At the beginning of the summer, “Switched at Birth” started to pop up on my queue again, and I admit I was excited. It has been a sort of guilty pleasure of mine, something I’ve enjoyed since its inception a couple years ago. For those who don’t watch it, it’s the story of two teenage girls who were switched at birth. One, Daphne, grew up with a Latino single mother and grandmother in a lower income part of the city; the other, Bay, grew up with well-off parents. When they were not quite 16 they realized they were not biologically related to their respective parents, found each other and with a lot of struggle found a way to create their own version of family.
From the beginning of the show, I thought the way they were able to delve into the nature and nurture argument we hear so much in the world of adoption was pretty smart. Because of the set-up – two families both wronged by a hospital and two girls that legitimately had two sets of parents – this show more than most seemed to be able to show a child raised by parents not biologically related to them would become a mixture of nature and nurture. It seemed they could push the question of nature versus nurture in a way that may have been less well-received if they approached the subject through adoption.
Recently the show actually did dive into the world of adoption – Bay’s biological father, Angelo found out he had gotten a woman pregnant during a one night stand. The woman, a med student, showed up back in his life to tell him about the baby (she was 8 months pregnant when that happened). Last season she gave birth and even though she knew that Angelo wanted to parent, she left the hospital with the child to relinquish the child for adoption. The reasons were complicated, but for me none were justifiable.
This summer, while Father’s Rights started filling up news coverage with the Baby Veronica case, this show focused on Angelo’s fight to find and bring back his child. After several missteps, he was able to track down the child who was living with a couple a few hours away. Mid-season he and Bay went to visit the couple to try to convince them to give back the child without going to court. The couple said they would fight for their child – a sad testament to the entitlement in adoption. This child was basically stolen from her father, and this couple could only see their own loss if they gave her back (the child was still an infant, only a few months old). And for me the most surprising was that Bay took offense that Angelo wanted to take the couple to court to gain custody. During the visit with the prospective adoptive parents, Bay saw how much love they had for this child, how well they knew this child, and in them she saw her parents, the ones who raised her. Angelo saying he would fight for the right to parent this child to Bay was his asserting that nature was the most important. Looking at this from the birth mother’s perspective, the child – both legally and ethically – belonged with Angelo. He was the father, he was capable of parenting the child safely, and he never relinquished those rights. I was disappointed that a girl raised without the biological connection (and who had a difficult time because of it) wouldn’t acknowledge the importance of that connection for her biological sister.
Angelo did gain custody of his daughter. When he got the child home, he became a full time single father who felt the struggles of single parenting. By the end of the season he chose to relinquish his daughter, place her back with the prospective adoptive parents, but did so in an open adoption where he will see her regularly and have contact.
It was this ending that broke my heart. First, the fact that Bay and Regina (Angelo’s on-again off-again partner and Bay’s biological mother) didn’t step up to help Angelo in raising this child was confounding to me. Bay and Regina knew what they lost when Bay wasn’t given the chance to grow up in Regina’s family, how they could let Angelo and the child feel that loss I don’t understand. Not only did they not step up but time and again they pointed out how loved his daughter would be with the adoptive family. It seems someone who knows what the loss of biology can mean to a child would step up, and not encourage this loss to happen.
The other issue I had is Angelo seemed to think that having an open adoption would fix anything he might lose by relinquishing his child. He seemed to feel that the way he is able to be in Bay and Daphne’s lives as a non-parenting father (at the age of 16 when he came back into their lives) would be the same for an infant. When Angelo entered the Bay’s life, she was a teenager and able to navigate a relationship herself. It is closer to an adoptee entering reunion than it was entering an open adoption with an infant. I know reunion isn’t easy either, but the one major difference is as a biological parent you don’t have to go through the conduit of the adoptive parents to spend time with your child. In open adoption, you watch other parents parent your child, you have to navigate a relationship with people who may have a different parenting philosophy, and it can be difficult. Angelo seemed to treat open adoption as a fix to his problem. I think that is a simplified view of what is a very complicated situation.
I don’t know how this will end, there will be another season and hopefully this storyline will find its own voice, but mostly I hope that they show that open adoption isn’t a bow that you can wrap up life in, it isn’t a solution to the problems. It is a challenge, a difficult path to take which is neither easy nor straightforward.
About the author:
In addition to being a monthly contributor to OAB, you can also find Racilous at her personal blog Adoption in the City. There she writes about her experiences as a birth mother, navigating an open adoption with her son and his family, and how adoption has impacted her.