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The Wall: Open Adoption

Author: Terri Enbourge



Imagine there is a wall.

Enormously high and dangerously slick, it is impossible to scale. Its foundation is barbed deep into the ground beneath it, so attempting to tunnel under the wall is potentially lethal. Seen from a distance the wall appears benign to most, while to some it has become sacred in its external perfection. This wall divides the entire world, and it stands in between you and your child.

On random occasions, an opening appears in the wall. You never know when it will come, so you spend your days walking back and forth scanning the bricks and mortar endlessly, just in case. You never know how large or small the opening might be or how low to the ground, and so you learn crawl and to contort your self to any size or shape, in case you are asked to enter. And you never know how long it will remain open or what conditions might close it, so you learn to be on guard -- careful, so careful of what you say.

Whatever time you may spend on the other side of The Wall remains at another's discretion, so your bags remain packed, carried on your back, waiting for the moment you are forced back through the opening -- back to your side of the wall where your vigil begins once more, wondering when or if The Wall will ever open again.

Imagine years of enduring The Wall: The random openings and closings, the unpacked weight on your shoulders, the contortion of body and soul -- all to stroke your child's hair for a single moment, gaze upon her face for an hour, play a supervised game of monopoly with her every few years, or simply snap a photo of her.

Now stop imagining, because this is the world of countless mothers who have lost children to the system called Open Adoption.

Absolute Power: The Wall's Foundation

As Open Adoption enters its second decade, voices of women once silenced by an industry that deemed them lucky to receive a blurred photo of their child here or a monitored phone conversation there, are taking the risk of speaking out. The sense of betrayal is palpable as these women and their children begin to come of age and question the power imbalance that has kept them dangled in front of each other like proverbial carrots for years, even decades.

While there is the comparatively rare scenario in which Open Adoption is fully what it aspires to be, a mutually respectful, child-centered relationship, the very framework of the system provides fertile ground for corruption and abuse. We've heard the adage, "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and it rings no less true in the world of adoption than in any relationship where one person or sector of a population holds all legal and human rights, where others hold none.

The adoption industry counts on cultural ignorance, and spends portions of its estimated 1.6 billion to cover or distort the central fact on which adoption is built: The sacred relation between mother and child becomes no more legally valid than that of strangers after adoption occurs. This state-sanctioned myth remains in tact even if the woman is lied to or coerced into placing her child. Tragically, it remains in place even if her child is abused or abandoned in the adoptive home or placed, without her knowledge, into foster care. Absurdly, it remains true long after she goes on to parent subsequent or additional children. When she is the 90-year-old grandmother of eight kids, she will still be a "birth" mother.

Folks in the adoption industry like to throw around the word, "triad," when referring to the adoptee, the birthparent, and the adopter as a group. In its intended form, the word indicates three in one. However, in Open Adoption, both law and cultural mores allow only one member of the triad the dignity to fully exist. Because adoption law grants power only to the adopter, in the hands of all but the most enlightened, the post-open-adoption relational dynamic is one in which "absolute rule" and "the unjust exercise of power" flourish. (Not coincidentally, both of these descriptions are used by Websters to describe tyranny.) And under a tyrannical system, once the power is given, it cannot be taken away under even the most unjust circumstances: It cannot be taken away even if lies and coercion were used to gain the power. It cannot be taken away if deception is used to maintain it. It cannot be taken away if human beings are abused by it.

"So what?" says a culture that that has been "educated" about adoption, primarily by the propaganda machine of the big-money industry. A culture that receives its skewed information about adoption from those in power often see it only fitting that the kind of woman who would "give up" her child should lose her rights. Convinced that such a woman must be maternally deficient, they say she deserves The Wall. They say her child is better of on the other side, away from her.

Unaware that domestic infant adoption is primarily a white, upper-middle-class phenomenon where supply is not meeting demand, most do not realize that neither the expectant mother's education, background, stability, nor her prospects (which typically rank above national averages) were even considered by those who facilitated the separation of she and her child. The fact that the industry has become increasingly geared toward fulfilling the emotional needs high-paying couples over a child’s need for parents is a truth that tears at the very fabric of our culture’s consciousness. To acknowledge that overt and insidious coercion, mythology, racism, and the perpetual resurrection of stereotypes have become necessary evils -- employed by agencies, adoption lawyers, and facilitators to maintain the supply side of the domestic infant adoption curve - requires a paradigm shift of epic proportions.

What if we began by asking from where are these newborns coming? To get a good picture of the kind of family from which most domestic agencies gain "needy" babies, take a drive through any middle (to-upper-middle) class suburban neighborhood or college. As you drive past families barbecuing in the yard and walking their dogs, as you see women studying Calculus on the lawn -- images of babies being rescued from the throes of poverty by domestic infant adoption may start to tarnish. And the families to which these children go? More often than not, the families whom adoption agencies consider more worthy to parent are the ones with big money to spend. Most people remain unaware that agencies aren't terribly concerned about childless two-parent families without deep pockets. (The subject of biracial/multiracial children would require an entirely different essay.)

That the alliance between big money and the adoption industry remains in place is simply validation that it is working for those in power. And in a culture where money equals power, the diad of adopter and agency/facilitator maintain vast control over informational outlets when it comes to adoption. From T.V. News Magazine shows to the backs of glossy parenting magazines, stereotypes, false advertising, and blatant lies are resurrected again and again.

Within the realm of Open Adoption, the mythology has changed in telling ways from that of the closed system. With an increased acceptance of single parenthood, rather than the promiscuous/sinner label that marked single mothers of the closed system, women who consider adoption now are often elevated to the status of saintly/selfless -- at least until the papers are signed. With less social shame involved in an unplanned pregnancy, the industry has had to make adoption more culturally palatable - more apparently humane to such a “selfless” woman and her child.

So, with the full knowledge that all power will rest with adopters after placement is finalized, they "guarantee" pregnant women "lifetime contact" with their children in sugary ads on the internet, in phone books, and in parenting literature. Believing what they see in print and are told by the powers that be, women who often would not consider adoption without said contact are left to grieve the ultimate betrayal after the money between the agency and their client (the adopters) changes hands and the papers are signed.

With the swipe of a pen, The Wall rises as another mother and child stand back powerless in its wake.

The Forgotten Children of Open Adoption: In The Wall's Shadow

Under the current system, not only do adopters create the rules when it comes to contact between first mother and her placed child, they also make them regarding contact between the first mother's placed child and her raised children. After years of seeing and hearing disturbing reports about sibling relationships in Open Adoption being controlled solely by the whim or comfort level of adoptive parents at a given time, I have come to view the first mother's raised children as the forgotten children of open adoption. The plight of these kids remains virtually un-addressed in any meaningful way within the adoption community.

While resources abound to help adoptive parents regarding adoption-related discussion with non-adopted children in their families, there is nothing to aid an birthmother/parent in talking about the subject to her raised children. Yet, in the all-too-frequent occurrence of adopters reneging on Contact Agreements or closing Open Adoptions, the grief of the birthparent's raised children is as complex as the grief of their placed siblings.

The grief of an Open Adoption closing or remaining open under the arbitrary control and discretion of an adoptive parent manifests beyond the relationship of those in the primary triad. Because a close (or seemingly close) relationship often develops between the adoptive and birth families in the early weeks, months, or years after placement has occurred, if the birthmother already has children or goes on to have additional children, these kids are included in the extended familial relationship. When the openness ends, however long or short a period it has lasted, left-behind birthsiblings are left with a multitude of unanswered questions and a truckload of unresolvable grief.

The words, "left behind," may sound odd when, indeed, these siblings remain with their mothers. However, if they have been included in the extended family that an Open Adoption has supposedly created, they too suffer feelings of abandonment as their siblings and the additional people they perceived as family leave their lives.

In addition to a sense of abandonment, these kids suffer on a variety of other levels. They wonder if their sibling is being harmed. They wonder if their sibling still loves them. They wonder if they did something to cause the shutdown of contact. They struggle with questions from peers about the lost sibling. They become wary of attaching, fearing that another important person will vanish forever from their lives. They fear that they, too, could be permanently separated from their mothers. They feel a myriad of conflicting emotions including anger, envy, guilt, sadness, fear, rejection, hatred, love. Left without resources for resolving their grief, they bear the darkness of The Wall's shadow along with their mothers.

One first mother and her raised child had frequent visits with the older adopted child. The raised child and the placed child had a bonded relationship, and the adoptive parents frequently told the raised child that she was part of their "special extended family." However, when complete cutoff came with no explanation this little girl was bewildered, left to wonder why she couldn't see her brother anymore. Utterly confused, she wondered if it were somehow her fault and was left with great insecurity -- questioning how the people who once called her "family" disappeared without a word.

Another mother had such a close relationship with her placed child's adoptive family that she asked them to be the Godparents of her raised child. (They had shown great interest in taking the role.) However, even in this seemingly close relationship, all contact was eventually closed down in the wake of the adoptive parent’s divorce. Like other forgotten siblings, the raised child was left wondering in ways she could not yet fully articulate except to say, "sissy gone?"

Still, other siblings look forward to the promised visits, only to have them cancelled; to promised photos, only to wait in vain by the mailbox; and to promised calls, only to sit by the silent phone. They are left to answer awkward questions at their places of worship, "You said you had a brother. Why don't you talk about him anymore?" At school they are confused about the Study Unit on Family. "Is Ashley still part of our family tree even though we haven't seen her in six years?" And at home they ask, "will I ever see my brother again?" And we parents, scarred by the word birth before our titles, try to give them hope.

Sometimes, though, we must sit with them and explain how some people do not keep their word. We tell them that it isn't their fault. We tell them that it is okay to cry, and we hope somewhere on the other side of The Wall someone is comforting our placed children in the same way. Yet we know it is more than a matter of keeping one's word and, as they are ready, we will tell our raised kids the rest of the story. Over time, we will explain that their sibling's parents share responsibility with a multitude of other people: ill-educated social workers, facilitators, agency personnel.

In the meantime, siblings whose contact with each other may not be fully cut off can suffer in other ways. When the openness of an adoption rests on the birthmother's meeting of arbitrary conditions set by the adopter, what do her children (both placed and raised) learn? Seeing one's mother diminished and degraded, her very motherhood undermined, watching her endure emotional blackmail, is akin to witnessing the dynamics of spousal abuse. And when these kids are expected to join their mothers jumping through the hoops, crawling through random holes in The Wall in order to see their brothers for an hour or be allowed to simply send birthday cards, they are being asked to endure no less than emotional child abuse.

Often too young to comprehend what is at stake, to understand why we would even attempt to endure The Wall, our raised kids are left only to observe its effects. They see our tear-reddened eyes when another visit is cancelled at the eleventh hour. They see us shrink ever so slightly when introduced as "the birthmother." They see our changed posture as they accompany us on our mailbox vigils and our hunts for appropriate, non-threatening birthday cards. Because kids are intuitive beings, not only do they see our pain, they feel it. In joining us -- even in watching us, our raised kids learn that if a relationship is important, submission and the endurance of emotional abuse is acceptable.

Our placed kids are watching, too, as we make our way through The Wall. And, as with any dysfunctional pattern, over time they can come to emulate what they have seen for years or decades. Sadly, they can begin to view unhealthy relational patterns as normal. They can come to see us only in the light The Wall and its keepers have allowed us to be viewed.

After her birthson had repeatedly used cruel, demeaning descriptions about “birth” mothers during a family speaker-phone conversation, one such mother was jolted by the observation of her raised son: "You would never let me treat you like that." Realizing her son was right, she began to look for answers within the Open Adoption community. Finding none, she eventually found other mothers and children with similar experiences. Even as they began to find each other, these women and children saw with increasing clarity that they were on their own when it came to addressing adoption with their raised kids.

Recalls one of these mothers, "Everyone was talking about contact. Contact at all costs to the birthfamily seemed to be an unspoken rule. I was also hearing a lot about commitment." She goes on, "Well, the women I knew were committed, but it didn't matter if the adoptive parents weren't. There was a lot of adoptively-correct talk, but nobody could really tell us where our raised kids stood in all of this."

Where does such a child stand? Solely as a condition of being the raised child of a birthmother, an ironic oxymoron, he stands with the other children of his diminished status -- in the shadow of The Wall.

Ambiguous Loss and Limbo Grief: The Wall's Legacy

After the closure of what had been an Open Adoption, one birthmother who turned to counseling was surprised when her therapist used the model of parental abduction in treatment. The limbo grief, the perpetual wondering, the feeling that she must do whatever the adoptive parents requested to maintain scraps of information about her child, along with her conflicting feelings of compassion and rage toward her child's adoptive family, were all elements shared by mothers and fathers who had lost children to family abduction. The type of grief experienced in adoption (closed or open in an unhealthy manner ) is so uniquely painful that it has also been compared to that experienced by the families of soldiers missing in action.

In her book, "Ambiguous Loss: Learning To Live With Unresolved Grief," Pauline Boss writes about the complex loss endured when a family member remains emotionally present while they are physically absent. Writes Boss, "Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate." She goes on to say that those enduring ambiguous loss "can't problem solve because they do not yet know whether the problem (the loss) is final or temporary.

"In yet another case of an open adoption being closed without warning by the adoptive parents, a birthmother pled in vain for one simple thing: to know how long the adoption would be closed down. A year? Five years? Forever? She shared with the adoptive family that the pain of not knowing was greater than the pain of knowing -- even if the closure were to be permanent. Unfortunately, the adoptive parents merely minimized her concern and provided no answer except to tell her she "shouldn't feel that she had lost something.”

Yet, both this woman and her child(ren) did indeed lose many things. In addition to "contact" with each other, they lost their sense of permanent connection, respect for their bond, the knowledge that each was safe, cultivated relationships with extended family members, child-to child or sibling relationships, trust, security, consistency -- the list goes on.

In this instance, the birthmother eventually discovered the orchestration of her child's adoption had been riddled with unethical (if not illegal) methodology from the beginning, yet the pain of betrayal was secondary to the pain of ambiguous loss. Despite the fact that she and her child had suffered multiple losses on numerous levels, this woman was primarily tortured by ambiguity. "Everyday it occurred to me," she later reported, "this could be the day they call. This could be the day they write. This could be the day the re-open the adoption." For mothers who have endured the ambiguous loss of a once-open adoption being arbitrarily closed, something as simple as the daily walk to the mailbox can become a journey into purgatory.

In cases where the adoption is not completely closed down, ambiguous loss still looms large. A pioneer birthmother of Open Adoption uses the description, "puppet on a string," when referring to her 18-year tenure under the direction of her placed child's adoptive parents. Because the adoptive family lived across the Pacific Ocean from her, visits required much preparation, time off work, two plane rides, and a hotel stay. However, upon arrival in her daughter's city, she would randomly be told that she was "sick" or not "available" for the visit. Never knowing which visits would end this way and which would not, she continued to make the journey for the duration of her daughter's childhood.

Still other original mothers are forced to present themselves as "aunts" or "step sisters" in order to see their children. Under the spell of an industry that deems them lucky to even glimpse their children, these women report that their children's adoptions are open. Open at what price? In denying their very identity not only are they participating in a lie, such women must also repress and deny a myriad of conflicting messages and a Pandora's Box of grief. Yet, it's not hard for any mother to comprehend why these women continue to submit -- when it is the only means of maintaining contact with their children.

In scenarios like these, adequately processing grief is impossible. Boss writes, "Just as ambiguity complicates the loss, it complicates the mourning process. People can't start grieving because the situation is indeterminate. The confusion freezes the grieving process. People plummet from hope to hopelessness and back again." The truth of this observation can be seen regularly on message boards and Open Adoption e-mail groups, where contact between birthparent and child are re-opened, closed, and controlled by adoptive parents. Because the loss is indeterminate, because mothers are not certain whether or not they have suffered yet another loss (or if they soon will), frozen grief sets in resulting in a sort of unresolvable limbo loss*.

Common themes accompany this sort of loss with regard to Open Adoption, with the primary theme being the birthparent's silence. In order not to upset the chance contact will continue or may resume after a period of no contact, these mothers become bound and muted to varying degrees. The silence can manifest in fear of speaking out to the adoptive parents, the agency, or to anyone about the betrayal of the agreement, lest daring to do so make matters worse. The binding manifests in the inability to act on their children's behalf, even when they witness family dynamics that are harmful to their child. Unfortunately, because of the power imbalance in an Open Adoption relationship, this fear is based on a reality which is often realized upon confrontation.

Four years after the closure of a once-open adoption, a birthmother was suddenly welcomed back into her child's life. Within hours of the reunion, she discovered her child had been harmed by a relative in the adoptive home during the period of contact cutoff. When she shared her feelings about the abuse and deception with the adoptive mother, she was threatened with yet another closure of the adoption. With visions of renewed openness and hope that even her limited presence could somehow help her child, the birthmother kept quiet. Nevertheless, the adoption was eventually closed and all contact severed. Boss's observation, "People plummet from hope to hopelessness and back again," is tragically played out in scenarios like these, to greater or lesser degrees, on a daily basis in the world of Open Adoption.

Boss recognizes that "because ambiguous loss is a loss that goes on and on, those who experience it become physically and emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty." In this way, ambiguous loss can resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in that the lack of resolution "traumatizes." However, with ambiguous loss, Boss notes that the trauma continues to exist in the present. "It is not post anything," writes Boss. Survivors of ambiguous loss describe the trauma as "a roller coaster ride, during which they alternate between hope and hopelessness. A loved one is missing, then sighted, then lost again."

Such descriptions are achingly familiar to many women and children of supposed Open Adoption as relationships, not only between mothers and children, but among the extended family created by the adoption are formed, nurtured, and then destroyed with no more than a letter returned to sender.

Many of us remember the last glimpse of our children -- and we wonder. We wonder what we would have done if we'd known it would be this way. If we had known the potential adopters never intended to keep the adoption open, would we have taken our children in our arms and run from the hospital? If we had known that the adoption would be closed after our son's tenth birthday, would we have shot one more hoop with him out on the driveway? If we knew that supervised board game with our daughter eight years ago would be the last, would we have knelt before her and told her about the power of our connection -- how strong and sacred is our bond -- without fear of how it may upset her adoptive family?

We wonder. We wonder, and many of us wait. Some of us live in hope of the next time a hole opens in The Wall. How big will it be this time? What will we have to do to get through it this time? How long will it remain open? "Dear God," we say, "what will we do if it closes again?" And some of us have found that hope can be a dangerous thing when its fulfillment lies solely in the hands of another human being. Some of us have found that a blurred photograph once every two years is not worth the price of our sanity, health, and dignity -- or that of our children, and we are beginning to question The Wall.

Beyond The Wall

When I first began to ask questions about adoption, I was still working for a well-known international agency where social workers regularly had me cut and paste personality assessment information about one potential adoptive couple onto another's homestudy. While there were social workers who took their responsibility seriously, I watched with increasing discomfort as many rubber-stamped potential adopters through the system. At the time I assumed those who dealt in Open Adoption, by nature of the context, to be different. That assumption has proven disappointing.

While there are those who remain committed to the full intention of Open Adoption, sadly, time is revealing the system's grievous flaws. Betrayal is more the rule than the exception and, as Heather Lowe cites in her article entitled, Broken Promises, "it happens everyday." When I first began to ask questions about adoptive parents reneging on contact agreements, I was told it was unusual. Because the agency through which my child was placed provided this answer (based on their loose assessment of the word, "open"), I began search elsewhere for answers. Yet, even when I first took the question to leaders within the Open Adoption community, I received mixed messages. Told by some that my situation was "unique," while others openly cited examples of betrayal -- quick to add, "but it's better than the closed system," I sensed the fear that fuels the status quo.

When I questioned what it taught my birthchild to see me walk a tightrope to get a photo or even a chance at a visit, I received no adequate answer from the powers that were. And later, when I began to question my raised child's struggle with the arbitrary conditions surrounding contact with her sibling, it was as if I were shining a light on the messy underside of a tidy rug. As years have passed, there have been other mothers with lights of their own. There along The Wall's perimeter, we began to find each other.

Alone for so long with our unique grief, we had tried to fulfill the role to which we were relegated after we signed the papers. Some of us managing with amazing diligence and creativity within the confines of an inherently flawed framework. Others trying everything on Earth to maintain some degree of healthy contact with our children, until we found there was nothing in place on Earth to let us do so. We had read the books, attended the conferences, asked the questions, but were left with the sense that nobody quite got it. We already knew about the grief, the shame, the seven core issues. Now we see the postings on e-mail groups: another woman and child lost to each other when adoptive parents dishonor their Open Adoption agreement or disappear altogether, and we're no longer surprised. We answer the questions of our raised children regarding their siblings in our own way, because there is no lecture or literature to adequately acknowledge their loss.

For us, the mothers who have patrolled The Wall for years or decades, I see hope. It is a hope mixed with great sorrow, as I see more women and children betrayed under the guise of supposed Open Adoption speaking out by the month. The risk they take is great, given that speaking up may very well mean losing whatever shred of contact that remains with their children. As more mothers tentatively begin to question The Wall, they do so knowing the holes may stop opening altogether. But some of us are no longer interested in random openings, no longer interested in trying to tunnel under or climb over The Wall. We have seen our raised children huddled in its shadow for too long, and we have so contorted ourselves in order to maintain scraps of contact with our placed children, that we are fragmented -- mere shadows of ourselves when we stand before them. And if The Wall has done this to us, we wonder, is it not doing the same to them?

So it is with all the love and the rage and the gut instinct of any mother, our sights become set, our energy poised on seeing The Wall come down. Our heads throbbing from beating against it, our fingers bloodied from trying to pry that last hole open, our tongues thick with unspoken outrage, The Wall has driven some of us to our knees. Yet, here we may be lifted by a truth greater than The Wall. A staggering truth that no piece of paper, no human being, no mere brick-and-mortar facade can take from us -- the truth of our motherhood.

Finally, standing wide-eyed within the full force of the shattering loss, in all of its ambiguity, acknowledging all of its tentacles weaving through our lives and the lives of our children (both placed and raised), some of us begin to find our voice. It is primal. It comes up from the toes and from the very ground beneath our feet. It stops for a time in the belly where it catches fire, passes through the heart, and vibrates in the cleft between our collar bones -- until it finally explodes as only a mother's truth can, "THIS IS WRONG!"

Then we hear it, as we turn away from The Wall. It is barely audible but there, just the same: The sound of a single brick crumbling to the ground.

Copyright © 2003 Terri Enbourge