Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Importance of Fathers

My daughter and I are both mourning the losses of fathers today.

For me, it's the death of my father --somewhat unexpected -- in April, a loss that still doesn't always feel real.

For my daughter, it's the absence of her birthfather, a man she doesn't know and perhaps may never know.

We know very little about Ashley's birthfather. We know his name and his age, but Ashley's questions go far beyond that: Where does he live? What's his favorite color? Does he know about me?

This week has been especially difficult. On Thursday evening, she sobbed hard and long because she wouldn't be able to give her birthfather a Father's Day present.

As her dad and I held her while she cried, I couldn't help but think both how similar and how different our grief is.

Like Ashley, Father's Day is hard for me this year. Ads, overheard conversations about Father's Day plans, even taking Ashley shopping to get gifts and cards for her dad all make the loss of my dad real and immediate.

But unlike Ashley, I am mourning a relationship that has lots of memories and few unanswered questions. I don't have to wonder about my dad or who he was. I don't have to question my role in his life.

Unanswered questions are hard, and so I know Ashley will struggle in her own separate way.

But today, we will both be finding ways to honor fathers who aren't with us, to acknowledge that even when they're not around, dads are pretty important people.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lifegivers Book Tour: Thinking About Birth Families

Birthparents are a common theme in our house these days.

My daughter has reached the age where she is starting to understand what it really means to be adopted.

Her birth family is no longer an abstract concept for her. They are real people – her family – from whom she is separated.

And she’s struggling with that. Her wish is that all of us – her birth and adoptive families – would just live together. She sums up her struggle this way: “There’s a problem. If I lived with my birth family, I would miss you. And when I live with you, I miss my birth family. That’s really hard.”

Yes, it is.

And so it was against the backdrop of my daughter’s struggles that I recently read Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption* by James L. Gritter. I read the book as part of The Open Adoption Examiner book tour – kind of an online book club with some set questions and opportunity for online discussion.

Lifegivers definitely provided food for thought, especially in light of my little one’s struggles. It talks about the birthparent experience and the way birthparents are often marginalized in the adoption process. And, it talks about the importance of the birthparent role to the adopted child.

Question one from the book tour is: Given that Lifegivers speaks to an open adoption perspective, how would you apply the information in the book to an adoption that is closed by the birthparent's choice?

Ours is not a fully open adoption. We had some contact with the birth mom prior to the adoption of our daughter and met her when Ashley was placed with us.

When she became pregnant again and felt unable to parent that baby, she called and asked if we would adopt him. We did, and Ashley got to meet her birth mom when Luke was placed with us.

But aside from that, contact with our children's birth mother is limited to the letters and photos that we send to her a few times a year. I’ve occasionally invited more contact, by providing her my email address or inviting her to write us back. But she has so far chosen not to have more contact.

The lack of contact has always made me sad, so I was especially interested in the Lifegivers chapter on reluctant birthparents. Gritter identifies many reasons birthparents choose a more limited role – including sadness, shame, ambivalence, fear of a child’s response, and the assumption that perhaps the adoptive family prefers less contact.

I have no way of knowing which of those reasons apply to Ashley’s birth mom. What I do know after reading this book is that my children’s lives will be diminished without the presence of their birth family, something Ashley is beginning to struggle with.

Certainly part of my job as her mom is be there through her struggles, to help her identify and understand her sadness and loss, and to find ways to help her work her way through it.

But another part of my job is to continue to advocate for Ashley – to continue to invite her birthmother’s presence in her life and to make a welcoming space for my children’s birth family.

Question two from the book tour is: Gritter gives 8 ways that lifegivers can fit in. Choose one way and tell about it in your situation.

While my children’s birth mother has chosen to have minimal involvement thus far, the fact that we did have the chance to meet and talk with her does add richness to our adoption experience.

Gritter talks about the role of birth parents in telling the birth story and providing genealogical context.

Conversations we had with the birth mom and her mother prior to my daughter’s birth and shortly after have given us a wealth of details – that her birth grandmother gave Ashley her first bottle, that her birth mom likes to dance, that Ashley gets her beautiful long fingers from her birth mother.

Those details are important to Ashley – and I’m guessing similar details will one day be important to Luke. And the fact that we know the names of the birth mom’s family does give Ashley a sense of a “birth family” rather than simply an isolated birth mom.

Question three from the tour is: Regarding the exclusive roles of parents (birthparents as life givers, adoptive parents as caregivers), Gritter says "Open adoption recognizes the deep sadness associated with not being able to provide a vital dimension of parenting." How did/will you work through this sadness in your own triad?

For us, the decision to adopt was an easy one. We had decided even before starting fertility testing that if the test results showed a need for invasive interventions (basically anything beyond fertility drugs), we would adopt.

So, when the infertility specialist told us that her recommendation would be in vitro fertilization, we contacted the adoption agency. I’ve never regretted that decision, and my children couldn’t possibly be anymore mine if I had given birth to them.

And yet, when someone I know is pregnant, I feel this little twinge.

I did want to be pregnant. I did want the ultrasound photo. I did want to feel the baby move and kick. I did want to be there for the first moments of life for my children.

At times I think those are probably small losses compared to what my children’s birth mother felt. And perhaps even small losses compared to what my daughter is feeling now.

But they’re also huge losses.

I no longer avoid conversations about pregnancy. And I can feel excited now when a pregnant friend or coworker talks about seeing the ultrasound image or feeling the baby move.

But there is still a little twinge of sadness, and I suspect there always will be.

As my daughter is learning now, adoption begins with loss. And all the other aspects of adoption get built on top of that.

To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.

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*I've linked the book to the Amazon website if you want to check it out. And in the spirit of full disclosure, if you purchase it from Amazon through this link, I get a few pennies through their Affiliates program.


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