I love sociology. That’s what I majored in when I was in college (although my career has nothing to do with sociology now).
There was a famous experiment by Milgram that just fascinated me. The volunteer sat in front of a switchboard and he was told to shock the other person every time a wrong answer was given. The person giving the answers to questions was out of sight—on the other side of a wall. After a while, the guy getting shocked started to complain about the pain, as if it was damaging his heart. Then when the volunteer looks to quit the experiment, some guy in a lab coat comes in and tells him he has to continue. So even though they’re not even sure if they’re going to really hurt the guy on the other side of the wall, they continue doing it anyway because they’re “supposed to.”
I’ve thought of that experiment a lot of times when dealing with open adoptions—whether talking about my own (two of them) or someone else’s.
It’s always hard to see someone you love hurting. And as an adoptive parent, my wife and I love our children’s birth parents. There were a lot of times when I wish there was something we could do to take way their hurt, the hurt that came from the separation.
Perhaps the Milgram experiment isn’t the perfect example for open adoption, because even though we could see the birth parents hurting, we went through with the process anyway. But what I’m trying to say is that being in an intimate situation with someone, we empathize so differently with their pain than we would if they were “out of sight.” If there was a wall between our birth parents and us, I guess I could assume we would act differently. We’d be a little less in tune with their pain.
It’s just natural, as humans, to focus on our own pain. And when we focus on our own pain, it makes it hard to focus on the pain of others.
Both sides (adoptive and biological) go through tough times. Sometimes those tough times are at different times, sometimes simultaneously. Those tough times each side is going through, though, are different trials. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that someone else is hurting too, and not just focus on what’s going on in our own lives.
That’s the wonderful thing about open adoption. It keeps us real. It may be more of a trial to see someone face-to-face when they’re going through a painful experience and we’re the ones on the receiving end, but being in a situation so intimate keeps us all real. We do what we can to take the shock away. We love our children’s birth families so much.
Open adoption is not for everyone, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m so glad we have it in our lives. We’re better people because of it.
By Russell Elkins, author of the book Open Adoption, Open Heart: An Adoptive Father’s Inspiring Journey