Saturday, December 12, 2009

Open Adoption and the Primal Wound

I go by the screen name of OpenAdoptMomof3, so you will know why I selected the questions that I did. It would be kind of hard to take a "pass" on the ones addressing a topic that is such a primary part of my "identity". Together with my husband, I am eleven (wow!) years into my journey as an adoptive parent of three children. As my screen name implies, our adoptions are considered 'open' adoptions. The interaction between our nuclear family, our families of origin, and our families through adoption; has been a source of support, wonder, and (ok, I admit it) pride over this past decade.

Reading Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier took some of the shine off that openness "accomplishment" for me and much of the pride too, frankly. Reading the book prompted me to revisit that critical time when my children were first born and Verrier's book was still waiting for me on Why, oh Why? do epiphanies always come after the window of opportunity to apply them?

To the questions then, relating Primal Wound and open adoption:

"Having read the book, how do all sides of the triad (meaning, all should reply regardless of triad position) think open adoption changes the feel of this book? If you don't feel it changes it in any way, why? If you feel that it changes everything, in what ways? If you fall somewhere in the middle, how do you explain what does get changed and why other things are left unchanged?"

Let me take a bit of time to describe open adoption as it was defined in the late 1990s for us. The “openness” adjective was applied to any adoption where first and last names were shared between one or both of the first parents, and the adoptive parent(s). That's it. There was no requirement for how or when or even IF you would see each other. I've heard people describe an adoption as “open” when the two sets of parents have met one time!

In my opinion, knowing how to Google someone to get an address for sending a birthday card doesn't make for an open adoption. Open adoption is adoptive and first families accepting each other as permanent family members and acknowledging that together they will all play unique roles in the raising of this child that has been born. An open adoption joins at least three families together forever (two first parent families and at least one adoptive parent family).

So, I personally use the term “wide open adoption” to describe adoptions where first- and adoptive- family members commit to an ongoing relationship that is not measured in terms of numbers of minutes spent together, quantity of letters and pictures exchanged, etc. but rather by how integrated all the family members are in the life of the child. I don't believe this has to require living in the same town (though it helps). Just as my sister, who lives on the other end of the country from us, is a fully engaged aunt for my children; so it is also possible for first families to be an integral part of the family even if not living in close proximity to the adoptive family.

Back to the question: how does "wide open" adoption as I've described it "change the feel" of the Primal Wound book? I don't think it typically changes a single thing in terms of what an infant experiences. Even in open adoptions the hospital experience varies widely - but in the end, babe usually goes home with adoptive parent(s) at about 3 days old, and contact with first mom is often reduced to a trickle. In my opinion, the baby would still interpret this as abandonment.

Where I think wide open adoption might influence a future edition of this book, would be in the healing process. I am intensely curious about how an adopted baby could begin to heal from the abandonment scars, while still a child with a developing brain and character. If a child grows up with open access to, and participation and support from, his or her first family; I wonder if it's possible to heal earlier and more completely. I don't recall seeing much in the book about that concept and I'd love to see it explored in depth now that there should be a growing number of adopted children maturing within wide open adoption family settings.

And a second question about openness:

"The author’s core premise is that the separation of birth mother from her baby will inevitably be experienced by the child as abandonment. Verrier believes this is responsible for various problems experienced by adoptees, due to unresolved issues regarding trust, rejection, shame, and identity. The author dismisses the notion that open adoption could be the “hope of the future” because the birth mother is still not the child’s “primary caregiver” (p8) and therefore the loss is still experienced as abandonment. Could real openness in adoption have the potential to change the author’s core premise? In other words, do you think that a child in a fully open adoption with ongoing contact with birth family will still experience his/her placement as abandonment? Why or why not? "

Despite the terms "real openness", "fully open", or "wide open" as it relates to adoptions, I still think open adoption is currently seen more as defining a long term investment over the life of the child, than something influencing that initial infant abandonment experience. I think all the involved parents typically have little understanding of how adoption will affect the newborn infant. Less attention and focus has traditionally been placed on the birth event and transition from the babe's perspective – more likely it is the adults trying to decide what they want for themselves during that time.

I would guess that abandonment would still be perceived by the infant unless the adoption transition occurred slowly and with enough time for baby to get used to another caregiver and feel permission from the first mother to attach to the other caregiver. So that over time, baby gets used to the new mother and feels permission to love both and attach to both, with the adoptive mother eventually becoming a primary caregiver and the balance shifting in terms of the two roles.

No matter how open the adoption, or how gradual the transition, Primal Wound points out that there would still be the issue of mother-babe being a single psychological unit for some time after birth. I would not think that link could ever be established with an alternate mother, although I don't suppose we can know for sure with the skills we have today. That disconnection may not be felt as abandonment however, but some other kind of injury to the soul.

I would love to compare and contrast the results from varying forms of transition. Does it matter if the adoptive mother cared for the baby from immediately after birth? What effect would it have if the two mothers alternated care of the infant for several months after birth? What kind of transition would minimize the wounds as much as possible?

The answers would help me personally understand my children I am sure. For example, my second child spent time after birth with his first mother and in the hospital nursery, as I was ill and also caring for a sick one year old. We took him home on Day 3 having spent very little time with him to that point. Is it a coincidence that he cried for 11 months straight and didn't sleep on his own until just before his 10th birthday? Yet, this same child was cared for by his first mom two full days a week until he was 8 months old. How did that affect him? I'm hoping more research is under way in this and other areas.

I was mostly talking about a baby's understanding of the placement with openness in adoption... but if we talk about an older child's understanding, can openness help heal that feeling of abandonment? I want to believe that it can! Again, perhaps with true openness the adoption healing can begin earlier than adulthood and maybe even without therapy. Knowing from a very young age that their first parents love them and are present for them in a critical family role, just must be soothing in some way for young psyches and help to make sense of adoption in a timely manner.

In conclusion, I do not believe we've invented such thing as a perfect adoption. But I still believe, despite the shortfalls we have yet to mitigate, that open adoption can be a healthier option than a closed one. Our 11 year old met her father for the first time this fall, and I shared some of the intial photos taken at that meeting. My Aunt's emailed reply says it all:

"... I am touched to tears. What beautiful pictures, and what a beautiful story they tell. If anyone wonders if a child should know his/her birth parents [her] face answers the question. ... I have so much respect for those kids, and special joy for [her]."

To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.


Leigh said...

I thought this was an extremely thoughtful post. As a bmom, I really appreciated hearing your take on "wide open" adoption and think you are right on the money - about how it should really mean a full integration of three families. I am not personally involved in that type of situation but look up to those families who are and aspire to have that someday.

Lavender Luz said...

I have been a fan of your “wide open adoption” since I first heard you use the term.

I, too, hope that openness from early on jumpstarts the healing and integrating.

Wonderful post, OAMo3.

OpenAdoptMomof3 said...

Thanks Leigh and Lavender... If it seems odd that someone espousing open adoption has a child that didn't meet her father until she was 11 years old, I thought maybe I'd clarify that that was not our choice. Fathers may warrant their own topics for discussion, but in our case we are slowly adding them to our family circle...

Since Verrier's book focuses on maternal connections, I still feel our situation is applicable with regard to openness as our kids' first mothers are a vital part of our family. I just got back from the pool with my daughters' mother and brother. They came to hockey practice first, and I cannot tell you how my heart warmed over when 3year old bro entered the rink and said "Where's my sister?". It feels good. It feels warm. It feels right. But it doesn't automatically "fix" the primal wound.

My name is Andy. said...

Thanks for your insight, as always it is very thought provoking!

battynurse said...

Thank you for this perspective.
I know that being an adoptee with a very closed adoption (I've been unable to gain any access to info about my 1st mother) I still didn't "see" a huge problem with it and seeing my mom's fear over the open adoption that was my sister has left me with feelings of fear related to open adoption. Between the couple of blogs I read that discuss in detail open adoption or as you put it wide open adoption you all make it seem so much less scary. It makes me feel better that if I should choose adoption as a path to parenthood there are ways to do everything I can for a child.

OpenAdoptMomof3 said...

Good luck battynurse! You're already light years ahead of where many potential adoptive parents are before they bring home a child...

Thanks andy..