I’ve needed to write for a while, but I haven’t had the guts. Our family has been struggling and a lot of it is confidential, so it is a challenge to sort out what parts are my story to tell and what parts I need to keep private.
I knew the words were a mistake as they were leaving my mouth, but I was in the grip of an anger so fierce it literally felt like fire. Some of you may recognize this: Mama Bear when the ones you love are being hurt. Claws and sharp teeth and ROAR. So much roar.
I don’t know how to tell this story without telling the story, but I don’t want to break confidences.
A friend who grew up in Oakland says that when he was a kid, you never wanted to be taken to Kaiser. If you got sick, you told the ambulance driver: take me anywhere else.
But recently as I sat in the playroom in the Pediatrics ward of the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, it didn’t seem that bad. My robust, healthy daughter played with a thin boy in a brown hospital gown with IVs taped to his arm: Sammy.
Sammy’s dad and I sat around the table in the playroom. Sammy invented a game with plastic beaded bracelets his dad had made for him, and we participated the best we could with the inventive rules of a 5-year-old. We began with just a few bracelets, and then when the game got more complicated, Sammy’s dad dug more bracelets out of his jeans’ pocket.
I wondered about those bracelets: when had Sammy’s dad made them, and how long had Sammy been in the hospital, and when might he go home? Sammy’s daddy looked so tired. But we had fun playing the game, laughing and joking, as my rosy-cheeked girl ran circles around the table and pushed chairs about.
When you are in a crisis, the best and the worst seem to float to the surface and persist. That day, playing with Sammy, was one of the best.
I will always regret that it was there — in that playroom, Sammy and his dad having stepped out to meet with their nurse — that I lost my temper and the very worst of everything collided.
Some of you know that fierce anger, and how it feels in your body to be Mama Bear when your cubs are being hurt. Sharp claws, teeth, the roar. I roared. And received in return, the worst of all possible things: I was not going to be allowed to see him. And they would take away my wife’s access to her birth son. Unless we behaved, didn’t insist on our “rights” or confront them. There is no way I can describe the terror that flooded me in that moment, or how heavy the regret hunched in my stomach.
I’m an adoptive mom, married to an amazing woman who is an adoptive mom and birth mom and adoptee.
We were there in that hospital for my wife’s birth son, who was fighting for his life. But we had no legal right to be there. And so we behaved. Choking down panic and grief, I left the hospital, and my wife apologized for me, accepted her role: they were generous in allowing her to even be there, to see her birth son.
This is open adoption, what it looks like for us in this part of our family. My heart, whatever jumble of love and pain and fury might be called “heart,” is still shattering and reassembling itself, over and over, as I try to understand how to be helpful and compassionate and wise instead of wounded and furious and selfish.
I know that there is much in this story that probably doesn’t make sense, but my reason for writing is to ask, again, about how we decide who has the rights to a child. The social worker at the hospital who intervened (to ask to me leave) argued with us that my wife’s son was “not your son because you gave him up.” When we explained about open adoption, about the agreement and the (broken) promises, she asked how often we’d seen him and then quickly retracted. Apparently there is some measure of number of visits that do grant you something (nothing legal, just generosity) in regard to the life you made in your body, the one you would die for.
We aren’t delusional. As adoptive moms, we know very well what it means to be a parent. It’s how children experience it: mom or dad is the one who makes you the bracelets, dozens and dozens of them, for your days in the hospital. They are there always. Every day.
From the outside, and to the kids themselves, it looks like birth parents aren’t there every day. That’s part of the deal, what was signed up for. But I know, because it is my family, that some birth parents think of their child EVERY DAY. Love that child. Hope and pray and weep for that child, the one that is part of them, will always and never be theirs.
It doesn’t count legally but it counts. Oh it counts. It’s called love.
And there has to be a better way to do family than this setup where adoptive parental power is absolute and access is used as the ultimate weapon. We have to find a better way.