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.


California with four in tow

Last Friday, we loaded the kids and Elise into a plane and headed to LA to visit Amy, Lilou’s first mom. The travel was as awful as we expected it to be. Griff and Lilou are not happy on planes! When we arrived, they didn’t have the car we rented, so we ended up with one fewer seat. By the time we got to our rental house early – so we could surprise our host cleaning – I was already annoyed and then embarrassed. He was gracious.

BUT the house was perfect, with room for the kids to play inside and outside. The kitchen was fully stocked and a grocery store closeby made getting settled easier.  And Amy’s as delightful as always!

With four kids, everything at home or elsewhere has to slow down. The nap window has to be defended against our desire to explore and show the kids around. Realistically, we have a few hours in the morning to do something before we have to get them fed and settled for some quiet time – and they all still nap for a few hours in the afternoon! That’s frustrating in LA, where it takes forever to get anywhere.

Despite our best efforts, the kids were tired and off their schedule the first day few days. We always feel so frustrated when we have time with someone we don’t see often and the babes won’t just sleep when we need them to. Still, if you want a realistic glimpse of our life, nothing’s more typical than us dealing with nap protests and tired kids.

So we spent lots of time at the house, with all adults holding kids, reading stories, and overseeing chalk drawings on the driveway. They marveled at grasshoppers and hummingbirds, and dipped their fingers in the tiny fountain. We ordered in barbecue and chatted late (read: 9pm) after tucking the kids in for the night, sitting outside with a glass of wine and good company.

Catching up with Amy was great, and hearing about where life is taking her next delighted us. Seeing her marvel at Lilou and celebrate all of the kids was fantastic. They took to her easily and bounced between us and someone new and fun as we wandered the Getty and the zoo. Lilou never lets anyone hold her for long, but with the heat and the travel, she snuggled up to all of us way more than usual. Amy was thrilled!

One of our biggest surprises and pleasures in open adoption is seeing how readily Kat, Kerna, and Amy have taken to all of our kids. They’ve each commented on how they can’t picture them as anything other than a whole family, since the kids are so tight. Sharing all of our family with someone who has such strong ties to one child is so fulfilling, and builds stronger relationships for all of us to our kids’ extended family. We can’t wait for our next visit to Arizona, so everyone can meet Bianca too!

People often ask us if visiting our kids’ first families is hard. We easily answer no for the most part, but parts of it can be. Whether we’re visiting relatives of ours or theirs that we don’t see often, the kids take a minute to warm up. They’ve said weird things (like Tess announcing loudly and proudly that Amy is Lilou’s first mom everywhere including the airport and the museum!) that may startle the people we’re with. Seeing the hope and love on someone’s face and hoping our child can stop racing and give a much-needed and long-awaited hug can be hard. Trying to explain why one kid should get more time with someone the other kids are enjoying, getting them to leave some space for bonding can be hard. Mostly, saying goodbye and watching someone who loves that same child ferociously walk away with tears in their eyes is hard. The last hour of a visit kills me, because I know it kills them.

People ask if we worry about our kids loving their first families more. To me, that’s a weird way of putting it. We all have different roles and relationships with these kids. They don’t compare us or see us as duplicates; they just see people they love. That will be more complex as the kids get older, but right now it’s not an issue and I don’t anticipate it will become one in that way.

Hearing Amy explain where Lilou’s light eyes come from, hearing her talk about her parents and Lilou’s heritage, knowing that our daughter’s questions will be answered when she needs to ask them is worth flying fussy kids across the country. Sharing our family experience with one of the moms who made it possible for us to be a family feels right, and seems to make all of us happy. So we suffer through the goodbyes and the tears vicariously, knowing we can’t relate to the loss but understanding the epic love. We don’t have words of comfort, other than to promise the next visit won’t be too far away. At the airport, kind strangers help us load everything into shuttles (and steady suitcases and car seats on the ride) while others glare at us for daring to have children and travel. We pack crazy amounts of animal crackers and distractions, and battle our way through the airports with our social, noisy crew, and wedge them each into their seatbelt while cajoling them into a snooze. It’s worth it.

We arrived back in Milwaukee at 1:30 in the morning, with two screamy non sleepers and some less than impressed older kids. We gathered our belongings and headed back to our car, then home. After tucking everyone in, I opened the envelope waiting for us from our lawyer in California. There, after more than a year, sat Lilou’s birth certificate with our names on it. Dave and I went to bed with a sigh of peace, knowing our family is official and home. Another adventure is always around the corner, but the rest of the summer is about being together here, creating memories and stories for our next big visit.