Open Adoption

Some time ago I read this book by Vanessa McGrady about her experience with an open adoption. Today, the topic of Open Adoptions came back up in my all things adoption group and I thought I would re-visit the topic.

Today’s questions are – What does your open adoption look like? and How is the child connected to their first family?

I will share selective comments because there were 70 and I’m not doing ALL of those. LOL

This one is an adoptive parent of two little girls (biological sisters). We are very fortunate to be able to have a very open adoption with mutual respect. I feel it is similar to co-parenting with the exception they do not stay at her house. (Her personal choice that I support due to varying circumstances in her life.) We speak almost daily. We spend every birthday/holiday together. Mom comes to school programs, recitals and sports games. My husband and I make the normal day to day decisions, but discuss with her major decisions. We value her input on beliefs, values and overall wellbeing of the girls.

Another situation – I talk regularly with mom, though not daily now, as we once did, because she is now working and life happens. Kiddo is able to email mom and text sister as often as she wants (she has her own devices and I do monitor her messages to all but sister and mom). They don’t talk as often as *i’d* like them to, all chat, but I can’t force any of the three to have a relationship. All I can do is say “hey have you emailed mom recently?” We exchange gifts at holidays and when we can afford it, we fly mom and sister out to visit and they stay with us. Unfortunately, dad doesn’t want contact and has kept his kiddo a secret. I’ve made efforts to reach out over the years and his position hasn’t changed. I have made it clear that he needs to get his things in order because kiddo will come knocking when she’s older (she’s 10 now).

And another – We all live in the same city, so we are able to see each other often – mom, dad, both grandmas, aunts, uncles and cousins. We do the usual family stuff like celebrate birthdays and holidays, but we also just do regular life together too – parks, stores, video calls, restaurants. Facebook access to all family members which has been a great tool for keeping our daughter connected to her family (she’s only 2, so we feel like we are responsible for keeping communication open until she’s old enough to do this herself). Her mom and I both enjoy crafting, so we’ve done several projects together. We also did family photos at Christmas! Many of these choices have been continued and enhanced because of this group (thanks!) and the podcast Adoptees On.

A slightly different kind of situation – an adoptive parent of 2 little girls (who are not biologically/genetically not related). One family does not have much contact (their choice). Our other daughter (just turned 7) can call/text/video chat/reach out whenever she wants (she has one of our old phones that is hooked up to wifi) and her parents can contact her that way whenever they want as well. They also have frequent visits and pre-covid would come to dance recitals and school programs and everything… they typically have their own birthday parties for her (their request).

In my all things adoption – one of the suggestions for reform is to turn to guardianship – not adoption. Here’s one that is guardianship. We see both paternal and maternal family members each week, we have photos around our home of their family, they can call/video call their family members anytime they like off my phone or their iPads, I speak with their family members nearly daily with updates/photos about how the girls are going and reach out for advice quite frequently, we go away on holidays together.

Open adoptions are mostly a recent development and so in many of these, the children are still quite young. Here’s another one like that (families are making it up as they go along – I believe closed adoptions are becoming a archaic thing of the past) – Grandma, aunts, cousins, and some adults siblings all call, text, and have access regularly. (More than weekly for texts and calls. Visits were monthly or more before covid. Not as much since then but we are planning for more now as situations are improving.) They attend birthday parties and holiday gatherings. We share photos and have them on my social media account. Our little is only 2. They are welcome at our home anytime and we have been to theirs several times. One of the sisters has been on vacation with us. She will be meeting us at the beach in July for vacation again. Parents are not in a position to parent or be safe at this time. I hope that changes and they can have some kind of relationship. For now they do get updates from family members and have photos of him. He knows all family members just as “Grandma” and “Auntie.” We make no distinction between the biological or the adopted. The siblings are his sisters – whether they are biological or adopted. They all love him and that is what’s most important to us.

Another example –

Fictive kinship (*) adoption but didn’t not know parents prior to fostering—I knew his sisters. Several months after Termination of Parental Rights and no contact – mom reached out. I told her I didn’t care about her personal life and business. I told her that we—specifically her son—needed her in his life. That was the game changer going forward. We have what I’d call a true open adoption to where there’s unlimited access to him, if she wants it. I don’t wait for her to ask either because I know sometimes asking isn’t easy. I’m off summers and include her in our daily/weekly activities—pool, park, splash pad, etc. We talk every week or 2. Our son talks to her too. We just made the switch from calling her momma (insert name) to just momma. We see her every holiday and birthdays too or just on a whim, if we’re both not busy. I don’t like how adopters claim open adoption and all that involves is a Christmas picture. That’s not the intention.

(*) “Fictive Kin” means an individual who is not related by birth, adoption, or marriage to a child, but who has an emotionally significant relationship with the child; “Kinship Care” is the raising of children by grandparents, or other extended family members within the fourth degree of kinship. From Alec.org – Model Legislation suggestion.

The Fog

In adoptee centric communities, one quickly learns about “the fog”. This is the feel good narrative that adoption agencies and adoptive parents “feed” their adopted child. Many adoptees never come out of the fog. Most do not come out until maturity, maybe when they give birth to a biological child genetically related to them and begin searching the adoption related literature, a prominent one is The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. This is the preverbal, subconscious trauma experienced by a baby when they are taken from the mother who gestated them and then gave birth. It matters not a lot whether this separation occurs immediately after birth or months later. My parents were 6 mos and 8 mos old at the time they were separated from their mothers – so preverbal. The trauma is real and has ongoing effects.

So, I was attracted to an article in The Guardian titled Brain fog: how trauma, uncertainty and isolation have affected our minds and memory in the Health & wellbeing section by Moya Sarner. A feeling of brain fog has become more common as a result of the collective trauma of the COVID pandemic. It is described as a feeling of being unable to concentrate. There’s this sense of debilitation or of losing ordinary facility with everyday life.

It could be helpful for an adoptee to understand that this feeling isn’t unusual or weird. There isn’t something wrong with you. It’s a completely normal reaction to a seriously traumatic experience. This can affect you ability to problem-solve, your capacity to be creative in the face of life’s challenges. There can be a lot of different factors that taken together and interacting with each other, can cause these impairments, attentional deficits and other processing difficulties. Humans have effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes, but to pay particular attention when things do change.

For an adoptee, it is life changes such has giving birth that can begin the process of waking up from the fog. The adoptive parents dying, so freeing the adopted child from a need to remain loyal to the people who cared and nurtured them growing up that may kindle a need for their own personal truth. Who were the people that gave them life ? Are they still living ? What is the background story ? Are there other genetic relations ? What can they learn about their familial medical history ? What is their cultural identity ? Waking up to the reality of who the adopted person actually is.

Brain fog is a common experience but it’s very complex. It is the cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion. One needs to think about the mind, the brain, the immune and the hormonal systems to understand the various mental and physical processes that might underlie this consequence of stress.  

When our mind appraises a situation as stressful, our brain immediately transmits the message to our immune and endocrine systems. These systems respond in exactly the same way they did in early humans – with what may feel like an irrational fear.  The heart beats faster so we can run away, inflammation is initiated by the immune system and the hormone cortisol is released. A dose of cortisol will lower a person’s attention, concentration and memory for their immediate environment. 

An experience of the fog is one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. Recognizing the fog is our body and our brain telling us something, a signal – an alarm bell. We should stop and ask ourselves, why am I feeling this way ? What is the trigger ? What is the source ?  The idea is that we have a force inside us that is propelling us towards life. What has been hidden from us is now pushing us into a discovery. To make connections with our familial tribe and seek to expand the meaning of our very own life with the truth. 

The mental weight of our unknowns becomes harder to drag around. We have – at some moment in our lifetime – a will to know something about ourselves and our lives, even when that knowledge is profoundly painful. Paradoxically, there is also a powerful will not to know, a wish to defend against this awareness so that we can continue to live cosseted by lies. An adoptee might chose to live in the misty, murky fog rather than to face, to suffer, the painful truth and horror of their origin situation because the truth of the experience of how and why they were separated from their natural mother is too hard to bear.

We all experience grief, times in our lives where we feel like we can’t function at all. If you find yourself here, may it be mercifully temporary and may you recover from the shocks of reality and move forward, feeling a new wholeness in an expanded identity of yourself.

Intergenerational Trauma

My blog yesterday was inspired by an article – Intergenerational Trauma: How to Break the Cycle – and the Maya Angelou quote at the beginning of it. Then, I went off on the story of my own version of that. Today, seeing that this article has real value, I return to it’s inspiration. The paragraph below is quoted from the article.

From our families, we inherit genes, foundational life skills, traditions, knowledge, connections, wisdom, identity, resilience, etc. Sometimes we also inherit behavior patterns, coping strategies of our parents, grandparents who did not process their trauma. Children learn to be by mimicking the adults around them but when these adults are acting from their own trauma, children pick up patterns and behaviors that become their norm. The first victims of intergenerational trauma in families are the most fragile, i.e. children. They might suffer from anxiety or depression as adults without being able to pinpoint its origin, indeed intergenerational trauma in families is not easily recognized or its impact is minimized. Intergenerational trauma in families often happens in an overarching societal context which offers the setting that facilitates trauma to be passed down (poverty, patriarchy, war, colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc).

Just yesterday, as I thought an issue had reached a level of acceptance and even an ability to see how I was better off for having gone through the unexpected and unwanted rupture of a relationship, something “new” had happened fully 2 months after the initial events and I was obsessed with it again. Why am I not more mature about this whole thing ? Then, it hit me – rejection – that was what I was struggling with. Rejection is a common emotional experience in adoptees (and both of my parents were – adopted). And it is the very personal kinds of rejection – relationship ending kinds of rejection that hurt me the most. More neutral rejections – from a literary agent I am hoping will represent me or from a resume submission for some job or other – these don’t trouble me. My recent trauma of rejection was decidedly caused by an overarching societal context – COVID.

Again from the linked article – In families with a pattern of trauma, there are many secrets, taboos, things that are not allowed to be talked about. Secrets that are kept but live and manifest themselves as poverty, being trapped in cycles of abuse, violence, depression, anxiety, self-sabotage, difficulty in relationships, etc. The individual is born with and into fears and feelings that don’t always belong to them but that shape their life in ways that they are not always conscious of.

Adoption was a kind of open secret in my family. Meaning when I was old enough to know, I did know. However, the whys, I didn’t know – in fact, my parents didn’t know those either. We really didn’t talk about it in my family other than the factual knowledge that my parents were adopted. In my earliest awareness, I thought both of my parents were orphans. I had know idea that there were people out there living their lives genetically and biologically directly related to me. When my mom wanted to search and find her mother, my father was unsympathetic. Therefore, she could not share her feelings with him but thankfully, she did share her feelings about all of it with me and I am grateful that I now know how she felt, since I now know more about the impacts of adoption.

Milestones in life can greatly affect a person living with intergenerational trauma (finishing university, starting a new job, having a baby, moving to a new country, being rejected by a new partner and suffering unsurmountable grief, etc.). Intergenerational trauma can also impact our physical health through the nutrition habits we develop and our relationship with food.

Food is an issue – it was with both my mom and my dad. First, my dad experienced near starvation and food insecurity in his youth. Growing up, there always had to be more food on our table than we could eat in a single meal. My mom was a lifelong dieter and passed that fear of obesity down to me. I struggle with what I think of as “stuffing disease” – a compulsion to eat every kind of non-nutritive “fun” food in my house – cookies, candy and potato chips. Then, I regret it and try again to “do better” and I do for awhile – until the next restless, rebellious binge happens. My mom’s struggles could have been impacted by spending some time at Porter Leath Orphanage in Memphis as a baby – not because her mother didn’t want her but abandoned by her husband (my mom’s father to whom my grandmother was married) – my grandmother asked for temporary care while she tried to become financially strong enough to support the two of them. I also learned to eat “in secret” from my mom.

At this point, I found my initial link is an excerpt of a longer blog – Miriamnjoku.com‘s blog on Intergenerational Trauma. There is an awesome graphic on the blog.

When one knows the history of abandonment and/or abuse that their parents or grandparents suffered, they are better able to understand why their loved one was/is disconnected. There is a Chinese Proverb that says that “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name” . We cannot heal what we are not aware of, so the first step is to acknowledge the existence of trauma. Making the invisible visible is the prerequisite for transformation: acknowledging with compassion that certain patterns are the fruit of pain, trauma and oppression.

Learning the stories of my grandparents was the beginning of understanding why my parents were “abandoned” (that is the view of an adoptee), more conventionally understood as surrendered or relinquished for adoption. Especially, I do believe the loss of their mothers at young ages had a profound impact on both of my grandmothers and their choices and experiences in life overall. This quote by Anna Freud really speaks to me in that regard – “The horrors of war, pale in significance to the loss of a mother.”

What are the things that were passed down to us that we do not want to pass on to our children? We can look at the past with compassion and still want to change dysfunctional patterns that do not serve us. It is a hard journey which is often met with misunderstanding from the family. Are you going to be the first one in your family to go to therapy? Take care of your health? We have to be willing to step into the uncomfortable to heal, even willing to risk rejection, being misunderstood to live well, to release the psychological charge even if it means being different.

There is more in her blog – I recommend reading Miriam Njoku‘s full blog.

Feelings Of Rejection

Feelings of rejection may be one of the most common impacts for any person who was adopted. Today’s story breaks my heart . . .

It’s never going to stop. These feelings of rejection are going to be part of my life forever. I have worked so hard in therapy these past 5 years to learn all the coping skills and most of the time they have worked.

Today, not so much. I am sitting here with tears running down my face for the stupidest reasons. The irrational thoughts of rejection in my head triggered by conversations that anyone else would consider completely normal, logical and with no ill intent. I can type that, I can say it out loud, but my brain cannot stop these feelings of being rejected. It’s a freight train out of control.

This is the life adoption created for me and no amount of therapy or positive reunion or being the administer of a group that allows me to speak freely is going to change the fact that a simple statement telling me not to come to my adoptive brother’s on Christmas Eve in the middle of Covid but learning that all my nieces and nephews and my adoptive mother will be there, set’s off a chain reaction of feeling personal rejection.

We are in a pandemic, my adoptive mom goes there weekly anyway, my nieces and nephews are their children. It makes logical sense they would/could be there. Yet the second my adoptive mom told me she was going there and I told her we were not asked to come, I instantly had to put on my sunglasses and hide my eyes. Hide the tears that were forming quickly.

I desperately want to avoid being irrational, but the chain reaction starts. My husband’s phone dings and I wonder who is texting him. I have no reason to be concerned, yet I can’t help it in this moment. My adoptive mom mentions my out of state niece sent a big batch of cookies to my adoptive brother. I sit and wonder why him and not me.

Cookies…..text messages…..keeping distance during a pandemic…..anyone would consider all that innocuous. I should too. There are real issues going on in this world. There are people that don’t have family, there are people that are struggling. I try hard to get it in check, to move past it. Then I walk my adoptive mom to the door and she says “Don’t worry so much about things. You worry too much” and the tears start up again.

I’ve been told this all my life and I want to scream back at her and say do you think I WANT to be like this? To let these inconsequential things set me off at 55 years old, stupid shit that should be irrelevant? I don’t, because in this moment, my brain cannot make my mouth do that. The risk is too great. I just weakly smile and walk away.

They will never understand. Not my adoptive family, not my natural family. They will never understand that I CANNOT control this. Our brains are not wired like everyone else’s and this is the result. Me…..crying over a gathering during covid, cookies and text messages…..SIGH….tell me again how much adoption rocks. I could not hate myself more right now, for not being able to avoid this spiral over nonsense.

Really Want To Know How It Feels?

A story from an adoptee (no, it isn’t me).

I honestly don’t know if I will have enough emotional energy to finish this post but I had two very draining back to back interactions today and I honestly need to vent or I think I’ll cry. One interaction was with the new relative of a domestic adoption (the adoptive parents sister, so “aunt” to the baby) and then that was immediately followed by one with a transracial foster parent/hopeful adoptive parent. The reasons these interactions were so emotionally hard for me were mainly that neither person knew I am an adoptee, so I had to have that debate on “is the emotional labor for this worth it?” The other struggle was that both women are genuinely kind-hearted people but the hint of savior complex and shitty system rhetoric just broke me.

In short, the first story is a domestic adoption infant who was considered “abandoned” at the hospital because her HOMELESS PARENTS didn’t come back for 7 days. The most hurtful things that were said were the typical shit talking of the natural parents and the incredulousness and entitlement of the adoptive parents.

Direct quotes – “They named her this dumb name ‘X’ and even though we didn’t have to use that at home we had to keep saying “X” in public until the paperwork was final.”

(I can’t even comment on this one, especially since it was followed up by her new name and how its now the same letter as all 4 of the parents’ biological children. She seriously might as well have said “Now they are a matched set!” She then went on to complain about how the paperwork was taking extra long because of Covid.)

“They had to allow the biological parents to go to the doctor’s appointments and the dad was very aggressive and would try to dominate the appointments”

This one REALLY upset me. So, let me get this straight, they were involved and caring enough that despite being homeless and having countless odds stacked against them, they still showed up for their baby’s doctor appointments? And you are honestly saying that’s a bad thing, even criticizing them for it? Then I think about how protective my husband is of our 4 month old son at his doctor appointments and my heart broke for that poor Dad.

In response to me saying “Oh wow I wish there was something that could have been done to help that poor mom who was homeless and in (allegedly) an abusive relationship.”

She said “Oh, yeah, its sad BUT this kid seriously WON THE LOTTERY now and will have the best life.”

(Wow. I was truly speechless. Did she seriously just say ‘won the lottery?’ Because she has been taken away from her entire biological family, won’t know her 2 biological siblings, and is severed from a mom who obviously did love her baby.)

Now I’m too spent to go into the second interaction but will just say its a one day old newborn who was placed into a foster home immediately after birth because they have had the 2 older siblings for a few months. Its transracial and the baby will be in daycare almost immediately. This person is someone I loosely work with and have to maintain a professional relationship with, so I had to just kind of smile and nod and try not to cry.

Anyway like I said just needed to vent somewhere someone would understand.

Moving Around

I didn’t grow up in a military family but I went to school right next to Ft Bliss in El Paso TX and so throughout my public school years, there were military families in the mix. Sometimes, I’d become very close friends with someone, only to have them leave as their family was moved to another location. So, there was a sense of loss in that.

Today’s question was whether an active military upbringing is in the best interest of an adopted child given adoptee abandonment issues and a military move every 4 years or a parent deploying here and there.

One adoptee shared this surprising but understandable answer – The moving every three years was hard, but I also felt like I had the opportunity to reinvent my entire identity every time I went to a new school. I think the instability felt comfortable and normal to me. As an adult I can see how messed up that is, but as a kid it just felt like what life is. Don’t get deeply attached to anything or anyplace because it’s never permanent.

With racial issued focused for many people this year, I found this sharing interesting –

She is an adoptive parent who has moved location 3 times and moved house 5 times in three years (only the first move was intentional… I found a way to move us to the Caribbean – a decision driven by what we thought would be best for the kids for issues related to race – and it was awesome until the dual hurricanes Irma and Maria decided we should be in Miami instead and then Covid brought us full circle back to where we started in Virginia) – I can attest to the reality that the strain of frequent moving is an additional burden on an Adoptee’s trauma load that can be quite difficult. However, it’s also true that structure, and knowing what to expect, can be very supportive of kids who have trauma histories, and the expectation of knowing the moves come every 3 years and that the moves are part of a shared culture could have an ameliorative affect or at least teach tools for processing and managing trauma. I will say that the tools our kids have learned over the last 3 years with all the moves have been good “practice” for delving deeper into the more primal, bigger “T” trauma of adoption. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the moves are a “safer” kind of training wheel for handling and processing trauma – and then those tools can then be turned on to the bigger traumas that all adoptees are trying to manage. However, it’s risky to add to that trauma load with frequent moves if the adoptive parents are in denial about or ignorant of (or worse) the toxicity of adoption itself.

And there is also this perspective –

I am an adoptive parent and a military spouse. I just wanted to mention that the military has provided phenomenal therapies and medical care. Our now 7 year old was diagnosed with intractable epilepsy at 15 months and the military medical system was willing to send her anywhere she needed to go to get her to the correct specialists. They were willing to relocate my husband to another base, if needed to get her the medical care she required. Most employers would not. Now, it’s set up that he can’t be stationed anywhere that doesn’t have a medical team to meet her needs. She also has access to a neuropsychologist who minored in adoption and separation trauma.

The military started putting a lot of emphasis on children’s behavioral health back in the 90s with Operation Desert Shield/Storm and have done an amazing job of “normalizing” behavioral health for children and adolescents. Today, almost every school district around a military base has a Military Family Life Counselor on staff. I’m not saying this makes military life “ok”. I’m just putting an aspect of resources available out there that aren’t currently being considered in this thread.