Missing Pieces
Missing Pieces by Lisa Ritter Starr

One Question I CAN Answer

by Lisa Ritter Starr

Personal stories about adoption are fascinating to me; I treat them as others' experiential learning that I, too, can learn from. I'm also simply happy to know that I share this rather rare experience with others.

However, I've reached a point I have never experienced before. I'm not sure how to describe it. There are countless problems in dealing with adoption. A big question mark seems to follow the idea of adoption around - both like a secret and like a riddle - and I've always hoped I could help get rid of it. Now, either I finally have it all figured out, or else I have never been more helplessly ignorant in my life. I honestly can't decide which.

In the years since I started to write about my experience with open adoption, I have spoken with many birthmothers. I have tapped fairly far into the goldmine the Internet offers on the subject. It's the personal stories that really get me. They are the most varied, as well as the most difficult to absorb and, sometimes, hard to believe. A few birthmothers and adoptive couples have told of emotional but enriching experiences with adoption, but mostly I find so many people who have become sad, embittered, frustrated, and downright furious because of adoption.

I used to think it was all very simple, and that the problems faced in adoption were due to one thing, and one thing only: fear. That is, the adoptive parents' fear of regretful, vengeful birthparents. The birthparents' fear of possessive, vanishing adoptive parents. The adopted adults' fear of never finding their birth families, or of hurting their adoptive families in their search to fill in the missing pieces of their lives.

I used to think it was simple. In a way, I still do. But reducing these problems to "fear," however helpful it has been in the past, does not help much now. Nor does it offer plain and useful advice for the future. Since I've never been comfortable analyzing or politically rallying a cause to death, the only action I have left is to tell my story. I'll tell it as simply as possible with, to quote a phrase, "just the facts."

In the beginning, I was afraid of my pregnancy. I was alone, unprepared and, like many others in my position, felt a lot of guilt for allowing it to happen. Nonetheless I quickly accepted it because, at that point, all I could do was move forward with all of the experience and guidance I had at the time. I didn't want to be alone, and I didn't want my child to be alone, either. I chose open adoption.

I met a prospective adoptive couple in my fourth month. They had been chosen by a woman before, but with much pain they found they could not choose her in return. They did not feel it was a good match. When the three of us met, we knew that ours was good. We all chose each other.

The woman of the prospective parents quickly became my friend. She took me shopping and fixed me some of the best dinners I'd ever had. We went to movies and gathered with the birth father's parents. We watched my belly grow to contain "our" eventual eleven-pound newborn. I did not request their presence at the birth. They came a day afterward to see the puffy, stubborn baby girl that had been kicking me for months, as she lay in her temporary crib, a red "stork bite" right between her eyes.

The adoption papers were signed in the hospital. In the three days I stayed there, I fell asleep often, tired from the long and difficult labor and the morphine I'd been given after surgery. The now-adoptive mother, my friend for the past five months, would change our daughter's diaper perfunctorily, feeling more like a caregiver than a mother. It was once when I watched her do this that a shocking, deep sadness overwhelmed me. I realized I had gone through such agony, emotional pain and uncertainty, only to have chosen to go home from the hospital with my arms - and my future - empty. How could I have done such a thing?

This is when one of the most amazing people I have ever met truly revealed herself: my daughter's legally adoptive mother asked me to reconsider the adoption. I did not ask her; rather, she asked me, and her husband was in agreement. She said that if I changed my mind, she would take the adoption papers and tear them up herself, no matter who or how many people objected.

That second day of our daughter's life, I did reconsider my decision, and I decided to proceed with the adoption. It was still not easy after that, even though I knew I was welcome to visit our daughter at any time.

Though I recently moved out of state, my daughter and I lived in the same town for the first eight years of her life. At one point, we even lived in the same house. Since the beginning I have been involved in choosing her name, her clothes, and her school, among other things. I have even been called "mama."

There are, in fact, other stories like mine. One of them was my own introduction to the idea of open adoption, and the initial reason I chose it over abortion. Just before I found out I was pregnant, a story appeared in a newspaper column. It was about a woman spending time alone with her daughter on Mother's Day. To my instant surprise and intrigue, this woman was the girl's birthmother in an open adoption.

Some people have wondered aloud how this type of open adoption works. Some doubt that it really works at all. It has been called wonderful, amazing, inspiring, wrong, detrimental, unnatural. The truth is, open adoption, like anything else in life, is an improvisation. Like it or not, we are rehearsing and performing it simultaneously. All the while, we do the best we can.

My daughter's entire family - adoptive and biological - has always done the best it can. Somehow, it seems to be working wonderfully. Our level of openness, I've come to realize, is at the "extremely open" end of the spectrum. We have chosen this, and it works, probably because we have tried to be open in general - to learning, to new ideas, to unfortunate failures, and to great successes - not just in the adoption, but in all areas of life.

Maybe all adoptions can't be this open. Maybe other levels of openness would be better for other people. It's not for me to say. That's their story, and their choice. What I will say is this: With just the tiniest extra effort to be more open, compassionate and understanding toward others, every adoption - and adopted child - would benefit in some important way. That said, isn't it worth a try?

Everybody has a story to tell, full of pain, fear, love, joy, or maybe hope. In open adoption, the stories are so emotional, complex and deeply moving. I still believe that all of the problems with adoptions stem directly from simple fear. But that's not really an answer, is it?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in my story, mostly in the actions of my daughter's adoptive mother in the hospital that day. She was open to love - fear's antidote - in a time when it was probably the most difficult for her to do so. Her action, in a way, makes perfect sense - and yet, I don't know how she found the courage to do it.

I don't have the answer, any real advice, or even much else to say on the problems with adoption, except this: Be aware of your actions. Other people are watching, and learning. Those other people are often your children. What do you want them to learn from you?

Now that's one question even I can answer.

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