On Openness in Adoption

Presented at Lanark Children's Aid Society, November 25, 2014

In recognition of Adoption Awareness Month, I’ve been asked to speak today along the theme of openness in adoption. Nine months ago my wife Sharon and I adopted a beautiful one year old boy named Dominic – he is now 21 months old and he is an absolute angel. We are so happy!

I will share a little about our adoption story.

Our story begins the day Sharon announced to me that she was ready to be a mom. That was the day I started prematurely greying. 

I’m joking of course. That was the day I went bald.

I admit I was scared of being a parent. I’ve seen it. It happened to my parents. It happened to my siblings. I like peace. I’m an old, tired soul.

But when your wife tells you that she’s going to have a child – whether it’s happening biologically or adoptively – as a husband, what do you do with that? Do I respond out of love or out of fear? (And all else aside, I certainly know better than to stand between a woman and her child!)

So soon we found ourselves on the path to adoption, taking the PRIDE training (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education) – right here in this room actually – at the Children’s Aid Society here in Perth.

Now, the PRIDE training is great, and necessary, but all throughout they have to warn you about every possible worst case scenario. As if I wasn’t scared enough already. I think I was traumatized before I even became a parent. Which is maybe a good thing – get some of the worst trauma out of the way from the start, then the rest seems easier. But they have to prepare potential foster and adoptive families for some of the realities that they might face. They don’t want anyone having any false expectations of parenthood! They know what they’re doing – no false expectations.

The truth is, I have only ever had one expectation of parenthood: that it will take everything I’ve got. And in the end, this has proved true. But there’s also that missing piece about parenthood, the part I couldn’t have foreseen: that it fills me with infinitely more. That’s what love does. It takes everything you’ve got and fills you with infinitely more.

Walking home one night from one of the PRIDE training sessions, I remember talking to Sharon about what I want, what I hope for, in our adoption. I know you can’t custom order your adoption, you can’t always get everything you want, but I felt very deeply that it was important to me personally to adopt a child whose birth mother wanted her child to be adopted.

I know that there are circumstances when a child must be taken from their parents against the parents’ wishes. I understand that sometimes this is necessary. But if at all possible, I expressed to Sharon how I hoped that we would adopt a child whose mother wants him to be with us. Instead of there being a mother out there forever resenting us, she would be out there always sharing in our happiness.

In the end, that’s exactly what we got. I don’t know how these things happen but they do!

Shortly before Dominic was placed in our home, we had the opportunity to meet his birth mother. It was a gift, a privilege. We weren’t required to meet her – she had requested to meet us but it was our choice. For us, the choice was easy.

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to do what she did. Choosing adoption has to be the hardest, most loving and courageous thing a person can do when it’s in the best interests of their child. Life is messy. It takes a courageous person to do what she did. And when I imagine myself into her position, I can feel the pain of it. If I can do something to help ease that pain, I’ll do it!

So we arranged a meeting through Children's Aid and met. She is so lovely, mature, thoughtful, bright! It was such an amazing experience to meet her. She also liked us! By the end of our meeting she said to us, “You know, I was prepared to like whoever they selected as his parents, even if we didn’t have much in common, but you guys are… perfect!

We learned things from each other. Her early memories of Dominic. Our recent experiences with him and just how insanely in love we are. Who looks like who. She actually looks a lot like Sharon. I apparently look like the paternal grandfather. “But much younger of course!!”

Favourite colours. How she had dressed Dominic up as Winnie the Pooh. (This year for Hallowe’en we dressed him as Tigger.) Every detail, every story we share with each other is a gift both ways.

Adoption workers were always saying that “the more people in a child’s life who love them, the better.” And they’re absolutely right, can’t argue with that! The more you’re loved, the richer you are.

Dominic’s foster mom is now his Nana. Another grandparent for him. (Another giver of gifts!) He also gets to see the other foster kids who he spent many months with, and they get to see him. The oldest foster kid, whenever he’s with Dominic, he transforms into this amazing big brother towards Dominic, it’s beautiful to see. They adore each other. Clearly this connectedness doesn’t just benefit Dominic but the other children as well. Children connect very quickly, and having continuity in connections is a big piece of our wellbeing.

While we were still in our PRIDE training, we attended an adoption event in Belleville. There was a speaker there, a therapist working with children in the field of adoption. He drew an analogy from his experience as a gardener. (I’m also a gardener, I love gardening analogies!) He talked about transplantation. You can dig up a flower and plant it in another garden and it is quite capable of living a perfectly healthy life. But the key to transplantation is the roots. If the roots are cut off or badly traumatized, the flower will struggle to take root and grow even if you do everything else right. The most important thing in transplantation – of plants or people – is keeping the roots as intact as possible.

We are privileged that for us this is possible.

It is not always possible. Openness in adoption is not always possible. For any number of reasons. And even our relationship with the birth parents is a structured relationship – it’s not about being best buddies, it’s structured. But that structured relationship is a joy and a privilege.

But it’s also something else. Outside of the interests of me and my wife and the birth parents. First and foremost this is about Dominic.

Just because I adopted him doesn’t make him mine. Just because you give birth to someone doesn’t make that person yours. Every person is sovereign.

Dominic is sovereign. My role as Father is to nurture and protect and support him. My role as Daddy is to give him all the love in the world. His life is his own. His story is his own. His history is his own. And it’s important for all of us to be connected to our histories. For better or worse, they contain the truth of who we are.

I know the cost of being disconnected from my history. Not disconnected from my family in that I have continuity but from so much of my past. I was born a girl, I’m a transsexual. I’ve had an odd life. Lots of loss. Loss of community, loss of connection, loss of identity, loss of belonging. Loss of people who can share a memory with you. Or reignite old memories. Or bring you new memories – stories that you don’t remember. We learn a lot about ourselves from people who have known us. (Wisdom comes from connectedness!)

I want my son to grow up with a maximum of connectedness.

So far, he is the most loved boy in the world. Every single person who has known him has loved him and loves him still. He is the richest person I know.

And I want him to love. As much as he can love. The more he loves, the healthier he’ll be. (This is true for all of us.)

I want him to grow up with love for his birth parents. (And gratitude!) And I don’t want him to ever feel conflicted about that.

I think that anyone who has been adopted must wonder about their birth parents. It’s natural to wonder. And I think that the hardest part must be not knowing. For better or worse, we all just want to know things. The same goes for birth parents – you just want to know that your child is okay, that your child is happy, that your child is loved. You just want to know.

Dominic will never be denied answers to his questions, and I will never give him cause to fear asking. And maybe one day he will want to meet his birth parents. If he does, I want that bridge to be open to him. 

His birth parents aren’t just faces in a photograph, they are real people, good people, building their individual lives while no doubt sending a loving thought his way every single day. I don’t want him to ever feel conflicted about loving them back. In no way does that threaten or lessen his love for me. In no way does love for birth parents betray love for adoptive parents. I am Dominic’s Daddy. Sharon is his Mama. Nothing changes that.

For me, openness is one of the most important things in life. I had to learn that the hard way, through the suffering that comes from secrecy and lies and shame and all that awful stuff that grows in the dark.

I believe in openness, in life and in adoption. To the extent that it is possible. As I said, if openness posed a threat to my family, that’s another question entirely. Luckily for us, this is not the case. But even if one day our openness were to pose a risk… well, I feel like Children’s Aid has got our back. All throughout this process they have only given me cause to trust them. They’ve seen it all, they really do know what they’re doing, and they’ve got my back. I feel secure. And anyway, instead of fearing what could happen down the road I prefer to take life as it comes and cross each bridge as I get to it.

Thinking about openness in adoption, I remember a little girl I knew who had been adopted as a baby. When she was a few years old, she asked her mother not to tell anyone that she was adopted. When the mother shared this with me, I remember feeling very conflicted. First and foremost I believe in honouring a child’s wishes. It’s your life, your story. But if I imagine Dominic coming to me one day and asking that his adoption be secret, I would feel very conflicted. I would want to have a talk with him, find out why, what’s behind it.

There’s a difference between not broadcasting something and keeping something secret. Hiding something, keeping something secret, not talking about something – to me that implies that there’s something to be ashamed of, something to hide, something to not talk about as if there’s anything wrong with it.

I don’t hide my history or the truth about who I am – no secrets, no shame. There’s nothing to hide about me being trans, there’s nothing to hide about how our family came together. They’re just facts. Morally benign.

And anyway, everyone in our family is adopted. I’m not actually adopted, nor is Sharon, but we adopted each other. I adopted her. She adopted me. And we have three pugs, each of which we adopted. And a cat, adopted. We’re one big adoptive family – we all adopted each other!

To me, these are just facts, morally benign. But it’s more than that. It’s truth. And I’m telling you from experience, never fear truth, never hide from truth, never escape truth – that’s a slippery slope!

So yes, I’m a big fan of openness in adoption. What that looks like for my family is different from what it might look like for your family. Every family is different, every situation is unique. Openness in adoption isn’t about following a model. To me, it is the asking of the question: How can this adoption result in a minimum of suffering and a maximum of happiness for everyone involved?

They say that a question properly posed is nine tenths of the answer. That question has certainly made my path clear. I don’t always know where it leads but I always know which direction to take.

And along the way, I’m finding that my old fears about parenthood and adoption are one by one dropping away, revealing themselves as ridiculous. I’m still balding and prematurely greying but no longer out of fear, now it’s just from spending my days matching the energy level of a 21 month old. Well, it’s that plus my genetic destiny. Which, luckily, Dominic doesn’t share. He has beautiful, beautiful hair.