Openness – A Personal Decision?

Recently, I was involved in an on-line discussion on open adoption and one of the participants made the comment:

Openness in adoption is a personal decision. Each adoption is a “personal” thing and it is up to each family to decide not only what is best for that child but (at different stages in their lives) what is best for the immediate family as a whole!! Every adoption is different and the degree of openness differs!!  I am the only one that knows my own child the best and I would hope that no other person would forcefully try and tell me what I feel is right for MY child is wrong. My 13 year old has NO desire right now to meet with her bmom, I will respect that and not try and force anything until she is ready. But I also would NEVER judge someone who has chosen to have a closed adoption. I feel each person (family) has the right to their beliefs and feelings and who am I to judge since I don’t know the background of that adoption!!!!!

This seems like such a reasonable comment – one that nearly anyone can agree with.  Adoption, after all, IS a personal matter.  Adoptive parents DO know their children better than anyone and they ARE, therefore, charged with the responsibility of making decisions in their best interests.  Children’s needs, including needs for birth family contact or information DO change over time.  Judging others without knowing their personal situation is NOT reasonable or appropriate.

Why then did these words rankle me so?  Why did they keep me up most of the night tossing and turning in my bed?  As I laid there in the stillness of the early morning hours, I began to think about openness in adoption in the larger context of good parenting, and after I finally dozed off, I woke up determined that it is time to bring “open adoption” out of the closet and into the mainstream of “normal parenting expectations.”

It wasn’t so long ago that “parenting experts” believed that you could spoil a child by holding her too much.  And who would want a “spoiled” baby?  These same experts also told us that it was important to”train”our babies to eat on a schedule, preferably every 4 hours.  And of course they knew that infants couldn’t see all that well, so the visual environment around them wasn’t all that important – soothing pastels were the best bet for nursery decor. Then, we began to learn a little bit more about the inner world of infants, and the “expert” advice began to change:

Babies are not pieces of fruit – they do not spoil.  They need to be held.  It not only enhances bonding and attachment, it actually stimulates brain development.  Mothers – pick up those babies!  And feeding schedule?  Throw out those 4-hour clocks – let your babies feed on demand.  Your baby knows when she is hungry and she will tell you.  Pay attention to her rhythms.  Oh – and guess what – babies can SEE.  For real!  Providing a visually stimulating environment is actually good parenting.  Like touch, appropriate and sufficient visual stimulation not only develops better vision, it also enhances early brain development.

These new understandings of how to best parent an infant are not really so new after all.  They are the ways mothers and fathers have been caring for their babies for centuries – holding babies, wearing them on the mother’s body all day long as she worked at home, in the fields, went to market or church . .. Feeding them on demand and letting them drink in all the visual stimulation the world had to offer.   It was only once we began to listen to the parenting experts in the latter half of this century that we began to develop different standards and expectations of “good parenting”.

Does this mean that this “new” standard of lots of touch, demand feeding and visual stimulation is good for all babies?  No, of course not.  There are exceptions.  Babies that have been born addicted to certain drugs as well as babies with certain neurological disorders, for example, may need the exact opposite.  Too much touch or visual stimulation may flood their immature nervous systems and become overwhelming.  A consistent feeding schedule may be comforting.

But just because there are exceptions does not change the fact that the conventional wisdom, that holding babies is a good thing, that feeding them on demand and giving them appropriate visual stimulation are healthy – these precepts are, indeed, true for most babies.  And so using this model for infant parenting is less of a personal matter and more of a decision to use the best parenting techniques possible in order to nurture a baby’s optimal development.

Wouldn’t it be great if we began to see openness in adoption this way?  Like conventional wisdom about parenting babies, openness in adoption is not really new.  Its not an experiment.  It is the way all adoptions evolved over centuries of human history.  Children proved to be capable of loving more than one set of adults.  They managed to grow up without being confused about who was who in their life.  Their lives were richer – not damaged – by knowing their roots as well as by knowing the new families they were grafted into by adoption.

Closed adoption is the “new model” and it came into vogue about the same time as the “experts” were telling us not to hold our babies and to run their lives by a 4-hour clock – about 70 years ago. Social mores, adult needs, and the newly established child welfare system began to dictate that secrecy in adoption was the way to go.

Wouldn’t it be great if we truly understood and believed that children need the wholeness in their lives that open relationships can provide in the same way that we believe they need to be held and cuddled and nurtured?

And what of the child who has no desire for contact, or even information about their birth family?  Or what about the child who seems uncomfortable (or even distressed) in anticipation of or after visits with; or letters from; or even conversations about the birth family?  Are they telling us that we should back off, that openness, in their cases may not be best?

I don’t think we can make that assumption.  Let’s look again at the babies.  Some babies don’t react well to being held.  They fidget and fuss.  Perhaps they stiffen or cry out.  Similarly, some babies shun visual stimulation.  They twist and turn their heads away, close their eyes, cry.  Clearly, these babies are uncomfortable with touch, or visual stimulation.  Does that automatically tell us that they are among those babies with the neurological disorders I mentioned who might actually benefit from a less stimulating model of parenting?  Not necessarily.

While for some this may be the case, for others the exact opposite is true.  They desperately need touch and visual stimulation and without it, they will actually lose something – in terms of emotional, cognitive and even physical development.  SO they need to be gently worked with so they can learn to tolerate touch and visual stimulation, perhaps a little bit at a time.  And their parents need to be willing to help them work through their discomfort, rather than avoiding it.  It’s a tough challenges.  But important.

And if you have one of these babies, how do you know which way to go?  Is it entirely a personal decision?  One based on your own comfort level?  I would argue that most of us would need some help, some outside resources to assist us in diagnosing our child’s needs so that we could make an informed choice about the best approach to use.  And avoiding discomfort is not always the best choice.

I have a daughter with cerebral palsy.  We adopted her when she was a year old.  At the time, the prediction was that she would never walk, feed or dress herself.  During the pre-adoption phase we were asked if our home was wheelchair accessible and if we were prepared for the challenges of raising a child in a wheelchair.  But we were never asked if we were prepared for the challenges of helping her work through the pain of physical therapy so that she would NOT have to spend her life in a wheelchair – in effect, becoming permanently physically “crippled”.

We worked with the therapists and we believed that perhaps one day she would be able to walk.  So we challenged her.  We “force” her to endure physical therapy sessions and then we continued the exercises at home.  It was not often comfortable for her or for us.  It would have been much easier to accept the idea that she would never walk, to respect her desire not to do the exercises and to avoid the pain the therapy brought into all of our lives.

But we did not choose that route.  We took the hard road.  With all of the parenting wisdom we could muster, we decided that it was in her best interests to “force” her to endure the discomfort.  We stood in her pain with her and held her and comforted her through the pain but we did not allow her to avoid it.  Was that a personal decision?  Did we really have a choice?

Today, she not only walks, she runs. She hikes.  She swims.  She leaps on the trampoline.  She dances, dances, dances, day and night – and on Sunday she will dance in a recital.  The pain, the struggle, the challenges and the discomfort of the physical therapy were for her, a path to physical wholeness, and an opportunity to reach her potential and have a fuller and happier life than she may have otherwise had.

Sometimes bringing our children’s birth parents into their lives – and ours – whether through truth-telling conversations, or letters and pictures, or occasional visits, or on-going contact – can be as uncomfortable and at times even painful for our children – and for us – as the physical therapy was for my daughter (and us).  Sometimes it would be easier to avoid all that discomfort and pain.  Sometimes it feels like we would not be listening to or respecting our child’s needs if we “force” them to deal with people or subjects that bring them discomfort or pain.

It may feel like a personal choice.  But do we really want to risk emotionally “crippling” our children?  Confining them, permanently to “emotional wheelchairs?” Creating a lifetime of pain in exchange for avoiding some discomfort during their childhood or teens?  Can we afford to take that risk?  Is it really a choice?

Or do we want to find ways that we can stand with them as they work through the pain – comforting where we can, sharing the discomfort when we must and challenging them to strive for wholeness?

Source: 2008 Coalition workshop, Truth is Better than Fiction, presented by Sue Badeau.  Originally Published in ARNI newsletter, May 2000

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