I suspect the issue of openness is broader and wider than just the physical realm of knowing and interacting with birthfamily. It has everything to do with attitude... an attitude of openness, leaving ourselves open to exploring the connections our children have to the9ir families and cultures of origin.
Our first adoption was closed. Back in the early 80s, adoption was almost totally closed. We had waited so long to adopt and were overjoyed with our son Jamie. I will never forget the first time I held him. As he grew, we learned to love him more and more. We had no real preparation for understanding birth family... we were given only general information, which we later found to be half-truths.
What happened to me was that I started to have a growing sense of emptiness... of missing a piece... a hole.. that's as close as I can come to describing it. At first, I didn't think too much about the woman who had given him life, or about what she was experiencing. We had heard conflicting stories from two social workers about his background and about the circumstances of his birth. We wondered what we would tell Jamie when he began to ask questions. In addition, I had gone to a post-adoption meeting where I heard all the adoptive mothers share how their children's birthmothers had left letters and presents for their babies. I had nothing for Jamie - not even accurate information. What would I tell him? My heart ached. I knew that anyone who had given life to such a wonderful child and had seen him would never forget, but I had no evidence to back up my feelings.
We wrote letters and left them in the file at the agency, but they told us they would not forward any letter unless the birthmother contacted them. Each day that passed, I felt a pang for all that Jamie's birthmother was missing.
We travel cross-country frequently and in the airports, I found myself looking at every young blond woman, wondering "Could she be the one?" I longed to find the one person who would resemble Jamie, to know her, and to thank her personally for the joy Jamie brought to our lives.
When we went to court to finalize the adoption, Jamie was almost two years old. Our attorney had the original birth certificate and, by mistake, I saw Jamie's birthmother's name. It was Mary K. I knew I would never forget it.
In August 1983, I decided to try to find Jamie's birthmom. The search was for Jamie and for his birthmother and for me. It was for Jamie so he could know the circumstances of his birth and background, and so he would grow up knowing he was loved by two mothers; it was for his birthmother so she could be a part of his growing-up years if she wanted, and so she could know Jamie was well and happy and loved; it was for me so the void within me would be filled. I yearned to know the woman who birthed Jamie and who looked like him. And, I am realizing now that I had fears too. If Jamie knew his birthmother, would I still be his mother too? Would the fact that he looks like her change our relationship?
The search itself was relatively easy. I knew she had been in a branch oft he military, and having been in the Air Force myself, I knew of the Worldwide Army Locator. After several calls across the country, I had the information I needed to request an address and I sent off my check for $2.85. About a month later, my check was returned with a note saying they needed her Social Security Number or birthdate to get an address. My heart dropped. I had no way of knowing these things. I got back on the phone and a few calls later, contacted someone who told me to write a note with the check saying I did not have that information. I sent off the note with the check and a month later, I was holding Mary's address in my hands. I was filled with excitement in spite of the fact that everyone except my husband thought I was crazy. "She'll come take Jamie back," they warned.
I wrote a tentative letter explaining that I knew this would be a shock - that we were the couple who had adopted her son. I told her how happy we were and how happy he was, and that we were willing to correspond openly with her if she wished. We waited with bated breath. And then the letter came. "YES!" She wanted to know us.
We began to exchange letters, information, and pictures. We came to know the true circumstances of Jamie's conception and birth. We received pictures of Mary and Jamie's birthfather. Yes, Jamie looks just like Mary! We came to know Mary as a loving, mature, and responsible young woman.
In April 1986, we met Sarah and Rob, the birthparents of our second child. As we came to know and love them, I realized that we had never talked with Mary about meeting. She was living in Minnesota and, besides, I was afraid. I was afraid she would think we were too old or too fat or would wish she had chosen someone else. I know these thoughts reveal my own insecurities, but this is the truth.
Sarah suggested we could offer to send a video and/or meet. We agreed. I wrote to Mary the next day. She responded that she didn't want to meet us at that time, but that she would like a video. At Easter, we took about an hour's worth of video and mailed it off. She was thrilled with the video and wanted to meet us. She would be coming to Monterey to visit her boyfriend and said she would call when she arrived.
We wondered how to prepare Jamie. He had always known he was adopted, so we told him Mary was coming and asked him if he would rather go to Monterey or have her come visit us in Palo Alto. "I want her to come here so I can show her my room," he declared. Her call came. I was shocked the first time I heard her voice. It was lower and stronger than I expected. We made plans to go to the zoo the next day.
Finally the dogs began to bark, alerting us to an arrival. I felt sick with excitement. As she came over the bridge to our house, we gazed at each - a moment frozen in time - strangers, yet intimately bonded. We hugged happily, as if long-lost relatives. Jamie was a little shy at first but was soon showing Mary his room and talking excitedly. Mary explained to us that she had refused to meet us at first because she was afraid she would "fall apart in front of Jamie and it would be bad for him. But when I saw the video, I realized here was a little boy I didn't know and I wanted to meet him."
I want to add that there are many challenges in an open adoption. Suffice it to say, what really surprised me was my mistaken notion that opening our adoption would save our son from grieving his loss. In this I was wrong again. While it did save him from having to search and did provide the benefits above, it did not change the fact that he was raised in another family. He still lost the relationships he would have had.
NOTE: For those in international adoptions, simply keeping the idea of birthfamily open will help; however, more and more families are choosing to open their international adoptions as well. For those who adopt from foster care where parental rights have been terminated, there may be the possibility to stay in touch with siblings, grandparents, or other family members. The child's safety must, of course, be the first consideration. We still visit with the birthfamily of our youngest child, however we only meet in public places and only with family members who are safe. Our daughter's birthmother is in a lock-down facility however we did visit her this past Mother's Day and it was a good visit for everyone.
© Sandra Lenington