Two Ways About It
by Lisa Ritter Starr
Many people, when told about an adoption, respond, "Oh, I could never do that." They may be parents of biological children and can't imagine raising "someone else's child" or "giving up" their own. They may wonder how people could involve themselves in such a sticky, unpredictable situation like adoption.
Adoption may seem complex, and the motivations of birth parents difficult to understand, but they are not such foreign concepts. If you have ever experienced conflicting emotions about something -- had "mixed feelings" -- then you know what it means to feel ambivalent. I'm certain that each of us at some point has also felt we needed, rather than wanted, to do something difficult and unpleasant in order to get a desired result.
Ambivalence is a common feeling when making all kinds of decisions, from buying a car to getting a pet to attending a funeral, but it is a core feeling for birth parents in any adoption. When faced with a surprising pregnancy, it is not difficult to understand that one could have mixed feelings. The task of bringing a new baby into the world feels both daunting and awe-inspiring, full of difficulty and reward, pain and joy, regardless of whether it was planned.
Not all feelings are clear-cut. In fact, most are not. As adults, we practice dealing with ambivalence every day. Have you ever wanted to go out on a Friday night, but were so comfortable that you also wanted to stay home? Do you adore animals but abhor the notion of having pets? Have you ever visited the dentist or gone to a funeral thinking, "I don't want to do this"?
We all know what it's like to live with conflicting emotions, and to make decisions based on these emotions. Birth parents, especially mothers, almost invariably have conflicting emotions. A birth mother may not want to actively parent, but she will simultaneously feel strong maternal support of her child. It may sound strange, but many birth mothers place their children in adoptive families because they feel so protective and caring. This is far cry from a common stereotype that birth parents do not care enough -- and it is more true.
In fact, both sets of parents can feel ambivalent -- this is the bittersweet nature most common in open adoption. While the birth parents may feel both gain and loss in placing their child, so may the adoptive parents. In The Story of David, adoptive parent Dean Howells describes this. He notes that, while he and his wife love their open adoption family and do not regret it, they empathized deeply with the birth mother of their son. They declined when chosen for a second open adoption, because they could not witness the loss and pain of another birth mother.
One major fear of those opposed to open adoptions is that it will force ambivalence upon the child. They fear that she may grow up not knowing how she feels about her parents, or not knowing who her "real" parents are. The truth of the matter is that children of open adoption are the ones who come closest to having it all. Instead of entirely conflicting emotions (the idea of divided loyalty), they tend to thrive on the extra support that extended family provides.
In very open adoptions, there is simply no need to continually point out who are the "real" parents. The child, experiencing the daily care and bonding of these people she lives with, and seeing corresponding relationships in other families, knows who her parents are. The adoptive parents, in turn, fully accept their roles. They do not need to use innappropriate language, referring to themselves as the real parents (implying the birth parents are false or fake ones), to feel justified in their positions.
Very few of those who decide to adopt or place a child, do so out of pure desire rather than a large measure of necessity. It is common among both sets of parents in open adoption to experience unpleasantness, sadness, and loss, in order to achieve the outcome of a loving, child-centered family. For adoptive parents, this may mean seeing the difficulty that the birth parents face; for birth parents, it means experiencing these challenges. Open adoption can seem like quite an unattractive form of adoption for this reason alone.
We can strive to avoid known future challenges, or we can stride forward and meet them. As much as we would like to have completely happy lives, we are human. We have fears, sadness, worries, and hardship at some time or another, whether or not we see it coming. There are "good times and bad times," as well as those moments or periods of time in which we experience both simultaneously. In open adoption, it is no different. That said, is open adoption really so hard to understand?
Closed adoptions sought to take care of conflicting emotions. Most proponents of such adoptions had the best of intentions at heart. However, we now know that birth mothers, even when they are told they will and must "forget" their children, cannot do so. In turn, the children of adoption, told they can never know about their biological origins, do not cease to wonder.
With this knowledge, we can proceed to make better choices. We cannot avoid ambivalence. But we can meet it halfway, prepared with an openness and propensity toward acceptance of what is.
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