Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield


I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.


Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo by Scott Boruchov




Don’t You Need a Daughter?

Don’t You Need a Daughter?

By Jenna Hatfield


I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.


The woman looks at my two sons as they run up to me where I sit on a bench at the playground. They gulp down some water while trying to talk over one another about the fun they are having. Before I can respond, their feet run in the opposite direction. I smile at the whirlwind of their affection, their joy.

“Two boys?” She doesn’t need to say more. I understand the question being posed. “Yes. They’re five and seven. They keep us busy.”


Her daughter meanders over, much younger and clad in pink. Their exchange is gentler, a whisper compared to the cacophony of my small but boisterous brood. I return to my book, the happy place where I force myself to go so as not to hover at the playground. I read the same sentence twice as I peek over the top edge, making sure they are safe, secure, not tackling strangers’ children.

She speaks again.

“Are you having any more?”

My vision blurs. I am thankful for the book in front of my face as it blocks my furrowed brow — and my rolling eyes. I think of all the inappropriate questions I could ask this strange woman — a woman I’ve never before laid eyes on — about her fertility, her health, her emotional well­being, her finances, her ability to mother more than one, more than two, more than none. I come up empty handed, because I know how it feels to be asked those questions.

Like now.


It’s all I say. No. No, we are not having any more children. On the one hand, the answer is so simple. No. However and but and beyond there are legions of words behind that solitary syllable. Mountains of reasons and hurt and pain and, yes, even happiness and gratefulness and thankfulness for all we have been given, entrusted with, blessed to be consumed by. The single word with which I reply does not even begin to encapsulate the painstaking decision making process that went into being able to say that word — that “no” — without crying on a park bench in front of this stranger.

I do not move the book from in front of my face, hoping that my semi­cold and solitary word response will discourage her from moving forward, from asking more questions, from going where I know in my heart, in my soul, she is already going to go.

“Don’t you need a girl?”

I physically force myself from throwing the book at her. My stomach rolls. My heart drops. My eyes close. My teeth clench. My body recoils and simultaneously pitches forward. I hurt, physically and emotionally. I sigh. “And here we are again,” I think to myself. “Forever here, in this space.”

If I have learned anything by being the everyday mother of two boys, other than a wealth of fart and poop jokes, it is that our culture is beyond obsessed with girls. With having girls. With wanting to have girls. With pink bows and frills and princesses. With women being required to want those things. When women don’t verbalize wanting those things or when they dare to admit that, no, they don’t really want a girl, they are brandished as some oddity, some heartless woman who obviously has no femininity, no real attachment to the womanly ways of the world. A mother of just boys is to be pitied! She never got to do hair in pigtails or buy fancy Easter dresses. She is obviously missing out on the joys of motherhood, of womanhood at its central and epitomized core. She is less than.

And then there’s me — and others like me — everyday mothers of boys who relinquished their only daughter.

I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.

I grew a little girl in my womb. I cared for her even when my own health was put to the test, when my life was on the line. I loved her more than my own life, more than I will ever be able to convey with letters and words and punctuation. And I handed her over — to another woman, another mother — thus transferring the invitation.

I didn’t know at the time I would never get another invitation, that it was a one time deal. I didn’t know I would be shut out from all that moms of girls get to do and experience. I didn’t know.

I watch as my daughter’s mom goes through some of the early tween stuff and I am perplexed. It feels odd to know that my daughter is now this old and experiencing things that girls her age experience, and I don’t know the slightest bit about any of it, other than vague memories of what I went through at similar ages and phases. I haven’t read books on how to mother girls, on what to expect as girls age. I don’t shop in stores for girls. I don’t know what girls her age like; though I know she loves music.

I suppose that’s one good thing, that while I don’t understand girls as a whole, I know about my daughter; I know what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what she’s going through, what she is doing. I try not to get hung up on what I do not have and try to focus more on what I do know, what I do have with and through her, with and through her mom.

I return to the park bench, lost in thought for what probably equated to a few seconds but felt like a decade of memories and missed milestones. I think of how to answer this intrusive, sexist, ridiculous question. I wonder how my grandmother, a mother of three boys, might have answered it without the additional weight of adoption loss. I begin to smile because I know that my grandmother would have given this nosy woman the what­for; I am thankful for her light in my life.

The woman seemingly assumes the smile is for her.

“It’s just girls are so fun. You can dress them up. And they’re less of a hassle than boys.”

I think of my boys. I think of my daughter. I smile some more.

I do not need more. I do not want for more. I occasionally get a rash of baby fever, overwhelmed by the cute and the soft and the tenderness of newborns. In those moments, I have a flash of irrational anger that my decision making hand was forced by my health, but it passes quickly, and I embrace the present, the reality and beauty of the life we are living — together.

This is my family. Some are here. Some are there. This is who we are; this is what our family looks like. I breathe in before I answer, the cool, not­quite­spring air pushing down any heated bits of anger and frustration. I exhale.

“No. My family is just fine.”

And we are. And we are.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo: Jenna Hatfield

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

This is the first in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

coraThe photo arrived the way many photos do these days; I was tagged on Facebook in order to see it. The dress eighteen-month-old Cora wore was one my daughter, Saskia, had worn and loved and I carefully chose it for Cora, because she’s family—and because the dress had family provenance. Let me explain: Saskia’s aunt Laura made the dress. Laura is married to my husband’s brother (son from their dad’s first marriage). Cora is Saskia’s cousin, because Margery is her birth mom’s sister (from their dad’s second marriage). Following me?

In my family many relationships come without exact names. Our five-year-old-daughter is adopted—and it’s an open adoption, so there are many family members that “belong” to her, Cora and Margery as examples, and obviously her birth mom, Caroline, whom Saskia calls Auntie Cece. While adoption highlighted this truth, it was already a given in my family—and maybe in yours, too. Families tend to be complicated, rich entities. Over time, through experience, they can transform from neat and tidy to somewhat overgrown—and interesting.

My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. They remarried. While I never knew my stepparents’ families well, I knew some of them. I also got a stepsister out of the deal. During one visit to New York, where none of us lived, my stepsister’s dad came to our hotel to see his daughter. My stepfather’s dad declared to my children that as Emily’s dad he was “kind of another grandpa.” A tall, wiry, energetic and somewhat hammy guy, my kids were more than game for a fun grandparent-like addition. Had we spent more time together, this could have become more tangible, I bet. A few years after that, my stepsister’s sister (technically, her half-sister, if you want to be technical) stayed at our house the night before our shared sister’s wedding, for convenience’s sake. It felt easy, though, and natural; after all, we were both sisters of the bride. If not sisters, by then ourselves, I think it’s fair to say we felt sisterly, especially in our shared love for Em.

Whenever people used to ask me whether I felt sad that my parents divorced, I’d say I wasn’t. “Without their divorce I wouldn’t have Emily,” was my answer (still is).

Is my cousin’s wife’s sister my cousin? I adore her, so surely, in a way, she is—or can be. Is my cousin’s ex-wife my cousin still? We think so. I don’t mean this in a flip and offhanded way; I guess that I think family is complicated enough that you might as well hold those you want to love alongside those you’ve been handed without a choice. Maybe this is part of why adoption didn’t seem entirely foreign to me. Some aspect of that choice felt expansive, as if we’d only embraced a different (admittedly complex) spin on that notion that you can reach towards family, and think outside the most simple definition about who belongs and who doesn’t.

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love. And knowing so much of her family, the ones brought via her mom—even without neat words to describe all of our relationships—feels very warm. I feel like we all have Saskia’s back. So last week when she informed me I am not her mom, I asked what she meant. “Auntie Cece is my mom,” she said.

I heard a little hint of challenge. I took a deep breath. “Well, I’m your mom,” I said as directly and without revealing that she’d stolen my breath as I possibly could manage. “And Auntie Cece is your mom, too.”

“I have two moms!” she exclaimed.

“That’s right,” I agreed. More love may be more love; it’s also a lot to wrap your mind around—for her and for me. I gave her a hug and she hugged me back. I could feel her relief that she could say this and it was fine to say and that I know I’m her mom—and want her to know that, too.

“And one dad,” she added.

That’s another story for way later (we’ve never met her birth father) and so I nodded.

Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Nutshell logoSince 1995 November has been National Adoption Month. In honor of the month I wanted to use the roundtable to talk about the experiences of adoptees as mothers. Participating in the roundtable are:

Rebecca Hawkes who was adopted as an infant and is a mom both by birth and by open foster-adoption. She writes at and is co-founder of

Gina Kohn, also adopted as an infant and mom to two daughters by birth who are now adults. (In the interest of full disclosure, Gina is also my cousin by birth. We are forever grateful to the internet, which has allowed us to have a relationship although we have never met. Gina reunited with her mother – my aunt – as an adult.)

Catie Mehl, adopted in a private closed adoption and now in reunion with both her birth parents. Catie has two stepdaughters and also has two children by birth. She is a Certified Birth Doula, birth doula trainer, certified childbirth educator and a certified lactation counselor. Catie also co-facilitates the All Adoption Group here in Columbus, Ohio with Kate Livingston and me. Catie’s web site is

Rebecca: For me, the biggest adoption trigger connected to my daughter’s birth happened when she was three weeks old, the age at which I joined my adoptive family. I looked down at her sleeping and thought of all the changes she had gone through already in those few weeks as well as how completely I had transformed into a mother in that same time period. It felt like a lifetime, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that these three weeks, so rich in my daughter’s life, were the missing weeks of my life. I have no idea who fed or held me during that time. I think it was the first time I ever processed that as a loss. I recognized that I had a pre-adoption history though the adoption institution was set up in such a way that no record of it was passed along to me. The period between birth and placement had been treated as trivial but I suddenly recognized that it wasn’t. And neither were the nine months prior to my birth.

Gina: Currently, as a mom, I am dealing with empty nest symptoms. My older daughter is attending college far away from home and my youngest is attending a local college so she still lives at home. I think my adoption issues are surfacing due to the separation that is occurring. Although it’s such a natural process and I know that, sadness wells up from a cellular level within me and I’m having some grief over it.

Rebecca: “Sadness wells up from a cellular level.” Yes, absolutely. That’s it exactly.

Gina: I feel bad that my adoption has affected my children (and it will for future generations) forever; I call it the trickledown effect of adoption. We have a small extended family but we did form many positive, loving friendships that gave us that familial feeling. I was determined to let my daughters blossom into their own unique, authentic selves. As a child I didn’t have that opportunity. (I’m still trying!!) I encouraged their individuality and talents to emerge naturally. Seeing them develop and become who they are has helped me on my continuing lifelong search for authenticity. I truly feel that my daughters have taught me more about life, than I have taught them. They are so dear to my heart and soul.

Rebecca: The one other thing I might add is that my entry into motherhood also affected my relationship with my adoptive mother. I’ve only just recently come to understand that our different styles are largely rooted in our distinct personalities. We are just very different people. I think it can be hard for adoptive parents of my parents’ generation to accept and embrace the ways that their adoptive children are different from them because they were led to believe that we were blank slates, which we weren’t—at all.

Catie: I second Rebecca. I found the exact same thing to be true for my adoptive mom and myself.

Rebecca: As an adoptee parenting an adoptee I need to remember that her experience of adoption is her own and will not necessarily be exactly like mine; nevertheless there are certainly times when I am aware that we understand things about each other, specifically because of the adoptee connection.

Gina: I felt guilty for being so happy about my pregnancy. I had to carefully navigate the eggshells I tiptoed on around my adoptive mom. The issues they each had with the loss of never having their own biological children were never dealt with an adoptive mom had a competitive and jealous spirit.

Catie: I spent my whole life not looking like anyone in my family. Even after reunion, my husband and other friends would say I don’t look that much like my birth family (but pictures of my mom when she was younger say otherwise). I remember when my son was born and he looked just like my husband, Jim, I felt so disappointed. And the same when my daughter Lydia was born. She looked like him, too, and I was sad all over again. All of my life I’ve wanted to look like someone and I gave birth to two great kids and still can’t say I have anyone who looks like me. I know that’s probably silly and little, but it hurts.

Gina: I think as adoptees, we have always been looking for that familiar face. I can understand how that would be hurtful and disappointing. I don’t think it’s silly at all.

Rebecca: For me, the grief began rising up in my twenties, overwhelming me on a couple of occasions, but I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know other adoptees, hadn’t read anything about adoptee grief, and didn’t have the Internet yet, so I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was a very lonely time. These days I derive a lot of benefit from the online adoptee community. It’s a tremendous relief to interact with people who understand what I have experienced because they’ve lived it too.

Author’s Note: As an adoptive parent, hearing the voices, thoughts, experiences and opinions of adult adoptees has made me a better, more responsive parent. I am grateful to the participants for sharing their stories with me. I hope other adult adoptees as well as other adoption constellation members—birth family members, adoptive family members—will feel free to comment with their thoughts.

Art by Michael Lombardo

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Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

IMG_0519She brings stuff up at bedtime. Most five year-olds do; they don’t want to be left alone to sleep. She likes when I tell her stories in the dark. I rub her back. Who wouldn’t like all that?

Aside: bedtime can—if I let it—take forever.

Anyway, here’s one from this past week or so: “Tell me about when I was in your tummy.” As I’ve written about before, sometimes she has mentioned this idea that she was in my tummy and I’ve let it go, when I realized that not every wish has to be hit on the head with a reminder that you weren’t in my tummy. Once, this happened when we visited a former babysitter in the hospital with her one-day old baby boy, and all the grandparents. They didn’t know she is adopted, and it didn’t seem like the moment to tell the whole story. Other times, we’ve been alone and I’ve kind of let the moment slide by. Mostly, though, I say something along the lines of, “Remember that you weren’t in my tummy? Whose tummy were you in?” and she does remember and then I remind her—again and again and again—how we were waiting for her and she came into my arms and all that stuff.

This past week when she posed the question about time in my tummy, I realized what she wanted was a story about herself when she was teeny-tiny. The tummies weren’t the subject; she was the hoped-for subject. “Do you remember that you weren’t in my tummy?” I asked. “Whose tummy?” She told me Auntie Cece, her voice inflecting to a question. “Yes,” I replied, “but do you want to know about when you were just born?” She nodded.

And so I told her everything about how tiny she was, a feather in my arms, and how she was quite red—as most babies are—and it took a little while to get more pink, the way babies get. I talked about her long fingers and the way you could see light right through her fingernails, which were translucent. I described how her eyes were dark and big and round and glassy and how her lips were so pink. “You had so much dark hair, a whole headful,” I said. “Most babies don’t.” I added, “I loved you instantly so very much the very second I first held you. I’d been waiting for you and there you were, finally.”

She loved every detail. My a-ha moment was so obvious I couldn’t believe how long it took me to really “get” it: sometimes, when she asks about those in your tummy memories what she’s looking for isn’t a big explanation about whose tummy and whose arms, she’s really looking for details like you fit in my arms and you had ten little toesies. Of course she wants to know about when she was a baby. That’s fascinating. She wants to know about when she was a goopy, messy toddler learning to eat pasta with tomato sauce, too—and how she figured out fashionable ways to wear all that redness.

In the midst of a tummy and baby conversation a few weeks ago (another aside: they really don’t happen all the time), she asked why she didn’t go to Auntie Cece since she’d been in her tummy. I felt a swift kick to stomach sensation. Rather than responding from that feeling, I remembered that however loaded this might feel for me; I feared her feeling rejected, there was always a possibility that one day the question would elicit a wish she’d gone there not here. My job wasn’t to race ahead, though. I kept it very simple. I decided in that moment it wasn’t a big existential query. It was just why? “Auntie Cece felt like she wasn’t really able to raise a baby the way she wanted for you to grow up, with another parent and some brothers,” I said. “She thought this was your family and plus you get Auntie Cece and your grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, too.”

“I want to be here, with my mommy,” she declared and hugged me very tightly.

“I want you to be here. I love being your mommy,” I replied and met her hug with an equally big squeeze.

Together, we seem to discover the story. We note the details. As we bumble through, I see two important components to my narrative: she was the cutest little thing and she’s as loved as she could possibly be loved. Less is more, but more love is more love and there we have it. Will it get more complicated? Sure. But not all at once—by the time she delves into harder questions—if she does—she will feel secure about her own preciousness and about how loved she is, by us all.

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Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

IMG_8466A few days ago, I stood outside a friend’s house, hand-me-down leotards from the friend in hand. My friend’s daughter is a couple of years older than mine. Her girl is wiry, fierce, rarely tuckered out without a great deal of physical activity—and into gymnastics. Her girl, when frustrated, sometimes growls. Mine is the same. Both moms imagine the discipline and physicality of gymnastics to be, for these particular girls, a very good, possibly necessary thing.

Both girls are very small. Neither mom is tall.

“Well, she’ll never be big. I mean, I’m not so that makes sense,” I remarked and almost instantly, clapped hand to mouth. My daughter is adopted. My being short has nothing to do with her stature. In that moment, though, I simply forgot. We share everything—practically everything—except a gene pool. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this at times.

I’ve slipped in similar ways about her love of chocolate or the soundtrack to Nashville. My daughter; she’s just like me? More often, it’s less a slip than that I don’t consider why she is the way she is, likes what she likes, or acts how she acts. Another mom with three boys (no girls) at a wedding yesterday mused about how nice it would have been to have tea parties. Her reasoning went like this: if you have a girl, she’d like to have a tea party, because, obviously, all girls like tea parties. My girl’s yet to suggest a tea party—and in a way, I can’t see her doing so. One of my boys had a Mad Hatter’s Tea birthday party years ago. The analogy: girls don’t mean automatic tea parties; adoption doesn’t mean automatic difference.

There are times though when my girl flashes a particular expression—usually it’s a half-smile that involves a tiny crumple of her mouth and is meant to be somewhat sarcastically silly—and I see her birth mom right in front of me. Other times, still, my little girl’s frustration pops like a firecracker with a series of slaps or kicks. Although I know I sometimes hit or kicked (or pulled hair or pulled on arms) as a child, the intensity of her bottled-up fury popping out feels… unfamiliar. Her brothers certainly hit, pinched, kicked or bit. My expectations aren’t for extraordinary calm or peaceful pacifism at all times. However, the sum total of the boys’ small child aggressions didn’t put them nearly in her league. I can’t really say exactly why. Theories: she’s youngest by far. She’s fiery. She’s a girl. She’s adopted. I’ll admit that sometimes as I try to find the calm, firm, safe patience to hold her through a tantrum (very most often in the evening when she’s overtired and her last sparks of energy blow every which way like some wayward robot toy in a cartoon before the final sputter), my mind flashes to this question: might her roiling response to frustration be somehow genetically wired?

A friend with an adopted daughter said to me recently that to raise a child she’s not genetically connected to causes her to think about biology anew. She envisions it as more important as she imagined before raising her daughter. Her remark made me think of something another friend of mine said. This friend is an adult adoptee, who once described to me how she’d always been fascinated by rocks and when, as an adult, she learned that her birth father had been a geologist, it was as if she’d put a puzzle piece into place.

Obviously, in the day-to-day, my momentary lapse that has her short just like me differs not at all from my questions about whether her anger is somehow about hardwiring. When we live so closely in relation to others—as do parents and children—we are deeply connected. And sometimes we’re deeply confused by those connections. I remain somewhat stunned that I gave birth to three boy children, for example. I’m only half-joking to say I find it unfathomable that a penis was created inside of female me. The whole thing is somewhat surreal. More importantly, families challenge assumptions. We learn when we are so close it’s hard sometimes to grasp that we aren’t the exact same person and we are so close it’s obvious that we cannot possibly be the exact same person. This push and pull—sometimes broken into the notion of nature and nurture—it’s ultimately, every family’s to experience.

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The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day

The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day


grandparents' dog -- on a surprise visit to preschool

 Grandparents’ dog — on a surprise visit to preschool

Recently, we decided to switch pediatricians.  Predictably, this meant I was bequeathed a ream of paperwork to fill out. This included family medical history forms, one for each of my four children. I pretty much know about our parents’ health histories; to fill out the histories for the three I gave birth to required only memory. This isn’t true for my daughter, though. During the flurry of those early days of my daughter’s infancy, I don’t think our old pediatrician pressed for complete medical history. We were focused upon the present—and the quite small baby and her health and the rest of it, the three bigger children. It might have been difficult or felt difficult to ask, had the pediatrician pushed, as everything was so new and felt so fragile. Whatever the set of reasons, I didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of my daughter’s health history. Five years later I stared somewhat blankly at the paper that I must have filled out once before.

This time, though, I scanned the list for the most pressing heritable conditions, such as heart disease or cancers, arthritis and on, and I emailed both grandmothers: my daughter’s mother’s mother and her mother’s stepmother. I asked the stepmother about my daughter’s grandfather and the mother about herself and her daughters. Within hours, I had all the information I needed.

I found myself teary as I read the emails. It wasn’t because there was shocking information—much of it I already knew. I got teary because a small gift open adoption gives was made real right then. To know one’s family medical history is one of the things people put squarely on the plus side of open adoption: that questions like the ones on the family medical history form are answerable. Rather than wonder in adulthood whether the condition you have ran in your family, you could know that answer. I’ve heard people describe medical histories as puzzle pieces. I guess I got to have it on my daughter’s behalf that day. I got to know she’d have this information. I almost felt a little “a-ha” about open adoption just then.

But it was more than the history and more than some theoretical positive about adoption or wholeness or anything that made me teary—I felt the willingness and love from the grandmothers in those emails just to be her grandmothers.

Unlike my mother or stepmother or mother-in-law—yes, keep count, there are five grandmothers all told—I didn’t meet these two grandmothers until our daughter, their granddaughter, was born. Those are two of the many brand-new relationships formed around this little girl, which were intimate—family—and entirely unfamiliar at the very same time.

I am sure I could have asked for information from the grandmothers five years ago or at any time in between then and now. It might have felt much more loaded, even a little scary to ask right away. I felt comfortable when I asked. By now, we really do feel like family.

The family we gained on our daughter’s mother’s side includes four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To our daughter, it’s a wash of people she knows but doesn’t entirely always know. Somewhere inside her, the way the medical history answers meant a lot to me, my daughter responds similarly: she loves, for example, the toy horse her birth mom gave her and calls the horse Taco, the name of her birth mom’s horse. She sleeps with a blanket her aunt made for her when she was an infant. It’s as if there’s conscious knowledge and knowledge that isn’t conscious. Both have to work to try to wrap a heart around what adoption means, and what it feels like. Both are required to integrate something this huge, and this full of specifics.

Meantime, we’ve never met the one other grandmother we know about, the birth dad’s mom. We haven’t met him or seen a photograph. So as I scribbled all over the medical history form with asterisks to explain why the daughter’s family medical history is different than the brothers’ histories, I wrote that we don’t know anything about the dad’s family. I have an appointment set up to meet the new pediatrician without my kids in order to discuss concerns. I want to have a chance to feel the doctor out about adoption and make sure I’ve answered any questions before he meets my daughter. I can file this under a thing I hadn’t considered before becoming an adoptive parent: how to talk to the pediatrician about adoption and family medical history.

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Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity

Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity


IMG_7339_3When you adopt a baby, do you take on responsibility for fostering the child’s connection to the culture or cultures of origin your baby leaves behind to join your family? That’s often an issue upon which people take an emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance. On the ‘yes’ side you may see white parents at Saturday Chinese schools (or in our case, the local public charter Chinese immersion school). On the ‘no’ side you have parents who plead colorblindness in their households.

In a thoughtful article written by an Asian adoptee is this analysis: “Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child’s right to love, safety, and security.”

In other words, to make race and adoption either/or is to oversimplify (and place burden on the child). How to foster those ties is, arguably, a better question.

It’s one I’ve been asking myself recently.

In this article, the adoptee—photo of her and her white mother circa 1983 is included—looks different than her parent. She begins the piece describing a moment when an Asian child stared at her in a restaurant and how she remembered that exact experience: the intensity identification brought, because she was isolated as a lone Asian in a very white community.

If you read about transracial adoption, how to cope with this kind of isolation is an issue that extends far past 1983. The author mentions a parent of a six-year-old wondering whether the switch from a more white to a more diverse school in Louisville, Kentucky is adaption enough for her daughter or whether a move to a more diverse town is necessary. The mother, Amy Cubbage, describes her daughter’s response to a trip to China: “We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself … we underestimated her need to see where she’s from and see a place where everyone looks like her.”

Not everyone can respond by moving a family (nor would every family argue that a necessity). And not every family can travel to Asia or Africa or wherever else for a “roots” trip. And not every child wants that. What interests me about that mother’s observation of her daughter’s travels is that she (the mom) not only made the effort to expose her daughter to her cultural roots but that she noted her child’s response to that experience. Whatever the family does next happens because the parents believe they are supporting their particular child. Racial identity or exposure to diversity isn’t theoretically motivated in this case.

To move from theory into action isn’t easy. To maintain openness rather than an either/or stance, now that seems to me a delicate and complex endeavor. For my white family, the biracial daughter in our midst has her own list of particulars (and obviously, one reason either/or doesn’t work is that adoption is an entire category of particulars).

Her particulars include that she’s light (light enough to manage to look in some ways more like me than the children I gave birth to, although that, too, is a complicated notion). Her particulars include an open adoption—with her mother’s side of the family (which is to say, the white side). Her particulars include a community that’s predominantly white, but a friend cohort that is diverse and does include adopted children (African American, African, biracial, Vietnamese and Caucasian in her class or various other activities). And while we have some Jamaican friends, they are not in our daily lives. She’s never met her Jamaican family and there’s little chance she will anytime in the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to err on the “colorblind” end of the spectrum. I don’t want to hurdle into “culture” for the sake of exposure in a way that’s intrusive. The detail I return to in my mind is this one: I’ve known many families with daughters adopted from Asian countries. Of those families that offered trips or language classes and cultural immersion of some sort or another, some of the girls liked those experiences and others protested. Regardless of their responses, I’m struck by the fact that some of those girls took their Asian names. I don’t think you can erase identity. More so, I don’t think you should try. That’s my working principle. How we translate that idea into action is the interesting part.

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Wedding Guests


fall2011_buttenwieserThe wedding was about to begin. My not-quite-two-year-old daughter, Saskia, wriggled on my lap and I glanced again toward the doorway in the back of the room.

Caroline was late. We’d been invited to this wedding—my husband, daughter, and sons—essentially as Caroline’s “plus five.” I held Saskia’s warm hands and she clenched my fingers. She knew me as her mama. I was her mama, and I was waiting for her other mama to arrive.

Caroline, who’d asked Saskia call to her Auntie Cece, was the one who gave birth to her, and Caroline was the bride’s sister. There were no formal terms, exactly, for the rest of us.

The room quieted and I glanced over to my husband. We smiled at each other, sharing one of those here-we-are looks that couples in unlikely places exchange. We’d met the bride only twice. The processional music started up. Saskia got still watching the tiny parade in front of her. The flower girl and ring bearer—both Saskia’s cousins—walked through the doorway. Just behind them the bride held onto her father’s arm.

The afternoon was strangely balmy for late October. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day, and everything felt filmy, a little opaque. Throughout the ceremony, I kept turning toward the back of the New England barn-turned-reception-hall—still no Caroline. I didn’t want to worry—or even care—that she was late. And yet, I did care; I wanted her to show up. I wanted our smaller grouping within her larger family constellation to be complete. I wanted to feel she was comfortable with our being there—and I wasn’t sure.

Caroline finally showed up at the reception, dressed in dark pants, a button-down shirt, a chunky necklace, and lots of make-up. In one long tumble of excuses she explained that she’d had to work early, she was tired, she took a nap, she overslept, and then she got lost. “I need a glass of wine,” she announced. She set off toward the bar.

“I’m always late,” she said a few minutes later, wine in one hand, the other hand fiddling with her long, auburn hair. “I don’t mean to be.” At the family gatherings we’d attended before, Caroline had always arrived late or left early. She always walked out in the middle of visits to smoke cigarettes. It was understood that she couldn’t tolerate an event start to finish. I felt disappointed for her. And maybe, reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that I felt a little disappointed in her, too.

“Well, you’re here now,” said Margaret, another of Caroline’s sisters. Although her tone was half-hearted, the affirmation brought huge relief across Caroline’s face.

“I’m here now,” Caroline echoed.

Caroline gave Saskia a big hello and made a silly face. “Hi Saskia!” She called out. “Do you remember your Auntie Cece?” Saskia buried her face in my husband’s shoulder. Although Saskia remembered Caroline, she wouldn’t go to her. Saskia tended to be shy and clingy around people she didn’t know well, and for a toddler, the word “auntie” mattered little. However open our adoption was, we couldn’t force Saskia to do more than view her family members from our arms until she was ready to engage.

I said, “She gets shy.” Caroline looked a little disappointed. But she smiled broadly, almost forcibly. I tried to imagine only seeing Saskia occasionally. I tried to imagine wanting to be known, to be loved.

Watching Caroline try to engage Saskia, I remembered again that the adoption was harder on Caroline than anyone else. Sometimes, when she and I spoke on the phone, she brought it up: I know it was the right thing to do and she’s in the best place and still at times I wonder…Then she’d trail off. Those conversations tended to take place around certain holidays, like Christmas or Mother’s Day, when she went back over the decision, like fingering a scar. It was as if she could feel each change in the skin even when what’s apparent to the eye has become so faint as to be barely visible any longer.

More than once, I’d wished that this was a loss a person got over or past or through, that there would be an eventual sense of completion. As time went on, I appreciated it wasn’t like that: You could let go, you could feel you made the right decision, yet you couldn’t help but wonder. You couldn’t help but mourn. Even if you were happy about how things turned out, that scar remained, however it might fade.

Although I’d always, from childhood, wanted to adopt, that dream came into focus after having three boys, and three nauseated pregnancies. Adoption was my route to a girl. Nothing about the process resembled the simplistic stuff of a girlhood fantasy. A shared social worker put Caroline together with us; she believed we’d all “click,” and she trusted that we’d keep the door to the adoption open—to Caroline and her family, all of whom wanted in. That’s how we wanted it, too.

During our first conversation, over the phone, Caroline declared, “I prefer animals, especially horses, to people. I’m just not that comfortable with people.” She sounded apologetic about this admission. She worked in her mother’s horse barn and herself had two horses, two cats, and a dog. She’d added, “I really don’t want to put a totally dependent baby first.”

When we met, Caroline explained to us why open adoption appealed to her: “I like the idea that I can see her growing up, that she can know me.”

I’d replied, “That’s what we hope, too, that she never feels there’s a big secret, and that her family is just…very big.”

Throughout the pregnancy and the first months of Saskia’s life, we saw Caroline with regularity and spoke on the phone even more often. She was, because of the baby, becoming part of our family, too. It wasn’t exactly a sisterly relationship, although perhaps that was the closest approximation. In some way, we were adopting—and being adopted by—her.

Before we met Caroline, one social worker explained that any pregnant woman considering adoption was in crisis by definition. “No one would choose adoption if she felt she didn’t have another, better choice,” the social worker said. That seemed true for Caroline. She was in her early forties without much money; she lacked any help from the ex-boyfriend (although he was very demanding), and the hours she worked weren’t compatible with traditional daycare. While her family was helpful, she knew they couldn’t serve as her sole support.

Unintended pregnancy aside, Caroline sometimes reminded me of a cat with some yarn, quick to wind up all entangled. She’d had more trouble with cars than anyone I’d ever met, from speeding tickets to failed inspections. I thought of this as I watched Margaret shepherd Caroline over to make peace with their father. Even from across the room, I could see that he was annoyed by Caroline’s late appearance. His arms were crossed and he didn’t smile immediately.

I wanted things to be easier for Caroline, to go more smoothly. I wanted her to be happier than she seemed. Because her little girl was, in some way, a gift—she’d been entrusted to us—I found that I felt a little bit responsible for Caroline. It wasn’t like mother responsible. It was not even sister responsible. But I couldn’t help feeling that our great fortune—raising Saskia—came with the price tag of being a contributing factor in Caroline’s sadness, another tenacious knot in her challenging life. And to make things that much more convoluted, I believed that Caroline’s happiness, if it eventually took hold, stood to benefit Saskia as she grew more aware of this first mother of hers. I imagined that to see Caroline thrive would make the decisions surrounding Saskia’s birth easier for Saskia to understand if she was grappling with feeling her own sense of loss or displacement.

Outside, while a passel of kids ran around the misty, dusky evening, we chatted with their grownups. We were amazed that extended family we’d never heard of and family friends immediately accepted how we fit into the larger assemblage gathered around bride and groom. More than once, Caroline’s stepmother pulled us inside to meet someone. When she introduced me, she said, “This is Caroline’s daughter, Saskia and Saskia’s mother, Sarah.” She made the whole thing seem easy and I loved her for her gracious, enveloping heart. This relatively new definition of family felt almost comfortable and slightly awkward at once. These people I’d known for a relatively short period managed to be family, for real, and almost but not quite family. The air was cooling off.

Just before dark, burnished leaves stood out against the grey skies, the colors mirroring us. Because for all that was beautiful and amazing about open adoption—including our being part of a wonderful wedding celebration with Saskia’s beaming aunt—it wasn’t bright and shiny, not golden yellow or triumphant orange. It was a little more somber, a deeper hue. Along with all that joyfulness, something had been lost, not today, but there was still a sense of loss. That’s why the afternoon’s rain and then the rain having stopped just before the ceremony—the clouds’ overlay curtain pulling the sky up, leaving their viscosity in plain view—felt so right.

Saskia, unlike Caroline, hadn’t arrived late. She was, in her sturdy toddlerhood, so very much here, a tiny dark-haired girl racing around in orange clogs, grinning wildly. She had arrived into this world to be part of two families, and while she was growing up in one family primarily, she wasn’t marginal.

Back at our table, Saskia took the “chocolate ice cream” that was actually vanilla frosting and put a little onto Caroline’s lips. Caroline tasted the icing. “Mmm,” she said. “Thank you, Saskia.” Saskia did it again and again, a little game. Caroline loved being fed by Saskia. I took photographs, keepsakes from these moments, these small affirmations of the open part of open adoption.

Driving along dark, winding roads toward the highway, we felt happy that Saskia had been welcomed with such open arms and hearts, and relieved and grateful. Exhausted, too, because in order to bring all that love in, with all its intricacy, a softening of boundaries was required, a willingness to root for each person, not just your child. You had to love them all.

You had to love them, but love could be disappointing. I couldn’t help but imagine the school plays missed, the visit canceled very last minute, or the graduation skipped. I could feel how hard it would be to remain both of their champions. I imagined myself in the middle of this scenario while at the same time trying to steer clear and let them work out whatever disappointments might ensue. I felt the impossibility of my role. And I understood that even if it were excruciating, it was nowhere near as hard as being Caroline or Saskia might be.

There was, at least, all that family—those aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents—to love Saskia with more ease. Even with all those people to call hers, though, I imagined she might feel overwhelmed sometimes by how many of them there were, how she might have them all—but not entirely. I hope that with our help—and this extended family’s—a time may come when she’s the one embracing what seems so complicated now. I hope she also will be able to feel comfortable saying to her Auntie Cece mama, “Well, you’re here now.”

Author’s Note: There’s no question that my fantasy of adoption and the reality are really different. To write honestly and fairly about open adoption—something filled with love and loss—has required me to fight for the truest words. In the end, I can only really chronicle my own experience. This essay took eleven drafts, nearly two years, and numerous eyes to reach actual conclusion. At the moment, Saskia is “getting” (kind of?) that she was in this other tummy and has categorized Caroline as a “grandmother.” I’m pretty sure “grandmother” means “a loving adult who is not immediate family.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

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