I was recently at a monthly meeting of adoption triad members. I’m not sure how long the group has been meeting. My understanding is that it was first attended by adult adoptees and birth parents; and the focus of the discussions was primarily about search and reunions. I started attending the group a few months ago because I respect and admire the group’s facilitator and wanted to see what she was doing.
I felt a little smug as a parent through open adoption. My children would not have to search. They would not go through the years – even decades – of wondering: Who do I look like? Why was I given away? Nevertheless, I learned something from other members of the triad about the pain of adoption – no matter what its form – by listening to the stories.
The group has expanded its membership. It now includes both young and old adoptees, both young and old birth parents, adoptive parents, and – on this particular night – a young woman, pregnant with her second child, who is exploring the option of adoption.
I walked in a little late to the meeting. A man was talking about the complications of his new relationship with his birth mother. I listened as others in the group discussed the ebb and flow of their relationships, post-reunion, over time. It was interesting, but it didn’t have anything to do with me.
Next to speak was an adoptive mother of two older teens. These were not open adoptions and the mother was convinced that many of her children’s struggles could be aided by finding their birth parents. Her pain was palpable.
I felt my chest tighten. Suddenly, I exploded with my own struggles. “We have open adoptions and my almost 15-year-old is clearly struggling with identity issues. Only, she doesn’t want to talk about her birth mother. She doesn’t want to talk about adoption. She doesn’t want to talk to me at all. She plainly tells me she doesn’t respect me. Do I keep pushing her to talk? … My 12-year-old is hyper-emotional. I don’t know if this is typical teenage girl stuff or if it is at all related to health issues that we know a little bit about that her birth mother struggled with. We haven’t had contact with her birthmother for several years. We located her again through an investigator, but she hasn’t responded to our written communication. My daughter wants a relationship with her. I could contact one of her relatives through Facebook, but I don’t know if they are aware that my daughter exists. Should I do this for my daughter’s sake, and at what risk?”
Wow. I wasn’t so different from other members of this group, was I? Sure, open adoption was better than closed; but it wasn’t a cure all. The message I received back was: Go slow. Support their journeys.
After the meeting was over, I spoke with the young pregnant woman. I said something like: “Adoption isn’t for everyone, but if you pick adoption, I suggest you consider fully open adoption.” I told her about Emily’s and K.J.’s relationships with their birth families. I told her how they fit in both worlds and that, I believed, having relationships with all their relatives – adoptive and biological – from birth, minimized their losses. I also told her (mindful of the pain I had shared in the group), that open adoption is both painful and joyful in an ongoing fashion. I hurt when I believe I’m not being the best parent I can be because there is a disconnect in my relationship to my child related to biology, when love isn’t enough. I know my children’s birth parents feel the loss of parenting their children – and it never goes away completely. I see it in their faces every time we part company, despite the acknowledgement that adoption was the best decision for them under the circumstances, despite their faith in John and me. The young woman took my contact information and said she would call me if she wanted to talk more about open adoption.
As I walked away, I felt weighted down. I thought about conversations with family and friends who are parenting children they gave birth to. As I’ve complained about one situation or another to them over the years, I’ve heard: “My own kids are just as screwed-up” or “You can make just as many parenting mistakes with your bio-kids.” They mean well. And I don’t underestimate the difficulties one can have parenting a child that is genetically similar to his or her parents. But I know there is another element of complication in adoptive parenting.
The complexity is hard to explain. I’ll try – yet again. When you meet and fall in love with the person you plan to spend the rest of your life with, you merge two families. Sometimes the families are very different. There may be religious differences or differences in the food that is cooked and served. But the differences may also be personality characteristics, talents, idiosyncrasies – so many things! – that are woven into the DNA. If you are lucky and you work hard, these different gene pools “click” or “mesh” and find compatibility. But sometimes or in some areas, there may be differences that are just impossible to bridge.
Adoption is like that too. You take a leap of faith that these two (or three or more) different sets of genetic material will find a way to connect and support each other. Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s an ongoing struggle. The love is there, but it’s harder to keep the connection strong when the differences are so pronounced or the willingness to work at the connection is weak.
It just occurred to me that adolescence is at odds with a “willingness to work at the connection.” Duh. Of course. The objective in adolescence is to pull away and establish individuality. Have you ever tried to lift a heavy object when the person on the other end refuses to lift or does so half-heartedly? I suppose it is inevitable that John and I will feel exhausted – holding up our end of the many, many heavy objects of “difference” – while our teenagers resist and fail to hold up their end.