Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Guest post: An Option You Didn't Know Existed: Open International Adoption

The post below is written by a fellow adoptive mother from Democratic Republic of Congo.  
I never thought that I’d have an open adoption.  Choosing international adoption -- from Congo, no less, the proverbial “heart of darkness” -- made that option seem impossible.  That is, until it wasn’t.

As with many international adoptions, my son’s story unraveled soon after we landed
in the United States.  In Kinshasa, I had given his foster mother my email address in a
letter thanking her for caring for him.  She sent me an email within a week of returning
to her village.  As we corresponded, some shocking facts began to emerge. My son
was supposedly an only child who had never had contact with his birth father.  From
his foster mother, I learned that my son actually had siblings and a birth father who was
very much in his life prior to his adoption.  Less than a month after I brought my son
home, I was in direct contact with his birth father.  We continue to email regularly, more
than 2 years later.  I send pictures and updates weekly in a mix of Swahili and English,
and he writes back when he can (approximately once every six weeks).  He thanks me
repeatedly for “saving” his son (a phrase that I hate), and tells me that he is so happy
that his son is with me in the United States.  Because he views me as part of his family
now, he has asked me for my advice on major life decisions, such as remarrying and
whether he should flee his village for good and search of a safer place to live.  He is
desperately poor and living in a war-torn region, yet manages to find a computer on
a somewhat regular basis and send us a message to let us know that he is safe and
thinking of us.  He has never asked me for money.

Having a connection with my son’s birth family -- the thing I once thought to be
impossible -- has been one of the most amazing experiences for our family. My son
will ask me to take a picture to send to his baba (Swahili for father), or will announce
that his baba will be so proud when he learns that he can swim underwater or ride a
bike.  The pictures that his baba sends -- including pictures from his wedding to my
son’s Congo mama and more recent shots of him with my son’s siblings -- adorn our
walls.  We eagerly await word from him, and read his emails together.  My son tells me
that he knows that his baba loves him so much and that he is lucky to have two families
who love him.  We are planning and saving for a trip to visit his baba and the rest of his
Congo family when my son is a bit older and when the region is a bit safer. 
An open international adoption is not always simple or straightforward.  I struggle
with what pictures to send -- can I really send snapshots of our trip to the beach to a
man who has been living with his family in a refugee camp in Uganda for the past 6
months?  Can I send him a picture of my son at an amusement park when he struggles
just to provide basic food and shelter for his family? I worry constantly about their
safety, particularly as rebel activity continues to threaten the security of the region.  At
times, I’m wracked with guilt -- that I have so much while he has so little and that tragic
circumstances forced him to choose adoption for his youngest son.  And of course, it is
an entirely lopsided relationship; I have virtually all of the power because I am the one
with the resources. I could end the contact at any time, and I am the only one who can
realistically plan a visit.  It is also a limited arrangement by necessity:  we can’t Skype
or FaceTime, we can’t otherwise talk on the phone, and we certainly can’t see each
other in person since we live thousands of miles away from each other. Despite these
limitations, it is one of the most valuable relationships in our lives:  a connection to my
son’s birth family and country.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

My agency did not set up this open international adoption.  They weren’t thrilled when
I established contact or when I learned that my son’s story was partially fabricated by
the agency and/or its employees (thankfully, the crucial details -- such as his reason
for being available for adoption and his father’s desire for him to be adopted -- have
been confirmed).  But what my agency wanted is irrelevant -- this open adoption is
what is best for my son.  And it proves that it IS possible to have an open international
adoption.  Even in remote villages in one of the poorest countries of the world, the
internet exists -- and it permits a desperately poor itinerant farmer living in a war zone to
reach across the world with messages of love for his son.  If your agency tells you that
it isn’t possible, don’t believe them -- reach out to those who cared for your child(ren) or
hire an investigator to find family, and make that connection.  I wrote one simple letter,
and it led to an amazing, invaluable relationship that I wouldn’t trade for the world.


T & T Livesay said...

all for it! open international adoption is not impossible at all - more people have cell phones than running water - and doing what is best for the child is what we should all care about .... plus, respecting and reachign out to first families is a huge way to show your child they are free to feel and sayanything they need to feel about their first mom/dad/siblings.

June said...

Love this! Our experience has been very similar. I wish there was more conversation about open international adoptions - thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. Our DRC adoption in complete in court, but we are still waiting on a visa (like a lot of people right now). While I can't directly contact my daughter's birth family until the visa goes through, I fully intend to pursue contact with her father as soon as she is home -- while we have the info from our PI and embassy investigation and can find him easily. I cannot control the reasons why she was abandoned -- her mother died, her father is unwell, and he and the extended family are already overburdened with caring for other children. However, the circumstances suck for them too and they deserve the peace of mind knowing that their daughter is doing well and knows about her first family and culture. Especially for the father who has already lost his wife, is losing his daughter, and may not have long to live himself. There are risks, but I feel that the potential benefit far outweighs all of that.

What, in your opinion, is the extent to which such an arrangement is appropriate? Just letters and photos? Visits? What about limited financial support such as paying school fees for siblings? There is definitely a fine line to walk, as it would be inappropriate to create incentives for more families who may not need to choose adoption to go that route.

Anonymous said...

Anon -- I am the author of this piece. I meant to answer earlier, but Blogger ate my comments!

First, CONGRATULATIONS on your adoption! I am so thrilled that you're looking towards an open adoption, because it truly has been wonderful for my son (as described above).

As for parameters, I think it truly depends on how your relationship develops. Right now, we stick to emails and photos. I've had to establish firm boundaries with some family members who started to demand money and make up outrageous stories (that I could easily disprove). My son's father has never asked me for money, and right now, it'd be difficult to get it to him anyways since he's in a refugee camp. I have thought about setting up a fund for school fees and other essentials, but haven't quite figured out the best way to do that (Western Union gets expensive!). We are planning & saving for a trip, but I haven't told his family about it -- I don't want to create any expectations, particularly because I genuinely don't know if/when it'll be safe for us to travel to their region.

So I suppose my best advice is to see how things play out -- I think you'll get a gut feeling on what is appropriate and doable as your relationship develops. I think it'll change for us as our life situations change -- my son's father recently remarried, and I'm sure that he could use help supporting a new family, for example. I'm mostly interested in making sure that my son has a connection to his birth family, and that I do whatever I can to help them (actually, if you look back on Holly's site, Congolese law actually requires that APs financially support birth families. I had no idea until recently!!).