I have two stories about open adoption. The first one is about a closed adoption that was broken open by me. The second one is about an open adoption that was arranged by me with the help of a forward-thinking agency.
I was born in 1960, and my birth mother didn’t make a plan for me. She gave me up, and harsh as that sounds to contemporary adoption language-tuned ears, that’s what happened. She didn’t have a choice. If she’s anything like me, I reasoned, she’d understand my desire for a reunion.
I searched fruitlessly for years and then hired a search consultant, who found her. Hesitant contact from me, hoping not to surprise or intrude —then fast forward to a letter that arrived in my mailbox, pages and pages of handwritten copy, a long hello again from my birth mother, Toni, reaching out and gathering me back into her life.
“What took you so long?” she asked at the airport. Funny question, because although I was 35, I felt a part of me had just been born.
Opening up a closed adoption
We opened that adoption. During my first visit, I went with her on errands. We stopped by a shop to pick up her newly re-tassled Persian silk rug, and the man behind the counter asked whether I was her daughter because we looked so alike.
“Yes, she is.” And I caught my breath.
Then, family introductions. A sister, almost a twin except for different fathers and three years. A cousin with my first name, so like me that my husband referred to her as “who Mary will be in 15 years.” Other cousins: a charming teenager who was one of my first Facebook friends; many animal lovers, including my first cousin who sent me a sweet card when my cat died of FIP; her grown-up son, who named his boy the same thing I named mine, Conor, as a way of honoring our Irish heritage.
After I had my son, Conor, at 39, I felt super-maternal, sure that my birthmother’s unintended fertility signaled that I didn’t have to listen to doctors. She mourned my after-40 miscarriages with me, but reminded me of how lucky I was to have my son.
I had nine years with her until illness took her away the same week my adoptive mother suffered and survived a heart attack. Never before had I felt the vulnerability of loving more than one family. But never before had I felt the certainty that our connections stretch across time and space, and that the power of sadness cannot eclipse the power of love.
For a time, my body was relentless, raising our hopes again and again. And then my heart moved toward where I was headed all along. I reached out to an adoption agency, one of the first agencies in the country that pioneered open adoption. I wanted to save my next child from wondering and searching.
One night, the agency called and said they hadn’t put enough boxes on the forms we’d filled out. “Are you open to South Asian?”
“You have a daughter.”
Our open adoption profile and relationship
Our beautiful daughter, Mira, is the daughter also of Ann, an adoptee from India, whose birth story and birthparents were never part of what the Kolkata orphanage knew about her. But they knew how to find her a family, so when she was four months old, she was brought to the States and joined her mother, father, and brothers.
Our adoption profile had boasted our flexible schedules, the fun we had with Conor, and the relatives and pets ready to welcome another child. But on the front page, I’d written about what my own life taught my husband and me: “We both know that there’s no limit to the number of people who can love a child. We also know that sadness and loss can be transformed into joy and discovery.”
We are all together on special days like birthdays and holidays, but also on ordinary days, sunny days at the community pool and noisy days at restaurants when the kids take over the table. Ann’s mother and stepfather are true grandparents to both Mira and Conor, having them over for sleepovers, chocolate pancakes, and fishing expeditions.
Ann’s family became our family, and I will always mourn the loss of her birth family. I will never take for granted the connections I found in my own life and insisted on in my daughter’s.
Love feels like pain when it’s trapped in a heart with nowhere to go. The losses encountered by birthparents, adoptees, and adoptive parents are real. But with open adoption, the empty spaces created by loss overflow with the love that’s already there, creating a river of love to travel together.
Mary Pettice is the mother of two wonderful children. She teaches English at Lebanon Valley College and is working on a collection of essays about adoption and reunion.
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