Look at those curls!" coos the docent at our local zoo as my daughter, Rebecca, 2, extends her chubby fist for a moth-shaped hand stamp. "Just like her mommy," says the woman, giving me that I'm-a-mommy-too look. I consider just nodding, but only for a split second. "Actually, she's adopted," I say. "Her birth mother has straight brown hair, but her uncle had curls when he was a toddler." Soon I'm in the thick of another impromptu informational session on open adoption, which turns out to need a lot of explaining to most people. I could avoid these chats altogether. Rebecca does look a lot like me, and that's something many adoptive parents don't have in this age of new families forged across continents. But I don't duck out of the discussion; open adoption means that much to me.
The term "open adoption" has as many definitions as the word "love." The basic idea: Children know their birth parents' identities -- the information's not buried in a government file. Beyond that, openness can range from occasional letters to regular visits. It's up to the adoptive parents and the birth family to decide on the details (usually the birth mother's family, though in an increasing number of cases -- not in ours, unfortunately -- the birth father stays in touch, too). I know of open-adoption families who've had a birth mother live with them for a month after their child's birth and those who see birth parents only twice a year at an appointed spot. Often these connections grow over time, though sometimes everyone's changing lives cause them to drift apart.
When my husband, Eric, and I chose open adoption, we knew we wanted to live it completely. Even before we attempted to get pregnant, we'd agreed that raising a child mattered more to us than making a baby. After six months of fruitless efforts on our own, a two-year ride on the infertility roller coaster ended when a doctor said our chances were nearly nil. That was painful, but our willingness to adopt prevented us from being paralyzed.
For Eric, open adoption was primarily a matter of principle. He loved the idea of building a family that defied convention. I agreed, but I admit that I also wanted to know our future child's birth family because of my own worries about adoption. I'd heard too many sad tales of the "empty space" adoptees feel inside without knowledge of their biological roots. I knew that no matter how great a mom I became, that hole wasn't mine alone to fill, and I'd need help from those who could.
Blessed with a baby
We'd been waiting only two months when a counselor from the Portland-based Open Adoption and Family Services called to say that a 16-year-old high schooler in Medford, Oregon, had selected us from a pool of about 60 families. Mallory was seven months pregnant and wanted to meet us. Both professional writers, Eric and I had zoomed through the paperwork that some hopeful adoptive parents find daunting -- including a "Dear Birth Parent" letter meant to read like a personal ad -- and actually enjoyed the required home study. But we never thought we'd be chosen so quickly. In a daze, we drove the 450 miles from Seattle toward this mystery girl.
I don't exactly know what we expected, but she was all we could have hoped for: incredibly poised, funny, sensitive, cautious but clearly willing to try to form an alliance with these two nervous strangers sitting across from her in the local agency office, assaulting her with a photo album full of evidence of their lovely home and healthy lifestyle.
Mallory's mom, Kelly, was the one who really broke the ice. Like me, she's quick to fill awkward silences with a joke. She's also around my age (younger, in fact), and we share a lot of references. Plus, she's stubborn. Kelly's conviction that open adoption would provide her whole family with the best possible outcome helped her overcome her own grief at giving up daily contact with her first grandchild. Once satisfied with Eric and me, she became a rock for all of us.
As day wound into evening, we went to dinner and met Mallory's two brothers and her reluctant dad, who wasn't so sure about this openness thing. (He warmed up over the ensuing weeks, even coming to the hospital after Rebecca's birth, much to Mallory's joy.)
The next morning, standing in a pumpkin patch where we'd gone for an outing, we all agreed to "move forward," as the adoption lingo puts it. We could accept that the birth father had denied paternity and that Mallory didn't want to push the matter. She could deal with the fact that we were older than her own parents. Eric and I drove back home, a single snapshot of a very pregnant Mallory on the disposable camera I'd bought just in case things worked out well enough to deserve recording.
Over the next several weeks, we took turns making that long drive up and down Interstate 5, learning just how delicate a task it is to be truly open. Thanksgiving weekend was particularly nerve-racking. We'd come for a visit, but with less than a month to go until her due date, Mallory was unsure whether she wanted to see us. We were terrified that this meant she was reconsidering her choice, which was her right until she'd sign the adoption papers 48 hours after her daughter's birth. She also announced that she wanted a day alone with the baby after the birth, which sent us further into paroxysms of anxiety. We'll never know whether she just needed some space or whether she had real doubts about us. But we did learn that open adoption also meant dealing with doors that have to be closed.
We did finally come together that weekend. Kelly somehow persuaded Mallory to meet us at a local deli, where we had the first of a series of tearful conversations about how hard this all was. Sharing these emotions somehow released us all. We spent the rest of the afternoon poring over baby-name books at Barnes & Noble. After much chuckling and arguing, one of us (who knows who?) hit upon Rebecca: the perfect name, because in Hebrew it means "faithful," or "to unite."
Then came the birth itself. Mallory called us midday on her due date to say that she'd gone into labor. Knowing her penchant for punctuality -- we'd already stashed our bags and a brand-new car seat in our car -- we drove to Medford in a record seven hours. We visited Mallory in the hospital and then left her to pace the halls with Kelly and her best friend. We heard Rebecca's first cry from right outside the birthing room door.
With incredible generosity, Mallory invited us in. Each of us held our daughter (we all called her "ours" from the beginning). Then it was our turn to do the hard thing. We left for those promised 24 hours, and yes, we had a tough time not biting our nails off. Yet the moments we'd been together just beforehand, and the days and weeks we'd spent establishing a bond, made us feel a lot less panic-stricken than we might have. We went to a local jewelry store and bought Mallory a traditional open-adoption gift -- a mother-and-child pendant with Rebecca's birthstone, blue topaz, embedded. We bought a pair of matching earrings for Kelly, too. They weren't returnable. That was part of our leap of faith.
The next morning, Mallory called and said she'd like us to come to the hospital. The word that best describes what followed: miraculous. For a day and a half we all shared in Rebecca's care and in a torrent of emotions ranging from sorrow to euphoria. Kelly showed me how to change a diaper. Eric chose CDs to fill the room with music. Mallory's friends and family came by. Flowers arrived. Then we took Rebecca into an adjoining room for our first night as her parents. We could feel Mallory and Kelly next door, mourning the imminent loss of their new baby. Knowing their determination to go through with the adoption despite the pain made Eric and me all the more committed to keeping them close within our family circle.
Rebecca's birth and the days surrounding it were definitely the most intense times of my life. I remember walking into Mallory's room after she'd signed the adoption papers but while she was still holding Rebecca, saying goodbye -- she'd put the sheet completely over her head, creating a cocoon to protect her during this devastating transition. I also have a photo of Mallory's dad's face, full of melancholy, as he held Rebecca for the first time. But we had happiness, too: Mallory walking arm in arm with me down the hall as Eric carried Rebecca; all of us sharing a messy meal of Thai food on a hospital-sheet tablecloth; Mallory talking to Eric's parents on the phone, becoming family without ever having met.
Adjusting to a new life
Eric and I emerged from this gauntlet of bliss and heartache as parents, forever changed. I wanted to share our wondrous story with everyone. Rebecca, after all, was made of it. But as soon as we returned home with Rebecca and I started telling my friends and family about our experience, I began to hear their amazement. When I'd add that Mallory would visit in three months, and we'd be seeing her every few months after that for the rest of our lives, their amazement turned to something like fear. "Aren't you afraid she'll want to take Rebecca back?" they all -- from casual acquaintances to my own closest relatives -- asked. (My honest answer: No, because she can't legally, and because, having spent time with her, I believe her when she says she doesn't regret her choice.)
That's when my newfound role as informal open-adoption evangelist began. I offered explanations like this countless times in the first year of Rebecca's life. Often, I smiled through gritted teeth as I did so. It hurt that near-strangers felt free to make rude remarks like, "I'm sure the real mom will lose interest soon," or "Well, I understand why you did it -- it's so hard to get a white baby these days." It made me even crazier that close friends and family, who'd seen us through this process from the beginning, continued to seem clueless about why we'd want Mallory in our lives.
My fellow new mothers were especially shocked. "I could never do that!" one said after the other. "You're so brave." As I ventured into the world of new-parent support groups and infant "playdates," I discovered that new-mama bonding doesn't leave a lot of room for different experiences. For most women, motherhood begins in their own bodies. Mine started with a relationship I'd forged with a stranger, and that would forever be part of the bond growing between Rebecca and me. I have to admit that the love between my daughter and me is not "natural" -- it's built from faithfulness and time and mistakes and hard-earned insight, like the connection between her birth mom and me.
I don't blame people for getting spooked by my family's unorthodox situation. A lot of it comes from deeply rooted attitudes about what a family should be. The still-unresolved debates about everything from daycare to working outside the home all begin with the lingering dream of a mommy, daddy, and baby, bound by blood and comfort in their roles. When life doesn't work out in quite that scenario, it makes us all nervous -- even those of us who never thought we wanted to live that way.
A mom who acknowledges another mother as central to her family throws everything up in the air. If Rebecca has two mothers (a "sun" and a "guiding star," as a corny pro-adoption poem puts it) then how can I be everything she needs? And if I can't be, am I good enough for her? I've had to wrestle with many of these questions over the past two years. Wouldn't it have been easier if they'd never come up? Not all moms in my position are so eager to dwell on the fact that they're not biologically connected to their child. I have friends who never tell strangers their kids are adopted. For me, though, there's no other choice -- not because I'm better or more politically correct, but because my firm belief that family ties are created as much as fated makes anything but unqualified honesty seem like self-deception. I'm a mother because another mother granted that chance to me.
I believe that openness helps put people's sense of family more in tune with reality -- a reality that includes stepparents, foster families, surrogacy, stay-at-home dads, and whatever twist on Ozzie and Harriet that life demands next. And I'm grateful for openness in a personal way, even when it's meant standing in a corner while Mallory held Rebecca at her high school graduation or dealing with those questions from strangers and friends. It turns out that the one person who could really make me feel good about being Rebecca's mom was her other mom.
It's Mallory who has written me kind e-mails when I've felt insecure and shared tears of confusion and hugs of reassurance. Sometimes, just acknowledging the weirdness of our situation makes it better.
Mallory, now a college student, has struggled with her own complicated role. Her hometown is fairly small, and she's endured hurtful comments from strangers, even friends. But she's chosen not to hide anything, covering her dorm room with pictures of "my kid" and introducing us as family members to everyone from her grandmother to her former manager at Wendy's. And if you think my momhood challenges people's assumptions, think about her: a proud and loving mother who nonetheless knew that her child would thrive in another woman's embrace.
We've both gained much more from staying connected than ignorant comments can erase. And we care about each other too much to keep quiet about it. But this may change when the 33-inch-tall marvel who united us gets old enough to realize what having two mommies really means. I feel that openness is healthier for Rebecca; I've seen families torn apart by secrets, and I'll do my best not to have that happen to my daughter. I'm raising her to be proud and feel lucky that adoption has given her a big extended family who loves her. But if she ultimately decides that this is all a private matter, I'll follow her lead. Maybe that will be her first act of independence, which I'll have to accept. I'm already getting less intense about playing the role of open-adoption poster mom. Now, when someone comments on how much Rebecca looks like me, I still usually say she's adopted, but I don't launch into a five-minute speech. We've been walking the walk for two years now, and sometimes I figure it's okay to keep the talk to a minimum. After all, we're normal, too -- or as normal as any square in this crazy patchwork quilt of love, chance, and choice that we call the modern family.
Ann Powers recently moved to Los Angeles with her family to become the chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times.