But the more she learned about the process, the more she realized that everything she thought she knew about adoption was wrong.
She wasn’t poor. She wasn’t a drug addict. She wasn’t cold and uncaring. Her child wasn’t unwanted or unloved. She had a loving boyfriend and came from a good family.
She knew she could parent. She wanted to parent. When her pregnancy became risky, she prayed that she wouldn’t loss her baby. And yet, as time went on, she also came to realize that she wasn’t ready to parent him.
She knew she could provide enough. But that wasn’t good enough. She wanted the best for her son, Justin. And she knew she wasn’t in a position to offer it to him.
So she created an open adoption plan and placed Justin with an adoptive family. Today, 17 years later, Tamra has gone from what she calls the “adoption closet” onto an adoption soapbox and become an advocate for open adoption. I recently had a chance to learn more about her story and about what others — prospective adoptive parents, birthmothers and their children — can take away from it.
So much about Tamra’s story and outlook is unique, including the way she found Justin’s family. So I thought that would be a good place to begin our conversation.
1. You’ve said that you didn’t choose Justin’s family, you found them. What do you mean by that?
I had thought that I was going to “select” his family. So I set out to make a study of it, to be almost scientific about it. This was the most important thing I’d ever do and I was picking one out of thousands. But I was determined that I wouldn’t miss anything. I would be utterly thorough. I WOULD find the best one.
You can imagine how daunting a task that was. I found it hard to sleep under the weight of the responsibility, particularly considering my total lack of practice caring or making good choices. I had a track record of screwing things up. I was fortunately humbled by the task and sought help.
I had my own powers of reasoning and the advice of many, but these are both things that can and often do fail us. I needed the guidance of someone who could see beyond what we could, and though I’d kinda been avoiding him for a while, I knew who that Someone was.
My caseworker brought the first five profiles. Back then they contained very little information and no pictures or names. I figured I’d look at everything she had before making my “selection.” I’d given her a detailed description of what I was looking for and she was meant to filter for me with that criteria.
However, as I read through the first file I quickly realized they weren’t at all what I had ordered. Yet ironically, I felt very drawn to them. I couldn’t pinpoint why so I determined that I was only empathizing with their plight, not being able to have children. But as I read through the other four, families who matched my description, I could not get that first profile out of my mind. I found myself going back to it again and again.
I brought it to God. I told him I felt something about this family but that I was going to need a sign. The message that came back to me was that I wouldn’t be spoonfed and I’d need to act on faith for now and go with the direction I’d been given. I called my caseworker and she said “Tamra, I knew they weren’t what you were looking for but I knew you needed to see that file.”
2. Let’s talk about the moment you first met Justin’s adoptive parents. For many birthmothers, choosing parents for their baby is one of the hardest parts of the process. But from the moment you looked into their eyes, you knew they were meant to be his parents. Explain that moment to me…
It’s a bit of a hard thing to explain. It’s not the sort of thing folks experience very often. I can’t even think of a common scenario to relate it to. I had prayed the night before meeting them for a sign of some sort. By this time, I was already confident and determined in my decision, but I was hoping for some additional confirmation, something I would know came from a source other than my own heart or mind.
I had no idea what that would look like or if I’d be accommodated, after all, I’d had my answer already. Thinking of it now it looks so silly to me but what I had anticipated was almost that I would interview them for the position, perhaps give them some Tamra-approved parenting methods. When they walked in, relief washed over me.
I knew this quest, likely the most important of my life, this mission I had prayed and cried and changed for and worried over was resolved. When I saw them I stopped worrying that I’d mess it up like I had so many less consequential things. It was immediately evident that I had found what i was so desperately looking for.
It was to me a reunion. I know I can’t say it in a way that makes sense but I KNEW them. I recognized their faces from a time and place that I can’t recall. I loved them instantly. No, even previous to that instant but in that instant I REMEMBERED that I loved them. They were a part of my family. I didn’t understand HOW but I knew that they were. I think even tiny little fetal Justin knew he was almost home.
This is when I finally got it. I wasn’t choosing a family for Justin, that’s God’s job. I was finding the family that was already his. I now understood that he was theirs before he was mine. That I wasn’t sharing him with them, but the other way around.
3. They were the oldest couple you looked at. Was age an important issue for you?
Young was one of my specifications. Perhaps because I was young. I really don’t know any more, ha! I think if I were to write that list today, it would be very different.
4. What else were you looking for in adoptive parents for Justin?
Oh, it was a little ridiculous really. I knew the weather conditions I wanted for him! There were hobbies and cultural things that I did and didn’t want. I remember one was that I didn’t want them to hunt. I specified immediate and extended family structure. I wanted them to be wealthy but frugal and not concerned with status. I secretly wanted them to be attractive. I wanted educated people who shared my faith and I did get that for him. I don’t know how useful my preferences would be to any readers. I was a weirdo and some of them were very silly.
5. Did you ever worry that you wouldn’t find a couple that fit your criteria?
I just worried about the unknown. That people would misrepresent themselves or that circumstances could change or that perhaps there was another couple that would be better. All of my fears left me though once I found them.
6. When you initially discovered you were pregnant, you said adoption was at the bottom of your list. Tell me a little bit about the thought process you went through that helped nudge it up to the top of your list?
Adoption was on the table from day one. Because my mother put it there. And I entertained it at least on the surface so that I could say that I had considered all of my options but my agenda was to avoid it at any cost. Even to marry a fella I knew I wouldn’t be happy with. So I got engaged in spite of the fact that since I’d discovered I was pregnant he didn’t look the same to me. I’d thought he was good enough for me but now I was choosing for two and Justin deserved more.
I had relocated to Atlanta at the end of my first trimester and the birth father was nine hours away in Memphis. This was a time when not everyone had cell phones or computers at home so when we spoke we were paying long distance fees. He was in his first semester of college and I wasn’t working so our communications were few and far between.
While this created an agonizing withdrawal for my codependant little heart it also allowed me to see a contrast. I was working harder than at any other time in my life. I was changing. I was trying very hard to grow up and prepare to be my best for my son. And it was working.
But every time I would speak to the birth father I would regress. I became insecure and needy and confused and frustrated and helpless. It didn’t take too long before I couldn’t deny the fact that I was my worst self with him, that if I were to give him and me to Justin as parents, it wouldn’t be a gift.
So I broke it off and began to lead toward single parenting. I couldn’t seem to get that peace and confidence I was looking for. I NEVER wanted to look back and doubt or regret. I needed “an answer” but I was blocking it out by my willfulness. I got frustrated with my program that wasn’t working. I was counseling the Lord rather than taking counsel from Him. I was telling Him what was best rather than truly asking.
I was praying about my frustration and it was made clear to me that I was in my own way. I HAD to remove myself from the equation. That is SO HARD TO DO! The question was “Tamra, when you ask what is best for your son, is that what you want MOST?” When I decided it was, clarity came.
At my best I couldn’t give him what two parents with maturity, experience, resources, and stability could. That was humbling and it was hard to swallow. I now understand that it didn’t mean I would have been bad for him, just that they were better. And at the end of the day, “enough” wasn’t enough for him when there was more available. It wasn’t enough just to feel love for Justin, I had to do what love dictated. It was the only way for me to have the peace of mind, 17 years later, that I had so hoped for.
7. One of your fears was that Justin would feel abandoned by your decision and resent you. How did you conquer them?
Again, once I knew it was right, once I had the “answer”, all of these heavy concerns that had haunted me became irrelevant, almost silly. Not like I had this assurance that he wouldn’t feel that way, just that for better of for worse, they were his family. And it hasn’t been the fairy-tale I dreamed for him. I am sad for the parts that have been hard for him but I still know, what I did was right for him. His trials are right for him.
8. You said you didn’t expect anything for your loss and yet you’ve been more than compensated for. What has open adoption given you?
As long winded as I’ve already been, I bet this one’s gonna out-do any other question, ha! I’m overwhelmed to even try to quantify it.
The changes that I made in preparation for my Justin have stuck. I think that’s why he came through me. God knew nothing short of maternal love would have shaken me awake and motivated me. Sadly I hadn’t been adequate motivation to fix myself, but he was. These changes include letting go of hate and rage and consequently healing from some deep and ugly wounds, repairing family relationships I’d given up on, learning that I was strong and capable, and turning my heart to my Helper and my Healer.
As a result of these things, peace came. I’ll take that peace at any price, even the price of great pain. I’ve been given a mission and a purpose. I’ve been prepared to give guidance and support to others who are involved with adoption. I’ve been given insight and made eloquent to express it for the good of others. In this work and this community I’ve made friends who have enriched my life tremendously.
Most importantly, I learned love. It was given to me to feel REAL love and to understand what that was. I had not known. Whole and true love isn’t about what it does for me but about the happiness and well being of the subject of my love. If he wins, I win, even in losing. It was an HONOR to take my heart out and put it on the alter in exchange for what he needed.
9. I want to share with you something you said at an open adoption conference not too long ago: “Adoption isn’t normal. It’s unusual. It’s different. It’s wonderful, but it’s not normal.” What did you mean by that?
I once saw a video from the early 90’s promoting adoption. The actor playing the adoptee kept saying how “normal” it was to be adopted but in reality only 2.5% of American’s under 18 are. It rubbed me wrong. Perhaps because I’ve seen some families trying so hard to be “normal” that perhaps it wasn’t ok to talk about how they really were different.
It can come from a place of insecurity and a belief that “our family is 2nd rate” accompanied by an overcompensation which I believe a kid can sense and internalize into his feelings about who he is. It seems to me if we can just claim it and celebrate it and rock it really, then we can relax and enjoy it.
And when we do, the people who see this attitude adopt it. They see how cool it really is! A couple doesn’t need to pretend they don’t struggle with fertility. An adopted person doesn’t need to pretend to have come home the way his friend did. We create our own shame, it isn’t real.
10. So what is a healthy way of looking at open adoption?
I’ve learned from hiding parts of me that it’s a lot of work and it’s burdensome and that it creates complications for those who try to know us. Once i came out of the adoption closet I saw that most of the fears that motivated my efforts in secrecy would never realize. Again, how we feel about our story and how we present it will greatly influence the way it’s seen by others.
So I don’t whisper anymore when I talk about the best thing I ever did. I’ve learned to just assume the person being addressed will respect it and as a result, the generally do. I feel adoption needs us to be vocal. Talking openly about it makes you a resource and gives you opportunity to help others and give adoption some much needed accurate representation.
11. In your advocacy work, you’ve spoken to women who wish they had chosen adoption. But with so many negative stories surrounding adoption, how do you get a woman with an unplanned pregnancy to consider it as an option?
Isn’t that the question?! As an option for an unplanned pregnancy, adoption is so under represented and misrepresented. It’s rarely brought up and often when it is, it’s some horror story from the past or made-for-tv movies.
That’s why I use any platform I can get to tell my story. I know our adoption stories make a difference. I can’t count the times I’ve been told how a heart or mind was changed about adoption and often as a result, lives have changed.
12. Some birthmothers hide their story and are ashamed of it. But you’re not only proud of yours, you can’t wait for people — even that proverbial lady in the grocery store checkout line — to ask you about it. Why is sharing your story so important to you?
Whatever else placing a child for adoption may be, it is also trauma. And any trauma unprocessed just gets funky and begins to subtly flow into every other aspect of our lives. People are sometimes surprised at how okay I am. I owe that to many things but a MAJOR factor is that I’ve been talkin’. A lot. It’s been in the telling of my story that I’ve come to understand it, insights come as I speak (or write).
It is so important to never be confused about the difference between what we did wrong and what we did right. Placing was the most right thing I’ve ever been involved with. THAT is what I define myself by, I barely remember the mistake! It has no purpose.
And we can never let anyone else convince us, from their ignorance, that our choice was anything but selfless heroism! If I’d put this in the closet and pretended to “move on” I would’ve missed so much and so would so many with whom I’ve shared. This isn’t something you get over. I don’t want to. I love it.
13. Some hopeful adoptive parents won’t go near open adoption because they’re afraid of being in competition with their child’s birthmother. What advice do you have for them?
The simple solution is education. The most impactful element of that education is interaction with birth parents. They need our stories. Once we’ve become humanized to them, once they see the maturity and ability to think of others required in our choice, they can drop their stereotypes and fears.
My take is that competition is a vice born of insecurity and that you can’t compete without a participant. Both parties, in order to make open adoption work, have to let go of feelings of possessiveness and entitlement. Which isn’t to say that they share parenting but we share our people with many people who love them and we’re all better of for it, most importantly the child.
Why would a woman place and then parent anyway? It doesn’t make sense. I made them his parents. I would never challenge, in fact I would defend, them in that role. I would say to them “no one will ever give you the trust that she will. trust her back. More family, more people to love — it’s a blessing.”
14. And what advice do you have for birthmothers who worry about getting their adoption closed down by their child’s adoptive parents?
I wish I could say it never happens but at least I will say it usually doesn’t. Again, a couple properly counseled and prepared are so much less likely to bail. It is a tragic thing. I have seen broken promises and broken hearts. It is literally my worst nightmare. Like actually, I’ve had that dream.
But I’ve seen EXCEPTIONAL women who in spite of that great insult and disappointment stand by their decision and wouldn’t change it. We can’t control if anyone else is going to right but we can’t hinge whether or not we do on that. On our part, we can invite trust by trusting, invite graciousness and patience by being gracious and patient, dealing with others how we hope they will deal with us.
15. You’ve said that open adoption is bittersweet process, and that the bitter-to-sweet ratio is often directly proportionate to the degree of openness in the relationship. But for adoptive parents and birthmothers just starting out in their relationship, openness is scary. How do they figure out how much openness they can live with?
Check out your options. Ask people with varying degrees of openness about their situations. Keep in mind that we are individuals and work with the personalities involved. Every sister relationship isn’t the same and neither are these.
Communication from as early as possible and lots of it! Talk about your expectations and theirs. And then be flexible. I can’t say today what my relationship with my mom or best friend will be in 5 or 10 years, only that there will be one and that I am commited to doing what’s best for all involved.
It can freak people out. Many of us have little experience with it, a lot of mystery. But we do have relationships with humans. We know how to do that, what works and what doesn’t. We just employ the same principles that are necessary in any other human relationship, trust, communication, patience, gratitude, kindness, etc. And we don’t throw in the towel when there’s a bump (as there is in any relationship) and say “welp, we tried open adoption. Didn’t work. It’s not for us”.
Human relationships can challenge us but oh, how they can bless us. Don’t be afraid of hard things. There would be none of these adoptions if we didn’t buck up and do the hard, right thing in the first place. We grow by what challenges us!
What do you think of Tamra’s story? Why do you think open adoption freaks people out? What do you think needs to be done to get more people to consider it as an option? Leave your comments in the space below.