Before I got to know both sides of Victor’s birth families, I had a firm opinion about open adoption. I thought it was the only way to adopt, and it would help our child with his sense of identity and belonging.
Open adoption was better for the birth families, and our lives would be deepened by these new family members. In my cushy fantasy, I’d have a close relationship with the birth mother, and her family would be our family. We’d snap group photos at graduations, pop corks at weddings, and sniffle as new kids came along for the birth parents. We’d be the poster family for open adoption.
Practically speaking, however, I was living in dreamland. I hadn’t banked on how vast and palpable the loss would be for the birth mother, how much it would affect both birth grandmothers, how much the birthfather would care, and how deeply I’d be affected by all of it.
Nelson Mandela once said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” For me, that’s open adoption in a nutshell. Visits are where I come face-to-face with the reality of adoption and with my own emotions, which range from crippling anxiety and sorrow to joy and even euphoria. Last July, we had visits with both of Victor’s birth families, and I experienced all of those emotions and then some.
Visiting Victor’s birth father
I checked my email the evening before his visit. To my surprise, he mentioned that his mother and brother would love to come along. My zen-like calm vanished. His mother?! The same woman who phoned me four years ago to tell me it was too painful for her to see her grandson and to call her when he was 18? That mother?
What I actually said was, “Yes! Wonderful! Can’t wait.” But I was petrified. I needed her to see how happy her grandson was, and what excellent parents we were. I needed to prove our worth, again.
The next day, the house gleamed, Victor’s hair was combed out, his skin shone, and he was in high spirits. His birth father, uncle, and grandma arrived, their arms overflowing with birthday gifts. We chatted, joked, and snacked on the banana bread I’d bought at 9 pm the night before. Grandma was gracious and funny, regaling us with stories of her sons’ childhoods while they laughed cringed. By the end of the visit, we’d arranged to have Victor’s 15-year-old birth uncle babysit in the fall.
After they left, I had no idea why I’d been so worried. I felt euphoric. “This open adoption thing is easy! I’ve got it down,” I thought.
Visiting Victor’s birth mother
A few weeks after the visit with Victor’s birth father, we took a trip to visit my own parents. While there, we planned to see Victor’s birth mother, Sierra, and her parents and siblings. I knew in my heart that this visit was going to be messy and difficult. Emotions are always sky high in Sierra’s household. Whenever we meet, I try to put my feelings in a box and stay out of the way in order to allow the birth family to have as much time and contact with Victor as possible. Of course, that’s all easier said than done.
Despite maps and GPS-enabled iPhones, we got lost en route to Sierra’s house. My stress level rose with each wrong turn through the area’s scenic industrial parks. Despite this, we arrived early and kicked the ball around in the backyard for almost an hour while Sierra got ready inside. Victor’s emotional birth grandma fed us turkey sandwiches and lemonades, and squealed over his good looks and obvious talent. When Sierra finally emerged with her sister, she was the picture of youth and health: lean, muscular, strong, warm, and friendly. She gave him gifts, and we all made awkward chit-chat.
We then piled in the car to drive to a safari theme park, where Victor and Sierra rode an elephant together. We walked for hours in the blazing sun viewing lions, giraffes, and rhinos. By the time we all got back to Sierra’s, I was fried from the heat and the energy required to keep my emotions in check. The evening was just getting started, though. Next up was a gigantic dinner followed by cake, ice cream, bowls of candy, piles of gifts, and much laughter.
At around 8 pm, against my better judgment, we sat down to watch a movie. I knew that Victor was beyond exhausted, but he cozied up with his birth mom, bleary-eyed and zoned out. Even though I know how important Victor and Sierra’s relationship is, I spent the movie doing battle with a raging headache and raging feelings. “He’s so tired,” I thought. “We need to go. This is not about me. This is best for him. He should be with her, not me. Deep breaths. Be brave. Everything is just the way it should be.” And on and on.
Finally, 12 hours later, we made the long drive to my parents’ house. Victor sank into over-stimulated, over-sugared, and over-tired sleep in a car stuffed with balloons, new toys, and leftover cake. That night, I let my pent up emotions out and cried in jagged sobs, long and hard. But the next day arrived clear and sunny, and Victor woke up full of beans and ready to “go swimming now!” I marvelled at his muscular brown body and perpetual good cheer, and couldn’t help smiling. I knew where these traits came from. The courage I needed to face my feelings and fears was nothing compared to the gift of being his parents and really knowing the people who created him.
Charlotte Taylor is a mother in an open adoption with her son’s birth parents.