Since Elizabeth is somewhere in New York and I am in Washington, D.C., we could not--alas--meet at a Starbucks. But we could conduct an interview over email. The beauty of technology lifts her lovely head once again.
Without further ado, more thoughts of Elizabeth Swire Falker, author of the Ultimate Insider's Guide to Adoption and the focus of the first book tour (by the way, if you still want to join the current book tour for Children of Men, there's plenty of time. For those of you who missed the first one, it's like a big, online book club via blogs).
Melissa: (crosses her legs and takes a sip of her virtual white chocolate mocha) This was probably your first online book tour--how did you feel about the process?
Elizabeth: I am not cyber-savvy so I was a little overwhelmed by it. I am not used to blogs although many of my friends use them. I appreciate your bringing me into the 21st Century and showing me the many benefits of blogs. We’re looking into putting a blog on our website to talk about different reproductive and adoption topics.
Melissa: I thought you did a wonderful job keeping a tight focus on your intended audience--no small feat for a writer. How much say did you have over content choices? Did your publisher guide the project or did you have carte blanche over what you chose to include?
Elizabeth: It was a joint effort. I submitted a book proposal that was much larger in scope than what was actually published. After selling the proposal to Warner Books they gave me a page and word count. The page count meant that a lot of subjects that I wanted to cover in greater depth had to be abbreviated and some topics – like foster-care adoption – had to be excluded altogether.
The original manuscript had another section of the book entirely devoted to foster-care adoption. At the first triage/priority meeting over content it was determined that it was the easiest thing to cut; from an overall standpoint of not impacting the book’s focus or voice. It also was discussed that the topic really needed its own book as the section on foster-care was very long. I noted that several of the people who reviewed the book felt that it was missing and should have been included. They are right and I am still sad that it had to be cut. But there were other topics that I felt needed to be discussed more (like financing your adoption) and given the specialized nature of foster-care adoption I couldn’t disagree with my editors that I wasn’t able to do the topic justice in the limited format within which I had to discuss foster-care adoption.
Melissa: When you were writing this book, did the fact that your children may one day read it come into play when choosing content or wording?
Elizabeth: My own personal experience with adoption was one of the sections of the book that had to be shredded. In part due to my own concerns about maintaining my children’s privacy – their adoption stories are their history and I have no right to write about them in detail as it is for them to share when and if they feel it is appropriate to share it with people – and because it was determined that certain aspects of my own adoptions would be deemed too scary to readers and would ultimately turn them off to adoption. We have an open adoption and that too dictated how I could write about our adoption experience. A lot of people’s privacy interests had to be considered when I was writing and it made it a profoundly challenging experience. Try writing about your personal life without talking about your personal life!
We had one adoption that failed after placement; we returned our four day old son (whose name I am going to keep private if that is okay) to his birth mother despite the fact that we had no legal obligation to do so (she chose to parent after birth and my husband and I felt very strongly that she had the right to make that decision since it was still so soon after placement, notwithstanding the fact that she had signed her relinquishment forms and they were binding). Our son, David, does not remember “his brother” nor do we discuss it (although I think of that baby every day). Out of consideration for the fact that David and Samantha don’t know about this baby (yet) and out of respect for the baby’s birth mother and her privacy, I did not discuss that adoption at all.
There were many aspects of that adoption that shaped my views on how and when a prospective adoptive parent should consider an adoption situation. Our children’s birth mother, Diane, and I had long talks about what happened with the baby that went back (and I should note that I also did not discuss in the book David’s adoption with/from Diane which did not go smoothly and was a prolonged emotional battle on all fronts and was one of the reasons we ultimately returned our second son back to his birth mother).
I think after two very challenging experiences with adoption and a lot of research that followed them, I felt very strongly that prospective adoptive parents need to know when a situation is more risky and what the red flags are. I took a lot of heat in the book for talking so openly about red flags and the risks of a failed placement. I believe some people have even deemed me anti-birth-parent. But as the mother of a child who went back to his birth mother AFTER placement (and without a legal requirement for returning him), and the mother of a now four-year old son whose adoption was far from straight-forward; I wish that I had known what I know now when choosing to make an adoption plan. We would have made different decisions with the birth mother to whom my husband and I returned a baby, and that is what establishes my bottom line when writing: If I learned something important through my own experiences or through working with adoptive parents, and it’s not common knowledge . . . I feel an obligation to share that information whether it’s deemed politically correct or not.
Melissa: How was writing this new book on adoption different from your first book on fertility treatments? How were the two writing experiences different or similar?
Elizabeth: This was way more personal for me. And it was surprisingly more complicated to write about. The political landscape of adoption is filled with landmines and everyone has an opinion about how you “should” adopt. I was a little nervous about making enemies with this book whereas with The Infertility Survival Handbook I didn’t think about that at all. Combine the political volatility of the subject matter with the personal stuff and I tore half my hair out writing the book. I was constantly asking my husband, my editor and my legal assistants to make sure I presented the information I wanted to present but to make sure it wasn’t preachy, or in any way seemed politically incorrect. Basically, I was a nervous wreck!
Melissa: The topic of adoption tends to bring out a very emotional response. There are many choices to consider: international or domestic adoption, closed or open adoption, breastfeeding or not breastfeeding. While there are choices in fertility treatments, everyone seems to accept the varied protocols and choices with an objective eye (for example, one clinic may prescribe PIO and another Prometrium and you rarely see people berating a person for using one protocol over another). That same general acceptance doesn't seem true in the world of adoption--people have very definitive views on the choices. Why do you think adoption brings out this emotional response?
Elizabeth: I have no idea why it’s such an emotional topic. Maybe because of the fact that there is a component of money bringing home children who are already living versus money providing medical treatment that might (but is not guaranteed) to create life? Whatever the reason, I don’t think it needs to be so emotionally charged a debate. I really objected to the “should-upon-do-gooders” I encountered when I was adopting. There is no right way to adopt. Every individual and family that chooses to build or expand their family through adoption must choose the path that is right for their lifestyle whether that means traveling three times to Russia, living for three weeks in Ethiopia, using the foster-care system or pursuing a domestic newborn adoption.
I do not believe that anyone on this planet has any right to judge how another person chooses to build – or not to build – a family. I think the decision to adopt should be applauded, but it is no more valid a choice than using assisted reproductive technologies to have a baby and there is no one way to adopt that is, or should be deemed morally superior to another. All I wanted to do with my book was present information to help people make informed choices as they started on the adoption path without judging anyone for what choice they ultimately make.
Melissa: What advice would you give a person who is adopting without the support of their family? I've read too many stories of people with wonderful relationships with siblings or parents who suddenly found themselves without support when they left the fertility treatment path and chose adoption. Do you have any advice on helping adoptive-parents-to-be discuss adoption with unsupportive family members?
First of all, if you don’t have the support of your family may I extend a huge hug to you? Then let me share a story, because even when you have support, you don’t always really have unconditional support.
My husband and I had tremendous support adopting. Our family wanted us to stop infertility treatment long before we did. I got so sick of hearing: “you should just adopt!” First of all, I objected to “just adopt” like it’s putting a band-aid on a boo-boo. Adoption is serious stuff – just like infertility treatment – and it’s expensive and requires a lifetime commitment to be aware and emotionally available to your child and the issues that adoption may raise for him or her. Just adopt, yeah right! Despite the fact that we had all this support to adopt, it seemed when we decided to adopt that we suddenly weren’t doing it the right way. I rapidly discovered that even when you have support, it’s not really that unconditional support we need when we’re struggling to have a family and are exhausted and financially drained and just want to crawl under the covers until someone calls us to tell us we’re a mommy or a daddy!
For example, my husband and I are very open to adoption situations of all types. We wanted an open adoption which scared every one of our parents and step-parents (wouldn’t she come and take the baby back? Couldn’t she steal the baby if she knows who we are?). Then the concept of doing a visible or trans-racial adoption was just beyond acceptable to our families. So here we are with our families pushing us to adopt for years and when we decide to do it, well we’re “making mistakes that will ruin [our] lives!”
My son is of mixed ethnicity; he’s mostly Caucasian but there’s enough of him that isn’t that he has gorgeous olive skin (frankly I’d kill to tan like he does). Our families did not know what his true ethnicity was for a long time because it is irrelevant and they had initially proven themselves unworthy of knowing personal details of our life. I was also concerned about how sensitive they would be to David knowing specific facts about his birth father which David doesn’t even yet know. And one day, sure enough, over dinner in a restaurant we got a racial comment from a family member. It was cast as a compliment (“he sure is the best looking [racial slur omitted] kid I’ve ever seen”). Putting aside the fact that this family member hadn’t even gotten the racial slur correct, I felt justified in the fact that we had withheld information from him. Jump to three years later, however, and this same family member worships David and tells him all the time what a “beautiful boy” and what a beautiful “human being” he is; the comments are now about David’s soul and not his skin color. I have even heard this family member say it to David when I wasn’t around. This family member isn’t self-censoring. This issue of David’s ethnicity no longer matters because everyone has discovered David is what matters and that David is a miraculous part of our family.
So my advice, after this personal digression, is to give your family time. Do not expect them to adjust or accept your children and because you need to assume they won’t change their minds, be very careful about what information you do and do not share with them about your adoption plans and your child. The least little bit of information can come slamming back at you at the least likely moment and it can be very hurtful to you and your child. However, it has been my experience (both personal and professional) that the vast majority of family members that do not initially support an adoption ultimately come to love their grandchildren or nieces or nephews. It takes time, but usually it does happen. In the meantime, guard your child’s privacy and your own heart with all your might. But I’d bet money that one day your child will be cherished by that unsupportive, judgmental, narrow-minded, opinionated jerk that doesn’t get the beauty of what you’re doing!
Melissa: What were your biggest fears with adoption prior to beginning the process? How many of those fears actually came true?
Elizabeth: My biggest fear was that we would never be chosen by a birth mother. That fear was proven to be baseless as were chosen several times by several birth mothers. What I didn’t fear or take more seriously, was the issue of birth families choosing to parent. I wish I had been somewhat more guarded – or had more information about what to pay attention to as risk factors – when we spoke with potential birth families.
Failed placements, whenever they take place, are heartbreaking. While I believe that everything is exactly as it should be now, I am quite scarred emotionally from both David and the other boy’s adoption. Even though I was pretty much assured that Samantha was coming home (for medical reasons Diane practically moved in with us at the end of her pregnancy), I was not able to bond with Samantha until several days after her birth. I held back for a long time because I had all these bad memories that I need to let go of first. Being present at her birth, breast feeding her, being are a part of the process with her birth mother were very scary for me but ultimately so rewarding I wouldn’t trade the history that had to come first if it meant she wouldn’t be a part of our lives now.
Melissa: What were your biggest hopes with adoption prior to beginning the process? How many of those hopes actually came true?
Elizabeth: I was hoping to be a mom and I was hoping to breast feed. I became a mom – although not as easily as I had hoped it would be through adoption – and I successfully breast fed all my babies. I was hoping to be present at my children’s birth and my husband and I were there when our daughter was born last spring. We, unfortunately, were not there when David was born (although Diane, his birth mother wanted us to be there, the hospital would not allow it). I did, however, coach Diane through labor on the phone.
And I have to admit that the breast feeding thing – yuck factor or not – was so normalizing for me. That I was able to do something that “every” woman is supposed to be able to do when I have this completely defective reproductive system and feel completely defective as a woman (sometimes), well, let’s just say I feel a lot more like the person I was before I learned of my infertility because I was able to breast feed my children.
Melissa: Thank you for answering these questions. And now we'll open the floor to the blogosphere--any other questions or comments for Elizabeth Swire Falker?