Tuesday, April 24, 2007


You know what a broken heart looks like? Like a sobbing teenager in a hospital bed giving a two-day-old infant she knows she can't take care of to a couple she hopes can.

Orphans. The word is thrown around alot in cases of International Adoption. On those long walks in the summer with my family when all this first came up, I was comfortable with orphans. Who couldn't appreciate giving an orphan a home?

Then, while on the boards, people kept making references to "traveling south", once in Ethiopia, to meet the "family" - overtaxed aunts and uncles?

No, the poster made clear that she was in contact with the birthmother. Initially, I rebelled (in my mind) -- "Wait! Whoa, hold the phone, nobody said anything about birthmothers!"

Since that moment, I have worked on educating myself about open adoption, trying to visualize explaining it to a child, weaving it into our lives.

Much of my fear comes from the fallout from my sister's closed adoption, her birthmother's return and then her birthmother abandoning the relationship. In our case, the birthmother was a destabilizing influence, to say the least.

That's why Dan Savage's essay, LIVING WITH A VERY OPEN ADOPTION really spoke to me.

It provoked me to visualize a moment I intellectually comprehend happens, but on which I dared not dwell:

I was thirty-three years old when we adopted DJ, and I thought I knew what a broken heart was, how it felt, what it looked like. I didn't know anything. You know what a broken heart looks like? Like a sobbing teenager in a hospital bed giving a two-day-old infant she knows she can't take care of to a couple she hopes can.

I won't be there for that part. We will get a referral picture. Maybe, if she shows up, we will meet the mother months later. That doesn't mean that a moment such as the one described above didn't happen. It's just uncomfortable (or, maybe, emotionally crippling) to think about.

Dan continues:

Ask a couple hoping to tadopt what they want most in the world and they'll tell you there's only one thing on earth they want: a baby, a healthy baby. But many couples want something more: They want their child's biologincal parents to disappear. THey want their child's viological mothe rand father to be forever absent so there will never be any question about who their child's "real" parents are.

In my darker, less proud moments, I admit to this. I was shocked that Dan Savage put it in an essay in an actual book. (He goes on to explain that he never felt this way and wanted an open adoption).

Then, in other moments, I would find myself agreeing with the anti-adoption folks, that maybe the whole idea of adoption is wrong on the face of it -- cruel and confusing to the kid, robbing them of a sense of culture and history and family. Better to stay in Ethiopia.

I guess, at some point, I grew up. After long talks, my wife and I started discussing about ways to keep the birthmother "in the family". My wife would talk about feeling a connection "as a mother" to this woman -- knowing what it feels like to be pregnant and experience birth...

Um, no, I didn't get it. Intellectually, I was all about discussing it, but emotionally -- nada. My "heart" wasn't guiding me. My heart was shrunk back in my chest cavity hiding from the whole thing.

Then, I wrote that review for Bob Shacochis' essay, KEEPING IT ALL IN THE FAMILY. As I recall, my review reflected my initial feeling: "basically useless to me".

Well, yesterday, I found myself ruminating on it, for no particular reason, when, suddenly, my heart spoke up: "What if, for whatever reason, you were tapped to take care of your niece, like Bob was? How would that be? More importantly, how would you treat your sister in such an instance?"

Suddenly, it came to me, a gloss on the "Golden Rule" that made sense to me intellectually AND emotionally: The birthmother will become family. TREAT HER THE WAY YOU'D TREAT YOUR SISTER. TREAT YOUR ADOPTED CHILD THE WAY YOU WOULD TREAT YOUR NIECE, IF YOU HAD LEGAL CUSTODY. Instantly, everything became clear. I would never not "parent" her. I'd be the parental role model. I'd teach right from wrong, exert my "parental authority", or whatever, but I'd never try to create a fantasy that my sister didn't exist. I wouldn't fail to acknowledge her role in my neice's life, or try to quell the unique bond they would share. I would never try to deny her importance to my child's identity in a misguided attempt to make her feel "normal", "the same as the bio kids", "part of the family" or "ours". She WILL be "ours"... and she won't be. She will also be the daughter of a man and woman in Ethiopia... and that makes THEM part of our family, too -- to be treated with the same respect and decency as a sister or brother.


Nick & Holly said...

I have to admit, too, that we were initially uncomfortable with an open(ish) adoption...isn't that one of the appeals of international adoption vs domestic, for many couples? But having the opportunity to meet the birthmother, and to communicate (via the agency) is a gift to us, and more importantly, to our daughter. Now I can tell my daughter where her good looks and her intelligence come from, because I know her family. And they gave me stories to tell her when she is older. I look back now and wonder how I ever thought I could parent an adopted child without that relationship!

Anonymous said...

Some interesting thoughts here Swerl. I'm considering your "birthmother as sister" analogy... I'm not sure that it completely holds up (for example, in IA you will not know the firstmother like you would know your sister), but it is a good way to begin looking at the issue. Too many adoptive parents seem to completely ignore the firstfamily, wish that they did not exist, or even hate them (I read that in a book once).
I also find the whole notion that the ultra open adoptions are good things to be a little suspect. I don't think enough children have reached adulthood in ultra open adoptions to say that. And I have also heard a number of adult adoptees say that there is such a thing as too open an adoption. Makes me think that some day the prevailing wisdom with be somewhere in the middle... but who knows? We'll have to see what is learned from this generation of adoptees.

-Samantha- said...

I can only tell you that I heard the author of your quotes on This American Life from NPR and I am glad that he brings this subject to the forefront. I hope that we can meet our baby's family, if only to thank them for adding such a special bright light to our little family

dawn said...

Great post. These conversations are important in our parenting journey, and my view keeps evolving.

It has been possible for us to maintain contact with Dawit's father. And we do call him "Dawit's father". He got a package from us this week. How can we love this little boy completely if we don't love and respect where he came from?

I feel as if we have extended family in Ethiopia...and I'm excited for the day that Dawit wants to return for a visit.

Swerl said...

I look back now and wonder how I ever thought I could parent an adopted child without that relationship!
- Thanks for your perspective, nick & holly

your "birthmother as sister" analogy... I'm not sure that it completely holds up (for example, in IA you will not know the firstmother like you would know your sister
- Thanks, a voice. What I meant was in terms of familial obligation. Cards and updates or some form of contact on birthdays and holidays, keeping her "present" for our daughter, etc. I live across the country from the rest of my family, so the distance to Ethiopia and them, realistically, isn't that different. No babysitting, family BBQ's, etc. More cards, calls, packages, which I could do for our daughter's first mom just as easily (well, within the limitations of Ethiopia's infrastructure).

samantha -- I try to keep on top of THIS AMERICAN LIFE, but missed that one. Thanks for alerting me!

Dawn -- I love your sentiments. Thank you so much for adding to the conversation!

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see what you meant Swerl! Well, in that case, I can agree with you.

Swerl said...

I'm glad that cleared it up.

Thanks for pushing me to explain myself more fully. Funny how sometimes you don't realize you did not say what you thought you said!

Leslie said...

I really appreciate this topic. I have so much love for the mother who gave birth to my little girl, so much admiration and heartache for her sacrifices of love, and a sense of wanting her to remain healthy and know that her daughters are loved and cared for. It makes me want to be a better mother, to honor her. I was fortunate to have gotten pictures of them together and some of family background information, and I pray to be able to meet her when I go, as well as to continue to keep in contact with her and help her other children stay in school. I do feel like adoption has expanded my view of the world and that they are extended family; Cite Soleil (in Haiti) isn't just a place in the news, but the place where my little girl's family lives, where people I love live.

Anna and Fred said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, what an important subject to cover. I am reading the book "Weaving a family" by Barbara Katz Rothman and highly reccomend it. Thank you for this great blog- please add us to your links! http://adoptionsponsorship.blogspot.com

Swerl said...

Thanks so much everyone for sharing!

Anna and Fred, I'll add you at my earliest convenience.

I actually discovered you through the Yahoo board, and then saw you posted here! Too funny!