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is open adoption a failure?

Open Adoption on Trial: Amy Seek’s “God and Jetfire”

Note: Though tempting, please do not comment on the headline only without reading the full post.

Publicity for Amy Seek’s memoir, God and Jetfire: Confessions of a Birth Mother seems to have put open adoption on trial.

Amy Seek, a landscape architect and writer living in London, gives readers an account of her unintended pregnancy 15 years ago, her selection of parents for her son, and the complex — even competing — emotions she experienced during and after placement with her son and with his adoptive parents.

At first I’d envisioned this post with a courtroom-type presentation of the two sides. It might start something like this.

amy seek's god and jetfire: open adoption on trial

Amy Seek’s Vogue Article: Defending Open Adoption

Court is now in session *gaveltap*. The defense may present its case [we switch things up around here].

Defense: Your honor, we call  the first witness —  a Vogue article, adapted from God and Jetfire — titled  “One Writer on Helping to Raise Her Son in an ‘Open’ Adoption.”

Understanding that her 14 year-old son has now grown up to the point of using man-soap, Seek says,

That kind of nearness is powerful and complicated, and I can’t let anyone see me falter. I am pushing aside loss all the time I am with him.

Of course we acknowledge that there is sadness stemming from her decision years ago. But Seek speaks further of the coexistence of losses and gains for both her and her son’s mom:

We’ve both lost things that are boundless and invisible, in their way countless, but I am thinking about what it would be to lose this, my son’s family, his smile when he sees me; the things we’ve gained, too many to count.

Tis true, the Defense concedes, that open adoption brings everything, including loss, into the open. As adults come together vulnerably in this odd relationship, there will be opportunities for hurting each other — or for having profound empathy for each other and experiencing deep human connection. Seek exquisitely shares this passage regarding her son’s mom:

One afternoon we sat together on my futon and cried, knowing we were crying for own own exclusive concerns, and out of compassion for each other. We were tragically enmeshed; each the source of the others’ pain, each the threshold of the others’ future.

Seek also addresses how openness may affect the adoptee. She cites a conversation with a friend who was left at an orphanage in Milan. He tells her:

You have your son, and your son has you. Simple as that. At least you have a place to put your many questions.

We assert that the presence of grief does not mean open adoption doesn’t work.

The New Republic for the Prosecution

Judge: The court now turns to the prosecution.

Prosecutor: Your honor we offer The New Republic‘s article “Why Does Open Adoption Rarely Work?” by Kathryn Joyce, esteemed author of The Child Catchers and long-time investigator  of misguided and devastating adoption practices.

Defense: Objection, Your Honor. The link-baity headline on the New Republic piece doesn’t match Joyce’s  more measured, previous writings. The headline lacks substantiation within the piece and runs counter to evidence provided by the Minnesota Texas Research Adoption Research Project.

Judge: Objection sustained. The headline will be disregarded.

Prosecution: Oh, fine. Joyce’s article starts:

It’s hard to find an honest account of an open adoption that works: one where adoptive parents and birthparents have agreed that they will stay in touch and share the milestones of their child’s life, and then do so. Most of the birthmothers who have spoken with me over the years did so after planned open adoptions have failed.

Joyce also says,

Seek hadn’t foreseen the emotional landscape she found herself in after adoption. The huge amount of variation between adoptions, and the gamble of entering an unenforceable agreement, involving profoundly complex human relationships, makes it almost impossible to plan for how the aftermath of an adoption will feel.

Defense: We have witnesses, Your Honor, who will show lots of families ARE living in such open adoptions. Further, we submit as evidence a video sharing the fruits of such labors, from the mouths of open adoptees themselves.

Judge: Hey, Defense. Can you stick with the protocol? You looking for a mistrial?


2 Reasons Why I Ditched the Courtroom Approach

Obviously I couldn’t make this scenario work because:

  • as someone who knows of countless families working through all sorts of issues to keep their open adoptions functioning, I cannot be duly impartial.
  • and more importantly, I tend to avoid dividing an issue into “sides” — as that’s an Either/Or construct. Instead I try to look for a Both/And way. It’s in the areas of intersection where we most often find healing and wholeness (both words come from the same root, which means bringing parts back together).

The courtroom approach was just too divisive, the antithesis of this blog’s raison d’être.

In my next post, I share my further thoughts on how well open adoption works — or doesn’t — and wholly different approach to the debate Amy Seek’s book has prompted.


Have you read God and Jetfire? What, if anything, do you think it says about how well open adoption can work?


Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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18 Responses

  1. Your posts are ones I always read because I know they ewill be thoughtful and will present a viewpoint that welcomes discussion. This is another excellent piece filled with important, valid points, e.g., “We assert that the presence of grief does not mean open adoption doesn’t work.” This captures the essence of adoption. It includes joy and sorrow, grief and gains. The fairy tale of happily-ever-after never existed. At least now, we meet the adoption experience minus the denial braving the totality of the experience so we can be in authentic relationships, not ones based on role-playing and denial.

    1. So glad you blogged about this, Lori.
      Headlines can easily skew the way an article gets to be interpreted by readers.

  2. I completely agree on the headline bit — editors choose those, often to draw you in, and “link-baity” is the perfect description for the one mentioned. I read “God and Jetfire” last week, and as a waiting adoptive parent it definitely gave me food for thought, just as a different perspective. I did not understand some of the things that Amy thought, but I understood how she could have those feelings. To me, it seemed like she didn’t truly in her heart want to “do adoption” as she called it, and that she struggled with choosing letters (that section was hard to read as a person whose book is “out there”) and with ultimately making her final decision because she was massively conflicted. That colored everything, and I feel is supported by the fact that she made a different choice when she found herself pregnant later. I did not see her complicated relationship (complicated due to her grief and lengthy overnight in-home visits) with her son’s adoptive family as support for open adoption not working, not at all. No one expects that this is going to be easy (or at least they shouldn’t expect that), and I thought that the way that communication and visits were handled was extremely flexible and sensitive to everyone involved, including Jonathan’s siblings who had very different relationships with their birth parents. It was a hard read at times, but I did not think that it was evidence that open adoption is awful. Like you said, grief in the relationship doesn’t mean it’s not “working,” for the sake of the child. I so appreciate your perspective in how you have explored the two different ways that people are taking this book and Amy Seek’s experiences through the two articles. You do such an amazing job of exploring perspectives without getting antagonistic, and honoring other people’s point of view while supporting your own take. I was so curious what you would think of this book!

  3. From what I’ve read of Amy’s writings and Kathry’s reply, it isn’t so much putting “open adoption” on trial but more putting the way open adoption is presented to emoms on trial. I think open adoption is definitely better than closed adoption but I think also it is presented to emoms as a compromise they can live with and it never turns out to be that easy. We have to be careful but the use of “open adoption” as a hook.

  4. So this is the first I’m hearing about the book, but I love the fact that you stop the trial because adoption — like so many things in life — is rarely as black-and-white as people want it to be. It simply is, and we should work to make it the best possible situation it can be.

  5. I read “God and Jetfire” cover to cover last weekend and found it breathtaking, complicated, tragic, profoundly sad and also beautiful. Kind of what the adoption experience is for those involved…a life full of many different feelings and emotional terrains to traverse. Amy’s was a very open adoption – and it “works” for their families in the sense that her son is growing up knowing his moms and dads as well as his extended biological family. Grief, sadness and loss are still present but that doesn’t mean their open adoption wasn’t a good choice. The “story” isn’t finished but it sounds to me like their authenticity and continued willingness to be sensitive to what’s best for Jonathan’s will be their guide.

  6. Adoption is going to be painful, whether open or closed. I like the way Gayle Swift worded it, “the adoption experience minus the denial.” With closed adoption, the denial is allowed to run rampant, at least on the side of the APs, and the adoptee is forced to grow up in denial. When the amom is regularly exposed to the raw emotion of the blood mom and cannot avoid its impact on her (without closing the adoption and breaching their agreement) denial cannot fester.

    For the younger adoptee, it is easy to internalize the anguish of knowing that two mothers (or two sets of parents) have a claim on you and to feel some emotional tug-of-war as a result, but this is common among children of divorce as well, and nobody would force a child to live with one parent while denying the existence of the other. As we mature, we do so without the shame of secrecy or the lack of knowledge about our origins. We grow up knowing that while our blood mother couldn’t raise us, she loved us enough to maintain contact and stay in our lives, and our adoptive mother loved and trusted us enough to not interfere with that natural relationship.

    I grew up without that openness or trust. My mother wanted to stay in my life and was not permitted to do so. My father was forced into the role of the distant uncle, and the denial was like a baby’s crib I had grown too big for but was never allowed to climb out of. I would be interested in hearing from an adult adoptee raised in this type of open adoption. How has Amy’s son handled the conflicting emotions, the line between A and B families? Are “open adoptees” in general allowed the same freedom as the parents, to express their grief, confusion, and whatever other emotions adoption brings up?

    1. “Are “open adoptees” in general allowed the same freedom as the parents, to express their grief, confusion, and whatever other emotions adoption brings up?”

      And there’s the biggest issue, I think, based on my experience as an “open adoption birthmom” since 1993 (my daughter was 8 when the “semi” turned “fully open”). SO MUCH of it depends on the adoptive parents and their presentation of the ssituation. My 30 year old (birth)daughter is now living with the repercussions of having to hide her true feelings of loss, confusion, grief, etc. from her adoptive parents. They, with the best of intentions I am sure, presented our arrangement as “the fairy tale” situation…birthmom and birthdad went on to marry and have other children…now we’re all just one big happy family! God ordained this, so we don’t question things…they told her, and me from time to time.

      My daughter opened up to me some, and I tried to help, but I was WAY out of my league to help her as I was struggling (silently) with my own issues.
      I cannot stress enough how important the adoptive parent’s role is to facilitate open and honest conversation with the child, even if it brings up something they don’t want to hear. To put a child in the middle of two families is asking a lot, and they’re going to need help processing it. We did it all wrong, and it’s too late to un-do the damage done.

      1. Jodi and Amy, you both help illustrate why it is so important for parents to define “open adoption” to mean more than just contact.

        It means, as you point out, that things are out in the open and the adoptee is supported in dealing with what actually comes up. That the adoptee can focus on his/her own issues and not worry about tiptoeing around the adults’ issues.

        Amy, I am certain you acted from a place of love and did the best you could with what you had to work with. That’s something.

        1. Thank you, Lori. No one has ever said that to me before, and I DO appreciate it…very much. But it wasn’t good enough as is evidenced by the fact that my daughter isn’t speaking to any of us on the (birth)family side. I HAVE TRIED, so hard. I researched adoptee issues, birthparent issues, and even adoptive parent issues trying to understand all sides. I sought counseling when it got to be too much. I tried to remain as non-confrontational, available, and cooperative as possible. I kept so much pain to myself for everyone’s benefit and very much to my detriment. Still, it wasn’t enough and largely goes unrecognized. The a-parents, and this is only my opinion, don’t seem to care how me, my husband, or kids have fared as long as they *think* our daughter is OK, and they’re OK. Heck, now we’re for the most part out of the picture and it appears to be our daughter’s own choice. They don’t have to deal with us anymore, and I can’t help but think they’re happy about it…even in just some small way. The situation is clearly dysfunctional, therefore, it hasn’t worked out in anyone’s best interest…daughter included. Now, how to unravel the mess?

          1. The parents should not have to hide their feelings. What does the adoptee see? They see their real (that’s the term *I* use) parents go on and marry, either each other or someone else. They have other children (if they are fortunate) and their family/ies go on the normal way and the adoptee is left with what the hay? Was I expendable? Didn’t matter? You made it work with all the rest, what was wrong with me? Am I just some door prize to be passed around and traded off? Especially if their mother functions as an always happy, I can do this (has to for the sake of keeping the adoption open) That’s one big thing that is wrong with open adoption. That the mother /father have to pretend that everything is hunky dorey and they are just “FINE” with it all. Because nobody in their right mind is FINE with having to lose/surrender their child to another family and pretend that their heart isn’t ripping out! Nobody.

            Adoption hurts and this bites. What kid really enjoys divorce? I really wish people would stop trying to compare adoption with divorce as it’s “just another way families exist”. It’s dis-functional. Divorce is due to dis-function and saying that children manage having 2 families, in that situation is living in total denial of the harm and damage done, and the struggles those children have that have experienced it! Their parents aren’t together, their families are not together and WHOLE. Just because this practice is common doesn’t make it right or ideal, i.e. “best interest of the child”. Neither does it make adoption, open or otherwise, “best interest” either.

            Amy I’m not upset with you. I’m upset with adoption. A lot of mothers who could have made a beautiful home for their children (and many with the fathers too) were sold a bill of goods with adoption and the mothers and fathers and most of all the children at the heart of it payed a steep price.

            Somebody tell me, are grief, sadness, and loss (often lifelong) good things to heap on or add to a child? Are they good to add to a mother or father? Especially if they can be prevented by resources (such as are provided for others to foster a child) to help the family stay together? Family preservation is the best goal, always. Healthy, intact families mean healthy children mean a healthy nation. Is it any wonder this nation is such a mess.

  7. Lori,
    I do believe I’ve been living under a rock because how in the world did I miss this book and this post?? I literally discovered the book yesterday in an article I saved from the NY Times. I’m off to read part two of this blog post –

  8. This book hit me a few different ways, but I’m not sure I can describe how or why.

    I didn’t feel empathy for the birthmother here. And as a birthmother myself that was hard to accept and even harder to admit out loud. That said, there were a number of passages I highlighted and pages I dog-eared when I thought “holy crap YES – THAT is exactly how I felt.”
    So this book was a strange one for me.

    But perhaps that’s the lesson – every child, every birthparent, every adoption is different.

    Also, it should be noted that I read the book two years ago, shortly after your original post and while I was unable to really articulate why at the time….it has stuck with me.

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