A Birthmother's response to "A Time for Sweeping Change"
A BIRTHMOTHER'S RESPONSE TO
"A Time for Sweeping Change"
by Carole Anderson, 1991
Open adoption is no solution to the problems inherent in adoption. I believe most of the problems in adoption stem from the fact of family separation, not from whether any subsequent adoption was closed or included some degree of openness (which often means no more than a one time preplacement meeting or a letter or two). My more than twelve years of sharing experiences with fellow CUB members in the areas of search, contact and reunion - in essence the opening of formerly closed adoptions - have taught me that adoption-separated people's finding, knowing and loving our separated family members does not end the pain or harm adoption causes. Over and over I have heard reunited people say, "It's wonderful knowing her, but now I see even more clearly that nothing can turn back the clock, nothing can ever 'make it right' for either of us."
Whether adoptions are open from the start or are opened later by search, all involve the separation of children from their families, with all the damaging effects that brings. In all adoptions, children grow up pretending to be related to unrelated people; the children's [birth] parents pretend they're not their children's "real" parents and lose their parenting roles to people outside their families; relationships among remaining members of birthfamilies are distorted by the loss of the children and by the psychological and grief issues experienced by parents who are not regarded as parents; adoptive couples pretend that obtaining a child means the end of their infertility and means being just like other families; and society in general pretends that adoptive families are just like natural families, or maybe better. There is a desperate refusal to view adoption as a situation in which families are permanently separated for temporary reasons. People prefer to believe instead that adoption undoes nature, that it somehow replaces it. There is even a chilling resistance to accepting the obvious fact that adoption is unnatural.
There is a great temptation to pretend that open adoption means more than it does. Adoption arrangers pretend open adoptions are positive for birthparents and give birthparents something. "Look what you've gained," they say, as if every little girl and boy grew up thinking, "Someday I'll grow up and have a baby to give away so I can have a picture or two of her." This pretense that birthparents gain from open adoption allows adoption arrangers to ignore the monumental losses those parents will live with for the rest of their lives, lets arrangers pretend the unnatural is natural, and absolves them of any responsibility for working to keep families together.
Infertile people pretend open adoptions mean they are special, generous people for "sharing" "their" children, unlike those nasty people who would only want a closed adoption. They pretend "their" child hasn't lost anything because showing the child a letter and describing their solitary meeting with The Birthmother will give the child all the heritage he needs. They pretend they are giving birthparents something instead of acknowledging that they are getting their hearts and souls. It absolves them of responsibility for truly coming to terms with their infertility, which would mean accepting their physical incapacity and living without parenthood.
People in the movement also pretend open adoptions mean more than they do. They pretend open adoptions can somehow prevent the pain they've suffered, the devastation they've seen in so many adoptees' and birthparents' lives. If adoptees acknowledge that all adoptions involve loss and pain, as well as incredible injustice to birthparents, they may feel they are betraying their adoptive parents; yet denying those facts means denigrating their birthparents. No wonder so many want to protect themselves from feelings of disloyalty to either side by seeing open adoption as "fair", and as a compromise in which everybody wins.
Everybody doesn't win. Birthparents lose, and so do adoptees. When I found my son, then age eleven, I soon obtained pictures and information and managed to see and meet him anonymously. That is at least as much as many, probably most, birthmothers whose "open" adoptions have brought three or four first-names-only letters or a one-hour meeting with the lucky couples who have their children. The typical "open" adoption entails far less contact than do many reunion relationships. Compared to raising children, what do birth parents get from any adoption but losses? Openness may slightly reduce their number and extent, but it does not convert losses to gains.
Open adoptions may bring what people in closed adoptions do not have. In closed adoptions it is at least clear who the winners are and at whose expense they won. While there were a few people who thought we should feel relieved, we birthparents knew we lost. Those birth parents who had subsequent children particularly knew what we lost. In open adoptions birthparents still lose and feel their losses, but they are told they've gained. In addition, these birth parents are usually expected to be grateful to the winners (for the "privilege" of seeing who it is who will take their natural places in their children's lives? for letting them know what their lost children look like?).
Those of us in closed adoptions carry enough guilt, especially for adoptions in which we later learn there was abuse of some sort. There is physical, sexual, or psychological abuse in many adoptive homes. How much worse will today's "open" adoption birth parents' guilt be when they learn of abuse inflicted in adoptive homes the birth parents "chose" from resumes and adoption arrangers' fabulous descriptions?
These days, when those who hope to adopt may be present long before and during the birth, birthparents are subjected to incredible pressures not to "deprive" these people of "their" child. Nothing with or about their child is the parents' alone, not even the memory of the child's birth. It is hard enough to be honest with ourselves about our surrender and loss experience in a closed adoption. The way most open adoptions are handled, with birth parents participating in their own destruction and suffering from more ambiguous losses, it may be even harder for open adoption birthparents to acknowledge and face their losses.
"Open" birthparents often seem to remain in a frozen, childlike state for very long periods. Could it be that open adoption means they are not free to grow up? Must they remain helpless, vulnerable, less than the view presented of the perfect adoptive parents so that they can continue to justify to themselves why it is that those people deserve their child and the birthmothers don't?
I am pleased that Pannor and Baran acknowledge that social workers' talk of keeping families together is only lip service. In fact, few social workers work at keeping families together, when those families include infants. Instead, they play "Let's Make a Choice." This is a game in which adoption arrangers pretend that expectant or new parents can choose whether or not to be parents at this time in their lives. The reality is that they are parents, but by ignoring this fact, and by urging parents to consider the child's presumed needs for older, more stable, wealthier parents, they put parents in the impossible position of bidding at an auction in which opening bids are higher than they can make. That kind of counseling is premised on the false idea that blood relationships have no intrinsic value. Urging comparisons between parents and strangers who want to become adoptive parents gives no credit whatever to the reality and value of the natural family or the parents' love, instead giving bidding credit only to such other factors as infertility, age, marital status, and financial status.
The only problem I see with what Pannor and Baran wrote is that it does not go far enough. It identifies problems, but does not propose concrete solutions. People are unlikely to stop doing things the way they always have unless they have a clear idea of what to replace them with. I would like to see "A Time for Sweeping Change" expanded to include what people should be doing, not just what they shouldn't.
We need to eliminate infertility as a criterion for out of family placement. If infertility is to be considered at all, it should be a contraindication, not a requirement. As long as raising another's child is seen as a cure for infertility, as long as we allow our society to see it as a good, even necessary, thing to supply infertile people with others' babies, there will be pressure to separate viable families in order to supply infertile people with those families' babies.
We need to require that all resources for a child within its family be exhausted before placement outside of that family is considered. Instead of saying, "Since it's impossible for you to take your baby home because your parents won't accept it," we need to be working with those grandparents. We need to work on alternatives that keep parents and babies together. We need to do everything possible to keep parents and babies together, whether it's getting them into support groups, placing them together in a foster family or group home for a time, or working to help their parents accept the fact of their grandparenthood. If parents and grandparents cannot manage, even with help and advocacy, we need to look to the extended family.
We need to be truly honest with people about adoption instead of painting false pictures. We need to tell people that the pain will grow worse with the years, not disappear. We need to tell them that adoption separation is guaranteed to cause deep and abiding pain to birthparents, their surrendered children, their other children, and many others forever, while it does not guarantee anything else.
We also need to be honest with people about keeping their children. Instead of painting a picture of misery and frustration, we must acknowledge that parenthood has incomparable joys, whether parents are married or not, as well as that there are also struggles and difficulties to be overcome in any parent's life. We need to focus on how to overcome the difficulties facing parents rather than presenting them as insurmountable obstacles to their children's future happiness.
We need a new view of family separation. For the one in a thousand situation in which a child cannot be raised by the natural family, we need something different than adoption. Permanent guardianship would retain and acknowledge a child's true kinship relationships while providing permanent care. There should be no pretending that the guardians who care for and love a child are the "real parents." They are not parents. It would be understood that the child has parents but the guardians are responsible for raising the child. Children have no trouble understanding this.
My beloved "Aunt" Kristina was my grandfather's aunt who raised him and who lived with him during my childhood. My grandfather had no confusion about who his parents were nor about whom he loved. Nor did I; I named my older daughter Kristina after her. Two boys who attended grade school with me were raised by an aunt and uncle because their mother was seriously disabled and confined in a nursing home. They knew who they were, they knew where they came from, they visited their mother regularly, and they were as close to their aunt and uncle as the other children in school were to their parents.
We sometimes act as though adoption, by which I mean a system of pretending parents are not parents while pretending that non-parent caregivers are parents, is the only way to provide children with permanent homes. It is simply not true. Every child needs both a heritage and nurturing. We must work to assist children's families to provide both. When the two cannot come from the same place, it emphatically does not follow that we must pretend a substitute source of nurturing provides a heritage as well. Being forced to live a fantasy should not be the price of the nurturing every child is entitled to receive. We need sweeping change.
ED: A precious few open adoptions today involve more and direct contact, but they are unfortunately the exception; it is hard to find and know which will be done right, and remain open; and, even the best are predicated on a falsified birth certificate, and are unenforceable in most states. No matter how open an adoption, it is not joint custody. Open adoption does not replace day-to-day mothering or decision-making. Those are still forever lots and and is painful for mothers to watch others have those privileges.
In loving memory of a woman who died too young to see her words, at long last, appreciated.