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The Tummies: Thoughts On Understanding Open Adoption  



by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser 

Adoption, to a three year-old, is tummies. “You grew in your Auntie Cece’s tummy,” I found myself saying to my daughter, Saskia, one day this past winter. “I was waiting for you and waiting for you. I was there when you were born—and after you left Auntie Cece’s tummy you came right into my arms.”

What prompted this was a discussion about the baby in our friend (and my daughter’s babysitter) Emily’s tummy. We’d noted how her belly was growing so big and round. Emily’s tummy served as a natural springboard for my question to Saskia: “Whose tummy were you in?” 

I half-expected her to know the answer. We’d talked about adoption and we visit with her birth mother, Caroline, whom she calls Auntie Cece, every few months and she also knows her grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles and cousins. We’d read books on adoption. 

She pointed to my tummy. That part—the tummy—hadn’t sunk in. And that part—the tummy—is necessary to comprehend the rest. 

Upon hearing about Auntie Cece’s tummy, her onyx eyes clouded over. I couldn’t bear the idea of her being half so sad as she appeared. I repeated, “You came right into my arms.” I pulled her onto my lap. “When we left the hospital, you came home with me and your papa in our car.” 

She asked, “In the van?” Her voice brightened a little bit. 

I didn’t mention that the van was purchased a couple of months after her arrival. She’s our fourth child, so we couldn’t jam our family into a station wagon any longer. 

This truth is unavoidable: adoption involves loss, even for a tot discovering that she didn’t grow in your belly like her friends did in their mamas’ bellies. My daughter is still a little too young to ask harder follow-up questions (of her birth mother, why didn’t you raise me? Of me, why did you adopt me and not my brothers?). 

I feel almost completely certain that the sadness on her face at three is both real and fleeting. Eventually, the story of Auntie Cece’s tummy and my arms and our car taking her home to her family of brothers and mama and papa will be one she simply tells us. Will she ever feel sad or angry or confused or rejected or whatever else about adoption? I am sure she will. Affirmation of this matter-of-fact aspect to her grasping her own story came just a few nights ago when she informed her best friend, Arella, age four, “I was in Auntie Cece’s tummy and then I came home from the hospital with my mama and papa.” 



If you haven’t yet, read the marvelous and harrowing book of interviews about adoption in the days before abortion was made legal entitled The Girls Who Went Away to grasp the reality of adoption at that time. Secrets, especially terrible, shameful ones, as these stories reveal, inevitably hurt everyone and perhaps most especially the children. Secrets ferret their way into everything. Children, being sensitive creatures, intuit secrets. 

With openness, the theory goes, there’s a pathway toward healing. Ours is an open adoption. My three-year-old doesn’t need to know much beyond the tummies yet. What she needs: to feel secure in the knowledge that she’s extremely loved. As an adoptive parent, part of my task is to mete out honesty so it doesn’t flood my daughter. 

Over the past two to three decades, adoption no longer has to be a secret locked away in a court clerk’s files. Open adoption occurs on a continuum: there may be medical information offered, letters or pictures or presents or Skype or—like our adoption—visits not only with the birth mom but extended family. The act of opening adoption doesn’t suddenly render it easy or intuitive or even always happy. Basic facts won’t be hidden away. By opening up her adoption, our daughter can know firsthand that we love her—and so does the mama whose tummy she grew in.


We have a picture book about how babies grow. The first page reads, “You have just been born. You know the sound of your mother’s voice from before you were born.” Every time I read that page to my daughter, I feel sad. How jarring to hear one mama’s voice and then another as a tiny, brand-new person. 

Obviously, the tummy is not insignificant. Out in the open it becomes something we can talk about and wonder about and marvel at. Even sadness about these tummies can be discussed at any time; we never have to dance around it. And if she feels like talking to her Auntie Cece, we just pick up the phone.

These days, Saskia says, “Caroline is my grandmother.” Her aunt is her grandmother and her grandmothers are her grandmothers. I take grandmother to mean a special family member who really loves me.


Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a graduate of Hampshire College and the MFA for Writers Program at Warren Wilson College. Along with a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows, she writes for such publications as Babble, Huffington Post, Brain Child magazine, Literary Mama, and Preview Massachusetts magazine. As a writer and mama to four, she is pretty constantly busy.



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