When I hear the question, “What benefits come from open adoptions?”, my heart actually races. My husband and I have been advocates of open adoption for the last six years. When we completed our first adoption through foster care, we were really quite undecided, and a little afraid. When it became obvious that we were going to be able to adopt through foster care again, just over a year later, we had a dilemma on our hands. The birth mother of this second child was used to supervised visits, meeting up downtown on special occasions, such as the Canada Day Parade (in which her daughter participates every year), and being able to get in touch with me via text. To abruptly cut off all of this contact once the adoption went through felt wrong. But, we would have no agency backing us and setting the ground rules anymore; the onus was all on us to make the decisions based on what was best for everyone. Ultimately, after taking a few days to very seriously consider the implications to our family and our children, we decided to dive right into fully open adoption–and, to contact the birth family of our first adopted child, and connect with the family, out of the blue, to make sure both adoptions were being treated equally.
This decision has seriously changed our lives. It has been immensely challenging, and has grown us in ways we would never have imagined; it has brought us great joy, but also times of sadness. We have extended the circle of what we call family in such a beautiful way, I can’t even imagine going back.
It is only in recent history that the Canadian government has removed the option of a truly closed adoption. Gone are the days where middle-aged and older adults would finally find out he or she was adopted, usually by accident, and that everything that the adoptee had believed about biological origins was incorrect. Therapists, counselors and adoption specialists started telling adoptive parents that it actually increased the probability of rebellion and emotional upheaval to drop a bomb on your child in the teens years–“Oh, by the way….we adopted you” is now counseled as the wrong way to handle this sensitive topic. Back in 2011, when we were taking our adoption education training in preparation for adopting our foster daughter, we were encouraged to write a life book, make an adoption story, and talk to her, even as an infant, about her adoption. This was largely to get us used to talk to our child about her past. Many adoptive parents, particularly adoptive moms and those who faced fertility issues, struggle with the idea of birth parents, “first parents” existing out there, somewhere. Somehow, the message is received by some adoptive parents that she is less than fully a parent because she adopted rather than conceived, and it has been a stumbling block to some in open adoptions. Along with this is a general fear that children exposed to those pasts may rebel, run into the arms of “unfit” parents struggling with addictions issues, or even become addicts simply by associating with biological parents. The good news is, no research indicates that addictions are contagious. Even better, many specialists in the adoption world now believe that children who are given information about the past, rather than having it hidden, go on to better understand individual identities as adoptees, and actually have lower instances of teenage rebellion related to emotional strife over adoption.
Of course, there are valid reasons and times when openness is not an option or is not recommended. Personal safety and the safety and well being of your children is always first and foremost. That aside, I am often asked, “Isn’t open adoption hard?” The answer is, yes. Yes, there will be awkwardness, and yes, hard things will probably come up. But, I encourage you, don’t get stuck in that place. Open adoption comes with so many benefits, it is worth overcoming obstacles, when possible, to make it happen.
This comes in both you, and your children. Birth parents, no matter his or her past, no matter how troubled or how confusing the situation, are people. Many adoptive parents almost fear the presence of birth parents, but birth parents are just people like you and me, with hopes and dreams. Many of those birth parents have had hopes and dreams dashed. When you soften to the idea of open adoption, you are truly giving a birth parent another chance–something that is often not given. The privilege to be involved in the child’s life, if he or she wants it, is the ultimate gift. And it is ok if your child can see that the birth parent is struggling. Keeping things age-appropriate is a must, but allowing your child to see, personally, what the birth mother or father is juggling, will help that adoptee to make personal conclusions about why the adoption took place. The old, canned answers of “you were so special, we chose you for our family!” have always fallen short. Of course, children like to hear this, but in my experience, most still are left with the lingering thought of, “why didn’t my parents ‘keep’ me?” While I never recommend speaking negatively about birth parents, it is appropriate to allow children to observe the birth parents and ask questions. You may reply with things such as, “sometimes, adults have big-people problems that make it hard for him or her to ____.” Adoptees don’t want adoptive parents to read out a list of the reasons the birth parents were unable to parent; that is hurtful and can make a child feel there is something wrong with him or her as a result of the broken, birth family. By allowing adopted children openness with birth families, you allow your child to explore his or her own feelings of origin. With your ongoing support and dialog about your child’s adoption, your child will piece together this first family and adoptive family tapestry, having empathy for birth parents, and adoptive parents, both of whom make mistakes, have struggles, have goals, and emotions.
In my experience, many adoptive children think about birth parents at certain times in life and wonder about the birth mother and father. What are those birth parents doing? Is the birth mother ok? Do the birth parents have a place to stay or food to eat? For one of our children, adopted from foster care, she knows that her mother is not always in a good place and that sometimes she does not have a place to stay. Pretending this is not reality does nothing to eliminate the stress. Neither does making up fanciful stories about how everything is fine. Children are too smart for that. We can build trust with our adoptive children by being honest with facts that make sense for the age the child is at. By the time adoptive and foster children are 18, adoptees should know the whole story–which means that you will have to dole out the details, even the hard ones, one age-appropriate morsel at a time. Children that worry about birth parents benefit from being able to hear those voices, receive a letter, or have a visit. This is probably particularly true of children adopted out of foster care, because those adoptees may have vivid memories of living with birth parents or the situations the birth parents were in, including homelessness experienced while in the birth mother’s or birth father’s care.
It is quite normal for children of adoption to fantasize about a perfect life with the birth parents. One of my adopted children, for example, still goes through stages of believing that if she were living with her birth mom, she wouldn’t have to take her medicine, do schoolwork, or chores. Even if this were true, it would not be a good thing. Children adopted from foster care may well not have had to go to school or eat healthy food, for example, before he or she was removed or apprehended. But, it is so easy to fantasize about how perfect life would be, “only if….” When we are faced with reality, those thoughts stop. If children have birth parents in his or her lives, those children may be less likely to assume life with biological parents would be perfect because no one is perfect. Human beings make mistakes, get angry, misplace things, and run late. Children with supportive adoptive homes will see that both adoptive parents and birth parents are capable of making mistakes.
What about behavior? Foster parents know well that behavior before and after birth parent visits can swing wildly, with emotions ranging from anger to sadness. Is this a reason to consider not having openness? I don’t think so. I definitely have had adopted children be stressed right out before a birth parent visit, wanting everything to be perfect, barking orders at other kids; I have had the same child act out after a visit. In all fairness, though, I’ve had other kids who have far less contact with birth parents moon over when he or she might see the birth mother or father again and demand to do so, cry over not seeing the birth parents, or kick up a fuss. I believe that behavior can be a factor either way and that this varies largely from child to child. It isn’t predictable, because no two children will react to adoptions the same way, even in sibling groups. I have one child who really rolls with it, and is fine with her journey; I have another who has grieved the loss of her birth family extensively and is still working through her journey. The point is that there will likely, someday, be behavior around the adoption–maybe milder, maybe much rougher, but it is not predictable and may catch you off guard no matter what you do.
What about how you personally feel about the birth parents? I have heard more than one adoptive parent say he or she feels the birth parents don’t deserve to be in the lives of the kids. In cases of horrific abuse or gross misconduct, a child should never have to face a tormentor or abuser again. This is where your parental sense has to kick in. Go with your gut, but I would recommend holding the past loosely, if at all. Regret, shame, and anger are powerful, heavy emotions. Both you and your child will be freer without them. Seek professional help for emotions that are just too hard to put down.
It is also important to talk about what open adoption is not–open adoption is not forcing anyone to hug or kiss anyone, it is not forcing anyone to say “I love you”, and it is not forcing anyone to sit on a lap or hold hands. Boundaries are important–your child needs to have a voice, and be allowed to say no. It is essential. Teaching your child he or she has the right to say no can prevent abuse. If your child looks uncomfortable, step in. It is your job, and you carry the burden of it. Do it well.
Being a Part Of Something Beautiful
Ok, here is the best part, the part I have been waiting for. This is the part that can be missed if we focus on the fear of doing something new or unfamiliar. We can miss out on being a part of something beautiful. Did you know that being a part of an open adoption might be one of the most generous, loving things you can ever do with your life, after your adoption? Sometimes birth parents are promised openness and it doesn’t happen, maybe because it is too hard to say no on the part of the adoptive parents during the selection process–and this is soul-crushing. I have spoken to many parents who placed children for adoption and never saw those children again, due to broken promises, or adoptive families not feeling it was right. I uphold the individual decisions of adoptive families, as sometimes these families do not have the emotional space to welcome a birth parent–and as we have discussed, sometimes it is not safe. But, for those who do open hearts and homes, birth parents are most often extremely grateful, and cannot believe the blessing. You truly bless a person who has walked one of the most difficult journeys on earth, I think–to conceive and give birth and hand over is not something most of us will experience or understand. To have someone extend a hand, and say, “we want to know you” is a dream come true. We have three very open adoptions, which means I have been granted an extended family I never imagined. I consider our birth moms to be like sisters to me, like family. Family is not always easy, but it is always worth it. Yes, disagreements pop up–yes, hard discussions have to happen. And yet, each holding the hands of a laughing, skipping child, waking up on Christmas morning to laugh and enjoy together, picking up the phone to say hello, looking at family photo albums, sharing our pasts, sharing our future, that this child has knit and woven together for us, is the most beautiful thing on earth.
Jamie Giesbrecht is a life-long farm girl who holds a diploma in Business Management from Northern Lights College. Jamie is married to her high school sweetheart and best friend, Tyler. Together, they are passionate about adoption and foster care, and openness in adoption. Jamie is a stay-at-home mama to 3 adopted and 2 biological children who run wild on their small farm in rural, Northern Canada. When she is not homeschooling the kids, Jamie can be found seeking adventures with her family in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, hunting, fishing, camping, or trail riding the horses to town. Her hobbies include cross stitching, reading, and horseback riding as often as she can.