Friday, June 4, 2010

Open Adoption

This was not an easy night for our daughter. We were very proud of her. Will and I accompanied her to a circle of people thinking of adopting through Open Adoption. The circle included birth mothers and father who had gone through the process. They were going to share their experiences with the interested future parents.

It was not easy to sit there and listen to the birth mothers and the father talk about their experiences as different as night is from day from Maki's experience. They shared stories with glowing faces about adoptive parents who had become like family -- the gay couple raising the young man's son who sends him and the birth mother pictures each month, calls them, a young woman Maki's age with a son she adopted to a couple the same year, welcomed into the family, a room in the basement when she goes to visit, visiting even on Mother's Day, able to name the baby, her family invited to their family gatherings, or the older former drug addict who had twin boys, also welcome, given pictures every month, phone calls all the time, honored and treated respectfully by the adoptive parents.

It was hard to sit beside our daughter knowing how she is treated by the adopted parents, a law professor for a dad, a stay at home mom, well respected by their peers, and their treatment of our daughter a dirty secret we all keep. I looked over at her expecting tears and saw her soft smile for each couple. I marvel at Maki's good feelings and it makes me proud of her. This is our daughter who came to us at five years old with no expectations of being hugged, no expectations that she should be held in a healthy way, no expectations to have a family stay with her through thick or thin, no expectations of any permanence -- and as a teen, rebelled against a thick or thin, permanent, consistent, big family. Our daughter became pregnant at 18 and when she finally accepted the reality, focused the whole of herself on the twin girls growing inside of her -- stopped her partying, thought of the little ones before she thought of herself. As I sat beside Maki in the Open Adoption circle, I remembered our walks up Mt. Pigsah, her talking to the twins, explaining to the twins what she wanted for them, telling them she loved them, that she was going to work very hard so they would be healthy and feel loved, that she was going to choose carefully two parents with a home who could take care of them and love them too and give them what she could not. She promised she would never abandon them and would be in their lives. She said she would tell them someday what her thoughts were while she carried them. She kept a journal of those thoughts. It was very important as an abandoned child herself that these two little girls did not feel abandoned at all. She would ask me to pray that for her and them. And I did. I prayed that they would always have a happy life and never feel like something was missing. She would squeeze my hand when I said those words. She had no ego. She wanted the girls to feel complete with their adopted parents. I remember Maki talking about how the trees would be there for them anytime they felt lonely. That is what she learned from Grandpa Marvin our Kickapoo relative. Her name meant "tall straight evergreen" and she felt related and comforted by trees. She prayed for the girls. She played calm music for them. She gave up bad food for them, and the drinking and the hard life, just like that for them.

Months before any of these other parents in the Open Adoption Circle did, she picked the parents and made a relationship with them. She honored and respected them. They were 40 years old and she felt they deserved respect from her. One was a professor, Japanese American, the mother Jewish. They seemed friendly, and committed to Open Adoption and seemed respectful of Maki. They were respectful when they came to the hospital, and when Maki let them in the hospital room with her and the twins, and they could carry them. They were respectful at the formal ritual Open Adoption does when the babies are given to the adoptive parents. And then slowly at first and then more and more boldly things changed.

It was hard to listen to the other birth mothers talk about their experience with a tone of entitlement, with such sureness about their importance and status in their children's lives. They referred to them as "my sons." Our daughter does not claim that right. Granted, she went through the same up and down transition as the others, visiting too many times, calling too many times, asking to see them too many times. I was surprised it was common where the birth parents and the adoptive parents compassionately work things out with each other during the tough transition. Now that I look back on it I see that the girls' adoptive parents did not handle it as the other adoptive parents of that circle. M., the mother, would call me and I would have to rein Maki in. I had no context or understanding of Open Adoption. I should have said, "call Open Adoption" and let them work it out together. So from the beginning, I now see that the commitment to Open Adoption just was not there for them. The conversation was sabotaged. There was no intention to communicate with Maki herself. From the beginning, Maki's presence was like a fly in the ointment.

For the past seven years, Maki would call politely and ask for pictures. She hinted she wanted some she could frame, not the emailed pictures which printed into tiny little squares -- a hundred little photos sent as if to keep her satisfied for a long time so they wouldn't have to bother. She would ask if she could visit and has been able to only a few times during the girls' lives, maybe three times in seven years. She called and left messages. No return calls. One day she said to me, "I think I should just not bother them anymore. Maybe I can ask for one picture a year?"

I said, "Maki, you know, the adults in your life have not kept their commitments to you so you are someone who maybe even thinks you don't deserve commitments kept. But you deserve it. You deserve to be respected. These parents owe you what was promised." So she would call or write and ask again.

It's been so long I don't remember the exact words or even the request but I finally sat down and wrote M. and K. a "mother to mother" letter asking them to have compassion for our daughter. I think I did tell them that Will and I did not expect nor will we ask to be part of their lives but that we wish for them to have compassion for Maki.

Fast forward to the Open Adoption circle tonight. How was it that we became part of the circle. Maki moved home to be close to us last year. She came as a grown, mature woman, able to take care of herself, a forthright young woman whose power is truth. Maki is vivacious, energetic. She does what she believes is right and fair. She has lots of friends because she is fun and does things for them. But once in awhile she admits how sad she is and asks, maybe I should give up and not bother them. I know who she is talking about. I don't even have to ask. "Maybe if they could just send pictures a couple of times a year." I told her you have two choices. Wait until they are 18 because they will come to find you. All of us look for the parent eventually. And when they do, you should show respect for their parents and never say anything bad. She said, "Yes, of course. I would do that, Mom." I knew that. I think we all were so jumpy about how the two adoptive parents see us, like "beggers" waiting for a handout on their front lawn. I think we all felt ashamed and apologetic deep down. And the other choice? Go to Open Adoption and ask for advice.

She did. And Open Adoption responded with such clarity. No hesitation. They called M. and talked to her. They read her the contract. I won't go into detail but they got the picture. They picked up the tone, the lack of intent.

According to Open Adoption, Maki's situation is a very rare case, which is good. I am embarrassed for the two adoptive parents to have taken such a road to become one of the least sensitive parents of this organization. But our family has a mantra, "the girls are happy. They are really good to the girls." And we try to let it go.

Open Adoption told our daughter her rights. They said she could even ask for us to be grandparents which she shared with me. "I'm sorry, Maki. We will support you, but we have experienced M. She has no intention for us to be in the picture. The twins have grandparents already. Your dad and I made a decision a long time ago for peace for the girls and not provoke the adoptive mother." We will, however, support Maki's right to see the girls and the Open Adoption process.

So that's how we came to be in that circle. When it was Maki's turn to speak, I put my arm around her. Was she going to be able to follow these exemplary Open Adoption stories without breaking down? It was overwhelming, the difference. Following the other birth parents who boldly shared what they demanded and got, she would say, I never would think of asking to see them on Mother's Day. I never would have asked to have them flown to my home. I never thought I could go to a family gathering or fly in and expect to stay at their house. She did not expect anything, maybe two pictures a year, a call back, an email back.

Finally I spoke. The question was, are there any suggestions for these prospective parents?

"I have something to say. Look deeply into your hearts, be really honest with yourselves before you adopt through Open Adoption. These two people who adopted the girls are nice people, as nice as anyone in this circle." Maki nodded in agreement. "But they picked the wrong kind of adoption for themselves. And that wrong fit made them do bad things. They should have chosen a closed adoption. But because they chose unwisely and followed their own selfish needs rather than their commitment, they have harmed our daughter. If there is anything in you that prefers to have your own family, no interference from the outside, your own holidays, your own lives, don't choose this way just because open adoption sounds cool, valiant, liberal, open-minded. There is no shame in a closed adoption."

I also said, "We are adoptive parents. Our daughter came to us when she was five. She did not know nor did she expect anything but broken commitments. The adults in her life let her down. I had to tell her that she deserved to have these two people keep their commitment. They are adults. They are in their 40's or 50's and should know how to live a dignified life. They are professionals aspiring to the higher echelons of society. They can keep a commitment. I am a "mother bear" in this situation. I am upset our daughter is treated badly, disrespectfully, and still is to this day. I am upset that things are done begrudgingly, and without any respect or compassion for her, of all people."

I hope they listened. I hope none of them adopt through Open Adoption unless they are determined, uncomfortable as it may be sometimes, to honor their commitments. I hope they know that commitments must be kept even if they are much too busy and much too important to bother with a former "troubled teen." I hope if any of them meet the birth mother and she expects the minimum as our daughter does, that they will appreciate her and give her a little more than what she asks. And if open adoption is not for them, I hope they honor and respect and accept themselves lovingly and say, this is not for me. I must parent another way.

I received a letter from M, I suspect as a result of the mediation which Maki sought from the Open Adoption staff. I decided to wait to open it with Maki when she returned from a six week job in Utah, just in case she wasn't sent anything. During the early years when they still lived in Eugene, I received long phone calls from M telling us how much they enjoyed us and how they must have us over to their home. Such phone calls preceded a long disappearance into nothing. This letter felt no different. Intentions are clarified by action. And the actions have made what almost seemed like a cruel game. I don't know how else to explain this strange pattern except as a game. I feel toyed with. But I accept that there are such people in the world. And say the mantra to myself. "The girls are happy. Their parents are good to them."

So I set the letter aside and waited for Maki to come home. If she came home to no letter or pictures, if the letter to us was a retaliatory gesture, I was prepared to go to Open Adoption and ask them to call M and inform her that she is not to contact us to hurt our daughter again. But that was unnecessary. When Maki got home, she had an envelope from M. waiting for her, opened her envelope. Pictures, a letter, a program of Sarah in a play, a piece written by Sarah about her day, a nice crayola drawing from Rachel. I was satisfied and sent a thank you and acknowledgment of the letter and pictures. The girls had grown so much, of course. The last time we saw them or heard anything of them was when they were two years old. Now they were seven and in the second grade!

I suppose I believe in miracles so there may be another letter for Maki from the adoptive parents, probably the mother because apparently, in the arguments between M and K, dealing with Maki has become the mother's responsibility and the father is not involved at all. Perhaps the communication will be done in a timely manner without our daughter having to ask the agency to call the adoptive parents again to remind them of the contract. But I am heartened to know that the agency is more than happy to continue to call those parents for as long as they are needed in order for the parents to remember, and they will not stop. It did me some good to hear a circle of people gasp to a very tamed down version of Maki's experience. She does not want to hurt the adoptive parents. She is the first to admit how busy they must be, how it's easy to forget. The group gasped, nonetheless, and that emphasizes for Maki that she is a human being who counts for something in this world and deserves to be treated as such. The former addict gave birth to twin boys who had weathered drugs and carbon monoxide poisoning before being born. Maki, our wild child, stopped all her wild ways determined to have healthy girls. She talked to them and told them en utero that they were loved and she would always be in their lives in some way. She nursed them while they were in the hospital so they would be as strong as possible. To their credit, the former addict's adoptive parents have no fear or prejudice of her life style and honor and respect her. Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle and beg so she can keep a promise she made to stop the cycle of abandonment that she suffered and do whatever possible to keep it from the twins' lives.

I saw one thing tonight that really did my heart good. The Open Adoption birth mothers and father, I noticed, held their head high, talked with authority of their high place in their children's lives, as I said. Their adoptive parents helped the birth parents be proud, as they should be, sure of themselves and the good decision they made, and that in making this decision, they could feel that they were good parents. Tonight,although she spoke with much fewer expectations of K. and M. and although theirs is a failed open adoption, I saw my daughter sit with her head held high enough. She no longer felt like an interference. Her cheeks were no longer red with stress, head held obsequiously begging for a bit of a letter or a photo big enough to frame and hold in her hand rather than a hundred mini-shots she has to xerox from a hurried email. She was finally respected. She was respected by the Open Adoption staff who had heard both sides and are helping to smooth the way for both parties to have a successful Open Adoption someday. Our daughter was respected by the prospective parents in the Open Adoption circle tonight because she had so few requests, had kind thoughts and kind words to say about the adoptive parents, had compassion for their situation regarding her. She only came to emphasize how important communication was and to testify about Open Adoptions' staffs' ability to mediate successfully. She came to share her true feelings about the heavy responsibility the commitment brings to it and to think carefully. She carried herself with dignity. I am so happy for her that she finally got some respect for being a birth mother outside of her parents respect for her.

I hope that eventually these two adoptive parents will find the energy, the will, and take the time to integrate their Open Adoption commitment into their lives so that it is not an added bother but instead as important as their important lives are. I hope they break the destructive cycle of neglect and abandonment which our daughter tried so hard to break. Only a birth mother knows instinctively how those things get passed down, how those unexplainable empty spots still hang around deep inside the heart that is not tended.

She picked Open Adoption for reasons others had not even considered in that circle. Tonight I heard their stories and found it missing Maki's most heart felt reasons. She picked Open Adoption for Openness, for the truth, for no dirty little family secrets. She is conscious of the hurtful legacy of family secrets, of BEING a secret. It broke her heart to know the two adoptive parents -- as she calls them HER adoptive parents -- never told the girls they were adopted. Their family doctor unknowingly blurted it out at an appointment and the girls were shocked. M described that to Maki over the phone, how their mouths dropped open. The foundation stones Maki had thought she had carefully placed for her girls were kicked to the side from the outset. They were a secret. She was a secret. They weren't connected. She was made to have abandoned them. And they will carry those circumstances into their "fifteen year old phase." I don't know how or if it will play out. It certainly played out in our lives as adoptive parents. I will pray for the family that same first prayer that the girls will feel whole and want for nothing in their heart and feel things complete with their family. That was our prayer together, Maki and I. Maki was hoping to avoid any possibility the girls would would replicate the hardship of the out of control period of her younger life which came up because as a small child in an orphanage, ripped out of familiar surroundings for a 24 hour jet flight to Eugene, she had no control. She tried hard and planned to give the girls she carried and cared for and talked to and crossed the t's and dotted the i's for a life of great satisfaction, no empty spaces, no secrets, nothing to yearn for without knowing what it is. All for naught. Some people just don't know a gift when they see one staring them in the face.

I wouldn't want that said about me. So I will say, Maki Doolittle is a gift staring us in the face! Many blessings, Maki! We are very proud of you.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.