When we began our adoption process, we believed we would adopt fully orphaned children; some of our views had been formed by the books of Melissa Faye Green, and so we expected children who had been cared for in an Ethiopian orphanage after the death of both parents, probably due to HIV. We were absolutely convinced we were doing something entirely helpful, just as we were later convinced we were being part of a flawlessly ethical process.So many people choose international adoption in order to avoid birth parent issues -- my shame is that I was one of them. I knew that my children were not technically "fully orphaned," given the circumstances that drove abandonment in China, but I expected that they would be emotionally fully orphaned, uncaring and uninterested in these wispy, insubstantial ghosts we call birth parents.
After a series of very long and complicated turns and twists, the details of which I am not free to share because they belong to my children, and facing the results of research and inquiries, we now know some major facts and minor details we had not been aware of before. And we now have family in Ethiopia.
When our children are asked about brothers and sisters, they tell the number, including our biological children and their biological (half)siblings, without hesitating. It was a long way to get there, and this long and sometimes very painful way has formed our views on international adoption and open adoption.
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The basic difficulty, though, behind openness seems to be an emotional one: Openness means, on a daily basis, facing the fact that the adoptive mother is the second mother, and, come what may, there is someone else who shared the primal relationship to the child, who looks like the child (vice versa, I guess) and who was close in a way that cannot be substituted. It may not be easy -on an emotional level -to accept. But it is the undeniable reality the child will have to learn to cope with, so obviously, the adults can be asked to do a comparable step, which for them, at least, does not touch their sense of personal identity as it does for the child.
What I didn't know then is the power of ghosts. That even in their absence, and in part because of their absence, birth parents are central to our children's lives, to our family's life. Without knowing who they are or ever meeting them, my children long for them, to know who they are, what they look like, how they live (if they are even living), where they live, whether they are safe, why they could not parent them. Even if we never mentioned them, never acknowledged the existence of ghosts, their birth parents would still be present in our lives. There is a power in what's missing.
It was a process, but I got over that emotional hurdle that demanded exclusivity -- that I be the only mother. It was actually pretty easy to do once my children became real to me, when my love for them demanded that I fulfill their needs. As my children became real to me, so did the ghosts.
My girls need me to include their birth parents in our lives, so I do. I'm the grown-up, so I have the responsibility to put aside my issues, to get over any issues that interfere with my children's well-being. We deal with the ghosts, because never mentioned, never acknowledged, their birth parents would be the proverbial elephant in the room (to mix metaphors!), squeezing out the possibility of any other authentic relationship entering that room.
I know what you're thinking -- when it comes to birth parents, we have it easy. In China, children are abandoned and no birth family information is given. Dealing with imaginary birth parents -- with ghosts -- is far easier than dealing with the real thing, so I should just get over my big, bad self, I hear you cry. I'm not sure I agree that it's easier, but it is different.
I do know parents who are working hard to maintain an open international adoption (we're searching, hoping to be one of those families, with no luck so far), and it is hard work, given differences in language and culture, time and distance. But it can also be hard work with unknown birth parents as well -- the continual not-knowing, the difficulty in separating fantasy from reality, the feeling of disconnectedness. The power of what's missing. But we plug away at it, because it's worth it.
My takeaway: If, because of circumstances beyond your control, you can't have an open relationship with the actual birth parents, at least be open with your children about their existence, their significance. Without acknowledging what's missing, your relationship with your child will be haunted by ghosts.