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Part II of Our Interview With Dr. Gretchen Sisson, Author of Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood.

Part I of our interview with Dr. Gretchen Sisson can be found here. In Part II of Torie’s interview with Gretchen Sisson they talk about common popular culture tropes about birth mothers, the experience of open adoption for some of her research participants, and how open adoption can sometimes be used to coerce women into relinquishing their children. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Dr. Sisson’s new book Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood. 

What are some of the sterotypes you’ve witnessed about birth mothers?

There are a couple of archetypes of birthmothers. In my book, I look at pop culture and storytelling, and I have a chapter that looks at these myths around birth-motherhood. One myth is the “Juno” myth, this idea that closed adoption is an easy, obvious choice. You place the baby and are sad for a minute, and then a day later you're off riding your bike and happy and moving on. That is one common trope, that adoption is a really easy, straightforward decision with few emotional, physical, logistical ramifications for the mother. The other common trope is the trope of the “scary birth mother,” the baby-stealing birth mother who is going to want to take the baby back. You see that a lot in popular culture as well. Both of those archetypes come out of the same place; they come out of the idea that involving a birth mother is dangerous and scary and risky in some way. On one hand you have this Juno character as a kind of wish fulfillment, where the birth mother doesn't even want to be involved, which leads to this idea that a “good” birth mother doesn't even want or need to be present. If they do need or want to be present and involved, then that's a threat to the adoption itself. We don't have a model for what it means for a birth mother to be continually involved in their child's life in the adoptive family in a way that is meaningful and productive for all parties involved. We don't have models for what open adoption is, both for the people who have to live it, but also for people outside it. Even though openness is the norm in adoption, it remains an oddity in our broader cultural idea of adoption, and people who live in an open adoption are constantly having to figure out this relationship on their own in a world that doesn't understand what that looks like. I think that's why you have these contrasting myths about birth motherhood: one that a mother doesn't need, or want openness—let alone what a child needs or wants—and then the opposite where any involvement is  inherently dangerous. Both tropes offer no model for what most adoptions actually look like today, which makes it even harder for families that are trying to make open adoption work.

Did any of the women that you interviewed talk about Post Adoption Contact Agreements (PACAs) or share about any instances of reversed open adoptions or situations where parents decide later to close them?

Yes, only a few of them had verbal or written agreements. Oftentimes, if they were written, they believed that they were legally binding in some way and only later found out that they weren't. And a lot of mothers had less contact than they wanted, or than they hoped for, or than they had been led to believe they were going to get. 

I think that if some degree of openness didn't exist, 90% of the mothers that I interviewed would not have relinquished. They had basically no interest in closed adoptions, and openness was the only condition under which they would have relinquished. I think open adoption is better and healthier than closed adoption. I think it changes the shape of what the adoption trauma looks like for relinquishing mothers – but it's also good marketing. It is a necessary condition for a relinquishment to happen. 

I interviewed a few mothers who had very radical open adoptions. They were babysitting their children, spending weekends together or going on family vacations with the adoptive family. One of my favorite examples is of a woman who I asked, when was the last time you saw your child? She said, oh, when did I see her last?  I haven't seen her for a few days. But I saw her dad this weekend, because I was buying a new TV and they have a really big truck. So her dad drove me to BestBuy to pick up the TV because they have a truck. It was as if someone were to ask: when did you last see your brother-in-law? She's truly part of their family. She sees them all the time, has a really good relationship with both adoptive parents and feels very comfortable with them and they feel very comfortable with her. And importantly, the adoptive parents have never viewed her as a threat. When her daughter was eight years old she asked, can I call you mom? And she said, well, look, why don't you talk to your mother? She knew that her adoptive mother would encourage their daughter to call her mom if she wanted to, and so she did. She tried it out for a little while and then she went back to calling her by her first name. She said that felt more comfortable. This mother told me, I got extremely lucky. There was nothing about this system of adoption or the way I was counseled that led to this outcome. This was just an extremely good, close match with people who have always wanted me to be very deeply involved in my daughter's life and don't view my presence as a threat. And we happen to just get along really well. I see them more than I see my own sister. We're good friends. 

One of the mothers I interviewed in 2010 talked about babysitting her one-year-old daughter for a weekend when her daughter's adoptive parents had to go to a wedding. And at the time, she was like, look at this beautiful open adoption that we have! I got to be with my daughter for the whole weekend. It was wonderful. I asked her in 2020, when we last spoke, you mentioned that you got to babysit your daughter for the weekend. And she said, oh yeah, did I tell you that she fell off the bed? She hadn’t mentioned that. I'm a mom, I have three kids, every single one of my kids rolled off the bed at some point; it just happens. And she said that she was so scared to take her daughter to the ER, because she was worried that that would lead the parents to cut off contact. So she set an alarm on her phone for every five minutes, so that she would wake up throughout the night to make sure that her daughter was still okay. She was insecure in their relationship and she was so terrified of jeopardizing it. It was certainly an open adoption, but she still had this insecurity and anxiety about their relationship which made it really hard. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there were mothers who didn't know their child's last name or what city they live in. But because they had picked out the adoptive parents when they were pregnant, they were told that was an open adoption. Because they got pictures in the mail from the agency twice a year, they were told that was an open adoption. One mother I spoke to had in-person visits with her son once a year, and her son didn't know who she was. She was just a friend of his mom’s. She was considering cutting visits, saying, I think I'm gonna stop doing the visits, because they're painful to me. I mostly want to do this for his benefit, so that he has a relationship with me and he knows who I am. But if he doesn't even know I'm his mother, he's not getting anything out of it. I think I'm gonna stop the visits for a few years until his parents are ready. She was also parenting a toddler at the time and she'd bring her daughter to the visits, and she commented, my three year old knows that this is her brother. And I can't trust her not to say, ‘Oh you grew in my mama's belly!’ I'm not gonna get a babysitter for my daughter for eight hours so that I can drive and see him when he doesn't even know who I am. But again, on paper, that's an open adoption because she gets in-person visits once a year.

That really does show just how broad the spectrum of experience is in open adoption and that it's not a fix all. I do think that's part of the marketing: Do the adoption, because you'll have openness, and if you have openness, you won't have trauma.

Right. I talked about this in the book, but there are plenty of mothers who have lost older children to foster care and they're pregnant again and private agencies will say, if you do a private adoption, you get to choose the adoptive parents, and you get to have some degree of openness. You're highly at risk for losing this child to foster care but if you choose private adoption, then you can be more in control and have openness. First, it's not a foregone conclusion that they're going to lose custody of this new child. Secondly, even if that child is in foster care, the goal is still reunification most of the time. And third, private adoption is a permanent legal solution in a way that foster care is not intended to be. Using the hook of openness to pull mothers into private adoption is very real, particularly for women who are at risk for family policing, Black women especially.

What would you say to somebody who asks, why do we need more research?  What is the point of additional research on birth parents and adoption?

I think that not only the way that adoption is practiced, but the way that the general public thinks about adoption and understands the role of adoption, is so divorced from what adoption is actually like for the people who live it. I think for some people, it doesn't take much additional understanding to radically change how they understand adoption. Someone close to me was talking about wanting to adopt, and my question was: why? Why is that something that you're interested in? And she said, A lot of babies need homes. And I said, Well, actually . . . And this is someone that I care about and who is very well-intentioned. People generally are well-intentioned, and those intentions are complicated by whiteness, racism, and religion, and all these other things that shape those good intentions. But if you assume that people who participate in this system are doing so from a good place and you show what these actual stories and experiences look like, maybe they can take those good intentions in a different direction. Maybe they can pursue a different way of doing things that makes more sense given what we know now. I think that showing what the lived experiences of people are like is the best way forward. 

Tickets to hear Dr. Gretchen Sisson, and close at 5pm, CST, March 26th.  You can learn more about her work by visiting her website, or find her on Instagram or Twitter/X. She is an active member of the Women Donors Network, and served as a member of the founding board of directors for WDN Action. In her work at WDN, she is a co-founder of the Abortion Bridge Collaborative Fund. The ABC Fund is a movement-led, rapid-response, trust-based philanthropy effort to address the post-Dobbs needs in abortion provision and protection across the country. Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood was released on February 27, 2024, and is available at the bookstore of your choice.