Friday, April 22, 2011

O.A.R. Seven "Ignorant" Questions

Better late than never. This has been sitting as a post to be finished for quite some time. It seems there's been something of a fire lit under me today so I thought I'd finish it off and post it. For your reading pleasure, my answers to seven questions asked of the Open Adoption Roundtable bloggers.

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?

There is a very simple reason some people suck at open adoption: integrity. To function an Open Adoption requires a lot of integrity on everyone's part. The biggest expression of that, in my experience so far, is in the form of honesty. Many people aren't very skilled at being honest, be with with others or with themselves. When entering an extra-familial open adoption the participants must decide whether or not to trust each other. Let me say that again. In the average open adoption all people involved make the decision to trust one another or make the decision not to trust one another. It is a willful decision. There simply isn't enough time in most open adoptions to build enough trust. A leap of faith is being made by everyone involved. The only other option is a disingenuous foundation that, if continued, will doom the relationship.

2. From the standpoint of first parents, open adoption sounds like something that could prolong suffering. Could this suffering potentially outweigh the good of knowing where your child is? Who helps the first parent?

I'll answer the last part of this question first. Who helps the first parent? The typical answer is a sad one. No one. In broad terms most first parents are taken for granted and very often taken advantage of. Help doesn't come easily and rarely comes willingly. The stigma of adoption alone is enough to drive most would-be supporters away. For those interested in sticking around most disengage after a few months. The intensity of the pre-adoption is experience is difficult to believe, even for those who have already been through it. Agencies and support groups exist to provide resources for some, but these are often the exclusive domain of first mothers and very frequently only available when still pregnant. Post adoption support services are very, very rare.

The truth is an open adoption can prolong confusion and suffering when roles and boundaries become muddled. The confusion of developing what role "first parent" is going to take in a first parent's life can be profound and emotionally paralyzing. When handled well the cost is greatly outweighed by the benefits. A first father can know with certainty that his child is happy. A first mother can see her son or daughter smile, laugh, and play. The knowledge, rather than the guess, that the decision to place for adoption was a good one that resulted in healthy relationships is the best aid I can imagine for the healing process a first parent goes through. In my case confusion, hurt, fear, and ambivalence disappear when my son smiles and waves at me.

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.

As a first parent, even considering adoption marks one with a bigger stigma than being part of a non-traditional family. After being told, in as many words, that I am evil I no longer put much stock in the general population's opinion of status quo.

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?” (OR for f-parents: Do you ever feel as though you need to take this child back? That nothing is stopping you beside an agreement that feels false? Does that feeling go away?)

I have never had the feelings you describe here. I have mourned that I made the decision I did. I have mourned the loss of my worldview, self definition, perceived control of my life, and many other aspects of living as part of the adoption process. I have mourned that I was in a position that made those losses and decisions necessary. I have never wished to take my son from his mother and father. They are his parents. There is no grey area there. Athena and I are his first family, and here I'll explain why I use that term. We cared for Festus with every resource we could pour into his well being and development for as long as we could. For eight months (we discovered Athena was pregnant at four weeks) our lives revolved entirely around making him the healthiest and happiest baby we could. We continue in that commitment, as his first family, but we are not his primary family. We cared for him first chronologically, and we cared for him with absolutely everything we could. At the end of those eight months, after his birth, we were absolutely desolate. There were no resources left. Professor Plum and Ms Scarlet's arrival at the birth center was, in part, like the cavalry riding over the hill to win the day.

5. How do children ever cope with knowing they could not be kept? When they see their natural parents having more kids, what do they think? Who helps the child in this situation? Both sets of parents?

There are too many assumptions in this question for me to take it entirely seriously. Instead I'll point out the assumptions being made and why they should be called into question. First is the notion that a child must cope with being placed in a loving, well resourced household. Plenty of people I know are adopted and many more raised by their grandparents without significant thought on how hard it is to live in a world where poverty can effect people's lives. When was the last time you lamented the fact that you're so poor you had to work for a living? Is it terribly tragic, or simply your life?

Do first families continue on to have more children? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It shouldn't be assumed that the first family will go on to have more children and the choice to place for adoption was a question money or emotional retardation alone. Pardon my cursing, but frankly birth parent's aren't universally the emotionally stunted fuck ups we're portrayed to be in daytime television. Frequently they're simply victims of statistics. A sexually healthy relationship between two adults commonly results in sex between two and three times a week for people in their late teens to mid twenties. If it's a committed relationship that will result in roughly 130 couplings per year. A condom with 99% efficacy means there's a statistically supportable argument that couple has had one child and is gestating a second within one year's time. It is improbable, but statistically viable.

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?

As in question number one it's all a question of the individuals involved. There is no standard open adoption. That's why it can work. The experience being discussed here is so intense and personal it must reflect the individuals and have the ability to grow as they do. If anything I believe the very idea of a "standard adoption" should be abolished. We're talking about families being created. Each and every one needs to be understood and handled as a unique case with singular needs.

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

This question reminds of why I hate it when people ask me if there is ever a justifiable reason to take a human life. Of course there is. I'm truly excellent at creating the worst case scenario which can justify all sorts of behavior. I think of it as something of a chess game I play against myself. A sort of testing of ethical waterproofing so to speak. Is it worth talking about what these factors may be? In my opinion, not really. I can come up with good reasons for Professor Plum and Ms Scarlett to cut off all contact with me until I'm blue in the face but it won't mean anything. It would all be conjecture and fantasy with no actual substance. Drugs, sex, lies, theft, mental/emotional/spiritual abuse, and wearing the wrong colour neck tie are all immaterial until they carry the weight of a real life situation with all the intricacies and realities therein.


  1. GREAT POST! I have been away from blogland too, and when I come back I have this to read. (Yay) So well written and you capture so much of how I feel about being a first parent. Thank you.

  2. Being a closed adoption adoptee I have trouble wrapping my head around open adoption as would any person not involved in one. Your answers to these questions, most especially #4, make sense to me. Keeping in mind I have no hands on experience in open adoption, I too would think having no grey area as to who the parents are would be key. Glad you got around to this post.

  3. Really interesting post, just wondering about your stats, I think the stats on birth control failure assume that many failures per year, not per time you have sex - so out of 100 couples of average sexual activity, 1 would have an accidental pregnancy each year if the success of the birth control was 99%.

  4. "First is the notion that a child must cope with being placed in a loving, well resourced household."

    - No. Absolutely not. That was NOT the question, and the re-phrasing of the question into a clever, pithy statement about how "lucky" the child is won't change it. The question was, and will always remain, "How do children ever cope with knowing they could not be kept?" Because you're right. We all have issues. It's "life." But until you are actually that child, until you've actually grown up with the knowledge that your original family chose NOT to keep you, you are simply unqualified to answer that any way other than the way that you defending your decision so that you can live with your own choice.

    And you can't MAKE your child grateful by telling him he's lucky.

  5. Anonymous - Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective. I want to take a moment to see if there's something I've written that needs clarification or if there's another issue at hand causing the discrepancy in our responses.

    The question at hand, "How do children ever cope with knowing they could not be kept?" hinges, in my mind, on one word. "Could" rather than "were" implies, to me, need brought about by outside forces. The birth family was unable to care for the child in this question.

    Rather than trying to tackle the sociopolitical/economic forces that create these situations I decided to address the one issues related to this question I am qualified to address; assumptions about stigma and experience.

    You're right that telling a child that s/he is "lucky" and "should be grateful" doesn't change that person's experience. Many adoptees have been pushed to be silent about the pain and difficulty of their experience. Unfortunately many adoptees are also pushed to be silent about the positive aspects of their experience, particularly where their experience aligns with the normative American ideal. So we have a double edged sword where adoptees are told to shut up and be happy (which does NO ONE any good) while other are told to stop feeding the stereotypes by being happy.

    As a result of all this muddled, messy experience, the only aspect of the question I felt I could address was the enormity of the assumption that ALL adoptees suffer for the rest of their lives. I'm sorry if I gave short shrift to the MANY adoptees to have significant struggles with their history. The point I was trying to make is there is no universal experience. Perhaps I underscored the opposed experience too strongly with out drawing attention to what I was trying to do.

    I want to make it clear that I never ask people to be silent, nor to lie about their experience. I do ask that people try to take as broad and encompassing view as possible when discussing people by demographics rather than individuals. Many adoptees struggle, many don't. The question asked didn't allow for the latter. That is what I was responding to.

  6. I'm not sure why I came up as "anonymous?" Anyway - Jenny here -

    Thank you for your clarification. I can really relate to what you're saying about both sides attempting to enforce their reality on adoption as a whole. I will say this - the "adoption is wonderful and aren't you lucky?" viewpoint as been around a lot longer, unquestioned, than the "don't do it and adoption is awful!" viewpoint has. Personally, I very much appreciate the opposing viewpoint because it feels like a relief, a bit of honesty, injected into the "adoption is rosy" party line.

    I don't believe the question didn't encompass all adoptees. All adoptees, regardless of how they FEEL about it, HAVE been given to another family to raise. It's just a simple fact. Many children had an original family, and were given to an adoptive family. That fact should be addressed more honestly, always. Does it mean that all adopted persons should feel terrible about that fact? Of course not! But in my experience it is severely under-addressed with people that have been adopted.

    I believe that it is under-addressed because the voice that is heard most often is that of the adoptive parents. Adoptive parents are the voice that has society backing them, that usually have the most money, that always has the child in their arms. Original families, typically, have less power and voice. And often the children of adoption align with what they were raised with.

    So I think that, historically, we've heard the "adoption is nothing but wonderful" idea because it's the only voice that could be heard.

    And yet, under that all, a child lost his mother and father, his original family. A mother and father are left with empty arms. They were torn asunder. Does that mean that they can't move on or must remain miserable for the rest of their lives? Absolutely not. But acknowledgement for the experience IN ITS ENTIRETY is the only way to move on. Seeing the experience for all that it really is, and not just what certain people WANT us to see, is the way to live life with an open heart and a true understanding of the experience of adoption.

  7. "Seeing the experience for all that it really is, and not just what certain people WANT us to see, is the way to live life with an open heart and a true understanding of the experience of adoption."

    This is precisely the reason I write. I know I mess it up sometimes, but this is my true goal. Thanks again for sharing your perspective, Jenny. A lot of good points came up in your comments that wouldn't have been expressed if you hadn't taken the time to share them.


What do you think? I'm curious.