Tag Archives: closed adoption

What are the Benefits & Difficulties of Open Adoption?

Why are adoption agencies suggesting or requiring open adoptions? What are the pluses and minuses of open adoptions? What might be the long-term effects of living in one?

Rachel Garlinghouse, author of the new children’s book Black Girls Can, recently interviewed me on Adoption.net in anticipation of National Adoption Awareness Month. She asked some great questions and here I share Part 1 of our interview with you (part 2 is at MileHighMamas ).

adoption q & a

Rachel: Open adoption has become an increasingly popular choice among adoptive and birth parents, as well as an option that more agencies seem to be suggesting, even requiring. Why is this?

Lori: Because any social construct steeped in shame and secrecy is neither healthy nor sustainable. Hiding something takes a lot of energy, and in some cases, can cause lie upon lie upon lie to cover up. Take birth certificates that are not actually records of birth, for example.

Wait. That’s MY reason, not necessarily the reason agencies are giving. I think many agencies (with innovative exceptions) are following — not leading — the parade. The leaders of the openness movement tended to be groups of people for whom secrecy and shame didn’t work — like birth parents and adoptees from the Baby Scoop Era. Organizations such as Concerned United Birthparents (and others) influenced innovators such as social worker Jim Gritter (and others) to help move toward adoption reform, which means moving from closedness to openness. The Internet has enabled such groups to join voices together to effect change, to create better ways of handling adoptions that value truth, openness, and integration.

  • For adoptees: Openness allows for more opportunity to integrate that which was separated at the time of placement: one’s biology and one’s biography.
  • For birth parents: First parents get the chance to integrate something that did actually happen into the fabric of their lives, rather than attempting to shut the door on a Really Big Event and pretend it never occurred. They can also know and witness how things are going with their child rather than just wonder.
  • For adoptive parents: We get a stretching. We get to deal with our own stuff — our insecurities and fears — to make sure our stuff doesn’t become our child’s stuff. We get to help our children become who they are and encourage them to incorporate all their pieces. We get to connect with others who love our child in the same way we do, who share in joys and challenges alongside us. We get contact with the people who can fill in the gaps on the occasions when we are mystified. We get access to the living history of our child’s tribe. We get to watch our children get filled up in a way we may not be able to provide. We get to model for our children how to navigate relationships and comport ourselves respectfully.

What are some of the potential downfalls of open adoption for triad members?

Well, relationships are hard! What makes adoption relationships difficult is that we tend to come from an either/or mindset: either YOU are the parents or THEY are. If we stay in this Either/Or mindset, we run the risk of “splitting the baby.” We must evolve toward a Both/And heartset (the how of this is in our book).

It can be hard for adoptive and birth parents to communicate, to set boundaries, to be mindful and deliberate in the words and actions they exchange with each other. There can be huge power imbalances. Prior to relinquishment, the birth parents have all the power and the adopting parents feel the fear of powerlessness. After finalization, the adoptive parents have all the power and the birth parents may be left with their sense of powerlessness. Power imbalances make relationships tricky, so it’s in the best interest of adoptive parents to make birth parents feel empowered and partnered in the loving of the child (and no, this is not co-parenting).

The child/teen/adult, can also experience some downsides. At the same time he is learning to navigate school friendships, he is also dealing with the complexity of added parental relationships. Add in birth siblings, birth grandparents and other extended birth family members, and that’s a lot for a kid to deal with. The child/teen/adult can see the grass on the other side of the fence — and maybe even see his siblings playing there — but he does not live there. He may be affected by saying good-bye over and over to birth family members. Openness can be challenging for the child/teen/adult at the center. It is not a cure-all, but openness in adoption is better than its closed, shame-based alternative.

What do you think the long-term effects of open adoption may be for adoptees, adoptive parents, and biological parents?

My expectation and hope is that with openness (meaning not just contact, but the way we open ourselves up to each other), all parties will stretch and grow and know and connect and eventually become whole and aware and loving and loved. I would call that a life well lived.

Click over to Part 2 of this interview on MileHighMamas, where Rachel and I address open adoption agreements, what adopting parents need to consider,  when do adoptees take over their open adoptions, and how social media is changing open adoptions.

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transracial adoptionThanks, Rachel, for inviting me to talk about open adoption with you.

Rachel  Garlinghouse blogs at White Sugar, Brown Sugar and is the author Come Rain or Come Shine.  She has just released her new book, written with her daughters, titled Black Girls Can.

This interview originally appeared on Adoption.net.

 

Birth Mother Stories: A Longitudinal Walk Through the Decades

Previously, I introduced you to three women who had the experiences of placing a child for adoption in the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. They told us their adoption stories as birth mothers and shared their thoughts on what needed to change with the way adoptions were done. We continue the conversation here.

Lee, 1960s | Kim, 1980s | Monika, 2000s

birth mother stories

Adoption Activism

Give us some context by telling us a little bit about you and how your adoption experience has influenced your interests and activities.

Lee: In 1976, I founded Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), the first organization in the world to support and advocate for birthparents, a term I coined to dignify the birth connection between parents and the children they lost to closed adoption. Between 1976-1980, I was appointed by the then-head of the then-named “US Department of Health, Education and Welfare” to sit on a panel of 17 adoption experts to draft model adoption laws for the country. Although kicked out of high school in 1962 due to my pregnancy, I also returned to the educational system in 1978 and began to make up for lost time. After earning a doctorate degree, I began an almost 30-year career as a college professor in the social sciences. When I retired I reconstructed more than 10,000 pages of CUB’s history for the women’s activist center of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and oversaw the digitization of 4,000 of these pages for CUB’s website. 

(Lori: Wow.)

Kim: I’m a writer, blogger, mother to two wonderful daughters and birth mother to one amazing son for the last 25 years. I blog about parenting, motherhood, family life, adoption and life in general at kimcourt.com.

Monika: I’m the author of Monika’s Musings, a blog dedicated to speaking out about the good and bad in adoption today (but which has been dormant lately as my schedule’s been full with school commitments). For years I’ve volunteered with BirthMom Buds, an organization dedicated to women who have surrendered children to adoption, whether by choice or not.

On Guilt, Shame and Unworthiness

Kim: Lee, I watched your video from The Donahue show and was absolutely mesmerized by your poise and composure in the face of a lot of ignorant comments and questions. I was struck by how much and also how little things have changed with regard to how people think about adoption — and especially how they perceive birth mothers.

You mentioned feeling shame and guilt and wanting to appease the wishes of your parents. I can relate to these feelings in such a powerful way. I’m curious how you reconciled these feelings as an adult? Did they affect your other relationships (as a wife, parenting mother, etc.)?

Lee: As you know from my book, Stow Away, I was in the amnesia phase of PTSD during the early years of raising my two parented sons. Having lost their older brother to adoption wasn’t anything I allowed myself to remember. But maybe because I had lots of babysitting experience with my younger siblings pre-Michael [placed son], I was able to tap into unadulterated caring feelings to raise Scott and Todd. There wasn’t anything negative in my mothering. Just the opposite. If anything, Michael missing within my memory and beyond, in adoption, made me more devoted to my children than I may have otherwise been. On a level deeper than my awareness, I felt privileged and awed to be able to keep my boys. I could have taken my devotion to an extreme; I could have become a smother-mother. But somehow I intuited that I needed to rein in my devotion — to hold back just enough investment to avoid hurting them — or avoid hurting me.

You may have wondered about my relationship with my parents. As you also read in Stow Away, my parents sacrificed my motherhood and Michael’s rightful place in my family to “protect” my younger siblings. The upshot of their abandonment of Michael and me was that I emotionally distanced from my original family. At the same time, I felt a huge responsibility to make something of myself, to prove “they” couldn’t beat me down. Now, as a backdrop, you need to keep in mind that my parents were awesome parents. We had a close and loving family. This contributed to the dissonance I felt with their willingness to sacrifice Michael and me. How could such great parents do that to us? It added more bewilderment to my already staggering bewilderment

As my mother aged, she grew very dependent on me. I resented that. It was, I now realize, a “where were you when I needed you” kind of thing. On some level, I wanted to “pay her back” by delaying my duties as a dutiful daughter. If she needed me “now,” she just had to wait a few minutes longer. My father, whom I had adored, always mystified me post-Michael. I knew he and my mother had lost their first child (my older sister) when she was only a couple of months old, and he had never gotten over it. Why he would be willing to put me through a repeat of his own family history, I will never know.

Interestingly, when I first wrote the journal upon which Stow Away was based, my antagonist was my mother. As a woman and a mother, as my semi-conscious reasoning went, she should have understood and helped. But when I wrote Stow Away, I discovered I was actually more angry with my father’s insensitivity than I was with my mother’s.

Bottom line is, if parents don’t support their daughter’s need to keep her child in the family, assuming that’s what she deep-down wants to do, then be forewarned: there will likely be some kind of fall-out. 

Kim: In the Donahue video you said you felt “unworthy to struggle.” This is exactly how I felt. I became pregnant at 17 and had my son shortly after I turned 18. I was in a loving relationship with my high school boyfriend and was not at all promiscuous. However, the pressure from my family (and really from society in general) was so profound — sex out of wedlock, having a child out of wedlock, etc. — all of it was scandalous. I buried my feelings and placed him in an open adoption. His parents are absolutely phenomenal. It has been open since day one. We are all close — my husband and children, my family of origin, the birth father and his family, and my son and his family. It is truly a wonderful relationship. But my personal struggle has been difficult at times (bouts of depression, anxiety, fluctuating self-esteem, etc.) I would love to know how you coped; how you overcame the feelings of unworthiness.

Lee: Looking back, I chose activities that provided good feedback for my self-esteem. While forming CUB scared the heck out of me and was risky for my self-esteem, as time went on, I received much appreciation from other mothers like me. That told me I was on the right track, and tracing back that sense of being on the right track, only a good intuitive person could have risked taking that track, yes? Actually, there’s science to support the notion of “risk” being a four-letter word that enhances self-esteem. If you risk, you can’t lose. Even if the risk fails, you can pat yourself on the back for the courage to go for it.

Lori: I love this way of thinking about risk.

I went into my pregnancy with healthy self-esteem. But no one else held me in esteem, so I ended up being the only one who thought I had something to offer, which was erosive. I began to question my sense of self as much as I questioned everything else, which was a lot. Much later, I found that my lost-then-found son loved me, which I hadn’t expected (I thought he might want me in his life to get answers but his feelings for me went much deeper). So having Michael’s love gave me back a lot (but not all) of the esteem my pregnancy had cost me.

Meanwhile, as my second book Cast Off shows, I learned and learned and learned through CUB. I also unlearned and discarded old beliefs. It was exhilarating. I wanted more learning and unlearning. I hungered and thirsted for it. What else was out there, I wondered? I gave up my resistance to the education system — which kicked me out due to my pregnancy. Each course taught me something new. I began to earn one degree after another. I began to teach at the college level. My students gave me affirmation, one saying — and others agreeing — she would have taken a course with me if I taught how to make concrete. I kept all their accolades and have them to this day.

Bottom-line: Try to reclaim any good stuff you thought about yourself before others’ reaction to your pregnancy began to strip-mine you. Take risks; the bigger the risk, the stronger the potential boost. Find out what excites you and develop that as fully as you can. Don’t be shy; ask for good, specific feedback (“general” feedback will not do).

What progress has been made in adoption world since your era?

Lee: Thanks to the agitation created by Concerned United Birthparents, alternatives to surrender are more likely to be presented to needy new families. If a parent at risk freely chooses adoption as an option to further explore, a process called “open adoption” can be, and is in 95% of today’s adoptions, invoked.

Kim: There has been good and bad progress since my era. While there are still, unfortunately, stories in the media about bad adoption experiences, the positive stories about open adoption are making their way into the collective consciousness. Books like Lori’s would have made a world of difference for me, had it been written a couple of decades ago.

Lori: Thank you, Kim.

Monika: I haven’t seen much, to be truthful. Bio/first/birth parents (especially mothers) who speak out against coercive adoption practices are labeled negatively and pushed aside. Coercion is still way too rampant. Though, like Lee said, open adoption is more common now, I’ve also seen agencies and adoptive parents both admitting to promising (or encouraging, in the case of the involved agency) an open relationship prior to surrender and then promptly closing off contact completely after the ink has dried. I see it used as a bludgeon and a tool to coerce more often than I see it committed to by all parties involved.

Lori: That’s unconscionable, to do a bait and switch like that. Better pre-adoption education is key to helping prevent that. As you know, I’m a proponent of helping people move from an Either/Or mindset to a Both/And heartset.

What are the top two things you’d change today about how adoptions are handled?

Lee:

  • I would make “open adoption” more than something that is in name only. Like Monika says, too many “open adoptions” are betrayed by prospective adoptive parents who promise the moon to get a child and then slam the door shut once the ink is dry on the adoption degree. Open Adoption Agreements should be supported in law and enforced by the courts. The betrayal of this ultimate trust should be grounds for litigation and penalties.
  • I would require that only supportive members of the birth family be allowed to visit the mother and baby in the hospital or birthing center. A child-centered open adoption should be developmentally-respected. The baby already knows its mother’s scent and sound, and needs the assurance that she remains there for him or her. Meanwhile, the mother needs to fully grasp the reality of her child, who is no longer theoretical but an actual extension of herself and her own family. After some prolonged alone time between mother and baby, if the mother wants to continue to explore the possibility of transferring custody to another unrelated family, members of the other family should begin to acquaint the baby with their own distinctive scent and sound by adding their senses to the mother’s. Custody should be offered and accepted slowly and sensitively.

Monika:

  • I agree with Lee’s second comment completely. Legal surrenders of children should NOT take place in the hospital, period, though I’m less firm on the idea of not allowing hopeful adoptive parents to be in the hospital at any point. There should be no adoption case workers on the premises of a hospital, ever. Forced surrender, in the cases of drug abuse by the mother, is a different circumstance.
  • As an add-on to my statement, I’m actually for the idea of a person unrelated to either the hopeful adoptive parent(s) or the biological parents taking temporary custody of an infant when adoption has been decided upon prior to birth. This would give the hopeful adoptive parents a chance to figure out that an adoption IS about “sharing,” and would give the biological parents a chance to see the reality of adoption while they are still legal parents. I’m not certain how this would be accomplished, but I think it’s a great idea.

Kim:

  • I would love to see some of these reality shows that glamorize adoption and teen pregnancy cancelled! I know that is wishful thinking, but young people are so heavily influenced by what they see on TV or on social media, why on Earth would we not want to give them as much truthful information as possible!
  • I would love to see more stories that show the realities of what it’s like to choose adoption and how positive an open adoption can be.

For those of you later in the timeline: how did the efforts of activists who came before you change the birth mother experience in your time period? For those of you earlier in the timeline, what changes are you most proud of or pleased to see?

Lee: Until I realized open adoption agreements were frequently betrayed, I was proud of the work early CUB members and I did to make that option available. Another facet of CUB’s work was to allow adoption-separated family members the opportunity to discover their counterparts’ identities, if these had been sealed by the state. At this writing only eight states allow adopted persons the same unconditional access to their truthful, original birth certificates as allowed to non-adopted persons in their states. Only one state (OR) allows birthfamilies’ access to adoptees’ identities. Only one state (CO) allows birthparents the right to copies of original birth certificates, and to copies of surrender and adoption documents that they signed or were named in, while named parties of non-adoption events and transactions are automatically given copies of their records.

Kim: I am in awe of the work that Lee began so many years ago. From founding CUB, to creating the term “birthmother”, and working to make sealed records more open, her work has made a positive difference for me and so many families. Sharing her story in the 70s and 80s was extremely brave. I cannot imagine the backlash she faced. But she did it anyway. And she made it easier for people like me to tell my story.

Monika: Since I’m the “earliest” in comparison to the other ladies on this panel, I can’t say I’m pleased to see much change at all. Adoption as a whole is very complex, both in idea and practice, and I realize this complexity means that it will take a while to make change. I hope that with time, an emphasis toward fixing the foster care system will take precedence over encouraging hopeful parents to seek private adoption. But since it’s only been four years since I surrendered, there hasn’t been much that has changed.

Lori: Thanks to each of you for sharing you experiences and views with us. I, for one, have enjoyed taking a longitudinal walk through the decades with you.

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Readers: What are the top two changes you’d like to see in Adoption World?

Trajectory: Birth Mother Stories Through the Decades

We are products of our times. What’s going on around us has has a huge effect on what goes on within us — the pressures we face, the opportunities we have, the decisions we ultimately make (or have made on our behalf). I’m realizing that this is especially true for birth mothers and the stories they’ve had to tell that span the last five decades.

What brought me to this brilliant realization?

Adoption in the 1960s

I was approached recently by an icon in Adoption World, Lee Campbell, PhD. Lee was a typical teenager of the 1960s who went on to become a mover of mountains in the 1970s. What happened in between?

She tells all in her first memoir, Stow Away, but the short of it (really, you should read it — it’s excellent) is that she became pregnant unexpectedly as a teen, faced the pressures of her time and felt ambiguity about her “decision,” and moved on with her life as a dutiful and proper wife and mother. But despite her attempt to forget the fact that she’d borne a son (as women of that day were told to do), her memories would not stay away — instead they’d been stowed away and eventually would not be denied. In integrating her past of 1963 with her present of 1976, Lee worked through her grief, came up with a legal maneuver called Release of Protection, searched for and found her son (but did not yet reunite with him), connected with others affected by adoption, and ended up founding Concerned United Birthparents,. Lee explains here why CUB decided on the term “birthparent” — which has been controversial through the years.

I just condensed a lot of juicy history into one short paragraph. I recommend getting the narrative and fleshing-out from Lee herself via her books.

I’m currently reading Lee’s second memoir, Cast Off, which focuses more on how he got a start in her extraordinary adoption activism (I’m told she was an influencer of Jim Gritter). It’s a treat to get the insider’s view of reforming adoption from back in the early days. You can see how much Lee and her cohorts have contributed to the changing the culture that exists currently.

When Lee approached me she suggested I watch this, an episode of Donahue from 1979. I found it fascinating so I shared the show via social media. I had already decided that I wanted to get to know Lee better, so I asked her for an interview. As the newly appointed curator of CUB’s History Project, she graciously agreed.

The video I caught the eye of Kim Court, a woman who placed her son in the 1980s and was featured in a documentary that aired on Oxygen. Kim, struck by several commonalities between herself and Lee and transfixed by Lee’s memoirs, jumped at the chance to interview Lee with me.

With a “the more the merrier” mindset, I also asked Monika Zimmerman, a woman who placed her daughter in the 2000s, if she would like to join us. The result is this Roundtable, which will publish here in two parts.

Birth Mother Roundtable: Experiences Over the Last 50 Years.

Lee, 1960s | Kim, 1980s | Monika, 2000s

birth mother stories

Please share the basics of your adoption story.

Lee: In the spring of my junior year in high school, I became pregnant by my first love of several years during our “first time.” His mother denied his paternity, resulting in what was then a scandalous court case. I thought my devastation was complete but there was still more to come. My school kicked me out due to my pregnancy and my parents shipped me to a home for unwed mothers in another state — both cruel but “standard operating procedures” for 1962. After I delivered Michael, I begged my social worker for “permission” to see him in his foster home. Although she condescended to allow my visits, there was a cost. For payback, she kept shoving the surrender papers across her desk at me but I kept pushing them back, saying I couldn’t do it.

As a middle-class young mother, I didn’t know about social assistance programs and my social worker did nothing to inform me. Meanwhile, as the eldest of five, my parents expressly told me their duty was to protect my younger siblings from the harm to their reputation my “situation” had caused them. After a debilitating year, including four months of visits with my son Michael that had been like pulling my social worker’s teeth, I remained without help and without hope for any help. I finally caved under the pressure. I surrendered.

Kim: I became pregnant at 17 with my longtime boyfriend. It was our first time. I was a smart young high school senior, but an extremely naïve teenager: I concealed the pregnancy for five months. Just days after my high school graduation, my secret was finally discovered. It was a shock to both of our families and a dark cloud of shame and guilt fell over me. I had disrupted the “nobody-needs-to-know-our-business” image of perfection our family diligently presented. I felt horrible. It was agreed that I would travel across the country (literally from the east coast to the west coast) to live with relatives. I wasn’t forced, but I really didn’t have a say in the matter.

My west coast family was warm and welcoming and didn’t look at me in the same disappointed way my parents did. Looking back, I can see that my parents’ disappointment was also mixed with sadness for what they knew I would go through. My mother accompanied me to the west coast to get me settled. Before she left, she found the number for Catholic Social Services in the yellow pages and encouraged me to call to speak with a counselor about adoption. That was early June; I didn’t call until mid-August. My views on adoption were based solely on what I could research at the local library. Unfortunately, in 1988, there were few books that presented anything other than a negative perspective on adoption.

My social worker was a wonderful woman named Judy. Unlike other stories I’ve heard – including Lee’s heartbreaking experience – Judy did not coerce me or sway me in one direction or another. She talked with me, but more importantly, she listened to me. I met with her about five separate times before telling her that I was ready to consider placing my baby. Part of the reason I feel there was no heavy coercion is because I would be 18 when the baby was born. Legally, my parents would have no say over what I should or should not do. However, since the option of parenting my child was never a consideration, and my resources were limited, the decision was basically made for me. She brought me several photo albums prepared by prospective adoptive parents. I found one family that really resonated with me. I kept going back to their album, finally deciding that they were the family I wanted to raise my child. In early October, I gave birth to a very healthy 10lb little boy and placed him for adoption one week later.

Monika: I didn’t know I was pregnant until the day I gave birth. With my daughter’s biological father in the military and deployed to Iraq, I was alone. I was 34 at the time of her birth, so I wasn’t a “typical” mother who surrenders her child. I was neither emotionally or financially prepared to have a child – in fact, I’d never wanted to bear my own children. Growing up, I could always see myself being a foster parent (and perhaps adopting from the foster care system), but never wanted any biological offspring. I also knew that if my daughter’s biological father and I stayed together that he’d most likely stay in the Army, and I knew that military spouses are single parents.

I wanted my daughter to have at least two consistent authority figures in her life, so I chose to surrender. I was having seizures at the time of her birth (pre-eclampsia, not a seizure disorder) and the hospital social workers didn’t believe my choice, so they put her in state foster care and I had to go to a couple of court hearings to prove I was of sound mind surrounding my decision. On the second court date, nearly two months to the day after my daughter’s birth, my daughter was released to my custody, and that was the day I signed over legal parental rights to the state, who then turned over legal parental rights to my daughter’s adoptive parents. That was also the day I first met them in person, though we’d all individually expressed a desire for a phone conversation prior to surrender day. The agency definitely dropped the ball on that one.

What were two things that needed to change systemically (not just your circumstance) from your era?

Lee:

  1. Social workers should have been oriented toward helping new families stay together. Any disequilibrium caused by external circumstances should have been righted.
  2. Social workers should have presented options both verbally and in writing and provided help to exercise the options that were selected..

Kim:

  1. There was still such a stigma in the 1980s about becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Although the pendulum has swung a full 180 degrees since then with reality shows seemingly glamorizing teen pregnancy, I do believe that this stigma about what “everyone will think” put an enormous amount of pressure on me and others to atone for our sins and right our wrongs.
  2. My social worker was wonderful when it came to pre-birth counseling; however, she was in California and I returned to Massachusetts a few days following my son’s placement. Back home, there was no mention of any follow-up counseling. It was assumed I would go on with my life as planned. This was devastating for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. The full effects of the pain of relinquishment wouldn’t show up until years later when I was married and parenting our two daughters. I cannot overemphasize how important I believe pre and post-placement counseling would have been for me.

Monika:

  1. The biggest thing for me is that I believe the system needs to be oriented toward foster care and foster-to-adopt, and NOT private infant adoption. I think that needs to be the last thought in a couple’s mind as they consider adoption for their family. I’m not certain how to accomplish that. Greed is too prevalent.
  2. Though my personal experience was decent, I agree with Lee. There needs to be more support pre-birth for mothers who are wrestling with a decision about their babies, and not just a push toward surrendering.

More to come…tune in for part 2, in which the ladies of this Roundtable will address progress made, wish lists for today, thoughts on open adoption, and looking forward and looking back.

If you’re already hankering for more and can’t wait for my next post, see Claudia’s take on the Birth Mother Trajectory.

For those of you who have placed a child for adoption (or had one placed), how do these stories compare with your own? What would your answers be to these questions?