Building a family through semi-open adoption

Guest post by Alissa

This post was originally written as part of the Open Adoption Roundtable, in response to this prompt.

Photo by Seattle photographer Jenny J

Every family has an origin story. And, I imagine, every family must navigate the degree to which sharing that origin story is appropriate – sharing with outsiders, extended family, close friends, each other. For many families this navigation is done without even thinking about it. Some are more intentional when considering how open to be about the beginning stories of our lives as mothers or fathers, the first stories of our families and our children.

I think about this a lot, because the boundaries of my own little family are less clear than most – we are a family formed through a semi-open adoption. This means that our daughter’s first mother, Z, has a certain level of contact with us, and we with her. It isn’t a completely open relationship, though that is something we hope for. We are also a transracial family – our daughter J is black and Andrew and I are white. So there are some things about our origin story that are out there whether we choose to tell or not.

People are often curious, and I usually don’t mind telling a few details about us. If I am very comfortable with someone, I might talk about how we were chosen by an expectant mother, Y, to parent her child and how after that baby was born and we had met and held her Y changed her mind. I learn a lot about folks from their responses to that story. The part I love to tell, of course, is how shortly after we said goodbye to Y and her daughter I got the call about J – two weeks old and waiting for us to fly to Georgia and pick her up. Andrew and I both love telling that story – the first story of our life as a family of three. Sometimes when no one else is around we just tell it to each other, a litany of “remember when we..” sentences accompanied by dreamy smiles late at night.

The only parts of our adoption process and parenting that I hesitate to be completely open about with whomever I choose are the parts that don’t belong to me, those parts of J’s story that I didn’t experience with her, for example. Or the few things we know for sure about Z and her situation at placement and currently. Parts of “the” story that are not parts of “my” story per se.

But there is a part of my story that sometimes I wish I could hide, and feel quite private about. It is the part where we sought medical help to get pregnant. I don’t like to think about those experiences very much, and I struggle with feelings of regret that we even went there.

So this is clearly about me and my issues. I have a lot of friends – fellow adoptive parents and women who I met through my experiences with infertility – who have different experiences and feelings about fertility struggles than I do. I want to be clear that my experiences are not in any way commentary or judgment on anyone else’s feelings or experience.

“So,” Y said to me, maybe the second time we spoke on the phone. “Why are you all adopting… you couldn’t have any of your own?”

I cringed when she said that.

My discomfort came from a couple sources – I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me or to feel like her child was our second-best choice. But I wanted to be honest, so I told her that we tried to get pregnant on our own and with some minor medical intervention and then decided that road wasn’t for us. Her response was even more disturbing to me – I forget exactly what her words were, but it was something about how this was justice, how she just kept having babies she couldn’t take care of and it was only fitting for her to give one to someone who couldn’t get pregnant. I don’t think I had much of a response for her, I didn’t know what to say in that moment. But I knew that her statement was not what adoption was or ever should be. I didn’t want to become a mother because of a perception on anyone’s part that I “deserved” it and the first mother didn’t. That isn’t how it works – and it wasn’t. Y ultimately kept her child, and we fully supported her decision to do so.

Now when I look back on our experiences with the infertility business I feel a little ashamed. Not that we tried to get pregnant before deciding to adopt, but that we got involved in the roller coaster of drugs and fertility doctors after it became obvious that it wasn’t happening on “our own.” I feel ashamed because that was something I had vowed not to do. And when we were in it I didn’t feel good about it – it felt like a desperate gamble for something I didn’t even know if I wanted. My experience of all that was that it was a sad and sort of cheap game: roll the dice every cycle and if you get lucky you win. I just wanted to win, and each month that we “lost” was another excuse to feel bad about my body and the wasted money we’d spent on the latest round of drugs and testing.

All in all we quit the game long before we had exhausted all of our treatment options. We were able to get in touch with something that had always been a part of the value system we built into our marriage – that biology is not the last word on who is family to us. It is not even the first word, though it plays an important role in the relationships that have it. In fact J’s very important biology connects us forever to Z, and to her other first family members.

I am happy for people who struggle to get pregnant and succeed. I am happy for people who don’t struggle to get pregnant and still succeed. I am sad that somewhere in me I knew that road wasn’t mine – I think a part of me always knew – and I still pursued it. That’s what I don’t want Z or J to know, why I don’t like to answer the “why did you adopt” question very much. Though most of the time if someone asks I won’t hesitate to talk about it. Being able to face the parts of life that we don’t want to talk about is also a value (and skill) I want in the family we are building. Which means me first, I guess.

Comments on Building a family through semi-open adoption

  1. I love this story…and I love that you’re talking about adoption on the blog.
    My husband and I don’t have children yet and we don’t have any reason to believe that we will have trouble getting pregnant (though we haven’t tried, so you never know)…but we really want to adopt. We see adoption as such a beautiful and loving act. There are so many children out in the world who aren’t “wanted.” They need a loving home…they need a family…and we want to be that family.

    • I agree with you Kristel that adoption is a beautiful and loving act, and thank you for the comment!

      I would just caution against a mindset that assumes that just because a child’s first family is unable to parent him or her that the child isn’t wanted by that first family. I have never met a biological parent that didn’t want their child with every ounce of capacity they had for wanting. When a choice is made for something different it is always a choice to go against what they want because of incredibly unfortunate circumstances. If you have an adopted son or daughter someday they will need to know that their first family wanted them, but couldn’t parent a child, any child, and so relinquished (or lost) their right to parent.

      I think of Z as part of J’s loving family, even though she is not a daily part of our nuclear family, if that makes sense. 🙂

      • While I totally get where your coming from, I just wanted to say that my biomom was perfectly capable of parenting (college graduate, good job, no relationship issues or whatever, although she wasn’t in a relationship when she discovered she was pregnant). She just didn’t have the desire to be a Mom and felt that I would be happier in a family with parents who WANTED to parent rather than be child-free. So it wasn’t that I was unloved by my biomom, but one could say I was “unwanted”. I hesitate to use that term since my biomom was just making the choice that was best for both me and her and it paints her in a bad light. I also hesitate to use that term because I was ALWAYS wanted by my adoptive parents.

        One thing I totally wanted to compliment you on Alissa is that you don’t take savior stance as an adoptive parent. So many parents do, and what I mean by that is that you don’t ever suggest in your post that you “saved” your child from a life of heartache and pain and they should be grateful to you for all you have done. I have seen adoptive parents do this and it really ruins the kid. After all, why should the kid be grateful for having good parents? Shouldn’t all kids have great parents?

        So I guess what I really want to say is that Go you Alissa! You rock, and I know your babe is going to grow up thinking the same thing, especially since you are so positive about her first mom :-D!

        • Thanks for the comment Sara – and you really did get to the heart of my response to Kristel, which is the tendency for the first parents to be left out or viewed negatively because they are not parenting. Sometimes the capacity issue is about economics or life situation. Sometimes it might be about emotional capacity to parent. Usually I imagine both are factors. Y, the first woman who chose us, was in a situation where it seemed obvious from economic and material standpoints that adoption was the right choice. But she was already a mom and already parenting other children and she knew that she had the emotional capacity to parent. I think that in the end, that’s why she couldn’t(and shouldn’t have) relinquish her child.

          Anyways I really appreciate the props, especially coming from someone who understands my daughter’s position in a way that I won’t ever be able to!

      • Alissa, thank you for defending birthmothers. I am a birth mother and I loved and wanted my baby. It is rare to find non-birth mothers out there who understand and empathize with the reasons why we give our babies up, and you just pinpointed it exactly. I usually get so angry when I read about adoptions or see movies about adoption (don’t get me started on Juno), or see adoption advertisements because unless you have lived it you can’t get it, and usually the birth mother’s perspective is either omitted, or woefully misrepresented. You clearly get it! I am so impressed also with the compassionate way that you write about Y and the ultimate choice that she made. I know that must have been painful for you. Thank you, and best of luck with your new family!

        • I was just curious as to why you found “Juno” so inaccurate. If you really wish not to get into it I understand. I had friends who were teen mothers and looked into adoption. The thing I noticed most about the movie was her flippant attitude towards everything.

          • well… The best review that I read of Juno called it in essence a fairy tale. Her flippant atitude, yeah that was a big part of it. She seems completely uninterested in her baby throughout most of it and in the end say’s something like, oh well the baby was never really mine, it was always just supposed to be with the adoptive mother…. The relationship that she had with her family and the birth father seemed unrealistic as well, to me. You don’t hang out with with your baby daddy playing the guitar singing moldy peaches love songs to each other after putting your child up for adoption… you cry a lot. you feel the worst you have ever felt, or ever will feel, and it takes a long long time before this starts to let up, a long time, and it never entirely goes away.

            I know that everyone’s experience is different, but from the reading that I’ve done and the few other birthmothers that I’ve met, it’s exactly what allisa says:

            “I have never met a biological parent that didn’t want their child with every ounce of capacity they had for wanting. When a choice is made for something different it is always a choice to go against what they want because of incredibly unfortunate circumstances”

            In many cases women are coerced, abandoned by their families, abandoned by the birthfathers, and have limited economic resources. Up until the 1980’s many young pregnant women were hidden away by their families in ‘maternity homes’ to avoid scandal, where they were quite literally forced to give up their children.

            I only found this all out after the fact, but I have yet to see this side of adoption portrayed in the media, aside from the movie The Magdalene Sisters.

  2. I’m curious, do you ever find that people will ask you inadvertently racist questions about your child?

    My grandmother did foster care for many years after she retired from being a nurse and oftentimes the children she cared for were black. I remember going to the zoo with my grandmother and the baby she was fostering at the time when I was in middle school. The amount of just out there bizarre questions complete strangers would ask my grandmother and I were mind boggling!!

    • Part of being a family formed through adoption is accepting that we will be fielding all sorts of questions for the rest of our lives and some of them will be interesting and educated questions and others will be ignorant and yes racist. I haven’t had very many negative experiences so far – J is eight months old – most of the overt attention we get is from black people in our very ethnic neighborhood. And most of that attention is very positive.

      The most common question from white people ais the “where/what country is she from” question, revealing the assumption on other folks’ part that 1. a child of color with a white mother is from another country and 2. it is appropriate in some way to ask a total stranger details about how she became a mother.

      The most racist question I have received, also mostly from white people, is “how is her health?” asked in a way that makes me think they are assuming my child’s first mother was a drug user. I really really don’t like that one.

      • Yeah my grandmother would get the drug question ALL the time when she was fostering black babies. Ironically most of the “crack babies” she fostered were white and she was never asked about it with those babies.

        I think the most awkward question I was there for was a woman who looks in disdain at my grandmother, then at me, then spat, “So whose baby is it anyway?!”

        Granted she lives in the semi-rural South so I’m sure the level of understanding isn’t quite what it would be in other parts of the US but still, things like that just make you sigh and shake your head sadly.

        • This. My husband’s aunt fostered children for a while before she adopted. The only “crack babies” that she fostered were white, as was the son that she eventually adopted. Most of the ethnic children that she cared for came more from economically depressed families.

          • There is a sterotype of white women who choose adoption as being young and having made one mistake, with a bright future ahead. And a stereotype of black women and other women of color as being drug addicts. Neither are near accurate – most women who voluntarily relinquish children to adoption are in their late 20s and already parenting a child. Which has totally different implications. Foster care is a different story of course, but I think you are spot on.

  3. Congratulations on forming such a wonderful family!

    Speaking as a daughter who was adopted, I am happy to hear you finding your own balance of how your family works. I found my birth mother when I was in my early 20s. Open adoption wasn’t an option back then, and my parents chose to keep some things from me until I was old enough to ask. Some of that I was displeased with, but I can understand their approach. They wanted to make me feel like my birth parents loved me. In reality my birth dad was completely out of the picture.

    Regardless, I do have a relationship with my birth mother, but it is not a close relationship, and I do not want one. She will introduce herself as my mom, usually to people she knows who (I assume) know that I have another mom who I call “Mum” while my birth mom is J. It makes for an interesting dynamic, which I think my Mum finds more difficult to navigate sometimes than I do. I get the choice in it except when health issues come into play.

    You will have to find your own dynamic, but your baby will have a wonderful family, however it is balanced.

  4. This was great to read. A lot of the infertility blogs I’ve found deal with going the medical route, and for the most part people who firmly believe the medical route was the right choice for them. I would love to hear more about people who tried the medical route but ended up going the adoption route–does anyone know of any blogs or other resources for this?

    • I would check out the link above to the open adoption blogger network. There are a lot of blogs there written by pre-adoptive parents and adoptive parents, many of whom had experiences with infertility before deciding to adopt. What you won’t find there are blogs by women who decided to be childfree after infertility. Another resource might be the Stirrup Queen’s blogroll. If you’re not familiar with that just google it – there are ALL sorts of infertility and post-infertility blogs listed there. 🙂

  5. Thank you for writing this piece, and thank everyone for their insightful comments. My husband and I (white) finalized the adoption of our daughter BB (black) just yesterday. She is 10 months old and has been with us since she was 2 weeks old. She is adopted through the foster care system and, therefore, her adoption is closed.

    On infertility: For some reason, although I’ve always envisioned myself as a mom, I don’t have that “baby ache” that many women do. So when we stopped using birth control and did not magically become pregnant, we didn’t pursue medical assistance other than to have the plumbing checked. We sat across from the doctor as she told us that, based on my age, we would be very unlikely to conceive naturally and we simply responded “OK, then we’ll adopt.” The doctor was floored. She told us in all her years she’d never had anyone respond like that.

    So to answer the question “why did you adopt?” is not that hard for us. We chose to adopt because it was family-building route that resonated with us the most. And we chose to adopt through foster care for the same reason. Just as my husband and I found each other and vowed at our wedding to be each other’s family, so did we find and vow to our daughter.

    On race: *sigh* We get the “what country is she from” all the time and I have found myself fumbling for responses. I used to say “no no, she’s domestic” but I realized that made her sound like a beer, not a baby. As we approached our finalization day yesterday, I put some thought into how I would respond to this question moving forward. For the moment, I intend to give a direct, literal answer such as “United States.” And if they don’t take the clue and insist on telling me about how their sister’s cousins hairdresser just adopted from Ethiopia, I will say “Thanks so much for your interest and sharing that story, but this isn’t something I feel comfortable discussing.” The end.

    On birth parents: A long time ago, I was in a very bad relationship that needed to end. As I cried to my friend “but I love him!” she calmly responded “And he loves you, to the best of his capabilities. It’s just that his capabilities aren’t what you need right now.” She was the first person to show him empathy, who didn’t say “dump the jerk,” and who enabled me to see the way out of the relationship without devaluing myself for having been with a jerk in the first place. I plan to teach my daughter some variation on that when we talk about her birth parents. There was nothing wrong with her, and nothing “wrong” with her birth parents, per se. It’s just that sometimes parents have problems that make it so they can’t care of their kids they way that is best for them. They loved her to the best of their capabilities. And now we love her too.

  6. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story. You see your position from such a caring pov for everyone in your (extended) family. It does sad to read (both from you and Ariel) how you felt some guilt over trying medical intervention to have a child. If trying without assistance has not been successful, and the technology exists and a person has the means to, then I think it’s more than fair enough to try. You’ve been true to yourselves by being aware enough to say, we tried, and that didn’t work so it’s not our path, let’s find our path. I find that commendable.

  7. Thank you for your story Alissa! My husband and I(both of us are white) are in the process of adopting our son, who is black and Hispanic. We get a lot of people who tell us how “lucky” our son is, but we know we’re the lucky ones. He is so very special and loved, by ALL of his parents! We have an open adoption, I talk to his firstmom all the time. We almost have a big sister/little sister relationship in a way, she calls or texts to ask for advice or to give me updates on her life, and I call or text updates on our son or to see how she’s doing and what’s new with her. I love her dearly and she’ll always be a part of our family!

  8. When I posted our ultrasound (we’re very closely tied to the person giving birth), someone asked, “Is this your baby?” It took a few spins through “Yes, it’s ours, I’m not the mama who’s pregnant, though,” and other ways of explaining it, to get to reality, before she just stopped asking.

  9. Alissa,
    After 16 months of trying to conceive, I have discovered that it’s possible I may never have my own biological child.
    Your story resonated with me when you described your regret over the medical help that you sought. At this point, I have no desire or motivation to go through invasive, expensive tests and procedures. The experience of infertility is difficult enough. But I worry every night that some day, after it’s too late, I may regret the decision NOT to seek medical intervention. Until I read your story, I never considered the alternative- that I might regret going there. Thank you for that insight. It’s an “Ah ha” moment for me to consider. I appreciate your words and your inspirational story of adoption.

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