South Shore Group Helps Open Doors
by Cathy Corcoran
Mary Willett of Halifax says she always knew she wanted to be a mother, but by the time she was in her early thirties, she still hadn’t find the right man to marry. A professional trainer with Clean Harbors, Mary had also spent several years working as a Peace Corps volunteer in an orphanage in Jamaica. “I knew there were thousands of children desperate to find families,” Mary said. “As I got older, I started thinking about adopting a child of my own.”
But when she began researching adoption, she was overwhelmed.
“There are emotional, legal, and financial issues to deal with,” Mary says. “You wonder whether to adopt a baby or an older child, an American or a foreign-born child. You have to learn about state, federal and international laws regulating adoption, and you have to be prepared to wait months or even years before you meet your child. I knew I needed help with the whole process.”
Mary attended a meeting of the South Shore Chapter of the Open Door Society, a non-profit group that provides information and support for families of adoption. There, she found the help she needed to find her way through the adoption maze. Today, she is the mother of four year-old Anna Rose Mei-Ping, and will travel to China in the next few months to meet her second child.
“Most people don’t even know where to begin when they’re thinking about adopting a child,” says Tracey Ouellette of Rockland. “The Open Door Society is a great place to meet other people who have gone through the same process, and have answers to the questions that come up in any adoption.” Tracey and her husband, Martin, have been active with Open Doors for several years.
Tracey and Martin adopted biracial twins, Thomas and Emily, shortly after they were born. The twins are now seven years-old, and the Oullettes also have a daughter, who is 18 months-old. Tracey says she’s made close friends with other Open Doors families, and learned valuable coping skills from the group’s meetings where parents discuss how to be ready when people are thoughtless or even downright rude to their children.
“I’ve had strangers come up to me at the mall and ask, ‘Where did you get those children?’” Tracey said. “They ask how much they cost, or if my husband is African American.”
She adds, “I always have an answer ready. My children have always known they were adopted. Everything is out in the open. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, but some things are personal and not the business of complete strangers. I respect my childrens’ stories, and their right to tell them as they see fit.”
The children’s birth mother is part of their story too. Tracey and Martin maintain contact with her, and the twins know of her existence, but she doesn’t visit the children. “They’re not yet ready to handle that emotionally,” Tracey says. “Once you open that door up, you can’t close it again.”
But other parents have different situations, and Open Doors helps them too. Margaret* and her husband, Bill,* had an open adoption; they and their three year-old daughter visit regularly with the birth mother and her family. (*Margaret and Bill used assumed names to protect the privacy of the birth family.)
“Some of our friends told us we were crazy when we were considering this,” Margaret says, “but it’s worked out beautifully for us.”
A professional couple who married in their late 30s, Margaret and Bill underwent years of unsuccessful infertility treatments. By the time they were considering adoption, both were over 40. Rather than wait years to adopt a child, they networked with family and friends, and found a birth mother who planned to place her infant for adoption.
“Legally, even though we found her ourselves, we still had to work with an agency,” Margaret says. She and Bill registered with the birth mother’s agency, and underwent extensive interviews and a home study prior to adopting their daughter.
Typically, agencies conduct five or six interviews with prospective parents. A couple is interviewed together, then separately, and asked questions about their own upbringing, their beliefs about raising children, how they will discipline youngsters, where they see themselves in five years, in ten years. “It’s a very thorough process,” Margaret says.
Prospective parents compile a portfolio, which contains letters, pictures, and a description of them, their home, their extended family, and their thoughts and hopes for their child. The birth parents review the portfolios and make the final decision where the child will be placed. In Margaret’s and Bill’s case, the birth parents and grandparents wanted to maintain contact with the child.
Although Margaret stresses that the birth family are not co-parents, she and Bill have become close friends with them. “I have nothing but respect for my daughter’s birth parents,” Margaret said. “They weren’t in a position to raise a child, but they loved her. That’s why they made the ultimate sacrifice and placed her for adoption.”
All the parents stressed appreciation for birth parents and the use of positive adoption language. “We don’t say someone gave her baby away,” Margaret said. “We say she placed the baby for adoption.”
“Adoption is an event, not an adjective,” Tracey Ouellette said. “We aren’t ‘adoptive parents;’ we’re parents who adopted children.”
Adoption may be a single event, but some problems are unique to parents who have adopted their children. Sharon* and her husband Jim* (not their real names) took their son, George*, into their home at the age of three, before he was even legally free to be adopted. George’s birth mother had disappeared, but the birth father was attempting to gain custody, even though he was involved with alcohol and other drugs and refused to comply with court visitation orders.
“For the first year, we’d get George dressed up once a month and take him to Boston for a court-ordered visit with his birth father,” Sharon said. “He’d sit there at the agency, on the edge of his chair, waiting. Half the time, the father just never showed up.”
George had lived in five different foster homes by the time he was three years-old, and had emotional problems from his losses. “He was an angry little boy at first,” Sharon said. “He seemed almost devoid of emotion much of the time. He never laughed or cried or sang songs or played, but he was so desperate for love, he’d approach strangers at the supermarket and try to hug them.”
When Sharon tried to teach George not to talk with strangers or touch them, he balked. One day, he asked her if he could go home with a nice lady they met at the mall. “This was a complete stranger,” Sharon said. “I was horrified. I cried all the way home, wondering if we’d made a terrible mistake by taking George.”
Open Door parents say that situations like Sharon’s can be common when parents adopt older children, but counseling, group discussion, and being with other parents who are in the same boat can be a great help.
Sharon, her husband, and George attended counseling sessions for nearly a year, and gradually, the boy began to heal. Now a happy six year-old, George is thriving in kindergarten, and the family is in the process of adopting their second son, two year-old David*.
“David has the problems that any two year-old has,” Sharon said, “but he came with his own emotional baggage too.” She says she sometimes doubts her ability to cope, and says that adopting two boys is the most difficult thing she’s ever done.
Of course, doubts are common to all parents. Because she is single, Mary says she wondered if she’d be able to handle the demands of parenthood. Margaret and Bill say that at first, they worried if they could cope because of their age. “Now I can’t imagine my life without my daughter,” Margaret says. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Mary Willett says she understands completely. Mary still attends Open Doors meetings when she can, but her own mother doesn’t really understand why she needs a group. “To her, Anna Rose is just another grandchild, no different from her other grandchildren,” Mary said. “She loves them all.
Mary and her daughter share the same birthday, June 23. Mary says that, in China, people say they share a “red thread,” something special that connects them to one another. “Sometimes, I’ll look at a picture,” Mary says, “and I’ll realize ‘My God! Anna is Chinese!’ But she’s Irish now too, one of our own.”
Although she has her difficult days, Sharon says she agrees with Mary. “At Christmas time, I went to my son’s kindergarten party, and there was George in the front row, smiling and singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as loud as he could,” she said.
“This is a boy who couldn’t laugh, and couldn’t sing when we met him three years ago. Now he’s a happy healthy six year-old. To see the transformation in him has been unbelievable. It’s like watching a flower blossom. I know my husband and I are blessed that this beautiful little boy has come into our lives.”
“Every adoption is different, every family is different,” says Tracey Ouellette, “but I’ve found that most parents who adopt have really big hearts. Most of us have been through so much, we find it easy to be compassionate, and sympathetic to others. We share the incredible joy of being parents, and we want to pass that along to others.”
For more information on the Open Door Society of Massachusetts, call 781-878-6657.