Missing Pieces
Missing Pieces by Lisa Ritter Starr

The Lifegiver's Festival

by Lisa Ritter Starr

The Lifegiver's Festival is a divine little weekend that takes place in a quiet corner of the United States each year. Most people have never heard of it and never will, but for birthmothers of open adoptions, it is a heartening and pampering experience to pursue as soon as possible.

Part conference and part retreat organized specially for birthmothers of open adoptions, the Lifegiver's Festival is facilitated by Brenda Romanchik, the director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, of Royal Oak, Michigan. Brenda is the mother of Matthew, born in 1984 and placed in one of the earliest formal open adoptions in the country. Knowing from experience how little community support there is for birthmothers, she began holding the conferences in an effort to give something back to the women she knew had already given so much of themselves.

Everyone involved in adoption needs support. The children need it from their parents, the parents need it from their community, and family members need it from each other. Over time, children have been getting more appropriate and helpful information and support from their parents, who don't hide the fact of adoption like they used to. Adoptive couples can now rely on their agencies or other adoptive couples to find extensive support networks. Birthmothers, too, have recently sought out and found comfort, advice, and understanding, forming groups in communities in their towns or online.

Still, many birthmothers feel left out. The Lifegiver's Festival is a significant reminder of the appreciation and support that is out there, however small or insignificant it can feel.

Participants arrive on a Thursday evening prepared for a delicious, informal dinner and a get-acquainted meeting, in which all are invited to introduce their stories. The next two days involve a series of what Brenda, the facilitator, has divided into teaching sessions, fireside chats or group discussions, and group activities. Some of the topics of these sessions include: defining relationships, children's understanding of open adoption, loss and shame, and talking about open adoption with others. The retreat ends with a lovely closing ceremony to help birthmothers define and pursue a meaningful future, where their adoption is integrated more fully than ever before.

Initially, I felt encouraged to participate in the Lifegiver's Festival because my adoption agency sponsored all of its birthmothers, entirely eliminating for me the cost of the retreat (about $250). Just before I made the trip to the retreat facility, I felt nervous at the thought of discussing my open adoption experience so much with so many people. I'd never done something like this before. As it turned out, I reveled in this luxury all weekend. After all, I was for the first time surrounded by a group of strangers who, in some ways, related to me better than many of my closest friends. We started slowly: sharing pictures at first, then stories, then emotions, and finally, our dreams for the future.

One of the first birthmothers I talked to made a particular impression. Her open adoption experience involved her second child. First, I showed her some pictures of my daughter with different members of her birth and adoptive families in a small photo album I had pieced together at the last minute. The little book was packed in an effort to show the past seven years in the most concise, true representation I felt I could. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as they say, but you never know how few words that is until you try to cram your child's entire life into a photo album one inch thick.

When we were done oohing and cooing over that, we started to look at her book and I caught my first glimpse at how fascinating and varied all of our stories were going to be. Her book was a similar size as mine, but it was incomplete and the pictures were all of a beautiful, soft-skinned newborn. Her story was brand new, and her emotions were as vulnerable as her baby's tiny, trusting body.

Open adoption is a core experience. It brings you to the delicate, inner emotions that are so fundamental, we barely recognize them. In the course of our lives, we complicate and mask these vulnerabilities in order to survive in our crowded, dangerous world. Open adoption forces you to uncover these again, but it can be very hard to talk about and integrate into daily life. This is why the Lifegiver's Festival is so important.

Birthmothers have the distinct quality of being rarely recognized mothers. In relation to our relinquished children, our role as mother is not known unless we make it known. Not only that, but we have been discouraged from celebrating our motherhood by a society that has often paired adoption with shame, guilt, and wrongdoing.

As birthmothers, we have to face the choices we've made and the outcomes they create. In a supportive environment, such as that of the Lifegiver's Festival, birthmothers will undoubtedly find new ways to process and learn from these choices. They, like I, can achieve this not only from sharing and examining their own stories, but also listening to the stories of that tiny, unique group of others who share their own delicate yet shining hue of motherhood.

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