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.
In part one, I told how my still-and-deep-water son was churning some adoption stuff, and how he trusted me to do it with him. I am honored.
Reed and I were running errands the next day. Tessa stayed home with Daddy to build the first fire of the season. Brrrr….it had gotten chilly!
Bedtime and car time are conducive to touchy subject talk because of the non-confrontational positioning. In the car Reed and I were not face to face, and I knew it was a good time to try to get back into the emotional space we’d been in the night before.
“So remember last night? We were talking about the moment when you became our son. You seemed sad. Do you want to talk about that?”
“I dunno. It’s just that I was sad for Michele. No one wants to give away their baby.”
“That’s so right. It was very hard for Michele to do that. But what about you? What do you suppose that moment felt like for you?”
Now some would be content to leave this stone unturned, that not everything has to be dealt with. But my view is that what lies dormant affects us unconsciously. And what is brought to the surface can be felt, examined, and released. My hope is that if my son can become aware of his emotions and motivations at age 8, maybe they won’t get buried over the decades and erupt for him massively later in life. I want to give my children a head start on living mindfully, consciously.
These lofty goals don’t mean, however, that he was ready to feel the emotions from the moment when he was placed in my arms, from his birth mother’s.
“I think I had a poopy diaper and I wanted it changed,” he laughed a jittery laugh.
“You’re silly,” I said and laughed with him, giving him space and not filling the silence that followed.
Soon he continued, “I probably wanted milk. I had gotten milk from my mom and now I wanted milk from my new mom.” We both sat with that. A few blocks passed in silence.
“You know,” I resumed, “that moment when I became your mom was such a strange time. Everyone in the room was feeling something very intensely. For Michele, it was one of the saddest and hardest days of her life. For Daddy and Tessa and me, it was one of the happiest. Isn’t that strange?”
“Yeah. I’m sad for Michele. No one wants to give away their baby.” He repeated this, trying on his first mom’s feelings.
“That’s so very true. Especially a baby as wonderful as you, Reed.”
“Mom, do her children ever ask about me?” Reed has a younger brother and sister who visited us last year.
“I would imagine they ask about you, or they will when they are old enough to understand.”
“But what if they don’t know about me? What if she doesn’t tell them?”
“I’m sure she’s not hiding you. After all, they’ve been to our house once and hopefully they’ll come again. I think she’s very proud of the young man you’re becoming. She keeps up with you on my Facebook page, you know.”
“Mom. Would you adopt another baby?”
“We don’t have plans to do that. Is that something you’d like?”
“Yeah,” he said, thinking. “I want to know what it felt like for Tessa when I joined the family. And what it’s going to feel like for Dominic [his cousin] when Aunt Tami’s baby is born.”
I suspect this is also because he has missed out on the big brother experience with Michele’s two parented children and AJ’s new baby daughter.
“I’m not sure that’s likely to happen. You’ll get to be the big cousin to Tami’s baby.”
“NOT cousin. I want to be the big brother to a baby.”
“I’m sorry, Reed.”
We had arrived at our destination.
Which was not an adoption agency.
Later that night I pulled down a small item from the very top of Reed’s bookshelf. It was a brilliant little present to me, to us, from myself of 2003.
Right before I had headed to the Entrustment Ceremony to meet and bring home our son, I had the flash of insight to bring a spiral notebook/journal I’d had lying around. I asked Michele after the ceremony to write a page or so to Reed, to tell her what was in her heart for him that day, what her hopes were for him.
I, too, put my thoughts down in that notebook frequently in those early days, and I recruited Roger, my parents, Grandma Lisa, and everyone who attended his first several birthday parties (we used to do it up big with all our friends — our once a year bash) to write words of love to my son. There are now a couple of dozen pages of people just loving on Reed over the years, until about 2006, when we moved and the book got put away.
At bedtime, Reed was able to read the time-capsule message from his birth mom. He slept with that notebook that night.
Soon I’ll add some reflective thought to these two conversations. You are invited to come back for the final part of this series.
Trying to keep the lines of communication open, Adam stepped into his son’s room and asked, “Son, how often do you think about adoption?” Without looking up from the game, the son simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not much.” Adam stopped in his tracks and thought for a moment. Trying again to open a conversation, he rephrased: “What I meant to ask was, how often to you think of your birth mom?”
The teen barely look up and responded, matter-of-factly, “Oh. All the time.”
Adam Pertman teared up as he told us. For his son’s loss.
Reed is now closer to age 9 than to age 8. It’s always seemed that he’s smooth-sailing and resilient, able to roll with life’s punches and not have “issues.”
But I was not wholly surprised that some revelatory conversations came up this weekend. I expect that as my children grow they will, at stages, deepen their understanding of their adoptedness through wondering and questioning. And I will encourage this every chance I get.
Just before bedtime one night, Reed and I read entries from his new Guinness Book of World Records and marveled at crazy human feats. We put the book down to cuddle, just the two of us, in his parents’ bed.
“Do you think often about Michele?” I opened the door.
“Yeah. A lot.”
“Mom,” he continued, “do you think I could try living with her for a week or a month or something?”
“Sweetie,” I replied, searching for wisdom. “It doesn’t work like that. But we can certainly try to arrange for a visit with Michele the next time we are all in the same state.”
“OK, Mama,” Reed said.
A moment later: “Mom, why did Michele give me away? And how did you and Daddy become my parents?”
“Well,” I scanned the archives of my memory for advice I’ve read by and for adoptees on how best to proceed. “You were a surprise to Michele. Before she even knew she was pregnant, you were being born.”
“Uh hunh,” Reed said, encouraging me. He’d heard his story before.
“She was going to college and wasn’t really prepared to take care of ANY baby right then. She had to scramble to figure out how to do that — take care of a baby while finishing up school. She tried really hard, and she loved you very much, but she just couldn’t figure out how to be a mom right then.”
“Did you know her before that?” my son asked.
“No. We met her after she went to the same agency we did and picked us to be your forever parents.”
“When did you meet her?”
“The first time we met it was just Michele and Daddy and me at the agency. It was a time for her to check us out. It was a big decision for her, and she took it very seriously. WHO could she entrust her beloved son to? The agency called us later that evening to say that Michele had decided on us, and that we could come back the next day to meet our son. And bring him home.”
I paused to read his body, still nestled against mind. I knew that he was present with me, with the story.
“The next day we drove back to the agency, but this time Grandma and Grandpa and Tessa were also invited. It was the first time we saw you and boy, were we happy! You were so adorable and loveable. Michele brought her three best friends. We all met in a conference room for an Entrustment Ceremony.”
“That’s where Michele entrusted you into our care.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Well…” I knew that this coming part was likely to hurt. I breathed and became conscious of my breath. “Michele was holding you. The lady running the meeting said a prayer for Michele and a prayer for AJ [first father], who wasn’t able to be there. There was a prayer for Daddy and me and, of course, a prayer for the baby — you — who joined everyone in the room together.”
I breathed again. “Then Michele placed you in my arms.”
My son then let out one whimper. His small body sobbed one time. I held him more tightly (but not too tight) and stroked his shoulder, arm, side, leg. “I know, baby.” I breathed deeply, willing him to, as well.
I abided with him for a moment, simply giving him the space to feel what he was feeling. Then his sister entered the room and asked what we were talking about and would I tell her about her story, too?
Reed and I would continue our conversation the next day… (tune in for part 2).
Lori Holden, mom of a now teen daughter and a now teen son, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.
I don’t understand how you believe that agencies coerce pre-adoptive parents into openness. Just because you don’t like the options available to you doesn’t mean you are being coerced. If you go into a vegetarian restaurant and are not able to order a hamburger, are you being coerced to change your eating habits?
If you don’t like the match that’s presented to you, either because the desired amount of contact or the values of the expectant parents are not similar to yours, DON’T TAKE THE MATCH. Wait for one that works for you or move to a program that offers more opportunity for closed-ness, such as other posters here have done.
Evidence, anecdotal and otherwise
Anecdotally, you say, see the boards?? OA is a disaster because so many people complain about it. Anecdotally, I say, I know of lots of families making OA work. I say half-full; you say half-empty. So what does empirical evidence show?
OA is still fairly new and, as you point out, the children of the earliest are just now coming of age or are young adults; hence the dearth of studies available.
However, here is one article about a study funded by the National Institutes of Health:
Leve [Researchers Leslie Leve, Ph.D., and Jenae Neiderhiser, Ph.D., are among the principal investigators in the Early Growth and Development Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health] theorizes that both birth- and adoptive parents become more comfortable about the adoption as time passes, and with greater comfort comes a desire for more contact.
But Leve also ties this desire to larger, more universal trends in our society. “Individuals who have participated in adoption plans are likely no different from those who haven’t, in terms of wanting more contact and a better relationship with extended family members, biological or not,” she says. “The dispersed nature of our society prevents many of us from having as much contact with extended family as we want.”
And there’s this:
In fact, the researchers found that openness significantly correlates with satisfaction and post-adoption adjustment among birth and adoptive families alike.
“You can add openness to the list of things you don’t have to worry about,” says Leve. “It almost always works out.”
She explains that birthparents and adoptive parents select the amount of openness that fits their comfort levels. “A birthmother who wishes to remain anonymous and have no contact with the adoptive family is not going to seek services through an agency that advertises itself as promoting openness.”
Neiderhiser, herself an adoptee, endorses an attitude of openness to all adoptive parents. “The more you talk with your children in an open, positive way about the fact that they were adopted, the less of a problem it will be for them.”
Findings of the MN/TX Adoption Research Project (are you reading, researchers? We’re ready for your latest data from Wave 3, underway from 2005 to 2008) include these regarding the adoptee :
…adolescents demonstrating integrated adoptive identity had coherent, integrated narratives in which adoptive identity was highly salient and viewed positively. For example, one teen said, “When I was little I worried I was placed because she didn’t want me. Now I know I was placed because she cared enough.”
Adolescents having contact and expressing satisfaction with the contact (45.5% of the sample) stated that the contact provided an opportunity for a relationship to emerge that would provide additional support for them. They also expressed positive affect toward their birth mother, felt that the contact helped them better understand who they were, and made them interested in having contact with other members of their birth family, such as siblings. Adolescents having contact but not expressing satisfaction (16.3% of the sample) typically wanted more intensity in the relationship than they currently had, but they were not able to bring it about. They felt that they could have good relationships with both adoptive and birth parents, and that they did not have to choose one over the other. Adolescents not having contact and satisfied with the lack of contact (17.1%) felt that adoption was not an important part of their lives. They did not feel that it was necessary to have contact, sometimes expressing concern that contact might be a bad experience for them. They felt they were better off where they were (in their adoptive families) than they would have been if raised by their birth parents. Finally, adolescents not having contact but dissatisfied with the lack of contact (21.1%) sometimes desired contact but were unable to bring it about. Some had negative feelings toward their birth mother or assumed that she had not made an effort to have contact. Some worried that their adoptive parents or birth mother might feel bad about their pursuing contact. 
Birthmothers who were older at the time of placement were more likely to be satisfied with their current openness arrangements at Wave 2. At Wave 2, birthmothers who were older at placement also felt closer to the child’s adoptive mother than did birthmothers who were younger at placement. Most birthmothers reported feeling positive or very positive about their relationship with the child’s adoptive mother and father and were satisfied or very satisfied with these relationships. At the same time, the majority of the birthmothers indicated that they had at least some concern about whether their contact or potential contact interfered with the adopted youth or adoptive family functioning. Almost 20% were “very concerned” about this issue. 
and this regarding adoptive parents:
At Wave 1, when compared to parents in confidential adoptions, those in fully disclosed adoptions generally reported higher levels of acknowledgment of the adoption, more empathy toward the birthparents and child, stronger sense of permanence in the relationship with their child as projected into the future, and less fear that the birthmother might try to reclaim her child. 
This next brief passage is password protected. If you want in, just ask. I’ll likely give you the secret code.
If we keep beating, the horse will surely die
Clearly, I am not going to change your mind any more than you are going to change mine on these issues. I don’t even belong on this thread based on its title. I did not join the conversation until later when it became about me.
I am happy, though, that a counter viewpoint is here in case others who are on the fence about openness explore the ground we’ve covered.