Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dear Sugar: Author Lori Holden on Open Adoption

Dear Sugar:

I've known Lori Holden for a few years now, and when her book released, I was absolutely thrilled.  Why?  Because there are very, very few books on the subject of open adoption, yet if you've been in the adoption community for any amount of time you know that open adoption is a hot topic.  In fact, many adoption professionals require that the hopeful parents they work with are serious about being part of an open adoption.  And that's when some of the problems come in.  Can we really expect newbies to commit to openness when they have no clue what an open adoption REALLY means and requires?   

I wanted to ask Lori some of the questions I'm hearing from the adoption community.  Her responses offer all of us the insight we need to make informed decisions and remain committed to what's best for our children.   

Rachel:  Lori, let's get right to it.  Define open adoption for my readers.  

Lori:  People tend to think "open adoption" means contact, but I believe there is a better measure we should be using. Over the years I've found that openness -- another way of saying mindfulness --  is the real key to keeping our parenting decisions focused on our children. Openness often leads to a desire to make contact work in people who start out closed to the idea but are able to untangle their emotions about contact.

Contact invites complexity. Openness, which I define as dealing with What Is, helps us deal with all that complexity in a mindful way. And I'm talking about not just with our child's birth parents, but also with our child. When we are more more mindful, we are able to respond rather than react when adoption issues arise. We can then choose our words and actions in an intentional way rather than resort to a knee-jerk reaction that stems from our own fear, insecurity, or hurt place.
Example: If you get triggered when your son says, "I'm not cleaning my room! You're not even my real mom!" -- well, then, that kiddo can use your own trigger against you. Before you know it, you're in a shouting match with someone half your size. "I AM TOO YOUR MOM! LOOK AT ALL I DO FOR YOU!" Your child has knocked you off your game and there is now distance between you and the child you want to be close to most of all.

But if you're already aware that you had such a hot button and have disarmed it within you, instead you have an opportunity for connection and exploration. "Ah, Sweetie. Nice try. No matter who your mom is, your room needs to be picked up. Would you like me to help you or would you prefer to do it yourself?" You take advantage of this opening to build trust and focus instead on your son's hot spots. Was this really about a Real Mom or about avoiding a chore? "Hey. While we're putting these toys away, would you like to talk about what makes a person real? I wonder if you're thinking about your birth mom. [silence]."

Rachel:  What does a hopeful person or couple need to know before agreeing to be part of an open adoption?

Lori: Two things.

A. Practice discernment when it comes to boundaries. It's just as misguided to have no boundaries at all as it is to have overly restrictive boundaries. The Great Wall of China and a barbed wire fence are not very discerning. They say "We're gonna keep our things on our side and your things on your side."

Instead, we want a more functional filter, a way to let in the benefits to the child and protect her from harm, the way a screen door allows in a breeze but keeps out mosquitoes. (No, I am not equating first parents with mosquitoes, but rather with behaviors that need to be negotiated by any two people in an ongoing relationship.)
In short, we should set and patrol our boundaries more like this...

than like this...

At each decision point about contact, be mindful of what issues you yourself may be dealing with. Some common ones in adoption (open or otherwise) are insecurity about not being the only mom or dad, fear of losing the child to the birth parents one day, or jealousy of the special connection the child has with birth parents. Resolve your own stuff so that your child doesn't have to navigate yours on top of her own. Discern between actual safety/security issues that may affect your child, and issues that are more your own. With this discernment, you can choose your words and action in a way that best serves, rather than react from your unhealed places. (We all have those, by the way.)

B. It's not in anyone's best interest to turn their child's birth parents into supplicants. There needs to be an ongoing  respect for the people who brought your child into existence -- even if you think they don't quite deserve your respect. They did what you didn't/couldn't do; you do what they couldn't do. In a well-functioning relationship there's an evenness, a balance of worth, a recognition of inherent value not for what the first parents do but for who they are. Your child's first parents, their origins.

Rachel:  As you know, we have four open adoptions.  Our decade of experience has taught us that open adoption is beautifully complex.  How would you describe it? 

Lori:  Open adoption is such a union of opposites. Over time it's easy and hard; broken and whole; hurting and loving; good and bad, happy and sad, defeating and triumphant, connective and disconnective, and countless other polarities.

Rachel:  Finish this thought.  Open adoption is not for ____. 

Lori:  ...wimps.  

Rachel:  Oh my goodness.  I couldn't agree more!  
Alright, up next. Open adoption:  what is the future like?  We've moved from completely closed adoptions (during the Baby Scoop Era), to many semi-open (pictures and letters sent through the agency, for example), to many, many open adoptions.   Will adoptions continue to be more and more open, or do you see the pendulum swinging the other way (semi-open) again?  

Lori:  I see three stages in the evolution of modern adoption.

Stage 1. Closed Era: No contact, no tools to deal with What Actually Happened, which included a childectomy, a grafting onto a family tree, a complete change of mother -- all big things that no one was supposed to notice. Let's just all pretend parenting by adoption is no different than parenting by biology.

Deal with? We won't have anything to deal with!
Stage 2. Open Adoption Era: Go forth and have contact! Nevermind that it is, at times, really hard because relationships in general are complex, but go figure this out and let us know how it goes for you!

For decades we've been trying to navigate contact, but the only tool we had to deal with the complexity that contact brings is a door. We open the door to all that complexity and we are too easily prone to closing it when things get tough.

So much to deal with on top of regular parenting! That open door has forced us to deal with so much, and we just don't know how. I just wanna shut the damn door already!
Stage 3. Openness in Adoption Era: We're taking advantage of this additional tool that helps us deal with all the complexity that comes from (a) being human; (b) being in a relationship with another human; and (c) being in relationship with another human over time. And that tool, the thing that helps us deal with What Is, is openness. Whereas a door is open or shut, openness helps us deal in all the varying hues that living in adoption brings. We become more and more aware of our inner dialog, triggers, motivations.

Still so much to deal with, but we're actually dealing. Sometimes I'm dealing with my own fears and insecurities. Sometimes I'm dealing with how we relate with each other and with the child we both love. Sometimes I'm dealing with competing needs among my child, their birth family, and myself. Sometimes I am dealing with Hard Things and there are no easy answers.But never do we Not Deal at All and simply smush things down, layer upon layer. That's where dysfunction and the need to self-numb arise -- for the son/daughter as well for the grown ups. To keep us all as emotionally healthy as possible, we aim to deal in What Is and model this for our child so that they are well-equipped to deal with What Is, too.

Lori Holden writes from Denver at LavenderLuz.com. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is on required/suggested reading lists at adoption agencies across the country. Follow her at her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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