Birth Families and Adoptive Mothers
Several women in this study undertook a bold and risky venture to include contact with the birth mother as part of an expanding kinship system that is not reflected on birth certificates or through other legal documents. Wflien the adoptive family incorporates birth parents who have given up their legal rights to their biological offspring, the social family expands in ways somewhat similar to families that use known donors (discussed in chapter 4). Wliile known donors rarely function as dads, they do often have some social relationship to their offspring, even if they have no legal rights. In both cases, these single mothers believe that knowledge of the genetic parent can be beneficial to the child. Women believe that nature supplements nurture in the social development of children. Therefore, the inclusion of genetic parents by adoptive mothers reflects a new social reality in which it is possible to have multiple parents. But birth parents are not the same as donors. In today’s construction of motherhood, the birth mother is considered as another mother, even though she has relinquished parental rights, in part because of the transformative role ascribed to pregnancy and birthing (the fact that birth fathers are of less consequence than birth mothers reinforces the significance of these factors). By contrast, when a woman becomes pregnant by a known donor, he is not socially considered the child’s father; donating gametes is not equivalent to the transformative process of pregnancy and birth.21
Historically adoption has been a way to protect a child from the illegitimate circumstances of his or her birth through legal means that hide the truth, such as sealed adoption records and an altered birth certificate. While the majority of adoptive mothers in this study wanted adoptive children whose parents would remain unknown, two women adopted infants whose birth families maintained contact, and two other women adopted siblings out of the foster care system whose biological mothers raised them, even if briefly.22 The inclusion of the birth mother as a recognized part of their family was not initially the way in which these women thought they would create a family. Each woman came to her decision slowly and with much trepidation, worried about how her and her child’s relationship with the birth mother would unfold. They were not really concerned that the birth mothers would share in their daily lives, since contact would be limited; however, they were concerned that the relationship between the children and their birth mothers, who were not solely fantasies to the adoptive child but instead real people, might bring new complications. With a mixture of ambivalence and hope that their child might feel more complete than their adopted friends who grew up not knowing their birth mothers, these women decided they had the emotional strength essential for open adoptions. They felt that they would forever share a child at a deep psychological level with the woman who birthed that child (and possibly the birth father and both sets of biological extended kin) and that an open adoption was a demonstration (and statement) of this shared bond.
Birth parents, particularly birth mothers, live in a borderland of shadows for both the adoptive mother and her adopted child. This situation is not exclusive to adoptive single mothers; it is also true when a heterosexual couple has an open adoption. Two women claim the child differently—and to a large extent the child holds a place in both of their lives even if contact with each woman is radically different. These mothers do not share parenting. The adoptive and birth mothers of the adopted child are not partners who physically share a life, even if they may coexist emotionally in the child’s life. And they are not likely to be peers, as couples are; often the birth mother is significantly younger than the adoptive
mother. The birth mother and the adoptive mother have made very different commitments to the child both legally and socially.
Many women who eventually decide to open their lives up to include birth parents do so because they see this as the only viable way to become mothers within the constraints of the adoption hierarchy; with a shortage of available infants, birth mothers aided by private attorneys who act as conduits can pick the family who will receive their child. And a number of single women seeking to become mothers start their search for adoptive children with the belief that it is essential to them to locate children whom they will know a lot about and whose biological families are not hidden. The four women I interviewed who adopted openly reported that to adopt internationally would have precluded the possibility of tracing biological kin for their future child. Since this knowledge was important to them and they knew that the chances for domestic adoption were slim, they turned to other ways to adopt children—through either private agencies or the foster care system. Ml four women adopted children who were either biracial or of another race. They had mixed experiences with their children’s birth mothers.
Gina, whose narrative about men and liminality opens chapter 2, met her adopted daughter, Isabelle, on the day of her birth. The birth mother, with the help of her own mother, who is a few years younger than Gina, selected Gina as the adoptive mom. On the day they left the hospital, the birth mother, Bethany, a white tenth-grader, placed the baby in Gina’s car. Gina had waited for this moment for a long time and was excited beyond her wildest imagination; when Bethany closed the car door, tears of joy rolled down Gina’s cheeks. She had been through a lot to get to this point: leaving her last serious boyfriend at thirty-six years of age, she tried becoming pregnant with an anonymous donor for about a year; when that failed, she was matched three times with birth mothers, and for different reasons each match did not work out. I Ier baby was beautiful, with curly dark hair that matched Gina’s own. Hesitant in the beginning to adopt a baby who was biracial, Gina was delighted that she had decided to consider children of other races after the other potential adoptions fell through.
Gina had been invited to meet Bethany’s family, so when they left the hospital parking lot Gina followed Bethany’s mom’s car to the local high school, where they picked up the birth father, who was in the eleventh grade and African American, and together they all returned to Bethany’s family’s house. Gina was introduced to family and friends, and die few hours she spent with this extended birth family gave her a window into their lives. She concluded that they trusted her with this baby, and in return she would keep the lines of contact open so that when her daughter was old enough they would be available. 
John [the birth father], who I thought was remarkably brave to sit here with this extended family. And then Bethany wanted me to meet her best friends, who also stopped by.
Once this meeting ended, Gina boarded a plane and flew home with her baby. Since Isabelle’s birth, the only form of communication has been an exchange of letters and photos directly—not through an attorney, which is more usual. A few years after the adoption, when Bethany was a young adult and Isabelle was seven, Gina began thinking about the possibility of a reunion of sorts. At the time of the interview, Gina had recently had her first phone conversation since the adoption with Bethany and her mother. I asked her, “What does Isabelle want?”
She’s interested in meeting them. And she has very poignant questions around her birthday. She will say, “I’m really missing my birth mom.” She now is beginning to understand genetics and she knows that her height—she’s tall—is not going to come from me. And she has a lot ol questions: “Can I ever meet them?”
Yes, those words have definitely come out of her mouth. She was asking me even at five, “Who named me? Who held me first?” She’d like to go back and see the hospital where she was born. She’s a thinker and she’s curious. . . . After Bethany graduated from college she moved to New York. And Isabelle told my friend,
“My birth mother moved to New York to be nearer to me.” So fantasies are there.
Gina’s underlying philosophy about what her child would need was the result of the losses adoptive children face who do not know their genetic roots because of an ideology of closed adoption.2з Gina saw closed adoption as a loss for all the parties involved. She felt she would rather share her child, even if it might be painful for her, than raise a child who continued to have questions about herself. She thought that an open adoption would be a cushion for Isabelle because she could offer her a relationship to her birth family: 
And what I hope is that in the end, the closeness with your child—because I’m not a martyr—comes from offering them support. Again, whatever my losses are, she’s not responsible for them. And I think her loss is a big one. I don’t want her to feel like adult adoptees in their fifties and sixties who feel that their lives are ruined lives, I don’t want her to feel that.
Gina, however, wanted to make sure that if she allowed a relationship to develop between Bethany and Isabelle, it would not be fleeting.2! She described what she was seeking from the birth mother on behalf of her daughter:
The only thing I have to make sure about and talk to Bethany more about, who is still a young person, is that I do see this is a sort of lifelong commitment. So if we move forward I’d like her to be available and not just a one-time thing. I’d really like her to think about this as a commitment—that she feels she’s willing to do that before we go to the next step.
Gina sized up both Isabelle’s and Bethany’s readiness for this first meeting. Similar to other mothers in this study, Gina was the gatekeeper of information, telling Isabelle about her birth family and the letters they wrote. However, Gina wanted to control this reunion. At the time of the adoption, Bethany had been a tenth grader and unable to make a commitment to becoming Isabelle’s mother, but Gina had been ready to be a mother. With this reunion, though, Gina did not want Bethany to give Isabelle up again and open Isabelle up to feeling twice abandoned. Gina realized that contact with the birth family was an emotional risk for both herself and Isabelle, yet it was a risk she was willing to take.
For Caroline, who adopted a sibling group out of foster care, the risk of maintaining contact with the biological parents was much higher. At the time of the adoption Caroline was thirty-seven years old and the children were nine and ten years old. The children had been placed in foster care because the parents were alcoholic and abusive. This knowledge prompted Caroline to request a closed adoption. The four children from this sibling group had been in foster care for most of their childhood, yet when Caroline decided to adopt, only the younger two remained in the state’s custody; the older two were young adults and living on their own.2) Caroline was determined not to let her adopted son and daughter be hurt further by their biological parents. The children were angry and wanted no further contact with their biological mother, as they had been in foster care for years. They wanted a fresh start, which Caroline had hoped to give them. Somehow, however, despite the closed adoption, the biological mother managed to learn the children’s whereabouts—which Caroline had assumed could never happen. At the children’s request, she intercepted the biological mother’s attempted contact.
When the children were fifteen and sixteen she received a call from a social worker in the foster care system, who informed her that the biological mother was extremely ill. Caroline was torn between wishing to protect her children and wanting her children to have closure. She took them to the hospital for what she thought would be a final goodbye.
The biological mother was in an alcohol-related seizure and went into a coma and she was unconscious for two weeks. Somebody called me and said, “Just so you know, the kids’ birth mother is in the hospital.” So I said to the kids, ’cause they were like fifteen and sixteen at the time, “I think it’s really important to go see her and say what you need to say.” I told them that even though she was unconscious, she could hear them or they could write it or whatever. And they were saying, “No way. We’re not going. We do not want to.” And I said, “Well,
I know that.” And I can’t believe that I was kind of pushing that. But I really felt it was important that they have some closure and get to say what they needed to say to her. And of course she survived! Which then turned upside down the apple cart for those poor kids, especially my daughter. Because now she felt so guilty.
Oh, my goodness! So it’s been quite the adventure.
When the biological mother left the hospital, the children were again inundated with phone calls. Both Caroline and the children, having already created a new life separate from the biological mother, agreed that her attempts to contact them were unwelcome. Caroline told her so directly. And then she said:
“You really cannot call here anymore. The kids have your number. It’s sitting on the refrigerator. And if they want to call you, you need to let them call you.
You can’t keep calling here.” But of course she didn’t because she started drinking again and then she called up while she was drunk.
Interestingly enough, even though Caroline agreed legally to a closed adoption, because the children had two additional older siblings, she also willingly agreed to allow contact among the four siblings, the former foster parents, and the children’s biological grandparents. Yet even this arrangement proved to be an emotional roller coaster ride. While Caroline and the adopted siblings established a close relationship with the eldest nonadopted daughter and her husband, their ties to the other nonadopted older sibling became more problematic.
So we stay in touch with their older brother and sister all the time. And the older brother wasn’t so much a good idea once he started doing a lot of criminal things.
But the reason I finally cut it off with the eldest brother was because the birth mother was trying to use my son. The birth mother called him at school wanting to know if Joe would give his Social Security number to the older brother, who was in trouble with the police. She lied and told the school that she was in a coma.
At that point I said to her, “Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. That you would be willing to put at risk this child is not acceptable to me. Please don’t call here again.” So… I mean she drank. So it’s like telling the wall.
When Caroline decided at age forty-six, the year I met her, to adopt a second sibling group out of the Department of Social Services—three Hispanic children ages four, seven, and eight—she made sure that it was indeed a closed adoption, unwilling to have the same kind of emotional pull repeat itself. Despite the legal status of the adoption as closed, Caroline was not opposed to allowing her children to contact their birth mother in the future and would be willing to ask the agency to help them in their search.
Gina and Caroline represent two different routes to expanded kin situations. Gina’s first meeting with her daughter’s birth family gave her confidence that these were decent people whom she trusted and respected for their decision that Bethany was just too young to raise a child—the reason Isabelle became Gina’s daughter. By contrast, Caroline’s adopted children did not come from a loving home environment and instead had spent years in foster care. They were at risk because of the instability in their young lives. Caroline felt that their biological mother and older nonadopted biological brother could only bring more heartache, not offer anything positive.
When adoptive mothers seek to expand kinship ties in order to fill in identity gaps for their children, they also act as gatekeepers of their children’s outside relationships and seek to limit contact to only biological kin who will be beneficial to their children. In an ideal world, adoptive mothers would welcome genetic kin in their lives in order to bolster their children’s sense of self. However, women who adopt out of the foster care system—and particularly those who adopt older children—often blow from the beginning of these placements that the biological parents may be harmful to their children’s formative identity. Caroline was torn between resisting a biological mother who tried to push her way in and hoping that that mother might reform her ways. Time proved that her children’s biological mother would only continue to be a persistent source of pain. Yet it was much more difficult for Caroline to simply close off all contact because she and her adoptive children did have a good relationship with some of their other biological kin. She said that she did not fully recognize how problematic adopting adolescent children out of foster care could be.