Parenting Lesson 101: Raise the Best Kids You Can

Parenting Lesson 101: Raise the Best Kids You Can

My friend and personal trainer, Miles Beccia, is an adoptive father. He and his former wife adopted two children from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They are excellent students and seem to be thriving, in spite of the divorce. Most recently, Miles and his current partner, Brittany, welcomed a new baby into the family. As Miles tells it, the older children seem to be adapting well to having a new little sister.

My husband and I were talking with Miles today about the challenges of raising a child in today’s world. Though my question that sparked the conversation was pointed and specific – “How will you handle having ‘the talk’ with your kids, particularly your son, about how to behave around the police?” – Miles’ answer taught me a lesson I forgot, perhaps because I’m not parenting. It’s not about raising a black child in a white family/community/city, or raising black kids in an culture where a disproportionate number of people of color are dying at the hands of cops. It’s about raising the best kids you can at this moment, and preparing them for all of what life may bring their way, good or bad.

Miles has a lovely, very positive outlook on life, and he appears to do everything he can to instill that in his children. To that end, he’s teaching them to respect police officers and that more of them are good than are bad. He’s also teaching them to “turn the other cheek,” but only insofar as they are not being systematically abused. If someone is attacking them with the intent to harm them, they have full permission to fight back. A delicate line, to be certain, but one I think he approaches with grace. He explained to his son and daughter that bullies and name-callers probably don’t have loving families or kind parents or safe homes where they can be comfortable; more than likely they act out because it’s what they’ve learned to do as a defense mechanism, not because they are innately mean. My husband said, on hearing that, “Can’t imagine how different my life would have been if I’d heard that while I was growing up.”

I don’t know – have never asked – what Miles and his ex-wife know about their children’s birth families, whether they know who the birthmoms are or still have any contact. Partly, it’s just my way not to be nosy. I would have made a terrible investigative journalist, as I generally avoid asking prying questions unless I know a person really well or they seem to be giving me the green light to ask. I’m sure Miles would answer any questions I have, and perhaps I will ask them someday, if they come up organically in a conversation.

Adoption is an interesting way of making a family – but like all families, every family created through adoption is different. Certainly there will be some overlap, in terms of the kinds of issues that arise with adoption. Yet, families built through international adoptions will face challenges and, perhaps, obstacles that those involved in domestic adoptions don’t typically experience. In the end, however, families are just families. Some are better adjusted than others; some are happier; some are more secretive. And yet, most of them are doing the best they can, even if their attempts fall far short of what the rest of us would judge to be the mark. Parenting is not an easy gig – my hat is off to my son’s parents, Kathy and Bruce; to Miles; to my sister, Corina (tomorrow, March 23, would have been her 49th birthday); and to all the parents who go out of their way to make sure their children are equipped to grow into the best adults they can be.

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Laura Orsini is an author who works with other authors to help them make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

I was born a researcher – or maybe I was just a good student. My dad started taking me to the library by the time I was 6, and I wrote my first research paper on the Great White Shark in second grade. I’m not sure where it came from, but we had reams of that green and white striped continuous-feed computer paper, which I used to make a stuffed Great White Shark that accompanied the paper. My next paper was on Vermont, including details about Montpelier and how maple syrup is made. Point is, by high school, writing was like breathing and research was second nature to me. No wonder my first real job was as a research librarian at The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

I’m not sure at what point the Spence-Chapin Agency began offering fully open adoption as an option – meaning that both the adoptive parents and the birthparents had full contact information for each other, and some sort of agreement for ongoing contact. The agency would have no role in facilitating the continuation of the relationship, once the adoption papers were signed. Optional counseling would, of course, still be available, should either party choose to pursue it. When I asked about open adoption in 1994, I was told, “We don’t really do that at Spence-Chapin.” Interestingly, that was enough for me at the time, and I moved on without pursuing it any further. Perhaps I knew that if I waited long enough, we’d get there in our adoption.

The thing that’s always perplexed me, though, even way back when I was still pregnant with Eric, was the notion that in 1994 – more or less the dawn of the Information Age – any adoptive parent could believe, even for a moment, that a fully closed adoption was still possible. I’d seen the TV shows. Fictional private investigators could find a person based on a single word scribbled on a matchbook cover. And I once heard of a real-life game (I was unable find details tonight on the interwebs after a comprehensive 10-minute search) wherein a person was assigned the task of finding a stranger in New York City simply by asking random people if they knew that person. On average, it took contestants just 6 hours to locate the person in question.

Closed adoptions? Pshaw – the agencies and attorneys were just conning these prospective parents into believing their adoptions would be closed. If they could string the parents-to-be along under this misapprehension, an adoption transaction would likely transpire – what happened after the papers were signed wasn’t really their concern.

As for me, Nancy Drew Jr., I was stashing away details that Kathy and Bruce revealed to me in the back of my mind for later review and use in tracking them down, if need be. Not to steal Eric away – just to find out who and where these people were. After all, they would be raising my son.

Case in point: Eric’s family lived less than an hour away from New York City by train, in a New Jersey township. Throwaway facts until you realize that there are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each of which falls into one of five types: 254 boroughs, 241 townships, 52 cities, 15 towns, and 3 villages. So now I’ve narrowed down the place to a township within roughly 30 miles of Manhattan. Then, at one point during a pre-adoption visit, Kathy revealed that their church had recently had a new roof installed on it. Bingo! A New Jersey township within 30 miles of NYC whose Catholic church had a new roof – we were in business. I was a trained researcher. How hard could it be to find this church and surreptitiously inquire about the family who’d recently adopted a baby boy born in Hoboken?

As it turns out, I would not need any of this information, as the single detail I would need – their last name – fell, almost literally, into my lap. What began as a “closed adoption” would soon enough become open. Hence my entire premise: regardless of what the adoptive family is promised, in terms of privacy and security, any domestic birthmother with enough will power, information collection savvy, and research tools (now readily available at her fingertips) could probably discover the identity of her adoptive family. And if a birthmom could pony up the bucks for a private investigator? All bets would be off.

Please understand, I am not advocating for birthmothers to go sneaking around to find their kids. A direct approach is almost always a better option. But sometimes, less adequately counseled adoptive parents mean well while the baby is still unborn – yet, once he or she is delivered and the papers are signed, they let their fear take over and they run or hide, regardless of the plans for openness they promised, pre-birth. If such a breach of contract were to occur, should the birthmother just slink away, without any recourse? No – she most certainly should not. And what about the birthmom who didn’t know she really would prefer an open adoption? Should she be shut out because the window for agreeing to something she didn’t know would be important to her has now closed? Again, I say no.

Here’s the thing: like it or not, in the internet age, a guarantee of privacy is a thing of the past. Even people who avoid virtual exposure at all costs can be found. A year or so ago, I found online a copy of the original deed to my parents’ house – the one where I grew up – with my dad’s signature and all. He died in 2005 – and he dabbled with the internet for perhaps 9 months, back in the early days of AOL. He most certainly did not knowingly put that kind of information in a public place where people like me could stumble across it. It’s just the way life is in this technology age.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the search process would be quite as easy for international birthmoms – which seems to be why so many couples find international adoption such an enticing option. In my opinion, however, whatever adoptive parents “gain” by avoiding the birthparent interaction is nothing compared to what their children lose when there is no information available about their bio parents, from medical history to cultural identity to the origin of distinctive personality traits. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the things adoptive kids long for most is a sense of who they are. Yet much of that so often is lost with an international adoption.

According to the bulk of the literature I’m reading online these days about the adoption process, closed domestic adoptions seem to be mostly a thing of the past and are highly discouraged. Thank god! Of course, I met a woman recently who told me she “just didn’t think she’d want any connection” to the birthfamily – something about not wanting them “meddling” and fearing the thought of “being in constant competition” with them. Thankfully, she’s not an adoptive mother – and if she were, I’d hope she’d receive plenty of counseling before being greenlighted to enter into this most unique way of making a family.

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Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

Caricature of an Adoptive Mom

A birthmom friend of mine, Lynn Franklin, wrote a book about her adoption story, titled May the Circle Be Unbroken: An Intimate Journey into the Heart of Adoption. In the book, she juxtaposed her adoption experience with the changes that had taken place in adoption from the time she placed through the time she wrote the book in 1998. I have a story in that book, and I helped Lynn with the transcriptions of her interviews of people on all sides of the adoption triad, as well as adoption professionals. One story, in particular, will haunt me forever. In quickly flipping through the book now, I do not see this particular story. But I’ll never forget transcribing the words.

The interviewee was a woman – an adoptive mother who, with her husband, had ultimately chosen international adoption. They first opted for a traditional adoption through the same agency I used, Spence-Chapin. Founded in 1910, the agency is one of the oldest and most reputable in the country. I was referred to them by a colleague who had adopted through them.

As a birthmother who used only Spence-Chapin’s birthmother services, I can simply guess what might have occurred on the adoptive parent side, in terms of counseling and recommendations. One thing that was strongly encouraged of prospective adoptive parents (I don’t believe it was mandatory) was meeting a birthmother so they could ask questions and get some sense of what adoption was like through her lens. I volunteered to be one of the birthparents with whom prospective adoptive parents could speak. The idea was to give prospective parents a glimpse into the life of the birthmother, from why she might choose adoption to the kind of contact she might desire after the adoption was complete.

I had asked about open adoption early in our process and was told something along the lines of, “We don’t really do that.” Spence was traditional through and through, and though open adoption had started to pick up support on the West Coast in the early ’90s, Spence was very slow to come around to embracing it. They were cool with semi-open adoption, though, which meant limited contact between the birth families and adoptive families, facilitated by the agency. So at this point, a prospective birthmother could choose between a [still] closed or semi-open adoption.

Evidently, all of this counseling and meeting of birthmothers was too much for this couple Lynn had interviewed. I still recall the woman’s words from all those years ago. “There was just too much namby-pamby handholding at this agency. We just wanted to get it done.” This was the definition of a power couple: he was a Wall Street investment banker and she was a corporate lawyer. They were used to getting what they wanted when they wanted it. And they wanted a baby now. Not tomorrow. Not in a month or two. TODAY. And they were willing to do whatever it would take to get this baby. She stopped just short of saying they were willing to pay whatever it cost to buy this baby.

So they left Spence-Chapin by the wayside and opted instead for a private international adoption. Remember my post about parents returning “damaged” babies to agencies in Eastern Europe? This couple was headed down that same path. I was terrified for whichever child they might have adopted, because anything short of perfection was not about to be tolerated. And what were the chances that their adoption attorney might have found a healthy, highly intelligent, Type A baby just waiting for them to come along and scoop him up?

If I hadn’t personally known Lynn and heard this recording for myself, I would have sworn the interview was a clip from a bad Lifetime movie script. My stomach was in knots just listening to this woman describe her expectations for her new child and the family they would build. People are people – whether they adopt or give birth to their children. Some are great at parenting; others have no business doing it. I have no idea how that adoption turned out – and I hope for the best for the kid who eventually made his home with this couple. But even after all these years, I still fear for how things might have gone.

You Can’t Return a Baby Like He’s a Pair of Shoes!

You Can’t Return a Baby Like He’s a Pair of Shoes!

There are at least two sides to every story – and as I flip through the search engine results today for “60 Minutes Russian babies returned to adoption agencies 1995-1996,” I can see there was probably more to the story than I remember. But shortly after my son was born, one of the TV news magazine shows – my guess is that it would have been 60 Minutes because that’s the one my dad watched – aired a program about a couple who was returning their adopted baby to a Russian agency because he was sick. I couldn’t find a link or any information about that show, specifically, but if memory serves, a lot of sick babies were being placed for adoption at the time, presumably much of the illness fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

The ’90s were a heyday for Americans looking for a low bar to international adoption, as Russia relaxed its laws allowing foreigners to adopt infants. This is admittedly an oversimplification of things, but couples who think they will have an “easier” time with an international adoption because there’s no pesky birthmother to deal with frequently underestimate all the other challenges that come with adopting overseas. Such has been the case for many Americans who have adopted eastern European children from the early ’90s through today.

At the time I saw the TV report, I was incensed. I was visiting my folks, whom I had yet to tell about their grandson, when this story aired. My poor father had no idea why I was so angry. “Oh, come on. You can’t just return a baby like he’s a pair of shoes!” I remember screaming at him. But sometimes you can. And sometimes, it might be the more humane option.

One 2012 Reuters story I came across in my research reports:

“Not every international adoption ends happily,” the office of Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, said in a statement. “According to official data only, 19 Russian children died at the hands of U.S. citizens over the last 10 years.”

Now the other side of that story is that many of these children have had severe physical and emotional challenges, up to and including brain damage, that would be difficult for any parent to handle. But what would have happened if that baby had been the biological child of these parents? If they’d borne a son or daughter with a heart defect, cognitive issues, or developmental disorders? To whom would they have returned that baby? Murder isn’t really the solution, is it? So obviously there are screening issues with some of these prospective foreign parents. It’s probably easy to look the other way about red flags when enough money is involved. However a friend reminds me, sadly, that bio parents also occasionally kill their children. Susan Smith may be one of the most infamous, but there are, unfortunately, too many others.

Back to the money for a moment, though. Remember how I mentioned in a prior post that the baby is really no more than a commodity when it comes to an adoption contract? Well, overseas, babies go for big bucks. An August 2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reports: [C]orruption, U.S. and Russian officials maintain, has led to increased costs for prospective parents, who pay up to $30,000, plus travel costs and cash “donations,” to adopt a Russian child. And according to The New York Times, some Russian “gypsies” want cars in addition to cash for the children they sell to Americans.

When it comes down to it, adoption can be a pretty creepy (i.e., peculiar) institution. It reminds me a little of assisted suicide – in that you have to be absolutely certain all parties involved are completely on board, that no one is being coerced. Of course suicide is not reversible – and the whole point of this post is that adoption is. What I cannot imagine is taking a baby from a mother – or taking a life – simply for one’s own gain. Yet the human brain is facile at concocting all kinds of rationalizations for why we do things. The baby will be better off with me. Aunt Jane’s not in pain anymore. But how are we ever certain? I don’t think we are.

When it comes to adoption, we owe the birthmother and the child our very best effort at making damn sure that adoption is the best decision, and that the mother is making that decision freely. That means counseling and difficult conversations and coming to terms with aspects of ourselves that we may prefer to keep hidden. Unfortunately, counseling – particularly for the prospective birthmother – quite often gets short shrift in “private” adoptions, those not facilitated by an agency or sanctioned organization. And in the case of minor children becoming pregnant, their parents’ desires often supersede their own. Which makes it legal, but not necessarily right.

We also need to keep in mind that it’s not just foreign adoptions that go awry. In a post from a November 2009 U.S. edition of The Guardian, one brave British mom details her decision to re-place her adopted son with a new family because she felt she was failing him as a mother. Strangely, my anger toward her is greatly diminished, compared to how I felt all those years ago watching that TV show about a similar situation. The story about this mom’s struggle includes some fascinating statistics:

The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) estimates that one in five adoptions break down, although children who are “handed back” are usually older. The younger the child, the lower the chance of the placement breaking down. A study by the Maudsley Hospital in London found a breakdown rate of 8% after one year and 29% six years later. On average, adoptions that broke down did so 34 months after placement.

Despite the negative publicity that overseas adoption has attracted in recent years, there is no evidence that they are more likely to break down than domestic placements. Many studies have concluded that international adoption has, for the most part, been very successful, including for children who have spent their early years in institutions.

And even as I’ve now had some time to contemplate this a bit further, I find myself going back to Sharon Roszia’s explanation that adoption is an extension of infertility. If you decide to do it, you have to go into it all in. That precious baby you so longed for is yours now. Every parent wants a perfect child – perfectly healthy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly intelligent. What we get are tiny people – all of whom are flawed in some way. Some of those flaws are small, relatively easy to correct or mitigate. Some are substantial, and may change their families’ lives forever in ways unexpected. But those are the dice we roll when we enter the parenthood game. Returning an imperfect baby should be the second-to-last bad option.

Sources:

http://old.post-gazette.com/headlines/20000813newrules3.asp

http://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/24/magazine/the-romanian-baby-bazaar.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/23/us/when-children-adopted-abroad-come-with-too-many-troubles.html

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-usa-adoption/russia-signs-tougher-adoption-deal-with-u-s-idUSBRE86T15320120730

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/nov/21/adoption-anita-tedaldi