As we in the adoption community know all to well, the process of adoption has evolved dramatically over the years. Up until the 60’s or 70’s it was much like as it was depicted in the movie, Philomena (the movie version being a bit at the extreme end of the spectrum.) The adoption was a hush-hush affair on all sides, the adoptee never knowing that she was adopted. Instead, she was told a lie where she was in fact the biological offspring of the adoptive parents. In most cases there was nothing malicious about this; it was thought that this was best for all concerned, particularly the child. Well, we know how that worked out.
Then there was the stage in which we found ourselves in the early 90’s. The adoption wasn’t kept a secret at all. Unfortunately, many adoptive parents knew little or nothing about the birth parents and birth parents. Oftentimes, the birth mother gave strict instructions that she was not to be contacted, as was the case with us. Again, this was probably not out of malice but, rather, shame or fear. Perhaps the mother had a husband and family. Her pregnancy might have been the result of an affair, which if revealed, could destroy her marriage. Who knows?
For lack of a better word, ours was a “closed” adoption. We were told that Casey’s mother did not want to be contacted. We never told her that out of fear that it would’ve been too hurtful. So we made up a story, the classic, “your mother loved you very much but wanted you to have a better life.” And that was probably true, but then how would you explain the fact that she had other children?
In our neighborhood in Marin County, Casey had 2 other friends who were adopted under different circumstances. Ian was adopted at birth from a birth mother in the Midwest; his parents had her contact information. Esme was received by her parents under an open adoption; her birth parents lived in the Bay Area, and they visited her regularly.
While we always assured Casey that if she ever wanted to contact her birth mother we would do everything we could to reach her. These days, with the Internet, an increasing number of adoptee reunification services and private investigators, it is increasingly possible to connect adoptee with birth mother. But secretly, Erika and I had our fears and reservations. Would the experience blow up in Casey’s face, leaving her even more emotionally scarred? Would we have to endure a complicated, uncomfortable and potentially jealous relationship? Would we be taken advantage of? Would Casey pit both sets of parents against each other? On the one hand I was dying to know what Casey’s birth mother was like, what she looked like, what kind of personality she had, what mannerisms Casey inherited from her. On the other, I was just as happy to keep her at arms length.
I don’t know that there is a magic answer that suits every adoptive family. Open and closed adoptions each have their weaknesses and benefits. But knowing what I know now, I do believe that an open adoption is better for the child, just to have that primal connection with the person who brought you to life. There is always the possible that a reunion could prove disastrous, but I think it’s a risk worth taking. Many adoptees – Casey (and her friend Ian) included – insist they want nothing to do with their birth mother, and that’s understandable. But as one adoption therapist asked me, “Did you believe her?” It never occurred to me to challenge her.
Perhaps a middle ground could be to provide the child with the mother’s contact information, just enough to let the child explore on her own in her own time at her own pace. That’s why we have Facebook.