Painful Lessons

The importance of understanding what a true open adoption entails.

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Watching the fight for Baby Richard in Illinois takes me right back to the summer of 1993. I’m sure none of us will soon forget the tragic story of Jessica, the moral of which was eloquently summed up, not by the rhetoric of the attorneys, not by the televised appeals by the Schmidts or DeBoers, but by thirty seconds of footage of a sobbing little girl being pried from all she’d ever known, screaming as her world was ripped apart– once again– in this pathetic human tug-of-war.

The ordeal of Jessica and the Schmidts and DeBoers left us reeling, frustrated, sorrowful, angry, outraged. But I would venture that for many, the most passionate, gnawing response to this story is “What if that happens to us? What if it happens to our children, our friends?” There is a sense of powerlessness. “What can we do to keep this from happening in our world?” In this state, we are sitting ducks for those wielding compelling misinformation.

I was outraged to hear a television news reporter say to the anchorperson, as a post-script to her story on the Jessica outcome, “This is not the norm. These stories are rare, and usually the names of the adoptive parents are kept secret.” Are we going to let the DeBoer/Schmidt tragedy set adoption consciousness back 30 years?? To let this scare us away from open adoption is to misunderstand true open adoption, and indeed, over these many months of intensified social conversation on the topic, I’ve found that most people do not understand what true open adoption is.

But Jessica’s ordeal illustrates beautifully why open adoption must be fully understood and practiced correctly and consciously. Hers was an “independent” or “private” adoption, something which has become very prevalent as prospective adoptive parents aren’t willing to endure the endless waiting, scrutiny, and red tape long associated with agency adoptions. These independent adoptions are frequently labeled “open,” since there is often fully-identified information exchanged, and indeed, contact between the birth mother (or birth parents) and the prospective adoptive parents.

The opportunity to select the adoptive parents is often what attracts birth parents to this form of adoption; conversely, many adopting parents merely accept the contact with the birth parents as a necessary– but not necessarily welcomed– part of the adoption process. Many of these “open” adoptions are emotional time-bombs– most never go off as violently as the one we all grimly witnessed, but some do. Indeed, the sad fact is that there are hundreds of cases like Jessica’s throughout the country, and the response of many is to tsk, tsk about how scary and dangerous open adoption is. Yes, it can be, if done without proper, conscientious guidance.

One of the greatest dangers is to attempt an open adoption without good, disinterested counseling. That doesn’t mean one or two sessions with a social worker for the birthmother, explaining her options and describing the process, highlighting the benefits to her in open adoption of being able to choose the adoptive parents. And it doesn’t mean a coaching session for the prospective adoptive parents in techniques to help keep the birthmother from changing her mind.

What it does mean, for the birth mother (or parents), is an exploration of the dizzying gamut of her feelings, a growing understanding of what the adoption plan will mean for her, her child, and the parents she chooses for her child, and preparation for the loss and grief that she will naturally feel if she chooses to go ahead with the adoption. Here lies one of the land mines of ‘open’ adoption: when an uncounseled birth mother, with no post-placement counseling, is blindsided by her stormy emotions after the separation from her baby, a natural thought is, “I made a mistake. I’ve got to get my baby back,” even if her decision to relinquish her child was a sound one and a right one. You see, we as a society aren’t good with ambivalence–we’re conditioned to think that if something is right, it feels good, and if it feels bad or is difficult, it must be wrong.

For the adoptive parents, good counseling means embarking on an inner journey to confront the most destructive force in adoption–their own insecurities, their own profound losses through infertility or the death or miscarriage of a child, and especially, their own fears. Says social worker Jim Gritter, of CFCS in Traverse City, Michigan, “Every adoption is a foray into terror.”

And how they respond to that terror–to capitulate to it, taking refuge in secrecy and denial, or to face it head on and emerge stronger–determines the integrity of the first layer of the foundation upon which their adoptive experience, especially their relationship with their child, will be built.

Children intuitively sense in their parents an emotional posture which dreads those questions, even when they’ve been told, “You can always ask us any questions you have.” Such a climate makes for a superficial, somewhat strained relationship between child and parents, not only in adoptive families, but in any family in which there are unanswered questions and questions that can’t be asked.

Gritter considers one of his main tasks to be a re-framing of what he terms “desperate, un-checked self-interest” on the part of prospective adoptive parents. Indeed, with the help of Gritter’s counseling and insight, and a shared journey with the birthmother or extended birth family, thousands of prospective adoptive parents have reached the threshold of the delivery room in Traverse City with the peaceful conviction that this birthmother is to be respected as a person, regardless of whether she makes the decision to place her baby with them.

They know that there will be another baby for them, if she decides to parent, but that there would be no regaining their self-respect, no reweaving their torn code of personal ethics, no shaking off the guilt, if they knew they had somehow coerced, manipulated, or impeded this young woman or couple in the process of this lifelong decision.

“You don’t want to set yourself up for that. It isn’t worth it, no matter how desperate you may be,” says Mike Spry, an adoptive parent who squarely faced the heartbreak of returning a 4-day-old baby to a birth father who was suing for custody.

Spry has often counseled other prospective adoptive parents to aspire to be able to tell a birthmother, after the birth of the baby, ” ‘You do what you feel is best, and we will support you 100%.’ You can come out of this process with a full sense of entitlement, if you take that step.”

Adoptive parents who follow guidelines like these are not saints, or without their everyday hang-ups–in other words, they are no more “cut out” for this type of values-based open adoption than is anyone reading this article. What they had, that perhaps others don’t, is enlightened, experienced guidance.

Unfortunately, the experienced professionals in private open adoption today are mostly attorneys; some of them, I’m sure, stress the need for good counseling, but I know for a fact that many actually discourage it, possibly with the mercenary attitude that warning a birthmother about the potential grief and loss might threaten the placement. Many also discourage too much contact between prospective adoptive parents and birthmothers.

There is virtually no encouragement of an ongoing relationship after the birth of the baby, thereby violating the primary hallmark of true open adoption. Do you know how many grown adoptees would have different lives, richer lives, had they received a special gift, a photo, even a single letter from a birthmother telling them the simple, honest truth, and most importantly, that their mother didn’t give them away because they were somehow bad?? I can tell you–many, many, many. (Even Dear Abby agrees with that.)

Truly open adoptions, of course, involve ongoing contact, however occasional, between adoptive and birth families, a practice whose benefit/risk ratio is hotly debated by progressive vs. status quo activists; that many adults adopted through the closed system champion open adoption speaks volumes about its only alternative. I believe that in the adoption industry as it exists today, adoptive parents are tacitly encouraged to paternalistically view the birthmother as less endowed economically, educationally, culturally, sometimes even morally, and thus less equipped–and deserving–to parent. The seeds are thereby sown for bitterness and contempt down the line if she should change her mind about placing her child with them, they who would be able to provide a clearly better environment for the child, her child.

Good counseling means also learning about the realities of adoption–that it isn’t the romanticized “win-win solution to a three-fold problem” society views it as; it is a personal tragedy out of which blessings can come, but blessings which will remain alloyed with pain, grief and loss. Loss is a very real dimension of every adoption, but one which is generally overlooked, or even dismissed, as so much hogwash by defenders of the status quo in secretive adoption, such as the National Council for Adoption.

Even the most “perfect” adoption carries a weighty emotional legacy: the depth of loss that the adoptive parents have suffered, and the issues that creates; the lifelong effects of adoption on the child’s developing psyche (significant numbers suffer from a sense of loss, emptiness and rejection, and contend with lifelong issues of abandonment, low self-esteem, control issues and intimacy problems; adoptees are over-represented by a factor of ten in special schools, residential treatment centers and juvenile hall); and the grief and loss carried by birthparents and their families (there is a disproportionately high rate of secondary infertility among birthmothers.) Issues like these are generally accepted among the ranks of adoption workers and clinicians dealing with adoptive families, but have yet to pierce our stolid veil of societal denial.

Knowledge is power, ignorance is bliss; those embarking on adoption are free to choose, but obliged to live with the consequences of their choices long after the ink fades on the adoption decree. For an adoption is truly made in the heart and soul; legal documents can’t bear up what the human spirit can’t leaven. Open adoption, as most people understand it and practice it, is emotionally treacherous in its ignorance of the full landscape of the experience and the work needed to negotiate it. It’s like deciding to sky-dive without learning the intricacies of the chute and its mechanism–it may be thrilling, and it may even work–this time–but if it doesn’t, there will be a tragedy.

Marcy Wineman Axness, an adoptee, lives in California with her husband and two children. She writes and lectures nationwide on adoption and pre- and perinatal issues, and is completing a novel, THE AWAKENING OF PEARL McEVOY. She welcomes correspondence at her e-mail address, axness@mci2000.com

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