Category Archives: Open Adoption

“Real” in Adoption and how it Splits our Babies

This post originally appeared on CreatingAFamily.org.

Remember that Sesame Street segment, “One of these Things is Not Like the Other”? Can you pick which one of the four questions is out of place? And more importantly, why it is the misfit of the bunch?

  • Which ice cream do you love most, Casey — strawberry or chocolate?
  • Which is your favorite sports team, Jamie — the Broncos or the Patriots?
  • Which is your favorite pop singer, Riley — Bruno Mars or One Direction?
  • Which set of parents are your real ones, Payton — your birth parents or your adoptive parents?

As you can surmise from the title of this post, the fourth option gets the ding-ding-ding.The first three have numerous options not mentioned — there’s also mint chocolate chip and peppermint ice creams, the Cubs and the Jazz, Rihanna and fun., plus countless other flavors, teams, singers. It’s only the last one that is a dual option — just two choices —  winner and a loser.

And it’s only the last one that can split a child in two in a way that choosing strawberry over chocolate simply can’t.

If you’ve done much adoption reading, you’ve probably sought out posts by adult adoptees. Some adoptees claim they identify exclusively with their birth parents, saying that they never felt like they fit in with their adoptive family. Others explain that their “real” parents were the ones who raised them, changed the diapers, kissed the boo-boos, showed up at the games/performances/events.

Neither answer is right or wrong. What’s wrong is asking the question in the first place. Often, it’s not the parents asking; rather it’s society-at-large wanting a definitive answer to the age-old question of Nature vs Nurture.

Posing the question or asking for a ranking comes from an Either/Or paradigm that splits the baby/child/tween/teen/adult in two. It’s dualistic, starkly black and white, pitting a winner against a loser. Either we are the real parents or they are. Either we can legitimately claim the child or they can. While the baby in the King Solomon story was threatened with being sliced by a literal sword, adoptees are faced with a figurative sword splitting their hearts, their loyalties, their psyches, their identities. This happens anytime the adults around them operate from the Either/Or paradigm.

So what is an alternative?

Parents in adoption who want to avoid splitting the baby must make a subtle (and not difficult) shift into Both/And thinking.

Adoption creates a split between a child’s biology and biography. Openness is an effective way to heal that split. That’s the premise of the book I’ve written with my daughter’s first mom,  The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole. Openness, referring to not only contact but also to the mindset in which we parent, shifts us into a Both/And paradigm, in which we move from duality toward unity. We multiply instead of divide. We offer to our children wholeness rather than fracture. We encourage them to claim all pieces of themselves, those from biology and those from biography. We enable our children to be claimed by both of their clans.

And we resolve in ourselves any need to be The One. That often-unconscious drive that influences our adoption relationships is more about us and not at all about our child.

My friend Torrejon, an adult adoptee whom I met on an adoption forum that’s committed to Adoptee Rights, turns the “which mom is your REAL mom” question on end. I had asked her about adoptee math, about how to ensure that adding the biology half and the biography half would end up equalling a whole person:

Not half and half…both things. The two parts are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive. Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1. However, adoptees could end up with a 0 if they are divided into exclusive halves:  ½ + ½ = 0

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 — my birth family AND my adoptive family. BOTH.

Isn’t it enlightening how Torrejon 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.

We would have no problem allowing Casey to have a scoop of strawberry today and a scoop of chocolate tomorrow. It would be no trouble if Jamie cheered for the hometown baseball team in June and the hometown basketball team in November. We wouldn’t feel challenged if Riley had both Bruno Mars and fun. in the same playlist.

Likewise, let’s allow — encourage — our children to expand their hearts so big that they can encompass all the people with whom they identify, whom they have an innate need to claim and be claimed by. Doing so need not take away from  us — it merely adds to our children.

What have you done (or might you do) to shift from Either/Or thinking to Both/And thinking? What ideas do you have to avoid “splitting the baby”?

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Last week Executive Director Dawn Davenport and I talked about openness in adoption via podcast. To summarize our BlogTalk Radio interview, Dawn wrote her post, My #1 Secret Tip for a Successful Open Adoption, adding to the vast resources of CreatingAFamily.org.

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.