By ELIZABETH FOY LARSEN
Helen was across the park when we spotted each other and waved. I could tell by the way she buried her head into her sister’s shoulder that she was already crying. We were, too.
My family was in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, where my daughter was born. It was our second trip since 2006, when my husband, Walter, and I hired what in adoption circles is known as a searcher to find Helen, our daughter’s birth mother. We asked if she wanted to know what had happened to the infant she had kissed goodbye on a September morning in 2004 when she was not in a position to raise her.
She did want to know. Desperately.
In the United States, the overwhelming majority of birth parents meet and choose their child’s adoptive parents. But most international adoptions are closed, meaning that many international adoptees leave the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with almost none of the family background that domestic adoptees take for granted. Genetic histories of heart disease, thyroid issues, alcoholism? Gone. So is the grandmother who loved to dance, the uncle who lived for soccer, the family recipes that hitch us to the past.
Our decision to open our daughter’s adoption was possibly reckless and probably naïve. We did it because her foster mother had met Helen and told us she loved her very much. If American women and men deserve to know what becomes of their children, it seemed hypocritical to deny Helen what we saw as a human right.
What is more, we knew that decades of research in the United States concluded that open adoptions are healthier not only for the person who is adopted but also for the birth family and the adoptive family.
We have two biological sons whose blue eyes and long legs are just like Walter’s. We wanted our daughter to know how she came by her dimples and why she loves to draw. And when she has questions about her adoption, we want her to be able to go to the source, not rely on a fable made up by Walter and me about a woman who lived far away and loved her daughter so much that she wanted her to have a better life.
Still, I was terrified. Were we inappropriately imposing our Oprah-style enthusiasm about the healing power of truth onto a culture that didn’t accept or even want it? Would the search expose Helen and put her in danger? What if the facts of our daughter’s adoption were so sordid we couldn’t bear them? What if we didn’t like Helen?
Most important, what if our daughter one day resented that we made such a colossal decision when she was too young to decide if an open adoption was right for her?
Most of those fears proved to be unwarranted, though we are still waiting to learn what our daughter will make of this when she is old enough to process it. But we suddenly had another challenge: How were Walter and I going to navigate a relationship with a woman we didn’t know but with whom we shared so much?
How could we discuss the complexity of our connection when Helen didn’t speak English and our smattering of Spanish could be so easily misunderstood? And what about the all-too-real truth that we live in a four-bedroom house with remodeled bathrooms while she scrambles to find jobs that pay a living wage?
While ethical domestic adoptions have the support of social workers, psychologists and studies to support adoptees and help guide birth parents and adoptive parents, families in open international adoptions are on their own. Few adoption agencies hold panels on whether to give your e-mail address to your child’s other family or whether to offer them financial help.
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