Open adoption has been on an upward trend for the past 20-40 years. Almost all adoptions completed in today’s socioeconomic atmosphere are open to some degree. Some individuals might not know the benefits of open adoption; the open adoption rules might be overwhelming or confusing. Today, the secrecy associated with adoption 50 years ago has been dissolved. Adoption is no longer taking a family trip to a far off city, secretly signing some paperwork, and returning with a beautiful newborn. Nowadays, it is much more common, and more likely, to have an open adoption than it is to have a closed one. With few exceptions, the lifetime benefits far outweigh the difficult and potentially awkward beginnings.
Before I go much further, let me define for you what open adoption is and what open adoption is not.
The term “open adoption” infers that the biological parents and adoptive parents have come to a written compromise as to what degree of contact is allowed between the biological parent and the adoptee. Openness is very rarely black or white; it is more often described on a spectrum. Sometimes, families decide they want to share letters and pictures. Sometimes they might be comfortable sharing phone calls and visits. Each situation is different and is defined, usually in writing, by the adoptive parents, birth parents, and an adoption agency.
Open adoption is not shared custody. It is not co-parenting. Adoptive parents have full custody of the adoptee and are the deciding vote in all parenting choices. Open adoption is not like a divorce situation where the court decides how much time the child needs to spend with each parent. Adoptive parents are not forced to give in to the whims of the birth parents, or vice versa. For some families, an open adoption relationship with the biological parents is most like the child having an aunt or uncle that isn’t seen often but is well-loved. The benefits of an open adoption can be numerous for all parties involved. Here are some well-known open adoption rules that can be beneficial for different members of the adoption triad:
Open Adoption Rules and Benefits for the Adoptee
- Benefits for the adopted individual. Study after study has shown that adoptees thrive with open adoption. Adoptees often have questions that their adoptive parents simply cannot answer. For instance, two of my daughters came to us after a great deal of time in foster care. The previous family that had them was one of six foster placements. They came to us at 3 and 4 years old. Because there was a lot of moving around, their history is relatively unknown. With some digging into the file, I was able to find the birth parents’ names, but I don’t have much more information than that. My youngest daughter was also adopted from foster care; she came straight to us after a brief stay at the hospital and another foster home while paperwork got sorted out. I have met her birth parents. I have pictures of them. I have her baby pictures. I know so much more about her biological family. When she asks questions about her biological family, I can give her honest answers. My other two girls don’t have that benefit. I can help them find out more information when they’re older, but as of now, I don’t have very much to go on. It makes them sad, and it makes me sad as well. I often wonder how an open adoption would have changed our situation.
- Adoptees greatly benefit from open access to their biological medical history. For this, I have a funny personal anecdote. When my youngest was a year old, I took her for her health check-up. The pediatrician asked me about any food allergies. Well, my girl had a dairy allergy that was still running rampant, so I mentioned that. However, I have an allergy to mangoes. I began to tell the doctor that I was allergic to mangoes, but since she was so young, we hadn’t tried those yet. The doctor, who had been seeing my girl since she was 6 weeks old, looked me in the eyes and asked me with a smile on her face why I thought that was relevant. The shade of red I turned was close to what I looked like when I ate the offending mangoes. We had a good chuckle about how I hope my allergy didn’t transfer to her through her formula. As embarrassing as that is, I was also able to look at the documents I had and assure the pediatrician that no, there were not any other allergies I was concerned about based on the biological parents’ medical history. When it comes to my other two girls, who came to me when they were 3 and 4, I have no idea. That form was never filled out. I know there is a history of mental illness, but no idea if there is a history of heart disease, diabetes, food allergies, migraines, or anything else. I was unaware of how many times I would have to answer those questions with a big question mark.
- The child can more fully connect with her or his history and story. Instead of dealing with the usual feelings of abandonment, children who were adopted can embrace the extraordinary love surrounding them from two families rather than just one. They aren’t going to be burdened with the unknown: “Why was I given away? Why didn’t my parents want me? Is there something wrong with me?” They can understand their adoption story in more depth, asking their biological parents those difficult questions and getting real answers! Which is very different if the only way to learn about oneself was to consult a case file.
Open Adoption Rules and Benefits for the Adoptive Parents
- Adoptive parents can help determine what level of openness they are comfortable with. Open adoption can seem stressful, especially when adoption availability has been determined because of dangerous home situations such as biological parents being rehabilitated or incarcerated. Despite that, openness can help the child in the long run. With knowledge pertaining to the biological parents’ history, an adoptive family can decide how much connection is safe. Maybe monthly or yearly visits will be the norm. Or the adoptive family might send a letter and pictures to a secure P.O. box.
Open Adoption Rules and Benefits for the Birth/Expectant Parents
- Birth parents can feel more secure in their choice (if they have a choice in the situation). Being able to meet the person who will care for your child is a tremendous benefit. Some birth parents might be hesitant to have a relationship with their child’s potential adoptive parents. The reason for placing their baby might be traumatic, and expectant parents might feel speaking with potential adoptive parents could exacerbate their fears. Know that as an expectant parent, there are many resources available to you to choose the best candidates to raise your child and to support you in the process. The choice should always be yours to make. Choosing open adoption as an expectant parent is not for everyone, but it can positively reinforce the selfless love you feel for your child by placing him or her in a family that may be better suited to care for a child than what you may feel you can provide at the time.
- Birth parents can watch their child grow up. I have known adoptive parents who invited biological parents to Christmas, birthdays, and other special events. They send pictures, videos, and beautiful artwork in care packages. Birth parents get to know that their baby is growing up happy and healthy instead of being left completely unaware as if they had chosen a closed adoption.
- Expectant parents can feel more comfortable in their decision for adoption. Instead of having to imagine who might parent their precious baby, birth parents are able to meet with those people. They can ask questions, take pictures, and in many cases, become friends.
- Expectant parents may suffer less grief with open adoption. In an open adoption, there is never a be-all-end-all “goodbye forever,” but more of a “see you later.” There will still be pain and heartache, enough to go around for everyone, but open adoption can help heal the inherent loss an expectant parent will feel.
- It can prevent the vilification and idolization of all parties involved. Some children fantasize that their biological parents will come and rescue them from the “mean” adoptive parents who make them eat veggies and clean up their room. Birth families can imagine that the adoptive family is perfect and wealthy; adoptive parents can tend towards vilifying a “bad” birth parent. When everyone knows each other, their situation, and their stories, it becomes less likely for all of these things to happen. It becomes easier for love, and healthy bonds can begin to develop.
Be aware, though, often adoption decrees contain agreements about the level of openness in the adoption, in most cases, the biological family has no legal recourse if that is not followed. Meaning, perhaps once a month visits were written into the adoption agreement. If for several months, because of emotions, sickness, or other events the visits could not take place, the adoptive parents can decide to discontinue visitation for a while. Sometimes, it is a practical matter. Perhaps the adoptive mother was offered a career opportunity out of state. The family decided it was in everyone’s best interest to pursue the opportunity and move out of state. Despite there being an agreement of a visit a month, it could be difficult for all parties involved to have to travel once a month out of state. The biological family may feel betrayed, angry, and disappointed. However, there is generally no legal recourse they can take.
Those are just some of the rules and benefits of open adoption. Generally speaking, the benefits will outweigh the discomfort. This is not to say it won’t be hard. It feels like a punch in the gut when my little girl asks why her biological mommy didn’t want her. I weep for myself and the mama who doesn’t get to know her because of her choices. However, because we have some level of openness, I can assure my girl that she was wanted. She was wanted so much that she was hidden away. It had nothing to do with want, and everything to do with safety. She wasn’t safe with her birth parents. She wasn’t safe living the way they were living. Because we have met, I can assure my precious daughter that her birth mom loves her. She was wanted. When she is big enough, she might make the decision to meet her birth mother. Right now, she has no desire for that meeting. I am constantly careful to only say kind and hopeful things about her birth parents when the opportunity arises. It will be up to her to decide for herself what she believes and does not believe about them.
She has two older brothers we adopted at the same time, and their perspective of their birth mother is different than mine, and different from my little girls. And if I think about it, my perspective of my mom is different from all of my siblings’ views of her. There is a good deal of overlap, but we all get to make our own decisions about the level of contact now that we are adults. I love my mom. That said, I can acknowledge where I think she could have done better. I want my kids to be able to make the same choice about me and about their birth parents. It only seems fair. It may seem like a difficult task. I know I imagined that it would be easier if I could pretend that birth parents didn’t exist, and my kids had been mine always. That, however, denies who my kids are. It isn’t fair to them, their birth parents, or even myself, to deny that there is a past. It isn’t pretty. My kids didn’t come to me because a loving birth parent liked my profile and decided my husband and I were a good match. They came through the brokenness of foster care. However, I have been learning that there is great beauty when I choose to accept their past, their history, and their love for other parents that aren’t me. It doesn’t mean I’m not their mom, and they don’t love me; it means that their love is multiplied, not divided. It doesn’t always make sense, but it is a good thing. Stitch from Lilo and Stitch said it best: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
For some more takes on open adoption rules and benefits, visit these articles:
Reach out on the forum to ask questions to parents both adoptive and birth parents who have been where you sit. They will be more than happy to help.