Adoption: We Need a Better Way

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.

Blessing this Day

I was 30 years old when my sister found out she was pregnant. The picture of us that day shows my uncontainable joy and my sister’s discomfort at the morning sickness and unexpected timing. We sat on her living room sofa, she heavy with nausea, me light with anticipation, and talked. She said she wasn’t sure she was ready to be a mom. At her words I felt a huge chorus – like thousands of fans doing the wave at a Timbers game – shout “I’M READY!”

It surprised me to realize how much I wanted to be a mom. I was single, still sore from the painful end of a decade-long relationship that had been a struggle at its best and abusive at its worst. I had a job but not much else. Yet here I was jumping out of my chair with desire to be a mom. It had happened: that biological tick-tock that friends had warned me about.

The longing for motherhood, for any child, isn’t the same as the loss of a specific one.


The nursery

My sister rode the wave of morning sickness through the first trimester and into the second. She and her loving and lovable husband made quick plans: moving into a house, gathering gear from enthusiastic neighbors, assembling a nursery. By the third trimester they were feeling “ready,” i.e. terrified and ecstatic. The pictures from my sister’s last trimester show her glow, her whole-body embrace of her soon-to-be-daughter. On many nights her husband strummed the guitar and sang to her belly with the name they had chosen: Gwendolyn.

Gwendolyn was due in late November, just before Thanksgiving. She was born one day before her due date in an emergency c-section. She died three days later. It took forever for the doctors to assemble some sort of explanation. All we knew was that everything had been fine (the words at each checkup were “perfect”…”she’s perfect”), and then they were not.

Losing Gwen shattered us. It broke us into a thousand-thousand pieces. Here we are now, seven-and-a-half years later. I am finally a mom. My sister has three amazing, incredible children, none of whom are Gwen. We have swept and gathered those pieces, but I don’t think any of us are whole.


The house with Gwen’s garden

Last night my sister called because they got an offer on the house – the house with Gwen’s memorial garden in the front yard, the house with the nursery that was to be hers. Even though it is, as everyone says, important to “move on,” it still hurts to let that house go. Oh but it hurts.

This morning I wonder if maybe some parts of grief just don’t heal. All the many good, truly good, new things in life don’t take away the one heavy loss.


I think of all the stupid things people say to moms and dads and aunts who are grieving: about the time it “should” take, about not living in the past, blah blah blah. You can’t schedule grief. Some days you can barely contain it.

This morning all I can do is bless it.

Bless my sister, my heart. Bless Gwendolyn. Bless these tears. Bless this ache.

Bless the morning sun flooding the living room where my baby girl plays with her toys. Bless the house where my sister rises, red-eyed but still moving, mothering among school backpacks, lego sets and sippy cups.

Bless sisterhood. Bless memory. Bless going on. Bless looking back. Bless now: bless this day.

How Openness in Adoption Benefits This Adoptive Mom

chairsMy wife and I participated in another panel at the adoption agency, and I felt, once again, like a freak. I tried to be as helpful as possible to those wide-eyed, eager-faced waiting couples, remembering when I was one of them. But it was hard.

The trainer mentioned our entrustment ceremony and described it as “passing a child from one family to another.” No! I protested, but didn’t get a chance to explain because time ran short. We CREATED a new family together. We wrote the covenant together. Our daughter has one family — all of us.

An adoptive mom next to me wondered aloud if her daughter might benefit from an open (rather than their closed) adoption. So when my turn came, I mentioned a couple things about how openness benefits me, an adoptive mom. I could tell that at least one hopeful face connected with me, but most people avoided my gaze. I felt again that my experience seems to be just my own.

Here’s what I would say, if I could:

  • We, all of us – adoptive moms, birth mom, birth family, adoptive family, friends, cats (ok, maybe not the cats) – chose to create a family for our daughter. We CHOSE. Our choices affected us differently: our daughter’s birth mom made a choice that brought her deep grief. Our choice as adoptive parents brought us incredible joy. Both of us feel bittersweet gladness. This is how I talk about it. I don’t talk about how “we adopted” because the story isn’t about us, it is about our daughter, how she came into the world, and the family that a group of adults created out of love for her.
  • Open-hearted and authentic relationship between birth and adoptive family can be healing for adoptive parents. It is for me. At six months my daughter can’t talk, but her mother can. When I talk to her mother, I connect with my daughter. Yes, my daughter is her own person, and in time her personality will reveal itself. But for now, being close to her mother is one way I can be close to her. This helps me and I am so grateful that her mom is able to share so much with me.
  • Motherhood isn’t all or nothing. We share it. Her mom took care of our daughter for nine months. I’ve only cared for her for six months, and I’ve had help that her mom didn’t get. Her mom will ALWAYS be her mom. It doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do, I can’t change that. Her mom got to carry her in her belly and whisper to her at night, and soothe her when riding the bus, the train…days I’ll never have. And now I pick our daughter up when she wakes in the morning, I fix her bottle and cereal, so many days that her mom will never have.
  • When I look in my daughter’s face, I see her mother, and it opens my heart. I don’t know how else to explain that, I just wish someone understood this experience.

Maybe we are always alone in our experience. I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a mom who sometimes bursts into tears while holding her daughter because the joy-sorrow is so big her heart can’t contain it. So these are my words, and this is a start. I’m here now, loving and open with all that I am.