Do I Actually Advocate Something Other Than Adoption? No … and Yes.

I was recently asked the following question on Twitter: “You seem to advocate more communal care of children than adoption per se. Isn't there a big difference between the two?” It’s a good question, but don’t think I can answer it in 140 characters, so I’ve decided to address the matter here.

The word “adoption” can refer to a spectrum of arrangements from completely closed, with identities kept confidential and zero contact between the adoptive and biological families, to very open, with frequent contact and interaction. Even so called open adoptions can vary significantly in the degree of openness and frequency of contact. To quote one of my favorite informational resources on open adoption: “In open adoptions, communication may include letters, Emails, telephone calls, or visits. The frequency of contact ranges from every few years to several times a month or more, depending on the needs and wishes of all involved.”

Each adoption situation is different, but I encourage adoptive parents to be open to higher degrees of contact whenever possible. My own daughter is legally adopted but currently has relatively frequent visitation with her biological mother, and this works well for our family. I believe that both parts of the equation contribute to her well being. The adoption gives her permanency, something she desperately needed -- she was not thriving as a foster child bouncing from home to home within the system. Adoption is a legal agreement, but it is also a ceremonial contract between the parent and the child. To my daughter, it means that we will stick with her, even when the going gets tough. It means, “no take backs.” But the connection to her biological family, and especially to her mother, nurtures her as well.

I’m not anti-adoption, and my intention in writing and speaking about adoption is not to discourage potential parents, especially those open to adopting from foster care, from considering adoption; with a distressingly high number of kids aging out of foster care without finding permanency, more adoptive parents are needed, not fewer! But I’m also aware that the old, closed adoption model really didn’t work for a lot of adoptees. Many adult adoptees today are angry and resentful, and even those of us who are ultimately grateful for our connection to our adoptive families will usually acknowledge challenges as well. Adoption may be a beneficial option in many situations, but it is rarely a painless option. My focus is primarily on making it less painful, for all involved but especially for the adoptee. I believe that nurturing and maintaining a connection to the biological family and/or culture is a crucial part of attaining that goal.

Though I don’t want to discourage potential adoptive parents from adopting, I do believe that it’s important for anyone who is considering adoption to understand that they are not bringing a single child into their life -- they are bringing an entire family. That’s just a fact. The old adoption model, and even many current adoption arrangements, try to ignore this reality, but ignoring doesn’t work. Even if the adoptive family has no contact with the biological family and rarely discusses them other than in vague, almost mythological ways (such as the “your birth mother was someone who loved you very much” story), that family, and especially the birth mother, is still there, fully present in the child’s psyche. They may exist primarily as an absence, as a longing (spoken or unspoken), but they are still there.

I myself grew up with an adoption-positive framework. I had always known that I was adopted and for the most part I viewed being an adoptee as a good thing. For a long time I thought that I was fine and had no issues related to being adopted. Then one day, in my mid-twenties, I found myself on my floor in my apartment sobbing uncontrollably, with the phrase “she doesn’t even know who I am,” in reference to my birth mother, repeating incessantly in my head. The feeling of loss came at me out of the blue, and knocked me flat. It had actually been there all along, but I’d never acknowledged it.

An eventual reunion with my birth family, plus some good therapy, brought healing, but also left me with a keen awareness of the endurance and importance of the biological bond. When I became an adoptive parent myself, I brought this understanding with me and it has guided me to my current, friendly relationship with my daughter’s birth mother. Our arrangement falls under the umbrella of adoption because, as I said, my daughter is legally adopted. Also, although the birth mother has comparatively frequent visitation, the nuts-and-bolts parenting still falls to my husband and me. But I’ve also coined a phrase -- “post-adoption reunification” -- to describe what I consider to be an important developmental phase for most adoptees. Whether it happens early with the support of the adoptive family or later by way of a reunion search on the part of an adult adoptee, most of us seem to need to reconnect to our biological roots eventually. I advocate open adoption as a more seamless (and less psychologically traumatic) way for this to happen.

And yet it’s interesting that my Twitter correspondent should mention “more communal care of children,” because that is in fact something that has been frequently on my mind. I don’t advocate doing away with adoption altogether, but I would like to see more emphasis put on preservation of biological families whenever possible … and this can only happen with community support. It is often said that a birth mother’s relinquishment is an act of love, and this may be true in many cases, but my birth mother will tell you that she would have preferred to have demonstrated her love by keeping me. What she longed for, and didn’t have, was the support of family and community that would have made it possible for her to raise me.

A few years ago, I had a dream (an actual dream while sleeping) that was very vivid and specific and that has stayed with me as a memory. I was visiting a college and being given a tour of a dormitory that was part of an innovative program. All of the students in the dormitory were young (typical college age) mothers. The children lived with the mothers in the dormitory, and day-care and other support services were provided. And each mother and child pair was also connected with a “foster family” in the college town who functioned as an extended family, providing additional support. Mother and child would sometimes visit the family together -- for example, for a Sunday dinner -- and sometimes when the mom needed more support, such as during finals week, the child might briefly stay there without mom. Wow, I thought, this is exactly what my birth mother would have wanted!

I’ve since learned that family foster care (in which a mother and child are both “fostered”) does exist, in some places in the UK and the United States and perhaps elsewhere, though not, to my knowledge, in the exact form of my dream. I don’t know much about such programs, but I’d love to learn more. I’ve also read about programs, such as Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which have had success at reducing the number of children entering the traditional foster care system by strengthening and helping to preserve original families, and I applaud such efforts.

For me, the experience of being an adopted person is often about embracing contradiction, finding simultaneous truths in things that would seem to oppose one another. I wouldn’t undo my own adoption or change my upbringing, and yet I feel called to support alternative options for others. I’m aware that the separation of a child from its biological mother can be painful -- traumatic even -- for both mother and child, and I’d love for others to be spared that pain, even though I am able to view my own trauma and healing as simply part of my growth process. I don’t reject adoption as a model for caring for children whose biological parents are unable, for whatever reason, to care for them fully -- to the contrary, I live it, love it, celebrate it -- but I’m also intrigued by emerging and potential models that support biological family preservation. Do I support something other than adoption per se? When all is said and done, yes, I do -- not as a replacement for adoption in all case, but as an alternative to adoption in some cases.

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