Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Open International Adoption, is that a thing?

Part I 

I want to begin this group of posts with a few caveats.

We are acknowledging that the suggestions and things shared here will not apply to everyone nor will they be possible for every international adoption situation.  I am not talking to the adoptive parents of a child that came out of intense abuse or neglect or danger. I am not talking to the adoptive parents that literally have zero ability to locate the first family of the child they adopted.

I have met multiple people that think this is the most ridiculous thing to suggest. They would NEVER consider sending updates or remaining in contact "with some poor family" on the other side of the globe. That grieves me, but I know that is how some folks see it. I don't assume I can change them.

The two Dads that love Isaac
It is probably also important for you to know that I care as much or more about first families than I do adoptive families.  I care deeply about the rights and respect owed to a birth-mother. In my opinion protecting them and helping to make the weight of their pain and load lighter should be a high priority.

We can honor them best by acknowledging frequently how important their role is and by giving back to them by offering updates and contact with the children they have placed for adoption. We honor them by never labeling them as uncaring or incapable or reducing them to small definitions because we don't understand them or their lives.

We all need to work much harder at family preservation before and while we do adoptions of children from materially poor countries. Wealth does not equal happiness. I do not think that growing up with electricity and toys is automatically or unquestionably better than growing up without both. I don't believe that the chance at proper nutrition and education equates to international adoption automatically being the better plan for a child than staying in his or her first family without those things. (I digress, and that is not what this post is about.)

If knowing all that makes it too hard for you to read and consider the following thoughts, I am sorry-not-sorry - thanks for stopping by.

This post is about considering the opportunity for beauty and relationship by having contact with the first family of your adopted child. 

There are many reasons I have landed where I have on this topic.
I have a best-friend/sister that placed a child for adoption 21 years ago. I have watched closely the roller coaster of things a first mother faces between the pregnancy and placement and the multiple years without contact. I have also watched a successful reunion between my sister and my niece. I am related to adult adoptees and have listened closely to their feelings and thoughts.  I am an adoptive mother of three.

I have lived in a materially poor country as a guest and a learner for eight years. In these eight years we have talked to multiple families that have placed children for international adoption.  We have spoken at length with the two (close and extended) first families of our three Haitian children and have earnestly sought to understand their thoughts and feelings about adoption.
We work with Haitian women every week that are parenting their children without the benefit of a bank account, car, electricity, or fancy toys and vacations and their children are well loved and thriving. Some of these women have previously placed children for adoption and are now parenting subsequent children successfully.

Hope & Phoebe's two Moms
I have seen adoptees reunite with birth families and find peace and I believe in the rights of adoptees to have as much information as possible. I don't think secrets or unanswered questions are easy things for most of us. Many adult adoptees want to know more about their biological family, but cannot get the information. In the age of Internet communication, adoptive parents can now play a role in helping their child find wholeness by helping them stay connected to their biology.

I think it is safe to say that many times the first family and the adoptive family are not entering into the adoption under the same preconceived ideas, hopes, or expectations.

Speaking specifically of our own adoptions, we entered into them naive, dumb, and selfish and we were thinking along these lines: 'They are poor, they just want us to take their kids and feed and educate them. They will be thrilled with that alone.'

Not true.

Yes, the are materially poor, however, they entered into the adoption thinking that their children's adoptive family (us) would remain in contact via photos or written updates. They did not have a time-line in mind, but they did hope that the kids would come back to Haiti and visit them.  They grieved their decision to place the child due to finances and they did not stop thinking about or caring about their kids.  Some family members even hoped that one day a successful adult child might return to Haiti to support them financially and live in Haiti or maybe help them get to America, too.

We have been seated across from mothers and grandmothers of other children that have left Haiti that say, "We never got a photo." "We have not heard from them since 2001." "We thought we would get to say goodbye." "I write to them but never hear anything back." "He is 18 now and I want to know if he is still living and okay."  "They promised (fill in the blank) but have never done it." (I am not talking about giving gifts or any form of payment during an adoption process. That is illegal for good reason.) We have not yet personally interacted with a birth parent that did not want photos or word of their child's well-being.  Perhaps there are exceptions, those that don't want or desire updates; we just haven't met those birth-parents.

I think it is our job as people of love to uplift the marginalized and to be more than fair. If we are honest we know that we hold the power. We (adoptive parents) have the passports and the money and the ability to be connected and jet around the world. With great power comes great responsibility. We made a decision many years back that no matter how intimidated we might be by entering into an open adoption relationship, it was the correct thing to do and a way we could tip the scales of injustice back the other way.

I understand that adoptive parents are afraid of contact in many cases.  I don't know what each individual couple or prospective parent fears, but I know that I feared the uncomfortable relationship fraught with difficulty due to cultural and language issues. I feared it being hard on us and hard on the kids.  I feared not having a guarantee about how it might play out once we entered into it.  I thought it would be too hard to be asked for things.

Twelve years after those fears were born, we are in open-adoption relationships with two first families.  The relationships began over seven years ago. We see them fairly regularly, amounting to two or three times a year minimum.  Currently I see my son's first father every single Friday. We have met all the biological siblings of our son, and all but one of the biological siblings of our daughters.

Our three adopted children know the names and faces and homes of their first families. They have photos with siblings and photos with their Mother.  Two out of three of our children have met their first fathers as well. (At the time of the adoption, we were told the fathers were unknown. This was the orphanage giving advice to the birth-mother to exclude that information.) We have been blessed to know about births, deaths, hardship, and joys in their lives. We (the team at Heartline) even got to deliver the baby of our daughter's older biological sister at the Maternity Center. After the birth, our daughter came over to meet her biological newborn niece.

These relationships are not easy, nor are they super comfortable all the time ... But they are good and necessary. There are cultural challenges and difficulty in communication even with language skills. There are times that it is heavy and difficult to process things. There are times when we need to say "no" and there are times when we need to say, "yes". There are times that being in relationship feels hard.

We believe that the joys outweigh the awkward and that the very least we can do to thank these families is to grant their wish for contact and give them some power and opportunity for relationship.

Without a doubt this decision has been better for our children, better for their first families. Our two twelve-year-old kids are much more able to process this. Our seven-year-old is not ready but knows that when she is, this is open to her as well.  (I don't know your kids. There are kids that might resist this, I don't at all suggest forcing a meeting.) Obviously, it is easy for us to build relationship living back in the country of our children's births.  I understand that this is not possible for most adoptive parents. For some, only photos are possible, for others, a visit someday might be a consideration.

For future or current adoptive parents that are reading, sending photos might feel scary.  For others, that is already happening and only face to face meetings sound scary. We all fear things that are unknown, different or uncomfortable. We had our first two Haitian kids "home" with us in Minnesota for three years before we moved our family to Haiti in 2006. We never sent our first families photos in those three years.  I wish I would not have allowed three years to go by without contact. Living here has opened my eyes and heart. I used to believe very simplistic and unfair things about 'the poor' that I no longer believe.

Photos and updates are a gift. One that I hope every adoptive parent will consider.The birth families we know have saved every single shred of information and every photo they have been given.  More importantly, the only way for your adult kids to find their birth family 15 or 20 years from now if they want or need to, is (if at all possible) to make these connections now.

If you are considering a reunion in the immediate or distant future, let me assure you, sitting in an awkward situation speaking choppy language to folks that you don't really know how to relate to never killed anyone.

Coming soonish - some or maybe all of this ...

In Part II - 
Prepping the kids:
-Is it feasible to visit with formerly adopted kids? -Who decides when to come? If we are not ready to come, how can we send photos and an update? -How do we prep the kids for experiencing Haiti? The kids are really worried about the poverty, how do we prepare them for that? How do we portray Haiti (any country) factually, but positively, so that they understand that people may not have *things*, but that they are proud and strong?

Practical considerations:
-How easy/hard is it to find birth families if it has been a while since we've had contact?
-When visiting Haiti, where do you recommend families stay? -How would we do things like: hire someone to translate, get around, etc? -Do you recommend that we have the birth families visit us at a guest house, etc?  Do you recommend that we visit the families at their home, if invited?  
-Are there safety considerations we should keep in mind?
-Would you recommend taking the birth families to a nicer place to eat and spend the day, or is it better to "keep it simple?"

Cultural considerations when interacting with families:
-What expectations might birth families have of us?  (financial or otherwise)
-How do you navigate a level of openness that you feel comfortable with?  For example, if they want to call, and we are not comfortable with that, but would be comfortable with pictures and/or updates. -What expectations might birth families have of the kids?  What about helping birth families long after the adoption is done.  Should we?

Part III -
Where I share more about the things it has meant to our children and their first families with the two oldest (both 12 now) helping me write about the two most recent visits and how they felt.  Also, some stories birth families have shared about their pain over not knowing.