[Ed. note--I am pleased to welcome new contributor Ethan Brooks-Livingston to the OAB team! He will be exploring openness from the perspective of a prospective adoptive parent in his monthly column, "The Art of Waiting." -Heather]
When my wife and I first started researching adoption, we had a couple of notions in our heads about what the adoption process and raising an adopted child might be like. Collectively, we’ve known a few people who were adopted, and have known at least one family who adopted. Prior to cracking a few books on the subject of adoption, we didn’t have a whole lot more to go on, other than what the usually questionable media told us. The topic of adoption is certainly discussed by lots of people…but the information we all gather from how it’s discussed is usually pretty fragmented. Paste the fragments together and you end up with a sort-of outdated, generally inaccurate idea. What you “learned” as “fact” might well be incorrect, or even downright offensive.
Since we made our decision to adopt, it seems everyone has an opinion and a hairy, scary story of someone’s aunt’s-brother’s-cousin’s-nephew’s-friend’s-next-door-neighbor-and-her-husband-who-adopted, and advice on how we should be careful. Similarly, media representation ranges from snide remarks about celebrities adopting because it’s the “in” thing (?!) to references to various Lifetime worst-case-scenario movies. These instances are no help at all, but like it or not, they have informed our thinking to some extent.
Ever seen the movie Juno? It’s been around for a while, and for some reason (this isn’t our usual genre), we’ve always liked it, but until we really thought about it, we never realized how much this movie informed our thoughts about open adoption–that it might be a good thing, and might actually be preferable to everyone involved. In the movie, 16-year-old Juno finds out she is pregnant and after some deliberation, decides to make an adoption plan. She contacts a hopeful adoptive couple who advertised in a local newspaper. At their first meeting, she decides they fit her “criteria”–though disappointingly, Vanessa, the adoptive mom, is decidedly not a “cute Asian chick who likes to rock out on the bass guitar.”
The adoptive couple’s lawyer is present at that first meeting, and asks Juno questions about compensation and how she wants contact to happen after the birth. Juno is confused, and says, “Wait, can’t we just kick this old-school? You know, like Moses and the reeds?” Everybody looks around in surprise until the lawyer stumbles out a response: “So we’re all agreed, a traditional closed adoption is in everyone’s best interest?” The adoptive parents look relieved, as if that’s what they preferred all along, Juno asserts that she’s just too young, she’s “ill-equipped,” and the lawyer just looks glad to not have to deal with more paperwork to negotiate openness.
We had seen this movie several times, but it wasn’t until we decided to adopt that we put ourselves in the prospective adoptive parents’ shoes in that particular scene. There’s so much about that one scene that is uncomfortable. What we’ve realized is that there’s one person who should be considered more than anyone else in any adoption scenario: the actual child, who, if you’re adopting an infant, has no voice in the matter. In Juno, the adoptive parents are thinking that their future with their child will be much less complicated if they don’t have to take a relationship with their child’s birth mother into consideration, and Juno is scripted as thinking that she’s got her whole life ahead of her and doesn’t want to be tied down with a relationship with a kid when she’s going off to college in a couple of years. No one’s thinking about the kid, and how he will wonder about his birth mom out of natural curiosity, and if she really just “didn’t want” him. That got us thinking about openness, for sure.
In the U.S., adoption has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years. Historically, unless it was “taking in” a family member, from what I have read, adoption was typically closed. It was never discussed with the child, and the adoptive parents likely pretended that that child had been born to them. Birth parents were usually out of the picture entirely. Hollywood gives us another shining example in a film we’ve always liked but never picked apart until we were there ourselves: Penny Serenade, a 1941 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The star couple is unable to have children, and they decide to adopt. They meet with a social worker at an agency, who makes notes about their criteria (a boy, blond hair–curly, and blue eyes) and soon (no mountain of paperwork?!) they are ushered into a room of waiting children. They look around, picking out a child who fits their criteria, but who is already “promised” to another couple. The social worker intuitively seems to know just what they need and calls them a couple of days later, and they take home their child–a brown-haired, brown-eyed, girl–right away. She seamlessly integrates into their family, and her adoption is never mentioned, which is never a problem. Realizing the fantasy here, and the potential problems if that was a real life scenario, it was as if we were watching a “What Not to Do” video.
Unintentionally, Hollywood’s versions of adoption ended up helping us really “get” open adoption. What really helped us more than anything else, though, was attending our agency’s annual picnic, where we met lots of adoptive parents, birth parents, and kids who are part of open adoptions. Everyone’s story was different, and each admitted that openness had evolved over time. The level of contact varied widely, and for some, was a source of frustration, as sometimes birth parents moved on to other life goals while their children asked difficult questions like, “But doesn’t [birth parent's name] miss me?” Not everything we heard was entirely positive. But it was real. Talking to actual people and hearing the variety of experiences, both good and bad, having the opportunity to ask questions, helped tremendously. Some of those original worries aren’t completely gone, but they aren’t keeping us from forward motion like they were threatening to a year ago. We understand the benefits of ongoing contact for everyone involved; we’re now much better prepared to help our child have the best relationship they can with their birth parent(s). That doesn’t threaten our position as parents. If anything, it strengthens it.
About the author:
Ethan is the co-writer (with his wife, *A*), of their personal open adoption blog, The Littlest Brooks-Livingston, which chronicles the occasionally trying, sometimes humorous, and always introspective dips and curves in the road to bringing home their first child through open adoption. Ethan, a recovering English major who has since moved on to another (more employable) area of the Liberal Arts, resides in Western North Carolina.
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net