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Gifts, Gratitude and Sliding Doors

The calendar midpoint between Thanksgiving and Christmas coincides with Hanukkah. It also highlights an emotional intersection for parents by birth and adoption, and individuals who arrived in families via adoption, assisted reproduction and foster care. For many of us, instead of a well-managed intersection equipped with stop, go, and caution lights, it feels more like a high speed roundabout with traffic feeding in from various avenues, lots of honking, periodic crashes, and drivers and passengers alike questioning how they got involved, struggling to manage their fear or anger, and wondering which exit might lead to Sanity Street.

Gifts and Not-gifts

Adoptive parents often refer to the children they bring into their family as a gift. This is understandable, since parents who conceive and raise children usually feel the same way, and couples who are unable to conceive may have a deeper sense of appreciation for the opportunity to become parents. But many birth/first parents, especially those from the closed adoption Baby Scoop Era (1940-1980) point out that the experience of losing a child to adoption against their will was more like an amputation than offering a gift intended to complete the lives of another couple. Most adoptees raised by devoted parents receive many gifts, blessings and opportunities in their adoptive families, yet many of us still struggle to view the loss of family continuity we experienced as anything but a gaping hole in our souls. Resolving the tension, integrating the meaning behind the stories of our two families, is one of the major life tasks of adoptees, according to Rafael Javier, Ph.D.

Gratitude and Not-gratitude

Many adoptive parents are forever grateful for the children they adopt, raise, and send into adult life, and reasonably hope for some measure of love, gratitude and loyalty in return. Some who began with deep thanksgiving for their bouncing new baby later change their minds for any of a variety of reasons, and seek to return or re-home the child. Some birth/first parents who, after thorough counseling and a decision based on informed consent in an open or semi-open adoption, feel an initial rush of relief and gratitude, though bittersweet, that their baby will have a stable, loving home. Having a chance to meet and select the new parents seems to help reduce trauma. But circumstances can change, open adoptions may close (at the wish of either adoptive or birth/first parents), and time may provide deeper insight into the magnitude of what happened, turning gratitude into grief and regret.

For the majority of adoptees who are adopted into homes that are, in fact, stable and loving, the reasons to be grateful for the affection, support and generosity showered upon us are myriad. For those adopted by abusive, emotionally absent, or addictive families, the experience adds injury to loss, yet the societal message that adoptees should be grateful for the lives we were given continues to be broadcast. A certain percentage of adoptees seem to be able to come to terms with their story, feel gratitude to their birth/first parents for "making the courageous decision to give them a better life" and settle into the view that their adoptive family is their "real" family. Periodically, social media conversations between those with differing viewpoints based on experience and genuine feelings result in innuendos and accusations by one group that the other is in the fog of denial; or conversely, whiny, selfish, ungrateful and narcissistic. There may be an element of truth in both perceptions.

Sliding Doors

Remember the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow? The film follows two story lines: one in which she gets on one train after losing her job and goes home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman; in the other, she misses the first train and continues in the relationship. Both choices result in different struggles. As the linked article points out, it illustrates the quintessential power and "what ifs" of various choices that affect our lives.

I remember visiting the midwestern city where I was conceived and receiving a narrated tour from my aunt Linda, my birth/first mother's sister. As we drove, she pointed out a lake and said, "Here's where you probably would have gone swimming in the summers." A few minutes later she said, "Here's where you probably would have gone to church." She told me, "If I had only known about you, we would have kept you and raised you." This statement and its attendant fantasies still makes me weep and wonder about the "what ifs."

But if my first parents, who were reportedly very much in love, had taken a different metaphorical train and married each other and raised me, five of my half-siblings would likely not exist. I would not have had the family, friends and experiences that have shaped me. I would not have grown up near the mountains. I would not have tasted the southern cooking of my maternal adoptive grandmother. I would not have been taught to ride a horse by my paternal adoptive step-grandfather. I would not have had the deep satisfaction of seeing an amazing team of advocates work to change unjust laws in Colorado. My birth/first parents might have lived longer. Or they might have divorced over his penchant for infidelity.

I don't know where the other train would have taken me in life, and I cannot and will not ever know. But I do know that the life I have been given is the only life I will ever have. It is a gift. And I am grateful. And I live with heartache, challenges and questions that will never go away. All I do know is that a different train, or roundabout exit, would have produced a different set of blessings, challenges, opportunities, questions, heartaches and choices.

This holiday season, let's try not allow the "what ifs" to blind us to all the good in "what is." Peace, joy, love and contentment to you, however you celebrate.

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