Thinking About One Adoption Story: Is This A Better Path Even As It Is A More Perilous One?

I recently came across this article from the Atlantic.   I think the title is a bit over-wrought, but the essay by Jennifer Gilmore certainly describes a wrenching journey and no doubt one that had many sorrows along the way.

After failing to conceive via fertility treatments, Gilmore and her husband decided to adopt.   They decided on domestic adoption in part because, as Gilmore says,

The adoption would be open—the birthmother and perhaps father would know us to whatever degree we all decided on, and they would know their biological child as she grew.

Gilmore notes that the idea of open adoption was frightening.   It raises a host of questions.

Would this birthmother one day want her child back? Would she come for him? How large a part of our family would she be?

But even with those fears, Gilmore and her husband chose this route and they did so for the best of all possible reasons:

Ultimately my husband and I realized that the approach to adoption should be about what is best for the child. If the children know their birthmothers, they don’t grow up with the fantasy of who their parents were or might have been. They do not have to make the life- altering decision in adulthood to try to find their birthparents or to forever forgo the idea. And so my spouse and I came to believe that the transparency of open adoption was best for everyone, not least of all the birthmother, who needs and deserves a way to handle her grief.

The rest of the essay recounts the difficult path they travelled and it seems clear to me that it was all the more difficult because they had chosen the open adoption route.   This left them open to terrible heartache, as you will see when you read the essay.   To have chosen a more traditional (but probably now more unusual?) adoption route–one without contact between the prospective adoptive parents and the birth parents–would have been a safer course.  It might have spared them some pain.

But it wasn’t the right thing to do–for exactly the reasons that are set out above.   It seems that to become an adoptive parent in the best possible way is to take the risk of terrible pain.

As I thought about this, I thought that perhaps this is a truth that all parents confront (or at least, it’s there, whether or not you actually confront it.)   To become a parent is to take a terrible risk.  It is to expose yourself in all sorts of unimaginable ways.

When I think about some of the things that bother me most about ART–say contracts where intended parents make efforts to completely control surrogates–I think it’s another part of the same picture.   If I’m right that being a parent means risking all kinds of pain, then it isn’t hard to see that one response–and a common one, I would think, is to try to have as much control over things as you possibly can.   To minimize or control the risks.   And that’s what the intended parents are trying to do.

And here I suppose I am of two minds.   On the one hand, it’s understandable and predictable that many prospective parents–and many parents–will try to minimize the risks by exercising as much control as possible.  But on the other hand, you cannot win.   You cannot protect yourself.  To be a parent is to be at risk.

Not the fact that you cannot protect yourself doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.  I do see that this doesn’t follow.  I wear a seatbelt even though I know that riding in a car is still dangerous.

But I do understand that there is always risk and I wonder if parents need to understand that–to face their exposure–as Garner and her husband did.  Because sometimes acting to protect yourself is not what is best for your child.



15 responses to “Thinking About One Adoption Story: Is This A Better Path Even As It Is A More Perilous One?

  1. These people sound like people of character.

    • No they are not. Did you read the article?

      “I look at my son—a word I am scared to utter—and I still wonder not if, but when, he will be taken. I am so careful. I don’t post many pictures on social networking sights. I don’t take him outside without considerable concern as well as a terrible self-consciousness that comes from having wanted something for so long and finally having it, but also an acute and troubling awareness that the woman just next to me might be wanting too. It is my wish, really, that no one else be hurt here.”

      She sounds like a kidnapper.

      • She sounds traumatised. And she might not be so overprotective if she hadn’t been through five failed matches with all the emotional commitment, planning and then heartbreak that entails.

        A risk you take, a risk you take every time you enter into any relationship of any kind, is that you will be disappointed, let down, hurt, but regardless of the fact you choose to take that risk, when it all goes wrong it does really, really hurt.

      • I’m very uncomfortable with the apparent willingness to judge people based on so little information. Are they people of character? I cannot say. It’s a compassionate essay, though. Does she sound like a kidnapper? Maybe to you. To me she sounds like someone wrestling with insecurity in her status–which might describe a kidnapper or might describe someone whose claim to parentage is challenged–as you indeed challenge it.

        Lots of people have personal stories to tell and I think we can learn a lot from those stories. But I don’t think it is particularly helpful to judge people who tell their stories. You can disagree with actions taken, of course. You can say “I wouldn’t do this” or you can say “I think this action was wrong.” But that’s not quite the same thing as judging the people.

  2. I hated this article. I can’t believe how far The Atlantic has fallen. It was a terrible article – terribly written, by a terrible parent.

    • I’m posting this comment with some misgivings. I’m always happy to welcome a new voice to the conversation, but generally I’m looking for something more substantive in terms of comments. It’s way too easy for blogs to deteriorate into name-calling.

      Anyway, in my experience we rarely know enough to judge a person’s performance by the snippet that appears in the press. Thus I’m reluctant to reach conclusions about whether a person is a good or a bad parent (generally) from something like this. On the other hand, you can certainly form an opinion about the writing.

  3. Openness is the key and should be mandatory. However, heterosexuals are afforded the ability to hide things all too easily.

    It’s been up to the LGBT community to pioneer openness in these matters. I’ve known LGBT couples who’ve been doing open adoptions and known sperm donations for years. When you’ve got two mom or two dad families, you can’t pretend, hide, or lie about biological parentage.

    I’m willing to bet if it weren’t for the LGBT community open adoption would still be a mysterious concept that almost nobody employed.

    • I’m not sure I’d make that bet, but its certainly true that single-parent or same-sex families have little choice to be open and hence have paved the way towards openness. The increasing ease and utility of DNA testing gives even heterosexual families more reason to be open, though. It’s increasingly likely the truth will come out and people want to control how/when that happens.

  4. i don’t think open adoption is invariably bettet. while identity should nor be concealed, if the parent is really a mess ot might be better for them not to be,in the kids life. also t requires a very high level of maturity which not everyone can,live up to.

  5. Julie – from my understanding even when it is an intended closed adoption – the agency still matches well before birth – so the risk is there as well. Far fewer after birth matches seem to occur – yet those can be open adoptions as well. My preference as the outsider to remove as much potential coercion is not to have pre-birth (or have at least very late prebirth) matching, and for the birth and hospital stay that the prospective parents aren’t there. My ideal. But you know what that is worth.

    I also think openness only works when people actively engage in getting over their own fears…then working out what they expect and how to have honest non-defensive conversations.

    Becoming a parent naturally holds risk – as I found out when my son passed away. All of life is a risk.

  6. Julie it should bother you that a possession, control and title over a human being is ever the object of a private contract. It’s bad enough that such things are the object of court orders for Pete sake.

    Adoption responds to the tragedy of abandonment by helping find people to raise children whose parents cannot or will not or should not be raising them. It’s not shopping time for people that want a child to raise. I think the mistake people make when they find out they can’t reproduce is in thinking “well OK I’ll go adopt one” or “OK I’ll use a donor”. Do these people realize that they are objectifying human beings when they do that? A real live person has to be abandoned by one or both parents in order for someone like this woman to bring home and raise a baby. What she is implying is that she not only wants a child to be abandoned by his/her mother and father but want’s it to stay that way so she can do the raising. She would not want the parents to get their act together and fulfill their obligation to their child like they are suppose to. She would not want circumstances to be resolved to the extent that the parents could get their child back. She looks at openness as something helpful in preventing an adopted person from rebelling and wanting to leave her later. It’s strategic in order to gain the child’s allegiance. Her desire for openness is not to foster an environment where the child can get to know and maintain relationships with all their relatives and with their parents to whatever extent is possible. They don’t want to be adoptive parents, they want to be Parents. They don’t want an adoptive child they want their own child and its not going to happen. She is talking about sequestering a child the way that rapunzel was sequestered in Tangled if you have not seen it you should. It is such a statement about the fountain of youth in Egg donation and the vanity that sometimes comes with the act of adoption or gamete donation. It should not cost money to adopt, its so wrong that it costs money to take on an abandoned child. I’m sorry for that.

    • It does indeed bother me that possession, control and/or title of a human being is ever the object of a contract. (I’m not sure what the word “private” adds.) I don’t think I’ve advocated anything that amounts to that, but of course you see it differently because of our differing views on gametes. I do, however, see a positive role for agreements in open adoption, and for some people those agreements are quite a bit like contracts. So for example, in an open adoption I think it is often a good idea for the birth parent(s) and the adoptive parent(s) to enter into an agreement about what kind of contact there will be between the people involved. Will they visit once a year? Will there be phone calls? I have no problem with making an agreement about all that and you know, it might even amount to a contract.

      I think what you mean to say is that it is wrong to by/sell children and/or parental rights. (Because I don’t think of children as property, I wouldn’t think of possession or title. Control may be closer to something akin to parental rights, but in concert with the other three, I think is also too rooted in property concepts for my taste. And I agree with you that it is wrong.

      There’s a much more recent post–the one from Mother’s Day–that returns to this topic and perhaps addresses some of what you say here. I do think it is important to understand that the fact that a child is available to adopt typically bespeaks some sort of failure or tragedy or loss. As you say, someone is unable or unwilling to raise their child–that’s the precondition for adoption.

  7. “Julie it should bother you that a possession, control and title over a human being is ever the object of a private contract. It’s bad enough that such things are the object of court orders for Pete sake.”

    So, according to you no one should be the child’s legal parent? Not even the genetic parent? Once you introduce legality, you introduce courts and/or contracts.

  8. Kali
    No. According to me nobody should be a legal parent? Where did you pull that from? How a person comes gets possession of and parental title over a dependent minor is either ethical or it’s not.

  9. “At the very least, we assumed there was an adoption system in place that works, and that we could move from the notional if we get a child—the gamble of science—to the unshakable when.”

    When there is an adoption system in place that works, it is usually one that is in the best interest of the child, and when that is done, a “when” cannot be guaranteed at all.

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