As we sat on the deck later, the sky still dry, but threateningly grey, we breathed in the smell of damp air, moist soil, and dry leaves. There is a clean rottingness to the crisp air of autumn, which mingles with the gentle wood smoke of neighbors burning brush. The crack of a pellet gun split the silence and a herd of geese took flight from the edge of a nearby shore. Our noses were pink from the chilly air but our bodies were warm, wrapped in thick sweaters. It’s the time of year that Minnesotans feel very smart for living in the Midwest. And it’s the time of year I often think about my birthdaughter and placing her with her parents eleven years ago.
Ryan and I cradled hot tea in our hands, worn out from carrying buckets of mulched leaves into the woods; Twila stood at the outdoor table playing with the new toys she’d gotten from Nicole, her birthsister, just a few days before. Happily playing she looked up at me and said with a sigh, “I’m glad Nicole is my birthsister.” Unable to schedule a full-on birthday dinner before their birthdays got another month further away, Twila and I met Sandy and Nicole at my mother’s house in St. Paul. Driving over there in the mid morning of a gorgeous, warm, sunny day, I thought, not for the first time, how lucky I am to have joined this open adoption.
I know many birthmothers and even more birthmother stories and over the years I’ve seen that most birthmothers have something positive to say about their birthchild’s placement. Sadly, most birthmothers also have a lot of complaints. ‘Complaint’ is almost too shallow of a word. Most birthmothers have a lot of unmet needs, a lot of disappointed hopes, a lot of longings—many, many birthmothers, hold some amount of regret.
Regret, could there be any worse a word to have to contend with when examining ones decision to place a child? To place your child in an adoption, open or otherwise, is perhaps the biggest, most life-altering decision a person can make; not only for themselves, but for their child and the people who are adopting her.
Adoption is beyond emotionally charged; it’s like a knot of emotional nerve endings, raw and exposed. The birthmother is facing the unbearable act of carrying and birthing a child with the intention of saying goodbye. The adoptive parents are likely coming off of an era of disappointment in their own lives and are then expected to turn, gratefully and openly to a new idea, one which they may have not in their lives until this point considered. Adoptive parents, being the “beneficiaries” of the adoption relationship, are supposed to be happy and thankful and, birthmothers presume, accommodating. What else should a birthmother expect, she is making a huge and generous sacrifice, right?
But unseen are the deeper, more complicated feelings of the adoptive parents, the grief of the notion that they might give birth to their own offspring, the disappointment of being unable to conceive, the fear and uncertainness of entering into an intimate relationship with someone they don’t know.
In so many ways, open adoption is a recipe for disappointment. Here is the birthmother, making a difficult decision, perhaps an unbearable one, perhaps closing her eyes to the full reality of what she is doing because it is (for any number of reasons) the only choice and she has to get through it. Then here is the adoptive couple, perhaps suppressing some unattractive feelings in order to attract and connect with a birthmother; perhaps putting on the best face possible, genuinely willing to do whatever it takes to make this exchange successful and (they hope) mutually beneficial. In short, everyone has their best, most effort-giving, faces on for the adoption arrangements.
Then, the baby is born; the baby is adopted—legally, officially. Realities set in for the birthmom: longing, missing, hoping, needing. Realities set in for the adoptive parents: parenting, feeding, waking. Everyone is tired and suddenly ones’ own needs takes a more present position in the equation than it did before. Tough decisions need to be made by the adoptive parents (now having the power, almost entirely—a paradigm shift) about how open they really want to be. Many, many adoptive parents feel fearful about having their child’s birthparents around. When the realities of parenting and moving-on as a birthparent begin to emerge, birthparents and adoptive parents begin to let each other down.
Each adoption is different but many adoption stories I’ve had the honor to read about or listen to first hand, hold a similar thread like this. So many hopeful adoptive and birthparents find some amount of disappointment in the aftermath of placement. The more I hear and read, the more I come to understand how lucky I am.
I am one of the truly happy birthmoms. We may be a rare breed. Adoption is too momentous a happening to think it could ever be perfect. That would be like an expectant mother hoping that she will be the first perfect mom. I think the most any birthmom can hope for is that there will be more happiness in her choice than sadness; more joy than pain; more pride than regret.
I have the benefit of being eleven years into my birthdaughter’s open adoption, so my reality as a birthmom, and now a mom, has had time to solidify and settle. It certainly wasn’t always as good and easy as it is today. Today, when we get together Nicole tells me about school, Twila follows her around like she is a celebrity, asking Nicole to pick her up. Sandy and I talk about motherhood, laugh about the quirks of children and remember fondly that autumn eleven years ago when we met.
Sandy was an uncommonly generous adoptive mom. I sometimes wonder what her other mom friends and neighbors thought of her having her daughter’s birthmom over to the house, almost weekly for a while. Those weekly visits were what got me through a would-be painful time. I remember craving the smell of Nicole, the weight of her body in my arms when she was a newborn. I needed that fix, that connection, if even just for a few moments. Not unlike a new grandmother might gatecrash her new granddaughter’s home for the first months of her life, I just reveled in those visits. It didn’t matter what we talked about, how long we were together, as long as I could hold the little bundle for a few minutes, see her in her home, with her mom and dad and dog. It brought a peace to me uncommon, I think, in early days of birthmotherhood.
Still, there were hard days at the beginning, sad days, days I missed the thought of what might have been. But by comparison, I have been lucky. My birthdaughter’s adoptive parents were willing to be as open as they originally said they would be. Nicole fit into their lives seamlessly. And I went on to resume my interrupted youth. So now when I look back eleven years with Sandy, as our daughters play, as we celebrate their birthdays, seven years apart but in the same month, we have only pleasant nostalgia to look back upon. Time is always on your side when healing an old wound, but so was our honesty, our willingness to understand each other’s pain and our hopefulness that ours might be a new kind of adoption.
These days Twila asks more questions about Nicole, more in-depth questions about when she grew in my tummy and how she came to be adopted by Sandy and Tom. She loves when I get to the part about when I got pregnant with my first daughter and how ready I was to be her mom. I know there will be more questions, harder questions to answer; maybe some I don’t want to answer, but for now, as Twila enjoys being a big sister, enjoys the thrill of seeing the much older Nicole whenever possible, her sentiments are simple: “I’m glad Nicole is my birthsister.”