Open Adoption Is More Complicated Than Picture Painted by Media, the Industry

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Commentary Media

Open Adoption Is More Complicated Than Picture Painted by Media, the Industry

Gretchen Sisson & Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander

With National Adoption Awareness Month drawing to a close, we urge viewers to reconsider our culture’s portrayals of adoption. The continual framing of adoption as an unqualified good is not only inaccurate, but also damaging.

Over seven years ago, viewers of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant first met Catelynn Lowell and Tyler Baltierra, a high school couple living in Algonac, Michigan. Unlike the other teenagers featured on the show’s first season, Catelynn and Tyler were making plans to place their daughter, Carly, for adoption. The couple is now married and, as chronicled on the 16 and Pregnant spin-off, Teen Mom, busy parenting their second daughter. However, like in the film Juno and other media where the closing credits roll soon after the adoption happy ending, the challenges of living with an adoption receive far less interest and acclaim than the initial novelty of the placement.

Initially, Catelynn and Tyler’s story received widespread attention. More than 5.5 million viewers tuned in to the 2010 episode of Teen Mom featuring their reunion with their daughter for her first birthday. Catelynn and Tyler were on the cover of People, In Touch, and Us Weekly magazines. Over and over, they were lauded for having placed their daughter for adoption. The website Jezebel set up a fundraiser to collect money for Catelynn and Tyler’s education, due to their “strength and maturity in the face of hardship.”

As other young women on 16 and Pregnant pursed adoption, the show consistently framed it as an unequivocally mature and unselfish decision, particularly in contrast to the young mothers who chose to parent their children. On Teen Mom, Dr. Drew referred to Catelynn and Tyler specifically, and birth parents generally, as “courageous,” “unselfish,” and “extraordinary,” saying, “I feel passionately that people like you need to be honored.”

As with all pop culture phenomena, public attention has now moved on from Catelynn and Tyler. Recent episodes of Teen Mom have barely one-fifth of the viewership of 2010 episodes, leaving many of those initial viewers unaware of the ongoing reality of adoption.

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With National Adoption Awareness Month drawing to a close, we urge viewers to reconsider our culture’s portrayals of adoption. The continual framing of adoption as an unqualified good is not only inaccurate, but also damaging. Such depictions gloss over the real grief of birth parents and the real challenges faced by adoptees, oversimplify the complex socioeconomic reasons that women consider and pursue adoption, stigmatize young mothers who raise their children, and impose an external value system on women’s reproductive choices. In this way, the exaltation of adoption is no different than the condemnation of abortion—any cultural narrative promoting or dismissing a single reproductive choice is inherently troubling.

As a researcher who studies adoption, and an adoption professional who is also an adoptee and a birth/first* mother, we see the following issues with how Catelynn and Tyler’s adoption is handled, and how it is presented by MTV.

With closed adoptions generally understood to lead to adverse outcomes for birth parents, Catelynn and Tyler clearly preferred and worked to maintain a level of openness with their daughter and her adoptive family. But open adoptions present their own unique challenges around contact, communication, and negotiation.

Like all birth parents, Catelynn and Tyler have never been immune to these difficulties, despite the pedestal that MTV and the popular media put them on. They struggled with a lack of communication from their daughter’s adoptive parents; they resented that they didn’t know Carly’s last name; they waited anxiously for pictures of her that were only passed on through the adoption agency. Recently, those struggles have come to the forefront, as Carly’s adoptive parents have decided that they will not have an in-person visit this year. The deterioration of the relationship between Catelynn and Tyler and Carly’s adoptive parents, and the adoption counselor’s approach and interventions, raise important questions relating to adoption practice, power, and long-term outcomes for parents that pursue adoption for their children.

First, when meeting with Catelynn and Tyler to tell them there will be no in-person visit, Dawn, the adoption counselor, fails to acknowledge the inherent power differential between adoptive parents, who have all the legal rights, and birth parents, who have no legal rights after placement. She also fails to acknowledge the difficult, and sometimes agonizing ambiguity and uncertainty, of birth mothers and fathers who do not know if they will be allowed to see their children again. Although Dawn says that she has been in contact with the adoptive parents, she fails to provide a reasonable explanation as to why the adoptive parents are refusing to respond to Catelynn and Tyler’s attempts at communication, or why they have chosen to suspend visits.

Finally, Dawn takes no responsibility for the adoption agency’s part in how they structure contact agreements, wherein parents who are legally minors can sign away their rights to visits permanently, with no path to increasing contact as they mature and have more distance from the pain of an unplanned pregnancy. Instead, Dawn pushes responsibility to solve the problem back onto Catelynn and Tyler, saying, “You’ve got to let it go because you’re not getting [an answer] right now.”

We think that Catelynn hits the nail on the head when she tearfully and angrily responds that she was 16 years old when she made those decisions.

In many ways, though, Dawn’s choices are unfortunately typical of adoption professionals. The party line that many adoption professionals offer–that open adoption solves all the problems of what made closed adoptions painful–is woefully unrealistic, but all too common. It is rare for expectant parents considering adoption to be fully counseled on the adverse outcomes that can (and often do) follow adoption, including self-reported increases in mental health symptoms especially in the first year, such as anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders.

Too often, adoption professionals paint a reassuring picture that open adoption is the solution, that birth parents will get to see their children grow up, and that contact agreements will ensure and protect that. Rarely will adoption professionals acknowledge that birth parents sometimes change their minds even just a few months after placement and want more contact with their child than they initially anticipated, with no path to change it. Or that adoptive parents sometimes do not comply with contact agreements in states that have them. Or that open adoptions sometimes close.

As a first mother, I (Susan) know this pain all too well. My daughter was six months old when I learned that her adoptive parents were terminating all visits, closing what was supposed to be an open adoption. My daughter is now 15. This was not something my adoption agency prepared me for as a potential outcome in any way, despite the fact that it is not an experience unique to me. As an adopted person myself, I was horrified that my daughter was going to essentially grow up in a closed adoption, despite my efforts to do what I thought was best for her at the time.

Because, ultimately, ethical adoption practices should put the needs of the child first–openness is not just better for birth parents, it’s better for adoptive parents and adoptees as well. In the case of Carly, this includes her needs to have continuity, to have access to her birth parents, and to be able to build a relationship with her little sister. Positive adoption outcomes require skilled professionals who will ensure these needs are kept paramount, even when they may not be a long-term priority for adoptive parents.

Up until this point, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have chosen to romanticize and glorify adoption, failing to adequately portray the limitations of enforcing open adoption contact agreements, or the inherent power differentials between adoptive parents and birth parents. While we commend the show for sticking with this couple as they navigate a challenging future together, the show’s insistence early-on that the adoption decision follow a “happily ever after” narrative arc creates an unrealistic expectation among viewers. Open adoptions can be fraught with challenges for all members of the adoption constellation, challenges that are often rooted in the social and legal imbalances of power between birth and adoptive parents. In the spirit of National Adoption Awareness Month, we urge viewers to become more aware of these complexities and to consider pop culture’s adoption stories (whether it be a fictional film, a reality TV show, or a real life celebrity adoption) from a more critical position, considering the cultural, political, economic, and legal power structures that contribute to the reality of adoption in our society today.

Authors’ note: People who have placed a child for adoption are starting to refer to themselves as first parents (rather than “birth parents”), to acknowledge that their relationship to the child was not only one of birthing them. We chose to retain the language of “birth parents” in much of this article, as that is the language Catelynn and Tyler use to describe themselves.