Both of my children have been and are, in different ways and to varying degrees, secrets. Not in our world, where their presence has been felt in every corner of our lives. But in the worlds of their birth families, where there is a patchwork pattern of those who know and those who don't, those who acknowledge and those who won't. Some because of deliberate efforts to hide it from them, others simply because they came along after the adoptions and haven't been told yet.
I don't begrudge the patchwork holes or the choices that created them. I have no idea what it's like to be in that position, having a family member who was placed or facing condemnation for being a first parent. And when I try to imagine, it can seem overwhelming. So, no, this is not about judgment. It's about my struggle to understand how to mesh the secrets in other people's lives with the openness in ours.
When we started on our way to becoming adoptive parents, we heard one thing over and over from seemingly every expert and social worker: secrecy is bad. Openness--not just contact but an embrace of adoption as a normal part of family life--was set out as the antidote to the lies and forced divisions of recent generations. Adoptees never told they were adopted, women hidden in maternity homes and told to forget, first families and adoptive families kept apart for no real reason. The secrets that kept old stigmas so persistently attached to being adopted; for if there is nothing bad or shameful about adoption, why keep it so hush hush? We were told we had a responsibility to show our children we rejected those ideas by the way we talked about adoption and integrated their birth families into our lives, by not hiding adoption away. We weren't told what to do when we weren't the ones keeping the secrets.
I asked an agency worker about it once during our counseling, what to do with the uneasiness I felt over secrets which were out of my control. I can't remember now if we were discussing a hypothetical or real situation. "We encourage birth parents away from secrecy when it's not a question of safety or legality, just like we do with adoptive parents," she said to me. "But ultimately it's their decision and their timing. And they will have to explain their choices to their children one day."
It's a comforting thought in the abstract, that it's not our responsibility to explain other people's decisions. But it's of little use when you're the one with a child on your lap asking why they've never met a certain birth family member or why we can't visit someone where they live. We may not have to explain, but we do have to answer. How do you tell them their existence has been deliberately hidden from some people without making them feel that it is somehow their fault?
Nor has it been of much comfort in recent weeks, after someone in one of our children's first families decided to finally share the truth. Sadly, it was shared in an effort to wound another--which it did. And the resulting whirlwind has nothing to do with us and yet everything to do with us. Because here in our home sits the child who was discovered and lost in a single moment. And the anger is directed our way.