Open Up: Adoption Edition
By Beth Wise
We met my 14-year-old’s birth mother this summer.
He hadn’t seen her in a while.
It went well.
Watching him walk into the parking lot to hug his mom from the window of the pizza arcade was one of those moments I’ll never forget- one that feels like it has put all of us on a different trajectory.
If you’re hoping for the juicy details and pictures of the reunion, you might as well stop here. Those details aren’t mine to share. I asked for permission from my son to write this blog and share even that tiny sliver of information.
My husband and I never felt the need to have biological children. At one point, when we thought a call to mission work that was going to take us overseas, we didn’t think we were going to have children at all. Alas, Dallas captured our hearts and when we made the decision to stay here permanently, we started looking towards adoption.
At the beginning of the adoption process, I didn’t really want an open adoption. It sounded messy and awkward. There were too many questions about what could happen. It all felt too unknown. In my heart of hearts, I was scared that my kids wouldn’t be able to love me and their first families at the same time.
The adoption industry, along with pop culture ideas about adoption, sells this idea that you adopt kids with no strings attached. I recently heard this referred to as “pollyannaism” in adoption and I find it completely accurate. It’s the idea that adoption is only a beautiful thing– a pair of (straight, white) adoptive parents run slow motion in a field of lilies to rescue these children who are eternally grateful and share their undying gratitude every second of every day. The family runs off into the sunset together and they all live happily ever after.
This is the bill of goods I was sold.
It wasn’t until I got involved in Facebook groups led by adult adoptees that my understanding of why open adoption was a good and important thing was cracked wide open. Some of the things these adults were saying were scary, some of them were angry, lots of it directed at their adoptive parents who had isolated them from their birth families and cultures. It took me a second to get my bearings. This picture of adoption certainly ran contrary to what I was used to. There were no pats on the back or inspirational social media videos here. Being that I was raised in a conservative culture that prizes politeness over almost everything else, I first had to learn to listen well to these adoptees, even if their strong feelings seemed impolite. I had to learn to hear the anger and not run away or get defensive. What really helped me was recognizing that these people, these grieving adults, could be my kids if I didn’t listen to their advice on how to do better.
You see, the adult adoptees rightfully pointed out that the problem with my beliefs about open adoption was that they were based around *me*- my fears, my insecurities, my comfort. My disdain for open adoption centered myself. The marginalized voices in these groups challenged me to look instead to the needs of my children and their first families. I wept while watching Angela Tucker’s journey to find her first family in her documentary “Closure”. I watched as her adoptive mother assisted her, supported her, walked alongside her as she searched for and reconnected with her first family.
To be crystal clear, I knew other adoptive parents that had open adoptions for their kids, but it was adoptees saying, “THIS IS IMPORTANT” that really got me to listen and I am so thankful for their voices.
When you adopt from foster care, Child Protective Services forks over giant files full of these first families’ worst days- their worst decisions, their worst failures, cataloged, dated, and filed away for adoptive parents to study. CPS gives you lots of reasons why open adoption is not a good idea. As an adoptive parent who didn’t really want to deal with everything that open adoption brings, I secretly welcomed these reasons.
It’s not safe.
It’s not good for him emotionally.
They’re too hard to find.
He’s not mature enough to handle it.
If there was a way for me to avoid opening my son’s adoption, I was going to find it because I wasn’t ready. It was the consistent, thunderous roar of adult adoptees who said, “LET YOUR KID DECIDE WHEN HE’S READY” that kept me coming back around to the idea, kept challenging me to wonder whether I was really concerned about safety or whether that was just an easy, convenient excuse.
When he said he was ready, I took a deep breath, remembered all those voices, and said “Okay.”
As a culture, we can learn to talk about adoption in a way that doesn’t glorify adoptive and foster parents to the exclusion of first families and adoptees. We need to recognize that, by its very nature, adoption involves loss and we should give adoptees free rein to feel however they want about it. The Christian community should recognize all of the ways that they can help “orphans”, preferably before the child becomes orphaned. Christians who really care about vulnerable kids should be paying attention to national policies that lift people out of poverty, give them affordable healthcare, housing, and childcare, and give low-income children equal access to quality education. There is no reason that a poor person should lose their kids just because they are poor. Those kids are not inherently better off with an adoptive family simply because they have money. As a culture, we should recognize the damage that is done by separating families because our current systems failed them. I cringe to see the separated families along the border and to hear how callous some are about the emotional damage done to children whose parents have been deported. These are not surface level wounds that will be cured by smiling white adoptive parents who have the funds to take them to Six Flags.
Both of my boys, a teenager and a four-year-old, know their first families. They get to be around people who look like them at regular intervals. They get to hear the family stories, be doted on by grandparents, be well loved by many, many people. When they grow up and have medical questions, they will know who to call. They never have to wonder where they got the shape of their eyes or their love of loud music.
When I watched my oldest hug his mom, the woman who gave him life, in that pizza arcade parking lot, I knew that I was watching some missing pieces fall into place- not all of them, by any means- but some, and I was so thankful to those adult adoptees who had unwaveringly insisted that adoptive parents look beyond themselves. All of us could do with a better, more compassionate understanding, more grounded understanding of adoption.
There is a national organization called Safe Families that supports families before Child Protective Services needs to get involved. They provide mentoring and referral services to struggling families. If needed, Safe Families also provides struggling families with the opportunity to voluntarily put their kids into vetted “host homes”, giving the parents a chance to get back on their feet so they can welcome their children back into a stable home. It is organizations like these that are really doing God’s work of caring for the orphan (before they become orphaned).