August 03, 2009

I Blame "Juno"

It’s not like we haven’t seen this before.

The near-constant reruns of Adoption Stories often showcase domestic adoption from the prospective adoptive parents’ point of view. Just the other month, the MTV series 16 and Pregnant featured a young couple who placed their child in an semi-closed adoption. Even Dr. Phil recently got into the business of pressuring encouraging a teen mom to place.

But the WE tv network blows them all out of the water with Adoption Diaries, a new regular series premiering this fall focusing on domestic open adoption. Not the years upon years of relationship between birth and adoptive families that is the heart and guts of open adoption. But the brutally emotional period of pre-birth matching and placement.

On their website, WE tv explains the show will showcase “the matching process between couples who, having struggled with infertility,* turn to adoption and the brave, expecting mothers** whose difficult and selfless decision to place their children for adoption makes it all possible.”

If you’ve already framed the show as the story of brave, selfless women "gifting life" to helpless infertile couples, then you have a problem. Right out of the gate there is a troubling imbalance, in which the only happy ending is the baby going home with the more-deserving adoptive parents--and opting to parent means a mother is cowardly and selfish. The script is pre-written and you'd better know your role.

Think about being cast as "the birthmother" in an Adoption Diaries episode. Imagine cameras trailing you as you deliberate over which couple to choose. As you prepare not only to give birth, but to say goodbye to your beloved child soon after. While you hold your baby for the first time and the enormity of what you're considering hits you in a completely new way. During those precious few days you have together with them.

Now imagine that you realize—for whatever reason—that adoption isn’t the right decision after all. You're breaking from the script of the show. Not only will you have to face disappointing the hopeful adoptive parents, but millions of viewers (including people you know) will watch you do it.***

Could you choose to raise your baby in that situation?

Todd and I adopted two children through open adoption and had pre-birth matches, just like the families on this show will. Both processes were quite smooth, from an industry standpoint. We probably looked like something out of a brochure at placement, with everyone hugging through tears and brimming with love for the tiny babies and each other.

But in the years that followed, both Beth and Kelly have told me that relinquishment was the single most painful experience of their lives--and one of them has known some serious trauma in her life. Different adoptions, different agencies, different women with entirely different life experiences and reasons for placing. Both secure (at least in front of me) about their decision. Yet both with immeasurable grief that they couldn't wholly understand until some time into the adoption. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

A social worker who works with expectant parents considering adoption once told me that no matter what she says or does, her clients think relinquishment won’t be as hard for them as it is for everyone else. But it always is. By the time the women on the show will have reached that point of realization, it will be too late to back out of filming. That an agency would agree to put that experience up for public consumption on a regular basis deeply troubles me.

I understand the appeal of the domestic open adoption process from the producers’ perspective. It’s a process with a built-in storyline full of emotion, tension, and longing. The creation of the new adoptive family and the trusting commitments between them and the first family are incredibly powerful things to witness, not to mention live through. Plus, babies! According to a press release, the agency involved hopes to get the word out about open adoption and clear up misinformation. But doing it in this way is an ethical minefield with the potential to really hurt people. And the misconceptions I run into about open adoption? They're not about the matching process--they're about all those years afterward.

So here is my plea to WE tv: By all means, tell our stories. Let us show you why we are so passionate about open adoption. Let us open a window onto the joy and sadness, love and struggle that are part of it. Let our children share in their own voices about what it’s like to grow up in an open adoption. But please, please keep the cameras away until well after the adoptions are finalized.

* I wonder about the “infertile couples” bit, since the agency in question works with quite a few single folks and same sex couples hoping to adopt. Will they be excluded from the show?

** They call them expecting mothers here, but most everywhere else on the press release and website they're called birthmothers.

*** Or maybe the show won't air because it doesn't have a happy ending and the producers will be angry at you for wasting their time. The producers who probably offered financial compensation in exchange for your participation in the show.


Anonymous said...

They are not going to discuss post adoption stories. They are not going to discuss the issue of adoptee rights. Heck they are not even going to go near the possibility that this might be coercive. They are not going to discuss that this might hurt the first mother. In fact, I hear that the agency is paralegals not social workers. I have heard countless complaints on this agency as well.One horror in particular is one of the adopting parents interviewing a mother at their office. The agency did not like the answers of the mother. Soon as the adopting parents left, they called CPS on the mother.

Heather said...

@Texans - Thanks for your comment. I'd rather not spread rumors, third-hand or even second-hand information about any agency here. I believe it is fair to critique their involvement in this show, since they are promoting it quite widely.

Barb said...

thank you for writing this very clear, concise post. it has been much of what i've been thinking.

Anonymous said...

@Texans - IAC's staff are indeed SWs - no doubt about that. There's another lawyer-based company that has a similar website name, and I believe they are the ones with paralegals - not IAC.

The horror story you heard was one I'd heard from one family regarding the IAC, although I don't know the full story - but I do know that a SW is a "mandatory reporter" to CPS & if there is an inkling that there may be an unsafe situation with other children in the home, they are required to call CPS.

@Heather - I can only hope that what you are concerned about will not be the case after all, although the set-up seems very familiar. Alas, IAC is our agency & I'm sort of freaking out about this.

Heather said...

@Anonymous - If you see this, will you contact me?

Anonymous said...

"Reality" tv is such a farse. Anything chronicled for tv or a series has editing and contracts, etc. The potential to show the wonderful process of open adoption is great but I agree with you, wait until later on in the process. Another disappointment for those of us who are educators and willing to share our experiences to help others.

pickel said...

The only way for these shows to be fair is to show post adoption stories and to discuss adoption show birthparents after, to show the struggle THEY go through, not just the struggle adoptive parents go through with infertility. THAT is only right.

Sally Bacchetta said...

Thank you for exposing this issue in such a succinct and balanced way. Do you mind if I link to you from my blog?

Nicki said...

I hesitate to understand how this is even remotely ethical on so so many levels. Where else on the human spectrum of events would it be ok for us to film and expose someone's massive loss and trauma?? And how is this ethical for the adoptee? Yet again, they forget that these cute innocent babies will grow to be adults...adults whose very massive trauma and loss was filmed for entertainment value. Ouch.

Thanksgivingmom said...

I'm beyond disgusted with this program...As others, I do understand that domestic adoption, open adoption, is interesting and something worth talking about and showing - but not at this step. Not when women are contemplating the biggest decision of their life - unimaginably hard WITHOUT a camera in their face. Coercive and unethical with it there.

I would be VERY interesting to know what would happen if the expectant mother did decide to change her mind and not place....

It's things like this (although, granted, this example is the minority) that make me marvel at those that believe coercion just doesn't exist in adoption today.

Lavonne said...

Only in North America would this happen. Money hungry TV producers constantly searching for the newest emotionally charged concept to hook viewers and not giving proper thought to the lives that will be impacted in profound ways.

Thanks for bringing this to light.

cindy psbm said...

shows like those I have HUGE qualms with, but since I placed when I was a adult(26)sometimes I can't really idenitfy with these teenagers and younger ones, I wish I could but I don't.
I DO wish that they would do a show based on the first mom and show all the pros of parenting and the cons of adoption and not just the other way around.
I wish that they would just do a show where they give cameras to the participatants(especially the expentant moms) and let them to sort of like 'video journals' with the producers totally not in personal contact with the people in the show until a year after the whole placing or parenting or whatever happened.
Ya know, other reality shows let other outcomes be as they will be, like 'intervention' and home reno shows, things don't always go as planned, and sometimes those shows get the highest ratings!!
Why would you watch a show if the outcome was predictable??
That's just stupid from a marketing standpoint for a media like TV.
Shows where the outcome covers up the harsh realites sicken me, and I don't buy into them at all.
It's just me maybe, I can't stand it when I think someone is selling me something that is even slightly dishonest.

Joy said...

I agree to a point. Reality shows usually aren't reality at all and my guess the more drama in a situation the better, which to me is just wrong to exploit.

Now on the other end of things, none of us have actually seen the show yet and pre-judging may not be fair. Second, I do think that in a lot of cases choosing adoption is a very selfless act, however, I don't think that choosing to parent is a selfish act. It would have been difficult for me had my daughter's first mom changed her mind, but in all honesty I would have understood and would have gone out of my way to help her in any way that I could.

My biggest fear about this show is that they portray the adoptive parents as rich people buying babies. That adoptive parents don't truly care about the first moms/dads and their feelings, just about the getting their babies because they can't have any of their own.

Rebeccah said...

I'm pretty fed up with most reality shows -- they rely on exploiting people's most vulnerable moments and highlighting their weak spots for the world to see. And the additional ethical issues that are involved with this show -- even if it's all handled with the utmost care and class -- make me glad for the umpteenth time that we don't have cable.

Andrea said...

Hi, Heather:
Thanks for writing this post. I think you're right on the money with it. I'd like to link to it on my blog, too--if that's alright with you.

Heather said...

@Sally Bacchetta @Andrea - Link away!

Lorraine Dusky said...

Yo, I just came upon this through the alltop list and I want to say, Yeah! Thanks for posting what's been on my mind.

from www.firstmotherforum. com

ali said...

i so so so agree with this entire post. one of our adoptions was with a pre-planned mom. the baby was born only 6 weeks after our first chat, but still pre planned. she has since moved close to us(military) and we are over the moon! we finally went to visit her last Sunday and it felt SO GOOD. i love this child and i adore her, but i always felt like i had stolen someone's child! i just DID. i cant explain it or change how i felt. she always seemed SO SURE about placing, but 2 years later, last sunday, admitted to me that after i had the baby at the hotel for an entire week, and she brought the Father to meet and say good bye to the baby, she told him in the parking lot, "we can do this!" i was SHOCKED! i had no idea! turns out HE wasnt interested in being a family and if he had been, she would have chosen to parent! if he had changed his mind after meeting our son, they would have been able to walk right out of the hotel with the baby i had NURSED for a week. am i angry? NO WAY. but BOY was i reeling when she said it. the fact that i could have lost him after a week kills me, yet i would have been proud of her for parenting(after all,they were 21 & 27 at that time-not 16.)i am so glad she admitted these feelings to me, yet sad for HER that she WANTED to raise him but the boyfriend changed his phone number and wouldnt help her at all through the pregnancy, basically forcing her to place. no wonder she insisted on the lousy circumcision-she wasn't sure what she was going to do! she is now married and has a 5 month old son to love and claims that she is very happy with her decision to place her now 2 year old with us... i truly hope and pray she really feels that way. but YES, everything you said is so how i have always felt too..... and i want her in his life forever. he is truly my miracle boy! now even more than i thought! ali, mom to 5, 2 adopted, 1 international(Haiti 2003) 1 domestic(arkansas 2007)

Danifred said...

You make some wonderful points! With all of the sensationalism and exploitation on television these days, it's no wonder that a show like this is airing. Wouldn't it be wonderful if "we" (being the collective general public) would start putting our foot down about all of the negativity surrounding children being aired on television? Because, in the end, isn't that who is really being hurt?

Meghan said...

Here from Blogger Bingo...

I hadn't heard of this show but just this weekend I was talking about the coercive nature of reality TV. This takes it to a whole new level. I just have to think that one of the social workers or case managers will realize that their 15 minutes of fame is not worth the price the families will all pay.

Thanks for raising these points

Hillary said...

Here from blogger bingo too...

What an amazing post! I confess if I had heard of this show/ seen an episode I probably would have thought, "how fun, what a great idea" and watched with intrigue as somebody who has no personal experience with adoption. But you raise some excellent points that I never would have thought of, and through those points gave me a little more understanding of an open adoption process. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Any of you opinionated writers see this show? Contempt prior to investigation?

Heather said...

@Anonymous - The very creation of the show (i.e. the presence of cameras and producers during pre-placement counseling/interactions/decision-making) is what raises the ethical issues, regardless of the finished product. I didn't need to have seen the show to express my concern about its intended and unintended consequences. Even if the show never aired, these adoptions were affected by virtue of the fact that the people and agency involved in them participated in the filming. The airing adds additional concerns for what it may communicate to the audience.

Since writing this post, I have previewed an episode of the show, courtesy of the network. Sadly, in my opinion, my concerns weren't unfounded.

Anonymous said...

While it's super late to be leaving a comment here, after looking up the show, I was completely unsurprised to see what agency it was--our experiences with them were so bad. These programs are disturbing, even more disturbing than that grotesque "Spot the Biological Father" show, Who's Your Daddy?

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