With my six-and-a-half year-old daughter, feelings surrounding her adoption often come up at bedtime. Recently, she jumped on the bed when it was time to settle and so I turned the light off, mid-jump, before a story. This consequence””no story””wasn’t to her liking. ”I want a story! I want a story!” she screeched. A little light poured in from the hallway. ”I wish I could go to my Auntie Cece’s to live!” she exclaimed, referring to her birth mother. ”She would read me stories.”
Her words felt like a sucker punch to my heart, I am not going to lie. Sure, the outrage in the moment stemmed from disappointment about the missed story, alongside a sizable dollop of over-tiredness. But, at the very same time, her sentence underscored an important truth: adoption is a big deal.
One of the reasons we opted for an open adoption was so that moments like these could happen. Rather than long for and fantasize about and try to reckon with a completely amorphous mystery parent, our daughter has a real person to call for in the darkness. Whether a specific person or a wholly unknown one, for adoptees, there is the inevitable why: “Why didn’t she, the first mom, want me?” surfaces as a question. It’s the stuff that creeps into our semi-darkness. Our daughter has just begun to ask that sometimes (always when tired). Coupled with confusion, she knows that her birth mom does love her. And I know it. And I know I love her””and her first mom. Open adoption lets the adoptive mom hold all that complexity with her child. I feel glad to be that mom, if a little bruised in the moment.
When adoption laws were created in the first part of the twentieth century, the idea was to keep information confidential. Birth records were tightly sealed””by the early 1950’s nearly every state had those laws on the books. However, research began to suggest that secrecy caused psychological problems for adoptee and birth parents, and adoptive parents, so a movement toward increased openness began. Between 1987 and 1992, researchers Grovenant and McRoy collected information from 190 adoptive families and 169 birthmothers, and discovered that ”openness” as defined by birth parents and adoptive parents meeting at placement did not take away adoptive parents’ fulfillment and did not eliminate or necessarily ameliorate birth parents’ grief. By 1991, birth parents and adoptive parents met in over two-thirds of domestic adoptions in the United States through public and private agencies. This represents a sea change, in comparison to the secretive times that preceded this push toward increased transparency. No one really knows how the change affects adoptees, at least not yet.
As I patted our daughter’s back to soothe her, I thought about how conventions trail the current reality. There aren’t many picture books about open adoption, or consensus about what to call first (aka biological) mothers. Without information about how children, once grown, will feel about the ways we handled the ”open” part of open adoption, it’s impossible to determine ”success.” All we know so far is that everyone’s hearts are on deck.
A couple of days before I found myself in the dark, quieting my daughter, a friend posted on Facebook: “I found her.” She’d searched for and found her first mom””54 years later. She isn’t sure yet whether this woman, her mom, is willing to have a relationship. Her first mother has kept her existence a secret, and her mother””the grandmother””is still alive, and knows nothing of this granddaughter’s existence. These are deep, old secrets, wounds that scar even if you cover them over. Open adoption, in whatever form””letters that go to an adoption agency, annual photos, a set number of meetings, or something much more free form, like our situation with visits and phone calls and no quotas about contact””banishes the keeping of those impossible secrets.
But we’re still in the dark. We’ve begun to wade into new emotional territory. As our daughter matures, her range of questions and feelings about adoption increases. The complexity increases, and the simpler answers, two tummies, lots of hearts, fall away a little to so many iterations of why. However uncharted, this isn’t an experiment.
I patted our daughter’s back. I sent up a hope that our family””even with inherent complexity, like so many families in so many ways””is one where love prevails. ”Do you think we should visit with Auntie Cece soon?” I asked our daughter. ”It’d be really nice to see her soon.”
My daughter nodded in the semi-darkness. ”I wish I could read a story tonight,” she offered.
”I know,” I replied. ”It’s frustrating when we don’t get a story. We do have to cooperate at bedtime.” She yawned. ”I love you,” I said, very quietly.
”I love you, too,” she muttered. Moments later, her breathing settled””and she was asleep.