Viral videos frequently dominate the clutter of my Facebook newsfeed and, while momentarily entertaining, are soon forgotten. No exception, this time lapse video of a girl growing up 14 years briefly captivated the attention of my friends and family last month, but seems to have made only a fleeting impression. Not for me.
Long after this video disappeared from my newsfeed, these images have lingered in my mind- but not for the reasons that catalyzed its popularity with the masses. For a woman like me- a birthmother in a fully open adoption– this video continues to be cause for reflection on the temporality of open adoption and my 13-year relationship with my son.
For many observers, this video evidenced an extraordinary and forward-thinking dedication on the part of the director, a father who filmed his daughter every week for 14 years in order to document her development. Through time lapse, the video makes visible larger processes of growth that often escape our everyday view. Viewers were enthralled by this project and saw it as the piecing together of bits of time- a chance to preserve a lifetime of shared moments in a 4-minute artifact of life, growth and relationship.
But what if all you ever had were bits of time?
In 2001, I relinquished my son to another family in what was then considered to be an extraordinarily ‘open’ open adoption. Few members of my community knew any birth or adoptive families that engaged in post-adoption contact. They were constantly surprised by (and skeptical of) the level of contact that my son’s birthfather and I had with my son and his adoptive family.
From the beginning, we exchanged identifying information and met together at the adoptive family’s home for visits. Because I was enrolled in an out-of-state college when I gave birth to my son, the frequency of these face-to-face visits corresponded with my school vacations (about five per year). My son’s birthfather and I were always worried about etiquette on these visits and heavily policed ourselves in the hope that we would never violate the unarticulated boundaries of the adoptive parents. We developed a habit early on of politely excusing ourselves after 2-2.5 hours. We feared being asked to leave so we always orchestrated for ourselves a predictable exit. While my undergrad years are long gone, this schedule has remained fairly consistent across the last 13 years.
People often ask how frequently I visit my son and, even today, seem impressed that I am allowed to see him about five times a year. While some may outwardly congratulate me (“Wow! Five times a year? How amazing of his adoptive family to allow that!”), the subtext of their remarks actually reveals a profound discomfort with adopted children spending time with their birth parents. It’s clear that for many people, ongoing post-adoption contact is an exception that borders on…excess.
As a birthparent, it has always been difficult to contend with the presumption that my time with my son is somehow excessive- for him, for me, for his parents, and for adoption in general. This time-lapse video has caused me to reflect upon how time is actually a useful tool for helping people think more critically about how open adoption is actually experienced by birth parents.
What does time feel like for a birthparent in an open adoption?
5 visits. 2.5 hours. 13 years.
Far from excessive, I witness just 12.5 of the 8,760 hours that my son experiences each year. The time lapse video resonates with me so strongly because it is a direct representation of my experience in open adoption. In the original version, this father’s video refers back to a lifetime of shared experiences between parent and child. My version of the film- my memory as a birthmother- has no such referent.
What you see in that video is exactly how I have seen my son these last 13 years. Beautiful, scattered, jarring moments in which I savor his every movement and expression in the hope of piecing together a meaningful understanding of the person I created. I notice things that only someone who loves so hard and so deeply from this distance could ever see. I need no video to remind me of the years that have passed from the time our eyes first met, the day he first saw the world. I’ve seen his transformation from a vantage point that never lets me forget all the hours that lie between the brief bits of time we have together.
The time of our relationship through open adoption isn’t linear. For this birthmother, it can’t be. 4 minutes of disconnected images may represent the occasions that I’ve seen my son in the flesh, but it can never capture the life he’s lived in my mind. I pan through these memories out of order. I rearrange them and mine them for resemblances to my family. In the contrast between frames, I search for hidden traces of the life that he and I have not shared, but that have inevitably shaped our time together. I find 100 ways to re-interpret a single moment with him. Mostly, I imagine what this all looks like through his eyes and wonder about our future.
At what hour will he share with me what this experience has been like for him? Will our relationship be time lapsed forever- or is there a chance for a future in real time?