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.

Adoptee Memoir: The Sound of Hope

book-tour-bauer-coverAlthough I’m an adoptive mom and married to an adopted person, I still often feel like an adoption newbie. So I was excited to read a memoir by an adult adoptee, Anne Bauer‘s “The Sound of Hope.” I found the book because of a “virtual book group” organized by brilliant blogging mama Lori Lavender Luz (who has a new book of her own, by the way, that I can’t wait to read).

Anne writes with courage and clarity about her journey to find her birth parents and establish a relationship with them despite the misgivings of family members on both sides.

This book wrenched my heart. I hurt with Anne during her father’s unstable, chaotic rages and her mother’s “unspoken rule: Don’t talk about it and it won’t exist.” I ached for the loneliness of her journey to find her birth family. I was frustrated by the lack of support and unfair blame, shame and guilt heaped on her not only by family but by total strangers who assumed a child can only have ONE family.

What surprised me most about this book was Anne’s birth mom’s withdrawal after their reunion. I hadn’t thought about how difficult it might be for a birth parent to reconnect with their adult child. I’m so grateful to Anne for telling her story, and hope that more adoptive parents will read it and consider how they might redefine family in the way that best benefits their child.

Below are a few more of my thoughts about the book, in answer to specific questions raised by our virtual book tour.

Question: In her adoption memoir Anne Bauer speaks of her connection to her birth mother and father, “The bond between us couldn’t be completely severed as everyone wanted it to be. Another part of me existed somewhere in the world, a part I was once attached to and depended on for life. To me, the umbilical cord served a function that was much more than physical. It was my essence, my origin, my connection to my biological ancestors. As far as I was concerned, the cord was still attached. Who were these people who were the cause of my existence? Did they wonder about me in the same way I often wondered about them?” What are your thoughts about this passage from your lens (adopted person, birth parent, adoptive parent)?

My Thoughts: This passage made me cry! As an adoptive parent whose child has a close relationship with her tummy mommy and grandparents, I feel so grateful that our daughter will not have to wonder like Anne did.  What captured me most was what Anne herself only gradually realizes: it isn’t just the back story of who her birth parents are (as people) but the story of how they made her and loved her that she longs for. My daughter’s story isn’t complete (her birth father is in a distant orbit, elliptical and askew) but it is rich in symbols, pictures, and stories — proof that she is overwhelming, abundantly loved by her birth family. I’m aware that the contact that we have (seeing each other about weekly) is sometimes hard for our daughter’s tummy mom. I know that contact may change as our lives change. But I know, deeply and with profound gratitude, that my daughter’s mom will always keep us close for the sake of our daughter. We are blessed, blessed beyond measure.

Question: Why didn’t the outspoken, loving maternal grandmother take a stand against the abuse? Did the added stress of raising children bring on the mental health issues with her father or were Anne’s adopted parents hiding this when they had the home study? If that was the case, how can social workers see beyond the smoke screen or when a couple appears too perfect?

My Thoughts:  I think Anne’s adoptive parents definitely hid their mental health issues. Several times in her story, Anne mentions her mother telling the kids not to tell anyone about their father’s rages. Anne’s mom is embarrassed when her husband screams at them with the windows open so the neighbors can hear. At one point in the story (before the family moves back to New Jersey), Anne’s grandmother does confront her mother about the father’s behavior, but she ties it to his inability to keep a job rather than to his (mis)treatment of his children. When Anne complains to her mom about her dad’s behavior, her mom responds with a “let’s be grateful” litany. So from my reading of the story, I think there is a larger system at work here: general avoidance of mental health issues by the public (emotional abuse isn’t taken seriously) and a belief that as long as kids are fed and clothed, how they are treated physically and emotionally is of lesser importance. I hope that this is changing.

Question: How does a social worker know signs to look for if one of the adopted parents is a functional alcoholic or has an undiagnosed mental health issue?

This question ties in with the last part of the previous one about seeing beyond smoke screens. This is hard for me to answer because I’m not a social worker, and hard for me emotionally because I am close to an adopted person who experienced abuse. I also feel a sense of corporate responsibility because I am an adoptive parent.

Here’s one example of a guide for social workers who are screening potential adoptive or foster parents. I don’t know if this type of screening would help catch signs of hidden mental illness or alcoholism. I do know, from completing a home study two years ago, that we were asked and answered hundreds of questions. But, to be honest, we were focused more on “passing” than on inquiring about our social worker’s credentials. Both of us have been in therapy for a long time, so I worried, too, that if we had “red flags” for parenting, we also had ways of talking about them that made us seem like we’d done our work. (Remember that Anne’s mom took her to a psychiatrist during the wedding fight…going to therapy is no guarantee.) I remember feeling a lot of curiosity: would we make good parents? Could they help us with training and resources? (Yes, they did). I think my natural love of learning was squashed a bit by my own paralyzing anxiety that we would never be chosen and never get a chance to be moms.

I worry that birth parents are encouraged to place because potential adoptive parents will give their child a “better” life. Agencies who are only interested in placements and not in child welfare are not going to be honest about the abuse that happens in adoptive families. So I think that’s one place we can start: we can push for more transparency and for agency follow-up. When I found out that we had two post-placement visits (from the agency) in one year, I was a little disappointed. Don’t they want to check with us in two years, four years, five years, ten years, and make sure we are still doing a good job? If I was a birth parent, that’s what I would want! Especially if my adoption wasn’t open.

Since follow-up and transparency are not naturally in an agency’s best interest, it has to be something that we, the adoptive parents with the agency fees in our pockets, push for and demand. We need to choose agencies that are truly child-centered.

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I encourage you to check out what other members of the virtual book group had to say about this book.

To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at LavenderLuz.com.