Dawn's credentials far outweigh mine as she has not only been published in Adoption Families magazinge, but also Parenting, Yoga Journal, and Wondertime. She has also been featured in Time magazine and the Washington Times and is currently working on a book with Jenna Hatfield that examines how openness is changing adoption in America. Her writing is magnificent, her spirit kind.
Dawn and her hubby, Brett, have two adorable kiddos. Noah was born to them in January of 1997 and Madison was born to her first mom, Pennie, in March 2004. I cannot even tell you how much I appreciate Dawn's candidness. As a fairly new, adoptive mom, I know I have a lot to learn and I drank in her words of experience.
So...grab a cup of java and enjoy my new friend on this cold, rainy afternoon.
You said this in one of your archived posts (it gripped me):
“I first started to get a sense of my inability to do it all perfectly when I realized I was infertile. A huge part of resolving my infertility was giving up this need I had to give him a sibling in what I believed was perfect time. I wanted him to have a specific big brother experience and once I realized that I couldn’t give him that, I understood that he also didn’t need it. That it was ok that I couldn’t make his life perfect.”
You talked about resolving you infertility. Can you share a little about that process and what it looked like? Has the infertility hold loosened its grip on your heart or does it still cause pain?
It was an ongoing process that started (although I didn’t know it) the day we decided to start trying for a sibling for Noah. I have recurrent miscarriages (I had two before we conceived Noah) and my doctors could never really give me a reason why. So part of grieving my infertility was grieving a lot of miscarriages, which made me wary of getting pregnant at all. I mean, I could get pregnant but stay pregnant? I didn’t jump up and down when I got a positive pregnancy test; I got terrified.
We did go to see an infertility doc and we ended up doing two IUIs – one with Clomid and one with injectables. We knew that was it for us because we knew that IVF wasn’t something that either of us was interested in since we didn’t want to deal with the ethics of frozen embryos, storing embryos, etc. Ironically we thought adoption had fewer ethical potholes. Little did we know!
Anyway, Brett wasn’t that interested in adoption (he thought it was something we could never afford) so letting go of further treatment meant letting go of another baby. Once I let go of getting pregnant, I realized, you know what? I want to parent again. Which is when I started looking seriously at adoption. When we found a program that fit our budget, we were good to go.
Does infertility still cause me pain? No. I have some “what if” thoughts now and then but these aren’t fertility specific. It’s more about wondering what it would be like to be a whole different person. Like sometimes I think, “Rats! I will never know what it’s like to be a professional musician!” (I have no musical talent; I just wonder what it would be like.) Or, “I wonder what it’s like to be a high-powered executive with a nanny and a housekeeper?” I don’t really want to be a high-powered executive with a nanny and a housekeeper, I’m just curious about it. Likewise I wonder what it would be like to have a surprise pregnancy or have a bunch of kids who all look like each other or to be able to say, “I think I’ll get pregnant” and then do it. But no, I have no more grief about it.
You also wrote: As a parent, one of my challenges has been to find the careful balance between taking responsibility appropriately and taking on too much responsibility. For example, my infertility journey wasn’t such a terrific thing for Noah. I was preoccupied and depressed and Noah couldn’t understand why I wanted another kid when he was so happy being an only child. There’s an entry somewhere in my archives where he said to me, “Why am I not enough for you?” I know it’s not the same as an adoptee struggling with hard-core feelings of rejection but I’m saying that every parent has to understand the way their choices impact our kids AND the limits of our ability to address that impact. Ultimately, our kids need to figure out how to live with inconvenient truths.
What would you say to families that are aching for another baby/child?
I wouldn’t say a thing but I’d listen. And if they were open to it, I’d tell them that it won’t always hurt this much and that it will get better. But I know that unless you’re ready to hear that, it doesn’t ring true.
What is the family dynamic having one child born to you and one child born to Pennie? More specifically, what attitudes/behaviors have you seen between Noah and Madison? What sort of questions have surfaced?
Oh my goodness, there’s really too much to even say. The adjustment was very hard for Madison and brought up a lot of her grief about the adoption. She couldn’t understand why Roscoe (her little brother) got to stay with Pennie and she had to come live with us. She was very jealous and very angry. Since Roscoe’s arrival, it’s gotten better although she still has a lot of processing to do. Recently when Pennie mentioned that she’s looking forward to having another baby, it all came up for her again – she was pretty mad about it and she will randomly bring it up. (She just brought it up with Brett when they were headed to the park. She said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, Daddy, but Pennie is going to have ANOTHER baby. I don’t know what she’s going to do with all those babies in her house!”)
Madison has really needed to know that Pennie grieves her, too and that Roscoe is not a replacement. She needs to know that Pennie misses her as much as she misses Pennie. Having that reassurance – that she’s not the only one hurting, that she is incredibly valuable to Pennie – has been a big part of her coming to terms with Roscoe’s arrival.
In other ways, her adjustment has been similar to any big sibling adjustment like jealousy that people make such a fuss over a baby, tremendous pride in “her” baby, and falling in love with someone smaller who is pretty dang adorable and thinks she walks on water.
As to Noah, he’s had a lot of sympathy towards Madison and has been a huge supporter of hers. He’s listened to her when she’s upset about Roscoe and before Roscoe was born, he talked to her a lot about his own adjustment and how scared he was, too, and reassured her that it would all work out. He’s been pretty great.
He thinks Roscoe is very cute and enjoys him but he’s never been much of a baby person. I think once Roscoe is walking and talking that they will have more of a relationship. Fortunately, Pennie and Tommy (Pennie’s partner) both see Noah as kind of an honorary big brother because that is definitely how Noah sees himself! He and Pennie have a great relationship that has really grown over the years. She was a big sister herself so they bond over that.
We call her Pennie. We’ve always called her Pennie but when I first started blogging I used J since when we matched with her, we of course had no idea if she was THE one or not so we were cautious. Later when I wrote an essay about us, she gave me permission to use Jessica for the story. Still later I asked her if I could just call her Pennie already because some of my readers had met her and knew her as Pennie, too. So we call her Pennie. (She is very integrated in our lives. She lives across town but it’s a small town so that’s not far and there’s a lot of mixing of our Facebook friends!)
My relationship with her? We’re pretty close. I kind of think of her as a little sister (I’m fourteen years older). I enjoy her a lot – she’s funny and smart and interesting. I admire her a lot, too, because she has tremendous perseverance and bravery. She and Madison both have this sunny personality type that inspires me to try not to get mired in my gloom. I have learned a lot from her and I love her.
Madison’s relationship has definitely grown and deepened as she’s become more cognizant of what having a birth mother means. It was a process. When she was much younger, she knew Pennie was special and she knew Pennie was her birth mom but she didn’t quite get what that meant. Then when she was a little less than two, she figured it out and that was HUGE. It was huge and it was painful for her (for Madison). It was also huge for Pennie who realized how vital she was to Madison’s life. It’s like something “clicked” in Madison’s brain and their relationship got onto a new, deeper groove.
Lately Madison’s world has been about making sense of having two mommies and her feelings of loyalty and insecurity about that. Losing one mommy has made her more worried about losing two so that’s an ongoing discussion especially because the more she shares how much she loves Pennie, the more worried she gets that I will be angry or hurt about this. I have had to be very very very explicit that I am NOT in competition with Pennie nor is Pennie with me. I have had to say deliberately (there’s a lot about this in my blog), “You can hug Pennie. It makes me happy to see you hug her. I LOVE when you hug her!” (that conversation started here)
It’s been very gratifying to see them come into their own relationship!!!
Since I've only been an adoptive mom for 9 months (many of my readers less!), I'm really interested in the progression of Madison and how she's grown with her adoption story. How did you start out talking about adoption? When did she start asking questions? What sort of questions did she ask? What sort of questions did Noah ask?
We didn’t start talking about adoption – it has always been an ongoing discussion. It’s a continuation of a dialogue that began with Noah when we first decided to adopt. (We got the call that Pennie chose our profile on his seventh birthday. I had a house full of kids and moms when the agency called so there was a lot of excitement coming over the line from our end!) Noah’s questions at first were about the transracialness of the adoption; he was very worried about having a family that didn’t “match.” A lot of our earlier discussions were about that and about the practicalities of where the baby would sleep and whether he would have to share his toys.
When Madison was born, we knew we wanted him to meet Pennie along with Madison even though beforehand we figured he shouldn’t meet the baby until the papers were signed. But then we realized that he was also emotionally invested in what might happen and that if Pennie ended up parenting, he would need to see her and see Madison and know that this was ok. And if she ended up placing, then we wanted him to meet Pennie first as Madison’s mom so he would understand who she was and – in case the openness petered out – he would have a memory of it to share with his little sister because we knew Madison would be hungry for details. (At that point, we had NO IDEA what our open adoption would look like. We were all just feeling our way.)
Anyway, it was around eighteen months or so that Madison started getting a handle on her adoption story. We had a friend who was pregnant and Madison, like most toddlers, was interested in that. She was intrigued by my friend’s belly and liked feeling the baby kick. She was very verbal very young so she asked a lot of questions. Then, this day, it all fell into place and she finally got it:
Since then her questions have gotten deeper. When she discovered that Roscoe was on his way and that she’d be a big sister, her questions began to focus on her birth dad, with whom we have no contact.
Now, looking back, what advice would you give to new adoptive parents?
It really depends on where they are in the process and what their concerns are. I’d encourage them to read the stories of adult adoptees – the happy and the angry and the sad and the joyful – and understand that we can’t control how our children feel about their adoptions. And that our kids can feel lots of different ways including happy, angry, sad and joyful. Also our job is not to save them from pain but to love them and offer comfort when they are pained. Over at OpenAdoptionSupport.com we get a lot of questions that go, “How can I protect my child from hurting over XYZ?” and the truth is, we can’t. Part of growing up is learning to process their stories and we can help our kids by being age-appropriately honest (and little kids understand a lot more than we realize) and by being open to the questions, thoughts and feelings.
Finally I would say, hey, just because your kids never bring up those hard topics doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. Sometimes we have to take the lead. Madison didn’t tell me she was afraid of hugging Pennie in front of me; I had to ask. Asking opened the floodgates and since then her relationships with Pennie and with me have improved. So it’s worth risking saying the “wrong” thing as long as you give your kid the chance to correct you and get it right.