Saturday, August 4, 2012

Openness and Contracts

My dad was almost never sick, but when he was in his late twenties, he was sidelined by a bout of pneumonia. If I had been allowed to choose what I have in common with my father, pneumonia would not have been on my list.

A few weeks ago I thought I had the flu, which depressed me because I have never had the flu, and I didn't want to break my 28-year streak. The urgent care doctor told me that he didn't think it was the flu, because his office gets a memo from Maricopa County any time there's an outbreak of something like that. I wanted to tell him that I get those memos, too, because I actually work for Maricopa County, but I was having trouble breathing. The doctor suggested a chest x-ray (I can cross that off my bucket list), and forty minutes later (I apparently wasn't suffering enough for them to hurry) I had something new in common with my dad. There was a colony of intrepid little pneumoniae in my left lung. But I am much better now, and on the bright side, I managed to lose 4% of my body weight in a week. Achievement unlocked! I bought new jeans to celebrate.

And that concludes The Happiest Sad's version of What I Did for My Summer Vacation (the abridged version, anyway. The full version includes a lot of Doctor Who). Back to business. And by "business," I mean, "expressing an opinion that is going to make me a handful of angry enemies." It's been a while since I've done that, hasn't it? I think it's time.

A few days ago, the Salt Lake Tribune ran an article about open adoption. Specifically, the article addressed the idea of a legally enforceable openness contract between the birth parents and the adoptive parents. It's an interesting read, although in typical internet fashion, most of the comments will make you weep for humanity.

Many of the people I colloquially refer to as my "adoption peeps" have taken to blogs and Facebook to opine. They're making a lot of good points. But I wouldn't be me if I didn't have my own little opinion about things. So here's what I think about this issue as it pertains to me.*

The argument on the birth mom side makes sense: an openness contract gives a birth mom peace of mind. It also gives adoptive couples a push to be completely honest about how much openness they're comfortable with in an adoption, which can save a birth mom from the heartbreak of an "open" adoption that suddenly closes. Such an agreement would be periodically re-evaluated to suit the changing needs of all sides of the adoption triad.

I understand that, I really do. And I don't have a problem with an enforceable openness contract if both the birth parents and the adoptive parents want it. But I think such an agreement should be optional, not mandatory, and I would not have taken that option had it been presented to me.

I want to make it abundantly clear that this is just my opinion about my individual situation. There are likely countless adoptions where an openness contract would have been beneficial. Mine just isn't one of them, and I want to explain why. 

I realize I'm not the best person to talk about the problems that can arise in an open adoption, because although my relationship with P and M has been imperfect, we've been able to work through the problems that have come come up. I am acutely aware that the openness I've got is what many would consider a best-case scenario. Our level of openness has changed from time to time, but there has always been communication and love and respect. I know that there are plenty of birth moms who placed with couples that later reneged on the openness they agreed to at placement. I've never felt their particular pain, and I am grateful that I've never had to. I've never been there. I can see where a contract would have benefited them. But I don't think it would have benefited me.

In my case, an enforceable openness contract would have made me suspicious of any contact I got from P and M. The openness I have now means the whole world to me, because it comes from love rather than legal obligation. If there were a contract, I would always wonder - did I get a picture and an update because P and M wanted me to have it, or because they felt like they had to give it to me? At the time that I placed, part of me - the part of me that never got over being bullied in grade school - was always slightly suspicious of people who regarded me with any affection. I think that if my openness were a matter of legality, I would feel like a burden to P and M. I would never quite have trusted that they loved me, or that they really wanted an open adoption. I would be grateful for contractual openness, but I would worry that it wasn't freely given.

Relationships are about people, not paper. I would have been uncomfortable with a piece of paper dictating the terms of one of the most important relationships in my life. Part of being an adult is learning to work through problems rather than hiding behind a legal document. (I refer to adoptive couples as well as birth moms. I know of at least as many immature adoptive couples as I do immature birth moms.)

But (I can hear you saying) what about couples who promise openness and then disappear, leaving a birth mom heartbroken? It happens. Shouldn't there be some kind of legal safeguard for the sake of the birth mom?

I'm going to say no, and despise me if you will (I can take it). Because adoption isn't about the birth mom. The choice I made to place Roo for adoption was the first decision I ever made in my life that had absolutely nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with her. I placed with the hope of an open adoption, but I also placed knowing that openness wasn't guaranteed and that it might not be forever. I had to be okay with that.

I reminded myself of this dozens of times in the two weeks between meeting P and M and placing Roo, and I am glad I did. I had to know that I was making the right choice. If I had faltered at the thought of a closed adoption, I think I'd always wonder if I really, truly made the right choice for Roo. But each time I thought, they could close the adoption at any time, my next thought was and if they do I will learn to live with it, because this is the right choice for Roo.

My conviction had to be about what Roo was going to get out of adoption, not about what I would get from it. My choice for her wasn't open adoption. It was simply adoption. Openness was a happy by-product, not the end goal.

The thing is, I trust P and M to make choices for Roo that are in her best interest. If I didn't trust them to do that, I wouldn't have trusted them enough to place her with them. I will admit that in the beginning, openness was very much about me and my needs. I feel kind of bad about that in retrospect. The most important person in Roo's adoption is Roo. Every decision about openness that is made should be made in her best interest.

The Tribune article about openness contracts says:
"In Utah, courts have ruled that adoptive parents can [close an adoption] because after the adoption is finalized, the adoptive parents are the sole and absolute judges of what’s in the best interest of the adoptee."

Adoptive parents are real parents. I don't use modifiers when I talk about P and M. They're simply her mom and dad. Roo's welfare is completely up to them. They are the sole and absolute judges of what's best for her, and that's how it should be. They know her a lot better than I do. If there ever came a time when openness wasn't good for Roo, I would expect them to close the adoption, because Roo comes first. I'm sure I'd be wrecked for a while if they closed things, but I trust them completely, and I trust that if they closed things, it would be because it was best for Roo, and that they would communicate that to me with love and respect. I would do my best to weather that storm. I've been through worse.

But that's just me with my happy little open adoption. I reckon if Roo's adoption had closed abruptly and without reason, I'd be singing a different tune. (But, trust me, you don't want to hear me sing any kind of tune.) I think an openness contract should absolutely be offered as an option. But I wouldn't have wanted one, and I wouldn't take one now.

I do think the idea of a legally enforceable openness contract has merit. But I also don't think it's for everyone. Adoption isn't for everyone. It's a choice that some people make. I think that openness should also be a choice. 

I recognize that I'm probably oversimplifying a lot. I'm in a really good place with adoption right now precisely because of the openness I've had. It's easy enough for me to say that I'd have gotten to this point even with a closed adoption, but I don't know for sure.

So let me say this about that: I think that couples who want to adopt should think long and hard about what they're really willing to do as far as openness, and they need to make this decision before a child is placed with them. I think that a verbal agreement should be honored, because that's part of being a compassionate human being. If a couple agrees to a certain level of openness and they realize after placement that it's not working for them, they should have the decency and maturity to discuss it with the birth mom like grown-ups instead of cutting her off without a word.

If a couple needs a legally enforceable agreement to tell them to be decent and kind and respectful to the woman who gave birth to their child and then broke her own heart to give that child the best life possible, open adoption or no, then they have no business adopting.

*Me, not you. You (whoever you are) have a different adoption situation than I do, so your opinion will vary and rightly so. I'm not going to presume how to tell you to think or feel about this. I won't judge you for whatever opinion you have about this and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy.


Margaret said...

Jill, one again what you have to say is amazing. When I was adopted there was not such thing as open adoption, also I was apprehended at birth (but not adopted until I was 5). It would not have been good for me to have contact with my birth mom for either of us. I had amazing adoptive parents who knowing that openess was not even an option but knew that I had biological siblings that I would remember they put a note in my file that if my brother or 2 sisters wanted contact they were happy to have it. The government never allowed the contact but the fact that my parents were open to it in the mid 70's is amazing!

When I was reunited with my sisters they started to call my mom "mom" (they actually stayed with our birth mom) and my mom treated them as just two more daughters.

Anonymous said...

My opinions on open adoption agreements are complicated. I'm neither for them, nor against them.

Here's the thing though: You said that open adoption isn't supposed to be about what's best for the birth parents. (Though research does show that openness is good for birth parents.) Research is showing that openness is the best for the child. Many adoptive parents don't realize that. They close an adoption at the first sign of difficulty. Neither birth parents nor adoptive parents receive enough post-adoption support. I'm sure many of them don't receive honest advice and information about open adoption in the first place.

I think it's easy to close an adoption at the first sign of difficulty when the child is a baby, but much harder to open it up again when the parents finally realize, "Oh, *this* is why open adoption is A Good Thing(tm)".

Like I said, I'm not necessarily for open adoption agreements. I offered them to my daughter's birth parents, but they declined. It doesn't mean I'm going to close the adoption, because I know openness is better for her. (I can see that it is better for my 6yo son, so I'm extrapolating.) I think too many adoptive parents don't realize how important openness is. So... complicated.

Jill Elizabeth said...

"You said that open adoption isn't supposed to be about what's best for the birth parents."

I think (too lazy to check) that what I said was that adoption itself isn't supposed to be about what's best for the birth parents. That's what I meant to say, in any case. And I stand by that. Adoption is about the needs of the child, not the birth parent.

In many cases - most of the cases I am personally familiar with - openness is absolutely best for the child. But I think that openness should be based on the wants and needs of the child, and that adoptive parents shouldn't feel pressured to cater to a birth mom's every whim.

That said, I absolutely agree that too many adoptive parents will close an adoption when things get bumpy, and that's wrong. It's the same kind of attitude that breaks up a marriage - things aren't perfect, but rather than work on a relationship, rather than be mature and communicate and be flexible and patient, people will end it.

Relationships are work! But I think that the most worthwhile things in life are work. Open adoption takes effort, but it's worth it, and everyone benefits - most especially the adopted child.

Monika said...

I agree with you. I don't think open adoption should be legally enforceable. I think it should be a voluntary thing just as entering any other relationship is voluntary. We enter marriage voluntarily and we legalize that union, but it's still a voluntary thing. I preach ALL the time on my blog ( , if you're curious) about the fact that open adoption IS what's best for the child involved. Period. There can be different levels of openness if you're in a situation where full openness puts the child in danger, but giving a child access to his roots is very important. (so I agree with you and the adoptive mom that commented on your post).

BTW, would you be interested in possibly writing an article at some point for the BirthMom Buds newsletter? We're now issuing it on a quarterly basis, and I'd love to put you in the regular writer pool! Email me if you might be interested...

Lara Zierke said...

I've followed both sides of this argument and with either side I find myself nodding in agreement. I, for one, have made a verbal agreement for certain things. That, to me, is more important and unbreakable than a legal document. It is my word. But I think if a birth mom wanted a contract, I would do it. Because I would do those things anyway. But I love how you say you like knowing that the relationship you have with P and M comes from love and desire, not legal obligation. Wow. So much to think about.

Unknown said...

I'm an amom and am thankful for the open adoption with one of my children's bmom. My other two children became part of our family through state involvement. Their bparents did not want to lose their kids, but they did due to their life choices.

As with any relationship, there are times when contact is not a positive thing for one or more individuals. I don't need to go into all the different valid situations, that all of society is aware of, where relationships would need to be severed. A safety issue can be more than just a physical threat, we all know that.

With my other two children, it would not benefit them or the rest of our family or extended family, to have an openness contract with their birth family. The day their bparents relinquished, I would have agreed to almost any amount of contact because I cared for their bparents, in spite of their choices, and for their two children. It's been 3 years now since they lost their parental rights and as much as I would love to have a wonderful open adoption with their bparents, I would not be a responsible parent if I had one, even if it was due to a legal contract. My children deserve to have parents who will protect them from situations which will harm them, even though their bparents love them. Some situations are less than ideal.

Even though we don't feel comfortable with an open adoption with their bparents, that doesn't mean I'm closed to the idea and desire for an open adoption. I have contacted them and told them of my desires for openness and have given them a way to contact me if they ever decide to and desire to be a positive part of our children's lives. Openness is about the children, but it does affect everyone involved with adoption and the aparents have a legal and moral obligation to protect their children from harm in all forms.

I am not for legal documents on openness because it would in the end trickle down to adoptions, done through child and family services, by less than savory lawyers, which would make the openness all about the bparents.

I feel this is a subject that is not black and white and a law would make it black and white.

Jill, I have always loved your blog. I have grown as an amom because of reading your story. Our open adoption has grown so much and I think you for your example and honesty.