Adoption Nation‘s Adam Pertman On How Openness Has Changed Adoption–And How Adoption Has Changed Us, Part 2

Here are more highlights from my recent conversation about open adoption trends with Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and adoptive father. You can learn more about Adam here. And you can see Part 1 of my conversation here.

Honoring a child’s right to know

Some adoptive parents don’t tend to think of the baby’s biological or first families. Some don’t even think of that baby as anything but a baby or that one day that baby is going to have questions. But every human being has a right to know who they are and where they came from.

Adoption is part of one’s identity. Just focusing on your baby and behaving as if you formed your family just like everyone else does not do your child a service. To an insecure adoptive parent who just wants to bond with his or her kid, I get that. But if that’s all we focus on and ignore the biological relatives and don’t recognize the differences, we also don’t recognize the different needs and wants of our own children.

Acknowledging your child’s birth family

Adoption is part of one’s identity. Just focusing on your baby and behaving as if you formed your family just like everyone else does not do your child a service. To an insecure adoptive parent who just wants to bond with his or her kid, I get that. But if that’s all we focus on and ignore the biological relatives and don’t recognize the differences, we also don’t recognize the different needs and wants of our own children.

There are other people in a child’s life, whether they’re physically in it or not. There’s still not enough information or education about birth families for adoptive families. Many adoptive parents still don’t appreciate the role that a child’s first parents should or could play in their life.

It’s like the “in-law” model. Your spouse did not drop out of the sky. She came from a family, whether you like that family or not. One of the things we need to accept in a positive way is that our children did not drop out of the sky. They came from somewhere. And excluding that part of their lives–and the people in it–is not a real benefit to anyone concerned.

You can see those people once a year or once a week or not at all. That’s a decision that adults have to make. But to pretend they don’t exist and that there are no positives derived from having those relationships doesn’t make any sense, and I think we’ve come to understand that.

Adoptive parenting

About 90 percent of the time that you’re raising your child, adoption is not an issue. You’re raising your child because she’s your child and you’re her parent and you have to do what you have to do at school and the whole gamut of stuff. But you’ve got to be aware of the other things.

If you’re in a family where there’s been divorce, for example, you don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Or that it has no impact on your child or that there are no complicated relationships with other families and relatives.

Here’s an trite example: When I sang lullabies to my children to put them to sleep, I added the word “adopted” to a lot of them. I made adoption into something they were comfortable with, in every day language, every day. That was a good thing. I hope every parent does something like that. And then you ratchet it up in time as it’s age appropriate. It’s just like if you marry someone from another ethnicity or race–it’s part of your life. It’s like that from Day One.

How adoptive families’ norms are different

Our families are normal. But our norms are different than other people’s. Single, biracial, step families — their norms are all different. And so are ours. That’s a different issue than are we all on a level playing field. Gay-led families are not there yet. They’re still stigmatized. But that’s not an argument not to have gay-led families. Their norm is different and that’s fine.

We have to raise kids with good values and good relationships with people they should or want to have  relationships with. And we have to teach our kids to feel comfortable in their own skin as adopted kids and whatever other identities they have. And we have to simultaneously fight the good fight to level the playing field. If we think we’re stigmatized, it’s nothing compared to what birth parents experience.

Secrecy vs. privacy

There’s a difference between secrecy and privacy. We keep secrets about things we’re ashamed of. So I don’t think we should keep our families and the people in it secret. That sends a horrible message to our kids and to the world at large. We kept adoption secret for generations. It makes it seem like we have something to hide, because that’s what we keep secrets about.

But that’s different than private. I know a couple whose babysitter every Friday night is their son’s birth mom. They’re not telling the world about it. The child knows it and sometimes talks about it. But it’s not on a sign in neon in front of their house. Our mission is to level that playing field. It’s not every adoptive parent or birth mother’s or adoptee’s job to do it.

Promoting adoption education and tolerance

Where I work our job is to help people say who we honestly are and to learn how to transmit that in a positive, proud way that’s inclusive and embracing. Because otherwise nothing is ever going to change. I’m not saying this is the easiest thing. Do I want to impose on my child the task of fighting the stigma of some people who think he’s in a lesser family or that he’s got a problem simply because he’s adopted?

Because that’s what some people think. I taught my kids that some people are going to think these stupid things about you. But it’s their problem, not yours. You arm kids with the best information you have and make them the strongest you can. And you let them know that they don’t have it rougher than other kids do.

Celebrating honesty and openness in adoption

If you’re a gay kid in any kind of family you’ve got more stigmas and issues to deal with in society than my adopted kid. It was the same thing a generation ago for kids of divorce. We used to stigmatize the kids for it. Will Johnny be confused with mom and her new boyfriend?

I’m not extolling the virtues of divorce. We’ve normalized it. We’ve had to deal with the issues at hand. We pay a price for telling and for not telling. It’s not like either one of them comes free. We have to instill in our children that openness and honesty and truth are virtues. I think it would be a cool idea to have our families live by those words.

What are your takeaways from Pertman’s observations about openness? What impact do you think it’s had on adoption? Leave your comments in the section below.

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