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Does California's 'open adoption' system help heal a baby's separation wound?

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In these days when a birth mother can chose parents for her baby on the web and be an active part of her child's life, is the trauma associated with adoption over?

When student, Amy Otto, learned she was pregnant four years ago she knew immediately that she could not parent her baby. “So I Googled 'independent adoption,'" said Otto, learning that she could choose parents for her child and possibly even play a significant role in the child’s life.

Otto, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, found a website that featured prospective parent profiles. “I remember spending hours [one] Sunday browsing through profiles,said Otto, making her feel like she was “shopping for parents.She settled on a couple from Glendale, California, who were TV executives and very keen on the birth mother being part of their child’s life.

Californians adopt more babies and children than in any other state, and it is one of the most progressive in regards to how adoption is practiced. Known as “open adoption,” birth parents can select the adoptive parents and decide how much participation they want in their biological child’s life.

It’s a long way from the days when pregnant women signed their babies over to adoption agencies to select the families who would raise the baby, and all records of the biological parents were sealed until the child turned 18.

Yet as the process of adoption has gotten more open, research and studies into what adoptees experience has also advanced. According to Marcy Axness, an adopted child and family therapist with a specialization in Early Childhood Development, the relationship between a birth mother and baby is critical in the early days and weeks. Axness cites “17 different bio-regulatory channels” that exist between a birth mother and baby, “From breathing to respiration, heart-rate, to blood.” To take a baby away at birth, says Axness, cuts off all this regulation that the baby requires from its biological mother and causes a wound to the baby.

Nancy Verrier, who has two children, one adopted and one biological, agrees with Axness. Verrier is a Marriage and Family Therapist and author of a book about understanding adopted children called “Primal Wound.” Verrier goes as far as to say that babies should be kept with the birth mother until they are at least six weeks old to help ameliorate the severity of the separation wound.

“The baby is probably terrified and confused,” says Verrier, “the baby knows that mother through all its senses...knows her smell, knows her voice, knows her heartbeat, knows her rhythm.” Verrier says she understands that many babies do need to be taken from the birth mother on delivery, but would like to see a frank discussion about the possibility of extending the openness of the adoption process to keep babies with birth mothers at least for the babies first six weeks of life.

Meet Glendale couple, Jack Messitt and Kacy Andrews. They are the parents that Amy Otto chose to raise her son. Messitt and Andrews met Otto early in her pregnancy, and the three of them loved each other. The Glendale couple were at Otto’s side for ultrasounds and to hear the baby’s heartbeat, and they were in the delivery room when Sawyer was born.

Since then, the three adults who are Sawyer’s parents have become very close, in fact they call each other “family."

Kacy Andrews is herself an adopted child, and when she couldn’t get pregnant, it was a natural move to try to adopt. Andrews did not know her own birth mother until she was an adult, and this, she says, caused her a lot of frustration and confusion. In fact, it made her an angry child.

She sees the same behavior in her adopted son, Sawyer. “I have to travel for business and I was gone for 3 days, and not only did he act out bad at home but also at school.” Andrews recognizes this as a fear of being abandoned, which she too felt. “He feels like 'Oh, mama just left, will she come back? I don’t know.' Even though I can tell him I’m coming back, and I always do, it puts him on edge and makes him really difficult to live with.”

Experts like Verrier say what Sawyer goes through when his mother travels is common in adopted children. While Sawyer has no explicit memory of his biological mother leaving him, says Verrier, he has an “implicit memory” of the event.  

“And so this disappearing of the mother becomes a real fear for them, and they are afraid that the next mother, the one they are with now might also disappear," said Verrier. "And so they have this fear of abandonment that kind of goes on and on and on throughout their life.”

To watch Messitt and Andrews with their adopted son, Sawyer, it is clear that he is showered with love, affection and all the attention he needs. The family lives in a comfortable home and it would be hard to find anything that Sawyer might be wanting for.

Amy Otto feels like her biological child is in the perfect home. As are many adopted children, says Marcy Axness. Yet, she adds, adoption is centered around loss, which scars everyone involved. “The adoptive parents have lost the dream of their biological child, or maybe they have lost actual children through miscarriage or still birth," said Axness. "The birth parents have lost the child they will not parent for whatever reason. And of course the adoptee has lost their biological ties with their parents and possibly their genealogical history, their cultural heritage.”

Experts say that even very young babies experience this loss, and it is something adoptive parents need to understand. Nancy Verrier says adoptive parents “need to validate” this loss for their baby. She cites an example, “I know an adoptive mom who was really astute about this. And when her baby would cry and not want her to hold him, she would say, 'You must be missing your other mommy,' and calm him right down.

Marcy Axness offers advice for adoptive parents when babies or toddlers exhibit signs that their child doesn’t want them, or is inconsolable. “A really wise mother will not take it personally and will say, 'Hey I realize, you’re missing your connection. I’m not the heartbeat you expected, I’m not the smell you expected. But I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere, and I’m going to hold you and you can just feel all your feelings.'”

Amy Otto will be traveling to Glendale for the Holidays. And while she is looking forward to seeing Sawyer and his parents, who she now refers to as “family," she is also wary of the day Sawyer will want to know why she gave him away.

She asks, “Is Sawyer going to judge me later in his life or be angry at me for giving him up and casting him aside?” It’s an answer she hopes will be mitigated by her active presence in his life, as do Sawyer’s parents, Jack Messitt and Kacy Andrews.  

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