Barbara Walters Does Open Adoption
by Lisa Ritter Starr
I was excited to learn recently that Barbara Walters and the television show 20/20 were planning a special Mother's Day show on open adoption. When I watched the program, I was impressed by the show's fairly objective stance and yet positive view of openness. It was amazing, too, to witness the most intense stages of the process as it unfolded before the camera for over six months.
Jessica was 16 when she became pregnant. The father of the baby was a boy her family did not like, and her parents did not accept abortion as an alternative. Jessica was strongly encouraged not to parent at her young age, an opinion she mostly shared, and to place the baby for adoption. However, Jessica felt strongly about having her child remain in her life. The only alternative that Jessica and her family could agree upon was open adoption.
The adoption agency "A Child's Waiting" in Akron, Ohio, was close to Jessica and specialized in open adoption. When filming of the show began near the end of her pregnancy, Jessica was in the midst of narrowing her search for adoptive parents down to five couples.
A brief history of each of these couples was given, and afterward Jessica interviewed the couples separately. This particular interviewing process consisted of Jessica, seated with pen and paper in hand, asking questions through one of two social workers seated beside her. Though Jessica said nothing during the interview, afterward Jessica explains what she thought about the different couples' answers to her questions.
The interview and selection process was a fascinating mix of business proposal and match game. One couple said it felt like they were on "The Bachelor." Jessica explained feeling like she was about to propose marriage. With the final choice of parenthood falling strictly into her own hands, Jessica also felt a little like she was playing God.
The day after Jessica chose a couple and they accepted her in return, the baby boy was born. Jessica and her mother had an especially difficult time at this point and reconsider going through with the adoption. Soon, however, the relinquishment does take place and Jessica smiles warmly when she sees how moved and happy the new parents are.
Witnessing this process felt surreal to me. I noted some similarities between Jessica's story and mine. For example, I knew what it was like to pore through parent profiles, picking and choosing what I liked and didn't like. I also remember very vividly the feelings of reconsideration, self-doubt, and finally deciding to sign the adoption papers.
There were also quite a few differences. Jessica's interviewing process, for example, seemed business-like and emotionally detached. I would not have been able to do it in such a way. In fact, I didn't interview anyone. I chose three couples from their written profiles, and asked to meet the one couple I liked most. When we met, we spoke to each other directly and the atmosphere felt very comfortable. We even whispered to each other when our social worker had to receive a phone call during our visit. Afterward, the three of us went to a movie.
The questions that Jessica asked during her interviews were intelligent, but I felt they might seem a little controlling at first. During the initial interview, the social worker told each couple that Jessica was calling the baby Liam and asked what they thought of the name. I wondered, as I'm sure the couples did, if Jessica was going to choose based on whoever agreed to name the baby Liam.
On second thought, however, I was able to see to the heart of this question, which could be very revealing about each couple's motivations. Jessica was not looking to gain a dominant edge over the prospective parents, but she was looking for signs that they wanted to work with her and valued her opinion. Jessica wanted to be very involved in her son's life, and a couple who flinched at the idea of collaborating on the baby's name would probably flinch at other opportunities to collaborate.
Some comments made during the program are also worthy of note. Just after Jessica keeps to her decision to go through with the adoption, Barbara Walters explains in a warning tone that "many" birthmothers change their minds before they sign. I believe this might instill an unnecessary fear in adoptive parents. Walters did not mention that one advantage of openness is that birthparents are actually less likely to change their minds about the adoption. Because they are making a decision, and do not have to face the idea of never seeing their children again, they are more likely to stick with their original decisions (554).
When Walters followed up on the progress of both adoptive family and birth family after one month, and again when their son reached six months, she asked Jessica and the adoptive parents how it was going. To Jessica she posed the more difficult and judgmental questions, such as what her reaction would be if someone told Jessica she was selfish and simply wanted the best moments of her son's life without any responsibility. Jessica merely replied that she did the responsible thing by giving him everything she possibly could, including both birth family and adoptive family.
Walters then asked the question that some find so important in addressing open adoption: Who is the "real" mother? This question, coming from someone as intelligent as Walters, was disappointing. Why is the introduction of open adoption as a concept so often punctuated with the idea that there is only one mother? It is just not that simple.
Open adoption means that both sets of parents are acknowledged. As prospective parents, couples need to be mature enough not to require reassurance that they are the "real" mother and father. How can a birth mother be any less "real"? She exists, and she is the child's first mother. When parents of young children divorce and remarry, people rarely ask, Who is the real mother here? Who is the father? They know the situation, and they know there is a place for everyone.
This is the real message of open adoption, and although she made an adequate introduction to the concept, this was one truth Walters failed to uncover.
Adamec, Christine. The Adoption Option Complete Handbook 2000-2001. Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA: 1999.
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