Hi, my name is Leah. And I am a sucker for ABC Family shows.
Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, you name it – and I’ve probably watched every episode. But out of all the amazing shows they’ve produced, there is one that never fails to make me catch my breath. Particularly as an adoptive mother myself, I am routinely shocked by just how right Switched at Birth gets the complicated dynamics of, well… complicated families.
“From the color of our eyes, to the color of our hair – how your pinky bends or whether we can roll our tongues. Who we are is determined by genes passed down to us from our mothers and fathers.”
That was how the show started. With one of the lead characters, Bay, explaining to us the importance of genetics, while simultaneously asking her mother, “Was I adopted or something? People ask me that a lot.”
Kathryn Kennish responds by saying, “WHO? I’ll show them my stretch marks,” and you immediately understand what a shocking revelation it will be for the family when they find out their daughter was switched at birth 15 years before.
The initial episodes of the series play on the heightened emotions of this revelation, intersecting the two very different families in ways that show how confused and scared they all are. Because who wouldn’t be confused and scared, finding out that the reality you had always known to be true was suddenly anything but?
We know so much more about adoption today than we did even 20 years ago, and it is rare anymore for a child to be raised not knowing they were born to other parents. These secrets aren’t kept, and open adoptions are now becoming more the norm.
But on Switched at Birth, nothing about any of this was a choice – so the shock is palpable. And as the Vasquez family moves into the Kennish home to allow everyone a chance to better know each other, what plays out is like an open adoption on steroids; everyone maneuvering to figure out their place far too late in the game. Love and jealousy, hope and hurt feelings are intricately intertwined, just like in real life.
“You are my mom. You will always be my mom. But I need to get to know them too.” Daphne, Episode One
I’m a single mother by choice, so the bond between Daphne and her single mother, Regina, is one I have always related to. As an adoptive mother, though, I also know that bond will never erase the fact that my daughter was born to another woman. And that as she gets older, she will forever yearn to know her other family. Do I ever foresee us all living together like they do on Switched at Birth? Probably not. But do I understand why Regina would agree to moving in with the Kennish’s, despite the blow her own pride took as a result?
Absolutely. It was about allowing her daughter the room to get to know her other family, while also embracing the chance to get to know Bay, her biological daughter.
“You are stuck with two mothers, whether you like it or not.” Regina to Bay, Episode One
Maintaining an open adoption with my daughter’s other mother has always been important to me. In fact, there are times when I wish we could see her more than we do. She carried my little girl. She loved her. She birthed her. And then, she gave her to me. She entrusted me with raising this child I am thankful for each and every day.
For that, I will always love her.
“She’s my blood. I’m linked to her in a million different ways that I don’t even understand yet. So if you hate her, maybe you kind of hate me too.” Bay to Kathryn, Season One, Episode Two
Prior to our daughter being born, I told her other mother that I wouldn’t be able to go through with the adoption if I didn’t like her as a person. It was true. I meant it. I knew we would be family from this point forward, and that we would need to be friends for the good of our little girl.
We moved forward with that intention. But the families on Switched at Birth? They just had the rug pulled out from under them. So it made sense when they spent much of the first season struggling to get along as they learned their new roles. But Bay telling her mother that she needed her to like Regina, because Regina was a part of her was a pretty profound moment. It hits on something that is often forgotten in adoption circles as well — that children will always identify with their biological parents. And they will always be listening for clues as to how those biological parents are perceived. They will see pieces of themselves in those parents, even if they never come to know them personally.
They are a part of them.
My daughter’s other mother is a part of her.
Which is why it is so important that she grows up knowing I love the woman who gave birth to her, and that I am grateful for every aspect of her she embodies.
Still, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for how we would maneuver our open relationship. I hadn’t been looking to adopt an infant. My plan had been to provide foster care for teenagers. It was only through chance that I was introduced to my daughter’s other mother the week before she was born. And only because of some random twist of fate that she asked me to take her baby.
“Because that’s the thing. The day before your whole life changes forever, feels like just any other day.” ~ Daphne, Season One, Episode 30
My entire world changed. For the better, absolutely, but still completely unexpected and out of the blue.
I never saw it coming. Which meant, there were only so many ways I could prepare for the intricacies that were to come.
The first few months of our open adoption were probably the hardest for me. There was uncertainty there. A constant fear that minds could be changed and that this whole dream could be ripped away from me. I struggled with sharing, with establishing my role as “mommy” while another mother hung in the wings. I battled jealousy I hadn’t expected, and had to fight my own inner demons in order to continue forward with the same level of love and openness I had entered into the situation.
But slowly, things got easier. As I felt more secure in my role, I was able to embrace the role played by this other woman more genuinely. Ironically, that seemed to be when it got harder for her – when she began to struggle with where she fit in.
Because none of this can ever be easy.
But Switched at Birth has done an amazing job of capturing that as well. Of showing that even as things get easier, and this new normal begins to solidify, there are always insecurities lingering in the background, always adjustments that have to be made.
In the second season, Bay admits to her mother that while she had an amazing childhood and the greatest parents in the world, she still sometimes struggles with what she missed out on.
Both girls vacillate between calling their parents by first names or “Mom” and “Dad”.
Bay’s grandmother suddenly decides she doesn’t love her as much as her newly found genetic granddaughter, Daphne (a point in the show when I, as an adoptive mother, genuinely wanted to throw something at the screen). Parental decisions are questioned and judged, and both sets of parents struggle to bond with the child they weren’t permitted to know, while fighting to maintain a connection with the child they raised.
“It’s just really complicated. My parents… are my parents.” Bay, Season Two, Episode 17
It’s all so complicated. And beautiful and heartbreaking, and true and relatable at the same time.
ABC Family just gets it.
And even though Switched at Birth isn’t about adoption (at least, not directly – but let’s not talk about Angelo and Abby), they hit on so much that is true of families that come together through love and dedication, rather than just genetics and blood. And they explore the sometimes painful evolution of emotions and identity that accompanies such a unification.
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