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.

Hind Sight Projection

Nothing for months, then two in one day? Shocking, I know. Sometimes there are things more important than eating at lunch. Rarely, but sometimes true.

It's often tempting to try to understand another person's experiences by superimposing our own emotional realities as a template over the factual events in the other person's life. It's a pretty functional model for how children first begin developing sympathy. I've written about it before but it merits a quick refresher before moving on to today's subject. Effectively;

In a situation like X, I thought and felt Y. Person 1, therefore, most likely also feels Y when in a situation similar to X.

Most people do this and many never develop cognitive/emotional integration beyond this point. That's unfortunate as this model only works when there is a truly analogous connection between the experiences. Often there is not. This is particularly true in the sphere of adoption. The experiences of the birthfamily, adoptive family, and the adoptee (the traditional view of the "Triad" in adoption) are connected. However in terms of discrete experiences they are very different. Among the commonalities are loss, isolation, ambivalence, anger, and fear. The thought processes that drive these emotional experiences, however, diverge significantly. It is important to recognize the difference between similar emotions and understanding the full depth of the experience related to it. If we get too stuck on the idea of really understanding everyone we actually disrespect the people we are trying to become closer to. All too often a person's experience is simplified in order to fit our schema, our understanding and intimacy becomes forced rather than resonant, and the person's emotions are disregarded where they disagree with our own. That's the nature of the beast with the type of sympathy response illustrated above. Most often there's no malice involved and ulterior motives don't enter the equation. The same method is, however, sometimes used as a tactic intentionally when one is trying to have a more emotionally intimate relationship than the other participant wishes to offer. In cases where this is intentional it is unacceptable. Pushing for intimacy isn't a viable route for a healthy relationship. Were we to shift gears from emotional intimacy to physical intimacy the reason becomes exceedingly clear. At best, pushing for physical intimacy when the other person doesn't want it makes one a serious jerk, and at worst a rapist.

It's okay to ask for more intimacy in a relationship. That's how many good relationships continue to grow. One person asks for more intimacy to deepen the connection of the relationship. The other person agrees and may behave, or "open up", in ways that are uncomfortable but consensual. A relationship where each person takes on the role of calling the other to deeper intimacy is a real winner. Each person grows in the relationship and step by step the relationship becomes more robust. Begging, needing, forcing, or pushing for intimacy typically means one person is doing too much work, and that expectations need to be adjusted. It's possible the relationship in question is quite healthy. It's equally possible everyone in the relationship is quite healthy. Somewhere, however, there is(are) an expectation(s) that corresponds to an internal emotional reality that is not a reflection of the relationship in question.

It is quite possible that the relationship needn't change or be addressed. Very often to find satisfaction in a relationship what we need do is redefine the terms of satisfaction. It's the relationship equivalent of training oneself out of needing what one wants, and instead wanting what one has.

The Prodigal Rants Again

I'm to visit my son tomorrow. It will be the first visit in quite a while. Last month Athena and I were both ill and desperately needed time to recover. Our previous visit had been near the beginning of the month. This visit, obviously near the end of the month, marks the end of nearly three months without visitation. In short, it's been too long. When last we were to see Festus he had developed a vocabulary of about eight words. I don't know what I'll encounter when I see him tomorrow. The truth is this visit has been filling me with some dread.

My son is talking. He is able to communicate. Quickly he'll be developing the ability to create complex ideas and in just a few short years he'll be regularly delving into abstraction. I shudder at this. I haven't had the chance to be proud as I haven't seen it yet. Had you asked me a year ago how I'd feel about this I'd have been happy and delighted to finally be able to communicate with him in ways that I can understand. Now I am terrified of two monosyllables; "why", and "no".

"Why". Why did Athena and I place him into the only home he knows? Why didn't we parent him? Why do we feel the way we do about children and, thus, him? These are all questions that I've answered theoretically to myself and many, many other people. But they have a different ring when I can see the face and hear the voice that they matter to the most.

"No". No, you don't have the right to be in my life anymore. No I will not accept a relationship with you. I don't believe your answers to my questions. They aren't good enough. They don't make enough sense. They hurt me too much. You have hurt me too much. I know I'm putting words into his mouth. I know he may not say some, or possibly any of these things to me or Athena. But I am very good at playing the "Worst Case Scenario" game. In most of my worst imaginings the apocalypse is a welcome reprieve.

The real point is that I now see that I will actually have to face what my son has to say about his experience. Again, theoretically I have done this and made my peace with it. But as any parent, birth-, adoptive-, step-, foster-, grand-, or traditional, can attest children have a way of jarring you despite your best plans and preparations. This is often a good thing. Children are excellent at living in their present experience and frequently call us to do the same. Frankly many adults, myself especially, can use all the help we can get in that regard. But there are still times when that notion is rather terrifying. My hope is that tomorrow I will be in the present instead of worrying about some dreadful confrontation with my son that may never occur. I hope he can help pull me into the present, so when I hear him speak for the first time, he is all I hear.