Humor me, for a moment. Let’s imagine we have run into each other at, say, a PLNU Homecoming event. We talk about our post-college lives, and then we pull out photos of the kids. It would not take you long to notice that my children don’t look anything alike.
Benjamin is four years strong, with sandy blond hair that will one day turn brown, crystal blue eyes that catch the attention of strangers, rosy cheeks, and pale skin. His grin is marked at the corners with tiny creases that give his squarely shaped face an impish look. He is my Kid Sunshine.
Sadie is a year old. Her golden skin browns easily—she’s almost a different shade when I pull her from the sandbox on a shiny day. Her eyes are so dark that the light reflecting off them appears to twinkle. Bright Eyes is what I call her. Nearly black hair curls gently around her narrow face, a face that spends much of its time wrapped around her toothy smile.
While my son could pass for kin, my daughter most certainly could not. See, I have come to my children by way of open adoption. My husband and I adopted them both at birth, and we maintain relationships with their birth parents and other members of their biological families. In earlier eras of adoption, birth families usually did not have a choice about whether or not they would remain in contact; almost all adoptions were closed. Today, birth families often have the option to stay involved—whether through occasional letters or more extensive contact, as in our case. (Of course in some situations where parental rights are terminated due to abuse, neglect, or other unfortunate circumstances, open adoption may not be possible or desirable.) For us, open adoption gives my kids the chance to grow up knowing from where they came and from whom.
As I continue to share our story, you will hear me speak very highly of open adoption, but this does not mean it is easy. Human beings are messy. Unplanned pregnancies are messy. Some birth parents have strained relationships with those to whom they should be closest. Sometimes mental illness, substance abuse, adultery, or conflicting cultural expectations are in the background. At the very least, a birth mother is wrestling with the enormous decision to part with her child, in addition to her struggle with whatever situation it is that prevents her from parenting.
But here is the truth undergirding all of the messiness: great things, beautiful things, things that take the fractured shards of lives and cement them back together so that redemption dances off their thousand facets—these things are never easy. Goodness me, though, how incredibly worthy they are of our humble participation.
Our journey began with a failed adoption. We met a young woman who trusted us with ease. She was married but had a limited support structure, a boy toddler, and a tale of infidelity. It was risky. We said yes to her, and two months later found ourselves at her side during labor. I held one of her legs. My husband cut the umbilical cord for baby boy. And I stayed by her side for three days at the hospital being her support and snuggling this precious new life.
On the day we were to sign papers and walk out the door with sweet baby boy, one of the other adults in the story interfered. He had the right to. His motives were suspect, but it was his right. We, exhausted and too emotional to see clearly, walked away. After 10 days of recuperating physically and emotionally, we were informed by our adoption agency that another woman was interested in us. Our profile was in her hands, and she persisted despite being told previously that we were unavailable, already having been matched to another mother.
“OK,” I said, sighing deeply. We were too fatigued and wary to feel much excitement.
The cold descended; the snow fell. This baby, another boy, was due in about a month. “Amma” and “James” lived four hours away, so we stopped in to meet them on our way to spend Christmas with my husband’s family. We discovered that we share a love of the outdoors and historic architecture. We all come from good homes and have siblings. We found common ground in our distrust of mainstream media, our independent personalities, and our desire to resist consumerism and live simply.
Christmas came and went, and a downpour of emails began. They had so many questions for us. Deep, reflective questions that took a long time to answer. And every question I answered was followed up with more questions. I was drowning. I was tired of explaining myself, of talking so much. I became irritable and insensitive—it was hard to see past my own needs.
For me, this exchange was one of the most challenging parts of establishing an open adoption. Our experience was unique to the personalities of Amma and James—both are cautious people, thoughtful, and comforted by detailed research. Of course they wanted to know us as best as they could in that month leading up to Benjamin’s birth. But while I am a pretty transparent person, I like to open up on my terms. Open adoption strips away any sense of control an adoptive parent might imagine she has. Most of us, including myself, are not comfortable riding in the passenger’s seat of life-altering events.
And then he was born. Glorious little pale face with shocking blue eyes and full lips and a bright stork bite on his forehead that took nearly two years to fade beyond notice. He was born, and we were called to come meet him.
Fluorescent lights and cafeteria food, uncomfortable chairs and waiting: the hospital can be another daunting place for adoptive parents. We dance awkwardly around relatives who show up to greet the newborn. There are never enough chairs, and the room can get crowded at times. Often, at least one person present is not in support of the adoption plan. Adoptive parents wait and assist in a sort of sleepless limbo. And yet this new mother, well, she has it hardest—all the love for this baby whose life she chose to bring forth is engulfing her.
It is summer, and we are back east, standing in the dappled shade of giant trees on an acre of country land where Amma recently made her home. A couple of tables are lined up, covered with vintage floral tablecloths and a potluck selection of lunch food. Ten children run, crawl, or sit on blankets as the adults who accompanied them catch up on topics like health and hunting cabins and adjusting to life with another newborn.
This is Benjamin’s birth mother’s house, and these are his birth father’s relatives. These are my son’s people, even as much as my husband and I are.
The cousins play in the old peeling barn, and a photograph is taken of them all in the doorway. We—my husband and the aunties, the grandparents, the family friends—want to remember this day. We want the cousins to know each other. And Grandma and Grandpa need a photo of all their grandkids for the wall.
This is how we “do” open adoption. Outside of the distance (we lived on the East Coast when Benjamin was born and have since returned to my hometown in Southern California), our relationship with his extended family looks pretty much like any family. We make annual visits and stay with his grandparents. When Amma comes to visit, she stays at our house. Aunties have stopped in while traveling to see friends in the west. There are letters and phone calls, Facebook updates, photos and Skype dates, and a family blog.
Grace is another name for the restoration these families have experienced through openness. Four and a half years into this, Amma tells me how much she appreciates the way we are parenting Benjamin. She sends him thoughtful handmade gifts, and he spontaneously calls her on the phone from time to time. When she comes to visit, she and Benjamin go on adventures, just the two of them. Her journey has by no means been easy, and she once told me that other significant dates in addition to his birthday are hard: the anniversary of the day she found out she was pregnant and the date three days after he was born when she helped me buckle him into his car seat and we drove off into a dark and snowy night.
But the beauty is this: our relationship with our children’s biological families is just that—a relationship. They are now extended family.
In earlier eras, young, unwed mothers were sent away to give birth in isolation. Often they never saw their babies and were sent home to pretend that nothing had happened. With open adoption, there is no hiding, no shame. There are no dark questions. There is no mystery. And this, we now know, is healthy for everyone. It is empowering for the mother who chooses adoption for her child. It is reassuring for the child who has been adopted, who is secure in the knowledge that there was nothing but love and the desire to give him the best life possible given the circumstances surrounding his birth. It is deeply humbling for the adoptive parents when they realize that the desire to grow their family has allowed them to take part in a profound healing process that extends far beyond their own needs.
The day came when we decided to adopt again. Having been through it already, the process was no longer intimidating. But the thing was, we knew we had something special with Amma and James and their families. Questions swelled in my heart: what if this new baby would not come with involved extended family? What if this child would forever feel a hollowness from the lack of family connection especially when juxtaposed with Benjamin’s abundance? Of course we would get through this, I believed. Of course we would point all our child’s pain to the cross, and we would beg God together to be our all, our child’s all, in the midst of such circumstances. My mama-heart cried out on behalf of the child we had yet to meet, and God’s restorative hand showed up in Sadie’s story through grandparents.
Grandparents often receive a faint mention, at best, in adoption stories. They did not give birth, choose an adoptive couple, or decide, themselves, to adopt. They may or may not have been consulted. At times, a birth mother may not even tell her parents, or those of her boyfriend, that she is pregnant. The grandparents might, in fact, be awful parents themselves; they may be young or neglectful or immature. They may just be out of the picture. Or, grandparents can be another conduit of grace in the adopted child’s life.
Sadie carries with her a complicated back-story. The discord meant that one set of grandparents chose not to be involved, and the other set, who desperately wanted to know her, was excluded. As we prepared to welcome her into our family, Benjamin’s biological grandparents surprised us—both sets of grandparents offered to include Sadie as their grandchild. One grandmother said this: by adopting her grandson, we became, in a manner of speaking, her adopted children. Any other children we should have, even by adoption, would in turn be her grandchildren by adoption.
Oh, we have had grace lavished on us indeed.
And if that were not enough, more healing was to come:
The sun had dismissed herself from the sky by the time they arrived. They came in cautiously and handed us presents as I pressed my 3-month-old daughter into their arms. They cradled her, then sat down on the couch and wept. These were my daughter’s abuelitos, and they were meeting her for the first time.
“We thought we would never see her again, you know?” her abuelito shared, wiping his eyes.
See, some time had passed since Sadie’s birth, and we decided to write a letter to the grandparents who had been excluded. We said, please, we want you to be her abuelitos. We want you to come and hold her. Please, be welcome in our home, in her life. Within 24 hours of receiving the letter, they were at our door, and we were privileged to be part of this precious, redemptive moment.
Sadie now gets to spend time with them at their house, where she is absolutely adored. She will grow up knowing her birth father, her cousins, and the language and culture of her heritage.
It is too beautiful.
At one time, we became these families’ answer to prayer. And now we turn and look to them as an answer to our prayer. That the children who come into our family piecemeal—with different ancestors and DNA, with varied color and features—could be treated by all their family members as blood. That no one child would receive less attention because one biological family situation does not equal another—this is an answer to the yearning of a mother’s heart.
Sometimes people express awe when they hear our story. They wonder how my husband and I could open our hearts to so many who were not initially part of our family. I can only say that I am humbled by this opportunity to be part of people’s healing and restoration. It is a gift for which I never asked; in fact, it is greater and richer than anything I could have imagined.
By Jessica (Gerardy) Petrencsik (96)