The New York Times Modern Love podcast this week was an essay written by Amy Seek which recounts her experience as a birthmother in an open adoption. I love the Modern Love column and of course, when I saw the topic of the column on my phone, I immediately read it and then read it again and again. It’s a beautiful, honest and brave piece but also gut wrenching. It would have been a difficult read even if I weren’t in the midst of hoping to adopt, but from my current vantage point, it stirred up so many difficult thoughts and emotions. After reading the Modern Love piece, I immediately bought the author’s memoir “God and Jetfire” and devoured the book this weekend. It’s a hard book read, but everyone involved in adoption—birthparents, adoptive parents, adoptive children–should read this book. Amy Seek was a 23 year old college student when she found out she was pregnant. She was in a good relationship with her boyfriend at the time but they were young and not ready to be parents, so they make the difficult decision to place their child for adoption, and without knowing much about open adoption until learning about it from a social worker, they chose this path for themselves and their child and ultimately placed their son with a adoptive couple, she calls them Paula and Eric in the book and Holly in the essay. From one perspective their story actually seems the “model” open adoption scenario. Amy and her boyfriend actively sought out and chose their child’s adoptive parents. They approached their decision rationally and thoughtfully. The adoptive parents fully embraced the open adoption philosophy. Amy visits with her son and his family regularly. Both extended families are involved. There are no secrets about the adoption and her son now a teenager seems by all accounts well-adapted and happy. Isn’t this what the “ideal” open adoption is supposed to be like? As an adoptive parent isn’t this what I’m supposed to be striving for? And yet, while the picture seems so perfect and right, it’s clear that even a “good” open adoption, like any adoption, is complicated and emotional, and there are losses on all sides and that even with acceptance and time moving on, the effects last a lifetime. Amy describes her son’s adoption as both her “greatest accomplishment and deepest regret,” and reading both the Modern Love piece and her book, her grief and loss echoes on every page. It’s a heartbreaking story to read and I found myself crying for her. Even now, not yet an adoptive parent but somewhere in between, I am acutely aware of the losses involved in open adoption, for all of us, and especially for the birthmother. I think about it all the time. I understand and feel that pain knowing that what is my deepest hope and desire means a loss for someone else. I appreciate that filling the hole in my heart through adoption may well mean creating a hole in someone else’s heart. I don’t take this for granted. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the relationship between Amy and the adoptive mother, Paula. There is a scene around the time of her son’s birth, when Amy is wrestling with her decision, that describes this tension so well:
One afternoon we sat together on my futon and cried, knowing we were crying for our own exclusive concerns, and out of compassion for each other. We were tragically enmeshed; each the source of the other’s pain, each the threshold of the other’s future. We stood like tired boxers, clinging to each other to stop the beating. I could end her suffering, some of it, but only at my own expense. She was the only one who could see the magnitude of what was happening. She wasn’t telling me it was somehow good for me. She knew what was at stake; she was weighing it every moment. We were two pieces in a puzzle that were negotiating the exact shape of the cut that would at once connect and divide us. We were pressing at each other through a curtain to establish the precise profile of our grief.
Paula and husband really do everything you could expect of adoptive parents, fully welcoming Amy and her family into their extended family, going through great efforts to support the relationship. This is true also for birthfather with whom they also have a close relationship. And time and time again, Seek makes it clear her gratitude and enormous respect for them, even despite her own regrets and sadness. And she too feels how difficult this is on Paula too and the level of effort that it takes from the parents to not just maintain an openness but to really nurture it. There is a delicate dance between the two mothers, both guarding some parts of themselves and not fully revealing the depths of their emotions, all for the love and betterment of their child. That, to me, is truly what motherhood is all about. In the essay, Amy writes with appreciation of Paula, not just for what she has given her son, but for the sacrifices she makes for Amy.
… an open process forces an adoptive parent to confront the pain that adoption is built on. And openness for (Paula) does not mean merely letting the birth mother know about her child; it means cultivating a real love between birth parents and child. This requires exceptional commitment, which may be why some open adoptions become closed in the end. I LOVE (Paula) for sharing such things with me, sentiments that show she is devoted to our relationship — and not because it is easy for her.
There are many books on adoption but few from a birthmother’s perspective and I am grateful to Seek for sharing her story. Despite how difficult it was to read this book and see this side, still, I came away with a better appreciation of and more confident about open adoption. The fact that an adoption is open does not mean it’s an easy path and choosing an open adoption brings its own risks and vulnerabilities, but still I never doubted that Seek felt she made the right decision in choosing an open adoption over one that is closed. I think some part of me wanted this book to be simpler. I truly want to understand what adoption feels like for a birthmother. But I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the layers of emotion and ambiguity. A part of me wanted some affirmation that the promise of open adoption as being better for everyone—the child, adoptive parents and birthparents too—really is true and I wanted to know whether it’s true in the long run, over a lifetime. As I read Seek’s book and essay, I wondered what her son, who’s now a teenager, thinks of the book and what she writes. I hope he will read her story and see how much she loves him. I think what I appreciated most from the column and her book was the complicated and raw nature of the adoption experience for everyone involved. And also how that experience evolves over time, in ways that you can’t predict or know in advance. Adoption doesn’t end when the papers are signed. It’s not a singular event or decision. The ripples echo throughout life, throughout all the lives of people touched by it. Being complicated and challenging and uncertain does not make it a bad thing, at all. Life is complicated and messy and full of paradoxes and we do the best that we can, to embrace the ambiguities and move forward. In some way we may hope for stories and endings that are neat and tied up with a pretty bow, but so little of life is like that. I hope you have a chance to read this book.