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A Broken Open Adoption; at Last a Reunion

Guest Post from Rachel, Reunited First Mom

Coming out of the adoption fog ain’t easy, as Rachel will tell you. Nearly 21 years ago Rachel entered into a “semi-open adoption” that eventually closed. For a couple of years Rachel has been navigating complex emotions experienced by herself, the daughter she lost a lifetime ago, and the two daughters she is parenting. After taking Anne Heffron’s Write or Die class, Rachel is eager to tell her story.

May I suggest that as with other possibly provocative posts, if you find yourself feeling triggered while reading Rachel’s story, tune in and see if you can figure out why (especially if you are an adopting or adoptive parent).

Iris Means Rainbow

I asked coworker to take a picture of me. I was nervous because I wanted to look like myself, but also non-threatening, kind, and open. When Iris received my letter, I wanted her to see I was real. I AM real, have always been real. We chose a photo and I picked up the print 20 minutes later. I placed it into the envelope, checked the address one last time and headed to the post office.

Two months earlier I’d been expecting the annual letter from Iris’ parents, which they usually sent between Christmas and New Year’s. Although Iris had turned 18 the summer prior, I had no reason to believe that the letter I got after her 17th birthday would be the last. My wait for that letter was in vain.

I Trusted

Looking back, I’m not sure why I expected there would be more. After all, her parents had asked me to stop writing 6 years earlier, telling me that Iris was not ready to hear from me and that sending letters put them in the position of “lying” to their daughter. Even though that had lifted the fog a little, forcing me to realize that I really had no idea who these people were, I still clung to the promise they made to me when Iris was born in 1998.

We were saying goodbye at the hospital when they looked at me, Iris in their arms, and said As soon as she asks, we’ll be on the first plane back to see you together. I drank in their words like they alone could heal my broken heart. I trusted that they meant it. I trusted that they saw me, that they would remember I exist. The years passed and I waited.

New Year’s Eve 2016, came and my mailbox was empty. I felt discarded. I felt like I was floating above the body of a woman I didn’t recognize. I had disappeared. I had thought that my deep value for openness and honesty and knowing in my bones that Iris deserved to know me was shared by her parents. I had trusted and leaned on that truth for almost two decades. My husband and I put our two daughters to bed, and he held me as my body was wracked with sobs, watching the clock tick down to midnight.

That night marked the turning point in my discovery of “Who even am I?”

Embracing Birth Motherhood

Ever since I was 16 years old and pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s baby, I have proudly worn the badge BIRTH MOTHER. I was told by everyone I trusted that the BRAVEST and BEST thing I could do for the baby was to give her a childhood like mine. That meant being raised by a married couple who were financially stable and Christian.

Who was I to question that, the pregnant teenager with the terrible judgment? I had to be selfless, think only about what was best for the baby. So I accepted what was told: that “The Best” meant choosing adoption.

While still pregnant, I jumped into the role of Birth Mother with all the love I had to give. I continued my junior year at my beloved school for the arts, surrounded by my supportive and loving family and friends. I was at peace. I loved the baby girl in me fiercely. I didn’t smoke or drink, cut out all caffeine — including chocolate! — from my diet and forced the giant horse pill prenatal vitamin down my throat each morning. I was focused on being the best temporary guardian for this baby there could ever be.

Supposed to Be a Match Made in Heaven

When my Pastor told me that he had an old Pastor buddy who knew of a couple in his church looking to adopt, I trusted that this must be a Divinely-inspired match. The couple was nervous I would change my mind because it had happened to them before. So I wrote them a long letter to set their mind at ease. I told them that I was carrying THEIR baby and what right would I have to change my mind?

The biggest thing I took for granted during this time was that the love and respect from Iris’ would-be adoptive parents would remain true and steadfast. I took for granted that Iris would never have questions about her story go unanswered, as I’d insisted. I took for granted that there was a shared value of truth and openness between her adopted parents and me. After all, the voices that led to my insistence were those of my friends who were adopted. They wanted to know their stories. They loved their families and also wept at the lack of information about where they came from.

Semi-Open in 1998

Since Iris’ parents lived across the country (although I did not know where), I had to ask what our semi-open adoption would look like. During my pregnancy I requested they commit to sending me yearly pictures and a letter. Their lawyer would be the intermediary to maintain their secret last names and address. This way, I would be able to see her grow up, and I could stay accessible so she would never have unanswered questions.

They flew in for my scheduled induction. The atmosphere during labor was joyful. Iris’ parents hung out with my family. My parents, sister, grandmother, aunt, and even my cousin were present when Iris entered the world. We spent the next 24 hours together, sharing my hospital room and taking turns snuggling my perfect beautiful baby girl.

We overheard the adopting parents’ last name when they were paged for phone calls. I held it in my heart, but I intended to respect our agreement and not use this information. When it was time to say goodbye, Iris’ parents promised me they would come with her to meet me “as soon as she asks.”

I believed them.

The Years Bring Betrayal, Therapy, Healing

More than 18 years later I could no longer deny the unbearable feelings of betrayal. In the year after my empty mailbox, I found an adoption-competent therapist and started my journey to understand what the hell had happened to me.

I devoured any adoptee authored work: podcasts, books, blogs, documentaries. Anything I could find that might give me insight into what Iris might think about being adopted. Even though my pain untethered me from my own identity, I was raw with grief for Iris.

I faced the fact that I placed my daughter in the arms of strangers. Of course, they weren’t supposed to STAY strangers, but they did. And although Iris’ parents had fulfilled the bare minimum of their legal obligation to me and I was confident her basic needs were met, I had NO IDEA about Iris’ emotional well-being. How could I?

They had sent a letter when Iris was 12 saying something about “kids not understanding emotions like adults do,” and it gave me a sinking feeling that my understanding of children’s emotional intelligence was very different from Iris’ parents’ beliefs. The reality was, even if my identity story was changing as I emerged from the fog, my deeply-held beliefs that Iris deserved to know her origin story, and that she deserved access to me was confirmed by reading what adoptees have to say.

The End of the Long Wait

I worked on my letter to my then-18 year-old daughter for nearly two months, seeking counsel from my family, friends and my therapist. I used my knowledge of Iris’ full name to find her at the college she attended. I called the school and got confirmation that if I sent the letter addressed to her at the general university address, it would be routed to her campus apartment. I thanked the lady with the adorable southern drawl and placed my letter in the envelope. It ended with these words:

There has never been a moment where you did not have me and there will never be. I’m always here, loving you and praying for you and offering your story. You make me so proud and I can’t wait to see the woman you become. With profound love, I offer you my contact information because you are welcome in my world. Always.

I have to carry this regret for the rest of my life. I wish someone had sat down my 16-year-old self and asked me: what is it about your childhood that made it something you want to “give” your daughter? Because if that question hadn’t been answered for me, I would have been able to say that my parents loved me. I grew up feeling safe, being validated, having boundaries that were lovingly set with consequences that were appropriate and logical. My parents guided me, and although they aren’t perfect, they taught me that no matter what mistakes we make, or how we might hurt each other, we “stay in the ring.” Why had no one suggested that my daughter deserved us? She deserved me… and I failed her.

Exactly ten days after sending The Letter to Iris at college, I received a text. Iris! She wanted to get to know me. Within hours we were video chatting and laughing and crying and filling in the past 19 years. I was finally able to look her in the eye and say,

I love you and I’ll never leave.


Rachel was in high school when she became a first mom in what was supposed to be an open adoption. Eighteen years later she found and eventually reunited with her daughter, Iris. Between the lost and found years, she married her spouse and welcomed two new daughters into the world who have also experienced grief, readjustment, and claiming what had been lost. Rachel is working on a book about her journey in hopes that it might give other pregnant teens the resource she wishes she had all those years ago. Find Rachel on Twitter or Instagram, or email her here.

See Also:

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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29 Responses

  1. Rachel I’m so happy you were able to reunite with your daughter. I wish you both all the happiness in the world

  2. Rachel-

    You write eloquently about your story. It brings up the messy complexity of adoption.

    I have shied away from writing anything adoption-related on the internet for some time now. It is so fraught because it seems well near impossible to say many things without reproach from someone. We all have so much hurt and anger that it’s so easy to be triggered. But you have moved me to take that risk. I hope to contribute understanding, not strife. We all need a place to speak our hearts out loud.

    I adopted my daughter around the same time you placed Iris for adoption. Like you, her birth mom was a teenager with no power or control over her destiny. I really did not know much about her story. It was a quick, last minute adoption with no proper communication or care for anyone’s real needs. We did not meet each other before, participate in the birth or agree to anything following the adoption.

    It was a closed adoption. I was not at all properly educated in the need and benefits of open adoption at the time. I don’t say this as an apology, just a fact. We sent pictures in the beginning. We received letters back. The emotional overwhelm of caring for her feelings in addition to those of the baby was a lot to handle. (It’s also a lot to care for a child you did not carry in your womb. There is extra bonding work to reach them and “get” them, a topic not much discussed.) We encouraged more distance and then did not hear from her, finding out much later that her mother discouraged her from writing anymore.

    When my daughter was 13 we opened the adoption. She asked. We searched and found. I had a long and profound correspondence with my daughter’s birth mom about her hurt and anger. I listened. She vented. We communicated all that we both did not know and wish we had at the time. We did a lot of repair and have formed a deep bond, most especially because we both love the same child, now a college student herself.

    I have come to understand that you share an adopted child with her birth family whether the adoption is open or not. As much as adoptive parents want to feel that the child they adopt is “theirs”, they are always shared psychologically with their original family. I know that now and I think it’s very hard to understand unless you have experienced it.

    We have visited my daughter’s birth family. They have visited us and they all came for my daughter’s high school graduation which was a truly joyful event. She will be going to her birth brother’s graduation this May.

    While this is a wonderful outcome, it is still hard for all of us of course. When we are together my daughter is very rejecting of me which is, needless to say, painful. And of course it is hard for her birth mom to be with her sometimes and experience some of what she missed. I understand this to be “normal”, for adoption.

    This brings me to my last thought. Adoption is so “not normal” and so damn hard for all of us! There are so many outcomes on a broad continuum from good to awful. I’m deeply sorry you were pressured into choice you regret. I’m glad you are having a great connection with you daughter. I am glad my daughter has a great connection with her first mom. And it will always be sad for me to have never had a birth child who I did not have to share with another mother.

    I hope Iris’s parents can find a way to re-connect with you too. I hope they can be open to that, but I realize they may not be. It takes hard work and soul searching. I hope that for Iris, because it is terrible to be split in two or feel she has to hide this wonderful opening for herself with you.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Barbara. Your honesty in sharing your story really touched me and I’m so glad you wrote it down. I understand the fear about sharing our story because you are right – we don’t want our grief to cause anyone else’s. But we have a story to tell and what I have come to believe is that by sharing our experiences, we might help to create a new narrative and culture around adoption that will better serve adoptees in a way that we didn’t have for our children in 98.

      It sounds like you are doing an amazing job walking alongside your daughter as you all navigate life with two families! I always thought 13 would be the “magic age” when I would get to meet Iris – it was in anticipation of her 13th birthday that I wrote the letter which lost me the opportunity to continue correspondence. How wonderful that you were able to hear and allow your daughter to search!

      I’ve been encouraged by Lori on this website as well as by all of the adoptee-centered research I’ve been doing that as long as we remember that we are the “grown-ups” and focus on the needs of the adoptee, we will be able to offer the best of ourselves. This is why I told Iris that I would always “do my work” – individual and group therapy, taking care of my marriage and maintaining my creative outlets to ensure my grief explosions never become Iris’ burden to bear.

      I’m happy to say that I have reunited with Iris’s other mom as well. We both agree it is complicated and messy and although I don’t think she is thrilled with my sudden arrival on the scene, she has made very clear to me that she loves Iris and will support HER 100%. I don’t take that lightly because I do recognize it must be hard for her and appreciate her support since any contact in-person requires quite a bit of travel for us.

      Iris gets to call the shots in our reunion and I will continue to prove to her that I am who I say I am and that the access door will never be closed because it has been removed from the hinges. She has a HUGE group of people who love her over here in reunionland – what we lovingly call her Bonus Family.

      I’m sending you all sorts of love and encouragement as you walk alongside your daughter with her Bonus Family. <3

    2. Barbara wrote:
      “While this is a wonderful outcome, it is still hard for all of us of course. When we are together my daughter is very rejecting of me which is, needless to say, painful. And of course it is hard for her birth mom to be with her sometimes and experience some of what she missed. I understand this to be “normal”, for adoption.”

      I think this last line is so important. Once we get past the fantasy that adoption can be a pain-free win/win/win for everyone involved, we can do better at dealing with its complexities.

      Early in our open adoption, when our kids were 5 and 8, their birth grandmother told me that she fully expected that one of them might show up as a teenager, wanting to live with their “real family.” She grinned and said she would take them to the bus station and buy them a ticket back home to us.

      That acknowledgement that children may feel mixed loyalties and that it’s normal was the best thing she could have said to me. (She had been a foster parent for several years, so she had extra insight.) It helped me through the fear that a temporary rejection might mean I wasn’t really a mom to my kids. It taught me I could say, “I’m the mom in this house” when they played the “you’re not my real mom” card, and then life would go on.

      One of my girls did live with birthfamily for a summer as a teenager, not out of rejection of us but so she could attend a summer program near their home. It was scary for me at the time–maybe for them too–but it helped ground her in her own identity. As an adult now, she is close to both families.

    3. I’m just curious why you think it is sad that you never had a child that you had to share with another mother? Why is it that we think a child can only be loved by one mother? We have duplicates of every other relationship – Grandparents, cousins, siblings, aunts/uncles… but anything beyond one mother is terrifying. We live in a world that is changing quickly, where family formations are being created, sliced, diced and pureed! Unless we move towards a world of understanding genetic connection and reflection (and how important it is), empathy, selfishness and stability… and how this impacts on infants/children/teenagers who cannot live with their families (in those extremely rare cases), then we will continue to raise children who suffer trauma on top of their trauma of their separation. We are implicit in that until we do our own soul searching and put our own needs aside, to truly focus on the needs of the children created and shared. Adoption should be abolished as a framework for permanency, and we need to focus on other forms of stable placement with a primary carer, in the rare cases that is needed, without displacing the family from whom the child came.

      1. It is sad for the same reason that we are all sad. Biological connection is profound, as is biological reflection. Loosing it in any way is sad. That’s why adoption is sad for all of us and why we all have feelings that we wish something different might have happened for each of us.
        We have all lost something we wish we had as far as I can tell.

  3. Thank you Rachel. I appreciate your kind, open response. If we can all hear each other I think we can create the new narrative and culture of adoption that we all need so much!

    Sending you love and encouragement too in walking your path which you are doing with such grace and courage.

  4. Thank you for telling this story. The line that jumped out at me: “I faced the fact that I placed my daughter in the arms of strangers. Of course, they weren’t supposed to STAY strangers, but they did.” My heart hurt for you, hurt for Iris.

  5. THANK YOU for sharing your story Rachel. Thank you also for persevering in your search for Iris. I hope many parents who have closed adoptions or are considering closed adoptions will reconsider if it is safe for the child. Secrecy = shame. Shame that the adopted person as well as first/birth mom are often left to hold. I also hope Iris’s parents will come out of their fog, make amends to both you and Iris so that further healing can happen.

  6. I placed my son for adoption 5 years after you placed your daughter. I can relate to so many of the feelings you expressed. My son is 15, and 2 years ago I was asked by his adoptive parents to only send updates on my family and nothing more than that in my letters. It was shortly after that that I too began to realize I had placed my child with strangers who weren’t supposed to stay that way. I always waited and expected it to change to the bonus family, much like you. Thank you for writing this, I feel less alone in my sadness. And I do feel a measure of hope that it might change much further in the future.

    1. Alysa,
      I think as long as the lines of communication are open, there is plenty of time and room for things to change like they did for Rachel. I think they will! I hope they will for you.
      As someone who opened my daughter’s adoption when she was 13 I can say it is an incredibly difficult age to negotiate a child having two mothers. They are bound to use one against the other and it’s very painful if you are the person who has raised the child to face the rejection that can come at you. I have faced it and quite honestly, if I were not a trained therapist, I don’t think I could have tolerated it as much as I did. I think this is what happens for adoptive parents that want to close the door at this moment. The child is in a very normal process of separating from them as any teenager does with their parents, only in adoption there is this other family that they can idealize and threaten to leave you for and they do threaten it in very hurtful ways!
      I hope it can help to frame it this way. Your son will pass through this stage. He will separate from his parents and be an adult and then I imagine he and they will feel more able to connect. I hope so!
      Wishing you all the best and that things change in good ways.

    2. Thank you Leslie. I’m happy to report that I have connected with Iris’ mom and she supports what Iris wants. I’m grateful for that since getting to see Iris is travel-intensive and having cooperation by her parents was important, even though my family covers all the costs. I just want Iris to be able to happy and comfortable in BOTH of her families. Maybe someday we will all get to hang out together! 🙂

    3. Hi Alyssa,
      Thanks for the comment and for sharing a bit of your story. One thing I wish I had done after Iris’ family told me to quit writing, was that I wish I had still wrote what I wanted and kept the letters. Although I did have LOTS of things to give to her once we reunited – letters from her biodad to me, pictures of the two of us as well as pictures from the hospital when she was born – I would have loved to have some letters to show for the years I was too traumatized to write to her. There was something paralyzing about having been told I was the reason for their dishonesty. So I didn’t write anything and wish I had.

      You are not alone. Sending love.

  7. Thank you for sharing! How I wish every woman considering adoption could read this! And know that you are fortunate to have had a successful reunion!

    So little has changed from 1968 to 1998. The only difference, as I have often said, is that when shame lost its power to initiate mothers signing over their babies, open and semi-open adoption reared its ugly head as a sales pitch! Like a sleazy used car salesman assuring you that car is perfect.

    EVERY SINGLE WORD you said about being made to believe it was BEST has not changed in 50 years!!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mirah.

      I’m reading The Girls Who Went Away right now and you are so right. I hadn’t thought about that before: that in the earlier “baby scoop era” days, the line was about keeping the secret in order to somehow preserve the woman’s dignity and family’s good name. The promise of “forgetting and moving on” was the pitch then, now it is the promise of openness and allowing us moms to feel at all empowered in the process. One of the things I struggle with is remembering that I DID feel empowered and brave while pregnant – like I was doing something awesome. But the second I signed those papers, I had NO power… Trying to reconcile what I thought with what was real has been the hardest part of healing for me. I don’t think I’ll ever truly put myself back together whole, but I will always try. I’m no good to any of my daughters if I’m only wounded. Sending love.

    2. Hi Mirah,
      Just checking in to say that we used to correspond on adoption listserves and Bastard Nation forums back in the ’90s. And here we still are, having our say.

      Thanks for your activism. I’ve learned from you and all our family has benefited.

  8. Rachel,s ending you and YOUR daughter, warm ((((hugs)))). Your account of how adoption impacted your life parallel’s across the world with teenage mums of yesteryear. Having languished a full year in a penal servitude regime myself, run by Salvation Army 53 years ago, the Christian community across the world who accepted and carried out these unchristian man made policies, must hang their heads in shame. Rachel in the home,the brainwashing that was used, was an every day mantra “ THEIR BABY” ( You quote ) and “ THE BABY”, a great tool for them to use against us vulnerable tens, yet as Christian bodies, they are supposed to govern byGod’s truth. His word, lets see how adoption is contrary to God’s truth his word. 1st. 2 Timothy 3 verse 16. All scripture is given by inspiration of God. 2nd. Exodus 20 verse 16. Thou salt NOT bear false witness. 3rd. Psalm 139 verse 13 MY MOTHER’s WOMB.Adoption is ONE BIG LIE. As changing identity and in some cases birth dates is bearing false witness. God gave us all, one mother, Psalm 139 clearly shows Gods’s truth, you have nurturing adoptive parents. I could elaborate further with David and Bathsheba with Solomon and how David became a lifetime guardian of Mephibosheth .2nd Samuel 9 verses 6. -11 David took into his household Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth,his family name origin and estate all were managed for him, under King David’s instruction. What David did is the God honouring way to look after children needing to be seperated. Adoption is unchristian and is ancestride. Rachel, every blessing for you and your daughter Iris ( rainbow )claim Gods promise to you bot You and Iris are God’s covenanted family , Mother and Daughter.

    1. Hi Mara! My apologies for the delayed reply. Thank you so much for your words and for reading my story. I appreciate the biblical research you shared about how we missed the actual takeaways of scripture when encouraged to place our children. I can only imagine how much more difficult the experience was 53 years ago. I somehow managed to avoid the shame piece of being a birthmother at the time of placement… until I emerged from the fog and reacted in a way I feel is appropriate for myself now: ashamed of losing my baby. I’m ashamed because I was wrong to place her – NOT because I became pregnant. I know it’s a subtle difference but it is how I continue to move forward, or reconcile. I hope that by owning my regret – over my choices – that I can learn how to live with it and honor whatever experience my daughter had after my choice. My heart is with you, Mara, and I hope you find a way to live with/around/in balance with what adoption did to our families. Sending love.

  9. Rachel, your Instagram account doesn’t appear to have much on it. Is that just because you haven’t had time yet? I’m keen to read more about your journey.

    1. Thank you for asking! Yes it’s new and I’m still figuring out how to best use that space, but I’m much more actice on twitter. Same handle @highschoolfor2 and you are always welcome to email me as well with any questions you have.

  10. Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for your reply.
    Could you provide your email address? The link requires a hook up on my computer to an email account, which I don’t wish to do. I don’t use Twitter, unforunately. Do you have a public Facebook account? Thanks.

  11. Dear Barbara,

    About 2 months ago, we learned my nephew had connected with his birth parents and his sister. As I watched my in-laws navigate the shock of this news, I struggled to communicate to them why his actions were both natural and should be encouraged. Your post is what I will be forwarding to them tonight as they attempt to wrap their heads around all that is happening and why they need to be supporting him as he reconnects with his first family. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve failed to explain.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m so glad that Iris connected with you and you two are building this chapter of your lives together.

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