There was surely no adult who understood kids like Fred Rogers, yet for all the grownups who grew up with him, few seem to know Mister Roger’s adoption story. This Father’s Day weekend, we can’t help but remember a great father whose life also happened to have been touched by adoption, although not, perhaps, as you might be thinking?
Fred Rogers was an only child until he was eleven years old. That’s when his parents adopted a six-month-old baby girl, Nancy Elaine. Before then, he had no siblings, and turned to his piano for emotional release. He fondly remembered his sister’s adoption well into old age, and spoke of it in one of the segments of his show, that she made a brother of him: Mister Rogers on adoption and he later published a book on adoption, as well. Mister Rogers even later named a character on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood Lady Elaine Fairchilde in honor of his adopted sister.
Fred Rogers grew up to be an ordained Presbyterian minister and his wife became the proud parents of two (homegrown) sons. A documentary on his life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is earning rave reviews, and we urge the families of the AbrazoNation to see it together.
Given that Laney Rogers’ adoption occurred in the Baby Scoop Era, one can presume that this was a closed adoption, of course. Still, given his gentle and kind nature, and his innate understanding of children and their need for honest answers, we can’t help but think that Mister Rogers would surely have embraced the gifts that the open adoption process offers both parents and children.
To that end, let’s look at how Mister Roger’s words apply to open adoption:
“Your family is special, because of all the ways you belong together.”
Fred Rogers acknowledged publicly that his adopted sister did not look like him and his parents, and that this was perfectly okay. “Nobody’s exactly like everybody else, whether they’re adopted or not,” he told his audience. He reads a book “Exactly As I Am” in one segment, reinforcing the message that differences need not define nor separate families. It’s all right to acknowledge (and yes, celebrate) contrasts within families, and to honor reminders that families belong together however they are formed. In fact, it’s good parenting to do this, and to do so often.
“I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue that it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you, it’s you I like.”
The adoption process can often leave all of the triad members feeling inadequate. Birthparents worry that they won’t measure up to adoptive parents’ expectations. Adoptive parents worry about whether their adopted children and the birthfamilies will see them as “real” parents. Adoptees worry about being fully accepted by their birthfamilies as well as their adoptive families. Mister Rogers would surely remind all of them of the importance of loving and being loved, fully, not for anything they’ve done but just for who they are.
“Please don’t think it’s funny when you want the ones you miss; there are lots and lots of people who sometimes feel like this.”
Even in open adoptions, people can miss each other, and not always feel able to free to express it. Mister Rogers made it acceptable for children to say what they feel, and adults would do well to learn that from him, as well.
The classic song “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny” by Fred Rogers surely speaks to the grief that any parents and children touched by adoption feel. There’s a German word, “fernweh” which describe’s one’s longing for a place to which they’ve never been, and this is a common theme for many whose lives have been touched by adoption. Couples who experienced unresolved infertility can miss the child they never knew. Birthparents miss the parental roles they forfeited to adoption. Adoptees long to know what life may have been like had their grown up in their families of origin. It’s all normal, and it’s important for children and parents to know it’s fine to feel this way– and to share it with those that love you best.
“You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
What a precious message for every child and parent to live and breathe, and to freely share with each other all their whole lives long. Adoptees need to hear this from their birthparents and from their parents-by-adoption. Birthparents need to hear it from the parents who adopted their kids, and from the adoptees, too, And adoptive parents need to hear it from their children’s birthparents, and to have unsolicited assurances coming from their sons and daughters, as well. Nobody has the corner on the confidence market; everyone needs to feel valued and appreciated, and in the adoption community, this is especially true. As Abrazo frequently reminds its clientele, “Forever families should include everybody– forever.” We know that Mister Rogers, with his emphasis on acceptance and integrity, would almost certainly agree.
“Always look for the people who are helping. You’ll always find somebody who’s trying to help.”
Fred Rogers said, in a soothing message to children after the 9-11 tragedy, that this was the advice his mother always offered him in times of trouble. Not only is this an important mantra for parents to repeat to their children, it’s a truth of which birthparents and adoptive parents should be frequently assured, as well. Parenting is not a job for sissies. It’s hard work, and nobody does it all right all the time. If you are struggling with the many multi-hued challenges of being a birthparent or an adoptive parent, there is help out there… you don’t have to go it alone! Call your adoption agency for referrals for post-adoption counseling or behavioral therapists or attachment experts, as needed.
As Mister Rogers himself reminded college graduates in a commencement address: “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has —or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
(That probably sums up beautifully how any Mister Rogers adoption story should look and feel, doesn’t it?)
One of the lingering sorrows of the work we do is witnessing the numbers of the throwaway girls in our society, and how easily young women can fall between the cracks when drugs, poverty and broken families destabilize their lives.
USA Today published a story in January 2018 about victims of child trafficking and how little justice the system offers them, and it brought to mind a call that came into Abrazo several years ago.
It was a normal workday, at least it was until this call came in.
“Yeah, I got a pregnant girl in my truck, and I wanna know if I can bring her there.”
He was a long-distance trucker, he told us. He had picked up a runaway teenager in St. Louis months ago, and she had been with him ever since.
Originally, he said, she’d told him she was 18, which would have been more than half his age. Based on this information, he began a sexual relationship with her, but it wasn’t until after she got pregnant and then refused to abort that he learned she was actually younger. (Much younger… fourteen, in fact.)
Now this trucker was panicking. He wanted to get rid of her. He was afraid she might turn him in, and he didn’t want her coming after him for child support, either, lest his wife find out.
He wanted a safe place to drop her off, and he wanted nothing more to do with her or her baby. Her family didn’t want her back, he insisted. He refused to give us more than a first name, and our agency didn’t have caller ID at the time.
But he wanted assurances that we would take this pregnant child off his hands, place her child for adoption, and prevent her from ever identifying him in the legal process.
That was not something we could do for him, given the laws. We had reason to believe that this girl did exist and was in danger, so we kept the trucker talking, and in the meantime, our staff used the other office lines to contact the phone company, law enforcement and the National Center for Missing Children.
The National Center for Missing Children had no reports from the St. Louis area that matched the missing girl, but as the Center told us, thousands of runaway cases go unreported every year, either because of abuse in the home or because the parents kicked the child out.
The phone company and law enforcement ran a trace on the call while we kept the trucker talking. The trucker said he was calling from a Wal-Mart payphone in another state, but he refused to tell us where he was. He wouldn’t tell us who he drove for, nor what he was hauling.
We asked him to put his pregnant passenger on the phone, but he refused, saying she didn’t know yet what he was planning and he didn’t want her to bolt from his truck “for her safety” (but presumably, also for his, of course.)
We gently explained to him that although parental consent is not required for a teenager to place a baby for adoption, no mother (whatever her age) can be required to place by any private entity or individual, and that in accordance with Texas laws back then, he would need to sign a waiver indicating his consent to adoption if that was the choice she ultimately made for her child.
At that point, he balked. He wasn’t going to sign anything, he said, and if he couldn’t just pull his semi into our parking lot on a weekend and push her out, he was going to have to do something else.
The words “do something else” made our blood run cold. We did our best to engage him in further conversation, but the trucker had clearly gotten spooked. He hung up on us, then, and law enforcement assured us that they had gotten enough time to track his location.
They traced the call to a payphone at a WalMart store in Arkansas, but unfortunately, store security cameras later showed a man leaving in a hurry– before the police could get there. We were very grateful to the Heidi Search Center for their guidance throughout this call, and we did file a police report on the trucker and a missing persons report for the child, but without full names or DOB or other relevant information, it is unlikely either was ever of any real use
We never knew what became of this pregnant teen, and it haunts us still. No young woman deserves to be discarded by anyone– certainly not by a partner nor a parent, nor by anyone else.
The adoption laws in Texas have changed, since then. Whether for better or worse is unclear, but pregnant females making adoption plans in Texas are no longer required by law to identify the baby’s father unless he is a husband or legal father. And alleged fathers are no longer required to sign waivers of interest for children they refuse to claim. Statutory rape, however, is still a crime. And child trafficking is still on the rise, although the Heidi Search Center had to close its doors– due to lack of funding, not due to any lack of missing child cases.
Yes, the world is full of young women that some consider to be the throwaway girls, like the pregnant teen in the truck that day. If you know a runaway in need of services, contact the National Runaway Helpline, and if you ever encounter someone you believe is a victim of human trafficking, find them help here: National Human Trafficking Hotline At Abrazo, we see a certain number of them placing babies for adoption each year, and we do our level best to ensure that even if their own families of origin have rejected them, our adoptive families will not do the same thing to them.
There’s no way of knowing if that pregnant teen the trucker was calling about would ever have come to see adoption as the right choice for her and her child. There’s no telling where she and her child may be now. We’ll always regret, though, that we weren’t able to help get her to safety– if in fact she did exist?
The sad irony is that the person most in need of a loving adoptive home may have been the teenager. And therein lies the tragic truth; so many of the women who do make voluntary adoption plans for their children nowadays are desperately trying to give their little ones the kind of lives they themselves always wanted and never had.
Open adoption is not a panacea. When done the right way and for the right reasons, though, it does have the potential to give the throwaway girls and their children a better chance at a brighter future, and for this reason, Abrazo remains open to those who do most need our help, whatever the circumstances.
It’s one thing to talk about open adoption, but it’s something else to be part of open adoptions that are really open.
Really open adoptions take effort and commitment and communication to make them work. Just as the Markle family and the House of Windsor must work at becoming family following the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, birthparents and adoptive parents who become relatives through the adoption of a child both love have to learn to love (and live with) each other, too.
In open adoptions that are really open, the families have cried and laughed together. They’ve shared meals and family secrets and traditions and ideas. They don’t always agree, and they agree that they don’t always have to, because after all, they’re family. They surround their child/ren with love and while they don’t always have all the answers to all the questions the adoptee may have, they always validate the adoptee’s right to ask them.
They may (or may not) call the child they share by the same name. They may (or may not) talk on the phone or text or email often. They may (or may not) like each other’s taste in clothes, or children’s haircuts, or music, or parenting styles. They may (or may not) see each other on a regular schedule. They may (or may not) disagree on things like religion or politics, or they may avoid such discussions all together.
It’s hard to describe the nature of all open adoption relationships, since each varies with the needs of the individuals involved, but all open adoptions that are really open have this in common: trust. And transparency. And tender-hearted affinity for one another.
Another thing that birthparents and adoptive parents who have placed and adopted through Abrazo have in common is that both have survived great loss. The birthparents have weathered the stress of untimely pregnancies and the adoptive parents know the sorrow of infertility. Both share in the joy and the grief that surrounds any voluntary placement, so both have reason to be sensitive to the losses overcome not just by each other but by the adoptee they all love so.
The Cycles of Open Adoption Relationships
In the beginning, when the parents who are placing/have placed and the parents who are adopting/have adopted are just starting out, the relationship is still new to everyone. Everybody’s feeling their way gingerly, adapting to their new roles and responsibilities.
In time, though, the participants in open adoptions that are really open find a rhythm that works for them. They learn how to understand each other, and they come to see each other as relatives, for better or worse.
It was Margaret Mead who suggested that marriage should be a relationship in which the terms get renegotiated every so many years. While we’d still like to believe that every marriage is meant to last for a lifetime, we do understand what she was saying: human relationships need to change and grow over time, and to do so, the participants must be attuned to each other’s needs and honest about their own.
The same is true in open adoption relationships, especially because the commitment to the relationship is a commitment made by and between the adults, all of whom must forever be mindful of and sensitive to the needs of the adoptee. The adoptee may (or may not) choose to participate in the relationship, but it is imperative that all the adults respect his or her wishes (all while honoring their promises to the other.)
If adjustments need to be made to the contact schedule to which all initially agreed, these changes need to be discussed honestly (and whenever possible, in person) prior to changes being made. It’s okay for either party to say “hey, I’m going through something personal and I’m going to need some space for a few weeks/months” but it’s not okay to ghost the other party and just hope they figure it out.
And always remember: the best relationships take work to make them work. If you’re feeling your connection isn’t what you want it to be, then you always have the option of getting some counseling to help you figure out what fine-tuning could be done to help it feel more “right.”
Don’t forget your 50k mile tuneups!
Adoptee and adoption expert Dr. Joyce Pavao recommends that parents and adoptees consider getting counseling periodically, like a 50k mile tuneup, just to check where everybody’s at, how everyone is feeling and what needs are or are not being met. This is an idea that could potentially go a long way towards keeping everyone healthier in the adoption triad. (And even families with the best of communication may benefit from the validation, and from having a neutral party such as a therapist raising the questions that may be harder to talk about.)
It’s a common misconception that adoptions are “done” when a birthcouple signs their surrenders or when a judge pounds the gavel after pronouncing approval of the adoption decree. The truth, though, is that placement and finalization are only the beginning.
Whether any adoption is open or closed, the truth is that the relationship of the adoptee to all his or her parents (by birth and adoption) is an ongoing work in progress, which can be positively or negatively impacted by their relationship with each other (or lack thereof.)
And open adoption is no guarantee that the adoptee will or will not have “issues” along the way, of course. Open adoptions don’t entail less grief, even if it’s shaped differently for the people involved. The inherent losses that come with adoption affect every adopted person (and each parent) differently, at different stages of the lifespan.
With open adoptions that are really open, however, the parents involved can support each other and the adoptee throughout any issues that may arise, and emerge happier and healthier for having continually nurtured these family ties– out of love for the child they all share.
This week we are going to Camp Abrazo. It’s my most favorite thing. (Well, almost. I like birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and ice cream sundaes and Halloween, too. But Camp Abrazo is right up there.)
When we go to Camp Abrazo, we drive a long way to get there. Dad does the driving because Mom packs so much we always get a late start. Mom tells Dad not to drive so fast. But Dad says he wants to get there as soon as the longhorn does. (I think he really just wants the free beer.)
See, there’s a longhorn at Camp the first day. You could say he’s like the welcoming committee. His name is Oreo cuz he’s black with white spots. (Or maybe it’s white with black spots?) He’s got huge horns, and he drools a lot. You can get up on his back and take family pictures. (One year we even used that picture for our Christmas card.)
My friends at Camp, it seems like I’ve known them forever. I only see them once a year, at the ranch, but it’s kind of like we’re cousins or something. ‘Cuz we all got adopted at the same agency, and we all have the same kind of stories. And we’ve all been coming to Camp Abrazo since we were little babies. (Well, most of us, at least.)
At Camp there are lots of people. But they’re all Abrazo people. There’s birthmoms and birthdads. And moms and dads. And lots of kids. And even some babies.
Even though it’s called Camp Abrazo, we don’t stay in tents like at other camps. At Camp Abrazo, we stay in little houses that they call cabins. Most of them are made of rock or stone, and they are real homey. They don’t have kitchens, though. The ranch has people to do the cooking for us, and boy, is their food good! You get to eat as much as you want. There’s even a cowboy breakfast, where you ride the horses out to a special part of the ranch and the cowboys make breakfast for you over a campfire. It’s a-maaaazing!!!
What do we do at Camp? Well, us kids, we play, of course. There’s lots to do! There’s a huge swimming pool, and that water feels so good when it’s hot out. Mostly the dads get in and play with us, sometimes our moms, but usually they sit around the pool and talk (probably about us, right?) We all get matching shirts. And we take a big picture with everybody, just like family.
There’s horses, like I mentioned, and there’s peacocks that roam around. There’s a petting corral with rabbits and goats and a donkey, even. There’s a creek with a rope swing. There’s horseshoes and shuffleboard and a huge life-size chess set.
We get to ride school buses to a nearby rodeo, and the Abrazo kids even get to join in. We don’t do bull riding, of course, but we do get to do mutton-bustin’, and sometimes a calf scramble. At the ranch, Cowgirl Kell has games for us, and prizes, even. There’s a trick roper who comes and does tricks for us. There’s pony rides for the little kids. There’s a steak fry at the ghost town, and fireworks. Plus there’s a candlelight ceremony, where even the kids get to hold candles. Afterwards there’s a family dance, but kids dance better than grownups, if you ask me.
Then before you know it, it’s Sunday already. Sunday at Camp is both happy and sad. It’s happy because we get to go to the air-conditioned place for the Golden Binkies ceremony. We sing songs with Elizabeth, she started Abrazo. Then the AbrazoChicks give out the little trophies, and we find out who won the prizes that raise money that helps the Abrazo ladies help others like angels.
But it’s sad, too, because right after lunch, it’s time to go home. I hug my friends from Camp and I tell them goodbye. I help my parents pack the car. I look for my favorite horse, on the way out. My little brother usually falls asleep even before we get to the ranch’s gate.
I’m glad my family goes to Camp Abrazo each year. It’s super fun. (Even though it’s super hot.)
It’s where my family is just like everyone else’s. And it’s where everyone knows everyone, like one big family.
See why I said going to Camp is my most favoritest thing, and why I can’t get wait to get there?
Coming home means different things to different people, of course.
Yet in the best of instances, homecomings are joyous occasions, when you are welcomed with open arms, and ready greetings.
Coming home means being “at home” with those who love you. It means finding comfort in the familiar sights and sounds and smells. It means being fully accepted for who you are by people who know you.
It means safety and solidarity and a sense of peace.
And that is why at Abrazo, our biennial birthmothers’ retreat is called “Homecoming.”
Coming back to a home in which you’ve never lived
Ever since Abrazo was opened in January of 1994, birthmothers have been the foundation of the work the agency does, because truly, without birthmothers there would quite simply be no adoptions.
The females who voluntarily place children for adoption at Abrazo are not typically helpless and irresponsible teens who couldn’t possibly raise a child on their own. They are loving, conscientious mothers who want the very best for their child/ren, even if the very best doesn’t mean growing up in their care or their home.
They don’t place because they can’t parent– indeed, most Abrazo birthmothers are raising other children. They didn’t choose adoption because their babies were unwanted; even if the pregnancy was unplanned, they love their child/ren dearly and want to see them grow up, even if in another family’s care. And whether or not they could afford another child, financial difficulties were not their only motivation for placing (nor were they compensated for allowing their child/ren to be adopted.)
Abrazo’s birthmothers personally chose their child’s adoptive parents. They got to know them personally prior to placement. They have kept in touch directly since the adoption was done. And yet, they live in a society in which birthmothers still feel, all too often, they wear a scarlet “A” for adoption, for having placed.
To be a birthmother in an open adoption sometimes feels like being a guest in the life of your own child/ren. Even their own families don’t always support them for the loving choices they made on behalf of their child/ren.
This is why, eight years ago, Abrazo began hosting a very special retreat just for mothers who place here, called Homecoming. It’s a safe harbor, where everyone there “gets” where you’ve been and what you’ve done and why. It’s about coming home to a place you’ve never lived and feeling at home with a family you weren’t born into.
What is Homecoming at Abrazo about?
Homecoming at Abrazo is an opportunity for birthmothers of all ages to gather, once every two years, to be celebrated and nurtured and inspired in the presence of other birthmothers and a small conclave of open adoption professionals who remember you and love you– not for what you did but for who you are.
There’s a keynote speaker who opens the retreat with a fascinating perspective on birthmotherdom and what it means, not just when an adoption occurs but in the years that follow.
There’s a tasty lunch, provided by the donors to Abrazo’s Angel Account.
There are more workshops, too, that feature a variety of shemale interests, from birth control to self-confidence to job-searching to romantic relationships to personal safety and more.
There are fun group activities (at our last Homecoming, we did the Abrazo version of “painting with a twist” and two years before that, the participants made their own salt scrubs, which each got to take home.)
And there’s a moving candlelight ceremony, in which all the birthmothers share in remembering the children they’ve placed, the courage it took to place them, and the grateful families borne of these wrenching decisions on their children’s behalf.
Before the attendees even know it, the day is done, and they’re exchanging email addresses and phone numbers and hugs, and heading for home.
For all the planning that goes into it, Abrazo’s Homecoming is always over just hours after it began, seemingly. And yet, for as quickly as the day goes by, the memories (and friendships formed there) live on for years to come.
Hopefully, so does the glow of validation and camaraderie the event offers all the women who attend.
Abrazo’s 2018 Birthmother Homecoming is just hours from beginning, and we can’t wait to welcome home all the new and returning Abrazo birthmoms who will gather to reflect on the choices they made and the amazing life stories of the sons and daughters they placed for adoption here.
We wish each of them safe travels here and back. We offer our heartfelt thanks to all the generous friends within the Abrazo community who have contributed to the success of this event.
(And we hope that returning to Abrazo will always continue to feel just like coming home, because being home is what everything at Abrazo is all about… after all.)
The very best of mothers don’t always birth or parent their own children.
(Read that again, and think about what it means.)
The truth is that “mothering” is a verb, and not a genetic trait. Not everybody can bear children, nor can just anybody parent effectively. To be among the very best of mothers is to take on a role that requires a lifetime commitment, to devote yourself to that role while being true to your own calling in life, and to never truly receive the compensation you surely deserve for doing it well.
If this sounds like a largely thankless task, it is. But then consider the added burdens of becoming a birthmother or an adoptive mother, with all the emotional strain and paperwork and policies that the adoption process entails, and you begin to get a sense of why we think mothers in adoption are in a class by themselves.
Abrazo is blessed to know the very best of mothers. The very best of mothers place and adopt here– not because Abrazo isw the best, but because they are! We know this may sound biased (and we admit, we probably are.) But having met and worked with literally thousands of mothers since January of 1994, Abrazo does know a thing or two about great moms.
We’d love to be able to take the credit for their success, but the very best of moms aren’t made by anyone. Some women seem “born to mother,” but the truth is that the best of mothers are self-grown, and the life experiences that contribute to their success are often fraught with unimaginable tests and trials that help to shape their perspectives and teach them to nurture others’ growth, as a result.
For mothers who place/d.
And for mothers that adopt/ed.
Abrazo is an agency that works primarily with women with unplanned pregnancies and women with documented infertility. This means that all of the women we serve are survivors of great hardship, and veterans of life-changing losses. They haven’t “had it easy” their whole lives, and for this reason, they tend to see the women with whom they partner in a child’s best interests as sisters– not opponents.
The recent reunion of a baby Abrazo placed just weeks ago and both the sets of parents who love her so is a case in point. The adoptive parents didn’t bring the baby back to see the birthparents again because they had to, but because they wanted to. They knew it would be good for the baby to spend time in her first parents’ arms. They knew it would do the birthcouple a world of good to see her again. Plus they missed their daughter’s birthparents, and wanted them to know it, too. Seeing her with her baby again genuinely did their hearts good.
The very best of mothers truly appreciate the gifts that others add to the life of their child, which is how Abrazo birthmoms and adoptive mothers can find it in their hearts to truly appreciate the “other mother(s)” in their children’s lives. Are there still moments when they may worry, secretly, about being inadequate, or being less valued than someone else, or when they long to be their child’s everything? Sure… that’s part of every mother’s journey in life. Still, the very best of mothers are determined to not let their own needs outweigh their child’s best interests, and these are the kind of women we feel so fortunate to know here at Abrazo.
Birthmother’s Day. And Mother’s Day.
This Birthmother’s Day (Saturday) and Mother’s Day (Sunday,) we’ll be thinking of 24 years worth of special moms we know, like Debra and Tessa, and Carine and Rosemarie, and Chrissy and Jessica and Val, and Charlene and Jackie, and Michelle and Mandy and Lynn, and Rebecca and Monica and Tanya, and Leslie and Andrea and Christina, and Kamisha and Regina, and Jessica and Desiree, and Melissa and Mallorie and Bianca, and Katie and Riley, and Cynthia and Alma, and Chelsea and Heather, and Rosa and Bonnie, and Merae and Tanya and Tee, and Myra and Melissa, and Sarah and Georgiana, and Fran and Meagan, and Misty and Tamesha, and Judy and Alexis, and Emma and Dawn and Christina, and Erin and Teri and Misty, and Kelli and Sammy and Pearla, and Lisa and Meg, and Monica and Jessie and Liliana, and Mercedes and Kelsey, and Maralou and Teresa, and Courtney and Clorissa, and Amanda and Lanni, and Victoria and Melissa, and so many, many more women in our community who share a child with genuine gratitude for the other mother in their child’s life.
We’ll be thinking, too, of the many other amazing moms we know, who had hoped to have these kinds of loving relationships with their children’s other mothers, but whose dreams have been foiled by factors beyond their control, like miscommunications or open adoption promises broken or other life tragedies that unexpectedly cut short their access to the other. Their disappointment and grief is a reminder to us all of the importance of connections, and making them stick.
We’ll remember also the expectant mothers and hopeful adoptive moms of our community who look forward to the lasting friendships that truly open adoptions can offer, when that’s the true goal.
So for all you mamas out there in the AbrazoNation, THANK YOU. Thank you for anything you have ever done to lift up another mother. Thank you for the trust you have placed in us, for being open to learning about open adoption, and for all the times you’ve gone the extra mile to make it work. Thank you for all the times and all the ways you have “done for” your child/ren, whether or not anybody even noticed your efforts. Thank you for sharing your job title with another special woman in your child’s life. Thank you for all the times you have sought to educate the world around you about the intricacies of open adoption, in order to make the world a better place for all adoptees.
And most of all: thank you for being the very best of mothers… Happy Birth/Mother’s Day to all of you, from all of us.
There is, perhaps, no greater honor in life than to be pictured in the photo on somebody’s nightstand.
To be the person in the photo on somebody’s nightstand means you are precious to them. It means that yours is the face their eyes fall on in the morning when they rise, and you are the last sweet vision they see when they turn in at night.
When you are that person in the photo on somebody’s nightstand, you know you truly matter to them. For all the people with whom you cross paths in the course of a week or a month or a year, you have a place in someone’s heart that is precious and special and true.
Every child deserves to be the photo on somebody’s nightstand, and yet, our nation’s foster care system is filled with legally-orphaned children whose faces appear in nobody’s photos in anybody’s home… and far too many “age out” each year without ever having gained the loving family that each so certainly deserved.
To be in the photo on somebody’s nightstand is a testament to the connections that matter most in life.
We were reminded of this last week, when our Rachel, our maternity services coordinator, went to visit the expectant mothers living in our agency housing. In one of the units occupied by a mother estranged from her own family, she was touched to find a very special picture on the nightstand. It was a sonogram picture of the baby she is carrying, a child she already loves more than life itself, but whom she feels unable to parent for a multitude of reasons too personal to share here.
We think she’d make a great mom, and we’ve told her this. We’ve urged her to consider a host of community resources that would enable her to raise her own child, and she has politely (but firmly) rejected our counsel. What she wants most for her baby starts with two loving parents in a long-term marriage, not a single parent set-up with an abusive ex-boyfriend forever lurking in the shadows. She does want to be a part of her child’s life, though, and this is why she is planning a full-disclosure open adoption through Abrazo.
We know those who are not familiar with open adoption might question why a mother who is not opting to parent would want to be involved in her child’s life, but we think the more applicable question is this: why wouldn’t any mother dedicated enough to go through a nine month pregnancy to give her child life and then place that child for adoption want to see for herself how her child’s life unfolds after placement?
Birthparents who make loving open adoption plans love the child/ren they place, regardless of the circumstances of the conception. It is that kind of love that compels an expectant mother to treasure her sonogram picture of a child who isn’t going to grow up in her care, and it’s the same kind of love that drives an adoptive couple to proudly display photos of their child’s birthfamily around their home, as so many Abrazo families do.
Pictures can be powerful tools for understanding our lives and those who change them, just by being in ours. We hope all our adoptees know their pictures have a permanent place of honor in their birthparents’ hearts, and that their birthparents know they are remembered just as fondly in our adoptive parents’ homes.
How will your place in someone else’s life change the picture of their life?
One of Abrazo’s birthcouples keeps a photo of their child and his adoptive family on their refrigerator. Their own relatives know about the adoption, and ask how it’s going whenever they see it. When visitors who don’t know them well ask who it is, however, the birthcouple said, they just reply “‘that’s our family”… because it is.” That adoptive family has a prominent place in the birthparents’ lives, as well as in the life of their child. The birthparents say they cannot imagine how much they would have missed out on, had they never known the couple who is raising their birthson.
Another adoptee we know recently shared a very special collage she had created on one of Abrazo’s private social media sites. She started with a picture of her birthmother, with whom she reunited in recent years, in the left corner. She added photos of the two half-brothers she hadn’t known she had in the middle, then included her own photo on the right, followed by pictures of the four children she placed in two open adoption plans, and the three children she later birthed and parented.
She says she only realized when observing her own finished artwork that all the beloved faces from the middle to the right could never have existed had it not been for the woman on the far left, who (like she herself) had had to face life’s hardest crises and make her own best choices in the midst of them.
Our pictures all look different, she noted, depending on the paths we take; in 40 years, how will the life photos of your loved ones have been impacted by your place in their lives?
In Texas, when a parent gets divorced, the standard possession order requires both parents to keep a picture of the other parent in their child’s room. It is a poignant reminder that even the State recognizes the deeper meaning of the photo on somebody’s nightstand, and the importance of honoring children’s family connections even in times of unavoidable absence. How would the lives of countless adoptees have been more complete, had they grown up with at least a photo of their first family on their nightstand– lovingly placed there by their secure and compassionate adoptive parents?
(It’s definitely a thought worth pondering.)
The best of family photos honor connections that transcend years and miles.
One of our favorite moments at Camp Abrazo every year is the raucous gathering on the front lawn of the ranch, right before the final steak fry and the fireworks. It’s when Abrazo’s staff tries to corral over a hundred parents and children for our annual camp photo– but it’s what comes after that makes our hearts smile the biggest.
For after the group photo is snapped, that’s when our families (the forever families made up of birthparents and adoptive parents, the interstate families formed by our orientation groups, and the Camp families whose children are like cousins having been each year) gather to take their own special photos. These may or may not become the photo on somebody’s nightstand, yet these do become treasured family memories, nonetheless, and the memory of these moments are likewise woven into the tapestry of the greater Abrazo family forever.
It’s long been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Being so loved that you are pictured in the photo on somebody’s nightstand is surely worth ten times that much, and more.
A cross-country dispute has got us thinking about the outward effects of adoption infighting.
This isn’t the first battle of its kind, nor will it be the last.
The adoption community is infamous for eating its own, sadly, because the emotions run so high and the issues run so deep.
For a community so dependent upon the tenets of family bonds, we have a tendency to fight like in-laws.
You can find it in any “mixed group” online, in forums that welcome what are called “adoption triad members” (adoptive parents, birthparents and adoptees) and in Facebook groups such as Adoption News & Events, that draw those who see a need for adoption reform as well as those who would much rather just abolish it.
What if righting the ship takes everyone down?
The latest salvos have been those fired between a movement named “Right the Ship” and the long-challenged American Adoption Congress.
We’re not sure what started the battle, but it’s been brewing for awhile. The American Adoption Congress is an advocacy group founded by and for adoptees, but in recent decades, it has come under fire for board instability and alleged financial mismanagement.
Bastard Nation, a guerilla-type adoptee rights group (for lack of a better descriptor) has long been at odds with the AAC, primarily, it seems, because of deep-seated differences in legislative priorities; the AAC has typically sought legislative change for adoptee rights even if it’s conditional, while BN insists on “clean bills or die” and actively works to oppose partial change bills, even against the dedicated efforts of adoption reform activists who believe that any change is better than none.
Abrazo has long-supported the AAC; our agency has held membership in the organization in the past and has attended its conferences for years, because we recognize the importance of its mission. We have likewise referred our clients to the Bastard Nation site, even when their leadership has been publicly critical of our leadership, because we know that co-founder Marley Greiner’s commitment to the cause of adoptee rights is true and tireless. Rumor has it that AAC and BN have been moving towards detente, which worries some factions and pleases others, but now Right The Ship is promoting adoption conferences scheduled at the very same time as AAC’s and alleging nefarious connections between AAC and a residential treatment center called Calo, and the whole thing is getting, well, ugly. (Or… uglier.)
We don’t know what the answer is, because we recognize that all sides are passionate about their cause, and that’s a matter of honor. But all this infighting makes us incredibly sad. Years ago, a popular poster came out with the caption “united we stand, divided we fall” and this seems to be a timely warning for the adoption community, as a whole.
Can’t we all just get along, for a change?
There are vast differences of opinion on a whole host of adoption-related issues. There’s the pro-adoption movement versus the anti-adoption movement. There’s the domestic adoption contingent versus the international adoption crowd. There are birthparents against adoptive parents, and parents vs. adoptees, and adoptees vs. nonadoptees. There’s closed adoption proponents versus open adoption believers. There’s everyone versus the adoption industry. There are adoption professionals versus adoption trolls. There’s adoption agencies versus adoption attorneys versus adoption facilitators. There’s public adoption versus private adoption versus foster-adopt.
We don’t have to all agree on everything all the time, of course. And that’s okay, because healthy discourse can lead to needed changes, which can be a good thing. However, adoption done the right way and for the right reasons has the power to protect children and transform lives, and that should be a truth we can all get behind– shouldn’t it?
Abrazo strongly supports the adoption reform movement, and the quest to change the laws to grant adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates– not because doing so is in any adoption agency’s fiduciary interests, but because it’s the right thing to do, which makes this the right time to do it. Our advocacy has not always been welcome by those who view adoption professionals as the enemy, but the most progressive of adoption reform agents are those who recognize that it’s going to take all of us working in unity to the right the worst of adoption’s wrongs.
The outward effects of adoption infighting, more often than not, hurts the cause for those who most need adoption support; for their sake, we would all do well to find a good way to work together.
“When I first started working in adoption, I was so overwhelmed by all the deep emotions I was witnessing, I used to dream I was running through a hospital, searching desperately for the adoption exit,” recalls Elizabeth Jurenovich, Abrazo’s founder. “I can only imagine how parents who are placing or adopting must feel, as they struggle to balance the anticipation of welcoming a new baby to the world and the agony of not knowing how things will ultimately turn out.”
Whether an adoption “works out” or not is a subjective judgement, of course.
Not every unplanned pregnancy or placement plan is meant to result in an adoptive placement, however, so sometimes, the disruption or dismantling of an adoption plan, however difficult, is what is best for the people involved– even if they cannot see why at the time.
Whether you are the person giving birth or the person hoping to adopt, you are already in a vulnerable position and if your adoption plan is ending unexpectedly, you will need to surround yourself with support and seek out appropriate outlets for all the emotions you are experiencing.
How to weather the adoption exit
Typically, when an adoption plan is ending, there nay have been subtle (or not so subtle) signs along the way that a change was pending, but you can make yourself crazy trying to figure out when it happened or why. It’s human nature to want answers, but remember: this won’t always feel like it does right now. Things will make sense down the road in a way that it can’t in the present. You may experience all the stages of grief (like anger or sadness or wanting to bargain or denial or acceptance) in quick order, but try to be gentle with yourself and with the other party, to whatever extent you can.
First of all: avoid knee-jerk reactions. This is easier said than done, we know, but do not go on the attack, for any reason. And do not seek to talk the other party out of their decision, but rather, simply clarify what has changed and why. Take the high road, always. No matter what “side” of the equation you’re on, a change in plans can feel upsetting or even devastating, but try to remind yourself that this simply means you’re meant to pursue another destiny and that everything will turn out as it should.
Melanee was stunned when the baby girl she was expecting turned out to be a boy, and she was even more surprised when the prospective adopters, who had two boys already, informed her they could not move forward with the planned adoption. “I wanted to scream at them, but we were in the hospital, so instead, I just said I wished they would have told me ahead of time that they weren’t really there for me and my baby if things didn’t go according to plan. I was mad. I was hurt. And I still am, to tell you the truth.”
For Nathan and Debbie, learning that the baby they’d just seen born was not going to be coming home with them was much harder because they were the last to know. “All that time that we were visiting in the hospital, nobody ever told us she was changing her mind. We saw all her friends coming in with baby gifts and we thought they didn’t know what her plan was. In the end, it hurt worse to find out we were the only ones that didn’t know.”
Through it all, keep in mind that the child is present (whether in utero or after birth) and it is his or her welfare that is most crucial. No matter who the baby is going to end up with, please take steps to ensure that he or she is going to be adequately provided for and that no adoption exit drama transpires in that child’s presence, for any reason whatsoever. Think twice about what you’re posting online, because any adoption exit involves a child, and every child should entitled to his or her privacy.
What not to do
Over the years, Abrazo’s staff has seen it all (good and bad.) We’ve seen loving would-be adopters embrace the mother who has decided to parent and we’ve stood by in tears as they generously handed over their own diaper bag and car seat to ensure that she has what she needs to leave the hospital with her new baby. We’ve had to support grieving mothers who just learned their chosen adoptive couples have elected to abandon a match when sonogram results were not what was expected. We’ve had to deliver the news by which hopeful adopters first learn that the expectant mom they’d been talking with was discovered to be a prolific con artist with no intentions of placing. And we’ve seen the tragedy of mothers exiting their adoption plans in hopes of reuniting with the baby’s father, only to lose their children to the State or to child abuse later on.
If you are the party that is taking the adoption exit, for whatever reason, know this: you have every right to change your mind and to make other plans. However, you do owe the other party the courtesy of informing them personally that your plans have changed and why, and to do so as soon as you know that you cannot move forward. A “personal” explanation does not require face-to-face contact; in some cases, an ethical adoption provider will recommend that the parties instead seek closure via a written exchange, to protect whichever party is more emotionally-vulnerable.
It is never, ever appropriate for a disappointed hopeful adoptive couple to file a CPS report simply out of vengeance on a mother who elects to parent. (False reporting can have serious consequences.) We cringe at the thought that this would ever happen, and yet, it clearly does occur on occasion. Likewise, it is not appropriate for a birthparent who has elected to place and later regretted it to accuse an innocent adoptive couple of having “stolen” her child from her; this, too, happens when parents want to deny their own responsibility for their own decision. And if your adoption exit means voluntarily disrupting your child’s placement for his or her best interests, please be reminded that “rehoming” is now (thankfully) illegal in most states, so be certain to seek the assistance of a qualified adoption professional to guarantee that your child will be in good hands (if not yours.)
None of this is easy, we know. Not every adoption plan results in a successful placement. Not every match is meant to culminate with adoption. Yet know this: every experience in life potentially bears gifts, if only we’ll trust the process and work through the challenges to see what lessons can be gleaned from it.
If you find yourself having to take the adoption exit, take heart, and know that there are other roads ahead which can still bring you to a happier destination, despite any detours.
In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any unplanned pregnancy nor infertility; there would be no child abuse, and adoption trauma would not exist. Every expectant mother would be fully prepared to parent in every way, every babydaddy would voluntarily start child support prior to birth, and every child welfare worker would be a Powerball lottery winner.
That is not, however, the world in which we live. And given the imperfections of life and the stressors of disrupted parent-child attachments, adoption trauma is a Very Real Thing that deserves wider attention than it commonly gets.
In the world in which we live, a multitude of life crises contribute to the reasons that adoption exists. Inadequate birth control and grinding poverty can become a devastating combination. Parents abused as children often become abusive parents themselves. People who are addicts routinely choose their next fix over their kids. Children of single moms are forced to grow up without the security of a full-time father. Abusive adult relationships became a danger to children whose parents will not seek help. Teen parents with inadequate family support find themselves expecting again (and again) far too often. Homeless families find long-term stability and financial assistance hard to come by. And American kids are warehoused in state foster care because the number of parentless youth far outweighs the supply of adoptive parents open to adopting children who are other than healthy white newborns.
There are those who wrongfully claim that money is the answer to all of society’s ills, but nobody has enough money to fix all the issues in the paragraph above. For the children of parents who cannot or will not parent the little ones born to them, adoption is an option by which the needs of children can be met through an alternative parent or set of parents, provided the original parents agree to forever surrender their parental rights and forfeit their parental responsibilities; this is what we call “voluntary adoption” and the existence of this option is why America no longer has foundling homes and orphanages as drop-off centers for unwanted children (like other, third-world countries.)
Adoption can be voluntary, but trauma is not
It’s a common misconception that children adopted “through the system” at an older age are more prone to adoption trauma than are babies placed for adoption privately. In fact, adoption trauma can potentially impact any adoptee, whether his or her adoptions was public or private and whether he or she was adopted in infancy or later in life.
Adoption, too (even the best of them) can be marred by trauma. The separation of a child and his or her original parents is always a traumatic loss, even when it occurs under the “best” of circumstances, and this is why all the joys of even the most open of adoptions cannot cancel out the grief of this “primal wound.” (Once you’ve been separated from your first family, many adoptees reason, what guarantees that the next one will always stick around? And even if they do, there’s no promise you’ll feel as if you fit in, right? Or that they’ll treat you as they should, or understand your needs more than their own?)
This is why many adopted persons struggle with a lifetime of loss, anger and/or sadness, even if they had the very best of adoptive parents and every other advantage life could offer. Adoption trauma is a very real and yes, normal outgrowth of a jarring alteration in the primal tapestry, and this truth must be acknowledged, for birthparents and adoptive parents often also feel the weight of adoption trauma, sometimes for years afterwards.
The legal system generally compounds this trauma, too, through the cold legal language of the paperwork and through laws that fail to uphold open adoption contact agreements and refer to the birthparents’ loving choice as “termination” and refuse even adults adopted decades before access to the unfalsified records of their own births, even in cases of compelling medical crises.
The American concept of voluntary adoption is not without its problems, of course, and it is a constant struggle for ethical adoption providers like Abrazo to remind society of the vital and necessary differences between social services and free market industries. But herein lies one of the most painful truths: even in the best of stories, life– from before birth through marriage to death– life is filled with trauma, and nobody ever gets out unscathed, adopted or not.
Every living person is a survivor of birth trauma, on some level. Moving from the safety of the womb to the risks of the outer world is a journey filled with trauma. Childhood is filled with trauma, from bullying at school to child abuse and romantic loss. Sex can be a traumatic experience when it’s non-consensual. Marriage is traumatic when it is threatened by violence or infidelity or divorce. Death is often traumatic for those who succumb to it as well as those who witness it. Adoption trauma is a reaction to the stressors of adoption, and the resulting behaviors and coping skills can prove extremely challenging for both children and parents, alike.
So if there’s trauma in adoption, then why do it?
Here’s the short answer: because more often than not, adoption still proves to be the lesser of the evils. There can also be devastating trauma in abortion, in maladaptive parenting, in child abuse, in family violence, in poverty, in child abandonment, in institutionalization, in foster care, in kinship placements, and in any other number of alternatives that befall children for whom adoption is not the outcome.
The adoption system, while admittedly imperfect, is still capable of providing children with parents who cannot, will not or should not parent and provide for them, with substitute family systems can can and will, and as long as adoption spares any child/ren the scourge of growing up without a stable family unit, then the more we should all dedicate our resources to promoting and improving the concept and its process, in the best interests of all children for whom adoption may ever become necessary.
And while we’re at it, let’s make an industry-wide project of educating the public about adoption trauma, and quit sweeping it under the proverbial rug. Let’s better prepare birthparents and adoptive parents for the impact of adoption trauma before and after placement, and let’s work together to raise public funding for adoption trauma research and treatment and advocacy. Let’s do more to support adoptees who are already suffering from the effects of adoption trauma, and de-stigmatize this condition so that those who are dealing with it feel less isolated and find more reason for hope and healing.
Towards this end, Abrazo is putting our money where our proverbial mouth is! Abrazo will make a cash donation to the Attachment & Trauma Network for every posted comment in response to this piece, so tell us what you think, and help change the world of adoption trauma as a result…