The current prompt over at Open Adoption Bloggers is a good one. Does it get easier? It’s a question my clients ask, too, and my answer is Yes. And No.
Open adoption relationships are just like any other relationship — relationships grow and change, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. In the case of domestic infant adoption, things usually start our simpler where it’s mostly adults trying to navigate expectations. As the child grows, their wants and wishes enter in and that always complicates things. Parents — by birth or adoption — don’t have as much control over how kids see things as they might think they do and so no matter how carefully they’ve planned out how to “do” adoption, our children might have other ideas.
So the birth and adoptive parents who hoped for lots of fun visits may have a child who sulks and refuses to enjoy them. Or the birth and adoptive parents who hoped to have a carefully constructed semi-open adoption may be confronted with a child who hungers for more.
In foster to adopt where there is openness, the beginning can be especially hard since there is a lot of upfront baggage everyone has to work through. Children may not be ready for contact but there might need to be some way to maintain connection and then there might be more relationships — siblings still parented or placed elsewhere, grandparents who may have cared for the children for a time.
Families change. People get married and divorced. New babies arrive. People move. Families make plans together at the very beginning not knowing — because how can anyone know — how drastically things might change. People get sober. People start drinking. People convert to a new religion or leave a church altogether.
These things are true of any relationship and so they are also true of the open adoption relationship.
And just like any other relationship, we get better at them if we work at it. Birth parents and adoptive parents can’t control what happens or what other people do, but we can get better at maintaining healthy boundaries and loving people through change. We learn how to trust the love between people even if we can’t always trust their choices. We learn how little control we have over how other people choose to live out the relationships with us and with our children.
Sometimes, certainly, we need help with our relationships and the challenge in open adoption is that few people understand it. Our friends might not, our family might not, and even the professionals we turn to may not. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to correct mistaken assumptions about openness in adoption made by my colleagues.) So then we might need to rely on each other for help and answers. We might need to look for open-minded professionals and help them build their competency. We might need to sit down and think hard on what led us to openness in the first place and trust that those values that brought us here still matter. And we might need to remind ourselves that open adoption is ultimately a relationship and that we know that relationships grow, change, evolve — all of them do — and that we can grow, change and evolve with them.
So yes, it gets harder (because change is hard) but it gets easier (because we get better as we grow, if we want to).
There is always hope.
This week at this month’s All Adoption Meeting we talked about fathers and there were fathers there (there aren’t always) of both the birth and adoptive variety and we talked about birth fathers in particular. I am thinking about that as I read the prompt from the Open Adoption Bloggers:
Father’s Day is this weekend in many places and–as we did in 2009 and 2012–I thought we spend a roundtable focusing on dads. As always, feel free to adapt the prompt to fit your personal situation, whether that means interpreting “your father” as one of your fathers, a father figure, or something else altogether.
Write about adoption and your father.
I can’t write about adoption and my father because 1) I’m no longer writing a personal blog; and 2) if I was writing a personal blog, my ideas about what I’m willing to say about family members has changed a lot since I first started writing into the void in 2001. So I can’t write about my father or my children’s fathers (because one of my children has two fathers seeing as how she’s adopted) therefore I am just sitting here and thinking about fathers and thinking about how many of them are missing from the adoption stories.
Because they are often missing we end up building a narrative about why they are missing. Some of these narratives are based on fact and some are based on less fact than others and some aren’t based on any facts at all. We have these stereotypes about fathers — that they don’t matter as much as mothers; that they don’t love their babies as much as moms do; that they’re always trying to get out of the hard work of parenting — but they’re just stereotypes.
OK, I will tell a personal story that is not my personal story only I will leave out lots of details to keep it private.
Many many years ago when I was a young dating girl there was a boy I dated who thought maybe — just maybe — he had a son. What he knew was this: There was a girl he briefly dated who showed up at school pregnant and nobody knew what happened next but the rumor was that she placed her baby boy for adoption. At least she came back to school not pregnant and there wasn’t a baby living at her house and this is how everyone assumed that happened. And this young man (who was very young when I knew him so even younger when this happened) didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to approach this young woman about the pregnancy way back then and he didn’t know how to talk to her about the adoption after.
It’s no wonder because he was, as I said, very young. He was at the age where he was just learning how to navigate relationships and he got in over his head. She was in over her head, too. I’m sure that their parents felt in over their heads, too, because raising teenagers is hard.
Basically his story is the story of feeling overwhelmed and not having a guidebook. And worse yet, not knowing that he is important (that fathers are important) because we have this cultural message that fathers are important but mostly in the financial sense. As a teenage boy without a job being raised by a single mom who had her own struggles, he didn’t think he had any business involving himself in his ex-girlfriend’s decision. After all, what did he have to offer but his own self? Which was not, he felt, much to offer. He decided it was best if he just leave her be especially since the break up wasn’t a particularly good one.
During our All Adoption Meeting when we were talking about fathers I was thinking about this boy I knew more than 25 years ago, and I was thinking that if he was the father and if the mom did choose adoption that the adoptive parents (and perhaps the social workers or lawyers) probably have this idea about who he is and this idea would be based on fact (that he didn’t step up or even talk to her, which is a pretty jerky thing to do) but not entirely on fact (because he’s not a jerk even if his behavior was jerky; he was just a kid in over his head).
Not that he stands for every birth father anymore than any particular birth mother stands for every birth mother, mind you, but I thought about this story and thought about the adoption situations I know and that I live and thought about birth fathers and I missed their voices in the discussion. I miss their stories.
Ann Fessler, who wrote The Girls Who Went Away and directed A Girl Like Her (based on the book) has been talking about a project about the birth dads of the baby scoop era. I think it’s a project that’s sorely needed.
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.
Heather and Kat sent a whole slew of questions along for the first segment of the Open Adoption Book Club. We’re talking about Megan’s Birthday Tree: A Story About Open Adoption.
This is the one I chose to write about:
In the story, Megan struggles with the fear that her birthmother will forget her if she no longer has the Birthday Tree to remind her. What fears have you struggled with in your adoption journey? What helped you overcome those fears?
One of the things we were told repeatedly by some of the workers at our agency and the world at large is that our child-to-be’s birthmother would “move on” and become less of a presence in our open adoptions. This was often stated as a selling point. Even the agency expectation that we send cards and letters once a month for the first year and then annually thereafter was a nod to the myth that open adoptions naturally become less open as time goes on. The philosophy behind those annual cards and letters is that once the raw first year was over, everyone could get back to “normal.” Normal, apparently, meant not necessarily forgetting but at least less need.
That has most decidedly not been our experience and in talking to many adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees, that is not most people’s experience. Although it’s true that some families lose touch with each other, I have yet to meet anyone who forgets and blithely moves on.
Still that cultural idea is very present in adoption and Megan’s concern is common to adopted kids whether or not the adoption is open. And certainly one thing is very true about life post-adoption; nobody stands still. People don’t move on but they do move and big changes (new babies, new homes, new jobs, etc.) require what can sometimes be hard adjustment.
Not every child feels safe to voice the fear that their birth families have forgotten or will forget them. Some are afraid of saying out loud something that feels so true because it might confirm it’s truth. Others are afraid that birth or adoptive parents won’t understand or will be dismissive. Or maybe it’s both those fears all wrapped up and tied together.
Many parents are afraid to ask their children if they worry about this for similar reasons. What if their child isn’t worried about it until their parent asks? This is why Megan’s Birthday Tree can be a valuable book to open a discussion. Birth and adoptive parents who read this book with their children may feel more comfortable observing Megan’s feelings and then asking their child, “What do you think about Megan’s being afraid that her birth mom will forget her? Is this something you think about?” Having some distance (speaking about imaginary Megan instead of themselves) can also give kids space to address their worries in the guise of helping Megan address hers. What advice would they give her during different points of the book? What do they think about how the story ended?
Very often parents tell me that their children won’t talk about their feelings around adoption but our goal isn’t necessarily to get them talk; it’s to let them know that it’s safe to talk. Safe means bringing hard subjects up without pressure and respecting their boundaries so don’t fret if your child rejects your overtures. Knowing that you will give them room to talk and room to not talk will go a long way. Meanwhile make sure books Megan’s Birthday Tree is out and easy to access so that children can revisit the story without making a fuss about it.
To me, openness in adoption is an attitude. It’s a belief that our kids are best served with honesty, respect for their origins, and the understanding that caring about, connecting to and loving one family does not preclude caring about, connecting to and loving another. Openness is making decisions with this attitude that open adoption advocate Jim Gritter calls “hospitiousness” towards our children’s birth families.
Adoption researcher, author and therapist David Brodzinsky, PhD, makes a distinction between two kinds of openness. There is structural openness, which might include cards, letters, phone calls or visits. And there is communication (or communicative) openness, which is when adoption topics are respectfully and honestly dealt with by the parents.
For adoptive parents, structural openness may be out of our control. Our children may come to our families via closed adoption because the birth family members cannot be found, such as in many international adoptions. Or our children’s family of origins may not be safe for them, as in some foster-to-adopt situations. But communicative openness is always in our control. No matter how much or how little information we have, we can create openness in our attitudes towards our children’s stories.
Many families have communicative openness without structural openness and some families have structural openness without communicative openness. I have heard many stories of adoptive parents who have open adoption in name only; those who have regular communication with birth parents but keep a lid on any adoption discussion in their homes. Maybe they’re hoping that structural openness is enough. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
According to Brodzinsky’s study, “Family Structural Openness and Communication Openness as Predictors in the Adjustment of Adopted Children,” it’s clear that those of us who are living structural openness have more prompts for communicative openness. For children who have the presence of birth family members in their lives, there tend to be more opportunities for questions, answers and discussion. But most adoptive parents aren’t really given any instruction about how to respond to those prompts and many are flailing.
Lots of studies show that openness benefits children (research says they have better self esteem and fewer behavior problems than children adopted in closed adoptions) but this study in particular ties this to communicative openness. In other words, how the family processes adoption is a stronger predictor of positive benefit than how the family structures adoption. Says the study, “… communication openness appears to be a stronger and more consistent predictor of children’s adjustment than the extent of structural openness that exists between the adoptive and birth families.”
This is good news for those adoptive families who are unable to have structural openness; your child can still reap the benefits of openness in adoption provided you are able to foster a sensitivity and respect for your child’s birth origins and are able to convey that to your child. And it’s a reminder to those families who do not have communicative openness; you need to learn how to talk to your kids.
I will write more about how you can do that, too, in future blog entries.
This is my entry for the Open Adoption Bloggers Roundtable #44: What openness means to me. Check out the other entries here!