Thursday, February 25, 2010

OA Roundtable #14 - What is "success" in an Open Adoption?

The Open Adoption Roundtable is a series of occasional writing prompts about open adoption. It's designed to showcase of the diversity of thought and experience in the open adoption community. You don't need to be part of the Open Adoption Bloggers list to participate, or even be in a traditional open adoption. If you're thinking about openness in adoption, you have a place at the table.

Here's the question for OA Roundtable #14:
If there's one thing we all might agree on, it's that we'd like our open adoptions to be successful. But what does "success" mean to you, when speaking about open adoption? Do you think it may mean something else to the others in your triad?

Click here to see other bloggers answers to this question.

This past Monday I took a very important package to the post office. On the outside of this bundle I had written the address of the agency in Georgia who still has legal guardianship of baby J, pending the finalization of our adoption sometime in coming weeks. Inside was a bound photo book with pages of pictures from baby J's first three months of life with us, the "sharing sheet" that the agency requires each month for the first six months of placement, and a letter for J's first mom, Z. It is the first personal letter I've written to her, the most direct communication from my hand to hers since we took placement of her daughter. We were just recently told that, contrary to the impression we had been given, Z has been in touch with the agency, and has been getting the pictures we have sent. It seems like she has expressed a desire to be in touch, although this is less clear. I will admit to some serious nerves around sending the pictures and letter now that I know for sure that Z will have them in her hands soon.

As nervous as it makes me, this feels like success.

Our adoption is very new, not yet finalized, and it isn't a situation where there was discussion beforehand with J's first mom about what she envisioned for our relationship, or what we hoped for from it. We didn't know about J until after she was relinquished, and we didn't know much of anything about Z until less than a month ago. We still know very little. So it's difficult to quantify or imagine what success should look like for us. It is impossible to comment on what success might be for Z - and I'm not going to. One of the commitments I have made to myself regarding Z is that I am going to respect her by avoiding speculation about her wishes, choices, etc. Especially in this forum. I just don't know her well enough to take that sort of liberty.

So - success for us? I think there are big and little answers to that question. The big answer for A+A is this - our (semi)open adoption, like our parenting, will be a success if we make choices and choose paths that center on what is best for J's development as a whole person. We believe that connection to first family and biological heritage is vital to that development. So we must have openness to respectful contact and relationship with her first mom and other biological family. When faced with choices that relate to J's contact and relationship with her first family, unless there is a definite risk to J (or as she grows she chooses differently for herself) we will succeed by doing everything in our power to make choices that maximize that potential for contact and ultimately for relationship.

This week, the little answer for me was mailing that letter to Z. It was a difficult letter to write - I didn't want to overwhelm her with my eagerness to be in touch. I did want very much to communicate respect and care for her. I wanted her to know that when I wrote "our daughter" she was included in the "our." It seems like it would be easy to interpret words like "us" and "our" to be referring exclusively to A+A. I had to remember that this is a first letter, and should be written as an opener, the first of many. I didn't have to have everything I have ever wanted to share with her encapsulated in this, the first letter.

So I think a successful open adoption strategy includes both the big and little picture. Without the big picture goal - facilitating and nurturing the development of a human being into the most balanced and whole person she can be - it would be easy to get sidetracked, lazy, or forget why I'm working on this. Without the little picture stuff that is unique to the people in this adoption and our life circumstances it would be difficult to know where to start, when to feel successful, what to rethink and work harder at.

As for my daughter, I don't want to speak for her either. What I do want, in terms of her perspectives on our open adoption, is to do what I can to help her acquire the tools to evaluate, articulate, and process for herself her experience of life in the world. She is a person whose familial identity and heritage is a product of both first and adoptive families. This means that identity forming may be quite a challenge for J - as her parent my success will be measured by how well my choices empower her to meet that challenge.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Happy Four Months!

Baby J is four months old today! I can't believe it.

To celebrate, here are four things I love about being baby J's mom:
  • having someone in my life who really appreciates how silly I am
  • seeing that smile - that one, up there - first thing every morning
  • coming home from work and pausing at the door to listen. Nine times out of ten Andrew is playing guitar and singing to J, who is shrieking/singing along
  • the gift of living in the right-now that she gives me every moment we are together.
Next week is her four month dr. appointment and I can't wait to see her official stats! There is a lot happening in our lives right now, some unexpected and chaotic, some expected and planned for but still challenging. The one thing I can honestly say is never work - even when it takes time and effort - is being Mommy and Daddy to this amazing and special person. ♥

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ashes and Dust

On Wednesday evening I sat behind the altar at St. Paul's in the role of Eucharistic Minister (chalice bearer), and pondered my mortality. I had ashes smeared into my forehead with the ritual words, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I was distracted by my own strong physical desire to cough, and my equally strong desire to suppress my cough - a cough that is due at least in part to the dust in our demolished living room.

On Thursday my father called to tell me that his sister had died. My Aunt Jackie had been battling cancer for the past fifteen years. In that time I've received more phone calls than I can remember from either my mother or father telling me that she was about to pass, but she always rallied. She always refused to go, and I can still hear her raspy voice declaring that she wouldn't, until she was damn ready. This past Christmas when we were down to visit I looked in her eyes and knew that she was. Still, there was a part of me that never expected to get that final call.

There is thing, this spirit, that women on my father's side of the family have. We don't do what we're told all the time. We make our own mistakes and don't learn well from the experiences of others. We are headstrong, independent, and smart. We are manipulative, crafty, and melodramatic. We are fiercely loyal. We drive our quieter, mellower brothers just a little mad. Jackie was a supernova version of all of those qualities, and nothing in her life could dim that brightness: not poverty, not the many punishments that life brought to a woman of her generation with that sort of independent mind, and no not even cancer. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Friday I spent the day with my own daughter. I thought about how new she was when she met Jackie - just two months old - and how Jackie was two months away from the end of her life at the same moment. I thought about what it means to be a woman in our family, and wondered what she will learn from me, and what she already has within her that I will watch bloom all on its own as she grows. I thought about Jackie's two grown daughters, and my own mother, and all of the little ones we love so much, whose beginnings herald in their way the endings that we all face, the mystery of life whose shadow is the line over which my beloved aunt crossed this week.Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Today I looked out at the cloudless blue sky and the daffodils and was blinded by the energy of the naked sun. We went to the zoo, and wandered about fighting crowds of winter-pale Seattle families who had the very same idea. In the midst of the crush of strollers and sounds of overtired sun-drunk children I thought about Life, how it begins and ends and the ways in which we turn towards or away from that final reality. I thought about the yoga class I'm starting next week, a Lenten attempt to get closer to my own physical self. I want to last. I want to turn towards life, even the shadow parts, like the fields of brave early daffodils turn their heads up, into light.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

When I was single I always spent Valentine's Day with other single friends. After I met Andrew we found that usually one or both of us were playing shows on V-day. The couple of times we haven't had other comittments we've kept my old tradition of spending the holiday with friends who don't have couple-y plans. I'm just not very romantic about Valentine's Day - I don't need fancy jewelry or an extra present from Andrew. I feel like just about every day we get to be together is pretty awesome.

Today I spent working with a church down south - two hour drive each way - and Andrew spent the day with our little sweetheart. We're out on the peninsula, escaping a crazy flood-water-damage-temporary displacement situation back in our condo. Which is why I haven't posted much lately, in case you were wondering. (You've missed me, right internet? RIGHT??!) Ultimately while it's inconvenient, we'll be getting a lot of nice new drywall installed and a new paint job in our living room and kitchen area on someone else's dime, so instead of feeling enraged I've decided to aid and abet J's grandma in dressing her in ridiculous outfits for picture taking and do a little dreaming about what sort of new color scheme I'd like in the living room. I'm toying with red, but that might just be the holiday.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Every child is entitled to have items at home that are made for and by people of his race.

Tuesday afternoon was a big one for us in some ways. On Tuesday we had our last formal visit with Karen, our WACAP social worker. Marla came along as well, to our delight. This last visit was so very different from the day over a year ago when Karen did our homestudy. That day was preceded by a week of cleaning, re-organizing, and agonizing over childproofing and fire extinguishers. I had to have everything just so. This time we spent the hours before Karen and Marla arrived studying in our separate chairs, baby sleeping in the bedroom. When the phone rang to announce that someone was at the front door I belatedly noticed that the table needed to be wiped down and we probably should have swept the floor.

But I've learned that this is not the stuff that a good social worker is looking for during home visits. We easily whiled away 2 hours chatting with Marla and Karen about baby J, who joined us when her nap was through. We covered everything from the new info on Z to J's eating and sleeping habits to the various and sundry plans I have simmering for future family planning. Again, lovely, like chatting with old friends who just want to hear everything about you.

"So," said Karen at one point. "You mentioned last visit that you had been hoping to get some books for J that were focused on an African-American perspective."

"Yes!" I went scrambling through the condo to grab the various books that we've collected, mostly through gifts, that are full of brown baby faces. "Here's Whose Knees are These, Whose toes are those, Please Baby Please, Let's Count Baby, Beautiful Brown Eyes, and Blueberry Girl."

We spent some time thumbing through the books with our guests. I have to admit, I'm pretty fond of our little collection. While I was conscious of the (overwhelmingly white) racial images in storybooks and children's literature before we met our daughter I am doubly aware of them now. We have a couple shelves full of books for her, blessed as we are with literary friends who send them by the boatload. Lots of kids' books like Good Night Moon, the Dr. Seuss books, and other newer classics like the I Love You Book either use animals or multi-colored rainbow people whose ethnicity is non-specific. But many of the books I loved growing up feature distinctly white heroines. That's not all that odd - most of them are written by white people.

Every child is entitled to have items at home that are made for and by people of his race.

This item on the TAC Bill of Rights was extremely intimidating to me at first. When I read through the list the first time this was one item that I drew a blank on when I tried to brainstorm a strategy. But, I was thinking mostly about obvious cultural artifacts back then, before there was an actual brown baby in my life. The things that came to mind for me were items like artwork, music, and clothes. How will I know what to pick? I thought. What to pay? I don't want to feel like a giant phony, filling my house with art by and for black people, when I'm not black. I felt especially sensitive to the white tendency to appropriate items and practices from other ethnic groups cultural lives and turn it to our own purposes. I didn't want to do that, or to be perceived that way. I tried to imagine one of our black friends coming over to find our condo made over with black images and artwork everywhere. Awkward.

I was forgetting the obvious. The reason to have items in the home, most of the items we have in the home anyway, is in order to use them. And what do we use the most? Things like hair and skin care products, clothes, and if you are a baby or child toys and books. (If you are an adult maybe books as well!) One of the reason that my child is entitled to have these items in her home that are made by and for people of her ethnicity is that they will work better for her than items made by and for people of my ethnicity, right? Oh yeah, right.

So, right now, we are concentrating on books and toys. Most (with the exception of Blueberry Girl and Beautiful Brown Eyes) of the books that I pulled for Karen and Marla are written by black authors and illustrators for black and brown children. There isn't anything especially remarkable about them except that the pictures inside are of brown babies counting, finding knees and toes, etc. But I don't think we could overestimate the importance of finding engaging reading materials for our daughter that is written for her - board books and story books and eventually literature that she can read and find herself in.

So, the books part is easy and fun. But what about other stuff? Other items? Some things - hair products for example- will come naturally, because I want what works best for baby J. Others, like artwork and home decor, is a little more difficult.

There is a fine line, I think, between creating an environment that respectfully supports my child's racial identity and appropriating something that doesn't belong to me. I am not sure, just yet, where that line is. I know that anything we buy especially for baby J won't cross it. When it comes to things we buy for our family it gets a little fuzzier and will require me to feel things out a little bit.

I looked around our house and took inventory of what we have on our walls. If I don't count pictures of Andrew and I or of J, we still have several pieces of art that contain images of people in them. Two are wall hangings from Africa - one of a mother and child that K. brought back from Cameroon when he was doing work there, and an image of three gender indeterminate people that our neighbors brought back from Kenya for us this past summer. The painting in our bedroom has two children, both of whom are white. Then there is a more abstract digital painting with a woman's face (lots of women on our walls!) and she is definitely white. Finally I have a wall space that is dedicated to religious art - a couple of icons, a Mary candle, and two small nativity scenes that stay up year round. I have two more nativities that come out at Christmas time. All of these except for one reflect white featured people - one of the permanent nativities is from New Mexico and the figures are Latino in appearance.

I think there is some room for growth there. I want that growth to be natural, however. Hopefully our home always reflects who we are as a family. I am sure this is true in intentional and unintentional ways - remembering the Montessori principle of the unspoken lesson. As baby J grows, and we grow as parents with her, we should remain mindful of what unspoken lessons about the value of her racial identity within our family our home is teaching her.

This item on the TAC bill of rights is something small but very important, I think. I take for granted, as a white person, how many of the items that surround me are made just for me. My digital camera will never ask me if someone blinked after taking a picture when everyone's eyes are open, as happens to Andrew's Vietnamese classmate and her family. If our webcam had face tracking technology it would follow my face just fine. No one ever gave my mother a "classic" children's book with no white faces in it. The soaps, shampoos, and lotions in most supermarkets and grocery stores are made for hair and skin just like mine. And much of the art and religious imagery I might be drawn to contains images of people who look, well, like me. This is not an experience I can replicate for baby J. But I can work to make sure that she, too, grows up surrounded by and with access to items that are made by and for people who look like her. It might not always be what feels natural to me, and it will take research and effort. But it can be done - and it is her right to have this experience.

Monday, February 1, 2010

She's never loved baths...

...but our girl did a pretty good job on her baptism day!

I have a few posts in the works that aren't fully cooked yet, so I'll share some pictures from baby J's baptism to keep things moving 'round here.
Making it official.

Those dangerous waters! We went full-on naked baby baptism, and it was amazing.

With her godfather, Stephen.

Here we have classic baby J. She has her opinions.

We can be a tough lot to corral for photographs

Ah, there we go. Beautiful, wonderful day. ♥

All photos by Robin Dupuy, our friend and a gentleman.