We hope to gather as many different perspectives as we can in our book reviews. Have you read The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption? We hope you will share your thoughts and/or link to a review on your own blog in the comments.
Title: The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole
Author: Lori Holden with Crystal Hass
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Publication Year: 2013
Available online at: Amazon, Powell’s Books
The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption by adoptive mom Lori Holden, written with her daughter’s first mother Crystal Hass, is a valuable resource for families created through adoption. It includes a discussion of what open adoption looks like, how to determine if open adoption is right for you, and real-life stories of navigating and nurturing the open adoption relationship from multiple perspectives.
Below is a review of the book and discussion by two relatively new moms, Lisa (birth/first mom who blogs at Navigating Normal) and Liz (adoptive mom who blogs at Poemfish), who are family to one amazing daughter, Elena. We thought a discussion format would be a great way to share our reactions to the book and demonstrate the way we co-create our family together. We were excited to read a book addressed to both of us, and found many insights which resonated with our own experiences. We highly recommend this book.
LISA: Lori says that before she met Crystal, she was concerned if Crystal would like her and if she would like Crystal (chapter 3). I think this is often an overlooked issue in some adoption matches. True, open adoption should be focused on the child, but isn’t in the child’s best interest if both of their sets of parents get along well and have a good relationship?
I know I wouldn’t have chosen parents for Elena if I didn’t think I could create a good, loving relationship with them. Watching her be stuck in an awkward place between two groups of people who were merely interacting out of an obligation to her wasn’t at all the life I wanted to give her.
As Lori states, the relationship between adoptive and birth families is a lifelong commitment, just like marriage. We (hopefully) put a lot of thought in who we chose to marry, we don’t just say yes to the first person who comes along who’s willing to fill that role just to obtain the marital status we wanted. It makes sense to me to approach adoption with a similar attitude.
LIZ: Absolutely! Lori mentions the example of birth family being like an in-law relationship, but the example of marriage really captures the intentionality of our choosing one another. Developing that marriage relationship can be awkward, especially at first. I really liked the questions that Lori provides (in chapter 3) to help both sets of parents relate to one another.
LISA: I really liked those questions too. It isn’t in most people’s nature to just directly ask these sorts of questions to each other, but it makes a lot of sense. When you have such a new relationship built on raw emotions, clarifying how people need to be treated by the other beforehand can go a long way in defusing potentially dangerous situations in the future.
LIZ: I really appreciated the story of Tessa, Lori’s daughter, establishing and navigating a relationship with her birth father Joe, because it reminded me that there is so much that we can’t predict about the future. I feel like we have been very intentional in our family about creating a structure of support and care for our daughter. But we don’t know how she’ll experience her adoption as she grows up.
Lori didn’t freak out when her daughter had a lot of emotion about her birth father, nor did she judge her daughter or try to steer her in one direction versus another. She was Tessa’s steady anchor during those emotions. I really appreciated that model, and the reminder that it is ok when things don’t go as we planned. Our being a family together is a lifelong, dynamic relationship, with messy ups, downs, and in-betweens, rather than a perfect, fixed achievement.
LISA: The part in that chapter that I really liked was the one about Reed, Lori’s son, being confronted by a classmate about not looking like his mom. Lori handled this situation beautifully. I went through a period of time myself where I was thinking about the future a lot and worried about how to handle questions from Elena about the parts of her adoption story that I hold the answers to.
My therapist gave me advice that echoes exactly what Lori says here: don’t answer right away at the first prompt for knowledge. Adults often interpret questions and scenarios differently than children do so we end up giving them information that they weren’t looking for. Ask follow up questions first to gently explore what it is exactly that they need to know before giving them an explanation.
LIZ: Good advice. I am curious what you think about the portions of the book written for expectant parents.
LISA: I’m so glad Lori included a section geared specifically towards birth parents (chapters 7, 9). As much as I did enjoy the rest of the book, most of it is aimed at adoptive parents, but the truth is we birth parents are navigating the same difficulties in these relationships and could use some guidance too.
I do wish she’d have gone into a little more detail when dealing with some of the “But…” answers, though. Her suggestions to seek professional help and support groups is one I couldn’t agree with more, but it can be hard to find a therapist who has specific knowledge of dealing with adoption loss and grief, so some additional information in this section would be helpful.
For example, one of the buts she covers is not knowing how to bond with or communicate with your relinquished child. I was reflecting on this yesterday during our visit as I was playing with Ellie on the floor. I remember sitting in the hospital ten months ago to the day holding her after she was born and not knowing what to do. It wasn’t just that I was a new, first time mother, terrified of the fragile little creature I had in my arms. It was the thought that there was something new and amazing in my life. I was scared that loving her fully would bring me pain and I didn’t know how to endure that. For the first few months all I could do was hold her, look at her, but had no idea how to completely open myself to her for fear of that pain. My therapist had no useful advice for me on how to proceed with this. I had to learn it through my own struggles. If I’d been reading this book ten months ago while I was in this stage, I could have benefited from a section that was longer than six sentences.
LIZ: I so appreciate hearing your experience. In chapter four, when Lori talks about having the strength to be vulnerable and letting go of fear, she quotes a birth parent who talks about not being afraid of the future. While every open adoption relationship is unique, the sense of being alone in your experience is very isolating and compounds all the emotions and uncertainty. Hearing stories of people who have lived through it before can be helpful, and I agree that more first parent perspectives would definitely strengthen the book (maybe in the second edition?). There are times when Lori addresses first parents directly (such as the list of questions regarding whether openness is a fit in chapter 3), but I agree that much of the book is written to adoptive parents. The chapter about choosing an agency, for example, would definitely be richer with questions for expectant parents to ask.
LISA: That thought came to my mind too, but then it can be a tricky place for an adoptive parent to counsel an expectant parent on anything in the adoption planning phase without it coming across as biased towards placement. But there does need to be a resource readily available for expectant parents considering placement to help them find non-biased options counseling and ethical agencies should they chose to explore adoption as an option.
One of the things I did really appreciate in Lori’s section on choosing an agency was how they handle biological fathers’ rights. Even though our daughter’s birth father chose not to be involved in any of the steps of her adoption, I was so pleased with the way our agency handled the issue. They advised me on how to continue communicating with him through my pregnancy, encouraged me to keep him informed even if he didn’t respond, and when he did end up showing up at the hospital, the agency clinician took the time to talk to him, give him her contact information, and offer the same life-long counseling that was offered to me. It’s so crucial that birth fathers be included in every step of the process.
LIZ: I completely agree.
I was really struck with Lori’s mention of the powerlessness that some birth parents feel. What can we do, as a family, to make sure there isn’t a feeling of imbalance or powerlessness? In chapter 3, Lori says that in an open adoption “neither party is less than the other. While both sides may be grateful to one another, neither side is beholden.” I just love that. How have we cultivated that balance and how can we do more of it?
LISA: I like that Lori drew the parallels between the sense of powerlessness birth parents feel post-relinquishment with what adoptive parents felt pre-relinquishment. Being able to connect with each others’ pain is a keystone for compassion. I think that we personally have struck a pretty good balance about one side not feeling beholden to the other and having a balance of power. I like that we don’t tend to assume what the other party will be comfortable with. We’re pretty good at asking what people’s needs are and trying to accommodate everyone equally.
Take Mothers’ Day, for example. Even though we’ve spent most holidays together thus far and our planning process was mainly about working around everyone’s schedules, this holiday was different for obvious reasons. It was an emotionally charged day for all of us, but for different reasons, and each of us had our own needs. So, Sadie (Elena’s other adoptive mom) took the initiative and started a dialogue early on about what each of us would like that day to be. We started off with some vague ideas, and as the day grew closer, some new emotions popped up and needs changed. We continued to have open discussions about it, everyone was receptive and respectful and flexible, and in the end, I feel everyone was satisfied with how the day turned out.
LIZ: Great example! Yes, it did work well. I love what you just said about connecting as a keystone for compassion. It has sometimes been a challenge for me to honor the grief and loss that you feel without taking it on as my responsibility. I realized I wasn’t alone in that when I read Lori’s discussion of it (chapter 7).
Lori talks about open adoption as a “mutual-salvation” in which she and Crystal had different problems that fit together so that they became each other’s solution (chapter 3). When I start to feel guilty, I remember that day we left the hospital. I thanked you, and you responded by thanking us. I could see so clearly your grief and exhaustion, and also your relief. I could see how much you depended on us to be there. You chose us.
I try to remember this when I am struggling with being a new mom and not wanting you to see me struggle. When I can let go of my need to be perfect for you and be honest and vulnerable about my struggles, then we both benefit. I get encouragement from with someone who loves our daughter as much as I do, and I contribute to mutuality — that mutual give and take — in our relationship.
LISA: Lori mentions the issue of adoptive parents’ grief several times throughout the book. In chapter three she says, “We’ve said before that a child deserves to come into a home as the best choice if not the first choice, into a home that is not saturated with unresolved grief. Adopting parents may have some grief work to do to make their home warm and inviting.” This really is an important point.
Children are so intuitive and can pick up on emotions we think we’re successfully hiding. Adoptees are in the unique position of have two sets of parents, all of whom are coming from a place of loss. As a birth parent, I’m even conscientious of how my grief will affect our daughter and how important it is that I handle it in a healthy manner since I’m in a position to set an example for her, and I want it to be a positive one.
LIZ: Me too! I think it’s important to say, as Lori does, that the grief journey for adopting parents doesn’t just automatically resolve itself once they begin raising a child. The commitment to being emotionally healthy is lifelong. Having a strong support system is really important. It helps to hear from other adoptive parents that the feelings of raising someone else’s children, concerns about bonding fast enough, or feeling like an impostor parent, are not a sign that I’m “doing it wrong” but a normal part of the journey. In fact, many of those concerns are ones that we all share as parents; we just see them a little differently based on our roles in our child’s life.
What are your thoughts on The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption?