Open Adoption: Strangers Who Trust In Each Other For The Sake Of A Child
You know that game that counselors like to make you play, where you stand with your back to someone, close your eyes, and fall backwards – trusting the person will catch you and not let you fall? This is what open adoption can feel like in the beginning, except you have no reason to trust in the person who is suppose to catch you because it’s a stranger. They haven’t done anything to gain your trust – and likewise, you’ve done nothing to earn their trust in you. Blindly, a birthmother trusts in the strangers to love her child as their own, to let her know he’s happy and to never deny her existence. Likewise, adoptive parents trust in a stranger to give up her child, to make them a family, and to never tear them apart.
Taking this first step of blind trust takes enormous courage, respect and love. This is the foundation successful open adoptions are built on. But after those first steps are taken, a birthmother releases her child into the care of another, and adoptive parents open a line of communication to reassure the birthmother of her child’s happiness, step by step trust is built, respect grows, and the love that brought everyone into this arrangement blossoms for the benefit of a child.
It’s been 20 years since I took that first frightful step. My son was born on April 5, 1985. It was a time when the term “open adoption” was virtually unknown. Those who were trying to start communications between adoptive families and birthparents had no road map to follow, no guarantees. It was simply a new idea that sprung from the pain and regret that closed adoptions had created. The idea that birthmothers who relinquished their children could forget it, put it behind them and move on with life was proven to be wrong over and over again. Birthmothers could no more forget their children then they could forget they have legs.
For me, I knew I could not let go of my son without knowing he was loved and happy. I needed some way of confirming that I had made the right choice. I put too much love and sacrifice into making the choice for adoption to just leave my son’s life to chance after his birth. All I had to offer my son was love. No home, no father, no income. Just love. The realization of this brought me to my decision. I loved my son enough to put his needs before my own. Keeping him would be for ME. Giving him a home and a family, choosing adoption, would be the best for HIM. Working with my counselor, I knew the family I chose for my son had a home, I knew he would have a mother and a father, I knew they would be able to provide for him, what I didn’t know was if they would love him.
I HAD to know. I needed to know. There was no way I would be able to live with myself until I knew. I waited a full year. When the package came I tore it open, photos of my son, their son, smiling, laughing, sleeping peacefully, floated to my lap. There were two letters, one from his father, one from his mother. They expressed their love, their gratitude, their joy. To further express their gratitude, they offered me the one gift they could give: they baptized my son with the name I had given him in the hospital. By doing so they not only honored the fact that Joseph’s life had begun with me, but allowed him to keep a piece of those precious few days with him always. I thought it was perfect. He wasn’t just my Joe anymore, he was their Joe too. In her letter, his mother wrote: “children are not really ever ours, they are just entrusted to us for a time by God.” I had taken my leap of faith with her; she now was taking her leap of faith with me. I could not have respected her more for it.
For twelve years we took those steps together, we openly shared our hopes, our dreams, and our fears. We learned to trust, to respect and to love each other, and by example, our son grew to trust, respect and love. At the age of 12 he requested to meet me face to face. His parents and I shared our fears at reuniting at such a young age, but ultimately decided to trust in each other, and Joe, and we made it happen. Holding Joe in my arms again was one of most amazing moments of my life. I cried, I kissed the top of his head, I cried some more, then I remembered he was still just a child and this blubbering woman suffocating him was probably scaring the pants off him! I backed off, and we started to talk. The next day we had some time to talk alone and when I asked him why he wanted to meet me (fearing that dreaded question, “why did you give me up?”) his answer was simply, “I missed you.”
On the day he graduated from high school, we celebrated our journey together. All the years of questioning my choice were washed away as I listened to his accomplishments and watched the joy and pride in his eyes. During the ceremony his principal asked all those who had loved and supported the graduates in their journey to this moment, their parents, to stand and be recognized. I thought of Joe’s parents and how thankful I was that he had them. Joe’s father was on my left, his mother on my right. They each looked at me, took hold of my hands – and we stood together.
Open adoption is no longer a destination without a plan. It’s found a happy ending and those entering into this arrangement today have stories such as mine to guide them on their journey. While it still requires the courage to step in front of a stranger and trust in them to catch you, knowing the potential for love and respect will give you the strength to go ahead, and fall.
Patricia Dischler is the author of Because I Loved You: A Birthmother’s View of Open Adoption (Goblin Fern Press, 2006).
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