A covenant of open adoption

My sister and I got to talking about open adoption the other day. We’re on our way to see Griff and Lilou’s moms, which is always exciting and complicated. I worry that we will somehow disappoint or offend the people we are visiting, that it won’t be enough or that it will be too much/too hard, that our kids won’t behave and their original families will worry we are not good parents.

We intentionally set those fears aside and focus on our excitement. I take it as a wonderful sign that when one kid hears we are going to see another kid’s mom, their first question is when their next visit will be.

When I showed Griff a picture of Bianca, he stopped dead in his tracks and got a huge, slow smile. He has her eyes, and it’s like he recognized it at that moment. I melted. We need our kids as much as they need us. And all of them, in an ideal world, would be waking up to a different set of eyes, eyes that looked like theirs. So they’re not blessed to have us. They do have a wealth of family! And that I do consider a blessing. (Which is hilarious, because I constantly complained about my parents choosing to have six kids. Now I love being part of a massive family on both sides!) But this is not family as nature intended it; consider it the equivalent of genetic modification, family style. And we are the incredibly lucky parents who will get to raise this beautiful, complex family.

There’s an adoption sainthood attitude that makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and it usually comes up when people realize the adoptions in our family are open, which I find even more troubling. See, I recently heard a statistic that only 16% of open adoptions stay open by age 5 or 6. That is profoundly upsetting to me as a parent, and should set off alarms for anyone involved with adoption.

I do not subscribe to the idea that adoption shouldn’t exist. It has too strong a history to be archived as a bad idea. That said, we all know that being removed from your parents’ arms is going to have ramifications. Why wouldn’t we do everything possible to minimize the heartache to the parents relinquishing their children to our care and for our children, who will wonder where they really belong? People have told me that’s so “big hearted” of us. It’s not. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the best thing to do for everyone, and it’s the best case scenario when we do it right.

In my heart of hearts, I suspect no adoption will ever be open enough to completely assuage the loss that our kids and their original families feel. No matter how many pictures and funny stories we send, no matter how many visits we squeeze in, no matter what we do to connect; we will still be the ones to feel those little arms around our necks, check foreheads for a fever and apply Band-Aids and kisses to skinned knees. We will teach them to cook and to read, and decide what they’re allowed to watch on TV and how late they can stay up. We decide ballet or karate.

Knowing that no matter what we do it won’t be enough makes everything we do harder, because it means it can never be perfect. And yet, every one of our kids’ relatives handles our relationships with grace. I’m sure we’ve let them down in significant ways – visits that are too short, not as much communication as they would like, living too far away – and I’m sure many of them would hesitate to tell us how painful those disappointments are. I have learned from other first moms how much they hold back from their kids’ adoptive parents, and knowing that I will never fully understand what they’re going through is frustrating. But here’s why they hold back! Once an adoption goes through, adoptive parents hold all the cards. We decide what, when, and how communication takes place. We can change our minds and at almost anytime firmly closed the door between the child and their roots. So many first parents also fear saying or doing the wrong thing, and never seeing their child again. And apparently there is a strong precedent for exactly that.

I suspect a small number of open adoptions close for valid reasons, mostly having to do with the safety of the child. But I would hazard most of them close because the adoptive parents are uncomfortable with the complexities of a relationship that lives almost entirely in the gray. “Normal” families don’t have two sets of parents, one of which doesn’t see the kids all the time. They don’t have to consider what motherhood means when a child was born to someone else, or if a child lives with someone else. They don’t have to struggle with the idea of biology and love and how those two fit together. Closing an adoption comes from a place of fear, not from a place of love. We are guaranteed to have moments that leave us in tears or leave you in tears. Family tends to do that.

It is all too easy to make up excuses to not go to the gym, or to justify putting laundry off another couple of days. And those aren’t big commitments. Open adoption is at times uncomfortable, always unpredictable, and one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. And it’s not even about me! Open adoption will hopefully be one of the richest relationships for our kids first parents and our kids themselves over the course of both of their lifetimes. We are facilitators.

Not even in a marriage can you fully understand what your relationship will look like decades later. And yet we find ways to maintain our vows over the course of a lifetime, even if the daily execution of those vows changes from decade to decade. To me, agreeing to an open adoption approaches the same level of commitment. Someone takes their heart and puts it in our hands. That’s faith, love, commitment, and hope. No relationship that existential should be squashed because it makes us uncomfortable. We may not know what communication will look like in 20 years, but we agreed to communication. This isn’t laundry; we won’t run out of clean clothes, and can get away with infinite postponement on following through. But really, we can’t. When we promised a relationship, we meant it – not when it’s convenient or easy, but always.

So while I am letting all of you read it, I’m really writing this to our kids’ moms and families. Kat, Mickey, Helga, Spencer, Kerna, Bianca and your whole family, Amy – we pledge to you that we will not disappear. You will not say something to us that will close the door. We can’t always say yes to every request, but we will do our damnedest to make sure you experience these kids growing up. Make the requests. Tell us what you need. Your love will not scare us away and we have grown as greedy to know you as we would be to know our child if I were in your shoes.

You deserve to know that Lilou is in love with Leroy and laughs with her whole body, that Remy hates avocado and is scared of the dark (and always has a book in his hands!), that Griffin is aggressively social and loves to flirt with Joy, and that Tess is the most awkwardly beautiful dancer I have ever seen because sheer joy shows on her face when she puts on a tutu.

We’re super excited about this trip, and so are all of the kids. We are also excited to plan the next ones. We talk about ways to see many people at once, so we can have more time together. As the kids get older and want to send you artwork and Skype, we will let you know and find ways to do so.

This is our promise that these open adoptions will not close. If at times you need space, you will have it. But no matter how much space or time that you take, know that we will be right here waiting to catch you up on everything that happened in your absence. On days when you feel sick to your stomach missing your baby, do not hesitate to tell us that. We can’t fix it, but we can send a photo and a story.

We are seeing our family too on this trip. Dave’s parents and sister are waiting for us in Arizona, and we can’t wait to catch up and share the kids with them as well. But as we set off, the significance of these visits is strong in our hearts. Our family knows we will always find time to see them, and we want you to know the same is true for our family’s families. So on a lighter note, we can’t wait for many more rounds of hugs, reconnecting, and funny stories to last a lifetime! For all of us.