Category Archives: Birth parent

Ready or Not, Glasnost is Coming to Adoption

Even though the Berlin Wall fell suddenly a quarter-century ago, in hindsight we were not all that surprised. Historically we note that of course people eventually throw off shackles. Of course the human spirit cannot be contained forever. The human spirit is hard-wired to reach for light, to yearn for freedom, to crave openness. And to settle for no less.

The fall of the Berlin wallGlasnost means openness. Mikhail Gorbachev saw its inevitability and decided to get in front of the parade. Those who today patrol outdated walls that oppress people would do well to follow Gorbachev’s lead. Policy-makers who have dedicated themselves to preserving walls built on a foundation of shame and secrecy are well-advised to study history and consider their own legacies.

We in adoption have seen a movement on many fronts toward openness. More and more, adoptive parents welcome and even seek contact with their child’s family of origin, recognizing the benefits contact can bring to the child. Even in cases in which contact is either unsafe or unwise, adoptive moms and dads are parenting with more openness when it comes to acknowledging their child’s story and their child’s unique needs and being able to talk about these issues. Finally, we see state after state passing legislation that opens birth records to all citizens, no matter their circumstances of birth.

I therefore make a bold prediction: glasnost is coming to adoption.The walls that still exist will fall not gradually and softly but in a rush. A shocking, thunderous rush — just like we saw nearly 25 years ago in Europe. Openness in adoption will be here within the decade, and we’ll wonder how we ever tolerated anything less.

So what are these walls in adoption? What structures have been erected as the legacy of fear and shame since the start of the Baby Scoop Era, post WWII? For one, many people think it’s unnatural or “weird” that my children’s birth parents are part of our extended family. Some are shocked we would let into our lives a presumed “crack whore birth mother” or a “scary birth father.” Coming from a place of fear and duality, some believe there should remain a wall between our family and our children’s birth families, lest our children become confused (Jim Gritter, a pioneer in the open adoption movement, says about such confusion: “Is it your experience that to be fully informed is to be confused?”).

But coming from a place of love and wholeness, inviting my children’s birth parents into our lives as respected members of our family seems as natural as keeping in touch with my own parents and just as important in helping my tweens integrate their identities. “Adoption creates a split between a persons’ biology and her biography. Openness is an effective way to help heal that split.” — that’s the premise of the book I’ve written with my daughter’s birth mom, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole.

As I speak at adoption agencies around the country and connect with people who hope to or have become parents via adoption, I see an opening, a softening, an understanding that openness — with or without contact — is as vital to an adopted child in her identity-building as food, shelter and showing up at soccer games are to satisfying the lower levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The second and more oppressive wall is the one guarding original birth records from their rightful owners — adult adoptees. By circumstance of birth, my children belong to a class of people whose civil rights are not fully recognized. I can go to my county clerk and get my original birth records and you can go to your county clerk and get your original birth records (unless you were adopted), but adult adoptees in 41 states plus the District of Columbia [see the current count here] face a practically insurmountable wall between them and their own vital records, their very identity.

Why? Why the need for such a wall?

Closed systems rely on fear to sustain them. In adoption, this fear is rooted in shame — the shame of being caught in an unplanned pregnancy; the shame of being infertile; the shame of being a “bastard” born to unmarried parents. Isn’t it time to vanquish shame in adoption?

Let’s examine the parallels between this practice of closing birth records and the Berlin Wall.

  • Walls are not for the benefit of those walled in. They are for the presumed benefit of the Elites and those the Elites deem in need of protection.
  • In a repressive environment, large expenditures are needed to repress, diverting funds that could be spent actually helping people.
  • In a repressive environment there is secrecy, and corruption is therefore difficult to detect. Without the possibility of someone shining light in an environment, corruption and rot can flourish.
  • Repressive systems cause people to find ways around it. When support for the system erodes, black markets are created and people find ways to skirt the wall to get what they feel they should have access to.

Why am I so certain walls will fall in states that don’t already allow unfettered access to original birth certificates to all citizens?

  • It’s human nature to resist resist the tyranny of Elites.
  • Repression is not eternally affordable or sustainable.
  • When any system fails to meet the fundamental needs of its people (such as the right to know one’s identity), civil unrest may follow.

The Internet is a great destabilizer of Elite structure. It facilitates connections, joins voices, and democratizes light-shining into previously well-guarded nooks and crannies.

What may have seemed all right yesterday often looks very different after the fall of a wall. The shooting of would-be defectors by East German border guards was justified by the Elites. But post-openness, those shootings were treated as acts of murder by reunified Germany. How will history judge those who repeatedly act to violate the civil rights of a group of people? How will history remember those who refuse to “tear down this wall”?

Fifty years ago, John F Kennedy said at the Brandenburg Gate, Ich bin ein Berliner. In solidarity with my children and others whose civil rights are violated right here in the 21st century, I invite you to say with me, Ich bin ein Adoptee.

More info: Vital Records, a short film by Jean A. S. Strauss.

To get involved in the demolition of adoption walls, visit the Adoptee Rights Coalition.


Lori Holden in The Huffington PostA version of this article appeared in 2014 on The Huffington Post.

 Image: morguefile

The Opening of Adoption: The Early Years

I was delighted that Peach brought this film to my attention: The Right to Know: America’s Adoption Crisis. It’s a documentary from 1990 by Michael Branton and Elizabeth Snider and narrated by Michael Reagan, son-via-adoption of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.

I’m share below 12 highlights that impressed me (bolding is mine), and I urge that you devote 50 minutes to watching it to find the parts that impact you. Those who are currently dedicated to eradicating shame and secrecy in adoption are building on the work of these pioneers in openness. Here is an instructive look back from where we’ve come. Some has changed, and some has remained the same.

Bonus: Throughout we get to see some fabulous 1980s-1990s hairstyles and fashions in both men and women, and be reminded what some old-style computers looked like. Flashbacks galore!

1. The documentary starts  with a clip from a 1950 film called Three Secrets.

“A plane crashes in California and a 5-year-old boy survives. Little else is known except the child is an orphan.

Susan Chase believes the boy could be hers. Before she was wed to lawyer Bill Chase, she was involved with a Marine during the war, and became suicidal later, putting their child up for adoption. Bill has never been told Susan’s secret.”  — Wikipedia.

Two other women have reasons to believe the boy may be the one they gave birth to and relinquished.

We are in the maternity ward where a woman is counseling her daughter, Susan, to place her newborn son for adoption:

Woman: Don’t cheat your son, Susan. Think of the moment when he finds out [you weren’t married].

Susan: But giving him away. My own flesh and blood. It’s wrong, unnatural.

Woman: Living with an illegitimate child will be wrong and unnatural, too, only it will last the rest of your life. This will be over in a few months! It’s right and natural for every child to be brought up in a normal home.

Okey dokey. People really did believe that a child-ectomy was no different than an appendectomy, and that you’d get over both with equal ease.

2. Kathleen Silber, a name many may recognize from her advice in Adoptive Families magazine and from her books Dear Birthmother and Children of Open Adoption, comes in at 6:50, sharing the social worker’s perspective, historically speaking.

There was definitely an element of playing God. Agencies really felt like we knew what was in people’s best interest. And there were some fallacies in that. There were things we didn’t know at that time…Some social workers really got to like that power and control.

Agencies are all guilty of telling lies…we left out information…like alcoholism or other problems. We tended to only mention the positives and leave out the negatives. This was partially because we believed at the time that everything was environment, that it really didn’t matter if there were some of these problems in the background.

3. Another social worker (and author), Reuben Pannor, divulges the two big lies (about 9:10):

I would say to [adoptive] parents, “this is your child now” — which gave encouragement to denial, which in turn gave encouragement to the development of many serious problems for everyone That was the #1 lie.

The other biggest lie was to say to adoptive families: “We will guarantee you of anonymity and secrecy. Once you have completed your adoption, birth parents will not trouble you any more because records will be sealed and locked away and you will never hear from them again.”

4. Segueing back to Three Secrets, a scene in which a file is pulled from a file cabinet. It’s marked with the date of Susan’s baby’s birth.

“We placed four children on September 15.” says a matronly bureaucrat to a cohort. “But no one’s going to see those records. Not even ourselves.”

She places the unseen files into a bank vault and spins the dial (10:00).

5. At 16:15 we hear from Betty Jean Lifton, author of the influential Journey of the Adopted Self.

Even though a child is told they’re adopted, an adopted child soon learns that the adoptive parents don’t want to hear any questions about it. You’re supposed to play their game of “as if” — which is pretending that they’re really your mother and father. And in one sense they are, but they are your adoptive mother and father.

6. An adoptee explains how a person can have mixed feelings about adoption (18:35):

One minute you can feel great because your parents love you so much and the next minute you can feel terrible because your birth parents abandoned you.

7. Reuben Pannor says later (19:10):

We have a disproportionate number of adoptees in these facilities [mental health, correctional]. And this is precisely why we are now attempting to change the system, to unlocked sealed records, to move into a system that we think is much healthier — psychologically sound, emotionally sound — and that is an open system in adoption.

8. We are shown how adoptees decide to search and how the news of a search affects their adoptive parents. We see how adoptees connected with each other, how birth parents joined together, and how search angels worked to manifest connections of a different sort — all pre-Internet.

We see a birth mother and a birth father tell us how their decisions to relinquish felt in retrospect, and how small, ordinary moments can bring up the loss anew, despite the efforts to dissociate from a painful time in their lives.

9. Back to Three Secrets. Susan signs away her motherhood, with her mother and the bureaucrat overseeing (35:45). Oh, my (the filmmakers use dialog well here).

10. We learn of research that during the final stages of pregnancy women develop a heightened maternal preoccupation, which continues after the birth of the child. At 38:15 the narrator tells us that it’s also during this time that the child develops a sense of separate self.

Annette Baran, another adoption opener and author, reveals that “Most adoptees and birth parents suffered from a lack of the final stage of this heightened maternal preoccupation process. When the child is taken away at birth, neither one of them are able to complete the process. They become emotional amputees.

11.  We see examples of infantilizing adult adoptees starting around 43:45.

12. Kate Burke, then-president of the American Adoption Congress, talks about specifically who was tending the locks on keeping things closed and secret. Who were these Elites that made and enforced the rules for others? She adds, “We’re not afraid of each other. So you don’t have to be afraid for us” (47:35).

12.  On the effects of search and reunion a few adoptees share: It makes you feel complete. I’m happier. I know myself better. When I reunited with my birth family, I got closer to my adoptive family (50:30).

The documentary ends with a plea for the public to begin to help change public policy (51:00). The fight continues as we head into 2014, for 41 states still have bureaucrats and Elites guarding vital records (inaccessible to those whom they are vital to) via metaphorical locks and bank vaults.

If you take the time to watch, I’m interested in knowing your thoughts about  The Right to Know: America’s Adoption Crisis.

Out of proportion sad

A girl from my high school class died the other day.

I am so sad. Out of proportion sad.

I would call “Linda” more of an acquaintance than a friend. We went to different middle schools so we didn’t come into each others’ orbits until high school. Still, we had mutual friends and we were both in marching band. I, straining to stay first chair in the flute section and she hanging out with the guys in the brass section. I remember her being what you’d call cute — adorable with a radiant and infectious smile.

Linda became pregnant during our sophomore year by her boyfriend, a senior and a drummer. For months and months during her pregnancy, she carried her baby belly proudly through the hallways and classrooms of our high school. Never averted her eyes, never looked troubled, never gave off a whiff of shame. Other kids whispered, nosy but not mean-spirited. I remember being a little bit in awe of her and her ability to carry her head high, full term.

One day she wasn’t pregnant anymore. People whispered again, not from malice because Linda was well-liked; just out of simple curiosity. What was the outcome? The boyfriend had graduated, so I never knew if they’d stayed together or not. Word around was that they’d placed their baby for adoption.

Linda was the only one from my high school who became a birth parent during those years, in my recollection. She’s been on my mind in recent years.

I had always hoped to reconnect with Linda at a reunion, at the grocery store, at a museum or park. Now that I can see adoption from the inside, and with grownup eyes, I wanted to ask her about that time in her life. Was she as resilient as she’d appeared? How fully did she explore all her options? What kind of support was available to her? Did she experience the horrors of the Baby Scoop Era? What did she remember about placing? How much was being a “birth mother” part of her life, even now, all these years later? Did she ever reunite with her child? And tell the now-adult child about the manageable medical condition that eventually took her life?

I had the feeling that Linda would welcome opening up to me, that she might even get something out of this conversation, as I was well-versed in birth parent and reunion resources.

Or maybe that’s just my fantasy.

I did some poking around and found that Linda had registered to be found by her placed child, a daughter. What I am unable to find out is if that daughter ever sought to be found, as well.

I am sad for Linda and her family, including her husband and parented daughter. I am sad that I didn’t get to have that dialog with Linda, who had become joined to me via adoption at a level that exceeded being joined by 1st period Band class.

But mostly, I’m sad for her placed daughter. If and when she ever searches and finds, all she will have are missed memories of her birth mother, Linda of the sass, confidence, resilience and radiant smile.

Godspeed, Linda.


Have you signed up yet for the book tour for Found: a Memoir by Jennifer Lauck?

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.