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Speaking truth to your adopted child

thoughtfulgirl-inside(This is an edited repost from my defunct personal blog, which is why it references other posts from four years ago and Lost, for goodness sakes, like the olden days or something.)

Malinda posted about this parenting advice from Brian Stuy:

We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters’ birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, “Do you wish you knew your birth mother?” Or, “Do you want to know more about your abandonment?” I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.

I was watching Lost on Tuesday, which is chock full of obvious and less obvious adoption issues and adoption cliches and stereotypes and I was thinking about how deeply ingrained our presumptions are about “real” parents and changelings and lost orphans and false parents. I was thinking about fairy tales and mythology and thinking that our collective unconsciousness already feeds us these ideas. (I am typing this to avoid spoilers.) It doesn’t matter if they are “true” or not — they are part of our belief system.

So unlike Brian, I think that even if we never ever ever breathe an unasked for word about our kids’ birth parents that our collective unconsciousness is already, in some ways, defining our own position as parents to our children. And our kids need to figure that out for themselves, which I think means we should be more explicit in welcoming that discussion. Not because we need to sway them but because we need to hear them out (or at least say to them, “I am bringing this up because I will hear you out”) so that they know whatever direction they choose, whatever belief feels like home to them, we will love them and accept them and never ever leave them. Even if they feel more attached to their birth countries, families and origins than they do to us. They may reject the “blood is thicker than water” belief system or they may not. But they will wonder about it.

Brian also says:

They might ask at that point if they were born of their adoptive parents, and that would be a good time to answer, “No, you were born to a woman in China.” That is the type of answer I would give. But many use this opportunity to go ahead and answer questions not asked and not even thought of: “No, you were born to a woman in China. She is your birth mother, and she wasn’t able to keep you, so she left you at the gate of the orphanage.” This is the type of over-feeding that overwhelms most kids, and creates, I believe, unnecessarily emotional issues.

There’s a third response, “No, you were born to a woman in China. What do you think about that?”  or “How do you feel about that?” or “I know that might be confusing. Do you have some questions about that?”

I mean, culturally? We romanticize birth ties. I’m not willing to say that this romance is more true or less true. I’m not willing to say that it’s a cultural bias we need to question or reject or welcome with open arms. I think it’s one that’s interesting to explore and for any adopted child, it is an absolutely vital exploration because it is a conflict she is living and she will need to make sense of it in whatever way she needs to.

This is why we need to bring it up. We don’t say, “Hey, my lovely child, do you feel so much more tied to your birth mom than you do to me? Since she’s your real mother and all?” Instead we can say, “How did you feel when so-and-so was talking about this thing that might relate to adoption?” If I was Brian Stuy in a closed adoption from China, I’d surely say, “Sometimes I wonder about your birth mom. Do you wonder?” Because I would wonder. And if I’m wondering, it’s not such a far stretch to think that the child herself wonders.

I do not think that birth ties are any more magical and true than love ties but I do believe that birth ties are rich with meaning. I do think that in a culture that romanticizes our genetic origins that those genetic origins have an important weight.

For example, gender has tremendous cultural weight, agreed? We can say that gender is a social construct but it does not negate the weight of it. We can say it is a figment of our collective imagination and we can choose NOT to believe that gender matters. Individually, we can do that. But culturally, gender still has weight and our questions and struggle with the cultural construct of gender is practiced against the beliefs that we are questioning. Which is to say, no matter how much we choose to believe that gender does not matter for ourselves, it does matter. Our personal practice of gender exists in contrast to the larger cultural construct. In other words, Lady Gaga owes as big a debt to Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Madonna.

Family Secrets

cosmicmoon-insideThe other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.

I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).

In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.

“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”

When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.

I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).

That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.

I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.

Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.

If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.

Making Open Adoption Work

This month’s Open Adoption Blogger roundtable prompt:

Why has or hasn’t openness worked for you?

If you are in a healthy functional open adoption, why do you think it’s working? If it doesn’t work, why do you think it stopped working? Do you think the success or failure was about education and expectations going in? Do you think it was that your personalities matched or clashed? Do you think there is something you do or did during the relationship that kept it going or was there a certain point that it changed the relationship from bad to good? Was it a mixture of all of these things?

via Roundtable #48: Why Has or Hasn’t Openness Worked for You? | Open Adoption Bloggers

This is such a great exploration. And the original post encourages readers to check out the comments on Kat’s conference discussion here. They’re really good.

We know that in this day and age (thanks to the internet),  closed adoptions are swiftly becoming endangered species. If an adoption is closed now, it certainly does not mean it will remain closed. In fact it’s likely that it won’t. This means that regardless of how any individual attempts to live out his or her experience of adoption, it’s probable that someone else involved in that adoption will have some say in that experience.

In the All Adoption Groups we often talk about searching for the other parties in our adoptions on Facebook and other social networking sites. What’s clear is that we’re all searching. Adoptive family members search, birth family members search and adoptees themselves search. Perhaps every closed adoption is only temporarily closed nowadays.

At least we can hope.

The changing face of adoption is important to consider when we’re talking about success in open adoption. Because adoption is not a static experience and relationships can and do change, particularly around the level of contact.

All of this to say that it’s important to know that there are many, many, many ways to have a healthy, functional open adoption and sometimes one of the ways is to accept the long-term approach (as one person says in those comments, it’s a marathon). That means not putting expectations of success or failure on the living, breathing, growing thing that is the open adoption relationship. That means understanding that a closed door may not remain closed; that understanding and respecting boundaries takes ongoing effort; and that there is always the potential for healing.

Families and individuals may need help understanding how to manage clashing expectations since it’s easy to take our own points of view for granted, not understanding how different the world can look to someone else. Whether it’s in counseling, through support groups or by talking to other constellation members online, exploring other adoption experiences goes a long way in building understanding and creating new avenues for openness.

That’s what makes these roundtables so great. Talking — or at least reading — across blogs is a terrific way to gain understanding, which is central to making openness work. Having a chance to challenge our perspective without threatening our open adoption relationships can make it easier for us to work through problems and challenges.

Making sense of things

brightbulb-insideI’m working on my symposium presentation for next September and then last week I went with Kate to the Wells Conference on Adoption Law. Kate and I were talking about being at the point with adoption where we know what we know and it feels like commonsense and so it’s hard to figure out what other people don’t know. I thought of that a lot during the conference because I didn’t learn anything new. Well, that’s not true — I learned the names of some bills that theoretically exist to support adoption and I learned some about Hague but everything else I knew. It helped that the conference was supposed to address disruption and I wrote that article last summer so a lot of the stories the lawyers told in the last panel were stories I already heard from the people I interviewed.

But it was good to sit there because it got me thinking about the symposium and I took some notes that’ll help when I’m putting together the presentation.

A few weeks ago a woman wrote me and said she was adopted in a fully open adoption and it was awful and now she’s an anti-openness activist. She wanted to know if I knew of a forum where she could present her anti-open opinions. I got to talking to her and the reason her open adoption was awful is that her birth parents were manipulative and abusive and terrible. And I told her (she doesn’t really buy it — like all of us, she’s prone to thinking her experience is the norm) that the issue isn’t open adoption; the issue is abuse. It’d be like (I typed to her) if I was against fatherhood because my mother’s father was an abusive sonovabitch. But of course I’m not against fathers; I’m against abuse.

It’s frustrating to talk about openness and have people say, “Yeah, but what about THIS situation” because of COURSE in an unhealthy, damaging situation the family is going to have to be much more thoughtful about handling openness. It may mean supervised visits, it may mean no visits and contact only through a third-party. It may mean no contact until XYZ happens. It might even mean no contact ever but an attitude of openness. But instead of debating openness, we need to discuss HOW to do openness in the context of our children’s individual experiences and histories. In the case of my anti-openness emailer, I told her the issue there is an adoptive family who didn’t manage her birth family relationships well when she was a child, which speaks to post-adoption support but does not shore up an anti-openness argument IN GENERAL.

The other reason (besides philosophically) is that the era of closed adoption is OVER. I don’t believe you can adopt a child now and trust a closed adoption will stay closed — not in the age of the internet, no way. So better get a handle on it now and figure out how to manage it.

(NOTE: One thing Adam Pertman said is that the next project the Evan B. Donaldson Institute will be doing is looking at how social media and especially Facebook have changed and are changing adoption because boy howdy, it’s changing.)

Anyway, I think I’ve got some things to start my presentation, which I think will be good and helpful but I still need to work on the middle more.


It’s a basic human right

Because I am easily astonished (and live in an adoption world populated by you nice, reasonable, progressive people), I can’t believe that open adoption records are still controversial.
States urged to open adoption records – CNN.com

In New Jersey, where a long-running campaign to pass an open-records bill was derailed again this year, the opposition includes New Jersey Right to Life and the New Jersey Catholic Conference. They argue that eliminating the prospect of confidentiality might prompt a pregnant single woman to choose abortion rather than adoption. Marlene Lao-Collins of the Catholic Conference said she knew of no data supporting the concerns about abortions, “but even if it just happened once, that would be one too many.”

Nationwide, one of the major foes of open records is the National Council for Adoption, which represents many religiously affiliated adoption agencies. Its president, Thomas Atwood, says any reconnection between an adopted adult and a birthparent should be by mutual consent — which is the policy in most states.

“I empathize with anybody who feels the need to know their biological parents’ identity,” Atwood said. “But I don’t think the law should enable them to force themselves on someone who has personal reasons for wanting confidentiality.”

So wait — open records are a pro-life tactic??? They’re arguing that even one POSSIBLE embryo lost is enough to keep actual living, breathing people from their constitutional right to know their birth histories — it’s just ludicrous.

Want to read more about the history of closed adoption? Check out How Adoption Grew Secret and then support the rights of adoptees.

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