Friends, acquaintances, web surfers and lurkers welcome to the Adoption Blogger Interview Project 2013. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Lisa Cook of Open to Life (and God’s plan for it). We had a great time exchanging questions and responses over the past few weeks. Before we get started don’t forget to check out all the other awesome interviews (including mine!) at Open Adoption Bloggers. Additionally, you can check out the interview post for my group here (I don’t know what this is, but someone told me to post it so there).
The interview that follows is almost entirely verbatim of the conversations that Lisa and I had. I am not very into molding, shaping and engineering how others tell their own stories so the following is “raw”. I have messed with the order of the questions so that is will flow nicely. That being said I have included some of my own reflections at the end which hopefully gives you an idea of how important a project like this can be for opening your eyes to experiences you’ve never had.
What is your occupation?
I used to work for a not-for-profit agency, coordinating various programs for them. I left when Olivia was 3 months old to be home with her. I now stay home with my kids and offer childcare during the school year. In the summer, I work weekends at a local tourist attraction.
What do you feel were to biggest factors in your decision to adopt?
We wanted to have children, and we couldn’t get pregnant. That was the first and driving force, although if I’m being honest, the idea of adoption has always been attractive to me.I had a wonderful childhood and I have amazing parents, but I’ve always been aware that there were kids who were not so blessed. Right out of college, I started working for a not-for-profit organization with a social service department, and I started to see firsthand how true this was. In a perfect world, adoption would be unnecessary. But our world is not perfect, and there are kids who, unfortunately, cannot be raised in their biological families. Domestic infant adoption allows some of those kids to have a consistent and permanent family from birth and still have contact with their biological families. That made sense to me.
Another big factor in our decision to adopt is that we felt called, specifically, to this method of family building. At every step, we felt nudged in this direction. Call that what you will. I call it God’s will. He alone knew and knows exactly what these birth families were and are facing and that they would need to make this decision. He led us to them and them to us, specifically, for a reason. We are just enjoying watching these kids’ little lives play out and trying our very best to be the parents they need us to be
Did you ever think about adopting internationally? If so/no, why/why not?
Actually, when we began to research adoption, we looked at all of the possible avenues. We did go to an orientation at a local international adoption agency. Initially, I was very attracted to this possibility in theory. But after we learned about the specific countries and each one’s particular adoption process, none of them appealed to us as much as the domestic agencies and options that we had also been researching. They seemed (to me) to be more impersonal and detached “baby sources”. I hate that term, but it really felt like we would sign up, complete all of the required paperwork, pay our fees and be rewarded with the baby of the age/sex/health condition of our choice. It felt like shopping and was too impersonal for me.
Domestic adoption, in this time in history, almost always requires some contact and communication with the birth mother and/or birth family. At first, that scared me, but gradually I got used to the idea and realized what a gift this could be to us and to our kids. I always say that the teenage years are turbulent enough without being completely in the dark about where you came from. Our kids see their birth mothers at least a couple of times a year and know who they are. (Well, Olivia knows. Martin is too young to understand what is going on just yet.) We (my husband and I) get to know the birth mothers and birth family too, and we can see certain personality traits in the birth family that help us to understand our kids as they grow and display some of these inherited traits as well.
These kids…they didn’t just materialize out of thin air, and even though we took both kids home from the hospital at birth, they have a history before us. For us, domestic adoption was the most comfortable choice because it allowed us an ongoing connection to this history. But every family/couple is different, and what is right for one family/couple is not necessarily right for another. We have close friends who have adopted two children internationally, and they are very happy with their experience and had reasons for their international journey that did not apply to us. When we talk about adoption with them, they refer to our ongoing relationship with our kids’ birth families and say, “Wow, that must be so hard…I can’t imagine having to deal with all of that.” But I can’t imagine NOT having that experience. Neither experience is right or wrong…they are just different.
Do you think there are many differences between the way you raise your children and parents who don’t adopt? Anything specific?
Some, yes. I think when you are an adoptive parent, you necessarily have to be an intentional parent. Some (not all) people who have biological kids just figure out this parenting thing as they go along.
But those of us who adopt are subjected to a rigorous homestudy process ahead of time, like a big fat job application to be a parent. We are fingerprinted and background checked and interviewed extensively and questioned about our pets’ vaccinations and the location of our fire extinguishers. If we adopt interracially or internationally, we are offered a whole set of classes to help us adjust to our new reality as an interracial family or how to incorporate the child’s heritage into our family traditions. There are so many things we are forced to think about ahead of time. SO. MANY. THINGS. All of this process is bound to lead us to do our own research and start thinking, even before baby comes along, about how we are going to parent this child who did not spring forth from us.
We also know that our kids are going to have to deal with issues and questions growing up that most kids don’t have to think about. Their gifts and talents, height and physical characteristics, medical history and predispositions…these all came from outside of the family in which they will grow up. This is bound to lead, at the very least, to some angst or feeling of disconnect as they grow up and go through those tumultuous teenage years. I intend to learn all I can in the meantime, through research and connection with other adoptive families, so I can help my kids through whatever questions they may someday have.
Are there ways in which your husband’s adoption beliefs differ from your own? What about other family members?
This is a hard one to pin down. The things we believe about adoption…the ways we feel or think…have changed and grown over time. When we started this journey (research/discussion phase), our individual ideas of what would be the ideal match/placement/relationship with birthparents were probably pretty different from each other. Over time, both of us have changed in our individual views and beliefs, and I would say that we are pretty closely aligned, now, in how we think/feel about adoption. We have walked through this journey together, gone to adoption preparation classes together, educated ourselves on various adoption-related issues together, dealt with real-life adoption situations together. We are pretty united on our approach.
Other family members readily embraced our kids as a part of the family, and we are so blessed that we didn’t have to deal with any disharmony over our decision to adopt interracially. I would say that the main issue where we differ is in the relationship with birthparents. Our parents grew up and raised children in an era when adoption, when it happened, was shrouded in mystery. Very little was known about birthparents, and there was absolutely no contact. This makes it hard for family members to really understand our desire to maintain ongoing contact and visits with the kids’ birthparents. Sometimes, aspects of our ongoing contact cause us frustration, and family members don’t understand why we go through the trouble. I think, sometimes, they (the grandparents) also feel just a bit threatened by the presence of birthparents in the kids’ lives…as if they will try to undermine our relationship as the kids’ parents. It is understandable, because most of the adoption stories featured on the news in that generation were negative. Perhaps we need to introduce the grandparents to the many positive open adoption stories in the blog world. Sure, there are people with negative experiences. But that is not the whole picture.
Do you think knowing the birthmother, and having a pretty strong relationship with her, affect your decision to adopt Olivia?
Well, no. Actually, we met Olivia’s birthmother for the first time just two months before she gave birth. We met in the office of the counselor who was working with her, and we were the third couple she had considered. She chose us on the spot, and we didn’t see her in person again until the day Olivia was born. Our relationship with her came later.Olivia’s adoption was done independent of an agency. We had chosen an agency but hadn’t yet signed up when we got this independent referral. At the time, we were unsure that we were prepared to adopt domestically outside of our own race, so we had decided to sign up to be “open” to only caucasian placements. But when this counselor (a friend of mine) asked if we’d consider being presented as a potential adoptive family for this woman’s baby, and that the baby was biracial, we immediately said “yes”. I actually trembled when I called my husband to ask his opinion because I was so afraid he’d say no, because we had agreed that we were not ready for this. But he did not hesitate. “Set up the meeting. If she choses us, we’ll do it.”
I think it was at this point that we realized that our family building was out of our own control and we’d be stupid to ignore a potential match just because the baby’s skin and hair wouldn’t match ours. This was a baby who needed a family. From a faith perspective, I’d say this is when we let God step in and take the lead and did our best to just follow.
You have said in a few entries that Olivia is confident and clear about who Samatha is vs. who her parents are, does Olivia talk about this difference at all? Can you also tell in the way she acts/treats you and your husband vs. Samantha?
Occasionally, after a visit or when a special occasion is approaching (birthdays, holidays), Olivia will ask questions about Samantha and when we can see her again. She gets particularly frustrated when Samantha backs out of plans we have made (which happens much more frequently than we’d like). She knows, simply by the way we work hard to protect her feelings and make up for her disappointment that we are the ones she can count on through thick and thin. She loves Samantha deeply, but I can also see that she feels pain and some confusion when they are together because Samantha doesn’t always live up to her expectations. I’ve heard that some adoptees/birthparents put each other on a pedestal because they see each other only occasionally and in their best light. I’m afraid that, at this very early age, Olivia has seen too much of her birthmother’s life and lifestyle to put her on a pedestal. That’s sad, but also, perhaps, good for her as she ages and continues to understand the reasons why her birthmother really couldn’t parent her.
What are some of the ways you think Olivia’s experience growing up may be different than other children?
Olivia sees her experience as the norm, and not the exception. She can articulate exactly where she came from, who gave birth to her, who her parents are (us) and who her birthmother is. She has friends who are also adopted domestically. She sees other adoptive families get created and feels like this is normal. Occasionally, she will talk about her friends at school or her cousins and say, “Who is his/her birthmom?” So, for her, having two types of families (birth and adoptive) is normal, not weird.
So far, Olivia hasn’t felt left out or excluded in any way because of her adoption, or even because of her racial difference. Our community (neighborhood, church, school) has been so open and welcoming so far that I’m not even sure she realizes that she is different. She recognizes skin color. (She describes Mommy as pink, Martin as brown, and herself as beige.) She knows that most of the kids in school are “pink, with yellow hair”, but it does not seem to make one bit of difference to her. She does say she wishes she had straight, yellow hair, but at this point I think that is mostly because she wants what she doesn’t have (which is common of most girls…I always wanted curly brown hair).
I don’t know how this will change with Martin. He is more obviously different in skin color, and his personality is also different from Olivia’s. Olivia is a very confident child. There is nothing she cannot do, and she feels certain of that. I think that helps her overcome any difference she may feel.
What are some of the ridiculous questions you have been asked?
When the kids were babies…as in, less than 3 months old…people would always ask us where they were from and when did we get them. I think this is because so much is heard about international adoption that people just assume that if your children are adopted, they came from some country other than this one. This happened more with Martin because he is more obviously different in skin color. I always found this hilarious because anyone who knows anything about international adoption would realize that it is impossible to bring home a baby that young from out of the country. When asked, I would simply state the name of the town and say, “We brought her/him home from the hospital.” And people don’t know what to say about that. Domestic adoption and how it works in actual practice seems to be the best kept secret outside of adoption circles.Olivia was a strikingly beautiful baby, and people commented on her eyes and hair all of the time. But since she was so very light-skinned, I could always tell that people were trying to guess whether she was biologically ours (or at least mine). So they rarely said anything about adoption at first. Instead, we were always asked something like, “Where did you get all of those pretty curls?” When they looked to me for an answer, I would shrug and say, “Well, certainly not from us.”
Now that we have Olivia and Martin together most of the time, people are more likely to assume they are both adopted. Once, I had a whole conversation in the checkout line with a very nice black woman who just thought it was “wonderful, wonderful!” that we adopted these kids. And then she proceeded to lecture me on how to keep their hair oiled or greased to keep it healthy. Which…was interesting.
Other dumb questions: Does she know she’s adopted? (Hard to keep that from a kid with a different racial background…eventually she’ll notice.) Where do his real parents live? (Oh, don’t even get me started on the “real” question.) Are they siblings? (Um, yes, one is our daughter, the other is our son, that makes them siblings. Oh, you mean biologically? No. But biology defines exactly nothing in our family.)
In one of the more recent entries to talked a little bit about how infertility is no longer something that you spend much/any time thinking about. Could you talk about how infertility (your own, but how most people engage with it) has changed/developed in your mind over the years?
For us, infertility started out as an obstacle to family building. Then it became a catalyst for family building, and I think that’s how I view it now. It was also an avenue for healing, because without infertility, we wouldn’t have been motivated to find and heal the causes of it, which helped heal other things impeding my overall well-being.
At the beginning of this journey, infertility was all-consuming. It was all I could think about. There was all of this fear surrounding the expense and process of adoption. But after adopting Olivia, infertility didn’t seem that important. We continued to work on some healing treatments for other reasons, but we didn’t feel like we NEEDED to overcome infertility anymore. We never felt the need to be biologically connected to our children, and after one successful adoption, we lost the fear associated with the expense and process.
I think many people treat infertility as a hurdle to jump over. Unfortunately, some doctors don’t spend a lot of time on discovering or healing the cause of the infertility. Instead, they spend the first phase of treatment trying various methods to overcome infertility (fertility drugs, IVF, etc) before considering any underlying disease…to the great detriment (and expense) of their patients.
I’ve really appreciated hearing the way you talk about how important it is for the birthmother to make the decision to place her child up for adoption and how it isn’t up to do. Do you ever feel like agencies push birthmother’s in ways that you don’t agree with?
Some agencies, yes. It is why we chose the agency we did with Martin. We felt like they treated the birthmothers with respect and counseled them well. They also counseled us well, letting us know that when agreeing to a match, we were committing to a birthmother, and that we were expected to be supportive of her needs and wishes. If she wanted us at the hospital, we were to make it happen. If she wanted us to stay away until after signing (usually after 24 hours), we should stay away. Under no circumstances should we bring grandparents, or even our daughter, to the hospital. That time was all about birthmom and her time with baby. They reminded us over and over that the baby was NOT ours until signing, and if all would go according to plan, that baby would be ours for life, but this may be the only bonding time that birthmom gets with that baby and we need to LET HER HAVE IT. They were very focused on birthmom rights, and we felt that was important.
Thank you for reading! It has gotten past my bed time so I will not have time to write my own reflections but maybe I will have time tomorrow and can add them here. If you liked what you read don’t hesitate to check Lisa out at Open to Life (and God’s plan for it).
I hope you enjoyed the interview and that you will check out the other interviews that people have done as well!