Choosing in Open Adoption

The other night, we were in the midst of yet another crisis related to learning differences, mental health, and personality – not that we were able to sort out which factor was the main trigger for the crisis!  John and I were lying in bed, trying to sleep, but wide-awake with doubts about our ability to bring the crisis to an end.

The next day, as I was driving to pick-up Journey from play rehearsal, I was still working on how to resolve the crisis when I was distracted by the thought: The set-up for this dilemma, and so many others we have faced, began with the way adoptive parents and birth parents choose each other in open adoption.

In the “old days” before open adoption, professionals – attorneys and social workers, primarily – “matched” babies with their new adoptive parents.  As I understand it, these professionals tried to match physical features as well as other characteristics with the goal of creating a family where the fact of a child’s adoption might never be discussed.  I won’t go into the fallacy of this reasoning here.  Lies almost always have disastrous consequences…

We improved adoption by giving biological parents the choice of who would adopt their child and by insisting that the reality of the adoption not be hidden.  But let’s think about how this choosing is done.

In the case of the first adoption agency that John and I engaged – and for whom I later worked, parents who were planning an adoption for their child chose from all the available prospective adoptive parents.  Indeed, our oldest daughter’s first mother chose from 160 profiles of adoptive parents!  (At other agencies or with attorneys, biological parents might receive a more limited selection.)  The idea was to empower the pregnant woman and the baby’s father, if he was involved, with some control over who would raise her/his child.

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Now, one might assume that biological parents who have a choice will select adoptive parents who have similar personalities or histories or child-rearing philosophies.  One might suspect that a biological parent is in a better position than anyone else to know what is in the best interests of her/his child.

I am here to tell you that the reality is more complicated than it might appear.  As an adoption professional in an open adoption agency, I witnessed many of these selections.  Here is a sample of some of the reasons pregnant women chose adoptive parents: (1) region of the country the couple lived in; (2) breed of dog owned by the adoptive parents; (3) religion of the adoptive parents; (4) appearance (e.g. husband was bald like her father); (5) wealth of the couple; (6) areas to which the couple vacationed; (7) promise of a college education for a child; (8) statement that the couple wanted only one child; (9) ease of conversation with the couple when they met, etc.  I could go on and on.  Each woman had a different reason for choosing the individual or couple she chose.

In short, many of these decisions were based on WISHES – wishes that her child would receive something in the adoptive family that the pregnant woman could not provide OR that she would have wanted for herself growing up.  That makes sense, right?  But is it the best way to make a choice with lifelong consequences?

Let’s suppose you want your child to have a great education because you didn’t have one, and you find a couple with multiple advanced degrees.  But, what if the reason you don’t have advanced degrees yourself is not purely financial but because learning was hard for you, and it turns out your child also has learning difficulties?  Your child who struggles with learning is in the hands of people who have no experience with learning differences.  They push and push your child.  They are frustrated with him or her because s/he doesn’t learn easily.  The child’s self-esteem plummets because s/he cannot meet expectations.

Or, suppose you choose a couple that spends a lot of time outdoors or involved in athletic pursuits.  You were never good at sports, always picked last, but the adoptive couple is bound to provide opportunities you didn’t receive.  What if it turns out that your child is clumsy and awkward like you were?  What if s/he is exposed to every sport that the adoptive parents enjoy and fails to be successful?

I am NOT saying that the way current adoption practices give power to biological parents to choose adoptive parents is wrong.  What I AM saying is that it may lead to unforeseen difficulties.

A woman or couple makes an adoption plan in a time of crisis.  The adoptive parent(s) may also be experiencing a crisis: the desperate desire for a child that they were not able to produce on their own.  Adoption agencies and adoption attorneys are motivated to pair birth and adoptive parents for financial and other reasons.  How “rational” is the decision to match likely to be under these circumstances?

Are we doing a good enough job in providing counseling to biological and adoptive parents through this selection process?  Counseling by a third party – one who has no skin in the game – might reveal some underlying factors that would suggest a particular match is not a good one.  A third party counselor might ferret out other information that the interested parties have no motivation to find without this assistance.

In the Falco family, our four older children’s birth parents chose John and me for a variety of reasons, but primarily because we liked each other and could envision future contact and lifelong relationships.  However, we never discussed how John and I might handle learning differences or mental health issues during the matchmaking process.

I would like to think that John and I – individuals who did not struggle in school – are still good parents for our children who have learning differences and/or mental health concerns, not to mention personalities that are very different than our own.  But we are “good,” not because we have experienced these particular differences, but rather because we won’t quit until we find solutions.  We won’t stop loving.  We won’t stop working.  We won’t stop making adjustments.  In that respect, I hope we are like ALL parents – biological or adoptive.

When it comes to adoptive parenting, there ought to be a screening for: “Will you go the distance even if…?  Do you have the emotional, financial, and physical stamina to be a parent to a child who may be very different from you [in these specific ways]?”

We ask these sorts of questions in the home study process at a time when the reality of the adopted child is still a dream.  Adoptive parents often HATE the screening: medical, criminal, and personality background checks, financial reports, references, etc.  It seems so unfair when biological parenting requires none of that.  But, let’s face it, adoptive parenting may require more than biological parenting.  When a prospective child comes along, we need to revisit our commitment to provide all that the child may need to be secure, happy, and productive.  Let’s do a better job on the front end of the adoption process for the sake of our children.

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