Open to Openness

This week Leah McLaren wrote a column in the Globe and Mail titled “Kids Don’t Care Where The Love Comes From.” It’s a terrific piece about “alternative family models” (those created by donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogacy and adoption) where “biological parents take a secondary role to non-biological parents” creating new levels of openness. Leah rightly points out that because these children are less threatened by the unconventional, adults no longer need to “protect” them from the details of their birth.

In adoption, openness refers not only to how much information is shared with the child but also to  the amount of contact the adoptive family has with the birth (biological) parent(s). As mom to two adopted girls, I feel the same way about openness as I do about Lady Gaga and Brazilian waxes: fascinated and terrified.

Initially, Daren and I believed closed adoption would be “best for the child.” Whether our future child was given up willingly or not, we didn’t see what good could come from ongoing contact. But truthfully we felt threatened. Although we came to adoption happily and willingly, we still experienced a lot of fear, anxiety and insecurity, and we dealt with it by taking control of as much as we could and eliminating wild cards wherever possible. Put your hands over your ears and scream “LA LA LA LA LA” at the top of your lungs. Yup, that was us. But our intentions were good. We wanted to create a safe, secure environment (read: impenetrable fortress) for our little one, and we were determined to eliminate future hurts by making her ours and ours alone. But guess what? When you adopt a child, especially when the adoption happens years after birth, that’s neither possible nor wise.

When you embrace adoption, you embrace the fact that many people other than you will play an important role in raising your child. Birth parents, foster parents, extended family, grandparents, social workers, therapists … it truly does take a village. Modern parenting has come a long way from the Victorian era when children were considered property, like livestock and chastity belts. But while we’re no longer locking our kids in dark closets as punishment for spilling their milk, many of us still think of them as property. And while no one would equate a child with a goat, few would deny feeling a sense of “ownership” over their children. But this doesn’t work in adoption and once we understood that we were able to see all the benefits to openness.

Why is openness so important? Because knowledge is power. Because a child can’t truly understand her story unless she understands where she came from. And if she doesn’t understand where she came from, she will have a hard time figuring out who she is. Think about the curiosity you had as a child, the questions you asked about your parents and grandparents as you tried to understand why you are the way you are and why you look the way you do. Where did my red hair come from (insert mailman joke), why am I so tall when mom and dad are so short (insert milkman joke). If your children don’t find these answers, it can be confusing and upsetting. We all want to feel connection and belonging and sometimes it’s the things that seem trivial (hair colour, height) that help form our identity.

Unfortunately there is still some stigma around adoption (a bright, well-educated 11-year old recently asked me if I got my girls from an “orphanage”), and there is still shame associated with being born to parents who gave you up, willingly or not. Layer in secrecy and a lack of personal history and you’ll probably be seeing that child on the news for all the wrong reasons.

Currently the birth parents of both our children have opted not to have any contact with us. Twice a year I write a letter to Harmony’s birth mom that goes into a file at the adoption agency, and soon I will start doing the same for Leila. If either girl’s birth mom or dad ever requests contact beyond the letters, the agency will ask us if we want to exchange pictures, emails, meet in person, etc. I do this for the parents but also so each girl knows we respect and honour the birth parent relationship. I hope this will help them feel more comfortable talking about and researching their history if they ever choose to do so. I won’t pretend this doesn’t make me want to throw up a little, but it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of raising these amazing kids.

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