In America today, it’s quite normal for a family to adopt a child and maintain some degree of contact with the child’s birth parents. But as accepted as this is now, it’s a significant departure from the adoption practices that dominated for most of the 20th century, when “closed” adoptions were preferred (that is, adoptions in which children’s biological parents cease to be a part of their life after the adoption). Slowly, in the later decades of the century, experts came to favor these more open processes. As the journalist-turned-adoption-advocate Adam Pertman wrote in his 2006 book, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—And America, “Social-work and mental-health experts have reached a consensus that greater openness offers an array of benefits for adoptees—from ongoing information about family medical issues to fulfillment of their innate desire to know about their genealogical histories, even if the expanded relationships prove difficult or complicated for some of the participants.”
Some 13 years later, Vanessa McGrady’s new book, Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption, reads like a real-life manifestation of Pertman’s theory on open adoptions—but it sheds some revealing light on the “difficult or complicated” part. Like Pertman, McGrady posits in her book that “open adoption is better … for the mental health of all involved,” but what Rock Needs River does most effectively is lay bare the stressful, painful, psychologically taxing situations that can result from open adoption. (Full disclosure: I am adopted, and my adoption is closed.)
McGrady became a mother in her 40s, when she adopted a newborn baby girl from a local couple who wanted to pursue music careers instead of becoming parents. She’d always planned on having an open adoption, but never the possibility that she would later take her daughter’s biological parents, whom she identifies only as Bill and Bridgett, into her home for a few months when they found themselves homeless—or that their relationship would sour when she eventually stopped welcoming their last-minute requests to crash with her.
McGrady entered into the open-adoption arrangement without much of a plan for what lay ahead, and the consequences bear out as McGrady’s relationship with her daughter’s birth parents metamorphoses repeatedly. At first, Bill and Bridgett are like random but tentatively friendly strangers on the opposite side of an important transaction; soon they become something like extended family members, then something like dependents, and ultimately something like bitterly estranged relatives.
Open-adoption arrangements make many adoptive and biological parents feel as if they’re bound together for life, though sometimes not all that closely. And by McGrady’s account, her ties with Bill and Bridgett have several hallmarks of an extended-relative relationship, including the heightened sense of obligation to help out in a time of need. When it gets cold a few months after they start living in a tent in downtown Los Angeles, McGrady writes, “the thought occurred that I should invite Bridgett and Bill to stay with me until the weather got better. But then I shooed it away like a pesky mosquito. Because, you know, boundaries.” Yet, “they occupied an uncomfortably large space in my brain. Something had shifted. Like a debt becoming obvious and, in a way, deeper.” Later, even though she’s grown weary of Bridgett and Bill’s persistent presence and what she describes as their minimal efforts to get jobs, they “had nobody. Not one person within a five-hundred-mile radius who would know, or care, if they were alive or dead.” In other words, an open-adoption arrangement gave McGrady and her daughter more family members to love—which also meant more family members to feel emotionally, and financially, responsible for.
McGrady reiterates throughout Rock Needs River how much the adoption of her daughter, Grace, has changed her life for the better. Still, she describes times when she found herself stricken by jealousy and insecurity as a direct result of her daughter’s birth parents being present in her daughter’s life. When Bill and Bridgett are living with McGrady, she feels “angst” over the possibility that they will stay too long and that Grace will get confused about who her parents are. “I spend every moment of every day wanting to be the biggest star in her life. The one who loves her the most. The one she loves the most,” McGrady writes. She’s proud that even when Bill and Bridgett are around, Grace “always turned to me first for cuddles or help.” And she worries when her daughter throws a fit that Bill and Bridgett will doubt her parenting skills: “Would they still think I was a good mom?”
McGrady also suggests that the unstable, unpredictable nature of her relationship with her daughter’s birth parents took a separate toll on Grace. One reason that McGrady stopped welcoming them into her home, she writes, is because Grace developed what she believed to be anxiety issues, and “the only denominator I could pinpoint was Bill and Bridgett’s comings and goings.” (Meanwhile, Bill and Bridgett’s relationship with McGrady seems to have caused them some pain and stress, too. For one thing, had they not entered into the open-adoption arrangement, they might not now be dealing with the release of a book that Bill recently described in the press as “exploitation and lies.”)
Praise for Rock Needs River frames it as a “moving” story about “lives intertwining” and “the complex creation of a family”; its jacket describes the memoir as “Vanessa’s love letter to her daughter, one that illuminates the heroine’s journey to find her tribe.” And in the book, McGrady is careful to emphasize that adoption is a good thing, and that open adoption is a good thing. “I never, ever wanted [Grace] to have an untrue version of her origin story. I never wanted her to have fantasies about her birth parents,” she writes in the penultimate chapter.
But while Rock Needs River markets itself as an uplifting work about cobbling together a family from nontraditional parts, McGrady’s adoption story is rare and important for another reason. While the notion of the tidy, streamlined closed adoption has drawn criticism and become frowned-upon, stories like McGrady’s illustrate why people used to—and sometimes still do—opt for the scenario that, at least in theory, offers clean breaks. Rock Needs River reminds the reader that although open adoption is often characterized nowadays as the enlightened, humane way to adopt a child, it can come with its own complications. Adoption of any kind inevitably creates unusual and challenging situations for everyone involved, and not all can be fixed by an open arrangement.