolute and access is used as the ultimate weapon. We have to find a better way.

The Unexpected Gift of Grandpa

Photo by Steffi Atze. No, not anyone I know. I really need to get some family photos scanned!

Photo by Steffi Atze. Not anyone mentioned in this post, just a great photograph. I really need to get some family photos scanned!

My two best friends when I was a child were my dog, Misty, and my grandfather, Opa. Both of them adored me.

Misty followed me everywhere. Opa sang me songs, put me on his shoulders, and ate my cooking (sand very carefully mixed with water and pressed between my toddler palms). Opa swung me in the swing he hung from the rafters of his garage workshop. During nap time together, we huddled under the covers, not sleeping when we were supposed to be sleeping. When Oma would scold, Opa would wink.

Opa was the reason I had sugar on my eintopf (it made the veggies taste better). He was magic. I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve he rolled out my new bike: bright, shiny red with stickers on it and tassles on the handlebars. MAGIC!

When I was eight years old, I came home from school to find everyone sitting, somber, around the kitchen table. Opa had a heart attack. I didn’t get to say goodbye.

That was the first time I saw my father cry. We sobbed together on my four-poster bed. My father was only 35 years old, a significance that wouldn’t strike me until I was in my mid-30s and childless.

After Opa’s funeral, I woke one night suddenly, smelling his cigar in my bedroom. Every year since I have remembered his Jahrzeit without trying. December 4, 1982: the day my Opa went away, but never left me.

Growing up, I never thought about having kids or imagined what a family of my own might look like. When I finally became a mom, I suddenly realized that since we live more than a thousand miles apart, my daughter wouldn’t have the weekly visits with her Opa, my father, that I’d enjoyed as a child.

But my daughter doesn’t just have one, or even two, sets of grandparents. She has the family that her first and adoptive moms made for her, and that family includes a Grandpa who lives just 25 minutes away (15 if the traffic isn’t bad).

Yesterday we visited Grandpa at work. My heart shone in a hundredfold glow when I saw Grandpa proudly holding his granddaughter and showing her off to his co-workers.

My Opa didn’t just give me laughter and caring, he anchored me to my biology and history. I am German-American, not just American, because my Opa (along with the rest of my family) sang to me the Deutsche Lieder of my childhood. Parts of that connection are hard and complex, but they are ME, and I wouldn’t change them for anything.

Watching my daughter, I know that her Grandpa will anchor her to her history, to the indigenous Mexican family of her great-grandfather, to an inheritance of hard work and good stories. There’s struggle and suffering in that inheritance, yes, but there’s also laughter and a love of thick books and bright colors. That connection is HER, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

My daughter has her Grandpa, and in so many ways, my daughter’s mom gave her that relationship. No parent wants to hear that their grandchild will be raised by strangers. My daughter’s mom involved her parents early in the choice of us as adoptive parents and that made all the difference.

Our daughter’s mom made us a family. She didn’t just choose my wife and I as parents, she chose us all as a family, and nudged us to come together around our shared love for this amazing little girl. And we followed, we opened our hearts to each other, and it is sometimes easy, sometimes awkward, sometimes hard…but always, always right.

Open-Heartedness (a.k.a. the mouse voice in the cat clamor)

lorisbookOk, so there’s no road map to being a mom. Especially an adoptive one. But fortunately there are people who have journeyed ahead of me. Lori Holden’s brand-new book The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child to Grow Up Whole is a huge gift, not only for validating what we’ve been doing all along in our family (opening our hearts and lives to each other), but for helping me to anticipate how our open hearts and lives may impact our daughter as she grows up. Lori’s children aren’t adults yet, but they are well on their way through childhood thanks to the diligent, flexible, loving foundation that their first/birth and adoptive parents have given them.

I was lucky to connect with Lori through my daughter’s mom, Lisa. The book is co-written with Lori’s daughter’s first mom Crystal, and Lisa and I are reading and discussing the book together. Synchronicity! Today I’m excited to join a virtual book tour hosted by Melissa Ford of Stirrup-Queens. Below are some of my thoughts to questions about the book posed by members of the tour.

Lori refers to the relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents as similar to an in-law relationship. Does thinking about the relationship as an in-law relationship influence how you approach open adoption?

I get the point, which is that birth and adoptive family is non-optional FAMILY. But this doesn’t connect with my own experience. For me, the model of “in-laws” invokes a lack of choice and a sense of duty and obligation. Creating a family for our daughter felt very intentional from the beginning. We met our daughter’s mom and her parents before our daughter was born. We “tried on” the idea of being family with one another and wrote a covenant outlining how we wanted to relate to one another. It really felt like we chose each other.

I think that I resist the idea of us, as adoptive parents, choosing a child (and then taking their birth family ‘in-laws’ as part of the package). I know that for many families the “we chose you” language is part of expressing how much the child is loved and wanted. And it reflects that the child comes first and foremost, which I also agree with. But…

Our daughter’s mother and her family chose us. They proposed. We said yes. We said that YES to all of them, in the same moment, and created a family together. For me, Lori sums up our experience when she says:

“…neither party [first parents or adoptive parents] is less than the other. While both sides may be grateful to one another, neither side is beholden….there is mutual respect, mutual trust, and a striving for equal footing” (page 49).

That quote, more than the in-law example, captures how we approach open adoption in our family.

Lori often stresses the importance of exploring difficult emotions. Describe a time when you have been forced to explore difficult emotions related to adoption and the outcome of this exploration.

OF COURSE I picked this question. Of course. Because this, getting ready for Mother’s Day, has been awash in unexpectedly difficult emotions.

I so appreciate what Lori has to say about this:

  • Breathe through uncertainty (what she brilliantly calls the “Space Between”). Lori’s limbo was a time when she feared her son had a brain tumor, and the wisdom she gained from that experience helped her comfort others. She says:”When you feel yourself going into fear, breathe. Come to the present moment where all is well” (page 80). (I would translate this as ‘the present moment where nothing bad has happened yet‘ but that’s just me.)
  • Allow things we fear to move through us and not get stuck. She says: “We need to be able to think a scary thought or feel a scary emotion in order to release that same fear” (page 91). I love her example of this, too. She talks about comforting her son Reed when he lamented knowing his first mother only in a photograph, not glossing over the pain, but giving him space and support to grieve.
  • Recognize that “at each moment I can live from love or from fear” (page 91).

[See what I did there? How I nicely provided examples of her encouragement about facing difficult emotions to avoid having to answer the second part of the question about my own experience?]

Ok, ok. So, difficult emotions. Yeah. Here’s what I have:

fireswamp1. Making it Through: This is not really the same as exploring. It is more like walking through the Fire Swamp, listening for popping noises and proclaiming that ROUSes don’t exist. But it is something, so I’ll start there. The morning after Lisa gave birth I sat in the patio outside the maternity ward completely consumed with terror that because Lisa’s daughter’s birth dad had unexpectedly showed up the night before (and stayed the night) that everything was changing. One phone call to one amazing, incredible friend helped me to reopen my shuddering heartdoor which was clamoring to close. So I would say that in the midst of the difficult emotions (which, during our wait, we named The Adoption Crazy), having someone to tether you back to reality is lifesaving.

2. Getting Curious: This is closer to exploring. This is that moment when a teensy mouse voice shows up in the middle of my cat chorus of let-me-out-let-me-out-let-me-out and says “hey what if?”. It is usually a confident, if barely inaudible, squeak of a suggestion, but it makes all the difference. Here are some real-life examples (because thinking about Wesley made me feel brave.)

Difficult Emotion: I don’t feel like I know this baby I am raising. When I look at her, all I can see is her mom and dad. She doesn’t seem connected to me at all. I think I’m just a food supply.

Mouse Voice: What if this IS normal? What if ALL moms, even the ones who are biologically connected and nursing, feel like grain silos for the first six weeks?

Difficult Emotion: I am exhausted. I am overwhelmed. Sometimes visits are too hard, too much. I’m worried I overpromised. I’m terrified of disappointing my daughter’s family and letting them down.

Mouse Voice: What if you asked for help? Maybe YOUR standards are higher than THEIR standards. (Hey, it has happened before. In other relationships. Like in every other relationship I’ve had. Ding!)

Difficult Emotion: I didn’t know it would be so hard to be a mom without being pregnant first. I’m a mom! I should be happy. I shouldn’t still be sad. I must be doing this whole thing wrong.

Mouse Voice: What if the two things are completely unrelated, and one doesn’t touch the other? What if grief is normal too?

Ok, I think that’s enough tumbling-down-the-hill (“oh my sweet Wesley, what have I done!”) for now. You get the idea. 🙂

My question concerns openness and pre-birth matching, which Lori covers in Ch. 1 (citing Luna’s early match with her daughter’s birth mother, at pg 20-21) and Ch. 7 (discussing the balance between hopeful adoptive parents feeling cautious and joyful when an expectant mother could still decide to parent, at pg 134-36). Pre-birth matching is common in open adoption. Some might argue that, due to the potential for even subtle manipulation with expectations on both sides, pre-birth matching is inherently coercive. Others suggest that pre-birth matching provides a chance to build a relationship and foundation for real openness after placement. Since both sides seem to have the child’s interest at heart, what steps, if any, can be taken to ensure that expectant parents aren’t pressured into placement in the name of openness AND have an opportunity to get to know the prospective parents, which may help inform their ultimate decision?

This is a great question, and I think the answer (if there is just one) depends on the needs, personalities and history of the expectant parents. For our family, meeting many times before Lisa gave birth provided a foundation of trust and respect. Lisa told us it was what she needed. But for other expectant parents, pictures or no contact at all before birth might be best.

What is so hard about this is exactly what Lori talks about: you can’t know in advance how you will feel. You may not know what you’ll need until you get there. I think it can help to have advocates, outside friends, to anchor you and validate your core needs and desires, and reflect back to you what you are experiencing.

So perhaps going in slow with any contact, and checking in with an outside friend, would be one way to relieve expectations and pressure. I suppose that advocate could be an agency counselor, but I really think it needs to be someone completely outside the process, someone with total loyalty to the expectant parent. This is where an organization like BirthMomBuds can be a great resource, especially if it included expectant parents who considered adoption and decided to raise their children.

Personal anecdotes and quotes play an important role in this book, humanizing the data and giving it the force of lived experience. It was interesting to note the voices that were not as present: fathers, adult adoptees from open adoptions, open adoption participants with decades of experience rather than years. What impact, if any, do you think those absent voices have on the book?

I appreciate this question, because I noticed an absence of lesbian, gay and transgender voices. If I wasn’t familiar with the author, a quick glance at the index and list of resources would make me assume this was a book for straight couples. Some LGBTQ-specific needs and experiences aren’t included in this book. For example, one of the first questions same-sex couples need to ask when finding an agency is: “will you work with us?” Same-sex couples still face discrimination, from agencies and online marketing sites (adoption.com is the largest) who only offer their services to straight couples to state laws restricting who can adopt.

Despite this absence, Lori’s writing was very inclusive. She avoided heterosexist language and assumptions about couples and families. I think it is a challenge for a book to be all things to all people, and it is important to speak deeply and honestly out of one’s own experience. There are many other books for LGBTQ couples available.

I also think (and hope) that our collective wisdom about adoption is constantly changing and growing. The great gift of Lori’s book isn’t that it provides a definitive, fixed answer to everything about adoption: that isn’t her point. Instead, this book models for the reader an attitude of open-heartedness that will allow us to navigate changes and learn new lessons with grace and wholeness.


Please return to the main post to read more opinions on Lori Holden’s The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption.