Category Archives: Adoptive parenting

Adding a dimension to the open adoption spectrum

My word for 2012 was write, and my word for 2013 is speak. I aim to talk with people about the benefits of openness in adoption (which is not necessarily the same as “open adoption,” as you’ll see below) to anyone involved in adoption who will listen.

So imagine my delight when Erica of Parenthood for Me notified me that her nonprofit’s board of directors had decided to present me with the Commitment to Excellence Award for 2013. And with the award comes an invitation to be the keynote speaker for the annual Gala in March in Rochester, NY.

Here is a guest post that originally appeared on the site of the organization that is sponsoring my attendance at the Gala. The post was prompted by a question put to me.

** UPDATED BELOW **

What is open adoption — and is it a spectrum?

I bet if you asked a bunch of people who know about adoption what open adoption is, you would get variations on the theme of contact, that there is a continuum of contact, and that each adoption will find its way on to a point on the continuum. On one end might be a fully closed adoption, meaning no contact and no identifying information. At the other end people might place full openness — adoptive and birth parents treating each other as extended families.

open adoption spectrum

Seems kinda flat, no?

But as we move into the third decade of the movement toward open adoptions, I submit that we should stop using contact as our measure. Why?

Because contact ≠ openness. Contact is not the same as openness.

Further, because of the need to consider contact and openness separately, we need a better tool than a spectrum. How about a grid? A grid that takes into account a measure other than contact — the level of open-heartedness on the part of the parents of the child.

Adding a dimension to the open adoption spectrum

Let’s look at each of the boxes:

  • Box 1 is what we would call a closed adoption. Not only is there very little contact or identifying information available to the child, but the adoptive parents are ill-equipped to deal with adoption openly. They may have unresolved grief left over from their infertility struggles. They may have been counseled to act as if their child were born to them. They may not be comfortable having tough conversations and confronting “icky” feelings about adoption, either theirs or their child’s as she grows and advances cognitively. This box may be the most crippling for a child to grow up in, the least conducive to integrating her identity from both her sets of parents.
  • Box 2 is where there is contact with birth family, maybe through exchanges of photos, emails or even meetings. Parents here may say things like, “We follow our open adoption agreement and send monthly updates and pictures.” or “We’re not afraid to let the birth parents know where we live.” But what’s lacking in Box 2 is what Jim Gritter calls the Spirit of Open Adoption. Adoptive parents may harbor feelings of guilt, envy, distaste or even superiority about their child’s birth family, either consciously or subconsciously (by no means am I saying that all do, but rather the observation that some do). These adoptive parents may enjoy having all the power they hold in the relationship rather than inviting the first parents to co-create their open adoption relationship. Because of the lack of openness here, the child is still at a disadvantage, feeling split between her clan of biology and her clan of biography, for there is quite a gap between them.
  • Box 3 is at play in many foster and international adoptions, as well as some domestic infant adoptions where distance or birth family availability is a factor. It involves low contact but high openness. Logistics and safety issues may make actual contact not possible or unwise, but the parents in Box 3 still parent with openness. They are able to deal with their own emotions about their family-building story mindfully, and they are able to open their hearts to their child as she processes her adoption story and integrates her identity. She is in a good position to have the space and support from her parents to do just that.
  • Box 4 is where the birth family is considered extended family, both in contact and in openness. This relationship may be no different than one with a beloved uncle, sister-in-law or grandmother (or even a relative not so beloved!). The relationships are child-centered and inclusive. The child is claimed by and able to claim both her clans, thereby helping her integrate all her pieces as she grows through her toddler and school years, through her tweens and teens and into adulthood. She is not pulled to choose or rank one family over the other and she is therefore not split — she is free to integrate herSelves and pursue wholeness in her identity.

Adopting and adoptive parents, where would you plot yourselves? I encourage you to consider both aspects of open adoption — contact and openness — as you build and sustain a child-centered adoption constellation.

~~~~~

Adoption STAR is sponsoring my attendance at the Gala. I am grateful to the folks there for making my participation possible.

I am seeking other opportunities to speak about openness in adoption in the coming year. If you know of an adoption agency or other organization that would like me to speak to clients about HOW to “do” open adoption , please direct them to my Speaker Showcase page (bonus: speaking gigs in the metro-Denver area could also include Crystal, my book’s contributor and the first mom to my daughter.)

** UPDATE **

Feedback from some adoptive parents here and in discussions elsewhere was that since they can’t fully control the level of contact with birth family, why should they be penalized for being in a less-than-ideal box?

First of all, no one is being penalized. In Adoption World, it’s better to deal with What Is rather than what we wish things would be. The boxes are meant to self-assess, not to personalize. I would counsel adoptive parents to focus on openness — what they CAN control — over contact, which they only partially control. Boxes 3 and 4 are where the benefits of openness in adoption occur, anyway.

People have also pointed out that one family may have open adoption relationships in more than one box, based on differing situations with birth family members for each child.

And it was also pointed out that plotting can change over time, as contact and openness can both be fluid measures.

Half-breed

What do Cher, President Obama and adoptees have in common?

This earworm was on the radio the other day and made me think of all three.

Half breed. That’s all I ever heard.
Half breed. How I learned to hate the word.
Half breed. She’s no good, they warned.
Both sides were against me since the day I was born.

I felt sorry for the subject of Cher’s song (this was before I saw the size of her waist and the length of her legs on the video — not mustering up much pity for those traits). Must be awful to claim parts of two cultures but to not have them claim you back.

I noticed the same about Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Wikipedia says his mother was “of mostly English ancestry” and that his father was from Kenya. I’m not the first to bring up the fact that some people consider him black (“the country’s first black president”) and others consider him not black enough. While he has claims on multiple heritages, those groups don’t necessarily fully claim him.

Sadly, sometimes a half + a half a whole.

For both Cher’s character and for Barack Obama, their two halves had trouble existing in harmony with the world at large, in being fully claimed by either of their sides.

Which can also happen with adoptees. I asked my friend Torrejon, who grew up in a closed adoption, about this idea of halves, and she had this to say about adoptee math.

I think it was BJ Lifton who said that adoptees are “betwixt and between” two worlds like Peter Pan.  I always hated Peter Pan, maybe that is why.   Other people compare being adopted to having one foot on each side of a road.  I don’t think of it like either of those analogies.  I’ve got both feet on both sides of the road at the same time.  I’m not half here and half there…I’m fully both places at the same time.  It is counter-intuitive and impossible.  Have you ever heard the expression:  “Half is something I want no part of”?  It is sort of like that.  And the Romani gypsies that I know will tell you that they are Spanish and Romani…not half and half…both things.  Those two terms are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive.  Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1…adoptee math.  However, I do think adoptees can end up with a 0 if they are divided into exclusive halves:  ½ + ½ = 0

Whatever analogy or model I try to come up with, (haven’t yet found a perfect one) I always test it against my own kids and me.  For instance, I’ve got two kids.  I’m not half a mother to one, and half a mother to the other; I’m a full mother to both of them.  That doesn’t mean I’m two halves…or two people.  I’m simply a mom with two kids.  So, by extension, I prefer to think of myself as existing fully in my two families.  By the way, I don’t presume to speak for others…we’ve all got our own ideas about how to think about this.

Don’t you love how she reverses the generations to make her point? By splitting the parent between the children we can see the ridiculousness of splitting the child between the parents.

The key for adoptive parents, then, is this: how can we ensure that 1+1 = 1, like the Romani gypsy and not ½ + ½ = 0, like Cher and the President? One reason I advocate so strongly for openness is that I believe it provides a way for an adopted child to experience the first formula. Openness helps two halves become whole by having both families — birth and adoptive — fully claim the person.

Your thoughts?

 

7 points about the birth mom conversations

Recently my son opened up to me asking questions about his birth mom and I responded as best I could. The first two posts in this series simply recounted the conversations. In this third and last post, I offer commentary about the dialog between my son and me and about the comments the posts generated.

adoption heart1. Know what it was; know what it wasn’t. The questions Reed asked and the things he said in his wondering about Michele didn’t hurt me at all (other than the fact that he was hurting). Why? BECAUSE NONE OF IT WAS ABOUT ME. This knowing is what enables me to be fully present for my children during such times. This point is key for adoptive parents to get — deep down in our bones. This was about my son and his innermost feelings. He will have them whether or not I am comfortable with him having them. The question is, can he trust me to feel them on the outside of himself?

2. Become impervious. Allow, encourage, enable your kids to feel their feelings about their birth families, and do it imperviously, as you do when discussing other hurts they might have that also have nothing to do with you: a broken toy, being spurned by a friend, not making the team. The feelings about birth parents are likely more intense, but they are no more about you than these other scenarios are. The questions and wondering about the birth family are not about you and therefore take away nothing from you. Take yourself out of the equation and it all becomes so much simpler.

3. The myth of strength. I am not any stronger than any other parents. It’s just that I get, deep in my bones, #1 above.

4. Don’t dread having these conversations with your child because, hey, see #1. And decide to enjoy rather than endure these moments of adoptive parenting. Opening your heart sets you up for success much better than will gritting your teeth.

5. Don’t dread your child having these feelings, either. If your child doesn’t ever encounter these emotions, great. If they DO, however, why psych yourself (and your child) out ahead of time? Besides, why would you want to deprive your child of all the soul-deepening and self-knowledge that comes from having feelings, which we label as  “good” or “bad”, but can simply be guideposts for how to live?

Do not ever be afraid of your child feeling her  feelings; fear only her NOT feeling her feelings or getting stuck in them. Help your child keep the emotions in motion. It’s the repression and stagnancy that cause problems.

6. Get to know. How did  I figure out #1? By listening to adult adoptees. AndiAndy, Jeni, Amanda, Lost Daughters, Torrejon, others. Don’t internalize everything you read but do listen for gems that will help you understand what may one day be felt by your child, as well as the underlying reasons.

7. Don’t underestimate the strength of your child. A wise school teacher tells me that a child will rise or fall to the level of expectation you set. Notice the strength of my son in these two conversations. He has all that within him. I just held the expectation that he would tap it.

If your child’s story has some difficult components to it, then when you do talk about the hard stuff, envelop him in love and be open to deep wisdom. Also, see the strength and resilience of your child. He needs to see you reflect those traits he already has back to him.

And if you have any further notion that I am “special” in a way that you’re not, please read my Hotel Rwanda post. Anyone strong enough to survive infertility and the adoption process and to undertake parenting is able to rise to adoptive parenting moments like these.

Don’t you tell me otherwise.