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Education & Outreach


Mary Ellen & Pauline: Two Mothers Working Together to Create a Roadmap for Better Open Adoption Relationships

Even though the majority of adoptions today are open, there are very few resources on “how” an open adoption can be navigated in a healthy and respectful way. Open adoption takes significant humility, communication skills, and dedication to building and growing a relationship despite lots of emotions and potential insecurities. Torie had the opportunity to sit down with Mary Ellen (birth mother) and Pauline (adoptive mother) recently, to talk about their open adoption relationship and what makes it sustainable. Their dedication to vulnerability and working towards the common goal of their son’s well-being is inspiring. If you haven’t already, register for their upcoming talk Building Better Open Adoption Relationships on April 24th at 11:00am CST. You don’t want to miss this phenomenal chance to watch open adoption in action as these women share about their journey. 

Torie: It’s so great to have you both together to talk about open adoption as adoptive mom and birth mom. Let’s start with introducing yourselves. Mary Ellen can you start by sharing a little of your journey as a birth mom? 

Mary Ellen: So, I was pregnant when I was 18. I don't talk to my mom or dad and I don't really have a healthy family. It was an unexpected pregnancy and right away I just knew that, obviously, I just had no resources. I could not take care of this child in the way that he deserved to grow up. I wanted him to have a childhood opposite of what I had. I wanted to break the cycle because there's barely anyone in my family who are married or who have a dad or who are remotely well off or in a healthy environment. So I just wanted to break that cycle. So instantly, I just knew that I had to do something different and consider other options. Personally, I just didn't feel abortion was an option I could even consider. For me, it wasn't really an option that I thought of and then parenting wasn't an option either. That's why I call adoption the third option, because I feel like people just forget about it. 

Luckily, I did have a few experiences of hearing other people's stories. This is why I feel like it's so important to share. I had heard stories from other birth parents who had placed at my church. There was a lady who adopted and her son was always running around the church super happy. She shared that she adopted her son and that she was trying to have an open adoption. She shared a little bit of her struggles with the open adoption, but wow, her story was so impactful. I didn't know that her son was adopted. That was one of the first times I heard of open adoption. I think I heard that story and then I was pregnant maybe one year later. I thought maybe I should just look into adoption, but I didn't know where to look, I didn't really know where to start. I didn't really tell anyone. I think I ended up telling my cousin first. I felt like I had to get the ball rolling, I had to start doing something. I tried going online and going through profiles and stuff but that didn't feel right. And then I prayed about it. I think that's the biggest thing for me is that I prayed about it. And I was like, God, if adoption is the right thing for me, please guide me. Please just drop off the perfect couple for me. He really just dropped off Pauline and TJ in two weeks. My cousin saw a Facebook status of Pauline’ sister, Miriam, who said her sister and her brother-in-law were looking to adopt. So we messaged each other a little bit and then we planned on meeting in Chicago for dinner. I didn't have a huge expectation. Basically, I could tell right away. I can just tell when people are good. I'm good at reading people. So yeah, right away, it was like, Oh my god, these are gonna be the parents of my child! They were just so welcoming and all at once it was like everything aligned. Not only were they educated and empathetic, the fact that they said they wanted an open adoption for their child just spoke volumes. They wanted whatever was in the kid’s best interest, not their best interest. It's so easy to see whenever adoptive parents are not looking for the kid’s best interest which is hard because you don't always know people's intentions and adoption is based on trust. After meeting Pauline and TJ and discussing our wants, we decided we're gonna go through with this. During my pregnancy, they were really there for me and helped with whatever I needed. We communicated a ton. We would go to doctor appointments together and talk about what we wanted. We didn't say the amount of visits, maybe it was one visit every three months or something like that. We were like, We're gonna figure this out. But we definitely didn't talk about living 20 minutes away from each other!

Pauline: If someone had said that, I would have been like, no way. There's no way. But now we're both in Chicago and we live about 20 minutes away from each other. We’re literally inseparable!

Mary Ellen: I wouldn't have believed that we’d be this close either and I don't think other people would have believed it. People told me, after you place your son, you're probably never gonna see him again or they're probably gonna cut you off. He's never gonna know you're his birth mom. That's literally what people told me. It did instill fear inside of me. But obviously, I wouldn’t give my baby to someone who I didn't completely trust. And I believe the outcome is different because of the trust we built together and our shared desire for openness.

When I met Pauline and TJ, they shared a story with me about how they attended a few classes or events where they heard a story from an adoptee and that adoptee was sharing their experience with open adoption. The adoptee just seemed so content and confident and they knew who they were. Pauline and TJ lit up and were so happy. They wanted that for our son Kendrick. It's amazing that they put themselves in that position to learn and that that resource was there for them. I think that adoption can be so confusing. And having resources like those classes or events for parents who are hoping to adopt is ultimately a resource for the adoptee because that's gonna make all the difference. So just having that resource and information for adoptive parents and birth moms is so helpful to everyone.

Torie: That’s so true. Support for adoptive parents and for birth parents directly impacts and helps the adopted child. Pauline, can you share a little bit about your story and relationship to adoption?

Pauline: Before adopting, I knew nothing about what we were going into and still have so much growth to do. But I just think in general, I've already grown so much from old mindsets. Again, if you had said Mary Ellen would be my best friend, I probably would have been like, Okay, that's weird. Looking back on myself from eight years ago, I've changed and grown so much. It's very funny to look back on. I just always figured that we would adopt. I've always worked in schools and I interned at Safe Families in college doing host family certification. I’ve made so many DCFS phone calls. I remember this one phone call that really hit me, that I made on behalf of one of my summer campers. Two years later I was working in the Safe Families office, and I found the girl's file  from my call and she had been pulled from her home. Then she had been in eight or nine foster families before Safe Families, she had experienced abuse, she had been through all of this stuff. I know it wasn’t my fault, but it was sobering for me to be like, if I'm going to be involved with kids and working with vulnerable populations and reporting problems, I want to be on the other side to find a solution. I've always been very open-minded and I don't really care about biology or  anything like that. We'd been married for about four years when we decided we were ready to start a family. My husband, TJ, and I have been together 15 years. Two years ago, Kendrick was starting public school kindergarten. We really wanted him to grow up in the South side of Chicago, so we moved and now we're on the south side. It's TJ and I and then Kendrick is six, he'll be seven soon. Ari is also adopted and his birth families live in Arizona. Unfortunately, he was born in January 2020, right before the shutdown. I felt really sad for him and his birth family during that time who were unable to visit after his birth and us coming back from Arizona. They ended up coming in August 2020 and quarantined for a week and then saw Ari for a week. And then we still see them pretty often. With Mary Ellen, the relationship functions one way because she’s local and then Ari’s open adoption with his Mommy Chelsea functions differently because of the distance. But it’s still really special and it’s been really special. We have two really cool open adoptions. It's amazing. 

Mary Ellen: Yeah, as far as our relationship, it took a lot of communication and just growing together and sharing our feelings. In the first year, it was really tough because we didn't know each other that well yet. But we were both honest with each other. I'm so glad that we had those hard conversations. Like, if I did something that I didn't know was gonna upset Pauline or maybe I said something in a weird way . . . we were always honest with each other and tried to overcome those issues. It definitely took a while, but I think now we've just grown this friendship, which exists even outside of Kendrick.

Torie: How would you describe the way you have changed or grown over the years?

Pauline: Looking back, there's so much that I've learned since then. I think probably one of the biggest ways that I've seen a shift is the way that I view birth parents. We had a disrupted adoption and it was so sad when that happened. We had been there for labor and we were driving to the hospital on discharge day and I called them to see what kind of coffee they wanted from Starbucks. And they said, oh, we've decided to keep the little guy. I started crying really hard. Obviously, that's fine that that happened. Obviously, now I've learned that that should have happened. At that moment, I kind of knew it too, but it was still really sad. So I think about how I would have handled that differently. I could have said, hey, look I’ve got a full wardrobe. I've got a car seat. I have all this stuff. Here.

 When people talk about how cool it is that we've adopted I'm like, actually, adoption shouldn't exist. Kendrick should be with his Mimi; Ari should be with Mommy Chelsea. These kids should not be in my home. But we live in a very cruel world with a lot of disparities and for whatever reason I was given a set of cards where I could be their day-to-day mom. So because of that, I want the next best thing which is going to be: how can we see his Mimi all the time? And like how can we see mommy Chelsea all the time? These should not be my kids, but because of tough circumstances, they are my kids. I love them so much. But I also now have so much reverence for these women. I think it's because of my respect for these two women that I'm so obsessed with finding ways to care for and give respect to other birthparents. Ultimately, I'd like to find ways to just lessen adoptions in general. But I do think it'll probably always exist. I wish more adoptive parents could just do better with it; you're given such a gift. You're given a human child -  that's the best gift. You're given the title of mom and dad. So many people are like aren't you scared that maybe she's gonna kidnap him or something like that? I'm like, she placed him with me. She made a choice and chose us. She’s not trying to kidnap him! And I'm not saying coercion doesn’t exist in the adoption world, but I'm saying we’ve learned to do it as a team, the boys’ birthmoms and us. There's so many times I call Mary Ellen and I'm like, talk to your son, I don't get him. He's not listening to me. You guys are the same. I don't even know what you say to him. Then after Mimi talks to him, he'll come back and say, sorry, mom. And I'm like, thank you, Mimi. So I think if the boys are not with their biological parents and they are with me, I so desperately want their biological parents to be part of their lives.

 Sometimes it's creepy the way that so many adoptive parents act. I have a lot of friends who are adoptive parents, and everyone will do it differently. And I'm definitely not saying we do it perfectly; I will always be learning how to do it better.  But some adoptive parents can be just really weird and possessive. I know for us, it's been a learning curve. I remember Kendrick's first birthday and Mary Ellen had said something about getting together. And I was like, can't she just see him like the day before or the day after? I had a very weird mindset. It’s not like that anymore. 

Mary Ellen: She's being so hard on herself! Back then I wasn't the same person I am right now, though. I owe so much to Pauline and TJ. If it wasn't for Pauline and TJ I wouldn't have moved to Chicago. They've taught me so much. And Kendrick has taught me so much. Hearing from and connecting with other birth moms - this whole experience literally changed who I am as a person. You have to put in the work yourself to make anything work in life so if it wasn't for me putting in that personal work . . . that's why it's so good that On Your Feet offers therapy and support for women to talk to one another. Just sharing your story heals you a little bit. Also, focusing on myself prepares me more for when I see Kendrick. Sometimes when I'm feeling really down on myself, I'm like, oh my god, I don't even want Kendrick to see me this way. I want to make him proud. I want him to see the best version of me. But then I realized, he doesn't always see the best version of Pauline. As his birth mother, it can't be perfect, and he can't be perfect. We all can't be perfect. So I just have to navigate all those different thoughts and work through them. 

Pauline: The best way I know to describe it is that we kind of went through a pressure cooker. Between a birthmom and an adoptive mom there's so much tenderness and so many emotions; there can be so much underlying bitterness or anger, jealousy. There’s so many emotions. If we only saw each other once a year, I feel like right now we would be tackling stuff that we tackled seven years ago because we kind of just did everything so early on. It's not that we have it all figured out, but it's kind of that we had to move through the awkward phases and really get to know each other. It's not that it's all rainbows and butterflies now, but now I know Mary Ellen, now I know how to communicate with her. Mary Ellen knows what I can handle hearing, I know what she can handle hearing. I think it's so important to try and have an open adoption because you kind of face the tough shit harder and faster. Like right now, Kendrick's in a weird phase.  He can be really emotional. I have to remember not to take it personally, and Mary Ellen does too. They have a good foundation though, so she can see where his different feelings are coming from. 

Mary Ellen:  If we were going through this weird phase with all this stuff we hadn't even tackled yet, it would make this phase a million times harder. We work together to always put his emotional needs first and I think it's so great that we agree on Kendrick's happiness and trust. We care about that the most. That's our priority. I feel like he is so comfortable with Pauline and just comes up to her and speaks his mind. I love that. Even though it's sometimes hard to hear his feelings and what he tells me, I'm the kind of person who wants to know the truth no matter how hard it hurts. I'm so glad that Pauline and TJ raised him to know that he could come to them with anything and that he feels comfortable doing that. 

Pauline: Yea, I know, he was being so open yesterday about his relationship with you. And then he was being so open this morning about his relationship with me. He just has a lot of feelings. Yesterday he was like, sometimes I'm shy with Mimi. I don't see her as much as I used to. If I could just see Mimi more, I think I'll start being less shy. So I immediately texted Mary Ellen and said, Kendrick said he feels shy around you and he doesn't see you often enough. So when are you free next? Tell him what day you're gonna come pick him up. Kendrick can say that to me and I can relay that to Mary Ellen, but Mary Ellen was not crying or offended that he's saying that. But then today I woke up to him screaming in my face that he hates me. And I can tell Mary that. And Mary's not going to be worried that he's in a bad environment or something. I don't think it's possible for you to offend me, Mary. And I don't think it's possible for me to offend you. It's just better to say it.

Torie: I love that for you guys. And I love that for Kendrick. I just imagine all of the adopted individuals whose lives would be so different if their parents had taken this approach. It takes so much work, but you just have to keep showing up. 

Mary Ellen: I also know a lot of birthmoms where it's hard for them to show up because of their emotions. And I feel like, maybe it comes down to they just don't have enough support. And that's what breaks my heart. If they could just have the support and encouragement they need to be able to show up. I don't even know if I could have shown up without Pauline and TJ's support and encouragement, or my best friend. Which is why I think post-placement care and resources that are available to birth moms before, during and after placement is so important. 

I do remember writing myself a letter, saying, no matter how you're feeling on the day of birth, like, you have to do this. It was to remind myself because I knew I was gonna be in an emotional state.  Emotions are so powerful. And then especially after birth with all your hormones, it's really hard. That's why I never judge other birth moms like, oh, what do you mean, you don't want to go to visit with your child? I don't know what they're going through. I don't know the lack of support that they have. It's so important to listen to understand and I'm just so thankful for Pauline and TJ's support and encouragement because it is hard just to show up, even though I didn't always know if Kendrick would want to see me.

Pauline: He's just Mr. Emotions. He's always ultimately so glad to see you even when he's being a jerk to you. I think he's comfortable enough to test you. You know how they say kids are mean to their parents because they are their safe space and they can test them? I tell Mary Ellen all the time: I think it's an honor that he's being kind of difficult to you. Mary Ellen's just one of the parents. So he'll say mean things to Mary. And then Mary's just kind of like, okay, well, do you want to head out or continue playing Pokemon?

Torie: I just think the way you navigate the tough feelings with each other and Kendrick is amazing. I admire you both. I think that what you're doing is an awesome model for open adoption, moving forward into the future of adoption. Are there any other thoughts you’d add to our conversation?

Mary Ellen:  Even though adoption was the right choice for me, I would never tell someone, oh, you should place your baby for adoption, because it could be totally different. So I always try to be transparent. Kendrick is a biracial adoptee and we have an extremely open adoption. I'm just very thankful that Pauline does things like this with me and she's always happy to share and get our story out there and hear other people's stories, adoptee voices as well. I'm also part of the mentee program that On Your Feet is doing and I'm really excited to meet my mentee and build a relationship with her.

Pauline: The reason we talk about adoption so much is to take away the stigma. Our goal is to normalize open adoption and take the stigma out of this relationship. We are hoping that if we can be open and share about it a lot, it can change people’s mindsets before people’s harsh opinions on open adoption can make their way to Kendrick’s earshot.

For tickets to Mary Ellen and Pauline's upcoming talk on April 24th at 11am CST, please visit Activism in Adoption's upcoming sessions page. Most adoption education ends before an adoption is finalized, but where other adoption education programs stop, we are just getting started.

Thank you for recognizing the importance of post-placement support: