NOTE: I am making edits on an article on Catholic Exchange, which I hope will run next week. In the meantime, I thought it prudent to offer a bit more information on my own background, as well as clarify my position on some aspects of the “front end” of adoption.
I also wanted to take this opportunity to direct my regular readers to an important resource for women in crisis pregnancies and those considering open adoption, a book entitled “Because I Loved You,” which I have reviewed at the end of this article. I would like to thank Patricia Dischler and others who have taken time to help me “fill in the gaps” concerning some aspects of adoption with which I do not have relevant firsthand experience.
The first time it happened, it came from nowhere, and struck without warning. In the middle of my son’s honors assembly, I heard a name I had tried hard to forget: it belonged to a fourth-grader whose name was the same as that of my youngest sister’s second child.
Two of my sisters experienced crisis pregnancies as teenagers. The first time, my parents threw my sister out of the house. Soon thereafter she married an abusive man who was not the father of her child — and never let either my sister or her daughter forget it. In time my sister escaped, but only after a prolonged legal battle in which she nearly lost her daughter to her abuser (in NJ, he had the right to sue for custody though he wasn’t K’s father).
The second time one of their teenage daughters became pregnant, my parents rallied around her, promising to help her raise her child. Two years later, when it happened again to the same daughter, the three of them chose a Christian couple who would provide a good home for the baby boy, and who agreed to open adoption.
For the most part, I watched all this unfold from the sidelines. I was thirty and unmarried, focused on my career and living hundreds of miles away. I offered to raise my sister’s child, but it was decided the other couple was a better choice. They were married, had more financial resources, and were “Christian” (as opposed to Catholic, as I am).
But it was not to be. The bio father (we’ll call him “Gary”) fought to keep the child … and won. The adoptive parents’ petition was denied, my sister’s parental rights were terminated … and Gary swore she would never see her child again. My sister’s son would never want to see her – Gary would see to that.
When I heard that Gary was contesting the adoption, I had tried to warn my family that it might not turn out as they had hoped. After all, the family court system was bound to favor a biological parent over an adoptive one. Mom disagreed adamantly – Gary had a criminal record, was abusive, and had so frightened my parents that they were in the process of moving to another state. He had recently married, but his wife was killed in an accident in the middle of the hearing. His grief made him even more determined to punish my family, whom he blamed for his current situation.
Mom had been confident: “No judge will choose him over the parents your sister has picked for her child.”
She was confident. She was also wrong.
I’ve often wondered if, had my family approached the situation a bit differently, if I might have a relationship with my nephew today. Certainly it is “in the best interests of the child” to know his mother and her family – and yet, once my family had set themselves firmly in opposition to him, and their adversary’s rights prevailed … they lost everything. Yes, he could have chosen the higher road – and at some point down the line, I hope he will do so out of love for his son. But I’m not counting on it.
Nine years later, I still avoid looking at that little face in my parents’ “rogue’s gallery” of grandchildren’s photographs in their living room. Hurts too much. And when I hear his name called at a school assembly, though I know it’s not the same child – I still wince.
Adoption Assumptions and Assertions
The stories that bring individuals into the adoption triad are many and varied. It can be tempting to generalize about the motivations and agendas of others, and dismiss their beliefs out of hand – especially when their ideas about adoption conflict with your own. However, the issues surrounding adoption are complex, and not given to a “one size fits all approach.”
The past few weeks my articles have drawn a great deal of fire from individuals on all sides of adoption, many of whom denounced nearly everything I had to say as uninformed or “judgmental.” Frankly, responding to each post would have been far too time-consuming, and many of them were written in a tone that was not exactly condusive to constructive dialogue. Some I responded to privately (sometimes they responded, other times they said they would on their blog but failed to follow through). Others posted the same comment in several places, and several times I responded to them on their own blog rather than on mine. Finally I decided that arguing with those whose minds have already been made up is an exercise in futility. Instead, I picked some of the recurring themes, and will make those the subject of future posts. (Those who object to their comments being deleted should refer to the comments policy in my sidebar.)
The fact that I am not myself adopted or a birthmother, to some people, means that I have no right to suggest that adoption is in many cases a better option for birthmothers than attempting to raise a child without the resources to do it properly. Never mind that I am raising two children, and have two others in my immediate family, who suffered profoundly because their mothers chose to raise them — and another who is lost to us because the adoption did not go through. (For the record, I don’t believe ALL single mothers are incapable of raising a child. I have a niece who is raising her son by herself, with more family support than many single parents enjoy. I also have a single friend in her thirties who has adopted two children from Eastern Europe — and again, is a wonderful mother.)
It is both unconstructive and inaccurate to label all adoptive parents as selfish “infertiles” with a “savior complex,” all birthparents as “promiscuous” or “abusers,” and all grown adoptees who seek information about their birthparents as “victims” on one hand and “ungrateful whiners” on the other. These characterizations only serve to alienate those who are heavily invested in the topic at hand. Everyone loses.
By the same token, some overriding principles must govern the conversation if we are ever to transcend emotion and opinion. Tossing out as “antiquated” objective religious and moral principles simply because we find them inconvenient — or to dismiss those who try to live by these principles as “naive” — is more conducive to defensive posturing than constructive dialogue.
On the other hand, if we allow for the possibility that even the “uncomfortable truth” may have transforming powers, that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong in every circumstance and for all time, perhaps we stand a chance at helping future generations make better choices than we did.
On Courage … and Virtue
The other night I was at an adoption presentation in which an adult adoptee in her sixties spoke of getting pregnant at seventeen and choosing adoption for her daughter … Then going on to have two more children, whom she taught most emphatically not to get themselves in the same position. I admired her courage, both to share her story with us and to help her children learn from her mistake — for that is what she said it was.
What I find puzzling is that when birth mothers acknowledge that it was a mistake to get pregnant, and go on to choose adoption, they are often commended as “courageous” (and rightfully so). … However, anyone else who says that it is a “mistake” (or “wrong”) for unmarried women to get pregnant, or that adoption is a better option for those who are unable to parent, is branded “judgmental” and “naive.” While a certain amount of bias is inevitable, because of our own particular life circumstances, this doesn’t invalidate our ability to contribute meaningfully to discussions about the various aspects of adoption.
Is it really such a terrible thing to acknowledge that society is built upon strong, autonomous families; that marriage and family have always been inextricably linked; that children need both a mother and father; or that when the established pattern for family life is disrupted or disregarded, children and others suffer? These are objective realities are indeed “old” — they are the principles upon which every civilization has been built since the beginning of time. On the other hand, newer is not always better; and ancient is not always obsolete. The idea that some things are true at all times and in all places is not popular in our culture, which is so seeped in relativism. And yet “unpopular” is not the same as “false.”
Christians who believe that God ordained marriage and family life to reflect the life-giving love of God, and who speak out against patterns that are inconsistent with this, are not “hypocritical” so long as they live consistently with these values themselves. As a Catholic Christian, I make no apologies for speaking from a faith-based perspective. While I agree that compassion is a powerful and necessary virtue, so is being true to one’s own beliefs. If you do not share these beliefs — and have no interest in understanding them — that is certainly your perogative. However, this may not be the best place for you to invest your time.
From the Christian perspective, adoption is not a punitive measure designed to “punish” unwed mothers for their sins, but a way to spare an innocent child the death sentence of abortion on one hand, and provide a child with both a mother and a father when the natural parents are unable or unwilling to care properly for the child. (In the case of single adoptive parents, the child enjoys the loving attentions of someone who has chosen to parent, though it is always in the child’s best interest to have a loving mother and father.)
Adoptive parents make mistakes — as all parents do. This is not a sufficient reason to eliminate the practice of adoption (though it does support the idea that adoptive parents need to educate themselves about the needs of their particular children, an idea that I explore further in the CE article). Just as all good parents do, adoptive parents must assist the child in his quest for young adulthood by supporting him, encouraging him, and giving him the benefit of their experience.
In time he may have questions about his roots, and his parents must be prepared to help their child get the answers he needs while continuing to strengthen their own family bond. Not because they are “better,” but because they are every bit as much his as his birth family. If they have questions about the circumstances of their adoption, adoptive parents have the difficult job of deciding how soon, and how much, to tell. Not because we want them to know what they were “saved” from — but because it is in their best interest to know.
What adoptive parents cannot do — must not do — is abandon the child in his grief, or imagine that simply helping the child to get back in touch with his birth family will magically dispel any negative feelings he may have. In the words of one adult adoptee and adoption social worker I met recently, “Reunification doesn’t resolve anything, it just changes the dynamics.” The healing comes as the child learns (with the help of his parents) to embrace both parts of his heritage.
This is easier said than done, of course. Some children never get to meet a birth relative (in some cases, reunification may never be possible). Others get to meet them, and discover they are not easy to love (especially in cases when there are difficult or painful details that led to the adoption). Even in the best cases, there may be power struggles and hurt feelings — I recently read of one adult adoptee who was so excited about finding her birth mother during her engagement, she asked her adoptive mother to give the birth mother the “mother of the bride” spot in the first pew at her wedding. My heart went out to this poor woman; the response I got from one adult adoptee was a callous, “She should be happy to do it, and give her daughter her perfect day!”*
Reading Patricia Dischler’s book, I found myself wishing that all triads got along so well, that there was truly a “happy ending” like this for all adoptees. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! In reality, not all stories end so happily — there will always be cases where one party wants more, or less, or different kinds of contact. There will always be disappointments and scars. We live in a fallen world, and we can’t always count on other people to do the selfless or the noble or the brave thing. All of us — from birth to natural death — can only do our best to live according to the light we’ve been given, and help one another along the way.
Adoption as Redemption?
The story of adoption is a microcosm of the human story, a story of redemption and healing. Some are sensitive to the idea that adopted children (or their first parents) are in need of redemption. And yet all of us – even those of us raised in Christian, two-parent families – have something in our past or present that is disordered, hurtful, or in need of healing. Redemption is not simply the story of adoption; it is the human story. Each side of the triad has particular needs and vulnerabilities; through adoption, each can experience the healing, compassionate love of the first Savior.
The first place most children get to experience this kind of love … is in the home. Therefore, providing children a loving, secure environment is a parent’s highest calling, his or her most important responsibility. When a parent is unable or unwilling to provide this kind of environment, as a society we must tend to the needs of the children. For some, this means supporting birth parents that need assistance; for others, this means opening our homes to children whose parents cannot or will not provide the kind of environment these children need.
To this day I wish the judge had seen fit to place my nephew with the couple my sister selected, who had promised to raise him knowing his birth family. In some ways, the loss would have been less complete. I understand that — all things being equal — a child thrives best when he can remain with a biological parent. In this case, however, the best option was not nearly so clear-cut.
The unmarried couple who takes responsibility for their actions and puts the needs of their child first — whether that means marrying so they can raise the child together, making an adoption plan, or making sure one parent (usually the mother) has the long-term resources she needs to parent — should be supported in their efforts to plan for her child’s future. Inexperienced and overwhelmed birth parents may need help to gather the information they need to make informed decisions.
I recently came across a book that provides this kind of information. Because I Loved You is written by a birthmother who made an open adoption plan for her son, but it is also a valuable resource for any woman who simply wants to know how to arrive at an informed decision — and how to cope with the long-term effects of that choice.
Because I Loved You: A Book Review
This week I read Because I Loved You, by Patricia Dischler. In my upcoming article on Catholic Exchange, I quoted fairly extensively from this book.
Patricia is a birthmother and open adoption advocate, and wrote this book for women in crisis pregnancies who need help in deciding the best course of action with regard to parenting. The book is not written from a strictly Catholic perspective: although she was raised Catholic, Patricia clearly did not get the level of understanding or support she needed from that particular parish. Her views on contraception are also inconsistent with Church teachings. And yet, Dischler’s views are profoundly pro-life, and if I knew a woman in a crisis pregnancy who was unsure about what she should do with her child, this is the book I would hand her.
Juxtaposing her personal story and empathetic guidelines for the reader, Patricia offers practical, encouraging, hope-filled advice on a variety of topics. “One bad decision does not define who you are,” writes Dischler. “We all make mistakes. Now is your turn to learn all you can and make an informed choice.” She offers advice on a range of topics including:
* Taking a personal inventory of your situation — both short-term and long-term realities including father participation, ongoing child-care needs, personal goals, available support, and the mother’s future needs
* Exploring options and looking at the future as realistically as possible
* How to make a birth plan, including celebrating the birth and (if necessary) saying goodbye
* How to make an adoption plan and choose adoptive parents
* Coping with the emotional aftermath, including issues surrounding grief and loss (something every birth mother needs to factor in when deciding whether or not to choose adoption)
* Building positive long-term relationships between birth parents and adoptive parents
* Helping extended birth family members with their grief
Because I Loved You is a great resource everyone in an adoption triad, perhaps especially adoptive parents because it helps us to understand what it means to help an adopted child come to terms with the circumstances of his adoption in a healthy way, with respect and appreciation for both his families.
One last thing. I’m going to leave the comments open for the present. However … Those who use my blog as a space to (a) attack me for my religious beliefs, (b) attack me because you think I’m not sympathetic or aware enough about the MANY circumstances that might lead a woman to consider adoption or single parenting, (c) pontificate about subjects only tangentially related to this post, or (d) write minisermons about Jesus and the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery as a basis for explaining why ALL women should be encouraged to raise their own children, you will be deleted. I’ve had enough of those kinds of tiresome comments this past week to last a lifetime. Stay on topic and keep it civil, or you will magically disappear!
* This woman has since posted several angry messages, denying she ever said this and calling me a liar and a hypocrite (true to form, she continues to attack ME rather than take responsibility for her own actions!). A very sad case. Please pray for her. I’ve taken down the link to her blog … if indeed she’s thought better of her original statement, great; if not, life is too short to perpetuate this kind of toxicity. Go with God … but please do GO. (All future comments and messages, as promised, will be deleted.)