As an adoptive parent, I now know that adoption is a lifelong journey and not something finite. In the beginning, there is an overwhelming amount of paperwork. You can feel “done” with it all when the prep-work is over. Then you will wait for an expectant mom to choose you. After placement you can feel a finality in that the child is finally home; however, there is no finality in adoption. Open adoption today means there is no “end” point—you will have adoption as part of your life forever and all the questions, curiosity, and new familial relationships that come with it.
A couple of times recently I have heard of adoptive parents promising an open adoption and then not communicating with the birth mother once the baby is placed. This is unfathomable to me. The dishonesty and disrespect to the birth mom is like salt in a wound. She has placed her trust in the adoptive family. If they go back on their word and made false promises just to get a baby, then they have truly misunderstood open adoption. It’s not a means to an end. It’s the start of a lifelong relationship. Unless the birth mother is literally shooting up drugs in front of your child, there is no reason you cannot have a semi-open or open adoption. I hope these adoptive parents will think about how they will tell their child one day that they closed the door on the birth mother. Ultimately, the adoptee is the one we should focus on.
The adoptee will benefit over the course of their life from knowing who their birth mother and birth family is. Open adoption is gaining momentum for a reason. Instead of wondering for a lifetime about who their birth family is and having that piece missing, now an adoptee can get to know their birth family over the course of their life. Our son currently knows that he came from his birth mom’s tummy. I’m pretty sure he also knows he has the same color eyes as she does, although a genetics lesson isn’t really relevant at his age. I hope he notices her humor. I am curious to see them interact as they both get older and I’m so grateful we can have that. Now is every open adoption the same or perfect? No. It is a complex relationship, but it is worth every effort.
Another important aspect to consider is that the adoptee’s understanding of their own adoption will grow and change over time. The way they understand it at age 10 will not be the way they understand it at age 18. Just knowing that they’re adopted is not enough; the conversation cannot end there. As adoptive parents, you cannot expect a single conversation and then think you’re done with it. It’s a process. As they grow to understand human relationships, sex, marriage, the idea of sacrifice, the idea of adoption having a dual nature, etc., their opinion and ideas about adoption will take form and then continue to change as they grow. For this reason, it’s so important to give your child a solid foundation and understanding of adoption and then act on that. Live it out. If you’re all living out open adoption and doing it as well as possible, your child will recognize it (if not in the moment, then later on). This gives them preparation to answer questions from those not in the adoption world. They are going to have their own friends or acquaintances at school who may say unkind things about being adopted, for simple lack of knowledge. We want the child to be able to know their story so that if a peer criticizes it, they can know that peer is misinformed and not take that criticism to heart.
The Birth Mother
For the birth mother, adoption is also a lifelong process. It can seem like once the baby is placed and the contact agreement is set that the “figuring out the details” bit is over; however, it’s really just starting. As time goes by, having an open adoption will bring all sorts of emotions. Grief cycles can come and go without warning. Gratefulness can be overwhelming. Both of these felt simultaneously are also a lot to process. Something I have also noticed over the last four years is how things can be so different as the child grows; it’s almost like birth moms get to know a new version of their child at each visit. For instance, the months and months that pass in between visits can seem long sometimes or can seem like the blink of an eye.
At our first visit two weeks after birth, our son’s birth mom held him and he was as helpless as a bird. He needed someone to hold his head up. Fast forward and our next visit had us all playing on the floor with him and his toys at eight months. Fast forward again a couple of times and boom, all of a sudden, birth mom is having a toddler talk right back to her. Eating solid food with her. Fast forward a couple more visits and wow, it’s almost his fourth birthday and she is watching him hit a ball off a tee and asking him his favorite movie. I can imagine for her it’s really overwhelming that it’s kind of a new little guy every time she sees him. Once you get used to having a baby placed for adoption, all of a sudden, you have a little boy you placed for adoption. I could cry just thinking about that passage of time and how incredible life is. Does she feel like she’s always playing catch up? Does she anticipate his next steps? Questions I will have to ask her, now that suddenly, baby is almost a memory and little boy is up next. Cue tears.
It would be wrong not to mention how all birth mothers need to seek counseling to deal with the grief of placing a child for adoption. Over the course of their lives, grief can come and go, can be more or less present, but probably won’t ever disappear. No one knows what life events are going to trigger depression related to adoption- a new job, a move, starting a family of their own, etc. Birth mothers need to have a trusted source they can go to for when they’re in seasons of struggling. Some birth mothers will refuse help, but this tends to be an unhealthy way of dealing with grief, as they will realize sooner or later. I recently watched a video where a birth mother described how she felt being a decade into placement. She says she cries still today and feels like she’s right back there at the hospital. All that time has passed, but when she remembers the hospital, it’s like it was yesterday. The phrase, “time heals all wounds” is debatable here. It’s important agencies provide free post-placement care. Birth mothers should also connect with other birth mothers online via Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.
An expectant mom considering adoption is making a decision that not only affects herself and her child but generations. Her decision will determine if her parents get to see their grandchild. Her decision will determine whether two people become parents and their parents become grandparents. When she meets the right man and wants to start a family of her own (if she wants those things) she will then need to let those children know they have a half sibling already. What if one day she deals with infertility herself? Will her husband be supportive of choosing adoption as a couple? IVF? All these things are very intentional, weighty decisions, not to be made hastily or in coercion.
The Birth Father
The usual “elephant in the room” in adoption is the birth father. I would be remiss to not mention how adoption does affect him as well. Typically, an adoption plan is looked at because of lack of father involvement, but it doesn’t mean he is a villain. There are many bad guys out there, sure, but also ones who do care about their children and even begin to have an open adoption relationship with their child just like the birth mom does. I pray I will see more of that as time goes on. It’s one of the complex feelings I have about our son’s adoption. So far, we have only seen his birth father once and it saddens me to tears sometimes. I’m often told to ignore him altogether, but in my heart I know he was affected by this too, even if he’s too young or good at burying his feelings to realize it. We also have visits with his mother (our son’s birth father’s mother) who does want to be involved. It’s hard to fathom how I will explain to my son that his grandmother wants to see him but his birth father doesn’t. He may over time, but I can’t expect that. It’s more complex than I thought to have all these emotions linger and wait until he gets older.
The Adoptive Parents
For us adoptive parents, the work of explaining adoption to him has yet to begin. He knows he’s from her tummy, but as time goes on it’s up to us to age appropriately explain the whole story. I’m so curious to see how he understands and processes it all. Will it be natural and smooth? Will he have a meltdown and periods of questioning us? Only time will tell. Then I also have to remember his own self-education he will make. One day, he’ll be old enough for Googling adoption terms. One day, he can even have his own social media accounts. Will he want to message his birth family? Every interaction now he has with them is under my supervision. What happens when I don’t have control? Will I be nosy and want to know what he’s asking his birth mom? Will I be chill about it? All these things are a process that haven’t even begun yet. Open adoption means a lifelong commitment.
Conclusion: It’s a Lifelong Process
Since it is such a lifetime process, it’s important to always give grace to all members of the adoption triad. Be kind and forgive quickly. Don’t hold grudges or keep score. This is ultimately about keeping the door open no matter what. Adults complicate things and argue sometimes—all families do, even adoptive ones. My advice would be to treat each member of the triad like family. You’re not waiting for them to slip up or say the wrong thing so you can close the door on them. Treat them as though they’ll be in your life forever. Keep the child in mind; after all, it is about them. I have had a couple of arguments with our son’s birth mom; however, they weren’t even about adoption. They were more regular family, communication-related issues. Despite the outcome or who is right or who isn’t, I focus on grace. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to be bonded for life. It is very humbling and also allows me to give myself grace. None of us have done this before—in a way, all adoptions are full of newbies. We’re all new at this. We figure it out as we go, but we go together. That’s the promise. So, when I hear of people closing the door on birth moms for seemingly small reasons, it is frustrating. If you promised openness, be open, period.
Going into adoption is scary, no doubt, but I promise 99 percent of your fears will not ever be realized. Make sure your agency is supportive of post-placement care for birth mothers or direct your child’s birth mother to an organization like Lifetime Healing, LLC. This is a fantastic care community run by a birth mother who has become a national voice for birth moms. We want birth moms as well as adoptive families to be as healthy and happy as possible. This leads to healthy and happy children. Our children deserve our best efforts in open adoption—not just what’s comfortable—but our best.
Kristin Anderson is an adoptive mother who lives with her son, husband, and two crazy dogs. She loves open adoption and is always looking for ways to help in the adoption community. You can find her blog at www.lookingforlittleone.wordpress.com