Reprise: A year of living adoptively

Last year around this time, I wrote this piece for NW Kids Magazine. for their November National Adoption Month issue. They just republished it on their website, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

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Written November 2012

Each November, not only does my family get to celebrate National Adoption Month, we get to celebrate the adoption of our precious girl. On November 15, 2011 we brought Lilli home to Portland from Eugene, just five days after we learned we were chosen by Lilli’s birth parents to adopt her. She was five weeks old then. Now she’s a walking, babbling, curious, strong-willed one-year old.

In this first year, we’ve learned so much about adoption.

Adopting a Child

IMG_7359First and most obvious, we have adopted a child. By we, I mean my husband Matt and me. We also includes my parents and Matt’s parents. And our siblings and their kids. And so on. We have all adopted this wonderful little human into our lives, practically in the blink of an eye.

I sometimes marvel at how easy and quickly she was enveloped into our world. How immediate and unconditional my love was and is for her. Our community of family and friends has embraced her so fully. Lilli, at age one, is an intensely well-loved girl. (67 “Likes” on Facebook for her birthday announcement!) She’s our girl. Our daughter. Not, “adopted” daughter. Just, our daughter.

And while that’s absolutely how I feel, it is also true that she is adopted. That is a part of her story and we have pledged to be transparent with her about it. We adopted Lilli in an open adoption, and I’d say we’re on the very open end of the spectrum.

Adopting a Family

Lilli surrounded by Roberts and Tabora Families

Simply put, in an open adoption, the birth mother (and birth father, if he’s in the picture) choose adoptive parents for their birth child. On one end of the open adoption spectrum (sometimes called “semi-open” adoption), birth parent(s) and adoptive parents do not meet. They communicate through some sort of middle entity, an agency or a lawyer, through which information is exchanged. Birth parents may provide basic medical history. Adoptive parents may agree to send photos and a letter once a year. When the child is old enough to choose, they may seek out the birth parent.

Our story is at the other end of the spectrum of open adoption. About six months after we entered the adoption pool (not a very long wait), we got the call from our agency. Heylene, the mother of a one-month old, and the birth father (he’s asked me not to use his name, so I’ll call him “Nick”) chose us to adopt her baby girl. After learning about Heylene and Lilli’s story from the counselor, we made the decision to move forward. The next day we drove to Eugene to meet Heylene and Nick. The following day, we met Lilli for the first time. We hung out with Lilli and Heylene for a few hours, a crash “get-to-know-you” session to see if we were a good match for being in a relationship for the rest of our lives. Imagine going on a blind date with someone where you have three days to decide whether or not to marry each other. That’s pretty much what we did. After three days, Heylene and Nick decided yes, Matt and I were the right people to parent Lilli. And yes, after three days, we were head over heels in love with our Lilli.

Two weeks later, it was Thanksgiving. We invited our new family members, Heylene and Nick to come and spend it with us. Now, a year later, we’ve seen Heylene nearly every other month and Nick about once a quarter. We have no qualms about texting each other notes and photos. Our relationship to Lilli’s birth parents has evolved sweetly and organically.

Don’t get me wrong, it is complicated. Heylene and Nick’s families have varying levels of knowledge of and support for the adoption. Lilli has a half brother we’ve just met for the first time, along with Lilli’s birth grandma and birth great-grandma. (Very intense introduction, but hopefully the beginning of a long and healthy relationship.) Both Heylene and Nick have moved farther away from us. Even with that, the good news is, it’s only just begun. Lilli’s birth family is a part of our family circle, now and forever. and advocate around racial diversity and other issues, this is a community I’m eager to connect with. Much more to learn on that front as Lilli grows older.

Adopting a Community

As soon as we decided to adopt a child, we entered into a dynamic adoption community. We adopted through Open Adoption and Family Services, an agency specializing in and exclusively facilitating and advocating openness in adoption. Through them, we are now a part of a diverse and active community of families waiting to adopt and those who have adopted. We’ve also become a part of the larger “open adoption” community.

In addition, we are now part of the transracial adoption community. As a mixed- race couple (I’m Filipino-American, my husband is Welsh-American, aka “white”), it was inevitable we’d be in a transracial adoption. Lilli is 1⁄4 Panamanian and, at age one, looks very Latina. As a one-time activist and advocate around racial diversity and other issues, this is a community I’m eager to connect with. Much more to learn on that front as Lilli grows older.

What’s more we’ve now joined that larger adoption community, which is extremely diverse and much larger than I knew before we adopted. Adam Pertman wrote in Adoption Nation, “Extrapolating from U.S. Census data, we can guesstimate that there are at least 7 million adopted children and adults in the United States today; add in birth parents adoptive parents, grandparents, siblings… and the number of people directly connected to adoption soars into the tens of millions.”

Pertman also noted, “The Adoption Institute survey showed that nearly six of every ten Americans have had a ‘personal experience’ with adoption… And a stunning one-third of those polled said they had ‘at least somewhat seriously’ considered adopting a child themselves.”

From adults who were adopted in the 1970s internationally from Korea or Vietnam, to those families that have come together through the foster care system, to others who adopted within their own family—there are so many experiences of adoption. At the center of these adoptions are children with concentric circles of loved ones radiating outward.

As my daughter enters her second year, I’ve started thinking about how to talk with Lilli about her story. Tonight, as I snuggled with her in my arms, I quietly relayed to her the whole story of her adoption for the first time. The story still needs some editing, but it felt good to say. Like parenting, adoption will always be a work-in-progress.

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The rosiest open adoption ever

November is actually National Adoption Month.

To kick of the month, the Today Show shared this open adoption story. It’s a very heartwarming story depicting a family who seem to be in the dream open adoption: adoptive family wants complete transparency, birth families are very involved, loving, child feels close to birth mom, everyone adores and respects each other, etc., etc.

I certainly don’t begrudge the family. But it does paint a rosy, idealistic and almost simplistic picture of open adoption which I would expect very few families to be able to fully achieve.

As I wrote about a few days ago, we have a very good relationship with our birth mom. Yet it’s terribly complicated and always evolving. I certainly hope we could evolve to something as seemingly effortless as shown in this Today Show segment. But, at four and a half minutes long, the tv segment can hardly go deeply enough to show any kind of complexity.

Despite my concern that the segment is simplistic, I appreciate that it went out there and that it was shared on such a mainstream program as the Today Show. There are two takeaways I think are most powerful and encouraging:

  1. The adoptive mom in the story says they were, “very hesitant with the idea of having secrets in a family.” I myself would flip that and say that what we do want in our family and in our open adoption is transparency and honesty. That is a very big reason we chose to do an open adoption.
  2. The family in the clip is portrayed as just that, a family, including the birth family. This is how we’re trying to approach our still evolving relationships with the birth mom and her family. Not that we’re Lilli’s adoptive family and they are Lilli’s birth family, but that we are all part of one family connected by this beautiful child.

Would love to hear other thoughts about the Today Show segment. Does this help or hurt the movement toward openness in adoption?

 

Does it get easier?

Update 11/15/2013 6:37pm: With  low food rations in the house and very worn out full-time working parents, we decided to hit our local sushi place for a quick happy hour for dinner. It turned out to be a lovely mellow time (Lilli had her first raw sushi, smoked salmon nigiri!) and an opportunity to celebrate our Entrustment Day. As I talked to Lilli about Entrustment Day these words came out of my mouth: “This is the day that you became a part of our family, and the day your birth parents H & T became a part of our family.”

Matt just smiled across the table at me, knowing that I’d gotten it in his words, and Goldilocks’ “just right.” Just the right sentiment we want for our family’s Entrustment Day.

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Our daughter Lilli recently turned two years old. And today marks our ‘Entrustment Day,’ or at least that’s what we’re calling it for now. Two years ago today, Lilli’s birth parents entrusted Matt and me to be Lilli’s parents. We’d known Lilli and her birth parents H and T for just five days, but on that day we became family.

Two years flew by. It seems like a lifetime, yet we are still so new to being parents and to being in an open adoption relationship. Having peers helps.

There’s a vibrant community of folks at Open Adoption Bloggers. Lots of interesting bloggers from all sides of open adoption. An amazing resource and a great inspiration for my own blogging.

They have a nice series of writing prompts called Open Adoption Roundtable. Their latest prompt: Does it get easier?

Two years seems like hardly enough time to answer the question, yet as I wrote above, we’ve already lived a lifetime. Or several.

I remember that weekend two years ago well. We had the quickest imaginable courtship with Lilli and her birth parents.  Some open adoption families meet their birth parent(s) during the pregnancy. For us, Lilli was four, going on five weeks old. When we met them, all of us knew that we would need to work quickly to get to know each other and see if this relationship was the right fit.

Rewinding a little further in time, I’d like to share how we entered the process. Matt and I chose open adoption – out of all the types of possible adoptions we could have chosen – primarily for one reason. We believe in the idea of having the most open adoption possible. We believe that transparency is honesty. And we believe that honesty is the most ethical way to be in relationship with our child, with our family and friends and with our birth families.

That means we were transparent from the start. We told our counselor as much as we thought could be relevant to the birth parents for our home study. I wrote things in my autobiography that some of my closest friends might not even know. The photo collage we prepared reflected our fun and often goofy personalities. And, according to H and T, that’s why they chose us.

When we finally sat down to get to know H and T and Lilli, we minimized small talk and got right to the real stuff. Though it was awkward and overwhelming and intense and exciting, in some ways it was easy. We just laid our hearts out there on the table right next to theirs. It was all about moving to the next step – placing, or entrusting, Lilli with us – if H and T deemed that was what they wanted for themselves and for Lilli. Everything after placement was a distant future. Those first four days were about getting through day five.

Fast forward to today. Did it get easier in these last two years? So far I’d have to say no. Life is not easy. Relationships are not easy and they are never static. Two years ago, not only did we adopt a daughter, we adopted a whole new family into ours. We added another family to coordinate holidays and visits with. We became parents. We became juggling, full-time working parents. We became parents to an infant. And then a toddler. Lilli’s birth father moved away and hasn’t responded to texts or emails. Lilli’s birth mom is enjoying living on her own, but she’s estranged from her family. Lilli has an older brother who is living with Lilli’s birth grandparents. Lilli is talking now and we realize it’s time to start talking to her about her story.

Okay, I should take it back, a little. Did it get easier in these last two years? It got more complicated. But we are learning to take it easy. To be easier on ourselves. To ease into our days when Lilli is exhibiting cranky-two-year-old vibes. To make easy meals or go out if we just can’t deal. We do less (quantity), which actually means we do more (quality) as a family unit. We take the time and care and nurturing needed to let Lilli assist us with cracking open the eggs, or spread butter on the toast. If we planned to go to the park, but Lilli seems content playing with her babies, we don’t stress out about staying home. If one of us needs adult time, one of us gets adult time with a friend. We continue to be in an open and transparent relationship with birth mom H.

Does it get easier? No. And yes.

Postscript: Thanks to hubby’s feedback, I want to clarify one thing. In responding to the prompt ‘Does it get easier?’ I’m only addressing the time since placement. There’s another question, ‘Does it get easier after adopting?’ I’ll have to get to that in another post.

Three picture books depicting adoptive families

Our two year old loves books. Now that she’s old enough to understand more and to have conversations, I thought it was time we check out some books that include adoption in the stories. Here’s my take on the three we have checked out from the library at the moment:

Pablo's Tree book coverPablo’s Tree by Pat Mora, illustrated by Cecily Lang

Plot: It’s Pablo’s birthday and he’s very excited to see his ‘Lito,’ short for ‘Abuelito’ which means grandfather in Spanish. Lito has a tree that he planted when Lito was born and he decorates the tree each year for Pablo’s birthday. The story follows Pablo on his birthday adventure to Lito’s. It’s revealed that Pablo’s mom, a single mom, adopted Pablo as an infant. Lito bought the tree when his daughter announced her intention to adopt. Then, he purchased the tree in happy anticipation of his grandson.

Thoughts: This one was actually a surprise. Lilli grabbed it off the shelf at the library. It looked pretty good from the first few of pages. It was about a Mexican-American boy, and because Lilli is one-quarter Panamanian, I thought it might be nice to read about other brown people. Didn’t find out until we read it through the first time that it’s actually an adoption story. I really like this book for three reasons. 1) The specificity of the story is refreshing. I appreciate the lack of stereotype in how this adoptive family looks. Pablo’s primary family is his mom and his grandfather. The family is Mexican-American. The adoptive mom is a single parent. The story of Pablo’s adoption is talked about openly between the characters. Even though this does not look much like our adoption story, I feel much more of an affinity and resonance than in other books I’ve read (including one of the other ones I’m including in this post). 2) I really appreciate inter-generational stories. 3) The illustrations are rich and colorful.

Megan's Birthday Tree book coverMegan’s Birthday Tree: A Story About Open Adoption by Laurie Lears, illustrated by Bill Farsnworth

Plot: The story follows Megan, a school age girl who is a daughter in an open adoption family. She maintains a relationship with her birth mom Kendra. The story unfolds as Kendra announces that she will be getting married and moving soon. At Kendra’s current house, Kendra planted a ‘Birthday Tree’ for Megan after she was born. With Kendra’s pending move, Megan becomes worried about her birthday tree and worried that Kendra will forget her if she doesn’t have the birthday tree to remind her.

Thoughts: All in all, it’s a sweet story (got me teary-eyed at a certain point) and probably a good one to have around as we begin talking to Lilli about her birth and adoption story. I don’t imagine there are many books specifically about open adoption out there for children. The lovely thing about the book is that it focuses on the relationship between Megan and her birth mom. One thing I appreciate about our type of open adoption is that it really focuses on transparency of the adoption relationships and honors the birth parent(s)’ place in the family. This book comes from that philosophy of open adoptions. The down side to me in this book is that it feels sort of generic in its approach, which is useful to be inclusive, but feels a bit preachy. Also, it hits the open adoption message on the nose too much for my taste. And it’s these two things that make it feel more heavy handed and clinical to me, rather than a expressively and creatively written story. The illustrations, while quite masterful, also feel a bit heavy handed.

Imageand tango makes three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

Plot: The story takes place at New York’s Central Park Zoo. It follows the relationship of two boy penguins, Roy and Silo, who become a couple. They eventually are given a penguin egg to hatch and become parents to a baby girl penguin named Tango. It’s based on a true story.

Thoughts: I don’t know how I missed the news of the gay penguins at Central Park Zoo when it became a minor sensation through a New York Times article. But I was delighted as I read this book to Lilli. I knew it was about adoption, but didn’t know about the gay theme, as well. Like Pablo’s Tree, I like the specificity of the story, which make sense because it’s a true story rather than an archetypal story like Megan’s story. And heck it’s a great story which is why it had so much notoriety. (Okay, so the notoriety also came from the folks who don’t like the idea of gay penguins and apparently it’s among the most banned books.) Another plus is the illustrations are quite lovely. What I don’t love is the tone of the storytelling. It feels a bit like the authors are talking down to the reader and sometimes over simplifies the concepts in a way I don’t think is necessary.

A couple of other thoughts.

I like the birthday tree concept. I wish we had started some sort of tradition like that when Lilli came into our lives. We still have time to start a tradition so I’m looking for ideas, especially something to commemorate the day of Lilli’s placement, which is also the day she came home with us. Considering calling it our ‘love’ day.

Despite some of my critiques of the books above, I appreciate all of them as they help share the concepts of adoption and open adoption. We are also eager to read more. If you have favorite adoption books for children, please share them below.

Two years

Credit: alkelda/FlickrCC

Credit: alkelda/FlickrCC

Our daughter very recently turned two. But at this time two years ago we didn’t know of Lilli yet. Or of her birth mom or her birth dad or her brother.

It’s hard to even remember life before Lilli, being so consumed with our lives as a hard-working, hard-playing family of three now. Two years ago today was unremarkable; I can’t even recall what we did for Halloween that year. Matt and I were just a ‘waiting family’ going about our business, trying to stay distracted, busy. Hoping, but not expecting; preparing psychologically, but not too eager. Nervous, excited, but clueless in that way that you are before you become a parent.

At that point two years ago, we’d just been in the open adoption pool for about six months. The agency stats said the average wait for a straight couple was 11 months. We are a straight, yet interracial couple and there were no stats for that. My brain told me we’d probably have to wait a while longer. My heart told me that I was ready, really ready. Not in a desperate way, but in a peaceful, post-infertility-trauma, healing sort of way.

We met Lilli a month after she was born. We’ve celebrated two birthdays with her, but it’s  rather strange because we weren’t with her at her birth. She has her birthday and then coming in two weeks she has other significant days, the day we met her and the day we brought her home. Is there a name for that day? Should we be celebrating those milestones?

Now that Lilli is a talking two year old I know I need to start figuring out how to explain all this. Matt and I have started talking about it with her. Practicing, really. But that’s the way we’ll learn to tell the story. And I’ve got some reading to do that will hopefully help. (Our OA&FS counselor recommended Rain or Shine as well as these books.)

We actually serendipitously picked up a sweet book from the library called Pablo’s Tree. It’s kind of amazing in several ways. It’s about adoption. But it’s not a typical adoptive family. So far, I’ve had a hard time finding adoption books and stories that feel like something we can relate to and this one felt pretty darn good. Pablo’s family is Mexican-American. His mother adopted Pablo as a single parent. And the story is about the relationship between Pablo and his (adoptive) grandfather who planted a tree in his honor when he was adopted. It’s a lovely story, but it did make me feel a bit sad that we don’t have a tree, or something sweetly symbolic like that.

If you are an open adoption parent with recommendations for books or other resources about how to talk to toddlers about their birth story, I would love to learn them. Or if you just want to share your own experience, I would deeply appreciate the opportunity to witness and learn. How did you start talking to your little one about their birth story? What kind of celebrations, ceremonies or traditions did you create for birth and adoption days? How do you involve birth families at that time of year?