“Remember who your real family is”: On Openness in Adoption -The Toast

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Other posts in The Toast’s National Adoption Month series can be found here.

You should be with your own kind.

I doubt the creators of Sesame Street decided to make a full-length feature film starring their most popular Muppet character of the 1980s in order to make a definitive statement about adoption, transracial or otherwise. Follow That Bird (1985) wasn’t made for me, or for adoptive families like mine — I just remember thinking it might as well have been. My aunt gave the movie to me one Christmas, and I must have watched it dozens of times despite the confusing tangle of feelings it inspired. On Sesame Street, home to grown-ups and kids and animals and monsters and one outsize bird, everyone is happy and everyone is family until the arrival of Miss Finch, the formidable representative of the “Feathered Friends Society,” who is horrified to find Big Bird living on Sesame Street with no other birds around:

Miss Finch: You know, Big, you shouldn’t be living here all alone.
Big Bird: Well, I’m not all alone. Why, there’s Gordon and Susan and…
Miss Finch: But they’re not birds like we are… Wouldn’t you like to be with your own kind? Wouldn’t you like to live in a big, beautiful birdhouse with a nice bird family of your own?

While I was not encouraged to dwell on questions for which we had no answers, like many adopted kids I thought about my birth parents all the time. I also knew there were plenty of people who, like Miss Finch, looked at my white family and then at me and wondered how we came to be, or thought we just didn’t fit. I knew this because I sometimes felt that way myself. I often went years between seeing a fellow Asian in my small Oregon town, and at times it just seemed impossible to comprehend that this was really where I lived, where I had been planted, where I was expected to thrive.

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but I think of open adoption and openness in adoption as two different things. An open adoption is an adoption in which there is ongoing contact between the parties, first between the birth and adoptive parents and then — as they get older — the adoptee. There is a broad spectrum when it comes to open adoption, but in general names are known, details are shared, questions are asked and answered. In closer open adoption relationships, regular calls and visits might be made. It’s not always easy; like any relationship, an open adoption relationship will have both smooth stretches and bumps in the road. But the adoptee’s origins aren’t kept sealed and secret, with no one to throw any light into the dark corners.

Open adoption is the most common form of domestic infant adoption today. Adoptions from foster care are typically open as well — children are old enough to remember and want to be in contact with their original families. My adoption is an open one, only because I took steps to open it.

Openness in adoption means more than acknowledging the fact of the adoption, “honoring” the birth mother’s decision, celebrating “Gotcha Day.” Openness means recognizing the adoptee’s right to their own history and their own feelings about adoption.

Openness in adoption is something you can strive for, even in a closed adoption. Decades ago, it was uncommon for there to be ongoing contact or identifying information exchanged between the birth and adoptive families. Many adopting families didn’t want the added complication in their lives, and social workers thought that it was better for children to simply assimilate into their adoptive homes and not look back. The stigma of extramarital sexual activity — for women — and unwed motherhood meant that closed adoptions were sometimes considered better for birth mothers as well (now you can just move on with your life). But even then, in the bad old days, I think there must have been a stark difference between the families in which adoption was acknowledged and openly discussed, and the (no doubt far larger number of) families who preferred to gloss over it.

Plenty of adoptees today might still know very little about their families of origin, either because their adoptions were kept closed or because they were adopted internationally. But a culture of openness within the adoptive family is still possible, still necessary, even if more detailed information about the birth family is off-limits or out of reach.

Openness in adoption means more than acknowledging the fact of the adoption, “honoring” the birth mother’s decision, celebrating “Gotcha Day” on the legal anniversary. Openness means that everything is on the table. Openness means recognizing the adoptee’s right to their own history (insofar as it can be known) and their own feelings about adoption.

I wouldn’t say that my family had a great deal of trouble discussing my adoption. We were always open about the fact that it had happened, that it had formed our family, that it was nothing of which to be ashamed; it was never a source of distress or drama for my parents. They were also glad to talk with me about their infertility once I was old enough to ask, and share how it had felt to be approaching ten years married with no children. But we all struggled when it came to talking about my birth parents, their decision to give me up, and exactly what it meant — and how hard it often was — to be a family that was multiracial and multicultural through adoption. There was very little room to admit how much it bothered me that I had so little in common (not just in appearance) with my adoptive family. It was next to impossible for me to share feelings of inadequacy or rejection, or even explain the humiliation of racism I encountered at school. In a thousand tiny ways, both spoken and unspoken, most avenues for expressing any ambivalence about my adoption, or admitting to obsessive wondering about my birth family and my confusing identity, were closed.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that my parents weren’t comfortable with what they perceived as my birth family’s attempt to pry my adoption open after years of silence. When I was in elementary school, my birth parents reached out to us through the attorney who had facilitated my placement. Spooked by the sudden contact, my adoptive parents sent a message back through the lawyer saying that I was fine; they were unwilling to share any photos or provide more detailed information. Being in regular communication or meeting in person, as my birth parents had requested, was definitely out of the question.

I wouldn’t learn of this lone overture toward a more open adoption for over a decade.

It would have been so hard, so confusing for you, my parents explained. We didn’t want them thinking they could contact you whenever they wanted. We didn’t know what they might want from you.

In Follow That Bird, despite Maria’s protests (“we’re your family!”), Miss Finch convinces Big Bird to leave his home and all his friends and move to Ocean View, Illinois to live with the Dodos. But he finds that he has nothing in common with his fellow birds, and so he runs away and tries to find his way back to Sesame Street, hounded at every step by Miss Finch. In some ways, the single-minded social worker is even more frightening than the hapless criminals who kidnap Big Bird, paint him blue, and force him to perform in their sideshow — while the threat they pose is easily understood and quickly resolved, Miss Finch’s is of a subtler and still more common variety, that of a trusted, twisted authority figure who just believes she knows best. She is ultimately forced to reckon with the love everyone on Sesame Street feels for Big Bird and concede that they are his true family, but only after she removes him from the only home he’s ever known (“for your own good, Big”).

As a kid I never would have questioned, in earnest, aloud, whether I belonged with my adoptive parents: I was a girl who understood my place in the world and usually did what was expected of me. But I still had nightmares, for years running, about my birth parents or someone else turning up and forcing me to leave my family. I had nightmares about my birth family finding me, and then sending me away again because they knew I didn’t belong with them. I had nightmares about just being taken, in the middle of the night, plucked right out of my bedroom by cold, faceless strangers who never listened when I begged them to take me home. While I knew, deep down, that no one was coming to get me, it wasn’t easy to watch some of my deepest fears being played out onscreen.

The movie stood alongside so many similar morals and messages about adoption, messages I internalized in countless ways: Be content with what you have. The best choice you can make is to remain where you’ve been planted.

I never seriously considered running off to be with my “own kind,” nor did I think it was likely I would ever meet or speak with my birth family. The few open adoption and reunion stories I can remember hearing were laced with sadness and drama. These stories were offered to me like bedtime fables, cautionary tales, their prevailing moral easy to discern: I shouldn’t go looking for trouble. So powerful was this message that I couldn’t help remembering it, words of warning playing in the back of my mind, when I found myself weighing my own search years later. I knew, by then, what I wanted — needed — to do, and still I put off telling my adoptive family until it was too late to turn back.

When I did tell them, they listened to my plans, and never asked me to reconsider. They told me they understood. Then they said, “Remember who your real family is.”

The lesson finally learned by Miss Finch – about the value of chosen family, and love being all that truly matters – is likely the reason my well-intentioned aunt gifted me with the video in the first place. As I spent a great deal of time as a kid explaining adoption and defending my family to people who didn’t understand either, perhaps I should have been comforted by this most obvious of morals.

But to me, the ending never felt like the neat and tidy resolution it was supposed to be. The truth is, we often “belong” where we’re told we belong. Living his entire life apart from his fellow birds meant that Big Bird was ill suited to life with them – and so the only home he’d ever known was also the only one possible for him. As an adoptee who had never even met another Korean, this happy ending always left me feeling rather conflicted. If I made the choice to try and find my birth family one day – or even just find people who were more like me – would I fare any better?

I recently watched Follow That Bird with my own kids, my first viewing in years. At one point, my older daughter said, “Big Bird should have stayed at home all along, but I guess that would have been a pretty short movie.” Stay where you are was the moral I plucked from the movie as a child, too. And perhaps it wouldn’t have struck that warning note had it not stood alongside so many similar morals and messages about adoption, messages I absorbed and internalized in countless ways: Be content with what you have, because the alternatives are many, and unknowable, and too frightening to contemplate. The best choice you can make is to remain where you’ve been planted – even if it sometimes pinches, even if you feel you don’t quite fit – and hope all the mysteries that hover, the questions that haunt you, will one day fade away.

Remember who your real family is.

Sometimes people are visibly surprised when they learn how old I was when I met my birth family. Sometimes they ask, “Why did you wait so long?”

To me, the real surprise is that I didn’t wait longer to search. I have talked with fellow adoptees who are deeply curious about their origins and cannot bring themselves to look for answers, so concerned are they about letting their adoptive family members down. It’s no wonder some of us feel premature guilt and insecurity, given the messages often drummed into adopted kids, even unintentionally, about love and family and gratitude and belonging. While this is changing for many who are adopted today, I was raised to believe that I was only supposed to want one family; that anything else would be foundation-shattering for me and everyone I cared about.

I could only think of search and reunion, open adoption, as unnatural risks; betrayals of the bonds upon which I depended. If I had to choose just one family — and I thought I did — of course I’d choose my known family. Every time. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate a search, a more open adoption, until I had separated from my adoptive family and started a family of my own. Once “home” and all the safety and security it implied no longer depended on my parents, once I didn’t have so much to lose, I was able to make a different choice for myself. I still don’t know that I ever would have done so had I not had a child of my own, one whose questions would someday need answering. 

I could only think of search and reunion, open adoption, as unnatural risks; betrayals of the bonds upon which I depended. If I had to choose just one family — and I thought I did — of course I’d choose my known family. Every time.

I know that I am fortunate to have been loved so much. I am especially fortunate that when I finally made up my mind to look for answers, I was able to find them. My search also forced my adoptive family to have many frank but necessary conversations about things we might not have been brave enough to tackle otherwise, and I am grateful for that. I know it has brought us closer.

Still, I cannot help but wish we’d found a way to have these conversations earlier – out in the open, and as often as I needed – before my reunion forced the issue. I wish someone had been willing to tell me that the unknown but unforgotten people I came from would always be part of me, whether or not I ever chose to seek them out. I wish I had been encouraged, all along, to voice the complicated but essential questions I could only ask of myself in countless quiet moments; to understand and believe that it really is possible to belong to more than one family — more than one place — at a time, and you do not always have to choose.

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